Yields vs. Abundance and the Slow Work of Cultivating Faith

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.”

(Matthew 13:18-23)

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.

6 thoughts on “Yields vs. Abundance and the Slow Work of Cultivating Faith

  1. Thanks for this….
    I’m 54 years old. I am ever feeling that my life is partially characterized by this classic song lyric-
    “No one told you when to run.
    You missed the starting gun.”(Pink Floyd, “Time”)

    So, the idea that I, at this point, should slow down at anything, as I already feel at such a tardy pace compared to others, seems ridiculous.
    However, I can now add your voice to the other voices I’ve recently been hearing about being intentional. Not rushing. Doing things well.
    That cultivating takes time. The soil of my life needs nourishment. I am now finally giving myself permission to do that.
    I’m doing my best to form some good habits and cultivate my interests. I now see that God gave me these interests. By not developing them, I have been denying myself the abundant life of which you speak.
    Thanks for your work. I’ve been a fan since I randomly picked your book up off the “New Books” shelf at my local library. I have a step daughter and nieces that are roughly your age, who have been exposed to similar things in “the church” . That is why I really wanted to read your book, Addie. I have been one of the adults who didn’t quite agree with how the other adults were “doing church”, but at the time I didn’t find my voice to speak up and do much about it. I’ve stepped out of the church a couple of times since I’ve been a believer. I’m back for good, now, I hope.

    I want to say that when I read your story, I rooted for you big time. I’m sorry for how those of us ahead of you let you down. I’m also proud of how far you’ve come. God bless.

  2. Hello Addie, I just wanted to thank you for your blog – I always enjoy reading what you have to say – you have a lovely way with words & expressing your ideas!
    For the last few weeks I have been thinking on the verse in Corinthians which says that Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase (1 Cor 3:6). Just really thinking about how at the end of the day I don’t need to get everything right, things aren’t down to me – I only need to do my small bit, which may be nothing more than hanging on, because at the end of it all it’s all of God, it’s God that gives the increase. If we try to rush or ‘do’ ourselves or other people, it might look good but it won’t last.
    I thought you put it so beautifully when you said “the whole thing is a mystery and poetry and grace”.
    It most certainly is!
    Take care, enjoy spring & thanks again!

  3. Thank you for this, friend! Our clickbait is the same, as are our struggles toward more, more, more. Appreciate the reminder that true abundance involves times of waiting, watching, and listening.

  4. “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.'”
    Me too. I so, so hear ya.

    But you’re right, this is a pretty profound and harsh thing to stare in the face: “Increased yields at the cost of abundance.”

    So well put.

  5. Friend, I am in love this this post. This line particularly: “a productive life and an abundant life are not the same thing”. I fear I’ll spend a lifetime trying to find a balance between these two.

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