Greening of the Soul

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd (Rev. Dr.)

May 21, 2017

John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

You might call this my gardening sermon. This is planting weekend when we say enough already to the cold and plant our fragile little flowers almost in defiance. We are determined to move into the tender season of greening, when the speared shoots push through the duff, break open the buds and slowly unfurl into their spring-green splendour.

Hildegard of Bingen, a Christian mystic from the 12th century, wrote about the Greening Power of God. By “greening”, she did not mean for us to be more environmentally aware, even though she was also a botanist. Rather, she was comparing the miracle of spring with the miracle of Spirit. Just as the earth greens with the warming of the sun and the moistening of the soil, so our spirits are greened by the nurturing of the Holy Spirit, that we may blossom into our fullest potential and bear its fruit.

But all is not happiness and sunshine. Weeds also thrive in ideal conditions. I spent countless hours this spring weeding our grass—or rather weeding our shadowed mud patch—before I spread yet more grass seed and lawn soil. I know that weeding is a therapy for some, but I get grumpy.

Weeding the soul takes just as much grunt work. Sometimes it seems that the more you weed, the more prolific the weeds become. You can try to tame that edge of frustration, that burst of self-importance, that denial of your own needs, that defensiveness, that selfishness, that unfaithfulness, but those weeds just keep popping up again and again. The gift of weeding is humility, for it teaches us that we are no better than our neighbour—we all have a task of continuous soul-weeding.

I’ve come to realize that the goal is not a weedless-soul, for perfection is impossible, even for the saints. Rather, the goal is to keep that weeding up, to keep apologizing and then to get right back to weeding. Someone once said to her partner that what gave her hope wasn’t that her partner’s character flaws were gone. Rather, it was that her partner never gave up the weeding. The very act of weeding the soul is what brings us closer to one another and closer to God.

Another challenge for the greening of the soul are the demanding times that are out of our control—when the rain just doesn’t come and we dry up. Hildegard contrasts viriditas, God’s greening power, with ariditas—dryness, barrenness, shrivelling up. She would ask us to identify what nourishes us, what helps us flourish. Do we fill our life with these things? And then, she would ask us to identify what depletes our spirits. Are we able to say no to these things? Of course, our life is filled with that which is pleasant and that which is tough slogging, and we need to accept both. However, sometimes we fill our life with “comforts” that actually numb us to distraction and, in the end, contribute to depletion, rather than nourishment.

In contrast to these little comforts that end up depleting us, God sends us the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls the Comforter. The Greek word used here is “Paracletos”, which can be translated in a variety of ways: comforter, advocate, intercessor, counsellor, protector or supporter. The etymology of the word comfort is “with strength—com-fort”, meaning to bring strength.

When we’re going through dry times or when we’re being tempted to feed the weeds of our soul, we can call on the Comforter, who brings us wisdom, strength to follow the wisdom, guidance and the willpower to follow the guidance. The Comforter also gives us support when we’re in distress and peace when our anxiety starts to rise.

I was talking to a friend about this and it reminded her of an experience she had. She and her family were overseas personnel with the United Church in Fiji in the 90s for 6 years. When they came back, they had to catch up with the technological changes that had happened during those 6 years—and there were many. One of the new technologies was the debit card. She remembers standing in line at Shoppers trying to figure out how to use her new debit card. The line behind her started growing and she became increasingly stressed about holding others up—which only contributed to anxiety’s wonderful gift of brain paralysis. The cashier could see the anxiety rising and said quietly to her, “Breathe.” My friend took a slow, deep breath and was aware of the Spirit calming her soul. That’s all it took—and she was then able to make the card work.

The Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruach, which also means breath. The breath of God is as essential to our health as air is to plants. When we learn how to take those moments throughout each day to breathe in the breath of God, we will find our brains and our hearts will work much better. I’m trying to identify the seeds of anxiety before they begin to sprout and weed them out with the breath of God. There are people who can do this—I’m far from it, but I will keep on trying, weeding out the seedlings that I have missed.

What are the weeds that choke your soul? What depletes your spirit? What nourishes you? This weekend, as many are greening their yard, may you allow the Spirit to help you green your soul.