The thing I like most about our yard and the thing I like least are related.
Between our yard and the neighbor's yard, there are five towering evergreens. There’s a massive oak. In the middle of the front yard is a giant, ancient, Japanese maple. It’s beautiful. Surrounded by all these trees, our home feels like it’s in the country—private and quiet. I love having all those trees.
The thing I like least about our yard is that it is incredibly difficult to grow grass. About half of our front yard is mostly mud and moss. With kids and a dog, that means mud and moss migrate into the house.
Here’s my tension: Big, beautiful trees block the sun, and you can’t have a lawn without sun.
A couple of years ago, I decided to try to work on this problem. My goal was to get more grass to grow in our lawn. This was a difficult goal, though. I couldn't force grass to grow. If I laid sod, the sod wouldn’t take because there’s not enough sun. If I planted seeds, the seeds wouldn’t sprout because there’s not enough sun. So, what could I do?
First, I hired a tree service. I’m not cutting those trees down; I love them too much. But there’s a three-layer canopy over part of the lawn, and that’s too much. So, the tree guys thinned out the Japanese maple. They removed a branch the size of a tree from the neighboring oak that had grown over our yard. They trimmed back the smaller trees, all to let a bit more light through.
Next, I started adding some quality soil. That old maple in the middle of our yard has roots everywhere, and the soil between the roots is hard-packed. Water just runs off it. It’s too hard for grass to take root. So, I broke up the soil and then added some topsoil and sand.
Finally, I started over-seeding. A couple of times a year, I get grass seed of a variety that grows well in shade. I spread it over the whole lawn.
Two years into this project, the grass is just beginning to grow. It’s not a nice lawn that you could lay on. There are awkward clumps of healthy grass pushing back the moss and breaking up the dirt. This spring they were beginning to spread. Those little clumps of grass are the start. They show that the conditions for growth are changing.
Prepare for the possibility of growth.
Here’s what we know: I can’t force grass to grow. No amount of time and effort focused on the grass itself will get me to my goal. The grass will either grow or it won’t, and I don’t have direct access to make that happen. We also know that grass needs sun. I can’t make the sun shine. (I live in Portland. Lack of sun is our gig.) I can’t reach inside the grass and crank up the photosynthesis.
I can’t make the grass grow, or the sun shine, or the rain come. Even so, I’m not without options. I can address the conditions. I can prepare for the possibility of growth.
I can do something about the obstacles that have grown between the grass and the sun. I can break up the soil so that water seeps in and the seeds can take root. I can fertilize. I can rake away the moss. I can even over-seed, making sure that more and more of what I hope for is introduced to the soil.
None of this guarantees growth. All it does is prepare for the possibility. I can invest in the right conditions for growth and trust that the natural processes God creates will take hold.
This is how spiritual growth works.
Growing in character, increasing in the fruit of the Spirit, growing in deeper relationship with God—these things cannot be directly addressed.
When we put our effort, trying our best to muscle up growth in these areas, all that effort becomes what the old preachers called “dead works.” Lots of religious busyness. It may look good. It may even earn you a bunch of back-pats and trophies in your religious community. But none of that effort will force spiritual growth. For some people, it may even stifle growth.
Growth is not an act of will, strength, or performance. It is a natural process guided by the Holy Spirit.
Focus more on conditions than outcomes.
Jesus said as much when he told us that the branch only bears fruit when it’s connected to the vine. In John 15:1-10, the well-known Vine Life passage, Jesus makes our priority plain. Fruit matters. But we can’t make fruit happen by focusing on fruit.
In some religious communities, we’ve become hyper-focused on watching for fruit. We measure fruit. We reward fruit. We highlight folks with beautiful fruit and sideline people whose fruit we cannot see. This focus changes the way that individuals think about their spiritual life. If their church family focuses on fruit, they will, too.
“Am I doing enough?” “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I avoiding the wrong thing?” “Have I overcome that besetting sin?” “Have I served or given or sacrificed?” Questions like these betray a focus on fruit. When we’re focused on fruit, we can easily lose sight of the one thing that actually helps fruit happen—our connection to the vine.
That’s where our focus matters. We pay attention to the conditions that nurture spiritual growth. The condition that nurtures spiritual growth is our connection to the Vine, the One who gives us life.
In my yard, those awkward clumps of new grass, pushing up through the mud, are exciting to see. They show growth is happening. They are an indication that, indeed, the conditions are changing for the better.
In our hearts, we might have similar awkward clumps of new growth. Maybe you’re a little more patient this year than you were last. I’m a bit more able to notice when my pride tries to take control in a conversation. I can laugh at it now. Maybe our hearts are just a little bit faster to turn back toward Jesus when uncertainty or pain comes our way. Maybe you notice people in need a bit more often and are a little less tight-fisted with them.
In these and many other ways, we can see that conditions in our hearts are changing. This doesn’t happen because we’ve set out to become better Christians, carefully managing a list of good Christian behavior.
This is what happens when we focus on the condition for growth—staying connected to the vine.
Marc Alan Schelske writes about life at the intersection of grace and growth at MarcAlanSchelske.com where this article originally appeared. (It is reprinted here with permission.) He is the teaching elder at Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon, where he has served for nearly 20 years. He's the author of Discovering Your Authentic Core Values, and the upcoming book The Wisdom of Your Heart. Marc is a husband, dad of two, speaker, writer, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist who drinks tea and rides a motorcycle. You can follow him on Twitter at @Schelske.
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