Ruby is gone. The robin that built her nest on one of our garage lights has been missing since we returned from vacation, leaving behind a single delicate jewel of robin’s-egg blue. The promise she brought when she built her nest – that we might be close witnesses of the hatching and fledging of her new brood – proved as fragile and fleeting as grass that flourishes in the morning and by evening fades and withers.
We don’t know what happened to Ruby’s mate, who disappeared soon after she started sitting. We don’t know the meaning of the little sighs Ruby emitted as she waited alone on her nest. We don’t know when Ruby’s progressively longer absences to forage for food became the final abandonment.
But though we are sad, Sheryl and I are not naïve. We know that nature loves death more than it loves you and me. No matter how charming any of us may be, sooner or later nature is going to choose death over us. There’s a time for everything under heaven, a wise teacher said, “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down and a time to heal; a time to keep and a time to throw away” (Eccles. 3:1ff). It’s all part of the creation that, according to our tradition, God called “good.”
In better moments I accept that, even affirm it. But sometimes, when the loss comes too close to home, I need help with it. Sometimes I can become too aware of the losses that have piled up in my life, like nest after nest of unhatched eggs: opportunities unrecognized or squandered; relationships unattended and unfulfilled; growing edges underappreciated, untended, and undeveloped; kind, helpful words unspoken; love unexpressed.
Sometimes I offered the best I had, the best of myself, and those to whom I offered it missed its value completely, or thought too little of it and left the best of what I offered unused, or diluted it with all their other concerns until it lost its real worth. It can make a person feel insignificant, and at times it has made me feel that way.
Did it make Jesus feel that way, too, and is that the reason he told the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9)? It seems to me it’s not really a parable about different kinds of soil, despite Matthew’s interpretation of it, nor is it about the seed. It’s a parable, I believe, that shows the faith of one who gave his best and saw most of it go to waste, but who gave it anyway, trusting that some part of what he offered would fulfill its promise. And it’s a parable I cherish for what it teaches me about my own efforts in life.
First, it teaches me to accept that failures and losses and rejections are part of life. Among the friends and neighbors of his hometown, Jesus saw the best he had to offer wasted. He could do nothing of power there because they didn’t believe he had it in him (Mark 6:1-6a). And Jesus lamented over Jerusalem and all the people of Israel, “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34)! It’s part of life that some eggs remain unhatched.
Second, the parable teaches that I mustn’t let obstacles or failure impede my work or prevent me from offering my gift anyway. According to an observation I’ve seen attributed to at least a half-dozen people, including Henry Ford and Vince Lombardi, obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
Abraham Lincoln endured an almost unbroken string of failures at business, law, and politics before he was elected president. Thomas Edison succeeded in developing a practical light bulb only after 3,000 failures. Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he succeeded. R.H. Macy failed seven times before his store in New York caught on. Albert Einstein’s parents thought he was “sub-normal,” and one of his teachers described him as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams.” Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
Don’t let failure obscure your vision or deter your commitment, this parable says, and don’t be distracted by nay-sayers, people who see less in you than you have to give. Offer the best you have, the best you are, and don’t be concerned whether it bears fruit or not. Just offer it, and move on. When Jesus began his work, people wanted him to stay with them to do what they wanted him to do: fix their personal problems. But he didn’t take the bait; he knew he had something more important to do with his life, and he moved on so he could do it (Mark 1:35-38).
Finally, the parable of the sower teaches me to trust the God who moves between the gains and the losses to bring forth an abundant harvest in God’s own time. Isaiah assures us that “a bruised reed God will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42.3). “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11).
The seed any one of us sows may not bear fruit in our lifetime. It may not bear fruit until many generations from now. Consider how long it took the dream of freedom to set blacks free from institutional slavery, and consider how far there is yet to go before we live out the dream that all people are created equal.
When my efforts appear to be fruitless and wasted, I’ll remember the God who created light and dark, weal and woe, and holds all things together (Isa. 45:7). And like Jesus, I will hold on to Habakkuk’s assurance that “there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). Between the gains and the losses of our lives, God still moves, reconciling all things in heaven and earth, and bringing everything – everything – to its perfect end.