[This is one of the posts telling a story from the life of my Dad. Click here to see the others.]
My Dad has poured the majority of his adult life's work into his pecan orchard. It's a great place. 53 acres of land and about 2,600 trees in an area where we don't see much water or enjoy many trees is remarkable. More remarkable, though, is how peaceful it is there. It isn't very often in the kind of lives most of us lead that we get to be somewhere where it's quiet enough that we cannot hear the sound of any car, machine, or other person, but it's like that in the orchard. Often the only sound you'll hear is the breeze blowing in the trees. We had some friends in the orchard with us on Saturday, and we all noticed the lack of the sounds we were accustomed to and the presence of more natural ones. One of them said the breeze sounded like God was breathing on us. I'd never thought of it like that, but it's certainly a place where I've been aware of God's presence, so his description fits.
As we were there last weekend, I thought about how similar that orchard is to our lives in God, particularly in understanding God's role and our roles in our growth. There are plenty of things in nature that God has accomplished on his own, but that orchard isn't one of them; my Dad has put nearly 40 years of constant work into it. It would not have just popped up without him. Yet regardless of how much effort he put in, neither could my Dad make those trees grow. All that he has ever been able to do is to put into place the conditions in which growth will occur naturally. The planting, watering, pruning, and harvesting have all required his effort, but all of them together cannot produce a single pecan tree. My Dad has put in plenty of effort throughout the process, doing his part, in order to give nature the opportunity to do hers.
In her book, Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton describes the same characteristic of the spiritual life: “In the end, this is the most hopeful thing any of us can say about spiritual transformation: I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God.”
That is what we do as Christians, "create the conditions... that keep us open and available to God." In fact, it is all that we do. It can, and will, take a lifetime of effort on our part, yet in what seems like a paradox, it requires much effort and yet we are utterly powerless to make ourselves grow in any measure. We cannot force any more love, joy, or peace into our lives. Thankfully, though, just as there are natural processes in place in nature that have allowed 53 acres of pecan trees to grow in this "dry and thirsty land," God's grace is dependably available to work in us when we arrange our lives accordingly. We have to put in effort throughout the process, doing our part, in order to give God the opportunity to do his.
"...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you..." (Philippians 2:12-13)