The Irises Return

This morning on the farm I had a beautiful surprise waiting to greet me. Beyond the old house where I had recently tackled the grass and weeds that were standing at more than four feet tall, covering a large rock, I noticed something pale yellow waving in the gentle breeze.

I had just woken up and was still a bit groggy after what was a long day of clergy meetings the day before. Groggy or not, I could fill my head already spinning with the tasks I needed to get done. There were calls to make, freelance stories to write, worship to plan, a chapter or two in my book to write…oh, yes, that’s right. There was also a vet appointment to make for Sofie, whose wet nose nuzzling against me was my gentle reminder to add her to the “to-do” list.

Still what was waving at me?

I rubbed my eyes and squinted a bit more. It couldn’t be? Could it? I didn’t bother throwing on my mucks and quickly walked to the site of what I had hoped to be a new flower garden sometime this summer.

I should have taken off my socks, I thought, as the wet grass from the recent heavy rains soaked through the cotton quickly. My feet were soon cold, wet and muddy. I didn’t care. I had to see what this pale-yellow blotch was which, as I drew closer, seemed to be dancing with joy at the new day that had begun.

As I got closer I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The pale-yellow dancer was in fact some old friends I thought were long gone. They were my irises I had once loved.

Seven years ago, when I bought “the oldest house in Rupert, Vermont,” there had been beautiful flowers around the big rock.

As the seasons went by, though, the flowers never came back. I figured it was just my brown thumb that chased them away. It had happened before in other old houses I have lived in. One spring the flowers were there and the next they disappeared. My luck with flowers had become a joke among family and friends.

“The flowers probably heard about your gardening reputation and packed their bags and moved away,” they would tease.

And so, I had given up all hope that I would ever see those irises again.

But now here they were.

A surprise resurrection of sorts that had me wondering if I should turn around to see if there were any divine messengers waiting to tell me more good news as there were when the women came to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning, experiencing for themselves a surprise resurrection.

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The irises at Stone Well Farm have come back home. 

I didn’t need to turn around. My good news was right before my eyes. My old friends waving at me—they were my divine messengers telling me of a hope that can bloom when you least expect it to.

The irises were back home and beautiful as ever and grateful to be feeling the warm sun on their petals once again.

The amazing part of their return was that I didn’t do a thorough job in clearing out the tall grass and weeds that had choked them for so long. Still, what I had cleared out was enough.

I had in a way created a space, no matter how tiny, for God’s grace to poke through. A space for something wonderful to come back to life. A space for beauty to enter my world again.

Imagine.

If a flower, thought to be long gone and choked by weeds, could come back with just a little bit of space provided for it, what God could do in our lives if we cleared a bit of space for grace to enter in?

My grogginess wore off and the spinning in my head ceased. All the tasks awaiting me could wait a bit more. I had a reunion to enjoy with my irises. With soggy, muddy socks on my feet I sat on top of the old stone well and smiled at the pale-yellow irises. And together we enjoyed the warmth of God’s grace in the little bit of space that had been created.

Hold Loosely

I remember back in my reporter days for a business magazine hearing from a sales motivational coach who said at the beginning of his presentation that if you walked away with only one nugget of wisdom, he had done his job. Just one nugget. That’s all it took to not only make his talk worthwhile financially, but worthwhile in terms of making your business better.

That advice changed my life as I have always remembered it didn’t do you any good getting bogged down with lists of tips or bullet pointed must do’s in order to change your life for the better. All it took was one nugget—received and then acted upon.

Such a nugget recently came my way and it has made a wonderful impact on my life. Early this summer I was attending a writing symposium at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was gathered in a group of advanced writers who had the opportunity to hone our craft, share our prose and talk one-on-one with a former pastor-turned mother-turned published author of teen devotionals and other such books.

One afternoon, as we were gathered in small groups practicing and perfecting our elevator pitches to be used someday on potential book agents, the former pastor-turned mother-turned published author offered some sound advice. She said when writing a sermon, a daily reflection for a devotional, a scene to a mystery novel, whatever it is you’re writing, don’t ever be tied down to the words or ideas you are so in love with.

You might have a vision of where you want your story to go, but many times the story will have a life of its own. Let your story live. Be brutal and pry yourself away from that too long paragraph, that extra descriptive scene, that conversation between two characters that doesn’t move the story forward. Yes, you might think it is the most brilliant thing you have ever written, but holding tightly to your words doesn’t make for a delightful read. Hold loosely the words you write, she said. Cut and paste and put aside. You might eventually include what was cut. Or you might use those words in a different way. Or you might come to see they weren’t as great as you thought them to be.

It’s all okay. Hold loosely.images.jpg

Out of all the nuggets of wisdom gathered at that conference, her nugget is the one I keep hearing and applying  beyond my writing. For how many times do we find ourselves holding on to something we are so enthralled by but it isn’t moving our story forward? How many times do we refuse to edit out something that isn’t good for us? How many times do we cling tightly to something that has died a long time ago? Isn’t it true we tend to stay too long on the battlefield, bloodied and beaten down, never realizing the skirmish has long been over?

