Tag Archive | Faith

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.

Palm Branches

IMG_7146 (800x534)When we moved here as naive northerners who found ourselves planted in a climate conducive to palm trees, we were told by a kindly tree service worker that the branches of a perfectly pruned palm tree are supposed to be between ten and two.  That is, you are supposed to imagine a clock encircling the top of your palm tree, and the ideally shaped tree would only have branches pointing between the ten o’clock mark and the two o’clock mark.

When they begin their journey into the world, palm branches launch themselves from the top of the tree at high noon, like a rocket headed straight for the moon.  Then, they straighten out at a bit of an angle to the branch.  Every branch seems quite straight enough between the ten and the two.  Within a few months, though, the heavy branches start to sag and droop.  They start to point to that dangerously unkempt-looking area of the imaginary clock connoting the lazy late afternoon or sleepy early morning.  Soon, they are claiming it is 4:40 in the afternoon, and they just don’t care about any of it.  Any branch trying to tell you it is 4:40 in the afternoon is clearly out of line.

Last week, it was time to trim one of the palm trees in my back yard back to the more orderly hours.  This particular tree is not very tall, so its branches that are not pointed upward to the proper points on the clock get in the way when I am trying to mow the lawn, take the compost to the compost bin, and do any number of other necessary chores in that corner of my back yard.  In the past, I have always trimmed the palm branches using our long-handled loppers.  We have owned these loppers since we decided to remove several enormous and ancient yew bushes from the foundation in the front of our house in Boston.  We didn’t have much money then, so the $30 loppers seemed like a good alternative to the hundreds of dollars we would have had to pay a service to remove the bushes.  We thought that project would break the loppers, but here we are almost 10 years later using the same loppers.  I think we got a bargain.

But this palm tree has grown mature enough that the loppers would not fit around the place where the branches would need to be cut, so I went back to the garage and got my reciprocating saw.  Now I was working with power tools, which made the project even more satisfying.  Starting at the bottom, I hacked away at branch after branch to get to the desired hours on the imaginary clock encircling the palm tree.

Although the addition of an electric motor made the work of cutting easier, it still was not easy work.  The branches of a palm tree are heavy.  The edges of the branches are sharp, and I was afraid they would slice my hands if I slid them along the branches in the wrong way.  The full branches are long; when I set them on end, they stand taller than my head, elevation six-foot-two-inches.  The fans are wide, too; I was glad it was not a windy day, because if the breeze had caught the branches, it would have twisted them in ways that would make them even harder to handle.  It took some effort for me to heave each branch and sling it into the pile in the middle of my back yard.

And of course, I couldn’t do that work without thinking of the scene in the gospels in which Jesus rides a donkey or two into Jerusalem.  In liturgical Christian traditions like mine, we remember that procession each year exactly one week before Easter Sunday.  And when it comes around each year, I usually remember about three days beforehand that I find our celebrations of Palm Sunday a bit odd.  Why do we go to such effort to remember that one scene in Jesus’ life and ministry?  What meaning can we find from that story that hasn’t been preached a thousand times before?  And in this era of Post-Christendom, when we no longer take it for granted that every one of our neighbors has been participating in churches since she or he was on some congregation’s cradle roll, why do we think it makes any sense to hand them all a palm leaf as they enter worship and to make them cry out “Hosanna!” as if they have any idea what any of it means?

And what about those leaves?  In most churches where I have worshiped, they have been rather puny things.  They are no longer and no wider than a large kitchen knife.  While they are sword-shaped, when you try point them to the ceiling, they tend to just flop over.  When the whole congregation lifts their arms to wave them overhead, it adds some motion and energy to worship, but it’s nothing terribly spectacular.  Some Sunday School teacher sometime figured out how to fold them into little crosses that you can carry in your hand, but I find when I scan the pews after worship that most people have found they work well as bookmarks in the hymnals.

The Bible doesn’t say that the people lining the streets while Jesus processed his way into town waved leaves, particularly not like those puny, floppy fronds we give to baffled worshipers on Palm Sunday morning.  It says they waved branches off of the local trees. These were more like the heavy, sharp-edged palm branches I was slinging and heaving all over my back yard.  They were tall and wide and hard to handle.  They were too big around for the standard loppers, and since I doubt the followers of Jesus could experience the thrill of using power tools, they probably had a hard time cutting them out of the trees.  And I hope the breeze was calm that day, because I wouldn’t want to be out there trying to wave branches like those as the wind twisted them out of my control.

