Abundant Soul-Strength

Psalm 138                                                                               

My garden is often my spiritual director.  It’s not that I have mystical visions while planting radishes.  Some gardeners find deep joy in nurturing lilies or having perfect tomato vines which obediently curl around a stake.  Excellent gardens surround me who have that joy, the joy I find when I discover a Greek word changes the context of a parable.  I see their satisfaction as they share seed catalogs, show me elaborate drawings of their garden plan, or describe a soil test.  No one will ever say I am a master gardener.  My rows are straight enough, though I always crowd things. I plant two weeks behind the best gardeners, so my peas are just coming up, while others have these marvelous two feet tall pea stalks (with pods already).  But by the grace of God and the bounty of the earth, I produce a lot of food.  I still have one last head of garlic in the pantry and a shelf of tomato confit in the freezer from last season!  

I like gardening as much as I enjoy riding a stationary bike in the basement during winter.  It’s good for me, but I don’t love it.   I know it is essential to just get there and put in my time, and often problems that are vexing me come into focus.  

This year I was late as usual, and two kinds of weeds had taken over my plot.  I’m struggling against a grass with deep, spindly roots.  I pull them till my fingers hurt, and the next day my shoulders ache.  On about day three of this labor of Sisyphus, I’m thinking, “Todd, the lesson here is doing the hard things.  Take on the hard tasks, the difficult conversations, the chores of ministry before they get deeply rooted.”  This is not a new thought to me.  It is a constant as weeding.  You never do a perfect job of weeding one year, so your garden is permanently weedless.  When I was a social worker in a shelter, I told my clients, “Do one hard thing every day, so you build your capacity.” 

But my garden had a different lesson.  After 20 minutes of pulling the relentless, viney grass, I discovered a clump of garlic had defended a couple of square inches for itself.  I must have missed that head of garlic last year.  Sometimes when you harvest, the stem breaks, and you just can’t find the luscious head of garlic.  After more weeding, I found another, two whole heads of volunteer garlic!  I began to separate them and replant them with more space.  I was elated because garlic is my one true joy of my garden.

As I walked home with my rake and shovel in my squeaky wheelbarrow, a good friend and neighbor walked his dog.  He called out, “Hey, there’s the farmer!  What’s growing today?”  I replied, “Well, I’m a reluctant gardener mostly, and I spent the day weeding, which I hate.  But I did find two clumps of volunteer garlic.  He gave me the questioning look of someone who grew up in Brooklyn.  “What is volunteer garlic?  What does it volunteer to do?  Will it do your weeding?”  

I explained that a volunteer in the garden was something that came up on its own.  A random seed that fell to the earth and grew.  Its nature doing its thing beyond my control, hence a volunteer. 

A theological thought hit me.  My neighbor is also in our Torah group.  He is a diligent student of scripture, fascinated by religion, but skeptical of the whole “God thing” as an exercise in self-projection.  I blurted out, “You know, I can’t cite any objective, verifiable evidence that there is a God.  But watching things grow is as close as I can come.  I go to the garden, plant, water, weed, but I have no role in the growing.  That is beyond my control.  The seed will do what it’s going to do.  Sometimes garlic surprises me in a strange place because it has a will to thrive, a vitality of its own.

My neighbor replied, “While I don’t believe in intelligent design, when spring comes, it seems quite marvelous and wonderful, almost planned.  I don’t think of the plant have a will to thrive, but certainly an imperative.” 

“Right,” as I rambled ahead.  “And where does that imperative to thrive originate?  How do we get from the Big Bang to 25 different species of flowering lilacs?  I understand the science of the earth forming an atmosphere to sustain life and natural selection, but it just seems like a wonder.  It feels like a consciousness that creates an imperative to live, thrive and grow.  That is as close as I can come to demonstrating the possibility of God.”  And that is why I call my garden my spiritual director.  When I work within creation, it speaks to me of God’s nature.

The lectionary text from Psalm 138 this week is an excellent fit.  The Psalm expresses wholehearted gratitude and praise to God.  God shows steadfast love, and when we cry out for help, God hears us and answers.  As verse three says, On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.”  I love that line.  “You increased the strength of my soul.”  Soul-strength!  That is my hope, what I truly need.  God, grant me the soul-strength, the faith of a volunteer garlic bulb to press onward despite being surrounded by pernicious weeds.  You can call it a will or an imperative, but that plant forged ahead and grew and stretched to the sun, for the glory of God, if not the spark it adds to my pesto. 

I think Psalm 138 is perfect for our congregational meeting this Sunday.  The agenda may say that we are meeting to vote on a budget, and we will do that.  When we put a budget together, we make important decisions to use the resources God has placed in our hands to further divine love and justice for everyone.  It is not just accounting; it is an act of faith. Budgets require addition and subtraction, but it also rests on believing God hears us when we call and increases our soul strength.  Like our Psalm, this faith expresses a hope for the future grounded in God’s faithfulness of the past.  We celebrate the past, and we welcome the future.

As we re-open to in-person worship, it is good to remember that God has been faithful to us during the challenges of the pandemic.  We have all faced some personal breaking points, wondering where we would find the soul strength to go on.  I want to express my gratitude to those of you who helped me hope.  A handful of you offered consistent encouragement to forge ahead online and feedback on how your faith continued to grow.  Your well-timed emails kept Sarah and me going.  I’m grateful for all the check-ins and phone calls you made.  You delivered devotionals for Advent and Lent, which reminded everyone our community is not just virtual.  We lived our faith by hosting the homeless shelter for seven months.  This Memorial Day weekend, with its four straight days of rain, a weekend when you probably turned the heat back on, we had 20 guests in our shelter. Usually, the shelter would have already closed for a month.  

And through it all, we have been fortunate to have strong finances.  We received money through the PPP to pay our staff, we received rental income from the shelter, and last year was our most generous pledge campaign to date.  We didn’t hit our goal this year, but it is a blessing that the $187,000 pledged is still higher than our pre-Covid pledge numbers.  

You might be thinking, Pastor Todd, you are always an optimist.  We got lucky and had some one-time cash infusions. My answer is that I live in hope and trust that God will hear us and be abundant towards us to do God’s work.   Every year is a one-time deal. Every year I have to plant my garden again.  I can’t plant extra vegetables one year and hope to harvest for two years. 

I have faith in God’s generosity, and I want to tell you more about what that means to me.  It is not the prosperity Gospel where I think God will make me rich if I am faithful or get everything we need.  I just think generosity is built into the fabric of life, that all living things are created to thrive.  If we look for God’s generosity, we will see it and notice it.  And if we look for scarcity, that is what we will see.  

Jesus taught us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”  A recent translation said a more accurate rendering would be, “give us tomorrow’s bread.”  Friends, for today and tomorrow’s bread, I give thanks.  For today and tomorrow’s soul-strength, I rejoice. For a universe full of God’s steadfast love and generous flourishing, I place my trust in God’s future.  Friends, courage in the struggle!


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