“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." - John 12:23-25
Jesus said these words in anticipation of the cross. Recently, I spent a little time researching the literal transformation of a seed and I found that his words were far richer than I could have imagined.
In order for a seed to germinate, it must go through what gardeners call “scarification.” Scarification is the process of breaking down and cracking the shell through external conflict such as alternate freezing and thawing, singeing by forest fires, or being digested by animals. Sounds awesome, right?
All seeds are more or less water-resistant; how long it takes to germinate depends on how long it takes for water to penetrate the shell to get to the internal part of the seed. After a seed’s shell is cracked, water can then enter through the cracks. The seed coat swells and breaks under the pressure of the expanding seedling within and it explodes out of the shell into something new; something greater and larger and no longer able to be contained by its former shape.
Sound familiar? I thought so too. When our shells get banged up through fires, freezing temperatures, or the plain hardships of life, we feel like we are dying. And actually, we are. Jesus said this is how it’s supposed to happen. But the reality of how a seed works is this: it must be broken before it can grow into a plant and multiply.
Two years ago was a miserable year. That year, in a period of 9 months, we lost 6 out of 8 of our leaders for various reasons: faith crisis, car accidents, busy schedules, depression, you name it—all were very painful losses to grieve in
ministry. In addition, during those same 6 months, I had two miscarriages.
It felt like wave after wave of pain, abuse, and death were crashing over us. In those moments, I wondered whether or not I was doing it right. I questioned my ability, whether or not I made a wrong turn somewhere, or could have done something to prevent such pain. I looked at the number of students who had left the ministry and the stories behind the numbers were petitioning me to give up.
No matter how much we are told through the Gospel that death precedes resurrection, we resist pain. We hate it. We look for some other way. How could this kind of pain produce fruit? But the mystery and the beauty of the Gospel is this: it is in these very places of pain that God’s living water and living breath are allowed in, allowed to heal us,
and cause us to grow. When we encounter God in these places, he cracks our shell and we expand and transform. We see things differently. We become something else entirely: who we really are—no longer a seed, but a plant that produces fruit. We take on a form that is alive and eternal, no longer stagnant, but rises above the soil, above the darkness, multiplies and produces new life. And as we grow, we break out of the shell. The old ways of seeing the world begin to fall away and what others see instead is the light of the Gospel through us, growing and expanding out of our brokenness. We shed off our old selves to reveal something underneath—a new creation that we were always meant to be.
“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all…therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Cor 4:16-17; 5:17)
When things go well in ministry, we are tempted to maintain the worldly perspective that growth is a result of our human efforts and abilities. But when we fail, when we are broken, we come face to face with the reality that this simply isn’t the case. We learn a new kind of dependence on God in the midst of suffering. A new kind of joy rises and expands within us, setting us free from our old selves, and inviting us to participate with him in the act of new creation all around us.
Those months of pain caused me to go deeper than I ever have in prayer, in lament, in petition to God. I stared my pain in the face and invited God into it with me. And as I opened myself up to allow God’s living water and breath to enter in, I found a new part of myself—a self that has freedom in the limits of humanity. I learned the truth that the ministry doesn’t rise or fall on my ability or inability. I learned that in seasons of personal pain where there doesn’t seem to be an answer, I can still wonder at the beauty of hope and lament mingled together; I can celebrate life and mourn death at the same time, and allow healing to come through grief.
I learned more deeply how to let go of trying to fix things and achieve my way out of a situation, how feeble my attempts are at producing growth, and how desperately dependent I am on God to produce change. I was humbled to see that indeed, no matter our efforts, “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (2 Corinthians 3:7).
And I became something different. I was given a second chance through a new form to get back up and try again. This time, as a plant instead of a seed, I am filled with God's resurrection power that came through pain, no longer striving but living, freely multiplying out of his resources instead of my own strength. And when fruit came, I received it with joy because I saw it as a gift from God instead of a result of my own accomplishments.
Jesus knew that the only way for the Gospel to produce true transformation and multiplication is that he would have to die. He embraced this truth, going to his death willingly so that others might live. He invites us in ministry to do the same—to encounter and embrace scarification as a necessary part of the process for growth. And as we do this, we not only bear much fruit in the end, but we also gain life.
“Seeds of Hope” Oil and Acrylic on Clayboard. Original work by Bette Dickinson.