An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

 

Smells That Speak

October

 

 

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice;
talked of warm kitchens,
of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings,
of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings,
when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender;
of the purring of contented cats,
and the twitter of sleepy canaries.

~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

 

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I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel.  One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode.  I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything just as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen full of rising breakfast rolls, roasting turkey is my mother’s chaotic kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during those years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training.

Sometimes I have the privilege of holding infants whose skin smells of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvet of my own childrens’.   The newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own.  My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, mint, lemon verbena and lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes wafting through open bedroom windows in my childhood home.  And of course the richness of petrichor: the fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell after a dry spell.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit available includes my most favorite farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer,  I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then and remind me of all I’m grateful for.  It’ll take me back to a day just like today when I cooked in the kitchen, held a friend’s sweet infant, moved hay to the horses and cleaned the barn:

I’ll breathe deeply of the smells that speak to me with no uncertain voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Frost of Adversity

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There is an arid Pleasure –
As different from Joy –
As Frost is different from Dew –
Like Element – are they –

Yet one – rejoices Flowers –
And one – the Flowers abhor –
The finest Honey – curdled –
Is worthless – to the Bee –
~Emily Dickinson

 

 

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Remember the goodness of God in the frost of adversity.
~Charles Spurgeon

 

 

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Hard times leave us frozen solid,
completely immobilized
and too cold to touch,
yet there is hope and healing,
remembering the immensity and goodness of God.

Even when life’s chill leaves us aching,
longing for relief,
the coming thaw is real
because God is good.
Even when we’re flattened,
stepped on, broken into fragments —
the pieces left are the beginning
of who we will become,
made whole again
because God is good.

The frost lasts not forever.
The sun makes us glisten and glitter
as ice melts down to droplets.
We become the goodness of God,
His eyes and ears,
heart and soul,
hands and feet.
Even more so,
we are His tears.

 

 

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God’s Gardener

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Grandma Kittie grew flowers–lots of them.  Her garden stretched along both sides of the sidewalk to her old two story farm house, in window boxes and beds around the perimeter, in little islands scattered about the yard anchored by a tree, or a piece of driftwood, a gold fish pond or a large rock.  Wisteria hung like a thick curtain of purple braids from the roof of her chicken coop, and her greenhouse, far bigger than her home, smelled moist and mossy with hanging fuschia baskets.  For her it was full time joy disguised as a job: she sold seedlings, and ready-to-display baskets, and fresh flower arrangements.  She often said she was sure heaven would be full of flowers needing tending, and she was just practicing for the day when she could make herself useful as a gardener for God.

Visiting Grandma was often an overnight stay, and summer evenings in her yard were heavy with wafting flower perfume.  One of her favorite flowers–indeed it was so hardy and independent it really could be considered a weed–was the evening primrose.  It was one of a few night blooming plants meant to attract pollinating moths.   Its tall stems were adorned by lance shaped leaves, with multiple buds and blooms per stem.  Each evening, and it was possible to set one’s watch by its punctuality, only one green wrapped bud per stem would open, revealing a bright yellow blossom with four delicate veined petals, a rosette of stamens and a cross-shaped stigma in the center, rising far above the blossom.  The yellow was so vivid and lively, it seemed almost like a drop of sun had been left on earth to light the night.  By morning, the bloom would begin to wither and wilt under the real sunlight, somehow overcome with the brightness, and would blush a pinkish orange as it folded upon itself, ready to die and drop from the plant in only a day or two, leaving a bulging seed pod behind.

I would settle down on the damp lawn at twilight, usually right before dusk fell, to watch the choreography of opening of blossoms on stem after stem of evening primrose.  Whatever the trigger was for the process of unfolding, there would be a sudden loosening of the protective green calyces, in an almost audible release.  Then over the course of about a minute, the overlapping yellow petals would unfurl, slowly, gently, purposefully, revealing their pollen treasure trove inside.   It was like watching time lapse cinematography, only this was an accelerated, real time flourish of beauty, happening right before my eyes.  I always felt privileged to witness each unveiling as Grandma liked to remind me that few flowers ever allowed us to behold their birthing process.  The evening primrose was not at all shy about sharing itself and it would enhance the show with a sweet lingering fragrance.

