Thursday, August 26, 2010

Vanity of vanities

The first time I laid mulch, I ended up in the hospital.  I was a grumbling 8-year-old assisting my mother with yard work. My mom threw down a handful of mulch with too much gusto, and some of it flew back in my eyes. We couldn't get out all of the splinters ourselves, so I wound up in the emergency room, tearful as the doctor flushed my eyes clean with saline. 

From that moment, I pronounced that laying mulch was the biggest waste of time known to humankind.  Still, I conform to the cultural expectation that my flower beds will look more beautiful with it.  Almost every year I find myself fighting heat and mosquitoes to weed and mulch the yard. This year, however, I had a new nemesis: My puppy, Obadiah. 

As I tried to lay mulch yesterday, he simply wasn't having it. To him, the landscape fabric was a toy chest. The mulch itself was a gold mine to dig for treasure. Our friends Claude and Holly stopped by, and they laughed at my efforts. They knew it would be in vain. Defiant, I pressed on. I crated Obadiah so I could finish the job. When I let him out, he actually respected the mulch until sunset. I bragged about it to Holly. But the moment it got dark, his witching hour came. He tore at the fabric and plowed through the mulch with his puppy exuberance. 

This morning when I awoke, I saw the path of destruction. "Vanity of vanities!" I cried with the author of Ecclesiastes. "All is vanity! What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?" 

I'm not sure. But I do know this much: We keep toiling. We keep working in the dirt and muck of this world to make our corner of the planet just a little more beautiful. Every now and again, our effort is rewarded. Much of the time, it's in vain. But we press on, doing the best we can, even when our work is upturned more quickly than we can say, "Obadiah."

Sunday, August 8, 2010


We broke ground on a major deferred maintenance project at the church in early June. In order to replace the sewer lines, we had to dig up the beautiful courtyard. Not a tree or plant or bush or flower was left standing ... or so we thought. 

Yesterday as I was preparing for a funeral, I was studying the dirt. Suddenly I noticed not one, but two flowers, poking up from the demolition. They looked to be some type of lily, although I'm terrible at identifying flowers. (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong.) They were probably still buried in the ground when the project began. Somehow, they were able to bloom and grow in spite of the chaos that surrounded them. When every other plant was uprooted, they flowered despite the odds. They are survivors. 

I've been blessed by these types of surprises all summer long. In tragic places where I've expected to see nothing but an uprooted mess, I've witnessed something blooming. In tough situations where I've wondered if I've made the right decision, a shoot of grace has sprung up.  During exhausting weeks, I've been touched by laughter, friendship, and joy. 

My favorite expression in Hebrew is tohu va-bohu. (The French just shorten it to tohu-bohu.) It's the expression in Genesis 1 for "formless and empty," which was the condition of the earth before God said, "Let there be light." It's a time of confusion and commotion. It's a time of uncertainty. But it's also a time of potential, promise, and creation. 

Kind of like two flowers popping up in the dirt of the church.