My desk at the church office sits right beside a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, so I can see a great deal of the back of the church.

The mailbox, so I know when to go out for the mail.

The fountain with the stone statue of a flame, representing the Holy Spirit, where birds sometimes birds lounge as if it’s their own personal pool.

The entrance to the labyrinth, wrapped in flowering vines at various points during the year.

Right beside my desk is a small garden. There are pansies, a thick tangle of flowers with soft pink buds, and a really healthy hydrangea plant.

I love hydrangeas.

Last spring, I bought a potted hydrangea plant for my porch, and I cared for it like I’ve never done for another plant ever before. I Googled it 100 times, and now “how to take care of hydrangea” comes up as a suggestion before I even begin typing.

When a tropical storm came through last summer, I woke up at 3 a.m. worried about how my little hydrangea was faring in the wind, and I couldn’t go back to sleep until I’d gone outside and moved the pot to a more sheltered location.

When it got cold outside and the leaves started to turn brown and break away, I cut the dying stems back hoping to encourage new life in the coming spring.

But no one cut the stems of the hydrangea outside of my office window. Instead, I noticed that the heads of the dead flowers had been snipped and the stems left standing waist high.

A few weeks ago, I began to see tiny green heads forming from the dead stems in the church garden. When I got home, I rushed to my porch to see if my own hydrangea was beginning to bud.

Photo: Jessica McDougald

It was, but with much less enthusiasm than the one at church. My plant only had one tiny green bud sprouting, a far cry from last year’s full pot.

So, I googled it again, learning that you’re not supposed to cut hydrangea plants all the way back in the winter. Rather, you pop the heads off and leave the stems because everything needed for next year’s bloom is already waiting in the stem.

This explained perfectly why the hydrangea at church was so huge and mine was so unimpressive.

I’d cut mine back because the dead stalks just looked so, well, dead, serving as a reminder of the reality of winter and darkness and the coming cold.

But by so doing, I’d also stripped away the life of the plant and stunted its growth before spring ever even arrived.

This hard-learned lesson in gardening gave me a reason to pause. Over and over, it seems that God is showing me this example in different ways.

When I worked at a substance abuse hospital, before I knew that there was no such thing as a lost cause, I was shown this example in the way our patients came through our doors broken and sick yet left walking tall and brimming with newness.

I’ve been shown this example in myself. From situations that I rendered lifeless and unable to produce anything good have come opportunity to engage honestly and lovingly with others who find themselves in those same hopeless situations.

In so many cases, the newness is already within us, waiting to sprout from what we’ve been quick to call dead and cut away.

Our God is one with a history of bringing dry bones to life, of raising the dead, of pulling forth new life from our slips and stagnation.

So let us be very slow to deal in lost causes and label things dead.

Let us, to the very best of our abilities, be patient with one another and with ourselves – because so many times what we see as fit for a grave, God sees as a vessel for newness.

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