And as I worked, I began to wish I had waited until the weekend before Easter to trim my palm tree.  I wished that we could organize everyone in my congregation to trim their palm trees into that ideal ten-to-two shape on that same weekend, too.  Then, we could all bring the unwieldy palm branches to the church to wave for our celebration.  Some of the elderly people and the small children would probably not be able to handle the long stems and wide fans; we could give them seats of honor on the chancel stage where they could see the powerful effort the others had to put in.  Those who could might choose to wear their work gloves to keep the edges of the branches from cutting into their hands; those work gloves wouldn’t quite match their dresses or suits or polo shirts and khakis or whatever they chose to wear to church.  We could be thankful that we have a very high ceiling, but we could also ask George to turn off the fans until we cheered Jesus all the way through the city gates of Jerusalem, just to keep the breeze from twisting the branches out of our hands.

It would be no less confusing for the people who don’t know the story, but it might evoke more questions, or at least a greater sense of awe and wonder.  And we would have to put a lot of work into it.  We would have to heave and sling.  We might feel kind of awkward as some of us broke a sweat and others had to put the heavy branches down in the middle of the celebration to rest for a bit.  But I think it would be a better reenactment for our Palm Sunday celebration, and a more faithful enactment of what God calls us to as well.

Last week, I read a blog post which, unfortunately, I cannot locate right now.  The post was on the craft of writing, and the blogger quoted someone giving advice to writers.  Writers work best, the quote went, when they lay everything they have out on the page.  Don’t hold back, the advice went; take your most extreme idea, put it into words on a page, and then work it up from there.  And I think that people of faith work best that way, too.  I think we work best when we refuse to hold anything back.  I think we work best when we refuse to trivialize or domesticate any of the truth of the stories which shape our view of the world.  I think we work best when we refuse to wave anything that is puny or floppy or narrow or easily fit in our hands.  I think we worship best when we heave and sling and sweat and have to take a rest now and then because the work is simply too intense.

My palm branches are lying in my side yard now, ready to be dragged to the curb so the city can take them away to be chipped into mulch.  But maybe by next spring, some of the branches on that palm tree will have started to sag and become lazy and drift toward the three and nine, or the four and eight, or even, heaven forbid, the five and seven.  And maybe I will take my reciprocating saw to them, and heave and sling them into the back of my car, and carry them over to my church to see if anyone is willing to remember the stories of Jesus in the best way we can.


IMG_6991 (800x532) Our summer has been full of travel, and in each place we visited, we have seen some fascinating wildlife.  In Canada, there was the moose wandering the woods near our friends’ home, the mother grizzly bear and her three cubs alongside the Trans-Canada Highway, and the Great Gray Owl perched on a fence post at the foot of the Rockies.  In the Colorado Rockies, it was the beaver dams and the fish swimming in mountain streams.  In Pennsylvania, a distant stag caught my eye while I was walking alone one evening.  Even the fireflies that hovered above the lawns in Indiana and Ohio were fascinating; we don’t get fireflies around our home for some reason.  Every place we went gave us experiences of fauna we just don’t see at home in coastal Georgia.

But in the week and a half since we came home, as we have settled back into the routines of work and school, I can’t seem to escape the wildlife in my own yard.  A hummingbird has taken possession of our feeder; we have watched him chase away the rest of his species any time another comes near.  Throughout the day, even in the middle of a rain storm, his ruby throat and emerald back hovers as he snacks on the diluted simple syrup we offer. The larger kinds of birds came back quickly when I filled our bird feeder, too, and have stuck around to see what else they can get out of me.  Blue jays and cardinals come and go as they please; the mourning doves bob their way across the lawn; house sparrows and other small birds rush in and out.  The squirrels have gratefully come back to the feeder, too, and even a pudgy brown rat draped his long, bare tail over the side the other day as he munched on the seed.  Unfortunately, it is because of him that the bird feeder will have to remain empty for a while.  We know from experience that the one brown rat will bring his friends, and we really don’t want them that close to our house.  The only way to discourage them is to take away the food.  Still, the birds hang around, and it is good to see them again.

