God's Day and Holy Ground

Dear Cultivating Companions:

I keep a file on my computer of articles I think I might use as background for these weekly essays; when the well gets a little dry I wander through them to see if anything matches my Monday’s musing. This morning I stumbled on an article regarding the history of Blue Laws in the United States--that will be a topic for musing in the near future; but thinking about communities that restricted certain types of commerce on Sundays reminded me of Earl.

When I was still in college and considering a career in pastoral ministry, Peter Bergen, who had been the minister of pastoral care at the church where I was raised, called and told me he had just received a call to a congregation in Newton, IA. I congratulated him, wondering why he had chosen to share the news with me; that’s when he invited me to spend the following summer in Newton working with the youth in his new congregation. The church owned two manses, and while one was being used for Sunday school classes, I could occupy one of the bedrooms and use the kitchen, and lodging would be free. (Given the arrangement of the house, there’s an awkward story about oversleeping on a Sunday morning and still being in the shower when the third, fourth and fifth graders arrived for Sunday school, but that, too, is for another time.) Peter had also arranged for a $100 dollar per week stipend, so I took the opportunity.

I learned a great deal that summer in Newton and met some fantastic people; two of them were Earl and his wife Betty. Earl farmed over 3,000 acres and had one of the largest hog operations in the county. They were very generous with their church and staunch defenders of the fourth commandment--they were keepers of the Sabbath. Earl refused to transact business on Sunday; that included limiting his farm work to basic care of his livestock. Betty limited her food preparation by preparing Sunday dinner and setting the dinner table on Saturday afternoon. They even laid out Sunday clothes on Saturday before going to bed.

Earl told me during harvest that the other farmers thought he was nuts for not working seven days a week until all the corn or beans were in, but he told me that God made the land fertile and the plants grow and brought the sun and the rain. It was his responsibility to honor God on the designated day; to neglect the commandment to rest and honor God with his full attention one day a week was an insult to the One who made his farm possible the other six days.

Earl was also serious about tithing. He believed one-tenth of all that he had belonged to God and he was merely a steward of God’s provision. He had an unusual way to designate his tenth. The proceeds from the hog operation were easy; he merely asked his accountant to take 10% of the operation income before taxes and send a check to the church. But tithing from his agricultural produce was another process. Each spring Earl would take a copy of his land’s survey and physically cut the survey into ten pieces. Each tenth was put into a sealed envelope, and he asked Betty to randomly select one of the envelopes. On that envelope he wrote “GOD’S” in red marker and pinned it to the bulletin board over his desk. He planted, irrigated and harvested the land without knowing which portion would become his offering.

Earl told me his system gave him great pleasure all season long. He never knew when he was cultivating God’s property. He believed it made him a better farmer; it made him think about the soil erosion and damaging fertilizers because he didn’t want to scar what belonged to God.

Throughout harvest he would calculate yield acre by acre. He kept meticulous records in order to learn the productivity of each part of the farm, making notes about what the soil needed based on each year’s produce. At the end of harvest Earl would take down the envelope from his bulletin board, say a prayer with his wife Betty and open the envelope that designated his tithed farmland. The gross income of that portion was divided between the church and several other mission organizations they supported. Earl joyfully insisted that every year God’s tenth had the highest yield.

I think of Earl’s farm and God’s tenth every time I look out over vast fields of beans or corn or alfalfa. There’s something about Earl’s process that seems to make all of it holy ground.

Praying for farmers whose livelihood is under water this spring, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor