Growth That Lasts

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There’s no such thing as instant landscaping. 
But the Bradford pear sure seemed like an exception.    
This fast-growing tree with lush green leaves – native to Vietnam and China – was introduced to the United States in the 1960s.  Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of then-President LBJ, was widely acclaimed as an environmental activist.  She planted one in downtown Washington D.C. in 1966. 
After that, the rush was on.  As new subdivisions sprouted all over the country, landscapers planted hundreds of thousands of Bradford pears.  The saplings were cheap, easy to transport, and pest resistant.  They grew so quickly that homeowners didn’t have to wait long to see a bona fide shade tree standing in their front yard. 
Bradfords burst into bloom with white flowers every spring, which you can plainly see in the picture above.  Every fall, they brighten neighborhoods with red and gold foliage.  The New York Times raved back in the 60s, “Few trees possess every desired attribute, but the Bradford ornamental pear tree comes unusually close to the ideal.” 
So, what’s not to like?
Well, quite a few things, actually. 
The white flowers, while beautiful, smell like rotting fish.  They attract flies, not bees.  The fruit is inedible and laced with cyanide.  Dogs are especially at risk for poisoning.  Bradfords tend to crowd out more desirable trees.  A number of states have identified them as an invasive species and have passed legislation forbidding further planting. 
But, as countless homeowners have discovered, the greatest drawback of the Bradford pear is its fragility. 
The trees, which may grow as tall as 40 feet, appear to be as strong as oaks.  But their limbs are surprisingly brittle.  If you drive through a suburban neighborhood after a vigorous storm, broken branches are easy to find.  Some Bradfords split right down the middle and have to be eliminated entirely.
Instant landscaping?  It seemed like a great idea – right up to the moment that things started falling apart in strong winds. 
The same thing is true when it comes to growing a heart for God. 
There’s no such thing as instant spiritual formation.  We may long to experience the fruits of character overnight – I want to feel deeper joy this Christmas, be gentle with everyone I meet, and display true patience (right now, please!) – but it takes years for the Spirit to reshape our inner worlds. 
It’s worth remembering a story about the 18th century British pastor Charles Simeon.

In a day when churches were Sunday-mornings-only, Simeon invited students to get together for “conversation parties” after dinner.  Those gatherings changed lives.  Historians estimate that at least one-third of all the Anglican church leaders in the country sat under his leadership at one time or another – an astonishing reality in an era before mass transportation and social media. 

Simeon, a lifelong bachelor, left behind another legacy.  He was so passionate about his mission that he would sometimes get carried away with shouting, grimacing, and gesticulating. 

Once, after visiting the home of a friend, the children of that household burst into laughter as they watched him disappear down the path.  They began to imitate his odd expressions and outbursts.  Suddenly, their father appeared.  “Children,” he said, “follow me to the garden.”

It wasn’t even mid-summer, but the father walked right to the peach tree and said, “Let’s pick some of our peaches and see how they taste today.”

Looking at the inedible green knobs that were on the tree, the children said, “But father, they aren’t ripe yet.”

“That’s right,” he said, “so we won’t judge them until they’ve finished growing.”  Then he added wisely, “And so it is with Mr. Simeon.”

There are a number of compelling reasons why Jesus told his followers not to judge others.  One of them, no doubt, is that none of us can ever say, with certainty, what we’ll be and who we’ll be when we’ve finished growing.
There will always be religious hucksters who will try to make us believe that we can be the Chia Pet people of God – men and women who in a matter of days display seemingly miraculous growth.  Or perhaps we can be the spiritual version of a Bradford pear tree, growing up quickly to provide beauty and shade for everyone around us.
But when the strong winds of adversity begin to blow – and they always will – we’ll discover that the only lasting growth comes from the long, slow, steady process of depending on God’s Spirit. 

What can you know for sure today?  Everyone you will meet is in mid-story.

And so are you.   

It’s such a relief to give up the burden of having to render a verdict on everybody else’s life, and to wonder if we ourselves are growing “fast enough.” 

Which means we can safely leave pears, peaches, and people in God’s secure hands.