Deep Cleaning

We had a cleanup day at church on Saturday. Since I’m the unofficial church gardener, I walked around the building a few weeks before with the facilities pastor to make a list of outdoor projects. In the past few years we have freshened up one flower bed along the walkway and added new flowers by the sign at the busy corner. But there were three areas that definitely needed more attention.

I decided they needed to be completely cleared of everything at a deep level. It was hard to say that, because there were some iris in the beds that were going to bloom soon, a few daisy shoots coming up, along with some random perennials. But I held firm; we had to get everything out so we could do a deep cleaning of the weeds, trees roots, and chaotic jumble of flowers and weeds that come up every year.

church border

I remembered our cleanup from a few years ago – on that day I was less decisive and had a softer view; I instructed people to get as much as they could but leave the iris and daisies. The result was a few nice flowers in May and June, then a jumble of weeds and tree shoots by mid-summer. At that point I couldn’t remove the roots without harming the meager flowers, so I would bring my clippers by church every so often and cut off the tree shoots. A temporary truce but not a real solution to the problem of weeds.

We definitely needed a clean slate in certain parts of the landscape.

As the teams of workers were nearing the end of the second flower bed, with just one clump of iris left, someone new arrived to help. She said, “We can’t take out these iris, they are getting ready to bloom.”

I wavered a moment, but said, “No, we have to do this deep cleaning. I remember last summer, after the iris were done, I would come into church on a Sunday and see 2 foot high thistles growing in this bed. It needs a deep cleaning.”

I didn’t want to say, “Dig them all up.” It was a painful decision for one who loves flowers.

But I remembered back to the thistles of previous years, and we dug out everything. (Actually, I did very little digging – we had a great group of volunteers!)

Deep cleaning is painful, but necessary. And sometimes good things are sacrificed for the best. Weeds literally can choke the life out of good plants in a garden. Deep cleaning is important to get to the roots of the weeds, not just the tops.

church planter area

It isn’t hard to find parallels between gardening, deep cleaning, and cultivating our souls. Jesus lived among people who had a connection to the land, so he often used metaphors related to cultivation in his teaching. When I think of thistles choking out flowers, I remember his words recorded in several of the gospel accounts, about the seeds and the soil:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown. … The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8)

As people created in God’s image, we are created for mature flourishing and relationship with him. But life’s worries can choke out this joy and growth. Even when we think we have dealt with issues that choke out our spiritual growth, sometimes the roots of weeds run deep.

When I consider the “weeds and thistles” that infest my soul, some are so deeply rooted and long-lived, that I have to submit to deep digging to eradicate the infestation. In Paul’s letter to the Christian in Colossae, before they could put on the beautiful characteristics of Christ-likeness such as compassion, kindness, humility … they had to put to death and rid themselves of slander, envy, greed and a whole list of weeds and thistles (Colossians 3:1-17).

I’ve gardened long enough, and lived long enough, to know that even a weed I think I have cleared out may pop up again in an ugly moment. Just when I think I am done with envy (or bindweed or thistles), an ugly thought (or shoot) emerges.

This won’t be the last garden cleanup at church. By going deeper this year than previously, we can reset the pattern and make room for growth and flourishing – for a time. Until we have to repeat the process with another deep dig.

Iris blooming through thistles are definitely not the best for a flourishing garden. Even though it isn’t the right season for transplanting, I did bring some of the iris rhizomes home to cultivate in my own garden. This fall, if the weed project seems successful, I’ll replant some iris so we can enjoy them next year and into the future – with the goal of  long-term flourishing, not temporary results.

church roses

One thought on “Deep Cleaning

  1. How did you become the unofficial church gardener? I somehow had the misfortune of being assigned that title at a parish that I am not even a parishioner of! How does that even happen? I am Catholic, not Presbyterian! However, Presbyterians really are more fun, and have a more interesting garden that is closer to home.


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