A friend of mine got a letter from the national office of one the major po****l parties last week. He is not a member of that party, and is in fact very concerned about where that party is heading. So he wrote them a carefully worded letter back, full of passion, vim and vigor, which he then posted on Facebook. Now I am not here this morning to talk about the po****l party, the letter he got or the letter he wrote back, but about the last sentence in his Facebook post. “I am down to my last 3 days at school and looking forward to more time in our greenhouse, watching the plants grow…”
Receiving the one letter and writing the response were clearly stressful for him, and to alleviate the stress he is planning a period of plant watching. For him, getting back to something organic, something slow, something that sums up the essence of natural, is a way for him to relieve stress. I understand that. There is something peaceful about gardening, about putting a seed or a plant in the soil, watering it, making sure it has sun, maybe a little fertilizer, and watching it grow.
Of course anyone who has ever gardened knows it is not all peace and serenity. There is a lot of work that goes into gardening, and when, for the third year in a row, your cucumbers don’t cuke, or your beans just ain’t gonna be, or you get root rot, aphids, earwigs or any number of maladies and pests that inhabit gardens, it can be anything but a serene experience. Gardening is a lot of work.
But still I understand where my friend is coming from. In spite of all the hassles that come with gardening, there is something about it changes the pace of our lives and our expectations, something that makes us take the long view, something that teaches us patience and tender care, and an better understanding and appreciation for where we are.
There is a lot in the Bible about growing things. The Psalms liken the righteous life to a tree, planted near running water. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit. A lot of Jesus’ parables were based on agricultural metaphors. You have the parable of the sower, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the wheat and the tares, the parable of the budding fig tree, the parable of the bare fig tree, and the two parables we heard in this morning’s Gospel lesson, the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of growing things.
That last one, the parable of growing things, is found only in the Gospel of Mark. It is one the least known parables, but I think one of the most endearing. It is really simple. A man plants seed. It grows, sprout, stalk, head, and then full grain. The farmer has no idea how it grows, he just knows it does. Then it comes to fruition and is harvested. Simple. But a powerful metaphor.
We can start to get a handle on its meaning by saying we are like the seed that is planted in the ground. As a plant grows up, it changes, from seedling to stalk to full grown plant. Then it changes more. It blooms, then it produces fruit. It takes a lot of work to nurture a seedling. From birth to death, we change. We start off as seedlings-infants—when we require a lot of nurture and care, and we slowly grow up over the years, until we get to the point in our lives when we start producing fruit, when we hit our productive years. How does that happen? Scientists who are looking at the process of aging, so they can reverse it, are stuck on this. They can see the effects of aging, but they can do nothing to stop it. They don’t really understand what causes the effects.
Our spiritual lives are like the planted seed. I can tell you have been a pastor for many years, and I have watched people grow spiritually, I have even been a part of their spiritual growth, but I can’t tell you how it happens. There are things I can do and they can do to help our spiritual growth, but how we grow spiritually—that is a mystery. How is it that one day someone who has never been to church before suddenly shows one Sunday, and the next and the next? How is it that a person who I suspect has slept through 90 percent of my sermons is now sitting up in anticipation of learning something, and now peppers me with questions after the service? How is that that the person who has been struggling with aspects of their life, or their spiritual life, suddenly seems to make a breakthrough? They grow, but I know not how.
So I resonate with the parable. There are times when I have grown, and I can’t tell you how.
How we grow spiritually is a mystery. But thing is, we do grow. And just like a garden, where I cannot tell you what makes my peppers grow blossoms, I can tell you what I can do in general terms to take care of the plants under my care.
When our first Mother’s Day in Medford rolled around, the Redhead and I did what we normally did on Mother’s Day. We went to a greenhouse and we bought plants for our garden. In Alaska we grew everything in pots, because it was a short growing season, and if you were going to get any tomatoes, you had to bring them inside in late August or early September. But at our first house in Medford we had a grand garden space.
Not only did we do what we used to do in Alaska, we bought the kinds of plants we used to buy in Alaska. So in mid-May we bought and planted spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and lettuce. By mid-June it had all bolted. We couldn’t plant things in Medford as though we were still in Alaska. We had to adapt our gardening to where we were, not where we came from.
One of the first things about gardening you have to learn is that not every field, nor every climate can grow just any kind of produce. One of the first things I learned about spiritual growth is that what works for me may not work for you.
When I first became a pastor I got a lot of books on spiritual development. Often there were programs attached, where you could do a ten-week study on how to improve your spiritual life, and I tried many of these. I started to notice a pattern. Sometimes the program, the course, the book, whatever it was, would work. I would give it to people, and they would grow spiritually. But then I would take the same program, the same course, the same book, and give it for different people, and it was like pouring salt water on a plant. People didn’t grow. Whatever worked for the last group didn’t always work the next group. Or might try a program and recommend to a pastor because it worked so well in my church, and it would fail miserably for the other pastor. Or vice versa—what worked for them would bore my parishioners to tears.
What makes us grow spiritually? There is really no one thing I can say that will work for all people in all places at all times. Sometimes people need to read the Bible more, sometimes they need to pull back. Sometimes they need to do more acts of services, some people need to do less. Some people need to spend more time alone, and others need to spend more time with other people. Some people need to learn and study more; others already know more than enough, and they need to get out of the books and put what they have learned into practice.
