My wife gave me a small rose plant on Valentine’s Day. It was a miniature rose bush, with a single red bud. It was her way of paying homage to my deep love of roses, a passion that I had pursued to ridiculous lengths in the past, becoming a certified rosarian. Certified, indeed, she would say.
I was thoroughly taken by the counter-intuitive notion of roses-in-the-snow, so I was moved by her thoughtfulness on this day of romantic excess. The rose bush took center stage on our bay kitchen window, as I would dutifully water it each morning as my coffee brewed. The rosebush faced West, thus receiving the majority of exposure in the afternoon sun. Not ideal conditions, but the bush was doing okay, in fact, it had produced two additional buds as the original blossom was in decline. This small rose bush held open for me the hope of Spring, the coming of trumpeting daffodils, the blossoming of Masters azaleas, even the start of my own garden, comprised of herbs and my prized home-grown tomatoes. That’s a lot of burden to bear for one small plant.
On the morning we left for St. Simons Island, I faithfully watered the plant, giving it a bit more than its usual allotment. When we got back to Atlanta a week later, the rosebush looked distressed. Hell, it was dead. I tried giving it water. I even spoke to it, whispering at first, coyly coaxing the little bush to recover. After a day of hoped recuperation. my wife called it, like a no-nonsense emergency room doc : dead.
I tried to deny it, even giving it one more day to rally…..after all, I’m from Atlanta. My sports teams have taught me to hope in the face of defeat. But no, it was not to be. And so I pulled the plant from it terra cotta home, dropping it unceremoniously into the trash bin.
This simple experience re-minded me of a couple of lessons I had discovered, but seem to forget readily.
One is the old “law of the farm” that my grandfather taught me: to get life and fruit, you must tend your garden. My grandfather, Glen Pollard, was a gentleman farmer who had left his West Georgia farm to become a police officer in sprawling Atlanta. This John Wayne character worked his beat downtown while maintaining his farm in Waco, growing watermelon, beans, okra, peas, and peanuts. Even though his day job kept him busy keeping the peace, he would invest the time amending the soil, planting, weeding, feeding, tending his crops. He would be rewarded for his labors with the literal fruit from his effort. It would provide for my initial introduction into the embedded rhythm of life that repeats its cycle over and over. He made a point to make it plain: you must care for your plants if you hope to see fruit.
That was many moons ago but I have applied that principle to my genetically driven love of gardening. I took his point to ridiculous lengths as I began my rose growing with seventy bare-root roses, the careful amendment of Georgia clay into a suitable soil, the installation of a drip irrigation system, the brewing of alfalfa tea to nourish my plants, and the careful examination of said plants daily. And guess what? He was right. I had the most beautiful roses in the neighborhood and brought roses to my staff at the Cathedral.
In time, at Texas songwriter Guy Clark’s prompting, I extended this principle into the mystical, magic of home-grown tomatoes. Guy got it right: there are only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes. My luscious tomatoes got rave reviews from my neighbors, my wife, and most importantly, me.
Through time, I learned that this principle is not limited to farming but applies to other areas: relationships, business, and learning. The Beatles even canonized it: The Love you take is equal to the Love you make. Even Ringo gets it, this spiritual lesson. And this poor rosebush was here to remind me again of this principle, this rhythm of which I sometimes lose in my suffering of spiritual amnesia.
The second lesson is one I got from a lay person who spoke at one point in a Diocese of Texas meeting. When assessing the need for change in the Church, he offered a thought that I have never forgotten: If your horse dies, dismount!
That made sense to me then and even more now, but it’s been hard to live. By nature, I find it hard to give up on anything. I did mention I was from Atlanta, right? It’s hard for me to give up on relationships, on projects, on organizations I care for. It is difficult for me to give up ways of being that at one point brought life, but now, are lifeless, in fact, are vdrawing off the very energy on which life depends. It was harder than it should have been to remove that bush, to toss it away…..but it was time.
Lent is about the time of letting go of things that fail to produce life, vitality. It may be giving up some things that have proved problematic through time. It may be adding some dimensions to your life structure that might offer more life in the future. In any case, negative or positive, it means change.
My mother, a biologist who knew about the rules of nature and evolution, once opined, when she was volunteering in the church nursery, that no one likes change, except babies that are wet and soiled. And she added, with her inimitable sense of humor, “and even they aren’t real keen on the process!”
Change is a part of life. It’s in the water, the soil of being, letting go and getting on. Ironically, change is the only constant.
Those of us who are on the pilgrimage of faith glimpse that Truth, a principle that is difficult to embrace. And yet, it is at the very heart of being. To become a spiritual being, rather than one who is merely collecting material things, we must learn and re-learn this tough spiritual lesson. I have called it “the Paschal Paradigm”, which is at the heart of living the Christ life. “Paschal” refers to the “pesach”, the passing from slavery to freedom in the case of the Hebrews in the epic Exodus. It is the continuous cycle of passing from death to new life.
Death and new birth are dynamic partners. In order to grow, we must allow things to die, to let go of our attachments, to relinquish control. On Easter Sunday, we catch the glimmer of new life with the image of the Resurrection of our Crucified Lord. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That would be premature. First, we must do the ground work, the farming of our soul. We must allow ourselves, at least part of ourselves, to die, with the promise of new life coming.
Like the roses I wold prune in Winter, they would return with glory in Spring. Hard to imagine, seeing them cut back and bare, this action would produce a glorious blossom of life. This is the deep truth that the Lord of Life, the Wisdom Bearer, teaches to those who would seek to follow: One must die in order to live. It is a hard lesson to learn, to embrace. It’s no Hallmark card platitude nor praise song chorus. But it is the truth, the Paradox and Paradigm of life itself.
Are you ready to dismount?