Tag Archive | Flower Beds


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.

A Garden in Boston

IMG_0759 (800x600)I lived in Boston for eight years. As I see the unceasing chatter about the Boston Marathon bombings overwhelm all the channels people use to broadcast information and feelings these days, my mind is naturally going back there. I never attended the Boston Marathon while I lived there. God knows I never ran it, although I know people who did.  I remember the first year I was serving as the Pastor of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church in Boston. On the day of the Boston Marathon that year, I went to visit one of the members of our congregation who had come home to stay with her niece while she recovered from a broken hip. I think she was about 96 years old then. The whole time I was in their small apartment in a triple-decker in Jamaica Plain, the Boston Marathon was playing on the television in the background. I was there to remind an isolated old woman that she was not alone in the world, and the Boston Marathon was somehow part of that work.

One of the reflections I have read in the past couple of days is this blog post by a fellow Presbyterian minister, Marcia Mount Shoop. She reflects on the bad dream of her eight-year-old daughter the night after the bombing. What sticks in my mind is the way she describes her daughter’s fears and questions. The girl was not asking the “why” questions:  Why did a child have to die? Why would anyone want to do this to us? Maybe those are adult questions the little girl wouldn’t think to ask. Maybe they are questions that we do not really want to know the answer to, or maybe those questions are too cynical for some of us. Or maybe it is just too soon for any of us to ask questions like that.

Instead, Rev. Shoop’s daughter was asking “how” questions:  how could I protect the people who are supposed to protect me? How do I feel safe in a world where things like this happen? How do I keep hoping that everything will be o.k. in my life? I don’t think those are questions which only children ask at a time like this. In many ways, I think those questions are what fuels the comfort which we feel when we see that now-ubiquitous quote from Mister Rogers. “Look for the helpers,” Rev. Rogers is quoted as saying. “There are always helpers.” And those helpers are central to satisfying the thirst we all have in these days to resolve the how questions.

As I think about the how questions, those questions about protection and safety and hope, I think about the garden I planted at our house in Boston. It was not long after we bought the house; maybe it was 2004 or 2005.  I had spent all winter making plans: finding the sunniest spot on our sloping back yard, crafting the shape out of the hillside, thinking about how to prepare the soil, deciding what perennials to plant so there would be something in bloom all season, and designing the placement so the low growing plants would be in the front and the taller ones in the back up against the neighbors’ stone retaining wall.

It was March, and I was impatient. That impatience is normal for gardeners in Boston. Winter seems to last forever; the last frost date isn’t until about Mother’s Day, and the daffodils don’t even come into full bloom most years until about the time of the Marathon. But in March, the snow doesn’t cover the ground as constantly and the temperatures start to warm a bit during the day, so the shovels and rakes and garden gloves started to fill my obsessive mind. I decided I didn’t have to wait until spring to start to turn over the soil in the new garden and add manure and other amendments which would make the garden flourish.

So one sunny day off, I found my spade in the back of the garage, and out I went. I started at the bottom of the hill. As I worked my way up, I would hit solid spots here and there. Sometimes, these were large rocks. But sometimes they were clods of dirt which hadn’t thawed yet under their blanket of pine needles from the trees back there. In fact, that first pass at loosening the soil only got me a few inches deep; below that, the ground was still frozen. It would take weeks before the whole patch thawed enough for me to properly turn it over.

But eventually I got the manure worked in, and I started to plant some things.  By the next year, it was beautiful. In April, the perennials would start to emerge from the frozen ground. The creeping phlox was the first to bloom, usually by the end of that month, with carpets of light blues and pinks. The English Daisies would come up from seeds the previous year’s plants had scattered and add to the charm with their little pink, fuchsia, and white balls. May would bring my favorites:  the Dutch Iris and especially the Crested Iris I picked up from a native plant nursery in the suburbs. Big drifts of those unique blue, white, and yellow fleur de lis moved from the very bottom of the hillside as it started to increase in elevation. Later in the season there were astilbe, foxgloves, and the columbines which I planted to remind me of the years I lived in Colorado when I was a child. The Shasta Daisies bloomed in the summer. The delphinium never did very well, but that wasn’t a big surprise; you always have something that resists your efforts, don’t you?

