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When Life Doesn't Give You Lemons

In our backyard there’s a small lemon tree. We planted it last March, and right up to the Great Freeze of 2021 things looked promising. It was covered in leaves and fruit had started forming. Now, it looks dead. Local horticulturalists preach patience: it might come back, they advise; give it time.

Thankfully, the little lemon tree is the exception in our yard. Its bare branches contrast with the blossoming pecans and cottonwoods that will shade us all summer.

It seems fitting that spring, at least in the northern hemisphere, coincides with Easter. Wildflowers, songbirds, bright green grass and blue sky—everything witnesses to new life. But as beautiful as this is, the coincidence can mislead. The spring-ification of Easter tempts us toward sentimentality.

Recently, the Brazos Fellows read Frederick Schleiermacher. We studied this Romanticist and German theologian as one example of the church’s response to the questions posed by modernity. (As an aside: please join us on the evening of April 19 for the Brazos Fellows Symposium—details below!)

Schleiermacher wanted to rescue Christianity for his very smart friends. They were sophisticated: they knew that the resurrection, like all miracles, was just a myth, and knowing this felt no need to continue with religious forms.

Ok, that’s understandable, Schleiermacher replied, but real religion doesn’t have anything to do with doctrine or history. It’s a matter of feeling. It’s sensing the infinite; it’s experiencing one’s utter dependence; it’s that feeling “as fleeting and transparent as the first scent with which the dew gently caresses the waking flowers.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, as far as it goes. And thus liberal Protestant theology was born. In Schleiermacher’s version of Christianity, what matters is interior, subjective. For this, dew-covered blossoms do just as well as Word and Sacrament. And the Resurrection? Well, it’s a wonderful metaphor, isn’t it?

It’s more difficult to be sentimental when the lemon tree stays brown. Withered shrubs and barren trees—like power outages and burst pipes—remind us that things go wrong. Sometimes the blossoms don’t come back.

And it’s certainly more difficult to be sentimental during a pandemic. I recently recalled that, all the way back in 2018, Steven Pinker wrote a book celebrating the achievements of reason and science. Thanks to secular humanism, Pinker crowed, we’ve made the world the best its ever been! As one proof of our progress, he cheerfully noted that humanity is well on our way to completely conquering disease.

Ah, well. If it weren’t already obvious, it’s now clear that this is silliness. In 2021, Pinker (and, I’d add, Schleiermacher) ring hollow.

But after I finished laughing at Pinker, I sobered up, because I’m not that different. If one modern error is sentimentality, another is solutionism—the confidence that at the end of the day, everything is a problem we can solve. I don’t hold Pinker’s particular set, but I’ve got my own solutions:

If we get everyone to read the Important Books, we’ll all live rightly. If we cleverly combine the best traditional wisdom with select insights from today’s experts, our children will turn out great. If we get our theology just right, and church programs perfectly tuned, we’ll produce “successful” Christians.

Just give us a bit more time, and we’ll bring in the Kingdom. Give us adequate notice and we’ll keep that lemon tree alive. But before the freeze came, we wrapped our little lemon tree in burlap, and it didn’t matter. If it’s truly dead, that’s the end of it. Nothing we can do will make it live again. If no green reappears within a few months, it’s off to the compost bin.

And that’s where we’re headed, too. The freeze didn’t get us, and the pandemic hasn’t yet, thanks be to God—but we’re still going to die someday.

If our sentimentalism and solutionism have both taken a blow this year, then good, we’re all the more ready for Easter. These illusions are thoroughly undone by our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection.

If we are tempted on a lovely Easter morning to see the resurrection as a metaphor for the power of the human spirit, or the resilience of life, we’ve clearly forgotten what happened three days earlier. Our salvation isn’t pretty. It isn’t nice. Sentimentality shrivels up next to the cold, hard fact that the worst thing that could ever happen has already happened, and its our fault.

And, what’s more, we cannot engineer our way out of our situation. No system, no technology, no idea will fix us. In fact, as the poet W.H. Auden reminds us, the end of human culture—our creativity, our ingenuity, our ability—is Good Friday. Left to our own devices, what do we do? We kill God.

“Crucify him!”

After we’ve walked through the Holy Triduum, our best ideas seem pretty useless. When our risen Lord greets us, he invites us to leave at the door our sentimentalism, solutionism, and all other “-isms” we’ve sought comfort in, and to sit and eat with him.

When Lesslie Newbigin was asked if he were given to pessimism or optimism, he replied, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!”

And that’s why I’m thankful for all the trees in our backyard. Those blossoming in green show that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins sings, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Every returning spring, every budding tree, is something we could never make. Nature is already graced; life is a gift. Glory be to God for spring blossoms.

Our leafless lemon tree is a sign, too. In the months to come, perhaps it will uncover some “dearest freshness” and bloom again. In the meantime, its barrenness reminds us of the quality of true Christian hope. We celebrate this Eastertide not because of a clever solution, a better idea, or another go around the cycle of decay and renewal; we celebrate something much more shocking, and much, much more good.

Christ is risen! Let us keep the feast!

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