It’s possible that this time around, you don’t feel quite right saying, “Happy New Year.” I haven’t heard from too many people who feel optimistic about 2022 and beyond. Yet I find comfort and encouragement, and I hope you will too, when I speak of Pearl, Whip, and their garden.
For a lovely little while, before I left church ministry, and before I became a chaplain in hospitals, Pearl and her now deceased husband Whip were my neighbors, mentors, and friends. Life, faith, and Jesus made sense when I was around them. From Pearl’s attitude about the produce in her garden, I have practical hope to share, not only for this new year, but also for this era of darkness.
Pearl and Whip used to have a garden, about a quarter acre of ground with cow manure tilled into it. They were diligent about it, and, like their Christian lives, the garden brought forth its fruit in season. When it did, they ate some, canned some, and shared the rest of the harvest with everybody. One thing I noticed, though—they never put a fence around their garden. A fence would have helped Whip and Pearl garner more for themselves, since, after all, it was rural country, and deer and rabbits at times nibbled on, and other times pillaged, their plants. Once I asked Pearl why she never did anything about that. She just shrugged and said, “Well, they gotta eat too.” And that was that. I liked that idea, and still do.
Years later, however, now that I live in a city, I’ve realized that having a fondness for a perspective like Pearl’s is one thing, but actually living out her ideals is another. In my neighborhood, squirrels mate like rabbits and are going forth and multiplying and all of these little creatures are tearing up my wife’s flower garden and, seemingly with impudence and intentional malice, are knocking over my wife’s outdoor candles and flower pots from our fence-rail. So I’ve been peppering away at them with a BB gun. I don’t have the required sacrificial conviction to actually do what Pearl did, and instead have just given in and followed my vengeful instincts.
I don’t know what Pearl’s disposition would be when it comes to voting and governmental stuff. We never talked about it. I do know she took the same approach to humans as she did to other creatures. Young people who’d lost their way, married people going through divorce, addicted people, and even beleaguered pastors—they all found their troubled way to Whip and Pearl’s doorstep. There they found no blame or shame, only a sense of safety, and a recognition, flowing from our Reformed tradition, that life is crushingly difficult, and we all need the milk of divine and human kindness to get through. Grace and mercy grow in God’s garden, and we all gotta eat. We all gotta share. This was Whip and Pearl’s consistent, sacrificial conviction and action pattern with regard to people, including me.
A few months ago, I went back and visited Pearl. While I was there I went out to the barn. As I stood alone on the rough cement of the barn floor, I must confess I wept. It was just so rich with memory. The rusty old tractor chains, and the massive, prickly old ropes that could scorch your hands when you worked with them, and the small, rolling hills of sawdust in the woodshop—it all looked and smelled the same. It was safe, and it hadn’t changed. Nor had Pearl. Though with each passing year the garden gets a little smaller, Pearl’s heart is still as large and generous as always. Her soul is steady and consistent.
That’s part of why I wept, there in the barn, because pretty much everything else has changed, and there seems to be so little safety for people now. Everybody’s angry. There is so much misinformation, and so many lies, and then all the confusion lit on fire by those deceptions. My own soul has changed, as has some large percentage of the church that I have known, loved, and served.
There in the barn, I was grieving that.
These days, I’m afraid, the church too often looks like me, the vengeful dude with the BB gun. Like Farmer MacGregor to Peter Rabbit. Or, like an angry church lady to some homeless guys.
Just before Christmas I met these guys. While I sat with them, I asked where they lived and how they made it through winter. They told me about this place outside of town, far from the road and over a hill and in some woods. There, two of the guys had built a tent out of PVC pipe and plastic tarps, and then 10 more guys came. But that concentration of homeless folks created a problem in the mind of some with homes. The solution, from one woman who owned a business nearby, was to pull a gun on them and make some threats. She also swerved and aimed her car toward one of these guys as he was walked down the road. Yep—she was a church-goer, as she made clear in the gun confrontation, loud and proud for God. I get it, it’s wrong for people just to plop down on someone else’s property. But when we scroll through the alternatives for attacking the problem of homelessness, attacking the homeless ought not be an option.
Everywhere I have gone this past year, Swerve Lady and her kin have been prolific and ahead of me. The people scorched in her wake tell me about their dealings with her, in traffic, at school board meetings, and in grocery stores. Restaurant servers tell of how she was there, arguing with them about masks and God, and about how they felt so beat down by her that they came home from work and cried. Store clerks tell of her berating them for saying, “Happy Holidays.” Medical staff tell of how she (and her husband, as they stay in side-by-side Covid-care rooms), accuse doctors and nurses of trying to kill them, of trying to rip them off financially, and of violating their rights and/or their religion. When, by phone, nurses explained to Swerve Lady’s pastor the hospital’s policy for Covid patients, he condemned them for “hindering God’s work,” and then finagled his way in with a fake vaccination card. As I stand with doctors and nurses while they share these stories, I feel ashamed for my species.
