The Lesson of the Peony

 

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“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 
and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”
 – 1 Peter 1:3-4a, NIV –

Today, my friend Lizzie and I drove back and forth across town on a wild treasure hunt for a flower.

I’ve never grown peonies before , but I’m reading Roots and Sky by Christie Purifoy and her Instagram photos of impossibly-delightful peonies inspire me. Fall is in the air, and with it, my dreams of fluffy, dreamy, extravagant blossoms awaiting in the next gardening year.

So I needed a peony.

Now, my town is quite small. Only the arrival of tourists a few times a year manages to tip us over 3,000 people. “Driving across town” only takes about ten minutes. And our gardening options were very limited. We started with our favorite all-American corporate chain, proceeded to a grocery store with a tiny, empty 8×8 greenhouse, checked the lumber store’s collection of plants –actually the most impressive thus far–then drove to the local farm supply. It was our last great hope. But alas. No peonies in the whole town.

We thought our search was in vain. I picked up a few discount packets of seeds in a distant hope of spring planting and waited in the farm supply line to check out…and then the lady standing next to us overheard us lamenting our fruitless search. “There’s peonies at the lumber store,” she says. We explain that we had already looked there, among the spring bulbs. “They aren’t displayed with the bulbs,” she tells us. “She has them in pots.”

Liz whips out her phone and calls the lumber store greenhouse. Sure enough, they have a whole collection of $12.99 peonies.

Back across town we go and there they are…a cluster of black pots with tiny, gnarled, crispy-leaved plants tucked into the top layer of dirt, poking up little wrinkled limbs well past their prime. The tag promises a giant, perfectly-coral blossom.

“They die back in the fall and go dormant in the winter,” the gardener explains. “They’ll come back in the spring.”

So I buy a big black pot with a tiny, crusty-edged leaf hanging on to a twisted root half-unearthed. It costs $12.99. Almost thirteen dollars for a dying hope that won’t blossom at all until later.

I hand over a $20 bill and continue to pepper the woman with questions about how to care for this tiny, twisted hope. “Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t bloom for a few seasons,” she smiles. “It has to get big enough first.”

I nod and let my mind wander to a possible planting place. I’m dreamy with thoughts of spring.

So Liz and I load up the almost-vacant plastic pot into the back of the van and drive home. We grin because our treasure hunt was not in vain. I think finding a treasure after a long hunt must be the best part of an adventure.

The peony plant is safely tucked into the garage now, waiting for me to decide on a sunny growing place for it to call home. As I go about my day, I keep thinking back to that tiny, twiggy promise of a plant. People look at it doubtfully, because it really looks like the dying end of something.

My heart keeps jumping when I remember that this is not a dead and dying thing. My peony is a living hope. It is quiet and sleepy and browning. But it is alive. Something stirs in me when I think that the whole glorious potential of a 3-foot tall bush brimming with giant coral blossoms lies dormant in this dead-looking twig.

My peony keeps telling me stories, because it is itself a story, and a tying-together of my story.

I have no idea what tomorrow brings, what I will do in a year, or what changes may crop up moment by moment. While still a fragile, uncertain thing itself, the potential of the peony teaches me about steady things that anchor us in the middle of the ups and downs of life.

Planting this little whisper of spring is like putting down my roots and saying, “I will be fully here, as long as I am here.” It is a reminder that what I do today lasts, even as the moments fade away. It is a reminder that my Jesus put me here now, for this season.

This peony teaches me that there is an overarching story to the moments that I string together like pearls. Unique and tiny as each moment is, it is adding up to something bigger.

Sometimes I think anxiously about the future, wondering what it will bring.

But something about the peony ties my today and my tomorrow together in a rhythmic strength. Spring will come, as long as the earth remains, and when that spring comes, this dead-looking twig will jump to life and burst up with joy and blossom out in abundance.

And I smile when I think that all this life is packed into the wispy, fading, half-buried root waiting in my garage.

Lizzie says that maybe we are not just planting the peony. Maybe the peony is planting  us, down deep into life. Deep into faith in One who chases winter away every year with a new resurrection of creation.

“Spring will come,” the peony whispers. “There is more life here than you could ever imagine.”

“Look, the winter is past,
    and the rains are over and gone.
The flowers are springing up,
    the season of singing birds has come,
    and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air.

 – Song of Solomon 2:11-12, NLT –

When the Creator Wields a Pen

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“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes…”

– From “Aurora Leigh,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning –

Sometimes everything you’ve always known and heard comes together in a moment of crystallization. A few sentences in a classroom awakened me to something spectacular.  A teacher first told me about the Story, the story of how to really take off my shoes.

