How to be Fruitful
Revd Dr Michael Lloyd shares a few thoughts on Mark 4: 1-20
Dear Friends and Alumni,
There was a man who was dying, and he summoned his three best friends to his death bed – a priest, a doctor and a lawyer. And he said to them, ‘As you know, I’m dying, and I have one last request to make of you, my oldest friends. I made a reasonable amount of money in my life, and I am determined to take it all with me. I’m going to divide it up between you, which means that each of you will get £1m, in cash, and I want you to promise me that you’ll put all three wadges into my coffin before it goes to the crematorium.’ So they all promise him.
A couple of days later, the man dies. After the service at the crem, the three friends get together and chat. And the priest says, ‘Actually, I’m feeling rather guilty. You remember he asked us to put all that money into his coffin? Well, I’m afraid I only put £800,000 into the coffin. I kept £200,000 back and put it towards our church fund-raising target. And the result is that the church roof is not leaking, for the first time in fifty years. We’re a poor community, and there’s no way we would have raised the money otherwise. I think he would have wanted it this way.’
To which the doctor replied, ‘Well, I’m rather relieved to hear you say that, because my conscience has been troubling me somewhat, too. I only put £700,000 into the coffin, and I put the remaining £300,000 towards buying a wonderful new CAT scan for our medical practice. Ours is a very poor neighbourhood, and there’s no way we would have been able to raise the money ourselves. So I think he would have wanted it that way.’
To which the lawyer replied, ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing. We’re his oldest friends. It was his dying wish. And we promised him. How could you not respect that? I’m sorry but I’m appalled. I put a cheque for the full amount into that coffin!’
Most of us are not really concerned about what we take with us, so much as what we leave behind. We long to leave behind something of value. We long for our lives to make a difference. We long for them to be significant. We long for them to count. We long for our lives to achieve something. To accomplish something.
And indeed one of the reasons why mid-life crisis happens is that, when we are young, we think we will achieve wonderful things. We have great and grandiose schemes. And somewhere between 40 and 50, it dawns on us that we don’t have enough time left to do it. And, actually, if we’re being honest with ourselves, our track record suggests that we probably don’t have the ability to do it, either. Realism sets in, and, with it, depression and shrinkage. Shrinkage of scope, shrinkage of hope, and shrinkage of self-regard. We are not the people we once thought ourselves to be, and it won’t be that long before our place will know us no more.
Now, this frame of mind needs to be reminded that our value does not depend on our achievements. It needs to be reminded that faithfulness is more important than success. It needs to be reminded that who we are matters more than what we do. It needs to be reminded that failure, or just merely average accomplishment, can do nothing to diminish our infinite lovedness.
Nevertheless, the desire to make a difference is not wrong. The desire to be fruitful is as built in to a human being as it is to a tree. It is not an illegitimate aspiration. The parable of the talents, for instance, encourages us to be successful investors – people who use their talents effectively. Who so live, that their lives produce a return, a surplus over what they were given.
And the parable of the Sower urges us to be fruitful. Urges us to live lives that are productive of that which nourishes others and gladdens the farmer. It is a parable that tells us how to be fruitful. It gives us the advice we need to live lives of rich significance. And basically the advice it gives us is, Be careful which voice you listen to. Be careful which voice you attend to. Listen to the right voice, and your lives will be richly fertile. Let that voice be crowded out, let that voice be drowned out, neglect that voice, and you are settling for sterility.
A million voices clamour to be heard
A million voices compete for our attention, and they get louder and louder, more glossy and more shrill, in the attempt to reach us, to woo us, to influence us, to manipulate us, to increase their profits or to improve their ratings.
Politicians spout self-interested, self-justificatory, and self-promotional words – all the time, but mostly during election campaigns when they need something from us. I can’t remember who it was who said that politicians are like nappies (or diapers) – they need to be changed regularly. And for the same reason!
Advertisers pour out expensive words to attract us, to lodge in our minds and influence our decisions without us even realising that they have done so. Words that, like the conjuror’s art, distract us from their sleight of hand.
And then there are the internal voices – hurt voices, fearful voices, self-deceptive voices, self-serving voices.
So many voices.
So much demand.
So many words.
So many of them weasel.
But, says Jesus in this parable, there is one Voice that is not shrill and does not clamour for our attention, but is a still, small Voice.
There is one Voice that will not shout or cry out, or raise itself in the streets.
There is one Voice that does not speak to us for its own enrichment, but for ours.
There is one Voice that, like a seed, contains within it, all the elements of life.
Attend to this Voice, says Jesus. And you’ll be fruitful.
