Ivy grows. That is what it does.
To say the last two years have been hard is an understatement. I am sure most people have, like I, felt overwhelmed at times trying to navigate the daily crises of pandemics, protests, political polarization, presidential elections, military withdrawals, insurrections, recessions, and recoveries. It has been hard to witness the pain of healthcare workers trying to deal with unimaginable trauma. It has been painful to watch people die from afar when all you want is to be in the room, holding their hand, and praying with them.
As a pastor, I have struggled to make the best decisions during the pandemic to promote the physical and spiritual health of my community. In the process, I have been called lukewarm, told that I lack faith, and had people leave the church because I was taking the pandemic too seriously. At the same time, I was told I would be responsible for the inevitable pile of dead bodies because I was not taking it seriously enough. At times, I am pretty sure both sides were more right than me. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to become an expert on live streaming, video production, and online ministry in a rural context with a limited budget. It has not been pretty, in fact, at times it has been humiliating. I have been called a radical progressive and a far-right conservative because I try to combat the political polarization in our community and call Christians to live out the Sermon on the Mount. However, I also recognize that while calling people to humility and love of neighbor I, at times, have done it with an air of pride, resentment, or even condemnation that caused the same divisiveness I decried. That is why it is hard to look out at my congregation and realize the faces that are missing. Some who are sick. Some who have become disconnected or unresponsive. Some who have abandoned the faith. It is hard to know God has called you to help grow His church and also to know you may be the reason for empty seats. It’s been hard and at times I wanted to give up. I also know, my path has been easier than many.
With orogastric tubes delivering his momma’s milk directly to his tummy, the fourth Robert Gaines in their family now weighs over 4 pounds. The number 4 has been significant to his parents since realizing he was struggling to grow during early pregnancy checkups. Robbie and Brittney, a pastor and special ed teacher, were shaken when they learned their son had a list of issues, including Spina Bifida, that would likely end his life before delivery. While being prepared by doctors for the day when the heartbeat would disappear, the 4 (IV) in their baby’s name became a cry of hope. They declared that IVy grows. From every bad report to every new diagnosis, they would continue to testify that IVy was still growing and that he was meant to grow some more. When the heartache seemed unbearable and the hurts and doubts would mount, they found peace in the fact that ivy is a strong and resilient plant that finds a way to stay alive against the odds. They knew their son was already showing these characteristics.
Dr. Howard Thurman, author of Jesus and the Disinherited, told a story of a tree with this same level of commitment to living. One morning he saw, out of his window, work crews digging a large hole directly in front of his house. Upon inspection, he found a sewer pipe had been busted in several places by the roots of a tree. The tree was over 400 yards away. The roots were, in his words, “on the hunt for life.” Growth often involves this unseen quest to secure the conditions that make life possible. Indeed, Thurmon says, “the most fundamental characteristic of life is its search for nourishment.” If the conditions are met, growth is inevitable.
Brittney, an aspiring gardener, understood this principle. Just before finding out she was pregnant, she had planted a flower garden. The garden did not turn out the way she envisioned because its care had to be sacrificed for Ivy’s. But just because the garden did not have much evidence of life, Brittney knew the conditions for life were being met daily in unseen ways because Ivy was still alive. She said, “Isn’t it funny how we believe at times that we know what’s best for us? For my garden, I had a picture of bursting rows of tall, colorful flowers with minimal weeds of course. I mean… I had put in so much time, effort, and even prayer into it. Yet, here I am standing looking at my very few, stunted flowers when my flowers should be booming. But you know what? God is slowly showing me that even in this season for us with our baby’s spina bifida diagnosis and the looming growth restriction, that He is cultivating something beautiful. Beyond what we can see. That he’s doing it in the garden and he’s doing it in our lives. Even in suffering, hardship, there is good. I have a few stunted flowers and I’m thankful. I have a supportive, encouraging husband and I am thankful. I have a son, Silas, who loves giving “knuckles” and has the best laugh. I am thankful. I have Ivy who grew THREE OUNCES.” Ivy grows.
For plants like ivy, the conditions for growth could be water or sunlight and they will climb walls to find it, for Baby Ivy it was oxygen and nutrients and faith and hope. Thurman says that this “instinctual, involuntary, automatic quest” for that which will sustain our lives can be found, in varying degrees, in every living being. Baby Ivy was showing he had it in spades.
