June 17, The mystery of growth

The mystery of growth

Mark 4:26-34

 

Recently I have been struggling with a deep feeling of impatience. I feel unsettled. I find myself looking around and thinking: Is this it? Isn’t there more – more to be done? More to be achieved? More to be accomplished? What’s still possible? What’s next?

I can’t decide precisely what those feelings are about, but I suspect it may be the convergence of several things: Jim’s retirement, which has left me feeling a little bit more isolated and maybe even a little bit more lonely; my own recognition that within another couple of months I will have reached the fifteen year mark here at the church, and realizing that milestone feels significant to me because if I think about how much “career” I have left in me, it’s probably around another fifteen years. It could also have something to do with my own middle-agedness (by all calculations, definitely closer now to my death than my birth), and it may also have something to do with that thing that I suspect plagues all pastors from time to time: The question, Does what I am doing, does what we are doing in the life of the church make any difference, is it moving us in any important direction, is it (in any way) changing the world (much less changing individual lives)?

So, no wonder I feel unsettled and even a bit discontent, right? When things seem like they are sliding away, when energy and effort doesn’t seem like it’s being returned, when you want movement and you feel instead like things are stagnant, well then…

And then there’s this: If you hold any kind of discontent close to your heart, no matter how justified or valid it might be, it can bloom into discouragement or even frustration.

So, what to do with such feelings? Well, it’s tempting to try to park them at someone else’s doorstep. If only other people would care more and do more. If only there were fewer complaints and more positive responses. If only our congregation were increasing in participation and connection and engagement. If only there were fewer deaths and less fragility. If only the denomination weren’t such a mess. If only, if only…

And I know we all do that: trying to park our feelings and frustrations at someone else’s doorstep. It’s a strong temptation.

But another option when we are feeling discontent or unsettled is of course to try to understand and then own any of these issues that actually do belong to us. So, if I am dissatisfied, then I need to think about why that may be from inside myself. That is, rather than focusing on whether or not someone else is measuring up, I need to consider what of my own perspective is limited or skewed.

And there are lots of possibilities in that regard. In the case of having the vocational “blahs” maybe it’s a matter of my idealism being too strong. Or maybe I have put too much stock in my own expectations or even more likely, in my own sense of responsibility and control.  Maybe I want too much, and so I’m not letting enough things ‘be what they will be.’ And maybe with fifteen years in one place, since I am now always treading into the unfamiliar territory of greater and greater longevity, I shouldn’t be too surprised that I am continually caught up in the questions of “what next”?

That’s my stuff of the moment, but you have your stuff as well -- your questions about life-stage, about purpose, about vocation, about effectiveness and energy, about what you have or haven’t accomplished, about belonging, about your place in the community, about power and powerlessness, about present and future and how the two are connected, about decision-making, about goals and dreams, about whether tomorrow will be better than today or worse than today, about growth and about decline.

You have your own questions that I am sure in some ways touch or even run parallel to mine – questions like: Am I effective? Am I doing what I should be doing? Can I continue to connect with other people for a good and meaningful purpose? Who are my partners? Am I making best use of my fleeting time and my limited opportunities?

I’ve been thinking about all those things recently…and then the other day I walked through the vestibule, past the table with all the Vacation Bible school name tags on it. I paused to look through the lists of participants. Many names I knew, but some I didn’t. I wondered: Where did some of these children come from? Would I know them if I saw them? Some of course I do know, but some I don’t.

And then it occurred to me that while fifteen years feels like it is in some ways no time at all, because even a stretch of that length can seem to go by in the blink of an eye, to every child on that Bible School list, fifteen years is an eternity, more than a lifetime. Of course, I know that. You do too. But it reminded me that time has this way of being everything and nothing, all at once; both forever and the blink of an eye.

And when it feels like time is getting away from us and we wonder whether we’ve made good use it, it may be important to acknowledge that whether we want to be or not, we are culturally oriented toward experiencing the passage of time as something best measured by measurable result. That is, we feel that we need something to show for it – some change, some growth, some accomplishment, even.  

And not only that, but we might even imagine that growth is something we accomplish, something to which we contribute, maybe even something we can control. After all, we are  practiced in counting things and measuring things and moving things and pushing things. We set goals and hope for results. We are disappointed with less, when we had hoped for more. We get depressed when people lose interest in the work that interests us.

On the one hand, we’ve heard over and over that its not accomplishment but faithfulness that matters. And we want to believe that, but it’s hard to keep our optimism when we live in a community that in many ways seems more marginal, less youthful, more fragile, less ‘impactful’ as time goes by.  

But then you walk by the nametag table for Vacation Bible School (or even better sit in the sanctuary on Thursday evening for the closing program) and instead of counting the numbers of nametags, you look at the names (and the smiling faces!) and you have to think to yourself: where did these little ones come from and where are they headed next and what of what happens between us and them, whether for a week of Bible school or for a whole childhood experience of being part of the church community, is going to take root in them and grow out into the world? And what will that look like for them, in them, in another ten or twenty or fifty years?

And that kind of wondering is made more poignant in light of what is happening at the border with children separated from their parents, stripped of community.

