Secretly, in the dark.

seed paper towel

It’s science class in the third grade, and your teacher hands out these tiny little seeds. She tells you that we are going to grow these seeds in a wet fold of paper towel so we can watch the mysterious actions of a seed opening up and growing. The whole class gets busy wetting and folding their paper towels embedding the seed, usually a bean sprout of some kind, into the folds and slipping them into a glass jar. Over the next few weeks we all watch anxiously. Class only gets started when the teacher is able to pull us away from the window where we go every morning to see if this is the day our seed will open and send it’s roots down, it’s stem up. Some of us are less than careful and our paper towels dry up, the seed dies. Others are too anxious and water over and over and the seed is soaked. Those who strike that happy medium are rewarded when their seed starts to open and a slender white root probes the paper towel looking for dirt and ground. The whole class wants to see and we all crowd around the lucky first one. The mysteries of the earth are exposed, laid bare before us as we stare in amazement. We wonder how it knew to open, how it knew which side was up and which was down. Even as we see what was formerly hidden in the dark of the earth more mysteries beckon.

 

The kingdom is like a mustard seed, Jesus says, from the smallest of beginnings, in the dark of the earth, in the unseen places, it will grow and become a tree! It’s hyperbole, an extravagant and untrue statement. It forces us outside our prior understanding by suggesting something we know can’t be true. Mustard seeds don’t become trees! Acorns become mighty oaks but mustard seeds? They stay pretty small, just your average bush, really. Reason insists that we know our limitations just as the mustard seed isn’t a tree, we know we too have limitations. We are a small church in the middle of a small, mostly rural area. We have our limitations. We are an aging group with declining numbers, we know our limitations. Don’t we?

 

But, Jesus says, in the depths of the soil, in the dark and unseen places, something is happening. The seed is nourished by faith and lovingly tended. Something in it breaks. That resistance and desire to stay safe in its hard shell, the shell that promised it would stay intact until just the right moment, gives in, shatters, is broken open and growth begins. Hafiz, the 15th century Sufi poet wondered,

 

“How did the rose ever open its heart and give to the world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise we all remain too frightened.”

 

Anais Nin might have been responding when she wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

 

It’s easier to see the rose bloom than the seed sprout. The rose is out in the open, warming in the sun. We can watch its petals slowly spread out. The seed, however is hidden, in the depth of the soil and the dark, wet of the earth. Weeks can go by without any visible sign of change, of growth. Before we grew our seeds in wet paper towels we grew grass seeds in a dixie cup filled with dirt. Do you remember that? I suspect that my third grade teacher knew how often we had looked at that bare dirt and failed to believe anything could possibly be growing in there. it’s so hard to believe that change is happening when you can’t see it. As a child I wanted to dig in and see what was happening underneath all that dirt and I didn’t trust that things really were happening. I needed to see it. At the gym where I work out there is a poster in the bathroom, in that most private of places where a woman might look at herself in the mirror and get discouraged because all that hard work and dieting isn’t making the difference she’d hoped for. It says, “When you get discouraged, imagine yourself a year from now, and get back to work.” It’s part of our nature, I guess, that we want to see our hard work and our brave risks produce change now, visibly, let me see it happening! But the process begins within the dark and unseen places.

 

Jesus says the kingdom is like a, that is one, mustard seed, that a man took out into the field and planted. Imagine going out into the field and planting that one singular mustard seed. It’s such an insignificant thing. To plant that one seed. Here we are hungering to see change happening, to see our efforts manifesting, and he says it’s like planting one, tiny, insignificant seed in a field. And then things happen, somewhere in the dark soil this seed opens and grows and becomes, more than we ever could have expected, not a bush but a tree! The smallest thing, perhaps some passing kindness, a smile, a thank you, a gracious welcome, a bit of attention, planted faithfully grows into something incredible, grows into the kingdom! We struggle with the desire to see things happen but silently in all the dark quiet places, what we have planted grows and becomes! Under the surface and out of sight change begins and growth happens!

