Seasons

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Nature’s Seasons

I once attended a presentation where the speaker began with, “Summer, fall, and winter are seasons – spring is a miracle.” I’ve thought about her comment every spring since. Early warm spells begin to nudge plants from their winter slumber in January here in the South. Witchhazel, Lenten roses, and paperbush start the floral parade that continues for multiple weeks as plants take turns in the spotlight. Trees, flowers, baby birds – all embody the joyful message of rebirth, which in turn stimulates hope and rejuvenation in us.

But spring gives way to summer, and tender ephemerals disappear for another year as heat-loving specimens flourish. Summer annuals and perennials bloom, then set and disperse their seeds before beginning their decline. Fall arrives. Crops are ripe for harvest, the fruit of spring planting and summer tending. Soon daylight hours decrease, as does the temperature, and autumnal leaves create a riotous display of color – one last hurrah before they let go and blanket the ground for the winter.

Ah, winter. Based on my observations, I’ve concluded it is the most misunderstood, under-appreciated season, at least from a gardening standpoint. Those unfamiliar with the ways of plants scan the leafless, apparently lifeless landscape and pronounce, “everything’s dead.” I used to think that too, but my horticulture studies dissuaded me from that notion. For instance, some seeds won’t germinate without scarification, some bulbs won’t bloom without adequate chill time, and many plants depend on the decreased daylight and increased darkness that accompany winter to flower at the appropriate time.

My newfound knowledge has given me a different perspective. Now when I contemplate winter vistas, I prefer to think the plants are resting while building reserves for the next season of fruitfulness.

Seasons of the Soul

Contemplating the bedraggled state of my summer annuals one early-September day reminded me of a book I’d been reading. Instead of equating the aging process with seasons as is often done, author Mark Buchanan explores what he’s deemed “cycles in our hearts.” In Spiritual Rhythm, Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul, he describes different periods in our lives in terms of the four seasons, each with its own set of challenges and blessings, each necessary if we’re to bear fruit.

The friends who gave me the book thought the analogy would resonate with me because of my love of gardening. And so it does. Year after year, I’ve observed and anticipated the changes, as one season follows another, each dependent on the ones that precede.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a constant state of springtime, emotionally and spiritually speaking – productive, energetic, surrounded by resurgent, hope-producing, joy-filled circumstances. But like the plants, God knows we need all the seasons to produce abundant fruit and to become more like Jesus.

We need to slow down and be still, to rest and draw near to God in all seasons, but we’re most likely to do so during the winters of our souls – times of loss and suffering. For it’s then we realize our utter reliance upon God, a dependence present every moment, but most evident when we come to the end of our supposed self-sufficiency.

My own winters have convinced me of the veracity of Elisabeth Elliot’s declaration, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” (1)

Yet, like the trees and flowers, I’ve emerged able to bear more fruit, because I know my Father and His ways more intimately (Romans 5:3-5). Signs of life return, as our winter gives way to another cycle of spring planting, summer tending, fall harvesting, a cycle that will continue in us and the natural world until our final winter. Our bodies will rest in the ground, waiting for reunion with our souls when we’re called Home, glorified, and welcomed into the joy of eternal spring (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16).

Dear Lord, just as we savor the changing of the seasons in the natural world, please help us to embrace the seasons of our souls, knowing that You have a purpose and plan for each as the cycles of our lives continue until Jesus’ return.

(1) Elisabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, lecture series, 1989.

Prudent Pruning

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit (John 15:1-2).

Pruning requires skill and an understanding of the plant being pruned. Some plants bloom on old wood, others on new. Some require severe pruning to increase fruitfulness, while such treatment will stunt, disfigure, or kill others.

As much as I decry the practice of crape murder,[1] I recognize the need for proper pruning. Done correctly, it is an essential part of maintaining a specimen’s health and enhancing its aesthetic value. After some years of practice, I feel more confident when it comes time to trim my trees and shrubs, yet I still approach the task with a measure of trepidation. What if the results of my efforts look more like a bad haircut? Or I snip off next year’s buds? Or I accidentally remove the flowering branch instead of the dead one next to it because the shrub was so thick I didn’t have a clear view? Yep, I’ve found myself in those situations – more than once.

And I’ve learned to call for professional help when the job is too big or too complicated for me to handle.

