A field unplowed, unless it’s being left fallow, is a field wasted. It grows weeds, perhaps a few ungleaned seeds from last year’s harvest. But there’s no crop. A field unplowed is an opportunity squandered. A season of renewal is, As I said, a gift. But it is also an opportunity: we can make the most of it, or miss it entirely. Spring gives us a window in which, if we steward the moment well, we will reap a harvest later on; if we don’t, we may not get a second chance. And next winter might be scarce.
Plowing is sweaty and dirty. Breaking ground is hard work. The only work as hard as plowing is harvesting, but harvesting has its reward mixed with it’s labor, and that makes the work lighter. Plowing is done when the promise of reward is distant and tentative. What late frost or summer hail, what drought or blight, might sweep in and wipe out all you’ve work for? Danger hovers over all the work until the work is done.
So strong resolve is needed in spring like almost no other time. We need a steady determination to do the risky, hard, lonely work of getting things ready in the hope that, one day, the work will come to fruition.
Spiritually, what does it mean to plow?
It means, first and most, to listen.
Jesus’ most famous parable is about the seed and the sower. I’ve heard a million sermons on that, or thereabouts, and preached several thousand myself, give or take. Yet I still feel I’ve merely scratched its surface, tried to dig to it’s bedrock with only a sugar spoon, and a plastic one at that. Of course, it’s really a story of soils. Hardscrabble, or hardpan, or fertile but shallow. Or, in one instance, rich and dark and deep and loamy, with just the perfect combination of rainfall and sunlight falling on it.
What these soils represent are ears to hear, or not. Those soils are individual attentiveness. Are you listening in order to obey? Even if we do not understand exactly what we’re hearing, or understand perfectly well but don’t like what we’re hearing, do we pay attention anyhow, knowing that this seed is our one hope, the words of eternal life trying to take root inside us? James, Jesus’ brother, puts it this way: “Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
Jesus speaks this parable to “the crowds, ” a favorite audience of his. No one can make head or tail out of it. It’s too cryptic. Is He giving agricultural pointers, or spiritual guidance? If the former, everyone knew that already. If the latter, what’s it all add up to? What’s this have to do with me?
The disciples, who have been tagging along with Jesus for a while, are as stumped as everyone else. Maybe more. For one, He’d handpicked them from trades other than farming. And most of them came from the kind of work where you don’t sit around all day pondering the inner workings of the universe or the mysteries of providence. They had fish to catch, taxes to collect, Romans to assassinate. There was little idle time on their hands to toy with riddles.
But here’s the difference: the disciples had a hunch that this is important and harass Jesus into explaining things. Whereas everyone else just goes home, scratching their heads, shrugging their shoulders, forgetting about it.
Ears to hear doesn’t mean, always, a mind to grasp. It means you listen. You lean in. You wait, you pester, you dig. You hang on to God and wrestle Him all night if you must, and refuse to let go until He blesses you.
So the plowing of springtime is the discipline of deeper attentiveness.
Pastoral work allows me to see this often. At any given time, I’d guess, about a third of a congregation (or at least the congregations I’ve been a part of) is in some season of spring. They’re in renewal. The world tastes fresh to them. They can spot God at work at every turn.
One mark of this renewal is a desire for prayer and the Word. They’re hungry to meet with God in spirit and in truth. That hunger is typically just a by-product of the waking up. But what starts spontaneously must be sustained deliberately, else it quickly shrivels. That’s where plowing is needed. The season best for establishing spiritual practices — holy habits, as I call them in one of my other books. It’s the time to resolve, a clear and firm decisiveness around what matters. From now on, you will live this way, not that. From now on, you will go in this direction, not that. And with this resolve, you then reorder your life — how you will give, pray, read, serve, think — to both reflect and nurture your resolve.
If you’re in springtime or just coming into spring, by all means enjoy it. But don’t squander it. Look closely at your life, decide where you need to join God in this season of renewal. Then take a plow blade to hard earth, open it wide, and harrow it soft.
William comes to mind. William and Grace started coming to church not long after I arrived as the new pastor. In his words recently, “We’ve come to New Life for twelve years. We’ve been part of it for six.”
The first six years, when they merely came to church, William had a nasty secret and a dirty habit. William was in the clutches of a pornography addiction. It had gone from a diversion he indulged now and then, out of boredom, to a full-scale obsession he rearranged his life to feed. It started as something he could bid come to suit his pleasure; it became a tyrant that commanded his total allegiance. When the problem came to light, it’s hooks were deep. He was embarrassed, remorseful, full of self-reproach.