 

The patience and the hard work, the risks taken, which at the time don’t seem to produce anything, work within us and change us, help us to grow and become the people we most deeply desire to be. Anne Frank, locked up in her attic space, could never have known or imagined how many people her words would touch, what an inspiration she would become in her refusal to hate, in her insistence that love will win and that there is good in humanity. But perhaps she has some inkling of what it might be. She wrote,

 

“Everyone has inside them a piece of good news. The good news is you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

 

Simple words planted on a sheet of paper left in a cold and bare attic where trauma occurred. Simple words which stir the heart and break open the brittle shell of resistance. We do have a piece of good news. We are good news. We are the seed planted out in the field and we do not know what we might become; we do not know what we can accomplish; we do not know what our potential is! We have only to break through our resistance and stretch our roots down into the soil, that good rich ground that is the Word of God, that is our source and our sustenance and grow!

 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” But this letting go, this release of certainty, this cracking of our defensive, protective shell, it’s really hard to do! And when we do, we want promises! Ezekiel 17 speaks to the captives, those who have been stripped of all power and privilege and taken hostage in Babylon, taken hostage to insure the compliance of the rest of Israel. Moments after Ezekiel warns the Israelites not to seek the protection of the even more powerful and just as likely to plunder Egyptians in order to overthrow the Babylonians, he promises them that God will pluck out a fine shoot from their branches and establish it on a high and lofty mountain, and it will put out branches and bear fruit. From the depths of exile and the fate of a hostage, this small cutting, this soon to be grafted on branch will grow to become fruit and refuge to every bird of the air. But the Israelites don’t see this happening. They only see themselves stuck in an abusive hostage situation and maybe, just maybe, the Egyptians would help them out. Maybe they could force the situation and free themselves. Maybe they could take control and make things turn out the way they want it to. Or, Ezekiel says, they could wait for God to act. Or, Ezekiel says, they could have patience with the process of change that is going on under the surface, unseen, in the hidden and dark places, the inaccessible places. Oh but how they wanted to make things happen right now! And don’t we all? It’s so hard to be patient with these slow, internal processes, to trust that things really are happening and growth and change are occurring.

 

We are planted like a tiny seed in a vast field. We begin our growth and our transformation in the dark of the soil, rooted and grounded in God’s Word. We begin our growth in the darkness and in the unseen internal spaces. How often do we want to pluck that seed out of the soil and look at it, just to see if it’s really doing something? How often are we tempted to “push the river” and try to make it go faster? How often do we look towards the powerful and mighty around us and seek to be like them, to emulate them, to adopt their DNA instead of allowing our own to grow and manifest God’s glory just as God intended. Instead we look at those around us and we wish we could be like them. But we are still that small seed. That unseen seed planted in a large and vast field. In our own way and in our own time, God will use us. We will, and are, moving from the isolated self-protected state of a seed to the expansive, spreading, branched out state of a tree, sheltering all manner of life. Isn’t that amazing? The world would tell us to maintain our hard-shell of protection, to care for ourselves and our needs, but God says, no, break open and grow, break open and search for me. It’s a risk, and as Anais Nin acknowledged, it’s something we tend to do only when the pain of staying closed in on ourselves gets to be just too much.

sunrise

Can we trust that if we do allow ourselves to break open, to stretch deep inside and deep down into the darkness that we will find sustenance, that we will be nurtured, and that all of this can and will go on for some time, perhaps a long time, before the first shoots of new growth begin to show above the surface? Can we be faithful as we wait for these shoots to show up, to continue watering our little seed and resist the urge to unearth it and check to see if it’s really doing something? Can we have faith that growth and bearing fruit is part of our DNA even when we don’t know where or when that growth may occur? We know what we are, and it is tempting to hold onto that with a tight, white-knuckle grip, but we do now know what we might be, or how God will use us. Learning this requires release, it requires surrender, it requires allowing the process to continue, even when we don’t see signs of success or immediate relief from our anxiety. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed planted in a vast field, and the church is a foretaste of that kingdom. Today we are the mustard seed, planted in the heart of the piney woods in southeast Texas. We grow unseen and undisturbed at first, we grow simply and without concern as God is our gardener, our pruner, our sustenance and our joy. We stretch our roots deep into the soil of the Word and are fed and sustained. We stretch our hearts and our hands to the love of God which warms us and fills us with all manner of good things. We know that it may be a while before new shoots begin to surface, but we are content. We are, after all, just a seed, small and simple, planted in a vast field.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Soil in the Badlands

