When our leaders got together recently to plan for our public meetings, we shared personal stories. Someone compared themselves to a seed soaking, and finally getting soft/loose enough to break open and sprout. The rain of life had been relentless and painful, but meeting Jesus in their vulnerability and struggle was generating new and surprising life in them.
The metaphor might apply to us in that seeds are protected by a hard outer layer that must be softened in order to realize their potential. Ponderosa pine seeds have to be singed by the heat of forest fires before they are able to germinate. Calvaria tree seeds must be passed through the intestinal tract of turkeys in Madagascar before they will break open! There are different ways of softening and loosening, but it seems a necessary process on the road to transformation.
Jesus compared himself to a seed that was about to break open: “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed; but if it dies, it will produce many seeds”, and the apostle Paul expands on this mysterious path to transformation in his letters to the early church. He talks about what it’s like to shed your protective shell (so to speak) so that your true self in Christ can emerge and grow. In Philippians 3, he even lists all the reasons that people would think his outer shell was awesome: great social standing, great education, good family line, devoutly religious in a religious culture. Basically he was saying that by any worldly standards, he was the man. But he was over it:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul calls his hard outer shell trash (actually he calls it a four letter word) because that’s how emphatic he is about all his other identities and particularities not holding a candle to the core of his real life in Christ. He keeps going after it because it’s not once and done, it’s not something he’s fully into yet—-it’s a process, a journey, a race. He wants to keep receiving and expressing this new life in him that God has generated.
We are generally trained by the world to keep our protective shells on. Image is important. Bad things have happened to us. Philly can be a gritty place to live. We’re not sure we’re actually loveable. All these reasons to fear are reasons we need to keep creating the counter-culture….where we can be vulnerable with God and one another, to keep taking hold our real life that is “hidden with Christ in God.” Here’s three suggestions to keep letting your shell soften in order for the true self to emerge.
- Live in your soil. There are ways to transcend our environments with entertainment and escape. Jesus incarnates instead of transcending, and gives us that Spirit, that ability to be present. He demonstrated how to live in the environment by not being an isolated ruler or a consultant celebrity who traveled around all the time giving TED talks. Instead he got invested in real relationships. He gathered a crew of real people, not ideal people, loved them and taught them how to love, and they began to change the world. We could hang onto our idealism by judging the church or jumping from one unsatisfying community another, but it may be better to incarnate our reality and be planted with others.
- Go ahead and be small. It might be hard for God to save us if we’re already entitled to everything. We might be better off like a child in relationship to God, a son or daughter in loving dependence. Seeds and children need help from the outside in order to grow and flourish. We’re wise to seek guidance, go the meeting, and pray—as a lifestyle. It only takes a tiny bit of faith, and we probably have that.
- Trust the growth to God. Again, a seed can’t make itself grow. It can’t even break down it’s hard outer layer on it’s own. It needs to be acted upon. All we can do in some ways, is to put ourselves in that position. That may mean putting ourselves in a cell group, or with a good therapist, or with an honest friend. God is at work for us on our behalf, especially if we are asking. Even when we don’t know what to ask for, the Spirit intercedes for us, and helps us in our weakness.
Throughout Lent this year I was reminded with many of you that the softening of our tough outer layers often comes through trouble, sorrows, limitations. It doesn’t necessarily feel good. It’s a risk to get soft and break open to the mercy and grace of God. In a world of machines, it’s a risk to be alive and tender and killable like Jesus. But when we try things that are hard enough to require God, like forgiving someone who hurt us, or not getting jaded from caring about people at our job, or trusting God’s presence in our loneliness, we are rising with Christ. Our true selves are emerging and growing. Together, I think our Circle of Hope is like a strong and blossoming tree that provides food and beauty and shade beyond ourselves. I’m glad we keep taking the risks to be our organic selves, open to God and dependent on the source of our life.