Planting

“Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you.”

(Job 12:8)

As the air warms, the days lengthen, the soil softens, and birds sing to the sunrise, a thought starts to haunt any gardener’s mind: planting. Then plans start to form; garden beds are populated, at least on paper; seeds are purchased. Then the soil is turned and weeded. Self-seeding volunteers like cilantro, kale, lettuce, and nasturtiums are moved somewhere safe to take advantage of their early start. Then the seeds go in the ground, some earlier than others, depending on the hardiness of the plants. Peas go in early, along with some lettuces and greens, onions, and hardy herbs. Then beans and root crops like beets, parsnips, carrots, potatoes. And last, the tropicals like tomatoes, peppers, and basil—probably as plants.

God was the first planter, and He planted with His words. He spoke, . . . and plants of all sorts sprang from the ground. But He made the plants so they would produce seeds that when planted could reproduce plants of like kind. Then God made people “in his image” to tend the garden, to continue the work of caring for the creation He had made. But tending the garden always remained a cooperative venture. The people could plant the seed and prepare the soil, but then they had to leave the rest in God’s hands.

Preparing the soil and planting seed is a human act, but it’s an act of faith that requires for success an endorsement from heaven. It’s an act that inherently recognizes our dependence on God and His miracles—miracles of synergy in ecosystems, of chemistry and genetics, of wind and sun and rain. So planting is an act of dependence. (It’s not like building a car, which is more like a declaration of independence!)

The same is true when we plant other sorts of seeds in people’s lives through our words and deeds—seeds like faith, hope, and love. The apostle Paul used the planting of a garden as an illustration for our work in the community of faith.

“After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9, NLT)

Words are powerful things, especially the words of God. In the beginning, God spoke and the heavens and earth came into being, light poured in to obliterate darkness, and the waters separated from the land. At God’s word plants sprang up to cover the earth, then fish and birds and animals all came to be. Then God formed a man from the ground and breathed life into him. God made humans in his image, which meant, among other things, that they too could speak words and continue God’s work. One of the first assignments given the man was that of naming the animals—to use words to lay his governorship over the animals and to grant them identity. Giving a name, like speaking any word, can be a powerful thing.

We know the power of words from experience. We have experienced their healing power, along with their devastating effects, on almost any given day. God’s words are the most powerful of all. We have been called upon to plant them in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the power of God’s words. Like seed, they are to be planted and God will help them grow to bear fruit in people’s lives.

“The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NLT)

Jesus told a number of stories about the planting of seeds. The best known of these stories tells how God is in the business of planting His life-changing truth—His Good News—in people’s hearts.

“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” (Matthew 13:3-9, NLT)

Many of the seeds grew, matured, and multiplied, but some failed to mature and reproduce. We all understand this from the garden. We know about that back corner that remains mostly clay despite our best efforts to improve it. We all know how quickly weeds spring up to choke out a crop. And we’ve chased away pesky sparrows scratching for seed in a freshly planted bed, or robins pulling sprouting beans after mistaking them for worms.

And we have watched the same happen in our hearts. God’s words sometimes take root, but often distractions, weariness, and the evil one get in the way. So in celebration of the planting season, let’s look at a string of Scriptures that focus on seeds and planting. Let them sink into the soft, fertile soil of your heart, in hopes that something good will grow there. God is certainly interested and able to make seeds grow. We see it in the garden every spring. Perhaps some of these words will plant just what you need in your heart today.

“The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life; a wise person wins friends.” (Proverbs 11:30, NLT)

“A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends.” (Proverbs 16:28)

“Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you.” (Hosea 10:12)

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (Matthew 17:20)

“What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19)

Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.” (John 12:23-26)

“Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9)

“Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18)

Garden Tip: Planting is an act of faith, an act that demonstrates our dependence on the Creator and Sustainer of all things. God is in the business of doing miracles with the seeds we plant. We can’t do the miracles by ourselves. As you plant the seeds in your garden this spring, reflect on how you might plant good things in the lives of your spouse, your children, your coworkers, and your neighbors. Let this planter’s prayer (taken from the peace prayer of Saint Francis) guide your thinking about the ways. Then depend on God for the miracles.

A Planter’s Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me plant love.

Where there is injury, let me plant pardon.

Where there is doubt, let me plant faith.

Where there is despair, let me plant hope.

Where there is darkness, let me plant light.

Where there is sadness, let me plant joy.

—Francis of Assisi

 

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On Ravens

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”
Job 12:7

As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after their Exodus from Egypt, God provided a substance they called manna (which means in Hebrew “What is it?”) for them to eat each day (Exodus 16). The people were to gather just enough to feed their families for one day, and no more. If extra was gathered to be saved for the next day, they would find it rotten and maggot-ridden the next morning. But on Friday, the people were allowed to gather enough for two days so they would have enough for the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath day, the extra manna remained good to eat. The people of Israel ate the manna this way for the forty years they wandered in the wilderness. Day by day, God was teaching them that he could provide for their needs, but they needed to trust him. They couldn’t gather extra and bank it for a future rainy day. It just didn’t work that way.

In western societies with stable economies, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Saving for the future is considered a virtue, a way of insuring against any troubles that might lie ahead. There is certainly some wisdom in this, but over time we tend to start thinking that we are in charge of our own fate, that we can buy insurance for any possible emergency. Detailed planning and incessant saving become a required hedge against some ever-looming disaster. And worry sets in, and then greed. The more we save, the more we fear that we might not have enough. So we turn inward and ignore neighbors in need of food and shelter, hiding away what most people in the world would consider a fortune. We forget that it all came from God in the first place, and that it all really belongs to Him.

We are also blind to the fact that many of our blessings are stolen from the backs of the poor. Cheap resources that feed wealthy economies are taken from poor nations at a fraction of their value, and the relatively little paid to purchase those resources is taken by a greedy elite. The hungry remain hungry; the thirsty draw water from pools of sewage; the naked find only rags to cover themselves; those sleeping in the rain may never see a roof overhead.

We are also blind to the truth that our self-sufficiency would never be possible in a nation overwhelmed by poverty and inflation. Saving money in such an environment only means it will be able to buy less tomorrow, as its value plummets on a daily basis. There is nothing solid to invest it in, except perhaps a tool or seed that might promise a little food in the future, . . . should the weather cooperate. In such places, spending money as soon as it comes is almost always the right choice. Trusting God for the needs of tomorrow is the only option.

And so Jesus tells us that the poor, the broken, the disenfranchised are the blessed ones (Matthew 5:1-12). They are the only ones who see how dependent they are on God’s provision. They are the ones who have a clear bead on the truth. Perhaps that is why the poor often live with less worry than the rich. They have learned the secrets of faith and dependency. (And they have nothing really to lose!)

Jesus expands on this theme in his reflections on a common bird—the raven.

The Hebrew Bible records a number of interesting accounts of ravens, making it little surprise that Jesus should use it in illustration. In the account of the great Flood, Noah released a raven to see if the waters had receded (Genesis 8:6-7). Unlike the dove, which returned to the boat, the raven flew about until the floodwaters dried up, probably by landing on floating carrion, something the dove would not do. (Due to its omnivorous nature, ravens are listed among the unclean birds in the Hebrew laws.)

