Tag Archive | God

My Sin and Pine Straw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Strawberries

IMG_5382When I was a kid, adults would ask me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  I never really knew how to answer.  At the time, that question made sense in American culture.  It was  the 1970s and 80s, when it was assumed that a person could decide on a single career for his or her life’s work.  The person could spend several years training for that career.  Then a person could plan to work in that single career, perhaps in a single company or institution, for decades, until his or her colleagues booked the banquet room at the local country club for his or her retirement party.

But I have never really been comfortable with those assumptions.  And I was not comfortable with the demands of the question of what I was going to be as a grownup.  I remember when I was 24 and filling out the forms which are the beginning point of a Presbyterian’s relationship with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry.  That committee ultimately makes a recommendation about the individual’s suitability to be ordained a minister.  There were questions on the forms, appropriately, about why I believed I was called to be a Presbyterian minister.  I answered the question; however, I was careful to be clear:  I believed that professional work as a pastor of a congregation was what I was called to next, but I was open to a variety of work to which I could be called later in life.  I don’t think that sat well with the members of the committee, and I believe that was part of the reason I had to spend the next eight months arguing with them that my sense of call was not, in fact, weak.  They were operating out of the assumptions which made sense in the culture but which didn’t fit well with me.

I have been thinking of these experiences as I have watched the wild strawberries in my side yard this summer.  The side yard on our lot is not very big; perhaps only about eight feet separate the wall of our garage and whatever remains of the split-rail fence along the property line which the previous owner put in.  Most of the posts in that fence have rotted in the seven years we have been here, and carpenter bees took up residence in the rails.  When we moved in, part of the fence supported a unique variety of climbing rose which blooms with miniature, deep red blossoms when it gets enough water.  The fence is only about four feet tall, so the immense rose bush had overwhelmed it and flopped itself all over the side yard, blocking the way with some wicked brambles worthy of a fairy tale.  That section of the fence around which the rose canes wound practically collapsed when I cut them back, dug up the roots, and moved the rose a few feet to grow up a more proper trellis.  The rest of the fence has followed suit in the ensuing years, so now there is only one section left, and it is about to fall over.

The rest of the side yard is still similarly wild.  Grass and weeds long ago overtook the path which was out there, so to maintain it, I run the mower every month or six weeks during the growing season.  I have to cut back my side of my neighbor’s immense hedge of unidentified bushes so they won’t block the path to my back-yard gate.  Her azaleas, cannas, Mexican petunias, and other spreading perennials would love to colonize my side yard, but the mower keeps them in check.  I have to pull some sort of rapidly-growing vine off of the brick exterior of the garage now and then, too, or my house would be covered in it.

Ever since last spring, though, right next to the three-foot-square concrete pad which welcomes visitors to the side door of the garage, little plants with broad, round leaves with serrated edges, have sprung up among the weeds and grass.  Right away, I was pretty sure I could identify the plants, and my suspicion was confirmed when tiny, white flowers began to appear.  Those flowers were followed by small berries which have ripened to an intensely red color.  They are wild strawberries, and they have done marvelously.  The berries are nothing to taste, but they have appeared consistently throughout the season in their attempts to supplement the runners sent out by the plants as they try to reproduce themselves.

Before I really noticed these wild interlopers, I never would have thought to plant strawberries in my side yard.  Who plants strawberries in such a place?  A side yard, particularly one so narrow, serves no function other than as a pass-through.  I only go there when I have to get something from the front yard to the back, or from the back yard to the front, that is not appropriately carried through the house.  Although my six-year-old son would probably find it amusing to watch Daddy drag the lawn mower, the bags of manure, or limbs trimmed off of the backyard magnolia through the living room and out the front door, I would rather not do so.  But the times when I have to haul such machinery, supplies, and trimmings back and forth are about the only times I go through the side yard.

Now, I have looked again at that side yard.  There is plenty of space out there for a strawberry bed.  It can come out three feet or more from the wall.  At one end, it can butt against the concrete pad by the side door, and it can run a good 10 feet and still leave enough room to store the hose I use to get water to the front beds and flower pots.  The neighborhood cats can patrol there, out of range of our dog who stays in the back yard, to discourage birds and squirrels.  Naturally, I won’t count on those tiny plants which produce small, tasteless fruit.  But their better-bred cousins which the nursery will stock next spring should thrive there because the conditions they grow in are similar to the conditions required by the wild plants.

As I make my plans, I have been thinking of that understanding of my vocation I was trying to communicate to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry sixteen years ago.  I have also been thinking about how God works.  I think God is like those wild strawberries.  God pokes up among the weeds and the grass in lots which we have long ago abandoned.  God emerges to tell us to look again and see possibilities we have not considered before.  God ripens to an intense red alongside paths that we thought could only function to get us from one place to another, practically directing us to stop, to put down the tools and the trimmings for a few minutes, and to pay attention.  Plant yourself here, God commands; the soil is rich and the sunlight is right and the water is plentiful enough and there is more than enough space.  You can bear good fruit here, God proclaims, if you will only allow yourself to do something you never thought you would do.

For now, I am convinced that I am called to the work I am currently doing.  But those wild strawberries remind me why I stick by my commitment to be open to new possibilities for my work and life in the future.  And I hope that I can help my son to be faithful if he feels a similar discomfort with that probing question:  “What are you going to be when you grow up?”  Mostly, I look forward to this fall and winter, when I will clear a space in my side yard, define it with some edging, add some manure to enrich the soil, cover it with newspaper and pine straw to smother the weeds, and prepare to bring home that flat of strawberry plants next spring.  Because I have heard the message of the wild strawberries:  you can bear good fruit in unexpected places if only you open yourself to the possibilities.


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.

