When Aaron’s mom came to visit us last fall, she helped me around the house with a lot of painting, but she also gifted us with some beautiful plants - a couple of hibiscus, croton, bougainvillea, and a bigger tree item whose name is escaping me right now. She planted them all in new pots and we set up a little corner in front of our house creating this little "Garden of Eden" as I called it, I guess because I think everything needs a name or a nickname of some kind.
I’m not really good at keeping plants alive. Several years ago my sister and I planted little terrariums of succulents because the whole internet says succulents are impossible to kill and yet, somehow, I have managed to kill many of them. The whole terrarium was dead in short order. I think it would be a lot easier if they would just speak audibly to me and let me know that they needed some water or some light, otherwise I get overzealous and water them too often, or I get lazy and never water them at all. All this to say, Joyce gifting us with the Garden of Eden was so nice, but left to my gardening talents probably wouldn’t last very long.
There was a short window last fall where these plants were gorgeous. I don’t know if it was the constant rain we had here in Hawaii, or if she just picked good plants but the blooms on our hibiscus were huge. We had a new yellow or red flower almost every day. And I get that there are seasons for plants, but Hawaii is pretty even-keeled – never too hot or too cold (all you need is a light jacket! Ha!). So we had these big amazing blooms on both the hibiscus and the bougainvillea. The tree was standing tall. And all of this with very minimal effort on my part. I just kind of walked by it every day and marveled at how nice it looked and then walked away. If it felt particularly hot or I realized it hadn’t rained in a few days, I would drag the hose over and throw some water on them, never knowing how much was too much, of course.
It was earlier this spring that I noticed the plants start to change. It was a slow change – at first I noticed that we weren’t getting any big blooms. We had a couple small flowers here and there, but not as often and not nearly with the same brilliance. I noticed some kind of white stuff on the end of one of the hibiscus branches, but everything else looked fine so I didn’t pay it much attention. Over the course of the next weeks or maybe even a month, I noticed how our plants were looking more sad. The leaves on the tree were all drooping. We had no blooms on the hibiscus or bougainvillea. The branches of both hibiscus were completely bare except the tops where there were some green leaves, one single tiny flower bud, and then a lot of this white business I mentioned earlier. Except now the white stuff was on most of the plants.
So I went outside one day with the intent to handle the plants. I was going to figure out what was wrong with them. I got closer and inspected the white stuff. I still didn’t know what it was – it looked fuzzy, like a mold. So I went to the internet and asked it what kind of white fuzzy mold grows on plants in Hawaii and it turns out it wasn’t mold, it was FLIES. White flies! Gross! Apparently they attach themselves to your plants, attracted by bright colors, and then suck the sap out of the branches – essentially sucking the life from your plants. And they’ll spread to all your surrounding plants because they are not content to simply destroy one.
I went to the garden center at a local hardware store to figure out how to get rid of these white flies. Tell me what I have to spray on them, immerse them in, cover them with to make these flies go away and the hibiscus can get back to blooming! I was directed to a weed killer product which contained a massive warning that basically read, “DO NOT LOOK IN THE GENERAL DIRECTION OF THIS BOTTLE BECAUSE YOU WILL BE POISONED.” So I left empty-handed, because I have a will to live, and went back to the internet to see what I could learn about pruning.
Pruning is cutting back what is bad so that the good can flourish - so your plants can get back to health. I've never pruned anything before but after a five minute, elementary-level reading about pruning, I headed out to our garden with a rusty pair of shears – the only ones we have. The internet told me I could do a hard prune, which is basically just cutting off all the branches down to nubs, as long as you leave a few buds left on the branches. I also read something about scratching the branch to see if it was green underneath. So I scratched my branches to see that they were bright green – ALIVE! – and then went to hacking away at the tops that looked dead. I didn’t discriminate – I just cut off what looked bad. White fuzzy flies, be gone! By the time I was done, I had some bare sticks growing out of our pots. Aaron got home and I told him I probably did a bad thing and showed him how our garden was now just potted sticks. Whoops! But I watered them anyway and I waited.
If you’re wondering what this story is about it’s not about hibiscus or white flies, it’s about your life and it’s about God. It’s about sin and cutting it back. It’s about the necessity of community.
