Soil, Plants and Shoots

If asked what substance is of greatest value in this world most of us would come up with a list of rare gemstones and precious metals, valued because of their beauty, purity, and scarcity. Today we might think of lithium for batteries or plutonium for reactors alongside gold and diamonds. But I would imagine that few of us would include soil in this list. Soil can hardly be described as either beautiful, pure or scarce, and yet it is perhaps one of the most valuable substances known to us. Because plants need soil to grow and without it, there would be little life on this planet.

The value of soil was not lost on the writers of the Bible, as they recognised how closely we are connected to the earth beneath our feet, the land on which we live and the soil from which we gain our nourishment. Adam, the name given to the first man, also means in Hebrew, humankind, and we learn from the start of Genesis that Adam was formed by God from adamah, the soil of the ground. For adamah means, not only soil, but earth, land, territory and even, the whole of the earth, and the similarity of these words emphasizes the close relationship between what they describe. Adamah is what we humans come from, it’s the place in which we live, and adamah is where we will return when we die. “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes!”

When I studied Biology as an undergraduate I took a module on the ecology of soils, mostly because our lecturer was an interesting man who could be easily encouraged to tell funny stories of his experiences traveling around the globe. That he was a world expert and had much to teach us seemed secondary to fun we would have in his lectures. He would get excited about the diversity of plant, animal, and microbial life that could be found in just one cubic metre of soil. From the hundreds of earthworms to the hundreds of thousands of insects and other arthropods to the tens of millions of tiny nematode worms. For him, soils were as exciting and diverse as the lushest of rainforests or tropical reefs.

My youthful ignorance of nature is echoed, perhaps, in the perception held by many that soil is just dirt, and of little interest and less value. Jesus, however, like the members of the rural communities he talked with, knew better. He likened his audience to the soil on which they were standing. To the rocky areas where nothing grew, the paths where soil and stone were compacted together, and the places where it was hard to keep the brambles and nettles under control. He knew what would happen to seeds planted in each of these different environments, and he saw in this, a parable to explain what happens and how his hearers would respond to the things he was teaching. In his story, his words became the seeds and his audience the soil in which they needed to take root.

Church planting has long been a metaphor to describe the process of growing a new community of believers in a particular place, from a core group of pioneers. It requires a great deal of commitment from a nucleus of people who are willing to move, or travel to the new place and start living and growing community there. The hope is that a small plant may, in time, grow into a larger one and bear the fruit of transformed lives that Jesus promised to all who follow him. This after all is how plants grow.

That some parts of the ‘plant’ that is the established church in this nation, are not as healthy as they once were, is undeniable, and few are willing to plant new communities into rural, sparsely populated areas. Does this mean that a reversal of the decline of established models of church in and around these Northern Dales is unlikely, and the growth of new church communities here, is less likely still? I do not know, but I do think that perhaps Jesus, through his words in scripture is encouraging us to focus our attention less on the plants and more on the soil. We are, after all, the soil he speaks of.

Strong plants need healthy soil, but healthy soil also contains the seeds of many different types of plants, that lie dormant within it, waiting for the right conditions, and the opportunity to swell and burst into life. In the lives and hearts of those who already know and love Jesus as their Lord and King, and within those who are yet to meet him, are many gifts and callings. The potential for what God could grow here in this part of Yorkshire, from the soil that we are a part of and from the gifts he has placed inside us, is huge. Not because we are anything special, but because God is the great creator who is able to bring new things into being with just his word.

On the outside, we would all love to think of ourselves as ‘good soil’ capable of producing a rich harvest and touching many lives for good, but on the inside, we know we have rocky patches, places where we have been compacted by the pressures of life and large parts where we are easily overwhelmed by the cares of this world. And it is easy to be disheartened. But we can be reassured in this, that it is God who waters the soil, makes the plants grow, and delivers the harvest. But if we are to be really healthy soil perhaps we should do all we can to allow God to sow the seed of his word in us today, allow him to clear away our weeds, and do some serious spade work on the harder parts of our hearts.

People often ask me what Dales Faith is all about and many visit our website to learn more. Ultimately, what sits beneath it, and behind it is a hope to see whatever God desires to grow here, growing. There are many little shoots emerging from the gifts and callings that God has placed inside us all, but I am hoping that one day soon there will be a great forest of transformed lives, of communities sprouting in every town, village, and hamlet, rooted in a love of scripture, the presence of Jesus and the power of his Spirit. For now, however, we would do well to focus our energies on together becoming the good soil from which God will grow this harvest.

Be encouraged

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