The following story is a great metaphor for how the followers of Jesus deal with the enormous changes going on in the church and culture.
The three part story was in three consecutive mailings of the congregation's newsletter.
The Farmhand's Story
There was a farm hand whose job was to harvest the crops on the farm. For years he had done a great job, driving the big combine through the rows of corn. He was a good worker! One day he woke up bright and early, got right to work and heard the most awful grinding noises coming from the combine. It groaned and shook and lurched along and finally stopped running altogether. The farm hand looked out the widow and to his utter shock and disbelief he discovered that the farm had changed! Overnight, all the corn had vanished and been replaced with a different crop. He had been driving his combine through a field in a tree farm.
The "crop" outside our doors is not the same. Vanishing are the rows of corn - young Christians ready to carry forward the faith of their parents, immigrant Christians from the "old country", transfers from other congregations asking for offering envelopes and ready to dive right in to congregational life - In their place, seemingly overnight, are disorganized groves of trees - boomers, busters, x-ers, millenials, with hardly anything in common except the consumerist entertainment culture they swim in, a shared distrust of the Church and a general disinterest in Christianity.
That grinding sound you hear? Church finance struggles, volunteer shortages, schedule conflicts with soccer, hockey, band, dance, the Vikings and so on? That's the sound of the combine running out of corn and running into trees.
We need to "wake up" to where we are in North America 2004, see the world as it is, and most importantly, learn how to harvest the new crop around us.
The farm hand I told you about last month was dealing with big changes. Seemingly overnight, the nice straight rows of corn he used to harvest by driving the big combine had disappeared, only to be replaced by a grove of pine trees! The combine was breaking down and the trees weren't faring too well either. That story was a way of helping us see the new reality of the church. Driving the combine ("business as usual", "the way we've always done it" etc.) just isn't going to work any longer because the "crop" isn't what it used to be. People aren't exactly "lining up" to get into church these days. That's a big adjustment for congregations to make when they've been able to survive for years on the basis of people who came to them on their own.
But there's more. Let's go back to the farm hand. When he noticed that the corn was gone, the first thing he saw in its place was a batch of pine trees. That could give you the impression that all he needed to do was trade in the combine for another tool -- a chainsaw perhaps -- and we'd be back in business. But it's not that simple. If the farm hand will look up towards the horizon, he'll see that the acres of corn have not been replaced by acres of pine trees. The corn hasn't been replaced by acres of anything. Instead, in its place are acres of -- everything. It's all one giant, wild, chaotic, thriving, overgrown biome. You can't even say "it's a jungle out there!" because it's five jungles, three forests two swamps and a desert mixed together with some arctic permafrost for good measure. Just past those pine trees that brought down the combine are a couple of banana plants. Next to them is a Nordic lingonberry bush that's trying to fight off the kudzu from South Carolina. Watch your step -- you might crush the strawberries over by the bamboo!
What does this mean? Several things. I'll explore some implications with you in the coming months. But for now, remember this: it may seem like everything has changed, but that's not true. Some things never change.
God still owns the "farm". (1 Corinthians 10:26)
You still have a job. (Philippians 1:22a)
We need more help. (Matthew 9:37)
Pray indeed, that the lord will send more workers into the harvest!
We're continuing our journey with the farm hand, who is our metaphor for followers of Jesus as they deal with the enormous changes going on in the church and the culture. For the farm hand, there's no more driving the church-programs "combine" and harvesting new Christians like neatly growing rows of corn. Our culture has become a spiritual jungle and the orderly fields are just plain gone. But out in that jungle there are all kinds of plants straining to "produce" for God, the owner of all that grows. The "crop" may have changed, but there's still a big "harvest" to work towards. Adapting to this new reality is an enormous but exciting challenge.
The first thing the farm hand is going to have to deal with may be the most difficult: a new identity. You can't be a "farm hand" anymore if there's no "farm." It's not just a matter of learning new ways to do things. It's moving into a whole different kind of work. The farm hand has to walk out of the field into the Great Wild Jungle-Garden and become... a gardener.
A gardener walks among the plants. A gardener gets down in the dirt and sees how each one is doing. A gardener works with lots of different kinds of plants, in lots of different kinds of situations, with lots of different kinds of tools. But in the Great Wild Jungle-Garden, one thing remains constant: the purpose of a gardener is to help each plant grow, thrive and "produce" whatever it's designed to produce for the Owner of the garden.
Each day then, we follow Jesus out into the garden. Each person we encounter is one of the Owner's plants. And our job is to go to them, see what they need in order to grow, thrive and produce, and then deliver it. You may not know what they need and it may not be obvious. You might have to ask them. They may not want to tell you unless they get to know and trust you first. It could take some time. Even then, you may find that you don't have what they need. You might have to go and get it or find someone who has it and bring them along. That takes time too. It's all pretty labor intensive. It's hands-on work. And it's one plant, one person at a time. No more riding up above in the air-conditioned cab of the combine. It's a very different life, but it's a great life. And other gardeners can tell you, there's great joy, great satisfaction in doing the work and seeing the plants grow.
So -- who needs your help to grow in the part of the Great Wild Jungle-Garden around you? And how does it feel to change, to grow yourself and become ... a gardener?
Changes for the Farm Hand to Negotiate
A "fruitful" garden doesn't require bringing in. Some plants bear right where they are.
Radically different needs from the gardener. Wide array of tools. Each plant is unique and in a different context. You are the constant: constant purpose to nurture growth, constant service to the owner of the garden.
Focus on the need, not the tool in my hand. From "Can I find a way to use this on you..." to "What do you need and what tool do I need to get in order to help you?'
Things that the plants might need:
- Transplanting (life situation, job, neighborhood, church??)
- Water & light
- "Training", trellis or stake
Tools the Gardner might use
- Watering can
- Fertilizer stakes
- Pruning knife, hedge trimmers
Atonement Lutheran Church
1980 Silver Lake Road
New Brighton, MN 55112
Rev. Timothy Thompson