Yesterday, a tiny frog came leaping out of the folded lawn chair as I moved it to sweep away leaves that had gathered under it.  I was not surprised; I have come to expect these little guys who seem to appreciate the safety and comfort of the canvas.  A butterfly has flitted around our back yard for the past couple of afternoons.  If I have identified her right, she is a Gulf Fritillary.  She made an appearance this afternoon to snack on the nectar of our lantana in the back yard and stuck around long enough to pose for a few photos before she wandered her way into another yard.  Earlier, a proud robin with his pronounced rusty chest stopped for a little dip in our bird bath.  When I headed to the door with my camera to see if he would stick around, our dog decided he wanted to go out, too.  But I think the robin was done with his bath by then anyway, and he flew elsewhere.  And maybe it is because of our wet summer, or maybe it is just the time of year, but it seems that this is a good time for young anoles to come out.  I have adorable juveniles and gawky-looking teenagers of that species all over the yard.  Soon, they will grow big enough to become territorial, but tonight, I watched as at least two young ones climbed and dashed up and down and in and out all over the same bunch of black-eyed susans.  One was brown, another was bright green; they can switch back and forth depending on their mood.  These little creatures never had the care of a mother; she simply laid the eggs a few weeks back, and the lucky ones emerged to tackle life more or less on their own.

Most of this wildlife in my yard is unremarkable.  These are common species of birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and reptiles whichIMG_7021 (535x800) share this little plot of land with us and with most of our neighbors along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for a thousand miles.  But as I thought about all that wildlife in my yard this evening, I felt the presence of God in a way I didn’t when I saw the wildlife in other places.  The moose and grizzlies were remarkable.  The great gray owl and high-antlered deer were beautiful.  Even the midwestern fireflies and mountain stream fish were fascinating.  But none of them spoke to me of the presence of God in the same way as my familiar anoles, robins, butterflies, and tree frogs.

Seeing those grizzlies and moose in the wild was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But God is more like the anoles, which surround me all the time.  My photos of that enormous owl are worth showing off.  But God is more like the robin or the hummingbird, which everyone can see if they pay attention.  The fireflies and beaver dams cannot be found where I live.  But God is more like the squirrels and blue jays and mourning doves, which can be found everywhere.  I was wowed by the remarkable wildlife on our trips.  But God is more like the abiding presence of the familiar wildlife in my yard.  I don’t mean to domesticate God.  Just like the anoles and butterflies and frogs and robins in my yard have the ability to fascinate, surprise, and challenge me, there is much about God which is mysterious to me.  But God’s constant presence is a comfort.

I thank God that I got to experience the unique fauna of the mountains and plains this summer.  And I praise God for God’s presence which surrounds me all the time like the wildlife in my own yard.

What My Hibiscus Knows

I have lots of photos of hibiscus; I can't believe I don't have a photo of the pink one!

I have lots of photos of hibiscus; I can’t believe I don’t have a photo of the pink one!

I think my pink hibiscus has made a choice, and her choice gives me hope.

Most people around here treat the tropical hibiscus as an annual:  once the first frost has taken away the last chance of any more big, bold, flashy flowers unfolding for the year, most people dig them up and throw them away.  Then, in the early spring, those folks find new hibiscus plants at the stores, and while they are not the cheapest plants, they are widely available and ready to bloom by early April.

But not me.  I know that I could go this afternoon to the nearest big-box store to have my pick of greenhouse-grown hibiscus, with their intense colors already fully exposed.  Maybe it is because I am too cheap, and I can’t bring myself to discard a perfectly good plant; maybe it is because I am too sympathetic, and I feel like any plant that has made it through the winter ought to have a fighting chance to show its beauty again.  But I just can’t dig up the old hibiscus and throw them away.  So I don’t mind that they lose their leaves in the winter; after the first frost, their usual verdant, green hue starts to droop, and the blossoms all close and drop.  Then the leaves turn a color which evokes the “gifts” my son often gave me in his diaper.  Once the leaves dry, they fall to the ground and insulate the roots from further frosts, leaving only bare sticks poking toward the sky.

