A Growing Process | JT 25.4

Posted by Margaret Manning, on September 1, 2017
Topic: Just Thinking Magazine

As the summer arrives each year, I revisit many fond memories shared with family. I recall fishing outings with my older brother and grandfather. Living near Lake Erie, my grandfather would thrill us with stories of his great fishing adventures with Northern Pike and Muskie. They were great fighters and would continue that fight long after they had been pulled from the water and thrown into the boat.

My own fishing career, if you could call it that, was far less dramatic than my grandfather’s adventures. My career began at Lake Pymatuning. Whenever we came to visit in the summers, my grandfather would take my older brother and me to fish in this kinder, gentler lake. Unfortunately, I was never successful enough as an angler to know the thrill of catching many fish. What I was successful at was hooking someone in the boat! Both my brother and I bear the scars of fishing hooks in our arms and legs.

Summer also brings to mind my mother’s garden. I had watched for years as my mother worked in her garden and I appreciated the interplay of color and texture created by the various flowers, trees, and shrubs. But I didn’t know the first thing about the process of cultivating or caring for a garden, and as far as I was concerned, the details involved in that process were best left up to my mother.

But then I took up gardening—well, actually gardening seemed to take me up. It all started very innocently when a friend gave me a cutting from her jade plant. I knew nothing about plants. But all of that changed when I received my jade cutting from my friend. She knew just how to initiate me into the wonders of gardening without overwhelming me with the details. Jade plants are succulents; it’s simply a plant that doesn’t need a great deal of water or attention. In other words, it’s the perfect kind of plant for a novice gardener.

I was amazed by how quickly this one plant put down roots in my heart. Watching this little cutting grow tiny, threadlike roots, planting it in a pot filled with simulated desert soil, and experiencing the wonder as it grew into the small jade tree that it is today—over fifteen years later—amazed me at how something so small, so ordinary, could become extraordinary.

I can tell you that it didn’t take long before I began to try my hand at plants that required more attention and care: African violets, cyclamen, gerbera daisies, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, and a whole assortment of garden flora and fauna. I grew enchanted by the variety of color, texture, and arrangement each new species added to my garden. I learned about specific care regimens, their particular pests, the difference between a partial-sun and partial-shade plant, and how soil acidity impacts the color of certain types of plants.

As a gardener, nothing is more rewarding to me than reaping the benefits of my labor, whether a lovely bouquet of flowers or the bounty of my fruit and vegetable gardens. When a summer’s soil, sun, and rain are just right, everything grows, blooms, and produces a bountiful harvest.

But, as I soon learned after a few seasons of gardening, not everything is just right.

Morning glory belongs to a family of unique and tenacious plants. While offering beautiful white or purple blossoms, that beauty belies a more pernicious and tenacious nature to spread and take over one’s entire yard! Morning glory is a variety of bindweed, which grows from rhizomes—underground storage structures that promote the spread of the weed. Hardy, tenacious, and opportunistic, the morning glory will spread in such ways that it will destroy every square inch of the garden.

Battling this plant nemesis in my own gardens has given me a new understanding for the process involved in the cultivation and preservation of gardens. Digging deep to get up as many of the rhizomes as possible takes commitment, hard work, and a great deal of time. Often, I look out over garden beds cleared of any visible evidence of morning glory after my labor, only to look out the next day and see new shoots where I had just cleared them.

With all of this back-breaking labor, it is easy to be tempted towards finding an easier way: A rock garden, perhaps, instead of a green one? Why in the world would anyone be attracted to the inconvenience of going out and working long hours in the hot sun battling insects, weeds, and other pests for a garden? Why would I labor in the summer sun for beauty or for bounty?

When I labor over my garden, or any project for that matter, I am connected to a larger process, and not just an end result. It was my knees that began to ache from bending over, my hands that occasionally encountered a stinging or biting insect of one kind or another, my muscles that would cramp my fingers and hands from relentless weeding and digging. Yet, taking notice of this process makes me aware of my own tendency to desire convenience or to want to give up when things become difficult. Just as one might take for granted the process that goes into getting good food on filled grocery shelves, I often want for the shortcut or the expedience. Working hard to create conditions that enhance thriving for my flowers and vegetables in my own garden connects me to a part of the process that is done on my behalf on a much larger scale. I think of all the people who labor on my behalf so that I might enjoy the wonderful food on my grocery shelves. Going out and doing battle for my own garden reminds me that the process is just as important as the end product.

In many other regards, our busyness and commitment to convenience often keep us from engaging in vital processes that inform us of our beginning and guide us to our end, just as they contribute to a general amnesia about what it takes to put food on our tables. Our consumer conveniences often sever us from vital connections; we forget from whence we have come and where we are going. We look for the quick fix or the shortcut to the end goal rather than journeying through many arduous processes essential to our growth and development as human persons.

How similarly people of faith often wish for the easy way or the convenience of a “seven-step plan” for spiritual growth. And yet, Jesus’s frequent use of agricultural imagery should not surprise us. Some of the most beloved images from Jesus’s conversations with his disciples evoke the vine and branches from grapevines and vineyards that likely filled the landscape. Growing grapes requires a long process. It takes three years to establish a grape planting. Yet, even during the third season, only a limited harvest may be expected from the vines. The first full crop normally takes between four to five years.

Perhaps this knowledge can give new insight into the words of Jesus:

I am the vine; you are the branches…Remain in me, and I will remain in you…no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine…remain in my love…I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.1

The spiritual life, like our development as human beings, is about the process. God, the Gardener, begins to tend to the soil of our lives. Through the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification, the weeds of sin are dug out, and branches are pruned so that we can bear much fruit. To be sure, some years the ground lies fallow or the harvest is lean. Just as in farming, the process of spiritual growth involves watching and waiting, tilling and cultivating the land, even having to persevere and dig deep to pull out yet another encroaching rhizome. We will bear the marks of weathered hands and feet, sore backs and tired knees. There are no short cuts for a bountiful harvest. But we trust the One who chose us and appointed us to bear fruit—that the process will produce fruit that lasts.


Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

1 See John 15:1-16.