Last month I spent the better part of a day at Prairie Oaks Institute, a working farm and retreat center in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. While exploring the 110-year-old farm, I began noticing connections between where I was and the community that I serve. Both farms and churches have existed for millennia, yet both must also adapt vigorously to the 21st century. Reflecting since that day, I’ve noticed at least three common characteristics between farming and faith communities (at least those of the mainline Protestant persuasion).
First, both farms and churches treasure what is old. I walked around each small farm building, carefully opening doors, looking through windows, getting a peek at farm life. Many of the buildings reminded me of those on the farm where I grew up. The sturdy barn and granary looked like they had been around for the better part of a century. Rough-hewn beams and boards testified to a time before power saws, but their strength was not diminished with age. In the tin machine shed there was a quality of unassuming strength to the quiet creaking of the walls in the wind and the pungent, timeless dust on the ground. I had particular fun walking around and climbing into the cab of a vintage John Deere combine. It was still used to harvest soybeans, and each machine part bore signs of careful, thoughtful maintenance. It reminded me of those who have replaced book racks and re-glued splitting pew ends in our aging church sanctuary. Like the farmer, we treasure and care for what is old.
We also put old structures to new uses. Like many churches built in the 1950s, Community United Church of Christ has an open hall below the sanctuary. It was actually built first as an all-purpose space, and served as the sanctuary for years before the upper level was added. One end of this Fellowship Hall has a stage that was first built as the altar area (when there was no sanctuary above). It then became a platform for performances, then a Sunday school classroom, and is now a meeting area. Throughout our nearly 70-year old building are signs of the church changing an original purpose to meet changing needs. It is like the lower level of the barn at Prairie Oaks, which holds concrete mangers, rusted stanchions and an overhead track that might at one time have been used to clear manure from behind milking cows. The space is now a home for horses—repurposed to meet changing needs. The farm also has a rusted horse-drawn hay rake propped against a tree, and a tractor-towed rake with a flat tire. The tendency on the part of the farmer and the faithful to keep what is no longer practical (which sometimes goes too far into hoarding!) is actually an effort to conserve resources for potential later use. In this way, churches and farms are some of the most efficient organizations in our society.
Thirdly, in both the church and the farm we discover abundance in unexpected places. Walking around Prairie Oaks, I couldn’t help but notice all the weeds surrounding the out-buildings. “Who cares for this place?” I wondered. Yet upon closer inspection, what I’d written off as just weeds were in fact clumps of carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, onions and other produce. I discovered abundance where I least expected it. Climbing upstairs in the dusty granary, which I thought must surely be barren, I nevertheless found garlic bulbs drying until they looked like that which you could buy at the store. Roaming the straw fields a little later, I saw more monarch butterflies than I’ve ever seen, and discovered bees swarming around hives that looked like just a pile of junk boxes. For Christians, the Bible tells us of a God who creates humans from dust, calls the nobody-from-nowhere Abraham to be ancestor of three great faiths, and chooses to be born to an unwed girl in a barn at the backwater town of Bethlehem. We believe God still works in unlikely ways, so the church cares for people of all ages, especially those who look like unproductive “weeds” in the eyes of broader society. Who knows where God’s abundance will break out next?
That day on the farm, I sat for hours on the small porch of the little farmhouse looking out toward the road. With a shaded front yard, wind rustling in the trees, and light dappling the books I was reading, I gave thanks for such a lush, peaceful place and for our enduring congregation. Though farms and churches are fragile in our time, God’s blessings are still all around us. Christians must treasure the gifts we have inherited, and do all we can to help them remain life-giving for many generations to come.