I am impatient in the face of the Boston Marathon bombs.  I cannot yet resolve my need for assurance about protection and safety and hope. In my impatience, I want to go dig around. I know there is work to be done in my waiting: to name the bad dreams of children as well as adults, to listen to the unceasing chatter when I can, and to step away from it all when it starts to overwhelm me. I have to speak the questions that form, the whys as well as the hows, even if I can’t yet find any resolution, much less any answers, for those questions.

But I know this about Boston, and about the world we live in: despite the long, cold season, despite the clods of frozen dirt, despite the layer of still-icy soil, beauty will emerge. It will grow, and it will flourish. It will start by poking up a few shoots from the moldy leaves of before, and then a few, small flowers will emerge. Later, even more beauty will come. It will not happen when I want it to happen. Some things that were there before won’t come back this year, and it will have a few holes where things don’t emerge quite right. That is frustrating, but it’s the way it all happens. But beauty will come again. That is the how of hope.

As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  I pray for the people of Boston and for all of us who are impatient for hope.

Knock Out. Indeed.

IMG_3258 (533x800)My next-door neighbor has two Knock Out Roses in her front yard.  These are the roses that you see everywhere these days:  in every suburban yard, in every landscaped island in the shopping mall parking lot, even in front of the windows at every Denny’s restaurant.  If they can keep them alive at Denny’s, they must be indestructible.

In fact, Knock Out Roses were designed to be indestructible.  They are relatively new on the market, only appearing in the last 10 or 15 years.  They are supposed to be the perfect rose:  they will grow in any climate, they will resist any disease, and they will overcome any obstacle to spectacular, long-lasting, vibrant rosiness.  Jackson & Perkins advertises them like most dealers:  “Easy to grow, long-blooming, winter hardy and heat tolerant, and perfect for any landscape, … Knock Outs® don’t require special care, they’re self-cleaning, have stunning flower power, and are the most disease resistant roses on the market.”  Any time an advertising copy writer can use the phrase, “stunning flower power,” you know something significant has been developed.

The key here is that passive construct, “has been developed.”  To bring such almost-mystical perfection to suburban gardens and parking lots, someone took a common rose bush and engineered it to within an inch of its life.  Notice that when the Jackson & Perkins copy writer mentions the Knock Out variety, there must be a copyright symbol appended to its name.  These roses are nature manipulated to such a degree that all rights to divide it, to root a cutting from it, to graft it, to name it, or even to sell it must be granted by the patent holder.  The message is clear:  this rose will never belong to you.  You may place it in the soil in which you garden, and you may trim it and water it and fertilize it, but its ownership will forever belong solely to the genetic engineering firm which deigned to grant you those very limited rights.  Frankly, I am a bit nervous writing about these marvels of engineering.  I am afraid that I will have attorneys swarming my home tomorrow morning because I can’t figure out how to get my keyboard to cram a little R into a circle after each time I use the name Knock Out.

I have to admit, though, that for all of their ubiquity and carefully patented design, they really are pretty.  The colors of red, pink, and fuchsia are brilliant, and even the yellow ones, which the engineers introduced to the market in the past 5 years or so, are coming along in their vibrancy.  As a flower, I am not disappointed that my neighbor has some Knock Out Roses where I can see them.

My disappointment is where they are located in her yard.  They are planted right on our shared property line, about three feet back from the curb.  On my side of the property line in the same place is my perennial bed.  That is where I planted my variegated lantana, the “cemetery lily” a friend gave us, and some cannas which have filled out some empty spaces nicely.  That bed is the only place I have anything like an Asiatic lily, since it is open and breezy out there and the pollen is less likely to activate my wife’s allergies.  It is where calla lilies and gerbera daisies have come back two springs in a row now and the tropical hibiscus flare all summer.  It is where I have our beloved black-eyed susans, which remind us of the flowers my wife carried in our wedding.  I built the bed around our mailbox in the only space of full sun that makes sense for a perennial bed in my yard, and overall, I have been happy with the results.

But the neighbor’s Knock Outs crowd too close.  The cemetery lily has to compete for sunlight.  The cannas have to force their way through the branches of the Knock Outs before they bloom in their yellow torches.  The neighbor doesn’t choose to remove the bermuda grass from under her roses, so weeds and grass spread from her yard into my flower bed.  And did I mention that the engineers who developed the Knock Outs did not think it wise to remove the genes that produce the thorns?  Those things are as wicked as any wild rose, so trimming and weeding around them require some gyrations which the guy across the street who lurks in his garage all day undoubtedly finds amusing. Other than some passive-aggressive trimming here and there, I have not been sure what to do about the Knock Outs which so garishly cross the boundaries of suburban civility and invade my prime perennial real estate.

