Excerpt from Seed Falling on Good Soil, by Gordon W. King
Our daughter Tara introduced me to the category of people identified as “the done.” Though these individuals were once sacrificially involved in community organizations or religious congregations, one day, perhaps after a long period of attrition, they determine that they are done and withdraw from their previous activities and commitments. Their removal is neither a temporary hiatus nor a time of reflection. They are finished.
We probably all know pastoral leaders who have decided that they are “done.” The gifted ones move on to other professions, with no intention of returning to parish ministry. Social service agencies and international organizations also have to deal with the departure of formerly productive staff members who become tired of heavy workloads, inadequate budgets, and the unrelenting pressure of human need. They, too, are done. Even more troubling are those clergy, Christian workers and social activists, who lose their passion, yet continue to fill professional roles without engaging their hearts and entering into deep relationships with people. They write proposals, prepare reports, manage budgets, deliver sermons, and protect their careers. But the fires have gone out. Some of these Christian ministers and activists will gradually fall into patterns of depression or addiction.
The parable of the good seed and the good soil addresses the theme of resilience. It reminds us that a fruitful life requires a good heart and steadfast endurance. Most of us who have worked in the borderlands will confess to times of depletion, when our hearts have been compromised by our egos and our motivation to serve has largely disappeared. Sometimes the “funk” lasts a few days. It becomes serious when we sink into an uninspired routine. Ruth Hailey Barton has listed some common characteristics of depletion: irritability, restlessness, emotional numbness, overwork, lack of self-care, the perception of threats, compulsive behaviors, and abandonment of spiritual practices.3 Many of us have been there. Some of us are wondering if we can ever get out. We want to live good stories of fruitful engagement with the world, but we feel weighed down and unproductive.
The dominant culture promotes busyness and urgency in work, family life, and even recreation. We carry “smart” phones with capacities for conversation, texting, and emails so that we are accessible at any time. We feel pressure to update Facebook with news and photos. We wear devices that track the number of steps we walk each day. We feel guilty if we are not doing something. We need to be reminded that Jesus took time away
from the crowds to contemplate and to pray. These periods of “time away” did not indicate that he had abandoned his mission. Rather, these periods of withdrawal gave him the solitude to prepare his heart and renew his strength in order to live fully his call.
Readers will be aware that I have been inspired by the example of Oscar Romero. He served as archbishop of El Salvador for only a little more than three years. Ironically, he was chosen because church leaders felt he was a conservative figure that would not upset the institutional and political establishment. The killing of priests and the torture and disappearances of thousands of Salvadorians collectively created what Donald Miller describes as an inciting moment. Romero began to speak forcefully about the violence of El Salvador and its causes. He was criticized by the right for being a communist and by left-wing militants because of his commitment to non-violence. Surely, as people lined up to see him at his office or outside the cathedral each day, and in the face of constant death threats, he must have longed to withdraw into his former career of a seminary teacher. Romero’s resilience was rooted in his spiritual practices. He believed that each human heart contained a secret place where God meets us, where we can perceive the gentle voice of the Spirit, and from which we can cry out for the healing of our wounds and the grace to complete our missions.
Several times I visited the small chapel in San Salvador where Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist. A framed page from his personal journal hangs on the wall. The extract was taken from his reflections during a spiritual retreat after a new round death threats. He wrote that the date and circumstances of his death would be of little matter. What was important was to give his life each day to God. The inner life of contemplation and prayer gave Romero the resilience to write a good and courageous story with his life under immense pressure and adverse circumstances. We do not develop a good heart and resiliency by accident, but rather through concrete practices of contemplation and solitude in the presence of God, who searches our hearts and whispers his good story into our lives.
The parables of Jesus beckon us to the edges of our imagination, where we can hear those still, quiet whispers of the coming of God’s reign into the broken places of the world. The parables are not “easy to understand” stories like most sermon illustrations. The meanings are hidden and require discernment. The stories encourage us to slow down and ponder. We must enter them slowly, imaginatively, playfully, and prayerfully, seeking their meaning for the stories of our lives and our faith communities. As we listen in solitude, we will find strength for our journeys and for the service to which we are called.