I take the dog out to do his business. To give him some privacy (as if he cares) I look at my flower garden. There’s a spectacular rotation of flowers that bloom in succession all summer. I admire whatever species is showing off their true colors. But then my eyes are drawn to the weeds. I am never done weeding the garden in the front of my house. I have labored for three hours at a stretch, pulling up unwanted growth and I’m still not done. I have hearty grass that grows remarkably well amidst my flowers. It’s almost healthier than the grass in our cultivated lawn. How is it that a species we intentionally plant fares so much better in places where it is unwanted? I’ve tried to grow sunflowers before, pushing black seeds into the soil in a nice straight row. The sun shines. The rain falls. Prayers are offered. Nothing! But the black oil sunflower seeds that the birds devour at my feeder fall to the ground and take root before the birds find them in their relocation! I learned long ago that my efforts at producing growth cannot be matched by God’s coaxing of all things beautiful!
So I arrive home from a fantastic anniversary dinner in which we celebrated my husband’s and my 34 years of wedded bliss. Part of the jubilant reunion that happens with our dog every time we come home is he bounds out the front door to see what’s new. The sun is long in the sky during our West Michigan summers so there’s still light at 9PM that allows me to check out my flowers. There are a few milkweed stalks I’ve been meaning to pull so, while Hunter sniffs for rabbits, I start weeding. Before I know it, I’m deep into the colorful growth, bending over and uprooting enemy plants. I can’t help myself! It’s as if the weeds taunt me and I cannot look away! For our dinner at a nice restaurant I put on white capris, a gauzy blouse and white leather oxfords. This is not an ideal outfit for getting down and dirty in the war against weeds. What started as pulling a few milkweed stalks near the sidewalk’s edge has become a hunt for infiltrators in the deep recesses of my garden. This is no place for white pants or polished nails. Alas! I cannot turn back!
My husband and I have a tradition of sharing what we appreciate about each other at our anniversary dinner. This is something we developed as part of our joint pre-marital counseling sessions we led when we shared a ministry position the first two years of our marriage. We would say to the groom, “Tell your fiancée what you appreciate about her, taking your time and listing whatever you can think of.” The first groom we ever counseled couldn’t come up with anything. It’s a good thing we did those early pre-marital sessions together because I was so stunned that Garrett had to coax him along. Finally, after some hypothetical suggestions, he shrugged and said, “She’s normal.” We learned years later that their marriage did not survive. Hmmm.
So what may have been a trite exercise for the couples we counseled has become something we happily adopted. I usually start it off and Garrett remembers that this is our custom. It’s seldom new things that we share with each other. But I certainly never tire of praise and I don’t think he does either. We walk slowly through the garden of our marriage, looking at the variety of blooms that have put down roots over the years. Some of these attributes surfaced only after a time of trial: a career shift, a miscarriage, the loss of a parent, a diagnosis of cancer. God walks with us through this garden of marriage and introduces some of the most beautiful species that arrive in response to our troubles. The vows we so blithely invoked at the altar take on life as time rolls by. Each year is a unique growing season. The weeds are thick in some seasons and require our attention. Other years a breathtaking bloom arrives, perhaps in the form of a child. We’re excited about the arrival of our first grandchild this September and know that our marriage will take on new color when we meet this tiny member to our family!
There are a couple of invasive vines that are thriving in our yard this year. As I pull on them I hope that they’re not rash-inducing! My father-in-law was always able to identify floral foe versus friend as our Botanist-in-Residence. I miss him as I navigate the dense plant growth, remembering how he embraced me as a daughter from the time Garrett first brought me to their home. The vines aggressively put down roots as they stretch across my flower bed. They entwine themselves around lily stalks, threatening to encase the long buds before they can open. I have to carefully unwind them and follow the vine back to the place where it originates. My gauzy anniversary dinner blouse has small seed pods all over it, clinging to me with an inborn hope to travel to another garden where they might propagate their invasive species anew! As darkness finally threatens, I realize that I have gone way too far in my impromptu weeding project. I have to fight my way out of the flowerbed. I’ve collected a sizable pile of defeated weeds that will have to be carried off to the woods when I’m not wearing white pants and shoes.
It’s perhaps fitting to pull weeds on our anniversary. Even as we lavish praise on each other for the gifts we freely offer the other, we recognize that we have to work against forces that undermine our relationship. In the United Church of Christ wedding prayer I think of the line, “Defend them from all enemies of their love…” It’s a beautiful prayer and I think newlyweds underestimate the power of that particular petition. There are enemies to our committed love: workaholism, financial instability, changing priorities, the demands of children, inattention to the need for romance and renewal. In addition to inviting couples in our premarital counseling sessions to tell each other what they appreciate about each other, we asked them to share what they need from their betrothed. We learn very quickly in our marriages how important it is to be able to articulate our needs. This is one way we weed our gardens. If an enemy to our love is not identified and eradicated, it will travel alongside of our relationship, putting down roots every step of the way and eventually choking out the beauty. We are never done weeding. The daunting challenge of reclaiming my flower bed this summer is greater than ever because I traveled all last summer and the weeds marched forth unabated amidst my perennials. If we take time off from our marriage, whether a mental or physical absence, we pay the price later with the enemies who are always ready to distract us away from our love.
So I hadn’t planned to weed my garden after my anniversary dinner. I simply took the dog out and found myself drawn to the beauty of God’s creation that is going crazy in my front yard. And when invasive vines and tough grass try to stifle that growth, I can’t help myself. I go to work to remove the threats. I dig. I yank. I collect and toss to the side. I will not let the enemy multiply unchallenged! Perhaps it was the most fitting activity for me to mark 34 years next to the man I love? The white pants can be washed, after all.