Adapted from a Letter to a Hurting Friend, 7 years ago.
I know that nothing I can say to you will help you feel any better right now. I don't know exactly how you feel and I won't pretend to, but I do know what it's like to be sad and I'm thinking about that and I'm thinking about you and so I thought I'd write you a letter.
I realized yesterday that this has been one of the hardest years of my life – from last Marchish to right now. I haven't been the person I wanted to be. I chose what I thought was best for myself. Then I told God to follow me there on a leash. And learned, the hard way, that God doesn’t work like that.
And that got me thinking about the parable Jesus told about weeds and wheat in the Gospel of Matthew. It starts with a Landowner sowing good seed - wheat seed - in his field, and waiting for it to grow. But in the night, an enemy comes and sows bad seed - weed seed - right next to the wheat seed, and waits for it to grow.
Jesus uses a specific word for “weed” in his parable. He does not give some generic term so that we might imagine crabgrass or dandelions sprouting up in fields of wheat. This is not your fill-in- the-blank tare that Jesus identifies. Instead, he gives the name of a particularly vile vetch, zizánion, a poisonous mutant darnel that looks, suspiciously, like golden wheat. Zizánion is wheat seed’s evil twin, and here it is sown, right next to the wheat, to grow alongside it. It would have been nearly impossible to tell the difference.
When the Landowner’s servants discover the weeds and wheat growing side by side, they demand an accounting for it.
Who did this? They ask. Landowner, was it you?
No, the Landowner replies, I did not sow weed seed in the field. This was the work of an enemy, a saboteur.
Sometimes we act as if God sowed both these seeds in our lives and the world, that God wills our pain and suffering to test us, to shape us, like a sculptor with a knife and a chisel.
“It’s all in God’s plan,” we tell ourselves to make our suffering palatable somehow. But I don’t think God’s plan always works quite that way. God does not desire our suffering; he does not plot out our pain to shape us or smite us with sickness to teach us. There is such a thing as pointless, senseless, unnatural suffering that God does not will or intend. Auschwitz. Rwanda. Newtown.
Depression is unnatural. Infertility is unnatural. Death is unnatural. Disconnection is unnatural. God did not sow these things in the world or in your life. God does not create evil or wield sickness or will despair. Sometimes, in ways we might not fully grasp, God responds to our sin with discipline, like a loving parent would. And sometimes what we thought was evil turns out to be good in our lives.
But more often than not, our pain is a consequence of the fall, zizánion, and evil is God’s enemy, which he came to conquer once and for all on the cross. And did. We can't always tell the difference.
Still. We live in a Kingdom that has already come and yet is still in process of arriving all at the same time. There are still weeds in the midst of this wheat and wheat in the midst of these weeds. And while we are waiting for Christ to come back and restore the fields to the way they were meant to be, God can use even zizánion, even the things that hurt us and cause suffering and sometimes death in this life, to shape us and form us into people like him.
In Genesis, when Joseph reconnected with his brothers after they’d sold him into slavery, he says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done...”
In the language in which it was written, it sounds more like, “you were weaving this together for evil and God was weaving it together for good.” Weeds and wheat are woven together sometimes, but when we give him access to ourselves, God can weave our whole lives, zizánion and all, into good.
This passage does not mean that we are to ignore injustice in the world or that we are to sit passively on our hands and wait for the world to change. No, we are meant to be part of God’s restorative mission to the world, to do what we can to see God’s Kingdom inaugurated around us.
But like it or not in this life, sad things still happen to us, sad things that grieve God too. And when they happen, we have a choice. We can point to them as excuses for passing pain along, for sharpening our claws or for heightening our expectations. We can use them to justify our bad behavior, the shrillness in our voices, our cynicism, our criticism, or our fear. We can use them to explain why we hold onto our anger, our bitterness, our disappointment with life. We can sew them into veils that protect our hearts from being seen or being broken, that excuse us from vulnerability indefinitely.
And there is always an or.
We can allow those experiences to soften our voices, to form us into kinder, gentler, more approachable and compassionate people, stronger in the face of vulnerability, and more patient with it too. We can allow God to use the muck as fertilizer like a gardener would, cultivating, growing, shaping, and changing until we’ve grown into the people we were intended to be, people of empathy and wisdom and depth and humility. Because when we give him access to ourselves, even those hard things that God did not wield or will for us in the beginning, he can weave together for good. Sometimes weeds and wheat grow up side by side, and it can be hard to tell the difference.
