Well-Regulated

On the day we got the news
Of yet another shooting—
This one not too far from home—
I went for a walk at dusk
To ask God and the trees, “Why?”
The half moon peered through clouds
Strung behind a line of storms,
As fireflies synchronized
With streetlights at nine-o-three,
Embers in the post-rain mist.

A bat dived to swallow one,
Turning away at the last
From a bitter, poison pill.
But all the hosts of summer
Assembled here this evening
Know the steps and move as one;
Birds sing, cicadas back beat,
And the waning day cools air
Just enough to invite small
Restoration to tired lungs.

The world in all its glory
Even here on suburban streets
Speaks of dependence, rhythm,
And attention to detail.
But still my country looks down,
Away from what doesn’t fit,
Turning the dead into pawns
That move without agency
In a dance that keeps the peace
At expense of the living.

Soundtrack

At six-fifteen in the suburbs
Day and night shifts greet each other,

Chattering robins, cardinals, wrens
Echoed by a barred owl’s questions.

For a moment they acknowledge
The shared dominion of sound

And take turns, stopping dissonance
With great breaths between each call.

Dark and light are not comingled
With such grace in ordinary time;

Hope of light vain and vague at night,
Darkness tempting thoughts in the noon sun.

But the turntable spins time and again,
Accompanied by untroubled birds.

The Resurrection of Irises

The specificity with which Easter falls in the year, tracking with the prescribed dates of the Passover festival, convinces me that God is delighted to have the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection be in the midst of the turning of the seasons. It is spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere (as it was for Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem), autumn on the other side of the world, and often in the midst of the shift from dry to rainy in the tropics. The jarring reality of defeated death is timed to catch our attention in some visceral way. Violent shifts in weather, the transitions of plants, even the behavior of insects, participate in this liturgical choreography.

Something is coming. Something is passing away. Everything is different now. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is alive. Christ is coming again.

In John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (which I love), he says that Christ’s resurrection “was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent.” The fundamental uniqueness to the second person of the Trinity being revealed as the firstborn from the dead can’t be captured by simple metaphors of life re-emerging from winter dormancy. The flowers weren’t dead, just waiting. Yes, we mark Christ’s resurrection every year, but it is on a whole other level than the guaranteed return of seasonal vegetation. But I don’t want to rush past the floral metaphor with the same hand wave Updike gives, on botanical or theological grounds.

Here in Tennessee, irises are the grammar of spring. Irises of every shade and shape imaginable. They love it here, and we love them (it’s the state flower). This one (pictured below) is my favorite, both for its outlandish style and its understated resilience.

When we bought our house in 2007, the grounds were a portrait of neglect, unkempt shrubs protruding at odd angles from knee-deep leaves killing the grass. That first spring, these irises came up all over the yard, without rhyme or reason. Not wanting to cut them down when I mowed the grass, we gathered them up, transplanting them all into one bed. They kept growing, but did not bloom again for at least 5 years. But they did eventually come back to life.

Irises have pedigrees, records of centuries of cultivation to produce minute variations, all catalogued by institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society or American Iris Society. As near as I can tell, these are a variety called ‘Fabian’, first attested by an English gardener named Salter in 1868. They were listed by the AIS as extinct in 1939. But here in 2022, beside a house built in 1960, they bloom with reckless abundance in April—a testament against exaggerated reports of their demise.

Once hybridized to a gardener’s specification, irises are set and shared by propagation through the multiplication and division of rhizomes—every iris that is a distinct varietal is a clone, a continuously living part of a part of a part of that first plant that some gardener thought was just perfect. Our “resurrected” Fabians are a testimony to this long-dead Mr. or Ms. Salter looking at the first bloom of their new variety and pronouncing it “good.” I do not know how they made it to our corner of Tennessee, or who else along the way thought they were “good” too, to keep passing them on, but they are a gift.

I could have the ID on these wrong (they didn’t come with papers), but whatever cultivar they are, they speak a testimony to life and love bursting forth from long ago. And this is where my tweak on Updike rests—most plants are not merely “recurrent”, but continuous, connected to past years’ growth by a continuous chain of DNA and stored sugars. They are kept alive year after year in the complex dance of ecosystems, or by the loving hands of nursery workers.

In this way, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection points to ours as well. According to the Apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection was how, through the spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the son of God. The body of the man Jesus Christ that died was raised to life and is seated at the right hand of the Father—that part is the miracle, the point of Updike’s poem. At another level (what Paul is getting at, I think), of course God almighty could never die, so the resurrection of Christ is in some sense “expected” once we recognize his divinity—it the proof that Jesus is God. This speaks to continuity of life, such that Paul can say in another letter that all things hold together in Christ. The power that raised Christ’s body from the dead is the same power that gave his body life in Mary’s womb. It is the same power that gave Mary life as well; the same power that made the world; the same power that brings flashes of purple and yellow from a starchy underground tomb in my yard each spring. It is the same power at work in every moment of every day of every life, upholding the universe by a word and working it toward final glory in the midst of every unspeakable brokenness wrought by evil.

I need these flowers at Easter as a ritual reminder of new life, a sacramental blow to my retina each time I walk out the door that engages the gears of theology with the churning mass of thoughts and emotions that overflow my heart and mind and mouth. I need the unsought abundance of wonder packed into each blossom because I can’t make it through a day of reading the news, listening to the pain of friends, or cowering before my own rage and inability to control even the process of getting the kids out the door to school without it. 

God knows I am weak, and he sends flowers. They speak of his goodness in such a way that I can’t help but remember all of it. It’s often considered unbecoming of men in the violent culture of the United States to be moved to emotion and action by beauty, but it is how God made us. I can’t stop fawning over irises and every other created thing that crosses my path because I refuse to be “embarrassed by the miracle” as Updike cautions. The God who raised Christ to life is the God of irises and springtimes, because He is pleased to be so. He said, “I am making everything new!” and lest we forget, He makes it new in small ways every day. I’m trying to write this down as instructed, because these things are trustworthy and true. And all creation is groaning in participation.

Nature Is

After Seamus Heaney

Go down from the mountains to the coastal plain
before it gets so hot that you wish
to stay indoors. On a March morning

The swamp is almost inviting. New leaves
dapple earth with just enough shade to let
the unvarnished sun raise color in your cheeks

While a north breeze cools the ground to keep
snakes torpid and ticks at rest. You can hear
the trees flecked with warblers, and wonder why

You never thought such a place could welcome.
nature is not fickle, but rather patient.
go down further still, east. The swamp becomes scrub

Straining at life in wind-scoured dunes. Cold sky and sea
blend, stitched by breaching dolphins and diving terns.
nature is this, but also a shark-bitten loon

flopping to the beach and dying as you stroke its neck.
You are not like nature, straining for interpretation
from what is content to be. Go up and come down again.

Image: Congaree National Park, Richland County, SC, March 2022.