It takes a lot of nerve to ask Sunday school teachers to tend to a zinnia seedling for two months when you’ve got dead ivy sitting in your kitchen window. But it was too perfect an exercise to underscore the time and attention that spiritual disciplines require, the focus of our latest series, “Cultivating a Life That Bears Fruit,” and, let’s face it, for a helpful object lesson or sermon illustration, I’m shameless.
We have this unspoken notion that the Christian life should come easily once we believe; that a wide clear channel of communication with God will open up and the fruit of love, joy and peace will appear abundantly in us over time, simply as we grow older in the faith. We know we’re a little behind where we thought we’d be by this point in our Christian life, but maybe church years are the inverse of dog years, seven calendar years for every one transformative faith year; and, well, we’ve always been late bloomers.
“Cultivating a Life That Bears Fruit” reminds us that spiritual disciplines put us in the position to hear God. They get us ready to be bearers of the fruit that God will grow. Tilling the soil of our spirit. Unpacking clumps of ground that has been beaten down and hardened. Quenching our thirst. Warming the cold, dark places in our lives with light. Calling forth sprouts of new life from death.
Spiritual disciplines anticipate resurrection.
I watered the tray of peat pellets on the conference table in my office, and planted each seed, bearing the dirt under my fingernails as a mark of accomplishment. Just days later I had 72 little sprouts all longing in the same direction for the sunlight coming through my front window. It was a spiritually expectant moment.
As I proudly distributed the seedlings, now cradled in disposable cups, to each of my teachers at our Fall Kickoff meeting, I charged them to nurture these small plants as they gave themselves to the spiritual disciplines on which we would focus in the coming weeks. It was a beautiful speech …until, in a last minute surge of inspiration, I challenged the teachers to return with their grown plants on the last Sunday of our series as a celebration, in anticipation of God’s harvest of the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.
It’s always dangerous to go off script.
I hadn’t thought about the dead ivy in my kitchen window in weeks, (clearly), but there it was, flashing across my mind, just as I exhorted these gentle saints to fight the good fight of perseverance and intentionality and consistency. And here I was, no more than 12 inches from faucet to window sill, unable to remember to water the 3 inch pot of grocery store ivy in my kitchen window.
Like my excitement with the seedlings, I was quite proud the day I clipped a stem from the ivy plant and rooted it in a cup of water. I had seen my sister do that over the years. She always had huge hanging plants of ivy around the kitchen, all started from one plant she had gotten long ago. But three weeks later, my clipped stem was root bound in a slimy plastic cup and the mother plant was brown and brittle.
Apparently, I have only a passing interest in actually growing something. I like the idea of growing something, the vision of the salad I’ll create from my backyard garden… if you can make a salad from two mystery peppers, basil that’s gone to seed and three cherry tomatoes. I like buying the supplies and the surge of excitement as new things begin to grow. But the day to day tending and watering and nurturing is a struggle. It’s amazing that my four children have survived.
How often is our spiritual life just like that? A great idea, an honest vision – we buy new books, sign up for a class, devise a plan for prayer that will work better this time - but fall far short of a daily investment.
As time passed and I came to terms with the fact that I was never really going to transplant the root bound stem, I decided to set it free over the railing of the back deck. I don’t know why I began pulling the dead leaves off of the original plant before I disposed of it, but there, beneath the debris of abandoned plans and good intentions, I discovered new growth emerging; two small green shoots, coming from a weary but determined stem. It was pitiful, but compelling. I stood holding the plant over the garbage can for a good while, but couldn’t bring myself to throw it away when it was so determined to live.
God is persistent that way. No matter how much we neglect him, no matter how little room we give him, he doesn’t give up on us. Instead he surprises us with hints of new life that we find when we clear the dead stuff away.
That’s how we closed our Fall Kickoff, with a word of promise inspired by confessions of dead ivy - that God is at work, no matter what we do. But we voiced a hope and a prayer as well, that we would choose each day not to settle for tiny shoots of life wrestling to grow amid the clutter of excuses and busyness when our God is the Master Gardener.
My dead zinnia seedling now occupies the space next to the ivy in my kitchen window. It’s a bit morbid washing dishes these days. The end of our series is coming, along with my great ‘bringing in the zinnia sheaves’ celebration idea. I was tempted to buy a full grown zinnia at the nursery last week. It was so beautiful. (That would be wrong, though, wouldn’t it?) It was full and lush and bursting with color. It’s what I want my spiritual life to look like. God could do a great business if he offered us souls in full bloom to purchase. We would buy them in a heartbeat, like ‘homemade’ frozen lasagna.
But instead he gives us a handful of seeds and dirty soil, a fragile sprout, a deep thirst and a penchant for warmth and light, and says, “Follow me.”
I guess I’ll be planting zinnia seeds again this week. I invite you to plant a seed as well, literally; to be an intentional gardener of the soul and the soil. God is at work. Let’s see what we can grow together.