“We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.” Romans 15:3

Five years ago, I planted my first peony bush, a Mother’s Day gift from my children. I faithfully watered it, patiently waiting until the following spring to see it bloom. The next year, the peony came up with a few beautiful blush pink ruffled flowers, so I decided to plant another one. I chose a soft white peony with delicate yellow centers. A year later, that one also produced a few blooms, while its older sister’s pink blooms arrived a bit taller and more numerous. This spring, both have exploded with buds cloaked in lush foliage. Every time I step outside, I visit the peonies, delighted with the elegant flowers flanking the side of my home. Mary Oliver’s poem, Peonies, echoes in my brain when she says, “This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes with his old, buttery fingers, and they open – pools of lace, white and pink—.” I cut a few buds, filling vases with peony magic throughout my home.

When I share with others the joy my peonies bring me, I get two contrasting responses. One matches my joy with long oohs and gushes about how much they too love peonies. The other has been a curt response, “You do know that peonies are covered with ants, don’t you?” The person may or may not go on with a story about ant-filled peonies in their home and how it invaded their food pantry. I leave the conversation a bit dejected, as if my balloon of joy has been pricked with a tiny needle, and the air is slowly leaking out, leaving behind only wilted peony petals.

I have heard the tale of ants and peonies from at least ten people. Even Mary Oliver continues her poetic imagery with the next line in her poem, “and all day the black ants climb over them,”. I half expected an ant invasion of my delicate peonies only to be pleasantly surprised to find only one or two strolling aimlessly across the petals. When I share that fact with the naysayers, they are astounded. Some have suggested that I must use a pesticide to prevent the ants, but my negative reply sends them away shaking their heads in disbelief.

Some of the stories about the ants have been relayed in a less negative manner, sharing with me that ants are necessary for peonies to propagate. But my peonies remain relatively “ant-less” and still manage to explode. I did some research on ants and peonies to get to the bottom of the mystery. It is a myth that ants are needed for peonies to bloom. People with rooftop gardens can successfully plant peonies that will bloom without needing to transplant an ant farm as well. But ants do have a special relationship with peonies. They are attracted to the sugary nectar, and once a scout finds a peony, he will inform other ants to join in the feast. These ants are beneficial to the peony bush, because they help ward off aphids, thrips, and other pests that will destroy the buds. Scientists refer to this relationship as biological mutualism, each benefiting from the presence of the other.

Biological mutualism happens throughout the natural world. We see oxpeckers, a bird riding on large mammals, eating parasites like ticks. This provides an easy meal for the bird and helps reduce disease in the mammals. The Disney movie “Finding Nemo” helped educate us on the relationship between clownfish and anemones. Botanists are finding that trees can communicate with one another through the presence of fungi who thrive near their roots. The key to biological mutualism is that both species benefit from the relationship.

While this may benefit the natural world, I wonder how often this idea of biological mutualism shapes the paradigm of how I interact with others. Do I look at relationships with others through the lens of what I receive? And most importantly, how does Christ want us to treat others?

These are hard questions, convoluted with a lot of different nuances. It’s important to have healthy relationships in your life, where you are both giver and receiver. These relationships fill you, allowing you to be vulnerable and transparent. They also help nourish you, providing you with a healthy foundation. For me, these relationships include my husband, family, and close friends.

But not every relationship will be that mutually beneficial. Does this lack of mutual benefit give us a pass on being in a relationship? The Message Bible answers this question by paraphrasing Paul’s words in Romans 15. It says “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not for status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves how can I help.” Different translations of the Bible affirm that we need to help others. They do not ask us to assess how much we are going to receive back from helping. They don’t ask us to do a cost benefit analysis, asking what their responsibility is and what is just enabling. The scriptures simply state that if we are strong, we are called to help those who are weak.

I have not always done this well. There are times I have been frustrated in helping others, annoyed with what seemed like ingratitude. Other times I have counted the cost and set boundaries because I felt others were taking advantage of me. And even worse, I have grumbled while helping, making my good deeds ugly in the eyes of God.

I agree, we need to set healthy boundaries in life. We can’t give from an empty well. Just this week, I recognized that my RA was affecting my body in such a way that I needed extra rest. I had to let my dear friend know that I couldn’t watch her sweet twin boys on Monday. This was a wise decision not based on convenience. But how often have I used excuses in the past to only do what is convenient?

I am called to sacrifice, and this includes both time and resources. Only I know, through prayer and honesty, when I am truly sacrificing. There are some questions I need to ask myself. Am I helping in a visible way so I can receive accolades? Am I only reaching out within my circle, or am I stepping outside of my circle to help? Am I being close-fisted or open-handed with what God has entrusted to me? Am I grumbling while helping?

The answers to these questions don’t always show me as a stellar example of Christianity. Instead, my actions often lead me to repentance. And I keep moving forward, trying to live out Romans 15 in a way that aligns me with the example of Jesus. When I think about how Jesus would answer these questions, I see a man who ministered to others even when no one else was around. He ministered continuously to the marginalized of society. He regularly gave so fully of himself that he was exhausted to the point of sleeping through a storm at sea. Finally, although in his flesh He asked for the cup to pass, He walked willingly to the cross without complaint.

Mary Oliver continues her poem by asking a question, “Do you also hurry, half dressed, and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers, with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment before they are nothing, forever?” My peonies may have another week or so of blooms before they fall silent for the rest of the summer. It’s a few fleeting weeks of joy for me, where I gather the blooms with delight. I also have a few fleeting moments to gather with and bless those around me with the love of Jesus. Will I run to do His not-always-convenient will, or will I shrink away from the ants on my peonies?

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