The introductory verses above from the Gospel of John are familiar. Removing dead branches and those that aren’t bearing fruit seems reasonable—but pruning the fruitful ones to make them more fruitful? Increasing by taking away sounds counterintuitive until you understand the science behind the analogy. Without delving too deeply into the details, pruning stimulates plant growth at the point of the cut by removing growth-inhibiting hormones present in the tips of branches and stems.

So what might pruning look like in the spiritual realm given we’re to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, fruit that provides evidence of our faith?

  • Loss leads to empathy for others experiencing similar losses. I’ve often said before Ray died, I was genuinely sorry for those who lost a beloved spouse, but after losing him, I became intimately acquainted with the sorrow associated with such a blow. My sympathy became empathy, which in turn has allowed me to comfort others with the comfort I’ve received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
  • Trials produce patience and strengthen our faith as we wait on the Lord.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 3b-4). That’s a bountiful harvest of desirable traits! Furthermore, we can encourage others by stewarding our stories well, sharing examples of God’s love and faithfulness.
  • Discipline engenders repentance, which yields the fruit of righteousness and, later, humility. We recognize no one is righteous apart from Christ (Romans 3:10). We’re to take the log out of our own eye before dealing with the speck in others’, and to forgive as God has forgiven us (Matthew 7:3-5; Colossians 3:13).

How about you? Are there areas in your life where God has removed something or someone, resulting in an abundance of spiritual fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Proper pruning, even the most severe that leaves the plant looking like a shadow of its former self, doesn’t hurt the plant. Fortunately, we belong to the Master Vinedresser, not a weekend warrior wielding a chainsaw. He determines exactly where and how to make the required cuts to enable us to bear more fruit for Him. Sometimes the pruning is relentless, and the process is painful, but we can always trust Him. He knows us by name and loves us far more than we can imagine. He’s tenderly transforming us into who He created us to be. 

O Lord, trials, loss, discipline – the very thought makes us tremble. But we know we can trust You to bring joy from suffering, beauty from ashes, and life from death.


[1] A term used to describe the act of severely pruning crape myrtles, sometimes back to their main trunks.

Weeds

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path . . . Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them (Matthew 13:3b-4a; 7).

Weeding – the mere thought of spending time plucking unwanted plant intruders from your garden may make some of you shudder. But I usually don’t mind the chore, especially when the soil is moist and the weather is pleasant. My mind can wander while my hands are busy, and I take satisfaction in seeing the results of my efforts. Desirable plants, previously hidden beneath the unwelcome ones, are once again visible, having been freed from the stranglehold of the encroachers.

Perseverance, one of the qualities I most admire about plants, isn’t quite as endearing when exhibited by the ones I don’t want in my garden. Some weeds have a long taproot making them incredibly difficult to eradicate. They may disappear for a season or two, but if you leave part of the root, the weed will eventually return – often more robust than before.

Other weeds have shallow roots, but if you don’t remove the plants before they mature and set seed, you might find yourself dealing with their progeny for years to come. Some weed seeds can lay dormant for as long as 50 years, and then, when exposed to just the right conditions, they germinate, leaving an unsuspecting gardener to wonder what happened.

And then there are briars and thistles, so prickly they can cause physical harm to those not adequately equipped to confront them. Anyone who’s grasped Smilax with an ungloved hand can attest to the fact it deserves its common name, cat briar. The scratches it leaves on unprotected flesh are similar to those you would expect from an encounter with an angry feline.

Weeds compete with desirable plants for water and nutrients. They can even prevent light from reaching them if left long enough to form a dense, matted tangle. I’ve learned it’s more effective to do battle early and often than trying to remove weeds several weeks after their appearance. When weather conditions or busyness keeps me from doing so, I often lament, “There are so many weeds, it looks like I planted them on purpose!” More than once, I’ve had to enlist help to restore order to the overgrown mess.

As I’ve contemplated these various characteristics, I’ve come to regard sin as the spiritual equivalent of weeds. Consider, for example:

• Dealing with sin often requires addressing not only the presenting behavior but also the thoughts and attitudes which led to it in the first place. Like ridding our gardens of weeds that grow from taproots, we can’t eradicate deep-seated sins until we do the hard work of digging the tough roots out of our hearts – anger, bitterness, unforgiveness (Ephesians 4:30-32).

• Most of us have at least one area where we’re particularly vulnerable to temptation, an area where we need to remain extra-vigilant. Just like the seeds that lay dormant waiting for the right conditions, old habits may return if we become complacent. Even worse, after a period of success in dealing with a particular sin, we may think we’ve become immune to the temptation and naively place ourselves in situations where we’re sure to fail (James 4:6-8).

