1 Corinthians 3:4-9 CEB & MSG
When someone says, “I belong to Paul,”
and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,”
aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit?
Who do you think Paul is, anyway?
Or Apollos, for that matter?
Servants, both of us—
servants who waited on you
as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master.
We each carried out our servant assignment.
I may have planted the seed, Apollos may have watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.
Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages.
What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving. We are God’s co-workers, and you are God’s field.
About an hour outside of Atlanta, Georgia in the rural farmlands near Conyers, Georgia… Amid rolling fields and barns… there is a place that doesn’t quite fit in with any of its surroundings. It would totally take you by surprise if you weren’t out there looking for it, it is just that unexpected. It’s a Trappist monastery called the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
Even more surprising than a monastery in rural Georgia, is what you discover once you enter the grounds and arrive at the monastery’s visitor’s center… Rows and rows of green houses. Each one filled to the brim with Bonsai trees.
All Benedictine monks around the world take up trades to contribute to and sustain their collective secluded life together.
As a rule they give their lives over to prayer, to worship, and study, but also a huge part of monastic life is… work.
Giving Glory and thanks to God, and sustaining their communal life through the work of their hands.
Many monks are farmers, or bakers, some make cheese, or beer… But this monastery in rural Georgia is the only one with monks that have mastered the ancient Japanese art of Bonsai. Or the art of replicating the natural beauty of full size trees, in miniature in pots.
The monastic life and Bonsai seems like a totally bizarre pairing… at first. But as you explore the monastery’s green houses, talk to the monks and learn more about the monastic life… you begin to realize quickly how perfectly suited these two are for one another.
Bonsai is a laborious art form. People who create bonsai work at it everyday, and hone their craft over their whole lives.
These trees are not some simple houseplants you water once a week and forget about the rest of the time. Every aspect of the plant is intentionally formed. If the tree sprouts a leaf out of place, the gardener prunes it away. Any unwanted growth that doesn’t fit into the artists vision for the tree is removed… or it is shaped and worked with, they use specialized wire to shape branches in specific directions. To this end Bonsai masters of the monastery often feel like they are co-creators with God… God sprouts life within the tree, and they help to shape it into a beautiful creation. They even remove the trees from their pots to prune and maintain its roots, to help keep the tree small and healthy. A well tended bonsai is never finished, its designer will continue to carefully work on it for their whole life, and slowly, day by day, leaf by leaf, it is honed closer and closer into the vision its designer intends, but never complete.
In a similarly intentional way… These Monks have committed themselves to a life of discipline, ritual, work and prayer. They have devoted the whole of their lives to growing deeper in their faith, closer to God, and more connected to God’s world… to one another and to all of God’s creation.
Every aspect of their life is shaped intentionally to enable them to devote themselves to God. Eight times a day they stop what they are doing to join together in prayer and worship at set hours, even in the middle of the night. They eat together, they work together, and all of it they do often in silent meditation. Everything about this way of life reflects intentionality, consistency, discipline, and reliance upon God and others… all coupled with the individuals purpose of perfecting themselves in the faith.
Looking at a beautifully crafted Bonsai tree, with years and years of intentional effort behind it… you’d be forgiven for thinking… wow, I could never create something like that, the mums I bought for my porch last week is already dried out…
In the same way, visiting with monks… it is easy for your spiritual life to feel inadequate… like, compared to them, we could never connect to God at the same level we could never be that devout or faithful.. like our faith life could never be that deep or rich.
Back in March, I had the opportunity to attend a pastors conference called CREDO. It is put on by the pension board of our denomination and its purpose is to help pastors cultivate wholeness in their life. To nurture and support our spiritual well-being, our vocational well-being, our physical well-being, and financial well-being, in hopes that we will better serve the Church. The conference was a total gift and truly meaningful, but that isn’t why I’m telling this story.
When it came time for us to explore our spiritual well being it was incredible how many of us felt inadequate. We started talking about our spiritual lives and almost immediately the energy in the room felt like grief. We felt that we weren’t ever able to “do” our spiritual practices enough. We felt like we weren’t reading the Bible enough, or praying enough, or worshiping enough… we felt like we never had the time, or that when we had the time, the practices fell short… or felt forced.. they weren’t life giving, they never felt natural.
Then the leader of the Spirituality workshop spoke up… He shared how common our feelings of inadequacy were across the church as a whole. And that part of the problem is that we have a bad understanding of what Spiritual Practices are… what they are supposed to do to us… what they are supposed to look like…
So he offered a new definition:
“Spiritual Practices are any intentional behavior that helps me to be open to the presence of God in my life, and in the world around me.”
Our faith isn’t formed by doing specific actions, a certain way. It doesn’t have to happen at prescribed times of day, or look the same way for every christ follower. That isn’t how the spirit moves, and it isn’t how God intends our faith to be formed.
Spiritual practices are only about one thing… getting yourself out of the way… setting yourself aside for awhile, setting aside your tasks and to-do lists, your wants and our worries… and intentionally opening yourself up to God’s spirit which is always present in our life and in the world around us.
This can and does happen through traditional practices, like bible study and prayer… but it can also happen at the sink washing dishes… on your commute home from work… on the sidelines of a field hockey game. What matters is the intention behind our practice. What matters is that we are regularly setting aside a time for the sole purpose opening ourselves up to God.
"any intentional behavior that helps me to be open to the presence of God in my life, and in the world around me.”
One pastor heard this and realized that time with his kids was how he most regularly experienced God acting in his life.
But that lately, he hadn’t been able to be present with them and felt disconnected. He longed an open space in his life that he felt had a potential to be open to the divine and then it clicked. Every day there was a regular window he could use. He was in charge of picking up his kids from school. And every day, In the five minutes he waited, he would often listen to the news or play on his phone and his mind would wander off distracted with thoughts of the state of the world, or the tasks ahead of him that evening.
So he committed himself to a new intentional and spiritual practice… turning off the radio, putting away his phone, and paying attention to how God was present for him in that moment. A practice that he hoped would help him not only continue to grow closer to God, but also, allow him to be more present with his kids. He would simply unplug and listen for the Spirit.
Another pastor committed to something even more simple. She had always experienced God in nature, but lately had struggled to find a chance to make space for this practice which was so life giving for her. She realized that though… that every day she has to eat lunch, and she realized that when she didn’t have a meeting, often she would eat lunch alone at her desk… So she committed to a simple practice of taking her lunch outside to a nearby park bench and opening herself up to God in the beauty of nature.
God is the Bonsai Master of our lives. The expert artist who looks after our growth with so much intentional care. Who has nurtured us and shaped us every moment of our life.
So often, the inadequacy we feel for our faith comes from when we think we have to be the gardeners of our own lives. We believe, falsely, that it is on us to craft our lives into our own perfect design. On us to have to shape our lives in the right way, to wrap the wire around the branches and contort ourselves into our own vision of who we should be.
We feel less than When we think we are the ones who have to decide what parts get stay and what gets pruned away.
But, as Paul says in our scripture so well…
Who do you think I am, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? We are -both of us- Servants I may have planted some seeds in the garden, Apollos may have done some watering, But we were following God’s lead. It is God who gives the vision. It is God makes things grow. In this field of our lives… We are God’s co-workers
God has long been at work shaping us into the people we are today… and God is deeply present every moment of our lives, even now… When we practice opening ourselves up to God’s work on our lives, Intentionally and regularly… in ways that are life giving to us We can better grow into the creations our master is envisioning… We can partner with God in our own growth. We can become more truly and wholly ourselves. May it be so.. Amen