It doesn’t take too much time around me to learn that I lean pretty far to the “cynical” side of life’s reactionary spectrum. This is honestly one of the things I’ve had the hardest time accepting about myself because growing up I was always told “you just need to be more optimistic!” or “Why do you always have to make things so serious?” Now, I understand where people are coming from but I’ve never known how to explain to others that so easily seeing the more negative sides of things makes finding the happy side much more enjoyable. This isn’t intentionally masochistic and I don’t try to keep those habits too close to the surface, but I can’t hide from the benefits it occasionally offers.
In the last couple of years, I’ve decided to embrace my cynicism and my newfound comfort was readily apparent when I read the text for today. I’ve heard this story and its following explanation more times than I can count so when I told people I didn’t know why I didn’t like verses 18-23, it was a lie. I was still nervous about telling people the way this had been framed for most of my life, but Rachel told me to give it another shot and it turns out I have a lot to say about it. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see a theme of deconstruction in my life leading to my time at Pilgrims and one of reconstruction my time here has offered.
Just a little background, I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt and consequently an extremely conservative, evangelical background. It never really felt like “me” but for the longest time I didn’t know anything else existed so I just tried to fit.
So I was in a youth group in high school that couldn’t have been more of an outlier in my town if it tried. We were all at least 15 years old, most youth groups in the area couldn’t keep kids attending after they began driving. We were surprisingly liturgical for a group of kids who 1. Grew up outside mainline denominations, 2. Began each service at the pavlovian call of a metal song we all knew and loved. Finally, at least 50% of our 40 members didn’t attend that church on Sundays – it’s not popular to go to multiple churches where I grew up.
The first seed, the one on the path, was always taught as the “worst” one. While getting “carried off” by the “evil one” can take many forms in the real world, they all have the same fundamental result: a non-believer. However my youth group had multiple, regular attendees who, to this day, identify as agnostic or atheistic – the non-believers I’d heard disparaged for so long were and still are some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
The next seed, the one on the rocky ground, always strikes me as putting undue blame on the victims of abuse or trauma either in the presence of or directly at the hands of the church. This idea goes directly against my own understanding of Christianity as being inherently communal; everyone in that group felt responsible both for and to one another which was a new experience for me.
The seed on thorny ground was always described as representing distractions keeping us from focusing our lives on God. That youth group showed me how much church itself had been a distraction for me, attending church on Sundays and Wednesdays had become my own excuse from investing in deep relationships with those around me.
The seeds that ended up in good soil had the biggest breakdown. I’d always believed my duty as a Christian was to basically convince others that it was the right way to live. That youth group had absolutely zero collective desire to be anything close to what we saw as missionaries or evangelizers; we decided we wanted our faith to look more like learning how to live a life for each other. I’d finally gotten to see firsthand what the inherently communal side of Christianity could look like.
This community was what began the deconstruction phase of the values I find evident in this text; it wasn’t until I got here, to DC and Pilgrims, that the reconstruction began.
The farmer in our story scatters seeds four times. What if they were scattering four different types of seeds into the different environments? I’ve wondered if these seeds could be seeds of Hope, seeds of Doubt, seeds of Idealism, and seeds of Self-Acceptance.
In verses 3 and 4, our “farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As [they] were scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it.”
The seeds of hope are the ones that get scattered on the path. The birds that fly away with them represent my natural cynicism that I ultimately appreciate in myself, but when paired with lifelong mental health struggles, this led to consistently stopping possibilities before they get a chance to manifest.
When I was applying to colleges, my sights were set on about 12 different schools. All of them as far away from Mississippi as I could get both geographically and culturally. However I only submitted two applications: one to the University of Mississippi and the other to Mississippi State University: the two largest in-state schools. I was terrified to leave. A familiar sort of unhappiness feels much less frightening than risking the search for true happiness elsewhere. These applications were the seeds of Hope being carried off by the birds.
When I read the phrase about birds carrying the seeds away this came to mind. All I could think about were the “what-ifs” each of those unsubmitted college applications represented. Rejection? Community? Loneliness? Safety? Obviously I’ll never know, but it’s something I’ve wondered a lot. Had I not let those seeds of Hope be carried away, I can’t see how I would’ve ended up here at Pilgrims, but I’ll talk more about that later.
