A Change in the Garden

In the early spring of last year we were living in a little condo in Davenport, Iowa. It was early March and I was coming to the end of an extended interim ministry which had proven extremely challenging. After three years of dealing with a variety of stressful issues, I must admit I was feeling a bit drained and a bit discouraged. I had a little case of spiritual malaise. Winter doldrums.

We had a modest little garden in the front yard of our condo, under the front picture window. And one cool morning we were doing a little work cleaning up the yard, and Diane suddenly stopped to exclaim: “Oh! Look!”

“What?! What?!” I said looking around.

“Right there in front of you,” Diane insisted, pointing down to the garden, “LOOK!”

“Honey, I don’t see anything but dirt.”

A bit exasperated at my blindness, Diane took my arm, pulled me down, closer to the ground. With her finger pointing a few inches away, there I finally saw it; tiny, little green heads poking through the brown soil.

“Crocus!” she said triumphantly. I looked at her like… “Ok…”

But there was something else I heard in her voice…something beyond the mere proclamation of the end of winter and the promise of coming spring.

She said the word “Crocus” so emphatically that it seemed like an affirmation for the whole created nature of God’s world. As if it was also meant to be the spoken assurance that after death always comes life. That brokenness, sooner or later, gives way to healing. And that, even at the end of the long tunnel of despair, as sure as morning follows night, comes hope.

And that, perhaps, her faint exasperation at me was that I wasn’t at the ready.

I wasn’t looking for it.

I wasn’t walking through the garden each and every day, like Diane had been, expecting any day, at any moment, to see the signs of new life.

My vision was still frozen over. And perhaps, not just with winter, but by the absence of the proper modicum of hope.

And it occurred to me, then, that we largely determine our lives by what we tend to look for…what we expect to see.

Just more dirt. Or new life.

When that first clear, warm sunny day heralding the potential of spring; when the infinitesimal signs of life begin to ride the currents of the wind; what do we expect? Do we look for the next day to just turn cold again, that warm day just a tease to make the next harsh slap of winter sting the cheek all the more?

Or does that temperate promise of spring harken for us the potential of things to come? The herald of hope that strengthens us against any last barrage winter might have in store.

Do we wrap the cold mantle of past despair around us like an old familiar, tattered blanket? Or search the dry, dusty ground for signs of hope?

One of the things I love most about my wife is her love for growing things. We’ve made about half a dozen or so moves in our life together; and Diane always tries to have a garden wherever we live; even if it’s only a humble patch of land, or a window box outside an apartment.

Diane has a `green thumb.’ Although, she bristles a bit when I say that.

“Gardening is a lot of work,” she’ll say. “And having a green thumb doesn’t necessarily mean that growing things is an easy.”

And I know that’s true. Sometimes she’s really had to fight to keep a plant alive after a move from one climate to another. And she has grieved over losing a few of those battles as well.

But what I love about her is that she cherishes each and every precious symbol of life in her charge. And she never gives up; even if the plant as a whole looks to be a hopeless case, she will pare off a couple of starts to begin anew. Or garner a few seeds from the remants.

And in each new place she plants a few seeds of her own. And when we leave that place to go to another, she takes a start or two from that garden with her. Often times, Diane will give a treasured potted plant that she nurtured from a seedling to a friend she’s made in a new place.

But she also tends to get quite attached to the plant life in those places she inhabits. So much so that she usually takes a good deal of it with her. When we moved from Cleveland to New Mexico, I remember sharing the car with a huge Elephant Ear Philodendra and two or three five year old Ferns (one of which, if memory serves, Diane carried on her lap the whole way).

Moving from New Mexico to Wichita was a bit more prickly affair (if you know what I mean). From Wichita to Davenport, Iowa we were accompanied by a bouquet of sunflowers (the offspring of which grew several feet tall outside our Davenport condo).

Interestingly enough, though, coming to New York is the first time I can remember that we made a move without transplanting something green and potted in the process. In fact, in this move, many things were left behind: a rusty rake with some missing tines and old shovel with a splintered handled held together by duct tape; a broken down wheelbarrow and leaky hose, also held together by duct tape.

Winter wearied souls and battle wounds garnered in the course of fighting the good fight.

So, here we are, in the third season of our lives, and in many ways starting over again. Replanting in earnest yet one more time.

But – to rearrange an old phrase – `Spring hopes eternal.’

And I suppose what you see in life mostly has to do with which direction you’re ultimately facing: backwards or forwards. For that matter, perhaps, it really doesn’t matter, all that much, what the next day actually brings.

At least not as much as what you are willing or able to see in that next day. Because the determining factor in the character and quality of our life has more to do with what it is we are looking for in life: Do we live in fear of the next wintry blast life might throw at us, keeping salt and shovel ever at the ready? Or joyfully embrace the bright potential the changing seasons have to offer?

Do we walk through life just waiting for the next shoe to drop? Or live our lives expecting that next door to open before us?

In the apparent isolation and disjointedness of life’s ambiguity, are we able to anticipate the healing of new life that is always possible, as a natural principle of God’s eternal grace? Or do we linger in the phantom pains of yesterday?

You know, it’s no coincidence that Lent takes place over what can often be some of the coldest, darkest days of winter. Or that the coming of Easter coincides with the emergence of spring. The frost which long hardened the heart of the garden melts and opens under a new beam of warming light.

And all of creation – and all of her creatures – become transfixed on the dynamic transformation from the brutal prospect of icy death to a thawing renewal of hope.

Could there be any more powerful witness to God’s grace?

Doesn’t that revelation of nature resonate deeply within our own souls? Millennium of sonnet, song, and poem are composed in inspired response to that glorious revealing. The very rhythms of our faith reverberate in harmony to its perennial truths.

We’ve been given a sign in nature that God doesn’t give up on humanity, and so we should never despair of God.

That God’s loving mercy is season-less; His spring eternal.

At home, in our little window box, we are now nurturing a bit of new life: a vase of water housing a philodendron in transition; a two-leafed, forked Mother-in-Law’s tongue; a small pot of Flaming Katy; and a great big blooming pot of hibiscus. Symbols of new life we’ve been given, and called to nurture and share.

Isn’t that all any of us can do, really?

To nurture the life we find in the place where we are. Share with others some of the hope and light and love God has grown in our hearts along the way.

To learn from the past; to transplant the love and leave the weeds behind. And always keep our hearts and eyes open to see those small sprigs of spring emerging at our feet.

Listen to the prophet Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I form for myself so that they might declare my praise.” [Is. 43:18-21]

There’s a change happening in the garden.

Even now it springs forth. Can you not perceive it? In the world; in our nation; in the village; in this church. God is doing a new thing in our midst.

And I suppose that whether or not we are able to see it depends largely upon which direction we are facing and what it is we are looking for.