Many centuries later, as the prophet Elijah hid from wicked Ahab and Jezebel in the wilderness near the Kerith Brook, the Lord sent ravens to feed him with bread and meat, presumably gleaned from a wealthy person’s table (1 Kings 17:2-6). And more than once elsewhere in Scripture, God is said to see the plight of ravens in need and to provide them with food (Job 38:41; Psalm 147:7-9).

Ravens have coexisted with humans for thousands of years and in some areas are so numerous that they are considered a pest. Part of the Raven’s success comes from its diverse diet, one of the most diverse of any bird. They are willing to eat just about anything available to them—from dead carrion, small animals, and insects to seeds, berries, and fruit, and, in populated areas, gleanings from people’s trash.

Ravens can be found everywhere on the globe. In ancient cultures around the world, ravens have been a popular subject of mythology and folklore. In many ancient cultures, including those of Scandinavia, Ireland, Wales, Siberia, and peoples of northwestern North America and northeast Asia, ravens were revered as spiritual figures or even gods. In many early Christian western traditions, ravens were considered to be an ill omen, probably mostly due to their all-black feathers, their visible intelligence and watchfulness, and the fact that they gather around carrion and are thus often associated with death.

Realizing how common and well-known ravens are, it should not be surprising that Jesus mentioned them in his teachings. He said:

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. Life is more than food, and your body more than clothing. Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!” (Luke 12:22-24, NLT)

Jesus wasn’t advocating a lazy lifestyle here, but was teaching the need to recognize our dependency on our heavenly Father. No matter how hard we work, we cannot succeed unless the work is undergirded by blessings from above. It is easy after years of hard work and success to begin to think that we have earned everything we have. But beyond our vision, there are many around the world who have worked just as hard, who are equally virtuous, but enjoy no such blessings. There is grace behind all the blessings we receive; we just aren’t privy to the many hidden events that have led to them. And many of the comforts we enjoy in the affluent nations of the west are quietly gained on the backs of hungry children, slaving away under squalid conditions.

So let the raven remind you of where all your blessings come from—from the hand of God. And let us all learn to be more like the ravens—or more like the Israelites as they gathered manna each day in the wilderness—facing the concerns of each day through the eyes of faith. And let that faith allow you to be generous with the wealth at your disposal. Your fortune, however small it might be, could be enough to save a life or to help a family discover the providence of God.

As it turns out, the Irish name Fiachra means “raven.” We don’t know why Saint Fiachra (for whom this site is named) was given his name. Perhaps it was because his hair was black like the feathers of a raven, or perhaps he had a hooked nose reminiscent of a raven’s beak. Perhaps his parents just liked the sound of it. We will never know for sure. But on other terms it is certainly appropriate, since Saint Fiachra was known for his hospitality to travelers, the sick, and the needy. Was it not ravens that were sent to wait on Elijah as he hid in the wilderness? And are not the ravens compared to the needy ones Fiachra once freely served at his table? And so Fiachra’s Hollow might also be called Raven’s Hollow—but without any of the negative connotations!

Let us end with a story from the Sayings of  Desert Fathers. Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion, said:

When we were walking along the salt sea one day, I was thirsty, so I said to Abba Bessarion, “Abba, I am very thirsty.” Then the old man prayed and said to me, “Drink from the sea.” The water was sweet when I drank it. So I poured some water into a flask, so that I would not be thirsty later. Seeing this, the old man asked me, “Why are you doing that?” I answered, “Excuse me, but it’s so that I won’t be thirsty later on.” The the old man said, “God is here, and God is everywhere.”

Is it possible that people living in affluent societies have lost the art of living by faith? If we worry too much about tomorrow, will we not be blind to the needs of others around us today? Will we not often excuse ourselves from acting faithfully on behalf of Christ in the opportunities that constantly rise? And in the end, who is safer—those who spend their days worrying about how they will cover for any conceivable disaster, or those who entrust their lives into the hands of God with a life of faith and generosity?

Garden Tip: Growing food in the garden is even more satisfying when it is done with the goal of giving much of it away. I recall the final years of my grandfather, who planted a large garden in his retirement. He took great joy in leaving baskets of produce around town and providing for the families of his children. He had discovered a profound truth: “It is in giving that we receive.” Look for ways to share the gifts you receive from your garden, whether in food or in plant cuttings. And look for ways to give from your means until it hurts. It isn’t until we need to walk by faith that we are likely to discover the wonder of it.

And when you see a raven fly by (No matter where you are in the world, they are there!), remember not to worry, but to trust in God to provide for your needs. And demonstrate that trust by giving to others from what you do have.

Lenten Longings

A sacrament is a human or physical means to the experience of divine grace. The most common sacrament celebrated in the Christian community is that of bread and wine, a physical means by which we experience the grace made possible through the sacrificial gift of Christ’s body and blood. But there are many things in concrete human experience that can be sacramental for us—that help us experience the truth and presence of God in profound ways—things like thorns, or the ache of human longing.

As fall turns to winter, short days and cold weather descend and put our gardens to sleep. The earth is dark and lifeless—cold. Our bodies slow down and for many of us, the short, dark days bring on a deep weariness of spirit. In our heart throbs an deep longing, a desperate wish for light and life. It is in such hopeless times that our hearts quicken with thoughts of spring, when longer days lead to warmer weather, and to the awakening of the world—resurrection! Barren trees birth buds and blossoms, then leaves and a full dress of green.

We all know what this ache is like. It might come in simple forms, like a deep thirst for a drink or a deep hunger for food. But often it involves a longing for other people. Depending on our place in life, we might long for a parent who is distant or gone forever; for a spouse who is too-long away; for distant friends or for a love not yet discovered;  for a child who has walked away, never to return.

But our longings often reach beyond what we can see and touch. All of us from time to time feel a deep and nameless longing. It may be something we have not yet named. Long ago Saint Augustine said in prayer, “You have created us for Yourself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in You.”  We’re born with a God-shaped vacuum that awakens in us a nameless longing for eternity, an aching wish to draw close our Creator. And, perhaps, all our human longings are underscored when we lack a connection to the One who made us.

And the longing for our Creator is “felt” by more than just humans. In Scripture we are told that all creation is groaning, longing for a rescue from the painful consequences of sin and of living in a fallen world (Romans 8:18-23). We long for the return of our Maker, who has the means and desire to make things right again. This is the longing we feel in Advent season, as we await the coming of God in the person of the Christ-child—Emmanuel—“God with us.” It is also the longing of Lent and Good Friday, as we await the resurrection light of Easter morning. This is the longing we feel as we look for the return of the Christ—our Maker and Keeper and Healer—come, Lord, and come quickly!

But our own small longings are just an echo of a longing as deep and wide as the universe—the longing that God feels toward us as members of His alienated creation. Ever since the fateful day of separation in Eden, God has longed to be intimate with us. He didn’t create us so He could inflict punishment on us for our failures, or so He could abandon us and watch us flounder in darkness. He made us to be His friends. All the great people mentioned in Scripture had serious failings, but what set them apart was their profound friendship with God. (Look at Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and David, all known as friends of God.) God has a longing to be a friend to every one of us. And the Father sent His Son to overcome the alienation and heal the rift. In Christ we are no longer strangers, but citizens of God’s kingdom and members of His family (Ephesians 2:19). There need be no distance.

