Sometimes when I go through my weekly ritual of mowing my lawn, I wonder, “How many times have I walked over this exact spot?” I step on virtually every square inch of my lawn every single week. I push the mower over every blade of grass, cutting them to the exact same length. During the week, those blades grow taller and begin to look a bit unruly. And then I walk back and forth across the lawn and cut them to a uniform height. Week after week after week.
I will never finish mowing my lawn. It will always grow and always require cutting. My neighbor, on the other hand, just installed artificial turf in his backyard. Week after week, year after year, my neighbor’s turf will continue to look almost like grass. It will never need to be cut. It will just be there. And I will be next door, walking across my yard.
Life calls for cultivation. Dead turf needs no cultivating (though I’ve heard it needs to be washed, which doesn’t sound fun). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled off dead flower petals to allow new ones to grow. Or how many times I’ve trimmed the bougainvillea plants lining my backyard. I feel like I’m constantly checking sprinklers, trimming, and doing a variety of activities to help my plants thrive.
Life is needy. Sure, life churns and thrives around the world even with no human cultivation. But there is a difference between an overgrown jungle and a well-tended garden. And if you take away some of the elements that life requires—water, for example—then life subsides. Life is needy. Gardens need tending. Plants must be cultivated.
As I mow my lawn, I sometimes consider what other areas in my life require this level of cultivation. I compare the number of times I’ve stepped on each blade of grass to the number of times I’ve read a given phrase in my Bible. I’ll never finish reading my Bible. It’s not enough to have read the whole thing. My knowledge of the Bible will never be complete; I’ll never hear its comforts and admonitions enough; my imagination will never be sufficiently stimulated by the prophetic and poetic imagery in its pages. And so I sit regularly in the same chair, holding the same book, re-reading lines that have long been familiar. This is an act of cultivation.
Or how many times have I spoken the same words to God? “Lord, help my daughters grow to love you. Give them hearts of compassion. Please provide for our family.” I have made these requests so many times. And I repeat other phrases to God endlessly: “Thank you for today. Thank you for my wife. For our girls. For constantly providing. For loving us.” It doesn’t matter how many times I say these things. They will need to be said again. I will never finish praying. I will always be cultivating.
How many times have I performed the simple gestures that show my wife I love her? I have taken out the trash so many times. I’ll never be done with that. I have spoken the words “I love you” so many times over so many years. I have tried to set aside my plans for her benefit many times (though not nearly enough). How many times have I performed simple, repetitive actions for my daughters? Saying “I love you.” Helping them get dressed. Getting them snacks. Buckling them into cars. Brushing their teeth. Disciplining them. Over and over and over I do these things. I will never be done with some of these activities (though I hope to teach my girls to brush their own teeth someday). I repeat these simple actions and words because they are a means of cultivation.
I suppose a well-tended garden could be glamorous, in a certain sense. But cultivation is never glamorous. It’s always boring. Always repetitive. Yet there is no garden without cultivation. So it is in our daily lives. The most important things we will do are boring, repetitive tasks. And yet they matter immensely. Each simple gesture is an act of cultivation, an act of faith toward what we know a plant or relationship could become if well cared for.
So as you begin this new year, what in your life needs cultivating? You can’t simply decide to be a good father, or a good spouse, or a good friend, or a good reader, or whatever. It requires patient cultivation. What will you cultivate? What are you cultivating now? What are you neglecting? And how can you, in faith, better cultivate those things that really matter this year?