God has a Story, you see.

Creation, fall, redemption—what tale would end well without this pattern? I realized that God thought of it first.

It resonated deeply with me, that life isn’t just a haphazard collection of moments.  There’s an Author who already knows what His Story’s final chapter will say.

Creation–the “Once upon a time,” when all was fresh and spotlessly lovely.

Fall. The “But then” of the Story. Someone comes along and crashes the perfection.

The fall sweeps me into a hope-vacuum and everything becomes focused on me and my constant failures, my own desperation. The Story seems beyond repair. Ruined.

The world mirrors my personal failures, compounded, and spreading like a virus. What can solve this sin-death? (Romans 7)

Christian literary critic Gene Edward Veith, Jr., says,

“The most important part of the fairy tale is the invariable ending: ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ Fairy tales…may begin in suffering, but they are resolved in the most intense happiness…Good fairy tales end with consolation” (Reading Between the Lines, 145-146).

This is why fairy tales resonate–because life is a Story and we hope so hard that things will work out. We want to believe in “happily ever after.” We long for the fairy tale to be real. But after a small dose of what’s out there, our happy endings start to look a little naïve.

And then Redemption stirs.

The Word took on flesh (John 1:1-5, 14). The Author became a character in His own book. Somehow, some startling way, a hope emerges in the mess.

My heart can’t quite wrap around the starkness–the blinding, universe-shaking moment that the dragging, imploding darkness flees with the explosion of glorious light. The Creator stepped into a Tale of His own creation, to rescue the characters that had so utterly failed to accomplish their own redemption that only the Author could make it all turn out right again. The Writer dies, so the written might live.

We get to be a part of this Greatest Story ever told. Our Creator Savior is writing the Ultimate Story with broken tools like you and me (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Taking off my shoes means seeing God’s Story in those He puts in my path.

To point out His hand at work in another’s life is powerful. Hope is always powerful.

Over and again, I’ve heard words like these: “I thought it was all for nothing. But then God did this with my pain….”

It’s always a better Story for the conflict.

It’s always a deeper satisfaction for the pain.

In His story, it’s always a more magnificent love in spite of the rejection, a more soul-thrilling joy after the night of sorrow, a greater light when the darkness turns and hides.

Each life, each story that reveals redemption, is a little piece of the puzzle that comes together in a Story too good to be fully imagined.

And I get to be a part of it. And you. And each one that we reach out and touch and say, “Come on this journey with me.”

“But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

Sometimes people stumble onto truth, unknowingly straying into holy places on the Pages of God’s Story. I don’t know if English author Michael Morpurgo has found or ever will find the Source of true hope and unquenched optimism, but his words effectively echo the Christian confidence:

“Wherever my story takes me, however dark and difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption….I know the sun will rise in the morning, that there is a light at the end of every tunnel.”

I know the Son will rise in the morning. That no night, no tunnel, no battle, is too dark for His light.

“God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.”
– Søren Kierkegaard

Abundance, a Song Big Enough

“I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”

~ John 10:10b, emphasis mine ~

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“That He came to us is the most stunning event, most astounding fact in history.

That we can’t get to the cross…so the Cross came to us.”

– Dr. Jeff Meyers, emphasis mine

In a culture and world so desperately sin-sick, I so often lose sight of the “bookends” of God’s story. When I lose the creation context, I forget that God is the Planner, the “Blessed Controller.” The fall sweeps me into the hope-vacuum and it becomes focused on me and my constant failures, my own desperation.

But as a storyteller myself, I finally came back to the Redemption and my personal world rocks with the glory. My heart, my head, can’t quite wrap around the starkness, the blinding, universe-shaking moment that the dragging, imploding darkness flees with the explosion of glorious light. And my heart quiets, somehow wishing for a song big enough to encompass my redemption.

In the world, it seems my personal failures are only mirrored, compounded, and spreading like a virus. What can solve this sin-death, but the One who took on flesh?

And oh, the breathless beauty that He did!

By Jesus taking on humanity, He abundantly sanctified all our normalcy.

“How is such a spiritual, “out-there” thing so earthy? So, here and now?

So Redemption is what we live in, the light that floods us with life.”

– Dr. Jeff Myers, emphasis mine –

There is a life out there that many of us have only begun to taste. An abiding, abundant, peace-radiant, joy-bubbling, Christ-longing life.

