When I was a kid, adults would ask me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I never really knew how to answer. At the time, that question made sense in American culture. It was the 1970s and 80s, when it was assumed that a person could decide on a single career for his or her life’s work. The person could spend several years training for that career. Then a person could plan to work in that single career, perhaps in a single company or institution, for decades, until his or her colleagues booked the banquet room at the local country club for his or her retirement party.
But I have never really been comfortable with those assumptions. And I was not comfortable with the demands of the question of what I was going to be as a grownup. I remember when I was 24 and filling out the forms which are the beginning point of a Presbyterian’s relationship with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry. That committee ultimately makes a recommendation about the individual’s suitability to be ordained a minister. There were questions on the forms, appropriately, about why I believed I was called to be a Presbyterian minister. I answered the question; however, I was careful to be clear: I believed that professional work as a pastor of a congregation was what I was called to next, but I was open to a variety of work to which I could be called later in life. I don’t think that sat well with the members of the committee, and I believe that was part of the reason I had to spend the next eight months arguing with them that my sense of call was not, in fact, weak. They were operating out of the assumptions which made sense in the culture but which didn’t fit well with me.
I have been thinking of these experiences as I have watched the wild strawberries in my side yard this summer. The side yard on our lot is not very big; perhaps only about eight feet separate the wall of our garage and whatever remains of the split-rail fence along the property line which the previous owner put in. Most of the posts in that fence have rotted in the seven years we have been here, and carpenter bees took up residence in the rails. When we moved in, part of the fence supported a unique variety of climbing rose which blooms with miniature, deep red blossoms when it gets enough water. The fence is only about four feet tall, so the immense rose bush had overwhelmed it and flopped itself all over the side yard, blocking the way with some wicked brambles worthy of a fairy tale. That section of the fence around which the rose canes wound practically collapsed when I cut them back, dug up the roots, and moved the rose a few feet to grow up a more proper trellis. The rest of the fence has followed suit in the ensuing years, so now there is only one section left, and it is about to fall over.
The rest of the side yard is still similarly wild. Grass and weeds long ago overtook the path which was out there, so to maintain it, I run the mower every month or six weeks during the growing season. I have to cut back my side of my neighbor’s immense hedge of unidentified bushes so they won’t block the path to my back-yard gate. Her azaleas, cannas, Mexican petunias, and other spreading perennials would love to colonize my side yard, but the mower keeps them in check. I have to pull some sort of rapidly-growing vine off of the brick exterior of the garage now and then, too, or my house would be covered in it.
Ever since last spring, though, right next to the three-foot-square concrete pad which welcomes visitors to the side door of the garage, little plants with broad, round leaves with serrated edges, have sprung up among the weeds and grass. Right away, I was pretty sure I could identify the plants, and my suspicion was confirmed when tiny, white flowers began to appear. Those flowers were followed by small berries which have ripened to an intensely red color. They are wild strawberries, and they have done marvelously. The berries are nothing to taste, but they have appeared consistently throughout the season in their attempts to supplement the runners sent out by the plants as they try to reproduce themselves.
Before I really noticed these wild interlopers, I never would have thought to plant strawberries in my side yard. Who plants strawberries in such a place? A side yard, particularly one so narrow, serves no function other than as a pass-through. I only go there when I have to get something from the front yard to the back, or from the back yard to the front, that is not appropriately carried through the house. Although my six-year-old son would probably find it amusing to watch Daddy drag the lawn mower, the bags of manure, or limbs trimmed off of the backyard magnolia through the living room and out the front door, I would rather not do so. But the times when I have to haul such machinery, supplies, and trimmings back and forth are about the only times I go through the side yard.
Now, I have looked again at that side yard. There is plenty of space out there for a strawberry bed. It can come out three feet or more from the wall. At one end, it can butt against the concrete pad by the side door, and it can run a good 10 feet and still leave enough room to store the hose I use to get water to the front beds and flower pots. The neighborhood cats can patrol there, out of range of our dog who stays in the back yard, to discourage birds and squirrels. Naturally, I won’t count on those tiny plants which produce small, tasteless fruit. But their better-bred cousins which the nursery will stock next spring should thrive there because the conditions they grow in are similar to the conditions required by the wild plants.
As I make my plans, I have been thinking of that understanding of my vocation I was trying to communicate to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry sixteen years ago. I have also been thinking about how God works. I think God is like those wild strawberries. God pokes up among the weeds and the grass in lots which we have long ago abandoned. God emerges to tell us to look again and see possibilities we have not considered before. God ripens to an intense red alongside paths that we thought could only function to get us from one place to another, practically directing us to stop, to put down the tools and the trimmings for a few minutes, and to pay attention. Plant yourself here, God commands; the soil is rich and the sunlight is right and the water is plentiful enough and there is more than enough space. You can bear good fruit here, God proclaims, if you will only allow yourself to do something you never thought you would do.
For now, I am convinced that I am called to the work I am currently doing. But those wild strawberries remind me why I stick by my commitment to be open to new possibilities for my work and life in the future. And I hope that I can help my son to be faithful if he feels a similar discomfort with that probing question: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Mostly, I look forward to this fall and winter, when I will clear a space in my side yard, define it with some edging, add some manure to enrich the soil, cover it with newspaper and pine straw to smother the weeds, and prepare to bring home that flat of strawberry plants next spring. Because I have heard the message of the wild strawberries: you can bear good fruit in unexpected places if only you open yourself to the possibilities.