Master Gardener

This isn’t how it’s done.  You brush before the dentist appointment and clean before the maid comes and certainly you pull the weeds before the Master Gardener arrives to look things over in your garden.

But the weeds, see, they grow as deep as they grow tall; they’ve sunk right down into the earth and are anchored tight.  If I’d caught them sooner…if…

But now the stems are thick and thorned and cut my hands to ribbons when I try to pull them out.  I thought I was smart, back before I called the Master Gardener in desperation on the tan phone in the kitchen, I thought I could just saw off the visible tops of the weeds-grown-feral.  At least give the impression that jungle wasn’t taking over.

But no.

The weeds took it as a pruning, not a severance.  With renewed vigor they thrust up more stems, stalks, and canes; startling hellish exuberance bursting out of the ground and choking out the flowers.  It was worse than before.  I called the Master Gardener, resignation and pleading and wouldn’t He just come and set it to rights again?

And there He is, looking through the garden gate.  He turns and looks at me, me looking at him through the kitchen window and so ashamed.  His intensity is hard to read.  I put down the dishrag and hear the screen door slam behind me and I twist my hands together while all sorts of excuses climb my throat and fill my mouth.  I clamp my lips over the words, He and I both know what happened here.

I gesture to the weeds and my shoulders sag.  My tongue pushes the other words aside and lets out “Help”.

He smiles.  He smiles and leaps over the garden gate and comically opens the gate for me from within.  I walk in and He shows me some baby weeds that I can pull.  He rolls up his sleeves and begins to work.

I hear Him in the weeds, grunting and pulling and felling those giants.  A dull ache begins in my chest and I struggle to get full breaths.  I see his torn hands and sweat and how the weeds come out one-by-one.  I see the tall one with the black flowers, Pride-of-Life.  Pain lances through me.  It is felled beside Vainglory with it’s profuse orange blooms.  Down comes Ambition and Envy and Discontent.  They lie in a pungent heap, their wild long roots twice the length and width of the weeds themselves.  I have the oddest impression that the roots look like fingers and they even seem to reach back towards the soil in animated longing.

He sees my look.  “Yes, we’ll have to burn them.  Left there they’d replant themselves by morning.”  I turn back to my little pile of baby weeds and examine the roots of one.  Tiny fingers, faintly moving back towards the dirt.  I scream and fling the weed down.  He laughs at me.

“Yes, sin is that way, even when so young.”

We work and work, hauling wheelbarrows full of weeds to the fire pit.  His hands-I can hardly bear to look at them, cut and bloody.  Whenever I think we’re done, He shows me a weed masquerading as a flower; these He is ruthless with, yanking them out with furor.  I hold my hand over my heart where the pains throb and throb.  “We must at all costs prevent these from going to seed.  The weeds that deceive and trick are the deadliest.”

I winced as he pulled a beautiful red one down; it had looked like a kind of rose.  He saw my saddened face and came near.  He held the roots before my eyes so I could see the eerie reaching tentacles and spoke forcefully, “False-Humility.  Give it no quarter.  None.”  I nodded.  Seeing the roots breaks the spell.

We stood beside the fire pit and watched the wretched weeds crackle in the flames.  The roots curled inwards and blackened into coiled claws.  He stood beside me, so vigilant.  It was as if he suspected one would leap out of the fire and make a run for the garden.

My garden…it looked like a war zone.  Craters and holes and just a smattering of flowers that survived the weeds’ onslaught.  He followed my gaze.  “Yes, it looks empty now, but we’ll do some planting to fill it in.  The more beneficial plants that we can cover it in, the more difficult it is for weeds to find a home.”  He poked the last reaching roots into the coals, his bloody hands gleaming in the firelight.  Oh how costly has been my negligence.

“Tomorrow we’ll plant.”

——————————–

Day broke and we stood together before flats of strange and wonderful plants.  One looked so cushy and dense that I was surprised to find it hard as rock and unyielding.  “What is this called?”

“That is True-Humility.  It is a ground cover that forms a thick and armor-like covering.  It’ll protect the other plants from invading weeds and keep the soil’s moisture in.”

“And this?” I asked, fingering a spectacular flowered bush with the most outlandish purple blooms.

“That is Kindness, and it blooms continuously.”

We planted Joy, Peace-in-all-Circumstances, Love-Bearing-All, Perseverance-in-Trial, and Sorrow-for-Sin which smelled sweetly in spite of it’s sad drooping leaves.  The garden was empty no longer, feral no longer, and the Master Gardener smiled widely, as did I.

