For most of our life and ministry, Pam and I served churches in Western North Carolina, which is really fertile soil. A mentor told us early on that a preacher should never have a garden. “If it is a good year,” he said, “you will get everyone else’s abundance; and if it is a bad year, you would not be able to grow anything anyway!”
We have a story about a sower and seeds and soil. I feel inadequate to bring any practical expertise to you. But I do love this parable of Jesus, in what it says to us and I am grateful to be able to reflect on it.
Hardness of Heart
So, as Jesus tells the story, some seed fell on the path. I try to walk a couple of miles each day. It is a long habit and it helps me in a variety of ways. I was recently walking one morning and I realized that each day I walk the same route, at times on pavement and at other times on a hard dirt surface. I realized that a seed would never penetrate this kind of ground. So why does the seed fall there?
When the scriptures speak of hard surfaces, the recurring term is “hardness of heart”. This can easily describe me. I may think that I don’t have anything to learn from you, because you are a layperson, or a Pentecostal, or Catholic, or Jewish? Have you ever been there? Someone has not had your life experience, or they vote differently from you.
This hardness of heart may be the impediment to the formation of community. We become rigid in our assumptions, in our stereotypes, we label each other. Of course the hard path can represent our relationship to God. Perhaps we refuse to believe that God would “stoop to our weakness”, in the language of the hymn. We wonder, what could God possibly be saying to me? Why would God be speaking to me? Sometimes our hearts and minds are closed, and it is like a seed hitting the surface of the hard ground.
Shallowness of Spirit
Other seed fell on rocky ground, where there was not much soil. This is the danger of a shallow spirituality. This speaks of the shelf-life of an enthusiasm that is not sustainable. We go from book to book, fad to fad, guru to guru, self-help project to self-help project. We sometimes speak of thin and thick cultures. Thin cultures are more superficial, there are fewer shared values. A shallow spirituality is also somewhat analogous to what Kenda Creasy Dean refers to as the guiding beliefs of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”:
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die. (Almost Christian, p. 14)
The shallowness of American Christianity is a given within and outside our churches.
A Cluttered Life
Other seed fell among soil and was choked by the thorns. This is the danger of competing claims for our hearts, minds and lives. We want to make a place for God in our lives, we make new year’s resolutions, but anxieties and fears and desires and ambitions seep in and they suck up all of the nutrients, namely our time, our talents, or treasure. This leaves little left for the life of the spirit.
In our ecclesial culture, the elements that choke the life of the spirit are a pervasive hermeneutic of suspicion. In a church culture, a hermeneutic of suspicion began with a default critique of what was perceived to be the mainline church aligned with the powers of the world. That was Christendom, and the assumptions of many of our seminary professors, and in media such as Huffington Post, presume this as our context.
The problem that emerges with a hermeneutic of suspicion is that we no longer live in a church culture. Ours is a post-Christian culture. This was the insight that gave birth to Fresh Expressions in the United Kingdom and is increasingly a more realistic way of seeing our own context. So how do we move from a hermeneutic of suspicion to a hermeneutic of generativity?
There is surely, in these first three kinds of soils, failure and success, perseverance and experimentation. Most of us, if we are honest, are a mixture of soils, hardened and shallow and filled with a variety of thorns. We have all experienced hardness of heart, and a shallow spirituality, and a cluttered life.
And yet, there is yet another outcome.
The seed is planted in good soil, and brings forth an abundance beyond our dreams or imagination!
This is the blessing of fruitfulness. But let us quickly acknowledge that this is not our work, nothing we boast about. The soil is simply the composition of everything that has flowed into our lives: advantages and opportunities and privileges, blessings and provisions and grace. Our pride is the sin of taking credit for something God has done. As the Apostle Paul wrote,
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3).
To be the good soil is not our achievement. It is more about being receptive to the gospel, the good soil is creating the conditions that make us more holy and more mature. To be holy in the Wesleyan tradition is to love God and our neighbor. Holiness and maturity are generative. Aside from anything else in life, this is the calling of an adult, a leader, a Christian: to be generative. This is mentoring, this is discipleship.
Discipleship is the good soil, it is Bible Study and prayer and being in a small group and doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God.
Discipleship includes what we do on Sunday, indeed it is essential, but is also what we do the other six days, indeed what we do with our entire lives.