oregon-horse-trails-Badlands-Rock-003

When I was growing up I always heard the parable of the sower as a mandate to be good soil and I was never quite sure how to do that. I was pretty sure I didn’t measure up. Sometimes I thought I was the thorny, prickly soil especially when I went through the “touch-me-not” teenage years and sometimes I would see myself as the victim, the one that is trod upon and has every good thing plucked out by voracious birds. I think that was probably a teenage angst too! And there are many times when I have wondered if I were failing in my spiritual practice-not deepening my roots, being too flighty as I move from one project to another, the busyness of life taking control and leading me rather than being intentional and faithful to my commitments. I was pretty sure I was bad soil and I didn’t know how to be “good enough.”

Not that I didn’t try. It seems I was always, and often still am, engaged in one self-improvement project or another. I get anxious and impatient to feel God and the Holy Spirit blooming in my life right now! And I want to be in control.

Turning my life and my will over to God, ceasing these endless self-improvement projects is so hard! The world fills my head with endless commands, be all you can be, lose those last five stubborn pounds, take control, be large and in charge—God has other plans and on some level I suspect we all know this. We are asked to “be still” and stop our ceaseless striving, quiet our anxious heart, to be still and listen to that still small voice which is not in the hurricane of our whirling busy lives, and is not in the restless rushing anxiety that blows through our lives, but is in the receptive stillness of our breaking open, breaking down hearts. And on some level I think we all suspect this.

As I hear this parable again and hear it with new ears it is this breaking down, breaking open that speaks to me. Because I have come to understand badlands and bad soil in a whole new way, because I am a gardener, because I live in the badlands and have found them teeming with life and beauty, because I have worked with youth who are going on their own journey through the darkness and are seeking health, seeking wholeness.

It is this practice of adding all our garbage, the painful, rotten things we wish had never happened, to the dead, inert, bad soil and letting God break it down; of letting God transform what was or is awful, so that our soil begins to teem with new life-slowly at first, in the dark recesses of our souls, but eventually this life, this abundant vitality which begins in darkness ripens and we are fruitful and a blessing to all those around us.

Thich Nhat Hahn has a wonderful way of putting this:

Let us not run away from our garbage; we should learn
the art of making compost. Using that compost we will
grow a lot of flowers. Don’t think that without compost
you can have flowers. That is an illusion. You can have
flowers only with compost. That is the insight of
inter-being — look into the flower and you will see the
compost. If you remove the compost that became the flower,
the flower will disappear also. Whatever you are looking
for, freedom, joy, and stability, you know that suffering
plays a very important role in it. So be aware that we
cannot just run away from our problems. In fact, we
have to go back to our problems. The practice of calming,
of concentrating, of embracing, of looking deeply into the
nature of our pain, is absolutely necessary for us to get
the transformation, the healing that we need so much.”

Thich Nhat Hanh on July 20, 1998.

While I have wanted all my life to be the good it is in the hard and thorny places in my life where I most feel God’s presence. Where, when I let go of my fear and anxiety, when I allow myself to become still it is here that I feel God moving, releasing my stiffness, my resistance and loosening my hard soil, my hard heart; breaking me lose from the wounds of the past, of the present, and showing me that no matter what has been taken from me I have enough; I am enough.

It is in the hard and thorny places where I hear God saying let me have all the rotten and hurtful places, let me tend your wounds, and I will compost it all. I will lift and aerate everything that feels hard and compacted. You will not be simply good soil, you will be rich, composted, turned and fertile soil, if only you will give me the hard places, let go of your resentments and bitterness that things were not, are not as they should be, as you hoped they might be and I will transform it all for you.

We are asked only to come before God as we are , with our heart open and our wounds exposed, to admit we don’t know how to do this, but that God does and our hearts and souls will become Holy Ground, as the Great Healer embraces us, calls us by name, “beloved child of God.” We have never had to do this alone, for God is at work within us, even now, transforming all our hard and thorny places into good soil, rich, abundant, and full of life, may it be so.

A resurrection of our spirits and our hope

Etty_Hillesum2

Etty Hillesum

 

It matters because the tomb is empty. This Easter uprising. There are different versions of the story in our scriptures. We have these different versions because it is not meant to be taken literally as if we could go back and video tape it. Something would be lost if we could. The resurrection will not be filmed. It will not be captured or made to fit in tidy boxes. It is something else, outside our paradigms, outside our understanding. It is new life, new hope, new possibilities, and so much more. It is the greening of the springtime and a remembrance that this too will end. It is the eternal call to life, to come out of the tombs, the shadows, the depressions, the lostness, the pain, the grief, come out and live again!

