Sowing Seeds of Hope

On the wall in front of the large gathering room, which was a gym in Bethany Lutheran College in Lindsborg, KS, there was a huge banner, a picture, a powerful image created from fabric. A sower, with a bag bulging with tan colored seeds, muscled arm on a back swing, fist filled with seeds about to be sowed, strong legs striding purposefully down the furrows. I was reminded again of home and of our mission statement. It just keeps coming back this summer to remind us of our work to be done. Although this room was only an aging gym in probably the smallest Lutheran College in the nation, it held some powerful symbolism for all of us. In the center of the room, there was the baptismal font, in the form of a watering trough, surrounded by a windmill, a washtub, gurgling water flowing, bright sunflowers, and golden wheat. Sunflowers and wheat decorated the altars too during our worship services. It was a powerful conference.

Again and again I was reminded how much we shared and yet how different we are in our rural ministries. Any of you ever been to Kansas? Yes, farming is different in Kansas, isn't it?! My colleague from Westminster complained that the corn was not as high as an elephant's eye and I reminded her that we were in Kansas and not Oklahoma. ( remember - Oklahoma where the wind comes whistling down the plain?) In fact, people in the Midwestern plains states were surprised at the Small Town and Rural Ministry Conference in Kansas, when we said where we were from. "Pennsylvania and Maryland - rural?" They said. "When we think of PA and MD, we think of Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Metropolitan centers." We answered, "Haven't you ever heard of Adams County apples, Tastycakes, Hershey candies, Hanover Foods and snacks? We have some of the most beautiful farm country you'll see. Dairy farms, beef cattle, even bison" I added that because I saw that there would be a tour of a bison farm after we had gone to the airport on Saturday.

The small town of Lindsborg itself was fascinating. It is a Swedish town. I was introduced to Dala horses everywhere, traditional painted horses in every size, from tiny to very large ones, which stood in front of every store. Swedish mints and gum drops, the local Stuka, which I didn't visit, by the way. A trip out of Lindsborg, where the conference was located, showed us volumes. It is big sky country - the sky stretches forever. Flat, the land was very flat. I laughed to see the name Smoky Valley High School. The area is known as Smoky Valley, although there were few hills to be seen. The big surprise was that KS has oil wells - there they were right in the middle of the fields. Some of them still pumping and others rusty and abandoned. The land stretched for miles. It wasn't hard to see what rural means in the Midwest. Farm land stretches forever and small towns are far apart. Everywhere we went, though, folks waved to us. The crops were not thriving. Kansas has been very hot and dry. I was happy that it was no longer the 115 temps I had heard last week on the news. On Friday evening, we went up to Coronado Heights and looked for miles across the land. A patchwork of greens and browns, tans. Symmetrical fields, with boundaries of trees. Story has it that during the dust bowl, the dust reached Washington, D.C., so they were given millions of saplings by the government to keep the dust away from the capitol city.

A woman next to me during a presentation struck up a conversation. When I asked her how she makes a living, she said that she rents her farm land. "How much land do you have," I asked. "A section and a quarter," she said. Does anyone know what a section is? I discovered that a section is 640 acres. Farms are huge in the Midwest! You can drive for miles and miles between towns and farmhouses and see nothing but farmland.

Ministry is different in the Midwest. I re-discovered a colleague from seminary. She is in South Dakota with 5 churches with 100 miles between them. She has to drive 100 miles just to get to the nearest hospital, crossing time zones. Think how much more isolated folks are there.

Swedish churches we saw are beautiful and very sturdy, substantial. Lots of Lutherans in Lindsborg, a town of 3600. Lutheranism is the state church of Sweden. We worshiped on Friday morning in Bethany Church. The church was beautiful with stained glass, many paintings on the walls and small statues of the apostles. The worship was stirring as we gathered with our rural brothers and sisters from across the nation. The bishop of the area preached. I thought of you and decided to tell you his story on Sunday, today. It fit so well with our Gospel today on the feeding of the 5000. And Isaiah calling us to come to God so that we may live. Come and buy milk and bread without money and without price.

