Of weeds and wheat

art 11The garden where Sheryl and I once lived had been ignored for at least two years before we arrived. Do you know how many weeds can accumulate in two years in an untended garden? Sheryl, an avid gardener, set out right away to clear the weeds and bring new order and beauty to the space.

She had hardly begun when she discovered a yarrow, a scrawny thing hidden deep in the overgrowth. I might have guessed it was beyond help, but Sheryl knows a thing or two about reclaiming and transforming things that still have life in them. She cleared the weeds around it, gave it light and room to grow, and soon it spread into a magnificent splash of yellow that brightened the whole side of the house. Sometimes it seems you have to pull the weeds before the flowers can fully blossom.

Do you remember Thomas Merton’s question? “If you want to identify me,” he wrote, “ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” As important as it is to remember what we’re living for, it’s just as important to identify what keeps us from it. What are the weeds in life that keep us from blossoming fully? Where did they come from, and who sowed them here? What are we to do about them?

The first thing to do about them is probably to accept them as part of life. Our lives are full of all kinds of things mingled together: good and bad, light and shadow, gains and losses, tears and laughter, rending and sewing, love and hate, birth and death – “Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,” as Robert Frost described it. And their roots are inextricably intertwined. What life is without that terrible mixture?

I confess I’d like to pull some of those weeds out of my life: old habits I developed to serve life yesterday but that interfere with life today; personal traits I dislike, not because they’re bad but because they don’t fit the self-image my ego cultivates; influences from a dysfunctional family of origin that still drain my energy. You may have weeds like those in your life, too, and maybe you’d like to pull them out.

The desire to get rid of the weeds is in our human nature, the desire to get free of those things that seem to keep me from living fully for God’s purpose. “Shall we pull out the weeds?” the servants asked when they discovered them growing among the wheat. And I’m ready to hear someone say, “Yes, yank ‘em out! They’re depleting the nutrients and diminishing the harvest. Get rid of ‘em. Clear the garden of weeds and let the good seed flourish.”

But God seems to have something different in mind. Don’t rush to judgment, I hear. “Let both [weeds and wheat] grow together until the harvest,” the master of the harvest says, then “I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt. 13:30). If God has time to wait, why I am in such a hurry? Why must I rush to make the judgment God has deferred until later?

Early in my life, my introversion felt like a weed called shyness that kept me from being more a part of the popular crowd, and I wanted to pull that weed up and get rid of it. Later I recognized it as a gift that allows me to tap into a deeper, inner wellspring of wisdom. Some people whose ideas once seemed strange, even offensive, I discovered later had a depth of faith and an insight into life that deepened my faith and expanded my vision of life. We need to let the weeds and the wheat grow together until God sorts them out, for only God finally has the perspective to know what is worth saving and what is not.

What weeds crop up in your life? One of you recently mentioned the weed of fatigue that keeps you from being as patient and Christ-like as you’d like to be. One of you spoke of a tendency toward being judgmental that you feel interferes with your being whole. Someone identified the weed of stress that crowds goodness and gentleness and patience out of your life. Someone else told of a heavy burden of guilt that stands in the way of some important healing in his life. Sometimes people can seem like weeds, people who seem to work against us and against the interests of our living fully.

The story of weeds and wheat has a message for me. It tells me that I can’t uproot the weeds without damaging or losing the wheat. It reminds me that the roots of good and bad in my life, the limitations and the possibilities, things that work against me and those that work for me, all grow from the same soil and rise from the same source. Their roots are intimately intertwined. Do you recall God saying, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:7)? The shadow side of every gift is a limitation we must learn to live with. Don’t judge between them too early, the story says.

The story also tells me that my judgment between weeds and wheat, between bad and good, may not be trustworthy. Early on, they look the same; it’s only as they develop that they can be distinguished. Wait and watch to see how they turn out. In the seventeenth-century, Frances Quarles advised the same thing about life when he wrote, “My soul, sit thou a patient looker-on; / Judge not the play before the play is done: / Her plot has many changes; every day / Speaks a new scene; the last act crowns the play.” Don’t rush to judgment about what is good or bad in your life. Wait until the final act is finished.

Finally, the story suggests that maybe even God doesn’t know at first which will turn out to be a weed and which will turn out to be wheat. Maybe the outcome depends upon how we deal with them; maybe it depends upon how we love them. German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” Perhaps every weed in our lives is some unrecognized possibility that needs our love, that needs us to value it, in order to harvest its full potential.

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