It may be hard to feel excited about spring right now, with all that’s going on in the world and in our communities. Yesterday here in central Indiana a beautiful snow fell most of the afternoon, leaving a dusting on the ground and nothing on the streets. It reminded me of the joke we typically say to each other this time of year, “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes—it will change!”
But change doesn’t feel like our friend at the moment. With the rising threat of COVID-19 and the virus’s dramatic and fast spread around the world, changes are happening quickly all around us. Schools have closed. People are working at home. Hospitals are in pandemic response. Headlines, TV news, and the Internet tell us repeatedly to take symptoms seriously, to self-quarantine if necessary, to avoid crowds, and better yet, stay home. “Social distancing” is the new buzz phrase that reminds us that we have a responsibility not just for our own health but for the health and well-being of others. Even if we have no symptoms, experts say, we may inadvertently carry the virus to someone who is more vulnerable and at risk. Social distancing—stay in our homes, avoiding groups, or staying six feet from others when we do have to go out—will help stem the spread of the illness and “flatten the curve” of the contagion.
It’s very normal and even expected that we would be concerned and anxious, unsure what’s coming next. We may grieve the loss of connection with others; we miss hugs and handshakes; we dread isolation and boredom and the lack of freedom a quarantine brings. We also know first-hand how people are reacting: stores are sold out of toilet paper, Lysol products, and hand sanitizer. Experts tell us this happens not because people are selfish and thinking only of themselves but because they are afraid and trying to feel somewhat in control of what feels like an uncontrollable situation.
But the truth is—even with all this going on—spring is already on its way. Even now, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths are beginning to poke green shoots through the soil. With just a few days of the warming sun, the marshy ground will dry out, our garden spots will drain and we—social distancing and all—will begin dreaming of what kind of harvest we’re hoping for from the coming summer months.
I love the idea that God has put so many—almost uncountable!—systems in place to support our lives: light and dark, cold and warmth, the freshness of the breeze, the changing weather patterns, the wildly abundant and self-perpetuating principle of growth, even the amazing power of our own immune systems—these and so many more automatically support our thriving and our flourishing on this planet. We don’t need to do anything to grow a huge and prolific zucchini plant beyond putting a single seed in the ground. The native intelligence contained within that seed, planted in the right conditions—soil that allows for its healthy growth—will sprout and grow, blossom and produce zucchini…and more zucchini and still more zucchini.
Along the same lines, a single tomato plant can produce as many as 200 tomatoes in a single season. Each tomato contains between 150 and 300 seeds. You can envision acres and acres of tomato plants growing from a single tomato you hold in your hand. That’s God’s doing. Such is the nature of God’s provision, God’s abundance, God’s principle of growth. So much more than we could ever need, from one single tiny creation. Enough to feed a family, a neighborhood, a town. If you planted all the seeds in a single tomato and they all grew to bear fruit, you could wind up with a harvest of 60,000 tomatoes in a single summer! From a single tomato!
Who but God could create such an overflowing and generous system for life’s flourishing?
This principle of growth applies not only to things we plant in our outer world but the things we plant in our inner world, too. Thoughts we think regularly become beliefs (“I always have what I need” or “I catch every cold that comes along” or “I can never catch a break”), and they shape what we experience in the world, influencing our interactions with other people, our attitudes about authority, our expectations of how life will treat us, our feelings of a being part of or alienated from the wider world.
In the New Testament reading today, Paul is telling the Romans about the importance of creating safety in their community so members will feel supported and not judged, included and not excluded, from the spiritual life of the early church. He stresses the fact that creating a kind community means they have to give up their natural human tendency to put themselves first. Pursuing peace, establishing caring requires planting seeds of peace so that none among them should stumble and each will have the support he or she needs. “God’s kingdom is a web of communion,” he is telling them. “The flourishing of the one depends on the flourishing of all, and the flourishing of all depends on the flourishing of the one.”
