Inside Job

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
1Peter 3:3-4

A Reasonable Request

As longtime readers of my blog know, I have a number of treasured plants on my small suburban property, many of which were planted by my late husband, Ray. Although it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, my beautiful crape myrtle ranks high on the list. This isn’t the first post inspired by the beloved plant and probably won’t be the last.[1]

The stately ‘Natchez’[2] was a mere toddler when Ray planted it over 25 years ago. It now reaches the roofline of my two-story house, and its canopy is almost as wide as the tree is tall. My neighbors have been patient with branches that grew over the property line, only to drop tiny white blossoms on their driveway each summer. But, alas, they received a letter from our HOA about a related matter, which led them to kindly request that I have the offending limbs removed.

As one who’s known far and wide for my annual late-winter plea, “No crape murder!”, I could feel panic rising within me upon hearing my neighbor’s request.  I calmly assured him I would take care of it, but my thoughts were churning. Who could I trust to do the necessary work without maiming my beautiful tree? I had to find someone who would respect the tree and understand its intrinsic value. I needed an arborist.

Professional Help

I called a reputable company whose client list includes the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The first thing their associate said as he exited his vehicle and strode toward me boosted my confidence. Surveying the array of plants in my front garden, he declared approvingly, “I can see you don’t have a typical neighborhood property.” When he proceeded to call one of my unique specimen plants by its proper name, I knew I’d contacted the right people.

Even though our subsequent conversations further allayed my fears, an undercurrent of anxiety developed as pruning day approached. The 3-person crew arrived promptly at 8 a.m. My cheerful greeting belied the angst I was feeling, but it was evident the young man carrying the chain saw had been briefed not only on the work to be done but also on the tree’s significance.

I went inside, leaving the arborist and his helpers to their work. Even though they labored for nearly three hours, I resisted the urge to go back outside. I occasionally peeked out windows instead to check on their progress. I prayed for their safety – and that I’d still recognize my tree when they were finished.

I finally ventured out, preparing myself for whatever I might encounter. The sight of my tree left me speechless. It was gorgeous. I imagined the majestic tree, relieved of its extra weight and ragged branches, sighing in relief, much as I did after my first post-Covid-shutdown haircut.

As I stood next to the sturdy trunk, gazing up into the magnificent canopy, I realized much of the work had taken place on the inside. Before the pruning, anyone viewing the crape myrtle from the street would have seen its lush, flower-laden canopy. But what they couldn’t see were the dead branches, crossed limbs, and water shoots[3], which were neither attractive nor beneficial.

In the Master’s Hands

As frequently happens when I’m working in my garden, the Lord brought to mind a spiritual connection – in this case, the type of beauty we’re called to cultivate. It’s right to care for our bodies and be good stewards of our physical selves. Yet we often spend an excessive amount of time and money making sure our outsides are beautiful while neglecting the seat of true beauty, our hearts.

Sometimes we’re blind to the ugliness within. Then again, we recognize it and attempt to cover it up. Or,  we may apply pitiful bandaids to our deep heart wounds, seeking to heal ourselves in ways that are temporary at best or harmful at worst. But, just as the crape myrtle outgrew me long ago, making it impossible for me to do the necessary pruning, there’s no way for us to cultivate the beauty of the soul that’s precious in the Lord’s sight without the sanctifying power of the Spirit.

Praise God for blessing believers with that very power! First, the Spirit enlightens the eyes of our hearts that we might see aright (Ephesians 1:16-18). Then the same power that raised Jesus from the dead continues to work in us (Ephesians 1:19-20) to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Though our outer selves decline with age, our inner selves are renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16), becoming increasingly beautiful as we are transformed more and more into the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Though the transformation process may be rigorous at times and require significant pruning (John 15:1-2), we can trust the One Who loves us more than we can comprehend (Ephesians 3:18-19). He knows what it will take to bring out the beauty He already sees in us and will be faithful to finish what He’s begun (Philippians 1:6).

Dear Lord, thank You for the gift of Your Spirit at work within us to create imperishable beauty. May that beauty be evident in quiet, gentle spirits that bless others and draw them to You.  

[1] I included several as devotions in my book, Be Still, Quiet Moments With God in My Garden. See for example, “Prudent Pruning” (Archives, October 2020), “Exfoliation – Reprise” (Archives, September 2020), and “Bearing All Things” (Archives, February 2017).