 

It is more than the knowledge that we are never alone. That Jesus has come into all depths, all darkness. That Jesus has gone up the chimneys, down into the mines, into the gas chamber, so that we might make it out. Making it out, simply surviving, is not enough. Such an answer is too small, too simple. We are called to so much more than simply survival. Survival is a task for those who live with pain, loss, degradation, poverty. Resurrection speaks a new word into our survival minds. It is a new way of being that goes way beyond simply surviving to thriving.

 

Being about God’s work is to be about bringing life where there is death, joy where there is sorrow, repair where there is injury, hope where there is despair, it is about bringing resurrection.

 

Resurrection happens. It’s that moment when your heart begins to heal from a massive rejection or loss and you begin to look at the future with hope instead of looking at the past with regret. It’s that moment when familiar patterns of abuse begin to show up in a new relationship and just when you’re tempted to say, “I guess it will always be this way,” something inside you begins to whisper, then shout, then demand, “NO” and things change. It is that moment when lost inside the darkness of depression, when some internal pain has riveted you, has fixed you permanently within its grasp, and some light begins to break in, finds a crack in the hardness, the seemingly impermeable shell, offering a slender chance and something in you grabs hold of it.

 

Our desire for death, for the finality of it, the letting go and the promise that you don’t need to feel anything anymore, is a reality recognized in some psychological theories. Something in us looks back and back and back like Lot’s wife, not wanting to move on, dissolving in despair and loss, weeping inconsolably, and turning bitter. There is a refusal to look to the future, to let go of what was and hope again. But I don’t want to be harsh with Lot’s wife. I suspect that her weeping and her bitterness came from a deep love of her home town, of the people, perhaps her gardens, her home, her friends. If her hometown had been inhospitable to strangers it had still been her home, her town, where she belonged and lived. It was hard to move on. It was hard to let go, to let the past die and keep on living.

 

It was hard for the disciples to witness the death of Jesus. Some couldn’t bear to watch and left. The crushing pain of irredeemable loss was hard to bear. It took time for the disciples to realize that Christ was still with them. That although he had surrendered to the laws of physical reality there was something deeper going on. They began to recognize that in a very real way, nothing could separate them from him, or him from them. That he had become a part of them, that he was and would always be with them, that not even death could come between them.

 

When we reduce the event of Easter to some mythic, magical event, dead man walking, we relieve ourselves of the need to be resurrection people. We turn the responsibility for healing, for loving, for transforming our lives over to God and then we wait for the magic. God asks us to be resurrection people, not passive recipients but to actually be the healing and loving and transforming in the world. We are not to wait passively for some magical event to come, but to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. The belief in a literal magic events leaves us waiting powerlessly, the belief in a poetic miraculous narrative invites us to participate, to be part of the process and to be changed by the process, not passive recipients but participants.

 

This month I have been reading, The Half Has Never Been Told, a story about the formation of the US on the backs and bodies of black men and women. My heart broke and continues to break as I read the vivid descriptions of the death and despair visited on all those people, as I read how they would sing themselves back to life, dare to hope again and again, dare to see themselves as so much more than what their abusers told them they were. That they were truly beloved children of God, holy and sacred people, cherished and loved.

 

It’s the image of men and women picking cotton under brutal conditions but nonetheless singing gently, over and over again, to a young girl, a new arrival in the cotton fields, who’s despair at having been sold away from her family, at being brutalized and having no hope of rescue, threatened to drown her under the hot sun. She was more dead than alive. Yet they sing to her, gently, persistently, calling her to come out of the tomb, day after day, until she too sings, a corpse pulled back to life. “Where are you Liza Jane?” they sang, “come back to us, come home Liza Jane.”

 

This is resurrection. This is new life. The first strangled bits of song to pass her lips, new life, hope, an inescapable freedom, being born again under the unseeing eye of the overseer. And it does not matter if this worldly power shows up as overseer, Roman centurion, ISIS, or SS guard, it is a power that breaks one. It is power over others and it is a power that does not see or recognize the subversive power of love, of Christ and resurrection.

