Distressed Gardens and Chaotic Lives

I love to garden. I think it’s fascinating and thoroughly satisfying to put tiny little plants in the ground and watch them, with some careful tending, grow into flourishing flowers or prolific herbs. I really enjoy seeing flower beds that are thriving, plants competing for space in my little corner of the world. And I like getting outside early in the morning to make sure that everything is well-watered and weeds are pulled.

Strangled Day LiliesThis year, however, our summer has been particularly busy, and my yard has gotten significantly less of my time. Some weeds really grew tall among my flowers before I noticed they were there. Milkweed has been particularly relentless within the day lilies, wrapping itself around these flowers and choking out the blooms. “Yeah…not the way it’s supposed to be,” I think as I take another sip of my coffee.

I was recently talking to the guy who does a great job tending our lawn and commented that I really hadn’t cared for our flower beds very well this year. He looked at me meaningfully and agreed, perhaps a little too enthusiastically: “Yeah…I’ve noticed that.”

Similarly, there is a house not too far from mine that I often walk by. Several years ago, the family who lived there spent a lot of time tending their yard. Their backyard, in particular, was an oasis of foliage and various plant life. They even had grape vines growing up along their privacy fence, and you could see just enough of it peeking out to see that it was a beautiful, healthy vine.

As time went on, that family suffered through a divorce; the woman stayed in the house for another year or so, but she ended up moving away with her children. Too much on her plate, I guess, and (probably) no longer able to afford to stay put. The next person who moved in didn’t stay long; within a year the house was on the market again. It’s turned over a few times in the intervening years, and as I’ve watched each new set of homeowners take over, I’ve also noticed a gradual decline in the backyard oasis that used to be such a source of joy and pride for that original family.

There’s still a grape vine peeking out through the privacy fence, but nowadays it’s a withered branch, bearing something closer to raisins than lush grapes. I think of my own poorly-tended flower beds, the realities of life that shift and fade as relationships thrive or shrivel, and wonder briefly how that woman and her kids are doing these days, all this as my dog happily pulls my arm out of its socket, urging me onward, begging me to join him in his exploration of the sights and smells of our neighborhood.

I’ve seen far too many marriages wither away from lack of proper care, much like that grape vine in my neighbor’s back yard. I watched my own first marriage die on the vine from a similar lack of care, a failure to heed God’s call to nurture…equally shared by me and my ex.

Lush Grapes, Withered VineI think maybe it’s just too easy for us to see something growing well and to imagine that we don’t need to spend as much time nurturing it anymore. “Perceived prosperity” can often bring with it a sense that it’s a good time to focus our efforts elsewhere, perhaps (Deuteronomy 8:11-14). But a marriage, just like my flower beds, won’t be in a “good season of growth” for long if we don’t continue to nurture and tend it, to keep an eye out for weeds and to relentlessly pull out those problematic opponents while they are small and relatively easy to deal with…to care more consistently for what we’re trying to grow.

Everyone who’s been married for more than 20 minutes will tell you that marriage is hard, and it takes work. But if someone were to ask you how to work at their marriage, how would you answer? We all know how to pull weeds when they are small. But how do I look for those same small problems within my marriage, before they grow into a towering relational struggle with deep roots, entrenched issues that are tougher to root out?

While obviously not a comprehensive list, here are some of the more common ways I have seen by which we all tend to let the busy-ness of life draw us away from tending our marriages and keeping the weeds out. Great books have been written on marriage – Tim Keller and Gary Thomas leap to mind – but the Top Three List below will hopefully serve as helpful shorthand for identifying and naming those issues that have claimed the lion’s share of failed marriages:

1. Lack of Authentic Interest in Jesus. Please hear me on this; I am not saying that all Christian marriages thrive. That is obviously not true, painfully so. What I am saying is that marriages that lack the foundation of Christ lack any sort of point of reference when it comes to moral decisions, or even mundane ones. If you don’t care much what God thinks, that will invariably show up in how you spend your time, talent and treasure (Matthew 6:21), and this reality is, in time, likely to cause fractures in your heart connection to your spouse. Paul doesn’t tell us not to be unequally yoked (2 Corinthians 6:14) because he wants to harshly curtail our options; he tells us not to enter into marriage with unbelievers precisely because he knows that not loving the Lord will be the root for all manner of avoidable pain.

2. Selfishness. We all have days when we are more focused on what’s important to us than others. But if we let that turn into a habit, we’ll slowly become blind to the needs of our spouse, and our marriage will suffer. Instead, we need to work at considering the needs of others more highly than our own (Philippians 2:3).

3. Lack of Transparency. It’s oftentimes difficult to be rigorously honest with our spouse, but the downside of hiding anything – anything – is far too steep. A small lie here, an omission of some part of our day there…we all fall into the trap of just wanting our kitchen-table conversations to go easier than they might if all were to be made known. But over time, a deep chasm slowly emerges between who we really are and who our spouse believes us to be. Instead, we should be consciously working to live out honesty in all things – big and small – with trust in God as our foundation. My husband and I experience a tremendous amount of life-enriching freedom; the clearest example that plays itself out daily is that he can pick up my cell phone and I can pick up his without either of us freaking out (or even noticing).

My yearly rhythm looks something like this: I can work hard to get my flower garden started on a clear Saturday in April, but if I don’t go back out in May, when life gets so busy, and then again in June, July and August – when the heat and mugginess of our Missouri summers makes it hard to stay motivated – my garden is not going to thrive as it appeared it might back in the spring. Our marriages are no different; they too require commitment through all seasons of life. We can’t wander away from proactively loving our spouse when life gets busy, or things get uncomfortable. The thriving vine becomes a shriveled remnant far faster than we like to think.

Thriving Day Lilies

Ephesians 5:22-33 (ESV)

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

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