Indeed, discipleship is a process that is lifelong.
I was a pastor in the local church for twenty eight years, and I loved that life. I often look back and give thanks for particular people who were my teachers in those churches. One experience is relevant here. I had been in Haiti, on a mission, and returned, and came down with an illness, some kind of infectious disease and was hospitalized. I received excellent medical care, and soon I was better. I did, however, miss a Sunday, so they congregation knew and prayed for me.
Later in the winter I was visiting a friend in the hospital, he was a member of the church. His name was John, he was a physician, and when I went into his room he greeting me with the words, “so you picked up something in Haiti!” His son, sitting in the corner of the room, became interested. We talked and it turned out his son worked as a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control.
Well, I came to know him, and over time his other two sons as well. I learned that John, the father, was a very wise man, who had three accomplished sons, one a scientist with the CDC in Atlanta, another a law professor at William and Mary, and the third an architect in Nashville. In his last years John created a fund and brought them to see him on the same weekend, about three times a year, to spend time together. He was teaching them to work with each other and to be a family again after he had passed.
Well, time passed, and he died the next fall. We planned his funeral, and in that church we had a tradition that we called a “Family Witness”. The son who was a law professor gave the family witness, although I think they collaborated. That witness was so well-crafted that I remember it as if I had heard it this week. He said a person has four seasons in this life.
There is a time to learn, and so he talked about John’s years of study to be a physician.
There is a time to do, and here he reflected on John’s practice of medicine, and the way he blessed his patients and co-workers.
There is a time to teach others. John had been a guide to other physicians, and indeed he had mentored his sons. His son talked about his father’s faith.
And there is a time to be. John had reached the place where he took pleasure simply by being in the presence of people he loved.
The Seasons of Our Lives
A sower went forth to plant a seed. In life there are cycles of planting and growing and harvesting. Of course the imaginative power of these parables of Jesus is that they speak to us, in different seasons of our lives, in different ways. Surely we have been the hard ground that God’s love could not penetrate. We have been enthusiastic about something but we soon lost passion and energy. Or we found a focus and then the worries and concerns of the world distracted us. We have all been there.
At times, and all by God’s grace, we have been the good soil. God blessed us, God blessed others through us. It is pride to take any credit for that. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth!” That mentor was right: I have been the beneficiary, over and over again, of the abundances of others.
There are seasons of our lives, to learn, to do, to teach others, to be. John had lived through those seasons, and he had lived long enough to see the fruit of his labors. He struck me as a wise man, who listened to his life, who, in the words of Jesus, had “ears to hear.” That is wisdom. In the parables Jesus is a wisdom teacher. Wisdom is learning, we hope, from the mistakes we have made, from the harm we have done to others and the harm that has been done to us, wisdom is seeking to be the good soil that bears fruit.
Why do you think Jesus taught this parable? Yes, the northern Galilee is a richly agricultural area, some of us have traveled there. But it went beyond that: the sower, the seed, the soil pointed to something greater. Jesus actually explains the meaning of it, in private, later in Mark 4.
It is counter-intuitive, because we often think that spiritual growth depends on having the right teacher or the charismatic preacher or the extraordinary leader or just the right book (and thank God for any of these gifts when they come along), but Jesus is counter-intuitive in that he shifts the responsibility to us. The seed is the word of God, that never changes, but it matters where it is planted. In the parable it is all about the quality of the soil, and finally, our receptivity to the gospel.
Can we make the transition from hardness of heart and shallowness of spirit and a cluttered life to the journey of learning and doing and teaching others and being? Can we be generative, growing Christians who multiply our blessings in the lives of others, who disciple the next generations? Can we, together, be a church of the good soil?
I conclude with a prayer written by one of my teachers, Thomas Langford, who was Dean of the Duke Divinity School and later Provost of Duke University
“O God, your intention to give exceeds our readiness to receive.
Your boundless love is restricted by our small vessels.
Your generosity far exceeds our responding reception.
Your richness is restrained by our poverty of expectation.
Your expansiveness is channeled through our small hearts.
Enlarge our capacity.
Increase our receptivity.
Open us to your full life.
Make us more able to receive your generous grace.”
Ken Carter is the United Methodist Bishop appointed to the Florida Episcopal Area. He hails from Georgia with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ken and his wife Pam live in Lakeland, Florida.