Planted Prayers

I’m not much of a praying person.  Never have been.  I do pray.  Usually just in those moments when I don’t know what else to do and praying is all there is left.  Prayer means a lot of different things to different people.  There are lots of ways to pray, even within the Christian tradition.  No matter what prayer means to you, save the comments.  I’m aware that I should probably start there more than I do.

When I do pray it’s more likely to be a focused mindfulness along the way while doing something else than a stop-and-do activity all its own.  I find myself slipping into a prayerful mind when riding my motorcycle, or working at most any repetitive physical task.  I’ve heard many others speak of a need for quiet focus to be in a state of prayer.  That nearly never works for my attention deficient mind. Prayer, for me, is more a state of doing than of being.

That’s the way it happened while I was planting this year…

I plowed, disked, and laid off rows with a tractor, but this year I planted by hand – mostly.  Seeds sprout when they absorb moisture and warmth.  Dropping seeds from a sweaty hand into summer ground is as personal a way to start that process as one can devise – and is as close as a man can come to giving birth.  I’d never had a perspective on beginning to understand the literary correlation of the edenic curses until this summer.

Dropping Pink Eyed Purple Hulled Peas into a shallow furrow

Dropping Pink Eyed Purple Hulled Peas into a shallow furrow

Along the way in that repetition of dropping a seed and covering it with the edge of my booted foot, I began to notice I was praying.  Hard.  I didn’t become aware that I was lost in prayer until I realized that my eyes were swimming in a saline fire from free flowing sweat I hadn’t thought to wipe.  There are people who fret over my lack of traditional prayer.  I couldn’t help but think, “If they could only see me now…”

If you’ve ever wondered if I’ve prayed for you, I did that day.  If you’ve been sick and I’ve known it, I prayed for you.  If you’ve been struggling in your marriage, or with your child, or beaten down at work, or out of work, or lonely, or taxed every minute of a 48 hour day to take care of someone else, I prayed for you.  If I know you and I knew of any struggle, pain, hurt, or frustration you’ve been having – even if you don’t claim any kind of faith – I tried my best to pray a simple prayer for you that you could say “amen” to in whatever is your own way.  It is my fervent hope that each and every one of those prayers will take deep root and bear much fruit.

It wasn’t until later that I remembered Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.  He was an uneducated man in France who was converted to Christian faith when he saw a tree stripped bare in winter and realized the universal fullness of hope spring held for the tree, and for him – and for everyone.  The analogy moved him and he began a life of toil and contemplation.  His primary task for decades was washing dishes and preparing meals for brothers and pilgrim visitors.  We know his story primarily from the book he left behind in the initial form of conversations and letters, The Practice of the Presence of God.

This is an excerpt of his most famous prayer:

Lord of all pots and pans and things…
make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

None of this is shared to say, “Hey, look at me, I prayed!” Actually, I’m pretty sure that you don’t get any points for such a thing anyway if you point it out yourself.  Rather than to brag, my purpose is to confess and celebrate along with any of you out there who find yourselves slipping into the spiritual along the way but who are not necessarily given to expressing it in forms familiar to the approval of others.  This is also for those who have tried more traditional ways of being in prayer with the fervency and piety which seem so natural to others, but have only been left with a tinge of guilt that it never did take for you in a set-aside-time-with-hands-folded kind of way.  It’s OK.  You were made the way you are, and your way is good enough.  Fill your unfolded hands with whatever tasks are yours and do your praying along the way.  Brother Lawrence can be our patron saint and it’s really nobody else’s business.

Despite the prayerful pace, planting was rushed this year.  There’s been an amazing amount of rain which has left the ground too wet to work for most of the spring.  One of my old timer advisers often tells me that working the ground when it’s too wet is one of the hardest things to recover from in terms of the quality and texture of the soil.  Since I don’t know nearly as much about this whole farming thing as folks assume I do, other than what the old timer experts tell me, I listened and waited.  The waiting was a prayer inducing fit as well – because I didn’t know what else to do…

Fill the reservoir with seeds and walk straight

Fill the reservoir with seeds and walk straight

Planting was delayed until June 20th.  That put me in a bind because I had somewhere I needed to go, but I wanted to go with a clear conscience that crops were in the ground.  Fortunately another neighbor/friend/adviser stopped by and mentioned that he had a hand operated push planter sitting unused in his barn and I was welcome to use it.  You bet.  I may appreciate the contemplative virtues of planting with a hoe and a sweaty hand – but, I also value being finished.

Up until then it had taken me most of a day to mix fertilizer into the rows, plant, and cover ten 170 foot rows of peas and three rows each of squash and zucchini.  With the push planter I was able to plant ten rows of green beans the same length in about an hour.  I prayed while I planted by hand.  While pushing the hand planter I pondered the inverse correlation between spirituality and mechanization.  For me, it is a direct correlation – except on a motorcycle.

This planter is so massive there's no plowing required.  Now you tell me...

This planter is so massive there’s no plowing required. Now you tell me…

Later that same day, the same neighbor brought a four row planter pulled by a massive tractor quit a bit larger than the old Farmall 130 I had used to prepare the fields for planting.  By then, of course, there was far too much technology to tend to for any meaningful praying to occur.  As for being done, we planted over 30 rows of corn 300 feet long in less than an hour.

The next day I left town with a clear conscience to ride to Nashville, TN to celebrate the life of, and mourn the passing of, Will Campbell.  He was a hero to me and many others.  He is one of a trinity of the most powerful and profound influences in my whole life and particularly my formation as a follower of Jesus, and as a minister of the Good News: Jack Partain, Will Campbell, and Wendell Berry.

While a student at Gardner-Webb University (then College), one of the people I most enjoyed getting to know was Larry Thomas.  He was a security guard who worked 3rd shift and was generally coming on duty when my shift as a work-study student worker in the security office was ending.  Larry was a pastor of sorts – my words, not his – to many students on the campus who found the overwrought piety of many of us religious students a bit too much for their tastes.  On a Baptist college campus religious students enjoy a presumed privilege of sorts. It can be obnoxious. All too often the faithful are the single greatest deterrent to others finding faith.  Larry was simply a non-judgmental friend to the non-religious. In his eyes they were just as welcome and worthy as the proudly righteous saints – which is to say he was one of the few getting it right as an example of how Mr. Jesus might have navigated that aspect of campus life.

