Seeds, Soils and the Family Soul

I was recently asked to speak at a retreat and given a dual assignment of addressing the family and a text from the gospels – a parable about a sower, seeds and soils. Other texts may come to mind more quickly or seem more appropriate when we think about family. Yet I rather like it when the church puts us in a conversation with the text that does not seem to naturally fit and then expects us to proceed.

The family may not be the first thing we think of when we read the parable, yet the family is always a context where we attempt to apply the text. The family is a field where we learn much about the Christian faith. In the family we scatter seed in the hope of growing fruit. The family is a field where we learn how to relate to one another and to the world and to God.

Perhaps the family is a perfect context to speak of people as soil. In a family we plant, nurture, feed, water and weed – all in the hope that growth might occur. This may be as good a place as any to point out that it is not our end goal to grow happy, productive people. Our end goal is not to turn you into awesome parents with successful marriages and perfect children. It’s not that we are opposed to such things. It’s just that this is a church retreat and we have much bigger goals. We are raising disciples.

It is basic thought about families and texts to be attentive to what is present and what is not. It is important to realize that the entire system is influenced by who is present or who is absent. This is important to know because the family is dependent on the way the individual pieces work together. Behaviors and actions and words of any one individual will significantly affect the others. The text works the same way. The presence of rocks, thorns, and birds make a difference. Shallow roots, worldly worries and the presence of Satan make a difference. This is not a chance adventure. This is a context where it is important to be intentional. This is where seed grows.

As an aside, it follows the family should be very careful about who is invited into the system. A pet, X Box, cell phones, Netflix, fantasy football, a Visa card, Jack Daniels… these things may seem like casual accessories. But they will fight to become influential in the family system.

A common theme in the family and the parable is growth. When one looks at the reasons for growth or lack of growth in the text it appears to be the type of soil and what is attracted to these soils. In the family it is not birds, rocks or weeds that prevent growth. That would be convenient. When things aren’t going well to blame it on the stinking rocks, lousy weeds, angry birds. Instead we must be intentional about who and what is invited into the family.

We do not want to overlook the cosmic struggle in the parable. In both parable and family we may be interacting with seed, thorns and rocky ground, but also Satan. In what we thought was an ordinary farmer’s field – Satan shows up. In what seems like the everyday activities of raising a family – Satan shows up. The fact is, Satan wants your family. There is a cosmic battle of supernatural forces engaged against one another for our families. If we ever have doubts about whether our families have value, that alone should convince us we are wrong.

While Jesus may not be talking explicitly about family here, he is not really talking about farming either. Jesus often seems to be talking about some subject and then we learn he is actually talking about the Good News of the kingdom. In fact, when Jesus starts talking in parables, Matthew tells us he is sharing secrets of the kingdom.

We do not want to forget the parable is a kingdom story. We read the parables and are put immediately into a context of competing kingdoms. Allegiance is an issue that we must wrestle with. We will be choosing a king. Even an examination of family is within the context of kingdom. It does not escape us that the parable follows a discussion about family. “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, Behold My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” This family discussion and the parable share space in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel. Yes, family is kingdom discussion. It is noteworthy that the bio family takes a backseat to the family that does the will of the Father in heaven. The text presents us with an unorthodox definition of family.

The parable carries some significance for Matthew, Mark and Luke all include it. And it is always the out front parable. We are challenged to “Listen.” It may be noteworthy that Jesus starts telling us to listen in the gospel and in Revelation he is still telling us to listen. Perhaps it is implied that we are not only to start listening but are then to never stop listening.

Listening is a big concern in both text and family. Perhaps a tangent is in order; let us talk about the discipline of listening. Let me guess, your children do not listen. Let me guess again, you do not listen to your children. And again, you fall into a trap of thinking that listening to your child is the same as agreement. You feel that listening is the same as giving in to your child’s demands.

