On learning from the wildflowers

And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, my translation)

In my sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I suggested that when Jesus says do not worry (v. 25), we might quite naturally reply, “okay Jesus, but…how??? How do we not worry?”

And I suggested that this question is perhaps answered (at least in part) by Jesus in v. 28, when he says, consider the lilies. Or—since the word translated “lilies” could also be translated “wildflowers,” and the word often translated “consider” or “see” is really quite a strong word that comes from the same root as “learn” or “disciple”—examine the lilies carefully, or learn thoroughly from them. Jesus says, learn from the wildflowers

I was aiming for a 7-8 minute mini-sermon, so I wasn’t able to go into much detail about what it might actually look like to learn from the wildflowers. But I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too! 

How do we learn thoroughly from the wildflowers—or at least take some steps in that direction? These are some of the things I think about:

  1. Spend time in nature

It’s good for the soul!

In some ways, this is more accessible for some than others. But around the Seattle area, at least, even if it’s hard to find time (or transportation, etc.) to get out to the bigger woods and mountains, there are so many gorgeous local parks. 

I saw an article a few weeks back—in a Seattle-based newspaper or magazine, I forget which one—about beautiful places to visit in South King County. I was both amused and offended that some people responded with the “laughing face” emoji! Their loss. South King County is full of beautiful nature-y places. It may not rival Issaquah or Woodinville as far as forest-to-urban-space ratio goes—but we’ve got our share of parks and walking trails, and they’re lovely.

Anyhow, I realize it’s December and we’re far past peak wildflower season, but I think it’s worth getting out there anyway. Jesus may have chosen wildflowers as an example of a created being that’s short-lived but beautiful—but I wonder if he was just looking around for inspiration and chose what happened to be closest to him as he was speaking: birds and wildflowers. He probably could have picked any number of organisms, some of which we still see in winter. 

Let’s get outdoors this winter and see what we can see. I like (or at least I want to like?) the Scandinavian saying, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This might be more true some places than others. But in the Seattle area, it sounds about right. The weather rarely throws conditions our way that a few layers, a raincoat, an umbrella (to hell with umbrella shame!), and some gloves can’t handle. 

I think our souls need time outdoors—even if it’s a neighborhood walk or a visit to a local park more often than a hardcore hike. Even if I’m mostly just noticing plants in random people’s front yards in Normandy Park (seriously, does everyone garden there?) rather than truly wild wildflowers. There’s something to learn from it all.

  1. Pay attention to indigenous wisdom

What better way to learn from the wildflowers than to learn from the people and communities who have been learning from the wildflowers for years and centuries longer than I have?

I went to an art and holiday gift fair at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center last week (very cool!), and I got to hear quite extensively from a mother-daughter duo who make all sorts of medicines and salves from Devil’s Club. Before that conversation, I had only known Devil’s Club as a “do not touch!” sort of thing. But apparently its roots and stem have healing qualities. 

Talk about learning from the wildflowers. Sometimes we only see one side of something (or someone), but there is so much more to it (or them) than that.

Indigenous communities often have so much wisdom about these things. We are surrounded by plants that might be able to help heal us if we knew where to look and what to do. 

Even beyond the realm of herbal medicine, plants have so much to teach us about, well, pretty much—to borrow a phrase from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—life, the universe, and everything. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out…Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

Plants have been here longer than we have, and they’ve had time to figure things out. I like that. I’d also highly recommend Braiding Sweetgrass in general, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Kimmerer models learning from plants so brilliantly.

  1. Grow plants

Nothing makes me pay attention to plants like growing them does. Whether it’s a hanging basket with some flowers, a railing planter box with a few herbs, or a full-on garden, we learn so much from growing (or at least attempting to grow) plants. 

We learn their names, their seasons, their preferences. We get excited about each new leaf, each new bud that we hope will open into a flower (and maybe even become a fruit). We gain a deeper appreciation for each part of the plant that we get to eat. 

Growing vegetables helps me appreciate where my food comes from, and how long and arduous a process it often is. It has been kind of funny and kind of weird, in the last few weeks, to see sugar pie pumpkins selling for $2 each at the market…after I spent literally 5-7 months growing a handful of them at home. 

Anyhow, I know gardening is more accessible to some than others. But many of us can grow something, even if it’s just a basil plant indoors on the windowsill. And I think it can help us pay attention.

Not a wildflower, but kind of a cool fungus…what might we learn from it?
  1. Appreciate plants for who they are, not just how we might use them

I was walking with a friend in the woods recently (Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, to be precise), and I appreciated that there were various signs along the trail, pointing out different kinds of plants. But I also noticed something about these signs. They were all about what people—mostly settlers, I think, not so much indigenous people—like to use these plants for. I felt the gorgeous alder trees being reduced to cabinetry before my eyes.

I found myself wishing there were also signs about the ecosystem, the interactions among plants and animals, the life cycle of the trees—or something, anything, about the plants around me that didn’t reduce these living beings to the ways humans have used and monetized them.

This may seem at odds with what I was saying about indigenous communities’ knowledge of healing uses for local plants like Devil’s Club. But I think there’s a difference between knowing and appreciating the gifts a plant has to offer, versus only seeing that plant as something to use—and often something to use to make a profit. It’s a different kind of relationship. And I think the difference is important.

I want to learn to appreciate plants for all of who they are, not just how they might be used.

  1. Look to plants as signs of how we’re doing

I recently saw this NPR article about some of the ways in which rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities in South Carolina. 

For one thing, I had no idea that there was a community of descendants of enslaved Africans who have a (badass computer scientist) queen. That’s cool. 

I also learned about ghost forests. Apparently, when sea levels rise and begin to flood into salt marsh areas (a la Where the Crawdads Sing), the salt water slowly kills the trees there, leaving chalky white dead tree skeletons behind. According to the article, this has been happening for a long time, but its pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years. 

Ghost tree forests are kind of alarming. They’re a strikingly visible sign of the damage that has been caused and will continue to be caused by rising sea levels.

And they’re another reason, I think, to learn from the wildflowers—to examine the plants around us and learn carefully from them.

Plants can help us know how we’re doing. If native plants that have thrived in a place for who-knows-how-long are being killed by salt water, or are otherwise not doing well, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s a sign that our relationship with the natural world around us has gone awry. It’s visible evidence of injustices that need to be righted so that we all can thrive—plants, animals, and humans alike. Learn from the wildflowers.

These are some of the things I think about, some of the ways I’m trying to hear Jesus’ words about learning from the wildflowers. It’s all a work in progress, for sure.

What does learn from the wildflowers mean to you? What does it look like in your life, in your community? I’d love to hear!

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