The Anonymous Gardener
Not another springtime meditation! God Almighty, who can bear another word about the smell of soil or the chatter of nesting birds. But when the leaves changed colors, I wrote about that. When the first snow of winter turned the world white, I wrote about that too. Being a photographer, I write about what I see, and now I see the lilies pushing out of the soil, the trees starting bloom, even the grass is changing from a disagreeable brown to a vibrant green. To add coercion to obligation, we’re in the Easter season to boot. So, it is out of Christian duty that I write about flowers and blooms – we’re prisoners to the seasons, liturgical and otherwise.
But how do you write about springtime without getting all willy-nilly with romanticism? How does someone who takes medication every day to avoid chronic depression and generalized anxiety honestly write about flowerbeds and opened windows – curtains blowing in the breeze and the scent of coming rain? How do you keep the resurrection from snoring up fresh chamomile tea bags and ambrosial yawns?
There are plenty of passages to help me. Isaiah writes, “Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble…so their roots will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust.” The psalmist helps too. “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” And if ever there were a passage to help a grump like me, it is the Book of Job. “They will not escape…the flame will dry up their shoots, and their blossom will be swept away by the wind.” But maybe my favorite, a human life “comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last.”
The only problem is that these passages don’t exactly resonate with the Easter season, do they? They don’t even resonate with springtime, as though the two seasons were the same (though you might think so reading this essay – my apologies to my southern hemisphere audience).
The preachers and Christian writers I can’t stand the most are the ones whose faith is so la-di-da with glory and heaven and spiritual power that their heads live above the clouds. I’ve been named and claimed, born again, because God is in control. Amen! Ha-ha-hallelujah. These blessed folks sound anesthetized by spiritual narcotics; they seem barely available to this world, and consequently, unaware of half the biblical text. For every psalm of praise, there’s a psalm of lament. For every hosanna, there’s a cry of dereliction. I have sometimes wondered if we would have a single letter from the Apostle Paul without the petty bickering of small congregations or the Book of Genesis without dysfunctional families.
But it doesn’t take an astute observer to claim that I’m as guilty of despair and cynicism as castle-in-the-air Christians are of Pollyanna theatrics.
So, we’re left with the same question? What can a hermit-like killjoy say about the beauty of springtime? What can I say about the Easter season and resurrection and overall gaiety of the Christian message without betraying (ignoring) my co-dependent and PTSD demons?
I’ve spent the last couple of days going from garden to garden looking for the perfect flower to photograph. But like faith, perfection is hard to come by; so, I kept looking. I ended up at the Airlie Gardens, just down the road in Wilmington, North Carolina. For as many times as I have heard about it, this was my first visit. It sprawled, as their website says, for “67 acres with formal gardens, seasonal blooms, mighty live oaks, historic structures, and contemporary sculpture.”
The yellow-trumpeted daffodils were in bloom, though past their peak. The azaleas were partly covered in reds and pinks and whites but were now carpeting the ground more than their bushes. Orange, maroon, and white tulips appeared splendid until I looked closer and saw that the recent rain had been cruel to the soft petals. But even still, the tail end of springtime beauty was enough to photograph.
I was bent over like a contortionist trying to capture the curved stem of a tulip when a lady planted her feet beside my head and completely blocked the sunlight. I looked up, halfway expecting to discover garden security, when she asked, “Are you a photographer?”
I got off the ground, brushed some dirt and mulch away from my shirt with one hand, while holding my camera in my other hand, and said, “No, lady, I’m a vagrant napping in the flowerbeds with a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of camera equipment.” (Okay, I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to.)
She was wearing a visor and too much makeup and carried a handbag as big as Willy Wonka’s imagination. She seemed the sort of person who only goes outdoors on sunny days in perfectly manicured gardens but has never had dirt under her fingernails. I suspected she had arrived in a Cadillac after having shopped at the mall, or maybe she had just finished dabbling the corners of her mouth with a cloth napkin at a swanky, waterfront restaurant. I don’t know why I instantly didn’t like her. Maybe it was because she asked me if I was a photographer when I had a camera in my hand, as though there are real photographers and art-world charlatans – as though she were qualified to interrogate and evaluate someone’s caliber by sorcery or astrology.