Really, the conflict for sunlight and air space is not my neighbor’s fault.  Her husband planted them as small, spindly shrubs about five or six years ago.  At that time, there was a wooden, split-rail fence which ran the length of our shared property line, and there was only grass in that part of my yard.  I remember the day they planted them, although it seemed insignificant at the time.  My neighbor and her husband were always working in the yard together, and even through the mundane tasks of mowing and weeding and planting and pulling, it was so clear that they had a long-lasting and beautiful relationship.  She placed the pots from the nursery where she thought they should go; he shared his own thoughts.  She nagged him a bit, and then he dutifully dug the holes.  Together, they planted them.  The new shrubs were already flush against the fence, but at the time, that made sense; their growth could intermingle with the fence rails to add some color and texture to an otherwise unremarkable part of their yard.

If I remember right, it was only a few months after they planted the Knock Out Roses together that my neighbor’s husband stopped my wife and me in our driveway one day.  He wanted to tell us that he had been diagnosed with cancer.  Was it lung cancer or liver cancer?  Or maybe leukemia?  I don’t remember, and it really doesn’t matter now.  He had surgery, and I visited with him briefly when he was in the rehab unit at the same time as a member of my congregation.  He went through other treatments; we would inquire about how he was doing when it seemed appropriate.  Like so many people in their situation, they tried hard to stay positive, so we never really knew whether their optimism was based in what the doctors were telling them or in what they wanted to believe.  Probably the truth was somewhere in between, but again, that doesn’t really matter now.  I don’t know if it was from our neighbor or from the nice couple across the street that we first heard he had gone under the care of Hospice.  But a few weeks later, the woman from across the street knocked on our door late one evening to tearfully tell us that she heard he passed away.  Together, we went to the house of the guy who lurks in his garage all day because we knew he would want to hear the news before it came out in the paper.

This winter, I realized it was time to do a major overhaul of my perennial bed.  Besides the usual spring cleanup, the space needed to be expanded and some plants needed to be divided and moved.  Last week, I moved the cemetery lily and the cannas away from the property line so they wouldn’t compete so much with my neighbor’s Knock Out Roses.  I reached my hand rake under the Knock Outs to scratch away the grass that was still trying to invade my flower bed, and I spread a generous layer of mulch to keep the grass and weeds at bay for a while.  I am making my peace with my neighbor’s Knock Outs, recognizing that, if I design things right, they could be less of an encroaching competitor and more of a vibrant and pleasing backdrop for the mix-up of cannas and lilies and hibiscus and lantana and black-eyed susans I am trying hard to nurture.

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)

Trampled Flowers and the Board of Pensions

IMG_1649 (800x533)As a Presbyterian minister, my pension and medical insurance is administered by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Board of Pensions.  The medical insurance which the Board provides is paid for through dues paid by congregations.  The dues for each congregation have always been calculated as a percentage of the pastor’s salary, and the same percentage of salary is assessed of all congregations who have a pastor.  Currently, the dues for medical insurance are 21%.  The congregations of pastors who have no spouses or children pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.  The congregations with pastors who are married, have children, and have no other medical insurance for their families pay 21% of their pastors’ salaries for medical insurance.

This system is insurance the way it ought to be. It is based on values of shared resources, community support, and fairness. It means that both wealthy and poor congregations can provide good health insurance.  It means that both single pastors and pastors who have three or four or more children are able to serve where God calls them, rather than only where they can make enough money to pay for their health insurance.  But there is a problem:  the 21% dues are not enough to pay for this system.

Last fall, I received this announcement by e-mail from the Board of Pensions. Their Board of Directors had made a decision.  They considered the option of raising the dues which congregations pay to 25% of their pastors’ salaries, but they decided that such a dues rate is too high.  Instead, they decided to change the way the whole system operates, effective January 1, 2014.  Dues for congregations would be cut to 19% of their pastors’ salaries, but that amount would not provide medical insurance for the pastors’ spouses and children.  If pastors want their spouses covered, that would be extra.  And if they want their children covered, too, that would be even more.  As they have done all the calculations, we have learned that, while the congregation I serve will only save about $83 per month next year because of the lower dues, either the congregation or my family will have to come up with an extra $475 per month if my wife and son are going to continue to have medical insurance after January 1.

