Looking for Fruit

We inherited fruit trees when we moved into our home nearly two decades ago: Plum, cherry and peach with thornless blackberry bushes thrown in as a bonus. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Naturally, when the season came, we were looking for fruit.

Peaches were not forthcoming.

The tree looked pitiful, leaning crookedly to one side with gnarled, dead limbs. That first fall, I got a book on pruning and went to work, knowing that once the beneficial whacking was done I could expect nothing the following spring. The tree would skip a yePeachtreear of bearing.

Three years in the little tree popped with gorgeous and fragrant peach blossoms. Then they were gone! No flowers = no fruit. We quickly discovered Bambi & Co. visited our yard to graze on all things green.

Fast forward: When blossoms managed to survive to produce fruit one year, the tiny peaches were infested by hole-boring bugs that left sticky black goo in their wake. I invested in organic sprays. Another time,  plump peaches promised a real harvest. They began to turn yellow and smell delicious. Overnight they vanished.

  • In desperation, the next year my husband strung habanero peppers around the tree like Christmas lights to ward off the deer. Later, he caught a glimpse of squirrels in the tree knocking our precious peaches to the ground – half eaten.
  • Determined to have peach rewards for our labor, we plucked a few to ripen in the window sill one year before leaving on vacation, knowing there would be nothing left when we returned.

This year, my husband had enough. He insisted on chopping the tree down. “It’s no good,” he’d say repeatedly. “Just taking up space. Might as well start over.”

I begged him to leave it alone another year.  I sprayed it. I talked to it. Life got busy and I forgot it.

One day he was mowing and stopped near the tree. Were those peaches beneath the full leaves? Indeed, they were. After 17 years of nursing this tree, we harvested 9 good-sized organic peaches. Fuzzy, vine-ripened, full-flavored with a little blush on the skin. Absolutely worth the wait!peaches

This year’s harvest was the fruit of patience and mercy. The tree didn’t deserve it, but its survival depended on it.

In Luke 13, Jesus shares the parable of a man who is repeatedly disappointed to find not a single fig on a well-tended fig tree. The tree took and took and gave nothing in return. The owner determined to get rid of it. The gardener asked for another year to tend and nourish it. If it still produced nothing, the owner was free to axe it.

In a prior conversation Jesus and the disciples discuss a disaster that left 18 men dead after a tower fell on them. Did the disciples imagine the men who perished were more wicked sinners than others in the city? Jesus said they were not: “No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)

Our peach tree brought this story home for me. That tree is my life’s story and perhaps yours, too. I have received much and returned little: a mix of no fruit, wormy fruit, spoiled fruit, small fruit, only occasionally good fruit and not enough of it.

I live not because I am any more consistent or any less sinful than those whose graves I have stood over. I live – each of us lives – because God has mercifully given us more time. Each day is a gift and an opportunity. He waits patiently for those of us who claim to be Christ followers to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8)

Even so, the day will come when our time is up.

“Indeed, the ax is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

Let the Winds Blow

winds  A couple of days ago a nor’easter raked the Atlantic Coast with high seas and storm to gale force winds. I went into the yard of my North Carolina home this afternoon to survey the aftermath. Limbs were strewn all over, some as much as four feet long, stripped from pine, cherry and Bradford pear trees.

Hard to believe I was in this yard a couple of weeks ago on a suddenly 80-degree winter day, picking up only a few relatively small limbs scattered about.

Today, I was confronted with heavy, rotted limbs fallen everywhere. They were leafless but seemed firmly attached, before the winds came. Roughly 5000 Fitbit steps and many wheel-barrow loads later, the debris is cleared. Everything that could be shaken has been removed. What cannot be shaken remains.

That’s a metaphor for the life of the believer.

Like my trees before the storm, our lives can look green but be filled with dead things we cling to because we don’t realize they’re dead. That is, until life’s winds begin to blow. Trouble comes and our attachments to the dry, dead stuff of this world are loosened. Our pretensions, our busyness, our little attitudes all fall away.

Get a lay-off slip and suddenly we can prune the dead-weight from the budget with ease. Get a bad medical test result and overnight our health is the most important thing in our world. Get a text alert that our child’s school is on lock-down with a potentially active-shooter on the ground and family – not work, so important moments earlier – becomes the priority.

I don’t like storms; they portend disaster. Yet, God allows them. He speaks in the shaking. He knows we often don’t recognize the dead weights and besetting sins we need to cast off. He also knows that even when we do recognize them, we often lack the will to act.