My hibiscus plants have now gone through two of these cycles.  Last year, though, the pink one had a rough time.  Well, I say she is pink; the color of her petals is more of a hot, strong fuchsia, with a bloody-red center just like her yellow and orange friends’.  As the new stems started growing upward in the late spring, she showed signs of catching a fungus.  The disease seemed to clear up on its own, but a couple of her stems started to lean over to be parallel to the ground.  Then as they grew again, they curved to continue straight toward the sky.  She was just a little too close to the black-eyed susans in front of her to begin with, so once she lost her straight, upright form, her leaves and blooms intermingled with the spreading, gold-and-brown pile of wildflowers.  The confusion that resulted was not the high point of garden design.

Fast forward a few months.  It was February before we had our first freeze this year, exceptionally late even for our sub-tropical climate.  Before the hibiscus froze, new leaves had a chance to form around the bases of the plants.  These are the beginnings of the new stems each year.  Within a couple of weeks, the leaves around the yellow and orange hibiscus had succumbed to a subsequent frost.  But not the pink one.  I think it might have been because of her unusual shape, or maybe because she was more closely surrounded by the plants around her, but through all the other frosty mornings, she never lost the fresh, green leaves which had started coming from her base.

I expected that the pink hibiscus would capitalize on her advantage.  I expected she would use her overwintering leaves to get a jump on the season.  I expected that she would keep growing her nascent stems skyward so that she could position her leaves to get the most sunlight, before the new season’s leaves even started to grow around the base of her friends.  I expected she would strive hard to bloom first, attracting all the bees and butterflies to help her in the process of reproducing herself.  But that’s not what she did.

Instead, she waited.  Her leaves, which she developed so early, didn’t disappear, but they didn’t grow, either, until the other hibiscus had similar leaves ready to shoot up into tall stems.  I realize that the hibiscus plant doesn’t have any agency, and that there is some scientific gobbldy-gook about the light and the air temperature which explain why she didn’t grow up early.  But I prefer to believe that she purposely waited for her friends.  I prefer to believe that she decided not to get out ahead of the others.  I prefer to imagine that she chose not to capitalize on her good fortune, the gift of some leaves which were not bitten by the frost.  I prefer to think that she saw the benefits of having some companions in the process of growing and developing into full flower.

I prefer to dream about a world where we don’t exploit every competitive advantage, where we don’t strive to absorb the brightest spotlight, where we don’t push others out of the way as we try to attract attention to ourselves.  I prefer to hope that we will wait and make sure everyone is ready before we launch ourselves onto the world.  I prefer to think that it is better to have some companionship as we grow, exploring each new stage with others, discovering each step of progress with a shared wonder at what we can become.  I prefer to understand that we have a choice to make:  we can choose to trample others down while adding to our own privilege of strength and vigor and beauty and wealth, or we can choose to be a part of a community where we build our privilege together.  I prefer to believe that at least one, humble hibiscus plant in the universe chooses to share rather than compete, and I prefer to have faith that such a choice reflects the will of the One Who set the universe in motion and to Whom I pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It is only this week that I have seen the clumps of leaves around the base of all three of the hibiscus starting to build into stems.  Within a few weeks, they will each begin to push out flower buds from the unions between their stems and the leaves.  Then they will bloom:  the vibrant yellow and orange and pink petals, with their bloody red centers, all burning hot and strong in the sultry July sun, flashing their appeal to passing bees and butterflies, revealing their bright beauty to passing neighbors who offer sufficient time and attention while they are walking their dogs.  And they will be out there together, just like they ought to be.

Embarrassing Faith

IMG_5384 (800x533)Early spring is an embarrassing time for gardeners.  O.k., maybe not for all of them.  Maybe it’s just me.  If I really knew what I was doing, I would be able to time my plantings so that something spectacular would always cover the stuff that is not so spectacular, at least not yet.  The big, empty spaces where the black-eyed susans have not yet come back up would only serve to highlight the spectacular blooms of the azaleas.  The camellia blooms would linger long enough so that the spindly mess of roses would have time to leaf out and bloom.  The densely-planted pack of daffodils would distract one’s eye from the variegated liriope which hasn’t yet come back from its post-freeze shearing.  Then, the daylily greens would be up and full and ready to shoot forth stems of blossoms just in time to hide the dying daffodil foliage, which, the stern voices of the experts who write the newspaper columns warn, one ought never to cut off.  The dying foliage gathers sunlight to feed the bulb, which stores energy for next year’s blooms.  If you cut that process short, you risk a whole year of wimpy daffodils (gasp!  oh, the horror!).  So, you have to put up with dying foliage, and if you are clever, you find a way to make sure it is hidden.

