Because of this cool spring, my tomatoes were just coming into full production as we were leaving for our two-week summer vacation. I had picked a couple of good pots of green beans also. I encouraged friends to come by and pick whatever they wanted while I was away. Perhaps they did, because there were no tomatoes left, other than wormy, rotten ones, and the green beans were all gone when I returned. The squash had succumbed to the squash bugs, the cucumbers had dried up, and weeds had overtaken the dried-up peas. I even had trouble locating my pepper plants amidst the tangle of weeds that had taken over in my absence. Even my herbs had flowered and lost their pungency as a result of neglect. There was little garden left to tend, and the change had taken hold in such a short time!
Yet, I knew that I had not cared for this year's garden as well as I had others in the past. My time was divided for the first six weeks of summer because we had workmen in our house redoing cabinets and drawers and doing repair work. We also lost two huge trees that fell during one of our spring storms, and I had to tend to their removal. I was distracted from tending my garden and kept up only the minimum care of it before ultimately leaving on a two-week trip to Nova Scotia. What did I expect to happen? Did I think that it would miraculously take care of itself in my absence? That it would set and bear fruit for me?
My first thought when I returned home and walked out to my overgrown garden was that it was a picture of a spiritual lesson. That early garden had been a result of my work and care--the preparing of the soil; the planting and watering of seeds; the weed-pulling, pest-preventing, pinching, and pruning; and even the protection from the elements when the frosts threatened. This late garden was the result of my not working--my neglect.
I intended for that garden to bear fruit, and lots of it. I had my mouth all ready to enjoy weeks of tangy, sweet, juicy homegrown tomatoes; crispy, cool cucumbers; yellow straight-neck, zucchini, and pattypan squash; and crunchy green beans. Yet, the only fruit left was blighted by disease, stung or infested with insects, or choked by weeds. None was fit to eat.
With disgust and despair, I walked away from that garden and virtually ignored it for the rest of the summer, occasionally venturing out to see if I could find a few jalapenos or bell peppers that seemed to keep producing even in the massive overgrowth of grass and weeds. But, for the most part, I gave up on this year's garden.
God created man and woman and put them in a garden. Again and again in scripture God uses agricultural references to teach us about the Christian life. What was He saying to me through the ruin of my garden? What was my take-home lesson? At mid-summer I wasn't even sure I wanted to know. But, now that fall has come, I am ready to learn.
First, gardens are meant to be tended.
" The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it…" Genesis 2:15
Generally I am a pretty good gardener.I learned at the side of my grandmothers and my mother, and I benefited from the produce of their wonderful gardens. I go out almost daily to check for bugs and weeds and to see if my garden is getting ample water or if it needs to be fertilized. But, God is a much better gardener than I.
God tends His garden as He sees fit. Jesus tells us that He is actually the vine, and we are branches of that vine.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:1-2 (NKJV)
When God talks of His garden and His care of it, He is talking about taking care of us, His people. Through His attention to us, we grow and thrive.
" He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers."
Psalm 1:3 New American Standard Bible
God's word is like food and water for the seed, and He will cause His garden to flourish and bear fruit.
"As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." Isaiah 55:10-11
When I looked at the neglected shamble of a garden in my back yard this summer, I realized that I had been too preoccupied with the business of life to tend to it and bring about the result I had hoped for. And, I wondered what God, as the Master Gardener, had been hoping for me during this time. He sends me His living water, His word, His spiritual food. I, however, had been neglecting to receive it. The spectacle of my neglected garden was a metaphor for my untended soul. I could feel the dryness, the lack of growth, the spiritual thirst in this branch of the vine.
Fortunately, the specter of my untended garden was a jolt to my sensibilities. I knew that God was speaking to me. I finally decided to listen. No matter how stressed or busy I am, no matter how many times I am unable to attend my Bible study class or my church worship services, I can still find ways to connect to the Vine, to drink of the Living Water, and to ask for restoration. So, I consciously sought out a Bible study this fall to challenge me to stay in the Word. Even when I haven't been able to attend due to other obligations, I have an assignment to complete. The lessons forced me into the Word. I have started listening to digital Christian books when I travel or to streaming Christian programs on my smart phone, and I found an old box of books by one of my favorite Christian authors of the last century in my mother's barn that I am rereading. I am up to book number 22 by that author now. And, every time that I am able to attend worship services or choir practices, I do.
I am now feeling more refreshed and renewed, and, like the leaves of a drooping plant finally given a refreshing drink of cool water, I can feel myself unfurling, stretching, and reaching out for more.
One of the reasons we plant a garden, I think, is because we have the Spirit of the Living Lord within us. We yearn to be like our Creator. He loves to see us grow, and our own gardens give us pleasure as well. But, at present, it is more important for me to tend to the garden of my soul than to my withered, sun-parched herbs. Thus, I have dug up the dead plants, pulled out the weeds, and prepared the soil for another season. The ground will lie fallow for this fall and winter, but my inward garden will not. I thank God that he doesn't give up on us and that He holds onto our hand even when we get distracted and tend to loosen our grip. And, I can depend on Him because He is the life that is in me.
"For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and a shield; the Lord gives grace and glory; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, how blessed is the man who trusts in You!" Psalm 84: 10-12
God will be both my sun and my protection when I seek him. As long as I stay connected to Him and consistently seek His face, I thrive. I will be like the tree planted by the stream of water.
I thank you, God, that even in the autumn, when the season is cooling and the leaves are falling, that you bring new growth to my spirit and pour into my life your grace and love.