Sunday, May 25, 2014

Plant Epiphany in the Garage

May 25, 2014 

Dear friends,

The archeological dig (and resulting epiphany) occurred in the corner of the garage where garden materials and equipment are stored. A friend had come to make this possible, lending both her energy and good humor to my annual effort to make a plant-happy environment in the small space I have in which to garden.

In a stack of pots in the corner she uncovered one that had been stored as was when it came in from the patio. Bulbs had lain dormant and unseen in that pot when it was brought inside as winter approached. The pot (bulbs unnoticed) had been placed in a corner of the garage where light did not reach and water could not come, safely out of the way of human traffic.

The potting soil the pot contained was now desert-dry and rock-hard. 

Nevertheless, when spring came those bulbs had remembered who they were—bulbs, and, remembering, began to do what they could with what they had where they were—hard, resistant soil, no light, no water—but they began to grow. To my utter astonishment, multiple pale light-starved leaves had struggled through the dry resistant soil, and now leaned weakly against the rim of the pot. 

When spring came, in response to the call of life, those bulbs rose in the life-denying environment where they were and lived. Life as it existed in those bulbs was stronger than the hostile environment in which they found themselves.

Whatever their names may have been when they went into that pot, I have now christened them Lazarus Bulbs.

These remarkable Lazarus Bulbs are now in a place where they receive light—not too much, and not too directly—and water, carefully dispensed in small amounts. They have begun to receive some diluted plant food designed particularly for bulbs, and I talk to them gently, encouragingly, and with great respect several times each day and learn from them.

Clearly, the Lazarus Bulbs have not escaped the damage that their experience caused. I know too that their great trauma and resulting injury are likely to prove more than my limited skill and resources can mend. Nevertheless, I wait with hope. It is too soon to know what the seed of life that is within them may yet produce now that they live where God’s gift of light, air, water and some special food can reach them. 

But whatever the length of the tomorrow of their lives, they have triumphed. They have lived out of the essence of what they were designed to do in defiance of the “impossible” in their environment.

They teach me.

Thinking with you today that all of us are called, like my Lazarus Plants, to live out the life within us that we have been given whatever the environment in which we find ourselves.

And thinking with you too that this kind of authenticity and resilience is far easier to talk about than to live.

See you next week.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

What About the Caboose?

May 18, 2014

Dear Friends,

It is truly spring-time—green and full of life—but today I want to think with you about “spring” in the context of an odd aspect of human consciousness. 

When we say that it “feels” like spring, we are reporting more than the local weather. In fact, we are describing an intuitive “knowing”—an immediate experience of wordless, pleasure-shadowed awareness, something sensed as “spring” even while sense data accurately registers the snow that covers the lilacs. 


Limbic system and cortex produce and combine data into a “think/feel " unit. This is knowing that reaches beyond inches of snow or degrees of temperature, although this data too is included. 

Much of the brain’s power and complexity remains a mystery. However, neuroscience now makes clear that “It feels like spring,” is a “whole brain” response, a kind of “thinking” that integrates sense data, meaning and emotional response. It is a knowing in which the sum is greater than the parts.

The reality of “whole brain” responses seems self-evident to most contemporary readers. However, in talking with a young friend this week, I was reminded that this concept of an integrated “whole person” response flies in the face of what was once viewed as established truth. 

Not long ago the common viewpoint of human function was based on the idea that an individual was essentially a package of parts—granted, complex parts in a complicated assembly, but a package of parts, nonetheless. In this paradigm, wholeness became by definition simply the sum of the parts. Part of my early exposure to the package-of-parts idea was through a cartoon-like drawing of a small train that appeared in the religious education materials used in the church I attended. 
In its simplest form the train had only three components: a strong, powerful little engine (clearly kin to The Little Train That Could) that pulled a sturdy box car that was followed by a small caboose. The three parts of the train were labelled in order: FAITH, FACTS, FEELINGS.

I have an amusing memory of one edition of the Faith Train, as my Sunday school teacher termed it, in which the Caboose, in contrast to the Little Engine and the Boxcar, had ridiculously irregular wheels that were oddly shaped and able only with great difficulty to cling to the rails. The whole structure of the Caboose was subtly out of alignment, the windows skewed, and the roof threatening at any moment to detach and fly away. The Little Engine and the Boxcar were earnestly working to pull the train along the Railroad of Life, as the tracks were labelled in the picture, but the Caboose was certainly no apparent help in the process.

