If you’re like me, there’s something incredible about getting dirt underneath your fingernails. It’s a sign of commitment, care and loyalty to a fragile piece of land which requires the tenderness of a gardener to protect it from the weeds that threaten it.
When I first moved in to my house, the garden was a disaster — choked out by weeds and thistles, the soil hard as clay. Yet, over time, I have been gently coaxing the earth to come up, clearing the debris and uprooting ominous weeds. During these months, the garden has become a place of quiet rest, solitude and belonging. Daily, God, the Good Gardener, speaks to me in my pulling and plucking reminding me of the condition of all human souls. Of my own soul. It takes time and effort to care for a garden and in a few weeks, simply due to poor weather or long absence, all of that can be completely wiped away.
Yet, today, this garden metaphor went a bit further for me. Have you ever had an experience where God just kept repeating something over and over as if to make sure to be clearly understood? Well, that’s what happened today. Early this morning, before the core members (people with developmental disabilities) I assist in my work with L’Arche were even up, I ventured out into my garden. As I began turning the soil, I noticed that there were many thick roots in the ground, and yet, they did not seem too connected to any tree. This was a weird phenomenon to me. I asked a co-worker and avid gardener about it and he explained to me that the tree was actually a weed — sending out shoots all across the lawn during the summer months. As I reflected on this, I thought about how roots that don’t come from godliness poison rather than heal us.
Later that day, I attended that L’Arche Assistants Bible Study and we read Galatians 5. In this passage, Paul explains that we have two options — going the world’s way and giving into addictions, sexual gratification and bitterness or choosing the way of Christ — a path of peace, acceptance, love and joy. Paul writes that in the former experience, we are destroying and devouring one another like savage animals on the verge of killing. In the latter example, if we succeed in love and service, we have managed to keep the entirety of the law.
Now this is pretty crazy stuff! Paul was a high leading Pharisaic official. He was all about rules, laws and dos and don’ts. His former self was legalistic and about never being good enough. But, Jesus radically altered his life to the point that he’s now saying to simply be showing kindness and unconditional love to another is enough. No more is required of us. Here’s Paul, this revered scholar, making it simple to keep the law.
But now, let’s take this further. Having the works, but not the relationship does no good either. Roots without a source are useless. In the garden, there were many long and tough roots, but once pulled out, some of them led to nowhere. Doing “good deeds” without being firmly and solidly rooted in a relationship just yields to smug self-righteousness.
The prophet Isaiah used some pretty strong language here. He said our best efforts at being good enough are the equivalent of filthy rags. They have no use other than for us to stare at them in disgust and promptly throw them away. We all sin and fall short of God’s standards for our lives. We all miss the mark when it comes to loving others and showing kindness to those who are different from us. Yet, how quick we are to try to “make up” for those downturns by being “good.” We bargain with God and ourselves, “yes, I did that, BUT look what I’ve done since to make up for it.” Hopping a curb and totaling your fender and then giving your car an expensive car wash doesn’t deal with the problem, but that’s what we try to do. Failing math but getting an A in geography class doesn’t balance out the fact that the F still glares at us from the report card.
Plants are very smart. Weeds sometimes put down acidic roots poisoning the ground so desirable plants can’t grow up. When we allow worldly ideals, temptations and sinful gratifications to take root in our lives, we poison the good earth that God has given us. It doesn’t matter, then, if we attempt to plant the peppers of a good youth ministry program or the tomatoes of a new Christian counseling center — if the acidic roots are still there, nothing good can grow up from that ground. Instead, we need to uproot the bad weeds to make room for the good seeds. Then, we allow Christ to be the Good Gardener and to rule over our lives.
Deborah-Ruth Ferber studied religious education at Tyndale University College in Toronto, and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared at Zwiebach and Peace, her personal blog.
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