Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sanctuary Flowers


Osho, the Hindu mystic and philosopher, admonished:

Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars...and if you have eyes you will be able to see that their whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy. Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents. They are not going to become rich, and they will never have any bank balance. Look at the flowers....It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.

Martin Luther was one of the spiritually-focused types who believed he saw God in nature, and about that he had this to say: “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.”

You can’t be suspicious, said Hal Borland, of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion or challenge the ideology of a violet.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Flower God, God of the Spring”:

FLOWER god, god of the spring, beautiful, bountiful,

Cold-dyed shield in the sky, lover of versicles,

Here I wander in April

Cold, grey-headed; and still to my

Heart, Spring comes with a bound, Spring the deliverer,

Spring, song-leader in woods, chorally resonant;

Spring, flower-planter in meadows,

Child-conductor in willowy

Fields deep dotted with bloom, daisies and crocuses:

Here that child from his heart drinks of eternity:

O child, happy are children!

She still smiles on their innocence,

She, dear mother in God, fostering violets,

Fills earth full of her scents, voices and violins:

Thus one cunning in music

Wakes old chords in the memory:

Thus fair earth in the Spring leads her performances.

One more touch of the bow, smell of the virginal

Green - one more, and my bosom

Feels new life with an ecstasy.

Flowers in sanctuaries have brought unutterable beauty into worship space for who knows how long. The flowers don’t arrange themselves, but the typical church member might well have no idea who actually does the flower arranging; it’s usually a small group of dedicated volunteers, mostly women in most places, who quietly do their work without thought of recognition or fanfare.

Well, this past Christmastime when most of us were busily involved with the frazzle and frenzy that makes Christmas Christmas for many moderns who know very little about the Jesus behind it all, there was a serious problem for the Flower Ladies, the Altar Guild, of the Gloucester Cathedral in Great Britain. Some of the church leaders decided that since these mothers and grandmothers were sometimes, though rarely, at church while choirboys were rehearsing, they would have to undergo criminal background checks into order to remain flower arrangers since rare contact with an altar boy or two did occur, and there were times when if both groups were present in the cathedral at the same time, the Flower Ladies and the choirboys might have to use the same lavatory. I’m sure you know about unisex restrooms in many public places throughout much of western Europe.

Well, the lead Flower Lady, head of the Cathedral’s Altar Guild for many years, resigned rather than have to submit to a criminal background check as a requirement for continuing to arrange flowers for worship services. For more than a decade, Annabel Hayter arranged and oversaw arrangements of the flowers at Gloucester Cathedral, providing her time and talent at no cost to her congregation in order to make her church more beautiful when people gathered for worship. This is standard for Church Flower Ladies all over the world.

Shortly before Christmas last, Mrs. Hayter felt that she had to turn her back on the job she loved, a job she felt gifted to do, a job through which she felt she was making a significant contribution to her church. Rather than undergo a criminal record check ordered by her church’s leaders, she resigned from her position. Had she been someone new to the church, that would have been one thing, but she was a longtime member; and no instance of inappropriate interaction between her or her Flower Ladies and any of the choirboys had ever been raised.

We can certainly understand any efforts to protect the wellbeing and the innocence of children in any kind of church setting any where in the world, and we can guess that the Gloucester Cathedral officials were trying to make sure everyone who even rarely came into contact with their children had no record of any kind of child abuse. At the same time, blanket rulings rarely work out well especially if it means changing flower pots in midstream, and if children are properly supervised by those into whose care they are given the chances of abuse are virtually nonexistent.

The church leaders told the church as a whole that they had reason to think that known pedophiles were trying to infiltrate the church membership to have easier access to the choirboys. Someone on the Board stressed the importance of keeping watch on the Flower Ladies and those whom they were recommending for church membership. This was odd for several reasons, one of which being there’s so little interaction between the two groups at the church. Flower Ladies are notoriously independent, secretive even, and often like to do their work while no one else is around. The only thing more confidential around here than what floral arrangement we’ll see when we enter on a Sunday is classified financial giving records of those who support the congregation monetarily.

The abuse of children by anyone for any reason is a tragedy, and I’m not making light of any effort to put a stop to it once and for all. Still, if I were charged with the responsibility to watch out for potential child abusers, I wouldn’t have grandmothers who arrange church flowers at the top of my list.

Another factor not seemingly considered by the Cathedral officials is an absolute principle never to be violated in any church. The clergy and the elected church leaders who don’t understand this rule can ruin a church as is being lived out at the Gloucester Cathedral as we speak. The rule is this: never mess around with the Flower Ladies. You will always lose; they will always win. This pertains to criminal background checks as well as to making suggestions about how to improve the floral arrangement prepared for any given Sunday. It is worth remembering that many church Flower Ladies learned floral arranging in vocational programs while they were in prison, and almost none of them was in prison for anything related to child abuse. Most of them were in prison for threats to clergypersons who tried to tell them how to do their flower arranging.

