Learning to Believe

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Apologetics was fashionable in the 80’s, and I was nothing if not fashionable. OK, I was never fashionable. Not one day of my college career, most likely. But when you’re surrounded by Izods and boat shoes, and you’re a Laura Ashley kind of girl, it’s just never going to happen.

Trained as a high school debater, I found my psychological home in apologetics. I soaked in the books handed to me by InterVarsity leaders like Know What You Believe and it’s younger brother, Know Why You Believe.

But One Remained

The one that caught and kept me, though, could only have come from the pen of CS Lewis. Mere Christianity.

Two years ago, I bought a copy of it, older than the one I still had from college, at an Antiquarian Book Sale. It’s eggshell cover, sheathed in plastic so that it did not become as brittle as shell, bore no modern photoshop or multi-color printing, only blue pin-striping and a title. It was austere. Plain. Speaking to me of a faith that Lewis didn’t embellish either but embraced for its straightforward truth to him, not its smoke and mirrors.

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Magdalen College, Oxford

I didn’t know what I had subscribed to when I walked that church aisle two years prior. Lewis told me. Logically. Honestly. The way I liked to be told things that mattered.

My new faith could coexist with my intellect. One of the greatest minds of the century knew this, so why should I doubt it? I devoured Lewis’ arguments for belief, digesting them like the meat Paul says our souls were made to crave.

You Can Be Smart and Still Believe

Lewis confronted me with the honest reality of my willfulness and the stunning equal reality of God’s intent for me.

“..fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”

He wrestled with me over the ways my culture told me the horrible truth about humans could be “fixed.”

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

He explained Jesus in a way that appeared utterly sensible to my logic-craving mind.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

He told me of the yearning I thought only I knew, the ache to belong somewhere I had never known.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

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The pulpit from which Lewis preached “The Weight of Glory” in Oxford.

And There Were Others

It wouldn’t be the only time Lewis challenged my assumptions. The Great Divorce forced new thoughts on hell and heaven and all that might fall in the grey space in between. If God’s time isn’t linear, perhaps Lewis’ notions of busses and second chances between the afterlife zones wasn’t so far-fetched.

Of course it was story, meant to convince us to make the right decision, get on the right bus so to speak, now. Yet his imaginary exploration did something for me that would be invaluable later in life. It made me understand that sometimes, I could be wrong.

_There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it._

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a book I didn’t open until after college, eclipsed the other Chronicles for me. I know, the first book is the favorite. But the story of Eustace, with its greatest of first lines in literature, taught me the value of perseverance and the beauty of a King who would adore me so much he would come tear off my dragon scales.

I may have been young, but I knew there were many dragon scales. Those layers of defensive, self-protecting coarse skin don’t slough off easily. They’re still coming, I think.

The Screwtape Letters would give me one of my favorite quotes of all time:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

In my darkest of days, and there have been some, I would turn back to Wormwood and declare that his master would never win, no matter the lonely universe.

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And Now

Years later, I stand around on Sunday and Tuesday nights, directing a cast of twenty in an assuredly non-professional version of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The other night, one of the children pondered Aslan’s death and coming back to life as we worried about how to create a stone table that would hold a grown man on a tiny stage and a tinier budget.

“It’s like Jesus!” he exclaimed in a moment of relative quiet.

Another generation finds the great lion, and a great author, still unfolding the Author of All, in ways only he can.

Maybe It’s the Hands

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or read last week’s blog post) know I went to Scotland last month. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.

Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.

Oxford

The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear  without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.

This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?

Not what I saw.

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Handwritten

On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?

I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.

Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.

This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Others of you stand on chairs to see your team score a touchdown. Some, like my husband, go agape at the sight of ancient statues and clay pots. Paintings will transport certain people to realms of imagination and joy.

Handwritten words make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.

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What are we leaving?

I realized, while I inhaled those manuscripts like am addict getting a fix, that we are not leaving written words to other generations. Whoever the great authors of our age are, is anyone going to want to stare at their Messenger notes in a museum one day? Is the sight of their emailed manuscript going to make anyone’s heart beat faster? Will anyone ever stand and peer at their iPad, on which they typed the thrilling battle cry for that climactic scene, and sob with the pure joy of it?

Will anyone cross an ocean to see their laptop?

Nope.

