Monday, December 26, 2016

Small Things

"These tomatoes are like your Grandpa," said the old woman with weathered skin, earthy eyes, and raspy voice. "Small in stature, big in heart." He was small in stature. I used to sit in the wooden slat backed swing under the ancient oak tree between his house and the garden and watch him work his way down a row of tomatoes. When he reached the far end of the row I thought to myself, "He looks so small and vulnerable against the South Carolina clay and the cloudless sky." But then as he worked his way back up the next row he grew bigger and bigger until he was standing beside me, the smell of two cycle tractor oil on his clothes, sweat dripping off of his nose, a gallon bucket filled with red ripe tomatoes in his hands, and a big bright smile filled with wonder and love on his face. He was big in heart.

It is because of my Grandpa that I search for wonder in small things.

One early spring day, I had this conversation with my Grandpa over the telephone. He called me.

- Hello?

- Hey Trev. How you doin'? Listen, a friend of mine called and wants to give us some extra tomato plants that he doesn't have room for in his garden. So I told him we would take them.

- Oh yeah? That's kind. How many is he gonna give us?

You need to know that the week before this phone call my Grandpa and I had planted 500 tomato plants in the garden. We were already going to have enough fruit to put a tomato on every plate of every person in Greenville County. But I figured a few more plants would be okay. Boy, was my figuring off.

- 250.

- 250? Did you just say 200 plus 50 extra tomato plants?

- Yep! There is kindness in the world.

I could see his grin through the phone line.

- Kindness in the world?! Well let me tell you, if we plant 250 more tomato plants in the garden, there's gonna be more than kindness in the world. There's gonna be tomatoes! And 'lots and 'lots of them!

- Yep.

- Listen, if we plant 750 tomato plants and each one produced 40 pounds of tomatoes as they're supposed to do, we'll have 30,000 pounds of tomatoes. That's 15 tons of tomatoes! What are we gonna do with that many tomatoes?!

We often began our conversations with the word 'listen.' It was our word. When I spoke to him, my words were the most important words in the world. And when he spoke to me, his words were the most important words in the world. We never spoke past each other, only with each other.We never formulated what we were going to say next when the other was speaking. We listened to each other. Really listened, as listening should be done.

- Well, we're gonna have to buy 'lots of Bunny Bread and 'lots of Duke Mayonnaise because we're gonna have to eat 'lots of tomato sandwiches.

I could see the twinkle of his sky blue eyes through the phone line, too.

Late in the spring, when all 750 tomato plants were planted, and the garden took on a light shade of green because of all of the green tomatoes growing on the vines, and it gave out a soft glow in certain corners because some of those green tomatoes were ripening to red, my Grandpa and I walked down and up the rows to check our handiwork.

- Hey, you know it's the Lord's handiwork, don't you? All we have to give is our work. We didn't make the soil, and we didn't make the rain, and we didn't make the sunlight. So don't forget, okay? This is the Lord's handiwork.

For my Grandpa, working in the garden was an act of prayer. I can still see him kneeling in the dirt, his back bent, his face and hands close to the tomatoes, his breath on the plants, and his sweat on the ground. His work was prayer. His prayer was work. Prayer seems like such a small thing in our world. Yet Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation theologian, reminds us that prayer is the first act in our life with God, that listening to God and to the world is the first thing we do, and that our work in the world that God wants us to do is the second act. My Grandpa didn't know of Gustavo Gutierrez and hadn't studied liberation theology, but as a farmer he understood God with the understanding of the poor, that we live in the hope that as we give our feet, our hands, and our hearts to our work and to the world, God will create something good out of it, even when the work and the world are mean and hard.

You do your handiwork - plow the ground, plant the seeds in containers and put them in a greenhouse, place the 750 plants into the soil, irrigate the garden, stake the plants, protect the plants from insects and disease, hoe the weeds, tend the fruit - and remember you are a co-worker with God.

Our handiwork is the Lord's handiwork, and the Lord's handiwork is our handiwork. This is what he wanted to teach me.

Early in summer, when more and more tomatoes were changing from shades of green to shades of red, we set out first thing one morning to check on the ripening fruit. When you are a farmer, there is a thankfulness deep inside of you when the growing is almost done and the harvesting is about to begin. You yourself are in the crop, and the crop is in you.

I came across a tomato that was developing a dark, soft spot on it's skin. This tomato was much smaller than the other tomatoes on the vine. It was at the bottom of the vine and very nearly touched the ground.

- I'm gonna pick this one and throw it out. It has the blight on it.

- No, don't pick it. Listen, I want to teach you something about the world. Follow me.

I followed him. We walked out of the garden and into the work shed at the back of the yard. That place was a place of wonder to me. Inside of it were mason jars filled with nuts, bolts, screws and nails. There were all sorts and varieties of tools hanging on the walls. And at the center of it all were the things I will always remember him by - Duck Tape, baling wire, WD 40 and aloe. Not only could these things fix the stalled engine of a tractor, a sputtering faucet in a sink, or a dangling clothes line on a pole, but they could also create a basketball rim (he wove one out of baling wire and hung it above the door of the shed for me), assuage arthritic knees (he used to spray WD 40 on his knees in the early morning to help him get around), and cure the common cold (he would drop a mixture of aloe and water into my nose to sooth my scratchy throat). If you are looking for a miracle, find a farmer with those things and you will find one.

- Hey, that tomato is small, broken and at the bottom. But you know what? It could grow into something beautiful if we care for it. Who knows, it might become the best tomato we've ever grown. So let's be the ones who don't throw it out. Let's be the ones who take it in. Let's be the ones who care.

He carefully cut out a square and two rectangles from some old plastic pieces he stored in the corner of the building. He bound them together with some Duck Tape. He sprayed the edges with WD 40. We made our way back to the garden and to the small, broken lowly tomato.

He tenderly held the tomato in his calloused hands and ever so gently spread aloe over the blighted part.

He skillfully attached the hand made shelter around the tomato with baling wire.

- This will protect it from the heat of the sun and keep it off of the ground. This will give it a chance.

I learned something about the world that day. The small, the broken and the lowly have intrinsic worth and beauty and great potential to make the world a more human place for all of us. We can throw them away. Or we can care for them. And that kind of care could mend a broken world.

For the tomato.

For the small things.

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