I was an imaginative child, but matter-of-fact Bertha, the most prosaic person in the class, reached the same conclusion that occurred to me.

“Engine and Boxcar ought to get rid of that Caboose,” Bertha said thoughtfully. “It don’t do any good and it sure slows them down. They oughta unhook it.”  In Bertha’s point of view, “feelings” could be disposed of with no appreciable loss and possible potential gain.

Bertha (and the Faith Train) reflected both the package-of-parts idea of people, and a simple “rules” picture of life. In this view, the world operates according to principles or rules. For example, there was a rule for apples: apples always fall down, not up, and fall always at the same predictable speed. 

This “rules-view” believed that these principles could be discovered by rational, logical processes. It believed further that when discovered and systematically applied, these principles permitted control of “Nature” and improvement in human welfare. Reflecting this system of thinking, the Faith Train taught, in essence, find the principle (faith), apply it rationally (facts), then good progress in Christian living will result. 

But, argued the apostle Paul, it’s not that simple. In my experience, I find that sometimes I do what I don’t want to do, and sometimes I don’t do what I want—and should—do. What about that issue? 

While the Faith Train lacked the theological complexity of Paul’s objection, it nevertheless acknowledged the awkward reality to which he pointed. Fact (theory, principle) and rational application of fact (Engine and Boxcar) is not, so to speak, all that there is: while feelings may complicate human progress they must be acknowledged. Reality, after all, includes the Caboose.

Much of my blog materials (and all of faith-based living) deal with the complex reality of human responses that are not lineal, logical, linguistically-based, and which at times powerfully defy rational thought. Bertha clearly understood an unsettling reality: affective responses, irrational as they may appear, have the power to derail principle and to defy facts—the Caboose can derail the train. 

Understanding this clear possibility of train-wreck, Bertha suggested a common-sense solution: better unhook the Caboose before the wreck occurs.

There is an appealing simplicity to Bertha’s pragmatic approach to the difficulty. However—as you have no doubt already seen—there is a glitch.

Are people simply parts-in-a-package? What happens when we attempt to “unhook” an aspect of ourselves that brings pain, shame or failure? Or unhook from something that inconveniences our progress toward a goal?

Thinking with you today that wholeness is easier to think than to live.

See you next week. 


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Living into Spring

May 11, 2014

Dear Friends,

Spring in the mountain foothills.

Outside my study window today snow is falling.
Yesterday was a sun-filled day so warm that I spent a peaceful afternoon hour sitting outside on the porch, watching the world.

A pair of Canada geese proudly paraded three tiny goslings down the walk enjoying a family trip to the lake. There was a visual feast of green in bushes and trees, new leaves unfolding in silent epiphanies. The salvia shaped a purple ribbon of early bloom along the walk.  Annie, taking advantage of the sun and the quiet, provided companionship for me and a comfortable pre-summer nap on the glider for herself.

Around us the weather triumphantly (and deceptively) trumpeted “Spring has come!! The winter has safely passed!!” With this song of the Sirens in my ears, I was sorely tempted to set out the young plants that had been delivered Thursday. 

This morning these tiny plants are glad (and so am I) that I resisted yesterday’s seductive warmth and limited my gardening impulses. Rather than planting, I removed them from their packaging and heeled each fragile green portion of life into a temporary container of soil that I left undercover in the garage. The one daisy that I did transplant is safely sheltered outside by an old bucket that I up-ended over its head. On this snowy morning, all of us here are warm and well.

Annie, characteristically, has gone to ground in her “cave” under the bed and is fast asleep. So much, in her opinion, for spring. Yet as I savor my coffee and watch the snow, I sense with joy that spring indeed has come.

At a level of knowing that lies beyond measurable data, I know that it is true that spring has come. I also know, however, it is not  true that in consequence all winter has passed away. Here in the foothills, experienced gardeners welcome spring cautiously; we’ve experienced her capricious promises before. 

Outside my kitchen window, the blooms on the old lilac bend under their burden of snow. But I understand that what I see is not tragedy. What I see is the tension of emerging life, change within uncomfortable boundaries, the context of the deep resistless power that underlies the turn of seasons and marks the limits of life.
This old lilac has carried snow in other springs, and bows in beauty to this task today. This spring--this snow. 

I learn.

Thinking with you that humility includes the wisdom to bend with the seasons of life knowing that all is well—that all will be well—that all manner of things will be well.**

See you next week.


**Julian of Norwich