Garden Notes: A Harvest to Remember (and a winner!)

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If he was still alive, my Grandpa Phillips would have turned 118 today. Born in 1898, he died in 1999 just before his 101st birthday. Our Jeffrey, who carries Grandpa’s name as his middle (“I want to name the baby after you,” I told him. “What’s your middle name?” He laughed and said, “I wasn’t important enough to have a middle name.” So, Jeffrey Ray it is.) wasn’t quite four months old when this part of his namesake passed. They met only one time before Grandpa fell ill. I have a picture of Grandpa beaming, a bundle of baby in his arms. Grandpa was a stubborn, independent, loving soul. He lived alone until the last year of his life. Even when arthritis and vertigo plagued him, he resisted moving in with my aunt as long as he could. He lived life on his own terms—farmer, father of nine, lover of automobiles and babies—I still miss him sometimes. His wife—my Grandma—died when I was five years old. He lived another 25 years without his beloved. One time I asked him why he never remarried. “I didn’t want anyone but my old woman,” he said, tears in his eyes.

When I was a little girl, Grandpa had the biggest, most beautiful garden. I remember staring wide-eyed at his strawberries every summer; I remember Grandma’s well-stocked pantry of home-canned goods.

Last night, I pulled up what was left of my pole beans. They were still producing, petite white blooms speaking promise here and there. But the Mexican bean beetles had made lace out of every heart shaped leaf on the vine. I spent two hours pulling up the beans by root, searching out the beetle larvae and destroying it. Then I cleared the bed of any leaf debris, hoping to deter any overwintering beetles.

It’s been a bad summer for my garden. As I looked out over my little patch of land I wondered if Grandpa ever had such a sad harvest. Something inside me felt like I’d let him down. I’ve had little energy to nurture the tender shoots of growing things these past few months. I’ve had little energy for much other than what is required.

This week our women’s group begins a new Bible study on the life of Nehemiah. In preparation I’ve been reading through that book of the Bible, freshening my memory to the details of Nehemiah’s story. Nehemiah felt moved to leave a prestigious position in Susa to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls of Jerusalem. At one point, in fear of attack from their enemies, Nehemiah says,

From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried material did their worked with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. … Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.” (Neh. 4:16-18, 23)

How does one rebuild a thing while constantly standing guard? When you can’t even take a drink of water for fear of being ambushed by one thing or another?

Did my grandfather ever stand looking out over the garden of his life and wonder if what he was building would ever hold up? He lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, the struggle for civil rights, free love, and raising nine kids. His oldest son was a prisoner of war during the Korean Conflict, for Pete’s sake. His youngest son married at age 18—to a 16-year-old girl (my mother). He lost his wife of 53 years to cancer. And remained faithful to a memory for another 25.

And yet, in my memory he is always smiling.

The word remember is mentioned frequently in the book of Nehemiah. I’m paying attention to that. Today I’m remembering my Grandpa—Ray Phillips. And remembering feels like a rich harvest.

The winner of Laurie Klein’s beautiful book of poetry, Where the Sky Opens is Dolly! Yay, Dolly :). I’ll be in touch soon :).

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Exile

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This morning I awakened in the kind of pain that makes it difficult to move. I knew what it was, knew what was needed, and so for the second time in ten years, I called in to work to let them know I would be staying home today. I’ve been resting, using ice, and stretching. I am doing better—still moving gingerly, but better. My friend Shelly says that if we neglect our Sabbath time, sometimes we will enter into a time of forced Sabbath. I must admit this feels good—to stay in my PJs late into the morning, listen to my body and heed its call.

The truth is, work has been hard lately. Just yesterday I suffered a bit of disillusion after an exchange with some of my colleagues. Sometimes a system can feel too big to change unless we work together, and often the people we serve take the brunt of this kind of stagnation. Sometimes a system can feel so big that individuals get caught up in their own agendas and resist working together for change because it might require much. I feel myself being pulled toward this way. Yesterday, in a very small way, I felt like Jeremiah—my voice falling on empty ears. It was a hard place to be and I didn’t like it. So, this morning I am resting my tender heart, collecting the manna of this moment.

Eugene Peterson defines exile as “being where we don’t want to be with people we don’t want to be with.” Of course, he was speaking of the Jewish exiles in Babylon at first, but he is skillful to draw a quick parallel to our lives today. That’s how I felt yesterday. Like I was in exile.

When the Israelites are in Babylon, Jeremiah sends them a letter from Jerusalem. “Build houses and make yourselves at home,” he says. “Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. … Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”

“The aim of a person of faith,” says Peterson, “is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.”

Today it feels like I am hiding from the reality of life. But tomorrow? I pray I will be able to jump back in, to “discover truth, create beauty, act out love.” I will continue in this discovery of what it means to belong to God in this place I do not want to be.

Exile.

 

Everything Over the Sun

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Every morning I look out the kitchen window to the clearing in the meadow. I long for a glimpse of the spotted fawns we saw frolicking; I wonder about them: where are they? Are they safe? Will their spots disappear as quickly as the baby fat on my boys? Will they snack on the tenderettes in my garden tonight? I watch the golden rod bend over, heavy with nectar, and for the bazillionth time puzzle over how quickly time dissolves—like sugar in warm water—until all that is left is the memory of sweetness.

Last night, I took my son out shopping for some things he needs for his dorm. He begins his second year of college next week. Second year. When did that happen? I’ve grown used to having him home again. I’ve grown used to sweeping up his long red hair from the kitchen floor, to his shy smile greeting me when I return home from work in the evening.

