Sector Four: Spiritual Strength aka The Secret Garden

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One of my favorite movies growing up (and probably still now if I am honest LOL) was The Secret Garden. Telling the tale of multiple tragedies (the death of parents and spouses; illness and despair; loneliness on many levels), a triad of hurting hearts finds a sense of hope and new growth through the restoration of a neglected secret garden. Even the hardest of hearts in the story is softened by the beauty and potential of new life, and the transformation that takes place as each character spends time in the secret garden is inspiring.

As a little girl, I remember wishing I had my own secret garden, complete with hidden door and key, to go to when times were tough or celebrate in when times were good. A small bit of secluded earth to call my own, and only invite those in whom I could truly trust.

And sometimes, even as an adult now, I still do.    Maybe you do too…

Which is exactly why this week’s reading on spirituality hit so close to home. It is no coincidence that Gordon begins our discussion of the soul, and its spiritual nature, by using the picture of a garden. If you remember correctly, that is kind of where the story of humanity started in the very beginning. That perfect garden of Eden, which I envision had its own form of amazing gate and key, where humanity and deity lived out unbroken, untouched, PERFECT spiritual communion. Until sin came in and destroyed the perfection, we lived in overwhelming peace, security, and congruence: the spirit and the flesh were one.

However (no spoiler alert here), we know the story took a turn for the absolute worst when sin and selfishness entered the stage and destroyed the perfect peace. Distortion, disruption, and destruction ensued; and now we live in a world overrun by sin and chaos and hurt and tragedy. And our souls and our flesh are often at odds, and we yearn for that long ago fairy tale garden that was so simple, so sweet, and so sacred.

Sin continues to scream at us that the garden is gone forever, and while I am not saying we can return to the garden of Eden anytime soon, I do believe that a still, small voice whispers to us among the noise and beckons us to a remnant of the original creation He has placed within us… the secret garden that still resides within our soul.

My Own Secret Garden

Recognizing that there is a sacred space within me, a spiritual realm known as the soul, is still hard for me to fully comprehend. Although honestly, the little girl within me is jumping for joy at the thought of having my own secret garden. 🙂 And while for the most part, this is a metaphorical discussion, I love love love (yes, I meant for there to be three of them for emphasis) the picture of my inner soul as a garden. Why? Because there are so many lessons that can be gleaned from envisioning  our soul from a gardening perspective (you can probably think of more than I will discuss here if you really think about it).

First, when cared for properly, gardens are usually beautiful, breath-taking, peaceful places where people have celebrations, get engaged, get married, and have deep, romantic, intimate interactions. All of the senses are usually involved with an experience in a garden: you can hear the soothing sound of water falling from a nearby fountain, you can smell the sweet perfume of blooming jasmine, you can see the brilliant colors of a variety of petals and greenery, you can touch the soft green grass or smooth stones as you sit for a moment, and you can taste the refreshing sweet of a nearby fruit fresh off the vine (yes, in my garden there will always be food of some kind). Our inner garden can be the same way! According to Gordon, it is “a place of potential peace and tranquility. This garden is a place where the Spirit of God comes to make self-disclosure, to share wisdom, to give affirmation or rebuke, to provide encouragement, and to give direction and guidance. When this garden is in proper order, it is a quiet place, and there is an absence of busyness, of defiling noise, of confusion” (pg. 118). Sounds wonderful to me!!!

Second, an amazing garden like this takes regular maintenance and hard work to create and maintain. That is the exact reason I do not have a real garden in my backyard (even though there was one there previously from the last owners of our house) and why I truly admire those that do keep one. Even in the small flower bed I have kept close to our house, there are ALWAYS things to be done: rake up the leaves that have fallen, prune the rosebushes, mulch the rosebushes, pull up all of the weeds because we can no longer see the dogs when we let them out (I am not joking), and this is just routine maintenance. This is not even trying to get them big and beautiful and amazing. True gardeners spend hours upon hours tilling the soil, working the soil, trimming and pruning and raking and hauling, expending both time and energy on hands and knees before taking the time to enjoy the beauty around them. The same goes for our inner gardens (which exist whether we want them to or not): it will take the time (when we are using it properly 🙂 ) and the efforts (good thing we have that mind to help us out) of regular inner work to create and maintain.

