Landscaping the Soul 2010

Welcome to our Holiday edition. One of the beauties of the Holiday season is the traditions that have become part of our lives. I am so pleased that last year’s Christmas edition was read and favored by so many. I received personal comments, as well as emails about how meaningful the article was, encouraging, and bringing positive changes in people’s lives. As a landscaper/writer, it does not get any better than this. So back by popular demand, we are rerunning this article, making only minor changes for clarity’s sake. So please enjoy. Get your coffee or tea, slippers and robe and sit down with me. May the article and its intent be a blessing to you this Christmas/Holiday season and throughout the year.

This article is still about landscaping, but not with plants, trees, soil and boulders, but with encouragement, faith, character and truth. Not our physical yards, but the “yards of our soul.” They also need “tending to.” Like our physical yards, our souls get “weeds” (attitudes), need “pruning” (character development), do well with regular fertilizing (love and encouragement) and need light (truth/faith) to grow and be healthy, to “bloom” with peace and joy, to grow with strength and character. These attributes just don’t come, they need to be cultivated; they need to be practiced. Just like a beautiful and fruitful garden, we need the same care. I want to talk about that care and specifically about character and faith.

I love nature, plants and landscaping. I see so much truth in them that I can apply to daily living. I was having breakfast with a good friend, who is an arborist by profession and we were talking about this very topic, the truths we see in nature. He shared a story with me that his instructor taught him while he was studying for his license. A couple had bought a home in the country and on their new property was a stand of oak trees, beautiful overall, except the first row. The first row was noticeably distorted, rough, shorter and thicker in stock than the trees behind them. So they decided to remove the first row exposing the taller, greener, more beautifully shaped oaks. So with the help of some friends, they cut the distorted oaks down, getting quite a pile of fire wood, which once dried, burned hotter and warming the house more than any of the oak wood they had bought previously. Well as winter is, we get storms and some bring high winds. To the couple and their friends’ surprise they noticed that with each strong storm, some of the branches of the oaks would break, and on occasion a whole tree would come down. This happened for several years until their stand of oaks had been reduced to about half. At this point they thought it best to get help, worried about disease that if not controlled, would soon decimate their beloved oaks.

The instructor took the call and was the one to go out. Upon hear- ing the concern and inspecting the oaks, he asked why the first row of trees were removed, taking note that the stumps were thicker, having tighter growth rings (the yearly growth measurement of any tree) than the other stumps he observed. He also inquired from what direction the winds came from. The couple replied that when they first purchased the home that these oaks were stunted and unsightly, so they removed them to view the more beautiful oaks. They also replied that the winds came from the southwest, understanding then that the first row would have taken the brunt of the winds.

Once hearing this, the instructor gave them an answer they did not expect. The first row of oaks had grown in the presence of the storms, so they grew stouter, more deeply rooted, and their appearance bore the look of many a storm. They were the “guardians” for the rest of the stand, providing a wind barrier, allowing the rest of oaks to grow more uniformly in their protection. Without the pressure of the winds, the roots of the other oaks were shallow, their trunks lacked stoutness, and the branches were long and graceful and not able to bear up against the winds. The instructor said that it would be just a matter of time before all the oaks would come down. He recommended a canopy reduction, reducing the branch weight, fertilization to encourage root growth, and time. The couple was grateful for his time and advice, saddened by how foolish they had been.

When I heard this story it amazed me how close to life this was. I see two obvious truths, the mistake that the couple had made by not consulting an expert prior to removing the oaks, and the importance of that first row of oaks to the rest of the stand. I also have made mistakes like that, feeling hurried and not consulting, and they have cost me.

Currently as a society we are suffering because of financially unsound decisions that started with our mortgages. Our culture has been so prosperous, so trouble-free in general, that we have grown without the need to have caution, believing that we are “entitled” to the “American Dream” that has turned into an “American nightmare” that has affected us all. We grew accustomed to a “Burger King Culture” (have it your way) that provided instant gratification, where bigger is always better, and credit was how we bought our toys. We have lost our way, believing that things and money can “buy” quality of life… and it DOES NOT.

