Thursday, October 13, 2016

Meditations on Plants and Gardening

Recently I left my job, so I've had some time to tend to my gardens. Here are some parables that came to me as I trimmed, weeded, and planted.

Part I
The Violent Seize It by Force
Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16

As a person who loves plants, I often wait to see what a volunteer seedling will turn into before I consider it a weed. As a result, I have volunteer evening primroses in my flower bed. They provide a spot of pale yellow and the deer prefer them to the plants I deliberately included. Now I like them so much that it distresses me to see them bitten off by my neighborhood herbivores.

However, the most persistent volunteer is a common hawthorn that I did not plant and is not in a place where I want it.  We have cut it back for twenty years with the result that it is bushier and hardier than ever. I suspect that the only way to get rid of it is to dig it up completely or to poison it.  But I just don’t hate it that much. And at this time of year, August, the hawthorn provides a lovely spot of color with its red berries that feed the birds. 

I also meditate as I’m trimming this thorny bush. I think about the vital force that the hawthorn has put into persisting as part of my landscaping. I think about what it adds to the beauty of my yard and how it feeds birds. I think also of a parable about the kingdom of God and those who are forcing their way in, even to the discomfort of local gardeners. Why not appreciate the energy and vitality of their search for God? It’s clear that they are responding to the good news Jesus came to share and be for us. 

In my home denomination, we have spent so much energy trying to prevent the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in our churches, and we set limits on their freedom to listen to Jesus themselves and obey what Jesus tells them and contribute the gifts Jesus has given them to our congregations. Maybe our energy is better spent on our own seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s rightness and justice rather than protecting our space and justifying ourselves.

Part II
Pruning and Shaping
Hebrews 12:6; John 15:2

So, given that this hawthorn has violently forced its way into the kingdom of my plants, and it will not go away, what am I doing? I’m trimming it and shaping it. I mutter to it, “Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth,” and “If you’re going to stay, you can’t grow any old way you please, particularly into the roses.”

It takes some finesse to trim up a thorny plant like roses and hawthorns. I need long sleeves, gloves, long-handled pruners, and clippers.  I need to move slowly and cut judiciously and quickly.  I need my pruners and clippers to be sharp. I need not to slip on the hillside and fall into the bush. I need to know something about how pruning affects the plant’s growth. 

Today I did research into how to help a hawthorn look its best. I found out I need to cut out suckers that grow up from the bottom.  So I went in after them.

We’ve mistreated this hawthorn so much by severe pruning that it has sent up numerous suckers in order to survive. I decided that anything less than one-half inch diameter could come out. To my surprise, these stems were very hard to cut through. It seemed possible my bicep might be the thing to tear. Additionally, pulling out the cuttings required a firm but gentle grip—firm because they were tangled in with the other branches, gentle because, well, long sharp thorns. With all my care, I walked away with one or two new puncture wounds. But the hawthorn looks so much better.

I see a parable here in the harm the inexperienced or thoughtless gardener can do with clippers and pruners. We turned a potentially lovely, airy, flowering tree with three lovely seasons into an unwanted pest partly by never bothering to find out what it is in itself and how best to help it be beautiful.

How often do I look at others and wish they would give up trying to be part of my “landscaping,” my church? They cause me pain, and they intrude on my space. They don’t fit in with how I thought the church should be. But they also won’t go away, despite my lack of welcome. What if I get to know them so that I can see how best to welcome them, how to make space for the gifts they bring, how to help them fit in without destroying who they are? What if I decide I'm willing to suffer a little so they can experience God's freedom?

Part III 
The Wayward Rose Bush
Luke 15:11-32 “It is fitting that we should be merry and glad; for your own brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and now is found.”

Besides the hawthorn, another volunteer is a rose. Its parent plant is above a cinder block rock wall. I think the parent chose to send up a shoot—a scion—at the bottom of the wall, right by the water tap where the hose connects.  I love it because it has beautiful blooms. My husband wants to destroy it because “it thrashed his arm” while he was getting out the hose. We are presently compromising by cutting it away from the hose. I fear if we attack it aggressively, we will kill the bush above, which is attached to it by its roots.