The seriousness of Ivy’s condition meant the family of 4, including his two-year-old brother Silas, would have to move to Philadelphia for the delivery and postnatal care. Born at just over a pound, Ivy’s first days were full of long scary words like endotracheal intubation, patent ductus arteriosus, continuous intravenous morphine infusion. Yet Ivy continued to grow. When the alarms would sound and the doctors and nurses would rush into the room to perform CPR, the stress and fear could become debilitating for his parents. Robbie, one of my closest friends and partner in so many endeavors, would call and tell me of his anxieties. There were nights when he struggled to sleep. Yet, Ivy continued to grow. When the three-month estimate for NICU care was changed to eight months, other stresses began to mount. When the doctors told them that Ivy would need to always be near a specialized hospital for his care, they knew they would have to uproot their family and leave their jobs. It was incredibly hard to know what to do next. They found the strength and courage to endure in the eyes of the 4-pound miracle that continued to grow. Ivy grows. Despite the obstacles, the pain, and the uncertainties, Ivy continued to grow and so would they.
I heard it said once that, “Before you spend your life chasing success, you should spend a few minutes defining it.” I think the same could be said for growth. As a pastor, we are constantly bombarded with the newest strategies for “church growth.” The most asked question of a pastor is, “How big is your church?” We are told the conditions for growth and success are, according to which program you subscribe to, everything from elaborate children’s ministries, catchy songs, and short inspiring messages to high liturgy, exegetical sermons, and fiery rhetoric. All of these are graded by counting the number of people in the pews and we, as pastors, are successes or failures based on the count. Thanks in part to these programs, we have more megachurches now than ever in history. It worked. But, as our churches have grown bigger our influence has waned. In reality, the conditions for growth, the minimum requirements to satisfy church consumers, were increasingly out of range for many small congregations. The best performers were swallowing the smaller churches that could not keep up with the newest fads, erasing so many stories of simple obedience. Inevitably, the image of Christian faithfulness was being shaped by the picture of highly successful seat fillers in pristine facilities singing happy songs with unlimited budgets. The rich young ruler was no longer a warning but had become our guide. In this seemingly perfect environment, when the people in the pews struggled with inadequacies, pain, and failures they could falsely assume they were doing Christianity wrong, or worse, that Christ was doing them wrong. I think our definition of growth is flawed.
Ivy has taught me that sometimes growth isn’t shiny and exciting, sometimes growth looks like an ICU room. Sometimes it is painful, to the point of needing intervention. Sometimes growth is slow or imperceivable. Sometimes it is up and down. Sometimes it is scary and sometimes, in the middle of growth, you feel insecure and inadequate. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching and messy. Sometimes growth feels an awful lot like loss.
What if growth is, in the words of Jürgen Moltmann, “the process of maturing through experiences that are continually new.” If this is the case, the last two years have been years of great growth for me and my church. Maybe my mistakes and inadequacies are not disqualifiers, but growing pains. Maybe the areas where I do not measure up are simply opportunities for miracles of provision. Maybe my struggles, like Ivy’s, are a testimony to the world that when I am weak, He is strong.
If so, then the condition for growth, according to Thurman, is not style or oneupmanship. The single condition for growth in Christianity is surrender. To the rich young ruler, Jesus says surrender the marks of worldly success. To Peter, He says surrender your pride. To Martha, He says surrender your plans. To Paul, He says surrender your position and your privilege. To Timothy, surrender your future. To the martyrs, surrender your life. To me, He says surrender your expectations and your desire for applause. He calls me to surrender the pride that believes the outcomes are up to me and He challenges me to quit finding my worth, or lack thereof, in the approval of others. He challenges me to believe that obedience is a success all by itself, despite the results and every small act of unseen faithfulness will be rewarded one day.
I now believe that my desire to “give up” was not a cry to quit but to surrender. It was my soul moving in an “instinctual, involuntary, automatic quest” towards that which would sustain my life. Only in surrender will I find my life renewed. Only in giving up will I be healed. It is the broken-hearted who he binds up. I am not sure why I was surprised that healing sometimes looks like a hospital but I think it is understandable that I was surprised to find a hero who only weighed 4 pounds.
But Ivy grows. That is what he does.
And so will I.
I began writing this article while at a pastors retreat in Tulsa, Ok. After the retreat, the facilitators released a series of photos of the participants with a single word overlaying the image. Here is mine. That’s me in the back with the serious expression.