As for me, I never even enter the flower room--even if I’m the only one in the building. If asked to enter the flower room to see if something was lost or left there, I always have an excuse for why I’m unable to do that.

I would no more tell a Flower Lady how to do her job than I’d want her to tell me how I should preach. I occasionally make a suggestion well ahead of time about something related to flowers, never too close to a Sunday where I would hope that happens and never after an arrangement has been made. Even if I should think an arrangement looks hideous, which has never been the case, I’d absolutely not say anything critical about it even if a carnivorous plant had been used in the arrangement and was wrapping itself around me as I preached. I’d do what any self-respecting minister would do. I’d tell the deacons that it was their job to ask the Flower Ladies to make a change.


Anyway, back to jolly old England. The Gloucester Cathedral must be large. Its Altar Guild has sixty members; well it HAD sixty members. Now it has almost no members since the Flower Ladies said they weren’t going to have criminal background checks. The average age of those serving on Gloucester’s Altar Guild is 70. Most, as I’ve said, are devoted mothers and grandmothers, and they are insulted by the assumption that on one of the very few times of year when they are even in the building while the choirboys are rehearsing any of them would sneak into the lavatory to abuse one of the children. Again, if those who work with the choir director to monitor the behavior and wellbeing of the choirboys stayed near the restroom any time a child had to be excused, there would be no chance a dear older women smelling a little like a funeral home would hurt any one of the choirboys in any way.

Reporters say that the Cathedral case has split the once close-knit Cathedral community wide open. One of Mrs Hayter's supporters described what was going on in their church as closely akin to T. S. Eliot's “Murder in the Cathedral,” a piece of historical theatrical fiction in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is murdered at the altar on an order from the King of England.

Cathedral officials are undeterred, and instead of focusing on why the Flower Ladies are upset they are concentrating on criticizing what they are calling “Mrs. Hayter's campaigning activities.” Feelings continue to be hurt, and the membership of the Cathedral continues to decline--in a country that has already seen more church decline than most. Years ago, religious studies scholar, Karen Armstrong, said only half jokingly in a lecture I heard her deliver in New York City, “It’s getting harder and harder to find a church in England; the congregations have died, and the buildings have all become museums.”

The nation of Israel has had two great Temples. The first was built by King Solomon, son of King David and the third King of the nation of Israel; it was destroyed 587 years before Jesus was born by the Babylonians who, after destroying the magnificent Temple, took most of the Hebrews into captivity. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians and inherited all the people they had overtaken and enslaved, they--the Persians--released some of the captured people and sent them back to their homes. The Hebrews were in that number.

Not only did the Persians send them back home, but also they encouraged them to rebuild the Temple they had so admired. Poor and still somewhat emotionally debilitated by the trauma of the captivity, they did they best they could, but the rebuilt Temple was nothing much in comparison to the glory of the original. Nearer the time of the birth of Jesus, the Romans ruled over the Jews, and Herod was the puppet “King of the Jews”; still he evidently had great rapport with the Romans, and he earned their respect to some degree. They allowed him to undertake a series refurbishing and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple, which, when finished, was one of the human-made wonders of the world at that time.

This magnificent Temple was the one where baby Jesus was dedicated and circumcised at the age of eight days. It was the one where he was bar mitzvahed when he was 12 years old, and it was the one where, because of loss of focus and financial improprieties, he angrily overturned the tables of the money changers who worked within the Temple precincts. This was the Temple destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 in retaliation for multiple Jewish uprisings. That second Temple has never been rebuilt, but the land on which it sat is still, to Jews around the world, the holiest plot of ground on the face of the earth.

Some of those fixated on the end of time and on a literal interpretation of the book of Revelation, both of which are very dangerous positions to hold, believe that when a third Temple is built on that holy site, that will be the absolutely unmistakable sign that the world as we know it is coming to an end. If May 21 of this year really is J Day, Judgement Day, architects and builders better be getting themselves on the ball since it took seven full years to build the original Temple structure. Of course, I’m not sure of the value of a brand new Temple if the world as we know it is going to be divinely halted as the predictive-phobics tell us to anticipate.

Our topic today is sanctuary flowers, and--believe it or not--I’m not off topic. Stay with me here, and you’ll see.

Let’s get back to the first great Jewish Temple, the Temple built by King Solomon. The Temple becomes a part of one of the covenant commitments between God and the ancient Hebrews. That Temple becomes a part of how the Hebrews will keep their end of the their covenant promises to be God’s faithful people consistently. Indeed, it would be the center for the offering of sacrifices and corporate worship from the time of Solomon up through the whole of Jesus’ life and even until a few years after the Apostle Paul died. Flowers were a part of the story.

When the time came for Solomon to finish the interior of the first great Temple, he covered the stone walls with planks of cedar so that none of the stones could be seen at all; Solomon’s builders also used pure cedar in the construction of the rafters. The floors were constructed with cypress.

The nave, which was a large open space, a long central passageway, leading all the way from the narthex to the high altar, which was the center of sacrifice. This nave was forty cubits long, which was about sixty feet.

The cedar all over the interior walls was masterfully carved to reveal images of gourds, which many scholars say is often mistranslated and should read “rosebuds”; rosebuds along with a variety of open flowers--not closed flowers, but open flowers, which surely symbolized natural, mature beauty. Rosebuds--beauty awaiting development and maturity; and open flowers, representing beauty beyond beginnings. Many of the beautiful carvings were overlaid with pure gold.

As time went along, live flowers were used in worship spaces, and so the practice has continued down to this very morning. Beauty captured, arranged, displayed--in celebration both of nature’s art put into place by God and of one dimension of aesthetics that draws many of us into deeper levels of spirituality.

In many ways, Jewish law gives Shabbat, sabbath, the status of being the most important day in any week, and a holy day too. Often the Jewish home is cleaned extra well on Friday before sabbath begins at sundown, and the formal celebration, week by week, is begun with a fine Shabbat Friday dinner. Knowing what you know now, you will not be surprised to find out that many Jewish families display fresh flowers in their home until the sabbath ends, at sundown on Saturday.


This is what I think happened. The Hebrews taken into exile after the destruction of their beloved first Temple couldn’t build a new Temple in Babylon, but when they gathered to worship as best they could in small groups or even as family units in Babylon, they remembered what they could remember of the place where they had worshipped with such joy and pride. When they thought of their beautiful worship area, they remembered the carvings of rosebuds and various open flowers overlaid with gold so they began to make sure flowers were present when possible as they gathered to worship in their Babylonian exile.

Once they were free again, flowers remained a part of their sabbath celebrations at home and in the rebuilt Temple. Since all the early Christians were Jews first, the practice naturally continued when the earliest Christians gathered for worship as well. So here we are in the twenty-first century, orthodox and reform Jews, fundamentalist and liberal Christians or followers of Jesus gathering to do whatever we do with accents of fresh flowers--although in some cases and places artificial arrangements are used on occasion. Isn’t it fascinating that theology could change so dramatically along with worship practices themselves, but the flowers are still here--and with them, never forget, the Flower Ladies. Here and there, there is even a Flower Gent serving on an Altar Guild these days.

The newest monotheistic religion, the one I haven’t mentioned so far today, also uses flowers at some religious gatherings, and so do certain other religious traditions outside monotheism. For example, at a Hindu wedding, the groom often arrives at the ceremony on a white horse that has been decorated with flowers; there is no guarantee that the horse enjoys the wedding or giving the groom a ride.

While Jewish ancestors, the Hebrews, may have gotten this rather comprehensive flowers-in-worship practice started for monotheists, there is archaeological evidence that the Neanderthals who inhabited parts of Europe and western Asia, going back almost a quarter of a million years, used flowers in their funeral rituals. The ancient Hebrews weren’t on the scene, at the earliest, until slightly less than four thousand years ago.

French novelist and poet, Gerard de Nerval wrote the following of flowers:

Today, as in the time of Pliny and Columella, the hyacinth flourishes in Wales, the periwinkle in Illyria, the daisy on the ruins of Numantia; while around them cities have changed their masters and their names, collided and smashed, disappeared into nothingness, the peaceful generations of flowers have crossed down the ages as fresh and smiling as on the days of battle.

Back to the Hebrews for now, though; they do not use flowers at all worship gatherings. For example, reform Jews may allow flowers at funerals, but conservative and orthodox Jews, the more traditional groups with Judaism, do not.

At Islamic funerals, white and red flowers are not to be used as they are celebrative colors that should be used at weddings. Flowers are important to many Muslims; indeed, the Koran teaches: “Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul.”

William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Many Roman Catholic churches try to stay away from scheduling weddings during the Christian season of Lent because Lent is a season of penitence, and not a season of celebration. If there must be a wedding, and I’m not talking about the shotgun variety, the flowers used must be purple, which is the color in Christian worship tradition that symbolizes penitence.

Speaking of Lent, which leads right into Holy Week and the commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion, Greek Orthodox congregations construct mock tombs entirely from flowers. One of these structures, an epitapho, becomes central in Holy Week worship.

At a Mormon house of worship, no flowers are allowed in areas regarded as the most holy so you might see flowers in a narthex, but not in a sanctuary. You might see flowers in a social hall, but you will not see flowers in an area set aside for prayer and meditation.

Buddhist Altar Guilds have wide latitude regarding what kinds of flowers to use in adorning their altars. Any flowers with thorns in their stems, though, roses for example, are forbidden.

The great artist, Claude Monet, once said: “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”

Hymnwriters, Stainer and Bell, have this as the first stanza of one of their hymns:

Think of a world without any flowers,
Think of a world without any trees,
Think of a sky without any sunshine,
Think of the air without any breeze.
We thank You, Lord,
for flowers and trees and sunshine,
We thank You, Lord,
and praise Your holy name.

And the poet, Phillip Pulfrey, penned these beautiful thoughts:

The flower offered of itself

And eloquently spoke

Of Gods

In languages of rainbows


And secret silence...


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