Our garden is growing–and I can only take credit for one thing

The squealing, screaming cries coming from outside sound like they could be either excitement or terror. As one shriek follows another, I head to the side of the house to find my kids crouched down next to the garden, pointing and yelling.

wpid-20150626_122653.jpgOur plants have produced visible fruit. The pepper plants are sprouting peppers, the tomato plants are drooping with tomatoes, and the cucumber vine is winding its way through the entire garden. Every day, it seems, there is a new and exciting discovery in the garden. wpid-20150626_122534.jpg

Not to mention weeds.

Initially, weeding was kind of a simple process. We took a hoe to the dirt between the plants and attacked at the root, turning over the dirt and tossing out the weeds. It was relatively quick and painless.

Now that we’ve had an abundance of rain, the garden is a mass of greenery. I went out to weed recently and discovered how useless my previous methods would be. One stalk of tomato plants had to be carefully lifted off the ground and tucked inside the cage before I could even think about weeding. Many of the weeds were hidden underneath the healthy plant growth. I had to hand pick the weeds lest I damage the good growth.

The cucumber vines had wound themselves around each other, the tomato plants and some weeds. We carefully unwound them while pulling out the weeds in its path. This cucumber plant is going to need more attention, I think, though it is obviously thriving.

The pepper plants will soon be teeming with peppers, and the jalapeno plant already had to be tethered to a stick after a rainstorm knocked it over and nearly killed it. The broken stem has repaired itself but I anchored it again, and tied another leaning pepper plant to a stick as well.

Those were my contributions. Honestly, I can’t take much credit for this garden. We have had rain and sunshine. Someone else started the plants from seed and we planted them. My husband did the initial clearing of the space.

We weed. We water when necessary. We watch them grow. And soon we will reap a harvest.

Jesus talked a lot about plants and farming and growth, and some things haven’t clicked with me until now.

That whole “vine and branches” thing sort of makes sense when you can see the obvious difference between the main plant stem and the branches hanging off of it. The jalapeno plant cracked at the base of the plant. None of the branches were damaged. But if I hadn’t tried to fix the break, the plant itself would have died and our jalapenos wouldn’t continue to grow.

“Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus says, and I’m starting to believe him. If I’m not connected to the main artery of growth, I will shrivel and fade and not reach my full potential.

And there’s other stories in the Bible, about those who plant and those who water and the One who makes things grow. About good soil and rocky soil and the choking weeds that inhibit growth.

So I’m wondering if there are more lessons in this garden for me.

Does the growth I’m seeing in my life hide the weeds that are still popping up? (And can I ever lead a weedless existence?) Do I need to look a little deeper to see the weeds?

Have I tried to hack away at the weeds, damaging good fruit and vines along the way, when instead I’ve needed to carefully tend to the unwanted growth, pulling it out by hand?

Can I really take credit for any kind of growth in my life? And can I bring it about in anyone else’s life?

Here’s what I think I can do: I can prepare the ground. I can shelter and tend and nurture the life in my care. I can water when the ground is dry and cracked. I can pick out the weeds that try to steal the energy needed for growth. I can offer support to the cracked and broken when weakness is evident and death is near.

Here’s what I can’t do: I can’t actually make anything or anyone grow. I can’t do it. It’s not in my power.

And that’s totally freeing because it’s not up to me.

Jesus says something else about us bearing much fruit, not that we have to be the ones who produce it. But if we cultivate the right conditions in our lives, fruit will grow and we’ll be amazed.

Like my son running out to the garden shrieking with delight, we’ll point and holler: Look! Look at what God has done!

One word to guide my year

I’m bad at making–and keeping–resolutions. Who isn’t, right?

So when I stumbled onto the opportunity to simplify my new year’s resolutions into one word, I decided to give it a try.

A Facebook friend blogged about her experience with Oneword365 for 2012. And I was inspired by the idea that I could spend the whole year letting one word transform my life, my attitudes, my behaviors.

It’s not a to-do kind of word but a to-be kind of word, not a rule but a guide.

I’m totally game.

So I spent a couple of days thinking of possibilities. They’re endless, you know. So many words to choose from. Peace. Grace. Joy. Love. I’d be thrilled if my capacity for any one of those increased over the year. But none of those seemed to fit.

The right word came to me in the middle of an emotional breakdown. I’d shut myself in the bedroom, asking the kids to please play by themselves in the living room or their room for a few minutes so I could have some space to cry and journal and pour my heart out to God about how yuck I feel about life right now.

He listened as I raged–on paper–and let my emotions spin wildly out of control.

Then He whispered, “Let go.”