There have been plenty of responses to this proposal from all over the church.  In December, I sent my own letter to the Board of Directors expressing the reasons I think this is a horrible idea.  But the more I reflect on how I feel about the whole kerfluffle, the more I think about what happened in my front yard a year or two ago.

Near our mailbox, not far from the driveway, is one of those hard, plastic columns set up by the utility companies to tie all the houses in an average suburban neighborhood like ours into the systems for telephones, cable TV, and other such modern conveniences.  It is a light green color, about two and a half feet high, and between it and the mailbox, mowing out there was more of a chore than it needed to be. So one fall, I smothered the grass with cow manure, newspaper, and mulch, and by spring, I had a new bed ready for some flowers.  It is in the full sun all day, so I was ready to go all out:  some Black-Eyed-Susans to remind us of the bouquet my wife carried in our wedding; some Oriental Lilies, Calla Lilies, and Gerbera Daisies just because they are interesting and colorful and beautiful; some Hibiscus and Cannas to add a tropical flair; a “Cemetery Lily” which a friend gave to us; and other plants to add variety and texture.  These were all flowers I had wanted to grow ever since we moved here, but which had not found a place in the more established beds.  Now, they would all have a home.

A few months later, after the Oriental Lilies and Callas had bloomed their hearts out and taken their summer rest, and just when the Hibiscus and Cannas were coming into their prime, after a long week of negligence while something had come up at work, I went out to check on things in the new bed one weekend afternoon.  And I was horrified.  There were big boot prints in the middle of the flower bed.  The lily stems had been trampled.  The Cannas were bent and broken.  There was dirt scattered all over the place:  on the plants, on the mulch, on the driveway, and if I recall right, even on the mailbox.

It seems that a contractor had been sent by Comcast to do something with the wires in the plastic column in the middle of my flower bed. And he had made a decision to simply trample the flowers, scatter the dirt, and do what he needed to do without regard for what I might think.  He didn’t have to make that decision. I had always known that the utility companies would need to have access to the plastic column, and I had tried to keep things clear from behind. As plants had grown up around it, I knew some would even have to be removed for the utility workers to do their job. That contractor could have made the decision to knock on my door, explain his need to access the wires in the plastic column, and given us a chance to work together.  He would have been able to get his work done, and I could preserve as much of my flower bed as was reasonable. And at the end of it all, I would have been able to trust the utility companies to come on my property to do their work in the future.

And that is what I wish the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions had done, too.  I understand that the medical plan is spending more than it is taking in. I understand that some things will have to change, and those changes may mean more costs have to be shifted to our family or the congregation I serve. But they made this decision on their own instead of asking for ideas and preferences from the people most affected by the problems as well as the proposed solutions. And, as a result, I believe they have made a very bad decision. More importantly, I will have a hard time trusting them to make good decisions in the future.

I do not want to feel about the Board of Pensions the same way I feel about Comcast.  I do not want to believe that the Board of Pensions is only looking at their bottom line. I do not want to believe that they look at me as an object in a system they control, who will simply go along with their decisions, pay what they tell me to pay, and be grateful for their charity for offering medical insurance for me at all.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will work with the whole church to make good decisions.  I want to believe that the Board of Pensions will protect my interests as much as possible as they deal with the conundrums of rising medical costs. I want to believe they will seek to manage well a system of medical insurance the way medical insurance ought to be. I want to believe they will continue to live by the values of shared resources, of community support, and of fairness. I want to trust them.

But right now, that is not how I feel. In early March, the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions will meet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, and at that meeting, they are scheduled to take a final vote on the proposed changes. I pray that their need for the trust of the church will be a part of their conversations. In other words, I pray that they think about knocking on my door before they just trample over the flowers.

The Freaks and the Nones

My neighbors think I am a freak.  They are too polite to say it; this is the South, after all, bless your heart.  But I know what they are thinking when they see me working in my yard using some techniques and tools which most people around here don’t use.  And I wonder if I need to get used to being considered a freak, not just because of my gardening methods, but also because of my faith.

