Prone to Wander

A Lesson from Bob and a Bonsai Tree

Josh’s seventy-something step-grandfather Bob is one of those people in the world that you just really want to be around.  His love of life is simply infectious. You’re drawn to the light inside him without really even knowing why.

And if you really want to light him up, get him to tell you some stories about one of his favorite things: photography, singing, ice cream, Jesus, his parents (an Irish boxer named Big Tex who married a fiery El Salvadoran beauty)… or gardening.

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Garden in Kyoto Japan (2014)

Bob loves gardening more than anyone I know. One year we visited Bob and Peggy in St. Louis and they took us sightseeing at the St. Louis Botanical Gardens. It’s important to understand that for Bob, visiting the Botanical Gardens was the equivalent of seeing his favorite band at a rock concert. And because Bob was a volunteer at the Gardens, he was able to take us “backstage.”  We learned all about the plants and their ecosystems and seasonalities. I honestly have never met anyone so violently in love with nature.

Fast forward a few years later, Bob and Peggy came to Austin and we had them over for dinner. At some point during the evening, Bob asked if he could go look at the plants I had in the backyard. Cue my embarrassment – I had been severely neglecting the poor plants in my backyard for a long time.

One flower bush in particular was supposed to be a small plant but it had exploded in size thanks to the recent rain – and as a result it had shot out long, scraggly branches in every direction. And it hadn’t flowered all summer. To be honest, it really didn’t look like a plant that any self-respecting person would want to have anywhere near their backyard.

But in the nicest way possible, Bob showed me where to cut it back.  He said, “If you cut it back here, and here, you’ll force it to flower. Sometimes cutting it back is the best thing you can do for it. It will put its energy into becoming fuller and making flowers, instead of feeding all the energy into these long branches.”

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Bonsai Trees at a temple in Tokyo (2014)

It strikes me that gardening is much more than gardening. It may actually be something sacred – an analogy for our souls. Getting the right amount of sunlight, soil and water matters. Pruning makes us fuller.  It makes us flower. We cut off the tangents and tendrils that sprout in the wrong directions so that we can refocus on our core.

On our recent trip to Japan, I was again reminded of this. The gardeners at some of the temples maintained rows and rows of bonsai trees, day after day. It seems rather obvious to most people that keeping a bonsai requires incredible dedication and patience. But there is such a remarkable truth about the nature of change that is hidden in a bonsai tree.  You may not see any changes day to day – a tiny snip here and a tiny snip there won’t be very noticeable or exciting if you look at it every day. But a tiny snip every day for a year or a decade can yield a masterpiece, if the gardener knows what he or she is doing.

Guiding a plant into a form like this simply takes time – and it’s absolutely not a process that you can short-cut. A gardener takes small actions every day. He or she is not just a long-term caretaker, but also a long-term – very active – architect.

I am deeply reminded that God was, and is, the first Gardener. He is the sun and the rain and the soil. But He is also the pruning shears. And I really don’t like that part very much. But perhaps He knows, much better than I, about what parts to cut in order to make the flowers bloom. Perhaps He has my future shape, my final form, in mind.

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