Weeds or Blossoms, We’re Loved!

As I wrote, tiny bits of hail tapped the windows. I wondered if they were intentionally distracting me or if it was I who needed to intentionally concentrate more fully on the task at hand. I’d been out in the misty weather earlier that morning before the hail made its way to my window and then onto the pavement where it danced wildly. Yes, I did get up from my desk to watch that performance. Because it wasn’t enough of a distraction, I walked downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. Afterward, I stopped at the patio door to peer out at the hail a while longer. As those tiny balls of ice melted into nothingness, I noticed a green sprout growing between two bricks in the patio. Before I could say a word, my husband observed, “You know that’s a dandelion, don’t you?” After looking more closely for myself, I responded. “Huh! The first sign of spring and it’s a dandelion. I hope this isn’t an omen of the things to come!” With that, I returned to this writing and today’s gospel (John 15:1-8) where Jesus compares himself to a vine. I looked upward and prayed, “I much prefer vines to weeds, Lord. Thank you!”

Decades ago, this preference for non-weeds caused me some trouble. I was in second grade and it was the first week of May. Our teacher, my classmates and I busied ourselves preparing an altar to honor Mary. Sister provided blue satin fabric for the background, flowers fashioned into a crown and a statue of the Mother of Jesus. To me, the altar would be complete when we added a vase of flowers. Another second grader had brought in a handful of weeds which he thought were spring flowers. Though I didn’t know much about such things, I knew that those particular sprouts weren’t flowers. They looked just like the pesky dandelion buds which plagued our backyard.

As I walked home after school that day, the scent of lilacs overwhelmed me. There were so many flowers growing on the hedge beside me that I was certain no one would mind if I “borrowed” a few. They would complete our May Altar perfectly. So it was that during the hour of daylight which remained after dinner, I set out to gather lilacs. There wasn’t a soul around which didn’t actually matter to me. I was on a mission. I headed to that hedge with my mother’s pinking sheers, the only scissors I could find, and a large paper bag. I immediately began my search for perfect lilacs. Some were too short-stemmed to stand in a vase. Others had buds that hadn’t yet opened. Still others had begun to brown. After several minutes of snipping, I stood in the dusk with a bag and a sidewalk full of lilacs. I had single-handedly cut every bloom that I could reach. In my earnest effort to replace my classmate’s budding weeds with flowers, I’d made a terrible mess and an even more terrible mistake.

My lack of appreciation for this misdeed disappeared quickly. All of the houses on our block rested just a few feet from the sidewalk except one. This house was set back so far that its rear entrance opened just steps from the alley. A huge overgrown front yard protected the house from neighborhood eyes. The unkempt trees, shrubs, wild grasses and weeds gave the place a ghostly aura. The bravest of our neighborhood teens refused to scale the fence which protected what we called The Big Yard even if this meant losing a prized softball. The Big Yard scared every one of us except in the springtime. This was when that eerie hedge which bordered the sidewalk transformed The Big Yard into Lilac Heaven. As I prepared to take my leave from that precious hedge, the sound of shuffling steps caused me to freeze in place. As The Big Yard’s gate creaked open, I drenched myself in tears. The shuffling resumed until a bent figure stopped before me. The tiniest and oldest woman I’d ever seen turned her eyes to the mounds of lilacs strewn across the walk. Without a word, she knelt in the blossoms and scooped them up close to herself as if in an attempt to revive them. When she realized I’d robbed each branch of its life, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. Her tears fell as profusely as my own. After what seemed an eternity, she turned to say, “Of all the things that grow in this yard, I love the lilacs most. My yard is nothing but weeds except for these flowers, you know. Waiting for them to bloom is what gets me through our terrible winters.”

In the end, my newly discovered neighbor forgave my thievery. She allowed me to think that the plaster statue which adorned my second grade classroom would benefit far more from the flowers than she. Somehow, I knew better. I should have appreciated my classmate’s weeds as Mary would have. I should have known that my neighbor appreciated her lilacs even more than I did. It is this childhood misadventure which inspires my appreciation for the Vine which sustains us all. Jesus remains in our company whether we present ourselves as flowers or weeds. Just as my neighbor’s lilacs eased her through a lifetime of tough winters, Jesus stays to sustain us through everything which threatens us along the way. All we’re asked in return is to sustain one another whether we’re blooming beautifully like those lilacs or being pesky like my backyard’s weeds.