In verses 13-19 in chapter 14, Paul writes,
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Paul wants the very human people in that new church (and our old one!) to look past the varied differences of opinion they all had in order to find a larger and much more important vision: their sense of belovedness in God. Paul tells us we need to care and be concerned about any burden we place on others, whether we know them or not. Anything that causes someone discomfort or makes them stumble causes injury and disharmony in the group. “Let us pursue what makes for peace,” Paul says, “and for mutual upbuilding.”
Mutual upbuilding. What a beautiful concept. It feels a far cry from what we’re experiencing in the world today, doesn’t it? What might this world look and sound and feel like if we were all about the business of building each other up instead of tearing each other down? Caring about each other’s dreams, shouldering each other’s burdens, listening to someone’s grief, being there in times of fear. The harvest that comes when we plant seeds like that is a beautiful one of mutuality, kindness, and care.
In communities around the world, even as the virus spreads and situations worsen, neighbors are reaching out to help each other, to look out for each other, bringing groceries and medicines to those who can’t risk going out, finding ways to share the care of children, supporting one another with food, encouragement, and fun. There are videos making the rounds on social media right now of neighbors in a village in Italy standing on their balconies and making music together—a man with a beautiful baritone voice, someone else with an accordion, people with tambourines, and more. Unity in their separation. Physically distant, but intentionally spiritually close.
This is our natural God-created tendency, I think; when we humans feel safe in community, we show kindness and care and build one another up. But in order to create a community where we feel safe, we have to be willing—as Paul told the Romans–to let go of the judgments and see past the differences of opinions that get in our way and divide us. We need the unity of knowing that we are each and all precious, beloved, irreplaceable to God.
Our Old Testament reading today, Isaiah 43: 1-3a, offers insight into seeds we can plant to grow communities that build people up instead of tearing them down. It all begins in a deeper awareness and appreciation of how close God is in our daily lives.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I shall be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Taken line by line, we can hear how God gives us the security, protection, and hope we need by rooting everything in our lives in our relationship with God:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:”
When we reflect on who God is, how well God knows us, the greatness of his love, the expanse of God’s reach, and the all-encompassing, all-good nature of his plan and potential for our lives, we feel a growing sense of security and trust. This isn’t all on our shoulders. We don’t need to fear. We are beloved of God, maker of heaven and earth, and our own dear, personal and present Friend.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Our belovedness to God is not in question, ever. We Friends believe, as George Fox said, that we are meant to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” This of course means that we believe there is that of God in everyone. We are God’s and God is ours, and no matter what has transpired in other seasons of our lives, through the person of Jesus, the mystery of Christ, we are reconciled to God as his very own.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;”
God’s companionship is ever present. When we don’t feel God close it is never because of God’s nearness; rather it is due to our own mental state. God hasn’t moved. He is always with us.
“When you pass through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;”
Here Isaiah shows us God’s continual, comforting and loving presence strengthens us to respond to the challenges of our lives with faith and confidence. We won’t be overwhelmed.
“When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Whether life brings us the overwhelm of floods—floods of emotion, floods of fear—or the testing of fire, we are protected from all that would cause us harm. This happens not because we are perfect, devout people who do everything right but because of who God is, loving and faithful, powerful within and beyond time and space, the One who knows all about us—even to the very number of hairs on our heads—and intimately, personally, tenderly answers every prayer we utter.
It’s worth considering what seeds we might be planting right now, even in our current experience of being uncertain and waiting and anxious and quarantined. Even in this time of “social distancing,” can we plant seeds of love? Even with a risk of contagion, can we purposely be kind? Can we care about one another and make choices for the greater good, taking care not to put a stumbling blocks or hindrances in the way of others? Whatever seeds we plant—even now—will bear fruit accordingly. Let’s choose the best seeds we can for the world we hope to create. If we plant the seeds Paul suggested—seeds of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit—we can trust that, because God is God, those seeds will produce, like a single tomato, a bumper crop of good will in the summer world to come.
- OT Isaiah 43: 1-3a
- NT Romans 14: 13-19