The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know.
—Mark 4:26-27 (NASB)
When I was a kid we had a lot of houseplants, which I mostly ignored. I wasn’t excited by slow-moving green things. However, as an adult, I find myself drawn to and intrigued by these living, growing life forms. I like the beauty and surprise of a plant. Out of stillness and quietness, leaves sprout and unfold; flowers may appear. A plant doesn’t announce itself, but it reaches for the sun, cleans my air, and adds colour to my space. The gentle, gradual changes of a plant, agonizingly slow at times, speak a message I need to hear: Growth is not dependent on me.
Living things are wonderful and mysterious. Unlike friends, siblings, or pets, the plants in my living room don’t respond to my suggestions or requests. They share my space, but move to the beat of their own drum. They take cues from a source I can’t hear and respond to rules I can’t decode. Without teachers or lessons, they know when to rest, when to bloom, when to shed leaves, and when to send their roots deeper. I supply the water and at times move them to adjust for sunlight, but they ask very little from me. I do what I can, then sit back and watch them grow.
Parker Palmer reflects on the difference between making and growing in his book Let Your Life Speak. If I view my participation in the world in terms of what I must make happen, I live with a heavy burden. There’s a lot of pressure to make money, make time, make friends. If my successes in career, family, business, and love depend on my effort and power, I operate from control, manipulation, and competition. I reduce everyone and everything to parts, and then do what I can to arrange those parts to suit my needs and desires.
But if I see the world and its inhabitants as alive and growing, I relate in a different way. I cannot predict and control everything. Growth happens on its own schedule and takes its cues from something beyond me. Life becomes less stressful when I remember it’s not my job to make it all happen. Just as I can’t order a plant to grow by threatening it with deadlines or coaxing it with incentives, the people and situations around me are not mine to control. The gift of growing encourages me to notice the life and activity around me and to pay attention to the hopes and desires which are alive inside of me.
There’s no doubt growth can be frightening, because growing things change. People are unpredictable. Living things are fragile. Vulnerability and risk are part of the package. It’s humbling and uncomfortable to admit that many of my dreams are beyond what I can make happen, and my dearest hopes usually involve other people. I can imagine and invite and prepare, but the world isn’t a machine I can control with buttons and levers. The world is full of people making their own plans and dreaming their own dreams. I don’t always get what I want, but if I can remember God is at work in His world, I can discover joy and peace as one of His children.
I recently bought two houseplants, and the florist warned me not to overwater them. More plants die from overwatering than underwatering; plants aren’t as thirsty as we think. His warning drew attention to my tendency to help or give or fix before discerning what’s truly needed. When I’m afraid or stressed it’s easier to do something, anything, rather than wait and watch and trust. But this habit of trying to control situations or force growth can do more harm than good. The urge to make my dreams come true and make the life I want is woven into our cultural narrative. Slowing, surrendering, and trusting God for growth can feel lazy or risky. But until I slow down and make room for growth there’s no space for God and others to participate with me. I can’t make healthy friendships, strong communities, or a loving family by my efforts alone. These things take time; they require space, partnership and rest. If I embrace the idea that good things will grow when the time is right, I can let go of the pressure to make everything happen.
It takes courage and faith to live in a growing and changing world. It’s hard to know when to add water and when not to. Sometimes watering is the best thing, but sometimes all I can do is watch and wait and hope for growth. I am not alone in this big and beautiful world, responsible for every outcome, and neither are you. We’ve been created in love and the One who breathes life into our dry and broken places is bringing life all around. We might not see growth right now or understand its timing, but growth surrounds us, and my houseplants remind me of this every day.
This post has been adapted from The Gifts I Never Knew I Had, chapter 25, by Tanya Lyons.
Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer