I planted mustard seeds.
And then they died.
I planted them in early autumn—during a class at church, of course—and they sprouted under the artificial ten-watt light of a desk lamp and grew in a puddle of sunshine on a bedroom floor. The scarce warmth and light of October, however, wasn’t enough to keep the plants alive. Their tiny leaves paled. Their stems sagged and collapsed.
“Don’t compare your faith to how your mustard seeds fare,” someone said as I patted down soil with my bare fingers.
I watered the sprouts. Moved their tiny plastic pot from patch of sunlight to patch of sunlight. For weeks, my inner dialogue to God was nothing more than please, please, please.
Still, the plants died.
In Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard writes:
Nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.
While Dillard’s quote covers so many of the church’s wrongs, including an ugly history of persecution and a current presence of judgment in society, contextually it has so much more to do with inauthenticity.
When I was in second grade Sunday School, I collected stickers for good behavior and scripture memorization. Somehow, at seven years old, faith became logic. An equation. A reward system. Memorize Psalm 23, believe that Jesus loves you, and choose your favorite sticker.
But at twenty-four, I’m weeks behind a scripture memorization of Colossians 3:1-17.
Maybe it’s because I don’t get stickers in the class I’m taking now. Maybe it’s because my mustard plants died. Maybe it’s because I can’t get past verse six: “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
Maybe it’s because faith, unlike religion, isn’t as easy as someone telling me what to do and what to believe.
It makes me cringe sometimes—standing in church pews, planting mustard seeds, telling someone I’ll pray for them. When I say it, I mean it, but it still sounds awkward because so many humans make the distinction between being spiritual and being religious, and religion gets the cheap connotation.
And yet, I’m still religious.
Because sometimes my faith needs the religion.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” Jesus says in Matthew. And even though the church is broken, I hold fast to that promise because I’m broken, too. Sometimes, my mustard seeds die no matter how I plead. Sometimes, I don’t find answers even when I’m seeking.
The Rigs have a song called “We All Fall Down:”
Sister, can I look through your eyes
‘cause the darkness has swallowed my sight
Sometimes, I just need someone to help me see.
I need the woman next to me who, even through the grief of losing her son, loves the Lord. I need the five-year-old, who hasn’t even begun to think about doubting, to remind me of the simple truths. (Did you know the names of the wise men were Henry, Bob, and Larry?) I need the friend sitting across from me to ask tough questions and understand. “I don’t always need someone to pray for me,” he says. “Sometimes, I just need someone to talk to.”
When I’m confused, I need the motions. I need to plant the mustard seeds. Watch them grow, and even watch them die, because despite how much I resent it, I believe that what’s written in Ecclesiastes is true: “There is a time for everything.”
I need to memorize Psalm 23 because one night, I’ll be driving in the rain, lost somewhere on a dark road with my shoddy windshield wipers, and my imperfect religion won’t be able to recall anything past I shall not be in want.
And yet, in that moment, I think that’s all I’ll need.