Tending the garden

I often find myself engaging the community on behalf of Family Services. During the school year I rotate around 21st Century Afterschool sites sharing strategies about healthy family life with parents. I also speak about community issues and agency history with service clubs throughout the county. This summer many weekends found me on my personal time engaging another sector of the community: churches. Yes, even clergy take vacations and I was the guy they called to fill in.

Most of the lectionary readings I had were filled with vibrant images of nature: the little mustard seed that grows into a big plant, wheat and weeds growing together in the same garden, and seeds scattered in amongst thorns or over rocky or good soil. My aim was to write and deliver some inspiring homilies but I think I learned a lot about tending a garden in the process. Even now weeks later those parables still come to mind. They’re kind of mixing with my thoughts about our community and young people.

A seed doesn’t look like the plant it will bloom into. A carrot seed doesn’t look like a little carrot, or a pumpkin seed like a little pumpkin. I think children are like that, too. One of the neat things I have experienced over the last 20 years of volunteering and working with young people is seeing how their lives spring forth in the years after youth group. Some of them had the seed of business person in them. Others had the seed of a counselor, or teacher, or nurse. Some seeds bloomed into a love of music, art, the outdoors, and woodworking. Some of the older ones even have “little seeds” of their own now, too. I am sometimes surprised by what bloomed. Years ago a novice gardener I knew grew carrots when he was sure he had planted something else entirely-we had a good laugh about that mix-up. Wouldn’t it have been strange if he had become frustrated or disappointed at the carrots for not being the vegetable he expected? If we’re not careful we convey that kind of disapproval to youth sometimes. We have an idea of how we want them to turn out, but what springs up doesn’t always match our expectations. Maybe the best thing for them (and us) is to help them grow into “themselves” and appreciate them for who they really are, not who we may want them to be.

Growth is never guaranteed just because a seed lands on the ground. In the Parable of the Sower some seed lands in the rocks and can’t grow roots deep enough to support life. Other seeds land in amongst thorns and get choked out when they start to grow. Children and youth in our neighborhoods and communities face many risks to their ability to thrive. We see the risks on television and read about them in magazines everyday. These threats are real and they are discouraging. That is why tending to the garden of our community life is perhaps more important now than it has ever been. We need as many caring people as we can get to pull thornbushes out at the roots and dig out stones. We want to ensure that the seeds of the next generation are going to land in good, nourishing soil. September will see the return of many good programs that benefit children and young people, but all across the community organizers tell me how hard it is to find willing volunteers. I encourage you to seek out an opportunity that matches your skills and interests because young people need caring adults who will cultivate good soil.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds the servants want to dig out the weeds, but the master says to wait and let them grow together until the harvest because they may get confused and pull out wheat. I think this to the posture we could take towards the young people who cross our path. Let’s be honest-we may not ever say it out loud, but we probably categorize some of them as weeds, especially when we are not comfortable with the way they look. But how do we really know? So resolve to treat them all “as-if” they are “wheat.” Many years ago my youth group took much criticism from some church board members because of a young neighborhood boy “who didn’t know how to behave.” What they didn’t realize is what they saw as a weed was really wheat-in-progress. That boy is a man now: a veteran, a good husband, a good dad, and a seminary student studying to be a pastor. So you never know!

Our community is just one big garden when you think about it. All of us have a role to ensure that the seeds sown here have the best chance to bloom!

Ian Eastman, M.A. promotes the health and wellbeing of individuals, couples, and families at Family Services of Warren County, a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Like Family Services on Facebook and invite your friends and family to do the same.