Thrillers, Fillers, Spillers!

Written by Rev. Renee Clark for May 29, 2022

Here we are. May almost done, June starts Wednesday. Though technically it’s still spring for another three weeks, it seems as though in many ways summer is already underway… this afternoon is supposed to be in the mid-twenties.

To be fair we’ve had a few false starts weather-wise (and this is Nova Scotia, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes!), we’re getting well into the growing season.

A little over six years ago, May 2, 2016 to be precise, I moved out of my little flat in the Hydrostone and bought my first little house… hopefully my only little house… right here between the bridges in the North End of Dartmouth, just up the hill on the other side of Wyse Rd on Symonds Street, in a development of Victory Houses built just after the war… or perhaps more accurately assembled, as the four pieces were to my understanding built in Halifax and bolted together onsite.

My little Victory House happened to come, as most of them do, with an equally little yard. My first yard really, after many years as an apartment dweller and living in parsonages or student rentals. And little had been done with that yard, other than grass and a few shrubs.

And so, I found myself brand spanking new to yard work and gardening, and very much I assure you learning as I go along. My mother has the green thumb in our family, mine is and always has been the black thumb of death so far as plants are concerned.

Certainly that is true of indoor plants… when I killed my jade tree and went back to the flower shop for another recommendation, the lady sweetly suggested that a silk plant might be a kinder choice.

But silk plants have no place outside, and I do have this yard to contend with. And so this time of year I wander garden centers on a regular basis, sometimes looking a little lost. Because I admit quite freely that I have little to no idea what I’m doing!

So I tackle things in small bites. A plant here, a seed there, a handful of bulbs in a bed, and the odd hanging basket. This year’s project is a small 4×8 foot raised bed for my rhubarb and some herbs and veggies. When it comes to trying new garden things, I want to, but I am cautious to a fault!
At one point in my gardening adventures, Loblaws – who own the local Superstores and their attached Garden Centres – published an intriguing little sidebar in the weekly flyer. It was intended to tell people how best to choose plants for use in a hanging basket or ornamental container of plants. They called it “Thrillers, Fillers, and Spillers”. And how can you not read something with an exciting sounding title like that! I’ve since discovered that Loblaws didn’t invent this concept, it’s a fairly standard theory of composition for container gardening. But to me, it was new!

All well and good, and I’ve been considering these principles as I determine what goes where in my slow but sure creating of a landscape of my own.

But… you can’t take the preacher out of the budding gardener. Nor can such a catchy title as ‘Thrillers, Fillers, and Spillers’ be wasted.

Looking to learn more, I found out with a bit of digging that this is not a Loblaws invention, but a conventional theory within horticulture around how plants ought to be arranged for the best effect.

As I pondered it, it came to me that this also makes a perfectly good analogy for the Christian Life. We too, have our thrillers, fillers and spillers along the way. And it is each of those things that work together to make our faith story, just as those different categories of plants work together to make up a successful planter.

The thriller plant is the focal point of the pot and should be selected first with the other elements relating to it. A thriller plant should be the tallest plant in the composition, generally they are upright and could have showy flowers, dramatic foliage or a different shape. Examples include lilies, ornamental grasses, dumb cane, Coleous, and Millet. Something flashy! In a planter that would be viewed on all sides in a round pot placing the thriller in the center is best. If the planter will be viewed from the front only you can place the thriller towards the back of the pot.

Our Thrillers are our dramatic moments in our faith journey… those conversations and events and acts of God in our lives or the lives of others that we can’t help but notice. They catch our attention as surely as Saul’s attention was caught on his way to Tarsus.

Even if we don’t recognize them as such immediately, they are the high and holy points where we know we have been… and continue to be… in the presence of God. Remember Moses at the burning bush. Remember Lazarus coming forth from his tomb.

Some of us can tell you the exact moment we became a Christian, others of us find it hard to remember a time when we did not know the Lord. But all of us who walk with God have had the mountaintop experiences in one form or another… those answered prayers, unfoldings of circumstance, and experiences that leave us confident that we are on the right path and that God’s hand is at work in our lives. I am sure if I asked there would be no shortage of examples you could share with me from your own experiences. Maybe we can share some of those at coffee time later!

But… a planter filled with nothing but Thrillers is an odd looking garden indeed. And we know that our spiritual lives are made up of more than just those bright and brilliant moments that sometimes take our breath away.

We need the ‘fillers’. The Filler plants are just as the name implies… something to surround the supporting stalks of the thriller and weave through it. Something to give body and substance to the plants in the container, and fill in any empty spaces and gaps. Generally the filler has a different texture than the thriller so if the thriller is coarse the filler is fine or vice versa. In addition, the filler adds colour to the planter: it could be similar colours to the thriller (monochromatic) like different shades of purples or contrasting colours like purple and yellow.

The fillers should be planted all around the thriller and don’t have to be all the same type of plant: a variety of flowering and foliage plants gives a pleasing visual effect. Some favourite fillers are Begonia, Impatiens, Dusty Miller, and Petunia.

The spiritual Fillers are the day to day elements of our faith walk, the meat and potatoes, the parts that keep us humming along and growing in our relationship with God. A regular Scripture reading or other spiritual practice, gathering with other believers for worship and fellowship, opportunities for learning and retreat, doing those things that feed our soul and enable us to flourish.

