Last week my son, Luke, ranked up in his martial arts class. It was a big deal. He’s been a student of Coung Nhu for seven years–he’s 14 now–and by passing this latest test, he has graduated into the more advanced classes with the adults. Coung Nhu is a branch of karate that combines both quick, explosive movement with a softer, more contemplative, flowing style similar to Tai Chi. Luke did a fantastic job during the test. I usually see him at home behind a computer monitor playing video games or doing schoolwork, so to watch him move through his Coung Nhu routines with such confidence, precision, and skill was really impressive. Passing this test gained him a brown stripe for his green belt. This transition is kind of analogous to confirmation in the church–he has made the choice for himself to commit to the practice of Coung Nhu. It’s no longer my job to make him go to class. He has his own faith, if you will, in the practice. He sees its benefits–the fruits of seven years of consistency–and he wants to go deeper. I’m a proud dad.
At the end of the test, the sensei awarded new ranks to the students in a familiar liturgical format. He had them kneel and stretch out their hands to receive the stripe that they would later sew onto their belts–“You can’t let your parents do it for you!” he cautioned. “It’s time for you to learn to sew.” The sensei then gave a brief “homily” of sorts, encouraging the students in the philosophy of the Coung Nhu style. There was one part in particular that really caught my attention, and that was his description of the meaning behind the colors of the belts and stripes that designate rank.
The white belt, which is the beginner rank, represents a seed that you would sew into fertile soil. The seed contains unrealized, unorganized energy with powerful potential to grow and bear fruit, but first it needs to be cared for–watered and protected–so that it might take root. The green belt, which follows the white, represents a sapling, still fragile and in need of care, this is a formative time during which the roots sink deeper and a sturdy foundation is established for the brown belt, or the bark that begins to form on the outside of the tree. Stability and strength characterize this stage. The tree shifts from needing to be protected to being a protector–a contributing member of the forest, adding stability to the community. And finally, the black belt represents the shade that a mature tree casts in order to nurture the growth of others. Black belt status is not so much about personal achievement as it is about a role of responsibility in the community.
As I sat on the dojo mat listening to the sensei’s words, I couldn’t help but hear a parallel with the parable of the mustard seed in today’s passage from Mark. You probably hear it too. “A mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Jesus compares this natural, yet wondrous, process of growth to the kingdom of God. One interpretation of this parable would be to associate the growth of the mustard seed with our own growth as we become more aware of the presence of God in our lives. And from this perspective we can begin to see that a seed is more than just a seed.
Now, I’m not proposing that we start granting ranks and wearing belts to demarcate the various stages of spiritual growth within the Christian community (although, sometimes I think that would be a fun experiment). Our tradition has long cautioned against focusing on achievement in the spiritual life. It’s unproductive to continually wonder “What stage am I in?” or “How far have I progressed?” Spirituality is not so much quantitative as it is qualitative. There are no tests to pass or sensei’s to impress. Rather, the spiritual life, as Thomas Merton puts it, is about “discovering what we already have … Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess” (53). A luxuriant shrub with large branches that birds can nest in is simply the full expression of the tiny mustard seed. Just as a stable, compassionate, and generative Christian, beloved by God, is the full expression of any one of us.
I once had the great fortune to spend a week at Plum Village. It’s a Buddhist monastery in France established by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk with a gift for inter-religious dialogue. He wrote a book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, which has opened many minds to the compatibility of these two faiths. I will never forget one afternoon when I encountered a monk in the kitchen. He had a big, mischievous smile on his face, and he walked over to me, held out his hand, and said, in broken English, “what are these?” He was pointing to what looked like seeds, and so I said as much. And he laughed this big, jovial laugh as if he had just landed the greatest joke in the world. Of course, I was clueless. So, he moved in closer and pointed to the seeds again. No, “these aren’t seeds,” he said. “They’re a lot of hard work.” And with that, he walked away.
I admit, it took me awhile to figure out what this crazy monk was talking about, but I eventually realized he was trying to get me expand my vision. Just as Paul asks us to no longer regard anyone from a “human point of view,” but rather to see them as if they are “in Christ,” this monk wanted me to look beyond the seeds to see the mixture of water and soil nutrients that encourage them to sprout, to the sun that shines down to nurture the stalk and the head, to the hours of faithful human labor spent harvesting the grain, to the artisans who transform the grain into the food that nourishes the bodies of the members of the community. Indeed, these were no mere seeds.
The same is true for you and me. Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed is his way of encouraging us to expand our vision. He wants us to see through “kingdom eyes,” if you will, which are capable of revealing one another’s true value. If you look deeply at a new Coung Nhu student wearing a clean, crisp white belt, and peer beyond their shiny, untried exterior, you’ll see the parents, or friends who encouraged them to take a risk and try it on. You’ll see years of training–of failures and successes–of heartbreak and joy. You’ll see fellow students and senseis–companions and teachers giving their all. And if you look hard enough, you’ll see a strong, solid tree capable of withstanding the most powerful winds, with a heart to shelter the least of those among us.
Imagine if we began to see one another with “kingdom eyes,” no longer categorizing or judging based on a lack of this or a surplus of that. Imagine if we saw one another, all in an instant, as full expressions of God’s creation. “So if anyone is in Christ,” says Paul, “there is a new creation.” White belts. Black belts. Same thing. Seeds. Trees. Equal value. You. Me. Beloved and loving. “See, everything has become new!”
Proper 6, Year B
Laird, M. S. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.