Thursday, September 3, 2015

Vine-Ripe Tomatoes

These tomatoes are NOT from my garden!
Years ago I remember reading in Barbara Brown Taylor's When God Is Silent her "riff" on vine-ripe tomatoes - or more accurately what it was like to bite into a mealy, pale pink tomato in January that claims to be "vine-ripe" and clearly is not. At this time of year when I so enjoy an heirloom tomato I think of those words and vow never to eat another tomato again until next summer. Tomatoes at this time of year are truly a kairotic experience.

I confess here, however, to all of you that are my faithful readers, that I've had a very tough summer when it comes to growing my own. I began late, first of all - through no fault of my own. We have one of those boxes that my son successfully grew beautiful tomatoes in last summer, but when I ordered the "refill" materials from and some heirloom plants from another place on-line they turned out to be out of stock. But they didn't tell me this until early June. So then I went out looking for what I could find locally and found a couple of scrawny looking tomato plants - not heirloom - and some potting soil I was told would work fine. I had to improvise, but I was confident all would be well.

It's September and my two tomato plants, while not dead, look like they could play the part of the sad Christmas tree in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" if it came to the stage. In fact they each have three or four tiny little ornament-sized tomatoes on them; that's it. No ripe fruit, not yet. I'm wondering if they will grow to full size and ripen before the first New England frost. I'm not hopeful.

This is embarrassing, among other things - made far worse when people tell me what a great summer it's been for tomatoes. I smile and nod, too humiliated to share my story. Thankfully we have many Farmer's Market opportunities nearby and I know it has been and I've had some wonderful fruit over the past few weeks, and I hope for a couple more at least. Even so, it would be nice to be able to have at least one or two tomatoes that are the result of my own labors. But I worry that I am going to end up like the guy in this story from The Onion - which I used to think was a satirical on-line journal but now realize that like the National Enquirer it might all be true, since this article was clearly written about me. And there is nothing funny about it.

I may be in denial but I don't think it's all my fault. I think that a couple of things happened here - starting late was just one factor. Being away and not watering them for some time this summer might also have played a role. Hathy swears she watered them when I was away for work and I think I believe her, but we were also away a lot together. I may just have a brown thumb.

Jesus said to "consider the lilies of the field" and he told all kinds of parables about seeds, including mustard seeds. Nothing is recorded of him saying "consider the tomatoes in your backyard" or "a man went out one day to plant tomatoes..." but it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to imagine one of his teachings heading in that direction. At the risk of sounding like Chance the Gardener in Being There I am tempted to say something really profound like 
Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
But here goes anyway: congregations are a lot like our gardens. Congregations are not like bridges; they are organic realities. The work is the work - and there are daily lessons to be learned by paying attention. But God gives the growth - or not as the case might be.

Sometimes people work really hard and do all the right things - clergy and lay people together. But the harvest is not plentiful, for any number of reasons. Sometimes someone else will reap what we have sown because the "growing seasons" in congregations are way longer than from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Sometimes entire ministries are about planting seeds and people retire wondering if they made a difference; and then someone else comes in and things take off. Or - to be honest this might be more common - someone else comes in and find the garden needs a lot of weeding and tending and pruning because it's way overgrown. (I do seem to recall some imagery like this in the Old Testament about vineyards and grapes but perhaps the Hebrew is ambiguous and the prophet was speaking of grape-tomatoes?)

I don't pretend to understand all of this anymore than I can understand why my neighbors are eating vine-ripe tomatoes while I need to keep heading off to the Farmer's Market. It doesn't seem fair. It's not fair. Whether it's about not enough sunlight, or too much water - or the deer or some smaller pest.
I need to do some things differently next spring - I'm back to tomatoes again. I have learned from some of my mistakes and I can adjust. I am already imagining the harvest next August and September, that I pray will look more like the photo shown above.

But even though I will try again and I will make those changes, I am also aware at some deep level that there are factors beyond my control - and truly all is gift. The fruit of this vine (and others) is sheer grace, grace that can be tasted and seen. Every once in a while this happens in congregations too and in all the other work God has given us to do. We need to find ways to tell these harvest stories because they remind us why we do this work in the first place, and why it matters. But there needs also to be room for us to share the stories of what we're learning when the harvest is not so plentiful too.

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