I long knew which trees in my yard needed pruning. The work was not a priority. My arborist’s last visit came with a hefty bill and I was in no hurry to invite him back. I kept putting it off until a more convenient season.

We do that. We know we should. And we would, but we don’t.

  • We’re in a questionable relationship. We know we should probably end it, but we don’t.
  • We know our finances are over-extended and we should probably live less large. We do nothing because we like the high life.
  • We know our church-life is religious theater. We have no interest in a real relationship with God because of what it might cost us. We keep playing the role.

Whatever our story, God loves us enough to sometimes send a storm. The Bible speaks of God as a gardener and Jesus Christ as the true vine. Jesus says: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” If we’re not bearing fruit, we’re cut away. Cuttings end up in the fire. God doesn’t want that.

So, like a nor’easter, the winds of life come to violently shake away the dead wood so that Christ followers are prepared to receive a kingdom that is unshakable.

The shaking will come. Hold firmly to the word of God, and let the winds blow!

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12: 28-29

How grows your garden?


This is a tale of one plant in two seasons.

The wax begonia pictured above is proof that we can’t always look at a thing and tell if it’s viable: whether it will live or die, grow or shrink, strengthen or weaken.  Some things require purposeful work and the patient passage of time before you know how it will turn out.

A year ago, my begonia was looking pretty much like you see it now. It thrived spring to fall, putting out some killer blooms. It was so lovely that I decided it should winter over in my South-facing family room. It did great for a while, purposefully placed on a stand before a wall of triple-hung, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

Ah, but what a difference a few weeks can make. Little by little, that plant began to whither despite the sunlight, the water and tender care. I cut back the dead blooms that were dropping all over the floor. I trimmed the dying stalks. It kept dying. I finally had enough. In a fit of frustration, I took that begonia out to the deck, determined to dump it over the side.

What had I been thinking? Better to stop wasting time with this miserable specimen. Time to let it go, buy another one come Spring. I was about the hurl it into oblivion when I hesitated. I had so loved the little plant when it was beautiful; and hadn’t my neighbor successfully kept her geraniums alive through a winter? Maybe I’d give the begonia another chance.

I proceeded to hack that plant back to a few simple stalks that looked like bent fingers, not a leaf remained and there were no blooms whatsoever. I removed the naked plant from its pot, gently, but firmly displacing most of the soil, which I discarded. I repotted in fresh, fertile soil. The plant looked pitiful, but I was hopeful. I watered it well, let it drain and placed it back in its old spot before the window.

In the weeks that followed the begonia grew a few scrawny sprigs, but nothing to brag about. Those slender stems grew fatter in time and stretched out. Leaves sprouted and fanned out. When spring temperatures finally arrived, I put the plant on the deck, where it promptly wilted and nearly died again. The intense direct sunlight was not what it needed.

I remembered that its original resting place had been the front stoop, covered and providing only partial sun. Day by day, that plant perked up. What you see before you is that same, formerly dead and dying potted plant that I nearly tossed with a cry of “good riddance.”

Our lives can be a lot like that begonia’s life cycle.

We start out in full bloom. In time, we can begin to deflower, drop leaves, dry up and become a thing worthy of the trash heap. And yet God, who Scripture compares to a gardener, keeps working with us, ever committed to cultivating our growth through all life’s seasons.

Like any good gardener, God works at bringing out the best in us. He expects results, but He isn’t in a hurry. He prunes back the life-sucking dead weight. He moves us from a spot that we may consider ideal – a job we love, a relationship we started — because He knows the light isn’t right in that place. He gives us a firm shake now and then, like the North wind blowing leaves off the oak trees in my backyard, forcing us to cast off the dirt we cling to and that clings to us.

All that God is really asking of us is that we do what my little begonia did: Submit to the work of His hands. Through the painful pruning, shaking and changing, to just abide and do what a healthy plant does naturally: bloom, bear fruit.

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:8)


In a rusty relationship?

 We can learn a lot from nature. Here’s a quirky example.

On Saturday, I watched from my kitchen window as my neighbor wielded an ax at the base of what looked like a perfectly good cedar tree in his backyard. He put a chainsaw to that initial cut and brought that stately tree to the ground. It stood at the back of his property in a spot I’ve seldom seen him visit except for dumping grass clippings from his John Deere mower bags.

He saw me watching and strolled over.