I have never been that clever.  A couple of weeks ago, I started cleaning out my perennial beds in the front yard.  I usually leave the woody branches of hibiscus, the dried-out stalks of cannas, and the spindly nest of lantana stems right where they are through the winter.  Their own leaves drop and cover the ground around their bases, and they collect the stiff, brown leaves from the oak trees as they blow down the street.  Again, the experts warn against this practice; leaves can harbor diseases and hold in too much moisture, causing the roots of the perennials to rot over the winter.  But I take my chances, figuring that the leaves will also insulate the tropical plants from the freezing air which occasionally infiltrates our semi-tropical climate.

But then, in early spring, after the danger of frost is past, as the heather and hibiscus and lantana are just starting to shoot forth bright, green leaves into that brown, rotten mess, I clean things up.  I cut the heather back to the ground, and I push the oak leaves to the center of the bed so they can work their way into the soil.  I cut the lantana back to the ground, too, so its new shoots will come strong and healthy from the center of the plant, keeping its more-or-less mounded form rather than continuing to spread all over creation from last year’s branches.  I cut off the towering, dead stalks of the cannas, I remove the dead leaves of the gerbera daisies, and I cut off the clematis, leaving only about six inches of each stem from which the new growth can emerge and spread up the trellis.  I pull the clover and chickweed and dichondra which has spread into the beds, and I lay out fresh mulch where last year’s has become thin enough for these weeds to push through, being careful to see if the calla lilies and oriental lilies are poking up through the dirt to announce that they will, in fact, come back for another year.

In my mind’s eye, at the end of all of that hard work, I see the potential:  the many colors and textures of foliage and blooms that will take us through the late spring and into the summer and fall.  But to look at my yard in its present form, you couldn’t prove that any of that beauty is ever going to be real.  I have to acknowledge in this season that I may be deluding myself.  Things may not turn out as I envision them right now.  Something might have died over the winter; some of the pretty things I planted last year may not come up again.  Or worse, a few of them might come up, but others might have rotted into the soil, so that there will be awkward holes in my landscape by the middle of the summer when it is too late to do anything about them.

Faith is like that.  I was preparing for my Easter sermon the other day by listening to the Working Preacher podcast.  The seminary professors who participate in the conversation pointed out that Easter requires us to admit that faith is risky.  We believe what we proclaim, but the fact is, we may be wrong.  We may be wrong to talk with such certainty about a savior who was raised from the dead.  We may be wrong to conjure such authority when we talk about a God who loves unconditionally.  We may be wrong to say with any conviction at all that sometime in the future, as things are coming to an end, everything will work out o.k. because God is in charge.

We may be wrong because we don’t see those things right now.  We know them; we feel them; we believe them; we even experience them.  But we do not see them.  We cannot prove to anyone that the stories we tell are truth, or that the love we perceive breathing life into being is real, or that the hope which strengthens us will ever be realized.  We have to admit, if we are honest, that it is possible that we are deluding ourselves, and things may not turn out to be the way we envision them.  That is why it is called faith, not certainty or authority or any of those other, more definite words.

And I wonder if that is why a lot of people are not willing to commit to it.  It is hard to embrace something while admitting that I may be wrong.  Faith requires vulnerability.  It requires me to risk embarrassment; just like the whole world can see my naked front yard, with all its big, empty spaces and sheared ornamentals and spindly roses and dying daffodil foliage, the whole world might also see my faith proven wrong.  But for me, faith is worth the risk; my knowledge and feeling and belief and experience of God summon a courage that is enough for me, just like the beautiful colors and textures I see emerging in my mind’s eye right now are enough to take me into the next seasons of life in my yard.  Everything may not turn out as I expect; in fact, I am pretty sure I will be wrong about some things.  But that is part of the strength of vision and faith, and the reason I am willing to risk so much for it:  more often than not, even when it doesn’t turn out the way I expected, its unanticipated revelations are more lovely than I ever could have imagined.

