If you walked into my family room, you might be too polite to ask, but you'd certainly be wondering, what are those brown things on the wall? You might think I had three brown ghosts hanging around our fireplace, but the enlightened (my husband, our children, and I) know the obvious: It's an orchard!
Scraggly, wandering trees cut from brown wrapping paper, dotted helter-skelter with a few paper "fruits," have hung on the wall for months now, quietly testifying to a family "spiritual project" that didn't quite turn out the way I'd planned.
You see, recently I finished a study on the nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I felt gratified with my new understanding of these qualities and was convicted that I needed to faithfully impart this understanding to my children, ages two, four, and six.
It was a simple plan, really. Give or take a few days, summer vacation lasts about nine weeks. We would take one fruit of the Spirit each week, learn what it meant, memorize a related Bible verse, demonstrate it in our family relationships, and tape paper fruit on our trees when we exhibited spiritual fruit. Then, just for fun, we'd taste-test an unusual fruit from the market and harvest a local fruit (we live in a fertile farming community) together as a family.
By the end of summer, I was sure we'd be a riper, more mature, fruitful family.
Week One—A Rough Start
Day One of "love" dawned like any other around our house—while it was still dark, with Tucker, two, yelling loudly enough to wake the neighbors, "Mommy! Mommymommymommeeee!" Not an auspicious beginning. I was supposed to get up before my early riser and spend time alone with the Lord, meditating on his love for me. Perhaps then the fruit of love would have flowed from me the rest of the day. Instead, we had a little problem: The day I was going to teach the kids about love, I didn't even like anyone in my house! Things went from bad to worse, and by breakfast I had decided it just wasn't the day to start. Maybe tomorrow.
One week later, things around our house were definitely going bananas, but not in the way I'd intended. I had set so many goals I didn't quite know how to begin. So, I didn't. After all, I still had time.
After ten days of procrastination (I kept on waiting for that feeling of love to overflow and ignite my soul. It didn't.), I tried again. Unfortunately, the most fruitful thing in our home that week was my womb. As I was feeling knocked sideways with typical first-trimester blecch, one by one my great expectations flew out the window. What had I been thinking? What pregnant mother of preschoolers can accomplish so many goals in nine weeks? Apparently, not this one.
Week Four—Getting Somewhere!
Fortunately, my children met my feeble attempts to explain the fruits of the Spirit with much enthusiasm. They cut out paper orbs with abandon. Blue (blueberry) was love, red (strawberry) was faithfulness, yellow (banana) was kindness, etc. You might be hard pressed to identify these if you actually saw the trees on our wall, but the kids can tell you what is what.
They loved the idea of "catching" each other (and especially themselves) in the act of "bearing fruit" so they could tape paper fruit on their personal trees. I often heard questions like, "Mommy, what can I do that would be gentleness?" (Music to any mother's ears!)
Even little Tucker ran circles around the family room hollering, "Ah-lay-LOO-yuh! I love God!" We decided that was definitely joy in motion, so we taped an orange "joy" fruit on his tree.
Soon colored shapes began dotting our little orchard. Before hanging any fruit, we wrote the child's name on it and what he or she had done: "Callie helped Daddy weed Mommy's garden—kindness." "Callie, Will, and Tucker picked fresh blueberries for Aunt Jen—love." "Callie played with Will and Tucker without fighting—peacemaking."
Weeks Five through Nine—A Revelation
It didn't take long for me to realize a few things. Though my children's harvest was slowly growing, they were still the same imperfect kids. They still misbehaved like normal children. And—even more humbling—I still had not a single fruit with my name on it in our orchard. Every fruit that I thought I knew well enough to teach my children, I had somehow missed. My husband and kids weeded my garden because I had not been faithful enough to weed it myself. My kind son cleaned out the basement with his daddy after I had endlessly postponed the chore. I took my daughter to pick strawberries—which we did with great patience and joy—but when I waited too long to preserve them, all ten pounds rotted. Was I trying so hard to teach my family that I was neglecting lessons I thought I'd already learned?
By the end of the summer, I realized something significant. I had jumped a little too far ahead of myself in this project. I had all the right ideas; I truly wanted to teach an important spiritual concept to my children. I longed to give meaning to the fruits of the Spirit that they could understand and apply, even in their youth. I wanted to learn and grow as a family. And, although I know for a fact that they still can't recite all nine fruits in order (I still find myself double-checking!), I do believe the kids learned something. They won't soon forget their fruit trees and the lessons behind them.
But what my children learned is different from the lesson I am still learning: fruit only grows in fruit season. Ecclesiates 3:1 says, "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven." After spending a year studying the fruits of the Spirit, I started looking for immediate, beautifully ripened fruit in my life. Instead, I found a small tree not quite ready to produce anything worth tasting. My "tree" still needed a lot of pruning, some tender nurturing, and several months of patience while the small buds blossomed into fruit. I had expected too much, too soon. I can't fill my head with knowledge about spiritual things and immediately expect to be overflowing with wisdom to impart to my family. That would be like trying to pass off crab apples as red delicious ones.
Where Do We Go from Here?
We're certainly not going to give up on living a fruit-filled life. We may take down the paper trees—but then again, we may not. They're a great reminder that growth is a continual process, not a nine-week project.
We'll keep nurturing our trees. I'm going to start by memorizing a few verses that help me keep growth in perspective for me and my family. Jeremiah 17:7,8 says:
"But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord…
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream…
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit."
Spiritual growth is about what God can do in me and through me, not about what I can produce. I can't force my children to have self-control, but I can teach them what it means and pray that we'll all grow in that area. When we concentrate on soaking in the nourishment of God's Word instead of gritting our teeth and trying to produce fruit by sheer willpower, he grows that fruit in us over time. It's not our own effort, but God's Spirit, alive in us, which ultimately yields fruit.
Allison Yates Gaskins and her family live in Virginia.
Copyright © by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.