Fortunately, there is typically a reward for all that work: a gardener that is putting in the time and effort to create a thriving garden can expect productivity and harvest. Blooms in season are anticipated, and you can see the pride and joy of any gardener when they can display the beauty they have cultivated. We on the outside like it too; hence the desire for fresh flowers at weddings and celebrations and even funerals, as symbols of love and friendship and condolences… to encourage and enjoy in the deepest of moments. Similarly, our inner gardens will produce a harvest in season as well: fruits of the spirit including “courage, hope, love, endurance joy, and lots of peace. Unusual capacities for self-control, the ability to discern evil and ferret out truth are also reaped” (pg. 120). We will grow in wisdom and knowledge and character, and those around us will enjoy the beauty displayed.

Finally, even the most amazing of gardens can fall into disarray when left unattended for too long. If the gardener is unable to keep up the necessary maintenance, weeds and overgrowth of the plants will take place. What once was beautiful, organized and peaceful will become a knotted, chaotic mess that may ultimately lead to plant destruction and death. There will be few, if any fruits, and the awaited harvests will no longer take place. Gordon warns us that our inner garden is no different, and that it “cannot remain uncultivated for long before it becomes infested with the sort of growth that makes it uninviting, both to the indwelling Lord and to us ourselves” (pg. 157). However, the alternate is true as well: even the gardens that are in most disarray can be brought back to life with the right amount of time and care.  If we truly want to experience the inner peace that comes from within, we will need to remain vigilant and not let our garden slip into this overgrown state and if it has, then it is time to take action.

How does this apply to me? (aka How does your Garden Grow? )

As we discussed above, a beautiful, thriving garden does not get that way by accident. Even if there is a form of beauty in the overgrowth, the health of the plants and the soil may not be what it seems. Even weeds can be pretty at times, but in the end rob both the earth and the plants of their life-giving properties. With this in mind then, how then do we cultivate or re-cultivate our gardens to bring forth substantial, vivacious, and thriving life?

Gordon tells us that there are four main disciplines we can start with (there are many more that are not covered in this book but can be found elsewhere; a good friend of mine just recommended the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster and it is on my to-read list) to take action and stimulate growth within out gardens. A summary of each is provided below:

