Beth A. Faeth, May 28, 2017
Scriptures Psalm 77; Romans 5:1–5
Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts bring us closer to you, O God. Amen.
It always begins around March 1: I get itchy fingers. Long before the snow completely melts (which we sturdy Minnesotans understand doesn’t, with any permanence, happen until after May Day), my hands long to dig in the dirt, to clean away last year’s growth and winter debris from my various gardens and to see what gifts spring had brought to the fertile ground. I am a novice gardener at best, relying much more on trial and error methods than any kind of studied knowledge. Now is the time many garden in earnest . . . planting vegetables, adding colorful annual plants amidst the sturdy perennials, shifting and moving plants because each garden really does take on a life of its own. Our muscles scream at us after months of non-use, and we proudly complain because it is proof of our hard work. We willingly get our hands dirty because we can appreciate what is to come. For our gardens profess the joys of a colorful life and an abundant harvest. They blossom with hope. And after a long, hard, dark winter—in the world and in our souls—these signs and symbols are essential for the health of our spirit.
For as long as I can remember, the passage from the fifth chapter of Romans has been one of my favorite sections of scripture. The words used have powerful connotations: suffering, endurance, character, hope. This particular text has provided me both great comfort and great consternation over the years, certainly dependent upon which phase of the progression I find myself within. To say we have known suffering is a trite understatement—the varieties of suffering we face are vast. Each of us carry burdens, some obvious and many not, which weigh heavily on our heart, mind, body, spirit. Yet the truth that some of us acknowledge and others do not yet realize is that it is our strength that gives us what we need to endure: a strength perhaps found within our own will or even from our understanding of God, a strength that ultimately evolves from the hope that something will change or shift in our circumstances or perspective so as to move us onward into whatever life has in store for us next. Suffering . . . endurance . . . character . . . hope. While it is difficult in the midst of a particular struggle in our life to realize that if we just hold on long enough we’ll learn something from the experience, in retrospect this is most often the truth. All life experiences are opportunities for growth. And growth is about movement, progress, change. It is about gaining new understanding and new appreciation for that which we have known, for that which has happened, for that which we have done. That growth, that progress, that willingness to wait for something more—that is hope. Hope that life will go on. Hope that our lives will have meaning. Hope that we will love again and laugh again. Hope that our lives will be changed from the things we have learned. Hope is progress with God. And hope, Paul tells us, will not disappoint us.
Gardening is a spiritual practice for me, and as I move the earth I reflect upon life and faith. My garden practice has led me to new understandings, such as relishing the unexpected and surprise in life—finding a perennial emerge from the soil far from the original plant, finding a new plant altogether with no memory of actually planting said species, discovering the way certain plants complement each other and almost seem to encourage one another to grow. Some flowers seem to transform overnight, blossoming unexpectedly and bringing life and light to the yard.
Yet one of the most meaningful lessons I have learned in my garden is that of endurance. I am always amazed at how plants thrive with very little intervention from me. The past couple of growing seasons I haven’t spent as much time in my garden as I would have liked—life intervened, and my attention was needed in other places. Still, flowers bloomed, vegetables produced, perennials spread. The weeds loved my distraction as they thrived, too. But many plants were steadfast and held their own against any invasive species. Such is true of the human spirit. Even in seasons of neglect, in pain, in grief . . . we endure. We wake up each morning and face the day. Occasionally we may even laugh and know joy. We tend our families, even when our own spirits sag. We work, we worship, we eat, we go through the motions of life, because even in the midst of deep despair we hold on to the hope that that we, too, will eventually bloom again.
I have also learned in my garden perhaps one of the hardest life’s lessons—the practice of letting go. I have a place in my front yard that I was convinced would be the perfect spot for a hydrangea. I could imagine the beautiful blossoming plant in the corner near my front porch, its lovely bluish purplish blossoms creating a welcome for my guests. I have planted a hydrangea in that spot at least a half-dozen times. And no matter how much attention I lavished upon it, it withered and died. And with determination—or stubbornness—I would try again the next year, convinced that my vision was more powerful than the natural elements of soil, light and the organic nature of the plant. Finally, two years ago, I let go. I still planted a hydrangea but in a different spot. I probably don’t need to tell you how it thrived and bloomed and added great beauty to that particular section of the garden. It is coming back strong and healthy this year, too. Letting go in the garden makes room for something new, for creative possibilities, for the gardener to be humbled by the beauty of the earth. Letting go in our lives builds the character we need to be led to hope. And hope does not disappoint us.
