A Prayer for the City

IMG_4923 (800x534)Today, I was asked to offer the opening prayer for the meeting of the City Council of the City of Savannah.  Below is the manuscript for the prayer.  I am grateful to Alderman Julian Miller for inviting me to pray with and for our city’s leaders.

Let us pray…

Holy God, we give you thanks for the opportunity and the responsibility of this gathering today to provide leadership and direction for the work of the city of Savannah.  We give you thanks for each of the people here:  those who cast votes, those who provide staff support, those who bring information and argue points before the Council, and those whose other interest in the work of this council has brought them here.  We give you thanks for those who are confident in their roles here today, and we give you thanks, too, for those who are nervous and unsure if they even belong here.  We give you thanks that you are here, too, as your presence fills your whole creation, pushing us all to do better than we have done before:  to work harder, especially for those who are most vulnerable; to listen more closely, especially to those whose voices have been pushed aside; to show greater grace, especially for those who suffer the most; to seek greater wisdom, especially in these times of ego-driven ideologies and divisive rhetoric.

Pour out your Spirit upon our city, O God, and upon our leaders who are here today.  By your Spirit, give us a vision for this city so we will lift up the poor, we will enfranchise the forgotten, and we will strengthen the victims and affirm the survivors.  Give us vision for this city so neighbors here may empathize with neighbors and commit together to seek the common good.  Give us vision for this city so we will seek our joy together and we will appreciate beauty together and we will foster learning together.  Give us vision, O Lord, and strengthen us as fellow citizens, granting us the gifts of hope, of trust, of faithfulness, and of energy to orient our life together around your vision.

We pray in your holy name. Amen.


Bent Tree

IMG_4674 B&W (800x533)This morning, I delivered a devotional and invocation for the regular meeting of the Chatham County Commission.  This is the text of my reflections and prayer.

A few weeks ago, I went out on a steamy July morning to be a part of a group of volunteers with the Savannah Tree Foundation.  Our task was to tend the trees which were planted at the intersection of the Truman Parkway and Whitefield Avenue when the Truman Extension project was completed.  I was pleased to see Commissioner Stone among our group of volunteers, too.  As the day became too hot for us to work any more, I was at the southwest corner of the intersection, and I noticed a particular young tree.  This tree had obviously come unmoored from the stake that was supposed to support its thin trunk.  Then, it had been damaged, perhaps by a mower, or maybe by the weather.  Whatever hit it, the tree was bent over at 90 degrees, so that the trunk was parallel to the ground.  As a dutiful volunteer, I reported the damaged tree to the director of the Tree Foundation, Karen Jenkins, who was supervising our group of volunteers.  I expected she would make a note of the damaged tree so she could remember to get someone to come out and remove it.

But that is not what she did.  Instead, she said she had seen that tree, and pointed out that it was still alive.  It had branches growing out of its bent-over trunk which were healthy and leafy.  And the top of the tree had already turned around and started growing heavenward again.  She said that she imagined that someday, people would look at that tree and think it is the most fascinating tree in the whole intersection.

As soon as she said that, I knew what I had done.  I had looked at that tree and only seen it as damaged.  But Karen had looked at it and seen it as a survivor.  She allowed herself to become fascinated by its strength, its endurance, and its ability to right itself and keep on growing toward the light.  She saw its unique potential to contribute to the whole scene, to stand out, specifically because it was not like all the other trees.

I’ve started to wonder since that morning whether I do the same thing to people.  I look at people who don’t conform to my ideas about what is normal, and I see them as damaged.  I pity them, or I dismiss them, or I otherwise try to have them removed.  And I wonder if I need to look instead more often through a lens of compassion, to see how those people who don’t conform are fascinating survivors who have a unique and important contribution they can make.

I don’t know all of the business you commissioners will have before you this morning.  But I do know that, at its root, all of that work has to do with the people who live and work together in our county.  And I hope you will be able to approach your work with the compassion Karen had for that unique, fascinating tree.

Will you pray with me?

Holy God, you are the source of all of life, of all beauty and joy, of all grace and compassion.  We thank you for your presence in our world in all of the ways we see every day:  in the beauty of this part of the world, in the abundance of sunshine and water, of dirt and trees, of opportunities and creative ideas, of care and support shared among neighbors.  I thank you for the people in this room today:  the Commissioners, the staff, the people with business before the Commission, and the observers, and for the enormous resources they represent.

