Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lessons from the Fig Tree

Learn this lesson from the fig tree: When its branch is new and tender and begins to put forth leaves, you know that summer must be near. In the same way, when you see and hear the things I've described to you taking place, you'll know the time is drawing near.

Heaven and earth may pass away, but these words of Mine will never pass away.

Mark 13:28, 29, 31

It began as a mere stick in a black plastic pot labeled Brown Turkey Fig from Sut Smith ten years ago.

We pruned severely the grown fig tree out back this spring. Limbs littered the yard and overflowed three large cans. On a whim, I filled a clear vase with bare brown sticks and put them in my kitchen window.

They offered arresting beauty in their simplicity. In a few days, I noticed buds emerging followed by tender green shoots. Then the recognizable leaf unfurled.

Sticks cut off from their source of nutrients sprouted tiny buds, evidence of new life bound up in the DNA of each plant cell. They did what they are programmed to do: replicate. The coding in the cell coupled with water in the pitcher supplied enough momentum—but barely enough--to produce fig leaves.

Severed from roots which fuel long-term growth, a vase of water could sustain life for only so long; they began to drop leaves last week as though on cue. Figs, while hardy, are not made to thrive on kitchen counters.

I spoke to a group recently using these sticks as an illustration. One person declared them beautiful. Others asked to take them home, perhaps to root. Here we were, clamoring for fig sticks, and I had just sent a multitude of them to the dump. Armed with a new-found appreciation for my garden waste, I came home and clipped even more forked sticks from the limbs still lying in our yard. I now have containers of fig branches I've been watching, and I've learned a few lessons.

1. God makes beautiful that which we discard.

God redeems the broken and ascribes value to the things—and people?—that we throw away. We have switched the price tags in our culture of what we value, and we hardly notice anymore. Composting kitchen and lawn debris has emerged as a rallying cry for sustainable living. For really sustainable living, we need eyes that see beauty in unexpected people and places.

2. We need to develop a tolerance for pruning.

Some plants bloom off old wood; others need new growth.  Selective pruning generally increases productivity and results in a stronger, revitalized plant. Can the same be said for us?

We, too, experience times of severe loss, of feeling cut back to the quick. Freshly shorn of comfortable overgrowth, we are left raw and ragged. We know what it is to experience transplant shock after change. Starting over seems impossible. We have the choice to recalibrate and develop fresh patterns and healthy structures after being laid bare from whatever cause. Adaptation to a new environment is essential because life keeps changing. Survivors learn to adapt.

3. Develop deep roots.

We may opt to sit on the shelf in tepid water after pruning and hope no one notices life is different now. That will work for a while. Like my fig sticks, we continue to go through the motions putting out the same shoots and showing up at familiar places. We can fool some of the people some of the time but...sooner or later the gig's up. We cannot generate enough fuel from depleted reservoirs--spiritually and physically--to jump start sagging spirits and sluggish lives. When we least expect it, we resemble my fig branches in the vase: the leaves fall off and curl on the counter. Shallow or nonexistent roots will not long support life.

Root tendrils will find their way to a water source; if only on the surface, shallow roots develop. I want to be drought-tolerant and hardy, having roots driven down and penetrating deeply.  I believe we are made to seek after God who alone provides the best model of sustainability in an uncertain world.

Central to adapting to a changed landscape is to prepare for what we can expect, and not to worry about what we cannot change.

Reinhold Niebuhr penned a guide to this kind of living in dependence on the Master Gardener. For some it is a daily prayer for survival:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Today on Easter Sunday we celebrate the Good News that God offers for the pruned, the hungry and especially for those who do not think they need any help at all. He is Risen just as He said.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Blessed Good Friday

El Greco's depiction of this day in history lends a note of beauty mixed with pain, hints at gentleness in the same space as the grit of the cross. The surfaces appear far too smooth, bleeding wounds too small. But then, this is still early in the movement toward the cross. The darkness of the sky is already ominous. The hand of Jesus shows no sign of the driven nails to come, and he tenderly caresses the instrument of his own execution--how can that be?--as imploring eyes search upward

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence comes my strength. 

Mel Gibson's movie The Passion, moves beyond fine brush strokes to fashion a far earthier rendering of the crucifixion of Christ. Palpable pathos is accomplished in modern artistry. 

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Even today's technology affords a quick glimpse at Good Friday here and wikipedia

Fast facts for a fast food generation.  

A tip of the hat of the curious replaces the bowed knee of the faithful. Expediency of the moment rules. We are drive-by people who are ever ready to move on.

Pulsing toward Easter, we are uncomfortable lingering too long at the foot of the cross. 

Just this morning I gathered flowers from my yard before the rains come and threaten the blooms.

Purple verbena, azaleas, snapdragons are at their freshest, ready to adorn the cross Sunday morning in case the stormfront beats them down. 

I'd rather dwell among the garlands of beauty than linger with the ashes of death. Give me the Alleluias over a black-draped cross any day. But we need to pause daily this Holy Week and keep remembering the price of freedom, lest we forget.

O, Sacred Head now wounded...

Freedom from condemnation, not freedom from pain. The life of faith does not come with Teflon coating. We need not expect smooth paths and unmarked hands like El Greco's above. Real life that we encounter will test us, sometimes leaving scars. The darkness and grief for so many with whom we suffer is not something we can pass over lightly.  Some declare right now that they can't get over it at all. The scenes in the funeral home, the hospital rooms with friends we love attest that the sky has darkened again for too many. It's Friday. We taste the bitter pain of loss and the experience cost of loving. But disease and even death itself doesn't have the last word.