None of that proved enough.
So William had an affair with his next door neighbor.
The next several months were a wild ride. William slept on the couch. He quit all of his junk cold-turkey, and some days, like a heroin addict in withdrawal, shook with the craving for one last fix to ease him through. He met daily with two other men who, like him, we’re limping toward the light. In time, he established a men’s group where, every Monday night, a mob of men descended upon his house and gathered in his basement. They chastened one another with blunt talk, primed each other with ridiculous laughter, bolstered each other with hungry prayers. Grace hid upstairs, glad it was happening, though not particularly caring to know exactly what was happening. As long as William kept walking in the light, she was for it. Slowly, their marriage, the trust and intimacy that William had shattered, revived. And then it grew. And then, preposterously, became magnificent.
They went to Africa. I was leading a large team from our church to Kenya to work amount a dozen churches there. One of the areas our Kenyan partners asked for our help in was teaching both the pastors and the congregants about healthy marriage.
So I asked William and Grace to carry most of that.
It was stunning. They shared, not in explicit detail but not with coy euphemisms either, the story of their marriage’s near demise. They testified, in detail, how God through His Word and prayer and the fellowship of others brought rebirth. They talked about discovering, through disaster, what it truly means to love and cherish one another. In essence, they talked about how their most spectacular springtime came quick on the heels of their bleakest winter.
The Africans listened with rapt attention. When they had the chance, they swamped William and Grace with questions. They had never heard anyone talk so candidly about their private life before, and that story gave them hope and courage. William and Grace ended up speaking more than I did that trip and were more in demand.
When we got back to Canada, they were in crisis again — not, this time, because of sin but because of spring: the Spirit’s creative work was rioting in them, uprooting things, generating newness. William and Grace believed God was calling them into mission work. In Kenya.
Less than a year later, we commissioned them as missionaries — not to Kenya but to Brazil. That’s a long story, and one day if you meet them you’ll have to ask them about it.
But what I got to see is a desert turn to garden. I got to witness Siberia become Bermuda. And what I want to say is, though that would have been impossible without God’s fertile seed and living water, it also would have been less than it is, by a long shot, if William and Grace hadn’t plowed. Together they built holy habits (most I haven’t even mentioned) that trained them in attentiveness and responsiveness — hearing and doing the will of God. They worked the soil of their lives into a fertile softness so that, when seed fell, it went deep, took root, flourished, and bore fruit, abundantly.
Two pictures I carry in my mind of William and Grace, both recent. A month ago (at this writing), my wife and I spent a week with them in Delhi, India, where I was speaking to missionaries gathered from five continents. William and Grace were two of those missionaries. I watched them as they interacted with others, men and women from Lebanon, Thailand, Bolivia, Rwanda, Angola, Croatia, and more. It was a portrait of humility fused to confidence, of the deep knowledge of Holy dancing with a wild hunger for more. I marveled every time I watched the fruit that’s sprung from soil that, not long ago, seemed hard and dead as stone until the two of them, with fierce resolve, decided it would be otherwise.
The other picture is, at this writing, only a day old. It’s William and Grace and their children, Johnathan and Rosemary, filing through the airport security check as they prepared to board a plane for Brazil. The immediate family is gathered around them, weeping and embracing. About twenty-five people from our church, who rose before 4 a.m. to be here, stand twenty-five feet away, leaving the final goodbyes to the parents and grandparents. Just as William goes through the door, we make eye contact. We nod, a gesture we developed with each other year’s back. It means more to us than either of us can put into words: “I have your back. You have my deepest respect. I’ll pray for you. I love you.”
I fight back tears. I think he does, too.
Then he’s gone. I walk to my car, the sun just rising on a spring morning in full bloom, and I thank God for grace, and for sharp plow blades.
There is a related but different discipline of spring: to plant.
In Jesus’ parable, the farmer sows seed. Jesus explicitly equates the seed with the Word of God, but He doesn’t identify the farmer — could be God, a preacher, a song, a book, a tract, you. The farmer is all and any who dispense God’s Word.
The important thing is that seed get sown.
But here I want to take the metaphor of the seed — and seedling (more of that in a moment) — in a different direction. In Jesus’ parable, there is an implied passivity on the part of those who receive the Word. Receiving, of course, is an action of sorts (what I’m calling plowing), but otherwise you just lie there, ready or not. But in reality, we also have a role and responsibility to play in the sowing and planting. In reality, we not only prepare our own soil, but we to some extent plant our own seed.
