Some thoughts after midnight.
It’s been a long time since I’ve spent time in the sun. Even in sunny southern California, the winter solstice draws near, and I can’t tell whether night shifts or day shifts give me more of the ever-dwindling daylight hours. When I work 6AM-6PM, I see no sun in the windowless ER. When I work 6PM-6AM, I drive home in the morning fog and sleep until sundown. Our newly purchased blackout curtains do their job well; when I sleep off a night shift, R works in the living room and and I haunt the lightless cave that is our bedroom.
What governs my waking hours, then, rather than the usual circadian rhythm, are the little rituals of coming home. I meticulously leave my hospital clogs outside the door and put them on the balcony outside (I refuse to live in the same apartment as my work shoes). I peel off my work uniform and stuff it with my bag into a separate gross hamper and closet for yucky things. Then I check on my plants. Whether it’s 1 AM or 8 PM, I look at each leaf for signs of new budding and growth. My favorite plants are the ones that push up a little growth every day. My monstera cuttings, recently gifted from a friend, just unsheathed their first new leaf, all fenestrated and shiny new. My fiddle leaf fig, which had a bit of a temper tantrum (shed half of its foliage) after being transported from New York, is finally in the acceptance phase of its grief and making a new leaf every few weeks. R’s four(!) snake plants, in that inimitable way of all snake plants, are doing their best impression of plasticine whether we water them twice a month or twice a year. Are snake plants even alive? Is it all a conspiracy from the Big Houseplant Industry? It’s hard to tell.
In Mark, Jesus speaks in a parable. “So is the kingdom of God: as if a man cast seed on the earth, and sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and lengthens — how, he does not know. The earth bears fruit by itself; first a blade, then an ear, then full grain in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he sends forth the sickle, because the harvest is near.” (4:26–29)
This parable is related right after the parable of the sower, which details four ways someone can receive the word of God: (1) imperviously, (2) transiently, (3) shallowly, and (4) thoroughly.
I must confess, this season I have rarely felt as if God were sowing many seeds on my fallow heart. And it’s not for His lack of trying. I have often ignored my better angels, the impelling call to turn my heart to God. The more I ignore Him, the easier it is to continue down the well-trodden highway. There’s always an easy excuse. I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I don’t feel like it. I have emails to answer. I should leave for work soon. Too often taking a minute or two to read a little of the Bible feels like upholding someone else’s promise. In a life too long governed by the deadlines and objective expectations of institutional education, personal goals feel etiolated and unimportant by comparison. Yeah, I can state my goal is to exercise on my bike machine three times a week for twenty minutes a day and read a chapter of my emergency medicine textbook every other day, but without a looming exam or a letter grade, who is going to hold me to something as flimsy as my intentions? I feel like a fiddler crab of willpower. Publish a peer-reviewed paper and satisfy every last rankling whim of Reviewer 2? Boom. Done. Study for 8 hours a day for three months straight for STEP exams? Boom. Easy. Read one page of a paperback book each day? Flub. I am vanquished in a breath. What is wrong with me that I can so easily perform herculean tasks for other people, and struggle to meet pedestrian goals for myself?
But back to the seeds. Luckily for God, He doesn’t have to rely solely on my wimpy will to deliver His word to me. Daily on my drives home, I feel the heavens declaring His glory to me. Whether it’s the devastating beam of the full moon over the I-10, or the smoggy sunrise of the San Fernando Valley, or the Santa Anas winds batting my car back and forth, or the unearthly fog of the wee hours, as if my crotchety Corolla were Ezio Auditore and I were waiting around for the level to load. I’ve also learned to receive God’s speaking through other believers speaking their daily experiences—some secondhand seed. Whether I actively open or not, the sower is sowing.
As I read that parable in Mark, I wondered. What is going on with the seed that has landed in me? Are birds snatching them away while I’m distracted on social media? Are the seeds getting thwarted by the rocks and thorns in my being, all the other oh-so-pressing issues that push aside deep contemplation of the word? Or are they somehow, unbeknownst to me, growing through the nights and days, sprouting and lengthening, somehow readying to bring forth fruit?
The parable opens up another avenue of thought. How is the kingdom of God like a seed? Unlike the kingdoms heretofore on earth, God’s kingdom does not come upon us with a conquering army or with hegemonistic cultural sweep. It arrives on the earth from inside individual people, much like God came to people as Jesus. The kingdom isn’t a ruling authority with laws and taxes. He is a person, budding up from within. How gentle. How alien. But how intimate. And how delicate.
As I have learned from many a houseplant, a seed is easy to smother, to drown, to starve, even by accident. But at the same time, “the earth bears fruit by itself.” Thank God for the persistence of grace! Thank God for the dandelions sprouting out of the cracks in the concrete, for the yellow-brown moss growing on abandoned lots and the forest floor of Chernobyl. Thank God that He cannot be discouraged by morning after morning of our foot-dragging, our hemming and hawing, our rolling back and forth in bed. When I see my own condition, I feel like Ezekiel surveying the valley of the dead, being asked, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” Can my bones live? Look how dry they are. Why are you asking me? Ezekiel could only reply, “O Lord Jehovah, You know.”
For me, who has only known fits and starts of growth and recession, I can barely dare to hope for a new beginning. For Him, who has seen millions of seasons churn through the ages, a winter is just a night reaching for the inexorable dawn. And whether or not my mornings are touched by sunlight, His mercies are new morning by morning.