Rose Bushes and Repentance

Luke 13:1-9

This is the third Sunday in Lent. We are in a time for penitence and self-examination. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses two disasters and a parable to stress the necessity for repentance. He speaks of a fig tree, often the image for Jerusalem, and allows for the possibility of second chances. Jesus Himself can be seen as the gardener and God as the landholder. My father had a rose bush like that fig tree. However we wish to allegorize the parable, the warning is clear. You must use the time you have or things will come to a tragic end.

Now I do not want to talk about the Lucan passage. Instead, I want to tell you about my father and his rose bushes. Someone will say, “but you are always talking about your family, and mundane, everyday events!” My answer to that is, “Yup! You got it.” I can’t talk about “the God out there.” I can only talk about “the God right here.”

My father was an ordinary man. He was born in 1901 in Wisconsin, and lived in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Connecticut. His heritage was English, Scotch Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch and a tad of French and Indian. He was the son of a Methodist minister, one of seven children. Like his father and my brother, he graduated from Beloit College. Although he majored in economics, he enjoyed drama, art and music. He put himself through college by serving a Methodist church and studied for a year at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Following the burial of a child, Dad was so grief stricken that he felt that he could not handle the emotional blows of the ministry. So he quit and worked in the magazine publishing business as an editor and as a promotion and circulation director until he was riffed at age 59. Since he had no pension, he joined my mother in opening the first personnel agency between Bridgeport and White Plains. Although he had several heart attacks, he worked until he died at age 76. He loved the Mets, went to church every Sunday, had impeccable integrity, and was deaf. No one came to his funeral. A very ordinary individual.

Dad not only had three different careers, he had three different horticultural passions. When we lived in Illinois, he literally threw himself into his vegetable garden. In Kansas he strove mightily in pursuit of that Holy Grail, “the perfect lawn.” For a while in Connecticut he tried to have a decent lawn, but he couldn’t. During the last ten years of his life he devoted himself to his rose garden.

He pulled out rocks, spaded the soil, added mulch, bone meal, and fertilizers and then watered carefully. Although his hands had arthritic knots the size of pecans, he patiently planted and worked the roots of his bushes into the soil. Each leaf was examined and protected. His arsenal of Black Leaf Forty, tincture of nicotine, chlordane and arsenic made Saddam Hussein”s “chemical Ali” look like Andy Hardy with a starter chemistry set. No Japanese beetle left his bushes alive.

There were fifty bushes in all. He had the Bing Crosby Rose, the Kennedy Rose, Mr. Lincoln, the Chrysler Rose and more. For Christmas and anniversaries we gave him books on roses, and in February and March he would pour over catalogues and plot on graph paper his garden and plans for new bushes.

For a wedding anniversary, my mother ordered six rose bushes from Jackson and Perkins. Dad was thrilled. He couldn’t wait until they came. The UPS truck arrived and the driver handed Dad a package about the size of a shoebox. There must have been some mistake. Had Mom been ripped off by a sleazy mail order scam? Dad opened the box and there were six sticks encased in wax. They looked like varnished dowel rods. Nary a bud. A note said to stick them in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks. Dad could have cried a bucket himself, but ever trusting and patient he hauled out our Wheeling galvanized pail, filled it with water, put the sticks in it and placed it in the basement near the furnace. After a while the sticks got small bumps, then real knots and finally burst with tendrils of new roots. When the weather got warm, Dad worked the soil carefully, mounded it up and planted the rose bushes. Lovingly he patted them down. By the end of summer he had six of the most gorgeous roses bushes I’ve ever seen. Dad would sit on the patio and admire them. “Who would have thought that those ugly sticks would yield such beauty?” he marveled.

Dad had to be careful where he sat on the patio. A previous owner had planted a rose bush next to one of the uprights for the awning frame. It was the classic case of the wrong bush in the wrong place. Mom wanted to tear it out and throw it on the fire. But Dad pleaded, “Helen, its a rose bush. You can’t do that!” “It’s dead and its in the way.” she retorted. Jesus’ fig tree was Dad’s wayward rose bush. Dad rearranged some of the stone on the patio, broadening the flagged area so that we didn’t bump into the old rose bush. He then began a three-year process of fertilizing, spraying, watering and pruning. By the end of the third year the stalk was as round as my thumb, was twelve feet high, and loaded with blooms past Thanksgiving Day. Oddly enough, that maverick bush was my father’s favorite.

It took me a long time to realize that there was more going on in the garden than digging, spraying and mulching. His garden was not just a part of the landscape; it was his “soulscape.” Throughout his life the garden was the place where he worked out his disappointments, frustrations and anger. It was there that he buried his failures and his fears. From the garden he received a sense of the richness and promise of life. In the garden he talked to himself, to God, and he walked with Jesus. With no one to hear him, he sang the old hymns, “Rock of Ages,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and “Amazing Grace” not because he was simple or naive, but because they contained the dominant Christian themes of forgiveness, salvation, hope and resurrection.

During his last ten years, the rhizome of his heritage of faith was tended along with the roots of the roses. He laid out the capillaries of his life, reviewing who he was, from whence he came, and where he was going. He became reconciled with himself and with his brothers and sisters. He considered his sons and their wives. As he dug in the soil with his fingers, he formed, changed, turned and even turned around the roots and stems of the plants. In the evening he cut away dead wood and worked the branches so that they would become both stronger and more graceful. In so doing he, himself, became inwardly stronger and more filled with grace. He was not always easy to live with, but in his later years he was more at peace and became a lovely individual. With the beginnings of dementia he became confused and frustrated, but in the garden he was at home. The blessing was that during the last years of his life he had managed to work out his inner problems and conflicts and put his life in order. Although he had endless lists of projects to be done and piles of Jackson and Perkins catalogues, he felt complete and was ready to meet God face to face, “and not as a stranger.”

My father knew that those “who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He had heard Jesus’ admonition to “repent,” which means “to turn,” or “to turn around.” Like the roses he had pruned, in the garden Dad’s inner life was turned, shaped and turned around. He had been given three chances in life, three vocations, and had had three different gardens. He managed to use the time he had left to good advantage. His last thoughts were of his wife and her well-being. His last words were, “Take care of yourself. Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.” And he was. I am now one year older than he was when he died.

I do not know where your garden is. Perhaps it is the kitchen, the workshop, the study, a familiar chair and a book. Perhaps it is your job or vocation, or the responsibilities of your family. It may include the income tax, a willful child, a dissatisfied spouse, or failing health. Your “soulscape” is who you are and where you are. Your challenge or focus may not be a rose bush; it may be an unresolved fear or disappointment. Wherever you find your garden, however select your rose bushes, lay them out before God. Talk to Him about them. Allow Christ to guide your fingers and quicken your pulse. Turn, ever so carefully. Shape ever so firmly. Move with confidence and sureness the roots and branches of your life.

My father taught me many things, gardening included. In his last years he showed me how to come before God with openness and humility. He taught me that our souls, like rose bushes, are best tended on our knees.  – Amen- Fr. Gage