While the preacher side of me always gravitates to the message that there’s always hope for tomorrow and that God can revive all that is lagging, there’s also the reality that a seed must first die before bringing forth new life. We are to hold on to hope, but our hope is in the promise of resurrection. And resurrection cannot happen without the holding loosely—and the eventual letting go—that death asks of us.

Hold loosely—to your words.

Hold loosely—to your ideas.

Hold loosely—to your future plans.

Hold loosely—to even those you love and things you love.

Cut and paste and put aside. The story of your life will be brilliant. Just let God offer His revisions.

Farm is Now in Session

It was an idea discussed only in hushed whispers for many years. Students with farming backgrounds would come to the hallowed halls of seminary and make an important connection between farming and theology, and they would ask the question.

What if theological education could be combined with farming?

What if future pastors, many hailing from suburban and urban metropolises, actually had the opportunity to get their hands into the very dirt in which they talk about when the ashes are smudged onto one’s forehead and they say, “From dust you come, to dust you shall return.”

What if seminary could be a farminary? Farminary, an outdoor classroom where everything Jesus spoke of—the seeds, the weeds, the wheat, the grain that must die in order to produce life—became more than just words on a page, but became powerful, tactile lessons of God’s love for all of creation.

Students with farming in their blood would come to the hallowed halls of seminary—and they would go, leaving behind the ghosts of conversations hoping to be resurrected one day. The day of resurrection has come.

I stood on the soil of the soon-to-be-full-fledged hoop house on what it is now Princeton Theological’s Farminary, and smiled. For as I looked at the last of the peppers, the late in the season green beans and the strips of land being primed with compost in anticipation of the next growing season, it all made sense to me for it is in a garden, working the soil, planting a seed, dealing with grubs that stole my crops one year (a row of beets, broccoli and acorn squash), that I have felt so close to God. For the garden has been the place for me where life’s challenges, life’s failures, life’s defeats mingled with those seemingly fleeting moments of miracles, hope and, surprisingly at times, abundant blessings. It is in the garden where I have felt it the most. I have felt God’s hand on my shoulder. It is while tilling the soil and being part of God’s creation where I have learned to trust God’s provision—even when the harvest flops.

Now I am no farmer. I am a North Jersey girl who only knows how suburban sprawl grows. I have the reputation of being able to kill even the easiest plant to grow.

I am a North Jersey girl who shocked her colleagues when I said “yes” to serving a church in rural Upstate New York right on the border of Vermont all because I felt so strongly that there were lessons of life and faith waiting for me there. And there were many lessons of life and faith that I will forever treasure.

I am no farmer but I have attempted to “live off the land” but the soil on my Vermont homestead proved too rocky and too in need of the right nutrients that a novice like me had no idea how to remedy. My husband wasn’t surprise, and seemed almost relieved, when after two seasons of failed farming I announced, “I think I am just going to let the grass grow over that plot of land.” Of course, he cringed when I added, “Maybe you can break a new plot for me next spring over on the other side of our land?”

Friends who know me well look quizzically at me when I talk passionately about the lessons we can learn from farming and my desire to do so.

“Um, Donna, you know you can’t take your cute Kate Spade handbags out into the fields with you?” asked one friend who seemed as equally perplexed as she was concerned.

No, I am no farmer. I am the daughter of a woman who has harbored the same dreams of farming. And I am the daughter man who grew up on a farm in Switzerland. My dad, thought, left that life to become an engineer. Still I wonder if the Swiss farming DNA is in me, for I have always been a pioneer girl at heart, dreaming of having a farm, well, maybe not a full-blown farm, but at least having a successful kitchen garden complete with herbs both culinary and medicinal…someday…

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The emerging hoop house where the first classes at Princeton’s Farminary were held this past spring.

For now, I am excited to see my alma mater has come on board with what those who have grown up on a farm know or those like me, who have served a farming community, know. There is much to learn about God while getting your hands dirty and while breaking your back tilling the ground. There is much to learn about God when witnessing firsthand the seasons of death and rebirth. There is a consoling hug to be felt when seeing your plants fall victim to an early frost. God knows and God cares. There is a gentle hand to wipe the tears of frustration when deer trample your corn. God knows and God cares. There is the resolve not to give up being strengthened when sharing these challenges and defeats in community with others. God knows and God cares.

What makes all of this so worthwhile? The feast that always comes—be it in times of plenty or times of want. For it is a feast of miracles and blessings from the soil to be shared with one another, brought forth and harvested through hard labor and trusting hearts. It is a feast spread before us that teaches us the most precious of all lessons. God cares for us deeply and so we, too, must care deeply and tend lovingly to the soil, to the seeds, to the worms, to the water, to one another.

School, um, I mean, farm is now in session at Princeton Theological Seminary. And for that I say, “Thanks be to God!”

Here’s more of the Farminary story!