[2] Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Natchez’

[3] Water sprouts or water shoots are shoots that arise from the trunk of a tree or from branches that are several years old, from latent buds.

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.

Bearing all things

One of my favorite things about living in the South is the relatively mild winters. We generally have a handful of bitterly cold days each year, but we’re just as likely to get days with above-average temperatures and early glimpses of spring. This year is no different. We were iced-in the first weekend of the New Year, but have been blessed with many warm, sunny days since. The moderate weather has coaxed a number of plants from their slumber, including daffodils, quince, spirea and my tiny trout lily. I’ve passed pleasant moments strolling around various neighborhoods, my little property and Smith-Gilbert Gardens relishing the re-awakening.

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when I’m confronted with the results of crape murder, the practice of severely pruning lovely crape myrtles, sometimes back to their main trunks. Oh the carnage! Observing these maimed specimens makes me cringe.


One of this year’s victims.

I watched the abused tree whose photograph I featured in the February 2015 post, “Prudent Pruning”, as I passed by it almost daily last summer. Sure enough, it put out new growth, though sadly out of scale with the remaining base, and even bloomed. Such is the case with most crape myrtles. In spite of being mercilessly whacked-back, they persevere and bring forth flowers.


As I observed and pondered, I reflected on how some people are much like the crape myrtles. Frequently wounded and taken for granted even by those they love, they nevertheless bear the fruit of the Spirit[1] and the sweet fragrance of life.[2] They faithfully serve, knowing Whom it is they ultimately seek to please.[3]

1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “Love Chapter” and is frequently read at weddings. Verses 4 through 8a describe love as follows:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[4]

Many years ago a Bible study leader suggested to our group that we try reading through these verses using our name, e.g. Patsy is patient and kind, and so forth. We laughed uncomfortably knowing we couldn’t meet those high standards, at least not consistently. Then our leader suggested we substitute “Jesus”. We were quiet as we contemplated the beauty and perfection of our Savior, God’s gift of love incarnate.

He was rejected, misunderstood and beaten. He was betrayed by a kiss from one disciple[5] while another denied ever being with him.[6] Yet he bore all things, most importantly our sins[7], that we might become like him, beloved children of the King, co-heirs with the Son.[8]

Jesus made it clear that the current world order will be turned upside down when he returns – the first shall be last, the least shall be greatest, the meek shall inherit the earth.[9] As we await his promised return, we can be confident we’re not alone.[10] Even now he is seated at the right hand of God[11] interceding for us.[12] Therefore, may we not grow weary in doing good, regardless of the response we receive now, knowing that in due season we will reap if we do not give up.[13]

[1] Galatians 5:22-23a

[2] 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

[3] Colossians 3:23-24

[4] ESV translation

[5] Judas’ betrayal is recounted in Matthew 26:48-50, Mark 14:44-45 and Luke 22:47-48

[6] Peter’s denial is recorded in Mark 14:66-72 and John 18:15-18, 25-27

[7] Isaiah 53:4-6

[8] Romans 8:14-17

[9] See Matthew 20:16, Matthew 23:11-12 and Matthew 5:5 respectively

[10] Joshua 1:5b, Hebrews 13:5b-6

[11] There are numerous references to Jesus’ place at the right hand of God including Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1 and Hebrews 8:1.

[12] Hebrews 7:25

[13] Galatians 6:9-10

Prudent pruning

In my October post, “Ode to a Crape Myrtle”, I denounced the practice of severely pruning those lovely trees. The dreadful act is sometimes referred to as “crape murder”. Early to mid-winter each year I see far too many pitiful victims of this particular crime. But this year, on a street I traverse almost every day, stands one of the most pathetic examples I’ve ever beheld. Crape murder victimNot only has the beautiful tree been stripped of its majestic branches, but the perpetrator used a sealant of some sort to paint over several of the wounds. When pruning cuts are made correctly, the tree’s natural defenses will allow it to heal without the application of such products, which in some cases even cause harm to the plant.

