Good soil

The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 7/22/2018.

A sower goes out into a field and scatters seeds. Some of them fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Some fall into thin soil and grow for a bit, but without any roots, they wither in the sun. Some fall and take root among thorns, which smother them and keep them from yielding fruit. And some fall on good soil, where they bloom a hundredfold.

Jesus says that this image illustrates how God’s word is received among different kinds of people. Some can’t or won’t hear the word at all. Some hear it and try to take it heart, but lack follow-through. Some try to listen to it, but are overwhelmed by the pleasures and cares of this world. And some hear it and live it out successfully.

That’s what Jesus says about this image. But what can we say?

I find it important to remember that our concern here should not be for the seed—for the seed of God will flourish where it will, even outside of institutions and churches; even outside the Society of Friends. Rather, our concern should be for the soil—that is, us. Are we fitting vessels for the Holy Spirit?

For many of us, our predicament today seems most like the soil with the thorns: We want to draw closer to God and walk in God’s ways, but there is so much bad news, so many obligations, so many distractions. We can be led astray, sometimes without even knowing it. The founder of our movement, George Fox, once said that “whatever ye are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone.” We can be addicted to many things: not just, say, alcohol or gambling, but ideas, both about the world and about ourselves. I have learned from conversations with LGBTQ Christians, for example, that it is often the most progressive members of the faith than can be the most hurtful on questions of queer identity, because they have imagined themselves to be not only in the right on this matter, but on the right side of history. How, then, could they saying or doing things that alienate queer people?

This, then, is the task: To hold firm and not be deceived, even by our own sense of what is right; to keep the thorns at bay. But unlike other tasks, this is no feat of craft or organization: to be good soil, we need merely to be of service.

"The Parable of the Sower" by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1538)
“The Parable of the Sower” by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1538)

Unless we are called

The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 4/8/2018.

The apostle Thomas hears a report that Jesus, who was killed, has somehow returned. Refusing to believe this, he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week passes. Thomas and the other disciples are gathered, and Jesus appears among them; and he invites Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and the wound on his side. But he doesn’t have to: what he sees is enough for him to say, “My Lord and my God!”

We each have ideas about what the search for truth, for meaning, will be like — we know, even if tacitly, what to expect. Maybe we’ll be better versions of ourselves. Maybe we’ll be free of all the things that weigh us down. However we think of it, it’s common to fall into the assumption that this search is all one-way: it is we who will be seeking, we who will be finding. But the reality is that our intentions do not count for nearly as much as we might like to imagine. We know this to be true in other parts of our lives. Our upbringing, our socioeconomic status, the moment in history we occupy — all these things do more to determine our circumstances than anything we do by our own will. Even within our bodies, conscious, intentional thought counts for very little; most of the time, we act on instinct and unconscious patterns we are scarcely aware of, if at all.

It is all the more so with God. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” says Jesus elsewhere. So it was for Abraham and Sarah, and later for the people of Israel: their choices were more about responding to God’s call or God’s action in the world, rather than them deciding what they wanted and going out to get it. Framed this way, a little humility is in order: for all our talents, truth and meaning will not be present to us unless we are called to see it. Even if we know what we’re looking for — the marks of the nails in his hands, and the wound in his side — we are likely to be unprepared when we actually find it. This is one reason why we should cherish the Quaker practice of expectant waiting, for it recognizes that we must stand aside from our usual habits and listen to the One who invites us to new life.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio (1601-02; Oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 57 1/2 in; Neues Palais, Potsdam)

After Charlottesville

The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 8/13/2017.

Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

1 John 2:9-11 (NRSV)

I have always been puzzled by the duality at play in this letter, as well as in the other letters and gospel attributed to the same author. It is John who tells us that the Light of Christ shines in every person, that God is love and that everyone who loves knows God. Yet it is this same John who says that if you hate your brother or sister, you are a murderer and the kin of Cain and the devil. It seems that, as great as the love of God may be, so too is the condemnation for those who oppose that love.

In the wake of the eruption of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville yesterday, we face two temptations. The first is to give in to the kind of hate we saw on display there, or to let hate have the last word. I admit that I let the phrase “goosestepping morons” escape my lips watching the alt-right marchers on TV, and that was among the milder things that I said. Yet I cannot but hope that those in thrall to white supremacist ideology might find a way out of that trap.

The other temptation, though, is more insidious, particularly for peace churches like the Society of Friends: namely, to not see the darkness for what it is. So long as these racist and fascist elements in our country feel that they can espouse their hatred with impunity, so long as they enjoy the sympathy of our president and his advisors, so long as the structures of racial oppression that enable them are left untouched, the love of God is aggrieved. Our empathy for whatever pain these white supremacists may be in should not eclipse our empathy for those who have suffered and died at their hands, nor should it be construed as a passive “niceness” that fails to resist what they stand for.

If God is love, then love is the most powerful force in the universe. Let us live in that power and hope that it can bring those who are in the squalor of darkness into the splendor of the light.

Pittsburghers gathered together in Schenley Plaza to mourn for the dead and injured while organizing against hate, bigotry, white supremacy, and so much more. Photo by Mark Dixon. License is Creative Commons with Attribution.