This is worthwhile conversation. While the text is interested in listening to words of Jesus, we want to acknowledge what I will call “spillover.” I hope the following helps with what I intend as spillover. 1) We are to love God. 2) We learn that spillover of loving God insists on loving one another. 3) This love is not to stop with loving other followers; we are to love our neighbors as well. 4) This spillover does not stop here; we are to even love our enemies. Thus, while there is not an explicit text that tells us to listen to one another, I suggest that the spillover causes us to listen to one another (including our children). I am suggesting that as followers of Jesus, we become respectful people who graciously are interested in what others have to say (even when we are not in agreement). When the text does not give an answer to the particular situations of our lives, the spillover can help us determine how we should respond. Listening becomes an activity of discipleship.

As this conversation concludes, I suggest the family is a laboratory for discipleship. I am glad we gather as church. For some reason the text is intent on an unorthodox view of family. The text may suggest then that we are gathered as family. We gather as those who desire to do the will of the Father in heaven. This unorthodox New Testament definition of family cannot help but spillover into our bio families. There we are to share the secrets of the kingdom.

A Not So Innocent Relationship

Be honest, when you first heard about this relationship it sounded so innocent. When your son first told you about his new friend (we will call this friend X), you were just glad to see him so excited. He told you X was involved in many activities, some of them educational, and had a sense of adventure. You had heard from others that X was  creative, stimulating, and could even help with problem solving. When your son told you how popular X was with his friends, you did not want him to feel left out. You did not know much about X, but set up a play date anyway. Early play dates appeared to go well, your son was enthusiastic about what he and X were doing. He even seemed to enjoy telling you about what they did together. You did not always understand and it wasn’t always interesting to you but your son enjoyed X so much and you were glad he was occupied. Eventually you invited X to stay.

It wasn’t long before things began to change. You were uncertain as to what it was exactly, but things were not the same between you and your son. In fact, everything about him seemed to be changing. He was spending less time with you and family and friends. He became uninterested in things he used to enjoy. He began staying up at night, preferring time with X over sleep. He lost his appetite, preferring to spend time with X rather than eat. X had convinced him that riding bikes was boring. So was sledding and playing in the creek. Even team sports were now considered boring. You did not know why X was so controlling and when you tried to help, your son snapped at you. Every time you tried to talk about X things became so intense. Soon you began to talk badly about X.

You responded by establishing boundaries. Your son would be allowed to be with X only so many hours a day. If he refused to comply with this request X would not be permitted to stay. Your son became angry, claiming you did not understand, even saying things that sounded hateful. At some point, you can’t remember when, your son began to care more for X than for you or his best friends or his favorite hobbies. He became depressed. When you told him you wanted to help he replied that the only way was to let him spend more time with X. When you allowed him more time with X, you missed him. When you tried to spend time with him, he became angry because you were keeping him from X.

When others his age were competing in sports or interested in driving or creating memorable moments or dating, his relationship with X became more serious. This is not the way you saw his life going. These are not the plans or goals you had in mind. These are not the memories you had hoped for. It is difficult to remember that when you first heard about this relationship it seemed so innocent.

Church and Its Relationships

An all too simple summary of the church and its relationships might sound something like this; A) When the relationship between God and church is strong, the world benefits. B) When the relationship between God and church is strained, the world suffers. C) When the relationship between the world and the church is off balance (either due to alliance or hostility) God grieves. D) When the relationship between the world and the church is balanced (church demonstrating what the world is meant to be), God is pleased.

The above summary implies several things. One, the church holds a central place in creation. Two, the relationship between God and the world remains constant. The world convinces itself it is central and can survive without God. At the same time, God continues to invite and welcome and love the world into relationship.

Yet, relationships involving the church are less consistent. The church has consistently moved back and forth in faithful relationship with God and the world. Corporately, we seem to find it as difficult to love God and neighbor as the rich ruler. Another implication from the above summary is that the world will always struggle with itself without the church. In fact, it is possible the world cannot understand who it is without the church. I think of Stanley Hauerwas at this point, “For the church to be the church, therefore, is not anti-world, but rather an attempt to show what the world is meant to be as God’s good creation.”

