Messy Faith,  Personal and Spiritual Ramblings

What our neglected yard is teaching me about my faith and spiritual growth

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When we moved into our new home in April, we were totally in love with the fenced-in yard on a corner lot that came with it. Three massive oaks line the front yard and five white pines offer shade or our spacious side yard. Scattered in between the bigger trees were a varied assortment of smaller trees and shrubs. Much to my dismay, my husband declared early on that many of the trees “had to go” and gleefully spoke many times of his future plans to fell the majority of the trees and shrubs in our yard.

I was not on board with this plan. As we were moving in, many of the trees and shrubs were flowering, and I couldn’t imagine our yard without such beauty.

But once we were settled in the home and had a chance to start enjoying the yard, I realized he was right.

There was hardly any grass in many parts of our yard. A closer look at the yard revealed that several years worth of fallen limbs, leaves, acorns, and pine needles lay atop completely parched, barren dirt. As we consulted with a few yard and tree experts, we discovered that all of the shrubbery, trees, and bushes were providing so much shade and sucking up so much water that grass was completely incapable of growing.

The yard as it was was pretty, but not at all ideal for two little boys who want to run and play. If anything, it was a wee bit hazardous.

My parents came for a visit in May, when my husband was gone for the entire month. Knowing how stressed Russ was about cleaning up the yard, I enlisted their help. My father rented a hedge trimmer from Home Depot and they purchased several different manual trimmers – as well as work gloves – for our new home use. They spent an entire day hacking away at some of the shrubs and smaller trees.

After they left, I spent the next few weeks trimming the shrubs down to nearly nothing. Then I went to work on the rest of the yard.

I’ve spent the last five months taking several opportunities each week to rake, rake, and rake some more while I let the boys play with their “Big Wheels” toys. (Sometimes, the stars align and they actually HELP me! I have bribed my children and neighbor kids with pizza for them to collect a wagon full of pine cones and sticks. That’s fair, right?)

We bought Ezra his own set of child-sized garden tools to inspire cooperation.

I was thrilled when July rolled around – which meant the new fiscal year for our weekly yard cart program began. I happily paid that annual $60 fee which  guaranteed that at least one yard cart worth of yard waste would be removed from our property each week.

I’m not the type of person who loves yard work. Having sweat dripping in my eyes while trying not to go insane from mosquito bites from these hateful insects who somehow find their way through bug spray isn’t necessarily my cup of tea.

But, what I’ve realized is that when you own a home, hard work to improve your property is a little less distasteful than when you are renting. I know that this work will pay off. Hopefully in several years, we will have a beautiful yard.

As I continued to rake, I noticed that here and there, a few strands of grass would poke through. I realized that I was exposing the ground to sun and rain by removing all of the junk on top of the soil – and the raking was probably spreading a little bit of seed from the other tufts of grass.

A few weeks ago I succeeded in finally clearing one small section of the yard that got more sun and rain than the rest. We were about to get hit with a lot of rain from hurricane Irma, and I decided to take a chance and plant some hearty grass seed. A trip to ACE hardware, a chat with a sales associate, and about $40 later, I came home and just started spreading seed and fertilizer everywhere in a haphazard manner while watching Little Brother play with the hose and letting him get all muddy. I figured that, at the very worst, it was a complete waste of money – but at least we had some fun.

I was shocked when, about a week later, we had grass growing. You should have seen my excitement when I grabbed LB’s little hand and said, “LOOK! Mommy’s growing GRASS!!!”

I’ve never been more excited by grass in my entire life.

So inspired was I that I started taking clippers to every branch I could reach with a step ladder.

“The fewer branches we have, the more water the ground will get, and the more grass we can grow!!”

I didn’t stop there, though. I realized that one of the trees my husband was dying to remove had some bigger limbs that I figured I could get through with a little bit of muscle and a hack saw. So, while the boys yelled “TIMBER!!!” (Ezra) and “MAMON-BALL!!!” (ie. “cannonball!” – LB), we brought down a branch that accounted for probably a quarter of the tree.

My husband was so impressed (with how the yard looked, not by my hack-saw skills) that he started taking a hack saw to some of the other smaller trees in the yard.

Last night, our wonderful neighbor came over with an electric chain saw and together, he and Russ felled the rest of the tree I had attacked with the hack saw.

As the trees have come down, I have continued to rake and trim, and we are so ecstatic about how things are looking. We are getting more sun in our yard, and there are now wide, open (stick-free) spaces for the boys to run their Big Wheels.

So what does all of this stuff about my yard have to do with faith?

Well, I have much to share (in upcoming posts) about some revelations I’ve had this year about what it means to move forward with God after leaving behind legalism, thanks to some amazing insight from some people at our church. But before I get to that, let me share the revelations I’ve had while doing yard work:

I think that in my first blog series on legalism, I fleshed out a lot of important doctrinal issues. Especially in some of the latter posts, I feel like, as I wrote, I started to really get a handle on what grace is and what it means for our sanctification, not just our salvation.

Where the series fell short (and where I have really struggled in the four years since writing it), was in the area of practicality.

What does grace look like in the everyday Christian life?

Honestly, I didn’t really have a clue.