As I also mentioned in my previous post, I committed the crime once, in ignorance, before being enlightened. I have since done only minor, clean-up type pruning to the gorgeous ‘Natchez’ Ray planted over 20 years ago.  As the tree has outgrown me, I’ve relied on professional assistance to remove crossed or crowded branches. Most recently, my tree was expertly “limbed up” to provide more light to the plants beneath its canopy and to lighten the load it carries when completely leafed-out and covered with blossoms.Lagerstroemia 'Natchez'

So, you see, I’m not against all pruning, just pruning done recklessly or unnecessarily.  Correct pruning is often an essential part of maintaining a plant’s health, enhancing its aesthetic value or increasing its fruitfulness. Likewise, there are times when we need to be pruned. Fortunately, we belong to a discerning Master Gardener. He determines exactly where and how to make the required cuts to enable us to bear more fruit for Him. Sometimes the pruning is severe 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 . . . and He’s tenderly transforming us into who He created us to be.

Ode to a crape myrtle

There are a number of special plants in my yard, dear to me because Ray selected and installed them. They are lasting gifts from him as I’ve had the pleasure of watching them grow for many years. One of the most cherished is my crape myrtle.

When we moved to Georgia, I was a colorist for a large fiber-producer. In my role, I followed color trends and chose colors for fibers the company produced as well as for carpet samples we showed our customers. I was delighted to have the opportunity to put my expertise to use choosing colors for the interior and exterior finishes of the home being built for us.

Likewise, Ray was looking forward to having a nearly-blank slate to work with outside since the builder-installed landscaping left a lot to be desired. Little did I know the exterior colors I picked (cream accented with various shades of rust and cinnamon) would present a challenge for Ray when it came to selecting a crape myrtle to reside in the main bed in front of the house. Varieties with pink or purple or magenta blossoms would clash with the brick and shutter colors and clashing just wasn’t an option! Never one to shrink from a challenge, especially one involving horticulture, Ray came up with the perfect solution, a cultivar called ‘Natchez’, with creamy white flowers and cinnamon-colored bark.

I don’t recall how tall the small tree was when Ray planted it over 20 years ago, but it’s reached a height which surpasses its age, with a canopy almost as wide. When in full bloom, its size and splendor prompt visitors to ask, somewhat in awe, “What is that?” I reply, “It’s a crape myrtle. That’s what they can look like if you don’t commit ‘crape murder’.” For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “crape murder” refers to the severe and unnecessary pruning of these lovely trees, usually in late winter. Although some early cultivars supposedly produced more blooms after such treatment, most of those used today flower just as well without being subjected to such torture. I cringe when the annual amputations begin, envisioning the tiny new branches which will sprout from the large remaining limbs, much like fingers emerging from a shoulder. I’m thankful I only committed this crime once, the winter after Ray died, when I was still trying to figure out how to take care of the garden treasures I’d inherited. Fortunately, I quickly learned making my crape myrtle look like everyone else’s was not the thing to do!

(Ok, I’m stepping down from that soap box so I can return to the story at hand . . .)

My hort mentor sometimes speaks of plants as having single-season or multiple-season interest, not that one kind is better than the other, just different in its appeal. The first category includes plants such as spring-flowering specimens or those with vibrant fall color which take center stage for a few weeks each year and then play more of a supporting role in the landscape until time for them to burst forth and captivate us once again. I would put my crape myrtle in the latter category, as it has something to offer year-round. Some might question the beauty of the leafless branches, but the leftover seed pods contribute textural interest throughout the winter. Sometimes I even get to see the limbs decorated with a layer of snow. Beginning in the spring, the massive canopy provides shelter for numerous birds and shade for the southeast side of my house. In the summer, its flowers attract a variety of pollinators that dart in and out of the blossoms, creating a low humming as they go about their task. Then there’s its aesthetic value. My tree was so floriferous this year, its flower-filled branches resembled a cascade of blossoms. In late summer, the bark starts to exfoliate, peeling off to reveal the new layer underneath. The process can be a bit alarming to the uninitiated since it almost looks like the tree is falling apart, but exfoliation is one of the characteristics I most like about my crape myrtle.

002And, in case you’re wondering, it’s the feature that inspired the spiritual tie-in for this post. As I’ve watched the bark begin to peel away this season, exposing the beautiful surface beneath, I’ve been reminded of the mandates in Scripture to “put off the old and put on the new”, a concept so important I’ll dedicate a separate essay to it. Today, I’m grateful for a thoughtful husband who chose just the right plant and for a loving Father who’s sustained it and me across all the years since He called him Home.