So that you aren’t misled by the title, I’ll say up front that this post is not about the wanderings of the dedicated fans of a certain 70’s and 80’s rock band. Deadheading in this case actually alludes to a gardening practice that involves removing dead or spent flowers from a plant or bush. The purpose of such a practice is to promote more flowering and/or improve its overall appearance. Sorry to disappoint any music fans out there…
My husband and I have several white snakeroot bushes in our yard that produced an incredible number of white flower clusters about a month ago. (By the way, you don’t have to know what these plants are to understand the illustration I’m about to give.) For about 10 days, those flowers attracted all kinds of butterflies, bees, and nectar-imbibing insects. It was really amazing. But seemingly overnight, the flowers all faded, the insects went away, and all that remained were tufts of brown flower carcasses. Because the flowers were small and had grown in tight clusters, they did not fall off the plant when they faded. They remained securely in place. For this reason, they became a visual blight on the landscape. So a couple of weeks ago, I spent several hours over 2 days deadheading those bushes with pruning scissors. It was incredibly tedious. Several times, I had felt tempted to pull out the electric hedge trimmer and hack off the entire outer layer of the plants just to be done with it. But many of the flowers had gone to seed already, and I didn’t want to drop white snakeroot seed all over the garden or I would be facing an even worse problem in the springtime. Besides, it was in those moments of careful and tedious care, of separating what should be discarded from what should be spared, that God revealed to me how He wanted to deal with – or “deadhead” – me.
I left my hometown of Houston and moved to a new city 2 months ago. The move has turned out to be far more than geographic in nature for me, as moves generally are, I guess. In Houston, I had a career that gave me a tremendous sense of importance and influence, as well as a reputation that I had built over many years through various means. I also had roots: a history of conversations, shared experiences, a community of people that I could see everyday without having to start with, “Hi, my name is Judy. This is who I am. This is what I do.” Some knew me more deeply than others, sure, but I felt known. And the familiarity afforded by an established history was – I now realized – a comfortable and constant companion. Upon arrival to this new city, I felt strangely emptied. I found myself in a place where I had no career, no reputation, and no history. And as I started meeting people, I began to struggle with waves of insecurity: a desire to be respected, admired and accepted, and an intense fear of not being so. Although I had made this move with a positive attitude and some mental preparation, I started becoming increasingly nostalgic of my old life. Mentally and emotionally, I reached for those things that once gave me such a sense of significance and groundedness.
The thing is, I knew that I was off. I knew that I was engaged in some pursuit of self-justification, self-assurance, and self-importance. I knew that as a Christian, I had absolutely no cause to be so encumbered by those things. Didn’t the Almighty God send His Son Jesus Christ to die on my behalf for my sins? Didn’t Jesus’ blood make it possible for me to stand in the presence of my God and Creator without the burden of guilt, shame, or fear of condemnation? Didn’t I know that I was already loved with the most infinite and perfect of all loves? Yes, I did know. And yet my heart did not feel liberated by this truth. I was unable to overcome my struggle through reason alone. Why not?
Well… when God revealed the answer to me, I saw that it was not so novel after all. My inability to be moved by the knowledge of God’s love for me in the face of my new circumstances revealed an active idolatry in my heart. Yes, the “I” word. It simply had been partially and temporarily masked by my former circumstances. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the idols of the heart are most effectively revealed when God interjects space between them, whether by removal or rearrangement. It creates a sort of “separation anxiety.” This feeling of tremendous anxiety doesn’t feel good (actually, it feels quite horrible), but we should recognize it as a gift from our Heavenly Father, because it drives us to the foot of the cross, where our vision and perspective get restored. We tend to focus too much these days on managing our negative emotions and getting relief from them without first seeking to understand their cause. It’s important to remember that “the sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.” (Psalm 16:4) Whether I wanted to or not, I finally saw that I worshiped quite a few things that were part of my life just a few months ago. I had to admit – I enjoyed the status (or at least the sense of status) they created, the emotional comforts they afforded, the respect they engendered, the social safety net they provided, and the PRIDE that they generated. I believe that it was all quite intoxicating (and therefore toxic) in its own way.
As I was cutting off those dead flowers, it was as if God said to me, “Don’t you see? You’ve been reaching for and lamenting over dead flowers, things that had their day of glory for a short season but were never meant to last. Cut them off. Repent. Stop reaching for them and reach once again for Me.” I confessed my sinful pride, my worship of other gods and self, and exalting what amounted to dead flowers over the Almighty God. I saw at once both the immeasurable darkness, wickedness, and anti-God energy in me, and the incredible reality that I was loved, forgiven, and washed clean by the blood of Christ. The cross that had seemed so small when I was craving the approval of man now seemed infinitely tall. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely well yet. I still feel those idols tugging on my heart from time to time – sometimes every day several times a day, but I am thankful for the image of cutting off dead flowers. Spiritual deadheading essentially represents the practice of repenting (Heb. 12:1), crucifying the flesh (Col. 3:5), denying self, and choosing to follow Christ (Luke 9:23). It is a constant, sometimes tedious process, but it’s the way that Christians are built to breathe and grow and be transformed.
I think about all those things that were a part of my life previously. They weren’t bad things. Actually, they were very good things. Most of them involved serving and being involved with others, both at work and at church. But my flesh, in its wickedness, took great pride in them and caused them to swell my vanity. That became a stumbling block to me. God in His mercy, love, wisdom, and faithfulness disrupted my complacency in order to move me forward. I never would have chosen this kind of change for myself. But He is good. I’ve seen it in myself and others time and time again. As long as we’re able to find confidence in the flesh, we will feel no hunger or ache for God; rather, we will tend to think that we can use God as a means to our own ends. As long as we feel adequate in ourselves, we won’t reach for God to make us complete; and our outward pursuit of God will be reduced almost to an academic exercise. I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the Philippians:
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I counted everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:4b-11)
Categories: Spiritual Formation