Posts Tagged ‘Healing Springs Acres’

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.

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