“Great gardeners grow soil.”
Last week I was listening to a fun podcast (of course I was), and the person being interviewed was a passionate gardener. At one point she said, “A bad gardener grows weeds. A good gardener grows plants. Great gardeners grow soil.”
A bad gardener grows weeds. A good gardener grows plants. Great gardeners grow soil. ~ Caroline Malatesta
Now, I am not a gardener at all, so maybe this is a gardening truism that is familiar to many of you; it was powerfully new to me. I have read my Bible frequently enough, however, to realize that growing-things metaphors are plentiful in God’s Word and have a lot to teach us. In a sense, this entire creation and all of its history is one giant, living parable (see Psalm 78, for example).
Immediately, although the podcaster was speaking of a literal garden, thoughts began swirling as to the implications of this concept in all areas of my life. I haven’t stopped pondering her quote for days. I’ll mention two implications briefly in passing, and the third a bit more in depth.
Good Gardening – v – Great Gardening in Parenting
While a good gardener may produce children who appear obedient and well-behaved, a great gardener will care about what is going on in the heart of these children. Of course it is good to desire and promote obedience. But rather than focusing merely on an external product, a great-gardener-parent will especially be concerned about the faith and character and inner struggles at play in the souls of these precious, tender plants in our charge.
As that good inner soil is cultivated, it will provide nourishment and the opportunity for developing deep roots and long-term external growth. Otherwise we run the risk of getting excited about great looking plants that wither in the sun (Matthew 13).
Good Gardening – v – Great Gardening in Teaching
A good gardener will, rightly, care that children are responsible to complete their assignments. A good gardener will care that the students in their care are acquiring knowledge and skills and are being challenged to grow and develop and reach for high achievements. A great gardener will take it further, nurturing a love of learning, an ability in the student to process and think through things deeply on their own, a humility, and a delight in God’s truth.
Rather than focusing solely on the production of good test scores and awesome worksheets or projects, a great-gardener-teacher will cultivate within the soil-minds of their student those ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty that give meaning to their external academic achievements. A great-gardener-teacher will be more concerned with their student’s humility than with their ability.
Good Gardening – v – Great Gardening in Adulting
Now, at times, all of us may fall prey to being bad gardeners of our own lives. But, most likely, your deepest temptation is not to live a life of debauchery and wickedness, weeds sprouting up all over the place. We all have weeds to uproot, of course, but you’re probably already aware of that and hopefully not actively planting them. Oh, may I please stop planting weeds in my own life! That’s a whole other topic for another day!
But hearing this quote on gardening struck me deeply with its implications for how I pursue my own life as an individual. Isn’t it easy for all of us- whether mothers, fathers, workers in the home, workers outside of the home, students, or whatever your current calling is- to focus merely on that external productivity that seems to provide meaning to our daily life? We judge ourselves and we judge other people based on how tall our plants are growing, how many there are, and how much value we’re getting from our crop.
Maybe we’re doing a really good job at being a good gardener in our life. We’re working hard, long hours, with seemingly healthy plants to show for it. But what happens long term in a garden whose soil is not being fed, nourished, and nurtured? The first year or so, maybe the plants still are abundant and appear vibrant. Over time, however, the nutrients have all been depleted. There’s nothing left. You put in the same seeds, same water, same sun…but the plants are spindly, don’t produce too much, and seem weak and listless. Where will we be in our life many years down the road, if we do not nourish the soil deep within?
Now, of course, I am not seeking here to undermine the supernatural component to the growth of a garden whether literal or figurative. I am fully aware that while man may plant and the sun may shine, it is the Lord who gives the increase. But this is should not cause us to ignore the ramifications of seeking to work-work-work and produce-produce-produce without digging a little deeper and considering how to nourish and grow the soil in our own hearts.
I see three primary ways we can grow our own personal soil:
This is the central and most necessary nutrient. I hate even to call it that, because it sounds like it is one ingredient among many equals. Indeed, our faith must permeate all that we do. But here I am speaking specifically of ensuring that our own personal relationship with our Savior is not overshadowed by all the Godly Things we do in His name.
If I am constantly discipling my children, for example, but never replenishing my own heart with God’s Word and prayer, I will quickly start losing the health of my ministry. How often am I really good at praying with and for my children, but not taking time to pray and meditate on Scripture on my own time?