I pray today for this meeting, that everyone here might feel your presence.  I pray that that work which happens here today will show the best of good governance.  I pray that the resources which the people here make decisions about may be used for the good of all citizens, especially those who are poor, vulnerable, and powerless.  I pray that power might be used well, that wisdom might be applied in everything which is discussed, and that compassion and grace will guide the discussion and debate.

Show us your glory, Holy God, and bring us your wisdom and your peace, so that together we may do the work you would have us do, joining with you to bring about your vision of justice, peace, joy, and beauty.  I pray all of this in your holy name.  Amen.

[Note:  I went back to that intersection yesterday to try to get a photo of the tree, and I was disappointed to see it had been removed.  I was disappointed not only because of the loss of yet another tree from our community (click here and here and especially here to see what I think about tree removal).  I was also disappointed because of the loss of what that particular, fascinating tree could have shown us as it grew up.]

Dollar Weed

IMG_5934 (800x533)My back lawn is filled with dollar weed (also known as Pennywort), and it is a problem.  The broad leaves fill whole patches of the yard.  The subterranean tendrils intertwine with roots of established plants I want to keep, stealing nutrients and water and making themselves difficult to remove.  I have tried to eradicate the dollar weed, and the unsightly disorder it represents, by pulling on the long, string-like roots.  In those moments of pulling, I am a superhero, but the satisfaction rarely lasts long, and the weed continues to grow.

I think the previous owner of my yard kept the dollar weed in check by spreading all manner of petrochemicals.  The neighbors have told us stories of his adventures with chemical weed killers.  It seems that, one time, he paid one of those awful “lawn services,” most likely True Green, which come and kill your weeds for you by spreading pellets and sprays of poison all over the watershed.  You know the ones:  they have to leave those little signs behind telling all of your neighbors that children and pets are no longer safe in your ecosystem.  Anyway, it seems he did not see dramatic results quickly enough, so a day or so after they left, he applied some other chemical he had purchased.  That night, it rained so much that the water collected in the low spots in the yard, and the petrochemicals pooled with it, killing large sections of the grass.  Ever since the bank and I purchased this yard a year or two later, I have been trying to atone for the sins of my predecessor.

When we first moved in, there were a couple of leaves of dollar weed here and there in the old flower beds of the back yard, but nothing much.  Within a couple of years, though, the weed started to spread.  At first, I asked some of the more seasoned gardeners in my community what to do.  They gave me a list of chemicals. I even purchased one, but after looking at my then-toddler, and considering the joy he felt when he got to run and play in the back yard, I could never bring myself to apply it.  Who wants to tell their little kid that he can’t go outside to play for a week because Daddy spread poison all over the place?

This season, though, the history of our back yard is catching up with us.  The centipede grass closer to the fence disappeared several years ago, but there were enough narrow-leafed weeds growing there that I could fake it with a good mow job.  By the end of this winter, though, nothing was growing for several feet around our small concrete patio.  My theory is that we are finally seeing the full effect of my predecessor’s chemical dependence.  If you spread fertilizer and weed killer, you will end up with a nice, even, weed-free lawn.  But if, at the same time, you meticulously rake your grass clippings and leaves into those brown bags you purchase at the big box stores, then put them on the curb to have the city haul them away, the nutrients which the grass uses from the soil will not be replenished.  Sure, you can replace those nutrients by spreading more petrochemical fertilizer; the bag of Scotts Weed-N-Feed says you are supposed to fertilize your lawn five times a year.  But your soil will die, and your lawn will never truly be healthy, and eventually, the grass will die, too.  The process will be hastened if you decide you value clean drinking water more than your weed-free, green lawn, and you stop the whole fertilizing program, as I did.

Without grass, the dollar weed spread.  I asked the internet what I could do to control it without petrochemicals, and I received some advice.  First, it told me, like all weeds, dollar weed will not grow much in a healthy lawn, that is, one with a type of grass well-adapted to the climate, supported by healthy soil, watered at the right depth and frequency, and never cut too short.  Dollar weed, in particular, grows in places where there is too much water, so less frequent, deeper watering is recommended.  Short of these ideal conditions, though, dollar weed can be killed with organic methods.  Some folks have found success by spraying white vinegar on the leaves, although I worry what that would do to the grass I want to encourage.  Other folks swear by the method of lightly spraying the broad leaves with water, then dusting them with baking soda.  One commenter described his parents, one with a spray bottle and the other with a fine strainer from the kitchen, sprinkling the deadly sodium bicarbonate a square foot at a time.  It sounded a bit fussy to me.  A third method is more systemic:  some have found success spreading white sugar at a rate of 1 five-pound bag for each 17′ x 17′ square.  The proponents of this method talk about how the sugar fixes the nitrates in the soil, robbing the weeds of that important nutrient.  They also caution that you have to water it in well immediately after application or you will be overrun with ants and other critters.  I must admit that I am dubious.