  1. Silence and Solitude: Taking time just to be with no noise, no distractions, and no other living thing. This might be a local park where you can find a secluded place, the inside of your car in your driveway (I use this one a lot), or the inside of a closet or bathroom (as long as it is quiet). Depending on your circumstances, you may need to use ear plugs (LOL) or close your eyes, but the point is to get as quiet and focused as possible. For me, this means no kids, no husband, no dogs, no cell phone, and no mess (I get easily distracted by mess). There is sometimes an initial culture shock at the lack of noise and bustling, but once you take some time to embrace the lack thereof, there is also something refreshing about the silent space. It allows you to take a deep breath, and transition from listening to everything else our next discipline: listening to God.
  2. Listening to God: This is probably the hardest of the disciplines for me to practically explain, even though I have experienced it many times. I have never audibly heard God talk to me (although I think it would be incredibly scary and cool at the same time), but I have seen Him speak directly to my needs and situations through reading the Bible, reading Christian literature, and even through the words of a trusted friend, sermon, or worship song. Gordon recommends that to supplement the listening process, we can utilize a journal to record what we hear God saying. While I do not journal daily as he describes, although I am seriously considering an earnest attempt after being inspired from this reading, I have always been a note-taker. For every class or sermon or even in meetings, I am always taking notes because there are things that I want to keep with me when I hear them. This is often when I hear God speaking, as I have been asking specifically for guidance or direction about something and a verse or quote appears to speak directly to that matter. Then, I can record it, confirm that it matches God’s character and will as described in the Bible, and act upon it.
  3. Reflection and Meditation: Once we have created the time and space to be alone and quiet with God, have listened to Him and recorded what He is saying, we have the ability to integrate it into who we are through the tools of reflection and meditation. As Gordon explains, this is the process of “pressing enter” in our spiritual computers and inputting the new information into ourselves (pg. 140). This is literally thinking about the thing God told you over and over and over again until it becomes second nature. For instance, my word from the Lord for this year is discipline. As I seek to “enter” this word and practice into my life, I am purposefully thinking of it as much as I can in multiple contexts. I have looked up the definition, looked up verses, and posted the word throughout my house and places I will be as reminders. I reflect and visualize and meditate on this concept of discipline, until it becomes a part of my regular existence. When God speaks to you and you hear Him, you can do similar things to let His word integrate into your life as well.
  4. Prayer: This is our part of the conversation with God, and how we actually communicate with Him. I love that God is not just one-sided; He does not just give out orders and then leave us to complete them. Instead, just like in the original garden, He longs to live in relationship with us, hear our thoughts and our dreams, both positive and negative, and encourages us to take an active tole in our relationship. Since we do not live in the original garden though, prayer can often be difficult, especially since it can sometimes feel like talking to empty space, but if we can begin to cultivate our inner gardens, I bet we will start to feel differently about this too. I know even envisioning myself in my garden with the Lord changes how I view prayer, as something that has to be done or is empty to an actual conversation to a present participant. Gordon tells us that prayer is a combination of timing, posture, and content. Timing is different for each person, but setting aside time for intentional prayer is essential. My time is best in the morning (I tend to fall asleep at night) but yours may be in the evenings or even on your lunch break. Posture is a matter of preference, and to be honest, it depends on the content of my conversation (just like any real relationship). Sometimes I am standing, sometimes I am on my knees, and there have been those most desperate times when I am all out, face down on the ground, crying out to God. Content is what we pray about, which I personally think can be anything and everything. But for those who like structure, Gordon lists adoration(praise and thanksgiving), confession(anything that is bothering you or sin you have observed within), and intercession(praying for others and self) as the main components of his prayer life.

When we make time for silence and solitude, listen to God, reflect and meditate on what He says, and then pray to speak with Him as well, we do the hard work of tending to our inner gardens. With the powers of these combined, we can truly cultivate our secret gardens to reflect the original one we miss so much, to be the sacred place where Spirit and soul collide, and to truly walk with the Lord as we once did.

Ok. So what do I do now?

First things first, I know I am desperately in need of some one-on-one time with the Lord. I can feel it in the very core of my being, this desire to know Him more, to connect in the way I’ve been writing about in this entire post. Yes, even I can write about these great things and then recognize my own want for them because to be honest: I am doing great at confronting my drivenness, taking hold of my time and using it versus losing it, and even stretching my mind through this book club and other means, but I am struggling with cultivating my secret garden. Struggling with actually spending time in my secret garden to walk with the Lord and commune with Him in that personal, intimate space. This is my heart’s cry… and I am guessing that if you are just now realizing you have a secret garden or remembering it because you have not been there in a while, you probably feel it too.

So, my first step: I need to get back in my garden; take inventory of what is flourishing and what could use some tending, and then get to it.

When was the last time you visited your garden and what does it look like? Are the plants fresh and blooming? Are the trees full and strong? If not, are you up for the challenge of tilling the soil, weeding the overgrowth, and planting new seed?

Do you know where the entrance is, or like in the movie, do you need to search for the key (no worries; you are the one who owns the key, so I promise you it will be found) and open the door for the very first time?

I encourage you this week, as we read through the last sector and finish this inaugural month of the book club, to pick one of the disciplines above to work in your own garden. Maybe you can focus on spending some time each day in silence and solitude to find and begin visualizing your secret garden. Maybe you can invite God within the walls and ask Him to speak to you in that sweet, whispering voice so you can listen and take notes. Maybe you can take time this week to intentionally reflect and meditate on what you’ve been hearing from God, so that we integrate His voice into our everyday lives. Maybe you can set aside time specifically for prayer, with a list of thanks, confessions, and intercessions as a guide.

Whichever you choose or however you do it, my hope for all of us is that each step we take will allow us to reap what we are sowing: to bring restoration, renewal, beauty and strength to our inner worlds and the most precious of places… our own secret garden.♥

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