If you love the connectedness of a church family small enough to enjoy a monthly potluck together, I’d invite you to visit the Wesley Chapel congregation about 30 minutes north of Tampa, Florida. There’d be plenty to talk about at these potlucks, given that many of the members in this congregation happen to be in the field of education, including my dear sister-in-Christ, Kathleen Trigg, a Professor of Communication at Florida College in Temple Terrace who patiently helped me navigate the process she heads up for the ladies that speak at the annual Florida College lectures. The women of the Wesley Chapel congregation also skillfully work together to host an annual event of their own at which they also invited me to speak: a ladies’ seminar at the local community center. This gathering has been going on for many years and is well-attended by sisters-in-Christ in the communities that surround Wesley Chapel.
Mark spoke several times during the four months we wintered in Florida, so that one Sunday morning we were treated to an intriguing Bible class that John Trigg taught highlighting the fascinating stories throughout the scriptures that take place in and around various gardens, from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) to the heavenly Tree of Life in to come that bears twelve kinds of fruit (Revelation 22:2). Of course there are in the scriptures so many gardens in-between, including the garden that was Israel in which God tells us of the unrequited love that broke His heart:
“My beloved had a vineyard
on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
but the grapes that grew were bitter.
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?
Now let me tell you
what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
to drop no rain on it.
The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
but instead he heard cries of violence.” Isaiah 5:-1-7
Forty-six chapters later we see again a glimmer of hope as our God, so deserving of affection and loyalty, pines for reunification:
“The Lord will comfort Israel again
and have pity on her ruins.
Her desert will blossom like Eden,
her barren wilderness like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found there.
Songs of thanksgiving will fill the air.” (Isaiah 51:3)
“…Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name;
they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.” (Isaiah 55:13)
Was loyal affection too much to ask from the souls He had so mercifully rescued from the whips of Egyptian slavemasters Exodus 5:14), from starvation in the wilderness (Exodus 16), and the attack of bloodthirsty armies (Exodus 14;17; Numbers 21; 31; Joshua 6, 8-11)? All this Vineyard Grower ever wanted was to enjoy a fruitful place of comfort and growth and savor the blossoms of joy and gladness and to fill the air with the lovely music of thanksgiving.
There’s perhaps no better glimpse into the heart of the Creator of agape, phileo, storge, and eros than the lovely garden in the Song of Solomon with all its delicious apples, figs, grapes, and pomegranates, and fragrant henna, spikenard, calamus, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, and aloes. Gardens are very special places in the heart of God who so desires a warm, joyous spiritual relationship with us, every bit as intimate as the love we read about in this very symbolic book.
From the first day of creation human love, whether parent/child (1 John 3:1-3) or husband wife (Ephesians 5; Rev 19:7;21:9; 22:17) or our best friendships (John 15:13-15) have always been a living parable of the kind of perfect intimacy He yearns for us to find in Him --- an intimacy that sin to one degree or another, prevents us from finding in heavenly measure, in one another in this cursed world. How apropos that the disciple “whom Jesus loved”, who unselfconsciously leaned against the comfort of the Savor’s bosom the last meal they enjoyed together, was the one chosen to pen the words “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).
John Trigg was kind enough to send me a couple of well-written articles he’d referred to alongside the scriptures he shared during the Bible class we attended. In one article, Brian Zahnd makes several astute observations about the most profound garden scene of all found in John 20:14-25 when “‘Mary Magdalene turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus…supposing him to be the gardener.’ In this article, the author notes how Mary Magdalene made “A logical mistake. Or a prophetic mistake. Or a beautiful mistake. Or perhaps not a mistake at all”. How apropos it was for Jesus to be buried in a garden, given that a garden is a place to cultivate and grow living things, and that the Son of God Himself was buried like a seed sown in this peaceful garden, so that on Sunday it was in the garden that God brought forth the first fruits of resurrection — Jesus Christ Himself, declaring Him to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4). No wonder just a few days before his crucifixion Jesus Himself had said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). The writer also remarked “The first seed raised by God in the garden of resurrection became the Gardener. When Mary Magdalene “supposed him to be the gardener,” she was exactly right! Jesus is now the Gardener of resurrection, cultivating new life in all who believe. The first Adam was a gardener who failed in his task and the world became a wasteland of war and sin. But the second Adam will succeed in his task — Christ will restore the ruined garden.”
This Master Gardner certainly shares with us what we can do to avoid again breaking the heart of God, as the nation of Israel did, and instead, flourish like the lovers in Song of Solomon:
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:1-14.
Christ has given you and I, His spiritual bride, everything we need to flourish, and by flourishing, to offer His nourishing wisdom to others. I happened to grow up in a family in which the gardening gene if there is one, runs strong among the females in both sides. Unfortunately, the gene skipped me, but at least I can do my best to make the world a beautiful place by helping people grow spiritual fruit in the Lord’s vineyard.
I’d like to conclude this entry with a reminder that immediately after creating human souls to love, God “planted a garden” (Genesis 2:8) where those human souls could walk with Him in the cool of the day (3:8), and that the guilt, shame, pain, and death that in the garden ruined everything --- all that has been taken away by the great sacrifice of our Savior (Colossians 1:19-20). So as you wait for your reunion with your First Love (1 John 4:19; Revelation 2:4) near the Tree of Life where death, mourning, and pain are passed away and He wipes every tear from your eyes where all things are made new (Revelation 21:4-5) --- until then, I’d encourage you to take great pleasure in intimate, prayerful walks with Him regularly through every earthly garden you can find to ponder together this Ultimate Gardner’s wonders and glories. Perhaps take a slow, poignant walk, as we have, through the Antebellum Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and meditate on how He has freed us all from the slavery of sin. For an interesting, educational field trip with the kids, check out the only remaining tea garden in North America: Charleston Tea Garden in South Carolina, and together thank Him for all He has allowed us to cultivate. Visit the Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida, and thank Him for the priceless gift of music as you hear the carillon bells emanating from “The Singing Tower”. Take the five-hour hike through the woods of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and delight in the humor he’s gifted us for having been made in his image and see this quality displayed in the five mammoth trolls that Copenhagen artist Thomas Dambo has made of recycled wood there. And don’t miss the Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, Arkansas where among the lovely flowerbeds and trees, we stumbled upon Anthony Chapel --- the single most beautiful physical structure either of us has ever seen for its natural elements: floor-to-ceiling windows and an open-rafter ceiling supported by massive, curved pine columns. We both agreed: “If ever a structure on this earth reminded us both of the exquisite clean simplicity of the temple of God and pristine, first-century Christianity--- this is it!”
church of Christ at Wesley Chapel
30100 Overpass Rd, Wesley Chapel, FL 33545