"A farmer went out to sow his seed…"
In the spring of 1969, at the age of 12, I asked my parents’ permission to transform a 10-foot by 15-foot area of lawn into a vegetable garden. After peeling back the sod and turning the earth with a shovel, I granulated every clod of dirt by hand. Preparing and planting that garden awakened me to new perspectives. To this day when I consider Jesus’ words, "…the smallest seed planted in the ground…yet, when planted, becomes the largest of all garden plants," in my mind’s eye I see the towering sunflowers I planted that summer and am humbled.
In 1975, I began studying agriculture in college. Since I have, off-and-on, operated increasingly complex farming equipment. Various on-board global positioning systems and computerized driver assist mechanisms have boosted the potential of a farmer’s production. When I was serving a church in Kansas, a farmer friend stated, tongue-in-cheek, that now more of his time on a tractor "is spent monitoring the equipment than farming!" Talk at the coffee shop alternatively bemoans this industrial (and costly) approach to farming and praises its ability to boost our shaky rural economy. Be this as it may, the universal conclusion is that it’s here to stay.
In August 2000, my family and I decided to take a sabbatical from church ministry and moved onto 160 acres of land in the Swan River Valley of Manitoba to begin a retreat centre. In the Fall we converted buildings into livable space achieving central heat after our first snowfall and indoor plumbing when it dropped to -30&Mac251; F.
When I inspected our hay field this Spring, I realized that I needed to replant nearly 30 acres of alfalfa that had frozen. How could I accomplish this with limited resources and only a few odds-and-ends of old farm equipment and my neighbors busy planting their own fields? I was reading the Gospel of Mark. One morning Jesus’ words leapt out, "LISTEN! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed…." I started to chuckle. If planting individual seeds in my garden as a young man awakened in me new perspectives on the way God wanted to work in my life, what new insights would sowing an entire field by hand produce? So my adventure began. I restored an antique 12-foot field cultivator and carefully worked up the ground twice with a friend’s tractor.
One morning in mid-May, I slowly drove a wagon of oats to the edge of the cultivated area. I filled a bucket with grain and began walking along the edge of the field. I had never broadcast seed by hand. Nevertheless, something deep within me was convinced that there was a method by which I could scatter the seed uniformly.
Over the next several hours I worked on developing my "throw." Occasionally the wind would gust confusing my efforts. My arm cramped a couple of times and by midday, the unevenness of the ground began to take its toll on my legs. Sometimes I stumbled, throwing everything off. The more tired I became, the more difficult it was to walk a straight line and I found myself either missing portions of soil or covering previously seeded sections. At times I felt like I was totally out of control. More than once I stopped to wonder if this was a wise thing to do. Jesus’ words came to mind: "If you DO what I teach, then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." "Okay," I told myself, "if insight follows behavior, press on!" All I had to lose was my pride and $50 worth of oats.
After many hours, I developed my throw sufficiently and I noticed how quiet it was. Normally during planting a tractor roars and I try to drown it out with a radio. But now I heard only the sound of the seed falling to the ground. Like rain on a metal roof, it alerted me to areas I had missed. It was difficult to tell where I had sown. In spite of their relatively large size, the oats disappeared quickly into the well-worked soil. By listening carefully, I could form a mental image of where to cast my next throw.
I noticed that I needed to learn to read the wind. Sometimes it forced me to throw sharp and flat. Other times I heaved handfuls of seed high and scattered. And, there were moments when simply letting the seed slip through my fingers worked best. The wind was clearly the greatest factor in properly scattering the seed.
Song sparrows let me pass within ten feet as they searched for insects and smaller seeds. Sometimes they continued about their business while oat seeds rained to the ground all about them. We each celebrated the good earth in our own way. "Consider the birds of the field, they neither reap nor sow, and yet their heavenly father…."
At the end of that first day I noticed how much seed had been used. It struck me that each one of those seeds had passed through my hands. There could be no substitute for familiarity.
As I think about sowing the gospel, I will not forget this experi-ence and these insights: sowing is exhausting work and requires conditioning; vary your techniques; enjoy the moment; listening will tell you a lot; don’t rush; rest often; invite a friend; set a pat-tern, but don’t be afraid to modify it; there is no substitute for intimate knowledge, of either seed or land; and work with the Spirit (wind).
In the end, I recognized that it was folly for me to try to seed 30 acres by myself. Seeding hundreds of acres a day with a seed drill had deadened me to the realities of Jesus’ sower. As we seek to support this ministry through crop production, I will continue to use modern farming techniques. But we’ve also decided that every year we will set aside a few acres to be worked by hand and issue an invitation to anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with God. Come, read scripture, live it, reflect on it together, consider what God is calling you to do as a result. For "…if you know these things, blessed are you if you do these things."