But I am also unable to do much to remove the dollar weed because I am under the watchful eyes of my eight-year-old son.  When I look at the dollar weed, all I see is a wild, chaotic, messy problem, exacerbated by years of environmental harm and mismanagement.  But when he looks at the dollar weed, he can only think of one day last summer.  On that day, his friend came over to play at our house.  This particular play date had been anticipated for weeks; her family and ours both had complicated schedules involving travel, work, camps, and even sickness, so we had a hard time finding a time for the kids to play together.  Finally, though, the day had come.  And the moment his friend came through our living room, looked out the back door, and saw our back yard, she was entranced.  “Why can’t I have a yard like this?” she exclaimed.  “You have little lily pads all over the place!”

To me, the dollar weed was a problem; to her, it was magical.  It was there so that tiny frogs could hop from one safe place to another, never falling in to drown in the frightening swamp she imagined covering our yard.  It was there to serve as protection as fairies scrambled to keep their fragile wings dry in a rain storm.  It was there to offer safety and comfort for tiny mice, or baby insects, or other creatures whose eyes were drawn by their Disney animators to be big and innocent and vulnerable.  I suppose this was not the first time something like dollar weed had found its redemption in the imagination of a child.

So last month, I bought a few plugs of Bermuda grass, which is well-adapted to grow vigorously in my yard, and planted them about a foot from the patio with a scoop of composted cow manure to bless them on their journeys.  I have eagerly watched them as they have established themselves, then begun to send out their stolons to explore and colonize the great big world out there.  I wonder daily how much longer it will be before they reach the patio and I get to cut their ends with my power edger, encouraging them to spread wide as well as long.  But I know that they will have to wind their way under and around the dollar weed which permeates large sections of their new territory.  Because I have been told that the dollar weed will stay.

Cherokee Rose

IMG_5499 (533x800)“Yuh see dis lill bush–it call Cherokee an mos uh duh folks yuh plants it at duh doe. It bring um good luck.”

So said Sophie Davis in the late 1930s.  Sophie Davis was born to slaves who worked on St. Catherine’s Island along the coast of South Georgia.  She did not know what year she was born, but she was eight years old at the time of the war that would result in her freedom.  After the war, young Sophie and her family were among the former slaves from St. Catherine’s Island who settled several communities along White Bluff Road south of Savannah:  Rose Dhu, Cedar Grove, Twin Hill, and White Bluff.  One group of the freed slaves negotiated with John Nicholson of the Cedar Grove Plantation south of Savannah to purchase 200 acres of his plantation.  They named their community Nicholsonboro and built the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church at its center.  My best guess is that the land where I now live and garden was either a part of the Nicholsonboro community or very near it; anyway, most days, I walk my dog past the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, just a block and a half toward the river and across White Bluff Road from my house.  I’ve written about Nicholsonboro here and here and here.

In the late 1930s, someone from the Georgia Writers’ Project came to these communities along White Bluff Road.  They were a part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration, part of the New Deal to try to get the United States out of the Great Depression.  The purpose of the Federal Writers’ Project was to record in writing oral traditions, local histories, and other such information.  In 1940, with the information they gathered in their study of the communities of White Bluff, they published a sort of anthropological ethnography called Drums and Shadows.  Since the copyright was not renewed on it, the entire text can be found here; the section on the White Bluff communities can be found here.

Drums and Shadows focused primarily on the folk traditions of the former slaves:  mystical traditions, ghost stories, folk remedies, and other “primitive” aspects of culture.  The book is respectful enough, if condescending in that way academic ethnographers tend to be.  The words of the writer are in precise, proper, academic prose; the pronunciation, syllables and grammar of the subjects are literally transcribed in their Gullah accents in ways that make them sound illiterate.  But there is interesting information here for those of us who want a picture of who lived on this land before us.

Among the many stories and traditions with which she obliged her interviewer, Sophie Davis gave the quote above.  She said that the people of Nicholsonboro and surrounding communities would plant this Cherokee bush near their doors for good luck.  A little later in the interview, Sophie called to her neighbor, Susie Branch, who had grown up with Sophie on St. Catherine’s Island and at White Bluff, to join in the conversation.  Susie also told the interviewer, “dis lill plant heah called ‘Cherokee’ is spose tuh bring good luck ef yuh plants it by duh front doe step.”

