For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice “Listening, Hearing” led by Ivy Anthony, Click HERE.
What a year it’s been already. As my friend Linda wrote rather hilariously on Facebook, if you have gotten out of bed, brushed your teeth, and have not instigated, committed, abetted, or cheered on insurrection, you are rocking 2021. Way to go!
Seriously, what a week it’s been. A Confederate flag flying in the Capitol, a gallows set up outside, face after face of angry white men’s rage, Christian slogans on posters lying on the ground next to empty liquor bottles. It’s a lot.
On days like this when we’re troubled by dramatic world events, I can put a lot of pressure on myself to say the perfect things. But the truth is I found this past week’s storming of the Capitol as disturbing as I’m sure you did. Our minds, our hearts have been racing this week.
I did put out a statement on Friday morning, which I hope you read. You can still find it on our blog and social media. It’s important to speak with clarity, I know. But I’ll admit that I’ve been on the same ride you all have been on this past year, and it’s been a lot. It’s hard to always know the perfect thing to say.
So today, I’m going to do what we’d planned to do. I’m going to take us to the feet of Jesus, our teacher, who has wisdom and guidance and hope and life for us all. And I’m going to trust that the words and presence of Jesus will give us what we need for this moment.
But first, let’s pray together.
I used to be an English teacher, and I started out with 8th graders, and mostly kids whose skills in reading and writing were a little underdeveloped compared to many other kids their age. And at first, it seemed like the biggest barrier to learning for my students was the “I don’t want to” attitude. As in: I don’t want to read that book. Well, how about this one? No. How about that one? No. How about any book you choose? No, really. Sometimes the “no” was said out loud like that, but a lot of the time, it was just on the face. Or in the body.
Have you been around middle schoolers recently? Were you ever 13? Then you know what I’m talking about.
But as I got to know my students, I’d find that if you scratch under the service of “I don’t want to” you’d find the real issue was “I can’t.” Kids didn’t want to read out loud because they were embarrassed by how they sounded. Or they didn’t want to read books because they felt they couldn’t understand them, or couldn’t relate to them. The same with writing: kids would tell me all the time: I’m just not good at that. And they’d point to or name somebody else, and say: he’s the one, or she’s the one who’s the writer.
I was sure they were wrong. My most important mentor in learning to teach middle school English was a teacher I’d never met, an expert named Nancie Atwell who taught there is no such thing as a good reader or a good writer. Language and communication are pretty central to the human experience, she insisted. And there are people who read and who write, and do so in ways that are meaningful to them, and give them opportunities for deliberate practice, and these are people who become readers and writers over time. But if you don’t read and don’t write in ways that are accessible and meaningful to you, then of course, your skills and experience won’t progress.
These different attitudes about reading and writing and about learning and ability in general were later given names by the psychologist Carol Dweck. She’s studied and written about a spectrum of mindsets about intelligence and learning that have become kind of famous. She called the ends of these spectrums fixed mindset and growth mindset.
Fixed Mindset: Believing our qualities are fixed traits which are hard to change.
These are the people who say “I can’t do this” and think that isn’t likely to change. And that attitude becomes self-fulfilling. These are the people who think certain others have the ability, not me, which again, makes it hard for that to change.
I know I feel this way about my life and about the world sometimes – it is what it is. Things are what they are. In the classroom, though, students with fixed mindsets raise their hands less, engage less, receive lower grades, and take longer to recover from setbacks. So a fixed mindset isn’t just a self-fulfilling path to stagnation, it leads to lower levels of resilience, engagement, and hope.
Now Dweck contrasts this with what she has labelled a growth mindset.
Growth Mindset: Believing that effort and energy over time can lead to growth and improvement.
A growth mindset says: I may or may not be able to do this today, but I can try and learn and grow. With effort and help and perseverance, I will change and improve.
My big challenge as a teacher was to cultivate this growth mindset about reading and writing in my students, to help them believe in the possibility of their own growth, so they would engage, take risks, keep trying, and see the results that come with this approach.
Now in a year that’s been full of isolation and discouragement, and in a time of history where so much that is broken is being revealed for what it is, I believe that the cultivation of a growth mindset is critical to our joy, to our flourishing, even to our survival.
We want to live with hope. And we want to put in the work to help secure growth and better futures for ourselves, for others, and for the world at large. Growth mindset.