But I might be wrong. So I asked an expert, my friend Phil, and he confirmed my fears. Killing the offshoot might kill the parent plant as well.

I see a parable here. Children in Christian families often grow up to share some values and reject other values their parents have. Parents can find this wounding, and churches can be offended and even blame the parents. I remember when I was a young “elder” and an old saint was complaining about young people not being brought up to follow a particular taboo. I said, “My parents brought me up with that taboo, and I’ve never shared their belief about it.” She may have been offended at my brashness, but she didn’t cut me off from relationship with her or the church. If she had pushed for this punishment, she might have lost my parents also. I’ve seen such things happen.

Even more tragic, I see parents confused between establishing boundaries for relationship and seriously damaging relationship with their own children when their child rejects their values. How can parents and children trim back the thorny branches so they don’t “thrash” our hearts without causing deeply felt estrangement between parent and child?

Perhaps looking for and affirming “that of God”—the equivalent of blossoms—in each other can help. Parents bear the greater responsibility to speak healing and affirmation to their children for those unique gifts each child brings into our world. And children can also initiate loving affirmation for the many good things they inherit from their parents. We need both generations to flourish for each to be healthy.

Part IV
Artificial Scarcity and God's Love
“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

When I first began cooking, I used spices and herbs bought at the grocery store in small glass bottles for large prices. I did not know any other way, and I assumed, because of the packaging, that scarcity dominated the spice and herb world.

Then one day, my husband brought home five pounds of cinnamon and five pounds of nutmeg.  Such a lot of spice! My concept of spices and herbs began to include the idea of abundance (and as a side note, of artificially enforced scarcity.) Now, 30 years later, we still have nutmeg from that original purchase, though we ate our way through the cinnamon years ago. I blame cinnamon toast.

Today, I have many herbs growing in my garden. Most spectacular is an oregano plant that resists drought, winters over, hosts bees in the late summer and produces enough oregano to flavor the sauces of 10 to 20 cooks. I have parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I have lemon grass, basil, marjoram, summer savory, and fennel. Some of these are perennial, some are annual. All produce far more than I can use. I even discovered that when my cilantro seeds out, I can harvest cardamom, an actual spice.

I see a parable here of the evolution of my understanding of the love of God. When I was a child, I saw the love of God as scarce and expensive, something I had to work hard to earn. I began to be aware that the scarcity was artificial, perhaps even promoted as a way to shape and control my behavior. Now I find through experience and belief that the love of God is abundant, that it just needs a heart ready to let it plant itself, and God will produce enough love to satisfy an individual and even pour out over an entire village.

Part V
The Diverse Mint Family
John 10:16, Matthew 12:41-42, 50

I celebrate today the many plants I love that belong to the mint family.  The Lamiaceae  (according to Wikipedia) are “a family of flowering plants…frequently aromatic in all parts and include…basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, hyssop, thyme, lavender and perilla.” Family members can be found all over the plant-supporting globe. Many are grown to eat or drink, some for beauty, some for repelling deer and other plant-eaters.  Salvia and dead-nettle are in this family. They characteristically, though not universally, have square stems, and their leaves are in opposing pairs, each pair at right angle to the one above or below. 

When I breathe in the scent of my salvia plants, I feel a deep sense of pleasure. I say to the plant, “Thank you for smelling so wonderful.” When I water my mint, oregano and sage plants, I enjoy their aromas. I love the strong mint tea I bought at the souk in Tunisia, and I’m fond of “curiously strong mints.”

I cannot believe how many members there are in this family, how tenacious they often are of life, and how they send out runners underground and seeds overground to ensure their persistence.  Lemon balm has invaded my yard. It propagates very successfully and will crowd other plants out, so I pull it up, but I can never pull it all up.

