Columnists > Soul Food

Life in bloom

From splendor to stubble: The lessons flowers teach us

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

WORLD'S first issue of the new season deserves a celebration of God's gift of spring. I'm the writer because my heart has a soft spot for flowers-although that was not always the case.

On rural Long Island our family sank a 21-foot well into the rocky environment, superimposed a two-seater outhouse, and fashioned a vegetable garden that unwelcome weeds and wildflowers aggressively challenged.

My awareness lenses changed when in June 1933 by God's grace I became a Christian. I suddenly discovered that the woodland surrounding our house was enhanced by wildflowers that until then had gone largely unnoticed: lilies and bluebells and lupines and bachelor's buttons and wild roses and black-eyed Susans and other alluring alternatives. In college studies a few years later I prepared a botany manual of wildflowers that colonize the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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Small wonder then that on my trips to Israel I found nature's springtime floral display specially inviting: crocus, cyclamen, narcissus, anemone, gladioli, irises, lilies of the valley, ranunculi, Star of Bethlehem, and many others.

Scripture seldom mentions the flowers of Palestine that reward travelers to the Holy Land each spring with an ostentatious display of blooms. Although impressive in diversity and quantity, the scenic pageant is routinely taken for granted. Although scholars estimate that some 500 indigenous species of wildflowers blanket the area, the ancient Hebrews seem not to have planted formal botanical gardens or even to have had indoor decorative plants. The desert was yet to blossom as a rose.

The fact that this showy display in a few short weeks suddenly fades into mere stubble evoked a pointed comment by Job. Like soon-wilting flowers, he observes, human beings are born to live and die (Job 14:2). The same theme occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 103 and Isaiah 40 and in James 1:4 in the New Testament.

But if this scenic spring flower show is taken for granted-as it seems to be in the king's laconic comment (Song of Solomon 2:12), "The flowers have appeared in the land"-Jesus nonetheless looked closely at the flowers of Palestine and said, "Consider the lilies ..." (Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27).

Life may indeed be short, but God's people are not to concentrate as do pagans on its material necessities. God who has given us life and body will not leave us unfed and unclad. For has not God dressed the lilies of the field, which neither labor nor spin, with a splendor exceeding Solomon's?

Jesus's comment is no license for indifference. For it is not indifference to the material aspects of life that most troubles us.

When our family resided for a decade in California, roses bloomed all but two months of the year and we reveled in them. In Virginia we lived in shade more than sunshine, and were fortunate if roses survived the winter at all. Virginia is azalea country.

The role of roses in Palestine was likewise unsure. The rose of Isaiah 35:1 may not even be a rose, say botanists, but more likely a narcissus, as is also "the rose of Sharon" of Song of Solomon 2:4. The cultivation of rose species now in Israel does not mean that those species grew in biblical times.

In our day roses sometimes tell a strange story. I recall from college days a romantic coed-she never lacked for dates-who arranged with a local florist to deliver roses periodically to her campus dorm room. On the enclosed card she would inscribe the name of one or another of the most popular fellows on campus. Her classmates were impressed until they finally learned what was going on.

They might in turn have arranged to send her some lilies from time to time with a card signed Matthew from dorm room 6:28.

Today self-esteem with popularity have become preferred symbols of life at its best, but lilies have much to teach us. With a bit of biblical prodding we might even be encouraged to send ourselves bouquets-replete with lilies.


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