Anxious Gardener

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:1-2

Almost a year ago, Brian and I were looking at what would soon become our first home. It was a small, tidy-looking white, plastic shingled home with scrolled iron railings and a tin-roofed carport sealed directly into the cement driveway. It’s got what I like to call “grandma charm.” And also, a garden.

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The bursting, flowering garden beds were one of the first things I noticed about the home. The plants are arranged kind of here and there with almost no regard for landscaping and only regard for flowers and the love of them. Azaleas. Crepe myrtles. Irises. Daylilies. Hostas. Rhododendrons.

We bought the house. Summer and early fall met us with climbing roses, and yellow lollipop dahlias, gladiolus, and hydrangeas. We reaped the fruits of the labor the kindly homeowner before us had already done. I loved the higgly-piggly garden, and it was fun watching new things pop up every other week. But I didn’t have a clue what to do with it or how to take care of it.

Up to this point, I have had two gardening-related experiences in my life. One, was in first grade, when we tried to grow tomato plants from wet paper towels, and mine never germinated, and possibly molded. The second is from the yellow house a few doors down from my childhood home that I always admired for its shady, cottage garden. As a teenager, I discovered that the woman who lived there was widowed, and bless her heart, I decided I was going to be her friend. So I walked over and started with what I knew, which was, “I’ve always loved your garden.” Let’s just say, we weren’t fast friends. but eventually I wore her down and I like to think she warmed up to me. Everytime I knocked on the door she had to restrain her barking lap dogs from jumping on me, slipping half of her tanned, lanky body out of the glass door to keep them in, and sometimes she’d even laugh, and her prolific wrinkles from years in the sun would multiply. Until recently, gardening was failed science experiments and feisty British ladies with yappie dogs.

So with that background, the help of Google, and the naive confidence YouTube offers, I began my formal education. No need to get my hands dirty until I learned everything there was to know.  Zero to Master Gardener. All or nothing. Naturally.

I started making spreadsheets. I can think of almost nothing that disinterests me more than entering things into an Excel spreadsheet, but, I needed to be good at this, and organized, so I did. I made columns for watering, fertilization, when to prune, sun needs, etc. To ease myself into the process, I ordered eight different kinds of seeds and corms to start indoors. I watched my Jiffy pots expand like those shrunken, colorful pellets from my childhood that expand into washcloths when you put them in the tub. I dreamed of the idyllic blooms I’d skip in with, bodacious, bountiful bundles under my arms! I’d spread them generously throughout every room of the house with ease like Mary-Freakin-Poppins!

And then reality came into focus. My worst-case scenario tendencies emulsified with the reality that working with plants is kind of a gamble, with few guarantees. The more I learned, the more aware I became of all the ways I could kill my plants. Excitement was traded, in part, with anxiety. There was a lot of aggressive Googling. I began asking my coworkers, texting anyone I knew that owned a houseplant, and polling Instagram for input about all my plant care related decisions.

I turned and watered my indoor seeds for days and weeks with fear and trepidation, sure it would soon become my own personal elephant graveyard. (People told me to chill, that I didn’t have much invested in it. Seriously??? Not much invested??? $40 and MY EVERY WAKING THOUGHT!)

As soon as it got warm enough I stepped outside to start on the yard. I nervously began to cut back iris leaves that looked unhealthy, because Google told me to. I pulled weeds I’d left unattended for months. I reluctantly cut my dahlia plant down to the ground because a coworker said I should. I plucked probably half the leaves from my azaleas until they looked so sad, so deflowered, like the first time I tried plucking my eyebrows in middle school. I actually dug up and transplanted a rhododendron on a whim so I could plant something else in its place. I dug up some day lilies to make space for other plants, pilling their strange alien bodies into a box that’s still on my porch. I anxiously whacked my dormant hydrangea down into a little stick crown, I weeded. I eventually worked up the courage to really prune the rose plant thanks to a YouTube video of the world’s cutest 80-year-old man demonstrating a how-to. I imagined all the neighbors looking out their windows, aghast as I ignorantly hacked apart my plant. I ripped off leaves, cut down old canes that might choke out healthier ones, and pruned the remaining ones at a 45 degree angle away from the buds, just like he said, so that rainfall is directed away from it. By the time I finished, the thing looked sparse, and its thorns, sharper.

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Still, my internet searches and Instagram polls could not give me what I wanted: a guarantee. I wanted to know that yes! all my plants would thrive! Yes! You will be effortlessly skipping in with arm fulls of blooms in just a few months! Yes! The birds will flutter to carry the hem of your dress! No such luck.