Larry had a cork bulletin board filled with quotes hanging over his desk in the back of the security building.  Any student in the Eager Evangelical category (hat tip to Dr. Cullinan) would have found the collection of quotes sacrilegious if only for its breadth of sources. Buddhists, humanists, and radicals were all quoted right there beside classic Christian writers and even a few passages of scripture.  I found it captivating in its unceremonious collection of Truth.  Many of the sources I recognized.  One I did not.  I began to notice that the quotes I seemed to like the most were all by some guy named Will D. Campbell.

One day I asked Larry who this Will Campbell was.  There was no way I could have been prepared for what came next.  He wheeled around and locked his eyes onto mine and said incisively, “What???

What’s your major?” he snapped.

Religion/religious education,” I ventured in slow confusion.

What year are you?” came the equally fierce follow-up.

I’m a senior” I confessed slowly.

Then, he flew into what is to this very day the most animated, sustained, and admirable cussing fit I’ve ever witnessed in person.

&*% $@~+!!! What the #^<{ are they teaching y’all over there?  How in the hell can you get through four years as a #@*{%^& religion major in a &*% $@~+ Baptist college without knowing who the #@*% Will &*% $@~+ Campbell is!?!?!?

That was merely the thematic introduction.  The actual fit went on for several more minutes and was a thing to behold.

Somehow I got the impression Larry thought this Will Campbell guy was a big deal.  I was willing to take his word.  He loaned me Brother to a Dragonfly and made me promise something along the lines of not telling another soul on the planet that I was a Baptist until I’d read it from cover to cover.  I did.

Everything I thought I knew about being a believer, a Baptist, and a minister changed in the next few days.  Jack Partain, my theology professor, had plowed the soil of my life and prepared me over the previous couple of years for the germination of all the seeds of faith that Will’s writing and life’s story would plant in the depths of my soul.  Larry was the massive belching tractor pulling the mechanized planter; anything but spiritually delicate, but pretty damned effective for getting an already late job done quick.  I read every book of Will’s I could get my hands on in the next few months, and that was before Amazon made it easy.

Many years later I was able to meet Will.  By then he was much older and had begun to have periodic health issues which landed him in the hospital from time to time.  The first visit arranged by an old friend of his had to be cancelled for that very reason.  So, we didn’t get to visit in Will’s legendary writing cabin.  However, the friend who had arranged the visit wasn’t the sort of friend who could hear that Will was in the hospital and not drop by.  Though we went out to the farm on a later trip as originally planned, on my first visit with Will I tagged along awkwardly on what was essentially a pastoral visit in the hospital between two veteran ministers who’d been close friends and had looked out for one another over many years.  Will had a way of making it not awkward at all.

Later that same year I spent Easter week in The Pickle following Pearl Jam through five dates on their Riot Act Tour.  On Good Friday they played outside Nashville about an hour from Will’s place.  I got there early and spent the afternoon visiting with him for the last time I was able to in person.

One of my favorite stories about Will is his account of a late night conversation with Waylon Jennings on the tour bus between shows while he was “working” as the cook/chaplain/mascot on the tour.  In the quiet passage of miles Will asked, “Waylon, what do you believe?”  He didn’t get much of an answer, but the question mattered.

I think there’s only one Baptist preacher who could ever say they inspired Waylon to write a song. Some time after that late night conversation Waylon told Will he finally had an answer and he’d written it in a song.  It’s as good a confession as I’ve ever heard for someone who put more into doing spirituality along the way than into being piously spiritual.  That last day I got to visit with Will, one of the things he was working on was editing that story for an upcoming speaking engagement to reflect the fact that Waylon had by then passed on and to include his further reflections on Waylon’s unconventional spirituality.

I will probably never finish discovering or describing the ways Brother Will affected my understanding of how to follow Jesus, or how to invite others along The Way.  Part of the essence of it though was in his gentle ability to take the complexity of the Holy and make it brutally plain, to dignify the scandalous outcasts with grace and show us their beauty, to rescue the sacred from the pious comfort of the steeple’s shadow and redeem it for those too broken to feel welcome there.

I made it to Will’s memorial service with a clear conscience about having crops in the ground.  I spent the night before with friends who’d known Will far better than I did.  We sang country music into the early morning hours and said our goodbyes in ways we thought Brother Will might have liked to sit in on.  We got to the church early and sat as the crowd gathered.  We discovered that Jessi Colter, phenomenal country artist and Waylon’s wife, was offering a song in the service.  We were there early enough to hear her sound check of His Eye Is On The Sparrow.  The song was smooth and reverent in the actual service just as one would expect of a consummate professional, but not the sound check.  The sound check was raw with a tearful emotional edge.  That was all I needed.  It was enough to help me remember most everything that mattered to me about Will.  Everyone who knows anything about Will knows he was a vital worker in the civil rights movement way back before it was popular for white Baptist preachers to be involved in such things.  Far fewer people know of his life on the road with Waylon and all that it seemed to encapsulate about his ability to seek, find, and inspire the Holy in the most unexpected of places and people.

No wonder Larry the security guard had been such a vital minister of the Gospel since he’d left the steeples.  He’d learned from a master.  No wonder he was so surprised at my ignorance of who Will D. Campbell was.  Thank God he wasn’t piously polite about it.  I might have brushed it off.

As I rode back to the farm from Nashville, I found myself slipping into a prayerful gratitude.  I was thankful for Larry, and Jack, and Will – and for all the unseemly people and the ungodly places wherein I’d found something sacred along the way.

Standing water

Standing water

Upon return I found that the same abundance of water that waylaid the planting was still in force.  The weeds were growing faster than the produce.  Following that trip to Nashville in late July, the fields were too blessed with water to get a tractor in to cultivate.  During a few critical weeks it was nearly impossible to keep the johnson grass at bay.

