The huge prickly pear cactus dominated the center of our driveway. Azaleas and other smaller flowering shrubs shared the space. However, the cactus was the center of attention. Neighbors clustered around and admired it. Passersby slowed to take a second look. Visitors marveled at its size and symmetry. My sisters and I respected it. Long, ferocious-looking spines as large as sewing needles covered the pancake-like pieces. In between these sharp thorns grew thousands of finer needles---all of them menacing.
This marvelous cactus, along with dozens of African violets decorating our kitchen windows, was a testimony to my mother's love of plants.
Then it happened. One day while my cousins were visiting we were involved in a frantic game of chase. We all rounded the cactus close together---and too close to the cactus. My sister Eulita lost her balance and tumbled into the barbs.
Screams of pain
Her screams of pain brought my mother running. One arm and one leg were completely covered with dozens of the sewing-size needles, and count less small spines were sticking out all over. Leaving the rest of the gang outside, Mom grabbed Eulita, took her to the kitchen, and went searching for her tweezers. My other sister, Deanna, and I watched in fear and silence while Eulita moaned and cried as my mother began the tedious task of gently and methodically removing every one of those needles.
Deanna and I kept peeking around the kitchen door like baby chicks. We had a good look at Mom's face. Her lips were pursed (an expression she still keeps in reserve for moments of deep contemplation or consecration), and the longer she worked, the deeper the furrows in her forehead became. Anger replaced anxiety and was finally over come with what seemed to be resolve. I figured the furrows meant she had decided what Deanna's and my punishment would be, since it would be our fault because we had not been hurt!
Finally it was over. Cactus needles of all shapes and sizes covered a paper plate. Coating my sister's arm and leg with antiseptic, Mom abruptly and quietly got up. Deanna and I were waiting for a reprimand and decided that whatever happened to us was definitely better than Eulita's fate. Intent on inspecting Eulita's wounds, we didn't notice where Mom had gone. The next thing I remember was seeing her striding through the yard pushing a wheel-barrow. In it were an ax and a shovel. She went straight for the cactus and began cutting it down.
In a matter of moments it was felled, chopped, and loaded into the wheel barrow. She was heading for the back corner of the yard. There she began digging a large hole into which she dumped the remains of the once-glorious cactus. Covering the hole and stamping it down, she headed back to the garage, put away the tools, and came inside. All she said was "That cactus won't hurt anybody anymore."
Somewhere in some old family photographs there is probably a picture of that plant. In my childish eagerness back then I was simply glad that I hadn't been punished, that the cactus was forever gone, and that the next day Eulita was up and about so we could taunt each other for a few more years. Life went on.
In all that happened back then, my mother taught me a lesson that only now in adulthood I can really understand.
Lessons I learned
I learned, from her willingness to sacrifice something that had brought her a sense of satisfaction and admiration, that love for people is so much more important than love for things. No matter how important something is to us, no matter how much pleasure it brings, even though it may be a "good" thing, if it brings pain to others, then maybe we should get rid of it. My mother wasn't going to let anything no matter how special it was to her harm someone she cared for. She had not been aware that the beautiful plant could be an instrument of such pain. But the minute she saw the damage, she didn't dally she chopped it up and buried it. And she never spoke of it again.
During this season most of us are thinking about the positive resolutions we will make as pastoral families to do things differently in 1997. As I reflected on this childhood incident I thought about some things that are actually very pleasant and rewarding, but that can cause pain to other people who are close to us. In and of themselves these things may give immediate pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction. In the long run, how ever, they may need to be buried along with the old year.
As pastors we sometimes tend to spend all of our time and energy serving and meeting the never-ending needs of our congregations. We forget that our families may feel hurt and neglected. They see us ever ministering to others and never ministering to them. If we are over extended and overstressed by our work to the extent our families feel neglected or hurt, we need to repent and cut down the time spent away from them.
Some of us may have spent more money than we can afford because we have credit cards. All during the year, and especially at the Christmas season, this "easily accessible" money temporarily provides immediate gratification for a personal want, but it may mean doing without something that is truly important for the whole family. If we were selfish with our resources, maybe we need to take the cards and cut up the temptation.
Communicating is a valuable pastoral skill. Words are one of our main means of spreading the gospel. However, this same instrument, the tongue, that utters messages from on high can become harsh and abrasive with our families when we are tired, angry, hungry, or stressed. But these are just excuses. Words wound and broken promises hurt deeply. Like the cactus needles, they penetrate painfully and are not easily removed. We mustcut out these hurtful words from our vocabulary.
As we begin the new year, let's take inventory of the things in our lives that may be damaging to another person. May the Lord give each one of us the wisdom to identify them and the courage to bury them before someone is really hurt.