And I think that when we listen to the stories Jesus tells us, we find that one thing he is encouraging is a growth mindset, believing in a present and future that holds healing and renewal and fruitful growth.
Let’s listen to one of Jesus’ stories, where he talks about why he tells stories in the first place.
Mark 4:1-2, 10-23 (NRSV)
4 Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables… 9 And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
I chose this passage for today because we’re going to listen to the stories Jesus tells us, the stories called parables, over the next few weeks. And this seems to be like a keystone story for Jesus, one that helps us understand why he teaches the way he does. So we’re starting with this little story about seeds and growth.
And I’ve got three things to say about this one today. The first is that:
Jesus is more gardener than carpenter
I get this line from a book about raising kids, a book called The Gardner and The Carpenter by Alison Gopnik. The idea is that carpenters have a scheme in mind of something they want to build – usually a pretty specific scheme, down to exact measurements. And you get material and turn it into the thing you have in mind. As Gopnik says: Messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once.
And the idea is that this is a great way to build a house, but not so great a way to raise a human being. People aren’t just commodities that become anything you want them to. They have their own natures that need noticing and honoring.
So while a carpenter shapes inanimate objects entirely according to the carpenter’s own will, a gardener supports animate objects – life – as they grow, according to their own internal nature.
With plants, a gardener tends to the soil, makes room, weeds and all that, and then delights as the mix of predictable and surprising as living things grow. With children, the parent or teacher gardener doesn’t try to control kids according to a pre-set pattern, but helps them grow and flourish each according to their own nature and interests.
And Jesus implies that God – not just here but throughout his stories he tells – that God does much the same. Though Jesus was – we believe – literally trained as a carpenter, he tells stories about seeds and plants and other living things. Jesus lets us know that God wants the earth, and wants humanity in particular, to grow and flourish – thirty, sixty, hundredfold – immensely.
And what is all this growth? Well, Jesus doesn’t get specific in this story, but there’s a reference to old prophecy, when in exasperation, he’s like people are looking and listening, but if only they would perceive and understand, they would turn and be forgiven. Or, in the original context of what Jesus is quoting, they would turn and be healed. Which includes forgiveness but is more than that as well.
Here’s the interesting with God and all this growth and healing God is encouraging. God isn’t making any of this happen. God isn’t controlling us all like a carpenter picks up tools and nails and just builds his thing. God’s a gardener. God lets everything grow. Elsewhere, Jesus implies God doesn’t even like weeding – God’s going to to plant and water and nourish and whisper goodness and direction to us all and God’s going to continue to let us grow as we want. For good or ill.
See, to drop the metaphor for a minute, God’s project is not like a carpenter’s. God doesn’t control what God made. God is love, and love can’t control. Messiness is not God’s enemy. All living things, people included, have this glorious freedom to in part set our own course.
God has direction. God went through all the trouble to become a person, after all, to tell us stories, to teach us, to inspire and heal, to walk with us, to suffer with us. Jesus, in this parable, is like: God always has a word for each of us. God has a path of abundant life available to us all, at all times. But it is always up to us to take it or not.
And, as we know, many of us don’t much of the time. This is why it shouldn’t shock us when people do horrible things, even people we thought we’re on our team or share our faith. Look no further than Washington this week. People are attracted to lies and conspiracy. People are attracted to power. Fear and resentment often burrow deeper in the heart than love and hospitality.
Many of our gardens are in bad shape. We look around and it’s like, man: this world is an unkempt garden full of toxins and trash. We have a lot of work to do. God won’t do it for us. But the Spirit of God through the words of Jesus says to us as Jesus did in Galilee: I’m speaking. Look and perceive. Listen and understand. Turn, come here, talk it out with me, and be healed. And together, let’s grow something new. Let’s grow something new.
Jesus is interested in engagement, not performance.
Jesus does this really funny thing with his teaching. He tells a pretty generic story about 1st century farming. Seeds flying everywhere. Most of it not really taking or growing or bearing fruit very well, except the parts where it does and then, wow, look at that growth! And then Jesus is like: listen up, pay attention, this is important, and takes a seat, sees what happens.
And it turns out is he’s waiting to see who’s curious, who cares to engage. And then he says this funny thing to the relatively smaller group who are intrigued, who ask him questions, who hang around. He says, “You have the secret.” He says You have the secret to God’s Kingdom. That’s kind of an old, patriarchal word in our context, so we could say God’s family. God’s garden. God’s Beloved Community, as we’re increasingly saying around here. The people and the life God is growing on earth. You have the secret.
