For 10 years now, my wife Genie and I have enjoyed the stewardship of 40 acres of Colorado wilderness. Our cabin is surrounded by national forest, near the Indian Peaks Wilderness above Boulder. When we were building the cabin, we drew up plans to landscape the areas scarred by construction. At 9,000 feet elevation, We get about 18 inches of rain and have around 50 frost-free days a year, so it's a short, dry growing season. Given these constraints, it’s amazing how much vegetation will flourish.
As we've worked with this land for the past 10 years, I have seen in wonderful ways the mysteries of God as He invites us into the creation process and confounds us with the results. It isn’t that He needs us -- He just offers us the opportunity to take part in the creation story.
1 Cor 3:6-7:1 [Paul] planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
Every fall, after the first snow, I plant wildflower seed. Blue flax, columbine, indian paintbrush, and scarlet gilia are among my favorites. I plant the seed, God covers it with snow, and if it’s found good soil, come spring it will grow. As I walk through the forests and meadows surrounding the cabin, I can now see flowers migrating down the hill from our plantings. I know because when we bought the property, these flowers were not out there.
We finished building the cabin in January of 2001 but couldn't begin planting until June. My son, Andy, graduated in May of that year from UC Boulder, and he put together a crew to do the landscaping and stonework around the cabin over the summer. We were anxious to heal the scars from building, but we insisted on using native plants that would require no water after the first year. We did the planting in the midst of a drought, and it took its toll on the shrubs, trees and flowers we put in the ground.
Andy planted, I watered, and strange things happened. Several of the aspen trees died where we planted them. Others tried to. After a couple of years, I got a call during the winter from a neighbor. “Your aspen tree fell over, so I tied it back up.” I guess the tree didn't know it was dead, because it has grown twice as tall, and half a dozen new trees have shot up from its roots. Columbines hated it where we planted them beside the house. Those died, but others sprouted from seed behind the garage, where we did not plant, and they're flourishing.
I’ve gotten a chance to influence the evolving creation by picking my favorite alpine flowers and tossing out seed. But what happens next is totally out of my control. I’ve planted flowers in a spot only to see them die out and reappear in a spot where I didn’t plant them. It’s like they got up and walked over to a spot they liked better. Paul’s statement to the Corinthians sums it up: I plant, someone else waters, but only God gives life and growth.
Trying to free myself from the need to see results from my work for the Kingdom has been a terrific challenge. When I watch how things grow in Colorado, it helps me understand that only God can bring the growth. I’m trying to learn how to live that out in my second career. My first career was all about achievement and measuring what was accomplished. In nature, we learn that we cannot control the result, as hard as we try.
Part of the challenge in any environment is to manage creative destruction. In 1910, a fire broke out in Colorado that came to be called the Big Burn. Just two years earlier, in 1908, Roosevelt had created the National Forest Service and had begun setting aside public lands. Then the Big Burn happened. It scorched an area the size of Connecticut (three million acres) in three days and killed 87 people, 78 of them firefighters. After that, the Forest Service expanded and adopted a policy that all fire is bad.
Now, the forests are unhealthy. Aspen groves, which quickly establish in burned-over areas, are now greatly underrepresented in the Colorado mountains. Pines have taken over, and the stands are dense and full of dead trees. Litter covers the forest floor. In natural cycles, fire comes in regularly, burning the fuel on the ground and leaving the trees intact in many cases. As the fire burns the underbrush, it releases nutrients and opens up areas for new things to grow. However, in the dense stands, fire spreads to the crowns of the trees. At that point, the burn reaches temperatures of 1800-2000 degrees. Water evaporates before it hits the fire. The only hope of stopping it is by taking fuel out of its path by cutting fire breaks or dumping toxic slurry from airplanes.
With 40 acres, we qualified for the Forest Ag Plan, whereby we were rezoned to agricultural, and in return we agree to spend the money we save on property taxes on fire mitigation and forest health. For five years, I have had a crew spend a week cutting out trees, increasing spacing and trimming all limbs up to eight feet high. It is amazing what this creative destruction has done to our forest. Now we have flowers and bushes growing where before there was only a carpet of pine needles. Deer and moose are now foraging where before only squirrels lived. And we have greatly increased the likelihood that our cabin will survive a fire.
Last week, we spent four days watching the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history burn the ridges just two miles away from our cabin. 170 homes were destroyed. We were a half mile outside the evacuation zone. I had just taken 70 trees out of the slope below the house, and I was happy to have done so when we saw the smoke. (See my pictures here)
It is a wonderful analogy to life as a Christ-follower. We are challenged to sow seeds of the Gospel, to touch people in need, to prepare for the harvest. But it is God who brings the harvest. It is the Spirit that incubates those seeds in the hearts of our friends and family. However, our role is critical. If we don’t sow the seeds, they won’t germinate. If we don’t water the seeds by nurturing our relationships, the seeds won’t grow. However, we cannot force the result. That is God’s job.
Creative destruction is needed in our lives and churches as well. We all have plenty of deadwood that would be better cleared from the forest of our minds and bodies. Churches have many programs that at some time were vibrant and helpful, but have lost life and are no longer producing fruit. Yet we have no sunset provisions in our church budget. It is hard to kill long-loved programs or even admit they are not working anymore.
Ron Lee, a good friend and board member of the Transforming Leaders Initiative, recently served as transition pastor at a church in Florida. I met several members of that church some time ago. They related how Ron said in his first week that his job was to prune the branches so the vine would once again produce healthy fruit. They were quite nonplussed by the idea. Yet, over the course of a year, many things that had lost life were given permission to die. The pruning is now seen as helpful, even critical to a move back to health.
How long since you did some pruning in your life and in your church? Perhaps you, too, are being weighed down by dead wood; branches that are not healthy or bearing good fruit. May God lead you to sow the seeds of the Gospel, and prune as necessary to move you and your church to health.