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Seeds

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By Josiah* From the April 2014 Beacon

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” –Jesus of Nazareth

“Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” –David


From my earliest memories I’ve been planting seeds: first in the garden plot behind my childhood home in the city, but later on a bigger scale while riding beside my grandpa on the tractor, acres at a time. In the last few years, I’ve been learning a lot more about planting seeds, both wheat and seeds of the Kingdom, and what it means for them both to die in order to produce a harvest.

Planting seeds was an unlikely way God opened opportunities for me to relate to rural men in the area where we work, a mountainous region is home to North Africa’s indigenous people. For about a year, we had been exploring opportunities for rural community development at the invitation of a community leader, but I couldn’t seem to get out of town and into the countryside where I longed to be. It began with a visit from a US agricultural professor who accompanied me on a drive through small villages in the area. He noticed that the hand-cast seeding of local farmers was producing uneven stands of wheat, and he wondered why they were not using mechanical seeders. He recommended that I take soil samples from the area for testing to determine if the soil was being properly fertilized for the crops. These tests led me back to one particular village where I began to ask farmers about their planting practices, and specifically why they didn’t use mechanical seeders even though some had tractors. Farmers offered reasons why they thought mechanical seeders wouldn’t work in that area, and we agreed to partner on wheat trials that compared the two methods. The planting piqued local interest, and a community leader I’d partnered with on the trials organized a cooperative of eight men from the area who would manage a seed drill that the agriculture professor and his friends donated in December 2013, a gift that was linked to monthly training sessions organized through a partnership with a local agriculture professor. As I took soil samples and facilitated seed trials, I consciously evaluated the spiritual soil of the people with whom I interacted, planting Kingdom seeds and following up where there was interest. Encouraging doors have opened to new relationships within the past month.

The Prayer of Oscar Romero

It helps now and then to step back and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, and opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are the workers, not master builders—ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

Quoted in Action in Waiting by Christoph Blumhardt, The Plough Publishing House.

Jesus told several parables that compare the Kingdom of God to seeds (Matt. 13; Mark 4). In the parable of the sower, they represent different human responses to the good news of the Kingdom. In the parables of the mustard and the growing seed, the seed represents the mysterious yet pervasive growth of the Kingdom itself. As in the parable of the sower, most farmers in mountainous areas of North Africa plant by hand-casting seed. They work the ground—often much rockier than my grandpa would have ever bothered to plant—with simple wooden plows pulled by a donkey or two, cast seed on the soil, and then run the plough through the soil again to cover the seeds. But some seed is ploughed too deep and never reaches the light of the sun, and farmers have to plant more seed to compensate for this loss: an extra 45 pounds of seed per acre compared to what is required when using a mechanical seeder. Mechanical seeders plant seeds uniformly at an optimal depth so that limited fall sunlight warms them. The seeds germinate quickly and their sprouts emerge at about the same time. They also space seeds appropriately in order to maximize production of tillers, tiny shoots that begin to form at the base of the sprout about three weeks after planting. A single wheat sprout can produce five or more tillers, which, after drawing their nutrients from the main sprout for a short time, each develop their own root systems and eventually their own heads of wheat. But if there are too many seeds in close proximity, they will not produce as many tillers because the soil could not sustain their growth. If the moisture and soil fertility indicators are favorable, however, fewer seeds planted at the right depth and properly spaced will produce a bigger harvest than more seeds cast in a smaller area. This was why a seed drill could make a tangible difference in the lives of rural farmers. Instead of casting more seed and getting less at harvest, more wheat would be available for bread, a staple in the local diet.

What can we learn from the parables of seeds and their growth? How do they shape our understanding of the Kingdom and our role in it?

Sticking around

The parable of the sower points us to vulnerable lives deeply rooted in the field to which we’re called. This meaningful interaction with people around us takes different forms. For our family, it meant accepting hospitality in ways that were often uncomfortable. I felt out of control of my schedule and my life in general for much of our early years here. We had to depend on cultural guides, often people we’d never met before, because we couldn’t navigate basic tasks of everyday life on our own. But friendships grew from these vulnerabilities and the everyday interactions of moving into a neighborhood. I met one of my closest friends ona walk our family took near our home soon after moving to a new area where we were the only Christian family. Watching us from a café as we passed, he assumed that we were God-fearing people because of Sarah’s culturally appropriate dress and the beard I happened to have at the time (whew!). He longed to get to know us but thought he never would because he assumed we were only visiting on holiday. Several months later, he was a student in an English class I taught at a local education center. Another co-laborer developed a close friendship with a woman she met on the bus. Both of these relationships opened interaction with extended family networks, and over time we had opportunities to attend weddings and funerals, offer listening ears, receive and offer hospitality, and pray for inner and physical healing.

Hands-off

In the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4), Jesus notes that “whether the farmer lies down or gets up,” the seed continues to grow. The farmer does not understand how the seed’s growth occurs, yet it slowly pushes aside the warm earth on its way to the sunlight. The farmer, realizing that he has done his work by placing the seed in the soil, steps back and gives the seed time to bear fruit only it is capable of producing. An important characteristic of those who hope in God’s work is the ability to recognize the limits of their own efforts; children of the Kingdom are at the same time radically active and dynamically inactive.

Dead or dormant?

Seeds— both physical and spiritual—must pass through a period of dormancy that’s difficult to distinguish from death. It’s hard to tell at any given time whether the Kingdom seeds we plant in the lives of others have been suffocated, or if our friends are counting the costs of following Jesus. The good friend I mentioned above has recounted to me a number of dreams he considers significant, including one in which he received a personal message from a figure I think was Jesus. But he remains deeply offended by one key aspect of the Gospel: that God offers grace to sinners before they have achieved a level of righteousness based on their efforts. The friend our coworker met on a bus seemed to have closed the door on her spiritual search for a time, but recently initiated conversation with Sarah that signaled continued longing for something more.

Bloom where we’re planted

God wants to get his seed out, even in unfavorable conditions. The point of the parable of the sower is not the carelessness of the farmer in casting his seed on the path, on rocks, and among weeds, but rather the response of the seed to its environment. Are we consumed by worries and the deceitfulness of wealth? Have we responded to the soil into which we were cast with faith or with fear? How is the Kingdom coming in my life? Do I have eyes to see it coming around me? There’s ample evidence in the Gospels that our response to the Kingdom can speed or delay its coming. I’m pressing in toward the former, but some days I know the latter is truer of me.

Strategic spacing

The phenomenon of tillers seems to be what Jesus is describing in the parable of the sower. A single wheat sprout can produce a head with 30 or more kernels, but if a sprout produces several tillers, a single seed can easily produce a harvest of sixty or one hundred times. Do I have a meaningful interaction, albeit short, with 30 people who do not know Jesus in the course of a week? A month? A year? Do we as bodies of believers have the vision of systematically casting out (in a good way!) our members into new fields of ministry?

The parables of the seeds point us toward lives of dogged faithfulness, and they beckon us to action full of faith. We wait, we hope, and we allow the Spirit to burst forth through us, individually and collectively as Christ’s Body on earth. And the Kingdom comes.


*Name changed for security reasons.

Josiah, his wife Sarah, and their children have played and worked in the soil of North Africa for the past seven years. He has a BA in English Education and a MA in Religion and has worked in the past as a painter and TESOL teacher. Josiah’s primary work these days involves rural community development projects related to education and agriculture, and home economics while Sarah is working. In his free time, he enjoys educational adventures, coffee chats and experiments with alternative building and farming techniques. He dreams of building a straw bale house one day.