• The appealing qualities of sin can hide the dangerous thorns, at least until we clutch the forbidden fruit. Whether the pain is immediate or develops over time as the barbs cut into our souls, it is inevitable for God’s children. Our loving Father disciplines us, for we are to be holy as He is holy (Hebrews 12:11).

• Sin can choke out joy and spiritual growth as it entangles us and blocks the Light we need to flourish. Sometimes we can get so far off track spiritually we need help and support to stay the course until we’ve returned to the narrow way. At such times, prayer warriors and accountability partners are invaluable as they help us carry our burden (Galatians 6:1-2).

After working outside on a sunny summer afternoon, I look forward to a refreshing shower to wash away the accumulated layer of grime and sweat. How much more do I cherish the cleansing of the One who is faithful and just to forgive us when we confess our sins and look to Him for restoration (1 John 1:9).

Dear Lord, just as I have an ongoing battle with the weeds in my garden, I know I must remain vigilant to weed out sin in my life. Thank You that I don’t battle alone, but have the power of the Spirit working within me, helping me want to obey You and helping me to do your will.

The Way the World Works

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

Gulf fritillary butterflies depend on passionflower for survival. The vigorous vine, native to the southeastern United States, is the only food source for their caterpillars. As part of my efforts to create a pollinator oasis in my suburban neighborhood, I planted a passionflower vine by my mailbox. It took a couple of years to become established, but by the third year, it was flourishing – plenty of foliage for the caterpillars to devour and lots of lovely flowers for me to enjoy.

Except I couldn’t find any caterpillars.

I examined the vine every morning when I went out to collect the newspaper and every evening when I checked for mail. No caterpillars. Then one day, I saw a tiny caterpillar in the clutches of a wasp. What did I do? I turned to Google, of course! “Do wasps eat caterpillars?” Unfortunately, they do.

I kept up my twice-daily vigil, hoping there would eventually be enough caterpillars to satisfy the wasps and still leave some to make it through their life cycle. Days passed with only an occasional sighting. Then I realized there was an army of ants busily traversing the sprawling vines. Back to Google. “Do ants eat caterpillars?” Yes, they do. By this time, my anticipation at getting to watch wave after wave of caterpillars reach maturity on my vine had given way to despair since I doubted it would be possible to get rid of the ants without negatively impacting the caterpillars.

Grandson Joshua, five-years-old at the time, encouraged me to find the ant mound and deal with the pesky marauders at their source. I was somewhat surprised he didn’t say, “That’s the way the world works, Grammie,” as he often does when I mourn the fact some predator has taken down its prey. Being an avid fan of “Wild Kratts,” Joshua is incredibly knowledgeable about a multitude of creatures.  He takes the food chain in stride, knowing some animals get eaten by other animals as God provides for all of his creation.

Yet the world isn’t working the way God originally intended, particularly when it comes to death. Some time ago, I was reading the first chapter of Genesis, a passage I’ve read countless times, when I noticed something. Take a look at verses 29 and 30: Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.  And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” (Emphasis added.)  Do you see it too? In the beginning, when God created everything and it was all good, there was no death, not even animals eating each other.

Death entered in only after the fall, the penalty for disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17). I wonder what Adam and Eve thought when they saw the blood of the innocent animal God killed to provide garments of skin to cover their nakedness. What horror they must have felt when Cain killed Abel. The shedding of blood became commonplace. Sadly, that’s the way the world works now.

But the spotless Lamb of God came to save and restore by shedding His own precious blood. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. With it, we have the assurance that someday all things will be set right again. The world will work once more as its Creator initially intended. Speaking of Jesus’ return, the prophet Isaiah said,

 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness
the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:5-9)
(Emphasis added.)

Jesus’ promised return is certain. We can wait confidently and expectantly for the day when death is swallowed up in victory. And while we wait, God graciously sustains his creation.

My daily caterpillar search eventually yielded the results I’d been hoping for – a dozen or so voracious nibblers of various sizes. More followed as several generations consumed the vine. I suppose it’s a small thing in the overall scheme of life. But I see it as a gift from the One who knows how much I delight in hosting the Gulf fritillaries and their offspring each year.

O Lord, how I look forward to the day of Jesus’ return when the world will finally work as You’ve intended from the beginning. No more tears, no more death, no more harm on all Your holy mountain.