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers, talks often about Jesus as the bread of Life, and says that God always gives us what we need. You know, that crowd that Jesus was feeding today - 5000 MEN besides the women and children, those people grew up hearing the story of the manna in the wilderness. Remember when the Israelites were in the wilderness and they were grumbling and groaning, forgetting that God took them out of slavery and groaned and groused and grumbled that God brought them all that way just so they could starve in the wilderness. But God had a plan. God always does, even though much of the time we can't see it. God sent this white flaky stuff from the skies called manna from heaven. At first they were happy just to have some food, but before long, they groaned and groused and grumbled because they didn't like the way the manna tasted. Bishop Schoenhals told a story of when he was 4 years old and he became very ill and almost died. He isn't really sure what disease he had. He only recalls that his abdomen was distended and painful. He was taken to the doctor and the doctor told his parents the remedy for the illness, the remedy that would save his life was to put him on a diet. This diet consisted of just 2 ingredients - bananas and buttermilk - 3 times every day. Well he groaned and he groused and he grumbled because 2 months of buttermilk and bananas was just too much! He hated the buttermilk and the bananas. It was during WW2 and bananas were in short supply. But the miracle that occurred was that all the neighbors and all the grocery stores for miles and miles around saved him every banana they could lay their hands on. Still he groaned and he groused and he grumbled. Some how he got through that hard time to live. Many, many years later, the Bishop had come back to his hometown after his parents had died to look after the family farm. He was drinking coffee in a restaurant when the man at the next table came up and said hello. Do you mind if I join you? When the bishop told him his name, the man said, I heard that name once. Many years ago, there was a little boy who was going to die if he didn't have bananas to eat 3 times a day. I was the manager of Bard's grocery store and we had strict instructions to save every banana I could get for that little sick boy. I prayed for him every day too. I wonder how he ever made out. I've always wondered. And without another word, the man turned and left.

It was a powerful conference with Micah Marty, a photographer of rural churches, and his father Martin Marty, theologian and writer. Micah's presentation of photos was thought-provoking. He pointed out that what we were seeing is really what we could be noticing every day on our own churches. Really looking at the pew we sit in every Sunday can show us the beauty around us we never stop to experience. He shared a story about a church he photographed. He wanted to go back a few weeks later to take some more pictures only to discover that the church had been wiped out by a tornado the day after his first photo.

Martin Marty was eloquent as always. He told the story about his boyhood, about sitting on the front porch on a hot summer night. He could hear grasshoppers eating, chewing the corn on the next farm. Knowing they were on their way to his fields next and it was only a matter of time. Then it clouded up and it says, there came a million dollar rain to save the corn. There was great rejoicing, but it was short-lived. A few hours later, it clouded up again and the hail came and wiped everything out. Whining? "Pointless," he said. He pointed out that whining limits our hope. Sewing seeds of hope. We are grounded in God, the power of the future and in Christ, the new creation, and the Holy Spirit, which brings all to us in the here and now. "Do we really believe in these three?" he asked.

The workshops were great. I learned about Fusion, a new ministry started by a rural cooperative parish outside of their church structure. It attracts young people and families and has become largely lay-led. I learned about Transformational ministry where congregations learn how to reach out into the world, to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Congregations that are fast-growing are open to change, willing to study their Bibles and pray. Congregations who tell the story to others are those who are vital, thriving, growing. After all, that is what the church is all about and what we are all about as seed of God's love - telling the story to others.

I was very much uplifted and encouraged by the conference. It was time well-spent. Most of all, I remember the image of the sower, larger than life. The sower, purposefully striding between the furrows, hand clenched full of tan seeds, US, we are those seeds that sower is preparing to throw out into the world. As seeds of God's love, we strive to grown in his service, by sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.


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