Spiritual Lessons From Powdery Mildew
– Andy Wade –
No! That was my reaction after a long weekend away from the garden. As I strolled through the curvy paths admiring the 3-day growth, I came upon a squash plant covered in powdery mildew… then another… and another! As if this wasn’t bad enough I decided to take a closer look at my Brussels sprouts and discovered two of them were infested with aphids. No!
For those of you who don’t know, powdery mildew is a disease that first appears as white spots on the leaves and stems of certain plants. As the disease spreads the leaves become covered with white splotches, eventually turning yellow and dying. While not usually directly affecting the fruit, the plant is weakened and can eventually die.
It’s best to prevent powdery mildew in the first place, but to do this you need to know your plants and know your garden. Even then, it’s not always possible. For example, plants susceptible to this disease should be planted in full sun, not watered at night or from the top of the plant, and have plenty of air circulation. Crowding these kinds of plants too close together creates the perfect environment for the disease to flourish. Good soil preparation is also important since stressed plants are more easily infected.
Cutting out the infected leaves and stems is the best practice to keep the disease from spreading. While there are organic treatments, after infection their effectiveness is limited and you risk spreading the spores to other plants. And because the spores easily spread, and can even overwinter, it’s best to put the cuttings in the trash or burn them, don’t put them in the compost pile!
Cutting away the infected leaves, I began wondering what spiritual lessons I might learn from this outbreak. I started to think about how these spores are already present in the soil, even before I planted the seeds.
There are “spores” in the soil of my life too. Past events, brokenness, habits and hang-ups, that seem to just be waiting for the right conditions to surface. Like understanding the soil in my garden, knowing the soil of my heart, and admitting my own areas of brokenness, helps me get a better handle on the conditions that might promote the growth of spiritual mildew. And if it does appear, knowing the signs and acting quickly are essential to my spiritual health. And by extension, the health of those around me can also be affected because, like my garden, we grow in the context of community.
My frequent strolls through the garden are not unlike taking time out to stroll with God through the various places in my life. This helps me identify the condition of my soul, my current life-practices, my relationships, and implement new practices that create a healthier environment for disease-free growth.
I then began to reflect on the way susceptible plants crowded too close together, are often the first to become infected. I started relating this to my life and how, more often than is healthy, my daily activities become so jam-packed that there’s no breathing room. Without proper air circulation, these dormant spores are free to manifest.
Over the years one of the things I’ve learned, and seem to need to learn over and over, is that the busier I get, the more I rely on my own effort and the less I seem able to hear the breeze of God’s Spirit blowing through my life. Indeed, how can I hear the Spirit of God speaking when my mind is constantly filled with distractions? And even if I do manage to hear “that still, small voice”, what chance is there that I will take the time to discern what it actually means? More likely than not, I will jump to the most obvious conclusion at the moment, and move on! In the midst of crowding my life with busyness, I’ve also crowded out the very community that could have helped me hear, helped me discern, help me flourish.
The other issue with overcrowding plants which are susceptible to powdery mildew is that this crowding results in lots of shade, of shadows, and little room for the warm, healing sun to penetrate. This incessant busyness casts long shadows over our lives, shadows in which temptations and bad judgement flourish like mildew. Here, in the shadows, the light of God is less able to reach the leaves of my life and spiritual mildew begins to grow.
So what do we do when powdery mildew appears? We have to cut it out before it spreads! There are things in my life that I kind of trim, rather than cut off. Or perhaps I cut them out but put them in the compost bin where they turn my rich, nutritious, compost into a sleeping infestation just ready to resurface in some other area of the garden. This is not the time for timidity! When we discover an infestation we must act decisively. (Mark 9:42-50).
Here again surfaces the importance of community. “Confess your sins to one another”, the Apostle Paul exhorts (James 5:16). Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about this in his amazing little book, Life Together. How can we think we can come before our all powerful God and confess our sins when we’re afraid to go to our brother or sister, broken and as sinful as we are, and confess. Could it be, he questions, that we are actually only confessing to ourselves… then giving ourselves absolution? (pp. 115-116). But when we dare to come to one another we expose our “spiritual mildew” to the light, and begin the process of healing.
These are just a few of my garden-sanctuary thoughts. By taking time to reflect on daily, ordinary tasks, I make room to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking. Far too often I find myself too busy, too distracted, having “eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear.” Little by little I’m attempting to slow down, to listen to God speak in the ordinary spaces of life. Rather than waiting for that extraordinary spiritual experience, that big miracle or sign, I’m gingerly walking into faithfulness in the “small things”.
Where do you find God speaking through the ordinary? Do you have a story to share? Comment below or email me if you’d like to contribute to this series.