Clothed Like Flowers
Learning how to be virtuous from plants
Last week I preached to the Ekklesia Project Gathering in Indianapolis. It was a wonderful chance to be with old friends and make some new ones. Each time I’m go to this gathering I’m reminded of what the church can and should be. The Ekklesia Project was founded as a school for subversive friendship, and it has certainly been that for me in all the best ways.
The theme for this year’s gathering was “The Little Way: Practicing Christ’s Love for the Sake of the World.” Our text for the service in which I preached was Colossians 3:12-17 and Matthew 6:25-34.
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Nearly every day my family goes to Allsopp Park, a nearby forest of hardwoods and pines, to walk or run or play. We know its trails and regular hikers and usual dogs. We also know a good many of the trees, the old oaks and their children, the hickories and pines and black locusts. In the summer Mississippi Kites nest in the park before heading to their wintering grounds in Brazil, and in the winter, the woods are always full of the rustle of White-throated sparrows digging through the mulch. The fallen leaves help feed a variety of mushrooms, including the flavorful orange chanterelles that fruit in early summer. We gather them like manna, sautéing them for our pizzas.
I say all of this, because for all my time and interaction with the natural world of this place, it was only recently that I paid attention to the flowers.
I had noticed them, of course—the purple ones in the spring, the orange and yellow ones in the late summer and fall. But I had failed to learn their names and stories until this past spring. It has been like meeting neighbors you’ve lived alongside for years and wondered why you’d never known each other before now.
In preparing for this sermon, I took a hike through those woods to listen to what God might be saying to us at this gathering and what offering I might give.
I had been struck in our reading from Colossians by the call to clothe ourselves with the virtues of the Christian life. Clothing, that strange feature of the human creature, is a way that we form how we show up in the world. All of us, on varied occasions, pay attention to our clothes in order to guide how we are perceived. Whether it is as a sign of respect for someone who has died, to be attractive to someone we desire, or to help us achieve authority—clothes are a way that we manage how we are present to others.
Paul, too, is concerned with how we show up in the world. But he is not so concerned with the clothes that we put on our exterior as those ways of being that move from our hearts to our bodies. For Paul, it is the bodily manifestation of our interior life that ultimately dictates our presence in the world. If we can be clothed with kindness we can also be clothed with hate, and it doesn’t matter what kind of shirt we put on, that interior state will come shining through one way or another.
But in this call to put on a different kind of clothing, there is a problem. When Paul calls for us to clothe ourselves with compassion and kindness, gentleness and humility, patience and love, it is easy to see that list as a checklist of virtues we should achieve through our spiritual prowess. I’m tempted toward such checklists, but I know from long experience that whenever I’ve made an effort of direct will to be compassionate, I’ve ended in failure. And I imagine the same is true for most of you. So how is that we should be present to the world with virtue and yet not do so as an act of our own power?
As I reflected on this question, I noticed a long-stemmed yellow flower on the path. It was one of the new species I’ve learned, a Stiff-hair Sunflower, growing in a stand of young oaks.
Looking at the flower, I was reminded of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn’t worry about our clothes. It is God who will clothe us like the flowers of the field, the little wildflowers of no grand consequence. No mode of power, personal or political, can achieve such a presence. The little way of the little flower is to recognize that it is not we who need to clothe ourselves. We must receive the clothing that God freely offers by being obedient and cooperative as Christ adorns us.
If flowers are adorned by God, perhaps we can learn something from them, about how we can be clothed by the God who made us for flourishing.
In my back yard, I have two stands of wild sunflowers growing. They are known as sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes. It is a native sunflower in Arkansas that blooms late in the summer and early fall and grows well over six feet tall. The Latin name is Helianthus tuberosus which refers to the tubers the flower puts out beneath the ground. Each fall I dig some up and roast them like potatoes.
