Planting A Thing I Will Never See

Seth Patterson August 26, 2018

Texts: Mark 10:13–22;
“Interrelationship,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

I sometimes wonder what my 4-year-old daughter will be like when she is a grandmother. I look at her while she is sleeping or laughing and try to picture an older woman. When she carries her doll around, I try to imagine what she might be like if she had a child of her own. When she is older, what will bring her to laughter? What will make her cry? Will she laugh and cry like she does today, just older? What parts of me will she carry forward?

I look at the young people that occupy this church and try to see into their future. What will they be like when they become my age? Or your age? What gifts or opportunities that we have given them will be useful in their lives to come? What will they believe in, and of what will they be skeptical? What community will they choose to be a part of? How will my presence in their lives have made a positive mark?

I try to imagine this place in another 50 years. What will it look like and who will be inside of it? What will those people be doing and what will they stand for? What will they be afraid of? What will their potlucks look like? What will Philip Brunelle play on his 100th anniversary? I wonder in what ways my work here be will useful?

I try to imagine our world in the future. How calamitous are our current decisions around the warnings of climate change going to be? Are white, straight, cisgender and able-bodied men still in undeserved positions of wealth, power and influence? Will the current poor and marginalized still be poor and marginalized? Will the Vikings have won a Super Bowl? How will my blink-of-an-eye life have been anything other than just that?

I like these questions, but they also frighten me a bit. It is fun to imagine the future until it rings clear how I may not be a part of it. I am aware of my own mortality and the unknowns of life and understand that I cannot guarantee my place in any of the futures that I am envisioning.

Yet, this future is very important to me! My hope for my own future depends in some ways on a belief that I can influence it. I need to believe that my presence, my decisions, my actions are important enough to impact what happens next. I think we all need to believe something like this: What I do today will matter tomorrow, even if I am not around to see it. This impulse is why we carve our initials into trees, draw in wet cement and turn ordinary plots of land into gardens; why we work to build our reputations and to collect more and more things. We want to be remembered beyond our brief blip of a life and want to plant a thing that we will never see. As Martin Luther once said (but probably did not actually say), “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Some of our daily hope is entwined with the belief that what we do today matters beyond ourselves.

So, how do we do it? How do we invest in a future that we will not be a part of? We are often people of action, so how do we purposely put energy into something that will exist without us? How do I plant a thing that I will never see, that will grow a fruit that I will never get to eat? How do I now begin to help my 4-year-old daughter to be a loving grandmother?

As a parent and as a person whose occupation is partially in the cultivation of young people, I readily try to answer these questions with children. If I want my life to matter beyond my lifetime, then I need to invest in children. The adults in my childhood life—family and otherwise—have influenced me in incredible ways. Each of us is the result of generations of people, the vast majority of whom we have never met, whose lives are now the foundations of our own. A way to invest in a future I may not see is to invest in the young people whom I am fortunate to be around.

This sentiment reminds me of the passage from Mark that I read earlier. Jesus welcomes the children who were brought to him by saying “Let the little children come to me . . . for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” How beautiful is that? “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” This is exactly what I wanted to find in the Bible—a passage that affirms what I was already thinking! I believe that giving as much as possible to the children in my life is an investment in the future of the world, and here, one might suppose, is Jesus saying the same thing.

Yet, while investing in our children is a necessary, important and monumental task that we all must take responsibility for, this is not what Jesus is saying here. It would be so much easier if it was what he had said. Upon closer reading, it seems that Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, but rather that one must be like a child. There is something that we must all do that is like a little child, to be “such as these.”

So then, what is it about being a child that is held up here as being important? Is it the innocence of a child? Or the dependence upon a parent-figure? Or a naïve acceptance of the world? Or an unbridled curiosity? Are we all supposed to be shorter and laugh more easily and cry more readily? What is it about being like a child that is primary to Jesus?

It doesn’t say. If we were to stop here, we would have to make a really good guess. But we don’t have to stop here; we can go a bit further. The answer may very well be in the subsequent story. While the author or authors of Mark did not develop a strong plot-based story, they did take the many stories of Jesus’ life and teaching and place them in an order that was significant to illustrate the person whom they called the Son of Man. Having one story follow another is purposeful and meaningful: They relate to each other; they are interconnected. The fact that the next piece is about someone being told to give up everything gives us a clue to what Jesus sees as especially worthwhile about children: They have nothing. Children do not have wealth, they do not have significant possessions, they do not own anything. Children do not have to give up material possessions and outside obligations and prestige and greatness to receive the Kingdom of God, because they never had these things. Children are already in the position that Jesus is asking us to choose to be in because they already possess nothing.

So here I am, expecting one answer to my question about how to plant a thing I will never see, and I receive a completely different answer: give up everything. “Jesus looked at him and loved him and said . . . go sell what you own and give it to the poor.” You must be like a child and not hold onto any thing. So, the way to plant a thing in a future I will not see is to let go of all the things I am holding onto now?

This is never what we want to hear, yet should not be surprised when we hear it. We are all, in one way or another, like the person in this story. We hear this command, and we also go away grieving, for we have many things that we want to hold onto. We do not want to let go of all that we have gained. That’s how we can show we are not children anymore! We all started out as children, having nothing, and we have each made so much of ourselves. We have spent our entire childhood trying to get to adulthood to get all of these things. If we let go of all of these things, then who are we? Who am I? If I give everything away and become like a child again, then how am I supposed to influence the future and plant something that will exist beyond my life? What will I have to give, if I am like a child and have nothing?

Although, when I think about it, my daughter gives me so much and has nothing. My nieces and nephews give me so much, and they have nothing. The young people here at this church give me so much, and they have nothing. Maybe I need to consider what is nothing. If I let go of my attachment to all of my possessions, like Jesus asks, then what am I left with? If I believe that God does not desire any of us to suffer, then I know that suffering is not the end of this request. I am left with myself as I am. I am left with all of you as you are. We are all left with each other. We are left with God. And when we are detached from our many things and the anxieties that go into keeping those things, then we may have no choice but to see our interconnectedness. If I am not distracted by my stuff and the desire to have more of it, then I can see how, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “You are me and I am you. . . . You cultivate the flower in yourself so that I will be beautiful. I transform the garbage in myself so that you do not have to suffer.” Who and how I am is who and how you are. We cannot escape this reality if we become like children and let go of our attachments to our things.

This interconnectedness is not only in the present, but also extends beyond our lifetimes. The interconnectedness with my ancestors still resonates today. I am who I am because they were who they were. The ways that I can be interconnected with my daughter will continue to live on through her potential grandchildren. I can plant a thing that I will never see by becoming like a child and shedding my attachment to things, which will allow me to see how my life exists in the lives of all others and can extend far beyond me and my time.

In a moment of interconnectedness, without any thing except our voices, will you please say this with me: “I am here to bring you peace; you are here to bring me joy.”