©2015 Lynn Abbott
At four, I sat down at Mrs. Brown’s piano bench, and tapped out notes which taken together resembled Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Later that afternoon, when my mother arrived home from her part-time position at The Times, I repeated my performance. I was duly pronounced a child prodigy.
Mrs. Brown recommended lessons forthwith. Mr. Williams, poor man, was delegated the daunting task of drawing forth genius from a four-year-old who preferred producing mud pies to practicing piano.
Nevertheless, it was all satisfactorily arranged, and thus began the week-by-week saga of the tortured teacher. Trying to teach me to play that beautiful instrument would require a miracle proportionate to Moses striking water from a rock.
Instead of practicing, I applied all my abilities to avoiding the application of any real effort, a talent I would cultivate to perfection throughout my musical career.
Each week, Mr. Williams arrived, prepared to take my musical education in hand. And when the dearly bought $8.00 per half hour concluded, I was no closer to genius than I had been previously.
But my scales and arpeggio book showed signs of the gradual onset of insanity wrought by myself upon that poor innocent man. Large, bold, #2-pencilled words–“READ THE NOTES”–punctuated each musical score in my piano books.
Despite my teacher’s veiled attempts to motivate and inspire, I couldn’t be bothered. Instead, I smiled and flattered my music instructor.
I asked him to preview the week’s piece for me so that I might know to what level of excellence I should strive. And each week, I practiced what I committed to memory, the sound of the melody. Precocious, perhaps. Prodigy–obviously not.
In this way, four years of music lessons passed in round-after-round of tug-of-war between teacher and tot. And I emerged unscathed . . . no more master of notes and 3/4 timing than I had been at the outset.
Mr. Williams, however, was a much reduced man. He had begun with several hundred students.
When our family moved, he could claim only seven students including myself, and had added to his resume the somewhat dubious claim of seeing a psychiatrist.
Clearly, I had made my mark.
My parents, on the other hand, were not so easily beaten. They committed to cultivating some semblance of perseverance in me. After all, they recognized that success in this world depended upon so much more than natural talent.
I would have to work for success. And I would need to persevere when I faced difficulties.
But for a child with tendencies to be a “jack of all trades, yet master of none,” their training often felt more like punishment. After all, I didn’t want to work that hard. Mud pies were infinitely more exciting than metronomes.
Yup. Pruning isn’t fun.
It is as the author of Hebrews wrote, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” (Hebrews 12:11).
My parents hoped, of course, that they might rewrite the old proverb and say of me, “Jack of all trades, and master of some.”
To fully cultivate any gift or talent, of course, requires steadfast commitment. Abba fully understands this, and as the master gardener, He patiently works in our life gardens to create masterpieces. He knows it will take time. He recognizes the importance of pruning even when we don’t.
And it’s undeniably true: neglected gardens are quickly overrun by weeds and become overgrown and tangled. And in the midst of the mess, the gift fades from view. Paul apparently observed this and as a result, he exhorted Timothy, “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you,” (1 Timothy 3: 14).
Pruning is necessary for a garden to reach its full potential.
To be honest, I hate the pruning shears. Yet, I have to admit that training sure beats the alternative.
I know this because in the Old Testament I read about a saint who never fully yielded to discipline. He did not allow Abba, the Master Gardener, to train or shape beauty from his life. He possessed incredible potential. But he failed miserably.
His gift is legendary. His name? Samson.
Certainly, most of us know his story well. Abba chose Samson from before birth to become one of the long line of Israel’s judges. As a judge, Samson was called to lead and deliver his people from their enemies.
In fact, Samson was set apart as a Nazirite, and that meant several things: no razor was to touch his head, no wine was to pass his lips and nothing unclean was to be consumed by him.
Abba would equip Samson with extraordinary gifts, but Samson’s gifts must be cultivated by a disciplined life. Such training would enable Samson to use his gifts as God had ordained.
If Samson submitted himself to God and to the Holy Spirit’s leading, Samson would wield supernatural power and strength. His God-given gift would be fully realized.
Problem is that Samson did not persevere in his walk of faith. He began well and then, fizzled. Over and over again, Sampson used his gift to promote his own agenda rather than God’s. And so, despite his tremendous promise, Samson ultimately failed.
He lacked what my mother used to call, “stick-to-it.” Indeed, the purpose of Samson’s Nazirite vow was to focus his faith and commitment to God. Through the discipline of the Nazirite life, God planned to prune the excess from young Samson’s life.
Had Samson allowed God to work in his life, nothing would have encumbered or held Samson back. However, he did not submit to God’s training. When it was time to prune, Samson balked.
Thus, rather than persevering in faith, Samson lived for himself. He dabbled rather than delved. Like a young child, Samson lacked the stamina to see a task through. Samson lacked perseverance in that which mattered most.
Judges 13:5 records God’s promise to Samson’s mother regarding her son, “…he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”
Samson began the race. But he barely crossed the finish line.
