Are You Dead Inside?

This past week, I got the brilliant idea to prune the azaleas in front of my house. These lovely bushes were planted almost twenty years ago having replaced a lineup of pathetic-looking boxwoods. On the surface, these bushes are gorgeous. Overflowing with beautiful pink blooms in the spring that have been the envy of my neighbors. I look forward to their coming out party every year. Why would I want to jeopardize this joyful experience?
In short, they’ve been lightly trimmed and shaped over the years but have never gotten a real pruning. I sensed it was time.

After a few nips and tucks with my trusty cutter, turns out that they were not so full. Not so pretty inside. In fact, they were filled with dead twigs and branches to the point where I was tempted to simply dig them up and throw them away.

I maneuvered my cutters around the various branches doing my best to create some sort of consistent look among the half dozen bushes. This task was not only physically challenging but it sparked a plethora of deep-thoughts during the process. As I pruned away each branch, I recognized that I could use a good pruning myself. Leave it to me to find a spiritual experience in a mind-numbing gardening task, but I did.

Despite their outward beauty, they were essentially dead inside. The bountiful pink blossoms that bloomed each spring covered up a myriad of intertwined dead branches and twigs that lay just beneath the surface. They did their best to put on their game faces each year but once the makeup was removed, the ugliness was exposed.

As the hours-long process continued, I found myself wanting to give up multiple times. “It’s good enough” was the message I replayed in my head over and over when the going got too tough or it seemed I was in over my head. I had to repeatedly step back and review my progress so that I’d be motivated to finish the task. I wondered what other projects or endeavors I might have given up on too soon or perhaps delegated to someone else because I didn’t want to ‘get my hands dirty’.

About five hours later, with the afternoon sun glaring and multiple bottles of water consumed, I was finished. Well, sort of. I had finished the pruning and what lay before me was a heap of limbs and leaves and branches so large that it could’ve been used as a barricade against an alien invasion. As I sat on my porch surveying the volume, I contemplated a call to my lawn guy. He could scoop all of this up in minutes. He’s bigger and stronger than me. He has a truck. He’s a guy.

Ok – all somewhat sexist thoughts but hey, I’m the first to admit my weaknesses and physical labor is one of them. After realizing that as nice as he is, he’d likely charge me for this project, I realized that I’d better reconsider. Unemployment checks are to be used for more meaningful expenses than branch removal. I lugged armful after armful off my lawn until I could see my grass once again. Finished.

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Not quite. As I thought about these lovely plants that had just gone through the shock of their lives, I realized that they probably needed a little pick me up in order to start their growing process once again. I summoned the energy to drag out the fertilizer bag and sprinkled each with a good helping along with a whopping gulp of water.

Now I was finished…with the physical labor anyway. I glanced at my handiwork and snapped a few photos. I stood there in disbelief. “I killed them” were the words that exited my mouth.  Never again would I witness the full beauty of their spring flowers and it was highly likely that I’d now become the laughing stock of the neighborhood with the mish-mash of bushes lining my entryway.

That’s the risk we take when we cut away the outer fluff and expose our insides to the world. People will see us for who we really are. With makeup off, others see our true selves, what we’re made of and their reaction is to be determined.

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In addition to the sore muscles and half-million cuts and scrapes on my arms and legs, my azaleas taught me much on that hot summer day. It’s time to take off the mask and the makeup and show the world who I really am. It’s time to examine the dead branches inside of me and either accept their lifeless state or do what I can to fertilize them and bring them back to life. It’s time to shake up old beliefs like “I can’t do this” or “It’s too hard” or “I’m not qualified”. It’s time.

Coincidentally (or not), as I tore away at the bushes on the right side of my house, I found an electrical box. I had this installed many years ago to facilitate Christmas decorations. Because the overgrown azaleas had covered it up, I’d completely forgotten about it. As I stood there staring at the like-new box, I chuckled to myself. How many holiday seasons did I struggle to string lights because I’d forgotten about it? How many twists and turns did I take to figure out how to efficiently loop the strings of lights together because this light was hidden from view?

I wonder how many of us forget that we have a light inside? We forget who we really are at our core because we’ve spent decades hiding underneath fancy clothes or makeup or personalities that maybe served a purpose but now are choking us. What twists and turns have we taken in our lives to cover up or ignore that light? And what state of mind (or heart) are we in today because of these actions?

It’s time to rediscover that light. It’s time to take off the lipstick and high heels to see what is truly making us tick. What makes us bloom once all the deadness is cut away? I know that I will be looking more closely at my own pile of dead branches to uncover the light that has been hidden away.

As I put away my tools and washed up, I sent up a silent prayer of thanks to my lovely azaleas for the pleasure they’d given me over the years. I asked them to strive to find their inner blooms so they could be reborn next spring – maybe not like they once were, but possibly better and healthier. I vowed to tend to them more frequently so they would not have to go through this experience again.

Afterwards I wondered – was it my azaleas I was praying for or me? Either way, I know that God heard my prayer and the answers are forthcoming. Only time will tell what the outcome of my pruning will be however, I’m in the very capable hands of the Master Gardener who assures me that everything will be fine.

“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2)

Jen’s Gem: Don’t be afraid to look deep inside and prune away what is no longer serving you.

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