Although the calendar doesn’t say that spring is here yet, officially, you sure couldn’t prove that by the gorgeous weather that we have been enjoying. Days have been warm and sunny, birds are singing, robins have been spotted, and even that particular smell of spring has been in the air. My Salvia, Black-Eyed Susans, Garden Phlox, Peonies, and Shasta Daisies are all peeking out of the soil, showing off their fresh green growth. Many trees and bushes are budding, and I’ve seen Bradford Pears in full bloom as I drive around town. It’s a refreshing and peaceful time of year – a time of stretching and breathing deeply of the warm air, full of the smell of damp earth and the promise of warmer days ahead.
Two days ago the winds began howling, not at all unusual here in Kansas. These winds, however, began to change direction as night fell. Instead of blowing strong but warm out of the south, they started blowing out of the north. The temperatures dropped dramatically and then sometime during the night the rain began to fall. In the wee hours of the morning there was a different sound. No longer did we hear just the strong winds and the pattering of rain on the roof and windows. Now we heard the sharp pinging of sleet as it was blown against our window panes. The early alarm from my clock only made me want to hunker down further under my warm covers. I didn’t want to face the unwelcome cold that had intruded upon our beautiful spring-like weather, or look outside to see what sight might await me.
Sure enough, one look outside confirmed what I knew in my heart to be true. A light snow was falling, mixed in with stinging sleet – covering the emerging new growth of my flowers and the fragile little buds on the trees and bushes. The wind mixed with the snow and sleet made me cringe, not only for those who had to venture out in such a mess but also for the tender new growth all around me that was being hammered by such ugly weather. Later it was my turn to walk outside and face the cold, to clean off the crusty accumulation on the van, and to hope that I didn’t slip and fall on the icy cement. The sky was heavy and gray as I scraped off the van, and though the snow and sleet had stopped falling, the clouds looked like they would soon open up again and shower us with more of the frozen mess.
Yet in the midst of this wintry scene around me, I heard a sweet sound. Loudly and clearly from a nearby tree came the welcome song of a bird. It seemed that this bird was singing as confidently as he could, unaffected by the cold and the ice and the snow. He continued as I worked to free the van windows of the ice and snow, singing his sweet melody over and over. And with that beautiful bird song, I began to experience hope. I knew that this storm was only an interlude in the cycle of winter becoming spring, and that spring would soon triumph. I knew that we would be hearing many more birds, and that they would build their nests and fill them with eggs that would hopefully hatch to produce more beautiful singers. The pretty flowers and bushes would continue to grow, and before long we would be delighted by the gorgeous colors all around us. The stony grey and white of this cold day would be gone!
All of us have enjoyed many days of blessings and peaceful periods when life is relatively smooth. The minor annoyances that occur are not enough to upset the flow of daily life. But then one day the winds begin to blow and things become a little uncertain. Finally, the direction of the winds changes and life really is turned upside down. The rain that was falling but was tolerable suddenly changes to brutal, stinging sleet and snow. Our beautiful growth, our pretty new flowers, our fragile buds, are threatened by the harsh circumstances around us. We want to hide from the trials, to pull the covers up and not venture out to face what we know will await us outside. But face it we must………the sting of death, the hurt of betrayal, the fear of a doctor’s diagnosis, the grief of a wayward child, the certainty of aging, the loss of finances. Whatever has clouded our lives and covered us with icy reality cannot be ignored.
But oh, we have hope! Just as clearly as the bird’s song filled me with the certain knowledge, the hope, of a coming spring – so we have a certain knowledge that God will never fail and that He has so much in store for us………..so much beauty, so much joy, so much sunshine and peace. The prophet Jeremiah knew about suffering and hope. He said, “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers, and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have HOPE. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore I have HOPE in Him.” (Lamentations 3:19-24)
How powerful is that reminder from God through Jeremiah! As the bird reminded me of the coming spring, may we also be reminded of God’s faithfulness to us in every stinging storm that we face. And may we be faithful to sing out His praises and look forward with great hope to all that He has in store for us!