“So what’s up with all the tree cutting?” I asked. He confided that he hated to do it. He had rescued that tree as a sapling from my own yard when the house was being built. Fearing a backhoe would crush it, he dug it up and planted it in his own yard where it thrived with no special attention.

If he loved it so much, why’d he saw it down?

He and the wife want fruit, edible apples from their apple tree. The  harvest is a continual bust because the apple tree, he explained, is a victim of “cedar rust.” The cedar tree is corrupting the apples, so the cedar had to go. This sounded a little crazy to me (the trees were in polar opposite positions on an acre lot). I nodded politely and said nothing.

Turns out there is such a thing as cedar rust.

It’s a weird “shared disease” that stems from symbiotic relationship between cedar and apple trees growing in proximity. It’s not fatal to either tree, but it weakens apple production and makes the apple tree susceptible to other diseases and early decline. Fungicide is a treatment option, but to completely control cedar rust, experts recommend removing all cedars within 4-5 miles of apples.

Seems like an extreme solution?

Consider the extremity of the problem, from my cursory understanding: 

Fungus winters on the cedar’s evergreen leaves. By spring, they produce small brown swellings (galls) on the leaf tips. Spring rains hit and the galls swell into grotesque horn or hanging lantern shapes. By summer, these things release spores that produce bright orange or yellow lesions on the leaves and fruit of neighboring apple trees. The spores attract insects that spread the disease and spoils the apples. Late summer fungus on apple tree leaves blows back to re-infect the cedar tree in winter. Come spring, the cycle starts again.

So much for the botany lesson. Who knew all this was going on next door? That cedar tree looked harmless with its evergreen leaves and aromatic wood. The deer loved the little apple tree in the side yard. Planting those trees together, however, eventually created an undeniable problem.

Ever known people locked in a similarly detrimental “cedar rust” relationship?

They are wonderful people separately. As a couple or even close friends, they are toxic. Like the cedar and the apple tree, they slowly bring out the worst in each other. One spoils the fruit of the other. They cannot coexist. Just as cedar rust isn’t fatal to trees, people do  survive a bad match. Together, however, they may never be what they might have been separately.

How do you recognize a “cedar rust” relationship? Inspect the fruit. The behavior a relationship produces between two people is either an indicator of spiritual health or symptomatic like cedar galls and apple spots.

“Don’t be misled. Bad company corrupts good character.” 1 Cor 15:33

Jesus expects Christians to bear fruit that lasts. If something or someone becomes a corrupting influence, marring that fruit, take decisive action. Lay an ax at the root of that thing and cut it off.

Think it’s extreme to cut-off a person from your life?  Jesus went so far as to advise cutting off a limb if it causes us to sin. That’s a graphic illustration of what He thinks of spiritual cedar rust.

Got Weeds?

Anybody who has a garden also has weeds: things growing where they weren’t planted and threatening to take over.  Left alone, weeds will spread like a cancer to choke the life from favored flowers. My overgrown gardens are proof.

No matter how much digging we do, how much Round-up we spray or how heavily we mulch, weeds persist.  They may go dormant and wait for the right conditions to manifest themselves. They may so closely resemble flowers we can hardly separate the two,  much like tares among wheat.

For me, weeds are a type of sin: ever present, opportunistic, destructive.

At Easter, we left a bleak North Carolina for parts South. Returned a week later to find the weather had warmed, pollen clouds had advanced and previously buried peonies stood two feet above ground. The weeds stood equally tall.

Those weeds were attractive — at first. The dandelions, perennial broadleaf weeds, showed lovely yellow flowers. Field garlic sported little greenish-white flowers. The common milkweed presented round purple-white flowers that smelled sweet. I wasn’t fooled.

Just as there is pleasure in sin for a season, the weed’s beauty fades in time. The dandelions in my yard produced feathery balls that blew away to reseed themselves and curse the ground.  The garlic stunk; the prickly milkweed cut the hand that attempted its uprooting.  Weeds, like sin, resist eradication. Poison ivy is a classic example.

Dealing with weeds, and the sin that so easily ensnares us, requires vigilance. What works in the garden can benefit the soul:

  • Destroy the root — The above-ground fruit of sin springs from a taproot.  Kill the root, the symptoms wither.
  • Act quickly — It’s easier to control weeds when they are actively growing, and sin is best dealt with before it matures.
  • Expose to light — Weeds die when deprived of light, but sin withers when it’s shoved into the light.

In the garden of life,  Christians still have to deal with sin. So, how does your garden grow?