©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

Our Life-Giving Vine

The morning’s temperatures threatened the return of winter. I pulled out my winter jacket, scarf and gloves. I rarely wear anything on my head. Still, I searched through the neat piles on the closet shelf. I settled on an old knitted hat which would keep my head warm for forty minutes or so. I was already in a dark mood and I did not want to add to my misery by freezing as I walked. On the way out, I checked the outdoor thermometer. When it assured me that the promised increase in temperature had not occurred, I moaned to myself, “Of course!” I plodded up our street with my eyes focused directly ahead and my fists clenched in my pockets.

Looking back, I am amazed at my behavior. I enjoy walking outdoors and I am always mesmerized by the beauty around me. Whether it lies in the white of winter, the greening of spring, vibrant summer blossoms or fall’s transforming foliage, something in the scenery always manages to take my breath away. This time, however, my breath had already been taken away by recent events. Because I could do nothing to remedy any of these situations which brought sadness to so many, I held onto my frustration and anger. I had every intention of brooding throughout this walk in spite of Creation’s best efforts to draw me in.

A few days earlier, I had seen two cousins who continue to mourn the loss of their children. Their twenty-one and thirty-four year olds left them far too soon. Seeing these heartbroken mothers together in their sorrow pained me. “I know it is not mine to ask, Lord, but why?” I whispered. Not long afterward, a friend with whom my husband and I had worked passed away suddenly. Though the over-flow crowd at her funeral certainly consoled her loved ones, their sadness will remain with them for some time. This dedicated teacher, volunteer, temple member, friend, mother and wife left a huge void in the lives she touched. “She was going to retire in June,” I pointed out in the event that the Lord God had missed that fact. As I walked on, I considered another friend who would gladly embrace eternity at his first opportunity. As his decline continues, his family, caretakers and the hospice staff provide their best to him twenty-four seven. When I saw him the day before, I questioned our loving God once again about the timing of things. “Some go too early. Some wait around for what seems like forever. I know it is none of my business, Lord, but what are you thinking?”

By the time I exhausted my litany of complaints, I had also exhausted my frustration and anger. I determined that a humble and prayerful apology for my lack of faith and hope was in order. Before I could utter a word, the scent of lilacs drew me in. “It’s far too cold for you to bloom,” I chided. Yet, there they were. The lilacs in question rested at the top of an archway trellis. This was a comical sight because the trellis was the width of a doorway, but the lilac growth spewing from its top reached out three feet in every direction. It seemed that this poor trellis was doomed to fall over in the next big wind. When I looked more closely, I saw the thick trunks of two lilac bushes which flank each side of the trellis. “No wonder it can stand,” I told myself, “and no wonder the blooms are too numerous to count. They’re getting plenty of support and nourishment from those sturdy trunks.” I also noted that the branches atop that trellis were tightly woven together. Not one would be displaced by the wind or anything else because they held one another in place. With that, I walked home.

Inside, I stowed my winter coat, traded my shoes for slippers and perused John’s gospel (15:1-8) for this writing. My faith and hope edged their way back as I read. John tells us that Jesus called himself a vine and God a vine grower. This Vine Grower provides everything necessary to allow his precious plantings not only to live, but to flourish. Jesus went on to declare that his disciples, you and I are the branches who spring forth from him. I was ashamed to admit aloud that I had overlooked this important information when I needed to acknowledge it most. How often have I used this space to spread the word regarding God’s intent to sustain us in the best and worst of times? Yes, our Vine Dresser provides for us and remains connected to us regardless of the winds and storms which threaten. Our part in all of this is to mingle and to intertwine and to become woven together. When we do so, we support one another and keep one another anchored safely until the storms of this life pass. I misplaced my energy when I carried that anger and frustration around with me. All I ever need to do is to hold tightly to the Vine while God attends to the rest.

Patient God, thank you for loving me and for forgiving me even before I have the sense to say I’m sorry. Thank you, too, for keeping me close, especially when I forget to hold on to you.

©2015 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved