We bought a lemon tree a couple of years ago. Bonnie Sue Ellis came home with what appeared to be a scrawny seedling from friends at our neighborhood garden store. Bonnie is a strong, passionate, observant, prayerful, exuberant pillar of our community life. She is also the unchallenged maker of our sweat teas and salad dressings. She’s never made a lemon-less tea or dressing. Thus the interest in the lemon tree. Rather than putting seven-to-12 lemons on our grocery list every week, we wondered what it might be like to grow our own.
It turns out you can’t rush lemons, and caring for them involves some real attention. The weather here in Durham, North Carolina, demands that we keep our lemon tree potted so we can bring it inside during the winter months. As the tree grows each year, the root system beckons for a bigger pot. Then there’s the regular watering and annual pruning, along with the spontaneous wonder when a tiny purple-and-white bud appears among the leaves. Caring for this lemon tree has required both time and tenderness. Bonnie has those in spades. Her tireless attention to caring for this seemingly unfruitful tree has been a channel of grace for our home.
Several months ago, one of the tiny buds didn’t fall off like all the rest. It remained on the branch and grew day by day. It soon turned dark green, and we thought we had been duped into buying a lime tree. Then the skin started to soften, and the green lightened into yellow. Wonder of wonders — we had our first lemon. We observed the ripening fruit day after day and, weeks ahead of time, Bonnie planned to harvest the lemon on March 1st.
That first day of March, Bonnie stood beside her tree with the biggest grin on her face. Several of us watched in joy as she boisterously recounted the months of watering and tending and waiting … and cheers filled the house as she plucked the bright yellow lemon from among the green leaves. She laughed and danced her way into the kitchen where she, Tony and Meredith made scones and lemon curd. (And yes, Bonnie saved a small part of that lemon for her weekly sweet tea.) After lots of zesting and stirring, they rallied whoever was around for a mid-morning treat. Six of us gathered around the table to enjoy the harvest of that long-awaited lemon. The light of feast broke through the atmosphere of Lent’s fast as oohs and ahhs and a litany of “can you pass the ____” and “what IS lemon curd?!” filled the table. And amongst the celebratory exuberance there was also a quiet kind of savoring. A regular Monday morning in so many ways, yet filled with magnificence. The food and flavors … the shared experience … the long memory of that lemon’s journey to us … and Bonnie was absolutely beaming.
While the sacredness of the moment was already starting to settle in, it took on new radiance as we all finished eating. Meredith invited us into a post-meal blessing that captured our experience of the morning: “God, You have brought forth fruit from the earth … we thank You for tenderly caring for all that You create … May we learn from Your tenderness how to care for all the mundane dailiness of our lives … as Bonnie has cared for this lemon tree, whose fruit has grown to nourish us all …”
As creatures of our Creating God, we are invited to imitate God’s watchful, room-making hospitality for fullness of life to flourish. As those redeemed in our Redeeming God, we are invited to a relentless, open eagerness for unexpected and unlikely new life to come. Perhaps our receptivity to these invitations grows as we cultivate tender care for the gift of life given to us. We encounter this gift of life in all the tiny ordinariness of our daily lives. God’s very life — blessed, broken, given to us.
One of the invitations of the Lenten season is a growing recognition of the ways in which we mishandle the precious gifts of God, the gifts of new life. Lent is a time to receive God’s grace, to untether ourselves from our ways of clinging, grasping, acquiring and controlling to make room for us to learn God’s open-handed, attentive tenderness. As we become still enough to confront our own ways of non-tenderness, we may discover the grace of preparation to hold with precious care the new life offered in Easter. The new life of Easter awaits (and in fact is here already — praise God, Jesus is risen). Tender, caring attention to life opens up a wonder to the mystery of divine love that is always available to us, a God who is always caringly attending to us.
One lemon in two years. The gift of that lemon’s life, including its contribution to the mid-morning meal and its capacity to rally six of us around a table for a 15-minute space of communion on a Monday morning, was revealed to us only through time, tender care and the grace to hope. Through this lemon, I am learning to be receptive to God’s offerings of new life that come as invitations into the small moments of our daily lives.
Immediately into his risen existence, Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. I often imagine Jesus attentively meandering through the garden, pausing now and again to tend to the blossoming life with gentleness and love, watchfulness and recognition. This Lent I am thinking of Bonnie and the journey of our lone lemon harvest. May this image of Jesus as our Good Gardener be a reminder to us that our very lives, in all their ordinary detail, are absorbed in God’s loving, tender attention.
Prayer from Pope Francis
All-powerful God, You are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with Your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of Your love,
that we may protect life and beauty …
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature as we journey towards Your infinite light.
About the author
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna and Elias “Eli,”and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House and Haiti’s Wings of Hope) and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.