This year’s garden is an apt depiction of many a spiritual life.  There are useless, choking weeds nearly everywhere one can step.  Too many to get rid of completely at this point.  In the midst of the weeds though, seeds have come to life and are producing food that will nourish people who most of the workers in the garden will never see.

Squash, zucchini & weeds

Squash, zucchini & weeds

If you’re one of us whose spiritual garden seems to produce as much toil in the choking weeds as it does obvious spiritual fruit, you’re not alone.  If Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection seems too Holy and far removed for you to identify with in a spirituality of practical doing rather than pious being, give Waylon a listen.  You could do a lot worse for a patron saint.

Either way, just remember what Jesus had to say about weeds and produce.  Don’t worry as much about the weeds as you do about the harvest.  You can work out the spirituality along the way.

Winter Work

I’ve encountered the oddest idea lately – that farmers have the winter off because there isn’t anything to do on a farm in the winter when no crops are growing.  You know, like how teachers have the summer off.  What those of you who don’t happen to have experience with farms don’t know is how hard all of the other readers who DO have experience with farms are laughing right now after having read that first sentence.  Just give them a minute to catch their breath and we’ll go on…

IMG_20120107_153000 (800x541)Winter on a farm is when you do all the work that doesn’t have anything to do with actually plowing, planting, tending, and harvesting crops.  It’s when you do all the things you don’t have time to do in the summer.  This winter’s list for Healing Springs Acres was full: renovate a barn, build chicken coops, set out mushroom logs, build a rainwater collection system, and install solar panels on the renovated barn.

One of the things my ex-wife was always the most right about was the multiplication factor by which she adjusted my estimations of how long a given task, process, project, or function would take.  Let’s just say that I’m usually a bit over ambitious about how quickly I can get something done, or how much I can get done in a given time frame.  If I recall correctly she multiplied by three.  If I said it would take 30 minutes – whatever “it” was – she would count on an hour and a half and not really begin to consider than anything had gone wrong unless it took significantly longer than that.

OK, this winter’s project list might have been a little ambitious for one person with too little funding…

Then, of course, there’s also Maslow.  His hierarchy asserts that one’s basic needs for shelter, safety, and security jealously trump all aspirations for higher order productivity.  In my experience, he was right.

IMG_20121115_152614 (800x405)Late last fall we began setting up a trailer on the farm as a temporary shelter until something more permanent can be built.  I have a friend in Texas who has had an entire house built from scratch in less time than it has taken to get this trailer set-up and ready to satisfy the county.  There are still a couple of repairs that need to be completed before the plumber can finish.  I was explaining to a friend that I’d been waiting on dry enough weather to get back into where the trailer is to finish it and she just laughed as she said, “Welcome to farming!”

Unfortunately all of the other higher order projects depend on having power to run tools (for the most part).  Power depends on the trailer.  All of the electrical work is done.  The transformer is set and, the meter boxes are wired, and the trailer is connected.  All that has to happen to have power at the farm is for the county to decide that it’s all OK.  So, the plumber and I wait for things to dry out a bit and all the other projects wait for the most basic needs of shelter and power.  Welcome to farming.

101_2077 (800x600)There has been progress though, even if not as much as I might have projected or preferred.  Two of the most vital issues that had to be resolved for me to move onto the farm and increase the productivity over previous years were shelter and transportation.  With only a few weeks’ exception, the need for shelter at the farm has been met.  Power and water follow along with shelter.  The mushroom logs will be inoculated the second week of March and symbolize the beginning of a cash crop to help offset expenses with farm based income.  If you’ve followed previous blog posts you’re familiar with the saga of trying to solve the problem of suitable farm/family transportation.  That need has been met as well.

A good-bye drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway...

A good-bye drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway…

I finally resolved the NC title issues with my old ’77 Volkswagen camper and traded it for a new old truck (2001 F150XLT 4×4 Super Cab).  It will haul everything important; both the food we grow to give away, and my daughters when they are with me.

101_2073 (800x525)Along with the new old truck, I got a nice dual chamber barbecue smoker.  The smoker was just an added bonus in the deal and rather serendipitously provides a solution to two conundrums I’ve been pondering since this journey began.  How does Healing Springs Acres go from being a project to being a community – without a bunch of people moving to Healing Springs?  And, how do churches relate to the farm in a financially supportive way without cannibalizing their budgets?

101_2141 (800x676)That’s where the smoker comes in.  I’ve already booked a couple of BBQ fundraisers for the farm which are being hosted by congregations.  Within an hour or two of the farm, I can show up early with the smoker, have BBQ ready for a Wednesday night fellowship meal or other special event, and bring something of the farm to the congregation.  I’m betting that if the BBQ’s good, I can find a handful of churches which will welcome some variation of this once or twice a year.

101_2143 (800x600)The BBQ fundraiser provides funding in the form of money that would have been spent for food anyway (who’s not gonna eat some good BBQ every now and then…?), without taking money from the church’s mission budget.  I also assume that these regular annual, or semiannual, visits would inspire occasional crews for workdays at the farm.  The doing of it regularly nurtures an ongoing relationship in which the congregation can become truly aware of, connected to, and involved in the ministry of the farm.

Chicken coops and a rainwater collection system would have been nice to have this spring, but they weren’t critically necessary items.  We may not have accomplished three times as much as would be reasonable to expect for an underfunded operation, but we did solve the critical problems.  Moving onto the farm with power, water, and a decent farm truck will allow us to tend twice as much land this year as last.  The ability to irrigate will make all of the land we tend more productive than last year.  That’s progress – and I’ll take it. Please forgive me though if I continue to project three times as much progress as is fiscally possible.  It’s just what I do…

Winter is a time of dying. The cycle that feeds the earth – and thereby all of us – cannot continue without the death and decay of last year’s growth.  The soil is amended by reclaiming the life it produced.  It is made ready to produce the new life of the coming spring.