When I cleaned out my flower beds a couple of weeks ago, I looked carefully for the calla lilies which grow next to the heather and gerbera daisies near my mailbox.  They hadn’t poked their pointed leaf shoots up through the surface of the ground.  Frankly, I was disappointed, but I made my peace with it.  Perhaps they are only supposed to live a couple of years.  Maybe an accidental tromp through the flower bed last summer crushed them for good.  But their absence would leave a hole, and I was beginning to doubt that the flower bed will be as I hoped this year.

Then, just the other day, I looked again, and there they were, just jutting the tips of their shoots about a half an inch above the mulch I had spread.  Those points will grow taller and taller, no bigger around than a pencil, and once they are tall enough, they will unfurl into sword-shaped leaves whose flat surfaces will absorb the sun’s heat and light.  And then, once they pull enough stored energy from the bulbs underground, more shoots will emerge from the base of the leaves, and they will reveal fascinatingly beautiful petals curled around erect stamens.  Calla lilies are some of my favorite flowers.

At least I think that is what will happen.  Only time will tell.

Green Wood

IMG_2001 (800x600)This is the time of year when not much is happening in my yard.  Last year, I got restless about this time, and I started trimming back my perennials, trimming bushes, clearing leaves from the flower beds, and generally uncovering everything for spring.  The plants responded to the message that it was time for them to wake up and get ready for spring and summer.  Fresh, bright, green buds of leaves and branches started to appear in the ensuing weeks.  And then, we got a late freeze, and all of those new buds which I had so optimistically encouraged withered in a droopy, slimy, sad little mess.  It took most of the plants several weeks to recover, and I spent those weeks worrying over them, fearing the worst, and watching to see if they would live or die.

So this year, I have vowed that I will not engage in any pruning, any cleaning, or any other form of encouragement with my perennials and shrubs until the middle of March at the earliest.  I will gingerly start my spring cleaning then only after checking the long-term forecast to make sure there is no freeze anticipated. I will not be disappointed again.

The problem with that commitment is that it has left me a little restless, with not much else to do in the yard on the warming days of February and early March.  So, I have been trying to content myself with pulling weeds.

God knows there are plenty of weeds to pull.  And this time of year is the perfect time to get them.  For the most part, they are tiny things, flimsy, with barely any roots to hold them in the ground.  Some of these are the early spring weeds, whose whole purpose in life is to produce seeds so that more of the same kinds of weeds can come up next spring.  They do not live for very long; the period when it is not too cold and not too hot and dry for them is very brief.  They never grow very tall.  Some, like the chick weed, spread a quite a bit in their brief lives, but they don’t have much depth to hold them in the ground.  Some, like the sticky burrs with their nasty little spikes which poke our early spring feet as we go walking across the early spring lawn, become more annoying as they age, but even they are not with us for more than a few weeks.  The early spring weeds seem to have evolved to be efficient:  they shoot up quickly, they get their work of reproduction done quickly, and then they die quickly.  Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, as my Aunt Suzy would say.

Others of these weeds, though, are the ones that will be around for a long time.  They may or may not produce seeds; some of them mostly seem intent on spreading their roots.  These are the dichondra, the clover, and even the dandelions in the grass.  Once these get a hold in the lawn, they cannot be eradicated without horrible petrochemicals.  They can only be managed so they don’t push out the good grass altogether, which is a fine enough arrangement for me considering the alternatives.  But when they get into the flower beds, everything starts to look ragged, and the good flowers can’t ever seem to get ahead.

The theory of both the early spring weeds and the long-term spreaders is the same:  get rid of them now while it’s easy.  If you get the early spring weeds before they go to seed, the theory goes, you won’t have nearly as many next year.  If you get the long-term spreaders now before they spread to far or dig their roots too deep, the theory continues, you won’t be fighting with them as hard in the summer.  So there I was last Friday, alleviating my early season restlessness by pulling up the tiniest little sprouts.

