My grandparents always planted their garden on Good Friday. I never asked why. It was just one of those things like the Frigidaire or the chester drawers. I was grown before I realized that it was pronounced “frigid air” and was a brand name, not a synonym for refrigerator. I’ll blame the prevalent Southern drawl for converting “chest of” to chester, but again, it took years to sink into my thick head. My understanding of the Good Friday planting has arrived more belatedly still. It dawned on me as I was planting my garden this year. As I dropped the seeds into the ground, covered them, patted down the dirt, and wondered how long it would be before they sprouted, the proverbial light bulb snapped on over my head. Of course! The seeds were being buried to rise again. I was proud of myself for figuring this out until it sunk in that it had taken me over half a century to do so. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed.
When someone asked St. Paul to explain resurrection he said, “We have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a ‘dead’ seed, and soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed…You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies – sun, moon, stars – all these varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re only looking at pre-resurrection ‘seeds’—who can imagine what the resurrection ‘plants’ will be like?” [from 1 Corinthians 15, The Message translation]
Beyond the seasonal life and death cycle of my plants, there is a daily hint for this mystery as well. Every night I die to consciousness and rise from sleep the next morning. During a significant portion of my life, I am completely unaware of my own existence. I literally provide a visual aid for resurrection every day. Not to get all new-agey about it, but if there is no context for an answer in our known experience, maybe spiritual awareness is superior to rational arguments when it comes to finding the truth. Who can imagine? What lies beyond may even be superior to homegrown tomatoes and okra. Wow.
Roy Nelson didn’t do anything in a small way. When he brought pecans to share, he brought a grocery sack full of them. He bought ice cream by the gallon, never the half gallon. And when he played bridge at the Methodist church, he played by the rules until they prevented him from bidding as high as he wanted to.
He loved to give things to people. He called me one morning to ask if I wanted a baby squirrel that he’d found. I did not. When he found out I liked figs, he brought me a bucket full every week during their season. Four years ago he brought me a seedling so I could plant my own fig tree - - - which I did. Too close to the house. Knowing Roy, I should have expected something way too big and unruly, but well, live and learn. The tree has completely blocked the view from my kitchen window and is taking over my deck. After the birds and squirrels get their snacks, there are still figs to pick twice a day.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark record an odd incident of Jesus cursing a fig tree. It seems that Jesus was hungry and saw a fig tree, but when he went to pick some fruit, the tree had only leaves, no figs. Jesus cursed the tree and it immediately withered away. The disciples are said to have “marveled” at this spectacle. I guess so. It makes me wonder how often I have professed a pious front, and practiced a fruitless faith.
When I went to Roy’s funeral, printed in the program was a prayer that he had written out and placed in his Bible. It reads: “God, whether I get anything else done today, I want to make sure that I spend time loving you and loving other people — because that’s what life is all about. I don’t want to waste this day.” When I got home, I cut the prayer out and put it in my own Bible. I think Roy would be amused by my gigantesque fig tree and that makes me happy. It’s a frequent reminder of one whose kindness was bigger than life.
The memory bank of most Southerners has a file for Vacation Bible School. Every summer for over half a century, children have spent a week at church playing games, eating cookies, making crafts, singing, and hearing Bible stories. Many of us would attend the one at our own church and then go to another one or two with our friends. I don’t remember the ones from my youth being major “theme” events like today, but we still had loads of fun. Every year, we kicked off with a parade. We’d decorate cars and trucks and ride around town honking the horns and inviting all the children in the community to VBS. Then one year during the planning some folks got worried about the parade.
Did I mention that this was Birmingham, Alabama in the 70s?
Our church, like many other white churches then, had a policy for dealing with black people who attended a worship service with us. There were men assigned to cancel the service and escort the “troublemakers” out. So, you see how the public VBS parade invitation could cause problems. How would we handle it if the wrong people thought they were invited? We would sing about red, and yellow, black and white all being precious in His sight, but that didn’t mean they could come in and eat cookies with us.
The reason this particular VBS changed my life was not because there were troublemakers. It stands out because of how our pastor, Rev. Jerry Curry, solved the problem. He announced --- from the pulpit, not in some committee meeting --- that the day our church turned away any child of any color from the Lord’s house, it would be his last day there too. After the shock wore off, I was so proud of him for making a stand for what was right. It was the day I realized that sometimes churches need to repent just like individuals do.
All this has come back to mind with the recent election of Rev. Fred Luter as the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s interesting that another black minister, Rev. Dwight McKissic authored a resolution in opposition to gay marriage. When asked if he saw similarities in the way gay people are treated now and the way black people were treated then, he said no. His exact words were, “They’re equating their sin with my skin.” I have news for Rev. McKissic. I was never taught that skin was the problem. I was taught that it was a sin for white people to associate with black people. And there are plenty of verses of scripture that can be cherry picked to prove it. I have no idea how the gay marriage issue will eventually play out in churches, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned in VBS --- It’s always risky to pronounce that God doesn’t mind my sins as much as He does yours.
The liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Christian Church designates a week each year to honor the Myrrbearing Women who came to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ after the crucifixion and burial. After most of the others had succumbed to fear and fled, these women showed up to do the right thing by seeing that their friend had a proper burial. There was no reward in doing so. In fact, it was quite the opposite, with a risk of being swept up into scandal for tampering with the corpse. Courageous people show up to do the difficult, sacrificial things in life.
One of my favorite church ladies is Mary Stinson. It’s actually Dr. Stinson, but I knew her for years before her title ever came up. She’s a retired JSU professor and a tireless worker for the Calhoun County Christian Women’s Job Corp (CWJC). This organization provides job readiness and life skills to women in need. They’re not always successful and they can’t reach a multitude of people, but faithful, dedicated volunteers show up to offer tutoring, mentoring, and enthusiastic support to women who seek help. At a recent CWJC fundraiser at Classic on Noble, I watched Mary’s joyful interaction with the attendees and her generous donations in the silent auction. I doubt she’ll ever be famous, but because of her, there are women whose lives will never be the same.
So what’s in it for the Myrrhbearers? Well, they were the first ones to see the risen Christ and to understand that there’s no reason to seek the living among the dead. Watching Mary helps me see what real living is.