Plowing Up the Hard Road

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I LOVE sunflowers. But I have an issue with them. Every time I plant sunflower seeds in our yard, I get nothing. No sprouts. No flowers. Nada. I put those things all over the place, but it doesn’t matter. I plant many other seeds quite successfully, but sunflowers don’t care. Absolutely nothing has come out of the ground when I plant sunflowers seeds at any time in the history of sunflowers.

Here’s the issue—when my husband plants them, those things jump out of the ground. We have a bounty of sunflowers. I don’t do anything differently. But I can’t grow sunflowers to save my life. I need to stay married if only to have a source of sunflowers in my world.

Even a good seed sower can have problems with uncooperative soil.

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Last week, we talked about how good stories change us for the better so that changed people can tell good stories with their lives. When Jesus laid down that idea, he began with a story to illustrate that very thing. It’s what we call the Parable of the Soils.

TLDR version: A farmer planted some seeds. He wasn’t very discriminatory about the way he planted them or where they fell. This was actually not too far off from current farming practices for Jesus’ time. Or he just had really bad aim. Whatever.

Some of the seeds landed on the road, where birds ate those babies right up. (I imagine starlings or blackbirds, because those things scarf seeds at my feeder like there will be a worldwide seed shortage within the next hour.) Starlings and blackbirds are also rather nondiscriminatory when it comes to eating.

Some ended up in the middle of rocks, and some dropped in the weeds. Rocks aren’t very fertile soil when the drought hits, and weeds . . . well, as a gardener, I know how fast weeds grow. Crazy fast. Either way, the good seed doesn’t fare well.

And some fell in soil that was juuuust right and grew big and strong.

It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears for farmers.

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Of course, Jesus was talking about our hearts, not basic dirt. What kind of heart will produce big, strong, plentiful crops from the story seeds he offers?

Spoiler: It’s not the first three.

“Some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them.”

The footpath has had years to be packed down into toughness. The more it’s been walked over, the more unyielding it’s gotten. Every step has made it harder, every day has tamped it down just a little bit more. It’s hard.

Maybe you know someone like that.

The hard, hard road doesn’t feel the need to give way for seeds. It doesn’t bend. It knows what it wants to accept, and anything else bounces off into the ditch of indifference.

Hard roads don’t want to hear anything that challenges their assumptions or threatens to change their minds. That stuff gets bounced right out. They have their rules; they know what’s what. Getting soft only creates people who compromise.

It just gets you hurt.

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Yet Jesus has no use for the hard roads. He knows no true kingdom values will grow there. Not until they are tilled up, plowed and furrowed and deeply dug to allow new seed to grow. 

Hard soiled hearts have to break in so many places to allow them to be vulnerable to the seed and sun and rain God has for them.

We cannot tell good stories unless we’re willing to face our hardness.

As a kid, I responded to being an actual, real-life Ferdinand (the bull who preferred to sit alone and smell flowers) with deep cynicism and sarcasm. Oh yes, you’d better believe I could do sarcasm as an eight-year-old. I didn’t get this good without years of practice. Also, I learned years later the secrets of the INFJ door slam. (“It’s been said that when INFJs get hurt or angry, they don’t hate you, they nothing you.”) 

I pushed others away before they could declare me too weird for words and push me away. Rejection as as preemptive social strike. I wasn’t very big or very popular, but I was strategic enough to know good warfare tactics.

Except human community is not built on warfare models.

When I started to face the reasons I lacked friends, the reasons behind why I reacted defensively and rejected others first, I began to heal and dip my toes in the open water of vulnerability. I learned to go first in bridge-building. I discovered that other people were just as afraid as I was. I allowed others to see between the chain mail loops about my heart.

I got hurt. But it didn’t kill me, and I found it was better than being hard.

Jesus’ words can’t enter a heart that’s defending itself from invasion. His pleas that we put others above ourselves, show mercy as our default, forgive completely, ask forgiveness, and start over—they can’t find fertile ground in hard hearts that won’t yield to the soft foot of understanding. We have no worthwhile story to tell without vulnerable hearts.

Go ahead. Plow up the ground. Face those things that scare you about letting others in. They won’t kill you. I promise that you’re tougher than that. I also promise that the relationships you will gain, the changes he will make in you, are so very much worth the scary bit. Stop hardening up. Plow deep. Allow him to plant seeds for a story that’s unique to you.

You’re a great storyteller in the making.

Matthew 1 and the Seismic Jolt of Christmas

Christianity is often accused of being anti-woman. People see it as a religion that treats women as second class and subservient. Nothing could be so wrong. Now, plenty of religious people do, in fact, treat women this way. Many sincere believers are certain the Bible even teaches this. But that is not the Christianity of the Bible. It is definitely not the belief system, or the behavior, of Jesus. And proof of this begins, well, at the very beginning. In Matthew, chapter one.
Most folks skim over chapter one. Seriously, who gets that much entertainment out of a list of “Joe was the father of John who was the father of Jim who was the father of . . .” Except the actual names in Matthew are much, much harder to pronounce.
But four times, we get stopped in the litany. Right in the middle of that perfect rhythm of dads and sons, we get a seismic jolt, four times. They are the names of the women. I spent one blog post talking about them last year; this year, I want to spend four. Why? Because I want to. And it’s my blog.
No one ever included the women in lists like this. No one remembered them. No one considered them worth the mention. The fact that Matthew did blares a message across the ages we take for granted in our theoretically egalitarian society: 

Jesus came, right from the start, to cut through our ideas of who measures up and who’s important with his message—everyone is immeasurably important.
To grasp how revolutionary this declaration of Matthew’s is, we must understand how fundamentally not true this was for people of his time. People had a hierarchy by which to judge other people, and women were at the bottom. So were the disabled, the foreign, and the poor. The mere existence of this list in Matthew is a challenge flung into the teeth of the world. Love and value for everyone is taking over. We’re here, we’re ready to play, and we’re not going home.
So he begins with Tamar. Might as well start with Desperate Housewives. You can read the entire account here, if you wish. Just know, abridged version, she is not exactly without scandal. Desperate for a son and thus someone to care for her as a widow alone, she opts for a less than conventional route to pregnancy. As a result, she ends up almost burned alive as a prostitute. She also ends up mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy.
Tamar had been treated unfairly by those in power over her, and she was afraid. Afraid she would be alone, ashamed, and impoverished later in life. I think we can relate to those fears. Do you carry shame you’re afraid will be revealed, whether it is actually shameful or imagined shame? It was considered shameful for Tamar to have had two husbands and no sons. Her shame tripled when she was denied a third husband because of her habit of losing husbands. Matthew assures you and me from chapter one that Jesus came to deal with shame.
Fears of being alone? You haven’t found that “one” to go through life with? Or you did, but he or she turned out to be not the one? Maybe the kids are all gone and the quiet closeness of the house seems unbearable. Or you are the kid whom no one sees or hears. Matthew promises—Jesus came to deal with alone.

The fact that Matthew includes Tamar in Jesus bloodline fairly screams, if we will hear it: 

Jesus came from a woman who was frightened, alone, ashamed, and set aside because he came for people who felt the same way.
He cries from the cradle and then whispers from the cross—I will be the eraser of shame and the lover of the lonely. Come. Just come.
No more let sin and sorrow reign,
     nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make his blessings flow,
     far as the curse is found.

Because it’s Christmas.