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Principle Christianity Is Too Easy to Choke On

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. Luke 8:15

The Lord’s parable of the sower is a hopeful story. But no more hopeful than creation itself, in which a single seed actually does result in many more seeds, even hundreds of seeds.

But the parable is also a starkly truthful story, and that can feel very discouraging. Because some seeds don’t take root, some are eaten by birds, and some, even when they take root, can die from lack of water or by being choked out by weeds.

I’m thinking about seeds that are getting nowhere this morning. I’m the kind of farmer to whom every seed counts.

Parable of the Sower Lisa Snow Lady Acrylic on canvas 2010

People in the weeds

I am especially thinking of the much-loved friends I have who have been effectively choked out by weeds, or, by now, have faith that has been so ill-watered for so long that it is about dried up. Even more specifically, I am thinking about my friends who have what I call a “principle faith”. They received “the seed” of the word of the kingdom of God as a set of thoughts, a system of belief, even as oral tradition from their parents. When they took their faith on the road, when it encountered a world hungry for their allegiance, when it was surrounded by the jungle of desire and demand, it did not have the stuff to withstand the weeds of opposition.

A faith based on principle alone has a hard time standing up against other forces demanding allegiance on a more visceral level. But many people were persuaded to rely on principles at an early age. I’m not sure why Christian parents and teachers did this, but they sat their children in classes to get their training for a life of faith. I know, I went through some of these. Among the first things a child learns from such classes is that Christianity is about learning things in a class! In our classes, we were taught stories from the Bible which all had morals — sometimes more like Aesop’s fables than the Bible. We learned principles of faith, which were extracted from scripture. For instance, from the parable of the sower the following principle might be derived, “It is God’s will that I should be good, productive soil and bear a very fruitful crop for the storehouses of the kingdom.”  Advanced students might argue that they had a more accurate principle to propose. And so it started. Every paragraph, even every clause, in the Bible had a secret meaning that correlated with all the other meanings in a rather intricate system of right thinking that one needed to master to be a good Christian.

Do we really need to be better students?

As most children in school do, a lot of the students of Christianity didn’t listen too well. They were like most of the of the students of 11th grade math who never mastered higher math skills and certainly never used them after 11th grade! Hopefully, they aren’t all like me, but I became much more adept at cheating than at higher math skills as a result of trigonometry. If the principles of math are hard to convey, the “principles” of life in Christ are much harder! Math can be reduced to some principles, perhaps. But life in Christ needs to grow among weeds. The inorganic approach to teaching about Jesus needs a classroom to live in, not real life. So there are many problems with the teaching that a lot of my friends received. They ended up with a smattering of good thinking (or disputable theology) and that’s about all they have of the word when they are facing the weighty issues of their lives.

Does everything happen for a reason?

The friends I am praying for this morning have a “principle faith” that took them quite a distance on the pilgrimage of faith, but eventually it got them lost. For instance, a couple of these friends had very disheartening break-ups with people with whom they had been having sex for a year or so (and so the break-up was a no-marriage divorce and felt like one). The only faith they could apply to the situation was the common, unshakeable assurance a mother or teacher had taught them that, “Everything happens for a reason,“ which is an application of a faulty principle based on an interpretation of Romans 8:28 among other things. It wasn’t enough. Their faith started to wither.

People are more compelling than principles

Another main thing that I’ve seen choking out the weak little seedlings of principle faith in many people is the demand for allegiance from an unbelieving mate (usually one they are prospectively marrying). That demand is a virulent weed. Once you have sex with someone, it is hard to have what is always an intimate discussion about faith based merely on a set of morals or principles and not on a relationship with God that is as intimate as a sexual one with your lover. But in the cases of the dear people I am remembering, their relationship with God never got that intimate — it was all on paper, it was all in their head, it was all a theory they were applying and not a life growing in their redeemed heart.

They were never good soil. “Good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” One can’t hear the word of Jesus like it is more classroom material to be boiled down to the couple of things one can remember — not if it is supposed to withstand robust competition. Noble hearts hear the word from the Word in an ongoing, well-developed, Spirit to spirit relationship that is rooted in eternity — deeper than any human relationship. One has to retain the word of the kingdom of God like good soil retains water – much more than one strains to maintain a relationship with a mate, even. One must hear the word like a call from a master to direct one’s energy to the task of the day – it can’t be the background philosophy that lightly colors what one is really doing.

What does God think?

My friends did not have the faith they needed to stand up to their circumstances. They still have the same thoughts their mother or a well-meaning teacher taught them, but whatever they needed to hear in their heart got choked out by whoever they finally hooked up with. That connection was probably the noblest aim they could come up with, since their faith was merely theoretical and their love/sex relationship quite real. If they were married to the job, instead, as so many are, the job likely parched their scrawny thoughts about God, and the world at large rewarded them with something tangible for that. They may end up great parents and co-workers. But they are not going to be Jesus-followers unless something drastically changes.

Well, they may think they are Jesus followers. But if they don’t open their heart to hear with their heart, if they don’t retain what the Spirit of God implants, and if they don’t doggedly produce the crop of faith, hope and love that their master bought the farm to produce, will God think they are Jesus followers? What would make Jesus think that?

The single seed vs. untrusting death-prevention

From today’s reading: I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  (Jesus in John 12)

seed death
A seed “dying”

Lent is good for uncovering our untrusting death-prevention techniques. Unless we want them exposed, it is better to ignore the whole season. If we don’t ignore the season,  Jesus is going to say something like he does in John 12, above. He is going to keep saying it is best to go ahead and die and rise instead of just trying not to die. We should stop just trying not to die, which we have been perfecting since we were born, and stop neglecting our meditation on rising, as we usually do.

Death-prevention is the preoccupation of humankind. I think the world’s outpouring of love for Haiti recently is an example of the instinct working for good. Our country’s astounding investment in national defense and offense is the more common expression. Generally, people do not trust God for their lives, so they are quite preoccupied with preventing their deaths. I say “generally” because quite a few people practice death-by-anesthesia with excess calories, smoking, and other addictions, and with all the other inventive ways we use to avoid the subject of death altogether.

Holy dying

As Lent draws our eyes toward the cross again, we are reminded again about holy dying. Some people even give up their anesthesia for a while so they can feel what Jesus is talking about. During Lent we heed the call to try on death. We need to heed the call because trying not to die is what one does until she comes to understand that she will live forever. Death-prevention is logical until one realizes that staying alive does not produce love or cause transformation so well (the logic of “capitalism” notwithstanding).

It is better to be a seed. These examples of what being the seed that dies might mean all came up in the last thirty minutes:

  • Better to be a single seed than to make sure we don’t compromise about anything with our mates.
  • Better to be a single seed than to shrink back from asking gunshop owners to follow a minimal code of conduct.
  • Better to be a single seed than to make sure my hurt feelings are of paramount importance.
  • Better to be a single seed than to resist what Jesus teaches or turn his teaching into something controllable and relative.
  • Better to be a single seed than just keep doing whatever slavish thing the master requires.
  • Better to be a single seed than be accepted by those who have another god.

There are good ways to die ahead. That’s why Jesus’ metaphor is so important. If italics been available he might have said, “If a seed dies it produces many seeds.” Because he knew that even if they killed him, he would rise again.

If you are like me, a lot of things seem like they just might kill me. I can get kicked into death-prevention very easily. Lent is good for getting to the deep fears and desires that make us run for our lives or fight for them. It is in those very places Jesus has planted his spiritual seed so that everlasting life can spring up. I pray for our courage to nurture the seedlings struggling for light in the darkness.