God’s bonsai

One of my favorite short stories ever, “Slow Sculpture” looks, on the surface, like so many typical science fiction stories: beautiful young woman with incurable disease meets eccentric mad scientist who cures her, they fall in love and live happily ever after. But hear the metaphor author Theodore Sturgeon weaves through the story. The mad scientist has a hobby: he raises bonsai trees.


As he explains, caring for a bonsai tree is an ongoing conversation. The gardener looks at the tree, sees the potential and decides to encourage more growth here, less there. The methods are gentle at first: cover the roots, change the direction the light is coming from. If the tree responds, the conversation continues. If not, sterner measures might be necessary: using wire to bend a branch just so or as a last resort, pruning a wayward shoot.

He tells her the most beautiful bonsai are coaxed from trees that have been sick, or stunted, or crushed by circumstances. In the closing line of the story, by way of proposal, she asks, “Do you think two sick and twisted trees ever made bonsai out of each other?”

I’m pretty sure that never happens—in fact, it may be a recipe for co-dependent disaster. But when I think of the ways God has been working in my life, I could argue that He works like a bonsai gardener: slow, patient, occasionally stern, always nudging me to be more of who He intends me to be.

I’ve always been envious of people with dramatic testimonies, with mountaintop experiences, those blessed individuals whose lives are lived “from glory to glory.” I’ve also been somewhat skeptical about the dramatic turnaround, the instantaneous deliverance, the miraculous transport from there to here, the stories that make great theatre. My life has not (yet) been punctuated by any dramatic, God-spoke-and-the-earth-moved moments. No major turning points; just a series of minor course corrections always moving me closer to healing and wholeness.

I know people who have been radically saved and instantly delivered from all manner of addictions and bondages. The pastor gives the invitation, folks respond, and in the twinkling of an eye, all is well. And then there are people like me: broken, skeptical, bitter, and totally unconvinced that something as simple as inviting Jesus to be the Lord of my life is going to make a darn bit of difference.

The pastor’s invitation may have been enough for you. For me, becoming one of God’s bonsai trees required a slide show, a tap-dancing snowman and a personal invitation from Jesus.

We’d been attending The Coastlands church for a couple of months. I’d heard the pastor refer to the place as the “church of the recovering basket cases.” That would be me, so we came for the free coffee and stayed for the services. A cradle Catholic turned agnostic, this evangelical church just didn’t fit my moldy paradigm of what church “should” be. Take the year end slide show, for instance. There were the obligatory pictures of sweet, smiling children, and people getting baptized, and some kind of stage production (which I later discovered was a thing called VBS, whatever that meant), and pictures of adults having fun, and pictures of kids and adults having fun together, and other things that were mostly foreign to me.

I so wanted to be part of that family, but my fear said “No. You’d be as welcome as a fart in a bakery.”

Then there was the pre-Christmas “family” service. They closed Children’s Ministries and handed out small gifts. My neighbor got up on the stage and delivered a surprisingly funny monologue on Christmas and stress and keeping her focus on Jesus. And then a smiling, gray-haired gentleman came out on stage in a white satin tuxedo and tap-danced to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman.” You could hear the gears of my heart grinding from twenty feet away. This was definitely not Catholic High Mass. And then the thought came, “If there’s a place for tap-dancing snowmen in this church, maybe there’s a place for me.”

I could hope.

The next week, while the collection baskets were being passed up and down the aisles, and the worship team was singing, I had a vision.

Wait. What?

I don’t have visions. At least not then. I was skeptical, unspiritual, a total fish out of water in an evangelical church, and God gave me a vision.

I saw myself standing outside a good-sized one story building, rather like an old grange hall or the exhibition hall at the fairgrounds, with stucco walls and windows at just the right height to see what was going on inside. The slide show people were all inside, laughing, talking, dancing. A feast covered the long row of tables along the back wall: whole turkeys and prime ribs with all the fixings, pies, cakes, wine, candles. I can still see the crispy brown turkey breast, the flickering flames at the tips of tall red tapers, and the steam rising from the uncut apple pie. While I stood outside, shivering in the drizzle, Jesus poked His head out the door.

“Are you coming in?” He asked.

“When I’m ready,” I replied.

“OK, anytime.”

He ducked back inside, the vision faded, the ushers consolidated the collections and the preacher started sharing from the gospel of John.

Even so, I held out for one more week. When the altar call came, my hand went up before my mind could protest. Caught between fear and longing, pride and desperation, I reluctantly gave my heart to Jesus, not fully understanding what that meant and what He would do with me, for me, to me. And God began His slow sculpture.

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