April 17, 2022
The kids and I created a small church building for our fairy garden last year. I guess we could call it an unofficial church plant. Right in my front yard.
The daffodils are out in full bloom these days. Spring is here. The bulletin cover is from our front yard. In the backyard, we have this wonderful lake. We’re right across from Brookdale Camelot North. Most of this winter, the lake was frozen solid. Now the turtles and frogs have returned. Soon, we’ll watch the minnows swim around. Occasionally we’ll catch a glimpse of a bluegill or sunfish. Even more rare would be a largemouth bass.
We boat on the lake. We have a canoe and two inflatable kayaks. The kids are proficient in their kayaks. We spent a lot of time on the lake in 2020. And we’ve had less time on the lake since. As we figured out how to proceed with our lives, it seems things have sped back up to the pre-pandemic levels. Life does that, right? Speeds up. Things happen. We don’t get to the things we want to get to as we’re pressured with work, kids, and tragedies. The headlines knock the air from us. Someone is WRONG on social media. Or someone is having A BETTER TIME THAN WE ARE and we’re envious. Or we’re given that diagnosis. Someone leaves us. Someone dies. Someone shows their true colors and we’re wounded.
We feel like our faith is in tatters. We don’t know how to feel about this. Mostly guilty. We’re supposed to wake up and have a wonderful morning prayer routine. Then pray over our breakfast. Then again at lunch and dinner. And vespers with a litany and close of evening prayer. And maybe a bible study. But we don’t do any of that. Or if we do, we don’t sustain it for long. And we feel guilty, and we beat ourselves up for it.
This Lenten season, we’ve been trying out a Good Enough faith. A faith that slows down. Does small little acts. A faith that notices the small things. Because, frankly… we’re really bad at noticing the small things.
Jen Hatmaker points out that all four gospel writers mention Mary Magdalene at the tomb. She is so distraught and convinced that Jesus’ body has been stolen. She knows it! It’s a fact. Her mind is made up. She doesn’t even recognize Jesus.
He’s standing in front of her, talking to her with his normal voice, and then she suggests that he has stolen himself. Jen Hatmaker says, “it was just a really weird day for everyone, okay?” Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener. Sometimes grief and loss and shock can make us look past Jesus. We end up making him a bit player in the story. We think, “Jesus is nowhere to be found in this mess. I don’t know where he’s at!” We think he’s the gardener.
With all of our striving and ladder climbing, we’re too busy looking toward the top of the ladder. Or we’re looking at the data or the headlines or we’re too busy comparing ourselves to our neighbors and getting envious and playing games. Where is God in all this?! He can’t be this slob with dirt on his knees and under his fingernails. That’s the gardener, isn’t it? Yeah, my mind’s made up. I have things to do!
Our faith isn’t good enough, we have to strive, improve, fix! Be better! More present and set goals and make checklists and just. Keep. Going! Yet Jesus often sought refuge from the crowd. He spent a lot of time in prayer. 40 days at one stretch. He was always finding out of the way places, away from the crowds. Where he could think of parables to expand our thinking about God. Widen our view and get us thinking a little differently about our neighbors who we may have never talked to, but our minds are made up about them anyway.
When grief and sorrow and the world feels just much too much… it’s good to slow down. Notice your world. The world we’re often looking past. It’s just the gardener, right?
I mean… Easter. What a crazy story. Nothing comes back from the dead. It could never happen. Silly Christians and your superstition. This is just an excuse to have Halloween in Spring and gorge yourself on chocolate after 40 days of thinking about giving it up! What nonsense!
Church, I’m going to talk about me, and we’ll get to you in this next part… please indulge me first. I have been feeling heavy. These past two years have been a lot. Leading has been extremely challenging. We’re in a politically divided time. Things like vaccines and masks were politicized and became boundary markers for one side or the other. That weight got into my body and tugged at my soul. Did I slow down? What was my response? I pushed on. I continued to strive. Online bible studies and thoughtful prayer posts and vespers and figuring out how to navigate with all involved and confirming one class, taking on two classes at once and trying to get them as close to “normal” as possible. Launching an associate search. Kelly retiring, Jeff coming on. Now Jim retiring.
