Giving Up Gardening

Last week, Mike drew our attention to Albert Borgmann’s notion of focal practices, and I want to linger there a while.

I first became inspired by Borgmann’s understanding of focal practices through my friend Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio. If you are not familiar with Ken’s audio journal, check it out here and subscribe immediately. You can also learn more about him in the October 2003 issue of Reconsiderations, as well as the April and August 2006 issues for which Ken provided the main essays. We had Ken as a guest fifteen years ago, and he continues to feed my own attempts to live in ways that are theologically rooted, thoughtful, and engaged. Ken’s voice, together with the voices of the authors he interviews, has frequently reminded me that the opening two chapters of Genesis continue to express God’s will in far-reaching ways—and so does the wondrous world whose creation is recorded in those chapters. Ken has mentioned Borgmann’s work more than once over the years. 

For some time, however, I’ve been meaning to write Ken and let him know that one of his discussions of Borgmann led me to abandon my vegetable garden several years ago. 

Wait! That’s not what is supposed to happen. Is it?

Well, in my case, Yes. That is exactly what should have happened, and I’m so glad it did. At the time I was attempting to maintain a four hundred square-foot (20’ X 20’) vegetable garden in my back yard. I grew various vegetables and fought a lot with weeds, squirrels, various bugs, the Florida sun, and the challenge of trying to figure out growing seasons in a subtropical climate. I did a lot of sweating in that garden. I did manage a small harvest from time to time, but a menagerie of small animals enjoyed far more of that harvest than I and my family did. For the most part, my garden was simply beyond me. I rarely did it justice for more than a few weeks at a time.

One day, after hearing Borgmann’s rich vision of the hearth, which Mike cited in last week’s newsletter, I was laboring in my weed-filled garden when it occurred to me that my garden was anything but a focal practice. Suddenly, I realized that in my all-too calculated, rationally ordered approach to life, I had noted the value of a hearth experience, had created a cubby hole labeled “hearth experience,” and had inserted my vegetable garden into that cubby hole. It hit me with sudden clarity that if a hearth experience appears in my life as a way of filling a cubby hole labeled “hearth experience,”  then obviously, my garden does not constitute a hearth experience. I gave that garden up and have never once regretted it.

But I want to be careful here. I do not want to discourage anyone from taking the sort of initiative that Mike encouraged us to take last week. The sad fact is that if your life is at all like mine, you may have to fill some cubby holes with organic matter, or music, or kitchen aromas in order to let what’s in those cubby holes become the sort of living realty for which we hope. And you will probably need to work through several false-starts and failures as well. We all need to start somewhere, so don’t give up before you begin. I would be glad, however, if my own stumbling along could serve you somehow, so let me offer two lessons that my failed garden taught me.

First, my experience of gardening taught me that cultivating focal practices is yet another arena in which limit plays an important role. A lot of us are thinking about limit these days, and that is a good thing. Cherrie Harder, President of The Trinity Forum, recently reflected on “The Art of Living Within  Limits,” observing that “We are coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world” and citing Wendell Berry’sFaustian Economics: Hell hath no limits.” You may recall that I made a similar reference to Berry a few weeks ago, citing his poem about the fruitfulness that comes with enclosing a piece of land within a fence. “Enclosing the field within bounds, sets it apart from the boundless of which it was, and is, a part, and places it within care. The bounds of the field bind the mind to it.” Limit is a good thing, and I do encourage you to keep this important aspect of God’s will in mind as you cultivate focal practices. 

My garden wasn’t large, but it was too large for me. I needed to humble myself before that simple fact, and I am so glad I did. Once again, limit became the genuinely liberating reality that God means for it to be. By accepting not only my bodily limits but also the limits created by the myriad responsibilities that fell to me at that time, I found myself to be free, in turn, to lay out a rather modest bit of fence around a much smaller plot of land. My garden is now a 4 X 8 raised bed that my wife and I share—she tending a few herbs and I a few vegetables, and I think I can even dare to say that our garden is getting the attention it deserves. Lesson one, then, don’t just accept limits, insist on them, impose them, and rejoice in them as the good gifts they are. 