I would be fascinated to learn about this Cherokee bush which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described.  I would love to plant some of it near my front door; who couldn’t use a little more good luck?  But I would also be fascinated because this time of year in the trees and shrubs which line Old Coffee Bluff Road, across the street and down a bit from the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, blooms a beautiful specimen of Cherokee Rose.  And I wonder if that could be the same bush Sophie and Susie described.

The Cherokee Rose, pictured above, is a large, creamy white, single rose with a pronounced set of pollen-makers protruding in a ring around a yellow center.  It is a beautiful, if simple, plant which grows wildly around here.  And it has its own story.  In 1916, the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs lobbied the Georgia General Assembly to name the Cherokee Rose as the state flower of Georgia.  It seems the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs had adopted the Cherokee Rose as their emblem when they first formed as a statewide federation twenty years earlier, so, I suppose the logic went, why not remedy the lack of a state flower by promoting the symbol of their own club, which happened to grow as if it was wild all over the state?

I wish that Sophie Davis’ and Susie Branch’s Cherokee plant which brought good luck to them and to their neighbors on this land is the same as the Cherokee Rose which the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs adopted as their emblem and promoted as the state flower.  There would be such a terrific irony to these layers of meaning.  The Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs could not be further in any way from the doorsteps of Sophie Davis and Susie Branch.  In their lifetimes, the color of their skin would have been enough to exclude them from membership in any of the local chapters of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs.  But according to their website, the women who first formed the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1896, when Sophie Davis would have been about 40 years old, were described by their first president, Rebecca Lowe, this way:

“We, as Southern women, … have been the exotics of civilization: reared in the lap of luxury, with more time at our command than ordinarily falls to the lot of women, guided by mothers and grandmothers, not only endowed with superior intellect, but with that graceful tact, which enables a woman of education and brilliance to carry conviction in all she says.”

Sophie Davis and Susie Branch would not have been welcome in such a company of “exotics of civilization,” and for a lot of reasons in addition to the color of their skin.

But imagine that “dis lil bush” which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described is the same as the state flower and symbol of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs.  And imagine that I planted a specimen of it here, near my front door, in the soil of this community.  The meaning of that bush would be taken away from those women who, without much of what I would consider grace or tact, bragged of their rearing in their parents’ “lap of luxury.”  Instead, its meaning would be defined by survivors of one of the most awful systems of oppression our nation has ever conceived.  It would be given its meaning by women whose families had enabled those “exotics of civilization” to live with the decadence to have “more time at our command than ordinarily falls to the lot of women.”  Its significance would have been granted by people who were denied the ability to exercise their right to vote for those who considered such important business for the good of the state as that which was presented by the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs.  Sophie and Susie were Southern women, every bit as much as Rebecca Lowe and her subjects in the Women’s Clubs.  But, although these Southern women could not exercise power in the way the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs could exercise power, they had a power all their own:  the power to cultivate good luck for themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their communities, right at their doors, with their own strong hands and hard work.

As much as I would appreciate the layers of ironic meaning of a specimen of Cherokee Rose growing in my yard, I have my doubts that it is the same bush which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described to their visitor from the Georgia Writers’ Project in the late 1930s.  The bush they pointed to was described by the ethnographer as “a small bush growing beside the doorway of her little cabin.”  The Cherokee Rose, though, is a vine with long, trailing stems; the ones blooming now across the street from the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church climb forty feet or more up the trees and power poles.  A friend who lives not far from me showed me her Cherokee Rose the other day, trailing along her low, split-rail fence near her driveway gate.  She said with a smirk that I should be grateful she finally trimmed it back; if she had not, it would have had me for lunch.  Unless Sophie Davis and Susie Branch worked each year to cut theirs back hard, the bush could not be described as small.

Still, I would like to know what the Cherokee bush they talked about is because I would love to plant one near my front door.  Who couldn’t use a little more good luck?

