Throughout most of the years I worked for a large corporation, I held the role of colorist. As such, I developed, named and presented new carpet color options to our customers. After all the time spent honing my skills at work, I was thrilled when given the chance to choose all the interior and exterior colors as our home was being built in Georgia.

My late husband’s specialty was horticulture, a no-less creative endeavor. Little did I know how challenging I’d made his plant selection assignment when I picked a terra cotta color scheme for the bricks and shutters, especially when it came to picking the must-have southern plant on our list – a crape myrtle.

Nonetheless, being a skilled horticulturalist, Ray made an excellent choice. Unlike other cultivars whose pink or purple flowers would have offended my color sensibilities as they clashed with our cinnamon-colored exterior, the creamy-white blossoms of the now-stately Natchez create a harmoniously-floriferous cascade each summer. But the brilliance of Ray’s choice is most apparent in the fall. For it is then that the annual process of exfoliation occurs.

IMG_6558As summer wanes, cracks begin to appear in the bark along the mighty trunk, signaling the coming changes. Soon, the cracks turn into fissures as the old skin lifts away from the tree, before finally letting go completely, falling to the ground in long, jagged shards. To the uninitiated observer, this series of events may be unsettling. How could such a shedding of bark possibly be good for the plant? Yet that very act allows the trunk to increase its girth and grow stronger. Best of all, it reveals the most magnificent cinnamon-colored covering. Ray saw the potential in the sapling he planted so long ago. He knew what it could become.

There are several concepts that I consider to be spiritual touchstones. One such idea is that of putting off and putting on. In His analogy of an unclean spirit leaving a man only to return to its neat but empty former abode, Jesus made it clear it’s not enough to make a show of getting rid of sinful thoughts and behavior. (Matthew 12:43-45) Instead, our repentance must be true, the kind that produces fruit in keeping with our profession of faith, as we put on right-thinking and conduct pleasing to God.

The Apostle Paul affirms this teaching in his letter to the Romans, where he encourages his readers not to conform to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2) And in his letter to the Ephesians, he goes even further. After admonishing them to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24), Paul goes on to provide specific examples of behavior to put off as well as corresponding replacements:

  • Put away falsehood and speak truth. (vs. 25)
  • Let the thief no longer steal, but perform honest labor. (vs. 28)
  • Do not use unwholesome language, but that which benefits and builds up those who listen. (vs.29)
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger and every form of malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. (vs. 31-32)

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, God already sees His righteousness when He looks at us (2 Corinthians 5:21), but there is much refining left to be done. We are not yet holy as He is Holy, nor will our makeover be complete until He returns. Nonetheless, the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us with the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead. (Ephesians 1:18-20)

At times our refinement is painful, as bits of our old nature are stripped away. Our Savior suffered much. (Isaiah 53:3-6) How better to know Him than to endure loss, sorrow, and persecution as He did? (Romans 8:17) Such challenges may cause outside observers or even believers themselves to question God’s methods, but we can trust the One who made us to have a good and perfect plan and to work all things together for good. (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28)

Yes, just as Ray knew what the crape myrtle could become, given sufficient time and proper care, God knows who He created us to be. (Ephesians 2:10) Furthermore, He’s promised to complete the work He’s begun in us (Ephesians 1:6) and to never leave or forsake us at any point in the process. (Deuteronomy 31:8) The Helper will be with us to remind us of His promises, to empower us to do His will and to persevere to the end. (John 14:16-17, 26) On that glorious day, our transformation will be complete and all vestiges of our former selves will be gone. We will gather around the throne, our new selves robed in white, to forever praise our Redeemer King. (Revelation 7:9-17)

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.