I spent many hours outside last summer as I struggled to keep our flowers, bushes, and vegetables alive in our severe heat and drought. With no sprinkler system, I would spend lots of time standing and spraying our plants with water – or propping the hose up while I busied myself with something else and then would hurry back in order to rearrange the hose once more. During these times of watering was when I noticed the little weed in the flower bed that surrounds the light pole in our front yard. This small area was where I usually began my morning watering. I would prop the hose up just so and then I would take that time to pull more of the hose out of the hose box, get the pruning shears out of the cabinet in the garage, or put on my garden shoes before moving the hose to another flower bed.
I saw the little weed and thought that I really should pull it, but then would forget about it as I began to take care of other matters. It was nestled along the edge of my pretty yellow Coreopsis and wasn’t very noticeable. Its leaves even blended in with the Coreopsis leaves and so it wasn’t offensive or annoying. Day after day went by. Some days I didn’t even think about the little intruding weed. On other days, when it would once again grab my attention, I was usually busy with something else. I told myself that I would pull it later, or that tomorrow I would get to it. Besides, it wasn’t doing any harm there. It actually added some nice green color to our flower beds that were becoming increasingly brown in the oppressive heat. There was always an excuse for not pulling the seemingly harmless weed.
One hot day as I worked among my flowers, I looked down and saw that this little weed had grown significantly. Still, it wasn’t huge but it sure was larger than I had noticed before. Silly me, I thought. Why have I been waiting to pull this once-little weed? I just need to get rid of it now, I reasoned. I reached down and gave the weed a pull………and nothing happened. I pulled a bit harder, and still the weed didn’t budge. I gripped harder on the small growth, gave a firmer yank, and still it sat firm in its place in the dirt. This small, harmless weed was certainly being stubborn! It wasn’t letting go of its foothold very easily at all! I was so deceived by the small growth that I could see, that I was in turn shocked by its apparently deep growth in the soil. I once again got a firmer hold, jiggled the weed back and forth, pulled with all my might…………..and finally out came the root. What a surprise! The root was very long – much longer in proportion to the rest of the plant. While I had procrastinated about getting rid of the little weed or argued with myself about how harmless the little weed was, this little weed was growing a deep root system that could have damaged or killed my pretty Coreopsis. There was no excuse for my neglect – a wise gardener knows better.
I get very busy in my everyday life. Much of what I do is valuable and important. No matter the season of life I am in, my days seem to stay full and active. I may prop one hose up here while I’m running around over there taking care of other matters. How easy it is for some sin to begin taking root in my life, but I’m too busy to hardly notice. Or maybe I notice an attitude or a thought or an action, but I disregard it as being small and insignificant. When I recognize it again, I say that I’ll handle it later. I have so much of importance to accomplish today. Soon my little sin is taking root in my heart. It’s becoming such a part of me that I don’t feel nearly as bothered by it as I used to. On the outside my sin looks small and shallow, but inside there is a long root. And when the day comes that I am convicted or that my sin begins to affect me or others, and I want to uproot it – I may have a harder time doing that than I ever expected. God, my Master Gardener, will uproot my sin if I let Him…………but the damage in my life and heart may be there to stay. How much better it would have been if I had paid attention to the warning signs…….if I had noticed the growth of that sin in my heart……….and had uprooted it at the beginning.
God warned Israel in Deuteronomy 29 to not associate with the heathen tribes that lived all around them – to not adopt their wicked ways or worship their false gods. In verse 18 God warned Israel: “…so that there will not be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; that there will not be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit or wormwood.” What pointed and practical advice this is for me today! Wherever I am in life, I know that I need to carefully nurture the good and the spiritual………….and weed out the wrong and the ungodly from my heart. To weed it out quickly before it grows a long root! Give me wisdom and discipline, Lord, to keep the unwanted weeds from rooting in my life.
The autumn day was beautiful. Sunshine abounded, warm temperatures cheered our spirits, birds were singing, and our home was full of activity as we prepared for Thanksgiving. Andrew was home from college and was busy helping Gary haul off our old dining room set and then do some work on the trucks. We were carrying in groceries that would be used in a couple days to prepare our Thanksgiving dinner, all the while dodging our big Great Dane who was happily moving from one to the other of us as he enjoyed all the excitement and bustle. It was the kind of day I love – a day of togetherness, of accomplishing tasks, of anticipation of having the family together for Thanksgiving.
