Pandemic Prayer: Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil
Samantha Nichols (she/her) is a 27-year-old pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. During her time as a student at Missouri State University, Samantha learned about Interfaith Youth Core and attended an Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI). Inspired by the interfaith leaders she met at the ILI, she started an interfaith group on campus and served as a Better Together Coach for the 2014-2015 school year. These experiences helped Samantha discern a call to ordained ministry, leading her to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) for seminary. While in Chicago, Samantha worked as a community organizer, organizing people of faith around issues like ending cash bail and passing a just state budget. Samantha graduated from LSTC in 2019 before moving to Nebraska where she currently lives and serves two rural congregations. You can follow her on Twitter at @lalaladybug5.
Test the soil. Wait a couple of weeks for the results. Listen to soil experts. Add whatever minerals and vitamins your soil is lacking. Put in the extra effort before you excitedly tear open a packet of seeds and begin planting.
This is just some of the advice I ignored before trying to grow flowers for the first time. Reflecting on these missteps and the resulting mess of sad-looking blooms, I preached on Jesus’ Parable of the Sower for our first worship service in the sanctuary since the middle of March.
In that parable, Jesus describes a sower who drops some seeds on a path, sows others in rocky soil, and scatters even more among thorns. The seeds that fall on the path are quickly consumed by birds. The rocky soil allows for some quick growth, but the shallowness of the soil means the roots have nowhere to go. Unable to survive the heat, these plants die as soon as the sun comes up. The thorns choke out any growth they encounter.
Thankfully, this sower does manage to plant some seeds in good soil. These seeds grow into strong and resilient plants, contributing to a bountiful harvest.
Jesus then explains this parable. The rocky soil, he says, represents the person who immediately and even joyfully receives God’s Word, but has no root. This person disregards the Word about as quickly as they first received it.
Reflecting on this parable as I prepared my sermon brought me right back to the middle of March when everything changed. Seemingly overnight, it became clear that simple changes to the worship service like not shaking hands or passing the offering would be insufficient in the face of a global pandemic.
Rather, the entire worship service would need to change. More specifically, it would move online. I rushed to learn basic video editing skills, trying to remember literally anything from a brief fourth-grade obsession with “Windows Movie Maker.” Confirmation classes and our youth group gathered over video chat. Bible study happened by phone.
This was an exhausting, frantic, and confusing period of time, a few weeks during which it seemed like a few hundred changes were made in rapid succession. It was a whirlwind, to say the least.
And the dust never really settled.
Not even a month after this initial wave of change it was time to sing, “Alleluia!” and proclaim that “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!” After a painful back-and-forth between offering an online service or some kind of drive-up service, it was Easter Sunday and yet another video was edited, uploaded, posted, and e-mailed.
In June, people sat in their lawn chairs for our first outdoor worship service.
And just over a month after that, I was standing in the sanctuary and preaching on the Parable of the Sower.
Every one of those big decisions about where and how we worship was painful. And with each big decision came all kinds of important questions. If we worship online, do I offer communion? If we worship outdoors, how do I make sure people are comfortable? When we’re back inside the sanctuary, will I be able to require masks?
These are not the kinds of questions I thought about in seminary. But they are the questions that have dominated the past five months of my first year as a pastor.
Each phase of this experience has been more difficult than the last.
For as confusing and hectic as those early days of the pandemic were, I felt more hopeful. I felt more confident. I felt like my heart was good soil, open to God’s love, and trusting in God’s enduring presence. But as I preached to my people about the Parable of the Sower, I realized that this sermon was also speaking to me.
My heart is not good soil. My heart is the rocky soil, thoroughly unprepared for the scorching heat of a public health crisis, quick to adapt to an uncertain situation but just as quick to break, harboring more disappointment and anger than trust and love.
I can glance outside at some wilted snapdragons to know the consequences of poor soil.
We’ve moved online, we’ve moved outside, and we’ve moved back into the sanctuary. I’ve Facebook messaged, e-mailed, and called my public health department in search of what is not simply permissible but actually recommended. I’ve argued with elected officials. I’ve made more unpopular decisions than I could have anticipated this early in my life as an ordained pastor from requiring masks to refraining from collective singing.
There will be even more difficult, painful, and unpopular decisions, decisions that will continue to be guided by the advice of our public health officials, and the conviction that to follow Christ is to care for our neighbors.
And so, it seems like a good time to heed the advice I’ve usually ignored: tend the soil. This is a good time to practice what I’ve preached.
Certainly, my soil has been tested and the results are not great. But the “experts” I’ve consulted, fellow pastors, interfaith leaders, friends, family, and, of course, God’s Word, have reminded me that my soil can be transformed from something rocky into something healthy and resilient. I can add nutrients to my soil like a deeper life of prayer, forgiveness, and grace.
Right now, my soil is rocky.
But eventually, I trust, my soil will be improved.
Out of this soil, I hope, an even deeper trust in God will emerge, the kind of trust that will sustain me and ensure that I never ignore the call to love my neighbor, even when that’s hard to do. And so, I pray these words I first heard in a hymn, “Lord, let my heart be good soil.”