Winter is also the time of Lent.  I did not grow up in a liturgically minded tradition, but I have come to appreciate the work of dying necessary to the Lenten journey.  The dying of ambitious striving to make a way for satisfaction with the accomplishments which bring new life.

Part of what is still slow to die in me is the idea of self contained sufficiency in this project.  To those of you who have already chosen to be part of the community of support for the ministry of Healing Springs Acres, thank you.  Thank You.  Thank You.  Thank You!

Spring is coming.  May we all finish our winter work to make way for spring’s new life…

Sometimes things don’t work out — but sometimes…

Sometimes things don’t work out.

The last Friday of this past June, on one of the hottest days of the summer, a handful of volunteers from the First Baptist Church of Elkin, NC helped set out 800 sweet potato slips at Healing Springs Acres. We should have harvested them sometime in the middle of October.

With no irrigation the tender shoots didn’t stand a chance in the heat. Only about 5 of the shoots survived the 12 to 15 scorched days from when they were set out until it finally rained on them. Rabbits and deer ate the few that survived. Rain was steady after it started but the long, hot, dry spell was too much. We didn’t even get enough sweet potatoes for a pie, much less the thousand or so pounds we’d hoped to give away.

You may already have worked out that planting the sweet potatoes on one of the hottest days of summer and not watering them for a week and a half didn’t make for the best chance of a flourishing crop. Well, of course. However, the slips were a free gift. We weren’t in control of when they were given to us and they had to go in the ground within a week. There wasn’t anything else to do. We didn’t yet have water at the farm for irrigation. The rains have been good to us over all, but this time there just wasn’t enough moisture.

Sweet potatoes are generally regarded as a super food, which is actually more of a marketing term than a scientific one. It refers to foods particularly high in nutritional chemicals and other healthful benefits, and with few negative qualities like high fat content. The dual criteria for what we cultivate here at the farm is that it be densely nutritious and have a decent shelf life. Both matter. Some of the folks who end up eating food from Healing Springs Acres don’t get regular, nutritious meals. It’s all the more important then that the meals they do eat are nutritious. The shelf life matters too. We need to have as much time as possible to harvest and distribute food so that it can be used beneficially before spoiling.

Sweet potatoes fit both of our criteria. So it’s even more disappointing that the first sweet potato crop at Healing Springs Acres was a colossal failure. Sometimes things don’t work out.

Anyone who knows me can readily see that I don’t miss many meals. Unfortunately, that’s not true for enough other people. Recently I shared on facebook a newspaper article from a nearby city, Greensboro, NC. That article reported the combined populations of our neighbors in Greensboro, NC and my home town of High Point, NC as 4th in the whole country by a then recent Gallup poll for people who say they don’t have enough money to buy food. Neighboring Winston-Salem, NC was 3rd and Asheville, NC was 7th at the time.

Some reading this will be inclined to wonder what vices those families might be wasting their money on so that they can’t buy food. I have to admit that I wonder too. But, honestly, I don’t care. I can’t figure out a productive way to address complex issues like drug addiction, gambling, or any other expensive vices with a person who is still too hungry to hear an invitation to helpful guidance over the sound of the grumbling in the pit of their stomach – or soul.

I’m not professionally qualified to assess, or fully address, most of the complicated issues that might be contributing factors for someone’s hunger. I’d be willing to bet my motorcycle that the majority of readers here are likewise ill equipped to diagnose from a distance whether or not these families with children “deserve” to be helped. Even if we could make such an assessment, I still don’t care who “deserves” to be offered something to eat if they are hungry.

The article does provide a clue though about what some of these families were spending their money on before they found themselves in need of food. The Executive Director of one agency which provides meals and housing knew some of the people who where calling to ask for help. In her words, “Thing is, many of them had made donations just last year.” Apparently many of those needing help had been providing the same kind of generosity to their neighbors that they now needed from others. They weren’t necessarily wasting their money on vices at all. It may well be that, beyond their control, life just got more expensive than they could afford faster than they could fix the situation.

Sometimes things don’t work out.

Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” He didn’t say, “I was hungry and after I passed your needs assessment, you gave me something to eat.”

When I reflect on the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, I try to keep that in mind. That’s the Chapter where Jesus describes separating the sheep from the goats according to who helps the thirsty, hungry, sick, or those in prison. There’s nothing in that chapter about judging who does or does not deserve assistance. The only mention of judgment in that chapter refers to the judgment of those who don’t even try to help. I’m well enough aware that “helping” doesn’t always actually help. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help our neighbors though. It only means that we should be careful to do it well.

Why are so many of us so quick to assume the worst of anyone who needs help? Perhaps generosity is a better response than suspicion. After all, sometimes things don’t work out.

We’ve had our share of things not working out around Healing Springs Acres. The sweet potato crop was a failure. You may have read about recent vehicular difficulties which impact the farm. Getting electrical power to the farm has been difficult at best. Multiple housing solutions have fallen through at the last minute. Funding has been tenuous.

Sometimes things just don’t work out. Then again, sometimes they do.

Sometimes a spirit of generosity is so contagious that resources multiply into a more plentiful product that the mere sum of their parts. Sometimes a supportive community surrounds possibility and refuses to let it fail to grow to fruition. Sometimes the bountiful economy of God breaks into our own human economies of scarcity in ways that tempt us to claim providential miracles when in truth, as often as not, providential miracles are really just the natural results of faithful people venturing out to be the kinds of neighbors God has called them to be. That’s what has been happening lately at Healing Springs Acres.

Our regular monthly support has grown lately to about $500 a month and seems to be increasing. That comes in gifts that range in size from $10 to a couple hundred a month. We recently got word of a $25,000 contribution. Total fundraising for the coming year with cash and gifts in kind is just under $40,000 – about 25-30% of our first year’s needs including operating expenses and one-time infrastructure investments. I’ve finally located a trailer cheap enough to afford and nice enough for my daughters to visit. We can finally get power for winter construction projects. We have the resources we need for a chicken coop. There’s a fair chance we’ll have our own tractors in place by spring (but, if you’ve got a spare, we’ll still take it…). I got the title issues with The Pickle, my ’77 VW camper bus, worked out. Even Babe the Blue Ox has been running better after a rebuilt carburetor, an oil change, and new plugs and wires.