Family Forming Words

“Woman, Here is Your Son” (John 19.26)

John leads up to this saying by talking about the crowds calling for crucifixion, the interaction between Pilate and the chief priests, and the soldiers who were gambling for his clothes.  However it is almost as if Jesus is looking for someone. John tells us that “When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, He said to His mother ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” Whatever else we think of these words, we can consider them “family forming.” Jesus says something that sounds like a formal introduction between two who have likely already met. But they have not known one another like he wants them to know one another.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here is no small decision.  It is “After this,” John says “knowing that all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Not everyone at the cross is hostile. There are sympathetic viewers at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

Relationships have changed. Family is defined differently. We are known, not by biological traits or proper names, but by our relationship to Jesus. At the cross a new community emerges. Not one of blood connection but a connection even more significant. Mark 3.32-33 helps us to see a family that embraces what Jesus is talking about. There Jesus tells us that family is not determined by blood. Instead those who do the will of God are his mother and brothers. Here is a surprising new relationship that violates old boundaries. We are called to meet new brothers and sisters, new mothers and fathers.

Relationship changes in the presence of the crucified Jesus.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

It is interesting that the two people at the cross are not named but identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

During Lent we want to remember that following Jesus includes joining this community gathered at the cross. No longer individuals we are identified by our relationship with Jesus as a family formed by Jesus. Lineage, DNA, and other traits do not tell the entire story. We can only know our identity and significance in relationship to the one who died on the cross.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, it’s not easy to see every beliver as my own family. It is clear that you place a higher priority on love and relationship than anything else. There are times that I create distance with peopple I don’ like , or can’t seem to relate to, instead of finding ways of communicating that we are part of the same family. I pray that you will help to see my brothers and sisters in Christ the way that you want me to see them.”

An Eccle-Systemic Look at Witness

A witness is someone who has made a discovery and attempts to pass the news on to someone else. It always happens this way; it has to happen this way. Witness always happens in relationship. This becomes important for us because some still try to convince us that following Jesus is similar to mastering a doctrine. One could not be further from the truth. Following Jesus is a way to live in relationship. Following Jesus allows us to interpret life meaningfully and influences our relationships significantly. Therefore, a Christian witness is someone who demonstrates that following Jesus has done something significant to them.

This emphasis on relationship directs us toward the systemic nature of this thing called church. We should be taking a more eccle-systemic approach to witness. In fact, we misunderstand Christian witness if we overlook its corporate and relational nature. At our best we are a collection of people who are called out in a way that cuts across the natural boundaries (culture, geography, language, gender, race) that we use to divide ourselves from one another.

It is my opinion that our witness has been hindered by our emphasis on personal witness over corporate witness.  Also, by our emphasis that Jesus has done something “for me.” While I am not adamantly opposed to either of these ideas, I do think they are more the product of an individualized consumer oriented western mindset than of a New Testament picture of witness.

We get ourselves into trouble when we start to think about following Jesus in ways that isolate some of us from others. Sometimes it seems that we prefer differences over a common desire to follow Jesus.  A case can be made that the church should be the safest place to discuss differences. Instead we often act as if we cannot welcome others into the body unless we are in agreement with everything they believe. We fail in our corporate witness when we act as if the sins of others are greater than our own. We fail when we are uninviting to people who are unlike us.

To be a corporate reflection of God is to shift our allegiances by gathering in a fellowship that re-orients and re-prioritizes the way that we live our lives. All prior commitments are brought into conflict with the allegiance now given to King Jesus. This will create tension with the allegiances that others have invested in. This will put the church in the sometimes awkward position of being concerned with the affairs of the world while at the same time those we are concerned about are at odds with us.

