Those who explore the vast boreal forests of Canada are rarely far from a bunchberry dogwood, a plant so common that some have suggested it ought to be Canada’s national plant. The cornus canadensis is a little shrub that often carpets the floors of the great fir and spruce forests. A perennial, its shoots rise in the spring and soon each produce a whorl of six leaves. Come the early days of summer, a number of tiny flowers surrounded by four white bracts top each shoot. It is not the size of the plants or even their beauty that catches the eye as much as their sheer volume and their way of bringing cheer to an otherwise drab forest floor.
What few know about the bunchberry dogwood is that it holds a world record, for its blooms open faster than any other plant in the world. In fact, it moves at a speed few organisms can match. When its flowers begin to form, so too do the stamen, and they grow cocked under the petals like tiny medieval trebuchets. When the bud is fully formed and the time is right, the pressure of the stamen pushing against the petals opens the flower with a burst of energy and a spray of pollen. This takes place in less than one half of one millisecond, too fast for the eye to see, too fast even for a camera to record unless it can shoot thousands of frames per second. From the maturing of the bud to the full opening of the flower is far less than the blink of an eye. It’s a miracle of nature.
A great question deep in the hearts of many Christian parents is why some children bloom quickly when they profess faith while others take much longer. Why is it that some seem to burst into life while others seem to drag? One child comes to Christ and backs her conversion with immediate habits of devotion—she reads the Scripture and meditates upon it, she prays regularly and fervently, she reads good books and delights to discuss what she has learned. This comes quickly, easily, and joyfully. Then another child comes to Christ, truly and genuinely, yet has far less interest in reading the Bible, less interest in prayer, little interest at all in reading good books and engaging in spiritual conversation. How could this be?
Just as there are mysteries in the natural world there are mysteries in the human heart, and the ways in which different Christians express their faith is among them. Some truly do appear to burst into life, immediately awakening to God’s sanctifying grace as they put sin to death and come alive to righteousness, as they quickly lay aside habits of spiritual laziness and put on habits of spiritual industriousness. And some truly do appear to crawl into life, to bloom over years or decades rather than moments. They do awaken to God’s sanctifying grace, but at a snail’s pace, and they do replace poor habits with good ones, but slowly rather than quickly, and often only after long, hard, back-and-forth battles.
Parents do well to be patient with their children, and not to be overly concerned with those who seem to be blooming slowly. After all, there are countless examples of people who burst into life—or into what appeared to be life—but who fell out of it just as quickly. The plants that are first to bloom are often first to wilt. Some children who were once the envy of parents everywhere are now the shame of their own. Meanwhile, some of their peers came to life slowly, but only because they were putting down deep roots within. Though there may have been little change on the outside, there was a great work going on inside. Slow growth is often more lasting than quick.
Parents also do well to faithfully foster whatever growth they do see. A plant that has just sprouted is at its most vulnerable state and must be carefully protected. The smallest beginning of life must be gently nurtured. God does not break a bruised reed and parents must not break a young faith. They do far better to rejoice in all progress, not just great progress, to commend every evidence of grace, not just the most prominent, to encourage all advances, not just the most extreme. They do well to pay attention to trajectories more than accomplishments, to find joy in where there are children headed as much as where they are.
And then parents must guard themselves against cajoling, nagging, or unfairly comparing. It is far better to nurture than to needle, to rejoice in new evidences of life than to lament old evidences of sin. It may well be that those who burst to life are specially gifted by the Holy Spirit or have been given an extraordinary measure of zeal. Either way, all growth certainly reflects divine activity and divine blessing, and whether fast or slow, God works in his own way and at his own pace. Slow growth reflects divine activity and blessing every bit as much as fast. Many want their children to bloom like a dogwood, but while that plant does bloom quickly, its flowers are tiny and relatively plain. Flowers that take longer to open are in the end often far more beautiful, far more wondrous to behold. Patience is a precious virtue for parents and gardeners alike.
Nature teaches us many lessons and the lesson of the blooming is one of them. God created some plants to open their flowers in an instant and others only over a much longer stretch of time. Both reflect his design. We cannot slow the plant that opens in an instant or rush the plant that opens in a month. But what we can do is enjoy the difference and celebrate the beauty. And so, too, with our children.