I Am Hearing…


I hear God speak…

 

…in the natural world…

 

“That same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. Let anyone with ears, listen!”[i]

 

The story above is a parable told by Jesus on the banks of the Sea of Galilee during one of his treks through Galilee.

(If anyone reading this blog doesn’t have much…or any…experience reading the Bible, please know that I will keep that in mind as I write. Also…if that is the case, I would invite you to purchase one…you can get one in a used-book store pretty cheap…and read through it. The Bible is arguably the most historically foundational piece of literature ever written. It would be worth your time and money.)

A parable is a fictional story constructed about ordinary events with a larger meaning that must be interpreted by the ones listening or reading. Jesus used parables all the time, and when asked why he used them, he said it was because…

“(although) seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”[ii]

 

He continues with the explanation by quoting an ancient prophet: Isaiah…

 

“You will indeed listen, but never understand,

And you will indeed look, but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull,

And their ears are hard of hearing,

And they have shut their eyes;

So that they might not look with their eyes,

And listen with their ears,

And understand with their heart and turn—

And I would heal them.”[iii]

 

It seems Jesus thought people were so busy living their lives, that they were blind and deaf to the meaning of their lives, so he told a story to externalize normal events in a way that meaning was perceived from listening to it.

The parable above was taken from the normal activity of people farming the land; which was a common way people fed themselves in Galilee, in conjunction with fishing in the Sea of Galilee. I have had some experience living in a predominantly farming and ranching community, so the parable speaks to me in great depth. The primary interpretation I learned growing up in my ancestral faith tradition explained that each type of soil was symbolic for different types of people. In fact, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples in this way:

 

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom (of God: where God’s intention for the way life on the earth is to be lived is actually lived out) and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what is sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”[iv]

 

However, I have recently understood, or “heard”, a different interpretation for the types of soil. I have begun to realize how each type of soil can be illustrative of different areas in my own life. In effect:

I am the soil!

Each soil metaphor helps me understand that I can be resistant to Eden’s balance in many ways. I also correspond to the seed sown in good soil, in that there are areas of my life and personality, in which I bear fruit.

And yet…

…I often feel like some of the seed sown in my life, personality, and body…in the form of talents, interests, relationships, and experience…now lie dead and deteriorating deep within. “That time and opportunity in my life is past. Its history!”, I think to myself, as I try to make peace with its passing. However, God challenged my assumptions about the dead seeds earlier this year…

In my back yard, just outside the back door, lies a small patch of ground on which nothing grew for the first 3 years in which I occupied the house. The patch is a perfect rectangle, measuring roughly 5 feet by 8 feet. It is bordered by the walls of the house on two sides, the concrete patio on one side, and a path made of 6-sided concrete landscape pavers that are especially popular on older properties in Florida. Since I moved in, I have wanted to fill the space with some kind of living plant. Part of the challenge to grow something in the space is that it is partially covered by the overhanging roof of the house on one side, and the branches of a tree on the other. So, it is shaded, sandy, and portions of it can be quite dry in all but the wildest of rainstorms.

Finally, last spring, I decided to find a plant that would act as a decorative cover for the patch. I went to Home Depot, and found a plant that the label indicated would grow and spread quickly. I bought 12 of them and planted them after adding topsoil and compost (chicken manure…I forgot just how bad it smelled until I watered-in the plants) to the sandy soil of the patch. For the most part, everything I plant in the yard must fend for itself. I try to use plants that supposedly will work in the Central Florida tropical climate and soil. I then give it a push start with water in the beginning and in dry spells, but after that: it grows or it doesn’t. After the summer of that year, 2 of the three landscape projects pretty much failed miserably. I wasn’t completely disappointed by the results, though, because I learned a lot from the long term process.

For instance, most of the plants in the small patch in the back yard died, except a small strip which was closest to the pavers; the soil of which received the most water and diffused sunlight. By the end of the year, I decided I would use different plants this spring: Foxtail Ferns. I planted them in another spot, where the conditions were similar, and they have done quite well since.

Then…

…around the end of February or the beginning of March…

…I noticed something I hadn’t expected…

Little tendrils of the plant began to pierce the soil from underground roots, which had remained dormant during the winter (a FLORIDA winter anyway). I realized that the plant wasn’t done…it hadn’t died…it was just waiting for another growing season in which it could, once again, take hold of its space and grow. Excited by this unexpected re-appearance, I bought three more plants, planted them along the path, and then watered and fertilized them through the spring. As I am writing this, it is late July, filled with the humid heat of summer, and the recurring afternoon and evening showers of the tropical rainy season which continue to both challenge and nourish the plants. Although they haven’t spread as quickly nor are they as dense as I hoped, they are hanging in there.

When I first noticed the re-emergence of the plants this spring, I was personally going through a daze of ambiguity regarding the purpose of my life. I am 55-years-old, and in a period of my life both unexpected to the younger me, and perplexing to the older me. I often feel alone, but have friends who remind me I am not. There are talents I have used throughout my life that now feel buried, and dead.

But…

When I saw the plants, God seemed to say:

“Your gifts aren’t dead they are just waiting to re-emerge in the next growing season. It is how life is designed to work. Death and Resurrection. The Seasons of Grace!”

