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Monday, June 10, 2013

A Harvest To Come through a Man Named Ray



John 12:24:
“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.”

These were Jesus’ own words, and he was talking about himself and his own upcoming death.

But then he goes on to tell us that those who follow him in this willingness to give up our lives for greater purposes—living with God and reflecting the truth of his will and power to save and unite rebels to himself—will be likewise honored by God.

This is not my story. This story comes from the life and death of a person I never met. Until the day he actually died, I can’t say I had even heard his name mentioned. But his story has now reached me, like a seed carried on the wind. And that is the point. When a seed dies, it produces many seeds.

Now that I’ve heard the story, it comes as no surprise that Ray was working in his garden on the morning of Tuesday, May 28. Gardening. Planting things, tending those plants. Looking for fruit or flowers. The whole image is one of production and growth coming from attentive work.

As he was known as “Smilin’ Ray,” I choose to imagine that he was enjoying himself that morning, taking delight in the creation he was cultivating, looking optimistically ahead to future blooms and harvest. Manyfold. I also imagine that he intended to share the bounty that was to come.

But he had no idea. No idea how much bigger this was than his personal garden.

There is life in a garden. Flora, fruit. Beauty and sustenance combined. Isn’t God just all over that? From dirt he raises up life that can produce, in just a matter of a few weeks’ time, lush greenery, varied in leaf, stem, and flower, and such abundance in flavor, scent, color, texture, taste, and nutrient—all from the same patch of soil. I always have marveled at a garden. Same soil, same water, same sunshine—but the produce is seemingly unlimited in its variety. Kind of like a crowd of humanity, made of distinct individuals, each with a gift to bring for kingdom good.

So Ray was working in his garden. And then it happened. Unexpectedly. That great heart stopped. By afternoon, Ray was gone.

The only reason I heard was because Ray is the brother-in-law of my pastor, and I was supposed to meet with him that afternoon. Our meeting had to wait, and I found myself in the position of grieving for someone I had not met, and all those he had left behind, and waiting in silent distance for the next word, and looking around me at the ones I love and giving thanks more often for their presence and God’s mercy which has brought us together thus far. I wasn’t thinking then about seeds that explode into abundant fruit for good purposes. I was thinking then about bruised reeds and how easily we are crushed.

But that wasn’t what was happening. God promises the opposite. A bruised reed he will not crush, and a seed that dies produces much fruit. 

I hope it does not in any way suggest that I am making little of the pain and loss and suffering of Ray’s family and friends when I say that even in death, Ray was not crushed. I imagine that I would feel crushed, if I were his wife. His daughter. His granddaughter. At least for a little while, I imagine I would feel that way. But yesterday, more of Ray’s continuing story was shared, and his life is being used for great growth. God is working through even this event—what seems to us like an ending is perhaps just a beginning in many ways, right here on this dirt planet.

My pastor told yesterday about the funeral and the events around it. Of course he went, to be present with his sister and extended family, to Ray’s home in New England. Many states removed from us here in the South. As a pastor, he was called on to conduct the service. And as Ray was well-known and well-loved in his community, it was reported to us that practically everyone in the town came. The Catholic church in which the service was held was packed, and packed with many who rarely attended worship services. Packed with broken hearts, hungry for answers, for relief, for real knowledge, balm that is effective in times of such shock and sorrow. Human hearts crying out in grief and longing for truth.

We’re all like that. But sometimes it takes a devastating and catastrophic event to open the eyes of our hearts to see, feel, taste, the acuteness of the need. What will satisfy?

Again, I imagine the congregation gathered, broken, feeling crushed. I know the feeling, the hole in the universe torn open by the loss of someone I loved taken far too soon, too unexpectedly. The raw gaping hole in my reality that seems senseless and irreconcilable. The hunger for something I can’t quite touch or even name. Just need for filling. And there is only one answer, one sustenance. It’s a different kind of food than what one finds in a physical garden. Jesus told his disciples, in the presence of a moments-ago lost and famished woman, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” He called himself the “bread of life,” the only thing that satisfies. And at Ray’s funeral service and Mass, my pastor let himself be used by that same Jesus to feed those people with that very same food.

How many seeds were planted that day? How much fruit is yet to come because Ray did not remain a single seed, but went into the ground? How much glory awaits our God because of one life? Even in death, God is always at work, and we see it happening around us. It comes, even to me, a stranger to the situation, living--what? A thousand miles away? It comes to me to renew my own hope in him. Nothing at all is outside of his ability and desire to work for good, for growth, for production, in this great kingdom garden. And no life that he has created is too small to have a role in his purposes.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it is planted—when it goes into the earth—it grows. It becomes the largest of all plants in the garden.

I suspect Ray’s story has just begun to be told. As Christ is the vine and we are the branches, we can each expect that much, much fruit is yet to come.

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