I learned this lesson in Mexico where I spent several summers on mission trips. My equals were happy and content with so little, they spent time talking and laughing, valuing each other, their lives were very simple. I learned that quality of life is internal, found within one’s character. That struggle is not bad; in fact it is necessary for character to develop. To learn to enjoy the things we do have, to be grateful for the things we can afford, and not coveting the “bigger and better” and most importantly to have contentment with thankfulness. How critical are these lessons, how important that we live them out for our children to see.

Now character, as invaluable as it is, has a partner, can you guess? When “married” together it completes the soul, it is faith. I so love faith, and it is not that flowery, whimsical faith that believes that if I smile at the world it will smile back. It helps to smile yes, but I have received my share of frowns as well. Not everyone or every circumstance smiles back, some want to “take you down.” So character when united with faith to me is best likened to that first row of oaks. They grow in the presence of adversity, the winds of trial and testing serve to deepen the roots of faith, developing our character, making us real, and causing us to stand “lean and mean,” readied for the challenges ahead—something that a “satisfy me now” culture severally lacks.

As important as character and faith are, the object of our faith is CRITICAL, and determines our character. Last year my wife shared a particular Bible lesson with me, I cannot remember the story she read, but her comments I wrote down. They were this: “In this broken world you get a ‘junk load of parts’ with which to build your life; and since we live in a broken world, life is not fair. Some people get ‘better parts,’ (more talented, better opportunity, smarter etc.) than we do, but fretting or complaining about it only makes it worse. It gets you nowhere. If anything self pity makes you go backwards in life. Accepting your parts, taking ownership of them, is the birthplace of character. Working with your parts, doing your best, develops your character.

Another comment she made is about the need to have an “other world mindedness.” This is where faith comes in. There is a God who loves me and desires me to know Him. How do I know this aside from the Scriptures (the Bible)? God’s handiwork is evident in all of creation, like a master painter creating his work of art. So He has made creation for our enjoyment, and as a testimony of His presence. As one acknowledges the landscaper behind the landscape, so creation speaks of His Greatness. With each sunrise and sunset, I am reminded of His ability to hold my life together, despite the challenges and pressures I am facing.

What happens if I do not have an “otherworld mindedness,” believing that this life is all there is? There is a saying that speaks to the perspective that one develops when godly faith is not active. It goes like this: “Get all you can, can what you get, and sit on the can.” The problem is no one told us that the bottom can fall out…and then what? When this life is all there is, where does one turn in time of crisis or loss? How important it is to have an “other world minded- ness”, a personal faith in God, a faith that acknowledges the Cross; the Cross, for all its violence and horrific statement of death, is also beautiful. For it so completely speaks of a Savior’s love, and of our need to come to Him and to be made whole! He is bigger than all our problems, and He is able to forgive us our wrongs and restore us unto Himself. The hardships we suffer He can use to develop character and deepen faith in Him, to get our attention –as He sets us on a new course, and grow in us an “other world mindedness,” the hope of Heaven. This helps us put the challenges and hardships of this life in right perspective. As this new faith grows in you, you will take life and yourself less seriously. You will find hope in time of trial, and He will give you courage to face the challenges and fears that seek to “take you down.” I know this to be true- because I am a growing and ever changing testimony of His handiwork. I am far from perfect, yet I find within me a spiritual current, like a determined course of water, quiet yet strong, that is ever growing me into a man of godly faith. So when difficulties come, pressures as we all have and face, I come to Him, as a son to a loving Father, kneeling in prayer making my requests -to Him, spend- ing time in His presence; and in that state, unhurried waiting upon Him, there comes a point that I know He has heard me. I then rise in gratitude knowing that He will work out His will in this matter, not my will, but His. I have learned through the years that His ways are much better, not always understood, but that He can be fully trusted with the very deepest concerns I bare. With burdens removed, I am ready to move forward in this life of faith—having His hope, His strength, His wisdom, His direction, His scriptures, and His LOVE, quickening my steps, as I go forth to face my next giant.

If you would like to know the Lord in this personal way, I invite you to go to my website, go to publications and click on December 10, part 2. Thank you so much for reading, I trust that what I have said has encouraged and challenged you. May you have a blessed Christmas, and thank you for spending your time with me; it means so much, especially this time. God Bless.