Our Father knows what we need before we ask Him (Matthew 6:8).

He knows we need this abundant life. He knows there is a song-gap in every heart, a longing for music with a swell big enough to carry us through a life and into an eternity.

Not only does he know about this song-hunger–He made it. He made souls that serve a Master. But what Master will we follow?

Only one song will quench us. Only One Life will fill us.

My dear teacher Dr. Jeff Myers taught his students about the principle of abundance. That is, we are not to be content with mediocrity. We are not to be content with merely a well-run race of our own.

An abundant life is a life that spreads. It is light that reaches out. It is a singer that teaches the Greatest Song to every longing soul she finds.

And this abundance–it isn’t something you have to find. It is already yours.

It’s why He came.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”

– Matthew 7:7-8, NKJV, emphasis mine –

Sisters, just ask. Today, ask. Enter the abundance that the Cross unleashed.

“If God has given you life abundantly, why aren’t you using it?”

~ Luci Swindoll ~

“To the one who is able to protect you from falling, and to present you blameless and rejoicing before his glorious presence,to the only God our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, belong glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time, now and forever. Amen.”

– Jude 24-25, CEB, emphasis mine-

Special thanks to Atalie Bale at ataliebalephotography.com for her beautiful photo of abundance!

Every Birth, Every Leaf

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone but in every leaf of springtime.

– Martin Luther-

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With spring comes new birth.

Yesterday I watched three wet goat kids birthed into a cold, pain-raged world.

And we are like them.

We were unborn, safe, heedless of the agony and despair just outside the barricading womb.

Then the birth throes came and our mothers panted and cried with pain and we appeared.

Like those kids, slick and wet. Like them, bloody and gasping for air and scared to be pushed out of the safety and closed-in comfort. The ground is unyielding beneath our quivering legs. The prickly straw jabs.

We long to go back in to the dark tightness where our mothers’ breath heaved right above our huddled bodies. We grow to hate the cold but yet draw back against the warmth washing away our birth sac, stripping away the cold membrane that was so comfortable and now chills us.

And one day we begin to understand the depth of the significance of the first cry.

On some days, we wonder if there is anything in all this broken world but crying.

Even with the budding out of spring, do you ever wonder what is the point, when so much of death’s stench seeps into our moments? Do you ever wonder why the flowers still smile when the frost will bite them off in only a few short months?

Where is the spring in that?

More importantly, if even the most hopeful time of year is tainted, what hope is there for me?

A few weeks ago, Easter morning broke all over the world again, the anniversary of a death. Yes, on Friday the God of this Broken world died to redeem it. But on Sunday, another death occurred.

Death died that Sunday morning.

And unlike all the other deaths of this world, in direct opposition to the struggle and misery—the death of Death snapped chains and broke cords and singing was unleashed.

All the Springtimes before that year of Resurrection had been foretelling. Each revolution around the yellow sun, the flowers had budded out and the deer had birthed their fawns. All of creation gathered and cried out to man that the end of Death’s Winter was coming. That Spring would come and our Ransom-Payer would arise, with healing in His wings. Every year, they kept repeating the promise to come:

Arise, shine;
For your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.
 The Gentiles shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.

~ Isaiah 60:1-3, NKJV ~

And with the world-shaking rising of that Ransom-Payer, Death was crushed, Despair was led away captive, Pain lost it’s sting.

Maybe you marvel at a God of Love who can allow us to hurt and sin.

I marvel at a God of Love who Took our hurt and Became our sin.

So when the pain keeps coming and the ache crushes all of your breath away, there is a higher place you can go than just looking at the Springtime.  All the new life in the world won’t help you if your heart keeps dwelling in the death.

 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

~ 2 Corinthians 5:17, NKJV ~

You can go to the one that is the Spring rising in our hearts, that is the Light after the Winter’s dark.

 “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

~ Hebrews 6:17-20, ESV ~

Because Jesus lives, we can face tomorrow.

Fearless, Faithful, Knowing, Confident. Standing in His Love, by His Power, through His blood.

Because we have been redeemed, Spring is our daily reality.

May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You have a pure and enduring inheritance that cannot perish—an inheritance that is presently kept safe in heaven for you. Through his faithfulness, you are guarded by God’s power so that you can receive the salvation he is ready to reveal in the last time.

You now rejoice in this hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials. This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. (Your faith is more valuable than gold, which will be destroyed even though it is itself tested by fire.) Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory, and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words. You are receiving the goal of your faith: your salvation.

~1 Peter 1:3-9, CEB ~

Amen.