It's Friday. But Sunday's coming. And whether we feel it or not, whether we assent to it or not, the darkness will not overcome the light. This truth does not require our personal approval to operate. The light dispels darkness because that is the very nature of light. 

The Light of Christ has come into the world.

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. John 12:46 

Easter is coming!


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Doorways of Hope

Jehovah Jireh: God provides. How we long to fling open doorways of hope and see the fulfillment of our deep longings on our time frame! Life does not always unfold as we wish, and we will face indecision and stop in our tracks, in our weakness; but we have a sure companion in the person of the Spirit as we approach closed doors and open windows. 
There are times when we do not know what to do....or even what to pray. We may feel the answer is locked behind a door and we have no key. 

It is then that we should toss the script.

Stop our habitual, circuitous methods of trying to make it happen our way.

Throw away the tired prayers for our will be done--because if we are being honest, we usually have a plan in our back pocket and are ready to tell God just how to make it come about--and come to the place of saying I just don't know what to do. I thought I knew but I don't anymore.

When the illusion of what-we-once-thought falls away,
we have the chance to get good purchase on a clean foundation and establish our footing. We get grounded in a new beginning. And the Spirit helps us in our weakness because we've come clean that we're not in charge anymore. We can be entirely honest that we don't have to have the answers.

We give thanks that the Spirit intercedes for us with more-than-words. More-than-words--those groanings that surpass the limits of our language when we suffer through anxious searching.

And we practice giving thanks.

We don't wait until the anxious hour is over to give thanks, but we thank God already in the midst of turmoil for what God is doing in our lives for our good and for his glory. And even in the writing of it, I wonder: is this really possible? But I have seen it done. It may be hard, yes. But impossible? No. 

And yet, it is precisely in the giving thanks that we remember God is Present. 

I have been living with a fresh awareness of this truth for over two years, especially after Ann Voskamp's book, One Thousand Gifts.

It is in drawing closer to God's Presence that we know the truth of the promises that God will never leave us nor forsake us. That we are known and loved...and that it is enough. More than enough.

So when we pray at the invitation of others who seek guidance and when we need direction ourselves, we can lay aside the heavy burden that we need to generate the answer from our own skills bank. Accept the gift of the Spirit who intercedes for us.

Jehovah Jireh: God provides.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

One Hundred Years Ago Today

Parades are nothing new in this country. We've been lining up and marching to call attention to a cause or to celebrate every occasion from "Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Day" in Monticello in the 60s to Homecoming, St. Paddy's Day and Easter parades. How we loved the Christmas parades with majorettes in white fur-trimmed maroon velvet uniforms and Miss Hospitality and the Farm Bureau queens waving from a convertible!

But long before those days, there was another parade on a chilly March 3. 

On this very day in 1913, thousands of spunky women who had traveled from across the country staged a major march on Washington D.C. Timed to occur on the day before the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, all eyes were on the nation's capitol. I can't help but note that the city would have been decked out with bunting and flags and grandstands already in place as these women seized the stage appropriating some perfectly good decorations for the cause--always a plus when we are resourceful with our decor budget.

Thousands stood and watched in top coats and hats as the event was both ballyhooed and heralded depending on one's point of view or gender. The New York Times' description of the opening tableau lifted the production to great heights of artistry and pageantry. We do not have tableaus anymore, do we? The photo brings to mind Mayor Shinn's wife's contribution to the festivities in the park in The Music Man set in River City, Iowa in 1912. What is a big shindig without a patriotic tableau? We still model our Olympic opening ceremonies after such a scene complete with Grecian drapes and laurel wreaths.

Then the marchers began their walk down Pennsylvania Avenue arranged in regiments by state.  Crowds of mostly men poured into the streets. History records that the men behaved badly.

They ridiculed the women with their absurd notions of voting rights and personhood under the law. Perhaps they thought their world was turning upside down with the prospect of women continuing to demand the right to vote which everyone knew could never happen or else what would become of our society? We as humans do some despicable things when threatened, or when our perceived status is threatened. We are not at our best.

Photos show the crowds pressing in on the orderly marchers until they block the street. The jeers and taunts continue. Soon the tripping, groping and physical contact get violent. Many are injured and taken away in ambulances. Others are jailed and charged, but those who vote make the rules. The progression is predictable.

The actual accounts of those who backed this cosmic shift in the American experiment should be required reading for a generation who does not even bother to cast a ballot in a presidential election. It represents nothing to them; they have no skin in the game. We have it too easy.

There is no one left who remembers this day in history.

The same will be said of everything else in our lives at one time, and we do not live to preserve our own personal history for its own sake. We are just passing through. But if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.  And so we do.

When we glance at the photos, we can offer a pause of appreciation, a word of gratitude from the daughters 100 years later of those courageous women who risked mockery and scorn that we might be able to walk up to that voting machine in our precinct and touch the start button.

It seems so simple now, but nothing hard-won is ever simple. Or cheap. Someone always pays the price.

What we now know as the 19th Amendment took 41 years to pass after it was introduced in 1878, and the women who introduced it were white-haired after working tirelessly on what we could be tempted to see as a mere footnote in a history book: women's suffrage. Then I think of the ones who wanted to join the throng, to put their conscience above their comfort but were intimidated into silence. Do we do it still?

Is there something you and I commit our lives to with the same passion, the same zeal and commitment? Are we called to a mission larger than ourselves and our little corner of Google earth? Let us keep asking that question and seek discernment. May God grant wisdom even as God gives dreams for each season of life and the courage to stand firm in pursuit of them for the Kingdom.

It is not just the law that governs our lives as believers, but the high call of God to love others, to practice justice and to show mercy. It takes both courage and humility to live into our faithful witness as we encounter needs of others. May God grant us both.

photos found in tribute on with credits to:

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