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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Thoughts On A Spiritual Discipline of Gardening.

While on vacation in Ventnor this week I've been given a second and unexpected opportunity to do more gardening. The first opportunity has been helping care for the first imagine plot at the Community Garden in Florence. In that garden, the idea of growing food for needy folks who most likely will not be able to put much fresh, organic produce on their table is a pure blessing to me. I just feel good being able to play a small role in that this summer.

The small flower and ornamental gardens around Tricia's mother's summer house in Ventnor gives me another blessing, but for different reasons. Let me step back a bit. I've mentioned before Tricia planted and cultivated 6 gardens at the Center For Renewal Retreat House over our 20 years there. She loved to design and plant them. She's never more alive than when doing so. She'd do some initial prep and weeding each spring with others at the all-church workday when it was time to get them ready, but I loved the job of weeding the plots throughout the summer. The task was a contemplative activity for me: maintaining the intended design established from the placement of plants, and retarding the chaos possible from weeds taking over as is their maddening way.

When we arrived here in Ventnor a few days ago, we noticed some of the front-step flower boxes were overgrowing, and the perennials in the north and east plots next to the house were going to seed. The worst issue to address was a wild rosebush overtaking a tree in the back of the house and actually choking out its life slowly, but surely. So there was maintenance gardening to do. Right up my alley!
I began Wednesday morning by clearing out and trimming the front-step flower pots, getting rid of rotting deadfall underneath the plants, and trimming overgrown shoots to create order and spur growth. Then, I cut back all the spent flower stalks, pinched back spent flowers on plants still producing flowers, including rose bushes, pulled some weeds, and began to attack the rogue rosebush in the back. As it turns out, that'll be a two-day job as we need to get to the root. Roses fight back as well, so care was needed.

As I reflected on Wednesday's task I realized if I looked at it a certain way, the work brings me to a contemplative place. Restoring order by removing weeds, and deadfall, and trimming plants so they're healthy and show forth their individual character and beauty has a deep peace to it. As I worked, I'm quiet internally. Within the internal quiet and peace, I'm also focused. I notice design and can see where the design is being pushed out of balance or obscuring internal harmony because its becoming misshapen by invading plants, or spent flowers and dead leaves. To restore shape and order is enlivening and brings a spacious well-being. Balance, harmony and right shape (fittingness) are regained in the plant and where its located with other plants or bushes. The garden "community of living things" is clean, not cluttered; visually consonant, not discordant; elegant not chaotic.

To spend time gardening can be a vibrant spiritual discipline. Simply defined spiritual disciplines for the Christian: "are not the desired end product of spiritual life  but rather they are a means to an end. They are the intentional development of authentic spiritual life and intimacy with God."  They provide ways to connect with the Holy Spirit and be open to his transforming work that we might learn to think and act like Jesus. They help draw our hearts and minds toward Christ who is our life and purpose if we say we are his followers. We learn to see, hear and know him intimately. He becomes "Christ with us (me)," because we've come to notice his presence in the ordinary and the special. He becomes more than an idea or an "unseen hand."

An example of a simple spiritual discipline would be while working in a garden, take time to look, reflect on and pray from what is being created, developed, nurtured, maintained, and then set to rest until next season. Notice how each stage of the gardening process can point to realities of the spiritual life in Christ. Every step of the way might reveal spiritual equivalents. Or think about how the Holy Spirit has worked to "fertilize" and "prune" you over the years that you can become spiritually mature and fruitful.

Contemplating eternal themes of birth and rebirth, death and resurrection come to the forefront. Looking deep into the heart of our Triune God Who Creates and Sustains springs from seeing the seed grow to the plant which produces the fruit and then dies to fertilize the soil. All it takes is the ability to notice, to pay attention to what God reveals in each step of the gardening.

I became aware later that cutting through the entwined clutter, especially the overgrown rosebush, hearkened to how God often needed to cut away much that entangled my heart and deadened my growth toward him. Sin and self-love choke the redeemed heart's yielding resonance for God. All sorts attitudes, thoughts and behaviors had to be pruned over the years, and I'm not near finished yet.

As Tricia and I cut through the thick tangle, carefully avoiding the plentiful thorns guarding each branch, we could see how much of the bush had been withered because the sun did not reach lower branches.God's nurturing light was blocked by the aggressive intruder lusting for all the light. Similarly, assiduously practicing the spiritual disciplines cuts through our clutter and opens us to God's heart, God's truth, and God's ways as he steadily conforms (including pruning) us to his image in the midst of sin's lusting for dominance. If we learn the discerning way, we yield to the Lord of Life by seeking him in the disciplines, and he responds full of grace and love by deftly shaping us toward holiness.

As soon as the day after we pruned, we were delighted to see the redeemed bush seeming to stand taller in the sunlight with a vitality that had been all but obscured by the interloper. It just looked different, more alive in the full light; freer without having to carry the load of the overwhelming tangle draped over it.

This summer has had two unforeseen re-introductions to gardening for me. This summer God also invited me to go further into practicing the spiritual disciplines which cause my heart to resonate with him. My experience with planting a church has more than once crowded out what once was the normal Christian spiritual life for me. I'm pretty sure he wants me to marry the two in a way I haven't. I'm a contemplative at heart who happens to have experience being a church planter. I can see how the two work together to create depth and breadth. I want both.

In sum, a spiritual discipline of gardening is a doorway into understanding the Master Gardener. The physical tasks and materials of gardening offer rich meaning around the necessary cycles of the spiritual life for followers of Jesus seeking to know and follow him more closely. Gardening can be both physical and contemplative: real soil, real potential; real seed; real fruit; real life, death and rebirth; real redemption and restoration; real preparation and harvest; real sacrifice and salvation: real feeding the people and replenishing the soil; real reverence and feasting.

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