Grandma knew how much I enjoyed the evening primrose display, so she saved seeds from the seed pods for me, and helped me plant them at our house during one of her spring time visits.   I remember scattering the seeds with her in a specially chosen spot, in anticipation of the “drops of sun” that would grace our yard come summertime.  However, Grandma was more tired than usual on this particular visit, taking naps and not as eager to go for walks or eat the special meals cooked in honor of her visit.  Her usually resonant laughing brown eyes appeared dull, almost muddy.

The day she was to return home she came into the kitchen at breakfast time, wearily setting down her packed bags.  She gave me a hug and I looked at her, suddenly understanding what I had feared to believe.  Something was dreadfully wrong.  Grandma’s eyes were turning yellow.

Instead of returning home that day, she went to the hospital.  Within a day, she had surgery and within two days, was told she had terminal pancreatic cancer.  She did not last long, her skin becoming more jaundiced by the day, her eyes more icteric and far away.  She soon left her earthly gardens to cultivate those in heaven.

I’ve kept evening primrose in my garden ever since.  Grandma is inside each bloom as it unfolds precipitously in the evening, she wafts across the yard in its perfume.  Her spirit is a drop of sun coming to rest,  luminous,  for a brief stay upon the earth, only to die before we’re ready to let it go.  But as the wilted bloom lets go,  the seeds have already begun to form.

Grandma will grow flowers again–lots of them.

 

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The Life That I Try

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Let there be not only the roses,
Not only the buds of the day,
But the noon and the hour that discloses
The full flower torn away:

Not only the bliss and the sweet
When the sun is soft and low,
But the weary aching of feet
Tired out by the harrow and hoe:

Not only the gazing and sighing
Where the heather stands thick on the moor,
But the lonely watch and the crying,
With hunger awake at the door:

Not only the wonder of reaping
The fruit that hangs red on the bough,
But the strain and the stagger of creeping
In the brown wake of the plough.

Let this be the way that I go,
And the life that I try,
My feet being firm in the field,
And my heart in the sky.
~Philip Britts from Water at the Roots

 

 

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Within each day of each life
hides the joy of discovery
despite the weariness.

The truth of it is:
a hunger and ache consume me
if I don’t seek out and harvest beauty
growing in each moment.

Though my boots are dusty
and my steps less sure,
the life I try on each day
is the certainty of a heart in bloom.

 

 

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The Great Good Night Rain

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Open the window, and let the air 
Freshly blow upon face and hair, 
And fill the room, as it fills the night, 
With the breath of the rain’s sweet might. 

Not a blink shall burn to-night 
In my chamber, of sordid light; 
Nought will I have, not a window-pane, 
‘Twixt me and the air and the great good rain, 
Which ever shall sing me sharp lullabies; 
And God’s own darkness shall close mine eyes; 
And I will sleep, with all things blest, 
In the pure earth-shadow of natural rest. 

~James Henry Leigh Hunt from “A Night-Rain in Summer”
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The rain returned briefly this weekend – a blissful reminder of God’s intent to refresh and replenish us when we are at our driest.
It is sweet to fall asleep listening in the dark to the patter of raindrops after weeks of drought.
I’ll make sure to remember the relief I felt these nights while grumbling and sloshing around in the fortieth day of rain this winter.
When will I be satisfied there is enough but not too much?
~~when God’s own darkness closes my eyes in natural rest and His glory opens my eyes to the illumination of eternity.
In the meantime, let it rain – preferably as I sleep.
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Warm and Steady Sweetness

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It’s ripe, the melon 
by our sink. Yellow, 
bee-bitten, soft, it perfumes 
the house too sweetly. 
At five I wake, the air 
mournful in its quiet. 
My wife’s eyes swim calmly 
under their lids, her mouth and jaw 
relaxed, different. 
What is happening in the silence 
of this house? Curtains 
hang heavily from their rods. 
Ficus leaves tremble 
at my footsteps. Yet 
the colors outside are perfect– 
orange geranium, blue lobelia. 
I wander from room to room 
like a man in a museum: 
wife, children, books, flowers, 
melon. Such still air. Soon 
the mid-morning breeze will float in 
like tepid water, then hot. 
How do I start this day, 
I who am unsure 
of how my life has happened 
or how to proceed 
amid this warm and steady sweetness?
~Albert Garcia from Skunk Talk 
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How do I start this day?
When sleep was elusive, the air still with heat at midnight.
When even a melon-colored sky looks dry along with everything beneath it.
When wildfire smoke drifts in on waves from north and south, obscuring, rounding out the sharp edges.

I accept the sweetness that is offered this tepid summer morning that will turn too hot.

I’m here.
Let the day begin.

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