The Parable of the Cactus with a Paper Flower Hot Glued on Top
During her college years, my wife spent the summers working at a camp. One summer, her roommate was also going to be gone, and so they needed someone to feed the beta fish, water the plants, and generally keep an eye on the place.
As the boyfriend at the time, I was the natural choice, and I was happy to help. My first 3-minute round of the small apartment went well. I fed Josiah the beta fish. I watered the plants. I even vacuumed to prove I was really up to the task — though it would be a month or two before either one returned.
On my way out the door though, something bugged me: the small cactus in the kitchen window. I had chosen not to water it because I had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t real. But what if I was wrong?
I don’t know about you, but it is hard for me to tell the difference between a real and fake cactus — they all look like plastic. This particular cactus also sent off some mixed signals. It was planted in real dirt, but it had a paper flower hot glued on top of it.
Due to the busy schedule at the summer camp, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to ask about it until the weekend. But I also didn’t want to mess up this important responsibility. So I made a decision — I was going to water it.
Water can’t hurt a plastic cactus or real dirt, right? The worst case scenario was that the water would do nothing but evaporate until I returned.
That weekend, I finally asked about the cactus. It turned out that it had never been watered by either roommate, due mostly to the paper flower hot glued on top. However, I was welcome to water it just to see if anything would happen (my wife is now a researcher and professor).
I dutifully included watering the cactus in my rounds, and at first nothing really happened. But after a week or two, something had changed. The paper flower that had been perfectly affixed atop the cactus was slightly angled. A week later, the cactus was an inch taller and the paper flower was now hot glued to the side of the cactus. It turns out this cactus was very much real and very much growing.
Over the 5-years that we had the cactus, we went through seasons of watering it and seasons of ignoring it. It never failed that when it got water, it grew. When it didn’t, the growth stopped. By the time we said good-bye to the cactus, it had grown so much that the paper flower was only about a third of the way up the side (sadly, the photo I took has been lost to history).
This story of the little cactus has become one of my favorite illustrations for discipleship and the power of spiritual disciplines. Somewhere, at some point, someone had decided that this cactus had grown as tall as it would or should ever grow. It was done. They hot glued a paper flower to the top and decided that this living plant would just be a decoration.
But even after years of receiving no nourishment at all, just a little bit of water was all that was needed to get it growing again. And as I noted, that pattern always held true — water caused growth while neglect stopped growth.
This is such a perfect picture of my spiritual life and the spiritual lives of the students and adults I have pastored over the years. When we intentionally practice spiritual disciples — like reading Scripture, praying, participating in worship — it inspires and promotes growth. When we stop doing these things, more likely than not the growth will stop.
And the sad thing is that sometimes we end up with paper flowers hot glued to the top of our spiritual cacti. Someone, whether it is ourselves or someone else, has told us that we have grown all that we can. We pridefully decide we have reached the pinnacle, or we’ve received the message that we’re not good enough, talented enough, or spiritual enough to grow anymore.
But just like the cactus with the paper flower hot glued on top, all it takes is for someone to wonder what would happen if we gave it a little water. It doesn’t matter how many years it has been since the last drop of water, our spiritual cacti and the God who makes them grow are always ready and waiting.
When I look at my life and my spiritual journey, I have paper flowers hot-glued all up and down the sides of my spiritual cactus. They are reminders of the times when I thought there was nothing more for me. But they are also evidence of the times when God faithfully and lovingly proved me wrong.