Jesus once told a story of a father and two sons, by which he illustrated the passionate longing of the divine Father to be close to His children—both those who choose to live selfish, excessive lives and those who actually think they can earn His favor by being good. See the passion of the Father as he welcomes His prodigal son home, despite his earlier offenses:

“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began….” (Luke 15:11-24, NLT)

As you feel the ache of longing in your heart, whatever its source, let it become a divine sacrament to you—a means by which God calls you to yearn for Him and His return. Let it be a means that drives you to reflect and prepare for that and for any other future event, like the longing you may feel to plant your garden, when the warmth of spring is still a long way off.

And know that in this heartache, you have begun to tune your heart to the heartbeat of God, the one who loves you and longs for your love and your transformation. You have begun to know the ache in His heart for you.

Garden Tip: A longing for spring in the middle of winter can be a source of depression, but it can also be a call to action and awareness. Those who receive seed catalogs in the mail during the cold months often find hope stirring and take a sketch pad in hand to begin a garden plan and make a seed order. Take the time to dream of possibilities and let your longings grow to full maturity. Lay out the rows and beds for your plants. Make all the necessary plans and preparations.

And as you begin the long, dark days of Lent, don’t hide from the ache in your heart; embrace it. It reveals your awareness that things are not right, that things here are broken. Take the time to prepare your heart; don’t waste any time. Remember also that the longing in your heart reveals something to you about the heart of the Creator, who longs for us to come to him. Remember that the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas was an expression of God’s longing for you and for the restoration of all things. Look forward to His resurrection at Easter as a sign of its further fulfillment. Then let your heart groan as you await His return, when the present darkness will be overwhelmed by light, and there will be no distance between creation and Creator. Turn toward His longing embrace and make ready.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lowly exile here,

until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel—has come to thee, O Israel.”

The Friendly Beasts

“Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

(Job 12:7)

I have often wondered what the animals and birds see when a forest—once lively with activity and birdsong—suddenly falls silent. Or when a happy dog suddenly cowers and whines, or suddenly explodes with barking, but for no obvious reason. Perhaps the birds in the forest are silenced by a swooping owl or hawk—or something else that I’m blind to. Or perhaps the dog smells or hears a snake in the grass or a rabbit in a nearby shrub. But sometimes I haven’t been able to discern the cause, even after looking closely. And I wonder.

I wonder if they see things—not just things hard to for us to see—but perhaps things truly invisible. I remember the story of Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:21-36). The false prophet was riding his donkey to take payment for cursing God’s people. An angel stood in his path—an angel Balaam couldn’t see. But Balaam’s donkey saw the angel and stopped. Balaam got off and started to beat the animal. But still the donkey refused to move, and the Lord caused the donkey to speak in protest. I wonder—does this still happen? What am I blind to? What of the spiritual realm are we all blind to?

I remember the animals who gathered to board Noah’s ark, called by God to come in twos for their survival (Genesis 7:1-24). I remember the ravens called upon to feed Elijah as he hid deep in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:1-7). And what about the great fish that swallowed Jonah to rescue him from drowning? All these creatures did God’s bidding, and often while the people around them failed to do so. And what about the frequent call in the Scriptures for us to join the rest of creation as it sings God’s praises? Do we hear their voices singing? Do we join them?

As Job was struggling to make sense of his terrible suffering, he said to his accusing friends, “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will instruct you. Let the fish in the sea speak to you. For they all know that my disaster has come from the hand of the LORD. For the life of every living thing is in his hand, and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:7-10, NLT).

Job’s friends assumed it was sin that had brought this trouble on Job, but Job knew that it was more complicated than that. He knew his own heart, and he couldn’t understand why such trouble had come upon him. He somehow sensed that at least the animals would understand his plight, even if his friends couldn’t. He knew that trouble could fall upon even the best of people and still be a part of God’s plan, that there were mysteries beyond the wisdom, the ideals, and the control of people. Do not the animals recognize this by following their instincts, accepting their given place as members in the creation?

And listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who saw more wisdom displayed in the ox and donkey than in his own people: “Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the LORD says: `The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.’ ” (Isaiah 1:2-3, NLT)

The beasts live in proper relation to their masters and their Creator. But we, who were given the work of  caring for the creatures and their environment, have forgotten our own Master—our Maker, our Protector, our Healer. And so we also fail in our work as masters. “Just ask the animals, and they will teach you.”

With this in mind, let us approach the Advent season with an old Medieval carol in our hearts. This carol first surfaced to documentary history in connection with 12th-Century France, and from there it spread to Britain where it is still often sung. This song is often written off as fanciful, the product of an unscientific age, no doubt because the animals in it are said to speak and to offer gifts to the Christ child. But is it so fanciful? I wonder. And even if it is, I hope that as this Christmas approaches, each of us will offer the Christ—our Maker and Master—the small gifts we have with as much willingness and joy as the creatures in the stable.

The Friendly Beasts

Jesus, our Brother strong and good / was humbly born in a manger rude, / and the friendly beasts around Him stood. / Jesus, our Brother strong and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown. / “I carried His mother up hill and down. / I carried her gently to Bethlehem town.” / “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow, all white and red. /”I gave Him my manger for His bed. / I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.” / “I,” said the cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn. / “I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm. / He wore my coat on Christmas morn!” / “I,” said the sheep, with the curly horn.

“I,” said the dove, in the rafters high. / “I sang Him to sleep, so He would not cry. / We sang Him to sleep, my mate and I.” / “I,” said the dove, in the rafters high.

And every beast, by some good spell, / in the stable dark was glad to tell / of the gift he gave Emmanuel, / the gift he gave Emmanuel.

Gardening Tip: Remember Balaam’s donkey and open your eyes to the world around you. It is shimmering with miracles. And pray for a second sight that reveals the spiritual realities all around and underneath. Any place where you are standing can be for you a thin place. Read the account of the prophet Elisha’s victory over the Aramean army (2 Kings 6:8-23). The prophet could act with confidence even when facing thousands of armed men. Why? because he could see what others could not. What are you blind to?

And as Advent approaches, remember the friendly beasts in the stable; open your heart to God’s gift to us in the person of the Christ. What gifts has He given to you that He now is calling you to offer back to Him? What gifts has He bestowed on you that He could use to change someone’s world this Christmas?

Migrations

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

As I watch the migratory birds flying south overhead as the air turns cold in fall, or north again as it grows warm in spring, I often wonder at how they know where they are going and when it’s time to leave. Some species fly to very particular destinations, both going and coming—but go and come they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t likely survive another year.

It is through this travel that they live through the cold months in the opposite hemisphere, when the foods they depend on in one place disappear as the temperatures drop. Many of the migratory birds eat insects, worms, small animals, or fish and need an environment warm enough to allow them to feed. Many seed-eating birds, on the other hand, don’t need to migrate since their food sources remain available during the wintry months. They find ways to adapt to the cold and find their food on dried-up or frozen seed-bearing plants, or perhaps at a friendly bird feeder.

