Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Word and Purpose

July 12, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

As I consider the idea of one’s word not returning empty, I am reflecting on how to live and speak my ‘word’ so that it paves the way for God’s purposes to be realized.



Arts & Architecture

The Living Chapel

A program to green the planet rooted in the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’ and the UN’s 2030 agenda.

Open in a new tab

Science & Nature

How Important is a Strong Root Structure?

Kate Karam


Article on the importance of the root structure to plants and ways to foster healthy roots.

Open in a new tab

Business & Technology

Reinventing Your Career in the Time of Coronavirus

Herminia Ibarra

Harvard Business Review

Article highlighting the effective components in a process of vocational re-evaluation that many are finding timely in these days when covid has changed our landscape.

Open in a new tab


What conditions can we cultivate to support the growth of God’s purposes in the world?


As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. –Isaiah 55:10-12

Today’s portion from Isaiah has always been like water to my soul. The image of the divine word accomplishing that for which it is purposed gives me hope. Words can tear down. Words can lead us astray. Words can fill the sacred space of our lives while offering nothing but noise. What makes a word purposeful? What makes a word effective?

The speaker in Isaiah seems to use “word” in a way that is inextricably linked with divine purpose. The word is the messenger, as it were, sent to accomplish a particular purpose. The metaphor the writer of Isaiah uses in describing words as elements that cause the earth to be fertile is laden with meaning. A word can support growth of new life or hinder it. The images in this passage offer a template for us to use in understanding the impact of our own words. I understand words, in this context, to include our actual words as well as the “word” we speak with our lives. Our word can deepen the roots required to sustain a sapling, or it can diminish the possibility that something nascent will have a fighting chance in this world.

Personally, I prefer Isaiah’s metaphor for the word as elements to the analogy Jesus uses in the gospel, in which the word is the seed and the hearer is modeled as having agency over the type of soil that he or she offers to the word.

Isaiah’s image focuses on how the word creates the conditions for growth and vitality in the hearer while the gospel focuses on how the hearer receives the word. The portion from Isaiah suggests that God's purpose can flourish in us because God has created the right conditions. If we seek to imitate God’s loving action, we too can cultivate conditions in which God’s purposes can flourish–within us and in the world.

In today’s arts and architecture lesson, you will find a community of people planting trees and installing architectural structures that make music in a playful exchange with the elements of nature. Inspired by Pope Francis’ teaching in Laudato Si’ and by the UN creation care goals for 2030, these “living chapels” are designed to call us to an increased commitment to care for creation. They are beautiful examples of creating conditions that inspire actions among us that, collectively, can alter the course of rapid demise of our planet.

One of my favorite sources for all things related to the garden, Monrovia, has a beautiful short piece on the importance and fostering of a strong root structure in plants (see today’s science and nature lesson). It’s worth considering the elements that contribute to strong root systems, which are essential to plant growth and vitality: water, nutrients, care in times of stressful transition, and mulch. It doesn’t take much to glean from these factors the elements that also help the human system thrive: water—the symbol of the most essential input to keep us spiritually and physical alive; nutrients–input that supports our growth—intellectually, spiritually, physically, emotionally; care in times of stress–this one speaks for itself; and mulch–those things that serve as a buffer or boundary between our precious lives and the rest of the world. Simply put, what we learn from care of roots is that we need to be connected to sources of life—in everything from our physical surroundings to our spiritual channels of renewal to our opportunities for intimacy. We need to be nourished—with everything from the food we eat to the books we read to the walks we take. We need to be afforded gentleness, particularly in times of stressful change–such as our present days. And we need to be able to create and maintain some necessary boundaries between our own souls and bodies and the plethora of external stimuli this world would bombard us with hourly, if we allowed it. Plant roots have much in common with our own tender lives.

Many of us in these days are taking stock of how we are growing in this world—what kind of fruit we are bearing. We are wondering if the fruit is as we have intended. In today’s business and technology lesson, Ibarra offers a helpful phrase to use in these “liminal days” when many of us are holding open space for new directions to emerge in our lives. She talks about engaging “possible selves” as an exercise in trying on different futures. This exercise can allow us to nurture growth within ourselves in directions heretofore unexamined without attaching too much weight to any one possible direction. Trying on “possible selves” is yet another way to create conditions that foster our creativity and courage to make change and grow in new ways.

If we spend our days creating conditions that allow God’s purposes to flourish, our word will not return empty.