As I went along, I realized that my efforts were an act of great optimism.  The fact is that no amount of early-season pulling is going to prevent weeds from growing in my flower beds.  Whether or not I go out there now on my hands and knees pulling the flimsy little sprouts, I will be out there again in a few months pulling more.  My work may or may not be in vain.  But as I was trying to make sense of what I was doing, a song kept coming into my head.  It is a song sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, on one of their more obscure albums which, depending on the company I am in, I either proudly or timidly admit that I regularly popped into my cassette tape player in my car when I was in college.

The song is called “Greenwood,” and it was written by Peter Yarrow in the early 1970s.  It takes its title and theme from a saying of Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke.  The words are what one expects from Peter Yarrow in the early 197os:  an earnest lament about violence and war.  They are predictably preachy, but their purpose is noble:  to stir people to act to overcome the systemic forces of repression.  The song’s melody is haunting yet beautiful and simple; it focuses attention on the carefully chosen interrogative of the lyrics:  “If we do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?”  If you want to listen to the song, someone has been kind enough to load it onto YouTube:

If you just want to read the words, you can click here.

Besides its clear insistence that violence must end, and despite its clear tone of lamentation, I see this song as a call to hope.  It makes the point that how we choose to view the world will change how the world actually is.  “The killer and the cynic waltz together,” the lyric goes; those who choose to see only the worst in others are dancing awfully close to those who are willing to take another person’s life.  It talks about “the impotence of people raised on fear,” pointing out that if we do not teach each other how to have hope and trust, which are the antidotes to fear, then there’s no reason to even attempt to make things different.  What Peter Yarrow wants us to do in the “green wood,” now, while we still have a choice in the matter, is to not only end violence, but also to keep the realities of violence from persuading us to embrace a cynical and fearful view of the world.

I agree, and that is why I was pulling weeds.  While I don’t believe my work now will make the weeds go away forever, I think pulling weeds in the early spring helps me practice hope.  And I need the practice after a winter filled with dark headlines of violence, distrust, fear, cynicism, greed, and on and on.  I need to believe that the more weeds I pull now, the fewer sticky burrs will find their way into the tender skin of my little boy’s feet and hands and knees and elbows and whatever else might come into contact with the lawn later this spring.  I need to believe that the more clover and dichondra I remove now, the more profuse and brilliant the azalea and clematis and lantana and heather and daylilies will bloom throughout the seasons to come, each in their own time.  And I need to believe that my restlessness can be channeled into productive work, so that I can also believe that my impatience with the way things are can be channeled into some positive work in the communities I am a part of to make things more like the way they ought to be.  If I don’t channel that restlessness and impatience, all I will know is that the frost will invariably kill the new buds, that weeds will inevitably smother the flowers, and that violence and distrust and fear and cynicism and all the rest are just the way the world works.  Considering the alternatives, I will pull the early spring weeds.

“As they led him away, … [Jesus] said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?'” (Luke 23:26-31)

A Sucker for Beauty

IMG_0959 (602x800)I’m a sucker for beauty.  The other day, my wife and I stopped at the big box store (please don’t judge us) for a light bulb and a new number 2 to stick on the front of our mail box.  The old one fell off months ago, so we have been displaying to the world an incorrect address; we cannot have that any longer, particularly when the solution to the problem costs 58 cents.

I think my wife believes I cannot go to such a store without at least sauntering through the garden section.  She may not be wrong.  This time of year, I did not expect to see anything interesting in the garden section; they had the typical pansies, dianthus, stock, and other flowers in their vivid fuscias, pretty pinks, pure whites, and splashy purples.  In other places, these annuals appear in the spring, just before the last frost date, to be put out when the crocuses, tulips, grape hyacinths, and daffodils bloom.  Around here, the crocus, tulips, and grape hyacinths just rot in their holes because the weather never gets cold enough for them to work right, and the daffodils I have tried tend to come up early then wait to bloom until the weather gets too hot for them.  When I am lucky, and when I haven’t planted them too deeply, they flash their sunny glory for about a day or two, then they fade because it’s just too warm.  And, around here, the pansies, dianthus, stock, and other flowers are out all winter, embracing the occasional dip below 32 degrees not as a life-threatening crisis but as a refreshing break from the wilting 70s.

