I am a person whose life has been formed by my elders. As a pastor in the Christian tradition, I have great respect for those who came before me. It’s never lost on me that, for good or for bad, I stand upon their shoulders. I eat from the fruit born from the trees they planted as I do my share of planting for the next generation.
Elders. Seeds. Planting. These words remind me of the one elder who formed me the most, my grandmother. We were very close. When I was young, she taught me about seeds and planting — she taught me about gardening. I can still see her sporting that straw sunhat while wearing navy blue pants and a sleeveless button -up shirt. Every now and then memories of us plowing rows for seed turn my thumb a little green and make me want to plant a garden. Then, I remember I’m too busy. Or too lazy. Or a combination of both.
I remember the fence she built around the garden. Yes, my 72-year-old grandma built a fence — she was pretty amazing. The fence was meant to keep out unwanted critters and preserve the garden. But there was a problem with the gate. It was a bit temperamental. It liked to get jammed. On occasion the gate even threatened to keep us out of the garden. Grandma would have to give it more than a few whacks with a shovel handle before we could enter (I never said she built a good fence). She was a much better gardener than gatekeeper.
In the Christian faith tradition, gardens are woven throughout the story. It talks about life beginning in a garden (Eden), suffering in a garden (Gethsemane), finding newness in a garden (Christ’s resurrection) and never-ending life in a gardened city (New Heaves and New Earth).
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we should be like gardeners rather than gatekeepers. When we love well and extend gracious hospitality to others, we participate in cultivating human flourishing. We are like gardeners planting seeds of hope through genuine acts of love offered neighbor to neighbor in the garden of society. The fruit of mercy, compassion and kindness grows from our lives and spills into the lives of others. Life together becomes life-giving.
People feel seen. Known. Appreciated. Loved. Joys are celebrated. Burdens are shared. The unwanted are welcomed. The vulnerable are valued. The hurting are held. The sick are supported. The widows are watched over. The displaced are defended. The fear of “the other” is disarmed. Mercy will lead us. Wisdom will guide us. Compassion will convict us. Generosity will sustain us. This is human flourishing. It’s what happens when people of faith and good will become like gardeners.
When we become like gatekeepers, nothing new gets planted. Nothing new grows from our lives or the lives of others. Many among us will feel excluded. Unknown. Unappreciated. Unloved. Alone. The categories that society uses to tell us to whom we should or should not belong will be strictly managed. Many around us will remain displaced. Animosity will lead us. Foolishness will guide us. Fears of scarcity will sustain us. Only a few are allowed in while others are kept out. The faith or virtues we hold will wither and die.
Gatekeepers are committed to preservation. Gardeners are committed to new possibilities.
It seems we are better off as gardeners rather than gatekeepers.
The Rev. Fred Liggin is one of the pastors at Williamsburg Christian Church.