The pastor at our home church in Nebraska always says, “No one wakes up one day and decides to ruin their life.” They don’t look in the mirror and think that today is the day it all comes crashing down. Rather it is a series of choices – habits that creep in, start small, and take root. It is an action that is rationalized, a feeling that goes unchecked, a bent of your heart that remains unquestioned. You don't just wake up one day to dead plants. It takes lack of care and attention to the small things.
I recently read, You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith and in it he discusses how humans are liturgical beings – we participate in love-shaping rituals that then become habits that inform our lives. It’s far too much to explain here, but the gist is,
“To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life – a picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing’… We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions of flourishing, not usually because we ‘think through’ our options but rather because some picture captures our imagination…”
So our imagination is captured by a story of what it means to live well - what it means to flourish - and sometimes those stories are lies masquerading as truth. So if we’re not careful our loves, and therefore our lives, will be shaped and molded and influenced by sin, lies, and the devil, all the while we're thinking we're leading ourselves into flourishing. So we have to be cautious about what we allow into our lives – who we allow to shape our hearts.
White flies start small – just one little fuzzy dot that you hardly notice on your plants. Your choice starts small – I’ll just look at this one thing, read this one thing, watch this one thing, participate in this one thing, look at this one profile, scroll this one hashtag this one time. But before long it can become habit. And our brains love habits. They love to push actions to our subconscious so we can do them without even thinking. So we make automaticities out of actions and then we do it without thinking and we are influenced without thinking and we suddenly love without thinking and before long the sap is being sucked from our lives by an influx of white flies.
Who do you surround yourself with? What influences do you allow in your life? How are you speaking to others and influencing their lives? Who speaks to your heart and what are they telling you? What vision of flourishing are you believing and living toward? We’re teleological beings – our relationships are teleological meaning they’re always moving toward a certain end. To what end are you moving? Which way is your social media, your friend group, the news directing you? Are you letting white flies move into any area of your life without even acknowledging it?
Proverbs bids us to guard our hearts for from it flows the wellspring of life. Sometimes in order to guard our hearts, to take it back from what has hijacked our loves, requires a hard prune of our habits. Our very lives depend on it. I hacked away at our plants until they were sticks. They looked stupid and bare for a week or so. I thought I would probably have to throw away the whole garden. Well, it took some time but you know what is happening? Every single one of those sticks is growing new leaves. Both hibiscus plants are growing new leaves and new blooms. The bougainvillea, which never had white flies but was only suffocated by their nearness, is blooming again. Even the leaves on the tree that looked dead are standing up again and new leaves are forming. I had to cut it down to nothing in order that health might return.
Since the prune, I watch the plants every day. I check the leaves and branches for white flies. Just this morning I pulled a single white fly off one of the leaves. I water the plants every other day. I check their progress. Maybe we need someone like that in our lives to check in on us, to move in close and make sure we’re okay. To see if there are any areas of our heart where bitterness, anger, jealousy, wrath, or lust has moved in and is attempting to suck the life out of us.
Sometimes our lives require a hard prune. This probably means you'll have to stop hanging out with people who negatively influence you, stop visiting those websites or watching those movies or going to those same places you've always gone. It might mean cutting off people or ideas or thoughts or feelings. I guess I just don’t want you to get overrun by white flies. I don’t want something to come into your life looking harmless enough and then one day you realize that it’s sucking the life from your soul and you don’t know how to stop it. Sometimes our friends can help us prune back what’s bad in our lives. Sometimes God will do it for us. But pruning is for our good – for our health – and I think we all want that for our lives. I just completed Gracelaced, a beautiful Bible study by Ruth Chou Simons. One of the sections was about pruning and she said, “It is merciful and good of our loving Father to prune what chokes us.” It might suck for a little while - it might hurt and make us look like stupid sticks for a minute - but it's ultimately for our good so that we might bloom all the more.
Don’t get choked out by little habits you think are harmless. Look at your life, at your heart, and see what needs to be cut out. See if you have any white flies hiding in your heart. Ask friends to get around you and pray for you – to check in on you. To move close and make sure you’re on track. Do the same for them. We need community that pushes us on toward goodness and holiness. In fact, I think that’s the only way we really have a shot at living well.