The Parable of the Grain of Wheat: On Being Publishers of Truth Today

A number of folks have asked me to post this, so here is the message I gave tonight at the FUM Triennial gathering @ Friends University Wichita, KA.

“Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” (John 12:24–25)

A Meditation on the Seed

I was Invited to come and speak to you a little bit about the idea of the “publishers of truth,” that many Friends, including Thomas Kelly, have written about.

As I was preparing this talk, this passage from John 12 and the grain of wheat kept coming to me as a basis for the message. So this is where I want to begin.

I’d like for you to start with an image of a seed in your mind’s eye – you can close your eyes if that is helpful. It can be any kind of a seed that is organic and from the earth as it was intended. What kind of seed is it? Where did it come from? And if it were allowed to sprout, what would it look like now?

Now imagine that you are this seed – clinging to the plant of which you are a now part. You hold onto life as you know it. You hold on to the first things you’ve learned; the stories, dispositions and ways of thinking about the world that were given to you by this plant. This plant is all you know and it has been your main source of nutrients from the beginning.

But there is something deep within you that tells you that if you do not eventually let go, you will not only die, but it is very possible that you could take down the whole plant to which you cling.

But now I want you to imagine a different outcome. The process by which you become self-differentiated from the plant, where there is a sustained connection to it (you are of course part of the same family), but you are no longer dependent on this plant for your own needs and sense of self.

Imagine that you muster up your courage to take this great risk and let go of the plant, you let go of what you know, you let go of security, you even for just a moment, suspend your instincts and you jump.

What happens next?

Well, if we are keeping in line with Jesus’ parable, the next thing that happens is that you hit the earth and you die, or at least that’s what it must feel like at first.

At first you are confused by all of this. Not only did you let go of all that you knew, where you have ended up appears to be encased in darkness. It is hard to breathe. It feels as though you have lost everything. Everything you once knew is of little help now.

The rain comes and causes you to sink further into the earth. The weight of footsteps overhead push you further still. The sun rises and sets, making the cells within your seed-body move and do things you did not know you were capable of. Roots sprout from within you and move outward, and slowly, over time, new life emerges from within you.

In a word, you experience: resurrection.

The Seed as Dyanmic Truth

This metaphor of the grain of wheat is a powerful image that not only speaks to our struggle to find our true selves in the face of the powerful narratives about who we are, the beliefs we hold, the people and stories that have brought us to where we are; it also speaks to the institutions that are so terrified of dying or being radically changed by a process of death and resurrection.

Which brings me to a burning question: are there certain practices, disciplines or theological teachings that help make a person (or institution) more or less capable of letting go? Why is it that so many of us seeds, myself included, assume that to hang on at all costs is the way to life; that truth is static, rather than this dynamic life of death and resurrection that Jesus calls us to?

Why is it that I once believed, and was once taught that the truth, the nutrients, the comforts I received for my Spiritual Life when I was 15 or 25 will forever remain exactly the same? This is something I think the church is often guilty of teaching.

To keep life and truth static like this suggests that the seed should never let go of the plant. Jesus’ teaching suggests something far more dynamic and radical: truth emerges through a dynamic interplay of community, our changing contexts and deep listening to the Holy Spirit.

Publishers of Truth

I have another story that I think will shed further light on all of this (from Peter Rollins):

There was once an old wise master who was at the end of his life. He had one apprentice he was deeply fond of but was worried that this apprentice was still far from enlightenment. The apprentice was deeply devoted to the master, carefully following all of his teachings and never deviating from the path laid out. This was what troubled the master most of all. Calling his apprentice to eat with him privately, he began,

“You have been a thoughtful and dedicated follower of my teachings for many years, and you may well one day become a great teacher. However, I sense that you are in danger of betraying me in your thoughts and actions.”

This apprentice was crushed at the suggestion and responded, “… I never tire of engaging in the rituals and prayers that you have taught. I swear to you that I would never betray you, my great teacher.” The master responded, “The fact that you have never betrayed my teachings, and the fact that you swear never to betray them: this is to betray them already.”

This parable shares a similar contour of the story of the seed I shared earlier: to really enter into new life in the Spirit, one must be able to fully enter into a radical participation. A process we might call “a faithful betrayal.”

The seed letting go so that it can come into new life.

Both of these stories help us get at what it might mean to be publishers of truth today.

The apprentice in the story first applies himself to all of the teachings, all of the foundations and practices of the master. They learn all that can be encompassed within the master’s teachings. They have, in the words of Jesus, mastered the first part of the saying, “You have heard it said.”

And this is necessary and good. To be a publisher of truth, one must first become an apprentice to the truth as it has been handed down. One must learn the taste, the smell, the sight, the feel and the contours of their community of truth.

But this is not enough on its own to make a true apprentice is it? How happy do you think George Fox or Margaret Fell would be with us if one of them were to show up at the FUM Triennial only to learn that we continued to repeat word for word every line from their journals or papers? That we, in every way, had copied their work so thoroughly that you could not tell us apart from them? Do you think it was their mission to make mini Fox’s and Fell’s? Of course not. No one here believes this.
And this is not what we have done.

By the way, in some venues, this is quite an appropriate thing today – every good cover band or Elvis Presley impersonator masters this mode of mimicry.

But being a cover artist or an Elvis impersonator is not the way of an apprentice who wishes to become a publisher or truth.

No. It is not good enough to simply learn how to read and then repeat back what you have read. Yes, we want apprentices to read first, consume the tradition, eat the scroll, and ingest it until it so becomes you that you are able to think as though from inside the story.

You must master, “You have heard it said,” first, but if we stop there our growth is stunted. We must move on to the living and present Jesus who says, “You have heard it said, But I say to you…” No one chooses to stay in first grade for their whole lives, and yet, I am afraid that we often do this with our articulation of the Quaker tradition and understanding of Christian faith.

We are still too often just regurgitating what has been passed down to us.

To be publishers of truth this will not do. We need to move on to being able to articulate in our own words, experiences, and authentic encounter with Jesus in our context.

If we want to become publishers of truth, we must learn to move on from reading to writing. We must learn how to take the teachings and make them our own. We must become masters not just of our tradition, but masters of interpreting our tradition within new contexts, changing community needs, and engaging wherever the Spirit is moving in the world today.

We will grow to know when the articulation of faith is nothing more than a “silly poor Gospel.”

We cannot settle on being a cover band of the publishers of truth, “thieves” of the truth, as Margaret Fell might say. We need to a whole new generation who really are themselves publishers, bloggers, tweeters, ministers, missionaries and lovers of the truth.

Otherwise, We fall into the trap Thomas Kelly describes as:

“Their real fear is concerning the fixation of a few verbal statements as vessels of truth.”

Query: So my first query then is this: how are we as Friends, in our meetings and yearly meetings, apprenticing people to the Quaker tradition in such a way that gives them the freedom to move from reading to writing, from belief to faith, from a seed nurtured by the plant, to a seed spilled out on the ground, someday reproducing many times over?

Receivers of Truth

A second thought I wanted to bring to you this evening, which works in a different direction from the this first idea, is this: it is one thing to work at becoming publishers of truth, it is quite another to be on the receiving end of that truth.

Let’s go back to the original Publishers of truth for a minute and think about how well those around them received the truth they were spreading.

They challenged Christendom with the refrain, “Jesus Christ is come to lead the people himself,” suggesting that the powers and principalities that sat at the top of the Christendom hierarchy and benefited from it were in effect false shepherds.

They challenged patriarchy and sexism which to this day keeps women as second-class citizens, and makes gender a fixed and hierarchical construct used against some, while privileging others.

Friend Fox, Woolman, Benezet and a few minority of voices among Quakers challenged racism and the enslaving of human beings based on the color of their skin.

They challenged social mores and other generally accepted codes of conduct inside and outside the church.

At every point, there was a prophetic challenge that these publishers of truth announced as heralds of a new time; this was a new era of liberation for God’s people.

This, I do not believe was because they were just cranky folks or activists tired of politics as usual, or because they believed they were somehow superior and were out for a good fight to win.

I believe underneath all of this they were calling their hearers to enter into new truth:

As though to say from the parable: “if you allow yourselves to fall and be buried, you will rise again, sprouting and reproducing many times over.”

They were calling their hearers to let go of the kind of theology, practices and structures that continue to benefit a select few while exploiting the many, so that they could together find overflowing life here and now.

And this is all great, and probably how most of us understand the Quaker story, but have you ever thought about how well this message went over? What it was like to be on the receiving end of this? People just loved this little Quaker message right?

I can imagine folks who heard Quakers speak say things like:

“Those Quakers, I sure do love to be in dialogue with them! What lovely perspectives!”

“My favorite line they use on us is when they call us “professors and not possessors.”

No. No one ever said this about Fox, Fell and others.

No one loves being told they are wrong or that their ideas are outdated, harmful, or worse heretical. Don’t we all suffer from the addiction of being right?

Obviously there were many people who didn’t love this message. In fact, by all accounts there was very little love by the majority of their Christian counterparts. As you are well aware, many Quakers were locked up, many lost most or all of their property, some become very ill and died.

But this was all because they were publishing the truth, weren’t they?