On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when.

The archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully  places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.

It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s taste in food. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.

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Maybe it’s the hands

We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.

Scripture shouts this message.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27

“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8

“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10

“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15

Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.

Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.

But I cry because I know the story, and the storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.

The Good Stuff

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My husband has worms in the basement. (He also has bees in the backyard and frogs in the dining room. He’s a odd duck, but he’s my odd duck.)

We faithfully save our table scraps and those items in the crisper drawers that have been there ever so slightly too long. (As in, I really can’t identify that green slime, but I believe it was once related to lettuce. Or parsley. It’s a tough call.)

We toss them in the compost bucket by the sink, and he feeds it to the worms. Worms do what worms do, which is basically absorb and poop, and lo and behold, we have beautiful, fine soil to add to our garden beds in the spring.

It’s a strange process, but it works.

Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

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We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the weedy soil that refuses to prioritize and cut out some of the clutter.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Now, the good stuff. The fertile soil.

“Other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”

Someone had worked to clear that soil! The weeds were cut down and their roots pulled. The rocks were thrown to the side. The soil was tilled and turned and dug deep just waiting for the seed.

That heart was ready for God to get to work.

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Fertile soil is rich and deep. It’s filled with nutrients. It’s been carefully worked so that it’s not too sandy, not too much clay. In our yard, fertile soil doesn’t just happen. We’ve got solid Midwestern clay. Hence, the worms.

It takes buckets of compost, faithfully saved. A watering system that maintains a careful balance in our seasons of drought and regular gullywashers. (If you don’t live in the Midwest, perhaps you don’t know what a gullywasher is. But it is a rainstorm to behold, let me tell you.) It takes weeding and prepping and care—but when it’s ready?

You should see the crops of beans and peppers.

“The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Matthew 13)

A heart that is ready for God to work is a heart filled with life. Is that who we are?

Fertile soil just aches to grow things. It’s its only reason for being. Fertile soil has no interest in hanging out with nothing to show. Fertile hearts have heard and paid attention to Jesus’ story. They respond. They know you have to make growing good things a priority for it to happen. They’ve done the hard work of softening their hearts in vulnerability, deepening their hearts with commitment, and decluttering their hearts for focus. They’re ready for that seed.

But How Much Fruit?

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A funny thing happens at this point in the story. The seed sown on good soil yielded different amounts. That’s the way it works when we open our hearts to God. He knows the maximum we are created to produce, and he asks only that we grow to our own best. It’s pretty great that God isn’t standing there in the field saying, “Hey, you grew way more than that other guy. But you—you are such a failure. You only returned ten times what I gave you. Loser.”

Nope. He doesn’t do that. He rejoices over everyone’s return, no matter how much. He knows what we are designed to do, and his only desire is that we bear the fruit we were made for and make it good. We don’t need to worry about how much. We just need to make that fruit so good people will want to taste it.

In fact, when we start to compare our fruit to the person next to us who had a hundred times return on the seed, you know what happens? Those weeds start coming into our plot of land. The rocks end up back under the soil. All the worries we weeded out come right back in, because we took our focus off of producing good fruit and started to compare how much other people were doing to what we were managing.

God is overjoyed at our return. Not the size of it—the fact of it. He celebrates the people who returned ten times as much exactly the same as he celebrates the ones who returned 100 times. He says the same thing to both—the same thing he says to the servants in another of Jesus’ stories.

“Well done good and faithful servant. Come celebrate with me!” (Matthew 25.23)

The hard soil doesn’t get to celebrate. The rocky soil doesn’t get to celebrate. The weedy soil doesn’t get to celebrate.

The fertile soil celebrates like crazy—all together, all celebrating one another’s return. Because that’s how it works in God’s crazy kingdom. He loves when we rejoice over one another’s wins. He rejoices, too.

So here’s the question, after all this.

Will we take the risk to cultivate our soil, digging deep and plowing up? Will we make the sacrifice to change priorities and seek the kingdom first of all? Will we make the commitment to put those roots deep, coming to God in the every day rather than saving him for emotional highs and lows? Will we rejoice over others’ successes?

Will we love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind? Will we tell a good story with our life?

Then we’ll bear fruit worth getting excited about.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

How do we tell a good story?

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

We need to fill our hearts with life to tell a good story.