So I wanted to buy him some better towels this year—fluffy towels to hug his body in softness when I cannot. He needs a new shower caddy and desk lamp, some underwear and perhaps a smarter pair of shoes—if I can talk him into it. So we set out on our quest only to be foiled by a terrible accident on the interstate. A semi hauling Resees cups east crossed the median and ran into another semi traveling west, erupting into a ball of flames. One truck driver was killed and several others injured. The interstate was closed for hours and traffic poured into our little valley—people trying to find an alternate way home. We were trapped in gridlock, stuck in a sea of vehicles along our little valley road. Instead of shopping, we pulled into a local restaurant and dined together, hoping the traffic would be cleared when we finished. As we ate, I prayed for the victims of the accident. I prayed for the truck drivers and their families, for those stuck in traffic. As I prayed silently, the sky opened up and rain thrummed the roof above us, poured down on the firefighters trying to extinguish the flames of burning diesel, on the people waiting in long streams of traffic, on our little valley that stood witness to it all.

We decided to try to find a shower caddy another day.

This morning, when I drove to work, all that was left of the accident was a mangled guard rail and some heavy equipment that must have been used to remove the debris. All along the interstate, for miles and miles, semi-trucks were parked along the side of the road—the drivers forced to sleep where they were due to a closed roadway. As I passed the site of the accident, trucks behind me and trucks before, I felt I was entering sacred ground. And these brother truck drivers stood sentinel, a testament to the fragility of our human lives.

In my Bible study this week, the author talks about how King Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” a lot in the book of Ecclesiastes. As in “there is nothing new under the sun” or “the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.” Wiersbe says, “It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view.” Solomon was so wise and gifted. And I wonder if he was really saying that it is only when we take account of that which is over the sun can we fully live into this life we are given.

So many things under the sun can discourage and disappoint. A tragic accident, the way time slips through my fingers, saying goodbye to my boy again … All of these things matter. The things that happen in this life matter. They matter to the world; they matter to God. This life matters. We are not simply here to wait for a better way. Scripture tells us Jesus came so that we might have abundant life. But this life is nestled into a bigger story. These hardships in this life, when taken in context of the bigger story, allow our hearts to be prospered—to grow richer and deeper and abundant in love. But only when I am able to keep an eternal perspective—to think on things over the sun—am I able to feel the fullness of the sadness but also of joy.

When life feels meaningless, I will remember. There is a bigger story. And I am a part of it.

West Virginia Morning: Everything Under the Sun

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This morning, before the sun burned the dew off the grass, we saw three little spotted fawns exploring the meadow behind our house. Last night, our neighbor cleared out a small patch of brambly mélange and mowed down the unruly mess of goldenrod, queen Anne’s lace, and ironweed into a smooth bed of grass. The trio seemed to delight in the freedom to feel out their gangly legs, leaping about and staring over the fence at us in curiosity. I was reminded of the Cultural Mandate—God’s call to us to cultivate the earth, to make it more beautiful. Even our little deer friends appreciate the bringing of order to chaos. Who knew these dear ones were hidden in such a mass of brush?

Meanwhile, I still struggle to bring some order to my own tiny world, internally and externally. Our little town is having a city-wide yard-sale tomorrow and the band boosters are collecting donations for a fundraiser. So I’ve been picking through the attic and basement, looking through twenty years of “oh, I may need this one day” and “I hate to throw this out” items. Items I haven’t given a thought to until this moment. Strange how we hold on to things, is it not? And funny how a little time can give the distance needed to open the hand.

This morning, I started a new Bible study on the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s called Be Satisfied. I was scrolling through my kindle library and it caught my eye because … well, because I haven’t been. Yesterday, in conversation with a new friend, I found myself saying some things that surprised me when describing my life to her. Later in the day, as I reflected on our conversation, I knew I needed some good medicine. The kind of medicine only Truth can give.

Author Warren W. Wiersbe tells me that when Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes,

“he called himself ‘the Preacher’ … The Hebrew word is koheleth (ko-HAY-leth) and is the title given to an official speaker who calls an assembly … . The Greek word for ‘assembly’ is ekklesia, and this gives us the English title of the book, Ecclesiastes. … The word koheleth carries with it the idea of debating, not so much with the listeners as with himself. He would present a topic, discuss it from many viewpoints, and then come to a practical conclusion. …”

Solomon is arguing with himself. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately myself. It doesn’t make for good sleep. I heard a thunderstorm rush through this morning at five a.m. My heart and body were stirred enough to bring me to rise and watch out the window as our little valley received a good scrubbing. An hour later I grabbed my camera and tried to frame up a memory of rain. My lens kept fogging up and the heat was already creeping down my back and my feet quickly grew soggy in the wet grass. These days, nothing seems to go as I hope, nothing seems to measure up to the pictures I paint in my mind.

Dissatisfied.

In the introduction to Be Satisfied, Pastor Ken Baugh gives three principles echoed throughout the book of Ecclesiastes:

Principle 1: I will be satisfied to the extent that I see everything I have as a gift from God.

Principle 2: I will be satisfied to the extent that I notice what is going on in the lives of others.

Principle 3: I will be satisfied to the extent that I trust God during times of distress.

It’s too early in my reading to recommend the study, but I feel hopeful. The lesson this morning was only on the first three verses and already I’m encouraged. I’ll try to keep you in the loop about what I’m learning and reflecting on as I read and examine everything “under the sun”.