Creating Ugliness

Last Friday, I finally got a chance to work on the new flower bed I have planned for the area around the bird bath in the back yard.  I had started the project in June, but after clearing just half of the area, the summer heat got to me, and I had to come inside and take a cool shower.  The area was clearly a tended flower bed before.  Soon after we moved into our home, I “borrowed” some yellow lantana from that area and planted it in the front of the house.  It flourished there until it was so big that it would block the windows by this time of year.  I finally dug it up last summer when I rearranged that bed, and it was clear that I could not salvage it to re-plant it elsewhere.  For several years, a caladium would shoot a few leaves out of the dirt near that area around the bird bath, too, trimmed in green, with white backgrounds stippled with red and pink spots.  As I began clearing out that area in June, I dug out some variegated vines which I have seen in the groundcover section of our local nurseries and put them in pots, planning to use them in the final arrangement of the bed.  Unfortunately, most of those fell victim to the heat of the summer and some long stretches when the sprinkler system was turned off, but a couple survived, and there are new, young shoots coming up from the base of the long stems.  A daylily remains where I carefully dug around it, trying not to destroy it with my shovel.  And as I dug the other day, I unearthed a number of those white tags which nurseries use to identify plants, so I know that someone planted petunias, pansies, snapdragons, and other annuals back there in the past.

But most of what I was looking at around the bird bath was weeds.  I have watched over the past several years as whatever variety of creeping fern we have among the trees along the back fence have gradually moved their way into that space around the bird bath.  English ivy and confederate jasmine intermingled there, creating an interesting mix of cultures probably not seen around here since before the “War of Northern Aggression.”  A couple of palmettos have stuck their leaves high in the air in front and alongside the bird bath in recent years, and last fall, after my wife insisted it was simply a weed in the wrong place, I finally broke out the saw to cut down a pine tree which grew there for three or four years.  Dollar weed spread through that area and into the grass, creeping its way from that source year by year on its quest to stretch from one end of the lawn to the other.  Even the once-neat liriope trimming a semi-circular border to the bed has gone a bit wild, spreading wide in some places and filled with a variety of species in almost every place.  And I won’t mention the prickly things.

I decided the best way to deal with the whole thing was not to try to pull up what was there, but to simply kill the mess of plants by turning it all over.  I dug up the old tangle of roots and vines, rhythmically sticking my shovel in the ground with a complete disregard for what I was chopping apart in the process, then twisting the handle to reveal the brown dirt.  As I went, though, I realized that what I was creating was really ugly.  The dirt was uneven.  Dismembered stems and severed ends of  fern fronds and jasmine branches littered the area.  Webs of fine roots which once fed heaven-knows-what kind of invasive vine were sticking up in the air, suffocating like so many fish out of water.  My sneakers trampled flat the plants which grew where I had not yet stuck my shovel.  In a word, it was just ugly.

Nonetheless, I started to feel a unique connection with God that I think one can only feel when one has taken on the task of being creative with mud and plant matter.  The Bible has great stories about the creation that happened in a beautiful garden, about God’s acts of making creatures out of water and mud and a little gust of wind.  Logic would tell us that God must have made that garden to begin with, too, so God must have shared that experience of revealing brown dirt as a blank canvas.

I wondered:  does God have to create ugliness before God creates beauty, too?  Much of what is beautiful in life and in the world has gone through its times of ugliness.  Naturalists will tell us that most of the beautiful places in the world have at one time or another been leveled by fires, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides, or ice flows, and we can imagine that those world-changing “disasters” left some ashen, muddy ugliness behind before the mountains and lakes and forests and fields filled the space again.  The best forms of natural fertilizer smell nothing other than nasty before they let their nutrients dissipate into the soil to be used by beautiful flowers and useful fruits.  And what about the beauty God creates in human lives?  Sex has a bit of a mess to it, pregnancy is not pretty, and as much as some want to romanticize it, much of the process of giving birth is just plain ugly.  But the baby who comes out on the other side of it all is usually pretty darn cute, and every life that is made through that process has an intrinsic beauty to it.  As parents, we were told to endure the discomfort of early sicknesses, and the corresponding unpleasantness of the snot and “thin stool,” because they will build a strong immune system in our little boy.  The most treasured relationships in my life have been through times of conflict, distance, and strain, before my life and the lives of the people involved in them were so beautifully intertwined.  Death is not pretty, whether it is literal or figurative, but without it we can’t experience the promise of resurrection.  And I wouldn’t wish the pain of grief on anyone, but I also can testify that people often come out on the other side with a deeper ability to love, a greater freedom to enjoy, or a more profound appreciation of the beauty of life.

So does God create ugliness in order to bring beauty?  I am not willing to surrender to a platitude that simple; I will leave it to theologians more sophisticated than I am to debate the finer logic of the questions of the source of suffering.  But my reflections on the ugliness I was creating made the routine of sticking the shovel in the ground and turning over each pile of dirt more interesting.  I found hope in my wondering:  as the area I worked was becoming more ugly, I knew I was participating in only a transitional phase in a larger process, and there will not be a permanent scar on my landscape.

When I finished turning over the dirt and the weeds, I had run out of time to work on such things for that day.  I quickly pulled and pushed my rake across the patch of earth, trying my best to level it a bit before taking my tools back to the shed and heading in to shower and change.  Later this month, I will dig in some pine bark and manure, strengthen the base of the bird bath with rocks and sand, better define the back edge of the bed with a thick board salvaged from an old fence, tidy the liriope border, and cover the mess with newspaper and finally pine straw so the weeds will not come back.  Then next spring, I can have some fun at the nursery, choosing flowers and plants whose roots will make their home in that ugly dirt as the mud and water and even the wind work together for the beauty I know I can expect.