Tag Archive | Vision

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.

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Bent Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you pray with me?

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

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

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

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

Eviction: A Little Story of Race and Power

IMG_3069 (800x532)In my first job out of college, I learned who needs to be present to evict someone in the state of Oregon:  a representative of the property owner, a sheriff’s deputy, and a locksmith.  I worked for a non-profit community development organization in inner Northeast Portland which had grown out of a local neighborhood association.  The group wanted to fight blight in their neighborhood as well as preserve the diversity of the community, particularly in terms of race, culture, and social class, as they were starting to see the potential threat of gentrification.  So, part of their strategy was to acquire, renovate, and manage housing at rents that would be affordable for people with low incomes.

About the time I started working there, the organization purchased a building at Northeast 20th and Alberta Streets that had four one-bedroom units.  When we bought the building, one of the units was occupied by a woman who had been a problem for the neighbors.  She had a long police record for using and dealing  illegal drugs in her apartment.  The neighbors complained that there were visitors and noise at all hours, and based on the noise and activity, they suspected that drug dealing was not the only illegal activity going on there.  She had several family members living with her in the one-bedroom unit, which was a violation of the lease.  And she hadn’t paid her rent in several months.  So, as the new property owners, and as an organization whose mission was to improve the neighborhood for the sake of everyone in the community, it fell to us to evict her.

The eviction was scheduled for a Friday afternoon.  That particular Friday afternoon, everyone in the office was going to busy.  The director, who was my boss and had been through this process before, was not available because she had another meeting.  The woman in charge of acquiring and renovating properties did not work on Fridays; neither did the woman who ran our program for women who had graduated from addiction recovery programs.  The bookkeeper wasn’t even available.  So I agreed to be the representative of the property owners at the eviction.

The notices for the eviction went out according to the law.  They had to be delivered in every possible way well in advance of the date to give the tenant a chance to either resolve the issues which were leading to eviction or move out.  Usually, such notices made the situation easy:  when the necessary parties showed up, the apartment was empty.  Then, the sheriff posted their notice, the locksmith changed the lock, and the representative of the property owner handed out the checks and collected the new keys.  But that was not the case that day.  Instead, the woman who was being evicted was still there along with a couple of her friends and several of their children.  She was running around yelling at people as she and the others were frantically tossing clothes, furniture, toys, household items, and other contents of the apartment off of her second-floor balcony into the front yard.  It was quite the sight; it looked like Oliver Twist was going to poke his shy little head around the corner at any moment.  I pulled up and waited in my car for the others to arrive, already feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole situation.

And as the others arrived, though, I became more and more uncomfortable.  The locksmith came up in a pickup, and I saw that he was a white man, like myself.  Then the sheriff’s deputies arrived, two of them, and they were also both beefy, young, white men.  And everyone else there, the woman being evicted as well as her friends and their children, was black.  As our crew of four white men walked up the sidewalk, climbed the stairs, and did our work, my apprehension turned to a horrible, icky feeling.

On one hand, everything going on at the property at NE 20th and Alberta Streets that day was right.  Not only were we following the law, we were doing so in the interest of the whole community.  We were helping the neighborhood, with all the diversity of its residents, accomplish its vision for itself:  a place that was safe and comfortable for all of the people who called that place home.  The problem was not with what we were doing.

The problem was with the way we did it:  four white men, who were agents of the people in power in the situation, invaded a space occupied by black women and children, who had no power in the situation.  The scene evoked the long history of white oppression of blacks in the United States.  The scene reified the stereotypes many people have of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in this country.  The scene played out the fantasies of many people who, explicitly or implicitly, would be just as happy if “those people” were not in their community.  The scene illustrated the truth that the systems under which we all live do not treat people equally, and the scene did not provide a vision for how things could be done differently.  The scene was all wrong, even if everything we were doing was right.

I have been thinking about the scene of the eviction that day as I have watched the news in the past week.  I am not an attorney, and I have not read all of the evidence presented to the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri.  People I trust know more about the laws and the evidence than I do, and based on what they have said in the past few days, I am less and less convinced that the evidence was so inadequate that they could not at least have a trial for Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown (this is one of the better interviews on the topic I have seen).  But even in the days after the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision, when I still wondered if it was possible that the grand jury was right, I got that same feeling that I had that day almost 20 years ago at the scene of the eviction. I don’t know if the grand jury was right, but nonetheless, there is plenty wrong with the whole scene.