Whether you are a parent or not, how often do we all serve faithfully in the church, doing many good and worthwhile things, while our own relationship with our Lord suffers? Those around you may only see this year’s good garden and think you have it all together. Over time, however, we will be producing false fruit of the flesh from soil drained of a true, deep love for Jesus.
Are you filling your soil with the Word of God? Prayer? The sacraments? These are the means of grace! If God Himself promises to work in us through these simple and ordinary means, who are we to cast them aside?
It is all too easy to produce, produce, produce at the expense of taking care of our bodies. We get by on too-little sleep in the name of our long to-do list. We forsake faithful stewardship of our health in the name of productivity and too-little-time. I drink that extra cup or two of coffee and eat that extra sugar to push just a little further than I should.
This year’s plants look great. Look at all I’ve accomplished.
But over time, as we deplete the resources of these bodies God has entrusted to us, we won’t be able to get these same results. It is not good stewardship to abuse the bodies we have been given. It is not a good investment strategy to squeeze all the life we can as quickly as we can out of our present, with no thought to cultivating our future.
For example, might “growing our soil” look like going to bed early, before the to-do list in completed? We all know the reality that sleep is a huge factor in health and well-being. God “gives His loved ones sleep.” It is a gift of God we often squander to our detriment. When John and I first got married, I would get so irritated because he went to bed so early…and admonished me to turn my light off, too! Now, I am so thankful for our habit of regular rest. We aren’t as fun as other people. We don’t do as many things. I get “sadly” behind in my tv-viewing, especially now that I don’t have a nursing infant! But I always notice the effects of little sleep when I try to fit in “one more important thing,” and quickly realize that the “extra hour of work” really means I’ve stolen life from my future.
The same thing could be said about nurturing our nutrition, our healthy daily movement, our routine dental/medical/eye care, etc. Is there a checkup, test, routine doctor’s visit, or something else you’ve been putting off? Right now, put it in your calendar. Call the doctor. Make the appointment. “Saving time” now is only stealing nutrients from your soil for tomorrow.
It was hard to come up with a term here. Mind? Heart? Relationships? Emotions? I love how the Bible uses the word “heart” to refer to the whole man: how we think, feel, believe, etc. But “heartily” doesn’t really mean what I want it to mean in this context. So I used “mentally” to refer to our mind/heart combination in this context for parallelism. (side note: I’d love a comment if you have a fantastic vocabulary word I’m overlooking in this context!)
Vocabulary nerd alert aside, I think it is so important that we adults don’t forget to love learning. As a teacher, I am surrounded by and constantly speaking to others the mantra of “instill a love of learning” and “you want your children to be life-long learners.” So how sad would it be if I were not that life-long learner I want my children to become? As a parent, I want to model before my kids an adult life that’s awesome (Julie Bogart calls this “Awesome Adulting,” and I love that phrase!). Random lecture down at the local university? If I can swing it, I’m there. Fascinating audio lecture cds from the library? I’m all in. Experiment with learning a new language just because? Let’s do it. I can’t hypocritically tell my kids that it is fun to learn while I’m just draining the academic nutrient reserves from my own soil.
Even if you do not have children, how easy is it to jump into the workforce and leave fascinating learning for its own sake behind? Do you read books or listen to lectures or pursue quirky knowledge that has nothing to do with your current career? Are you growing your soil so that in years to come, when you retire or your career changes, you have a wealth of nutrients to send out new shoots of growth? Or will we all end up spindly and weak, having drained all our saved resources without replenishing them?
I could go on, but I’ll try to restrain myself. We could easily discuss the need to grow the soil of friendship (this is a topic that deserves its own post, because adult friendship is hard). What about the nutrients of community? Relationship with our spouse, if applicable? (I don’t want to become just be a Mom and a Dad, but remain primarily a Husband and Wife team!) Oh, the more I think about this metaphor, the more nutrients I consider need to be incorporated as I “grow the soil” of my life!
Grow Your Soil
You’re probably not a bad gardener routinely. On those days we are, let us repent of the weed-sowing we’ve done. Let us pray for a Holy Spirit’s removal of those sinful habits and desires.
But let us also not get complacent in our Good Gardening. Let’s not just look to the externals- in our children, in our students, in our own lives- and ignore the soul soils from which the externals are growing.
Let us pray to the True Gardener- the One who brought forth all things by the Word of His power- that He might enable us to grow our soils: to replenish our hearts with spiritual truth, to sustain our bodies with physical stewardship, and to stretch our minds with wonder and delight.
Because a great gardener is the one who grows the soil.