Good Soil in the Badlands


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.

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