So much for being a zen gardener. I am the opposite of zen. I am an anxious gardener.


The week before he is crucified, Jesus sits around with his twelve disciples, and says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” John 15:1-2.

There is a better gardener.

Jesus is the vine; his people, the branches, capable of bearing much fruit; and God, the vinedresser. A gardener.

Any good gardener does not prune his plants because he wants to destroy them; he does it because he delights in them. He prunes because there is life there; he prunes because he wants to bring forth more beauty; he prunes because he desires its flourishing.

And so it is with God. With every cut he makes, and every branch he takes away, he frees me of that which chokes me, that which keeps me from growing. He loves me, and wants life--the abundant kind--for me. The Master Gardener is not anxious, crazily yielding a pair of clippers simply hoping for the best, creating a few casualties along the way like I am. He is not wringing his hands and wiping his brow and polling the angels, wondering if he’s doing this thing right. He is masterful. He is tender. He loves. He knows exactly when, where, how much to prune me. And he makes no unnecessary cuts.

The fruit he wants to produce in me looks like love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control-- and oh, to be defined by these things!-- and yet far sweeter than the fruit, I’m learning, is simply being connected to him. Staying close. Abiding in his love. Fruit is simply the byproduct. My Father loves me and he will not settle to give me anything less than a deep, abiding intimacy with him.

This Holy Week, take heart. It is a precious thing when his pruning leads us to his presence. The same One that prunes us offered up his own Son to be cut off completely, that we would never be.

“...having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
John 13:1






Emily Barbee Comments
That You May Be Filled

I guess it’s about time I explain the name of this blog. It started with a few words circled in my Bible.

 

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father; full of grace and truth…For from his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.”

 

Often when a word or idea is repetitive, I circle it and try to figure out why it matters. Why is this here more than once? What was the writer trying to communicate? What does this tell me about God? About myself?

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This '“fullness” began to follow me around everywhere.

 

In John, 15:11, I read, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” And then again in the next chapter, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (16.24b)

 

In the book of Acts, those who believe that Jesus was God and died and rose again are being filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:52 says “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

 

In Romans 15: 13, Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

 

In Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, he prays many times that they be filled with the goodness of God, with his wisdom, and with the fruits of the Spirit.

 

This list is not comprehensive, but it’s clear that God’s desire to fill us to the brim with joy and peace—through himself--is not unimportant or peripheral. 

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I can remember growing up, my mom would sometimes tell me that I had a “melancholy tendency.” I remember it like a bad word, images of Eeyore filling my mind. Y’all, I’m sorry, but I always hated Eeyore. He could not get it together. I would protest my mother’s observation: I am NOT melancholy! And while she gently explained that she simply meant that I tended to get down fairly easily, or struggled to focus on the positive, internally, I was coaching myself with greater resolve to be a happy, go-lucky girl from there on. I was gonna be a freaking rainbow-tootin unicorn. It didn’t really work. Later, I would learn that indeed, she was right, and that my high-feeling tendencies can be a great strength when paired with truth and self-control.

 

This is one reason I love the Bible. In it, God invites humans into a relationship with him, where our joy and peace no longer have to be dictated by our emotions or circumstances. And that is freedom to me. That is good news. Because of the truths in God’s word, we do not have to live fearful, hopeless, cynical, or mean because our joy and our peace are not not determined by if we get the job or have a nice income that gives us just enough padding or have an easy marriage or a marriage or have a perfect bill of health. It is given to us, from Christ’s fullness.

 

On my best days, I believe this. Other days, I don’t. A lot of times I don’t believe I can be actually have filled-to-the-brim joy, because well, that seems ambitious. Naïve. But what if it’s neither of those things, and what if joy is not always loud, but sometimes just quiet and trusting? A glitter in your eye that knows this isn’t all there is, that this can be messy and hard and good all at once since it no longer has to be perfect. Assured.

I am choosing to believe that the state of my insides can really look like this, because God, through Paul, is telling us this is possible. And that it’s not just for super-Christians, whatever that means. It’s for me. I don’t want to live with a scarcity mentality when God is offering me fullness.

 

And so, my vision for this blog, is that we could look into God’s word, wrestle with him, encounter him, and in so doing, love him—that we may be filled.

