“Keep your milk cartons,” said my fifth-grade teacher one morning before lunch. “Don’t leave any milk in them. Don’t crush them. Don’t poke holes in them with your forks. Just bring them back to the room with you.” After rinsing the inside clean, labeling the side with my name on a piece of masking tape and cutting the top from the carton with my blunt-tipped scissors, my teacher took me and the other children outside.
“Fill your milk carton with dirt,” she said as she distributed a few large soup spoons to be used as miniature shovels. Thirty children scattered and began to scrape, dig and plow at the earth. Some dropped near the sidewalk, not wanting to venture much farther than that. Many others headed for the cool shade of the pin oak trees to dig in the dirt packed hard from the passing of countless sneakers. And one, Brian, walked to the far end of the playground where a small creek crept through the trees, crouched down with his spoon, and began to fill his milk carton with smelly black dirt. With his carton nearly full, he turned and yelled, “I’ve found the best dirt!” More than half of the others ran to him, slinging their now-inferior soil out of the cartons for this new “best” dirt.
I looked at my dirt. It didn’t seem so bad. It was good dirt. I found it by my favorite tree with the roots that formed an arch that a toy car could drive through. There was no way that I was about to give up that dirt for some that smelled like garbage. This creek-bank soil was no better than mine; it was just more popular.
The sound of a whistle echoed across the playground, and we filtered our way from the slow-running creek, from the honeysuckle vines, and from the whispering pin oak leaves into the carpeted, beige-walled 5th grade homeroom. We took our seats as Brian again pointed out how great his dirt was. Mrs. Perkins then came around the room giving three kernels of seed corn to each of us. “Poke three holes in your dirt with the eraser of your pencil, and drop a kernel in each hole. Then I want you to cover your seeds with dirt, and put your milk cartons on the windowsill. We are going to see how plants grow, and who can grow his or her corn the best.”
Growing plants. We were going to grow plants in class. Not only were we to grow plants, but we were to compete in growing them. No fertilizer, no plant lamps, no extra help. Brian beamed as he dropped his corn into the carton. He said something about getting some butter ready for corn on the cob. I rammed the kernels down with my eraser and thought about how long it would take for the competition to end.
When the first shoots began to poke their way through the surface of the soil days later, whoops and yells could be heard all the way down the hall. It wasn’t my corn. It wasn’t Brian’s either. But we all gathered around to see the tiny green leaf tips. It was this way every day for weeks. Run into the room, check the plants. Check them in the morning, check them in science period, check them after reading, check them after lunch, check them before recess, check them 45 minutes later after recess and, to make sure, check them once more before leaving the room for the bus. Go home and think about your corn, reaching toward the sky, towering above all the other plants, blocking out their sun. Why, it’s probably so tall that it will get some sort of award. Midwestern corn farmers will seek me for advice.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Brian’s corn, after a slow start, began a mutant-like climb from the tiny milk carton. The leaves folded over the edges of the windowsill like some thriving tropical plant. There was no stopping it.
My corn fought for every inch it gained. I agonized along with it. I gave it extra water and tried to move it covertly to a sunnier place on the sill. I even talked to it. Nothing worked. I finally conceded: it was the dirt. Brian’s dirt was much better than mine for growing corn. Sentimental dirt only grows memories well.
Brian won; I lost. Well, I didn’t exactly lose “lose”. I came in second to last, just ahead of the kid who had to start over because his original seeds had sprouted…and then promptly died. He had planted them in soil that was mostly sand. Poor guy.
I think about this little drama often as my life progresses and my own spiritual growth seems like an intense struggle at times. I realize that, in some ways, I don’t go as far as I should to get the best dirt; my dirt is sometimes nearby and familiar. I hope to grow something great, something that will climb higher and higher, reaching beyond anything anyone has ever seen, but, at times, my roots only sink deep into sentimentality, and I fight for even the slightest upward growth. I try to manipulate things to affect a change. I worry and find myself checking the growth often hoping that if I just keep doing what I’ve done all along that somehow something new will occur. At times I feel (wrongly) that I’m in a “spiritual growth contest” with others. And still I concede that the dirt makes all the difference.
When was the last time that you took a measure of your spiritual life to see how much you have grown? Is your growth inconsistent and sporadic? Have you given up on progressing any further? Are you ready for more?
Personal growth must not become the sole focus of the Christian life. Growth is good, but Christ is the primary focus. All other aspects of life find meaning only with Him; spiritual growth comes from God alone (Eph. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:2). If you are allowing the Holy Spirit to search and shape you, and accept your responsibilities to partner with God by being obedient to His will and Word, then you will grow. If you want to grow, then you must seek Him, not because by seeking Him you will grow, but because He is worthy to be sought. Peter urges his readers to “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). God is not a means to an end, but He is the means and the end. He works in us to make us more like Him (Phil. 3:12-14).
The story doesn’t end there. The competition was over, but the growing wasn’t. Remember the guy who had to start over? Given a little time, he had the tallest corn of all. His secret? He went down to the creek, got the dirt, but instead of just dumping it into his carton, he carefully examined each spoonful and removed any rocks, twigs, or leaves, or anything else that wasn’t the “best” dirt. Did he back up and do it all again? Yes. Did he finish far ahead? Yes. Was it worth the extra work? He certainly thought so…and so did the rest of us.
Not seeing much growth? How’s your dirt?