Spring is coming. Finally.
Even those of us way up here in Minnesota are beginning to see traces of it. There are red-bellied robins hopping around our front lawn and a pair of hooded merganser ducks on the pond.
When they get home from school, my boys throw their backpacks in the front door and then run back out to join the herd of neighborhood kids biking and scooter-ing in the afternoon sunlight.
This is the time of year that I always slow by the aisles of bulbs and seeds and wonder if I should take up gardening.
At church this past week, we read this passage, in which Jesus explains a parable he has told to his disciples:
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
This is not a parable about where to throw the seed, my pastor said. It’s a parable about cultivating good soil.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been stuck, since Sunday, on the image of soil – the black, rich stuff that comes from bags at Home Depot; the loamy fine sand that makes up our neighborhood.
The mystery of soil is one of the reasons I’m tempted to garden. (The fact that I’m mostly interested in it poetically and metaphorically is perhaps a good reason not to. I hear gardening is kind of a lot of work.)
Still, I’m amazed at the complex and beautiful qualities of something as simple as dirt. The way organic matter settles down into it, becomes part of it. The invisible tunneling of worms that makes room for plant roots to breathe and grow. The inherent qualities of soil that cannot be changed – texture, depth to bedrock, drainage – qualities that you have to take into account when you think about how best to care for it. The dynamic properties that can change.
I’m compelled by the layers that form and build in the soil through additions and losses, transfers and transformations. It rings true to me in the way that all the very deepest things do.
They could be talking about the heart.
I’ve been studying the intricacies of soil.
I read one article this week that talked about the ways that we abuse soil. Not surprisingly, all of the abuses had to do with the drive to produce as much as possible as quickly as possible.
Overgrazing by overstocked animals reduces ground cover and leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion.
The practice of growing only one crop (for as much harvest as possible) makes a healthy ecosystem impossible. (Soil health, it turns out, requires plant variety.)
Inorganic biocides and artificial fertilizers used to mitigate loss and speed up production remain in the soil for decades, changing the soil composition and disrupting the balance of the ecosystem.
There was one line in particular that struck me: ““The use of artificial fertilizers on crops has helped farmers to increase yields,” it said. “But that increase is actually at a cost of abundance.”
Increased yields at the cost of abundance.
More, more, more is better.
Except when it’s not.
Soil is another one of those things – like weather, like seasons, like tides and sunrise and creativity and depression and the faith journey – that turns on its own timetable. And in our productivity-driven culture, we are so prone to rush, so drawn to anything that can make us do more faster.
I am terrible at this. My particular clickbait is any picture that features a Macbook, a moleskin notebook, and a cup of coffee arranged on a nice surface alongside some title that promises me “life-changing productivity hacks” or “10 strategies for being crazy productive.”
I don’t know what “crazy productive” means, exactly, but it sounds like a kind of success. It sounds like wrangling my unwieldy life into the thing of my choosing.
Look, I am the biggest supporter of the messy middle of faith and life, the biggest believer in the important slow work of formation. But I am the absolute worst at embracing my own slow-forming heart, my own lack of accomplishment, the unchecked to-dos on a list that was always too ambitious to begin with.
I can’t seem to get it into my head that a productive life and an abundant life are not the same thing. Not by a long shot.
Perhaps this is why God tells the Israelites that they can sow their fields for six years, but in the seventh year, they need to let the land rest: so they will not give into the pull to choose increased yields at the cost of abundance.
Spring is coming. Finally.
The soil is beginning to emerge from underneath the snow and ice. Soon small shoots will begin to spring forth from it. The whole thing is mystery and poetry and grace.
And it begins with soil.
It begins with the call to cultivate, which has so much to do with time, with letting things be, with the accumulation of all that organic matter.
It has to do with all those losses and additions and transfers and transformations, which, over time, add up to something like life abundant.