The little girl in the front row has big brown eyes, framed by thick black lashes. Her hair hangs in ringlets past her shoulders, and her rosy cheeks are round with the last traces of babyhood that still cling sometimes to a first-grade silhouette. Children’s ministry is a blessing, a blessing in which the teachers learn as much as (and sometimes more than) the children. I’m pinch-hitting today for a missing volunteer, teaching a lesson on The fruit of the Spirit. I stand in front of the little group with Bible in hand and try to gauge my audience; one child on the verge of being returned to “regular church” for behavior, two more pushing limits in the back row (but malleable enough to bring back under control, the surreptitious look for my reaction after each giggle is a dead giveaway). A few new visitors, a handful of eager regulars sitting near the front, and a sprinkling of timid little sweethearts who are sure to give me no trouble, including the little rosy-cheeked cherub in the front row.
I can do this, I tell myself as I open the Bible and launch into an introduction of Galatians 5:22-24….
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. ~Galatians 5:22-24 ESV
I tell them about the Holy Spirit, and how when you ask Jesus into your heart, the Spirit moves in and helps grow these things in your life…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Who wouldn’t want such gifts? They’ve been learning this all month long, and they’re eager to show me how well they’ve memorize the blessings of the Spirit. For good measure, we go over God’s love for us, His offer to forgive our sins, and how to ask Him into your life. The kids are responsive, they are talking, they are sharing. The child on behavior notice has mellowed out, the two gigglers are giving me minimal trouble, and it’s almost time for service to end when a curve ball comes at me from the most unlikely place.
“Missus,” the quiet little girl with the huge brown eyes has her hand up, and I can see the courage it’s taking for her to speak up as the color rises in her cheeks.
“Missus, I did that already. I asked Jesus into my heart. But I’m worried now because I don’t have all those…those fruits. I mean, sometimes I do and sometimes I kind of just…don’t. I’m worried I’m doing it wrong.”
Suddenly the room is quiet, and I’m standing up in front frozen…all the pat answers I had just a moment ago have fled my mind and I’m sucked right down to size by this tiny, honest little first-grader. Because, Christian? I don’t have all those fruits all the time either. Sometimes my patience is worn threadbare as a pair of old socks, sometimes anxiety replaces peace and sometimes gentle gives way to harsh words and hard looks. Sometimes I’m so frustrated with myself that I wonder if I’m really a child of God, if I really measure up, if I’m doing this all wrong. The glorious thing about Children’s Ministry is that the honesty of a child can cut right through the bravado of adult pride (click to tweet).
A classroom of children, suddenly void of wiggles and giggles and wool-gathering, has turned all eyes to me…looking for an answer.
I search my years of Bible-study and commentary reading and book studies and finally God slips some other bit of knowledge He’s given me over the years into my mind. I put my hands on my knees, lean down to meet her gaze.
“Have you ever grown a garden,” I asked. She nodded, along with several others.
“Does everything in the garden grow quickly and get ripe, at the same time?” Heads shook in unison.
“Some things grow quickly, and some fruit grows slowly. Everything in your garden doesn’t get ripe all at the same time, or your plate would be too full one week and empty the next. Maybe it’s like that with the fruit of the Spirit…maybe God’s growing those things in us all the time, but they sometimes take awhile. Sometimes they have a lot of fruit on them, like grapes in the fall. Sometimes there’s just a few little berries growing, and sometimes the vine just takes a little while to grow before it’s strong enough for fruit.”
Relief in those big brown eyes, and a wide smile missing one front tooth.
How could being patient with ourselves, patient with God, change the way we live? Maybe if we spent more time watering the garden, weeding it, patiently waiting for God to bring us along in His own time…maybe we’d spend less time hating ourselves for our shortcomings and beating ourselves up over our lack of grace. Maybe we’d trust God a little more with the garden of our hearts, and fight Him a little less as He prunes and plants and tends.
Maybe we’d enjoy the fruit of the spirit at the peak of its ripeness, rather than choking on it when it’s hard and green.
Lord, teach me to be patient as you grow and tend the garden of my heart. Help me trust you to bring about good fruit in Your perfect time.