As Frederick Buechner says,
The danger is that there are so many voices and they all in their ways sound so promising. The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you through the seagull mounting the grey wind, say, or the vision in the temple, that you do not listen to the voice inside you or to the voice that speaks from outside but specifically to you out of the specific events of your life, but that instead you listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status, and that if it is gladness you are after, you can save that for weekends. …
The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in a life’s work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realising that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something that could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else. This does not mean, of course, people who are doing work that from the outside looks unglamorous and humdrum, because obviously such work as that may be a crucial form of service and deeply creative. But it means people who are doing work that seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.’
So listen to the right voice. Listen to the only voice that loves us, undistortedly. Listen to the only voice that wants what is best for us, uncompetitively. Listen to the word of God.
Now, there are three things that can get in the way of that happening, says Jesus. Three things that can fur up the arteries of our effectiveness. The first is hardness. Some seed fell on the path and it doesn’t get anywhere because the path is so trodden on, so compacted, that there is no crack in it – nowhere for the seed to fall into. So it’s easy pickings for the birds. There are, Jesus implies, some people who just offer no space to the word. Who won’t give it any sort of hearing. You don’t need to worry about that one because you’re here. You’ve made considerable sacrifices to be here, you’ve given up a lot to come and listen to that Voice of Love. So I suggest that’s probably not you or me.
The second and third obstacles to fruitfulness are, I’m afraid, ones to which you and I are more vulnerable. The first one was hardness. The second one is shallowness. We’ve given the word a hearing. We’ve accepted it. It’s found a way in. But everything’s rather shallow. It’s all a bit skin-deep. We don’t pause to ask questions of the text. More importantly, we don’t allow it to ask questions of us. We don’t stop to pray it through. We don’t ask ourselves how we might apply it to our lives. We just don’t go very deep in the word, so the word doesn’t go very deep in us. And we wither inside.
So, hardness. Shallowness. And thirdly, busyness. V. 19: ‘The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.’ Jesus is realistic: there will be worries in this life. The question is whether those worries drive you to Him or from Him.
I remember the OT scholar, Alex Motyer, saying that he was lecturing at Trinity Bristol one day and telling his students that, in the Old Testament, the word ‘Lebanon’ can stand for ground that has never been cultivated, that has never been touched by human hand. And when he went back home at the end of the day, he found a large sign up in his garden, proclaiming the word ‘Lebanon’!
Many of us could have the word ‘Lebanon’ over our lives, written over our diaries. We need occasionally to weed the gardens of our lives so that we have time for the things that really matter. We need occasional periods of silence when we weed out the other voices and try to focus on the voice of the divine Sower. Silence is the prerequisite of fertility. Why was Jesus so fruitful? Because He got away from all the other voices, got away occasionally from all the demand upon Him, and listened for the voice of His heavenly Father.
We’re given an account of one of those retreats, in the narrative of the temptation in the wilderness. And it’s true to say that Jesus doesn’t actually quite get away from all other voices. Even He finds that there is a particularly persistent voice that goes with him into the desert, and won’t leave Him alone. Withdrawal doesn’t mean that He gets away entirely from all non-divine voices, but it does give Him the perspective to recognise it for what it is, to see through it and to reject it. That is the perspective we need if we are to be fruitful.
This summer, my wife and I walked the Pennine Way – the mountainous ridge that has been called the backbone of Britain. It was quite a challenge, averaging 19 miles a day. We read a book about one man’s experience of walking the Pennine Way, entitled One Man and his Bog, which ends by saying, ‘If this book has in any way inspired you to take up walking, read it again, more carefully!’ Anyway, one of the days of the walk, you slowly climb up the Teesdale Valley, which rewards you with the spectacular views of a succession of thundering waterfalls. In fact, the word ‘Tees’ is an old Norse word for a raging, boiling river. And then, a few miles later, you reach the source of the river Tees – just a tiny trickle bubbling up out of the ground.
The sheer energy of this extraordinary river begins underground as a barely noticeable trickle. In the same way, the mighty energetic works of God begin subterraneanly, begin underground, begin in the unseen place of our prayerful engagement with God. It doesn’t feel powerful – it feels like a rather pathetic and insignificant trickle. But in that subterranean place, the mighty rivers of God have their source.
The voice of the Lord is powerful.
The voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord is what brought creation into being in the first place.
It was the voice of the Lord that rekindled life in Jairus’ daughter and in Lazarus’ swaddled corpse.
Fruitfulness comes from listening to that voice. Listening to that voice carefully and regularly and attentively in Scripture. Listening to that voice quietly and focusedly in the subterranean places of prayer. Listening for that voice in others, and especially in the poor and unlistened to.
Listen to that voice.
Unleash that voice down every neuro-pathway of your mind and every arterial channel of your heart, and you will be fruitful. You will live out in your life now something of the fruitfulness and the fertility and the fecundity of the coming kingdom. Something of the plenty and the verdant lushness of the healed and transfigured creation.
 Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, p. 38.
Yours in Christ,
Revd Dr Michael Lloyd