The Common Good

The Bouquet

Photo by Jenny Burtt via Wylio
Photo by Jenny Burtt via Wylio

Most every Sunday Ruth or Lily Janousek hands me a drawing on the way out the door. I have quite a collection.

Lily and Ruth are budding theologians. They may not know that about themselves, but that’s what they are: budding theologians — they do theology. They do their best to speak of God.

They draw pictures of God and us. Like the one from last Sunday — a drawing of a bouquet with the words:

“God doesn’t love us as a flower but as a bouquet.”

Right then and there, standing at the door, I knew I had the sermon for the next week in my hand.

Ruth’s drawing took me back some years ago when I had the great privilege of serving as the summer minister for Saint Timothy’s Memorail Chapel in Silver Cross, Mont., a ghost town with four residents. One of the Silver Cross denizens was 92-year-old Eliza, who lived up the hill, perhaps the length of a football field, from Saint Timothy’s.

Every Sunday morning Eliza would cut the wildflowers in her yard, arrange them into a beautiful bouquet and place them on the altar for worship. Now I get a drawing from eight-year- old Ruth — a younger version of the nonagenarian theologian, Eliza.

“God doesn’t love us as a flower but as a bouquet.”

I wonder who the flowers are in this bouquet, the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus speaks of it in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-14) or, "the Body of Christ," as Paul speaks of it in first letter to the Corinthians.

As Ruth’s drawing and Eliza’s Sunday morning arrangements illustrate, a bouquet is made up of a variety of flowers. Individual flowers come in a single size and shape, each with its own color. In a bouquet, these different colors, shapes and sizes complement and contrast with one another to make something altogether beautiful in the hand of a skilled florist.

Ruth may be a rose and Lily a sunflower, Bob might be a purple Iris, and I might be…a Milkweed or a thistle or a twig of red oshier — but put us all together and we become something more than who we are.

God loves us as a bouquet.

We are God’s bouquet. We are the flowers; God is the florist; we belong in God’s bouquet.

Could this be what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount? Could the collection in Jesus’ Beatitudes be the bouquet, the Kingdom of Heaven?

Listen to the florist’s strange list of flowers in this bouquet:

Blessed are the poor in spirit;

Blessed are those who mourn;

Blessed are the meek,

Those who hung and thirst after righteousness,

The merciful, the pure in heart,

The peacemakers,

Those who are persecuted,

Those who are slandered against for doing what’s right.

“You are the city set on a hill that cannot be hid. the bouquet that cannot be ignored.”

Until recently, I had always thought of these beatitudes as a description of the individual life of the disciple of Jesus. But to think of them that way is depressing because it’s unachievable.

In a former pastorate I used to visit four young men in psychiatric institutions whose demented states of mind I was sure were rooted in some way to their failure to measure up to this impossible spiritual standard.

Each of them was a professor’s son. Each of them had been raised on a missionary style of Christianity. Each of them had been raised to feel sorry for the persecuted, the meek, the poor, the oppressed. And each of them, as we walked the grounds of the psychiatric hospital in Mansfield, would talk as though he should be able to save the world from its pain. Each of them seemed to believe that purity of heart meant being like Jesus – which meant to them incessant suffering, guilt, and sorrow.

Each of these brothers bore the marks of the Beatitudes. Each was poor in spirit. Each hungered and thirsted for justice. Each was merciful. Each was pure in heart. Each felt persecuted for pursuing what was right in a world that didn’t care or didn’t know. Each of them felt slandered for doing what their parents – and Jesus – had taught them to do.

But there was one quality that was missing: the quality of meekness…

So long as they lived in the illusion that they, as individuals. were responsible for the world as It was, or that each of them alone was responsible for ridding the world of its suffering, each of them was lost in the lonely world of a flower without a bouquet. So long as they embraced the twisted missionary moralism of their distorted Christian upbringings, they would suffer the horrors of shame and loneliness.

Now, I know, of course, that each of the four brothers I visited back then were mentally ill. They didn’t choose to be in the state psychiatric institution. But I also knew their parents. And I knew the church in which they had been raised. It came as no surprise to me that there seemed to be a profound connection between what I was hearing from the homes and the church of their upbringing and what I was hearing form their sons in the psychiatric hospital.

I have to admit to sharing in the twisted spirituality that saw the Beatitudes as a list of requirements for the Christian life. It’s made me sick along the way.

But now, in light of Ruth’s yellow card, I’m seeing them differently.

“God loves us not as a flower but as a bouquet.”

Not every flower in God’s bouquet is poor in spirit. Not every one of us is in mourning. Some of us got up this morning with smiles on our faces and a song in our heart.

Not every one of is meek. Not everyone came here this morning hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Some of us came out of habit; some of us came for comfort, some of us came to sing some hymns. Some of us don’t know why we came.

Not everyone is known by acts of mercy — we come with grudges and desires for retribution. Not everyone is pure in heart or a peacemaker. And almost of none of us is being persecuted as advocates for social justice.

But TOGETHER all of those blessed people are here in God’s Bouquet.

Makes me wonder whether Jesus had read the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scriptures of India written a few centuries before he preached the Sermon on the Mount in Palestine. Listen to its familiar ring, and let the Florist place you in the vase of God’s remarkable Bouquet:

“I am the Self…seated in the heart of every creature. I am the origin, the middle, and the end that all must come to.

“All your thoughts, all your actions, all your fears and disappointments, offer them to me, clear-hearted; know them all as passing visions.

“Thus you free yourself from bondage, from both good and evil karma; through your non-attachment, you embody me, in utter freedom.

“I am justice; clear, impartial, favoring no one, hating no one. But in those who have cured themselves of selfishness, I shine with brilliance.

“Even murderers and rapists, tyrants, the cruelest fanatics, ultimately know redemption through my love, if they surrender

“To my harsh but healing graces. Passing through excruciating transformations, they find freedom and their hearts find peace within them.

“I am always with all beings; I abandon no one. And however great your inner darkness, you are never separate from me.

“Let your thoughts flow past you, calmly; Keep me near, at every moment; trust me with your life, because I am you, more than you yourself are.”

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Youtogether – are the salt that preserves the earth from its own self-destruction.

“You – together – are the city set upon a hill that gives light to the world.”

We – together – each and all – are God’s bouquet. God loves us as a bouquet!

 

Gordon C. Stewart is a social commentator, whose commentaries air on Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered and appear in print on MPR’s Public Insight Journalism, www.MinnPost.com, The Chaska Herald, The Chanhassen Villager, The Star Tribune and The Presbyterian Outlook. He is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn., and former Executive Director of theh Legal Rights Center, Inc., in Minneapolis. You can read more of Gordon's work on his blog, Views from the Edge.

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