Tending the Secret Garden

As I sat at my desk last week I found myself staring out at the bleak-looking woods in our back yard. The recent winds took down nearly all the leaves, and the rain has wiped out the bright colors that pooled on the ground for a little while. Add in the high overcast blocking the sun, and all I could see were the dulled colors of early winter: brown and gray, drab greens and faded yellows. It was more than a little disheartening. And then as I looked out over this scene, feeling a little dull and gray myself, a pair of bluebirds flew suddenly to a branch directly at eye level, flashing almost neon in their brightness.

The “bluebird of happiness” has never been an image that works very well for me: a bit too saccharine, and certainly far too clichéd. And yet I have to admit, my heart did a little flip-flop of joy when those beautiful creatures lit up the scene, and after they had danced their jaunty bird jig on the branch for a few minutes and then flown away the landscape had a sheen to it, a little backwash of light left behind.

One of the quotes I keep posted in my home office on my Wall of Wisdom is from Sarah Breathnach: “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend.”

Not a bad reminder as we wend our way toward Thanksgiving. Which secret garden will we tend today? Lord knows, most of us take meticulous care of our inner Garden of Dissatisfaction. We wander through its open gate almost before we’ve fully wakened in the morning, sorry for ourselves because of too little sleep or the wisp of some crabby dream. We admire each new little sprout and return, again and again, to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.

But there’s another garden growing right alongside this one for each of us, so that just a little tilt of the head or a shift in our vision puts us deep within a world of a different shape. Along its paths we can see the ordinary grace of our lives that we ignore so easily: breath, health, love, friends, food, and all the small gifts brought to us by the unfolding day. In the Garden of Abundance, the bare branches against a November overcast become a blessing, not because of the bluebirds that lighted there for a moment but because the branches themselves exist, and I have the eyes to see them.

Which secret garden will you tend today?

Perpetual Veteran Machine

It’s painfully ironic to read the headlines today of all days — the endless speculation and leaks from those supposedly in the know about the numbers of additional troops who will be sent to fight in Afghanistan. Will it be 20,000 or 40,000? Something in between?

No one seems to believe that the President will stand with his VP and actually declare that the all-out war in which we’re already engaged is a mistake. No one seems to expect that there will be a clearly defined reason for this war that actually makes sense in the real world (in the real world, bombing the hell out of a country in order to “defeat Islamist extremists” seems akin to putting out a grease fire with Crisco).

Meanwhile, it’s Veterans’ Day. In the wake of the terrible shootings in Fort Hood last week, there has been a flurry of attention in the news to what kind of shape our returning veterans are in. Over 30% are suffering post-traumatic stress. The suicide level among active as well as returning troops is at a record high. Violence in and around military bases has skyrocketed.

In our worship services each Sunday during our time of prayer and meditation, I read aloud the names of the men and women who have died in the preceding week in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve been doing this for four years now, so the dramatic shift in numbers from casualties suffered in Iraq to those in Afghanistan has been explicit and horrifying. Two weeks ago I read out twenty-three names, all but one of them killed in Afghanistan.

I am beginning to wonder with increasing urgency about those whose names we never read out loud because they have been lucky enough to survive. Who are they, once they are finally released from the relentless round of multiple deployments? How do they think about the physical, psychic, emotional and spiritual wounds they have suffered fighting a war whose purpose no one can explain with real integrity?

I believe that the vast majority of these men and women are truly heroic. I don’t know any other word to use for people who are willing to risk their lives, repeatedly, because their country has called them to do so. But I don’t think the country that has called out to these sons and daughters is itself heroic. In our willingness to keep on sending them forth to kill, to be killed, to come home so damaged that in many cases they will never be able to resume a steady, peaceful and joyous life, to do all this based not on purpose and goals but out of inertia, confusion or delusion…. what are we? Who are we to do this?

In our continued pursuit of peace by means of the extraordinary violence of war, we are surely deluded. In a more traditional theological language I would say that we are sinful. I have very little hope that our leaders will find a way to bow to this truth, name our errors and our need for repentance, and take us down a path more worthy of the men and women who have become our sacrificial lambs: our veterans.