The Work of the Trowel

The Work of the Trowel

Holidays often find me with my hands in the dirt. 

My host city’s religious culture is split three ways. This means a variety of temples/places of worship, worldviews, and prayer habits. It also means a whole lot of holidays. Add national holidays on top of it, and it can almost become a hard place for a teacher to gain rhythm in the classroom, but it’s quite fitting to a relaxed lifestyle: there’s almost always a holiday around the corner.

For me, holidays always bring an invitation to slow. To sleep in and linger over morning coffee. Maybe to FaceTime home, to cook something, to get out and explore. 

And very often, a day to “farm.”

By farm, I mean to tend to the plants in the collection of terra-cotta pots sitting by my gate. 

Cooking often brings the pause my life needs but adding the element of dirt and planting of a tender shoot and suddenly working with my hands becomes therapeutic.

So my terra-cotta pot collection of plants provided some free therapy to me on many-a-holiday.

Life has transitioned me back to my passport culture, and I had to disperse those well-loved terra cotta pots. But now, days off often find me in the flower bed right outside the door of my rental house which provides me the therapy I need. I’ve named it my “re-entry garden” and the collection of plants in there have been watered with a mixture of chlorinated city water from the hose and salty-tear water from the depths of my transition-weary soul. 

But cultivating that soil, it does something good to me. 

Scripture is filled with agricultural metaphors. Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven a seed, refers to evangelism as a process of sowing, and refers to Himself as the vine in a vineyard, just to name a few. No wonder the act of working the soil can seem like such a spiritual practice. 

Here are a few things I’ve noticed while putting my farmer-face on:

The trowel hurts.  Digging that sharp tool into the dirt, cutting aside the firmly-set soil feels harsh, disturbing, and heartless. But rock-hard dirt isn’t an environment for flora to thrive. It needs to be broken up, softened, worked. Our souls need that too.  Sometimes that trowel is spiritual disciplines, sometimes it’s community, sometimes it’s a change of plans. Whatever it is, it disturbs our safe and familiar and makes space for new things to grow.

Transplanting might feel like dying. A few months ago, I moved a clump of lilies from one end of my re-entry bed to another. It was with the big picture in mind; the lilies would thrive better with more sunlight, and it would be more aesthetically appealing to have a clump of them near the stone wall. But I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Being transplanted hurts. In fact, it kinda feels like that trowel might want to see the end of you. But actually, transplanting is done by the careful hands of a gardener who is working toward a picture of a beautiful garden. I’ll never forget the day this metaphor sank into my reentry-weary soul. Maybe the work of transplanting is done by a gardener with a greater view than I can ever know. 

Consistent water matters. Rainy season in the tropics creates a break for the daily watering of the terra-cotta pot farmer, but in reality, gardening cannot be put on auto-pilot. It takes intentionality in consistent maintenance. So does the soil of our hearts. The discipline of daily prayer, Bible reading, meditation can become mundane, and can lose our attention. But wow, they are important. Just like those plants wither up and die when we neglect them, so death might creep into areas within us which we long to see thrive.

The cultivation of the soil of our hearts is necessary but painful. But the best part is that this cultivating process is done by the hands of the Master Gardener.  The one whose design plan, maintenance routine, and trowel we can fully trust. 

In the middle of the book of Isaiah, God calls His people out of idolatry towards righteousness, asking them to turn their backs on lives of sin and pursue His agenda, His ways.  After this, He pours out this beautiful promise:

The Lord will guide you always;

He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land

And will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a well-watered garden

Like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11).

He’s the gardener. His trowel might hurt, but it’s good. He sees the whole picture. He loves us too much to allow our hearts to remain uncultivated. 

So Gardener, do your work in me. 

How has your current season served as a time to cultivate your soul? 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

6 Comments

    1. Maria Mullet October 21, 2020

      Thanks, Jenilee!

  1. Elizabeth October 21, 2020

    This post really spoke to me right where I’m at. Thank you.

    1. Maria Mullet October 21, 2020

      Elizabeth – this gardening metaphor has been such a strengthening thought to me in this season of transition. I pray that you feel the love of the Master Gardener in these days in your life!

  2. Bayta Schwarz October 21, 2020

    I’m not a gardener at all. Like AT ALL! 😉 But I often use the activity of repotting a plant both in pre-field training and in debriefing prior to re-entry. There is something about it that touches people deeply. Including me, even when I’ve not been in transition. Just before reading your post, I was marvelling at this plant (photo hopefully attached) which I used in that exercise back in May. It’s been through ups and downs but look at it now – flowering beautifully! And that’s under my (non-)care… Gave me so much comfort and hope as I’m about to embark on a major transition – under the care of the Master Gardener!

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