The next seeds the farmer plants are the seeds of doubt in verses 5 and 6: “Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots”
Doubt has never been created simply by possibilities unexplored. The truest form of doubt comes from the seemingly most encouraging moments in life that then crash and burn in front of me. I was raised in a place that, in my opinion, viewed a more internalized doubt as something to be ashamed of. You’ve now seen what my tendency towards cynicism looks like and so I understand people’s critique of that mindset, but I can’t yet grasp what makes doubt a negative thing. I always feel like my proclivity for doubt opens the doors for me to ask the questions that continue my journey instead of solving some red herring that implies life has an answer or solution.
My doubt caused me to believe the only group of people I’d ever want to call my church family ended when I was in high school, but embracing doubt means being open to challenging my own beliefs and expectations by coming to Pilgrims has proven that wrong. I came here because it seemed like the first place since February of 2012 that I could be a part of with no hesitations. Don’t get me wrong, this place is nowhere near perfect – we all know it. And that’s why I love it.
The seed of Idealism is found in verse 7, “Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. “
In September I viewed DC as the idealist’s haven. I now see it more as the idealist’s Emerald City. However, I can think of three things that pulled the curtain back almost immediately: a morning at Charlie’s Place – a breakfast program I attend weekly at St. Margaret’s Episcopal on Connecticut Ave – talking to folks who sleep outside the Starbucks in a particularly well-off neighborhood but can’t make money panhandling anymore because people only carry debit/credit cards now; meeting someone who works for CNN and sees firsthand how much they’re asked to edit broadcasts for partner stations to get across specific messages to that channel’s audience in rural Ohio; working to salvage food that grocery stores typically throw out because there’s no incentives for them to give it away to people who need it.
Somehow, though, none of that has made me want to hate it. I’ve gained new ways of thinking – like Scarecrow – a heart for communities of people I’d never meet in my hometown – like Tin Man – the courage to speak up more often for myself, those around me, and the things we believe in – like Lion – and, in two Sundays, I’ll be clicking my heels to return home and taking my new perspective on life with me – like Dorothy.
The final seed, the seed of Self-Acceptance is the one that was planted in the “good soil” and then began to multiply. I don’t think self-acceptance is a switch that can be flipped. It happens in different capacities over time and between experiences.
One of the biggest lessons of self-acceptance I’ve learned this year is around my history of depression. For most of my life, I didn’t know what it even was. After learning more about it, I can see it’s shaped the last 15 years of my life pretty directly. As with everything, there are better and worse days/weeks/months/years and I may not deal with it in the most efficient, or even effective, way. But being here has given me the time and place to learn how to use this major part of me to influence the way in which I work and interact with others in a positive way. Anyone who has worked closely or spent time with Rachel and Ashley know that they’re pros at giving people space but never an excuse. To be clear, I say that in the most appreciative way possible because that’s a really special ability and desire to do such a thing. This year has opened my eyes to ways in which I had that idea backwards: I’d make excuses all day but never ask for or seek space to work through things.
I don’t know that this seed of Self-Acceptance had ever truly taken root until Jeff’s diagnosis. Jeff was the pastor here at Pilgrims for about 16 and a half years. The day we learned it was terminal, I experienced a flood of flashbacks to the day I found out my father was going to die. My dad dying is an instant in time that has defined who I’ve been and become for the last 15 years, and it’s honestly a memory I’m quite practiced in avoiding. However, I’ve only ever been a part of one other community that encourages one another to accept their own reactions and to just feel without question.
It takes some very good soil to allow a seed to flower under the shadow of death; that’s what I’ve experienced with this congregation this year, and most profoundly on the day we watered the garden with Jeff’s ashes. I felt every familiar reaction of mine to death.. But also a new one. It’s one I still haven’t quite figured out how to name, but it led me to just stand still and feel. Keep in mind: I’m usually very, very good at avoiding feelings – but in that moment it was all I could do. So thank you for being a community that not only allows people to feel, but encourages it.
This process of reconstruction is still relatively new for me, there’s still a lot to do. In the spirit of an inherently communal value system, I invite you along. We all have seeds that need reframing, but we don’t have to do it alone. In what ways do these seeds need reframing for you? Or, if these seeds aren’t a problem for you, what are other constructs your community can help you break down and rebuild? No matter your answer, I hope you have found a group of people that prove to be the good soil you need to give this a shot. Amen