What would have made the scene of the eviction better?  I went back to my boss the following Monday and told her that, at the very least, we needed to work harder to make sure the people present at the eviction represented the local community.  We did not have any control over which deputies the sheriff’s office would send to an eviction, but the scene would have been better if they represented the diversity of the community they were serving.  We could do business with a locksmith who did not look like me.  But mostly, my boss and I agreed, I did not need to be a part of any more evictions, not because I was unwilling to do work that was uncomfortable, but because, as a white man, I did not need to be in that scene, at least not by myself, because my presence did not support a vision for how things could be done better.

Two Hummingbirds

IMG_7167 (2) (800x534)There are two hummingbirds who have been nourishing themselves on the feeder outside my living room window in the past few weeks.  One is absolutely gorgeous.  The ruby of his throat is a deep, vibrant, fire-engine jewel tone.  The green on his wings and his back match the red in its tone.  He is a little bit smaller than the other one, as if his colors are made more intense by concentration.  It seems like every time I look out the window, he is zipping around the feeder.  First he sticks his beak into the hole in the middle of one of the small, aluminum flower petals, reaching his proboscis all the way down to the sugar-water in the dish which is secured underneath the hole.  Then, he jumps back and hovers in the air for a minute as if he has to let the sweet lubricant settle into the deepest part of his being before finding his way to another of the aluminum-petaled flowers.  I am reluctant to tell him that each flower leads to the same reservoir of sweetness; I guess he will figure out the physics of it all on his own if it becomes important to him.  Sometimes he rests his wings for a minute as he drinks; most of the time, though, he remains suspended in air, using some of that intense, sugar-fueled energy even as he sucks it into his tiny body.

I would love to get a photograph of him.  If I could get the light just right, his ruby throat and his emerald back and even his pearly belly and face would practically glow.  So every time I see him taking a meal, I quickly pull out the camera and quietly head outside.  But immediately, as soon as he sees me or hears me or uses whatever sense he uses to perceive my presence, he flies away.  It does not matter how quietly I open and close the door, or how slowly I put the view finder on the camera to my eye, or how steadily, almost imperceptibly, I step around the corner to get a clear shot.  He will not stick around long enough for me to take his photo.  And he refuses to return as long as I sit there.  I can pull out my folding canvas chair, prop my camera on my lap, and sit still for what seems like hours.  Something has told him to be afraid of me, and he will not return.

But as I sit there on my patio, I am frequently able to see the other hummingbird which hangs around my feeder.  She is much, much friendlier than the other one.  She might wait for a few minutes to let me settle in, but then I hear her buzzing vibrations in the air, and she comes flitting about the feeder.  Like the other, she goes from this aluminum-petal-framed hole to that one, stopping between sips to let her meal settle a bit, sometimes resting on the edge of the feeder and sometimes continuing to let her wings beat as she takes her high-calorie nourishment.  While she sometimes prefers to drink from the hole on the opposite side of the feeder from where I sit, she will almost always spend at least some time on my side, with a clear view from my camera.  She even helpfully steps back from the feeder for a second or two so the auto-focus on the camera can capture her, rather than the feeder itself, making the photos come out much more clear.  She is the one in the photo above.

There is only one problem: this hummingbird is nowhere near as beautiful as the other one.  She doesn’t have much of a ruby throat; only one, small patch on her throat is red at all, and it lacks the vibrancy of the others.  It is a bit off-center, too, making it look more like a blemish than a feature of her complexion.  And the green on her back is a bit dull, too; it is more of a brown, really, and even the white of her chest and head seems to have a grayish tint.  So I find myself greeting her kindly, but not moving as eagerly to take her photograph.  She’s nice and all, but what I really want to capture in my lens is the other, more beautiful one.

