After navigating busy schedules that hinge on numerous (sometimes uncontrollable) variables (a normal difficultly, I am learning, with farming), I was able to join a family one morning as they were harvesting soybeans. Driving past a field at 65 miles per hour, and catching a fleeting glance of a small (pick a color) combine off in the distance simply does not do justice to the magnitude of the scope of farming. As I hopped out of my little Honda Civic, parked alongside the nearby dirt road, a huge green combine veered from its path of soybean rows and came my way. With a spinning reel raised up at about head-level, loud sounds akin to an aircraft, and an overall piece of machinery the size of a small bus, scattering plant debris out the rear, one’s perspective is quickly called to question chased by a healthy dose of humility. The door up top opened, and I climbed my way up the side ladder to the driver’s cab where an empty passenger seat awaited me. Cozying up in a snug space alongside my parishioner, I closed the door beside me and we took off with no time to waste. Realigning with the rows of soybeans, I watched as the reel and cutter bar were lowered and began cutting away at the bean stocks. As we drove forward, months of growth shown forth in knee-high plants were cut, conveyed back into the combine to be separated—bean from plant—sent through the auger, and collected into the grain tank—all in a matter of seconds. New to this process and the historical genius behind it, my mind was blown. No matter how many times my parishioner explained different parts of it to me, I was stuck in awe—like a small child: “Wooww.” As my mind tried to catch up, processing the mechanics of it all, I began to rattle off other questions I had had. How many pounds is a bushel? How much (currently) does a bushel sell for? What moisture percentage do soybeans need to be at? Etc. Etc. Etc. (I’m pretty sure if my questions—both as basic and abundant—if not annoying, probably felt like a tedious quiz) Yet, my mind felt like a wagon overflowing with grain—unable to turn the auger off—knowledge was spilling over the sides. I learned about grain price fluctuation, and the consequences to higher prices. I learned about disparity between production costs and income. I learned about the ecological factors—often times overlooked by those outside agricultural settings—that determine the difference between a good, decent, and poor crop. I watched with amazement, as a man who had been born and raised in a farming family steered and navigated tons of spinning steel on what felt like a nickel, and transferred beans across to a wagon with a few clicks of a joystick—all while continuously harvesting. Having grown up in a commercial shrimping family, I made connections with what I knew from working on the boat with what this man does every year as both a support to his family and continuation of the family business. After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch. Having done nothing, other than perhaps hinder production with my incessant questioning, I was offered a plate of food and we shared in a meal together. I had been given an insider’s glimpse into a very powerful and meaningful vocation (one, might I remind you, that has biblical foundations—see Gen. 2:15)—one that has life-giving implications beyond what a single person can trace, and now I was being invited into a meal which, made in love by another member of the family, felt sacred. The short break was a time of rest—not from a despised job—but almost as an opportunity to reflect on the good work done, such as the divine affirmation following each day’s work in the first creation narrative of Genesis 1. As my time ended with the parishioner, I was filled with thankfulness for all that he (and his whole family) had taught me in those few hours. Climbing down from the combine and walking back to my car, I was heavy (not just with the delicious lunch, but perhaps more importantly) with the gift shared with me that day. I had been entrusted with knowledge to shape me individually and my work of ministry in this place among these faithful, hard-working people.
A few weeks later, I got my second opportunity (again after much navigation of weather and conflicting schedules) to ride along with another parishioner—this time harvesting corn. Though the header was different, the combine was the same (with the exception of some computer differences). Having retained only a fraction of the information reaped last time, I asked many of the same questions. With equal patience (which I have come to learn is a necessity in this line of work), my questions were answered once again. Instead of cutting bean stalks, this time I witnessed as the combine stripped the ear of corn from the stalk—yet again, months of growth (this time shown forth in 6-7 ft. tall plants) were removed, conveyed back into the combine to be separated—kernel from husk—sent through the auger, and collected behind our heads into the grain tank—just as fast as the beans. As if it were the first time, again my mind was blown by various details of the process. Before I knew it, we had stopped; it was time to take the eighteen-wheelers filled to the brim with corn to the local elevator to be unloaded. Riding along with the parishioner in one, as his father followed us in the other, I got to witness another facet of the production/transportation. All the while questions spilled from my lips as I made connections from what I had learned with the other parishioner and further connections with my upbringing in shrimping. Watching as this man, and his father, went from one task to another suddenly and with such ease—much like shifting gears, though with minimal grinding—I was stunned. The bins of my mind were breaking at the seams with all that I was experiencing. I learned about the similarity between selling corn (and beans) to that of “playing” the stock market, and how a penny here or nickel there can make or break a farmer (and their family). I learned about farming’s influence on how a person understands family (both immediate and historical). I learned about its deep-seeded connection with faith, and how trusting God that will provide what is needed separates the weary from the thankful. I watched with wonder, as another man who had been born and raised in a farming family steered and navigated me through personal testimony that spoke more true than many sermons I had heard or given—all while continuously harvesting. After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch. Once again, having not contributed to the physical labor, I was invited to join he and his father to the house to share a meal together. And again, I had been given an insider’s glimpse into a vocation that exceeded what I could have imagined—with implications flowing not only geographically, but also generationally, socially, and theologically; and now (for a second time) I was being invited into a meal which, again made in love by another, felt sacred. This time, between bites, I reflected with my hosts about what all I was learning from them. We talked, we shared stories, and we laughed—though short, it was a grateful Sabbath time. As my time ended with the parishioner, I was filled with thankfulness for all that he (and his whole family) had taught me in those few hours. Walking back to my car, I pondered on both the knowledge and faith he shared with me that day. Again, I had been given deeply personal gifts that would shape me.
More and more, I’m convinced that the classroom is not confined to a (often times poorly funded) building with the letters S-C-H-O-O-L on it, filled with desks, chalkboards, and textbooks. The classroom is anywhere and everywhere learning happens. While, indeed, schools are helpful in bringing the teaching of multiple subjects under one roof, education is accomplished whenever and wherever a person opens their imagination to be engaged in a new way and grow for the betterment of themselves and others. I consider the thought to engage in these experiences and the opportunities themselves as nothing less than workings of the Holy Spirit. In his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Creed, Martin Luther attributes the work of enlightenment to the Spirit. These two ride-along experiences with parishioners can be described as nothing less than enlightening for me. While, indeed, I did learn much regarding the nuts and bolts—dare I say, the seeds and stalks—of farming; among many things, I learned exponentially more about work as vocation, environment as God’s good gift, patience as a tool you cannot buy, and the centrality of family and faith in one’s life.