Beneath the Surface

This year marks the second spring in our new house. When we moved to Rural Hall in 2019, I brought more than just furniture and clothes. Over a long period of time I had collected nearly forty unique rose bushes, and there was no way I was going to leave them behind. After unpacking the necessities, I got busy planting. However, I had not yet taken the time yet to fully plan out my long-term garden design. I just wanted to get my investments in the ground before they began to wither and waste away.

One growing season revealed that I had not planted some of them in the best location. Many of them were suffering from a lack of sun, while others were taking up too much space. I decided my best option was to move the entire collection to one location in my front yard.

It wasn’t long after the transplant that I noticed a trend. Some of the leaves began to curl up and die. At first, I wasn’t too alarmed. I expected the plants to experience some minor shock from the move. What really began to alarm me was when the death spread from the leaves to the canes and down toward the roots. In just a little over a week, the future of my rose garden went from bright to bleak.

I knew exactly what the problem was. I had made one crucial mistake, and it was something I knew better than to do. I moved the plants too late in the year. It may have only been a few weeks too late, but still, it was too late. I watched almost helplessly as some of the plants slowly recovered while others dwindled and eventually died. In the end, I lost nine bushes. I learned a valuable lesson–the right move at the wrong time can be deadly. However, that wasn’t all I learned.

My immediate reflex was to dig the plants up and throw them away. I thought empty space would look better than brown, bare branches. Still, I don’t know whether it was the voice of laziness or wisdom, but something told me to leave them alone. Day after day, week after week, I watched the progress of the other bushes as they began to flourish and flower. Yet, even with all the excitement of the first bloom, I felt a twinge of sadness every time I passed those dry, prickly sticks reaching up from the ground.

Then, one day something changed. Passing by one of the bushes, I noticed a little green bump with a single red freckle. To most people, that would mean very little, but I knew that meant the show I thought had ended was coming out with a sequel. Day after day, other bumps appeared and unhurriedly turned to buds, but it only happened to four of the nine dearly departed plants. After giving the matter a lot of thought, I decided to leave the five dead bushes in the ground until next spring. I couldn’t replace them this year anyway, so I cut the dead shoots down to the ground and left the roots to rot away. It seemed that that was the end of the story, but I soon discovered it was only the beginning of a whole new chapter.

Only a few short days ago, I was weeding the rose garden and uncovered something shocking. I reached around a plant to pull a tiny little weed that was barely peaking its green head above the surface. Just before I pulled it, I realized it wasn’t a weed at all. Carefully, I scratched the mulch away and found three other shoots almost ready to break out into the light. Further investigation revealed that two other graves were bursting with life as well. Although I know it was a natural process, it felt like a miracle. I had just witnessed the dead raised to life. Some of my roses were going to make it after all! Even though the bushes appeared to be dead, things were going on beneath the surface that the eye could not see.

God has always taught me the most memorable lessons while in my garden. That day I was reminded of a truth that became fresh and real all over again: we never know what’s going on beneath the surface, but time will always tell the truth about the root. 

In the New Testament, Luke recorded one of Jesus’ parables. He said, “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

I think that Jesus’ obvious point was that a life that does not bear fruit is a life that will one day be cut down. Yet, though not Jesus’ primary emphasis, I can’t help but think about the gardener’s response–give it time, I will give it attention, and then if it still doesn’t bear fruit, we can cut it to the root. The words, “let it alone this year also,” have been bouncing around in my head ever since I discovered all my bushes weren’t dead. I almost made the mistake of killing living plants because they appeared to be dead for a season. God used that moment to remind me that though His work is not always visible, it is always viable. By that, I mean, just because things look dead on the surface does not mean that God is not bringing about new life underneath.

Whether it is in the lives of those we love or the situations we face personally, the story is never over until God runs out of ink, and God’s ink well has never run dry. We can’t always see what He is doing, but that is not a reason to assume He isn’t doing anything. Underneath what appears to be the browning branches of a loveless marriage, the shriveled leaves of a long dry season, or the sharp thorns of a rebellious heart, may be a living root that God is personally cultivating and caring for.

Our part is learning the wisdom to wait before we dig, to listen to the voice that says stay when we would rather go, and to hope for life when all we see is death. When God is involved, there may still be shoots from roots we thought we killed and buds on bushes we were certain were dead.  It’s easy to look at a person’s exterior and assume there is nothing happening on the interior, but we must be careful to remember that God often digs in depths we can’t see.  He works beneath the surface. He transforms graveyards into gardens.

-Pastor Benjamin Webb

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