Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In Praise of the Plow: On Dirt and Difficulty

Let's pretend that your life is dirt...very valuable dirt at that, precious earth to be cultivated for the sake of a harvest. Some like myself believe that the first man that ever lived was formed out of dirt, after which a Creator God breathed life into him. Whatever you think about that, I think we can agree that in dirt and in life, cultivation of some kind is required in order for the best fruits to grow. And parts of that cultivation process can be painful, especially when it comes to preparing the soil, a process that is known as "plowing." I came across a proverb this morning, and I felt that God gave me some insights on this plowing process that may also prove helpful for you. Let's start digging, shall we?

The proverb that stuck out to me this morning said, "Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing." -Proverbs 20:4 (NIV)

While I do not consider myself lazy like the sluggard in this proverb, I have experienced times when I thought there would be a bountiful harvest based on seeds that I had planted, yet found little fruit where it seemed there should be. I think I am beginning to understand why that is.

To plow involves the breaking and preparing of earth so that the soil can receive the seeds when they are planted. There may be plots of land that have never been tilled or other fields which, while fertile at one time, have grown hard and unfertile through the changing of seasons. In either case, plowing is necessary. And while plowing can be painful, we would do well to welcome the process for the sake of the most fruitful harvest. If the soil is not prepared before the seeds are sown, the harvest will be minimal or else non-existent. How can we recognize potential plows in our own lives so as to ensure a bountiful harvest in due time? Here are some ideas:

1. Hardship. There is nothing like difficulty to break open our lives to the possibility of something new that may be coming. Any of you who have played sports, studied hard in school, or have simply endured some kind of suffering, can attest to the fact that when we persevere through the difficulties of life, it produces strength in us which makes way for future victories, in the long term or the short. James, the brother of Jesus, had this to say of hardship:

"Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing."
-James 1:2-4

I'd go so far as to say that the hardships we endure actually prepare us to both receive and contain the good fruit that is coming later. Without the endurance that hardship produces, we might not be in a heart state to properly steward and keep what we have sought so hard to gain.

2. Change. If you are like me, there are some changes that you welcome and some changes that you absolutely hate. Change often requires growth, adapting to new circumstances or challenges. Yet the adaptability that change brings forth often prepares us to be flexible where needed so that new seeds can grow. Imagine a seed trying to get into hardened soil, saying, "Let me in! I want to put down roots and provide you with a tasty fruit tree!" But the soil says, "No, I'm fine the way I am. There's no room for you here. I'm cram-packed together. I'm not crackin' for nobody!" (Funny how the seed has proper grammar and the soil in this example does not. Perhaps that's another area of growth for this particular soil. Ha!) Do you think much is going to grow here? No. But if the hardened earth has been gradually getting softer as a result of the plowing process, in this case, many changes, there is room to receive the seed and to allow it space to do its own work. Where in your life might you need to flex to provide space for new things that God or others want to plant there?

Some of you reading this may not believe in prayer, but I encourage you to go with me on this for the sake of the exploration. I believe that prayer is one of the most powerful change agents, since it has to do with the unseen, and much of what happens within the human heart is unseen. We can see the effects of the human heart from a person's outward actions, but rarely do we see what is happening on the inside of a person in full detail. Many of us feel like kings or queens in our own right, and at times, no amount of hardship or change will prepare our hearts in the way that they need to be prepared for the seeds to produce their harvest. But God can change our hearts, make us ready. Another proverb that I love says, "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord. He directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases." -Proverbs 21:1 Are you suffering from a hardened heart or know someone who is? Are you perhaps so burnt out by the hardships and changes that you have endured that instead of opening your heart, they have caused your plot of earth to harden even more? In those cases, seeds of hope and life have little chance to grow. This is where prayer can be so helpful. You or someone you know can pray to God to change the heart, to redirect it like a course of water, wherever God pleases. And if you're praying to the God that I know, the one who makes chai and so many other good things, the destination of his pleasure is going to be a good one.

Really, anything that produces an openness or softening of our hearts can be a plow in our lives. This is so encouraging to me because it means the seemingly pointless struggles that we go through can actually be God's way of preparing us for a bounty of incredible fruitfulness in the next season. And without that plowing process, we might sabotage the very harvest that we seek to sow into. I have been going through a tough season lately, much of it fueled by being "homeless" in New York City for the past month and looking for a new apartment for even longer. Yet this morning, after reading and processing that proverb, I began to thank God for however he is plowing my heart in this time of couch surfing, apartment hunting, and seeming instability. Though I cannot see all that he is doing in my heart, I am confident that this process has been necessary in order for me to enjoy whatever he has for me in the next season. Come harvest time, I'm going to enjoy the fruit that springs from the surface, knowing that the plow made the promise possible.

"So let's not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don't give up." -Galatians 6:9 (NLT)

I know it's hard, and sometimes you just want to faint under the heavy heat and hard labor that plowing requires. But as other translations of the above verse say, faint not! You and I will reap our harvest, and this plowing season shall end. Should you think you might faint regardless, join me in looking to the one who never faints, and in so doing, we can become like him.

"Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
" -Isaiah 40:28-31