“How can I thank You?  I love it.  I’ll keep after it better now, I promise.”

His smile left his face.  He dropped his eyes to the soil and stooped down.  There, right there at our bare feet, was a new weed pushing up through the soil.  It grew before our eyes, sending out leaves and flowers and fragrance all in fast-forward.

“Behold, Arrogance.”

He bent over and yanked it out and my heart felt a twist within of pain.

“Dear one, do not promise such.  Promise only that every morning you will call Me for help.  Every morning we must come in here and search for that which destroys and get it before it takes deep root.  This is a daily job, not one that should wait, no, not even a day past trouble begins.  As strong as the Virtues are, they are not immune to being destroyed by weeds.  You must call me every morning, you must or death will reign in this garden rather than life.”

I felt the pains leave my chest and warmth spreading from my heart, outward to my limbs. He embraced me and I leaned in to Him.

“Call Me in the morning, dear one, every morning.”

“Yes, Master, yes.”

 

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On Daily Kicking

It’s like finding a stiff wad of forgotten used tissue in a jacket pocket.  Or a moldy container of leftovers in the back of the refrigerator.  It’s the hair in the drain and the frightening herd of dust bunnies under the bed.  Gross and unwanted bits in our lives that we weren’t aware were lurking about.

Sometimes it’s as though God shoves a mirror in front of our soul and we can see them then, those awful blots, things we thought we’d long since gotten rid of.  Out of sight, out of mind, so God helps us see.

It hurts.

In the last few weeks we’ve been vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and spending time out in Montana.  We’ve caught waves, dug our toes into sand, enjoyed family, hiked, rafted, kayaked, and fly-fished.  We are all brown and heart-happy.  But God came along too, as He is wont to do, and He showed me some things I’d rather not see.

Sticky pride, for one.  Superiority. A judgmental spirit.  Just as I’ve been seeking to grow in humility and wisdom….oh Lord, have mercy.  Will I ever learn?  Will I ever have a pure, humble heart?

My soul recoiled at the sight of my sin; it would willingly explain away or slap some blinders on, anything but fully see.  “I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry.  Please restore a right spirit within me, please forgive my proud words and thoughts.  Help me to walk in humility.”

Light bends around the corner and I remember that victory in the Christian life isn’t about giving sin a kick in the face and walking triumphantly away, never to deal with it again.  It’s seeing our sin, confessing it, seeking forgiveness, and then being attentive day by day to just how it gained a foothold in the first place and drawing a line there.  Defending that point of entry and daily kicking, knowing that the Enemy is wily and will try other doors when one is shut. Just like when we’ve emerged from the sin of selfishness and have begun giving to others, we might find that we stumble into yet another mire, of pride in what we’ve done, which is stickier yet and harder to detect.  It flies below the radar of our self-evaluation at days’ end; it takes God’s Spirit to reveal it, it takes God’s mercy and love to sustain us as we see all that black within us when we thought we were finally making progress.

So I thought about my gardens and how I prune back my plants because I care for them and want them to be healthy and not unruly.  An unkempt garden isn’t the work of a loving gardener, but a lazy, disinterested one.  So I must endure the Lord’s pruning, chastising, and training.  I must remember that the Enemy would wish me to grow wild and thick and choked on my own fullness, a breeding place for disease and rot.  But my Father lovingly prunes me for my good and for the good of others.  I have to bear seeing the black, knowing full well that He’s bringing about the white.

So we kick, yes, we bite our tongue when that critical word wants to sail out, we resist the pull of selfishness and go wash the dishes rather than curl up with our book.  We listen to our spouse’s grievances against us without giving vent to an angry retort.  We kick.  And we fail too, when we kick with just our own willpower, our own strength, when we forget that God is ready and willing to strengthen us, to go before us, to fight for us.  That there’s a difference between holy kicking and petulant flailing or proud stomping.

It is so humbling, how deep and frequent the pruning needs to occur.  I hesitated to write this post, because my humiliation is so deep that I wonder that any of my words could be trusted to be of good use.  I feel not quite ripe enough to speak.  Not faithful enough.  Not holy enough.  I am a plant clipped back and bare, all my pretty foliage and flowers carefully stripped away.  But, I thought, as my leafy mask fell to the ground about me, maybe it’s helpful to speak from the place of brokenness and shame to the others who are being pruned too, disciplined too, loved fiercely too.