When I’m digging around the roots, I find evidence of the invisible life they have cultivated around themselves. Here and there I see the white, hair-like strands of mycelial fungi. These organisms live in cooperative life with a wide variety of plants, often linking with their roots and exchanging micronutrients from the soil for the carbon the plant creates through photosynthesis. And though I couldn’t see it directly, I know that there is a great deal of other life present around these roots, thousands of bacteria, protozoa and predatory nematodes, all involved in the work of supplying the plant with varied nutrients.
If flowers were monastics, they would be of Benedictine’s for they have all taken a vow of stability. And because they stay in one place, they must cultivate community where they are rather than going out and seeking it elsewhere. We are not so naturally bound to a place as plants are, but we would do well to learn something from their rootedness. In looking at these sunflowers and reflecting on their life, we can see a way toward compassion. It is hard to care for the life of another, to feel for one another in our guts, if we are not part of a grounded community.
I know from my own experience that the longer I have stayed somewhere, the more I have learned to care and be cared for by those around me. It takes time to learn other’s stories and to work with them through their struggles, but there is no better way into compassion than knowing the fullness of what someone has been through. It is time that erodes the snap judgements we make about people; it is with time that we can look past the rippling surface and see what is moving in the depths.
The question at the heart of any staying is whether flourishing is possible. There are times when even plants must be moved in order to thrive and doing so can be an act of kindness. This past winter I moved a magnolia tree I had planted a year before. I had placed it in a location that I thought would give it room to grow, but another tree sprang up and quickly overshadowed it. And so, I had to look for another place to put the magnolia.
I took time to examine the soil of its new home and evaluate what was needed to make the transition work. And even though it is an evergreen, I also waited months until the winter so the tree would be in a state of semi-dormancy when I moved it.
I knew that in uprooting the tree I was not moving the tree alone, but I was also disrupting the community it had established around itself. I dug as large a root ball as possible in order to move some of that life and I dressed the tree with ample compost in order to introduce a healthy community to its new place.
All of this was done with discernment, time, and care, and this spring the tree put out several lovely white blossoms that I hope are signs of its flourishing. It can be a kindness to let go of our plans and rigid expectations, and instead to always ask, what is good for this person, this creature, this place. What will help it live into the fullness for which God made it?
Flourishing for flowers and human beings requires humility in the most literal sense. To be humble is to be low, close to the ground, close to the humus. It is telling that in both English and in Hebrew, the word for human creatures is linked to the soil. But it is not just any dirt. The humus from which humans come, the adamah from which the adam is made, is the kind of soil that can grow something. It is the living and life-giving earth.
Good soil that brings growth and health, and is filled with the community of subterranean life, is rich in organic matter. Which means that this humus soil is made from what has died. The dead leaves of last summer, the dead wood of fallen trees, manure of animals who killed and ate, the bodies of animals that fell upon the forest floor and were devoured by bacteria and beetles and scavengers of all kinds.
Humus soil, the soil of good growth, is made from the cumulative deaths of many creatures. And if we want to practice humility in the pattern of Christ then we must learn something of death as a necessary means to life. It was Christ’s humility that led him to that most life giving death of the cross. It is Christ’s call for us to be human once again that demands our own cross-bearing humility.
What is it that we must let die, gathering like leaves on the ground of the life of our community? What death do we wait to be transformed into the soil of something new?
So much death in our world is not bent toward humus but is made through violence. That is why gentleness is a critical garment for showing up in the way of Christ. Gentle would be a term easily applied to most flowers. There is a softness about them that might lead us to judge them as fragile. But as anyone who has grown flowers has likely found, a pansy is no pansy. In that way they can help guide us into the garment of gentleness.
Gentleness or meekness in the biblical sense is not a lack of strength but is a kind of controlled power. A horse might be gentle, but no one would say it is not powerful. Think of gathering up a fledgling bird that has fallen from its nest. We apply our strength in the restraint we use to handle it.