Let’s empathize for a minute with the folks on the receiving end of these messages. What makes it so hard for us to hear the message? Why is there such a visceral reaction to the words of Fox and Fell? Why are we, if we are the crowd, ready to literally beat Fox with a bible and stone him because of what he is saying?

It is because what they were saying feels much closer to publishers of untruth than it is publishers of truth. The reactions say that what we think we’re hearing feels a lot more like heresy, than it does like truth.

And this is what puzzles me:

Why is it that truth, when we first encounter it – even as, and maybe especially as, Christians, hits us first as untruth?

I wonder if you have ever noticed this?

Think about some of the things you believe, viewpoints you have, commitments you held at one point in your life that are very different from today.

I assume we can all identify some of these things. Maybe even the simple fact that you’re a Quaker now.

As someone who grew up Catholic and then spent time in a non-denominational churches that believed all traditions and denominations were evil, it’s a bit shocking to be the one standing in front of a world gathering of Quakers speaking to you about how important the Quaker tradition is! If I were able to go back in time to visit my 18 year self, I would shock myself in many ways, not least of which is the fact that I’m a Quaker.

Or another personal example: My wife and I are from Ohio and lived in California and Washington State for 12 years. Back in 2009, I had a friend tell me that we needed to move to Greensboro, NC. That I would love working at Guilford College, and that as far as she was concerned this was what God wanted us to do.

My Wife and I both said thanks but absolutely no thanks, we will never, never move to the South. Too Hot. Too Humid, and I’m sorry we’re Yankees anyways. And I am here to tell you we really meant this from the bottom of our hearts. So guess what? 2 summers ago this week, we piled our three kids into our minivan and took a 10 day road trip across the country as we moved to Greensboro, NC where I began my work at Guilford College. Right smack dab in the south. And yes it’s hot, but it’s also a move we’re very happy we made.

I look back on these conversations now and see how silly I was, if not also a little addicted to being right. I think we have the expectation that at any given point we are static, finished beings, rather than that we will absorb new ideas, new truths, new leadings of the Spirit.

Why don’t we just start out expecting this kind of dynamic awareness in our spiritual lives? Instead, we really struggle with being receivers of truth, especially when we are confronted with something new, different, or out of the ordinary.

Anthony De Mello says:

The truth that sets us free is almost always the Truth we would rather not hear. So when we say something isn’t true, what we all too frequently mean is, “I don’t like it.”

Query: My second query for us tonight then is this: what must we do in our meetings and churches and yearly meetings to become receivers of truth? What practices can we participate in that will shape us to have the kind of spiritual imagination and generosity to receive what might first appear as an untruth, but may in fact turn out to be God’s message to us?

And who might be those within our meetings and yearly meetings today who are themselves bringing a truth to us, and yet we receive them more as publishers of untruth?

Gardeners of Truth in the Nursery of Truth

I want to leave you with one final image. Imagine now that you have a nursery full of seeds that have been planted and are sprouting up. You are the Gardener and your work is to tend to each seed. To nurture each one, just as it is and was intended to be. You do not get to tell each seed who it is or what it ought to be doing, that is up to the Creator. Your job is to create a space where that seed can grow into a healthy and beautiful plant that reveals once again the body of God in new ways. In this image, you are a Gardener of truth in a nursery of truth.

And in this nursery, as its gardener, you will water the seeds, till the earth, prune, and prepare the surrounding environment so that these seeds of truth can sprout and reproduce all over.

I believe that each one of you is the result of this kind of nursery of truth. Each one of you in this room has benefited in some way from the care and tending by Quaker elders and other spiritual leaders in your life; people who have been publishers, receivers and gardeners of truth.

And now, I want to ask you that as you return to your home meetings, churches and yearly meetings that you consider how you can create your own “nurseries of truth” for the emerging leaders in your community. In the early integration of the Quaker movement, there was originally a real place called “The Nursery of Truth” on the island of Barbados. It was the place where many Friends went first before they moved out into the American Colonies as missionaries publishing truth with their words and with their lives.

If we are to be publishers, receivers and gardeners of truth we need new nurseries of truth where we can grow. We need places where we can be shaped and formed in each of these practices of the Spirit.

We cannot learn how to move from reading to writing, from believing to faith, from receiving to care-taking, without apprenticeship within a nursery of truth: one focused on what Kelly called “the flaming center of God.”

The Nursery of Truth at Barbados became a kind of gateway into the colonies for Quaker missionaries wanting to embody truth. The nursery of truth today can be a gateway which we pass through that teaches us how to be publishers and receivers of truth today.

That if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces many times over….letting go, reckless in love, embracing the real and eternal among us.