Well, I’m talking about holy habits again, establishing disciplines that help us grow. But I want to be more specific. Spring is the best season for launching new things. As a pastor I’ve launched — sowed, planted, whatever word you prefer — new ministries in every season, winter included. During the winter I recently went through, though I pruned in my personal life, I did some modest planting in my vocational life. We added ministries to the church. But as I’ve come into springtime personally, and the church has more or less come with me, we have vigorously re landscaped. As I write, we are preparing to plant our most ambitious work to date, an “incarnational” ministry to and with and among First Nations people in our community, a third service that is more outreach oriented than our other two, and a children’s ministry that takes Sunday School to the streets. This is actually the outgrowth of some of the modest planting we did during winter. It is both a planting — finding a place to insert something not there now, and protect it and nurture it until it can look after itself — and a sowing — scattering seed hither and thither in hope that some will take, and flourish, and reproduce a hundredfold.
Spring has provided massive vitality and optimism for this. We’re attempting something that, if it takes root, will be kingdom-sized, and if it doesn’t will be heartbreaking, but worth the heartbreak. But the season is right, and to not do something now, right now, would be to squander a wide-open opportunity. It would be to leave a field untended in the vain hope that it would be ready to harvest come fall. It will only be so only if, in this springtime, we plow and we plant and we sow.
There is one last discipline to spring: to clean.
The town I grew up in, the winters of which I described in the last chapter, had a communitywide annual ritual called spring clean. Once a year, a single week in May, you could put anything at curbside — couches, refrigerators, mattresses, piles of nail-studded lumber, months of old magazines, your mother-in-law — and city workers, going house to house in dump trucks, would cart it away for nothing (after, that is, your neighbors rummaged through it first and gleaned the treasures you deemed trash).
What the ritual did was motivate almost everyone to clean their houses and yards. In our household, and I think in most, it was all hands on deck. Every inch of house and property, every musty hole under building and porch, every dusty attic and moldering crawl space, every shadowing corner in cellar and garage, had to be illuminated, scoured, swept clean, sometimes scrubbed with bleach. Things you kept before, or kept on purpose out of sentimentality or the vague notion that it might prove useful, you dragged out, hoary with dust and cobweb, and this time sent to sheol, relieved more than sad. Even one year, so fierce had become our resolve, we hurled to the curbside boxes of National Geographic we’d accumulated over centuries, or thereabouts. We shook the dust off our feet, or at least clapped it off our hands, and bid them good riddance with only a slight twinge of guilt (and in the morning, they were gone, rescued by some neighbor shocked by our sacrilege, as though we had, like Spartans, exposed our less than perfect babies on the refuse pile).
For a few weeks after, the place palpably glowed and smelled of ammonia or bleach or lemon cleaner, the incense of sanitizer. You could walk through the workshop without navigating your way around old bikes and lawnmower parts and coils of useless garden hose. You could go into the garage, find ample place to park your car and work on a birdhouse, and all without worrying that some spore form of whatever’s moldering in there might find a weak spot in your lungs and grow a swamp inside you
Spring is the best season to clean.
This past spring I finally tackled a job I’ve put off for nearly a decade. I rebuilt my workshop. The workshop had become a toxic waste dump. It was crammed with everything we didn’t have room for elsewhere. I had not had clear passage to my tool bench in year’s, and didn’t much seek it anyhow: it was rickety, and itself heaped with bric-a-brac. I would think every month or so about cleaning and renovating the whole thing, but grow so weary with just the thought of it I’d walk away defeated without even an attempt.
Then my wife and one of our daughters went for a ten-day trip to California, and I decided I’d renovate the workshop as a surprise, and a kind of cockeyed gift. What I conceived as a renovation became, in the doing of it, a top-to-bottom remaking. I hauled out old cupboards and shelves, shaggy with cobwebs, diced them up with my (new!) Stihl chain saw, and tossed it all in a bonfire I had blazing in the back yard. Thick plumes of white smoke billowed into the cool spring air, and my dog ran around trying to snap flakes of cooling embers in his jaws as they sparked up and then floated down. Watching that, I was so happy I felt like fiddling like Nero as Rome burned. But I had work to do. As it burned, I built. Tools lay every which way in my carport. Sawdust accumulated at my feet. Camp gear and paint equipment and bicycles and boxes of unsold books lay piled in corners in several rooms.