I look out among you, and we are a fairly homogeneous people. We have all chosen this place, this style of worship, this kind of social gathering. And yet what may work for some of you, what may help you grow your spiritual lives, will fall flat with the person sitting behind you.
Or you can say our church is like the seed planted in the ground; the parable works that way too. What works for our church may not work for other churches and vice versa.
The trick, as in gardening, is knowing the soil of soul. And knowing what you want to grow in your soul. We have to know ourselves. I may want to think certain things will work for me, but I have to be honest about who I am. More than once I have had people tell me they have a hard time believing like they used to. As I find out more about them, I usually learn that they had a great spiritual experience years ago, and they are still trying to live off of that. As I talk more I learn they are a different person than they were when they originally had that experience. And so it is no wonder that what worked for them in one period of their live is not as effective today. If they came to faith when they are a young adult, newly married, new baby, fresh start on their career, I am not at all surprised that when they hit midlife, they have different spiritual needs. I don’t eat the same way I ate when I was 20. Back then I would have a cup a coffee after dinner, maybe two. I would snack all day on junk food, I made popcorn every night, sometimes followed by ice cream. I don’t do those things anymore. I need different nourishment now that I am slightly older.
In the same way I cannot replicate the spiritual life I had when I was 20. I am not that person anymore. But I have to know that about myself. I have to have a pretty good idea of who I am today. Not who I want to be, or who I was 20 or 30 years ago. We have to know the unique soil of our souls in order for them to produce spiritual fruit.
Then we have to patient. When you are gardening, if you want a salad for dinner, you don’t just go out and plant lettuce in the morning. A spiritual life that mushrooms quickly is going to decline just as quickly, just like a mushroom. Like any growth of any substance, the growth in our souls is best when it is slow and sure. A little change that occurs regularly over a long period of time is often more substantial than a big change that happens all at once.
The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky recounts in one his novels the story of a man who was taken out to be executed by a firing squad. He was led out in handcuffs, blindfolded, made to stand in front of a wall. The major in charge of the execution said, “READY. AIM…You sentence of death is commuted. You will not be shot today.” Dostoevsky could tell the story so well, because that actually happened to him. Imagine how that experience could change your life. He says that as he was led out, he saw everything in vivid detail. He heard the birds singing, every note. He felt the warm sun on the back of his neck. And when his sentence was commuted, he vowed he would not live life to the fullest. He would take anything for granted any more. But, in a few months, it was as if that had never happened. He quickly went back to his own ways of seeing the world. He took a lot for granted.
The BIG changes aren’t always the most important ones. The really important ones are the little changes we make day by day.
You have to consistent to grow your spiritual life. Ok, so I planted my peppers, and I know I am going to be gone for a week, so instead of giving them a gallon a day like I normally do, on the Sunday before I leave, I pour twenty gallons of water in the soil. It doesn’t work that way! You have to water them every day. In our old garden I would spend two whole days at the beginning of the gardening season pulling out all the weeds that had grown up over the winter. I have to admit, more than once I got a little miffed that I had to spend part of my day off weeding the garden. “I did that, like two months ago! Why do I have to do it now?” Well, because if you want a good garden, you have to be consistent with watering and weeding.
The best way to grow a spiritual life is to be regular and consistent. Spending a weekend a year reading the Bible cover to cover may be a good idea, but frankly reading a little bit every day is going to be much better for you. I met a monk once who told me he read and meditated on a verse from the Gospel of John every day. One verse a day. He was, I think on chapter three when we talked. I mentioned how long it was going to take to get through the entire book, and he said, “My goal is not to finish reading John. My goal is to feed my soul every day.”
And in spite of the fact that it does not seem to be doing much from day to day, you still have to care for it, or you will see it doing a lot of things you don’t want to see it doing—like bolting, or being overtaken by weeds.
So what is one thing, one small thing you can do to improve your spiritual life this week? It does not have to be earth shaking. Maybe you can read one Bible verse a day, like my friend the monk. Maybe spend five minutes talking to God. Maybe you can give up one small thing, or take up one small thing. “I’ll come down and volunteer at the food bank for two hours every month, or every week. Maybe you can start telling the people you love that you love them on a daily basis. Maybe you can spend five minutes a day thinking about how you best serve God and come up with a plan to put that service into action. Maybe you can spend five to ten minutes a day alone in contemplation.
Maybe you can find a book that will nourish your soul, and read from that, ten minutes a day. Maybe do a daily devotional.
What do you need at this stage of your life? What can you do? Whatever you do, it does not need to be an earth-shattering change. It just needs to be one that will a) help your spiritual life, b) be something you can do consistently and c) something designed for YOUR spiritual life, not your neighbor’s, something that fits your soul.
And how can I help you? I said before the basic needs of a spiritual life are common to each individual, but the specific needs are unique to every individual. How can I help you find your way to a deeper spiritual life? What can I do to help water and nurture your soul? Because the last thing I want to say about growing a spiritual life is this; we don’t do it alone. There may be times when we do things by ourselves, but we are part of a spiritual community. That is why we have group Bible studies and book groups, corporate worship, and fellowship activities. You are a part of a spiritual community here.
And as part of the community we grow together. We are all connected. When you grow, that affects your neighbor and when your neighbor grows that affects you.
As Jesus said, the farmer doesn’t know how the crops grow, he just knows they will grow if he does the right things. How we grow spiritually is a mystery. But we do grow. Like a well-tended garden, a well-tended soul produces fruit. We are the crop of God.
May we grow with grace and love.
26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”