Lessons From The Cotton Field

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.’” (Matt. 13: 3-8 NIV)

imageJesus often spoke to the multitudes in parables, which are simple stories designed to illustrate spiritual lessons. Many of his parables were related to agriculture, since most of his listeners were familiar with agrarian principles. Having grown up on a cotton farm in Georgia, they speak to my heart as well.

This particular parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, has always been my favorite. As with so many of Jesus’ teachings, it seems that every time I read it and take the time to digest its full meaning, I see something new.

If you’re familiar with the story, you know that our Lord went on to explain the parable to his disciples, telling them that the seed represents the message of the gospel. It sometimes falls on hardened soil, never penetrating the listener’s heart. The seed falling on rocky soil represents those who receive the message with joy, but whose roots of faith are so shallow that trouble or persecution causes them to fall away. The seed falling among thorns are those who allow the “worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches” to choke the word, making it unfruitful. And last, of course, are those who hear the word, understand it and produce a bountiful crop.

As I reflect on my own faith journey, which I shared in my last post, The Eternal Question, I can see myself in all four stages of this parable at different times in my life. My heart was hardened for many years, not allowing those seeds of the gospel to take root at all. After coming to faith at the age of twenty-four, very little spiritual growth took place in the rocky soil of my heart for the next twenty years. Even after finally surrendering my heart fully, I still struggle with my sinful nature and the cares of this world to maintain a fruitful, Spirit-filled life. Invariably, when I come to this parable in the Scriptures, I stop to consider where I am on the faith spectrum illustrated by Christ’s words.

Others may view this parable from the perspective of the farmer, seeing their role as simply sowing the seed, sharing the gospel with whomever may cross their path, knowing that it will often fall on hardened, rocky, or thorn-infested hearts. A major flaw in that perspective is not realizing that the farmer sowing the seeds also has the responsibility of preparing the soil. Never lose sight of the fact that the determining factor of the impact of the gospel in this parable was the condition of the soil.

imageAs planting season approached, my father would spend countless hours preparing the soil of our fields before a single cotton seed was sown. We would often start by clearing the fields of rocks lying on the surface. Prominent in my memories are vivid images of him clad in his overalls, setting up the plows and harrows on his International Harvester Farmall tractor, and heading for the fields with a wide-brimmed hat cocked on his head and a dust cloud trailing behind. Soil samples were tested to determine the nutrients to add to the soil as we planted the seeds. As in so many aspects of life, preparation was vital.

And so it is with spreading the gospel. We can spout the truths of God’s Word on every street corner and to every person we meet. But if we have not prepared the soil by first establishing a relationship and living a life that reflects those truths, our testimony will often fall on deaf ears. If people do not sense the love of God in our hearts or experience from us the grace of God by which we claim to have been transformed, they will want little to do with the Christ we profess.

1 Peter 3:15 says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect…” (NIV) As you digest that verse, ask yourself, “Does my life reflect the hope that Peter is talking about – a hope so visible that it would prompt such a question?” That is the essence of lifestyle evangelism.

The world desperately needs the hope that only Jesus Christ provides. As a good friend often reminds me, “You never know who’s watching or whose life you are impacting by your actions.” It is often those daily, seemingly inconsequential interactions with others that  prepare the soil of someone’s heart to one day receive the life-changing good news of the gospel so that it takes root, flourishes, and yields a bountiful crop.

Prepare the soil of someone’s life this week by making God visible through yours.

“Most people draw conclusions about the Christian faith by observing the lives of ordinary believers, not by studying doctrine.” – Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace

The Eternal Question

Series: Reflections From John

image“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.” (John 2: 23-25)

Are you a Christian? Do you believe? Are you saved? Have you accepted Christ as your personal Savior? Have you asked Jesus into your heart? If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity? All of these are versions of the eternal question.

Posing the eternal question can make us uncomfortable. If we have doubts about someone’s salvation, failure to ask it makes us unloving. But failing to resolve the question in our own hearts can make us eternally condemned. And that makes it the most important question any of us will ever face.

My first encounter with the eternal question occurred in my teenage years during revival week at Jenkinsburg Baptist Church in my hometown of Jenkinsburg, Georgia. Like so many of the old-time preachers, Reverend Price’s pitch to me was high-pressure. He tried his best to scare me out of hell and into heaven, a technique that some have characterized as terror evangelism. I just couldn’t reconcile the Jesus he was proclaiming with the Jesus my Granny Wells was always talking about- the Jesus who was her constant companion.

But a seed was planted – a seed that would germinate ten years later. Upon reexamining the Gospel from a rational and intellectual perspective, I eventually came to the conclusion that the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and Jesus’ declarations about himself were indeed true. Claiming the promise of John 3:16 that I had recited so many times in the Vacation Bible Schools of my youth that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV), I was baptized at Florence Baptist Church in Forest City, North Carolina at the age of 24.

For the next twenty years, very little changed in my relationship with the Lord. I was content that those questions Reverend Price had pounded into me during that revival had been resolved. Secure in my salvation, I was confident that should my life meet an early end, my eternal destination was assured. But I was trying to live the Christian life as best I knew how in my own strength and wisdom – resources which proved woefully inadequate for the inevitable storms and temptations of life.

Thankfully, the Lord did not leave me in that condition. As he drew me to His Word, I began to pray as I had witnessed Granny Wells pray, speaking with the Lord as a personal friend, rather than a distant Deity. One morning while driving to work in Bradford, Pennsylvania, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart in a way I had never before experienced, saying “When are you going to stop trying to do this on your own and learn to trust in me?” I was so overwhelmed by the presence of God that I pulled off the road and surrendered my life right then and there, confessing Christ once and for all as my Lord.

imageThe year was 1994 – the same year that Granny Wells went home to be with the Lord. Coincidence? … I don’t think so. She was a tremendous prayer warrior and I believe her prayers for me became all the more powerful the day she entered heaven. God only knows how many loved ones I will be reunited with one day in Glory because of her Godly influence and her faithful intercessory prayers.

After languishing in a nursing home for several years, she told me in one of our last conversations, “Julian, I don’t know why the Lord leaves me here.” I didn’t have an answer for her then, but I have one now. I look forward to sharing it with her when the Lord calls me home.

As far as I can recall, she never asked me any version of the eternal question. But having lived on a farm all her life, she knew the importance of preparing the soil of my heart so that one day the truth of the Gospel would take root there.

In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul says “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?”  It is not my place or the purpose of this post to judge the authenticity of anyone’s relationship with the Lord. But it is my responsibility as a faithful witness to share my gospel story and the truths of God’s Word to help others examine themselves.

2 Corinthians 5:10 tells us that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ one day and our eternity will hang in the balance. The eternal question, however we choose to express it, will be supremely relevant then. But there will be no pleading our case, no opening or closing statements, no testimony from eyewitnesses, no presentation of physical evidence, and no character witnesses. Because the One sitting on that judgment seat does not need man’s testimony – he already knows our hearts.

How tragic it would be to rest in a false sense of security concerning our answer to the eternal question, only to be reminded when it is everlasting too late of perhaps the most sobering passage in all of Scripture:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers!'” (Matt. 7:21-23)

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references taken from the New International Version (NIV)