I'd imagine that right now, your heart might feel raw and exposed from being ripped open again and again and now you have a scar. I do know what that feels like. The scars don’t always go away. Sometimes they stick with us, and we have to choose how they’ll influence us going forward, for better or for worse. We can let them deepen our fear or deepen our hope, but they won’t do both.
Last summer, a friend of mine asked me if I could go back and change it all, would I erase those years of depression, would I change my circumstances to avoid the pain or undo the words and relationships that led me there?
Would I pluck up the weeds?
No, I said, I wouldn’t. Those years made me who I am today; they taught me lessons I didn’t have before and that I’m still learning from. I am more God’s woman today than I ever was then. I wouldn’t want to live those years again and in some ways, I’m still working through their consequences, but I wouldn’t trade the lessons I learned or who I am because of them for anything. There was wheat weaving around weeds and plucking up the one would also kill the other.
Because of this year, I've learned that God needs to lead. I don't have any other option but to let God lead. My character has changed. My vision has changed. And I've re-entered the mentality that I need to do what I love and what God loves for me to do. God has taken care of us and has answered prayers in ways that we couldn't have manufactured or dreamed up if we tried – and we did try. But we didn't need to. Wheat was growing up around weeds and I couldn't always tell the difference.
I was just listening to a song about God by Nichole Nordeman called “Every Season” and the verse on Winter really caught my attention as I prayed for you this morning.
“And everything in time and under heaven finally falls asleep; Wrapped in blankets white, all creation shivers underneath; And still I notice you when branches crack and in my breath on frosted glass; Even now in death, you open doors for life to enter. You are Winter...”
Annie Dillard writes about Winter too, and I love her description:
"I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. Things I have never understood become clear....When the leaves fall, the striptease is over; things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open."
It's true. You can sometimes see with more clarity in the Wintertime because there's less to block our view.
These days, it's starting to feel a little like Spring again, and we've welcomed it because Winter has been hard this year. There have been moments the past few months when I've expected my innards to freeze, thinking I'd meet my end as a big ice cube, covered in skin. More than once, I considered giving up and lying down in the snow to die.
And Winter's been long this year. Just when we think that maybe, maybe it's warming up and we dare to walk outside in our bathing suits and flip flops, the weather gods surprise us with a snowball to the face and before we know it, we're knee-deep in the stuff again.
But I can anticipate that when Springtime finally gallops up on its brilliant white steed to save us, it will be the purest, most perfect sight we've ever seen.
As we emerge from one of the hardest years of our lives, everything around us is going green and bright and restored. And we join in as phoenixes, remade – but we'll only truly appreciate the Spring because we felt - and we really felt - the Winter.
“And what was frozen through is newly purposed, turning all things green; So it is with You, and how You make me new with every season's change, and so it will be as You are recreating me...”
I don't know exactly how you feel, but maybe I know a little bit. And at the end of this season, I can say that Spring is every bit worth waiting for. So I hope that as I process my Winter, I can remind you that God can use yours to weave you into someone infinitely better than the person you thought you would be.
Sometimes weeds and wheat grow up side by side.
What weeds can you identify in your own life right now? Are you in a hurry to remove them? Or can you trust the Lord of the Harvest to sift out the wheat from the weeds in your own life? Have you ever seen weeds and wheat grow side by side in the past? How are you different, for better or for worse, because of those experiences?
Lord of the Harvest, the growing season is long. It is arduous. It is often painful and there are so often, so many weeds trying to choke out my life. Lord Jesus, Have mercy on me, a sinner, and save me from the weeds of this life. Holy Spirit, grant me the power and the patience to endure, trusting in the Lord of the Harvest, who will one day put all to right. Amen.
Today consider eating grains as the staple for each meal, rather than meat or other starches like potatoes. Plan today’s menu around cereal, rice, wheat, barley, legumes and/or quinoa. Today is also the Feast of St. Patrick, so if you wanted to throw something green into your meal preparations, no one would object. :) If you are looking for recipe options, check out Eden Recipes online or the restaurant Life Alive in Salem.
Pastor Aaron Engler
- Long, Thomas. What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith.
- Gen. 50:20.
- Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.