While I realize the primary focus of Memorial Day is on remembering our military heroes who have given their lives for our freedom, I also know that many of us travel to cemeteries near and far to tend the graves of the ones we have loved and lost. We place flowers, we gather with family, perhaps we attend special services. Even if we do not pay homage at a grave site, Memorial Day calls us to pause and remember. And in so doing, memories have flooded our minds, gripped our hearts and perhaps even re-opened the door of our own suffering. For some of us, the remnants of grief have been securely locked away, always with us but no longer the only focus of our lives. When we remember in this intentional way the gate gets flung open, and the freshness of the pain can come rushing in, even if only momentarily. The journey of grief is long and arduous, taking us through some very dark moments, and still here we are, months, years, decades from that time able to function competently, willingly, even joyfully. Therein is our endurance, there is strength in our character and there is hope. And hope will not disappoint us, because even though we may refresh the pain through remembering today, we know it is no longer the only thing that defines our being. That is growth. With God. Through faith. Because of hope.
Tending our memories is much like caring for our gardens, and the lessons we learn can aid and guide our journey of grief. Many seasons ago the practice of gardening became my solace as I delved into the darkness of grief following the death of my daughter. I remember that first Mother’s Day with a shovel in hand, turning over the earth with a vengeance of anger, my tears watering the freshly sown soil and tender new plants. It was relief to get my hands dirty, to feel my muscles ache, to physically work my body to exhaustion so as to escape the mind-play that prevented me from sleep. And even in that first difficult season of my own grief, my escape to the garden provided strength for my journey. I was surprised by the joy I felt in the first blossoms of color that emerged. I was even more of a novice than I am now, and most of the time I had no idea what I was doing. But lo and behold, flowers grew and tomatoes ripened. I would sit on my back deck, heart still tender and raw and yet smile with gladness at what I gazed upon. Those blossoms represented newness, possibility, grace. Those blossoms were ones of hope.
And as the days grew warmer, and the sun shone brighter, so did my soul. I recognized, even in that first season of painful grief, that I was resilient, I knew endurance. That I could feel joy again in spite of my sadness and that the memories of my precious one didn’t have to create only sorrow, they could give me life. I no longer had to fear the thoughts of my child but instead could welcome them. And yes, tears might form and my fragile heart was still in many pieces, but there was room for something more. Like the new perennials gaining strength in my garden, creating resilient roots and strong foundations, these memories were an essential part of my life story, no longer something to fear but embrace. They made me who I am today.
My daughters and I—all of my family—have entered another grief season in these last weeks following the traumatic and sudden death of the girls’ father and the man I loved for more than two decades. It is both comforting and unsettling to recall previous grief journeys to guide us on our way. You may empathize with this first stage—emotions are rampant, thoughts are scattered, we are all quite forgetful and we have no idea what the next day will bring. This is a time of suffering, and the only way through it is to go through it. To endure. And to notice and appreciate and embrace the signs of hope along our way. This is God at God’s best . . . to stir us from despair to the possibility of something else, something warm and welcome. Blossoms of hope emerge from the companionship of another, from the release of guilt and regrets, from the understanding that love wins, goodness prevails. As Emily Dickinson wrote so long ago:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul— And sings the tune without the words— And never stops—at all—
Hope does not disappoint us.
Sometimes, however, our grief can keep us from fully living in the present. Here we can appreciate even more the gardening practice of letting go. Letting go does not mean we forget the one we grieve, but rather that we choose to live in the now of the current moment rather than languish away wishing we could recreate the past. It means tending the memories of those we love with hope and trust in a fulfilling future. Letting go means to not let our memory garden become a shrine, a place where perfection lives and personality traits distort, but rather to remember with love all facets of personality, all complexities that make one fully human.
While the rewards of gardening are great, it can be awfully hard work. And there are usually obstacles that prevent our progress: weather, pests, the challenge of creating space and time. Grief is awfully hard work, too. I have just about worn out a quote by an unknown author because it speaks truth to the burden and blessings that is the road of grief:
Grief never ends. . . . But it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. . . . It is the price of love.
The author of Psalm 77 was suffering and felt abandoned by God, turning to God in solace, yet confessing that the soul would not be comforted. One could give up then, surrender completely to the pain and live restlessly in the darkness. But the psalmist does not relent and instead keeps turning towards God rather than away. Feeling lost and alone, the author wonders where God is in the midst of pain, sadness, this prolonged period of discontent. And then, and then, one day the light colors the horizon, the pain lessens, the grief moves slightly and makes way for something different. The gift of time, the constancy of faith, the endurance of the spirit. And then the proclamation: “And I say, It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” Grief changes. It is a passage, not a place to stay. Because through the endurance, through the waiting, through the steadfastness, hope blossoms. And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
When tending our gardens, be it one of vegetables and flowers or the garden where our memories live, we must do so with patience, persistence and care. May we appreciate the element of surprise, may we rejoice in resilience and may we let go of that which binds us painfully to the past so we might realize the hope that blooms in our days to come.