Monday, August 24, 2009

Musings on Hydrangeas

The Authoress and I took the children out of town this past week, fleeing to the mountains from the heat of Manhattan. The place we're staying is very woodsy, yet here and there people have carved out gardens. And the most striking feature of these is the hydrangea bushes. Some of them are clearly very old, as they are in some instances fifteen feet tall!

As I strolled along seeing all of these hydrangea, my thoughts ran from the horticultural to the biblical.

The horticultural musings were based on the fact that all of the hydrangeas here have white blossoms. Most of the ones I've seen nearby our old home in Connecticut, or in our old town in England, or on Martha's Vineyard (where I once worked and now volunteer for a Christian ministry), the hydrangea blossoms were mainly blue, and sometimes pink. But not often white. The blue is my favorite. A keen gardener once told me that when planting a hydrangea bush, putting a few pennies into the hole will help to create the vivid blues. (Turns out this is wrong, it's the soil's aluminum content, not the zinc or copper in pennies that affects the color).

The scientific way to say this is that you can obtain blue flowered hydrangea macrophylla with soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5. If the pH of the soil is 7.5 or higher, you will get poor flowers or none at all. The Bible's way to say this is good soil produces fruitful, good, useful and beautiful things. That's a frequent use of the image of soil in the Bible, but soil can, interestingly, also be used as an image of judgment, as God is said to destroy (by mixing with sulfur) or remove (the topsoil down to bare rock) the soil of people he is judging -- a harrowing image in an agrarian setting (Isaiah 24, Ezekial 26).

Perhaps you, like me, have heard many a sermon exhorting us to be "good soil" based on Jesus' parable of the soils (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). The point made is that in trying to be good soil, I should be receptive to the teaching of Jesus and attentive to it. That's a very good thing to do, but not the point of what Jesus said in that parable. Rather, he is explaining to the disciples how and why some people will respond to the Gospel, and how and why others will not. In the hydrangea bush image, you can add some aluminum nails to the soil to make a pink flowered hydrangea blue, but you cannot change the color of a white hydrangea bush. The white hydrangea is what it is, no matter how much aluminum you add (or lime, to try to make pink flowers).

The point of the parable, anyway, is for the disciples. It is to help them to understand why some people respond to the Gospel and why others do not; or why others get excited initially by what they hear, but it does not take long term root. This is so that they will have patience in their own ministry, knowing that any fruitfulness from it belongs to God. They will also have patience and be steadfast in their own life following Christ: "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience." (Luke 8.15).

The parable of the soils is not so much telling the crowd to "have good soil" but rather to instruct the disciples, so that they might understand the different responses to the Gospel and stand fast.

A wise friend in Christian work told me that the parable of the soils was the only way he could endure in Christian ministry; and particularly he meant how to make sense of when dear people seem be enthusiastic when hearing the message of the Cross, but who soon turned their backs on the Gospel in resolute fashion.

What interpretations of this well known parable have you heard? Any thoughts?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Urban Haute Bourgeoisie

My friend and former colleague David Zahl has an eclectic parachurch ministry (with a blog) called Mockingbird that is as cool as this blog is uncool. In that, the blogs reflect their authors!

Yet David and I have a number of things in common, the chief being Christian brothers and maybe the second being an affection for the film trilogy by Whit Stillman.

While serving a ministry to boarding school students, David and I used to run sessions to show and discuss these films, which put a human face on preppy people who are typically lampooned in film (take the character played by Ted Knight in Caddyshack as a prime example, with the only thoughtful character, played by Chevy Chase, rejecting his background at some level). The interesting thing about really preppy people (those who grew up with their names in the Social Register) is that the human experience and the human problem is the same for all.

While in America most people are told that you can do anything, and rise to whatever heights to which you set your mind -- to succeed and advance is the American dream -- for this subculture, merely holding your ground is a massive success. For example: if you are the son of George H. W. Bush, and you become President of the United States (as his son George W. did), then you have equalled your father's accomplishment. The others have not measured up to it, in worldly terms. So Jeb Bush, a popular and by most measures very successful former governor of Florida, may yet feel a weight of expectation. While the interesting thing about Mad Men is Don Draper's very American re-invention of himself to enter the upper middle class, Stillman's films examine through exceptionally witty dialogue, those who inhabit its environs. What happened at the lake house while a child, or the relationships formed at boarding school, are of greater consequence than most of what follows in life.

If a group of people start "at the top", possibly one or two will do yet greater things, but the best most can hope for is to hang on, while most will drift downwards.

So fear of failure is a debilatating feature for preppies, and of the fascinating characters in Whit Stillman's films. And this is why the message of grace, of life measured by humility before God rather than exalting oneself before Him and others, is needed (in Manhattan and elsewhere). The materially rich may be spiritually poor, and suffering in unseen ways (or very visible ways, as substance abuse is highest at the very top and very bottom of the socio-economic range).

Anyway, I don't know that I've linked to other blogs before, so here goes: David was able to interview Whit Stillman, and the results are quite interesting.

But on the greater topic, what do you think: are we all the same, sinners in need of saving grace? Or are the rich different? What about the cultured, or the intellectual, for that matter?

If the subject is interesting to you, I recommend
the book, Doomed Bourgeois in Love : Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman for further reading. And the Bible. Especially Romans 3.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Warms Me Thrice

It is said that firewood warms you twice, when you burn it of course, but also the "warm work" of cutting, splitting and stacking it. For me, in the pastoral ministry, there is the great reward of seeing lives transformed today by the Gospel, and the greater knowledge of lives won for God eternally. And yet, a human desire is to see results from work, and so the few days a year when I can see such results from physical work are gratifying. Last week we were visiting the Authoress' parents in the Canadian backwoods -- and in addition to picking raspberries and making jam, the main task of the week was "getting the wood in". This is the fuel for winter heat and, importantly, for maple sugar making. Our neighbour Harvey is a forester who splits most of the hardwood for us, but thankfully leaves about 5% unsplit. So I need to wield the heavy splitting axe and do it the old fashioned way.

Two weeks ago we moved apartments in Manhattan; and while it is good to be in the new place, and we are thankful for it, still it was simply moving things from one place to the other. In the grand scheme of things, much work is moving things from one place to another (money, information, etc.), and so building something or changing something dead, dangerous and rotting into something useful (like a tree that needs to come down before it falls on something or someone) is good.

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,
while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.

Proverbs 13:4 would seem to indicate that there are indeed spiritual benefits of work, work which yet bears the curse of sin. "Soul" here can mean "self" but usually the word used would be "the man" (or "the person"), and so "the soul" is probably a reference to the interior self, whole self, or mind. Instead of referring only to the material rewards of labor, the wisdom of Proverbs is that godly urges, when satisfied, bring a richness to the soul. The Bible turns me right back to an awareness that every urge is tainted in some way, yet God in his kindness gives the reward from labor, material and spiritual. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a good example of how "it's not fair" pretty much shows how a preoccupied self-interest invades and spoils.

Anyway, for me, I am thrice warmed by firewood, in the burning, the gathering, and the spiritual satisfaction of labour completed, with the awareness of strength for the work, the beauty of the setting, and in time, maple syrup on pancakes!

What do you think of your work -- either the everyday sort, or the occasional work outside if you don't work with your hands normally?

video link: slanted a bit more towards the curse rather than blessing of work!