A Texas A & M student decided that he would raise chickens on his wheat farm. He bought a bunch of chicks, and when he planted them, they died. So, he bought some more chicks and planted them a little deeper, and they died. So, he called up his Agriculture instructor at A & M, and explained his problem. The instructor disgustedly said, "You fool, you know I need a soil sample before we can find the problem."
That’s pretty much my experience planting things. My brother and I once got seedlings and planted a whole strawberry patch, looking forward to a big crop of juicy sweet berries. None came up. We later learned we planted the shoots upside down.
Jesus was a better gardener. He said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
This is perhaps the simplest, but most difficult truth Jesus tried to convey. The image is simple: a seed, some soil, time…and new life. So far, so good. Then we add the part about dying. We’d rather do without that bit. We don’t want to believe that it’s true. We don’t want to have to die in order for new life to arise.
And so, day to day, we tend to just keep going, at all costs. No time for stopping, for dying! We keep on keeping on. We stay busy, we don’t stop. Rest and sleep are for wimps! Idle hours are wasteful, even somehow shameful! Dogs may sleep when they are tired. But humans fret and drink Red Bull. In all of God’s Creation, only humans are so driven, and feel guilty for idleness, for not producing.
In Nebraska, where I grew up, winter wheat was a major crop. It was planted in the fall, and then it rested, in the dark cold earth, all winter long. Then, lo and behold, in the spring it came up, the most vivid, fresh pale green you can imagine! It took patience, but all that winter rest and idleness was not for naught: the yield was tremendous.
My spiritual guru Richard Rohr writes of the Christian path of descent – we must go down into darkness before we can rise to new heights. This is not what the world teaches! This is not what we want to hear! But it is the pattern Jesus sets forth for us: in his teachings, and finally in his own life. Rohr says we must encounter true darkness, failure, and disappointment in our lives, before we can rise into a more mature spiritual place. He says there is no way around it.
These are the winters of our life, when we have to stop doing, because it won’t work anymore. We have to wait in the dark, feel the cold, and watch for an opening, a point of light, toward which we can stumble. We meet God at that point, I am quite sure. And with God’s help, we build something new.
This descent often comes to us as a major loss: of a spouse, a friend…God forbid, even a child. It can be a major failure that we must confront. The death of a relationship, or a marriage, or a job. Or maybe, just a point in life where we realize, with all our striving, there’s still an emptiness. All the trappings of success are just not enough.
For some, we might call this a midlife crisis. It may mean a change of career or lifestyle. It will mean a reordering of values, priorities. It will mean a new humility, because we now know we can be brought low. We’ve encountered death. It also means a new compassion for other humans at their hour of need, their point of weakness…because we’ve been there.
Last Sunday nine of us gathered to discuss a book about dealing with loss and resilience: Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. We all agreed, it’s not a great book. Sorry, Sheryl! But it led to a great discussion – an honest sharing of our times of loss, of desperation even – the winter of our lives. Many of us had lost dear loved ones, or a treasured way of life that was ended. The tender compassion in the room – among some who had only just met each other! – was palpable. We all knew we needed each other’s love to carry on. We opened the hatch and went back down into dark places, yet somehow we were buoyed up. We weren’t “staying busy” or doing productive work, but God was working in us. We faced death, but we glimpsed new life beyond it. We shared hope.
Yesterday, I was doing an autumn thing: cleaning the leaves out of the gutters. There were many leaves; there will be many more. It was a beautiful, sun-dappled afternoon. All those leaves were fresh and new and green last spring! Now they are brown, and they need to be moved aside so that the rains can come and wash the world clean, the rivulets running down the roof, through the gutters and the downspouts back into Mother Earth. Full circle.
Life is like that. We must accept it as a whole: winter with summer; bad with good, love with loss, death with life. There is the path of ascent; there is then the path of descent. There is the tilling and the planting, the nurturing and the watering, the reaping and the harvest celebration. Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain…
This is the pattern imbedded in God’s Creation, and laid out for us in the life and death of our Lord Jesus. Seeds buried. Life rising. Love blossoming. Winter returning.