I am a control freak, and nothing scares a control freak more than the idea that she’s not in control. Parenting has yet to break me completely of the notion that I have little to no control over anything. (Have you ever tried to get a preschooler or toddler to do anything you say? Not pretty.) But our circumstances have put me in a position to realize that I have no control. I can’t make anything happen. It’s not up to me to chart the course of our life. My job is to wait. And listen. And take the appropriate steps.

Since “let go” is two words, I wanted to replace it with a one-word synonym. “Surrender” is one, but to me, that sounds like giving up. I know surrender is a biblical thing, and I’m okay with surrender, in general, but I don’t want to put myself in a mental state of giving up.

So, here’s my word for 2013:

Release.

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I’ve felt myself holding tightly to things in the last year. Expectations. My plans. My way. People’s perceptions. Excuses.

This year, I want to unclench my fists and hold my hands open and let go of what I think I need. Hold my heart open and let go of pain I’ve been harboring. Hold my mind open and let go of perceptions, of me and of others.oneword-release-rope

I’ve heard that when you’re at the end of your rope, you should tie a knot and hold on. I’ve heard, too, that there’s another option.

Let go.

And like a free fall, trust God to support you, even if you can’t see how.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)

Release. 2013.

I’m hoping to check in here once a month about what a mindset of release is teaching me.

Have you considered one word for the year? Find out more here. And join the journey.

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Who I am and who I want to be

Ten minutes before we were supposed to head out with some friends for trick-or-treating, I was arguing with our 4-year-old daughter over shoes. And trying to coerce our almost-3-year-old son to pick up a mess he’d made in the living room. I was seconds from throwing my hands up and canceling the whole trip because I was overwhelmed, stressed and out of control.

Turns out we all left the house wearing appropriate clothing, the living room wasn’t a disaster and we had a great time.

As we strolled the neighborhood with our kids, us mom friends joked about not having “the mom gene.” The next day I affirmed my lack of “the mom gene” on Facebook after a particularly tough day with the kids.

Mom gene or not, some women just seem born to be mothers. They thrive where others of us merely survive, and motherhood seems extraordinarily kind to them. (Do they even have stretch marks or C-section scars, I wonder?)

Prone to play the comparison game, I examine my life and motherhood in the light of these shining examples. And I feel dull.

I picture myself on the other side of motherhood–oversized (from too much chocolate and stress-induced eating) and overwrought (I can see my frazzled hair and the wild look in my eyes)–not even knowing who I am, feeling like life passed  me by while I was raising my kids (as if life can’t be found in the midst of mothering).

I do not want to be that woman. She’s resigned. And bitter. Lost. And unlovely in all ways. She’s given everything for everyone else and has nothing left for herself.

And I know that the choice to be or not to be resides in the now. Will I make the choices that lead me down the path of resentment or face the uphill climb against what I feel toward the mountain of contentment?

Because let me tell you, contentment, though it sounds easy, is far from it.

Content to wipe rear ends and clean the bathroom and say “no” for the hundredth time and answer the millionth question? I’m not that there yet.

Emotions and circumstances conspired against me this week to give me a foul mood. Or maybe I just used those as excuses for being cranky. Life will never be perfectly perfect and even if it was, I’m sure I could find something amiss. (I’ve been “blessed” with a critical spirit. Lucky me.)

So I must submit to this training ground, this life that cannot be exchanged like an unwanted Christmas gift, and trust that the pruning of all things self isn’t going to kill me and leave me useless and unfruitful but will sever that which drains the Life out of me and will make me more fruitful.

© Dan Wallace | Dreamstime.com

Perhaps those moms with the mom gene learned these lessons long ago or have submitted to them earlier or have less to learn in this area. I try not to envy their lives because I don’t see the whole picture, but some days, I long for greener grass. Mary DeMuth in her book Everything reminded me this week that greener pastures lies not in a change of location but in a deeper devotion. She says:

We live in a culture of comparison. We tend to measure our growth not against ourselves but against those folks around us. We see a champion of the faith and feel small. We see a struggling pilgrim, and we amplify ourselves. We forget that growth is a dynamic relationship between us and our Savior. … We have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our lives if we want to thrive. Simply put, the grass isn’t greener on your friend’s property; it’s greener where you water it.

© Winterberg | Dreamstime.com

I’m not much of a gardener either, but I know the importance of water. And spiritually speaking, Living Water is the only cure for what ails me.

And I am a thirsty soul.

Surrender never sounded so sweet: A review of Everything by Mary DeMuth

Surrender.