Yet in the background were other noises – sounds that we couldn’t drown out, even in the midst of our joy and activity. There was the grinding sound of the chain saw, the shout of the tree cutter, and the unmistakable thud of a dead branch hitting the ground. When my eyes left the scene of happiness in our front yard and wandered to our side yard, I couldn’t ignore the scene that was being played out there. It was a scene of death; of destruction; of ending. This was the second visit that our tree cutters had made to our home to take away not one, but now two of our beautiful pine trees that had succumbed to the deadly nematodes of Pine Wilt disease. The first dead tree further down on our property had been cut down and carted off several days earlier. This second tree that was being cut on this gorgeous day was right outside our back door, just off the patio area. Our large, perfectly shaped pine tree had been destroyed by the unseen, hidden little nematodes that had eaten away at the very heart and life of the tree.
The two young men worked diligently at their task. Starting at the top of the tree, Jordan used his chain saw to cut each section and branch down. His co-worker on the ground would then carefully stack these portions onto the truck to be carried away. Then they would return to repeat the process until finally the entire tree was disposed of and hauled away. I walked outside at one point while they were gone and just observed the sad display of this once magnificent tree. There it was, stark against the pretty blue sky – a dark, bare, useless trunk. What a picture of loss! This once productive tree was now only a memory of its former glory and usefulness. Those horrible little nematodes had, unknowingly to us, been eating away at our beautiful tree and had finally accomplished their purpose. Our tree was fit for only one thing – to be cut down and taken away, never to be of any use again.
How interesting that this once sturdy tree had stood strong against the outward, visible attacks that had come against it during the many years of its life. Fierce winds had whipped its branches; tornadoes had come way too close; snow had piled on its limbs; thick ice had caused some of its branches to snap; drought had tried to deplete it – yet still it stood, proud and strong. What felled our tree was the tiny, unseen nematodes that were working inside its massive trunk and extending into its many branches. These intruders methodically destroyed the inner life of our stately tree until finally we could see the outward evidence of inward death, and had no recourse but to demolish our tree and have it carried away.
We all face many storms in our lives that bombard us with stress and grief. At times it’s overwhelming, but I know that for me these fierce storms have driven me to my knees and the Word for guidance and comfort. I have grown even in the pain of these trials. However, what causes me the most damage, it seems, are the hidden sins or hurts that lodge in my heart. No one can even see them or be aware of the damage that they are causing in my spirit. It’s easy for me to hide my attitudes or my pain from those around me, at least for a period of time. Eventually, though, the destruction that my inner destoyers have caused will begin to show outwardly. It becomes more evident, not only to me but to those around me, that I am not the person I used to be. My effectiveness for Christ suffers as I allow my inner attitudes to take away my joy, my peace, my testimony, my service.
Perhaps you have allowed some of the sinful nematodes of life to take residence in your heart. You have not been like the Psalmist who declared: “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) You have allowed inner hurts to take root and prosper instead; or perhaps pride; maybe bitterness over situations that you cannot control; lost ministries that you miss; children who embarrass or disappoint…………..the nematode possibilities are endless, but all are devastating. They burrow inside and take away your very life until you are a former shell of what you used to be. Oh, may we instead be like Paul, who said, “…….but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14). Oh God, purge our hearts from the sin that so easily takes control, and strengthen us to reach forward and press on toward the goal that You have for us!
I’ve been observing the large pine tree way out back for some time now. Months, really. I look at it out of the kitchen window when I’m at the sink; stare at it while I’m watering flowers out back; glance at it when I pass an upstairs window. Now I know that my first inclinations were true. Our huge pine tree does indeed have Pine Wilt. At first there were only a few brown needles that started presenting themselves among the pretty evergreen. Pines sometimes do that and so there was no reason to overreact. It’s just that our history here has taught us that this might spell trouble. In the 12 years that we’ve lived at this house, we’ve cut close to 40 pine trees because of Pine Wilt. Some were small trees that were crowded into our back tree line and haven’t been missed. Others, like this current pine, are huge and beautiful and leave a hole when they are gone.