It’s okay to be the vessel being formed, the wet clay being molded, to not have arrived yet, to be in-process.  It’s okay as long as the hands are trusted that shape us, that we lean-in to the Father’s loving correction and not away from it.  That we live transparently and honestly and humbly, and that we speak from an awareness of all the work yet needed to be done within us, which kicks our pride most injuriously.  IMGP4162

This Pilgrim’s Progress

I laid my forehead on the time-worn wood of my desk.  Sunlight was creeping over the leaves of the orchid there; an orchid that is slow-in-blooming.  It has had a flower bud, tightly closed, upon it’s spike for months now.  It confounds me, this swelling promise that remains so very much in a posture of waiting.  Get on with it, grouses my heart, and show me your beauty!

I laid my forehead there and I prayed, in a way I learned from some wise one once, that:  “God, I worship You, not the You that I can conceive of, but You as You know Yourself to truly be.”

Because I know quite well that I see Him through “..a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor 13:12)  That is a great hope, is it not?  That we will not always grope about in the dark as concerns Him?  That all the present mystery will have an answering “Aha!” in eternity?

I laid my forehead there and tears stung my eyes.  You see, can’t you, what a mess I am?  I do not suffer from low self-esteem (in fact, I think the error lies in the other extreme, obnoxiously high self-regard), so do not think to cheer me and lift me.  What I need most, oh yes, is the one who says, “Oh my, yes, you are a mess, and haven’t given to God all that you could.  You are inconsistent in prayer, quick to angry impatience with your children, prideful, and willfully ignorant of your own sins.”  That I could feel as firm medicine.  That I could hold in my hands as a map showing where I’d wandered from the path and how to repent (to turn around) and walk in the right way again.

It does matter how medicine is administered, doesn’t it?

Once, while living in Chile, I had an ear infection which spread to the skin tissue on my face, a very serious thing which demanded an aggressive regime of two shots per day for five days of a powerful antibiotic.  I would go into the clinic and ignominiously expose my derriere for the medicine.  Some nurses were quite adept and gentle, and I’d feel barely a pinch.  Some would jab mercilessly.  The difference was stark.

In the spiritual life as well, there are administrators of medicine and varying methodologies.  There are jabbers, ones who seem to take a hidden delight in inflicting pain.  Even though they are giving a needful cure, they do it in such a way that swallows up all the love in the intent.  There are the silent ones who, hoping not to cause you pain, withhold from you the medicine you desperately need.  There is little real love within them, they preserve their own peace at the cost of your life.  There are the gentle ones who, though they injure you, try to do so as little as possible while still delivering the medicine.  They bring love and empathy and grace in their eyes.  They say to you the life-giving words.

“Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  And when you turn to the right or when turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ “

(Isaiah 30:20-21)

They give you a map of return from your current wandering, they remind you that Jesus himself walks with you and will ensure your safe return to the good way, if you but keep company with Him.

These brothers and sisters are of inestimable worth.  I want to become like them; a loving helper to any and all who need that help.  That is just another way of saying that I want to be like Jesus, that is my pilgrimage, my journey, my aim.

Some use the verse, about the plank in the eye, to say that we shouldn’t judge others.  I think it is rather clear that we are to judge others in the way that a good physician judges the symptoms of a disease; he assesses what is causing harm and ruin and attempts to stop the destruction and encourage healing.  Clearly, the physician needs to be healed as well to do his work properly.  There is no arrogance in offering medicine and help when we are able.  Judging is essential, in medical diagnosis and spiritual diagnosis as well.  Of course it must be done in Christ, that is, with all His love and hope and mercy in our eyes and actions and words.

I will end this Pilgrim’s ledger with this early Puritan prayer:

Searcher of hearts, it is a good day to me when thou givest me a glimpse of myself; sin is my greatest evil, but though art my greatest good; I have cause to loathe myself, and not to seek self-honour, for no one desires to commend his own dunghill.

My country, family, church fare worse because of my sins, for sinners bring judgment in thinking sins are small, or that God is not angry with them.  Let me not take other good men as my example, and think that I am good because I am like them, for all good men are not so good as thou desirest, are not always consistent, do not always follow holiness, do not feel eternal good in sore affliction.

Show me how to know when a thing is evil which I think is right and good, how to know when what is lawful comes from an evil principle, such as desire for reputation or wealth by usury.

Give me grace to recall my needs, my lack of knowing thy will in Scripture, of wisdom to guide others, of daily repentance, want of which keeps thee at bay, of the spirit of prayer, having words without love, of zeal for thy glory, seeking my own ends, of joy in thee and thy will, of love to others.

And let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain, never touching the eternal spring, never drawing down water from above.

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