Thinking about Dirt

Over the last several weeks I have run into what is often called “The Parable of the Sower” from the Gospel According to Mark (It’s also in Matthew and Luke, but this month, it always seemed to come up in Mark). If you ever had any exposure at all to stories from the Bible, you probably remember this one; on its simplest level, it tells of a man sowing seed, somewhat randomly. The seed falls on four different kinds of dirt, and the story explores what happens to that seed in each. The link to the story is here: Mark 4:2-9. But what does it all mean? And why did Jesus say it that way at all? Well, as our good fortune would have it, Jesus’ followers asked those questions too, and He told them. We can read it right there in Mark. No need for fancy interpretation, “…move along, nothing to see here, it’s all been explained….”
However some of us can’t leave well enough alone. Here’s my addition…

OF course, a parable is something like a metaphor. A particular point, or issue, is “reset” into another context, perhaps to clarify or emphasize its meaning. Accordingly, there are extra details, belonging to the new setting, that really are not part of the point at all. It would be a mistake to try to make them all somehow fit in; that’s what we mean by “pushing a metaphor too far.” When Jesus compared Himself to a door, I do not think He meant to suggest that He is anything like two posts, a lintel and a threshold, or that we should be looking for meaning in hinges and lock-sets; although I expect more than a few preachers have tried to get a sermon out of that!

What I am going to suggest does push the metaphor a bit; it is not in Jesus’ own explanation, so it is ripe for suspicion. I offer it only to your own prayer and reflection.

In the midst of my repeated exposure to this story, I have also been able to do a (very) little garden planting, which I enjoy. I like working with the earth, and breaking up our clay-like “gumbo” to get it suitable for planting, adding this mulch and that compost, etc. As I thought about Jesus’ story, His explanation put the four types of dirt as four types of people. I naturally would like to be the sort that is receptive, conducive to the growth of that good seed He is laying down.

Naturally, the connection came up to my gardening activities – I was trying to take poor soil, and make it good soil. And what was I doing towards that end?

First, I was disturbing the soil; I dug and churned it all up. If ever dirt can be said to be “comfortable” (and Jesus was the one who compared dirt to people) this was comfortable dirt! I disturbed it. I have heard it said that among the purposes of the Gospel is

“to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

I was certainly doing my best to afflict that clay! But there is more – I mixed with that clay things that were NOT of itself – things that were not “our sort of dirt.” I could almost hear the clay saying “You’re not from this neighborhood, are you?” If clay had a nose, it would have been well up in the air, if only to avoid the stench. It seems odd, but when God does that in our churches, we think He is doing it so that the “stinky parts” will be blessed, or “improved” by fellowship with all us “good people.” If working with dirt has any meaning, I think we probably have it backwards. We “solid clay” types need to be broken up, crumbled and tilled with things that “aren’t from around here” if we are to be good for anything but very poor pavement. It’s God’s mercy to ME that he brings into my life people with whom I am not particularly comfortable.

But there is another way to look at those things I mix with the bad soil to change it into good soil, fit for growing good plants. I mix in compost.

What is compost? It is primarily the detritus of dead plants – plants that didn’t make it, or the parts of plants that could not be otherwise used – failed plants. To make the soil of my heart friable; soft, nourishing; able to cradle and protect the sprouting seed and nourish the tender seedling, I must add composted failure and refuse of my plans and hopes. Most of us, when we get honest, have come up with a good bit of refuse over the course of our life. Not just

“Regrets, I’ve had a few; but then again, too few to mention.”

Refusing to accept the (more than a few, I suspect!) regrets and ‘unfortunate’ bits, refuse, as that song advises, does not lead to fertile soil.  And neither does just adding gunk on top of the seeds help – only well  composted gunk will do; gunk and rot and decay that have been yielded to the purposes of God, to the Gardener who knows the proper value of such things. He saves them in the compost pile until the work is done, and what was fit only to remind us of failure and filth is ready to turn hard clay into receptive and fruitful soil.

That is, if the clay is not too proud to accept it.

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