Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Horticulture for soul soil

"Behold the sower went out to sow..." Thus began Jesus ministry of teaching in parables, using the common things of the earth to teach the profound mysteries of eternity. Many of us read this parable lightly, having heard it since we were little children, and perhaps having planted a seed or two in soil, in little paper cups in Sunday school. But as I'm pondering the possibility of tearing a big tree out of my front yard and creating a living and thriving garden space instead, I've been thinking a lot about soil over the past weeks, and these thoughts have brought important light to the parable, light that I'd not considered previously.

Before I can understand what this parable is really about, I find it helpful to name what it's not about:

1. It's not about the sower - There's no problem with the sower of the seeds. Of course, this simply means the good news of Christ's invitation to embrace and know life is doing just fine, going out into all the world. While some might care to debate this, the argument is quickly over as we see that absolutely every event in history has the potential of declaring the reality of God's love. Beauty and blessing are intended to point us to Christ. Suffering and ugliness show us our need for a savior. The aching and longing for eternity that CS Lewis describes in "Surprised by Joy" invites us to life. The Bible explicitly invites. Creation declares God's glory and character. Shoot, even movies and music of every stripe can have the effect of calling us to something higher if we'll let them. As the Psalmist says, "His voice has gone out into all the earth."

People who argue that God needs to show the world more revelation are, according to this parable, missing the point.

2. It's not about the seed - Maybe you've planted a garden at some point in your life and you did everything right but the reality was that, sadly, nothing came of it. There's always a chance it was the seed that was the problem, because when the seed is bad, all the preparation and receptivity in the world simply won't bring life where there's no potential for life. But Jesus is telling us, in this story, that the problem isn't with the seed. The seed carries within it the potential for an abundance of life, so much so that beauty displaces ugliness, love displaces hate, and strength castes out weakness, wherever the seed takes root and grows. This, of course, has proven to be true down through the centuries, as the preponderance of hospitals, schools, clinics, reconciliation ministries, housing projects, prison ministries, justice ministries related to slavery, and so many more declare: the seed will bring life!

3. It's about the soil - If there's no problem with the seed, and no problem with the sower, it's clear that the problem is in the soil. That would be you and me friends - we're the soil. This would be depressing news indeed if we believed that there was nothing we could do to prepare the soil of our heart to better receive God's seed. I know strict Calvinists who believe precisely that, believe that we have no power whatsoever to prepare the soil of our hearts to receive what God has to offer, because our hearts are incapable of ever choosing wisely. The problem with this line of thinking is that, if it were true, all the exhortations in the Bible about caring for our hearts, guarding our hearts, choosing life, seeking God, and loving God would be pointless noise, like telling a man with no hands that the key to really living is to play Beethoven Piano Sonatas.

But of course, Jesus does tell us to follow. He does invite anyone who is thirsty to come and drink. He does invite us to choose life. Unless all these invitations are entirely bogus, it appears that we do have some role to play in preparing the soil of our hearts. There are choices we can make that lead to life.

This is what the book O2: Breathing New Life into Faith is all about. If our heart is soil, we're invited to be horticulturists, caring for this soil that the seed which will be sown will be fruitful. We do this by developing intentional habits of silence, prayer, Bible reading, solitude, sabbath rest, generosity, and more. After all, the sower will sow; we know that. The seed will be good; we know that too. All that remains is for the seed to find good soil.

It's the state our heart soil that determines whether, during this Advent season, we'll be Herod (hating Jesus), the Shepherds (seeking, seeing, declaring) or the materialist masses (ignoring Jesus as the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth take over the show).

It's your soil. Get it ready.


At 16/12/08 18:31, Blogger Odyssey said...

This particular parable has played quite a promonent role in my spiritual growth over the past couple of years as it has been a primary battlefield between myself and one of those strict Calvinists (a friend of mine). You rightly judge that he would vehemently disagree with your premise that we can affect the soil (I prefer dirt) that is our life. But as you view the wholeness of scripture it becomes plain that we have choices to make. Further it seems to have become plain to me that everything works on our dirt. In fact I believe the reconciliation between the Calvinist and everyone else is precisely that God has engineered all of His creation to bear on our dirt and work to cultivate it into rich, fertile soil able to grow His seed of Truth. One of our own greatest discoveries in life is to realize what we are (dirt!) and allow His cultivation in our life. I'm not sure how much we are able to improve the quality of our soil beyond acknowledging who and what we are and allowing the Gardener to work. I believe that when God knows our soil is fertile is our moment of rebirth, at which we can then repent and be saved. Those who remain hard (the road), susceptible to the Devil's snatch (the birds) or swayed by the cares of this world (the thorns) have no hope of rebirth because the seed will die in their soil. Perhaps the single thing that God cannot do is grow His seed no matter the soil it's planted in. Something that makes Calvinist's heads explode!