A footnote:  There is a further irony in the story of the Cherokee Rose.  In the resolution which the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs drafted and the Georgia General Assembly approved in 1916, among the supporting arguments, was this claim:  “…The Cherokee Rose, having its origin among the aborigines of the northern portion of the State of Georgia, is indigenous to its soil…”  The Cherokee Rose is not, in fact, indigenous to Georgia.  It is native to China, Taiwan, Laos, and Vietnam.  In one of those mysteries of globalization, née colonial trade, it probably came here to Georgia by way of England, probably only a little more than a century before the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs adopted it as their emblem.  The Cherokee Rose found itself mixed up in the same systems of transatlantic trade as the ancestors of Sophie Davis and Susie Branch and millions of people like them.  It is an immigrant to Georgia; maybe it came here with the intent to dominate the land and people, like Rebecca Lowe and her ancestors, or maybe against its will, like Sophie Davis and Susie Branch and their ancestors.  But it is not a native species.

My Sin and Pine Straw

IMG_0206 (800x533)Southerners do not dwell on their sins; they simply bury them in pine straw.

As I explained here, I was new to the culture and practice of pine straw when I moved to the South. When I was growing up in California, at least in my family, we didn’t spread any kind of mulch on the garden beds.  There were plants stuck in the ground, they got watered, and some grew while others didn’t.  Sometimes the leaves from the oak trees scattered on the beds.  And otherwise, there was just dirt.  If there was a patch where the gardener did not want to show dirt, that patch was planted in some kind of ground cover:  creeping myrtle, ivy, some sort of evergreen shrub, or lawn grass.

Since I have been an adult, though, I have followed the trends of my neighbors and carefully spread mulch on my flower beds.  Since I have lived here in the South, I have learned that, if pine straw is your material of choice, it has to be applied two or three times each year to really do its job.  Last Friday, I finally had a day clear in my calendar when I could provide the spring treatment for the beds in my back yard.

As I looked over my back yard, I saw plenty of my sins.  There were tree leaves everywhere; more fastidious gardeners would have carefully pulled them out or, God help us, used one of those leaf blowers favored by the lawn maintenance services and power-tool-hungry homeowners in my neighborhood.  The sound of those things rising above the fence line from dawn to dusk is more than just an annoying interruption to an otherwise peaceful suburban day; it rattles my brain to mush, so I walk around in a daze until the thing turns off and I can reconcile myself to my surroundings again.  I will not own a leaf blower, and I do not have the patience to collect the leaves by hand.  They stay where the trees left them, right on the flower beds.  But still, although I had good reasons to leave them undisturbed, their presence made the beds look a bit unkempt and me look a bit lazy.

And there were more sins.  Earlier that week, I knew I needed to add compost to the perennials in the back yard.  Since the bin which held the older compost was empty and the bin which holds the newer compost is still working its magic on our family’s apple cores and squash skins, I purchased bags of composted cow manure from the big box store (please don’t judge me).  I generously spread the richness around the base of my plants.  However, other than to make sure I was not burying the stems of my plants too deep in that rich humus, I saw no point in moving the leaves and the old pine straw around.  The microbes in the compost, which are what really bring the miracle of life to otherwise dead soil, would be just as happy if they had some organic matter to chew on as they made their way into the dirt.  So, I just layered the good stuff on top of whatever was there.

And I saw still more sins.  The shriveled and dried remains of last season’s leaves still clung to the bases of some plants.  The walking iris were particularly bad.  I tried just pulling on the dead leaves, hoping they had rotted at the bottom so they would come off easily, but no luck.  The alternative was to go down the whole row with a pair of scissors and remove the leaves one at a time, wrestling around the thick new growth to avoid accidental snips of the good leaves among which the flower stems should emerge any time now.  That sounded like too much fussiness for me, so I left them in place.

In other words, the place looked a mess.  Tree litter here and there, piles of decomposed cow poop showing around the base of my perennials, shriveled up old leaves competing for visual attention with new greenery.  And I just knew that, lurking under all of that, there were thousands of seeds of weeds just waiting until I turned my back to poke their devilish little green leaves where I didn’t want them.  Bless their hearts.

And then, I spread the pine straw.  I shook the needles and pulled them apart to let them weave themselves into a single layer, tucking them up close to the stems of the plants, so all the dirt and mess was hidden.  And then, when I stood back to look, immediately, everything looked even, without any undue variation in level, color, or texture.  I realized that I was looking at God’s grace.  The scattered signs of the inadequacy of my tools and my patience; the crap I spread all over the place, the evidence of my laziness, everything about me that was especially ugly; none of it was visible any more.  I know that the ugliness did not vanish; that’s not the way human inadequacy works.  But under the protective blanket of fresh straw, with time and thought and moisture, the ugliness will be changed.

