For the Love of Things that Grow
In the opening of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins introduces us to the humble creatures known as Hobbits:
"Hobbits must seem of little importance, being neither renowned as great warriors nor counted among the very wise...In fact, it has been remarked by some that Hobbits' only real passion is for food. A rather unfair observation, as we have also developed a keen interest in the brewing of ales and the smoking of pipe-weed. But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good, tilled earth. For all hobbits share a love of things that grow. And, yes, no doubt to others, our ways seem quaint. But today of all days, it is brought home to me: It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life."Though I confess I have never read the books, I adore every frame of The Fellowship of the Ring; it is a truly enchanting tale of struggle and adventure, friendship and cost, beauty, wisdom, terror and grace--and the road that takes us there and back again. Anyway, I'm not here to talk about the film, but about Hobbits and the love of things that grow. Because for all the epic grandeur of Middle-Earth, its the humble Hobbit and his garden that might thrill me the most. And I've been thinking about it, and I think I'd like my life to be about the Love of Things that Grow. I'm not here disclosing a secret passion for floristry, exciting as that might be. No, I'm talking about people, human beings, because I believe we are made to be things that grow. Not meaningless collections of atoms dancing for a while over the abyss of our own insignificance, nor static objects with futures determined by our place in some great cosmic game of chess. I believe we're rather like flowers, diverse in appearance but alike in kind: fragile yet beautiful, with great potential yet little hope without a kind gardener to protect and help us.
But I'll come back to that.
This year I, like all others in any situation ever, have had to decide what to do next. For a while I've entertained myself in the amusing self contained project of a four year degree, wherein I could read and think about things without worrying too much about what would actually happen after. But then Fourth Year, wherein I faced the daily assault of emails about JOBS and YOUR FUTURE and HOW TO MAKE THE SEXIEST CV EVER AND BECOME AN INCREDIBLY SUCCESSFUL HUMAN. ARE YOU READY TO SEIZE YOUR FUTURE, CHUMP?
"Go away!" I said to my Inbox, "I'm trying to make a sandwich."
But of course I knew I couldn't stave off the assault forever. There were actually some options flying around. Teaching? A Grad Scheme? I could go and study some more. Ohhh, I could go to America! So I applied for things, I got rejected from a thing, and I got accepted for another thing but then remembered I didn't have a cool $30,000 to pay for the tuition. And there was this other option which had been burning along the whole time but I wasn't quite sure if I could or should do it. But now I've made the decision, so I best drop the mystery novel act and tell you whats actually happening next year. Ready?
I'm going to be the first man on Mars!
Wait no, I made that up.
I'm staying in St Andrews! There we go. I'm going to be working with a charity called 'the Navigators' doing a year called 'Connect', wherein I'll be working with the local church and serving the students in the town. As I understand it, my role will be in helping people work out what it means to 'follow Jesus' in their lives. 'Following Jesus', by the way, is basically what the Christian life is all about. Maybe I should flesh that out a little.
Christians believe in a story which says that God made this little old world, that he has not abandoned it but in fact loves it very much. Though this God is mostly invisible to our eyes, he once took human form and became just like us, walking alongside us, sharing in our sufferings and teaching people what life, and he himself, was all about. His name, in case you haven't guessed it, was 'Jesus'. His public career didn't last long however, and he aggravated the authorities around him such that he was ultimately crucified. He had made claims about being Israel's true Messiah who would bring light to the world, but so had many others, and they were all dead-- now this one was too. Another disappointment.
But then there were rumours. Rumours that he had come back from the dead. People said they had seen and touched him. And the authorities who killed him didn't deny it. The dead man was alive, walking, talking, making people breakfast...and he assured his followers that this was always the plan. Through his death he would bring life, a new kind of life never seen before, one which would undo the curse that lies upon this world and ourselves. Death would no longer have the final word on our lives but we would rejoice in something new: a Kingdom of life shaped by self-sacrificial love, a *New* Creation which was beginning in the midst of this one. So those who would 'follow' this Jesus were to live in his ways, loving God and one another, practicing peace, love and forgivenesss, and praying for their enemies. They were invited to share this 'good news' about Jesus and his Kingdom to the world, because this was news for absolutely everyone. Jesus wouldn't remain walking on earth, but he would be absolutely *with* his people through the Holy Spirit (also him, also God, but different too...that's another post I think) who would help, equip, and walk alongside all those travelling the road of 'following Jesus'. Together, Jesus' followers ('The Church') would bless the world, they would love it and serve it, embodying Jesus' own love and grace, and through this building the beautiful new Kingdom of God.
