Good Seed, Good Ground
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By Ellsworth Johnson, Guest Blogger for Greene Pastures
I remember my first airplane flight. I was seven years old and we were flying from New York City to Tampa, Florida to visit my grandparents. It was raining at departure time and overcast horizon-to-horizon, so I expected the drizzle to continue for the entire ride.
Imagine my surprise, though, as we penetrated the cloud layer after takeoff, and the sun was shining in a clear bright blue sky! The clouds were actually below us now, which is not how I was used to thinking of them — can you get out and walk on them?
Other, deeper questions came to my inquisitive young mind: Is God up here somewhere? Where is Jesus, all the angels, and everyone else? Is this part of heaven?
Doubts about God and religion had already set in by then. If heaven is directly above our house, which I believed emphatically that it was, is it also above my next-door neighbor’s house, too? What about across the house street, in the next town, in California, or a hut in Timbuktu? I knew the Earth was a ball… heaven couldn’t really be above everywhere at the same time . . . could it?
Somewhat less whimsical is the case of Steve Jobs, the prodigious, brilliant and ultra-rich Apple co-founder who died in 2011. The story goes that young Steve asked his local priest one day why God allowed such widespread suffering in the world if He is truly a God of Love. Alas, the priest miserably failed this fairly basic pop quiz by not having a solid ready answer of any kind to the question, and Steve’s faith was busted irretrievably to the point where he went off and eventually became a Buddhist.
I, on the other hand, was still being raised Catholic. Why? Because my mother, the driving force for such matters in our home, attended St. Therese, a Catholic church near our house. I learned, many years later, that this critical choice of faith owed to the sound theological reason that the services, without exception, were always exactly 45 minutes in length.
Every Sunday morning Mom would announce that it was time for her, my brother Dwayne and me to leave for Mass. On the infrequent occasions I objected, my father, invariably planted in front of the television set in his burnt-orange upholstered chair would jump up, point his finger at the door and start shouting words of reprimand for what seemed like an eternity. Oddly, I can never remember anything he said, less so any of it ever making sense. When he was done, he returned to his football or basketball game (depending on the season) as if nothing had happened.
For some reason, he never had to go with us. This, too, struck me as odd. If God wanted the three of us to go to church on Sunday, didn’t He want my father to go, too?
Maybe the TV was his own special form of worship.
Time and years went by, and this Sunday ritual was joined when I was 12 by Christian Children’s Doctrine (CCD) classes. These classes met at St. Therese on Tuesday nights. They were taught by one of the nuns, and went from 7:30 to 9:00, consisting entirely of a lecture on some obscure religious point. Few children in the class took it seriously: I sat in the back each week and passed the time with these two cut-ups who joked and fantasized about how I was really a bullfighter, and other such nonsense.
Ultimately, CCD was for me, a waste of time. I felt bad for the nun who led it: she was so sincere in what she was doing and yet, like my father’s Sunday diatribes (and unlike the bullfighter goofing), absolutely none of the substance of her words survived.
I endured it for grades 7 and 8; for ninth graders, however, CCD was no longer held at the church, but now instead at a local parishioner’s house. Apparently that change was too inconvenient for my mother, so, miraculously, I no longer had to go.
Many decades later, the real reason for the class’ ineffectiveness was unearthed: their messages were never reinforced at home.
Upon returning to my house after class each week I was never, not once in two years, asked about what we did or what I learned, let alone discuss it in any depth. Did they, my parents, even *know* this stuff already? Did they care? Was it important? Certainly nothing about the Catholic way of life was identified or practiced in the way we lived. Its doctrine was not reflected outside the church walls.
Another failure. More doubt.
Ritual Sunday Mass continued, though, all the way to the end of high school. Four days after graduation I was on a plane to Boston to begin a summer program at MIT. I was in college now, presumably in charge of my own affairs, and the first thing to go: no more church! It was forced on me throughout my childhood, never explained, its precepts ignored at home, and now I was finally free to drop it.
It would take fifteen years, a brain aneurysm and one man’s persistent faith to bring me back to Christ. And he did it simply by doing what no one had done up to that point.
He put the pieces together so that they made sense.
