Gardening: A metaphor for ministry
Those who know me know I love gardening and what gardens do for my soul. It is not one thing but multiple. It is the birds they attract that I could watch for hours, the tastes they produce that always exceed the flavour of store-bought and the smells and natural beauty they emit. Given that God made us for gardening (Gen 2:7-10) and we will be gathered to an eternal garden (Rev 22:1-5), surely God deemed that gardens would display His glory from the beginning of time to eternity.
As I spread mulch over our garden beds on a beautiful Melbourne Cup holiday, I reflected on the last 12 months of ministry at HBC. While I did, the parallels between garden work and church work hit me: caring for a garden is like caring for a church. When nurtured with love both are truly beautiful, soul strengthening and sweet smelling. When neglected, both are unpleasant to be in, difficult to work in, and ugly to behold. What I have come to realise is that pastoral work is garden work, and anyone who serves God’s people must become gardeners of God’s church. So, here are a few reflections on gardens and gardening to help us to become better gardeners so that Christ’s church might be a place of beauty and life:
1) Good gardeners continually feed and water
If you ceased to feed and water your garden the effects will take time to be evident. There is enough inherent moisture and nutrients in the soil to keep those plants going for some time but over time they will suffer. A healthy church is made up of people who feed themselves on God’s Word as a matter of life and death. Jesus was aware of the connection between feeding on God’s Word and life when He said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4, cf. John 6:63). No wonder Peter said to Jesus, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). To be a beautiful church the Word of God must be our spiritual food which we feed on every Sunday and every day in between. Neglect will be devasting.
2) Good gardeners keep weeds at bay
I can only imagine what it would have been like gardening in Eden. No weeds, thorns or thistles. All work is progress. But not after the fall. Despite our best efforts weeds grow in our gardens and, unless pulled out, will quickly overtake and destroy it. Sin in us and sin in the church does not need to be specifically planted or nurtured. It fares well when left alone unhindered. Beautiful churches are forever vigilant to weed out the sin before sin kills the church. Diligent gardeners are aware of a propensity toward sin in themselves and others and develop honest relationships. When this happens sin has no place to hide and is quickly dealt with.
3) Good gardeners are aware of seasonality
As one season folds into another, the garden changes and so does our care for it. In the same manner the people of God and the church of God go through their own seasons and each season requires a different approach, a special care, a particular word or a unique investment. Wise, loving, invested gardeners know what is needed in the right season and automatically respond with appropriate care.
4) Good gardeners keep their focus on the plants
There is so much work in maintaining a healthy garden. But despite all this work the wise gardener never forgets the number one goal: the plants. In the same way, with all the garden work required to nurture the church, we must not forget the number one priority: the people. Remembering this helps us always assess our actions and activity by asking this question, “How will this serve to care for and nurture God’s people?”. Let us not forget, garden work is plant work.
5) Good gardeners prune
I am delighted with the amount of fruit on our apricot tree this year. However, I can’t take the credit. One of our HBC sisters was kind enough to prune it well during the winter. In the same manner, the church doesn’t bear fruit unless she is pruned. This pruning takes so many forms, from illness to loss to persecution. But one common factor is that for those who are God’s children, such pruning must do its work if we are to bear fruit. For me, whether pruning or being pruned (now the metaphor is pushing the limits), this is the hardest to go through but the sweetest to experience and the most beautiful to see in and through the people of God. Joni Eareckson Tada said, “When sufferers exalt their Saviour, they infuse iron into the faith of others.”
6) Good gardeners are totally dependent upon the Lord
One last thing the wise gardener is ever aware of is his dependence upon God. God sovereignly rules over sunshine and rain and everything in between. We must respect the line between our work and God’s work. We are gardeners in God’s garden and we are called to be diligent. We are to sow, to prune, to feed, to nurture etc, but in the end, it is the Lord who will make the garden grow, bloom and bear fruit. But be assured, God uses the work of His gardeners to make His church a beautiful, live-giving, sweet-smelling people. Beloved, spring has sprung, and the garden awaits your tender hand. May we together be tillers in God’s garden, working diligently, awaiting our Master’s return.