 

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  “
Ephesians 3:14-19

Till the Full Light of Day

When I was first learning to drive, I was a white-knuckled, anxious mess. Every time a car would drive by me in the opposite lane I would stiffen and wince, certain they were going to hit me. That yellow line is just so thin.

image from Unsplash

image from Unsplash

I also swerved a lot. I did not want to cross that middle line, or the cars whizzing by so quickly on the other side of it. So I did my best to memorize it, to stare hard at the road right in front of my bumper and make sure I was in the dead center. That only caused me to swerve more.

Dad told me once, “Emily, stop looking at the road right in front of you. You need to look much further down the road, and that’s going to keep you from swerving. If you just look straight ahead I promise you’ll stay in the lane.”


Proverbs 4 paints a really beautiful picture of a path. It says in Proverbs 4:18,

“The path of the righteous is like the first glance of dawn,
Shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”

Recently Brian and I had to make a road trip that required us to be on the road by 4:30 AM and we got to watch the dawn open up before our eyes. We drove in the dark for a few long hours, and talked about how we couldn’t wait for the sun to rise and bring relief to our sleep-deprived eyes. Then it was like a conductor picked up his wand temporarily laid to rest, the world around us started awakening like a symphony: dramatic light seeping into wheat fields and brazing tree branches and eventually settling into the sky, bright overhead.

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And so this is what I imagine as I read that verse. 

Scripture also paints a picture of the way of the wicked: “like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble (v 19).”

Few of us desire this to be the description of our lives. We’ve stumbled enough in our own literal and figurative darknesses to know it’s no good. 

But sometimes walking the path of righteousness seems unclear, too. I confess my first instinct in applying this verse was, essentially, “Don’t be wicked. Stop sinning. Try harder and do better, and pray more, and then you will always make the perfect decision and be in the middle of God’s path and then, you will be righteous.”

There is still legalistic residue in my heart that I have to continually clean out.

This kind of application has no gospel in it. It will do us as much good as staring at the yellow line in the road will do when driving. And I know this because I’ve tried it. I’ve tried to stop sinning. I’ve tried to be good. I’ve exhausted myself staring at the path, trying to ensure each step is right, only tripping over my own feet and twisting my ankles. 

We find our answer in the next verses:

“Let your eyes look straight ahead,
fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet
And take only ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left;
Keep your foot from evil."

The answer for those who desire to walk in righteousness is not to try to stare down the path even harder. The answer is not to look to the right or to the left, but straight ahead, to Christ. The path “shines ever brighter till the full light of day,” because of Christ who is its head. Because Christ himself is the path. He has already blazed the trail and will supply every grace. As we focus less on how we’re walking and focus more on Him who walked the path before us, we will know his righteousness, his joy, and his freedom.

This advent season is so full of hope. For those, perhaps like me, recovering from their own goodness—look up! And await the Savior who came to bring light to our darkness. I’m praying you’ll seek his face.

Emily Barbee
Sing a New Song

I can be guilty of becoming too familiar with the Bible. Familiar not in the sense of mastery, but in the sense of complacency or numbness. It can be tempting to read passages I've read before without asking the Holy Spirit to teach me-- without meditation, and without inquiring more.

I've been reading through the Old Testament over the past year or so and I'm currently knee deep in the Psalms. I love the Psalms. There is truly no other book like it in scripture-- so guttural, so emotional, so poetic (any other really emotional people out there feel me?). Yet there are certain passages that can fly under the radar. Phrases or verses that I've heard so many times that they don't seem to mean that much at first glance.

 

One of those passages I'm tempted to race past:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Psalm 96:1-2


"Sing a new song" is the clause I'm at first unaffected by. My brain: 'Ok, God wants me to praise him. And if I really mean it, I'll maybe even sing some. But maybe not, because David's always talking about singing and that seems a bit impractical so maybe it's a figure of speech.'

Thankfully, God is really patient with me, and led me again to this phrase just a few days later:
Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! (Psalm 98:1)

Right. Yes. What? 'Um, I'm sorry, but what am I supposed to get out of this? What's wrong with the old song? Why's it gotta be new? Am I supposed to be writing songs here?' I'm thinking, just cracking a lil' joke with my Maker, you know. (Does God think you're funny, too?)

But then God began to drive my not-so-funny question under my skin. And I couldn't shake it. "Old song"--strangely-- made me think of Hillsong's "Mighty to Save." Memories of  high school youth group praise band, where I heard it and sang it for the first time, rushed back. It reminded me of a time in my life marked by deep insecurity and a developing eating disorder. A season of great growth in my life, where the Lord grew a deep passion in me to want to know Him deeply, yet also a season of great struggle where I felt chained to lies declaring my worthlessness. Exasperation seeing that I couldn't free myself and a desire to be what the world told me I had to be. 