It is hard for me to even admit this.  To say this publicly requires to admit just how shallow I am.  I assign a greater value to the more attractive one.  And I easily dismiss the other, less attractive one as friendly enough, but not really worthy of my best photographic attention.  Why do I do this to myself?  Is it simply because I put too much value on the judgements of others?  If I could just get a photograph of the prettier bird, people would want to look at my photograph; they would place a greater value on the product I produce, and maybe even a greater value on me, too.  Is it that kind of pride?  Or is it something else?  Is it some primal impulse within me that I cannot control?  Is it because I am naturally drawn to the more attractive one, as if anything that is stronger or prettier will help me to conceive a more attractive offspring, who will be more likely to find his or her own mate and carry my genetic material well into the future?  Is this some kind of survival of the fittest instinct, spilling all over my backyard?

Or am I really just a shallow person?

Why am I unable to look at even something as inconsequential as my hummingbird feeder and avoid getting swept up into the myth of beauty?  Why am I incapable of turning off my evaluation of physical features, even if just for a moment of lounging in my backyard?  Why does it seem like I can only direct my viewfinder toward that which is most vivacious, most sexy, most bold in its beauty?  Why do I judge like that?

I’ve been working my way through Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now:  Living in the Spirit.  It is one of those books of short pieces which you have to read slowly and savor or you will become quickly overwhelmed with introspection. In one short essay entitled “The Burden of Judgement,” Nouwen cites anonymous fourth-century desert fathers, who simply and truthfully pointed out that “‘judging others is a heavy burden.'”  And Nouwen invites the reader to imagine “having no need at all to judge anybody.”  “Wouldn’t that be true inner freedom?” he asks (p. 60).

And I realize as I imagine that I long for that freedom.  I don’t know the origin of it, but I have heard of a greeting that is shared by some Christians that goes, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.”  It’s a bit of an awkward phrase, but it acknowledges that something deep inside of each of us bears the image of God.  If I could overcome the impulse to judge; if I could look past the shallow evaluations of appearances; if I could cease putting one person or one creature beside another, or putting all creatures beside myself, in order to point out the flaws in each one, then I would be free of something which, now that the desert fathers mention it, really does feel like a heavy burden.  That freedom would open my soul to receive every person, every creature, as a unique gift which bears a reflection of nothing less than God.

I sat on my patio for almost an hour this afternoon, simply reading a magazine and enjoying what was going on around me.  With an almost-seven-year-old boy in the house, I don’t get a chance to sit like that very often; I even had to spend some of the time ignoring the scratches of our resident chocolate lab on the back door.  As I sat, I saw all kinds of beauty around me.  Blue jays flew in and out of the trees.  A young squirrel perched on a branch of the dying oak by the fence.  First one tufted titmouse, and then another, came along to get an afternoon snack on the bird feeder.  Then, a brilliant cardinal wanted a turn, but he was chased away by some other bird.  And I saw my friends the hummingbirds.  The more outgoing one took her turn on the feeder and went to a tree branch to watch for a while.  A little while later, two others flew in over the roof from the front yard, but the strangers couldn’t even make it to the aluminum-petaled flowers before the other two swooped out of the trees and chased them away.  The whole time I was out there, it was difficult for me to resist the urge to go inside and get my camera.  But because I resisted the urge, I didn’t gaze at what was going on around me through the lens of my own judgements.  I didn’t have to decide which of the creatures I was watching was more beautiful than the others.  I could simply enjoy them all, each one filled with its own reflection of the beauty of its Creator.

I felt so free that the Christ in me almost sang a doxology:  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

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.

Fear

One of the things that surprises me about the campaign season which just passed is the amount of fear that was revealed.  In many ways, it is a political candidate’s job to highlight our fears.  Fear is very persuasive; if a candidate can get us to fear the other person, then we have a powerful motivation to vote for that candidate.  With enough fear, we might even be willing to overlook the candidate’s mistakes, inconsistencies, and disconnect from our own values and visions.

And it seems that it was not hard for this year’s candidates to get us to be afraid.  Based on the conversations I had and comments I saw, people are afraid.  People are afraid of taxes and people are afraid of deficits.  People are afraid of military action and people are afraid of military inaction.  People are afraid of gun control and people are afraid of guns.  People are afraid of the heath care system and people are afraid of having no health care at all.  People are afraid of change and people are afraid that things will never change.  People are afraid of the wealthy and people are afraid of the poor.  People are afraid of immigrants and people are afraid of hipster urbanites and people are afraid of country folk and people are afraid of the well-educated and people are afraid of the not-so-well-educated and people are afraid of black folks and white folks and gay folks and straight folks and all other manner of folks.  People are even afraid of communism; I thought we stopped fearing the communists twenty years ago, but I guess I was wrong.