This seems to be right where we belong. In relationship with this God who significantly alters all other relationships, including both those who see things similarly to us and those who do not. We are living in a place where people we are concerned about overlaps with people who line up against us.

This all makes witness something that is rather unpredictable. Yet, we cannot stop the fact that we are in relationship with one another, with a world that does not understand our allegiance, and with a God who is unwilling to stop this relational way of doing things. Witness will continue to happen in relationship. The impact of our witness will be directly related to how serious we are about belonging to a fellowship that is witness to what God has done.

A Gathering at the Cross

The first century view of crucifixion makes John’s account somewhat surprising.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Ben Witherington suggests that Mark’s gospel provides “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  The Gospel of John includes none of these and Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion as a moment of triumph is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

Such a victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But we have “the benefit of hindsight and insight.”  The crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here we have no small decision.  After this, John says that “all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Sympathetic viewers were at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

In the presence of the crucified Jesus, relationship changes.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

The two people identified at the cross are identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find themselves a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

We participate in a community with other unlikely participants.  A tax collector, a fisherman, a farmer, a barista.  The guy who shakes your hand tightly, the girl who sings off-key, the family with the noisy children, the lady who wears too much perfume.  At the cross, we participate with a family that we do not choose.  We participate in a family where the only thing we have in common is relationship with a crucified Jesus.

John does not call us to the cross that we might feel pity for an innocent who died an undignified death.  John invites each of us to stand at the cross to witness the crucified King.  John wants us to know that Jesus remains in control.  Even on the cross, he is able to complete the work he was sent to accomplish.  Like adding the final pieces of a portfolio, he establishes a new family and fulfills scripture.  Only then does he submit his work to the Father “It is finished” and give up his spirit (it was not taken from him).

At the cross, Jesus joins us as a new family of disciples who will continue to follow together.  Following Jesus will now include interdependence on one another.  We are not isolated followers, we are not called to be.  Instead, we join others.  We join people who are not like us in any other way except that we gather at the cross of Christ.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that when we come into relationship with the crucified Jesus, we come into relationship with a collection of others who participate in that relationship with us.

A prayer of response by Susan Vigliano; “Lord, I invite you to shape and form my identity in such a way that I reflect your new order of family.  Who is my brother, mother, and sister in my new adopted family?  I have a natural God-given love for my natural family and close friends, but I need your agape love to love the unknown, different, sometimes unloveable people whom you now call my brother.  Help me, Lord, to love like you love.”

Systemic Thinking

I am left wondering if one of the shifts we will see in this post-modern age is a shift to more systemic thinking from a systematic way of thinking?  Systematic thinking is intended to be a helpful exercise.  It helps us to make sense of and articulate complicated ideas.  We are willing to accept systematic thought because it allows us to feel like we know what we are talking about.

On the other hand, systemic thinking encourages intersection and relationship.  Systemic thinking recognizes that very few things (if any at all) fit into clear categories.  Instead of arranging our talk about God into categories will we spend more time talking about the ways He defies categories?  Instead of spending time trying to convince ourselves about our understanding of God will we engage in conversation about the adventure of following Him?

I find myself wanting someone to write a systemic theology.


When I talk about an eccle-system, I am not trying to propose a new term or a new description of church.  Rather, I am attempting to strengthen the idea of church that emerges from the text by playing with the more popular idea of an eco-system.  An idea, I think a helpful one, that encourages a systemic way of thinking.  It is an idea that strongly suggests that even the smallest piece of information is connected to a larger system and helps to make it what it is.  For example, in an eco-system we would find that the entire system is affected by the presence or absence of any one piece.

The implications then for the term eccle-system are that every story is connected to the story told and experienced by the church.  Therefore, our text affects everyone no matter their espoused text.  We are connected to a body of called out followers and each of our individual actions, behaviors, and decisions affect that body.  At the same time, our story influences and affects the larger community, including those who do not read our text or follow our King.  If this thinking is correct, and I think it is, then even the activities that we consider the least significant are of extreme importance in the eccle-system.

