Our new home shares a garden with a neighbor who’s lived here all her life. On her side, patterns of perennials make their appearance at appointed times, keeping her half in constant bloom. I’ve managed to plant a few spindly annuals on my side, but they’re hard to see in the jungle of weeds.
“Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, spouse, servant or livestock,” Exodus 20:17 says. I don’t want any of that stuff. I want my neighbor’s instinctive awareness of seasons and space, of smells and tastes, of sounds and silences. My home-grown neighbor has a sixth sense that a sojourner like me can rarely acquire—a sense of place.
Unfortunately, you can’t steal, force, or hurry something like that. You especially can’t get it if you’re transplanted all the time. We’ve moved ten times in 15 years of ministry. I do my best to imitate Ruth, one of my favorite characters of the Bible. “Whither thou goest,” I say. But once I’ve arrived in a new place, I feel myself wilting, like a shallow-rooted annual transplanted in unfamiliar soil.
So how does an annual survive in a land of stately perennials? I’ve developed a three-fold survival strategy: weed, mulch, and water. It won’t grow the deep roots my home-grown neighbor inherited at birth, but it does help me “bloom where I’m planted.”
A crucial task in transplanting comes before leaving the old soil. It’s important to make a clean, straightforward break with most of our responsibilities and relationships. Some of them will continue for a lifetime. But it’s tough to start in a new place if we’re unable to say a few firm and final goodbyes.
I learned this lesson the hard way. When we moved because of my husband’s new call, I was in the middle of an unfinished project. I assured my coworker that I’d continue participating, even from far away. Unfortunately, because of obligations in our new place, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to work on the project. Each time I had to tell my ex-colleague that I couldn’t meet a deadline, the tension grew. A definite ending in responsibilities, although painful, would have been easier for both of us.
It may be even harder to be ruthless when it comes to relationships. I love the rush of gratitude that fills my heart at a farewell party given in our honor. I bubble over with extravagant gestures. “Come and visit us,” I told a large group once. Just as we were struggling to get settled, an acquaintance who’d been at that party called, “We’re planning to be in town for a week. Any chance we can crash at your place?”
Suddenly, I knew how shallow my invitation had been. Stressed out, grumbling under my breath, I grudgingly got our guest room ready. Those guests ended up bringing unexpected blessings, of course, but I had deliberately misled them by masquerading as a paragon of hospitality.
In each place that we live, I do make a few lifelong, replenishing friendships I take wherever I go, staying close through phone calls, letters, and prayer. “Come and see us,” I insist after that last hug. And both of us know I mean it. For the rest, a simple, honest goodbye suffices. “Thank you for what you’ve meant to me,” I say. “God used you in my life.”
The essence of mulching is to improve the quality of the soil. When I first move to a new community, I take a back seat and let the old-timers manage it. Now I realize that my own survival depends on the quality of the community around me. But before I try to change anything, the first thing for me to do is to discover what it’s made of.
A practical way to do this is to walk the town. In each new town, I take my daily walk through the neighborhoods surrounding my home. In the town center I linger, reading restaurant menus and studying window displays. I check out houses, open spaces, post offices, parks, schools, churches, synagogues, cemeteries, garden stores, and libraries—especially libraries. The choice of books, the way they’re displayed, other activities and services on site, and the overall ambience tell a lot about the people of the town.
Newcomers have one advantage. We see things longtermers ignore or take for granted. We have ideas about how the community can be improved; we bring fresh experience and new vision. Some newcomers organize tree-planting efforts or spearhead park cleanups—addressing practical problems their neighbors may have tolerated for years.
But we can also make a difference emotionally or spiritually. My friend Jane, for example, realized quickly that several young mothers were struggling with parenting issues. She started a small group for mothers in her new town.
Investing in the quality of communal life around us is one of the best ways to feel more at home. God knew that when He made us stewards of the planet. We start by caring about the corner of the planet that is now our home.
Perennials are hardy; some can even survive times of drought because their roots go deep. Annuals, on the other hand, are fragile. The only way they’ll bloom is if their shallow roots get lots of water. Likewise, those of us who are transplanted need a constant, steady supply of spiritual nourishment.
Refreshment on Sundays with your new church family is crucial, but so is that daily drink. I like to write in my journal and read my Bible in the evenings. After this move, I surprised myself by the pages and pages I filled with the feelings of loss. Was this me—the hardened veteran of unpacking boxes, the champion navigator of new grocery store aisles, and the queen of the forwarding address? The adventurous streak that had taken me around the globe was failing me; I was sick and tired of moving.
Instead of condemning myself for complaining, I let the grief pour through my pen onto the empty pages over yet another set of goodbyes. Then I gathered the strength to move from confession to thanksgiving. I knew that the One who had “nowhere to lay His head” understood exactly how I was feeling. He is the Friend who goes with me from place to place, the One who knows my past without any explanation or introduction. Through that daily time of confession and communion, He untangled my worries, received and healed my grief, and accepted my feeble attempts at thanksgiving. Each day I left with enough living water to deepen my roots a bit more.
A few months after a move, I take stock of my life. I’ve weeded the clutter and made a clean start; I’ve begun to improve the soil; I’ve watered my roots faithfully. The good news is that I’m surviving.
And then the miracle happens. My sense of direction develops so that I don’t have to grope for a map at every traffic light. Friendships move beyond the “gettingto-know-your-past” phase to the more relaxed “enjoying-the-present” zone. A routine of sorts is in place; a few projects have been completed successfully; a goal or two has been achieved. I’m starting to feel at home.
One afternoon, my neighbor and I are outside, pruning and weeding and chatting. A wave of her perennials is in full bloom, and my annuals are beginning to flower beside them. By now I’ve confessed my envy of her sense of place, and she’s told me her secret desire to start a new, exotic life. Suddenly, she takes me by the hand and pulls me back. Side-by-side we squint in the sunshine and survey our shared flower bed.
“Take a look at that!” she says.
I obey, and am overcome with thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t meet in the winter to order seeds and plan a color scheme. It doesn’t matter that she’s an old-timer and I’m a newcomer. The garden between our houses is bursting with coordinated color, reminding us that one thoughtful, well-ordered Gardener was in charge all along.