This spring has thus far been a real loser. I can't remember more than a day or so when it hasn't been more penance than pleasure to be out. It's good hiking weather, that's true: perpetually overcast, refreshingly chilly, and too windy for mosquitos.

But for whatever reason, the lilacs seem to love it--that, or the winter just past was particularly lilac-encouraging. In the 13 years I've been here, I've never seen lilacs bursting out like this. My own bushes--rarely pruned, never fed, and obviously not giving a hoot one way or the other--are practically solid flower; the same goes for every other lilac bush I've seen. Some of them put me forcibly in mind of Barney (think purple).

I haven't been out in the back country south-west of here, but I expect that the wild lilac racks are going absolutely nuts right now. Lilac isn't native here, but you'd never know it, looking over the abandoned farms that litter the Canadian Shield's southern outcrops. Every time I drive through that landscape, I'm struck by the sheer folly of trying to farm that country. Lilac must love it, though, for it long since made a break from the yards where the settlers put it and has taken off.

You can't really knock lilac, even if you're allergic to the scent. It's a handsome shrub at all times; it always feels friendly, old-fashioned. All the places I've ever lived, lilac has a grandmother-type flower, something that links you back to childhood; the scent of lilac makes you smile, remembering the bunches you broke off for your mother and there was so much, nobody seemed to mind, as long as you didn't go hog-wild.

Lilac is both commonplace and precious, hardy and aggressive and yet so fetching it sneaks right under our yardly defences. It's a hardy perennial, and every such plant would as soon take over as not. Who can think of it as a weed? But it behaves weedishly, like the violets spreading wildly over the yard next to my driveway. Lilac propagates by seed and sucker and it's actually extremely difficult to stop when it gets going, which is just fine by me.

I keep thinking: why don't we see faith as acting like lilacs? Why are we so frightened that we have to insist on the fragile, abstract rigidity of our churchly beliefs, trying to keep a stranglehold on The Truth? ("If I'm not perfectly right, I may be *wrong*!" --oh horrors!) We seem to alternate between being desperately afraid that our delicate, pure True Faith will be stained and corrupted by any contact with the Ungodly, or gleefully using our True Faith to bash other sinners more misguided than ourselves --which, when you think of it, is a more than a tad logically inconsistent.

But faith isn't an upper-case special-for-Sunday kept-for-best sort of thing. It isn't fragile or purebred; it doesn't need constant guarding. It isn't like a flame that will flicker and go out unless we tend it carefully. Flame isn't alive, as faith and lilacs are. Faith, real faith, is as tough and resilient as daylilies, just as hardy a perennial, and just as subversive. Faith has a remarkable knack for local adaptation; it would much sooner spread than not, and it's not fussy about the means, either.

Why can't we have more faith in faith? Maybe it wouldn't kill us to set down the notion of The True Faith, a marble angel if ever I saw one. The True Faith reminds me of my good neighbour's lawn, a perfect shorn expanse of emerald grass, a thing of beauty, maintained by constant vigilance, the expenditure of huge amounts of fresh water for which most of this world would cheerfully kill, and the periodic application of highly toxic chemicals (gotta keep those weeds down...) Yes, it's a beautiful monoculture, all of a piece, perfectly uniform: nothing there but velvety grass, shorn so close and carefully that it will never fruit--for fruit-bearing grasses are shaggy and unkempt and out of control.

Plain lower-case faith, on the other hand, reminds me of lilacs, or day lilies--or, better still, the whole landscape in which lilacs and daylilies grow: a complexity, full of surprises and delights and also dangers and pain. Nature abhors a monoculture, which is why lawns are such a bitch to keep perfect and why, from the very beginning, Christians have never completely agreed on anything. Nature left to its own devices will be full of a mixture of things, each filling its own particular niche in the ecosystem very much like what St. Paul prescribed: "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?" My liver has its own particular purpose, and without it I would be dead very, very quickly: why should I insist that All Good Organs Are Kidneys and any non-kidney is a grief and a disappointment to the Creator?

There are those who would argue that there is God's Absolute Truth, pure and uncorrupted, and I would agree with them: God's Absolute Truth is real. Merely, there isn't one of us who gets it entirely right, because we aren't God--not even the saints of old, who were human and prejudiced like us. We cannot begin to wrap our minds around the totality of God's truth, and so we tend to muckle onto one bit or another and proclaim it as being the whole thing. Health lies in knowing that you don't have all the answers; "blessed are those who know they are spiritually poor," not those who know what God wants and are prepared to whip everyone else into line.

Yes, we'll get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes we will get it wrong by being arrogant, thinking we can reinvent the wheel, refusing to listen to older knowledge. And sometimes we will get it wrong by blind obedience to someone else's agenda. For every wilful seeker-after-truth changing off in all directions, there's another soul willing to play follow-my-leader right off the edge of a cliff. Health lies in knowing we may very well be wrong, but all that matters is that we know that, accept God's forgiveness for our wrongness, and love each other just as we are.

Maybe we should trust that each and every division of Christ's church has so me things right and some things wrong; not just that, but that that is the way it has always been and probably always will be, and why don't we stop picking out all the dandelions and admit that they cheer up the landscape? I would hate to have a landscape perfectly corrected, totally devoid of wild lilacs, creeping charlie, violets gone amok, and those lilies of the field that don't give a hoot for propriety but keep popping up year after year. Maybe we should trust that the Creator made Creation as ebulliently diverse as it is because God likes variety --think of the end of Job!--instead of seing Nature as deeply suspect. We're the ones with the manaical drive toward uniformity and control. Is that really what God wants?

Maybe it would do us a world of good to accept that we need each other's insights and feedback instead of being so all-fired sure that our version is the only possible right one. Maybe we should rejoice in our own strengths and rejoice that others can rejoice in their strengths, and that the whole body needs each and every part, beautiful and imperfect as it is. And maybe we should focus on our common life instead of on our distinctions from each other, accepting our differences within community.

A rack of lilac--or, for that matter a landscape--is a living, complex, creature, sprouting and dying, both stable and constantly cycling through growth and death. Each piece of the whole dances in intricate relationship with all the others in the ecosystem, and the whole moves through a great, quiet, invisible gyre of cycling carbon atoms, nitrogen, oxygen, and water.

We too have something to share, if we're willing to listen more than to pronounce and to love without desiring to possess, perfect or control each other--because the desire to possess, perfect or control is the opposite of love. We have our common life, our shared beginnings, our common history, as a rack of lilac goes back to one single plant. We all listen for the Spirit's wild and gentle prompting. What else, really, is necessary?

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 27 May 2000
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