Twiners and Climbers

Vines, whether ornamental like clematis and honeysuckle or food-producing like squash and beans, are plants whose stems require support – unless they’re left to trail along the ground because they bear more substantial fare like pumpkins and watermelons.  They use a variety of methods to climb and attach themselves to supporting structures, including twining stems, tendrils, aerial roots, and adhesive disks, also known as holdfasts.[1]

I know I’m showing my plant geek side, but please keep reading. Like so much of God’s creation, these details show how fearfully and wonderfully made everything is and how much care God took when He designed it all. They also offer some spiritual parallels, which I describe in the mini-devotions below.

Tenacious Tendrils

According to Britannica.com, tendrils are plant organs specialized to anchor and support vining stems, distinctive because they possess a strong twining tendency causing them to encircle any object encountered. The article goes on to say that tendrils are sensitive to contact and will turn toward objects they brush against. In time, tendrils grow strong enough to support the weight of the plant.[2] Think curly-cue fishing line, slender but sturdy.

016During a recent reconnaissance walk through my woods, I discovered a patch of passionflower vine. Though it chose to pop up on its own, I was delighted to see it since it’s the food source for caterpillars of Gulf Fritillary butterflies. The petite vine was already sprouting tendrils and reaching out for support. I smiled and shook my head when I found one tiny green appendage wrapped around a leaf lying on the ground. Even though the tendril had a stranglehold on the leaf,  the latter could never help the passionflower rise above the ground.

Tendrils borne on another sprig of vine clutched a more promising, but still less-than-ideal platform, a squat neighboring plant. I fetched a trellis from the garage and returned to the woods, determined to pry the tendril free from the leaf and unwrap those twirled around the unsuspecting coral bells. As I guided them to the trellis, nudging the newly-freed tendrils to grasp the appropriate support, I thought how prone we are to engage in misguided attachments.

Created in the image of the Triune God, we’re relational beings, designed for community. But often, we look to fellow finite sojourners to meet needs only God Himself can fill, overwhelming or alienating them in the process.

Or, worse, we turn to things to sustain us. Though we are meant to worship our Creator, we worship creation instead. At times, our hearts are like tendrils that turn toward whatever they brush against.

Praise God for sending the Spirit, just as Jesus promised (John 14:26). His power raised Jesus from the dead, and that same power is at work within every believer – to change our hearts, to transform us more and more into the image of Christ, and to enable us to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 1:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:18). He is our all-sufficient, strong-enough Support.

Clinging Climbers

203Virginia creeper, a native vine with 5-leaved adult foliage, is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, because its juvenile foliage frequently has three leaves, like the pesky purveyor of itch-producing oil. Its ability to scale walls and tree trunks thanks to holdfasts that act like sticky toes, reminds me of the tiny lizards I see scampering up the bricks on the front of my house. Though both plant and critter are capable of ascending considerable heights, they’re easy to dislodge.

Earlier this summer, I yanked a Virginia creeper off the side of my daughter’s house. Nourished by plentiful rainfall, it had clambered all the way to the second story and put down roots in the gutter. Nonetheless, a few tugs brought the entire vine tumbling down as its little feet let go of the wall. Unlike the wayward tendrils in the first story, the vine picked a solid underpinning.  But it didn’t have the strength to hold on when adversity came in the form of my pulling.

In 1997, the year my husband Ray died, Christian artist Geoff Moore released his album “Threads,” which concluded with “The Letter.” The lyrics tell of someone ready to give up but encouraged not to do so by the friend who received the letter.  As I struggled to regain my footing after Ray’s sudden death, these words brought hope and comfort:

And when your hand starts to slip
And when you’re losing your grip
And when you know your hope is gone
You’re not the only one holding on[3]

There were many times I had to remind myself God was holding me and would never let go. Jesus said as much: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

We’ve been learning a new-to-us hymn at church, “He Will Hold Me Fast.” I catch myself humming the tune repeatedly while the lyrics play in my mind, offering the same assurance found in the long-ago Geoff Moore song:

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Saviour loves me so, He will hold me fast.
[4]

An assurance that will carry us through this life until we’re called Home and our faith is made sight (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Lord, how I thank You for sending Your Spirit to guide and sustain us, to be our Support as we seek to grow according to your will for us. And I praise You for the precious promise that though our strength may fail, You’ll never let us go. We’re forever safe in Your mighty grasp.