Plus, it was OK not to know, and to ask questions.
I was in my hospital bed at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego on that day in November 1992 and my friend Bob had come to visit me there. Four weeks earlier a blood vessel in my head popped and I was suddenly inches from death’s door. I had recovered to a pretty good extent, but I still needed surgery to finally repair the rupture. That surgery was scheduled for the following morning.
In the month I had been there, my mother had come to see me four times; on the other hand, this was Bob’s fifth visit. And this time, he brought his Bible.
Of course, I already knew the broad strokes, like who God and Jesus are, and about sin, heaven and hell. I also had the standard Catholic outlook on the after-life, which included Purgatory, and the mystical notion of needing to be somehow “good enough” in order to get into heaven.
What was missing were the details of how they were all related.
And, of course, everything else.
We talked for half an hour. My lifetime of lingering questions had all been answered, the wrong information had been righted, and for the first time I had a correct Biblical view of things. “Great,” I declared. “What do I do now?”
Bob said that I needed to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that He came to earth, lived a sinless life, died for our sins, rose on the third day and now sits at the right hand of the Father.
I looked at him and declared triumphantly: “I can do that!”
But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
From there, the rest is history. As a result of the surgery the next day, I made a complete 100% recovery from my aneurysm utterly baffling my doctors. After leaving Scripps I quickly joined a Baptist church in San Diego and became a voracious student of the Bible and the Christian life. A month after getting out of the hospital, I was baptized correctly through full immersion in water — though I’m sure the sprinkling I received as a baby was cute.
Eight years later, with the arrival of the new millennium, I met the woman God had picked out for me and took her to wife. We were blessed in March 2005 by the arrival of our son Joshua. At Joshua’s baby dedication, where we gave him back to the Lord, a surprise guest showed up at the last minute: my friend Bob, who had confronted me with the Word a decade and a half earlier in my hospital bed (evidently, I was “sick” spiritually too, as well as physically). He appeared on the scene with his wife just as the ceremony got underway.
And . . . I started going to church again every Sunday, the difference this time being that it was something I chose to do, because I wanted the knowledge that it brought… plus, it was the right thing to do. It made sense, and the spiritual reasons for doing so are far more real and compelling than the “because I said so” dictates of yore.
When the Man from Apple left this Earth, what I took to be that still small voice announced matter-of-factly one day out of the blue: “Steve Jobs is in hell, and will be there forever.” Pretty rough, to be sure, but if he remained a Buddhist and never accepted Christ while he was alive, is that not the expected outcome? His billions, his tech-savvy and his reputation (all God’s gifts, by the way!) ultimately could not save him from a Christ-less eternity.
I thank God for bringing Bob into my hospital room that day to share the Word. The time and place were right for me to receive it, take it in, and for it to blossom. If he had not stepped out on faith and done that, if something had gone wrong on the operating table the next day and I died in an unsaved state, I am positive I would have ended up joining Apple’s co-founder in his grim post-mortal experience.
As Christians, our lives continue to be on roller coasters, but with God along for the ride they stay on track, no matter how fast or slow we go, no matter how high the peaks or low the valleys.
The cloud-piercing experience was not the only important revelation to my young mind on that first flight day.
I learned also that the states in America, in fact, do not have their names written on them in giant letters which you can read from the sky.
-Ellsworth Johnson, a retired software engineer and math teacher. He lives in Katy, Texas with his wife Sonja and son Joshua. He is waiting expectantly to see what God, in His sovereignty and grace, has in store for the next phase of his life.
The policy of Greene Pastures is to respect the views of Christian denominations in its writing. However, essay references to denominations have been kept in Good Seed, Good Ground for author credibility and honesty in sharing an autobiographical story.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Matthew 13:24-30
Now therefore in the sight of all Israel, the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God, observe and seek out all the commandments of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you forever. 1 Chronicles 28:8
Dear Lord, as I come to you this day, I ask you to let me hear and understand your Holy Word. Allow me to heed your holy words and apply them to my life. Give me wisdom in using the gifts and fruits you bestow upon me. Make me an instrument of your love. Allow my faith to share Jesus with those I encounter as your Holy Spirit is preparing them to accept you as Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.