That pastor, maybe, has been reading religious journals, which lament the exodus of so many people from churches, and speculate as to why this is happening. I have my own theory: people have encountered a Swerve Lady or two, or heard the sermons of their pastors, and are repulsed and frightened by them. They sense that these tragically misled and aggressive people are not connected to the Jesus they profess to follow, but have become confused, immature, callous, and mean, like the dwarfs in The Last Battle, who throw stones at everyone else and huddle to themselves, muttering, “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs.”
Recently, I met an Israeli man who says it’s always the extremists who tear us apart. He sketched out the conflicts in the Middle East in his lifetime, and said that by far most people there, from both sides, would support compromises to live in peace, but the extremists make the noise, browbeat vulnerable people, gather weapons, and fuel the never-ending, hellish, death-spiral of conflict. In this country, I fear the church has lost its way under the influence of such leaders.
My hope—a very thin thread of hope—is that the Pearl Principle blesses the world and wins the day, though it boasts not in fences and depends not on weapons and doesn’t have a need to “win” and takes no delight in someone losing. It’s heartbreaking, though, because the extremists are more organized and have the guns.
Yes, the extremists are loud and threatening, and they exert force every day, and it wearies us all. Yet even in these dark, conflicted, and dangerous times, I am thankful to have witnessed the pearl of truth in what Jesus said, that his Father is always as work. God, living in and flowing through humble human beings, keeps showing up, doesn’t quit, doesn’t lie; abhors not our human condition. The loud grab our attention, and we easily forget to notice the self-effacing, quiet goodness which God has planted, and which is quietly showing forth from the hearts of the vast majority of people around us.
For instance, two days after Christmas, I was called to the bedside of a young man dying of Covid. He was married; he had sons; he was a youth group leader. As he died, his wife was leaning on the bedrail, holding onto his arm. I laid my hand on his chest and began to speak the words of Psalm 23. As soon as I began, “The Lord is my shepherd…,” the nurse on the other side of the bed put a hand on the dying man’s shoulder and bowed her head. As she did so, she put her other hand on his forehead, and then gently used her fingers to shut his eyes. Behind me, I sensed movement, and glanced back to see the other nurse had knelt on the floor, and placed her hands on the woman who, within ten minutes, would be a widow.
A moment like that, with the man who died, is like in the movies when a camera circles someone, round and round, and everything else fades. It is only this moment, with the few of us there in the center of it, in the tears—and God there with us.
People think that chaplains show up to bring God into a secular place. The truth is that chaplains are there to create space for the already present divine goodness in human hearts to be expressed. These two nurses, who give this kind of care to Covid patients multiple times a day, are only two of the multitude of medical professionals who, though exhausted, risk their own safety every day to save lives, and who do so with faith, self-sacrifice, and a deep sense of calling. They inspire my heart over and over again. Pearl would be proud. We all should be.
Two months ago, a Hindu man died, and I was able to be with his family for a time. As I escorted them to the hospital exit, the man’s son turned and hugged me, and we held each other. So too, at the death of a Muslim woman recently—the family smiled at me through tears as they spoke of her life. At such moments, I feel as if I am standing in the mysterious gentle swirl of God’s presence and work.
Just a few days ago, I was going door-to-door through the hospital. I entered the room of an elderly woman, obviously in pain, but still bright and warm with welcome, as were her two daughters who were with her. Later, I encountered the daughters in the hallway, and as we talked learned they had slept in their car the previous night. I kept asking questions, trying to discern if I needed to help make arrangements for them, since it was clear they didn’t have much money and lived far away. They told me of how during the night they had met a homeless pregnant woman. They took the woman into their car, drove to a hotel, paid for her to have a room, and then came back to the hospital parking lot and finished the night in their car. Although they don’t attend church, I said that they reminded me of Matthew 25, about inviting strangers in, and one of the sisters perked right up. “Yeah…that’s the verse I was thinking of—where Jesus talked about ‘the least of these!’” As I left them and stepped into an elevator, I leaned against its walls and held my heart in thanks to God.
So truly, a Happy and Blessed New Year to you. Maybe you have forgotten that people like this are everywhere. They are not boastful, or arrogant, or loud. They are soft vessels of the compassions of God in our earthly miseries. They are like Rose of Sharon at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, who had always been mean, petulant, and selfish. She suffers the loss of her stillborn baby and in the crucible of suffering does the first selfless thing she has ever done, giving the milk of her breast to a man who would otherwise die without nourishment.
God is compassion. God is mercy. I see God, like Pearl, in a garden. With her hands, she clears away thorn and weed. She sends rain and summons life from the soil. Light warms and synthesizes unseen elements into nutrient. She offers food, and generous souls share it, because, as Pearl says, “We all gotta eat.”