Some birds migrate astounding distances each year. The Arctic Tern is the clear winner, making a round trip of some 22,000 miles. Essentially, it flies from the Arctic to Antarctic and back again. It breeds in the northern hemisphere—in northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia—and it winters as far south as it can go in Africa or South America. Most migratory birds stay in either the eastern or the western hemisphere, following a predictable north-south flight pattern along rivers, through wetland areas, and along coastlines. Few strike out across the open ocean, though there are a few exceptions—notably the Golden Plover. In the western hemisphere, the Golden Plover nests in Alaska but migrates toward the southwest, flying non-stop over the Pacific for over 2,000 miles to winter in the Hawaiian islands; some even continue on to Australia and New Zealand. In the eastern hemisphere, this species nests in Labrador and migrates at a southwest angle across the Atlantic, flying non-stop all the way to Patagonia in South America, a distance of about 2,800 miles.

Most migrating birds in the western hemisphere fly north-south over the narrow isthmus that makes up Central America, heading from North America to their wintering spots in South America, and then back again. Such a flight path, normally defined by a supporting geographic feature (like an isthmus or waterway), is commonly called a flyway. In the eastern hemisphere, most migratory birds fly south from both Europe and Asia to winter in Africa. Some in western Europe fly along the coast of Portugal and Spain and cross into West Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean. A much larger number fly from eastern Europe and Asia over the land area of Palestine along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean; from there, they cross the Sinai Peninsula into Egypt and the Nile Valley, and then continue south into eastern and southern Africa.

The people of Israel who lived in Palestine would have been familiar with the vast bird migrations flying overhead in fall and spring. The prophet Jeremiah used this common sight to illustrate a message from God to them (and to us):

“Even the stork that flies across the sky knows the time of her migration, as do the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane. They all return at the proper time each year. But not my people! They do not know the LORD’s laws.” (Jeremiah 8:7, NLT)

The species listed here—the stork, the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane—can all be seen migrating through Palestine to this day. The stork is especially prominent in this migration. It is estimated that as many as half a million white storks pass through Palestine every spring and fall, wintering in southern Africa and nesting in many parts of northern Europe. In migration, they can often be seen in fields and wetlands in the early morning, waiting for the morning sun to warm the air to create the rising thermals that lift them high into the sky. A very large bird, storks often fly at a level 4,000 feet and can appear very small in the sky.

Aside from the stork, there is some debate about the species listed in translation of the Hebrew, but all these are possible. A comparison of translations often lists the “thrush” instead of the “crane.” Varieties of all these species migrate through Palestine each year. Actually, varieties of these species migrate in both hemispheres and provide a sure sign of spring for anyone observant enough to notice.

The people of Israel had received a special revelation from God, a revelation that provided them with laws that, if followed, would guide them to live unselfish lives in a healthy community. But the people chose to live their own way—a way that they learned from their pagan neighbors rather than from God—a way guided by desires for wealth and power and pleasure. And this path had led them to build a society of injustice and weakness, governed by people with selfish hearts. Jeremiah said of them (and of us all): “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NLT).

The migratory birds knew God’s life-giving laws and followed them by flying back and forth each year. Somehow God had written His law on their “hearts”; the birds knew what to do to survive and live a healthy life—and they did it without fail. They still do. But not the people of Israel. And for their sins, God was about to send them on a forced migration into Babylonian exile. And so it happened during the lifetime of Jeremiah. He watched as Jerusalem with its Temple was destroyed and the people were marched off to Babylon.

But as the people were led away into exile, the prophet spoke promises that give hope that God’s people might yet become more like the birds—with God’s laws written on their hearts:

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: The good figs represent the exiles I sent from Judah to the land of the Babylonians. I will watch over and care for them, and I will bring them back here again. I will build them up and not tear them down. I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” (Jeremiah 24:5-7, NLT)

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34, NLT)

“They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me.” (Jeremiah 32:38-40, NLT)

God did bring a few of His people home from their exile, guiding them on a return migration to the Promised Land. And He still works to write His law of love on all our hearts so that we can live as He wants us to, no matter where we are or what we are faced with. And if we have already made our own migration as far away from Him as possible, He is always ready and waiting for the spring of our return.

Birding Tip: Become aware of the migratory birds that live in your part of the world—at least for a part of the year! Are you in a common nesting area? Do you live in a prominent flyway that sees millions of visitors overhead each spring and fall? Or are you in a common wintering area, which for you would be summering! All habitats are important to a migratory species’ survival. Chances are you are near a flyway for some species even if your area is a good nesting area for others. Many migratory birds are water birds, so study the waterways and wetlands nearby and look for information that might tell you when a major migration will be coming through. It can be a fascinating experience to observe it. A good place to start would be to read about Arocha and some related conservation organizations, which work hard to protect habitats around the world that support migrating bird species.

And remember to listen to the birds, who have God’s wisdom stamped on their hearts. May we all find the same to be true of us. And may we all have the faith to follow His calling, wherever it may lead us.

Full Circle

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”

What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.

History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11, NLT)

These words from the Teacher in Ecclesiastes may sound discouraging, but as I see it, the Teacher was describing the cycles we experience here “under the sun”—cycles that drive an amazing conspiracy for life. We have all watched the seemingly meaningless cycles of beginnings that lead to endings, and ultimately to death. And the longer we live, the more we see it, and the more trapped we can feel. But if we end our observation with a focus on death, I think we miss the clear reality. In any viable ecosystem, death is the source for new life. (Take a look at reflections along this line in the grassland ecosystem and with the planting of seeds.) Birth may lead to death, but then it leads again to rebirth. Many of our problems in life come from refusing to accept this natural cycle. We want to break out of it—and as a result, “we are never satisfied.”

In the western world, huge industries are built around our desire to subvert the cycle. The cosmetics and diet industries are fed by the longing for eternal youth. We don’t want to grow old, and we do everything possible to delude ourselves about the fact that we are aging and moving inevitably toward death. We fail to see that living well involves living with the recognition that we will soon die, and that we need to prepare the next generation with our wisdom. If you attend the funeral of a person who has lived well, the stories of that life have the potential to touch and transform your own story and the stories of all those you come in contact with. Death can lead to life.

For confirmation of this, I don’t need to look further than my compost pile. In my compost bins, I pile a combination of organic material that has given up its life, either in the production of food or in the creation of beauty through flowers. Some of it is direct plant material, coming in the form of grass, leaves, or vegetable waste; some of it is indirect plant material, coming in the form of manure from poultry or a grazing animal. The heat of chemical reactions, along with activity of thousands of microbes, worms, and other wiggly creatures turns this material into the soft soil of compost. This, in turn, feeds the soil in my gardens and the plants that the soil sustains. The death of many plants leads to the sustenance of life for subsequent generations in the garden.

The martyrs also remind us of this truth. Lives offered up in God’s service, even if cut short by forces of evil in this world, often have a far greater impact through death than they ever could have had through a long life. Life often springs from death. The self-giving of Christ is the supreme example of this.