The gentle strength of flowers comes from their rootedness in the soil. We are facing drought conditions back in Arkansas. It has been many weeks since we’ve had any significant rain and many plants are beginning to show it. But in my front flower beds a cluster of Black-eyed Susans is flourishing with more blooms than I’ve seen in several years. I water them occasionally, yes, but the real reason that these flowers are doing so well is that they are drought tolerant. Their roots go deep, and they are able to use what little moisture they can to great effect.
As communities of Christ, we can bloom with gentleness through the hard conditions of life, because we are rooted deeply in the soil of humility. We can be gentle, obedient to the call of Christ, because we live from the rich sources at the depths. Our world of desperate power and violence is not made from strength, but from a lack of nourishment. It is with a ravenous hunger that our world rages. But through our rootedness in the humility of Christ’s way, we can find the rich nourishment of the community of life. Through that nourishment we can survive the droughts that come and live in peace even in a world of violence.
This gentle strength is critical to a life of patience and forgiveness, both of which are means of God’s reconciling love. And it is with these two together that we can learn the most from flowers, for many of their kind wait patiently and then move into the broken places of the world to bring healing.
When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, near Yellowstone, thousands of acres were left bare of any vegetation. But soon after Prairie Lupine with purple blooms, spread throughout the valleys. These flowers took nitrogen from the air and fixed it in the soil, preparing the way for other plants, and provided food for wildlife as they began to move back into the area. Prairie Lupine began the healing for what is now a flourishing and diverse landscape of life, and they did it through the patient work of growing in marginal places that had been devastated by upheaval.
From clear cut forests to strip-mined hillsides, flowering plants are among the first to appear after violence has been done to the land. Many spring up from dormant seeds that had been waiting in the soil for decades, even centuries before sprouting. Some flowers, working in concert with the bacteria around their roots can take up toxic materials from the soil.
What if we were clothed like these flowers, patiently working in the broken places of our world to restore the means of flourishing? What if we lived with long-suffering forbearance, welcoming the people who have been broken by our violent world, and staying with them as the ground of new life and healing soil builds around them? This is the fruit of patient endurance.
Which brings us finally to love and so to roses. St. Therese of Liseaux imagined herself as a little flower, not a grand rose, but whether a daisy or a rose, there is something loving in the simple act of cultivating beauty amid our broken world. It is an apocalyptic act by which we bear witness to the kingdom that is coming into our midst.
This past spring, in my church’s parking lot, we planted a garden that is now full of blooming flowers. The garden sits right on the black top, taking up a few parking spaces on a corner facing two high rises of low-income housing. Drugs are delt constantly on the corner across the street and a couple of blocks away a man was shot and killed a few months back. The morning of the garden build we spent a lot of our time cleaning up broken liquor bottles from whatever had happened the night before.
Straw bales form the frame of the garden, and the center is filled in with wood chips, straw, and a heavy layer of compost. It’s nothing grand—it cost about a hundred dollars and took one morning with the help of twenty people to put it together. But it is beginning to reveal something about our place and to open up imagination for what God might be cultivating there. Neighbors stop by and collect herbs, or rest on the hay bales on the way to the bus station; members of the church are drawn out of the building and into conversation with those who stop by. It is a beginning, a small trail leading us onto the little way of Christ’s love.
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,” wrote Thomas Merton, “For in being what God means for it to be it is obeying Him.” As I hope we’ve found, trees and flowers are clothed by God with beauty, not because they have set out to achieve some end, but because they have lived in obedience to the life for which they were created. To be compassionate and kind, gentle and humble, patient and forgiving, and loving beyond all, is not something we must add to ourselves. It is what we were created to be by the God who made us as images of Love for the sake of the world. May we join with the flowers and the fungi, the bacteria and the birds, and all creation in obedience to Christ whose humble, and little way, is our path toward fullness. If we do, our presence as Christ’s body will be more beautiful even than flowers. Amen.
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Once again, you hit me where I live or rather where I should live. If there’s a book in the works, you’ve already sold me a copy.