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Dormancy - Reflections From The Horizontal Gardener


When you read my ‘word of the season’, what thoughts come to mind?

Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary definition.

Something that is dormant is not active or growing but has the ability to be active at a later time.

This sums up winter for me, though I must admit that I am conditioned by one of my favourite mysterious archaeological structures. Located on one of the islands of Orkney, Maeshowe is a remarkable burial chamber dating back over a thousand years. History records that marauding Vikings broke into it looking for treasure. It’s believed they took shelter inside the chamber during a storm and whiled away their stay by carving runic graffiti on the walls. The record of their vandalism can be clearly seen. How do we know all this? It is all recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga of the twelfth century.

The chamber itself was built by an ancient race of neolithic people who were certainly in tune with the cycle of the seasons in the northern islands. It’s a timepiece (of sorts) that still works all these millennia later. For around six weeks in the winter (from the end of November through to mid-January), the setting sun, should it break through the clouds, aligns with the central chamber of the cairn. In fact, the entrance passageway is aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice, (the day I am writing this).

There is no clear evidence of why the cairn was built, but some have seen its alignment as symbolic of death and resurrection: the sun illuminating the rear wall of the chamber on the longest day of the year, promising the return of the sun and the arrival of spring. For winter, the earth lies dormant. It will be active later.

The Lord Jesus used this idea of dormancy in one of his more enigmatic parables—the story of the growing seed in Mark 4.2-9. I’ve reflected on this before in this blog, but it deserves another go within the context of the season.

There is a man who simply scatters seed and then allows nature to take its course. The miracle of the seeds’ DNA and the nutrients, water, and soil has its effect as the seed sprouts, grows, and produces a head of grain. All of this happens without the man’s help. The concept has been described by theologians as ‘ex opere operato’, meaning ‘by the work worked’. Jesus puts it this way.

All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

Mark 4.28

So, if we take the seed to be the Word of God (Mark 4.14), we can reasonably guess that the growth of the plants is the working of God’s Word in our hearts. Is it possible, then, that because the grain grows without a farmer’s intervention, God can cause us to grow in our Christian lives, bearing fruit by his own sovereign power and the latent authority and effectiveness of his living Word? Paul seems to assume this interpretation when he states that ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ in relation to the church in Corinth. (1 Cor 3.9)

What a thought—growth during dormancy.

I’m quite happy to lie dormant during the winter months, knowing that the seed of God’s Word is being effectively transformed into something active for a later time. Maybe we all feel like that as we lie recumbent for a short season of rest.

There are periods in our calling as leaders when life enters a hiatus. I have been through a few recently. Retirement from a full-time pastoral role; the end of a nine-year commitment to an annual mentoring programme for pastors; fewer interventions in struggling churches, and a commitment to a new local church as an ordinary member. All of this coincides with a more permanent change in capacity because of disability. It has made me realise that life is just a series of transitions, and inevitably there will be cyclical changes to my level of activity.

At moments of transition, we can decide for ourselves whether it’s time to change pace. If we’re wise, we won’t immediately seek to refill our plate, but instead we’ll wait patiently for what the Lord has in store for us.

If leadership is our calling, there will be many, many opportunities to lead. Transitions, however, may be few, and when they come, we should be alert to what they are offering. We need to allow seasonal change to educate us, to show us whether our age, health, finances, even our relationships need attention, and even adjustment. We belong to God alone, and so, as leaders, there is an absolute requirement to live according to his ways, to be obedient to his plans for us instead of prioritising our own. This requires the following principles.

  • WAIT. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Ps 27.14) I’m so glad he repeated ‘wait’ twice. Often, we don’t hear it the first time!

  • BE HUMBLE. He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Mic 6.8) Notice he says ‘walk’, not ‘charge ahead’.

  • BE PATIENT. I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. (Ps 40.1) I’m cheating with this one because it includes waiting again! Nevertheless, this is about the character of our waiting. It is not to be the toe-tapping, deep-sighing, watch-checking kind of waiting. We are to be patient in our waiting—to pause and listen for the whispering of God.

I wonder if you are in a kind of dormancy. Perhaps your circumstances have changed, or transitions are taking place in your life or the lives of those you love. Maybe you are leading less, and waiting more. Dormancy is a time to learn about ourselves and our dependence on the Lord.

Remember that, most often, dormancy comes to an end. In time, we will be energised by the rising sun of a soon-returning spring.

So, wait patiently.

Dormancy is not death, just a temporary and brief respite.


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