That’s all true because of an incalculable mixture of unexpected generosity, persistence, serendipity, hard work, and sheer good luck. A generous community of support is growing up around the possibilities represented by Healing Springs Acres.

As I walked out of the post office the other day with a $25,000 check in my pocket, a neighbor stopped and asked if we were going to water the crops next year. I was excited to say that we now have the infrastructure in place to irrigate and we won’t risk losing a whole crop again. He smiled and said, “Good – I want to help pay the water bill!” Thanks to a growing neighborhood of support, we can keep doing our best to be good neighbors to the folks around us for whom things haven’t worked out so well lately.

Sometimes things don’t work out – but, thanks be to God and good neighbors, sometimes they do!

Who is your neighbor?

On Naming A Truck

I’ve had more vehicle trouble in the last two years than in my entire previous life. No exaggeration. Nearly every vehicle I’ve owned, or even used, since I left Atlanta has had fatal mechanical issues. A blown engine, a toasted clutch, massive electronic failure. That’s just the Cliff’s Notes version of the highlights not including last week.

My vehicle needs are simple. I need:

- something reliable I can use to transport myself to and fro,
– something to carry up to two other people, with luggage, when my daughters are along,
– and something I can use to do work on the farm.

Obviously, I need a truck. Sounds simple. But, it hasn’t been.

I already own two vehicles. Neither one is a truck.

“Silver” on a little mesa overlooking Death Valley

The most reliable vehicle I own is my Harley, named Silver. With over 96,000 miles it’s never leaked a drop of oil from the engine during the time I’ve owned it – a rare claim for a Harley. I bought it in ’08 with 20,000 miles on it and can’t speak for its behavior during that period of its life, but since then it has behaved. There was a brief period in early ’10 when it leaked oil from the primary drive housing – which led to the above mentioned toasted clutch – but that was corrected and it’s been tight ever since. So – take that naysayers. Go pick on some other bike brand – preferably one of the ones made out of plastic. Leave my Harley alone.

Filling the primary drive housing

The bike only satisfies one and a half of my three needs. It will haul me. It will haul me to see my girls, but won’t haul all three of us with luggage. While I have used it to haul farm supplies and produce, it has obvious payload limitations. It’s not an acceptable primary vehicle. One of the most difficult decisions I’ve had over the last couple of years has been whether or not to sell the bike to re-allocate that money to some other form of more practical transportation. I don’t think I could.

Oh, believe it or not, I could survive emotionally without the bike. I’m not sure I could actually get enough out of it financially though to solve the resulting need for reliable transportation. Key word – reliable. There have been too many times when the other vehicles around me have let me down and the bike has gotten me there when I absolutely had to see a client or get to a meeting. I’m not sure the amount I could get out of it would replace it with something as drop dead reliable as it has proven to be. That, and it’s nearly the only thing in my life that never fails to make me smile while asking almost nothing of me… Silver stays.

The Pickle. It has a fridge, sink, stove, and sleeps 4 if you REALLY like each other.

The other vehicle I own is The Pickle, a ’77 Volkswagon Westfalia camper bus. Despite its reputation, it is also a fairly reliable vehicle. Quirky? Yes – but reliable. However, The Pickle suffers from a titling mishap between the state of GA and the state of NC which I won’t detail here because it’s my fault and I don’t like talking about it. Don’t ask. While The Pickle would actually satisfy all three of my vehicular requirements – and with style – the end of the story is that I haven’t yet been able either to register it in the state of NC to make use of it, or sell it to make use of whatever money I could get out of it. So, for now, The Pickle stays – and stays immobile.

When I left Atlanta, I was on a shoe string budget to support my daughters and myself while getting the farm started. A new vehicle, even an old new vehicle, just wasn’t in the budget. So, it’s been quite an odyssey over the past year and a half to solve my basic transportation needs on a knowingly and intentionally constricted budget. After the death of a Honda Civic during the limbo existence of an unregistered hippie van, I’ve driven a mid ’90’s model Nissan Maxima on loan from a generous friend to address needs one and two. Others have loaned the occasional pick-up when farm tasks demanded. That’s worked well enough, but I obviously needed a permanent solution.

I actually solved my transportation problem back in October of last year by negotiating an advance from a then client. It was enough to purchase a truck so I started looking. I struck a verbal agreement to purchase a truck that would have been nearly perfect for the farm. It was actually a truck I had purchased new in ’96 and later sold. There would have been absolute poetry in buying back my own truck. I was looking forward to writing that blog post – instead I’m writing this one.

After I inquired about buying the truck back, we agreed on a price and agreed on the sale with the timing of the transaction being contingent on the owner finding a suitable replacement. The price we agreed to was substantially less than the advance I had negotiated, so I applied the balance to other pressing financial needs and waited to receive word that it was time to consummate the sale. Instead I got word that the owner was backing out of our deal.

That left me with no truck, not enough money left on hand to get another truck, and still working off an advance with no resulting cash flow to put toward saving for another purchase. By this time I had taken a job with far greater time demands than would allow me to maintain the consulting work which would have made it easier to just go buy another truck. I was stuck for at least a year not being able to budget another vehicle purchase. That opportunity was a one time window which had been slammed shut on my fingers. For the record, it was my fault for trusting the deal to begin with. I should have known better.

An old truck in need of a new home.

Perhaps you can imagine the sort of salvation it felt like finally to have found an old truck that would mostly meet all three of my needs after having had the funds for purchasing it donated. The heavenly blue body of the old ’77 F150 may look like hell, but the truth is that the in-line, six cylinder, Ford engine is reputed to be pretty much “bullet proof.” This engine and 4×4 transmission are actually highly sought after as replacements for newer models. It’s not an interstate vehicle but it should be a long lived and useful tool.