At 18/12/08 17:00, Blogger LadyBee said...

I love it and am so thankful for the experience I have almost weekly at Bethany of having scriptures I've read and heard preached on for decades take on a whole new meaning for me! I have never heard this passage applied to any other than unbelievers hearing the gospel message of salvation. It has never occured to me that it could apply to the believer continually receiving Jesus' message. Not that I haven't been doing that anyway--I just never took that away from this particular passage before. Thank you.

At 19/12/08 06:16, Anonymous Graham C. said...

As someone who is wrestling with their Calvinist upbringing I found this a hard blog. I feel like God makes many exhortations of us in the Bible that are impossible to us on Earth, like a Beethoven sonata to an amputee ("Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect") or at least impossible without God's intervention ("love thy neighboor as thyself.") I believe God calls us to these things, including the tending of our hearts, that are impossible without Him to remind us of our utter dependance on Him. Somehow in my mind I don't see this as an absolution of my own responsibility towards spiritual growth, but perhaps logicically this is where Calvinism breaks down...

At 19/12/08 08:39, Blogger Odyssey said...

To Graham C. -

I understand your Calvinist wrestling. I too was raised in the mine set that all is predetermined and foreordained. The truth is their is really no other option. God is all knowing and all powerful and would therefore know every decision and action that everyone (even every creature and all of His creation) would make before He spoke it into existence. Trying to close that gap between God's sovereignty and our responsibility is a difficult leap. The friend I mentioned calls that a "perceived tension" in our inability to comprehend. That's a big gap that for me our "perceived tension" is inadequate to fill.

I will give you the simple picture of how I reconciled that tension. To reduce the chasm to a manageable size my studies brought me to the place of envisioning God in His omnipotence and omniscience crafting all of creation so that everything in His perfect creation bears the full glory of God on each of us. Since He created us as unique individuals, we each need a unique history for His message to have maximum impact on our lives to bring us to Him. The narrow gap for me comes down to the mystery of God being unable (in my picture) to create beings that will all choose Him. But if we are made in His image, then perhaps it is not too far a stretch. His greatest attribute that we may hold is wanting to be like God in creating our own universe and wanting to be worshiped. Unfortunately only He holds that position and deservedly so.

But back to my picture... In God's perfect foreknowledge He created a universe in which He works everything for our salvation, but in which He also made all the options for each person's own personality and history. How to explain the world we must live in is the great wild card in the story. But since God is perfect and His plan must also be perfect, I can only conclude that it is the only and best way for us (mankind) to understand the love of God. In fact we demanded (first Adam and Eve, then all that follow) this course for our salvation. God always knew what it would take and for myself that makes Christ's coming and dying for me all the greater. If we think the plan unfair it that it places us in such a broken world, how much more unfair is it for God to have to take on flesh and die for us?

He does hold all the cards, but at the same time He has given us all He has to give for our salvation. Pity that from our perspective so many fall short. But I trust in God's sovereignty that no one is lost unjustly. As the old saying goes when we get to heaven there will be three things we're surprised to find there... those that aren't there we thought would be, those that are there we never dreamed could be and that we ourselves are there.

At 19/12/08 09:15, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

Talk to any Christian about the trinity, asking for an explanation of how Christ could be fully human and fully divine at the same time, especially when it says in Philippians 2 that Jesus "emptied Himself" when he took on the form of a man and this is the answer you get when the lame analogies about the Godhead being like ice/water/steam, or yolk/white/shell: "It's a mystery" we all say, and fully expect that we will suspend our rationality for a moment and buy it. I DO buy, so please don't miss the point, which is to say that somehow, when it comes to the relationship of sovereignty and free will, we find ourselves unable to call it a mystery, choosing instead to land in one camp or the other. I think this is because the church didn't really start debating this stuff until the enlightenment, and by then mystery had become out of vogue. We needed to define everything rationally, which is hysterical to me because the Bible is filled with things that defy rational explanation.

So I say to both my Calvinist friends: You have free will. You make real choices; and God is in charge. It's a mystery.

To my Arminius fans I say: God is in control of the universe. He does what He wants; and you have free will. It's a mystery.

Can we embrace both halves?

At 19/12/08 21:41, Anonymous Graham said...

Thanks Richard, this helps. I'm wondering if my version of Calvinism deep down is an excuse for spiritual laziness...but you are right I am willing to except mystery in some areas, but not others...hmmm


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