It is certainly sad when a life passes on, even sadder when someone we love dies prematurely, but there is a conspiracy for life woven into the fabric of creation. Everywhere around us, things are dying, yes—but also life is springing from the death. When we play the part we have been given in the drama of history, life wins. There are constantly sacrifices being offered, but they are being offered in the service of life. It is when we go our own way and run along out of sync with the cycles of creation—with no regard to the consequences—that things fall apart. It is when we grow dissatisfied and make unsustainable choices that forests begin to fall, without time to rise again. It is we who create factory farms, whose discharges cannot be absorbed by the surrounding land and eventually run off to poison our streams and wells. It is we who have created the polluting fuels that, in turn, fuel an economic system that devours and poisons rather than cultivates and heals.

What is the secret to finding our place in the circle of life? It is accepting aging and death as it comes, but also embracing the gifts of the short time of life we all have, and passing the wisdom we’ve gained to the next generations. It is living in the way of simplicity, the contented, sustainable way—the way that puts love of God and neighbor ahead of our personal comforts—not the profligate, prodigal way of our time, that takes far more than it gives. It comes in our acceptance of the truth that we cannot always have it our way, as is demonstrated in this poem by the Teacher.

For everything there is a season,

a time for every activity under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die.

A time to plant and a time to harvest.

A time to kill and a time to heal.

A time to tear down and a time to build up.

A time to cry and a time to laugh.

A time to grieve and a time to dance.

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.

A time to embrace and a time to turn away.

A time to search and a time to quit searching.

A time to keep and a time to throw away.

A time to tear and a time to mend.

A time to be quiet and a time to speak.

A time to love and a time to hate.

A time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NLT)

By following the path of simplicity and acceptance, coupled with diligent and selfless service to others, there is some hope that we might leave a sustainable future for those who come after us. It is by living in sync with the ways of the Creator that we become a force for good in the world He has made. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes concludes his sometimes discouraging reflections with some real wisdom: “Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, NLT)

Garden Tip: If you have a yard and garden that generates organic waste of any sort, set aside some space for a compost pile. And if you already have a pile, look for ways for improving its production of compost. Here are a few tips:

  • When you put organic material into your compost pile, try to mix high nitrogen items (like grass, garden greens, kitchen scraps, and manures) in equal amounts with high carbon items (like dry leaves, wood chips, straw, or even shredded paper). This will create a rich environment that feeds the microbes and other small creatures that will help break down the material; the resulting balanced pile will heat up well without generating strong-smelling gases.
  • Make sure your pile has enough moisture to encourage the growth and reproduction of microbes, worms, and other wiggly creatures, but not so wet that it smothers the pile. Too much water will dispel the oxygen necessary to encourage microbial life and decomposition and drown many of the other helpful creatures. Turning your pile regularly, especially when it’s wet, will help replace the oxygen supply and encourage the decomposition process.
  • Avoid putting weeds or other plants that have set seed in your pile. If you do and your pile doesn’t heat up adequately, the resulting compost will be filled with weed seeds. (This isn’t horrible, since it is easy to pull the weed seedlings that will sprout after you spread your compost, but “clean” raw materials will generate a cleaner compost.) Also avoid putting diseased garden plants into your pile, unless you plan to do the work necessary to keep it hot for an adequate period of time. Otherwise your compost may harbor bacteria and spores that cause plant diseases.
  • The finer you chop the leaves and other materials in your pile, the more quickly it will decompose and produce excellent compost for your use.
  • The hotter you keep your pile by turning it regularly, keeping it moist, and building it with a balance of carbon and nitrogen materials, the more quickly it will produce finished compost and the cleaner that compost will be. A hot pile will kill most of the disease-causing bacteria and fungi that exist, along with most of the weed seeds that may have found their way into your pile. But if the hard work of turning the pile is beyond you, a slow pile is still a worthwhile endeavor.

As you spread the finished compost, celebrate the sacrificial gifts offered by the plants that came before. Also celebrate the many sacrifices made to give you life and that make it possible for you to enjoy life. All of us—even the most forsaken of us—are the recipients of many gifts, seen and unseen. Remembering this may start you on a journey toward having a grateful heart.

Synergy

There’s always been a part of me that has been intrigued by math. It’s not the predictability of it that I like. It’s the surprises. It’s is the realization that for many things in life, one plus one really doesn’t equal two. It can sometimes equal four, or perhaps seven. Sometimes bringing two things together creates magic, and the forces of the two aren’t just added; they’re multiplied. This happens in chemical reactions, with yeast mixed with flour, water, and salt, with companion plantings in the garden, with grass and grazing animals, and sometimes with people, too. Things are supposed to work that way. It has to do with the character of the Creator, and the way He has put things together.

There are hundreds of examples of companion plantings passed down in garden lore. Sometimes plants are paired together so they can provide shelter, support, and nutrition for each other. Native Americans often planted the three sisters (maize, beans, and squash) together for such mutual advantage, producing a nutritious combination of food for the winter months. The maize (corn) grew tall and required a nitrogen rich soil; the climbing beans fixed nitrogen for the maize, while also using the maize stalks to climb high for good ventilation; the squash ran between the hills of maize and beans, serving as a living mulch to hold in moisture and smother the competing weeds. The result was an easily harvested, easily stored, nutritious supply of food, grown as God intended.

Companion plants are sometimes called upon to protect the target plants from marauding insect pests. This is accomplished in several different ways. One common example involves planting marigolds or fragrant herbs among the vegetables to confuse or repel pests. Sometimes, instead of functioning as a repellent, the companion plant masks the presence of a target plant or draws the pests away from the target plant by being even more attractive. In some cases, companion plants attract and sustain beneficial insects, summoning an insect army to fight the pests. There are many different ways that companion plantings create synergy in the garden.

This sort of synergy works for people in communities, too. In the creation account in Genesis, we are told that God created man in his own image. But initially the man was alone in the world God made, and this was recognized as being “not good.” So God made a helper who was just right for him—the woman. Together they would have the power to rule the earth and create life by bearing children through their union. Later, the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote on this theme:

“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

We have all experienced synergy with others in some way or another. Ideas are generated by a group of creative people that never could have been generated by the contributions of each individual alone. One person’s idea sparks other ideas, which build and build, until it produces something new that is nothing short of a miracle. It also happens in the sports arena, where one team member moves in concert with another, who then moves with another, producing a synergy that cannot easily be stopped.

Companion plantings, the ingredients of any good recipe, and individual members of a community can all function as a unified body. Listen to the apostle Paul as he describes the community of believers as a body:

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. (1 Corinthians 12:12-26)

So what is the force behind such creative synergy? It involves the selfless offering of our gifts to others, driven by the powerful presence of God’s life-giving Spirit. The differences between individuals need to be embraced as a strength in the community, not a force that divides, as they so often are. Our diversity should provide the rich array of gifts necessary to accomplish really great things—a force to draw us together with the help of God’s Spirit, so that we function as a complete, miracle-working body, the very presence of Christ on earth.

Garden Tip: Try some creative companion plantings to solve some of your pest problems in the garden. Below are a few you might want to try. For more, do a web search on “companion planting,” and you’ll find many ideas to experiment with. 

