Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pinching Back the Petunias

Watchword for the week of June 1, 2014:

 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5: 7

With coffee in hand and laptop tucked under my arm, I head to the front porch to take up residency this morning. The Boston ferns and thriving white impatiens offer an inspiring backdrop, the patio furniture a comfortable workspace. But before I can get down to writing, I must attend to an unsightly distraction. I have to pinch back the petunias.

They’re of a variety I’ve not seen before—petite, lemony flowers just a fraction of the size of the standard purple trumpets I often pot up in hanging baskets. These otherwise cheerful sprays are blemished with the shriveled brown vestiges of blossoms that have already peaked and withered. I deadhead the spent blooms, working my fingers through the foliage and judiciously plucking away the decay. I preen the plants not just because it helps them to look better in this moment, but because removing the debris encourages them to produce new growth, to set forth future cascading clusters of yellow beauty.

As I groom the containers, I ponder the Watchword, and before long, I am imagining that each depleted posy is one of my worries—one of the sad, sundried anxieties that cling to me, and that must be removed if I am going to be my best today and flourish tomorrow. Garden variety concerns: how to pay for the unanticipated car repair; how to lower my triglyceride numbers; where is my kid and how come he hasn’t answered my text; how will I ever accomplish what’s on my to-do list, much less my Bucket List; why did I let those angry words slip and how will I fix the situation…. These sorts of things that keep me awake at night are what need to be tossed on the compost pile. And so, I fire off a prayer, and before I know it, I am imagining that God is wearing gardening gloves and is caring for me by gingerly culling what is waste from what is life.

Ah, that’s much better. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

TripTik Jesus

Watchword for the Week of May 18, 2014

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. 
No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

The last time I took a road trip to an unfamiliar place, I typed the address into my smartphone and let it design a route. It looked okay to me, but just to be sure, I checked my destination’s website for directional advice. It did not match the plan my phone had laid out, so I pulled up on my laptop and printed out the turn-by-turn instructions so that I could make comparisons. I have a GPS in my vehicle and could have programmed it, but I don’t really like having a disembodied voice snidely announcing it is “recalculating” my driving decisions as though it were oh-so-superior, so I didn’t plug it in. But I did grab a couple of paper maps and toss them on the passenger seat, just for good measure. After cross-referencing all of the information and still feeling like I needed to flip a coin at every choice, I found myself longing for one definitive answer. I wanted a TripTik.

The TripTik was the gold standard for travel planning when I was a kid. Pioneered and perfected by the American Automobile Association, the AAA TripTik provided customized road trip itineraries long before ordinary people had access to the Information Super Highway. With just a week or so of notice, AAA could plot out a personalized, dependable path which would then be assembled into a tailor-made, vertically-oriented, spiral-bound notebook. Each page represented a leg of the journey—an isolated stripe of highway, about a hundred miles in length, detailed with exits and rest stops, and yet streamlined, the course unmistakable. It made navigating a breeze, and for the bored children in the back seat, it provided an anticipatory thrill whenever the car came to the appointed mile marker and it was time to turn to a fresh page. In my family, the TripTik was decisive. There was nothing to do but follow where it led. Simple!

Don’t get me wrong. I like having choices. I like knowing that for any challenge, there are countless combinations of solutions limited only by lack of imagination. But sometimes it gets to be too much, this overwhelming access to infinite possibilities. Especially in the critical moment (“Must I cross three lanes of speeding traffic to make that exit coming up in a quarter mile, or is it okay to stay on this road awhile longer?”), it’s a relief to have an unambiguous answer.

Jesus gives an unambiguous answer about which route is guaranteed to bring a spiritual traveler into unending relationship with God. He says that HE is the route. HE is the road. HE is the TripTik. Whatever tracks Jesus lays down, whoever follows in them is bound to end up where Jesus is—inhabiting downtown accommodations in the place where God is.

But is the unambiguous answer also an exclusive answer? Some say that in order to arrive at the hoped-for eternal destination, it is necessary to invoke Jesus’ name as though it were the exclusive currency taken at the toll gate. But here’s something I’ve noticed: If I want to arrive in Chicago, I don’t just speak the name “Chicago” and, poof, find myself teleported to the western shore of Lake Michigan. I still must traverse the network of highways. And while it may be important for me to know which direction to head, the road itself doesn’t particularly care if I call it I-90, I-94 or the Dan Ryan Expressway. The fact that I’m following the road and trusting where it leads is what matters.

To trust and follow Jesus is to tailgate him, to keep just inches off his bumper. His way is the way of selfless love and deep compassion. To go there is to leave behind whatever appears in the rear view mirror and move forward, ever closer to the spot that’s circled on the TripTik—ever closer to that place in the heart where God resides.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Gates and Doorways

Watchword for the week of May 11, 2014:

Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” John 10: 9

When I was a very young girl, my mother worked in a most amazing building. I had no idea what she did there, but I loved paying her a visit in the impressive white-columned, dome-topped structure set squarely in the middle of Downtown.* With gold ceilings and polished stone balconies, green marble walls and peacock-hued mosaics, the building’s interior was even more stunning than its exterior. But above all the grandeur, what captivated my pre-school imagination more than anything else was the revolving door: enormous frames of dark wood surrounding mesh embedded glass panes bisected by bronze push bars I was not weighty enough to budge. If we were to make progress, Daddy would have to stand behind me in the pie-wedge compartment and push off. He would also have to tell me when to hop out, something I was afraid to do. More often than not, we would have to make several revolutions before I saved up the courage to shoot through the opening and enter the lobby. This gateway both fascinated and intimidated me, but it always beckoned.

