Sunday, June 20, 2004

I'm such a putz

If I ever thought I had a green thumb, I realized this week I am all green thumbs. I like plants. I like their tranquility. I like their diversity and adaptability. I like that they like water. I like how they don't bother me when I read. (One of my favorite movies as a kid was Little Shop of Horrors, starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. But none could top Howard the Duck.)

I like plants, but I guess I don't love them. I was given a small cactus two or three years ago as a gift from a friend going to a new job. It was the size of a large lemon and had a bright orange crown of a blossom. I was so happy. A cactus! For me! I got home and, at my friend's behest, watered it just a little. I gingerly placed it under the tap and let the life-giving water flow over my dear little cactus. And, behold, as soon as that cool water touched the blossom, it shrunk closed like a fist, never to open again. I ruined a cactus - a CACTUS - within the first hour I had it. Come on, man. That's like breaking a hammer on a nail.

Well, I've done it again. A few months ago I bought two small plants. I don't know their species. I don't even know their common name. They are kind of like vines, but don’t need a surface to climb up. At the base they twist around into knots and braided spirals, meanwhile sending shoots up straight. When I first bought them they had some wire wrapped around them, probably to create this braided effect. Once I noticed they seemed a bit strangled, I "rescued" them by snipping the wire. Within days they were growing by leaps and bounds. I had a green thumb! They don't need that much water. One is much healthier than the other. I had brought the weaker one back to health. I had a green thumb!

And then, I just forgot about them. I didn't water them for days. It was hot and dry all last week. Outside they sat, leeching their own branches for moisture, shriveling like microwavable raisins. I walked outside to hang up some laundry and saw their desiccated, colorless little limbs reaching feebly to the sky, crying out for my judgment. I nearly wept. I can't even take care of two little plants! I was extremely embarrassed. These kind of lapses really depress me. It was the same when I had my two pet snakes, Aquinas and King Tut. I would get so mad at myself for shirking their maintenance. All I had to do was change their water, throw in a few mice every now and then, remove any feces, and change the sawdust every few weeks. That's it! Is that so hard? No. But I'm a moron.

This inability - or unwillingness - to care for even the least demanding forms of life bothers me because I see it - don't laugh - as a profound failure on my part as a Christian. Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again to bring new life. He came to undo the works of the devil. He came to restore and redeem our fallen world. And He calls all people to work with Him by faith in this mission of total redemption. Being a Christian means submitting each and every facet of our lives to Christ's command and then redirecting it in line with the restoration He initiated at the Cross. Studying is Kingdom work. Prayer is Kingdom work. Marriage is Kingdom work. Suffering is Kingdom work. Financial responsibility is Kingdom work. And, to my great shame, tending plants is Kingdom work.

Now, I know all too well - primarily by revelation, secondarily by experience - that we shall never achieve the total restoration of earth before Christ returns in glory. Nevertheless, I know we must do all we can to obey the Lord. Everything we do now stretches into eternity as a testimony either to God's glory or to our depravity. (Of course, as Providence would have it, the two are usually amplified in tandem.) This is not to say we earn a passage to Heaven by working hard for a passage to Heaven. It is simply to state the obvious fact that what you do is, almost without exception, what you believe. The entire goal of our relationship with God, as restored by faith and baptism, is to become like Christ. Insofar as we are not achieving that semblance, we stand always under the risk of rejecting its crucified and resurrected Pattern.

So what about the plants, you ask? My failure to tend to even the simplest forms of life bothers me because I see how poor a steward I am. Call it melodramatic, but my passive surrenders to death and decay are contrary to the work of God. One of my favorite passages of scripture is Ezekiel 47. There, Ezekiel has a vision of a river flowing from the future, glorified Temple. (Incidentally, the Temple faces east and the river flows eastward, a detail the early Church put a lot of emphasis on. Christ was seen as the Bright Star of the East (Mth 2:9), as the new Sun of Resurrection dawning from the East (Mth 24:27; Lke 1:78-79; 2 Pet 1:19). This latter image had a lot to do with the early Church recognizing the awesome propriety of worshipping the Risen One - the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) - on Sunday. To this day in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, people almost exclusively pray facing east. In the EOC during baptisms, people spit three times to the west - that is, at the devil.) Wherever the water from the Temple flows, there is life (Ezk 47:9). We see the same image of a life-giving river in Revelation 22, just as we had seen it in Genesis 2. Jesus added operative grace to the use of formerly ceremonial baptismal waters (Lke 3) and He came to give all people the water of life by faith and the baptism of faith and water (Jhn 3-4). Christ gave birth to the Church from his pierced side as blood (forgiveness) and water (purity) flowed from Him on the Cross (Jhn 19). The beginning and end points are clear: the water of God brings life. Everything between the rivers of Eden and of the New Eden, is the Christian life, the Christian saga, the adventure of God redeeming the world.

I saw this saga dramatized in a very poignant way at Banner church this year. As some of you know, I have very negative feelings about the street dogs in Taichung. But, somehow, two of them were informally adopted by the church last summer. They were filthy, mangy, scared, underfed little beasts then. But they stayed at the church. People fed them, visitors petted them, and children chased them. Then, one day, to my astonishment, less than a year later, I realized they were both healthy and happy dogs. "Where the river flows there is life." Those dogs, those tail-wagging icons, were powerful reminders for me of that truth.

Yet, it's precisely because wherever my river flows there is NOT life that I see how far I am from God's ways. The devil’s in the details. Why do I so often fail to bring Christ into them?

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