Scripture specifically outlines three of Samson’s failures. All three demonstrate Samson’s lack of commitment to God and the gift given. Samson would not put aside the things that held him back, (Hebrews 12:1,2 and 2 Timothy 2:3-5).
First, Samson determined to marry a Philistine girl. His parents immediately saw the problem with such a plan. Old Testament law forbade an Israeli to marry a non-Jew.
But not only was she a Philistine, but she was also the daughter of a vintner. Nazirites were not to drink wine, and yet, Samson wished to marry the daughter of the local wine producer. What a mess!
And while God permitted Samson to choose freely and even used that misdirected choice, Samson’s foolishness still compromised his role as Israel’s judge and deliverer.
The seeds of destruction sprouted quickly. During the wedding feast, his enemies quickly tested his Philistine bride, threatening to burn her home and family if she didn’t cooperate with them.
And all the trouble resulted from Samson’s seemingly innocent, wedding day riddle.
At first read, a riddle sounds simple enough. However, it was nearly impossible to solve since Samson’s failure to keep his Nazirite vow inspired his game.
On his way to propose to his would-be Philistine bride, Samson faced a lion. Determined that nothing should stand in his way, he killed the lion with his bare hands.
On his return home, he noted that a hive of bees had taken up residence in the rotting carcass .
Honey, truly a delicacy, was too great a temptation for the young Nazirite, and so he gathered some.
Later, Samson proposed his wedding day conundrum: “Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet,” (Judges 14:14).
Of course, the hearers knew nothing of Samson’s adventure and the riddle seemed an unsolvable mystery. His Nazirite vow further obscured the answer; after all, no one would suspect that he had eaten honey from an “unclean” source.
Desperate to win the reward that Samson offered to the one who solved the puzzle, the Philistine wedding guests bullied the bride.
After enduring a week of her tears, Samson finally gave way. He clearly could not stand firm even if it meant risking losing his own game.
Samson couldn’t seem to stick to anything.
And apparently, everyone knew it. His new father-in-law’s trust quickly evaporated after the riddle was solved and Samson reacted in rage. When Samson stormed out of the the feast and ran home to nurse his wounded pride, the bride’s father gave his daughter to the best man, (Judges 14: 19-20).
What followed was a series of events ignited by Samson’s self-centered desire for personal revenge. Without the self-control that the Holy Spirit cultivates, Samson crumbled.
Instead of using his gift to promote God’s purposes, he followed his unbridled passions.
Samson’s garden fell into disarray. Obviously, he never fulfilled his potential. His haphazard growth eventually stalled as weeds choked the gift that Abba had bestowed.
Samson’s final failure results in personal tragedy, one that remains infamous to this day.
He became entangled with Delilah. Perhaps, he genuinely fell in love. I dunno. But I do know that he didn’t marry Delilah. And an unmarried Old Testament woman either depended upon family or upon her wits to survive.
In Judges 16, it becomes clear that Delilah knew how to take care of herself. When the Philistines offered her eleven hundred pieces of silver in exchange for information regarding the source of Samson’s strength, she readily agreed to act as their double agent.
And the rest is history. I think it significant to note, though, that even Samson didn’t fully understand his gift. In fact, he attributed his strength to his own deeds rather than to God’s grace.
He believed that his vow empowered him; he viewed his hair as a kind of talisman.
Yet, it was Abba’s grace that bestowed Samson’s strength. It was the Holy Spirit that strengthened Samson.
The Nazirite’s long hair simply symbolized his dependence on God’s Spirit. Because Samson’s contemporaries considered long hair shameful for a man, the vow served as a reminder of the Nazirite’s humble service for God.
Yet, again and again, pride and self-gratification distracted Samson. He lost his God-given focus. And ultimately, he lost his physical sight as well.
Indeed, Samson’s life is a tale of scattered pieces–disparate and loosely connected demonstrations of potential.
He truly embodies uncontrolled and undisciplined power.
Yes, Samson’s story begins well, but it ends tragically.
God allowed Samson to go his own way, and Samson paid the price. And while his story ends with a heroic stand for God and Israel, his overall life fell short of its early promise. For the most part, his was a life of lost potential.
For this reason, when I am tempted to resent God’s paring process, I have only to think of Samson, and suddenly, I am thankful for the Master Gardener’s merciful and gracious shears. I don’t always like pruning, but I am truly grateful for the end result.
As Abba pulls weeds, as He trims back all that would choke His grace, as He pushes me to persevere in faith when I would prefer to make mud pies, I willingly acknowledge Abba’s omniscient wisdom. He shapes His masterpiece from my mess.
Undoubtedly, He lovingly encourages our growth. He brings forth order, beauty and perfect peace where chaos once reigned.
Yes, practice and pruning are often unpleasant. But, we can be sure that God works to shape our full potential.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” ~James 1:2-4