Under God’s grace, our sin has a place, not to disappear, but to be transformed:  to decompose, to be consumed by the microbes, to be spread out by the force of the water, and finally, to work itself into the soil of our minds and souls.  And then, still under the cover of God’s grace, that sin transformed becomes useful in making beauty:  new roots penetrate to be fed by it, and new stems emerge from it.  Leaves unfurl and flowers bloom because all that ugly sin has been left in place to change and rot and make fertile ground.  Well, ground that is fertile for everything but the devilish little weeds; they are smothered by that same blanket of grace.

I finished the job, pulling the stray needles of pine off of the leaves of my plants, sweeping the wayward bits off of the lawn and patio with my shoe, and giving a little shower from my garden hose to the beds.  I filled the bird baths, put away my tools, sat down in my chair, and I sang a little doxology to myself:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

Acts of Religious Freedom

IMG_5401 (800x533)Today, as I was sitting on my back patio having lunch, I looked up at the dying live oak tree near the fence.  The tree is in sad shape, as far as trees go.  A few years ago, not long after we moved into the house, we noticed that it seems to have started dying from the top.  We are not sure if lightning hit it or some plague of insects, bacteria, genetic malfunction, or simple old age got to it.  But the ends of the thick trunks are now splintered.  The woodpeckers and flickers have gouged holes in those trunks as they hunt for protein while dropping a shower of shavings to float in the bird bath below.  The lower branches have gradually died, ending up as lichen-covered sticks which fall on our back lawn as gifts for the dog to chew.  But the middle branches of the tree have endured somehow, and what I noticed today was that they are now covered in blossoms.

They called to mind the oak blossoms which covered our live oak trees every spring when I was growing up in Northern California.  Our yard had four large, strong, healthy trees:  two live oaks and two deciduous oaks of some indeterminate variety.  Each year, small strands of green started to form on the trees, then fell to the ground as they turned brown.  The strands had small nobs on them, not much bigger than cracker crumbs, strung like tiny nuggets along a thread, and their color was no different than the stems.  My parents kept calling them blossoms.  That was absurd to me.  I knew what blossoms were.  The lilies in our yard would explode with vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and whites; the camelias would open their soft, round, pink blooms; the irises would stand tall with their bearded heads of purple; the roses would open their poetry-inspiring buds, and wherever those marvels didn’t show off, there was room for daffodils and tulips and pansies and petunias to fill in.  Those plants all had blossoms to be proud of.  But the mighty oaks, many times bigger in stature and deeper in root than any of those others, only produced those spindly, weak, little threads of green-drying-to-brown crumbs.  I still imagine the other plants and bushes in the yard were laughing at the mighty oak trees when blooming season arrived.

And now, around here, I hesitate to imagine what the magnolias say when the oaks aren’t listening.  But still, sitting on my back patio enjoying my lunch, I realized that the blooms lend a beauty and a grace to still living, yet dying, oak tree.  They are plentiful enough to make a visual impact, and from the distance across the width of my yard, they rustle like curtains in the breeze.  While the color isn’t spectacular, the gold-glowing green freshens up the place a bit while we wait for the trees, bushes, and plants to fill out with their new leaves.

I’ve been thinking a lot today, too, about the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which is making its way through the Georgia State Legislature this season.  They had to call it the Georgia act because it’s not just the Georgia Legislature considering the bill; variants of this same bill are making their way through a number of state legislatures this year.  The need for this bill, as well as the language of the bill, was conceived by a national organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition.  Supporters of the bill have come forward with all manner of dramatic language to say that the bill is necessary to protect religious people, who, they allege, are under serious threat of persecution throughout the nation.  Some politicians have been more clear: they are promoting the bill so that private businesses would have legal grounds to refuse to serve people who are LGBTQ.

There are so many thoughts in my mind about this bill and the agenda of those promoting it.  I have my gut reactions:  I am repulsed that we are having a serious conversation about how to codify bigotry, and I am scandalized that some think  religion is a useful tool to do that.  Stepping back from those reactions, though, I also wonder why a business would want to refuse any paying customer (for a great story about that from Idaho, see here); I am afraid that is one of those questions to which I do not really want to hear the answer.  I think about a colleague of mine in Texas, who recently wrote that their version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would nullify a 15-year-old act that was crafted after a broad process involving a wide range of political and religious leaders.  That makes me wonder why our state needs organizers from a national organization representing a narrow segment of the population, which is far from representative of the range of religious perspectives in our state, to set our legislative priorities and to write our legislation for us.  I wonder if there is any way for the cooler heads of more seasoned politicians to prevail in our legislature and governor’s administration, where the conversation is dominated by the voices of radically conservative Republicans.  And I think about my favorite line from one pastor’s testimony against the bill:  “is there a more religiously free people on God’s green earth than Georgia Baptists?”