Jesus never identifies himself as a revolving door (which is not surprising since the first one wasn’t designed until 1881), but he does use the gate metaphor to describe himself and his mission. You probably know this already, but in case not, when Jesus speaks of being a gate, he is talking about the threshold of a sheepfold. A sheepfold is a rustic, roofless, community corral where shepherds can secure their flocks while they catch a few hours of sleep. It’s really nothing more than a low-walled box with a gap in the perimeter. The gap is the entrance/exit. It has no door, per se. In order to block the gap in the wall, a shepherd stretches out across it. A shepherd becomes the door. A shepherd prevents the sheep from wandering out, and predators from wandering in. A shepherd is the entire security system. A shepherd personally takes on the risk and the responsibility of the flocks’ welfare.

If Jesus is watching the gate—being the gate—what a relief that should be to his followers! If Jesus is checking ID’s, that’s one less thing the rest of us have to worry about. If Jesus is assuming all risk and responsibility for who is in and who is out, then we can relax. Secure and unburdened from needing to judge one another, both the ones on the outside and the ones on the inside, we are remarkably free. With that freedom, we move from the protected enclosure, encouraged to wander out beyond the walls to discover nourishment and fulfillment. We are saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Coming and going. In and out. One reason buildings are outfitted with revolving doors is because they allow people to enter and exit efficiently at the same time. They encourage smooth traffic flow. Had Jesus ever said, “I am the revolving door,” he might have been inviting the Church to keep moving—for disciples to step inside as needed for shelter, but then to turn it around and head back out to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Had Jesus ever invoked the metaphor, he may have been teaching us that there’s nothing static about the life of a follower, that the business of transformation is one of movement and change. Had Jesus ever elaborated on this, he may have been reminding us that, although he is the door, we might need to work collectively and give one another assistance to give an extra heave in order to advance. And he might have been highlighting the truth that pursuing the life in Christ, while alluring, sometimes requires a moment of courage when it comes time to hop out.

(*Later in life I puzzled together that Mom had served on the staff of the State’s Attorney General, and that the office I admired was located inside the Wisconsin State Capitol.) 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Refrigerator Reflection

Watchword for the week beginning May 4, 2014:

You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  
1 Peter 1:23

What ultimately turns out to be perishable doesn’t seem so at first. A bouquet of broccoli, a glossy polished apple, a perfect pint of blueberries—the Farmers’ Market yields a vivid assortment, plump and juicy. An eggplant, purply smooth and taut as a pregnant belly, evokes the vivacious promise that all of life is wonderment, beauty and jubilant possibility.

But to grasp what it means to be perishable, all I need to do is tour my own refrigerator, a museum holding a full array of good-but-failed intentions toward the goal of fresh and healthy eating. Beginning with the upper shelves, I view the untouched packages of tofu, both silken and firm, hiding behind the partially-consumed carton of organic Greek yogurt. Proceeding downward past the skim milk and orange juice jugs, I take in the amassed collection of plastic leftover containers archived by date, the most recent scoops of soups and casseroles toward the front and the oldest, molding samples at the back. (This is where the penicillin develops.) And for the finest examples of putrefaction, I visit the fruit and vegetable crisper bins where the carrots and onions are holding up pretty well, but where a couple of cucumbers inside a grocery store produce bag have turned to mush, a lime has dehydrated, and the cabbage I was too lazy to shred has decomposed and is emitting an unpleasant, sulfur-scented cloud.  

What is perishable, no matter how promising, is impermanent. It’s a good thing that tomorrow is Garbage Day.

“Imperishable” isn’t a word that often comes up in my everyday conversations. The closest thing to it would be “non-perishable,” as in: “The Youth Group is collecting non-perishable items for the local Food Pantry. Please bring your donations with you next Sunday.”   Non-perishability conjures the kind of dependable permanence attached to SPAM and canned beef stew, tins that reside in the darkest, lowest shelf of a kitchen’s corner cupboard. What is non-perishable is stable, but not especially vibrant.

And that is far different from what is imperishable. What is imperishable is permanent, yes, but also exquisite. It is the perfection of sweet, sun-kissed strawberries, but sweet, sun-kissed strawberries that never go out of season or give way to decay.  What is imperishable is perpetually luscious and steadfastly delightful.   What is imperishable is eternal. What is eternal cannot yet be known by us who are oh-so-very perishable. And yet we get a taste—a delectable, lingering taste—every time we take in the essence of love. The flavor of love—pure and saturated--tantalizes us in the present and causes us to crave after more of the same. Love will be, one day, what satisfies us completely and perpetually. Love, splendidly cultivated, sumptuously ripe, and forever fresh—this is what we expect the imperishable seed is always growing into.