Finding the truck was so exciting that, as many of you reading this will know, I immediately posted a “Help name this truck” thread on the Healing Springs Acres facebook page (which you can “like” to keep up with all the cool news from the farm). I had originally planned this blog post to be a pleasant stroll through the many heartfelt name suggestions, culminating in a reveal of my final choice – which I’ll get to in another few paragraphs or so…

A week ago today I went to pick up the truck. It runs like a sewing machine when I crank it. However, it doesn’t run at all when the engine is under a load once you get up to speed like, oh, say, going up a hill. I knew there wasn’t much gas in the tank and left a childhood neighbor’s house to go to the nearest gas station which involves going up a steep hill. Well, it involves attempting to go up a steep hill. The truck died. I coasted into a driveway, sat, got it cranked, and tried again. The hill I went down to get into this little valley isn’t as steep as the one that just thwarted me, so I tried going back that way to a different gas station. No go. Coast. Park. Sit. Crank… This time I made it farther up the steep side of the God-forsaken-death-valley-of-no-return, but not far enough. Tried the shallow side again to no avail. About the time I got off the phone with the wrecker service, I began to think up an entirely new set of potential names for this machine that I used to think I was going to enjoy getting to know.

Hitching a ride out of the God-forsaken-death-valley-of-no-return.

The names y’all came up with were much more flattering, cute, and quaint than the ones I conjured on the side of the road in the God-forsaken-death-valley-of-no-return. Altogether there were 68 entries. 12 of them got more than one vote. Oddly enough, Seymour, Tiffany, Turnip Truck, Blue Balls, Mephibosheth, and Consuela weren’t among the offerings which got affirmation from anyone but the authors. Go figure – although, I have to admit, Consuela does have a ring to it. In Spanish it is the feminized version of a word meaning, solace, hope, and consolation. Fitting, perhaps.Here are the top suggestions according to reader feedback:

Ole Blue (Blue, Old Blue, etc…)
Babe
Blew
Blue Bell
Hank
Tater Bug
Abby (for “Abundance’)
Blue Moon
Cooter
Henry (Henry Ford)
The Blue Goose

Blue, Ole Blue, and other Blue variants were the clear front runners with over 25 combined votes. Fourteen for Ole Blue alone. Had the name decision ever been designed to be a simple vote, this would be the last sentence of this post. Funny thing is that when I posted the facebook invitation to suggest names, I had intended to add the disclaimer, “OK folks, Ole Blue is such an obvious choice as to constitute pandering so I’m counting on y’all for more creative suggestions than that,” but before I could get that added it had already been suggested more than once. I didn’t want to stifle the flow so I just let it go. However, I stand by my assessment and Ole Blue’s not going be the name.

My plan all along was to gather suggestions and let my daughters help decide. The cuteness of letting them participate should mitigate the frustrated whining and grumbling of those of you whose suggestions aren’t chosen. The youngest went with Henry, for Henry Ford, right out of the gate. She quickly changed her mind though to Blue Moon when she heard the reasoning behind the suggestion – that the truck looked like it would only run once in a blue moon. The eldest was disinterested. At first I assumed it was typical teen disregard for anything not deemed cool enough to be paid attention. Upon asking why she was so quiet I learned, as I often do with both of my daughters, that there was more wisdom there than I’d initially accounted for.

She was making a principled decision not to invest energy in what she had assessed was a doomed endeavor. “You can’t just get a bunch of suggestions and pick a name for a vehicle. It has to come to you on its own” she said. The child knows of what she speaks. She is the new driver of a burgundy wine colored little car. It came to her early on that her first car should be called, Winona. It fits.

With no consensus from the daughters, I was left to make my own choice. There was actually one suggestion which did resonate with me immediately and evoked fond childhood memories when I heard it. Babe. As in, Paul Bunyan’s Babe the Blue Ox.

Babe awaiting a rebuilt carburetor

As of this writing, the carburetor has been removed, the fuel filter cleaned, the fuel pump checked out, and the clarity of the gas seems to suggest a generally clean tank. The acceleration pump in the carburetor is being rebuilt and all should be well. I’m going with Babe because, after this episode, this truck sure enough better be as tough as a mythical ox. I’m about to put it work and if it doesn’t pull its weight, we’ll find out for sure whether or not the engine lives up to the reputation of being bullet proof.

Moving on — onto the farm!

The first potato

Since leaving my position as president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Foundation in Atlanta in June of 2010, and tossing a perfectly good six figure position right out the window I have: lived in a relative’s basement one door away from dogs, camped on friends’ couches, lived in a bartered house, a few hotels, and a part-time parsonage.  All part of the odyssey to create, grow, and live on the farm known as Healing Springs Acres.

“Massy” plowing potatoes

Soon I will become the first full-time human resident at the farm in over 40 years.  This marks a major evolution of the ministry from its beginnings as an experimental garden plot to becoming a living, breathing ecosystem to grow food and give it away.  Healing Springs Acres is coming to life.  Not just as a farm, but as a community of generosity.  In our first two growing seasons over 50 people have come together to give away over 10,000 pounds of food.  That’s about 20,000 meals worth from just a little over an acre.

Freshly dug ‘taters ready to pick up

We’ve barely gotten started and we can do so much more: Planting generosity, Providing food, Proclaiming that others can do the same.

Tex Sample proclaims that one cannot build the relationships necessary to do substantially effective ministry among “survivors” and “hard living” folk by visiting them.  You have to join them.  Incarnation.  In a loose translation of the Hebrew word which corresponds to the idea of incarnation, he calls it “pitching tent.”

Bending and stooping and bending and stooping

One of Jesus’ less inviting sales pitches to would-be followers was, “foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  The tag line to this brilliant recruiting pitch was his oft offered invitation, “follow me.”  If that’s the standard of comparison, I’ve succeeded.  By any measure I am now poor and have nowhere to lay my head.  Well, that’s not technically true.  It is essentially true though and the technicalities which keep it from being actually true are tenuous at best.