It’s almost a dirty word, isn’t it? Hearing it evokes images of giving up, losing and waving a white flag. Beaten. Over. Done.

Author Mary DeMuth redeems the idea of surrender in her new book Everything: What you give and what you gain to become like Jesus.

This is not an easy topic to tackle, nor do I imagine it’s particularly popular. Surrender is not a sexy sell for Christianity. Imagine this conversation: “Oh, you want to be a Christian? Okay, just give God everything. That’s all.” DeMuth addresses this in one chapter in the book, saying we, the church, often boil down the Gospel to “All you do is (fill in the blank).” Then we add requirements later and wonder why people walk away from a faith they so easily embraced.

DeMuth says the gospel starts with “all you do is die to your own desires and embrace Jesus’ lordship.” “All your life is the gospel,” DeMuth says.

I’ve been chewing on the chapters of this book for almost a month now, and though I’m not quite finished with the book, I didn’t want to wait another week to share it with you. Because one of the chapters I read today was about politics and how we treat people who have different opinions or lifestyles or beliefs than us. A timely word if ever there was one.

Throughout, DeMuth approaches the Everything life, as she calls it, with transparency and humility. She is a sweet soul who admits from the start that she is “a fellow struggler, one who doesn’t often feel Jesusy or strong or faith-filled.” I appreciate the honesty with which she shares about her journey. The abuse she suffered as a child. The ministry “failures” her family has experienced. The hurt from fellow believers. The disconnect between belief and action.

She is not speaking from a lofty tower of Christian perfection. She is pounding the pavement of life, day in, day out, seeking the heart of Jesus.

This is the sort of book I could underline nearly all of, and my journal is filled with notes and quotes from DeMuth’s experiences and wisdom. The book is small, but mighty. Not bogged down with incomprehensible jargon but simply stated truths. I will go back to this book again and again. Everything came at a time when I needed encouragement that following God doesn’t always look like success, that personal sacrifices are worth it, that others have surrendered everything and found God faithful and their lives filled.

So, get your hands on this book. It’s food for the soul.

And would you pray for Mary DeMuth and her family? In the midst of the book launch for Everything, her youngest daughter is suffering from an undiagnosed illness that causes debilitating headaches. She blogs and updates here regularly. Further proof that following Christ doesn’t mean everything will always go the way you want or expect. But following Him is always worth it.

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In exchange for my review, I received a free copy of Everything from Thomas Nelson through the Booksneeze program.

Signs of life

My husband and I had the rare opportunity this week to be away from our house and children for three days and nights to attend our church’s national conference. When we arrived home from the parenting sabbatical, our 18-month-old son greeted us at the door, holding one of his favorite stuffed animals, with the word “monkey.” He’s a verbal child anyway, but “monkey” was not part of his vocabulary when we left. And both kids looked taller or older. It was only a few days, but it was a taste of what their grandparents experience between visits. Sometimes the familiarity of everyday contact blinds us to evidence of change and growth.

I’ve been feeling a little useless lately. Or inadequate. Or some other emotion I can’t put a name to yet. I’ve been a Christian for 14  years and I sometimes wonder if I’ve changed much since Day 1. Or Day 365.  I sort of feel like I’m regressing a little. Maybe.

I wish spiritual growth looked more like this:

I noticed this on the tree in our backyard recently. I’m not much of a gardener or plant expert, but it would seem to me that the lighter needles are evidence of new growth. They extend from the branches and pick up where the darker needles leave off.

Even from a distance, you can see the difference.

I love spring, how the trees burst with buds and color, flowers bloom and the world looks alive. After the dullness of winter, spring’s palette is refreshing. Growth is obvious.

Like these peonies. Some fully in bloom, some on the cusp of fullness.

I want to see the growth in my life or know that my chance to bloom is near.

I’m no gardener, but I know what to look for in trees, flowers and plants. I can tell when a plant isn’t growing.

What about me? What do I look for when it comes to growth?

Am I more patient than I used to be? Less critical? More loving? Less selfish?

If those are my standards, then I’d have to say my growth is stunted.

Occasionally my husband will say something to me like, “You’ve come a long way. If that had happened a year ago, you would have responded this way.” Meaning that he can see that I’ve grown and changed.

Maybe it’s not easy for me to see because I live with myself every day. Maybe it’s not easy for other people to see how they’ve grown either.

Maybe we need to look for the signs of life in other people and tell them what we see. I don’t always study the tree in our backyard, but that day I had to take the time to look and examine its branches. The tree is familiar, but that day, I saw something I hadn’t seen before.

So it is with the people in our lives, especially the familiar ones.

A closer look might reveal something we’ve never seen before.

