Lessons From My Garden
Gardening is one of my favorite hobbies. It is no surprise to me that the Bible is filled with garden metaphors for life, for the discipline of gardening certainly is a mirror to inner life. The Psalmists, the Writer of Ecclesiastes, and Jesus himself used gardening metaphors to illustrate the complex nature of inner life. Like many aspects of the inner life, I have a love/hate relationship with my high maintenance hobby. Yet there are few moments as satisfying as offering a meal to friends with my own juicy ripe tomatoes or arranging a vase of my own fragrant blooms.
Gardening is time-consuming, a task that is never complete. Cultivating a successful garden takes flexibility, attention, money, sacrifice and time. Gardening is a constant friendship with and struggle against the natural world. Gardening certainly teaches perspective as one man’s weed is another man’s Dandelion harvest. A wet spring that enriches some plants devastates others. The plant that has resistance to an insect attack produces seed that is stronger against the next cycle. Resilience springs from challenge, bounty follows drought. So it is with our inner lives as well.
Last summer a dear friend gave me a “volunteer” pear tree to add to my garden. I cherished the little tree as I cherish my friend and her generosity. I carefully placed that tree in our yard and worked in the fall to nourish its young roots, dreaming of pear preserves. This winter I worried about my young pear tree, as a record-breaking winter covered its young branches entirely in over a foot of snow, and subzero temperatures threatened its young roots. Yet in the spring my young tree friend began to thrive. With the warmth of sun and bounty of spring rain, my young pear tree doubled its size in only a few months. When the Japanese Beetles discovered its tasty leaves, my children and I plucked them one by one, saving our young tree friend from their ravenous ways, and from pesticides. My young tree was growing and visions of its golden fruit were in my daydreams.
Then a few weeks ago an unexpected summer storm sent a microburst across my area of town. My garden suffered many broken plants, including the breaking of an 85-foot tree, the largest section of which landed squarely on my cherished pear tree. It took several hours for the large branches to be cut and moved. It seemed that my pear tree was lost, flattened and broken from the unexpected assault. I resisted cutting it down, but began considering its replacement. Yet, in the subsequent weeks my young tree friend has taught me of resilience and has begun to grow again. The leaves still appear tattered, the branches misshapen, and yet new growth is springing from its branches every day. It now has a brighter sky view and is growing again.
I think that faith, much like my pear tree, is more flexible and resilient in times of assault than we fear. It is only when we resist changing and growing that we break. Like my tree we often think that faith grows best in ideal conditions of comfort, love and care. I am a psychologist, not a plant scientist, but I suspect that my tree survived because of its youth and the harsh winter. While my careful preparation of its foundation was useful, the cold winter may have saved my tree. For the cold, cold winter forced my tree to grow deep roots to sustain its life and those roots saved it from death. My tree’s flexibility to change in crisis also helped. For a young tree is still malleable, and can adjust to habitat changes. My yearling tree had flexibility that the older tree did not have, so it endured both the tornado-like winds and the weight of its neighbor by its strong roots and malleable branches. It was scarred but not destroyed. It was forced to change, but possibly that will make it a stronger tree in its lifetime.
I’ve seen the same experience mirrored in my own life and in the lives of those I am honored to know personally and professionally. In life I certainly have experienced those moments of faith-endangering winds: death, loss, pain, disappointment, disillusionment and fear. I have worked with survivors of assault, torture, abuse and despair. I find that it is in these times of overwhelming odds that resilience makes its appearance. When traumatic events happen, and the course of life is altered in unpredictable ways, after a time of healing, thriving can return. Great loss produces empathy, flexibility and maturity.
I am not sure if James, the brother of Jesus was a gardener, but he also seemed to consider trials and doubt a potential source for growth. For he wrote his friends in trial, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” Similarly, Paul wrote in Romans: “Endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.”
So when you encounter faith-shaking doubt, when you find your philosophical orientation shifting, when you feel the strain on your roots and the weight of the world on your shoulder, think of the pear tree. It is through seasons of doubt and challenge that we mature. Doubt is the fertile ground for endurance. Endurance creates hope.
-Dr. Tara C Samples is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. Her clinical interests include the integration of faith and psychotherapy, resilience in traumatic stress experiences and the effects of poverty on mental health. She is a wife, a mother, and advocate against violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.