China is a place where things rise and fall overnight. In a country that has pulled itself up from its bootstraps in just a few decades, this pace of modernization has not been without cost. Last year I witnessed a sizable community garden rise up within twenty-four hours, as migrant workers tirelessly labored night and day to lay out sods and shrubs into shallow soil, rushing to meet their deadline. Merely a month later, most of the flowers lay scorched and wilted. They had never developed their roots.
Not long ago, on a stroll through that garden, I walked past a newly planted tree lying hopelessly on its side. The gardeners had hastily planted a series of trees along a sidewalk, but because the roots had not yet worked themselves into the soil, one of the trees succumbed to the blowing winds and toppled. While this is not an uncommon sight in a city developing at breakneck speed, it occurred to me that the un-rooted tree represents my heart’s condition under the weight of anxiety.
Recently our small group has been studying the Gospel of Mark. The author writes of a scene in which Jesus teaches from a boat to a multitude along the shore. Using an illustration appropriate for an agricultural society, Jesus describes a sower scattering seed that land on four different types of soil, a metaphor for the various conditions of the human heart:
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” - Mark 4:3-8 ESV
In the past, I’ve secretly thought the good soil reflected my heart’s condition at all times. I believed my heart was a rich and fertile ground for the seed of the gospel to take root and bear the fruits of love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
But I’ve come to realize that this is merely wishful thinking. If I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I, like the prostrate tree, am susceptible to the winds of life when I am not deeply rooted in Christ on a daily basis. In fact, when I first began adjusting to living and doing ministry overseas just two years ago, my anxiety levels noticeably rose, stemming from financial, relational, and occupational insecurity. Where will my next paycheck come from? Will I ever get married if I’m living and doing ministry work overseas (as opposed to living a “normal” life back home)? What will happen to my years of education and previous work experience? Will all that become irrelevant? These questions and more kept me awake at night.
The birds of the air in the parable are metaphors for worldly distractions and disruptions, while the thorns typify the worries and wretchedness of the heart that hinder opportunities for the seed of God’s unconditional grace, love, and peace to take root. The questions I struggled with were the thorns that prevented the seed from taking root, while the worries were the birds that snatched away the joy and peace that might have come from resting in the knowledge and assurance that my Heavenly Father is in perfect control.
Looking back, I’ve noticed that much of what I was apprehensive about two years ago never actually developed into genuine causes for concern. Truly, God has been good and faithful in providing every bit of my needs, be it financially or relationally; he has brought a beautiful, faithful friend and supporter into my life to walk alongside me in work and ministry; and all of my training and background in education and in working with a wide spectrum of personalities has been every bit as useful in my current context as it ever was before.
Through this realization, God is reminding me that his promises are real, and that when I anchor my life to him and am rooted in the good news of Jesus, I need not fear the winds, birds, or thorns that exist to steal or choke away joy.
These days, before anxiety has a chance to gain a foothold, I am plowing and cultivating my heart by re-reading the Gospel of Mark so that the seed of God’s goodness and faithfulness will take root in good soil. I trust that—regardless of the birds, rocks, winds, or thorns that might come my way—with my Heavenly Father as the master gardener, he will allow his seed to take root in my heart.
Previously a high school science teacher in Cupertino, California, Bruce Cheung relocated in 2013 to a megacity in south-central China along the Yangtze River, where he now works with a team to jumpstart a senior in-home care service to reach the unreached senior population throughout the city. Additionally, he serves as a musician in a local house church community, and is also helping to develop a theology and leadership curriculum to be used to train church leaders throughout the country. He enjoys building community and hearing the stories of everyday people and how those stories intersect with their faith journeys.