But I also think about my live oak tree and its blossoms.  I am the pastor of a congregation which I like to describe as radically tolerant.  We have some members who align on many issues with the political right, and some members who align on many issues with the political left.  We have members and friends in our congregation who are gay and lesbian, and we have members who do not support extending marriage, ordination, or other civil and ecclesiastical privileges to people who are LGBTQ.  But we manage to get along most of the time, and more than getting along, we manage to exercise our religious freedoms together.  We pray with and for each other, we visit each other in the hospital, and we bring casseroles when we think someone might need them.  We break bread together, both in the context of worship and in some really great covered dish lunches.  And we serve our community together:  we provide food and housing for homeless people, we tutor children from our local public school, we mentor Boy Scouts, we build ramps for people under Hospice care, and we welcome a whole bunch of different community groups to use our buildings.

Such a tolerant community of people committed to a common ministry and mission seem like my live oak trees.  When I was growing up, such communities were strong and healthy; now, they seem like they are dying because folks seem to prefer to live in enclaves of people who agree with them on controversial issues.  In fact, I have heard supporters of LGBTQ rights talk about their support for bills like the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Their reasoning goes that they want to be able to easily identify those businesses who do not agree with them so they can stay away.  But if we all retreat into our own enclaves of like-mindedness, when do people who disagree encounter each other?  When does a traditional-marriage bakery owner witness the love-struck excitement of the gay couple who is ordering the cake for their wedding?  When does the progressive activist find out that the local dry cleaner with the faded Romney-Ryan sticker on his bumper proudly displays in his shop the photos and certificates of appreciation from years and years of sponsorships of the youth soccer league?

In this metaphor, the vocal activists like the Faith and Freedom Coalition might be compared to the plants and bushes that produce the bold, brassy lilies, irises, camelias, roses, and all the rest.  They quote Sarah Palin on the front page of their website, and you can’t get much more bold and brassy than that.  I can imagine them, perhaps unfairly, mocking institutions like my congregation, large, old trees with our tiny, plain blossoms of church suppers and after-school tutoring programs.  Our blooms do not command as much attention; they have less splashy color, less noticeable shapes; they are less outspoken, less dramatic, and get far less attention from the politicians or the media.

But our blossoming acts of religious freedom have their own beauty and grace.  They may seem small and spindly, but taken together, they have a significant impact.  And they freshen up the place where we are, filling in when the splashier, more dramatic plants and bushes fail.  Life in a community of radical tolerance is not always easy; some days, I worry that the whole thing is going to fall over dead, becoming nothing more than fodder for the woodpeckers.  But on other days, I notice that even when the breeze starts to blow and our blossoms rustle, they look like a curtain dancing with the wind, and I think such places where religious freedom is enacted are the only hope our culture has.

I hope our representatives will have the good sense to vote no on the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Update:  So this happened later on Thursday.  Once an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill passed, the supporters no longer supported it.


IMG_5194 (800x533)Calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved.  When I was young, we would go two or three times a year on the four-hour trip to visit my Aunt Doris.  On the one hand, a trip to Aunt Doris’s house was something to look forward to.  She lives in a fascinating place:  in a cedar log house in the middle of a redwood forest on the side of a hill with a small creek at the bottom of the ravine.  There are even banana slugs there.  And she did everything you want an auntie to do:  she gave us little presents, she baked homemade cookies and pies, she shared her extensive collection of movies on videotape with us (it was the 1980s; this was high-tech), she let us help her as she fed the wild birds and squirrels which flocked to her deck, and she took us to interesting tourist spots or shopping centers or other fun places.

On the other hand, though, I was a teenager, and even in the most interesting and nurturing of places, I could find a way to be BORED!  One time, I started to look at the gardening catalogs in the basket next to her rocking chair.  Park Seed had the most varieties of flowers to read about.  Jackson & Perkins was fine, with good pictures, but a significant majority of their volume was dedicated to roses.  My mom already had roses, and they seemed kind of obvious and even old-fashioned.  But Wayside Gardens was the best; the photos on the pages of the catalog were larger and glossier, and there was hardly a variety listed that did not have an accompanying color-saturated photo along the outer margin of the same page.