And we might be able to encourage someone by telling them about the growth we’ve seen in them.

Praying through Lent

40 days is a long time. Anyone who has given up something they really like for Lent knows this. Chocolate, french fries, caffeine, coffee … it’s not always easy to live without them for a few weeks, and the sacrifice doesn’t always stick with us when Lent ends.

I’ve never been really faithful about giving up things for Lent, and frankly I’m not 100 percent sure why or if I should. But this year, I wanted to acknowledge the season in some way, so Phil and I talked about praying together daily.

© Simon Krzic | Dreamstime.com

We’ve been looking for ways to grow spiritually, and the disciplines of the Christian life — Bible study, quiet time, prayer — have not come easy for us in our married life. If they were done at all, they were done more out of a sense of duty than of a desire to become more like Christ. In the months leading up to Lent, we had both established regular times of Bible reading and personal devotions, but our prayer life still lacked. So, we decided to commit ourselves to praying together once a day for the duration of Lent.

We prepared a prayer calendar listing the names of family and friends for whom we wanted to pray. (We actually created the list months before but hadn’t made the commitment to pray.) We hung it in a place where we could see it. And we sent Facebook messages (mostly; we did make a couple of phone calls) asking for prayer requests from the people who were coming up on the list for the week. (If we didn’t contact you, it doesn’t mean we aren’t praying for you. Sometimes, we got too busy to send the messages before the day arrived.)

This became one of my favorite parts of the day. It took both of us, sometimes, to remember that we had to pray. Sometimes it was afternoon; sometimes it was almost midnight. Sometimes we were really alert; other times we fell asleep during prayer time. We did miss a day or two toward the end, but for us, this was a major step in our daily practice of our faith.

Besides growing us closer to God and each other, this commitment opened the way for closer relationships with friends and family members. At times, Phil and I are horrible at keeping in touch with people. We post pictures of our kids months after we took them. We don’t respond to voicemails or e-mails or letters or Facebook message, mostly because we forget and are lazy, not because we don’t care. Living 700 miles from family is a greater distance than it first seemed, and technology doesn’t always close that distance for us.

Praying for people made us make an effort to keep in touch, and we learned new things about those closest to us and were able to feel their needs more deeply because we’d heard from them.

The calendar is set up for four weeks, so if we’re faithful to our commitment, we’re praying for the people on it about once a month. The second time through the calendar, we haven’t been asking for requests because it almost seemed too soon, like the requests may not have changed in a month. We’re still praying for people, but we’re evaluating how we gather prayer requests, and if we should ask every time we’re praying for a particular person.

I’m considering setting up a Facebook group for those on our prayer calendar to create a place where people could leave their requests if they have something they want us to pray for. That almost seems too passive, impersonal and public — not at all what I want our prayer life to be about.

Asking for prayer requests is kind of a tricky matter. I think the question, “How can I pray for you?” is too often seen as a spiritual substitute for “What juicy thing is going on in your life that I want to know about?” I’ve certainly felt like that, both when asked and when doing the asking, but when I’m actually praying for the person, I don’t feel guilty asking how I can pray.

The Bible says that even if I don’t know what to pray, the Holy Spirit does. Talk about mind-blowing: I can’t begin to imagine how that works. So, I also know that I don’t need to know what to pray for in order to pray. We certainly didn’t get a response from everyone, yet we prayed for those people.

So, I’m curious about your approach to prayer. Do you ask people what to pray for or trust that the Spirit will give you the words and needs? Do you intentionally pray for people on certain days or as the needs arise? Have you used a prayer calendar to organize your prayer life?

I know, for me, having a calendar has helped lessen the burden of prayer. Because, let’s face it, we can’t pray for everyone and everything everywhere all the time, but sometimes we feel like we should. The calendar has helped us focus our times of prayer but also gives us leeway to pray for other, timely needs when they happen.

Lent may be over, but the Easter season is just beginning. If you’re looking to add to your spiritual growth, take the 50 days of Easter (from this past Sunday to the Day of Pentecost, June 12) to try daily prayer or intentional prayer for those you love. Or pick some other area of spiritual growth where you feel you may be lacking. My husband the seminarian recommends Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” and Ruth Haley Barton’s “Sacred Rhythms” as helpful resources for the Christian disciplines and spiritual growth.

If you make any kind of commitment for the Easter season, leave a comment and I’ll be glad to pray for you and encourage you on your journey. To prayer, my husband and I added a devotional reading for the Easter season.

Just as physical growth doesn’t happen all at once, neither does spiritual growth. Take one step today and see where it leads you.