Johnny The Hippie

In a little over a month I’ll finish my work as interim pastor in Elkin, NC and move on from the part-time parsonage which has become a full-time residence this last month as I transition from one housing solution to another.  Ultimately, I have a place to go – eventually – but timing is going to be an issue. The actual residence on the farm will not be ready by the time I need it to be.  Earlier this week I finally finished snipping through the pile of civic red tape which had previously bound up tangible progress toward getting water, a driveway, a septic system, power and some of the other ingredients essential to establishing residence on the farm.  The way is now clear, but there is still a ways to go.

Home sweet Allegro

I have access to an RV which will serve as a temporary way point on the way to establishing residence on the farm.  The only problem with that is that it’s illegal in my county to “live” in an RV other than in an officially designated campground.  So, technically, I won’t.  I’ll literally “pitch tent.”  As far as I can tell, there’s no law against plain ol’ camping – just RV camping.

Oh, I’ll use the RV – but I won’t “live” in it.  It will be hooked up to appropriate water and sewer resources and will have power as needed through a generator. Basically, it will be a glorified bath house and camp kitchen.  I have a perfectly good Kelty tent I’ve looked at wistfully for years wishing I made more time to use it.  Now, I will.

Yukon Gold!

The last time I used the tent was living in the Gulf Coast heat for a week while helping rebuild after the hurricanes.  It already has a few miles on it in service of a worthy mission.  May as well keep up the pattern.  I’ll “live” in the tent and use the RV for storage and cooking.  If that’s illegal, then consider this my official notice of intended civil disobedience in pursuit of a good cause.

Many of you will be sitting is some form of whatever you consider to be comfort as you read this.  You will be tempted to feel sorry for me as I weather this little timing glitch between residences.  Don’t.

Not quite half of the harvest

Those of you who have known me longest will recall that I spent my last year of college debating whether or not to get married right away or thru-hike the Appalachian Trail which, of course, is really just a six month migratory camping trip. It’s not like this sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me in all kinds of ways.  To quote Hank Jr., “A Country Boy Can Survive…

I’ll be fine.  I’ll be on the farm.  It’s what progress looks like in this situation.  It’s Incarnation.

A Farmer and a Preacher

What’s important is the ministry that happens at Healing Springs Acres.  The pictures you’ve been looking at as you’ve read this far are what really matters – this year’s harvest.  Ten of us gathered two weeks ago to pick up the potatoes we planted back in April.  We harvested over 2,000 pounds of white, yellow, and red potatoes.  Those potatoes were on the streets within days serving people who don’t have better options for a meal.  They were distributed by at least five different feeding ministries which are still serving them.  That’s what matters.

Double checking

A few months ago a pastor friend who knew of the housing related issues with which I was wrangling asked me what I was going to do.  I said, “I’m going to keep working to make Healing Springs Acres a reality until there just isn’t any way to keep going.  I’m going to grow food to give away to people who are far worse off than I am.”

End of the row

As bothersome as all this sounds, I still have plenty of workable options.  Having options, and the wherewithal to choose among them, makes one wealthy in ways not everyone gets to experience.  There are still plenty of folks out there worse off than me – and I can still do something helpful about that.

Maybe you can too…

“Worked like ‘barred’ mules…”

Two rows down…

Last Friday was one of the hottest days of the year by some accounts.  Depending on one’s source it was anywhere from 99 degrees to 103 degrees in the general area of Healing Springs, NC.  My sources ranged from weather.com to the car thermometer belonging to the barista in the coffee shop where I wrote the first draft of this blog post.

Four hearty souls from First Baptist Church in Elkin, NC came down to help set out about 800 sweet potato slips at the farm.  For a little perspective, that’s just over 3 rows 140 feet long and probably translates into about 1,000 to 1,400 lbs of sweet potatoes by mid October.

Seeking shade in an old mule barn.
More appropriate the we realized…

Our volunteers ranged in age from 15 to 71 and none of us within a decade of each other.  Neither youth nor older age kept anyone from putting in a good day’s work.  After disking a portion of the field earlier in the week, the five of us hoed hills by hand and strolled along in stilted rhythm with the shluuuurp sound of the self watering hand tobacco setter we used to plant the slips.  Despite the heat, with plenty of water, gatorade, and shade breaks — we worked like “barred” mules.

Two hard working machines!

One volunteer had explained earlier in the morning that “worked like a ‘barred’ mule” is one of the favorite expressions of his son-in-law – who is also a farmer in the Elkin area.  The farmer’s then fiance once asked, “What are you talking about…?” in response to his use of the metaphor.

He replied, “You know, you’d work a mule you ‘barred’ harder than you’d work one you owned.”

“Oh!” she said, “You’re saying ‘borrowed.’  All this time I thought you were saying ‘barred’” she replied, doing her best to approximate his pronunciation.

“Yeah!” he nodded, “…worked like a ‘barred’ mule!” not quite seeing, or hearing, the problem.

That old hand tobacco setter probably has more experience than all of us combined

No matter how you pronounce it, the five of us worked like “barred” mules in stifling heat last Friday.  There was an occasional breeze, but it was usually only enough to sucker you into a deep breath.  Of course, by the time you actually sucked in the anticipated refreshment of cool air the breeze would die and deliver only a chest full of searing humidity.

The two oldest workers seem to be the farthest ahead…

One of our co-laborers was an Iraq vet who recalled that the average temperature during his deployment was a dry 129 degrees Fahrenheit.  He didn’t hesitate when asked how much difference the humidity made.  No southerner will be surprised by his assessment that the humidity made that day’s work more torturous than anything he’d experienced in the dry desert sands.  Well, as far as the heat went. Let’s be clear – we weren’t being shot at in Healing Springs.

There have been casualties along the way though.  Looks like we’ll only grow potatoes this year at Healing Springs Acres.  Scheduling issues, equipment availability, rain and a few other complications conspired against getting the corn planted. We’ll save the seed and plant it in the spring.  Of course when I say, “we’ll only grow potatoes” keep in mind that we’re talking about several thousand pounds of potatoes by harvest.  We’ll have white ones, red ones, yellow ones and sweet ones. It will still be a bounteous year!