When it came to “being a good Christian,” and doing things to “live for God” like participating in Bible reading and prayer, attending church, having “standards,” serving in church, and being a Godly wife and mom, I knew what I didn’t want:

I didn’t want to live a “good Christian life” based in guilt and shame. I didn’t want to strive in my own strength. I didn’t want to try hard and then try harder to get it right. I didn’t want to grasp for control. I didn’t want to “be spiritual” to impress friends, family, or church leaders.

The problem was this: that was the only way I knew how to live the Christian life. I didn’t know what the alternative was, other than to live apathetically toward church, spiritual disciplines, and spirituality in general.

So that’s pretty much what I have done for the last few years. I’ve read a few Christian books, participated halfheartedly in a few Bible studies, done my best to fit in at a church where I didn’t really feel all that safe, tried my hand at Bible journaling, listened to Christian music, gone to a few conferences, and tried to engage in spiritual discussions with my closest friends.

I was fairly content with this approach. However, over the last two years at our new church, I’ve begun to hunger for something more.

Through my pastor’s teaching (as well as the teaching of other men in the church and developing discipleship relationships with other Christian women who have poured love and grace into my life), I’ve begun to get a better handle on what it looks like to LIVE a grace-filled Christian life.

To use our overgrown yard as a metaphor, I think of the massive tall trees as the pillars of my theology. It’s been the big pillars-of-the-faith stuff that, in spite of doubts and confusion, has remained strong. Much like the tall trees in are yard have offered shade and protection to the yard, these unchanging theological positions have no-doubt protected me from a lot of poor choices throughout this time of wandering.

What I’ve realized about the little stuff – the trees, the shrubs, the sticks, and leaves – is that sometimes, our lives get cluttered with the “smaller” spiritual stuff at the expense of really being able to grow.

Since moving in, we’ve met several people in the neighborhood, who, upon hearing which house we are living in, talk fondly about the people who used to live there and the great fig trees that they have grown.

As we’ve taken hacksaws and clippers to trees and shrubs, I push back guilt. While the lot sat vacant for a long time, prior to that, there were loving owners who probably put in their own measure of work, sweat, and tears to make the yard what they wanted it to be.

But we aren’t them. We have two little boys who need room to run and play. My husband and I are not all that yard-work-inclined, so we need a yard that’s easier to maintain. While the yard designed by the former homeowners was nice, it wasn’t what we needed.

In the same way, there are people who have poured themselves into my life. Teachers, instructors, pastors, parents, and more. I can remain thankful to them and appreciate their sacrifice. But sometimes, you have to take a hacksaw to bad theology.

Sometimes, you have to take a hacksaw to bad theology. Share on X

I don’t need superfluous “convictions” and “standards” that I have to strive to uphold, anymore than I need flowering shrubs and fig trees. (How do you even eat a fig?) Rather, much like we need lush green grass to grow in our parched yard, what I need most is a whole lot of Jesus and grace in the plain-old, worn and weary every day life.

I need His Spirit in my parched places. 

I think the last metaphor I can draw is the metaphor of time. Our yard didn’t grow up overnight, so it’s not going to get cleared overnight. Ultimately, we want to take out the pines, one of the oaks, and trim the other two oaks. However, this undertaking will cost thousands of dollars in professional tree work. For the smaller stuff, there’s going to be hours worth of digging and hacking stumps and roots – not to mention more raking, as I still haven’t even raked the entire yard!

Whenever my husband expresses discouragement about how much work is still left, I tell him, “It’s going to take time – but every little bit counts. We’re making progress.”

In the say way, while maybe I’ve felled some bad theology trees and taken a hack saw to some legalism shrubs over the last few years, the roots run deep. I still am sorting through what is healthy and what isn’t – what needs to go and what needs to stay. I don’t expect to have a lush spiritual life overnight – but I’m making progress.

Every time I’ve tried a Bible study, turned on the Christian radio, or walked into the doors of our church when I wasn’t in the mood – that was progress. As I look back over the last few years, more and more I’m seeing little tufts of grass poking through the parched earth. And that has made me hungry to see more. 

I can’t always make it outside to rake. Sometimes, it’s just too hot. Sometimes, I’m just too busy. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like it. I’m taking it slow, recognizing that it may take a few years before we have the yard we envision.

It’s the same with faith. I can’t tackle all the big questions at once. I can’t expect everything to change right away. I’m giving myself grace.

I look forward to writing more about what it means to live in the outflow of grace in the coming weeks. Thank you for reading.

If you are following along in this series, I very much appreciate your patience as I continue to try to post things in a timely manner. My current load of special needs parenting, care giving, college classes, housework, social media management, and everyday life does not leave me a lot of time for writing. When I do have the time, I don’t always have the mental capacity. Please remember to subscribe and select “Messy Faith” so that you can receive notification of new posts via email. 

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  • Beth Anne

    You guys did great work to your yard! Earlier in the month I helped a lot of people with some yard work after Hurricane Irma. But it’s crazy how much yard work a tree can create that you don’t even realize. I don’t really know much about gardening or yard work as I’ve always rented but I’m learning as well.

  • Su

    Very late to this, but thank you for the reminder that the seemingly tiny choices and actions we make build to massive differences over time. Without a doubt that is one of my biggest weaknesses because I want quick fixes and not menial (often unseen and thankless) work, then get angry or frustrated – but Jesus demands it of us. I guess it is humility and love in action. Your yard looks amazing, such a lovely area for your boys. Thank you also for inspiring me to sort out my own yard!

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