At the back of our property there is a weed. It was brought to our property years ago by a previous owner as a pretty ground cover to hide an ugly rock pile. As long as the lawn around it was mown regularly, it stayed in the middle of the lawn and seemed harmless enough. But then we decided to remove the lump of rocks and make it into part of the lawn instead. The weed and rocks were innocently dug out and removed to the back of our property. Then, we were away for a year and everything was left to itself.
The weed is a pretty little plant called Goutweed or Bishop’s Weed, a perennial from the carrot/parsley family. It is not native to this part of the world but is very happy to grow here. Sadly, it quickly takes over, crowding out other species and spreading underground through its thick and fast-growing root system, choking everything else. In fact, it can quickly regrow from just a small piece of the root left in the ground.
There are a couple ways to try to manage it:
Starve the roots by cutting off any shoots immediately or restricting sunlight for a full year.
Dig up the soil and remove the roots.
Don’t leave a garden uncared for.
It didn’t take long for it to reach our vegetable garden. In the spring I spent back-breaking hours digging up every square inch and pulling the long spaghetti-like roots from the soil. Each time I turned over a spadeful of dirt criss-crossed with the strands, I thought of the verse in Hebrews 12:15 – the bitter root that grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
If that root is not dug up and burned, each little sprout will nourish the root and allow it to keep on growing and spreading until it potentially crowds out every other living thing in the whole garden.
Hebrews 12 tells us how to avoid this bitterness in our hearts. It speaks of a joy that we see in the future that helps us to persevere through present imperfection. It tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus who endured opposition and shame. It tells us to be willing to give our lives in our struggle against sin. It tells us that holiness comes through recognizing our own need for discipline and submitting to it. Instead of being discouraged by difficulties, it speaks of strengthening the arms and knees and making paths level so that we don’t discourage others. It instructs us to pursue peace with others, and our own holiness. If all we want is the blessing without the heartwork that is necessary to be able to receive it, we will be seeking it in vain. It is our church family that provides us with a true knowledge of ourselves and often the discipline to make corrections.
Paul usually begins his letters with a greeting of grace and peace. These two words go together for a reason. Grace is often defined as “undeserved favour” and thought of as a gift from God. It is something we are thankful for because it means, although we can do nothing to deserve it, God is willing to love and forgive us. But that is not all it is. It is also something, that because God extends it to us, we can extend to others. And when we extend it to others, we contribute to an environment of peace.
Paul says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31,32). He didn’t mean to just do this with people we happen to get along with already.
I know that my garden will never be completely free of weeds. And every spring I will need to dig it up and pull out the Goutweed that has crept back in. It will be a never-ending battle. But it is in the struggle to live in peace, to be kind and compassionate, gentle and long-suffering that I learn to be all these things. I can learn them no other way.
And that is what keeps us in need of grace, and reminds us to also extend it to others.
However, I don’t want to leave it there and suggest that our relationships and our church family being a source of stress and struggle and discipline is something we need to accept and expect in a resigned sort of way. It is well known in medicine today that certain kinds of stress can be very harmful to our health. There is a good kind of stress that is motivating and helps us to keep going, but there is also a bad kind of stress that leaves us feeling worn out and on edge.
We know how helpful it can be to flip a complaint into gratitude. Our minds are flexible that way. We can do the same thing for the experiences we have within our communities. We can see other people or situations as causes of our pain and failure to thrive, or we can see them as causes of pain that leads to our growth – that teaches us things about ourselves and gives us opportunity to practice grace and peace. The first is bad stress. The second is good stress. Pain is not always a bad thing; hard work and effort can be very painful but our minds can tell us to feel good about it.
The truth is that while I am pulling those long, skinny rhizomes out of the soil, I am also experiencing a great sense of satisfaction. When I have worked hard, and the soil lies weed-free, soft and crumbly and neat and tidy-looking, I am happy, I feel at peace.
As the beginning of Hebrews 12 tells us, we can endure anything if we have joy set before us. We don’t find joy by avoiding pain and suffering, in fact, joy is increased when we can overcome instead of evade. Often avoidance only allows pain to continue and grow greater. There is joy to be found in conquering our own battles, giving grace instead of hostility, and getting through the hard times that is so much greater because of them.
So, do not be weary or lose heart. “If you falter in a time of trouble, how small is your strength!” It is only in times of trouble that our strength is revealed. It is small if we see ourselves as victims, strangled by the weeds, spreading poison. We may feel weak, but God sees us as quite capable of another path. The antidote to faltering, the antidote to being weary and losing heart, the antidote to spreading poison from bitter roots, the antidote to discouragement and disunity is to be working positively. The proverb goes on: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter” (Proverbs 24:10-11).
Because this is the truth, we don’t leave our garden weed-free and empty. We get to work planting the good things we want to grow in it. Things that will help to rescue others, that will hold others back from slaughter.
The roots I am pulling out of the soil are not the people and circumstances that are causing pain or discomfort. It is of course much easier to feel like a good Christian when never provoked or criticized by avoiding those situations where we have to get along with people. We can think we are growing a very nice garden when in fact it is chock full of weeds. If I am never tested, then how do I know how small or large my strength is. How can we grow patience if we never feel impatient? How can we grow kindness if there is no one to be kind to? How can we be rescued by others (especially when we don’t think we need it), if we are never willing to be with those who also need rescuing?
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)
So this is how to deal with those roots of bitterness that can spring up and spoil everything.
Don’t feed them by keeping a record of wrongs. Sprouts are immediately removed.
Recognize the sprouts as indications of work that needs to be done (our own sinfulness), and work to dig up and remove the weeds in our own hearts.
Don’t spread weeds around by throwing them into someone else’s yard by gossiping and speaking ill of others.
Keep busy and fill up our soil with good things so we can be of help to others.
And then, “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”