It’s amazing how Pine Wilt occurs. It’s a disease that’s caused by a small nematode laid by a beetle. This nematode buries itself into the trunk and limbs of the pine tree and begins to eat away at the heart of the wood. No one can see the nematode so there is no way to observe it doing its dirty work inside the tree. A few brown needles begin to appear but sometimes even then we’re not fully sure of the danger within. Some trees continue to live and seemingly thrive despite a few brown patches. However, one day we notice a distinct difference in the tree as the brown begins to overtake the branches rapidly. By the time this occurs, the end has already come and the tree needs to be cut. Actually, when the nematode is deposited inside the tree it spells the end of the tree because there is no way to be rid of this destroyer. The outward evidence only demonstrates the death that has been inside the tree for many months.
I know that in my walk with the Lord for these many years there are nematodes of various sorts that are deposited in my soul if I am not careful. How easy it is to let down my guard during the busy days of this life; during the stresses of living in this world; during the peaceful, carefree days. I may feel that I have a handle on spiritual issues and don’t need to spend so much time with the Lord in prayer and Bible study. Stress can create all sorts of dangers that eat away at my inner being. Worry, fear of the unknown, bitterness towards those who have hurt me, anger at others or at God for my lot in life – the list goes on and on. Even such disagreeable but unseen “smaller” nematodes can eat away at my effectiveness and joy. How often do I envy someone else’s house, figure, or bank account? How many hours do I spend worrying about my children instead of praying? We all have issues that can eat away at our core and make us brittle, unhappy believers. And sooner or later those inner eaters of our joy will start showing outwardly. The brown and ugly attitudes will overtake the pretty green of growing in grace. Our lack of joy and peace and other fruits of the Spirit will be evident to all. Through God’s grace it’s not too late for any of us to say along with David in Psalm 139:23 – “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me; and lead me in the everlasting way.” I don’t want to turn brown and useless. I want to, with God’s grace and strength, let His hand rid me of the inner destroyers of my life and testimony. I want to be evergreen and full of life for His glory!
It’s the time of year to call it quits – as far as my flower gardens, that is. My beds of beauty at this point on the calendar are mostly dead or dying beds of brownness. I had noticed for days that I really needed to buckle down and get it over with. All the areas that had once provided color and beauty were now dull and ugly. My flowers had done as well as they could during our history-making summer of stifling heat and drought. Now most of them looked spent. Not only tired and exhausted, but many of them positively dead. The garden would be lovelier without the dead growth, and our eyes would be pleased to look upon beds that were bare rather than beds that were full but wasted.
I gathered the tools that I needed for the job. Small pruning shears, large pruning shears, garden gloves, rake, broom, and my trash container. I walked out back to the two flower beds at our patio and got to work. I bent over and began clipping with the small pruners, being careful not to pull the perennials up by their roots. Hopefully next spring these once beautiful flowers will grow again if I leave their roots intact. I worked among the Black Eyed Susans, the Shasta Daisies, and the Garden Phlox first, snipping and cutting. The trash container was filling up fast, so I emptied it into the large trash can and came back to continue the cleaning. When I came to the Tiger Lilies, I grabbed the large shears and began whacking away at the tall, tough stalks. They fell over the area where once they had stood tall and regal in their bright orange blooms. I’d scoop them up, toss them in the container, and begin again with the pruning. Death was all around me. Everything that was once full of beauty was now only brown and crisp. Dust was puffing up around me, getting on my clothes and in my hair. It was a place of dryness, of has-beens and what used-to-be.
And then I saw it. The little pink blooms laying on the ground caught my eye in an instant as I cut some dead stalks away. They seemed so out of place amidst the drab decay all around them. I paused and looked at them laying there so sweet and still. They were small but their beauty was enormous next to the ugliness all around them. They made me pause and catch my breath as I drank in their beauty and enjoyed the message that they gave to me. I smiled, refreshed in a special way, and then continued with my task at hand as I kept them in my sight. I tried not to disturb their blooms that reminded me of the beauty of the past and promised me of more beauty yet to come in the spring.
