When I was young, I used to love to walk along the sidewalk by my grandmother’s garage when the lilies-of-the-valley were in bloom. She had a huge flower bed full of them—probably 12 or 15 feet long. I loved the deep green of their broad leaves and the sweet little sets of bell blossoms on those long slender stems. And of course their wonderful scent perfumed the air, surrounding me like a cloud and lifting my spirits as though that soft, sweet fragrance was hope itself.
But always, on visits to grandma’s earlier in the spring, I’d look out at the brown, dead flowerbed and I’d worry that the lilies-of-the-valley weren’t coming back. Maybe they’d died off. Maybe they just got too old. Or the winter cold was too much for them. In March, about this time, there would be no sign of life, but within a couple of weeks I’d find tiny, tender green shoots, pushing up an inch or so above the ground. I remember how happy I was discovering them and realizing that beauty, delicacy, and fragrance—all evidence of God’s goodness—were coming back to grandma’s once again.
This week I noticed something new in the news. I started to notice tender little shoots of truth beginning to break through some of the difficult, divisive problems. We may have to squint to see them—sometimes the evidence is small—but in many places and on many issues, the needs of our world are beginning to be tended to, what good people value is gradually becoming more visible, and what has held us back—or down, or out—is starting to be seen and responded to in new and more direct ways.
It made me think about how when that new sprout first shows itself, it needs tenderness and care, protecting and safeguarding. Those tiny lilies-of-the-valley do have an instinct about how to grow in the soil they’re planted in. The force of life, the will to live, in those little thumb-sized plants is powerful—already they know how to grow, how to respond to icy evenings, how to get the nourishment they need in order to survive. They have an innate intelligence within, part of the miracle of God’s design for life’s flourishing. But they also need protecting at a larger, external level. We have to keep the little buds from being stepped on, or dug up, or cleared away; we need to recognize they’re growing under those dried, brown leaves. We need to give them a protected space so they are safe to do what they will do naturally—grow, reach, and blossom.
I’m not so sure it’s any different for the tender shoots of truth we start to see in a world that sorely needs them. Truth has its own inner force, a will to live and bless, but as it breaks into this world there is much to crowd or stamp it out. When we see little glimpses of truth appearing, we need to clear a space and protect it from the doubts that are sure to follow. That gives the truth time to strengthen and gives God time to work.
We all know how this goes—it seems to be the way our brains are wired, that we can start to feel hopeful about something in the world, or in our lives, or in ourselves—and almost immediately, discouraging thoughts come to challenge that little flicker of hope: Oh, that’s not going to be enough to make a difference, we think. These kinds of things never work out the way we want them to. Or maybe you recognize the classic and common refrain, The world is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s hard to sustain hope—it’s hard to look for the good—it’s hard to keep watching for the truth, if we can’t turn down the volume on our doubts and fears.
When the kids and I lived in Columbus, which I guess is more than 20 years ago now, I went to the Bartholomew County Library one afternoon to look for a new book on prayer. As I was walking down the aisle toward the section I wanted, a book suddenly jumped off a shelf above me on my left, and it landed right at my feet, cover side up. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before and I was shocked and a little dumbfounded. I quickly looked into the shelf to see if someone had pushed the book through from the other side. But there was a hard back to the bookshelf, leaving me with no other explanation than it had somehow, mysteriously, fallen off the shelf—at precisely that moment—all on its own.
I picked up the book and read the title, The Game of Life and How to Play It. “Oh,” I thought, “a book about sales—that’s not for me,” and I started to put it back in its place. But something prompted me to open the cover and glance inside, and instantly my eyes were drawn to the words on the opening page. The book started with, “Most people consider life a battle, but it is not a battle, it is a game. It is a game, however, which cannot be played successfully without the knowledge of spiritual law, and the Old and the New Testaments give the rules of the game with wonderful clearness. Jesus Christ taught that it was a great game of Giving and Receiving. ‘Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.’ This means that whatever man sends out in word or deed, will return to him; what he gives, he will receive.”
The Game of Life and How to Play It is a book written in 1925 by artist and New Thought teacher Florence Scovel Shinn. The New Thought movement began in the 19th century and as it gained momentum it carried a practical Christian message to people who wanted to deepen their faith and improve the conditions of their lives. Listening to God and acting on God’s guidance, the teachings suggested, bring you into unity with God’s spiritual law, and that loving law ultimately creates in your life the security, health, love, and purpose you’re looking for.