What’s the secret, though? They’re not doing anything special. And it’s not like Jesus ultimately wants to be keeping secrets. He follows up, as we heard, lamps are supposed to have their light shine. You can’t hide the truth. Hidden things are going to be known in time. Just like in families that try to bury their shame, just like leaders that try to cover up their bad behavior, truth rises. Secrets will come to light.
There’s a warning here for any of us that think we can abuse power or harm others and keep that hidden. A day of reckoning is coming. It’s been happening all around this country the past few years, hasn’t it?
But in this context, it’s true of wise and healing words too. They are meant to be known and engaged with, not hidden. Jesus doesn’t want to keep secrets.
So why does he teach with stories and riddles? Why is so much more interested in relationship and engagement than, I don’t know, bland but clear slogans?
Well, I think it’s because Jesus knows about growth mindset. Jesus knows that our minds, our hearts, our habits, our lives are not fixed, and they’re certainly not fixed the way we sort and rank them. This one’s smart, this one’s not. This one’s good, this one’s bad. Fixed mindset, garbage.
Jesus knows we all are good soil for the life God longs to grow. Jesus was part of making us all after all. We are all curious, we are all capable of wonderful creativity, beauty, love, courage, kindness, wisdom. All of us. But Jesus knows that there is so much that is undeveloped in us, and there are lot of toxins in our gardens, in our minds, too. Jesus wants to provoke us into a relationship where we will listen and learn, where we will be humble enough to say to God and one another, I don’t know the way forward, but I want to be healed. And I want to be helpful. I want flourish, to have a life that is abundantly good for me and for others and for this earth. Jesus, what’s my way forward?
That kind of engagement is the secret.
This past summer, when I was at peak 2020 pressure and anxiety, God made this clear to me. When I was most worried that in an awful year, I had to as a parent and as a pastor and as a leader, get everything just right. Perform, Steve, or else, I felt inside.
Jesus nudged me and said, I don’t need you to perform, Steve. I don’t need you to be perfect. Just get up and engage. Engage with me, engage with the people and the tasks of your life best as you know how. Stay curious. Ask for help. And the fruit will come. Good things will happen.
And it has been so.
Jesus doesn’t want or need your performance, friends. He’s not testing you to find our if you are good or bad soil. Jesus is asking you to engage, to be curious, to listen and learn and stay in relationship, so that you can flourish.
Everything is grace.
Pastor Lydia preached on this passage a year or two ago, and I remember her talking about how you can hear this story from Jesus as pressure: you better be the good soil. Don’t be hard-hearted, don’t give up when trouble comes, don’t get distracted. Be faithful, do good things. And she – again, in my memory – was like, no we’re all each one of these soils at different times. This is not about performance pressure. It’s about grace.
Which is true. I mean look at this farmer after all. Jesus’ farmer, which seems to be God, just throws the seed everywhere, so wasteful. And this farmer doesn’t seem to bother trying to cultivate or till adjust the quality of the soil. I mean a modern farmer would hear this story and be like, Jesus, don’t blame the soil for not being fruitful, it’s the farmer’s fault. Just as some of us look at the state of our lives and the state of our world and think, God, this mess is your fault. Work it out. Fix it already.
But remember, Jesus is gardener, not carpenter. God is gardener, not carpenter, with our world. God knows how we can flourish – each of us individually, all of us collectively. The ways of God, made known in the life and teaching of Jesus, will empower beautiful and productive flourishing, if we engage and listen.
But God loves us so much that God wants us to choose life and grow and flourish, as free, beloved beings.
This goes well beyond Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset in learning, but I think this is all growth mindset too.
That no matter what the state of anything today, we live under grace. No matter the state of our minds or hearts or lives, there is more. No matter the state of our country or anything else we’re a part of, we live with a kind God of boundless compassion, a forgiving God of endless second chances, a hopeful and renewing God of abundant possibilities from this point forward.
Everything is grace. Growth, fruitfulness, goodness are still possible, if we’re curious and humble enough to ask for help, if we’re brave enough to engage and take a step forward and try.
God’s much less concerned with who you are today than who you are becoming. God’s so much less interested in the steps you took yesterday than the ones you will take today. Everything is grace.
God is with us, asking: how are you growing? Where do you need to grow? How will you ask for help? How will you engage today?