I have had times of great joy and beauty in my life. I thank the Lord for the memories of those times, and for the daily blessings and moments of happiness that still occur in my life every single day. But as is true with every one of us, I have had times of bleakness. Times when all around me things appear to be full of sadness, heaviness, and pain. The chopping and the tearing away take such a toll on me. I get so tired. The dust swirls around me and I long for clean air and a refreshing touch. That’s when God bends down and speaks to me the clearest. There in the midst of the uncertainty and the heartache I hear His voice. His still, small voice speaks to me in sharp contrast to the darkness all around me. Through His Word, as I read and meditate on what He says, I am refreshed and encouraged. I remember His promises and His blessings of the past, and I know that He will be faithful yet in my future. God is like that little stray, blooming flower – catching my attention with His beauty and soothing me with His presence. Oh Lord, may I, like David, say: “Why are you in despair, oh my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.”
Gary and I appreciate how our neighborhood association has a designated clean-up weekend twice a year. The association rents a huge dumpster and puts it in a field that’s just around our circle from us. It’s the perfect time for us to unload any large unwanted items that are allowed in the dumpster. Our big goal, though, is to cut and trim many of our branches, bushes, and trees that have gotten out-of-hand or have died. This last clean-up time a couple weekends ago was no exception. The weather was perfect in every way for Gary and I to head outside and begin our chopping and sawing. It wasn’t long before the piles were growing all over our couple acres. It was time for the dying cherry tree to go, as well as an old long-dead spruce. Our huge Crepe Myrtles needed to be cut down low, and the violet bush badly needed some work. Off came the bottom branches of our evergreen that we lovingly call our Gumdrop Tree as we try to save it for one more year of Christmas lights. And there were many, many other branches and limbs and parts of trees that needed to be sawed down and disposed of.
We used to use Andrew’s old truck for these days but now that he’s off to college we pile the mounds into Gary’s truck. What a blessing to have this means of hauling all that mess down to the dumpster! We drag and lift and load over and over again. It’s amazing how many loads we haul away! The truck is filled as full as it can be with each trip, that’s for sure. Gary has it down to a fine art of how to load the truck and it works very well. We pile it high, and then Gary uses a rope to tie it down before he drives off around the circle to unload. I either ride down with him to help unload, or I stay back at the house to do other things until he returns. One thing I’ve never done is to run along behind him, yelling for him to stop so that I can take some of the load off and carry it myself; or telling him that I need to rearrange the load; or offering to ride on top of the load to help hold it down. No, that would be silly! The truck is able to carry the load perfectly and the rope holds it secure. I have every confidence in the ability of Gary’s truck to do the job and do it well.
As we loaded Gary’s truck, I was reminded of what I had read in Isaiah 46 recently. God began that chapter by talking about how the Babylonians would load their false gods onto donkeys when they were being attacked. However, soon both the donkeys and the false gods were taken into captivity. Neither was able to help the other. Then in verses 3 and 4 God reminded Israel: “…….you have been borne by me from birth and have been carried from the womb; Even to your old age I shall be the same, and even to your graying years I shall bear you! I have done it, and I shall carry you! And I shall bear you and I shall deliver you!” What an amazing promise that is true for believers today as well! It’s true for me and for you! God will be the same for our entire lives, from birth til death. He desires to bear me and to deliver me! He wants to carry my loads and bear my burdens! Just as I could trust Gary’s truck to carry the weight and the amount of our limbs and branches, so I can trust God to carry all the weight and the amount of my troubles and my burdens.
Peter said in I Peter 5:7: “Casting all your cares upon Him, because He cares for you.” This carries the idea of throwing my cares upon God. Just as I threw those branches and limbs on the truck, so I can throw my cares upon God. And just as silly as it would be for me to chase Gary around the circle and try to carry the limbs myself, so it’s silly for me to throw my cares upon God but then try to take them back. Yet that’s exactly what I’m doing every time I pray but still worry and stew over my problems. Why is it so hard to just leave my burdens on the God Who WANTS to bear them for me? Why do I think that by losing sleep, or talking and talking about my issues, or continuing to try to solve my problems myself, or reading the next self-help book – that I can in any way accomplish any more than the donkeys and the false gods did in Isaiah’s time? Oh God, may I throw my worries and hurts and fears and pain upon You, fully upon You, and allow You to bear them and to carry me and deliver me!
Just like Gary’s good old truck!