  • Plant old fashioned marigolds throughout your vegetable garden, since their scent repels many different pest insects. (Be aware that some hybrid varieties lack the necessary scent for this.)
  • Plant the mint family around your garden, especially near cabbage family plants, since they are believed to repel cabbage pests, as well as aphids. (It is wise to plant the mint family in pots, since they tend to take over.)
  • Plant rue as a border plant to slow down Japanese beetles and scatter the plant clippings around the beetle-infested plants.
  • Plant sweet basil throughout your vegetable and flower gardens, since its strong scent repels aphids, mosquitoes, mites, and tomato hornworms. (Crush leaves and rub them on your skin as a mosquito repellent, too, if you don’t mind smelling like a basil plant!)
  • Plant thyme and tomatoes near your plants in the cabbage family to control a number of their common insect pests. 
  • Plant radishes or nasturtiums in your cucumber beds to control cucumber beetle infestations.

Also try some interplanting or succession planting to enrich the soil and help plants with particular nutritional needs. A three sisters garden is one example of this, but there are many other ways to to this including planting a series of plants in a given bed within the same year or rotating your beds in successive years.

As you garden creatively with nature and observe how these various plants help each other, remember that many of the same principles observed in the garden come into play in our human communities as well.

Weeds

With all the uncertainties that accompany any growing season in the garden, one thing can be counted on—a constant battle with weeds. They sprout innocently enough in early spring and if you keep up with them, it is possible to keep them under control. But if you turn your head for a minute, you’ll find yourself fighting an uphill battle. And if you let the weed plants go to seed, you’ll be fighting that battle for years to come.

Weeds will find their way into your garden in many ways. They fly on the wind (dandelions, thistles, willow, maple, elm, to name a few), animals carry them in and bury them (acorns, walnuts, sunflower seeds), birds eat berries and plant the seeds with their droppings (mulberries, buckthorn, elderberries, blackberries, etc.). Sometimes weeds, including grasses, wild morning glories, and thistles, have amazing root systems that spread into the garden from neighboring areas via the underground.

And sometimes I’m the culprit. After weeding, I often throw weeds that have already set seed into my compost pile, and I don’t usually turn the pile often enough to maintain the heat required to kill the seeds. When I spread the compost a year or two later, it often contains an amazing array of weed seeds (and perennial flower seeds, too). It’s as though I’m planting them! All this is to say that weeds are highly skilled at survival, and somehow call on help from many different quarters to reproduce themselves. I suppose it’s this reproductive prowess that makes them weeds.

Jesus once told a parable about God’s Kingdom, using weeds as the primary illustration:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’ ‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. ‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

*   *   *

Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.”

Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 13:36-43)

This problem of weeds infecting wheat and barley fields has been a problem in the Middle East since ancient times. The particular weed Jesus probably had in mind was either darnel grass (Lolium temulentum) or Syrian scabious (Cephalaria syriaca). Both are noxious weeds that mix with grain crops and cause significant damage to the harvest. Darnel grass, being in the grass family, looks a lot like wheat and is tough to identify, even when it’s mature. As a result, it is often harvested and threshed with the wheat. A poisonous fungus lives in the darnel grains, ruining any flour where it is present. Its poison can cause nausea, convulsions, or even death when eaten in sufficient quantities. (Darnel seeds have been found with grain stored in 4000-year-old Egyptian tombs.) The Syrian scabious is not related to wheat, but its seeds often get mixed in during the harvest. When the seeds get mixed, they continue to be sown together year after year, producing a bitter though edible flour. Sometimes this weed overwhelms the wheat and the farmer turns to harvesting the scabious seeds for survival. The seeds look like a black wheat grain.

The weeds in Jesus’ story are a picture of how some people function in relation to God’s Kingdom. They are a force that disrupts the good work of the Farmer, who is seeking to grow and harvest good grain for the Kingdom. Such wicked seeds are planted by the evil one in order to disrupt the good works of God, but in the end the Kingdom will prevail and judgment will be brought against the evil forces in this world. This is a reminder to be careful not to function as a weed, which is nothing less than being an instrument of evil.

Weeds also illustrate how the many small forces for evil in our lives, if allowed to grow and reproduce, can quickly overwhelm the good work God is doing in us. Weeds in a life, just like in a garden, have ways of reproducing themselves and spreading. And, as with weeds, the insidious effects of sin are all around us and will always be with us. They often blow in on the wind from the surrounding environment. Sometimes they come in on the bottom of our feet or in the compost (“good deeds”) we spread. Be careful to keep them under control, or they may come not only to overwhelm your own life, but the lives of others around you as they spread.

Garden Tip: Just as weeds have many means of spreading and surviving, there are many things we can do to slow them down and control them. Here are a few things that might help:

  • Deal with the weeds early in the season, before they take hold, so they don’t disrupt the growth of your garden plants. Your vegetable and flower production will be significantly better if you remove their competition for nutrients, water, and sunlight.
  • Deal with the weeds early (and often) when they are small and much easier to remove. Then by mid-season, your battle will largely be won. This will also keep them from setting seed for the next year, making each successive year’s weeding in your garden easier.
  • When you weed, pull them by the roots! If you just get the green tops, they will just re-sprout and come back stronger. Some weeds are notorious for breaking off as you pull them (purslane, for example) . Use a hoe or other tool that cuts the roots off below the surface. Weeds with a long taproot need to be cut off well beneath the surface.
  • Mulch heavily around larger plants to smother weed seedlings or to make the weeds easier to pull, since they will be growing through a soft medium. It also helps to weed when the soil is moist. Weeds growing in hard, dry soil are tough to pull up by the roots.
  • Avoid putting older weeds (with fruit or seed on them) in your compost pile unless you plan to maintain a hot pile. Otherwise you will find that you are the primary culprit behind the weeds growing in your garden.
  • Harvest the nutritious greens from some of your weeds, like dandelions, purslane, and lambsquarters; this will slow them down a bit! But then pull them before they can spread their seed.
  • If the weed seeds have already overwhelmed your soil and garden, solarize the affected beds by covering them with a clear plastic sheet in early spring; bury the edges of the sheet under the soil. The sun will quickly warm the soil under the plastic, and weed seeds will sprout early, and by the thousands. As the weather warms, the air under the plastic will grow too hot for any plants to survive, and most of the seedlings will die. At planting time, roll up the plastic, cultivate the soil, and plant your garden. There will be far fewer weeds as the season goes on. This practice also helps to kill some fungi and bacteria that hide in your soil and cause plant diseases.

As you wrestle with the weeds in your garden and look for creative ways to control them, remember that many of the principles for controlling weeds may offer wisdom for dealing with the sin in your life. Reflect on this as you work, and look for ways to weed sin from your head, heart, and hands—early and often.

Peaches and Miracles

Big questions arise and find answers in little things—things like peaches.

As August arrived, we picked our backyard peach tree clean and enjoyed sweet, juicy perfection for the several weeks following. Just a small tree with green leaves, fueled by sunlight, soil, and rain. And somehow sweet fruits form, swell, and ripen—fruits that all creatures, whether human, animal, bird, or insect, can delight in. Scientists can explain a few things about  how it works. They can talk about root systems, flowers and pollination, the tree vascular system, photosynthesis, even the plant’s genetic code, but none of it really explains where the fruits come from and why. How does the tree know how to do it? We certainly can’t duplicate the process in a factory. How really does the tree know the recipe for gathering resources from air, light, earth, and water to yield such heavenly gifts?