I hope that brief summary (there is a lot more one could say of course) is helpful for contextualizing what I mean by helping others to 'follow Jesus'. Because if you're not familiar with Christian-world (or even if you are) then I imagine it might sound rather nebulous. My hope is that I can point others to this Jesus of whom I have spoken. That they might realize his love for them in their own lives, that they would walk, run and dance in it. That they themselves would want to share it with others. That they would know that life is not a test, not a game, but a gift. I may be in danger of entering into dangerously cheesy greetings-card territory with all this gifty-lovey-dance like no ones watching talk. That's not my intention, but I do hope to awaken people to the true grace and love that are to be found in the Christian life. I think often we *think* we understand what following Jesus means but actually we don't let him be all he wishes to be in our lives. I'd say that's been my experience anyway.
As I write this, it was eleven years to the day since I was baptised as a Christian. I was fully submerged into a paddling pool in my friend's back garden, which if life were a modern day version of Cluedo, would be a terrible way to die. Luckily this wasn't Cluedo, and the Reverend was not trying to kill me, though the baptism itself represented a dying to old ways and a being raised to that new life which Jesus talked about. And it seems I've been walking that road ever since. But I should say it's never been easy, and I've wrestled with doubt for as long as I can remember. And if I'm honest, at the beginning of this year, I wondered if it might be the year that I said goodbye to faith altogether. That too may be another post for another day. But yet, though doubt has always been there, I have found that Jesus has always been there too. I believe that he is faithful, faithful enough that my own struggles do in no way negate his capacity to be what he has promised to be for all. As St Paul wrote in his last letter to a dear friend: "If we are faithless, he remains faithful! --For he cannot deny himself." (2 Tim 2.13) And as Gandalf would say... 'that is an encouraging thought.'
Speaking of Gandalf, back to those Hobbits. The Love of Things that Grow. You know when Jesus first appeared to Mary in his resurrected body, she mistook him for a Gardener. But it wasn't really a mistake. After all, Jesus has been the faithful gardener since the beginning of time. And he told his followers that he was the 'true vine', that if they grew 'in him' then they would truly flourish and grow into what they were always meant to be.
People grow. There are the dramatic stories of murderers who 'turned their lives around', and so beauty was born from ugliness. And there are the quieter stories of growth alongside them, tales no less important, of those who simply learned to love better, to need less, to give more. We can be full of doubts, and may always be, but God might teach us something about faith and trust so that as we walk through life with him, we don't finish the same as we started. We find him closer than before. I'm sure that if we're honest with ourselves, we all know of some way in which we wish we could change and grow. But growth isn't something we can just activate through our own dedicated willpower, we need help. We need the kind and loving gardener to help us in our weaknesses, when we grow in the wrong directions, and when we destroy ourselves by believing lies from false gardeners, who come not to help but to kill and destroy. And we need each other too to do the same, building each other up in faith, hope and love. I've been helped by many in my lifetime, and I certainly couldn't have made it here without them. My hope is that I might extend a similar help to others. That together we might all grow. That'd we'd receive God's love, and share it with the world. Next year is just the beginning of that.
I can tell you that choosing to stay in St Andrews wasn't an easy decision. There is much that I fear, and perhaps staying here will only remind me of areas where I feel I've failed. Perhaps I'm staying because I'm lazy and I lack the courage to really step out into the world. And of course, what if I'm wrong about God, and there is no such hope in which we can trust? I do often wish God wasn't, you know, invisible. But, he has shown himself in other ways. And I'm inclined to believe that God invites us not to deny or run away from our fears but to face them with him. Sometimes chasing adventure means leaving home, but perhaps sometimes it means staying, too. If there is one thing I've learned in my time at University (and life in general) it is that People are the Great Adventure. My first judgments are consistently wrong; people are deep, surprising, and have so much to give. Life would be rather boring without them, and perhaps that is why God made us for each other. So I could leave town, but then there's all this adventure happening right outside my door. So I think I'll stay. For the Love of Things that Grow.
You didn't ask, but now you know! Peace x