 

[1] https://web.extension.illinois.edu/vines/attachment.cfm:

[2] https://www.britannica.com/science/tendril

[3] “The Letter” lyrics © 1997 Universal Music Publishing Group. Songwriters: Lisa Kainde Diaz / Maya Dagnino / Naomi Diaz / Paula Moore

[4] Ada R. Habersham, “He Will Hold Me Fast,” 1906

Garden Stories

I’m a member of the “Play in the Dirt Club”, a frequent-shopper program at a local nursery. I adopted their phrase years ago to describe my gardening ventures. Weeding, mowing, mulching, planting – I love playing in the dirt!

To use one of Mom’s old expressions, I suppose I come by it honest. My grandfathers supported their families by farming in central North Carolina. My grandmothers canned, preserved, or froze the excess fruits of their husbands’ labors, those not consumed or shared right after harvesting.

Memories of summertime Sunday dinners around their tables are vibrant even though decades have passed since I last sat elbow-to-elbow with relatives of multiple generations: plates of juicy red tomato slices and steaming corn on the cob; bowls full of fried okra, green beans, and lima beans; freshly-made biscuits and gravy. Laughter seasoned the conversation as family stories mingled with good-natured ribbing.

Other recollections are equally vivid – flowers edging the fields; straw hats perched on hooks by the door, ready to be grasped on the way out to the garden; a metal dipper hung on a nail above the back-porch sink for a refreshing sip of water upon returning to the house.

In My Genes?

My mom was one of eight siblings, my dad one of ten. They, along with most of my aunts and uncles, gardened. Their efforts ranged from plots to grow a few vegetables to a commercial tomato farm, from fruit trees to flower-filled beds surrounding suburban homes.

179Multiple members of my generation love tending plants, as do a number of our children and grandchildren. Recognizing our shared passion, I smile when cousins post pictures of their gardens, sometimes with young offspring sampling produce fresh from the vine.042

My gardening efforts are aimed at ornamentals since I don’t have a spot sunny enough to grow veggies. Nonetheless, the delight I feel in caring for my flowers and shrubs is enhanced by the connection to generations of loved ones.

Sometimes I muse that gardening is in my genes.

In the Beginning

Maybe that notion isn’t so far-fetched, at least when you consider where God placed our very first ancestors – in an idyllic garden, where all sorts of plants thrived, and God strolled in the cool of the evening. He entrusted them with the responsibility of maintaining the garden and gave them all the plants as food, save one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8, 15-17).

One exception amidst abundance we can’t imagine, yet Adam and Eve didn’t obey. Satan cunningly twisted God’s command and Eve ate, believing his lie that God was withholding something pleasant and necessary. She offered Adam a bite and he ate. In a moment, everything changed (Genesis 3:1-7).

But God came to the garden, as always, even though He knew of their disobedience. He drew them out of their hiding place. In the midst of declaring the penalties they’d incur, He planted a kernel of hope, a promise they could count on. One day the Seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent, dealing death itself a fatal blow. (Genesis 3:8-19).

Centuries passed and the time came for God to send His beloved Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Jesus left His place at the Father’s right hand and dwelt among us for a while (John 1:1-5, 14). On the night of His betrayal, He retreated with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. With sorrow weighing heavily on His soul, He fervently prayed that the cup might pass from Him (Matthew 26:36-44). But it was the Father’s will to crush Him for our sake (Isaiah 53:10).

Jesus remained perfectly obedient to His Father’s will, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8). There was a new tomb in the garden near the place of  Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:41). Joseph of Arimathea placed His body in that tomb, but death couldn’t hold Him there. On the third day, God raised Him by the power of the Spirit. According to the Apostle John, the resurrected Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. In her grief, she even mistook Him for the gardener (John 20:14-16).

The New Earth

So many momentous garden moments in His-story, with more to come. Jesus promised to return. When He does, heaven and earth will pass away, making way for the new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with His people forever (Revelation 21:1-4). Creation will be redeemed right along with the children of God (Romans 8:19-22).

One continuous story from beginning to end. Could it be the sweet connections woven through generations of gardeners in my family are rooted in echoes of Eden? Our hearts harbor a deep-seated longing for perfect communion with God in a world unmarred by sin. No more thistles and thorns. No more pain or tears or death.

As we wait for Jesus’ return, God gifts us with hints of heaven, in blue skies and gentle breezes, in fruits and flowers and fresh-from-the-field vegetables, in gatherings with friends and family around food-laden tables. Let us give thanks, remembering even the most splendid day here is a mere shadow of the beauty that awaits in the restored garden (1 Corinthians 13:12).