Worth the wait — and the work

Last Friday’s bounty for these hearty souls was a stop on the way back to Elkin for some Lexington BBQ — as had been promised to at least one volunteer as a reward.  That’s not, mind you, Lexington “style” BBQ as so many are wont to say.  That’s actual Lexington BBQ and it really is worth a days work in the stifling heat.  There are other things worth a hot day’s work.  One friend commented on facebook in response to a smaller report of our day’s work, “Your Big God is pleased, come winter you will be cooled and the hungry will be fed. That is doing church!

Amen Sister.  Amen.

Spring.2 – A Neighborly Season

FBC Elkin volunteers covering potatoes

After a deep winter’s hibernation spring has awoken me. The second season of planting at Healing Springs Acres has begun. A few weeks ago we planted 2,100 feet of potatoes in 7 rows 300 feet long. That’s not the royal “We.” I enjoyed the help of a Baptist Men’s crew from First Baptist Church of Elkin, NC. More about that in a minute…We’ve got a little over 500 pounds of red potatoes, white potatoes, and yellow potatoes in the ground. One variety, Yukon Gold, is reputed to be so succulent that they taste like they already have butter on them right out of the ground.

Carefully planting potatoes

Depending on whose estimate you listen to, and depending on moisture – always depending on moisture – that 500 pounds should grow into somewhere between 4 and 6 thousand pounds of potatoes by harvest. Let’s hope for 5 and see what happens. Either way – that’s a lot of potatoes.

His Laboring Few Kitchen

The kitchen that serves and/or preserves our produce probably can’t use that many potatoes. What they can do though is use them like a kind of currency. They are good at trading with other local feeding ministries when they have an abundance of any single item like potatoes. There always seems to be another ministry which needs what they have. Neighbors often help by trading. One of the things I like about working with His Laboring Few is that they are good neighbors.

A motley crew – but they sure can work!

Healing Springs Acres had a successful first season. We experimented with a small start to test our volunteer base and our food distribution relationships. Over 50 people were involved in one way or another in our first year – from prepping the land, to providing seed and fertilizer, planting, hoeing and cultivating, providing tools and materials, gathering and transporting produce, cooking the food fresh daily, preserving what couldn’t be cooked, and helping families who needed something to eat find their way out to the farm to pick their own.

Thanks Joe!

The number of volunteers on any given day ranged from up to 23 all the way down to 1 other person (THANKS Joe!). Over 85% of our volunteer labor came through our relationship with His Laboring Few, a biker ministry in Thomasville, NC which also serves a meal each weekday and serves as our primary distribution channel for the food we grow. Other volunteers came from my family, and from First Baptist Church, Denton.

In addition to a successful beginning with volunteers and food distribution, we had a productive harvest! From only 1.25 acres we harvested:

3 pick-up truck loads of corn
65 bushels of green beans
75 bushels of zucchini and squash
85 gallons of okra – yes, I know you don’t count okra by the gallon, but we were picking it in 5 gallon buckets, so it’s easier to count that way…

Abundance!

That’s approximately 8,600 pounds of food. A neighboring local farmer who has observed that land for over 60 years said it was the most productive he’d ever seen it. Some of our volunteers were quick to observe that they were sure this farm had been prayed over more than any other patch of ground anywhere close by. I’m sure the prayer didn’t hurt the lush yield. Neither did the 500 pounds of left-over fertilizer a neighbor spread before we planted last year.

Cutting potatoes

The second season’s potato crop will be rounded out with corn planted by the end of May. We should get a little more than twice as much corn as last year. Astute observers will notice that there is less variety in this year’s crops. Time is the culprit.

Chuck the Mad Farmer: Fellowship Garden organizer

Since the first Sunday in September of last year I have been serving as interim pastor of The First Baptist Church in Elkin, NC. Thus, the crew of volunteers from there. One of the things that drew me to them, and them to me, when we first discussed my service as their interim pastor was their “Fellowship Garden.” They have essentially the same purpose as Healing Springs Acres, they grow food to give away through local feeding ministries in the Yadkin Valley.  I’ve enjoyed working in their garden and, being the good sort of neighborly folk they are, they wanted to come down to Healing Springs to return the favor. That’s what neighbors used to call “swapping work.” They came with hoes, able bodies, and a few hundred pounds of potatoes to plant – including the succulent Yukon Gold variety. Did I mention they are reputed to taste like butter right out of the ground…?

Serving as their pastor has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I cannot imagine a better congregation with which to have first waded into the waters of congregational ministry. They are a brave, persistent, faithful, and sophisticated congregation with a delicious mixture of traditionalism and progressivism. I have spent 20 years in ministry in institutions which serve the Church and have served as a resource to congregations in a variety of ways, but I am essentially a beginner pastor. They have been a wonderfully forgiving congregation in which to make rookie mistakes and learn my first lessons of loving a congregation and leading among them.

I took the job as another way of funding my life in what I have been determined to make a “tent-making” endeavor, working as Paul did to support myself in ministry as I start and support the farm. While I hoped the position as interim would serve as an aid to the work on the farm by meeting my financial needs, it has actually served to sharpen the focus on the basic dilemma of the tent-making model. Given the kinds of work which are available to me I can either have enough time to work on the farm or enough money to support myself, but not enough of both to meet my family responsibilities AND support the growth of this ministry.

I would not trade the experience I gained from serving the Church in Elkin this past year for anything, but it has distracted me from the farm four days a week and has required me to plant a less than an ideal mix of crops.  As I mentioned, I’ve limited myself to only corn and potatoes this year. I can’t be at the farm regularly enough to tend beans, okra, squash and other produce that requires daily attention once it comes in.

I am thrilled to be entering our second season. I’m also a little frustrated and disappointed. The crop mix should be more diverse, and we should be tending three acres instead of the same one acre we experimented with last year. Healing Springs Acres can be and do more.

As my time as interim pastor concludes, I will need to change from the tent-making model of support to another model better suited to allowing Healing Springs Acres to grow into the ministry that it can and should be.

I’ll need a community of neighbors, near and far, to help with that. More to come soon about how to be a neighbor…

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