For instance, I have a mulching lawn mower, so I never rake the leaves off of my lawn.  The lawn mower is electric, and everyone else around here has a gas mower.  And a key part of my strategy for weed control in my flower beds involves newspapers.  Yes, newspapers.  When I lived up north, I read one of those helpful columns in the newspaper giving advice on gardening.  One week, the writer suggested spreading newspaper on a new flower bed before spreading mulch and planting.  The newspaper smothers the weeds and prevents new weeds from growing.  Then, over time, it decomposes, adding nutrients to the flower bed after the need for smothering what is under the newspaper is passed.

The process is simple:  after I dig a new bed, I add some manure, compost, or other soil booster.  Then, I spread the papers on the bare ground.  I usually use at least two layers of paper at a time, overlapping them so that there are at least four layers in any given place in the bed with no gaps between the papers for weeds to sneak up.  For a bed with a lot of weeds, I have laid 8 or 10 layers of newspaper.  As I spread the sheets of paper, I periodically sprinkle them with water so they are heavy and will not blow away.  Once I have the paper spread all over the bed, I put 2 – 3 inches of pine straw or other mulch on top to hide the newspaper, hold it in place, and further snuff out the weeds.  I have even done the whole process without digging up the bed first; I simply spread composted manure on the grass in the place where I wanted the bed to be, then put a thick dressing of newspaper and the mulch on top.  By the following spring, the grass was gone, having decomposed and become a part of the soil after it died from lack of air and light under the newspaper.  That bed has prospered well with Black-Eyed Susans, Mexican Heather, Gerbera Daisies, some Calla Lillies, Cannas, Hibiscus, and a few other pretty things.

It was during the construction of that flower bed that I first got the snickering comments from my neighbor across the street.  As I was carefully laying newspaper on the green grass one breezy November day, he was washing his car in his driveway.  I imagined as he kept looking across the street that he was mocking me.  To be fair, he may have simply been curious.  I don’t remember now how he finally broke the silence to find out what I was doing, but I believe it was some comment made in jest about the strangeness of my activity.  I was, after all, spreading newspaper on my lawn, an activity made all the more freakish by the breeze.  The papers kept trying to fly away, so I had to do some gymnastics to hold them in place while I reached for the hose to weigh them down with water.  I explained that I had seen this idea in the paper one time.  I did not mention that the article was in a Northern newspaper, since that detail would make it automatically suspect as some hippie liberal conspiracy to further denigrate the Southern man.  My neighbor seemed satisfied, and he even complemented me the next year on the beauty of the bed I created so oddly.

Earlier this year, I used a layer of newspapers in another flower bed, this time next to the house.  I had re-planted the bed last summer, but I had never been able to control the weeds effectively.  As I was spreading the papers one spring morning, my next-door neighbor made some suggestion that there were better ways to read the newspaper than by spreading it all over the front yard.  He was polite and jovial, but again, there was that snickering tone.  I explained the strategy to him, this time leaving out the details about the source of the idea, and he didn’t push any further.  I could tell, though, that he was not convinced this would ever be considered a conventional method for weed control, and I have since seen the more standard method applied to his yard:  the True-Green Lawn Service truck came and spread God-knows-what kind of petrochemicals on his lawn.

Last Friday, I was once again spreading newspapers as I continued with my project of renewing an old flower bed that had gone to weeds.  Fortunately, I was spared the strange looks of my neighbors because I was working in the back yard.  But I also had a news story on my mind.  Last week, the Pew Research folks published the results of a recent survey saying that 20% of Americans do not currently identify with any religious tradition (for an article on the survey from Religion News Service, click here).  It is not that these people are refusing to choose between the Presbyterians and the Methodists; they do not claim any religious affiliation at all.  They are not Christian any more than they are Jewish or Buddhist or Unitarian or anything else.  Based on how they answered the surveyors’ questions, they are simply considered “nones.”

There have been a lot of comments about the findings.  Many of us are not surprised; this is a trend which has been growing since I was in college, and in other parts of the country where I have lived, the number of “nones” passed 20% a long time ago.  The day after the findings were released, one person at my church lamented to me “it’s such a shame that so many people don’t have any faith at all.”  Two hours later, someone else proclaimed excitedly, “well, the church has to take advantage of the opportunities to reach those people!”  Whether it is a great tragedy for society or a great opportunity for evangelism I will let others say.  I simply want to lift up this new reality and imagine how it will affect us as people of faith.

