June 22, 2014
The meeting had been planned as a “working breakfast,” with the meal itself a pot-luck kind of production by the four of us. The coffee was stimulating (?!). The eggs and bacon were delicious. The scones were a culinary delight, and the grapefruit provided a wonderful citrus-flavored tang and palate-clearing zest along with a healthy dose of vitamin C.
The three women with whom I met are bright, articulate, thinking women, deeply engaged in living fully the life they have been given. They are committed to shaping life through their faith. The work that followed breakfast was a gift to me by these friends who had agreed to meet, eat, and think through with me something I had written. We chose Compost Pile Reality (June 1 blog) for the morning’s work.
Today’s blog owes a large debt to their thinking. I trust that it reflects their commitment to embrace fully the birth-to-death journey that they know life to be. However, the thinking and language in today’s blog is my thinking as stimulated by theirs, and remains my responsibility. My friends merit high praise for their effort to stretch my understanding (it’s a tricky business to befriend a writer). However, they are not responsible for my response.
The group expressed quick consensus about the idea in the blog that living life fully requires that we embrace fully the entire continuum of life—birth and death and all that lies in the long journey between. Denying the reality of the compost pile leads in a paradoxical sense to denial of life, the unintended consequence of seeking to evade facing human mortality and the inevitability of death.
However, it was not death, but rather the concept of continuing life that most deeply engaged their attention in the content of the blog.
As I listened (well, admittedly, listened in between bouts of participation), I came to see a serious omission in Compost Pile Reality.
The blog faithfully represented the after-death reality of life for Easter-hearted folk whose faith serves as context for both life and death. But what the blog utterly failed even to suggest is the astonishing, spectacular diversity of the ways in which our Eastering God transcends death and continues life.
In the blog, the analogy of the begonia cuttings in the vase on the kitchen counter reflected some truth. God does indeed foster new life in safe and private places through human means. The new life that emerges under these circumstances is often fragile and requires continuing care. But this picture does no justice at all to the vast and risky range of God’s energetic investment in continuing life.
Considering the compost pile requires acknowledging the process in which the rotten tomato is thrown (with wrinkled nose) into the compost pile (no careful cuttings here). Yet in the warm spring sun, this abandonment process results not in lost life but in a new and vigorous tomato plant firmly rooted in the compost pile itself. New life is not so dependent upon environment as the begonia cuttings might suggest.
Experienced gardeners know that there are always surprises emerging from the compost pile. I remember one spring when my Grandfather carefully transplanted a tomato plant from the compost pile to the garden. The plant was the sturdy new generation of a particular type of tomato he liked--one that was quite resistant to Kansas bugs.
Compost pile thinking requires as well consideration of the snapdragons. Last year a seed from a snapdragon plant was dropped by a mindless wind into a rocky shelter at the corner of the kitchen porch. In that unlikely place a new plant sprouted and flourished. Having narrowly escaped the groundskeepers’ search for weeds, it has bloomed and is already setting seed. In turn, this year when autumn comes, this snapdragon too will yield its life and beauty to frost and death. Some of its seeds will stay and in another year fill again that once empty place with new life and beauty. And some of its seeds, carried by another wind, will fall and bring life into another empty corner of the waiting world. Life processes are subject to chance in ways that bring uncertainty.
And then there is the complex issue of mutation.
Biologists think of mutation as a “chance” alteration to a basic life structure that in the next generation produces characteristics that are different in an unpredicted way from the expected pattern of growth. Statistically, most mutations are harmful, but there are exceptions. And it is these beneficial mutations that carry a powerful message about God’s investment in life.
In the expected pattern, snapdragons reseed and in this way form new life. Ordinary snapdragons are successfully reseeding in my yard. To my delight, I discover new plants in the most unexpected spots.
But I am watching with keen interest something else that a biologist might suspect to be a mutation: two snapdragon plants successfully wintered over—they are acting like perennials in Colorado where our winters can reach twenty (or more) degrees below freezing. They were already four inches tall this spring by the time the seedlings began to emerge. What is happening here?
Well, I suspect I am seeing a small emerging alteration that is producing snapdragon life in a new form. I can guess a possible reason for this. This change appears designed to protect and support life processes in this environment. Winters are hard and summers are short in the high country. If a snapdragon plant can survive the winter and therefore have a head-start come spring, then summer includes time for earlier blooms, the possibility for more blooms and more seed.
It is true that these snapdragon plants that wintered over are odd. Considered in the context of “normal” snapdragons, they are weird and different. At best, they are snapdragons that have made a serious mistake. Snapdragons are annuals, and have no business acting like perennials. God made them annuals to reseed. End of discussion.
Well, maybe. But in thinking about the compost pile I am unwilling to draw this bottom line quite so quickly.
Perhaps life as reseeding annuals is not the only form of life that God means for snapdragons to enjoy. Perhaps the wintering-over “mistake” is not a mistake at all, but, rather, a step toward a new form of life.
The core of hope lies in this alternate reality. In the context of God’s energy and love, changes that appear to be evidence of harmful damage and a precursor of death may in God’s economy be something quite different. They may be the vehicle through which life is continued in a new better-adapted form.
The next time someone asks me what I am going to be when I grow up, I think I will say, “It depends.”
See you next week.