“Oh, wow, that’s exciting,” she said. “You’re a real photographer.” Throughout the garden I had bumped into no less than 15 other people doing the exact same thing I was doing. In fact, one guy had the very same camera and lens I was using. We photographers are a dime a dozen. I imagined her walking up to each one and trying to start a conversation exactly the same way. I wanted to save her the trouble by telling her that we were all photographers. I wanted to tell her that the five-year old with mommy’s iPhone camera was a photographer too.
“Well,” I said in an aloof tone, “it’s a good day for shooting.”
“Tell me, what’s your name?” she said excitedly.
“I just love meeting artist.” The tips of her talking fingers dripped with a sort of bourgeois dilettantism. With a fur coat and a cigarette holder, I thought, she’d look like the cartoon version of Cruella De Vil.
I told her my name, and she stood there for a moment. Looking at her forehead, I could read the scroll of names shuffling through her mind. A long, awkward silence ensued. When she came to the end of her list, she said, “Nope, I’ve never heard of you.”
And she walked away.
Not a goodbye. Not even a “have a nice day.” She just walked away disappointed that I wasn’t a celebrated photographer.
I know Jesus wants me to love her. And I’m trying. I really am. Do you know where you’re going after you die? That’s what I should’ve asked her. You know, because Jesus loves you (which means I don’t).
So, anyway. I’m a nobody. Just a nobody in a garden with a camera. And that’s fine with me. Jesus was a nobody in a garden too. Mary Magdalene, surely one of Jesus’s closest friends, didn’t even recognize him. Here we could make a turn and explore how the resurrection must have changed Jesus’ appearance or how he couldn’t be held because he had yet ascended. But while such speculation can be entertaining, there’s not a lot of content to bolster such head-in-the-cloud claims. (And yes, I’ve read the story about the walk to Emmaus when “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Maybe there is some moonstruck, mystical bent to what’s going on in these passages, but that’s not my point.)
The resurrected Christ means so many things that only a fool would say, “This is it.” Each year it can mean something different, each year from now until time dissolves– the resurrection’s meaning cannot be exhausted. For me, this year, the resurrected Christ is the celebration of anonymity, the joy of not being recognized. (Thank you, old biddy.)
Now, maybe this feels a bit disingenuous coming from a person who writes personal essays and pushes them out on his own website. But, if so, I must remind you that I embrace hypocrisy and contradiction. The truth of the matter, though, I’m not all that concerned with how many likes I get or how many readers follow me. (I am but I’m not, if you get my gist). I’m more interested in the connection that is made when a reader says something like, “That’ my story, too.”
But there’s more to this anonymity business. It’s the anonymity of Jesus in the garden, the unrecognized resurrected one. Without the resurrection, there would be no saints or martyrs or church. Christianity itself would not exist without the resurrection. And yet some of the very first witnesses of this event didn’t even recognize the risen Christ.
When I served as a pastor, I was surprised by how many people did things for the church that no one noticed. There was the old man who came by once a week and whacked the weeds with his gas-powered machine. There was the old lady who baked communion bread for the first Sunday of every month for decades. There were the church bookkeepers who kept order, and, of course, the church treasurer who lost sleep at night, worried about a bill the church couldn’t afford. The lady who was at church every Sunday because a child might show up for Sunday school.
Then there were so many extension ministries. The lady who ran the shelter for battered women. The person who decided we needed to have a food pantry and took it upon herself to gather loads of can goods. The people who organized a fundraiser to send the youth on a mission trip.
The list goes on and on. But when I was out at a restaurant or out at the grocery store, people stopped me to shake my hand; they stopped to recognize me for being the pastor – the steward of God’s church – the celebrated Christian. The church even had a pastor’s appreciation day for me once. We were seated at a head table and gifts were stacked all around us.
But the church wasn’t started this way. The resurrection didn’t happen this way. It started with a woman in a garden looking directly at the risen Christ and essential said, who are you?
So, here’s my sermon: for all those who have not received the church-person-of-the-year award, for all of you who work quietly without drawing attention to yourself, for the gifts given namelessly, you are the resurrected Christ.
We often hear that we should “stop and smell the roses,” but, the truth is, most beautiful flowers live and die without anyone ever having noticed their beauty. You, the unrecognized ones, you are the resurrected Christ. You are the beautiful ones. It is a shame that we don’t recognize you. But paradoxically, you are beautiful because you’re not recognized.
My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise my love, my fair one, and come away…My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
You are recognized, if by no one else, by the One who truly matters, the one who knows what it means to not be recognized. Stand with the risen Christ in the garden as the nameless gardener who brings back that old, old garden we left long ago. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.