I think of the people inside (and outside) the youth group who prayed with me for freedom and belief. Over and over and over and over and over again.

And then I think of my slow but eventual victory. I think of the freedom Christ brought me. I think of the miracle He was working through those days and months and years, even when I couldn't see it. And the wonder, that I can no longer relate to that old Emily! That she's gone. That He broke the chains of an eating disorder I was told I'd probably always have.

That-- that's my old song. It is precious to me and to Him and I'll sing that one until I'm blue in the face.

But this new song He wants me to sing? That's for today. The God of the old song is the God of the new song is the God of The Song that we sing yesterday, today, and forever. Not only am I to recount his miracles in the past, but I am to declare that He is that God today. Even as I drive to work. Even as I deal with this hurt or loneliness. Even as I rejoice in this gift. Or this new struggle or temptation.

It's easy to forget what God has done in the past. But perhaps even easier to forget, sometimes, is that He can do today what he did yesterday. Sometimes I view God's works as a fluke-- that He did it once, but maybe this time, he won't.

But this command to sing a new song reminds me. The God who rescued me from myself in the form of an eating disorder, continues to rescue me from myself today. The God who was Mighty to Save in high school praise band is mighty to save today. The God who brought Israel out of the desert can bring me out of spiritual desert today.  The God who broke my sin patterns in the past can break my sin patterns today. Today--tonight--I'll sing a new song.

How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be.

 

 

 


 

One Year Letter

You know Mama and Daddy have been married for 35 years now? That’s a long time by anyone’s account. Yesterday, they went out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse and you should have seen the look on mama’s face when she told me what she had made for daddy and how it took her all day to do it.  She was glowing. They have stuck it out for a lot of years.

I suppose time isn’t all that important to you anymore. Down here we’re always trying to grasp things you can’t grasp, and so we measure them—in minutes and days and years.

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Most days, especially since the first season of sadness wore off after you first left us, I am not sad.  I don’t miss you every single day, I admit. I’ve felt guilty about that before. Then one day, it occurred to me that you wouldn’t want me to.

I miss you sometimes when I’m with Brian. We’ll be laughing or having some good conversation, and then out of no where, I’ll feel a tinge of sadness because I wish so badly that you could have met him.

You would have loved him. Maybe you do.

I remember when you used to clutch my hands and tell me they were cold, and say, “You know what that means, don’t you?” And you’d tell me I was in love, and I’d give a half-hearted laugh and dismiss it, and tell you it was just because I was cold. I’d wish you hadn’t brought it up and reminded me of my singleness and the painful longing I had for a marriage that I felt sure wasn’t coming.

You always told me he was coming. Honestly, I thought you were a little archaic for saying that. But I did always hope you were right.

Brian is kind and gentle and strong and handsome and he loves me a lot. Your eyes would have sparkled when you met him. He would have talked loud enough for you to hear him even without a hearing aid and he would have prayed with us, too. (It’s a good thing you practiced that a lot when you were with us, because I think you probably do that all the time now. And also no one is falling asleep from you praying so long now.)

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Lots of other things have happened, too, in this last year. You have the most beautiful great-grandson named Caleb. I cried in the airport when I first found out Caleb was born because all I could picture was my big brother with a tiny baby in his arms and I knew he’d be such a great dad.  Sarah and Reid are already such good parents. They are exhausted, too. Caleb is squishy and so fussy but they told us they’re keeping him.  Nana certainly is. You’d be so proud and have pictures all over your bulletin boards. You’d be so proud to see your daughter as a Nana. She’s perfect at it.

And I guess you know I’m not in seminary right now, too? Funny how God changes our plans. When you left us, you thought that’s where I was heading. I did, too. I guess you know now. I hope I’ll still get to go one day, but I’m working on trusting the Lord with that. I’m asking God all the time for eternity-perspective and I can’t pretend I’m not jealous that you don’t even have to ask.

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I miss you today.

But I’m glad you’re not here. I’d be so angry if someone wished me back from heaven to earth—if this was even possible—so I am trying to not so much as think it. I guess anger is pretty unfathomable for you now.

Maybe you already knew all these things, but it feels good to write it out. Thanks for teaching us to wait and to trust and to serve.

I hope you’re stubbornly insisting on making people peanut butter and banana sandwiches up there, or something better.

See you soon.

Emily

Emily BarbeeComment