I am not saying this was cool; I was BORED, you understand, so these were desperate times.  But after a while, I found myself looking forward to seeing what was new and different and exotic.  I was most drawn to those flowers with particularly striking colors or interesting shapes.  That is how I found the calla lilies.  They were just so fascinating.  The unique outer petal IMG_5656 (535x800)wrapped itself in a circle, but without symmetry.  It wasn’t a cup, like a tulip, and it wasn’t a trumpet, like an Asiatic lily.  It was more like a cape worn by the kind of gentleman who could ride a horse, draw a sword, and charm a lady, all without losing his dashing posture or wit.  The colors featured in the photographs were always stunning, too:  solid, bold hues of yellow, orange, purple, fuchsia, and white, with perhaps one or two varieties that gradually blushed from one color to another up the petals.  I have heard these catalogs described as pornography for gardeners, and as an adolescent, I was every bit as captivated by the beauty, the mystery, and the sensuality of those photos as I might have been by the other kind.

I am not sure why I never convinced my mother that we should order some of those calla lily specimens for our very own; perhaps I did not think they would do well in our yard, shaded as it was by four large oak trees.  But ever since I have been a homeowner, I have sought out calla lilies.  When we lived in Boston, I would carefully dig the rhizomes out of the ground each year after the first frost, dry them, store them through the cold season in my basement in a small crate lined with shredded newspaper, and then replace them in the front yard after the ground had thawed and the danger of frost was past. Although the flowers were lovely, the whole process felt like an awkward mix between an amateur scientist’s experiment and a fussy craftsperson’s new project.

Since we moved to the South, I do not have to fuss like that any more.  A few years ago, I smothered the grass around the mail box under several layers of wet newspaper and two or three inches of cypress mulch.  And one of the first things I planted in the resulting flower bed the following spring were some pink and yellow calla lilies I found at a local nursery.  I was thrilled, and I have continued to be thrilled every year since then as they thrust the tip of their first leaves above the rotting oak leaves in the early spring, unfurling them in a dramatic foreshadowing of the petals to come, then sending up their stems to reveal those gentlemanly capes of pink and yellow.

Well, almost thrilled.  A flower bed is never really perfectly arranged, is it?  Over time, the Mexican heather and gerbera daisies which alternate in a line between the calla lilies and the edge of the driveway have grown, spreading to crowd the calla lilies.  So last week, I decided it was time to dig up the bulbs of the calla lilies to move them three or four inches to the east, giving everything room to continue to grow.

And as I dug, I was amazed.  When I purchased the pink and yellow calla lilies, there were three or four stems growing in each pot.  Since they were already blooming, making them easier to sell at the nursery, I was careful to plant them without disturbing the roots any more than necessary.  And, of course, I had not seen anything of what was going on underground since then.  I suspected they had spread some, since the patches of leaves and flowers had increased in diameter each year.  But when I loosened the soil in my search for the rhizomes last week, I kept finding more and more and more.  In each place I dug, there were relatively large systems which included several nodules connected together, ready to produce multiple roots and stems in the coming weeks.  And there were even more independent little bulblets, each with its own small point on the top ready to push a tip through the rotting oak leaves and unfurl.  I kept sifting through the dirt, pulling out more and more, until I had two piles, one of the pink variety and one of the yellow, each with dozens of brown blobs ready to grow and bloom with my beloved calla lilies.

And I marveled for a few minutes about God’s abundance.  Our world was created as a place where, given the right conditions, beauty and joy can multiply over time.  Our world is a place where the asymmetrical, the dashing, and the fascinating can thrive and expand.  Our world rewards teenagers who are BORED, and homeowners who experiment and fuss, and gardeners who don’t have any idea what is happening under the oak leaves rotting on top of the ground.  Our world fosters growth by providing caring aunties, glossy photographs of bold hues, and flower beds that have to be rearranged every few years.  Our world never ceases to amaze me, and its Creator never ceases to deserve a doxology:  praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

I put the most complex systems of rhizomes back in the ground, alternating the pink and the yellow, in a line that is longer now, wrapping down the slope and around to the front of the mailbox.  I am not sure all of them will grow; the ground stays pretty wet as it gets closer to the street, so some of the roots might rot.  And the rest I potted this evening, reusing the cheap plastic containers from plants I have brought home from the nursery.  I watered them, and I will put them out in the sun tomorrow, hoping the tips of the leaves poke up in the next few weeks.  If these potted calla lilies grow, I will give them to the Windsor Forest Garden Club to put out at their annual plant sale at the end of next month.  Because calla lilies were one of the first flowers I loved, and I want to share the abundance of beauty and joy our world produces with others.