But if you think about that – if you think about the thirty-some children who were here last week and the thirty-some adults and youth who guided them – you have to admit that what we do together to try to grow into God’s realm really is a mystery. It’s not a production line. We aren’t making widgets. And we aren’t winning or losing a competition. We’re just planting seeds.

Are we the ones with the best seeds? The most productive ones? The disease resistant, drought resistant, super-producing, hybrid ones? Who knows. The answer is beyond our knowing, because our work is equal parts effort and then waiting. What’s five or ten or even fifteen years as measured against a lifetime? As measured against eternity? And how good are we at not only planting seeds, but waiting for the soil to do its good work?

Last week I quoted Jeanne Choy Tate from the “Living by the Word” column in the Christian Century. She is helpful to me again this week. As she considers this week’s scripture text she writes:

In these troubled times, I find myself living in a state of constant tension, wanting to do something to precipitate change. But these seem to me to be fallow times. In fallow times, a farming family moves indoors, closer to the hearth, for a slower period of quieter activity.

These days I am drawn to neither the role of sower nor of seed. (she continues) So, (in this parable) I find some assurance in this image of the seed and soil interacting while we humans sleep. If the kingdom of God is like a seed, it is also like the soil that embraces and blankets the seed, protecting it from the elements through fallow times until its time for fruition has come.

I identify with that first sentence especially, except instead I would say it this way: In these uncertain times, (rather then her words “troubled times”) I find myself living in a state of constant tension, wanting to do something to precipitate change. That urge to make growth happen, to get a “result,” is so embedded in our psychology, isn’t it? If only we had the key that unlocks success!

Tate continues: I see myself in the soil, too. I am the land lying in wait, longing for renewal. She says: I hold seeds in trust till their time has come, till the tiny green shoot of plant erupts from its protective soil to unfold into the blessing of sunlight, rain, and life-giving air. All in God’s time.

I have to confess, she does better than I do in arriving at that place of trust, in affirming: All in God’s time. But then she too confesses: During barren times, I search endlessly to discern where the seeds of God’s reality have already been planted. It takes work to trust that each seed contains the energy it needs to become whatever it was intended to be. It is not easy to trust that the future is even now waiting to unfold according to God’s promise sealed within it. (Christian Century, 5/23/18, p. 23)

I should know better of course; better than to think that I or we actually make such things happen, actually have anything at all to do with the mystery of growth – I should know better than that because I live with growing children – children who are growing and changing and developing – emotionally, psychologically, physically, relationally – all the time. And honestly, when it comes to their growing, I do little except listen, touch, feed, shelter, guide and love. I do not make the changes in them. I do not motivate their growth. I just bear witness to it, and even that, I sometimes fail to do well, but they keep growing anyway! The seeds produce fruit.

It may surprise you to hear me say this, but I am still astonished that my son has grown taller than me. I knew it would happen. I literally could see it happening before my very eyes – day by day, week by week, I could look him in the eye and then a little less so and finally it was easier for him to kiss me on the forehead than look me in the eye when we stand face to face…and still it caught me by surprise.

I act as though – I even believe – that I am waiting for growth, yearning for growth, and then I am surprised when it sneaks up on me and walks on past me. Why is that? Is it because the most amazing and grace-filled examples of growth and change almost always have nothing to do with my effort, my competence, my power?

Why was I surprised that there were names on the Bible School list that I hadn’t seen before? Did I imagine that I know everyone and everything, or that I should? Children are being born and growing up all the time. People visit, show up for the first time, bring their children or grandchildren, community members dip in and out. People are coming and going. Lives are changing and growing and being shaped and re-shaped all the time. The church is folding in and then folding out. And the community is fluid in its growth and change because what happens in the dark and nourishing depths of the soil is a mystery, and because more than we know or understand or want to admit, it is “all in God’s time.” 

Maybe I should be (or could be) less concerned about accomplishment and progress and more committed to wonder and grace. What’s next? Maybe I should be asking that question with less anxious urgency and more commitment to the mystery of it all. All in God’s time.

But in order to do that, I need help – and maybe you need help too – help to be cured of the urge to be effective and important and relevant and accomplished and impactful and so on and so forth. I need help – and maybe you need help too – with impatience and discontent. I need help – and maybe you need help too – with reluctance to trust both the timing and the mystery of the way God works.

    So, it’s best if we listen again to what Jesus says: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

 

Let us pray:

 

We pray for trust, dear God,

and patience,

and hope.

 

We thank you for small seeds,

and small children

and small moments of wonder and possibility.

 

We pray for a spirit less inclined

to compete or compare,

than to wait in faith.

 

We ask that you would teach us to delight

in mystery,

in uncertainty,

in surprise.

 

Time is your gift to us, O God.

It goes by whether we mark it or not,

but always there are grace-reminders in the passage of time

and as we float down the ever-moving river of life,

we dare not lose sight of all thosde gifts and miracles

that line the banks of our journey.

 

We pray in the Spirit of the Christ

who floats with us.

Amen.

 

Benediction:

 

All in God’s time –

Words to invite our patience and trust.

In the deep, rich soil of God’s grace and love,

Something good is happening;

Something good is growing.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

June 17, 2018