Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ground Breaking Christianity

The sower went out to sow, Matthew Mark and Luke record. This week I was stunned to hear one of the world's leading evangelists say that he did not know what affected the different soil condition for such sowing. I wasn't the only one to marvel at this surprising comment. My colleague, Jim, was quicker than everyone else in the room to grab the ear of this acclaimed church leader and quiz him over what he had just told those of us in the room. But what transpired then when Jim spoke with him only led to us being even more flummoxed.

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.
Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
[Mark 4:3-8]

What has seemed increasingly obvious to many of us over the years about the soil in the Parable of the Sower, is that when it's rocks and weeds are removed it has a greater chance of being productive, or as the Text describes it, "good".

What the admirable evangelist hadn't grasped was that the soil represented not just people, but the things that connect people. After all, the Sower didn't sow his seed among "pot-plants", which the reader could well imagine as being the ideal symbolism for individuals. No, Jesus deliberately used a collective symbol: soil. In some of the soil there are "rocks". The rocks don't prevent the seed from being sown. They do however prevent it from taking a deep root in the soil.

Such rocks are often like the ideas that harden a mind to accepting all of the Gospel. To remove these rocks demands that we challenge the ideas that exalt themselves against God and His Word. Cultures are inevitably shaped by the ideas they hold. A culture which holds the idea that Life's story does not begin with "In the beginning God...", will by default believe that Life's story begins with, "In the beginning the particles..." This false idea in the ground into which our Gospel seed is to be sown is like a splattering of sterile rocks in this otherwise fertile ground. Hosea called the faithful of Israel to "break up the fallow ground" (remove the hardness of the ground and soften it for sowing).

The soil that does not produce a harvest for the Sower can also be weed infested. These weeds, Jesus said, are the cares and pleasures of this life. That is, they are the values a culture prizes. When sex is 'boundless' because it rejects the bounds of fidelity and purity, it is prizing the value of "self-gratification" over moral restraint. Like all cultural values, it will put this value in songs, art, films, literature, architecture, and even legislation. Into this soil the Gospel seed can only be received on the immediate and very false assumption that Jesus "tolerates" every value a culture holds. As the claims of Christ's Lordship begin to sprout and attempt to bloom, the prized weeds of self-deification begin to choke out, what is exposed as, the lesser value of knowing and surrendering to Christ.

City of Sydney, March 2012. Notice the Church Steeple?
This cultural value, from which many of our Cultural values derive, must be confronted by a Ground-Breaking Christian community. Over the past 20 centuries our spiritual forebears have been doing this. Arguably, up until the middle of the 20th Century it was the values of the Christian Gospel - kindness, fairness, respect, selflessness, servanthood, charity, and family unit, that shaped Western Culture for the better. All of this made the soil of Gospel receptivity freer of the weeds that would otherwise choke Gospel seed. The most graphic example of this is the impact of Christian Politician, William Wilberforce. His life-work was largely about changing the cultural values of the emerging British Empire. Despite being born in the Autumn of the Wesley/Whitefield Preaching Revival, Wilberforce arrived on the scene when it was becoming obvious that most the hundreds of thousands of Gospel seed recipients still embraced the cultural
values of cheating, rudeness, violence against women/children/blacks, and cruelty in the exploitation of animals. Wilberforce was not a preacher. Yet, an enduring revival of Good-Ground Gospel receptivity can be credited to his political efforts to conform culture to the values of the Gospel. During the preaching revival of Wesley / Whitefield, 1740-80, there was essentially no net growth in the churches of England - despite all their evangelistic efforts. Yet during Wilberforce's 40 year political career (ca.1790-1830), where he campaigned against child labour, animal abuse, and the slave trade and argued for public education, a fairer justice and prison system - the churches of England experienced collective growth of at least 500%. Wilberforce cleared many of the weeds from the ground of culture that ordinarily chokes out sprouting Gospel seeds.

The impact of his cultural agency was felt in England for the better part of the 1800s as well (until Charles Darwin put some new rocks in the ground that should have been immediately challenged with thoughtful scientifically credible responses. This new new intellectual rocking of culture gave rise to new unbridled weeds sprouting all over the Empire with the efforts of the Midnight Society and the Bloomsbury Group (Lytton Strachey, Thomas Hardy, and other poets, novelists and playwrights who promoted anti-Gospel values). Those of us who encounter cultural weeds when attempting to sow Gospel seeds understand that we are still, 140 years later, trying to weed out the ideas of these artists from Western society today.)

We are not just called to be sowers. We are called to be farmers - cultural ground-breakers. Every time we produce art that extols Gospel values of marriage, parenting, enterprise, gracious forgiveness, justice, God's Supremacy, we are in some measure 'weeding' the soil of culture.

Is it possible for us to take ground for our King without misrepresenting Him as rude, arrogant, unsympathetic, or hateful? Yes. Is it easy? No. Will we be ridiculed, maligned, and mocked for daring to attempt to remove the rocks of false ideas and replace them with the seeds of great ideas? Yes we are. And if you've ever done any weeding you'll know that even when wearing gloves you can still get thorns, splinters, and burs stick in your skin. This Gospel farming caper can be hard uncomfortable work. But for Christ's sake we must not only be Ground-Breaking Christians we must be Ground-taking Christians.

Ps. Andrew Corbett
8th March 2012, from Legana.

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