Then my back going out in September, my mind went to a dark place. Here comes all the stress related illnesses. This is it. You turn 40 and the wheels fall off! I know how that sounds now, as I know some of you would give your right arm to be 40 again. That was where my mind was. Keep striving. Be the best papa. Finish your doctorate. Visit all the people. Attend to those who are mad at you but won’t call you. Watch as over 20 of your friends either change ministries or drop out altogether, some even getting tossed out. Where is Jesus in all of this? Where is new life? How, oh Lord, am I supposed to do this?!
When the physical therapist said my hips were out of line and gave these little exercises that actually helped… well, I went home and I cried. What a relief! It’s just bad posture.
Where was new life in all of the pain? It was keeping my shoulders down and back. Taking a break from all the typing, hunched over the keyboard like a T-Rex of Typing.
And where was Jesus in this time? Where was new life? The Good Enough series has taught me that it’s in the daffodils who faithfully come back each spring. Signs of life coming back. A resurrection, right in my front yard. It’s just the gardener of course. I missed it with all the running and worrying and pain both literal and existential. It was there all along. And I’ve heard from many of you, the positive impact this series has done. It’s all the small things that make our lives so grand. The small things we can overlook in our quest for perfection and the latest self-help craze.
Resurrection is also in our backyards. Right in the lake in my backyard. It’s okay to float and just soak up the lake right there. It’s good to notice things. The fish. The noisy and rude geese. The turtles. The frogs. Do you know how frogs survive the winter? Some frogs burrow, but most just find a space in or under a log. Some deep place in the rocks where they’ll be safe, and they just die. Well… not so much, their livers start producing anti-freeze. This antifreeze stays in the cells and preserves water. Their heartrate and breathing grind to a halt. And they freeze with the weather. They become frog-cicles, frozen solid with no heartrate or breathing or anything. Effectively dead.
When spring comes, and everything thaws, so do the little frog-cicles. They thaw out, have a good stretch, and start singing! Have you heard them? Or have you been rushing by like I have, never bothering to notice the literal resurrections happening in the ponds near your house
Just the gardener, right?
Jesus is right there, every step of the way. Tending to us. Right at ground level. We’re looking into the sky, and Jesus is right beside us pointing out the shapes in the clouds.
Maybe we want our theology to be like Luke Skywalker and Yoda. We travel to some mysterious swamp and get this guru who talks funny. And we train and train until we can flip over logs and lift rocks with our minds while standing on our head.
But that’s not what Jesus gives us. That’s not what God has surrounded us with. In the bulb there is a flower. They’re out now. Do you see them? Or are you thinking that’s just the gardener and not a blooming gift from God?
Do you hear the peeping of the tree frogs? How they are singing out a literal resurrection each and every spring! Or are you thinking that they’re just the gardener and not singing praise to God?
What if Jesus is very present in every moment of great care and healing? In our walks in the woods. The feeling we get when we hear our favorite song or stare at a work of art. When we cry or take joy in a great movie, TV show, or conversation with a friend. What do you think Jesus has been doing in the bible? Eating, talking, telling parables, each red letter pointing to God, incarnating God, showing how the kingdom of God has come near for those who will change their mind after hearing this good news.
Jesus looks like the gardener because we never suspect the resurrection. It always takes us by surprise. Like his birth, it happens off-screen. It’s not central. We weren’t looking in that place. He’s dead. Dead things go in the tomb. Guess he couldn’t have been the king, kings go on thrones. They’re at the top of the ladder. They don’t ride into town on a borrowed colt with a bunch of nobodies.
You’re right, kings don’t do that. God does.
When chaos roars too loud. When the pain is too acute. He is saying our name.
Jesus is right here, at the bottom rung, available to everyone with life and healing and resurrection and saying our names even now. Thanks be to our still-speaking God. Amen.
Kate Bowler and Jessica Ritchie, Good Enough, 40-ish devotionals for a life of imperfection.
Jen Hatmaker, “Jesus, Mary at the Garden” from Evolving Faith 2020. Notes taken by the Rev. Laura Fitt-Baird.
National Geographic, YouTube: “Frogs Come Alive After Winter Thaw” https://youtu.be/139NSc53RqQ
Rob Bell, The Robcast Episode 190. “She Thought He Was The Gardener.” https://robbell.podbean.com/e/she-thought-he-was-the-gardener/