The fact is that Christians are a bit strange, and if current trends continue, we may even slide into the category of freaks.  We are odd because we spend so much time at the church when we could be doing things which are more gratifying.  We are different because we see more happening in the world than we can observe or prove scientifically.  We are strange because we are committed to an institution which seems, at various times, quaint, untrustworthy, corrupt, rigid, oppressive, too liberal, too conservative, too wishy-washy, archaic, and arcane.  And don’t get me started about just how bizarre the practice and theory of worship is in the modern world, if you really think about it.

For clergy, this oddness is not a new thing.  When people we meet outside the church find out what my wife and I do for a living, they often become fascinated, intimidated, self-righteous, condescending, or all of the above, all at once.  At the very least, they rarely react in the same way as I imagine they would if we said we were a pair of accountants or teachers or baristas.  Two or three years after we moved in, we were talking with the wife of our neighbor across the street who first observed my newspaper trick.  She admitted that, when she first heard two ministers had bought the house across the street, she would carefully hide the cases of beer she occasionally brought home from the grocery store in heavy paper bags and tuck them under her coat.  We were strange to her; she didn’t think she could behave normally in front of us.

In the future, if current trends continue, I wonder if all Christians will have to accept a new identity as social freaks.  I wonder if people will start to smirk and tease the way my neighbors do when I start spreading my layers of newspaper in my front yard.  And I wonder if there might be something freeing about being freaks in a world of nones.  I wonder if we will be able to be Christians because we want to be, and we feel called to be, not because that is the way everyone else is.  I wonder if we will claim our identities with a greater sense of purpose.  I wonder if we will be freed to simply live lives which are worthy of the gospel, loving our neighbors as we have been loved by our God, whether it is the popular thing to do or not.  I wonder if we will recognize that most of what we are called by Jesus to do is very counter-cultural, if not counter-intuitive.  I wonder if we will discover that, if we do it right, our faith will not help us in our business networking or efforts to climb the ladder of power and prestige, and it might even get in the way.  I wonder if we will have to learn to put into words why our faith is important to us in ways we can’t currently articulate.  I wonder if we will invite others into our alternative lifestyle only after they watch us for a while and inquire about why we live so strangely.

I wish my neighbors would just try using newspaper to control weeds rather than using the hazardous chemicals or back-breaking efforts they currently employ.  I think they would find it more effective, more healthy, and more enjoyable.  But based on their snickers and teasing, I don’t think they will try it anytime soon.  I will simply have to wait until they see that, as odd as it seems, it works, and then I can encourage them to try it for themselves.

General Assembly & My Flower Bed

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly ended today after being in session since last Saturday.  In eight days of meetings, over eight hundred of us have taken on the impossible task of wrestling together with issues like the definition of marriage, the best ways to promote peace in the Middle East, the complexities of the ethics of immigration, corporal punishment with children, solitary confinement in prisons, shifts in attitudes about charitable giving, and a whole host of technical questions about how we are going to operate as a church.  And no one in the room was ignorant of our church’s decline:  in number of members, in amount of money, and in power in our culture.

Particularly in the last couple of days, I heard a lot of my fellow commissioners expressing in one way or another a fear I shared:  that we hadn’t actually done anything.  Some came here with an issue or set of issues which they feel passionate about, and their feelings came when those issues were not addressed in the way they wanted them to be addressed.  Others became baffled as we spent hour after hour on procedural votes and policy debates while the fog of all that decline in numbers, in money, and in power hovered all around.  Why do we spend so much time, money, and energy on these statements and procedures which assume that someone beyond the convention center cares about anything we are doing? And why do we not spend that same time, money, and energy on work that would more obviously address all of that decline?  My own fears about the waste of this week are probably more with the folks who became baffled, but I share some of the frustration of the folks whose passionate hopes were not realized.

But in my own exhaustion and fear, this evening, I am remembering the flower bed in front of my house.  Last summer, I realized that the flower bed just wasn’t working.  The lantana had grown too close to the azaleas.  One of the clematis had died and I never replaced it, so the balance was a little off.  The daylillies barely hung on, mostly because I never really did anything with the soil before I threw them in the ground.  Crabgrass was everywhere.  And the shape of the bed was such that it was hard to mow the lawn in front of it.  As they say where I live, the whole thing was just a hot mess.