All of these help to fill in the spaces between the ‘thriller’ experiences, and sustain us from day to day.

But so far this arrangement is pretty self-contained. In its pot, minding its own affairs. It is the spillers that complete the picture… and without them, it’s clear something is missing.

The Spiller plants do just as it sounds they do… they spill over the edge of the planter. The spillers are planted closest to the edge of the pot so they can tumble towards the ground. These plants should tie into the colour scheme of the thriller and filler and carry on the theme of those selections with colour, texture and shape of leaf or flower. Examples of spiller plants are Creeping Jenny, most kinds of Ivy, Lobelia, Verbena, and Million Bells. Visually, the presence of the spillers make the planter complete, and balanced.

Similarly, our faith needs to spill out of ourselves… outside of our own lives and our own churches, into the world around us. The Spillers are the ways in which our faith and relationship with God influence how we interact in the world. Which takes us nicely to our Scripture for today.

A Scripture passage that applies to all of us. All of us, regardless of our age or ability or giftedness.

In the passage from 2 Corinthians I’d like us to look at this morning, Paul is presenting us with a picture of what being a Christian ought to look like. In the first six verses he describes Christians as those who are beholding the light of the Gospel… a message that needs to be proclaimed, one written down by the apostles and held in our hands even to this day. This is the means by which God’s light shines in our hearts so that we can see the glory of God.

This is a great encouragement to Paul… looking at verse 1 he acknowledges the ministry he has is given to him by God’s grace. And so it is for us. But what does that mean? What does it look like? How does it change who we are and how we live? Lots of questions! But fortunately this is a passage that gives us some answers. As I mentioned earlier it’s one of my favourites…. and was read at my ordination for this reason. It speaks to me about what it is to love and serve God as a flawed and imperfect human being.

Verse 7 is one of my favourite verses of Scripture because it speaks so profoundly into the human condition… “we have this treasure in jars of clay”.

We are, each of us, jars of clay. We are imperfect. We have moments when we are overly sensitive.

Emotionally fragile. Easily broken. When we feel empty inside. Hollow. When we are confronted with our own fragility. When we look around us and see constant threats in the outside world, from our environment and from other people. This week the world seems especially so as we watch tragically sad events unfolding on the news. Paul described the threat to the jars of clay by being hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted and struck down.

We live in a busy world, a rapidly changing world and a stressful world. Our time is not our own. We do not really have full control over our own time. We are often lost, wondering what are we doing here? Being stressed, we become irritable and easily offended. From what I have observed and experienced, two years of living with Covid has made it worse. We all have a bit of pandemic burnout.

We become hyper-sensitive to the flaws of others… and yes, to our own as well. I see this particularly in my work at Northwood. Many of the residents I see and meet with every day struggle to see themselves as being of any use at all now that their bodies, and often their minds, have begun to fail them. This is where the beauty of verse 7 really stands out to me. We have this treasure in jars of clay. The treasure is not the jars themselves, but what they contain.

In this passage, Paul likens us to jars of clay. Not containers made of copper. Not containers make of silver. Not wineskin made of leather. But clay jars, the commonest, cheapest object used to contain water. Think common terracotta flowerpot, not crystal vase. And he is right. God did not choose us because we are beautiful, we have perfect bodies, we are rich or famous. God chose us because we are beloved. God chose us because even made up of clay, if we are willing, we can be used.

And sometimes, it is our flaws, our humanity, that makes us the most useful!

The classic story is told of a water bearer in India who had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the masters house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his masters house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your masters house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts” the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.

The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pots side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my masters table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

Each of us has our own unique flaws. You know yours as well as I know mine. We’re all cracked pots. But if we will allow it, the Lord will use our flaws to “grace His Father’s table”. In Gods great economy, nothing goes to waste.

Remember though, that I began this morning talking about hanging baskets and container gardens. Very few of us upon seeing a beautifully composed container of plants say “Oh look! What a lovely plastic bucket!”. “What an interesting wooden raised bed.” Granted, there are some that catch our attention because they are particularly unusual in some way, but by and large, what we notice is the plants inside them. The flowers and foliage that make this worth paying attention to. Paul did not say we are jars of clay and leave it at that. He said we have a treasure within us. What is this treasure that Paul speaks of? “6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”; made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

The treasure is the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. The treasure is not an object. When we think of treasure, we always think of physical things… the word conjures up images of valuables that make up the stuff of pirate booty! But that isn’t of course what Paul is talking about. It isn’t what the church has been talking about for two millennia. This treasure in this case is the significance of Jesus Christ in our lives.

We know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

We know the significance of the life of Jesus and we also know the significance of the death of Jesus. This treasure within us transforms us and empowers us for service.

And this treasure has power. Because of this treasure, our jars of clay can withstand many things – 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

It is not the jars of clay that is tough but the treasure within. to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

It’s not about us. It never was! And I don’t know about you, but as conscious of my own flaws as I am, I find that incredibly comforting. It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about Christ within us and spilling out of us.

All of this from a Superstore flyer! Like a well put together hanging basket, our Christian lives have their thriller moments from time to time. We have our fillers that sustain us from day to day. And the Scripture today urged us to consider particularly our ‘spillers’… the ways in which we share God by how we live and love in the world where we have been placed. To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.

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