In my line of work, I read and hear a lot about the church’s decline and what we ought to do about it. But as I sat outside in the chilly air last night, I began to wonder if instead we can take a lesson from what happens in the garden in Spring.
Poets, balladeers, and greeting card writers talk about Spring as the season when flowers are in bloom, leaves are on the trees, and the grass is green. But that is not the way I experience Spring in my garden. Spring is the season when I am anxious for all of that beauty to be fully manifest. And it is also the season when I am reminded daily that the beauty I want so desperately is not, in fact, manifest, at least not yet.
I want new leaves and branches and buds to appear on my hibiscus, assuring me that they have survived a particularly cold winter and will glare again with their flashy yellows, oranges, pinks, and fuchsias. But all I see are stubby, brown sticks with a couple of tiny, vulnerable green leaves around the bottom. I want the calla lilies to stick their points out of the ground so I know that soon they will unfurl their verdant swords and, later, their cups of pink and yellow and, if everything went well with the ones I just planted last year, orange and purple and white. But only one has a few thin sticks pointing out, and the rest are nowhere to be found. I want to know if the hosta I transplanted last fall made it through the winter, but to find out, I would have to dig under the pine straw and an inch or so of dirt to see if the roots are still there. Even the cannas, which shot their first variegated leaves above the surface of the dirt a month or more ago seem stuck. Each one has only one leaf showing, and I worry that at any time that one leaf will whither and rot, rather than pushing a tower above it on top of which will be the orange floozies to animate the front yard.
Everything in my yard seems stuck this time of year. I am anxious for the plants to be grown and the flowers to be in bloom, but they aren’t ready yet. They are starting to come back, but when it comes at all, their growth is in fits and starts, depending on the temperature of the nights and the brightness of the days.
In past spring seasons, I have let my impatience get the best of me and gone digging around in the dirt, looking for some assurance that my vegetation will, in fact, grow and bloom. I have poked at roots. I have fingered sprouting leaves. I have even stuck my trowel into the soil surrounding rhizomes and tubers. I have told myself I do this poking, fingering, and sticking because it is what the experts say I should do: loosening dirt, pulling away last year’s decaying leaves, opening the plants to fresh gusts of air. But really, I have simply been looking for assurances that my garden beds have a future, and more often than not, I have 0nly damaged the tiny, vulnerable, thin, singular signs of growth which have already appeared.
As I was outside this evening, I thought about my anxiety and impatience in this season. And I thought, too, about the church and the logic of some folks in it. The world has changed and continues to change rapidly. Everyone knows that. And the church has to change, too, the logic goes, at least as rapidly as the world, if not more rapidly. If the church does not change rapidly, then it will not have a future. I get that logic. I don’t disagree that we have to adapt to a new world. I want the church to embrace new ways of communicating, to build relationships with new residents of our community, to meet new needs which appear on our doorsteps, and to wrap our minds as well as we can around new ways of understanding human beings and our institutions.
But I see and hear a lot of anxiety and impatience among some church folks which mirrors my anxiety and impatience at the flora in my garden. That impatience and anxiety compels those folks to start digging around, poking at the roots, fingering the sprouting leaves, and sticking sharp instruments into the soil.
And I cringe. Because if we poke in the wrong places, if we press too hard on fragile things, if we disturb soil that has to remain solid right now, then we will do more damage than good. In the name of loosening things up, we will tear things apart. In the interest of pulling away decay, we will remove some powerful fertilizer. As we try to open the church to fresh gusts of air, we will make everything vulnerable to an untimely, hard freeze.
Maybe the best way to lead the church in adapting to a new world is not to poke and press and stick sharp objects in. Instead, maybe the best thing we can do is to simply notice what is happening in the natural order of the seasons with which God has always blessed the world. And when we see new growth, maybe all we need to do is look at it and point it out to others: to appreciate its beauty, to thank God for the hope it represents, but to tread cautiously lest we destroy it before it has a chance to develop fully. There will be time later to fill in the gaps, to put trellises where they need to be, to train and shape the stems, and to prune the branches that don’t bear fruit. But for now, early in this new season, we might need to hone the spiritual gifts of seeing, of wonder, of gentleness, and of patience, even as we perceive the rapid changes to the temperature and light.
I think there is a reason the early church named this season before Good Friday and Easter after the season of Spring. In the liturgical world, Lent is the 40 days (not including the six Sundays) before the celebrations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Festival of Easter. But the word “lent” really just means Spring in older forms of English (the Old English version is “lencten”). And that make sense to me because Spring is not the time when new life has been fully manifest. The flowers are in their full glory, the leaves are filling the trees, and the grass is most verdant in Summer. New life has been fully manifest only in the time of Easter; the time of Lent, or Spring, is a time for seeing, for wonder, for grace, and for patience.