We entered the hothouse through an airlock of sorts, to be greeted by row upon row of perfect flowers arrayed against double-paned glass.
There were orchids and African violets; poppies and petunias; buttercups and butterfly bushes. Along multiple walkways, men and women in pseudo-surgical garb were installing and removing small bags from flowers.
"What's up with that?" I asked.
"They are harvesting pollen and artifically inseminating the flowers." said my guide. "We allow no bees, no wind or other vectors to introduce uncontrolled variations here. Thus, we ensure the highest quality plants."
Each flower was attached to a digitally monitored watering tube to ensure the perfect amount of moisture and minerals. Sunlight -- both intensity and duration -- was regulated through louvers and filters over each species' "neighborhood."
"These flowers are breathtaking," I said. I wondered aloud why they seemed so much more vibrant than those we see in our own gardens. Why couldn't we buy seeds from these?
"Actually, these would never survive on the outside world," came the response. "In fact, some of these have been bred in captivity so long, they no longer have scents to attract insects to aid in pollination."
A few days later, I entered another hothouse (although I had never recognized it as such before).
I went in through the narthex to see row upon row of well-dressed and manicured people arrayed against stained-glass windows.
There were Asians and African-Americans; beauticians and busboys; sailors and CEOs. After a while, men and women in flowing robes offered them bite-sized bits of bread and tiny sips of wine to augment a steady diet of watered-down theology.
I say "watered-down" because, clearly, it left them thirsty for more.
Their seeds and fruit were ritually harvested here in the hothouse -- and here they would stay, providing sustenance only for those who had already gained entry. Those who left the hothouse, week after week, would find themselves unequipped for the outside world -- unable either to give of themselves or to digest an untamed diet.
I thought of how Jesus and His disciples encountered the world -- barefoot in the dirt, carrying nothing, plopping down with publicans and prostitutes, touching lepers and casting out demons. Part of the disciples' "scent" was their open admission of a sinful nature, an abandonment of pride and a willingness to reach out to anyone without fear.
The would-be disciples from the hothouse were looking more and more alike -- cleaner and prettier to be sure -- but maybe the scent of Jesus was being scrubbed off.
I thought of Mark 11:20-22, when Jesus rebuked the fig tree that bore no fruit.
"In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"
"Have faith in God," Jesus answered.
I rested my head against a stained-glass window, eyes unfocused.
Outside, a bumblebee rotated, legs plump with pollen from a dozen different flowers.
Backing away from a sunflower, the bee bumped the glass, retreated, then bumped it again.
Al Boyce is a former writer and reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Raleigh, NC, where he now writes for God.
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