 

Reading the parable above, in light of this…

I remember all the farmers I knew when I was young, and how they would patiently work the soil before planting the seed…

When the soil was too hard…they would till it, to open it and make it more permeable to the seed, rain, and other nutrients…

When the soil was susceptible to pests…they would tenaciously fight them…

When the soil was too rocky…they would remove the impediments, so the land could be farmed…

When weeds and other plants grew and competed with the seeds intentionally planted…they would cultivate the soil in which the newly planted seeds grew, in order to remove the weeds until the seeds grew into plants which were mature enough to fight off the interloping species…

When the soil was good…they would do everything they could to help the seeds grow and be as fruitful as possible…

I imagine how the words of Jesus must have been understood when he first spoke them. Seeds were precious in that time and place. Seeds for this year’s harvest were ones saved from last year’s harvest. Broadcasting seed just anywhere, without the soil being prepared to receive it, would have been a waste of a generative and highly valued resource. So, while I am usually most concerned by the quantity of the harvest…

“How much will the seed produce?”

“Who is at fault…who do I blame…if the seeds don’t produce, or how much they produce?”

“Who gets the credit for how much they produce?”

“How can I force them to produce more?”

“Produce…produce…produce!”

 

I firmly suspect the people hearing Jesus’ parable would have been thinking about the sower:

“What an idiot! You don’t waste seed that way! You plant a seed in order to grow a plant which multiplies the first seed into a harvest of grain to make food! Not all seeds sprout and grow at the same rate! They must be planted at the right time of year! Some seeds take time to sprout, and even longer to grow into plants capable of producing a harvest. Some seeds need the perfect conditions to grow, and if it is a dry season, the harvest is affected. It isn’t that easy! It takes a wise farmer that prepares the soil, plants the seed at the right time, and gives the plant what it needs to be healthy and reproductive. The farmer works WITH the seed, and WITH the land, and WITH the plant, and WITH family and neighbors to get the work done, and WITH GOD who provides the rain and sun….

Ahhh…..I understand!”

 

God was the first Gardener…

A wize Gardener…

 

My life is a jumble of soil types and qualities, all in different stages of preparation. I often…ok…usually…believe it is my responsibility for the condition it is in, and to prepare it to be fruitful. I am also quite critical of the quality of seed, too.

Talents…

Giftedness…

Passions…

Insights…

I am especially critical of the quality of the seed, how I let it germinate, and the quantity and quality of the harvest. But the soil doesn’t GROW the seed planted within it. The life present within the seed does that! God places within each seed the qualities and power necessary for life and reproduction. The soil receives the seed, nourishes it, and has…in its very composition…everything it needs to allow the seed to sprout and begin to grow. It could even be said that the soil is a Sanctuary for the seed. None of this is surprising. Seed and soil are meant to benefit each other, and facilitate the growth of new life. It is a naturally recurring process.

I mentioned earlier about compost…

The soil in my little patch is very sandy. It doesn’t hold moisture very well, and I figured since nothing grew in it in the preceding three years, it might need some additional soil and compost. Compost is a mixture of organic materials which are being naturally broken down in composition to become a rich addition to soil. It is filled with helpful bacteria that break down formerly living and growing organisms into nutrients in a more usable form for new seeds and growing plants. Compost also helps to conserve water so it doesn’t run off and leach away the nutrients you are trying to add to the soil. To make compost, you add plants, table scraps, leaves, and miscellaneous garden scraps in a pile or a container designed for the purpose and add three things:

Additional bacteria to help the process of breaking down the material…

Water intermittently…

And air, by turning over the material with a pitch fork.

These four components cause the mixture to heat up as the process takes place…

…and sometimes produces an unpleasant, distinctive odor…

Yes…

It stinks!

Additionally, you will often find twigs, and the occasional small rock in compost. These objects either take longer to break down, or are more resistant to bacterial action. A benefit of these harder objects in the soil is that they help the soil stay loose, and create small pockets of space in which air and water are located.  Loose soil is beneficial for planting, because it is easier for the seeds to take root and for new growth to push through the surface into the open, then continue the ascent to maturity. Most plants grow both upwards, and downwards. Roots push through the soil in all directions to support the needs of the plant for water, but also to provide a strong physical foundation underground to keep the growth above ground anchored to the earth. It is important to know that good soil is full of life and activity both where it can be observed in the landscape, but more fundamentally, below the surface; where it takes some digging to detect. To judge soil only on the surface production, neglects where it all begins: below the surface.

Nature is patient. There are rhythms to the natural world. Seasons of growth, but also of dormancy. It is often in the dormancy of winter, or apparent dormancy after a fire, that the soil is being prepared below the surface for new life in the growing season.

If we describe Nature as patient; how much more so, God? Just as a forest takes decades, or centuries to be considered mature, I must remember that my life isn’t defined by what I consider to be “Production”! I am beginning to understand that there will be aspects of the fruitfulness of my life which are so deeply buried, that it won’t be available for harvest until after I have died. Also, just as in good soil, I find certain “hard” elements in my life that I am not sure what to do with. There have been experiences I don’t understand, and about which I feel dissonant. They don’t fit nicely in line with my previous expectations of life and fruitfulness. However, I am realizing that the hard elements…

Hold…

Space…

The space surrounding the dissonant memories are where…

Air and Water…

Grace and Mercy…

Meet the Dust of my Flesh.

These spaces are where God’s Spirit invites me to tenaciously trust that the Seeds God has placed in the soil of my life are and were intentionally planted. The hard places do not detract from the ultimate fruitfulness of my life.

Another word for it:

 

Incarnation…

 

Where the separation between Seed and Soil becomes imperceptible.

 

The Ecology of Eden…

The trick is to remember that when life stinks!

[i][i] Matthew 13:1-9. New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

[ii] Matthew 13:13.

[iii] Matthew 13:14-15.

[iv] Matthew 13:18-23.

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