Second, I want to encourage you to let your genuine, personal interests and inclinations shape your efforts to cultivate the focal practices that link us to God’s good gifts. When I gave up my garden, I didn’t just quit growing vegetables, I began growing flowers. I think growing vegetables is a good idea, but I love growing flowers, so while I can’t keep myself from cultivating a few vegetables in that raised bed, I now find great pleasure in the various flower beds that I’ve been creating over the past several years. I’m pacing myself, working slowly, staying patient, living within my limits, and discovering over and over that this all requires hard work and sweat, but there is genuine pleasure in it. The yellow canna lilies are especially satisfying, and it is nice to know that God and I enjoy them together. 

So, if you are pondering the place of focal practices in your life, I want to encourage you to act. Somehow. Anyhow. But let my own struggling efforts serve you. First, start small. Set limits. Second, let the focal practice you seek arise organically from your own inclinations and interests. It would not be wrong to ask yourself what you would most like to do. If you want some ideas, Borgmann’s examples of focal practices include music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running. Not a bad list to start with, but just remember, whatever you choose, you will have to work at it. You will have to practice, stumble along, sweat, learn through failure, and question yourself; but hopefully, you will also experience those moments that will keep you in that garden, at that keyboard, over that stove, or putting on those running shoes one more time. 

I do want to join Mike in encouraging us all to engage in those focal practices that keep us in touch with God and God’s ways. For me it is the flowers. So, if for no other reason than my personal prejudice, I do want to encourage you to grow something green that bears fruit or vegetables or flowers. Maybe just one plant in one pot. If nothing else it will teach you the ways of God: his wisdom, his will, his pace, his patience. Right now, I’m waiting for the tomatoes to fruit and for the cannas in the back yard to bloom like the cannas in the front yard. I can’t make it happen. I can tend and serve, but I can’t impose my will. I have to wait, and in our hurried world, this is a good thing for me to learn. My flowers are teaching me to wait, and in the process teaching me to wait on God as well. I know that I cannot tell the cannas or the tomatoes what I want from them. I have to ask them what they want of me, and often what they want is simply for me to be patient. They ask me to let them live and grow according to God’s will, on their terms—not mine. My flowers speak wisdom to me, and in their voice, I hear the voice of God reminding me that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. 

Dr. Richard Horner
Executive Director

Study Center Resources

Our Dante reading group begins this coming Wednesday on Zoom from noon to 1PM. Our first session will introduce Dante and his work and will also take up the first canto of the Inferno. If you would like to join the reading group, please email Michael Sacasas at He will be emailing a links to the Zoom meetings on Monday morning.

For those of you in the Gainesville area, Pascal’s is now open for online ordering and curbside pickup.

Recommended Reading

— In “The Year Without a Summer,” Andy Crouch looks to the history of the early church for wisdom in the face of what may be our extended health crisis:

“In the midst of that culture, the first Christians created an alternative. They did not participate in violence—they did not participate in the empire’s wars. When plagues came, they served and nursed the sick, often back to health. When famine came they fed anyone they could, all the hungry, whether you were a member of their community or not. They created a different culture in the midst of Rome’s worst case.

So these are the stakes for us. Yes, survival. Think about the survival of your own family, of your business, your ministry, your church. But the stakes are far deeper than that.”

— Lyman Stone has just published a report titled “Promise and peril: The history of American religiosity and its recent decline,” which takes a deep dive into the demographics of the decline in American religiosity and its sources:

“Religion has always been a vital part of American identity, with entire libraries written about Americans’ distinctively religious behaviors. But basic facts about American religious history, and impli­cations for American religion today, remain widely unknown. This report will present a wide range of new data on the history of religion and religiosity in America, discuss causes of changes over time, and explain what it all implies for American society today and in the future.”

— Wendell Berry in “Faustian Economics”:

“On the contrary, our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”