But then, as we wandered the aisles of early-blooming annuals, we saw an end cap overflowing with calla lilies.  They were in the colors calla lilies are known for.  There were the cheery yellows and the almost-blacks.  There were warm reds and oranges.  There was a purple color that faded to a creamy rim, and there was another solid purple, lighter than the others, but still rich in its tone.  And no one had tried to make the store display all neat and orderly, with the reds together with the reds, and the yellows with the yellows, and all of that.  All of the colors were mixed up together, with broad, green leaves stippled with white dots under the flowers to give them the heft that colors like that need.  They were like the photos of calla lilies in the catalogs which make us dream each winter of the warm days of the late spring to come.

And they all had that unique calla lily shape.  I think that is why I find flowers like callas and iris so appealing.  These are no daisies, with orderly petals evenly arranged around a center, although those flowers have their own beauty, too.  These are odd, asymmetrical, twisted, and wrapped in their form.  The single colorful petal wraps itself around the stamen like one of those old-fashioned woolen cloaks with no sleeves or buttons, IMG_0960 (699x800)which just hang from the wearer’s neck and shoulders and wrap him up in warmth.  I’ve always wanted to be able to wear a cloak like that, and I have always found the form of the calla lily to be beautiful.

A couple of days later, after worship on Sunday, I went back to the store to buy some of those calla lilies.  I had to have them.  And, of course, they wouldn’t look the same if I just bought one or two.  Part of the effect of the whole display was the great mix of all the colors.  So I bought six of them.  Yes, six.  It was utterly ridiculous.  They cost about $8 each, and I really shouldn’t be spending that kind of money on something as frivolous as flowers for my yard.  And more importantly, it is way too early for calla lilies here.  It is true that we are having an unusually mild winter.  The air temperature only dipped solidly below freezing one day, and that was just last week.  But we have another solid month with a good chance of a real cold spell, the kind that lasts three or four days, with the nighttime temperatures dipping in the 20s and the daytime barely making it over 45.  Calla lilies don’t tolerate that kind of weather.  The callas in my front yard usually don’t poke the pointy ends of their leaves out until the middle of March.  The labels on the calla lilies at the store said they were grown by an outfit in Miami.  And no wonder; fully-grown, blooming calla lilies have no place this far north in the middle of February, even in a mild year.

But I really wanted them, not because it was a reasonable decision, not because it made sense, but because they are beautiful, and I’m a sucker for beauty.  At many times in my life, that has been the best way for me to explain my faith, too.  I choose to see the world through the lens of faith because I’m a sucker for beauty.  Or, put another way, I believe in beauty.  Beauty has to be more powerful than anything else in the world.  At the end of it all, I expect that beauty will win, because beauty is so, well, beautiful.  There is just too much of it in the world.  The natural world is beautiful.  People are beautiful, not because all of our teeth are straight and our lips are adequately pouty or our lumps are smoothed over or our bulges fit into skinny jeans.  They aren’t, and they don’t.  People are beautiful because we are capable of appreciating beauty when we see it, and we are capable, too, of projecting beauty in our actions and words and our laughter and empathy.

Of course, there is plenty of ugliness in the world and in the people who populate it; please don’t dismiss me as naive.  But I look at the beauty of a display of calla lilies in the midst of the sparse, functional big-box gardening department, and I am struck by the mixed-up colors and wrapped-up petals and broad, stippled leaves adequate to back it all up.  And I wonder if I am gazing at “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”  Calla lilies are breathtakingly beautiful, so maybe beauty rules the world after all.  People can perceive and reflect beauty in unspeakable ways, so maybe beauty will win at the end of it all.  That is faith.

Although they cost more than I should have spent, and although they don’t really belong there, at least not right now, there are now six calla lilies planted in a circle around the bird bath in my back yard.  They are interspersed with the variegated vinca vine which I planted there last fall, which is right now responding to our mild winter by growing full-force toward the sky, ready to flop over and wind around in a thousand different directions as soon as it gets long enough.  It looks like the temperature will be dangerously near 32 degrees on Saturday night, so I might have to dig out an old sheet to cover them up.  Who knows; they may not even survive the spring.  But there they are, because I am a sucker for beauty.