I saw the trees first. As I was driving between Fairfield and Wayne City on Highway 15 yesterday morning, enjoying the early morning sunshine and the flowers in bloom in various front yards, my gaze was captured by two rows of trees covered with white flowers. I don’t know enough about trees to say what kind they were, but they were the same sort of tree I had seen in quantities of one or two in yards or randomly along I-64 the day before. Even from a distance, it was evident they had been planted on purpose. You just don’t see two perfectly straight lines of the same sort of tree occurring naturally. Most of the trees were at the peak of their short blooming season, with just one or two starting to show signs of green leaves edging out the blooms. In the early morning light, they were breathtaking.
Then I saw the sign: Landfill Entrance. Yes, these beautiful, white-flowering trees lined both sides of the entrance road to a landfill. Although I couldn’t see it from the highway, I knew that somewhere behind the closed gate that blocked the road was a mountain of garbage – the exact opposite of the beautiful trees and manicured lawn that marked the entrance.
It struck me how this so often reflects our spiritual lives. We may seem to have it all together on the outside. We carefully cultivate the self that we show to the world, keeping our lawn trimmed, our flower beds weeded, and our front porch chairs arranged just so. Maybe we believe that if we keep the entrance beautiful, no one will notice the garbage behind the gate. And if you’re anything like me, there is plenty of garbage: people we just don’t want to forgive, preferences and comfort we just don’t want to give up, decisions we would rather make ourselves without allowing God any say, guilt and regret from past mistakes.
When Jesus comes knocking on the front door of our hearts, we may joyfully let him in to the meticulously cleaned front room. The trouble is, we fear that if Jesus ever saw the clutter in the unused guest room or the absolute disaster in the basement, he would leave and never come back, porch chairs and flowering trees notwithstanding. And while Jesus may be quite willing to stay in the front room, keeping him there makes the relationship rather stilted and formal.
In Revelation 3:20 (NRSV), Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” He doesn’t say “if you hear my voice and your life is perfect and you don’t really need me anyway, I will come in and have a tea party with you.” In fact, it has been my experience that Jesus shows up just when I really need to tackle cleaning in some particular area of my spiritual life – and he seems to keep finding areas I didn’t even know were cluttered! But Jesus doesn’t just come in, point out the mess, and watch from a distance. He jumps in with me, keeping me going even when I really would rather go out on the porch and enjoy the flowering trees. John Wesley called this process of continual cleaning-out “sanctification.” I just know I feel better when a new space is cleared by the power of God’s grace – even though the cleaning out process itself may not be something I would have chosen on my own.