I did a lot of dirty work as a kid.
My family owned and operated a greenhouse business, and one of the things that was always in high demand was our soil. Back then, I didn’t understand why people would pay for dirt. It’s literally what the ground is made of. Just dig it up.
But my dad had his own special mix of potting soil that people just couldn’t get enough of. So once I was strong enough to lift a 15-pound bag of dirt, and tall enough to reach the soil trough, it was my job to make soil bags. With a scoop hand-carved out of a large Clorox bleach bottle, I would scoop Dad’s magic formula into tall bags, staple them closed, write “$3.99” on them with a sharpie, and carry them out to the retail area where they’d be bought up by the end of the day.
Customers would rave about the soil and ask what made it so good. Dad never gave his secrets away to the customers. But now that he’s listening in from heaven, sorry, Dad, I’m going to give away your secrets.
Good soil needs 3 things.
First: it needs absorbency.
Good soil is almost spongy. Unlike the mud you dig up from the ground, or dusty dirt that just packs together when it gets wet, good soil has room and space for water to get in and stay in. Ever notice how when it rains too hard onto the lawn, it gets waterlogged? It takes a long time for the water to get absorbed into the packed mud of the ground. Or if you’ve ever had old, bad soil that’s lost its absorbency, when you plant something in it and you water it, the water just runs right through, instead of getting absorbed into the soil. Good soil is absorbent. It has the capacity to soak up what it’s being fed, and hold onto just the right amount for necessary nourishment.
Which brings me to the second thing that good soil needs: nutrients.
It’s one thing to be absorbent. But roots pull more than just water from the soil they’re planted in. If the soil has toxins, the plant will die, even if it’s in absorbent soil and well watered. This is one of the reasons people use fertilizer, especially when plants are young. The more nutrients a plant can pull from the soil, the healthier and stronger it will grow. Humans aren’t the only creatures who need to take their vitamins.
Last but not least, the third thing good soil needs is some breathing space.
A healthy plant in absorbent, nutrient-rich soil will grow, both above and below ground. And as a plant gets bigger, its roots grow longer and reach deeper. They seek out the nooks and crannies in the soil where they can keep spreading out. Think of a sponge: if you hold it under running water, it soaks up a lot. If you squeeze the sponge into a ball before running it under water, it won’t soak up nearly as much. There’s no breathing room. Good soil isn’t so packed down and squished and pressed in that it has run out of capacity to hold anything more or let anything else in. Instead, it has room to breathe, room for more water and nutrients to get in, and room for roots to grow and take deeper hold.
The parable of the sower is one of the parables of Jesus that I have always been able to most easily and vividly see and understand. I know exactly what happens when good seed falls on bad soil. I know what it takes to be good soil.
And on the surface, the meaning of this parable is pretty clear: not everyone who hears the word of God understands it and takes it to heart and lives it out in their lives. Some people are like bad soil or rocky ground, where God’s word cannot grow. Make sure you are not the bad soil.
I find it interesting that Jesus explains the meaning of this to parable the crowd gathered to hear him – but he does not say who’s who. He does not point to Jeff and say, “you are like the path and the thorns” or to Carole and say, “you are the good soil in which God’s word can grow.” He explains the parable and lays it all out on the table, but then he leaves it up to the listener to figure out which kind of soil we are. He leaves us hanging and wondering… “Wait, am I the good soil or the bad soil? Was he talking about me?”
Such a simple story spurns a real searching of one’s own heart – because we all WANT to be good soil.
Well… my dad taught me how to make good soil.
You start with the raw material: a basic soil mix. You add in some styrofoam bits – if you’ve ever used potting soil, those are the white bits you see in the soil – to give it some breathing room. And then, you add compost. That was Dad’s secret ingredient. He maintained an enormous compost heap that provided the most nutritious, organic soil west of the Delaware River.
Good raw material, good nutrients, and sufficient room to breathe. This made for excellent soil.
So, friends, if we are going to be good soil, if the seeds of faith are going to grow in us, we need to give them 3 things.
1) Absorbent raw material – we must be ready to receive and learn, to be watered by life-giving and sustaining elements of a life that follows Jesus: prayer, scripture, service, and community… and, to acknowledge when we’ve run dry. Which all of us do, at various points.
2) Some breathing room – there’s a reason God created Sabbath rest. If you water a plant all the time, it will die just as easily as if you don’t water it enough. The roots will rot. Our life of faith requires regular moments of pause, rest, and reflection, before we soak up more.
and 3) this is the one we all like the least. To be good soil, we need nutrients… which means we need our life’s compost. The stuff that has rotted and died and that we don’t have use for anymore… the stuff of our grief and pain and suffering… the stuff of our regrets and mistakes… none of that can go into the trash. It needs to go into the compost bin so God can transform it and create the richest, most nutrient-rich soil out of it.
Am I good soil? The truth is, none of us is good soil all the time. But none of us is bad soil all the time, either. And now, you know the secret recipe for how to make the best soil. I think my Dad would be glad I’ve shared it. Because nothing gives a sower or a gardener more joy than watching those seeds take root in good soil and grow.