By this I am suggesting nothing new.  I am simply highlighting the idea that the church is not a closed system.  Instead, by design, it is an open system that experiences a continuous inflow and outflow.  It can never become stale or stagnant without ceasing to be the church.  The text suggests clearly that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another or in isolation from God.  The text suggests that the church is a system of interdependent individuals that is interconnected with the rest of creation.  I fear that we lose when we fail to see such a connection.

A Peri-choretic God

The New Testament Gospels give a Trinitarian picture at the baptism of Jesus.  A heavenly voice declares Jesus as Son as the Spirit descends like a dove.  The Gospel of Matthew gives another such picture in its conclusion.  Interestingly, baptism is again the context as Jesus commands us to make disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Trinity provides language that allows us to see ourselves differently than what we see in our mirrors each morning.  In the context of baptism, we are named.  We are given identity.  Eugene Peterson, in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places says, “if you want to know what makes me tick… study me in the company of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  He goes on, “From the moment we are newly named, we know ourselves in a new way… We suddenly acquire ears to hear Thoreau’s different drummer.”

Trinity gives us a fuller picture of God.  Yet – whether Speaking Creator God hovering over the waters, Son of God rising from the dead, or Holy Spirit descending from heaven with a rushing mighty wind – there is still an element of mystery.  Trinity reminds us that we will never know all there is about God.  Peterson calls it “A not-knowing in the presence of the God who knows us.”  He goes on to say that with God “there is always more, much more.”

Elsewhere, in Eat This Book, Peterson cautions us about a rival trinity “holy needs, holy wants, holy feelings” that poses a threat to all of us.  This rival trinity comes announcing the certainty that we are sovereign of our lives.  It creates a false identity.  It does not get rid of God.  It simply uses God the same way it uses everyone and everything else.  Even God is in service to our needs, wants, and feelings.  It creates the false impression that we can tame this Trinity.

Trinity confronts us with something we cannot manage.  We do not meet this God on our terms.  Trinity reminds us that God is more than an abstract principle or simple information.  We cannot reduce the mystery of God to something we can use or understand.  Instead, we discover a lively, revealing, demanding presence.  In the Trinity we are faced with the reality that we are not in control.

The church has a lively picture of Trinity in the word perichoresis.  Karl Barth says “The divine modes of existence condition and permeate one another mutually with such perfection, that one is invariably in the other two as the other two are in the one.”  This picture presents us with an emphasis on relationship and communication that sounds like a well-choreographed dance.  In fact, perichoresis literally means “dance around.”

Peterson calls on this picture and describes it as partners moving “with and between and among one another, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go.  But there is no confusion, every movement is cleanly coordinated in precise rhythms (these are practiced and skillful dancers!), as each person maintains his or her own identity.  To the onlooker, the movements are so swift it is impossible at times to distinguish one person from another.”

Trinity stresses the fellowship of God’s own self.  Such fellowship is built-in from the beginning.  Barth suggests that this relational Trinity also desires relationship with creation.  In fact, he suggests that we are created to be in conversation with the Trinity.  We gather in the name of the Trinity.  We are baptized in the name of this Trinity.  We receive our identity from this Trinity.  What can I do but be attentive to this mysterious Trinity?  To listen in the presence of Trinity?  And join in a conversation that has been ongoing since creation began?  How else can we respond to this mysterious, un-tamable, lively, creative, relational Trinity?  This “peri-choretic” God?

Trinity is a phenomenon of creativity, communication, and relationship.  This is the way that God is.  We are welcomed into the Trinitarian dance.  Trinity reminds us that we are not spectators but participants in the activity of God.  Peterson says that “there is always a hand reaching out to pull us into the Trinitarian actions of holy creation, holy salvation, and holy community.”  May we be pulled in.