Transformation is (I am glad to say) a buzz word, used in commerce and politics, in churches and of course in schools. It is a properly forward-looking word, one that is tempted to reject what has gone before, but also to take what was there and create something new. It inhabits a visionary space between the idea of a newer, better, shinier society/school/church/bottom line and the reality. Sometimes it happens in whole countries, and then the body count gets pretty ugly. I have this week been reading John le Carre’s first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead, and in it one of the characters worries that the new post-war Germany, in its “plump pride,” is looking horribly like the old pre-war horror she endured as a Jew. Transformation is possible, but certain characteristics remain. “Plump pride” doesn’t sound like one of the more attractive ones.
I am starting this blog in the shadow of a new school year, with the reality of Jesus’ parable of the sower, our founding story, in mind. Transformation, it seems to me, to be effective, must begin in the heart and will (actually in my heart and will), and not with the externals that can all too quickly be eroded. For a sobering account of how this is possible, the devastating book Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich about the changes in Russia since the fall of communism is a good place to start, with the withering of homo sovieticus back into the grasping, selfish humanity it was supposed to “transform.” Get tissues before you read, by the way.
However, both the fundamental model of transformation I have tried to promote, rooted around invitation and discipleship, and the parable of the sower, contain within them the limits of that transformational potential. Change is always optional and therefore we will always be disappointed. As leaders we have to provide the impetus for change (mostly, I’m afraid, by modelling it ourselves) and also the space (which usually means time, resources and patience) for people to change.
The basic model I have been banging on about for ever has been that of invitation + discipleship within community. I still think that this is a good model of how an organisation that has God’s transforming power available to it, goes about its business. It works for churches too, by the way. We cannot and must not compel types of behaviour, lifestyles or decisions. Many church leaders have done so and failed disastrously in all spiritual movements. However, what we can do is challenge, support, resource and stand with people as they try and change. As time goes on, and a culture of transformation begins to take root in a church or church school, then a certain “consensual authoritarianism” begins to be seen (I am grateful to John West-Burnham for this phrase). This ethos can be godly or not, depending on how it is encouraged, but it is a powerful tool to help a school or church encourage a communal discipleship.
Nevertheless, we accept that people will not accept the invitation to be part of our loving community. We accept, furthermore, that amongst those who do accept the invitation, there are plenty who do not subscribe to the discipleship we propose. And of course there are enough damaged individuals, families and children to threaten the sense of community that we are constantly refining and deepening. This behoves us to be humble about the outcomes of transformation.
Jesus was. Here is the parable of the sower:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
We know this, don’t we, but I know that I often forget it. I often forget that the choices that people make, or do not make, have a direct impact on the type of life they eventually live, and whether that would be pleasing to the Father. I am excruciatingly aware of how undiscipled I am.
The seed, it sometimes seems to me, must have been thrown in a wind to be that scattered! An accurate and conscientious farmer (not the guy in Durer’s woodcut, clearly) would have ensured that the large majority of his land was good and ready to receive the seed, and that his aim was pretty much geared to the soil he had prepared to receive it, and that some effort would have been made to get the birds away (though after what they did to my two rows of unprotected peas sown this year, I have every sympathy)! What this implies is that we cannot just divvy up the ground into quarters, one for each batch of seed – only a really poor farmer would be that haphazard (or be faced with a a really strong wind!). The parable thus offers us the possibility, I think, that the expectation of the sower was that the large majority of his seed would fall into good soil, and that those batches of seed that went astray to the path, the rocky ground and the thorns must have been the minority. This means that although we will find those in our schools and churches obsessed by wealth and the cares of the world, those whose heart is too hard to receive, and those who do not put down deep roots, the majority of hearts are open to being discipled in a loving community more than we realise.
This then returns to a challenge for leaders. How do we prepare the soil? How do we create a loving community, with legitimately high expectations of one another, of mutual submission and a clear discipleship-oriented teaching as to what is required to please our Father? I have been in plenty of churches that struggle to do this adequately, but surely, unless Jesus’ sower was really a novice, it must be possible. We can’t set low limits – we happy few, we band of brothers – on the number of those who will come with us. We have therefore to accept that the gardening model – of clarity of speech, regular intervention and monitoring, of constant and unremitting support and affirmation – of pottering about with intent amongst our people, loved and discipled – is the right one. Engagement with people, engagement with issues, daily discipleship of ourselves and those around us, humility and resilience in the face of adversity, trust in each other and in the seeds we have sown in each other – these are the good actions of the post-sowing farmer, not the laissez-faire approach of the boy who would not hoe corn.
These questions and the parable point to actions which I will explore in Part 2.