This past Sunday, I was attending a new faith community in my neighborhood when I heard Scripture and a sermon that helped something very important click for me.
It’s a story Jesus tells about a sower sowing seed. Jesus tells the story, then He unpacks it for his followers a little later. You can read it here. Please do. It’s Mark 4:1-20.
The day before I heard this Scripture at church, JUSTembrace held our 3rd annual Fall Festival. (Click for some wonderful photos!)
What happened at JUSTembrace on Saturday, October 26th, 2013, was tremendously impacting. There were hundreds of people – men, women, families, young children, homeless, mentally ill, affluent, college students – all who were interacting in a very human and joyful environment. While we can’t remove every barrier, many were gone and guests were encouraged to allow the common ground of humanity to be enough to interact with each other on. And it happened. For hours. It happened with the set up crew and the tear down crew. It happened in the conversations had in the yard. It happened at the carnival games manned by community members. It happened at the drink table and the popcorn bar. It happened over and over again. People were deemed enough, simply because they were people. Not because they had a need and not because they had a role to play. They were giving and receiving value based upon shared humanity. That’s it. THAT is HUGE.
A few hours after the Fall Festival ended, I found myself alone and unable to process my own intense feelings from the day, so I clicked on Netflix and surfed Facebook – forcing those intense feelings into hiding. I knew exactly what I was doing too. I knew I was keeping at bay the sights, sounds and experiences of the day that were full of overwhelming beauty. I knew I was numbing my feelings because I was afraid of them overwhelming me.
(Don’t worry, I’ve got an amazing counselor helping me learn how to deal with the good and bad feelings I push aside. That’s why I’m so willing to share this. I think it’s important and something we ALL struggle with. The good and bad of life are full of intense emotional realities. Staying “present” in them is not easy for anyone.)
I woke up that Sunday morning to a very long and emotional email from one of our collegiate volunteers who really felt his life had changed. Here’s a little quote:
before it was hard to see the people as equals like some of our friends and neighbors that we served was just me knowing in my head that they deserve the same treatment as I would my best friend, therefore I would treat them this way. After getting to know Melvin and others like him I literally have no filter in what I see, its true love for them as my friends as people I can BE MYSELF around, I feel comfortable talking and engaging with people because I know them on that personal level due to being with JE for a long time in addition to eating at the soup kitchen each week.
I got to work today and I was baffled at how I was seeing each person greeting them with a smile, random people on the street. Last year I would leave JE and feel completely different and go “ok back to the real world” but it dawned on me that I truly felt exactly the same between work, the train, and at the JE party which either means I have radically changed my view of humanity. There is no other conclusion and I cant stop thinking about it, it brings me such joy and peace and yet reminds me of the suffering. It pains my heart greatly in ways I know you can imagine 10 fold.
My first thoughts, I’m sorry to say, were cynical. This “kid” is having spiritual high’s at JUSTembrace. I’ve been there – youth camp, youth retreats, youth conventions, revivals. The highs and lows of evangelical Christianity have deeply scared our spirituality I believe. To see this trend begin to happen here, at JUSTembrace, unsettled me. “How do we lead these young people? How do we guide those God is entrusting to us? How do we help them grow healthy and not allow JUSTembrace to become another spiritual experience they are bitter and resentful towards one day?” The truth is, there are already plenty of people who have become disenchanted with JUSTembrace. There are a few handfuls of folks who don’t look on us kindly yet were once welcomed at our table, spouting life change afterwards. I want to do everything in my ability to keep that from happening. There’s also the issue of my own coping. How can I keep myself from becoming cold-hearted to the beauty around me? I don’t want to become a shell of a person leading something miraculous. I don’t want to be so overwhelmed that I hide from my emotions after every event. These questions and thoughts were filling my mind as I rode my bike to Church that morning.
I cried through the whole service at church.
The story Jesus told about the seed and the different kinds of soil, I’d heard it dozens of times growing up – I’m sure I even preached on it at one point. On this particular morning, I realized that the answer to my fears and concerns was a soil issue.
Growing up in Upstate NY, we had to work SO hard in our garden because of all the rocks. My dad built this huge sifter, and we’d have to load buckets of soil onto the sifter to get the big rocks out AFTER dad had already taken the till to the hard packed soil. Not only that, but we had to do this year after year because the rocks just kept coming!
I’m so grateful for that experience growing up because it’s a wonderful companion to the story Jesus tells. When we identify with the hard path, the rocky soil, or the weed infested soil, we aren’t STUCK there. In fact, to get that good and healthy soil Jesus talks about in Mark 4, requires a tremendous amount of attention and work. No good soil comes without work – unless it’s packaged and sold.
A wonderful companion Scripture is in John 15 where Jesus tells us that He is the vine and God our father is the gardener, and we are the branches. Isn’t this a lovely pairing? Our soil is the key to fruit – and we have a Heavenly Gardener who is committed to working our soil and tending our branches as we ABIDE in Him!
I got the word “Abide” tattooed on my foot a few years ago because of this reality that I so often forget. The Lord continues to remind me that abiding in him and trusting the sometimes very painful work of the Gardener to prune my branches, till the hard soil of my heart, sift the rocks out that keep me from growing, and weed the garden of my life so that THEN I can live an abundantly fruitful life!
Lasting fruit does not come cheap. There’s no spiritual hot-house. It’s hard and painful and requires coming face to face with the things that threaten to pound our soil tight, or the rocks that impeded our roots or the weeds that reach up to strangle us. But lasting fruit is what God intends to produce through us if we are willing.
This revelation does not keep me from hiding my emotions, or watching entirely too much Netflix instead of just thinking the barrage of thoughts I keep at bay. It does, however, give me some courage to allow God to continue to work at my soil and prune my branches and work in me. That is a never-ending process – and while Netflix might be a rock today, next season it’ll be something else. Abiding in Christ is the posture that keeps the Gardener hard at work.
So, for those who come to JUSTembrace and feel like their lives are being changed, I indeed have follow-up wisdom for them rooted in this imagery of soil and fruit. The seeds that the Holy Spirit scatters at JUSTembrace events are a gift to us all, but the real work happens before and after as we make choices in abiding in Christ and submitting to a loving Gardener.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.