Are you ready, in this season of the greatest story of all? We’re celebrating the most epic sacrifice ever, God’s willingness—no, his utmost joy— to put our needs first and come to earth. He’s already told the story. What part in it are we going to play?

Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.

Going Deep

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Last week, we began talking about Jesus’ story of the soils. It’s part of a series on Jesus’ stories and how to be good storytellers with out lives. You can read the intro here.

The basic idea is this:

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

More than anything, it seems, people want to tell good stories with their lives. So shouldn’t we want to hear the stories of the one who most people agree was the best at that? I do.

Jesus told his listeners about a farmer who tossed seed around—some on a hard path, some on rocky soil, some amid weeds, and some on good, fertile soil. This week, let’s talk a little about those rocks.

“Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock.”

You can guess what’s going to happen here, right?

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We have a bare spot in our garden, right along the driveway. Every so often, I decide to put a plant there. I shove the transplant spade into the dirt. And it stops, abruptly. Under that bare spot is a slab of rock, not an inch and a half down. I always forget it’s there. But the shovel reminds me with its jolt, and I know I cannot plant anything in that place. It’s roots will never grow deep enough to survive, especially in the dry, tree-root ridden soil along our driveway.

Rocks are not usually conducive for growth. The only things that grow among rocks are small plants that don’t have much for roots. (I know—things with giant taproots do as well—but that’s another theological truism.)

The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. (Matthew 13.20-21)

Shallow Soil Produces a Shallow Story

I have known so many of these people. They react immediately to hearing inspirational messages. They are all in. The emotional high grabs them, and they want to spring up and sign up as God’s right hand, right now.

Then life happens. The heat gets turned up. The high is gone, and life returns to so very . . . normal. I start to hear things like,“That’s not what I signed up for.” “I didn’t expect this.” “Well, God’s not working for me anymore.”

God ends up like a fire alarm in the hallway of their lives—pull in case of emergency, but otherwise, he stays behind the glass.

The ones whose faith lands on rocky soil never develop deep roots.

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Is your heart shallow or deep?

To tell a good story with our lives, we need deep hearts.

A story without depth is boring. If a plotline never gets beyond small demands and low risk, who really wants to read it? Who’s going to option the movie rights on the tale that never embroils its hero in anything interesting?

If Frodo just FedExed the ring to Mordor, no one would care.

The story happens in the difficult moments. Characters are created in the hot sun. When drought hits, we know which people we want to watch until the end.

The ones who have shown depth of heart.

The kingdom of God thrums a heartbeat of deep, messy, thoughtful life. The ones who see the demands, the depth, and then opt out have forfeited the opportunity to grow deep hearts.

I know that choice. It’s tempting to look at the heartbeat of the kingdom and think, “That’s too much. That passion would ask more than I can give. Feeling the things that break Jesus’ heart could break mine. Pull back. Pull back.”

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I made that choice long enough, settling for rocky soil and a heart that went to a certain level and no farther. Then, Jesus forced me to see with his eyes.

What do you see when you get eye to eye with a lonely elderly person? When you visit an addict in the hospital? When you listen to an immigrant or refugee tell her story? When you really get a look at hurricane devastation on an island unable to recover for itself? I know what you see.

You see Jesus looking back. You see yourself in a way you’ve never seen you. And you like it.

Because here’s the thing—we’re created to be more than skin deep. There’s a cost to skating the surface. It seems easier — we’re too busy. Too overwhelmed. Remaining shallow-hearted is survival, that’s all.

But the cost is our soul. Deep hearts are real hearts. Broken hearts are alive.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

What will you risk this week to grow deep?

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.

Telling Great Stories

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What was your favorite story as a child? Mine was Ferdinand the Bull. I didn’t think most people knew about Ferdinand, but he was special to me. Something clicked  between me and a bull who didn’t want to fight—just wanted to smell the flowers. I just wanted to sit under a tree and read a book. Or on the couch. Or in bed, under the blankets late at night. Or anywhere, really.

Leave me alone, and let me live peacefully. Ferdinand found that difficult as a bull intended for the bullring. I found it difficult as the youngest of seven kids.

I knew what it felt like to be different. Can another INFJ raise a hand, here?