This level of fear fascinates me.  It is not normal.  Most of the time, most people I know do not allow those kinds of fear to motivate them.  People I know have faced really scary times:  illnesses, job losses, divorces, the death of loved ones, the kinds of situations that make a person feel like the floor has dropped out from under them.  They have faced those situations with amazing courage, hope, trust, and faith.  But when the campaign was on everyone’s minds, those same people were decrying the damage that would be done by the other candidate if he was elected.  These people who have been through so much allowed pictures to form in their minds of mass poverty, of anarchy, of oppression, and of all manner of other world-ending forces of evil.  O.k., so maybe I exaggerate.  But I am struck by the ways that courage, hope, trust, and even faith were so easily pushed aside in the sweep of the campaigns.

As a gardener, I have had days when I have looked at the future and seen it as bleak.  I remember when I was getting ready to get married.  My soon-to-be-wife and I had shared a particularly joyful time as we began dating which involved Black-Eyed Susans.  So, she wanted them to be featured prominently in the bouquets of flowers carried by our attendants.  The problem was that Black-Eyed Susans were not available from any florist; they are considered by that industry to be wild flowers, and therefore beneath the dignity of such professionals.  But I was a gardener, albeit a bit of a newbie, and Black-Eyed Susans would be in season around the time of the Big Day, so why not get them from a nursery and grow them myself?

About a week before the wedding, we found some beautiful plants, full of blooms, at a local nursery.  We bought four of the plants, giving us way more flowers than we would ever need.  I brought them home, planted them at various places throughout my yard, watered them, and cooed at my bride about what a beautiful wedding it would be.

Two days later, though, I checked on the plants, and they were a wilted disaster.  The leaves drooped.  The flowers bent and sagged.  The whole mess was starting to lose its colors. I was devastated and afraid. I was afraid that the wedding would be ruined.  I was afraid that my bride would have to carry grocery-store carnations with shame on her face.  I was afraid that my marriage was over before it even began.

I don’t want to trivialize the fears people expressed in the weeks leading up to the election.  I am a gardener, not a farmer; I work the land from my place of privilege, not from a need to feed my family.  Therefore, my fears about the health of my flowers compare not at all to the fears of people who honestly believe their security and livelihood is in jeopardy, except in one way.  As a gardener, I have come to learn that no matter how many things I do the wrong way, and no matter how many times I fail to do things the right way, and no matter how many times things don’t go my way, none of it will prevent beauty from blooming in the world.

The fact is that the president just isn’t that powerful.  Congress isn’t that powerful.  Beauty and generosity and compassion and grace will bloom and grow no matter what party has persuaded the most people to check its boxes in the voting booth.  As a Christian, I believe the world was created in beauty and generosity, the world was saved with compassion and grace, and the world will end in the same ways, too.  But the fear which the candidates stirred up in us to get our votes will prevent us from seeing that beauty or generosity or compassion or grace.  Fear distracts us, and makes us forgetful, and clouds our vision.  Such things can only be seen with hope, trust, faith, and even courage that has helped us overcome fear before.

I warily told my fiancee about the Black-Eyed Susan debacle, and it turns out she is not shallow.  She assured me everything would be just fine because, no matter what else, we were getting married.  And then, I drenched the droopy plants with water, and a little while later, they were as perky and bright as ever.  It seems that Black-Eyed Susans are notoriously unhappy when they are transplanted.  Their roots take a while to overcome the shock of being disturbed and adjust to their new location.  In the mean time, they have to be watered well, and eventually, they will be just fine.  After a week of daily watering, my friend Marc and I went out early on the morning of my wedding day, cut the stems of glowing flowers at the base, put them in pitchers of water, and delivered them to the church building, where I knew my bride and her friends would find them and arrange them into bouquets worthy of the joy of the occasion.