About the same time I realized the troubles of my flower bed, my wife announced that she wanted to take my son to spend a week with her parents.  I didn’t have vacation time, so I couldn’t go along.  But with them out of the house, I realized I could throw myself, morning and night, into my flower bed.  I worked hard that week.  Sunday afternoon, as soon as I got home from worship, I started tearing up the grass and weeds to draw new lines around my beds.  Monday, I put those pitiful daylillies in flower pots, headed to the big box (please don’t judge me) to buy some pine bark nuggets and manure, and started turning over the soil.  Tuesday, I dug some more; Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday had me working the soil, uprooting and re-planting azaleas, leveling trellises for the clematis, and lifting up valleys and making the mountains a smooth plain.  All of this work was done in the heat of a Georgia August, which is about the worst time to do such work, not only because of the distress the heat puts on the plants, but more significantly because of the distress the heat puts on the planter.  But by the time my beloved family came home on Sunday, I was all finished.

And it looked awful. The grass in front of the flower bed had been crushed and muddied.  The soil hadn’t settled, so the surface was uneven.  The wilted leaves of the plants were covered in dirt.  The daylillies had been hacked to stubs in the process of transplanting.  The new lantana, which I got on a good sale, was pitifully tiny, and there were big holes which could not be filled in until the plants which would go there could be purchased in the spring.  I was disappointed and frustrated.  It had not turned out like I wanted.  I feared I had wasted my time, money, and energy.

The metaphor is obvious at this point.  I felt about my flower bed project the way some of us feel about the General Assembly meeting.  And this is the part of the script when I am supposed to say that things in my flower bed got better over time:  the soil settled, the grass grew back, the perennials filled in, and the springtime brought not only a beautiful display of flowers, but a renewed joy for all of my hard work.

But it didn’t.  One of the azaleas didn’t make the transition well, which throws off the whole balance of the design.  I don’t think a single one of the daffodils bloomed.  The crepe myrtle will take years to get big enough for the space it is in.  And the lantana I got on that great sale fell victim to a late-February freeze which a more established plant would have survived.  There were some bright spots of beauty.  The daylillies were gorgeous this spring, blooming large and long, just like they were designed to do.  The clematis all came back, which was a pleasant surprise given their condition last fall, although the tops of the trellises their leaves and flowers are supposed to cover are still exposed for the whole world to see. But the bed as a whole still doesn’t look that great.

The comparison between the frustrations and fears that accompany the work we have done at General Assembly and the frustration of my work on the flower bed in my front yard does not have an unequivocally happy ending, at least not this side of the new heaven and new earth.  We spend our time, our money, and our energy doing work which is frustrating, disappointing, and baffling in its tedium and seeming waste.  Sometimes we have to wait for anything beautiful to happen.  Sometimes we have to realize the beauty we expect won’t ever come to pass.  Sometimes we have to look hard to see anything beautiful at all.

But I don’t give up.  I spread mulch this spring, and I keep on watering it all when it starts to wilt.  I replaced the lantana.  I am gently training the clematis to fill in their trellises.  And the dying azalea remains where it is, simply because I can’t figure out what on earth to do with it.

And I am going to keep working, patiently and expectantly, with the church.  I expect that some of the things I came here wanting to happen will happen in a couple years.  I know that invites a Comment from a Birmingham Jail; I understand that justice delayed is justice denied.  But there is not much to be done about it now; nothing is going to grow in that place.  I expect that some other things I want to see happen will happen sooner than that, but will happen in a different way:  through the actions of people I trust to cajole anything out of even the most barren soil.  And I will look for the beauty that does come from the work we did this past week, even if, in all my exhaustion, everything I can see around me right now looks wilted and dirty and awful.

Some things we did will have to be watered.  Some things will have to be replanted or rearranged.  In some places, mulch will have to be spread to smother the weeds and cover up the bare spots.  Some things will die, even things which seem essential to the whole design.  Some things will just sit there looking ugly because we don’t know what else to do with them.  That’s just the nature of the work we do in God’s front yard:  we plant, we water, we tend, we even design, but at some point we have to stand back and trust God to give the growth.