As an adult, the stories that have shaped me, not surprisingly, revolve around second chances and grace and the least among us doing great thing. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Pride and Prejudice. (Also, stories about women who aren’t afraid to say what they mean. And then sometimes have to apologize.)

Stories Change Us

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I will never forget the gut-punch feeling while sitting in a dark theater in December, 2001. My family watched The Fellowship of the Ring roll out on the big screen in Bozeman, Montana. (There was only one big screen in Bozeman.) We were only a couple months out of 9/11. The horror was still raw, the fear still tangible. And then Gandalf said the words I have never been able to shake.

To Frodo’s exhausted, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

It meant something. It still means something to me—enough to make me write a book and speak to young adults everywhere I can about the wondrous ability of Tolkien’s stories to change us.

Stories mean something. We read them, watch them, are changed by them. From the beginning of humanity, people told stories to connect and to reflect who they were and who they wanted to be.

I’ve been taking some time to preach through Jesus’ stories lately. Because if any stories are going to change us, those ought to.

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Jesus’ Stories Change Everything

Often when we read Jesus’ parables, we read them to extract a moral. What does he want us to do? How should we act? In the words of the rich young man, “What must I do for the kingdom of God?”

What if Jesus wants us to live the story—plot, character, climax, and conflict? What if he wants us to read it like he meant it—like a story, not a morality play? In fact, as a writer, I know the latter is a terrible way to write a story. We dare not tack on a moral at the end or we make it cliche, a trite tale that bashes the reader over the head with our Bible. (It’s kind of the way Christians tend to make movies . . . )

That’s not Jesus’ way.

Jesus drops a story in the listeners’ ears. The he lets them figure it out. He makes them figure it out. Jesus is not a bash-them-over-the-head sort of guy. (Although he has no trouble being a turn-the-tables-over sort of guy. That’s different.)

So what is the purpose of Jesus’ stories? They paint us a picture of life as it should be. His tales hold up a portrait, a landscape really, of the kingdom of God. This is what it looks like, guys. And he asks— Is this the story you want to tell as your own?

Jesus tells stories to help us imagine a world that aligns with how its supposed to be–to help us create our own story and tell it out. We study parables not for the moral of the story but for our story within them. What do they contribute to our tale? And how does out tale fit in God’s great kingdom, of which we are a tiny, tiny part yet still a meaningful one?

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

In Jesus’ “introduction” to his parables, he gives another reason for telling them. To sort out who is truly listening.

That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend.

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. (Matthew 13)

Jesus returns to the ancient shema—the call of God to truly hear and listen. From its beginning in Deuteronomy, the shema asks more of God’s people. They are to listen to his words with open ears and hearts, willing and wanting to respond to God’s words at all times. That’s the meaning behind “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus means don’t simply hear—DO.

So the parables are stories to help us find our place in God’s great story. They are also sifters to see who is really listening. Jesus is preparing to leave his followers, and he needs to know who is in and who is a hanger-on. Not that the hangers-on aren’t welcome, but they aren’t where he’s going to get his team for building the church when he is gone. He’s looking for hearers and doers. And the stories separate the ones who want to work at it from those who want the fireworks and free fish.

Just think about all the people who were Cubs fans last year but not this. That’s the difference, my friends.

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When do we listen, really listen, to stories, as I did in that dark theater sixteen years ago?

We listen to stories when we appreciate our need for them.

I mean, if we’re prepping for a test, and we think we’ve got all the time in the world, or we know more than anyone else, we’re not likely to really listen when the teacher is reviewing. We’re going to be in the corner on Facebook, or doodling in the notebook, or catching a nap. We don’t feel our need for the information.

Jesus didn’t force morals or tell his point straight out because he wanted people to realize their need. We usually only realize that when we’re made to work for it. If it comes easily, we don’t know how much we really need it. When we do realize it, we are really to change. He wanted to force that work. Because—

Good stories change us for the better.

and then—

People who are changed tell good stories.

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That’s the point of the parables. To get us to tell good stories with our lives. We will never do that until we have ears to hear Jesus’ stories and know that they aren’t intended to give us a new law or some behavior to check off but a completely new story arc.

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

We do that when we let the stories sink through our ears and change our very hearts.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

Next week, we will begin looking into some of those stories. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some of yours.

Also–what was your favorite story as a child? What’s your favorite now?