Thursday, May 12, 2016

What We Can Learn from Earthworms

Earthworms do tremendous good. They loosen compacted ground by borrowing through it, opening it to water, air, and plant roots. They enrich soil by mixing it with their own digestive enzymes and other organic material to form castings, a natural fertilizer that makes nutrients available to plants as they need them. They breakdown waste products and remove toxins. Their beneficial impact has been empirically verified.

That happens as a result of their daily, individually small, actions. None independently transform a poor field into a good one, but they have a tremendous cumulative effect.  And those actions are not sacrificial. To the contrary, they actually help the earthworms live and thrive.

We can have a similar impact by living the way Jesus modeled. We can loosen our hardened environment by small but consistent acts of kindness to others, particularly those who have no right to expect them. We can enrich our surroundings by diligently, humbly, and generously performing the tasks involved in the vocation God called us to do. We can clean our social environment by responding to irritants and slights with love and grace, turning them from negatives to positive examples. Those actions are not entirely sacrificial; they will bless us along with the others we share our environment with.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Learning from the Mustard Seed
Part 4: Being Open to Blessing on Multiple Levels

The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32 (New Jerusalem Bible)

This parable illustrates another aspect of Godly fruitfulness: utility on multiple levels. Here a plant cultivated for spices grows to serve an additional purpose, to provide shelter. It’s a divine “two for.”

We see this aspect of God’s handiwork throughout scripture.

Consider the Mosaic law.  It not only served the immediate purposes of providing social order, inculcating healthy ethical norms, and furthering public health among a particular nation, it also served the spiritual purposes of illustrating all humans’ inability to deliver themselves from sin in our own strength.

Consider Joseph (Jacob’s son) and Joseph (Jesus’ foster father). The works God called them to not only met immediate human needs during their times, the ways God called them and their responses have provided instruction and inspiration that have blessed individuals, families, and societies over the centuries.

Consider Jesus’ miracles. They not only alleviated immediate suffering, they also drew people to Him, revealed His divinity, and built faith then, since then, and today.

The pattern is clear: God uses individual things to provide blessings on multiple levels, often across broad swaths of time.

So what do we do with that, how do we respond? At least two things come to mind.

First, we have to be open to the fact that God’s plans are far more profound than ours and be willing to surrender ours in favor of His. That opens the way to the kind of multifaceted blessings we’ve been considering here. Maybe that’s why Jesus stressed that we truly find life by abandoning our own lives to Him.

Second, we should be encouraged, in spite of less than expected immediate results. Most of the blessings from the examples given above did not come right away, they accrued (and continued to accrue) over time, sometimes centuries and millennia later. That explains why scripture repeatedly tells us to persevere in the face of disappointments. See Matthew 10:14, Romans 5:3-5, 2 Corinthians 12:10, Hebrews 12:11-13,  James 1:2-3,  1 Peter 4:19.  See also Proverbs 24:10, Sirach 2:14 . That gives God a fuller set of actions to turn to the ultimate—and exponential—good.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Learning from the Mustard Seed
Part 3: Trusting in God’s Providence

The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32 (New Jerusalem Bible)

Another essential step toward the fruitfulness described here is trusting God to provide the resources we need. The only way to get there is via God’s provision; we must trust Him to achieve the full measure of fruitfulness He intends. We fall short if we rely solely on our own strength. 

Although seeds have their own supplies of nutrients to get them started, those supplies are far from sufficient to get them to the fruit bearing stage. Think about the time lapse image of seeds sprouting we examined in the last post; they immediately stretched out into the soil for nutrients and towards the sun for energy. They were able to grow into fruitfulness because they took those actions, innately relying on God’s providence. That continues after a plant sprouts; plants extend their roots toward water and some turn to track the sun as it moves across the sky.

We must do the same to reach the level of fruitfulness described in this parable. Jeremiah 17:7-8 tells us that  Blessed is anyone who trusts in Yahweh, with Yahweh to rely on. Such a person is like a tree by the waterside that thrusts its roots to the stream … it never stops bearing fruit” (New Jerusalem Bible). Jesus told us the same thing in Luke 12:22-32  and Matthew 6:24-34: we must trust that God will provide what we need to bear the fruit He designed us for. That frees us to focus on the work He called us to, on achieving His purposes. 

Scripture also tells us what happens if we rely solely on our selves: “Accursed be anyone … who relies on human strength and whose heart turns from Yahweh. Such a person is like scrub in the wastelands” Jeremiah 17:5-8 (New Jerusalem Bible). John 15:4 and 6 likewise tell us that “a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself;” those who does not abide/trust in Jesus “wither; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire and are burnt”(New Jerusalem Bible).