In the rhythms of gardening there are flowers and plants that are harbingers of the beginning of the end, the plants that herald the coming autumn. In some gardens it is sea hollies or sunflowers beginning to blossom, but in my garden, the end of the growing season is marked by the cutting down of the delphiniums.
I live in a place where the growing season is vibrant but short. You get one shot at every plant and once a growing season is done, it is done for another 10 months. I make many different attempts to extend the life of plants in my garden - it often involves "queen size" nylons and tying plants to the fence in the hopes that I can stop them from breaking as they fall and droop. But eventually the time comes when the nylons are the only thing keeping them standing and it is time to prune and cut and clear out.
I resist cutting the delphiniums down because it is how I hold onto the summer. They stand 7 or 8 feet high and once they are gone my garden always seems so empty and barren. Cutting them down feels like I am giving in. Giving in to the inevitable march of time, giving in to the winter that is not so very far away.
But this year, something surprising happened.
I bemoaned the inevitable day and everyone in my family heard about it. I do not mourn quietly. I trudged out with my clippers and began the real and unromantic work of a gardener - pruning.
I cut the stocks and pulled and piled the large flowers to be composted and discarded. And there, underneath the giants, I discovered new delphiniums growing. I was going to get a second chance, a second growing season.
They were a little spindly and fragile and their bright spring green stood in stark contrast to the darker green of a ripening garden. They were new and fresh and full of potential with little flowers already on the way.
If I had waited a few weeks more, the new delphiniums might have been smothered entirely. If I had not been willing to cut down the old plants, the new plants wouldn't have been able to grow. My act of pruning was giving new life.
In John 15, Jesus says to his disciples, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be more fruitful." Jesus says that pruning is a part of life for the unfruitful and the fruitful, for the unrighteous and the righteous. Pruning is for everyone.
In a world of excess this concept seems conterintuitive. We judge careers and lifestyles, churches and ourselves by what we can see. "Big" means you have done the right thing. "Large" means you are on the right track. "Many" means that you get a pat on the back. But, The Upside Down Kingdom of God uses a different standard. God says that less is good, less is required, less can be more fruitful. Pruning is part of the process. We can't have it all at the same time.
Pruning is how healthy gardens works and how the Great Gardener cares for his gardens. And yet, I have spent so much of my life afraid of pruning. I have been afraid when God asks me to surrender to Him. The unfruitful branches are a little easier to offer but God has asked for branches that have real fruit on them too, the branches that I liked, and the branches that seemed essential to my identity.
I have been afraid of pruning because I have allowed myself to believe the bad press God gets in our culture. I have been afraid because I have believed that God is cold, unfeeling, mean, cut throat and brutal. And in these times, in the times when God seems to be more mysterious in his workings, I hold onto what He told Moses about himself, "The LORD, the LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands.." (Exodus 34:6-7) I believe it because this IS who he is.
So here is the important truth God is speaking to me through my new little delphiniums: when God prunes, he does not leave us empty handed. His pruning creates space that He is faithful to fill. He gives us himself and fills our "gardens" with his presence and our lives with His goodness, His work, and His Kingdom. He is causing new things to grow, secret new life. It is the work that only he can do. He prunes our lives so that we can abide in Him and grow meaningful fruit that aligns with his purposes.
God is in the process of pruning my life right now. I am surprised at how little seems left after he has gone through. He is asking me to clear out so many significant things, so many things that I felt defined and built me up over my life or gave my life worth. I am surrendering all that I thought I was and asking who it is that I am... or atleast I am trying.
My life looks surprisingly small these days. Quiet, small and, to be honest, a little empty. But the gift of these new unexpected delphiniums is teaching me to trust. A little hint and encouragement of the good things that come from pruning, from surrendering. I am learning to receive the gift of His presence and abide with Him here - in the open and empty spaces. And learning to not try and fill it all up again.
Pruning, at first, might look barren to the rest of the world and even to ourselves. Sometimes we prune and there is nothing obvious in its place. Sometimes the harvest is not realized for a long time. Pruning is an exercise in hope and trust. A belief that new things are growing, that God is faithful, that hiding underneath the large plants there are new plants growing.
This August I am thankful for the new life that is growing - even if it is thinner, smaller, and not quite as showy at this point. When I see the little new delphiniums trying to grow in my garden, I am reminded of the fact that God is close and walking with me. He is giving me what I need in this season and tending to me as a good gardener would. God is pruning to make my life more fruitful. There are new things, things others might not see yet, things not ready to produce fruit yet. But there is something growing.
The Good Great Gardener is graciously using my delphiniums to remind me that I need not be afraid of what He is asking me to do. And you don't need to afraid either. This winnowing of our souls is not in vain and we need not fear the pruning shears of God. There are new and unexpected things growing in their place. There are new seasons ahead. I am in the care of the Great Gardener who never sleeps nor slumbers and watches over me. Where else would I want to be?