 

Resurrection is not power over but that gentle, persistent thread of hope that refuses to give in to despair. This is not the walking dead resurrection, an insistence that the body still move and act, but a life fully lived, accepting the fullness of mortality and yes this means saying yes to death also. How many of us live a life half there? How many pull back in fear, in despair, in shock, at the horrors of life? Unwilling to say yes, this too, to all that comes, to all that might be, with a life fully lived.

 

Last week Humans of New York, a facebook page that in a truly gracious manner sees and recognizes all the incredible people of New York, featured a man who, after the death of his wife during childbirth, became stuck in the horror and fear that he would lose his daughter too. “I was unable to really be with her,” he said. “Every moment of my time with her I was afraid, afraid that I would lose her too and I missed a lot of moments that way.” That is, until he experienced a resurrection himself, till he moved past fear recognizing that his loss, his fear were keeping him from actually being with his daughter and he began to say “yes this too,” to the whole realm of possibility. Yes I may lose my daughter but right here, right now, I will be with her, and I will not allow my fear and my loss to stop that. Resurrection happens. It comes. We are a resurrection people.

 

If forgiveness releases us from the sting of the past, then resurrection releases us from the sting of the present, the fear of the future. We are released from the destructive power of pain and loss, of degradation and poverty, of isolation and anonymity. If forgiveness releases us from the evils we have done, resurrection releases us from the evils visited upon us through no fault of our own. We are given new hope, new life, that we might be able to continue, to live again. Resurrection looks to the future, to who we might be, to who we are called to be.

 

It is in recognition that some losses are too great to be compensated for that we turn to resurrection. There is no compensation that will make good some losses, only resurrection, only salvation can redeem these losses. God has promised to wipe every tear and we, as resurrection people, hold God to this promise, that all such loss will be redeemed, not compensated for, but redeemed, made good. This is the glory of resurrection, this is what it means to return to life, to live again, to be freed, not only from all that you have done, but from all that has happened to you.

 

Resurrection might also be a trembling, initial attempt to live again. Like Etty Hillesum singing on the train as it bore her to Auschwitz, knowing what was waiting at the end of the line. Surely there must have been tears along with the song. In opposition to all the powers of the world that told her she, and those like her, were nothing, she sang. Surely there must have been trembling now and then, but still Etty sang, still Etty dropped that last notecard from the train car as it pulled out, “We left singing” she wrote. Resurrection happens. But I suspect that it is not always the same. It is not always that bright burst of new life but sometimes a trembling, weak kneed step towards new life. It the insistence on being fully alive even through death and loss.

 

As resurrection people we are not asked to pay in religious dues through our prayers and attendance at church, in hopes of an afterlife reward but to live our lives fully right here, right now, allowing God to bring us back to life, right here, right now! To live as if all that we are and do matters, to live as if death, loss, and pain do not have the last word, because when we live as if it does, then our lives become small and timid, and we are not meant to be small and timid.

 

As a resurrection people we are asked to live fully by taking up our cross, by saying “Yes, this too,” to all the suffering, loss and pain, by singing to the lost souls, “Liza Jane, where are you?” by throwing those bold notes out the sides of the cargo car. We are most fully alive when we live for others, when we love greatly and without fear. When we love until it heals and we don’t stop until it does. We may step toward life with trembling and weak knees but we are called like Lazarus from the tomb to step forward, live more fully, be more alive, do not be afraid, do not withhold your heart. This is resurrection! To be called back to life when hope is impossible! To live anyway, to sing like Liza Jane in the fields or Etty in the cattle car. This is resurrection! To throw off the chains of trauma and pain and loss and live with joy in one’s heart anyway! In the midst of the world with all its difficulties and need, love and live fully, anyway, that we might be true children of the resurrection!

 

We are a resurrection people! Not the small and timid living in fear of loss and trauma but the radical, wild, unpredictable people of God! No wonder the powers of the world fear us. Those who are not afraid, who are known by their joy and their love, love which is not afraid!

 

This is the resurrection of our spirits and our hope. Easter invites us to let go of our fear and celebrate a love stronger than hate, a hope stronger than despair, a light stronger than darkness, a goodness stronger than evil.