The parable that comes here relates to the wide variety of the individuals and worshiping communities and denominations that make up the church universal. Unbelievably, the gospel propagates itself both underground and above ground, through root—families of faith—and through seed—converts who hear and give heart space for the gospel to sprout and grow. The sweet scents, lovely blooms that feed the bees, and the multiplicity of usefulnesses for human beings are an aspirational analogy to us as individuals and congregations. Do we make our communities more beautiful, more livable, more equitable for our neighbors? Do we soothe their pains, sweeten their existence, and spice up their days?

To paraphrase Jesus’s parable about sheep, “Other mint varieties I have that you have never heard of or did not recognize. These also fulfill God’s will for the mint family, and will add beauty and pleasure and healing to your lives.”

Part VI
Sedums and Gifts
Genesis 3:8, Psalm 91:1-4, Matt. 23:37

Someone I didn’t know very well lived with my husband and me for a number of months. He was shy, quiet, and well-behaved, and we didn’t do a good job of getting to know him. Years later, I discovered that he went hungry in my house because he was in his 20s and we were in our 50s, and we were eating salads and other light meals in a vain effort to lose weight. He had that miraculous metabolism that can eat an entire calf. I am still embarrassed at my lack of perceptiveness.

He also loves plants, and he planted some that are still here a decade later. A group of fall-flowering sedums has survived an enormous amount of neglect and drought to bring forth lovely flowers right on time.  So today, in late September, I weeded them.  I’d like to actually see the blooms.  And I’m watering them as we are in our dry season. I hope they don’t die of shock.

There are several parables here. First, pay attention to those in my orbit and under my care. What do they actually need? It is probably not identical to what I need. Perhaps asking them if they have enough to eat, literally or figuratively, is a good place to start.

Second, care for the relationship. Even if it survives on benign neglect, it is in my own best interest to keep it healthy and to let the other person’s virtues shine in it. If I let it be smothered or even just kept invisible by my neglect, I have no one to blame but myself if I miss its beauty.

Third, do not ignore or disparage the gift someone brings. Even if I didn’t ask for it, it represents an effort to be friends. (At the same time, gifts are not quid pro quo. That’s more of a trade and should be negotiated openly.) And when I give a gift, I need to give it cheerfully and without strings attached.

Sometimes we neither bother to get to know what God really wants from us, nor do we value the gifts, particularly the grace-filled love, that God has given us. We might do well to take a little time to listen and to weed out the things we have let grow that make it hard to see the beauty of God.

Part VII Caring for Plants with Thorns
Isaiah 53:5 "He was wounded for our transgressions."

As you can see, I love roses. They need clipping. I love berries that grow on spiny vines. They need pruning and tying up to wires. I love my horse who gets burdock burs in her mane and tail.  I have to work them out without pulling out all her hair. My life is filled with, wait for it, thorny problems.

Once I trimmed my berries or my roses, wearing gloves of course. A day later, my wrists and fingers ached, sort of like arthritis. I discovered then that I am allergic to thorns, that they are just a little poisonous to me. The medical term is “plant thorn arthritis.” I went after each with needle and tweezers and then a little rubbing alcohol. Sometimes a surgeon has to help remove tiny fragments of thorn that elude the home needle, though this didn't happen to me.

This makes me think of a parable or two. First, the work of ministry can include thorny patches, leaving the minister scratched and perhaps a bit poisoned. Sometimes careful self-examination and removal of the poisonous bits from the soul can be done at home, and sometimes the ache and swelling remain and the minister must seek professional help. It’s important to address these small problems before they become systemic.

Second, Jesus himself found his ministry to be wounding. He was despised, rejected, mocked, betrayed. He knew what we humans are like, and he still acted out his love for us, doing for us what we needed rather than what we wanted. This is the same today. He also felt thorns both figurative and literal, and he died to give us new life, abundant life. By his wounds we are healed. We are grateful every day that Jesus showed us God’s true nature of love and made it possible for us to turn toward that love. We recognize every day that though we need pruning, we protect ourselves with strategies that wound others.  Let’s lean in to God’s love, trusting that God will take away what we need to lose and give what we need to gain.

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