The shirring of saw blade.
The clap of airgun.
The slap of level on beam.
The muttering of an amateur carpenter.
And with pride — raw and disguised — when my wife came home and I escorted her down to show off my shiny new thing: bicycles hung in an alternate pattern from the ceiling, a work bench you could eat off of, little stacking trays holding nuts and bolts and screws and nails and door stoppers and brass hinges and rubber washers and, even, an extra wax ring for putting underneath a toilet, should the need arise. There’s a peg board bristling with tools like a bricolage, and drawers brimming with more tools, and cupboards with spare things that one day I might need, and a whole wall of shelving lined with Rubbermaid bins containing all the stuff we hardly use but sometimes do
It’s so beautiful that for the first week after it was done, I’d wander downstairs in my housecoat and slippers after everyone was in bed and all the lights were out, turn on the new florescent work light hanging over the bench, and just take it all in.
All the rubble and dirt and grime was more than rubble and dirt and grime: it became a symbol of some deeper disorder and accumulation in life. But now the old was gone. The new had come.
A clean start.
Again, I think of William and Grace. They used their springtime not to just scour out all the mildewed things in William’s closet but also everything everywhere in their personal world. They had grown an attachment to stuff and status that they hauled out to the curb, dumped there unceremoniously, and never looked back. They had neglected relationships that needed to be repaired, and had acquired one or two that needed jettisoning. Grace, the victim, had a few things hidden in her own dark corners that she needed to rummage out and dispose of.
And now they can stand in the light of it, the old gone, the new come, and savor the sheer orderliness and brightness of the whole thing.
Here’s one simple way to engage that. It’s borrowed from an ancient prayer practice called examen. The examen is a form of personal inventory. At day’s end, spend time in prayerful reflection on your day: your comings and goings, routines and disruptions, work and play, discoveries and disappointments. Think about who you met, or missed. Think about your moments of aloneness. In all, ask two questions: when was I most alive, most present, most filled and fulfilled today? And when was I most taxed, stressed, distracted, depleted today? A simpler, and more spiritually focussed, version of those questions: when did I feel closest to God, when farthest?
A pattern will emerge over several examines. (It will be helpful to keep a journal.) From the pattern will emerge a portrait. The portrait will be of you. It will reveal to you your own heart, its passions and quirks and aversions. Where it leaps, where it sinks, where it feels safe or imperiled, where it just beats in steady contented rhythm. All that will guide you. Few of us get to shape our lives to suit ourselves, not entirely at least, and I’m not suggesting that anyhow. I am suggesting that most of our lives are cluttered and need to be pared back and reorganized. I use the examen to sort myself out in that way. I use it to reorder the gathering and dispersing of my time and energy. I use it, in short, to spring-clean.
Here’s how that works. Because the examen helped me understand spiritual and emotional rhythms, it helps me live with greater focus and effectiveness. I can see the clutter to remove it. I distinguish the habitual from the purposeful, my busyness from real productiveness. I separate actions that are fruitful from those that are fruitless, ways of thinking that are self-generating from those that are self-defeating, relationships that are life-giving from those that are life-sucking. And then I rearrange or rebuild the”workshop” so that I operate out of strength and joy. It doesn’t mean I avoid hard things or difficult people. It means I’m more likely to deal with such thing and such people from the place of wisdom, face, clarity, and peace.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
You never knew there was so much spiritual activity in spring — plowing, planting, cleaning. My ultimate gift for my eighteenth birthday presented to me in a God-given Traumatic Brain Injury. Although I had to dig with a plastic sugar spoon, all these years later I get to see the pleasure of plowing (my TBI recovery), planting (my years at undergraduate in psychology and graduate work in human services), and cleaning (finding out what works for each disabled individual and their team) to effectively help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What about you? Are you upset at God for putting you in a plowing situation where you might or might not see the fruits of benefit? Or how about the planting situation where you don’t know if God will bless you with the outcome of the hard work you put in? Or the cleaning. Sometimes we don’t want to do the cleaning because of old stuff that is hidden away, you don’t want to face it. But I plead with you, clean whatever is in your life so you can have the assurance that you’re not wasting your time doing other things. Try the examen. See the portrait to eliminate unnecessary things in your life and accentuate the good for it will help you become more focused on the Word of God.
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~