Toward the end of the Introduction, Florence says that nothing stands between us and our highest ideals and every desire of our hearts, but doubt and fear. Through the rest of the 95-page book, she leads readers, story by story, through the process of seeing how their own thoughts, their own doubts, are getting the way of them receiving the good that God has in store for them.
I decided I would try to put these ideas into practice by holding on to God’s truth the next time I was in a difficult situation. And I didn’t have long to wait. My daughter’s friend Alyssa had spent the night, and for some reason the teens decided they wanted to go to church with me the next day. This wouldn’t have been a big deal if I was attending a Quaker meeting at the time, but I had recently started going to an old-fashioned Southern Baptist church because I liked their Bible study. I’d met nice people there, but there were lots of buns and practical shoes, and I wasn’t sure what they would think of Alyssa in her fishnet stockings and tiger-striped miniskirt. But I was happy the girls wanted to go—and I wanted them to have a good experience. Wanting to use what I’d learned in the book, I wondered, what truth could I hold on to, to help bring about a good result? Instantly I knew what it was: God is in this, and God is love, so all will be well.
We arrived just as the service was starting. The girls wanted to sit toward the front, so we walked together up the center aisle to the fourth row and slid into the pew. Anytime I noticed a thought in my head that tempted me to worry about what other people were thinking, I went back to protecting that little truth I’d heard: God is in this, and God is love, so all will be well.
We stood for hymns, sat for prayer, listened to the sermon, and at the close of service, stepped out into the aisle to make our way to the double-doors at the back. To my surprise, a number of church ladies approached us, smiling and warm-heartedly welcoming my daughter and her friend. They were invited back for refreshments, told about youth group, and offered such a sense of well-intentioned and genuine acceptance that I felt a little teary. I was proud of all of us. I was proud of God. I was happy for my daughter and for her friend. The whole experience felt like a testament to Love.
If I had let fear get the best of me that day—fear that the congregation would judge us—I might have just decided we should stay home, which means the girls would have missed out on a good, loving experience and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see the kindness of the folks I worshipped with. Maybe holding on to the idea, God is in this, and God is love, so all will be well, helped open the way so God’s love could be seen, and felt, and celebrated.
It’s possible that holding on to that truth helped create the space in which we could feel the love of God. Maybe our expectations help to shape the reality of the events that unfold in our days. If we fear that darkness and distrust is running rampant in this world, we will expect one kind of outcome. If we hold to the truth that God is at work—seen and unseen—and God’s doing something good, we will expect something much different. Simply watching for God may be a wonderful way to help bring more light into the world.
The question of where we get our truth, and what we do with it when we find it, is an important one—especially in today’s world. As we heard in the New Testament reading, Jesus did a shocking thing by claiming his own authority for truth, the truth of a life rooted directly in God. He told the Pharisees that the light of God flows through him to all who will look, and understand, and follow. The truth can be as knowable and as recognizable as sunlight if we’ll turn to God to find it.
Our Old Testament reading is from the first three verses of Psalm 15, which in my Bible is titled, “Who Shall Abide in God’s Sanctuary?” If what we want is to find and create a protected space for the truth in us—no matter how small it may be—there is no better place to nurture new life than in the beauty and stillness of God’s presence. That sense of sanctuary—the peace, the ease, the calm we find—makes it easy for us to see what’s real, and right, and possible. When we rest in God’s presence, we can’t help but feel hope. It is there, in that space. The psalmist tells us how simple it is to find our connection with God: walk straight, do what’s right, and speak the truth from our hearts.
So the happy ending to the lily-of-the-valley story is that many years ago, my mom dug up about 20 of the plants and brought them to me for my own garden. So right outside the door of my sunroom, in a long, straight, flower bed, the lilies-of-the-valley have flourished and happily spread, spilling out into the walkway. They have their own protected space at my house now to continue their cycle of flourishing—into the fourth generation.
In our sanctuary of protected space with God, we will flourish across time and space like that. Spirit helps us learn to recognize and nourish the buds of truth we find, and we get ever better at bearing witness to the light.
In closing I’d like to share something that Quakers in Ireland posted on Facebook last night. Because of the timing and the topic, I thought it was meant for us, like a library book falling off a shelf: “When you’re in a dark place,” they wrote, “you sometimes tend to think you’ve been buried. Perhaps you’ve been planted. Bloom!”