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Cycle of life and of hope seen in garden graves

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Column by David B. Whitlock

“You’d better get what’s left of your garden in; we’re going to have a hard freeze tonight,” Glen, my gardening mentor, warned me several weeks ago. 

And so I carried in the tomato vines, picked the peppers and salvaged what okra was left. In the garage, they now are ripening so fast that some are beginning to rot before we can get them eaten.

My wife tolerates my boastful proclamation: “It’s November and we still enjoy the garden,” as if this justifies the time devoted to working the ground this past summer.

Having saved what was left to be saved, I tramped through my garden late this evening. Only vestiges of life remain of what once was: Now, the garden lies fallow as winter approaches; now, it is stripped of life; now it fades into a deep sleep.

The outlines of the garden beds themselves preserve the memory of the high summer’s sun that produced an abundance of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, okra, potatoes and corn. Over there, on that side of the garden, I crawled from row to row, weeding, harvesting, sometimes lost in wonder and awe in that maze of produce.

Now as I slowly pace each erased row, I commit the remnants to their winter’s grave: The plant labels -- Cayenne pepper, Bell Pepper, Okra, Better Boy Tomato, Celebrity Tomato -- stand like miniature tombstones marking the places where the vegetables once grew.

I accidentally step on a tomato or pepper resting on the ground, exposed, unburied, ghostly white -- its corpse-like remains reminding me of life’s inevitable cycle. And I feel somehow I’ve intruded on their hallowed ground.

And the dead vines look like slender fingers reaching up from the underworld, desperately trying to grasp one last ray of life before they are mulched into the humus from which they emerged.

Yet, something magical is happening beneath the earth’s surface as nutrients, helped along by earthworms, are preparing the soil for next year’s crop of plants.

Christians have for centuries observed this interim time of the yearly solstice as an opportunity to anticipate the not yet -- the birth of Jesus the Christ -- even as they grieve the present: The dominance of darkness that still mars the world. The season is called Advent --   the preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth, bringing with it new life in the deadness of winter.

For hundreds of years, God’s garden -- his people -- thrived only to die again: “You brought us from Egypt as we were a tender vine;…You cleared the ground for us, and we took root and filled the land…But now… The boar from the forest devours us, and the wild animals feed on us… Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God Almighty” (Psalm 80:8, 9, 12, 19).

For centuries the Hebrew people looked to a time when they would once again be “a well-watered garden” (Isaiah 58:11). And then, quite sudden-like, but by no surprise to the Eternal Eye, in the “fullness of time, God sent forth his son” (Galatians 4:4-5), a light shining “in the darkness” (John 1:5) and for those who believe the Christ-story, a new light and life in the midst of the darkness and the deadness.

Beneath the surface, the mulch had been prepared for the birth of something new and vibrant.

I know, it’s only a vegetable garden and maybe it’s not necessary to bring God into it. But as the sun sets so gently on the horizon, I stand in the middle of my garden and remember a greater light that shines the way to more wonderful things: a life grounded in the hope of a brighter tomorrow -- a day filled with the abundance of all that is new, and good, and everlasting.

All because a child was born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.

Imagine that: All this, in a simple garden-variety birth of the miraculous kind.

David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is a Baptist minister and adjunct professor at Campbellsville University. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com