I also wonder how such a tree can make something that so many enjoy. Some might argue that it exists exactly because it is so pleasing to people. That’s why it survives. People cultivate and reproduce it. This is doubtless to some degree true. But in the larger sense of things I wonder if that isn’t putting the egg before the chicken. How did the peach tree get there in the first place so that people could value it enough to select and protect it? And how did we come to have taste buds and metabolic systems that arouse delight in us as we eat the fruits?

Then I wonder about the environment required for the life of such a tree. It needs a temperate climate with plenty of water and sunshine and reasonably good soil. But what sustains these things? What if we didn’t have a moon to help create weather and rain patterns? What if the moon was just a bit bigger, or its orbit was farther from the earth? What if the sun was a bit bigger or smaller? Or what if the sun was a bit farther away from the earth? What if it was closer? What if the earth spun much slower on its axis and our days and nights were much longer? If any of these or thousands of other factors that sustain our climate were to change or be different, the tree would not be able to live here, and neither would we or any of the other myriad life forms that share our life community here on planet earth. The more I reflect on these factors, the more I learn of them, the more I wonder at it all. The complex interdependency of all the factors sustaining life are overwhelming. Could this complex tapestry have possibly been woven by chance?

In reflecting on miracles, Wendell Berry once wrote, “The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine—which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

Life as we experience it is an astounding array of ongoing and interwoven miracles—even when things are going badly. We are surrounded by them at every turn, and we are completely blind to most of them. Life as we know it is sustained by a divine hand guided by creativity and intelligence beyond our conception. He is the Christ—the Earth Maker and History Weaver, the Keeper of all things, the One who spins the forces for our daily survival.

In a world filled with doubt and doubters, it is easy to discount miracles. But our awareness of the mundane miracles all around should plant the seeds of faith we need for the bigger, more surprising miracles. As I reflect on all this beneath my peach tree, I bite deeply into a ripe peach, raise my hands in the air, and give thanks. And then I smile and wipe the sticky juice from my chin.

Garden Tip: Plant a peach tree or any other fruit tree in your yard or garden. Choose varieties appropriate for your climate and make sure you plant appropriate pollinating varieties if required. Most peach trees are self-pollinating, making it easy to plant one tree in a small space. Other fruits (apricots, for example) often need pollinating pairs to produce fruit. If you have a small garden, dwarf fruit tree varieties are also a good idea. That way the trees won’t take over completely.

After planting, watch as the miracles begin to unfold and do what you must to help them along.

Thin Places

In the Christian Celtic tradition there has always been a deep awareness of spiritual reality, and the recognition that that reality is always close at hand. And the Celts also spoke of special places—“thin places”—where that spiritual reality was especially close. As the old Celtic saying goes: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart; but in the thin places, that distance is even shorter.” A thin place is a location where the veil separating spiritual and physical realities is especially thin, where God’s presence seems especially close and His divine whisper is loud. I think it likely that all of us have some special places, where our spiritual senses seem to be especially alert. Such are the thin places.

In the Bible there is mention of this sort of thing. For the people of ancient Israel, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem, were locations where God was especially present—where the separation between Creator and created was especially thin. It seems God recognized the need in the people of Israel for such a place. Perhaps that is why he provides such places for us all—places where we can go and sense His divine presence and power, where we can more easily hear His still, small whisper in our ears, where we can receive his gifts of grace. In the New Testament, the church was given the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a tradition practiced regularly by millions of believers of many languages and cultures. Why? Perhaps because it provides for us a thin place, a concrete manifestation of divine grace, a place (and time) where we experience God’s real touch of forgiveness and transforming love.

My garden is one of the thin places for me. Why is this so? Perhaps because it is a place of beauty—at least on its better days. Beautiful locations can jar us into a realization that a spiritual reality is at hand—that God is close by. Perhaps it is also because the garden is a place of miracles. Dead seeds go into the ground and are transformed though water, sun, and many unseen processes into amazing gifts. Watch the eyes of children in a garden as they pick the fruit, and you will have little doubt that this is the stuff of miracles. As we grow up, we often become blind to the miracles all around. Perhaps the garden is a thin place, not just because it is a place of life, but also because it is a place of death. The living things feed off the composted decay of plants of an earlier generation. It reminds us that life is a gift—a gift purchased by the living things that died to feed it. It awakens in us the realization that life is short, and that our life costs something.

I think most thin places occur in nature because the evidence of the Creator’s presence is so vivid and clear. An awe-inspiring landscape can take our breath, awakening our appreciation for the One who twisted it from the bones of the earth. It stills our hearts and minds and helps us to catch at least a small glimpse of heaven. Often the works of people hide God’s glory and blind us to spiritual reality, but sometimes human creativity can also create a thin place. Simple things, like warm hospitality around a full table, can be such a place. Or when we step into a great cathedral, time stops and we feel small in God’s great presence. God is there in a special way, and His voice is loud in the silence. Over the centuries monks built monasteries that were “thin” for the many who passed through their walls, augmented by the prayers and worship offered there. Stand on the cliffs of the rustic monastery on Skellig Michael and imagine a great storm blowing in off the North Sea—there you will find a thin place.

Thin places are in some sense sacramental. They are locations and practices that bring God near, where truth is conveyed through the concrete—through people, through creation, through the Word and the word. That is most often how God works. Though the beauties around us aren’t an actual extension of God, they do convey His presence, His grace, and His truth to us. For He is the Creator of all. I close this post with some reflections on thin places that I recorded some time back:

I think I’ve had a summer of visiting thin places—places where heaven is more real than earth, where the brush of an angel’s wing is more real than a breeze, where the wind smells of the breath of God. I felt it amidst the improbable, tortured landscapes of western national parks, places that surprise you into a different sort of consciousness. Everything is so huge, putting you in tiny relief. These are places that set you often on the edge of a precipice, where your stomach finds itself in your throat, where one slip could bring your last breath. These are places where we realize our smallness, our weakness, our fragility, how so very temporary we are. We discover we are like grass in a desert, which soon fades after the spring rains are gone. We discover the truth about ourselves—that it’s a miracle we’re alive and that we’re all just hanging on by a thread. Each day, each breath becomes newly precious, a reason for rejoicing. Our hearts beat faster, colors are more vivid, friends and loved ones are suddenly more precious, God’s presence is vibrant, real.

But as I’ve thought about it, thin places aren’t just physical places of monumental proportions. They are “places” on the border of life and death, on the edge of eternity. We can go there without traveling to a far-off mountain top. We might get there, at least in a small way, by a step out of our comfort zone—a bungee jump, giving a speech, or a karaoke performance. We can go there through a 30-day fast or by receiving a terminal diagnosis at a doctor’s office. We can reach a thin place through a broken heart, by sitting on a friend’s deathbed, or by growing old and frail. It’s a step toward humility, helplessness, a step toward faith, a step toward eternity.

