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Some years ago my wife and I decided to plant a prairie in some open land near our house. We put in the various kinds of grass seed and wildflowers that grow in prairies and eagerly waited for results. The first year we had nothing but a fine crop of weeds. We were really disappointed! The second year was only a little better. We had some wildflowers all right, but they were mostly of the same kind. We wondered if all our effort had been wasted. Then an experienced gardener told us that we would just have to be patient, because it would take three years or more before we would see any results. "Three YEARS?" we said, "What in the world is going on?" The seeds we had planted, she said, were busy growing downward, building a massive root system that would carry them through the dry spells that lay ahead. Those deep roots would eventually give the prairie plants the strength to outlast all the faster growing weeds that bothered us so much at first.
This is a good time of year to think about what growing plants can teach us. Many people plant gardens in the spring and wait eagerly to see how much of what they planted will eventually grow and produce flowers or vegetables. Along about now those gardens should be well on their way, but in many cases nothing is ripe yet. We are in a waiting time between planting the seed and seeing the results. In addition to seed and soil and rain, growing plants need time. Time is the ingredient that gardeners often forget. And the same thing is true in our faith life.
The story of the sower in Mark makes the same point. A farmer scatters seed on the ground and then waits for it to grow. Some falls on shallow soil, pops up quickly and withers just as fast when the sun gets too hot. Birds eat up the seed that falls on the hard soil of the path. Other seed can't compete with the weeds. But SOME of the seed proves to be sturdy and yields 30 or 60 or a hundred times more grain than what was put into the ground. When we read this story we often focus only on the types of soil, because that determined how well the seed would grow.
But there is another point. We need to remind ourselves that, regardless of the type of soil, it takes time for the results to show. "Only time will tell," we say, and that can be a comfort to us when we think about our own faith. Because time can tell us that faith needs time to put down roots before it blossoms visibly in someone's life, even our own.
Not long ago a mother told me that she was worried about her twentyone-year-old son who had stopped going to church when he left home. What did I do wrong? She asked.
A student worried about her faith as a Christian because she had never won an argument on religion with anyone.
Remember that the seed in this story is not just any old seed. It is the Word of God. It is effective. God says, "My word will not return to me empty." How does that happen?
Although we talk about ideas as being "planted" in our minds, we don't think of our brains as fields much any more. We are much more likely to imagine our minds as similar to tape recorders or computers, where data is entered and stored until we need it. That's not a bad image for the way faith works.
If you are a parent, you may have been surprised by hearing your grown children speak to their own children just as you used to do -- in exactly the same words! Those words had been lying dormant in your offsprings minds until they reached the time of life when they were needed to warn or scold or comfort the next generation. We may only have a brief conversation with someone, but God can use those words in the lifelong dialogue that God carries on with that person through other individuals just like us. Maybe our words will only start the process, plant the original seed. Maybe they will reinforce something that others have already said. In some cases, our words may be the deciding influence that will mean a dramatic change in someone's life. Only time will tell.
I once sat at a table in Germany with a group of air force chaplains as they relaxed and traded stories about military bases around the world where they had served. It turned out that two of them had served on the same base, one after the other. Naturally, they soon began to play "Did you know so-and-so on that base?" Among the names they knew in common, one couple stood out. The chaplain who had been on that base first described the difficulties and despair those two people had wrestled with. He ended by saying, "I worked with them as best I could, but nothing seemed to help. I wonder if they are still together." "Together?" the second chaplain said, "You should see them now. They are the mainstays of our program there, and they speak so highly of the way your words made a difference in their lives." That chaplain was lucky, most of the time we never get to learn the results of our efforts. We try to express our faith to someone else -- a school friend, a coworker, an invalid, a relative -- and then we move away, they take another job, or we lose track of them in some other way. But God knows how that timely word from you may bring results in the years that follow.
Have you ever heard the story of Johnny Appleseed -- that legendary frontiersman who walked across Ohio and other states giving out seeds for fruit trees? It is said that many generations benefited from Johnny Appleseed's passion for planting. But just suppose that Johnny was worried about results. Suppose he did not trust to the power of the seeds to grow and the weather and soil to nourish. Suppose he felt personally responsible for getting each and every tree up to the stage where it was producing fruit. How many trees would he have been able to plant in his lifetime? How many counties or states would have looked back to him with gratitude?
So it is with our sharing the word about Jesus Christ. Our job is only to plant the seed. God can then use our efforts to bring forth results far beyond any we could imagine. That's what St. Paul was talking about when he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 6: "I planted, Apollos (another Christian) watered, but God gave the increase." Paul saw his job like Johnny Appleseed saw his, plant the seed, and trust the results to God. That is good advice to us as well.
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