So what have I gained from this foray into thin places? I’ve had fear awakened—but I’ve also been awakened from a waking sleep, a numb stupor. I’ve been almost overwhelmed by sadness—but, though sadness remains, I’m healthier emotionally than I’ve been in a long time. I feel smaller, more helpless than I’ve felt for a long time—but I know that I’m eternally safe. I’ve felt truly lost—but I know I’m not alone and without a guide. I’ve discovered that it’s better to be in God’s hands than in my own, even though I can’t control where I’m going or see around the corner ahead. (Even when I’ve fooled myself into thinking I’m in control, I’m still really blind.) I’ve remembered what I have known for a long time—that the sense of being in control, strong, capable, or worthy is only illusory, and that God’s gracious, merciful presence is essential for my very existence, for each simple breath.

And so I’ll take a step forward each day in faith, believing that God will be there to catch me when I fall, find and guide me when I’m lost, love me when I’m afraid and lonely, encourage me when my courage is gone. It is sometimes good to walk the edge of a precipice, as long as it leads, in the end, to the arms of God.

Garden Tip: Visit one of your thin places, and taste the goodness and greatness of God. Listen to His voice. Reflect on how you are connected to God, to others, and to the world He has put us in. Trace out these connections and give thanks for the life that flows to you through them. Then dream—make plans to build, to plant a thin place. This world will never have enough of them.

Like Grass II

“Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. ” (Isaiah 40:6)

In many parts of the world, grass makes only a short appearance each year. In these places, grass makes an excellent illustration for how short and temporary our lives are. But in the great grasslands of the world, grass paints quite a different picture, and one that also might be instructive for us.

Grasses can be a force to be reckoned with. Just ask any gardener who has lawn interspersed with gardens. The grass is always in the act of invasion, whether through root spread or seed drop. And some grasses find a way to spread their seeds no matter how short your lawn. Crabgrass, for example, sends long lateral arms along the ground to produce seed heads close to the ground. It’s nearly impossible to clip off all the seed heads before they sow seed, one reason it is so invasive.

In the great grasslands, grasses have teamed up with grazing animals to produce deep, rich soils. Larger varieties of grass send expansive roots deep into hard soils, digging passageways for earthworms and other biotic life. The plants utilize energy from the sun and transform it into organic mass, using mineral resources released by rain water in even the poorest soils. All the while, the grass-cover protects the existing soil from erosion by wind or running water.

When grazing animals come into the cooperative picture, the power of grass builds exponentially. In part, this is due to the fertilizer left by the animals as they eat the grass and later drop dung. The animals also stir the surface of the soil with their hooves, and their grazing stimulates the growth of the grasses and other plants, both above and below the soil. (The dung also draws the attention of other players in the drama, including flies. When flies lay their eggs in the dung, maggots soon emerge, drawing in birds who feed on the larvae while also breaking up and spreading the dung.) Over time, the constant growth and dying back of the root mass below the soil, plus the constant layer of compost left by cycles of dying grass and animal dung on the surface, builds a deep, rich soil.

In such an environment, grass is the centerpiece of an incredible, transformative force. Through its growth and self-giving in the context of the larger grassland ecosystem, it enables not just the maintenance of the soil, but a progressive improvement of the soil over time. But the influence grass has on this environment comes mainly because it plays a sacrificial role in the complex biotic web of life. It doesn’t go it alone. And much of its success comes about as it lays down its life for the benefit of the animal species it feeds. As it gives itself up for food, its own growth is stimulated and, in time, it is fed in return.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to think that we should be like grass—self-sacrificial agents of transformation for the people, creatures, and environments around us. Are we such a force for good? I think we often fail in this regard because we hold our lives and possessions too dear, not realizing that if we were to share them more fully in the communities around us, we would benefit as much as the others who join in the venture with us.

Jesus once said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:24-25)

We are all part of a complex web of relationships, with links to God, other people, and nature. But many of these links have been twisted and broken, some by our own personal actions, some by the communities and societies in which we live. We need to look for ways to strengthen these links through reflection, confession, and transformative action. For unless we do, we will find ourselves isolated, and like a tuft of grass alone on a rocky hillside, we will struggle. It is by self-giving in community that we will build the environment and sustaining support that we need to flourish.

Garden Tip: Plant large grass varieties in your gardens. They create a beautiful and hardy backdrop to many of the smaller, more colorful plants. Over time, the roots of such grasses can help break  up hard soils, allowing water, nutrients, and many little creatures to make their way down in.

To find grass species native to your area, take walks in local grassland preserves. Go when the grass seed heads are ripening, and pick a few seed heads to plant strategically in your garden.  These plantings will take a few years to mature, but patience is part of the gardening life. Also, be aware that some native species can be invasive. Be attentive to their growth habits before planting! 🙂  (Garden centers often sell large grasses for gardens, but often they are not species native to your area.)

Oh, and take a look at this site for some really interesting articles about grass.

Like Grass I

According to the ancient Scriptures, we are supposed to be like trees, though most of us fail to be so. But the Scriptures also tell us that we are unavoidably like something else less striking, less enduring—grass. And as we reach the heat of summer, the grass, so vigorous in spring, turns dry and brown unless watered consistently, a reminder of our short and fragile lives. Look at the words of the psalmist and the prophet Isaiah:

“The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone—as though we had never been here. But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13-17)

“Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the LORD. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

In the Middle East, the original context for these writings, grasses and wildflowers flourish with the winter rains, turning the world green. But by July, just a few months later, the world has turned a golden brown, as everything dries out in the hot sun. So for that part of the world, the short-lived character of grass is especially pronounced, expressing the truth with particular clarity that our lives are short and pass quickly. (In other parts of the world, the character of grass might paint a more enduring picture for us; but that wasn’t true in the Bible world.)

To live fully, we must discover this truth: We are all like grass. We flower forth with lush growth in youth, but then our glory and strength quickly wane. All of us must face death—and soon. And such a perspective, as negative as it may seem, is a great gift. How often have we heard the testimonies of people suffering with a terminal illness, that when faced with imminent and certain death, they finally discover how to really live? And the fact is—we’re all terminal.

When we come to know with a certainty that we all are dying, even the youngest of us—that our days are short—it is then that we come to know what it is to live. For it is only then that we come to value each and every breath, to savor each bite of freshly baked bread, of a crisp apple, of a sweet ripe mango. It is only then that we are truly grateful for each sip of water, of milk, of wine, for each smile or kind word given and received among friends. It is then that we can recognize each sunset, each flower blossom, for the true wonder that it is.

It is here that we discover there are no more moments to wait before offering and receiving forgiveness, even with our enemies; there is no more time to waste before binding up wounds we’ve left long open and festering. There is time only for action, for service, for love.  There is no time left for delay in what’s really important. And what’s really important always involves the people God has placed in our lives. It seldom has to do with the many busy things that fill our calendars and that we use to make ourselves feel important.

Garden Tip: As the grass turns brown in the hot days of summer, allow it to do so. Turn off the sprinkler and turn to the important work you’ve been called to do in life. Let the brown grass remind you that we are all suffering in a terminal state. There is no time left for delay in the really important things.

I do still advise watering your vegetables and flowers. 🙂 But with the grass of your lawn, though it will turn brown during dry times, it will also quickly green up again when it rains. And perhaps this can remind you (along with the words of the psalmist and the prophet) that though our lives are short, God’s Word and loving presence will always remain. There is always the hope of a resurrection.

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