Learning from Farmers

What can churches learn from the farmers? Something new is happening on the farms and we ought to be paying attention. Here in the picturesque “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut dairy farms, vegetable fields, and orchards are no longer simply beautiful scenery to admire from afar. Visitors are invited to drive into farmyards and traipse through the growing fields to experience the farms first-hand. Farm-fresh eggs, freshly mixed yogurt, homegrown meat, milk (including chocolate!), apple cider, and a huge variety of fruits and vegetables are at our disposal. We can know – and see – where our food comes from.

 It changes everything. Now we have the opportunity to chat with the hardworking folks who put food on our tables and we can ask questions of people who labor according to the seasons and whose lives are affected by the weather. We can see the cows, hear the roosters and sheep, stroll through blueberry patches, and wander through the apple trees.

            The farmers are evolving with the times. It is no longer profitable or practical to grow their products and ship them all to a distributor. In response to the strong interest in the “farm to table” movement, they are inviting people to realize what is required to produce fresh food. They are discovering that people are willing to pay a bit more and drive a bit out of their way in order to benefit from delicious, local food.

 Some of these farms are over 200 years old, but “innovation” is their mantra. Their enthusiasm for their products and their way of life is leading them to discover new ways to engage their customers.

            The Woodstock Orchard opened up a bakery. Customers are greeted by enticing aromas of apple cider doughnuts, freshly baked pies and crispy turnovers. Apples are still the primary product, but customers can also find apples dipped in caramel and apple cider as well as a variety of vegetables, pumpkins, and flowers. Weary parents can grab a healthy treat for hungry children while doing all of their shopping in one location.  

Woodstock Orchard has a wide variety of fresh food.

           That same creative marketing can be found at the Creamery at Valleyside Farm. Inside the compact store visitors can view the workers in the backroom mixing up batches of yogurt and creamy dips. Don’t have time to stop? They brilliantly offer a drive-through window. Parents who can’t face another round of car-seat wrestling and teenagers in a hurry can glide up to the window and order milk, ice cream, and yogurt to go. Receipts are texted to their cell phones. This is not your grandfather’s farm; they are embracing the 21st century.            

Angela Young greets customers at the drive-through window at Valleyside Farm.

            Down another backroad is – amazingly – an ice cream stand. The cute Farm to Table Market gives visitors the chance to stock up on farm products before they wander outside to enjoy creamy dairy treats while communing with the cows in a nearby field.

The Farm to Table Market in East Woodstock

            Churches can learn from the “can-do” spirit of the farmers. Society has changed and life is different than it was decades ago. Churches, like farms, need to adapt. The way it’s “always” been done may not work anymore. These farms are demonstrating a simple truth – we must find new ways to offer the valuable products we have. For farmers that might mean farm stands and new products. For churches it might mean creative scheduling and a willingness to dream of new ways to share Good News that the world needs to hear.

            Stop by a local farm and be inspired.

What does church look like?

When you envision “going to church” perhaps you expect a quiet, orderly sanctuary filled with well-dressed people quietly listening to organ music.

That was your grandmother’s church experience.

These days, church means so much more. Yes, we are here faithfully on Sunday mornings (join us! Everyone is welcome!). The dress code has relaxed and rarely includes the suit, tie, dresses, and shined shoes that I remember from my childhood. The music might include the organ but will just as likely feature exuberant children, guitar, ukulele, piano, and bells. We do manage to get to “quiet” but only after the deacon patiently – and sometimes repeatedly – calls the congregation to order. There is a joyful sense of community as people of all ages greet one another. They have gathered for respite, reassurance, learning, fellowship, and the life-giving assurance that they are loved and lovable. Through God’s grace, we are forgiven; we can share that hope with others.

How we live out that hope brings us to other church moments. “Church,” thank God, doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings. Church can be in the orderly chaos of a clothing sale in a huge room filled to overabundance with used clothes. Church means partnering with the high school’s volunteer group FRESH (Family Related Effective Solutions for Humanity) to make a difference in our community. These teenagers are dedicated to combating poverty and hunger in our area and put their ideals to work as they hauled, sorted, and displayed clothes. Residents from local homeless and domestic violence shelters are invited to come for a free “shopping spree.”

“Church” happens in the kitchen when volunteers prepare meals for anyone facing life’s challenges. Church can be delivered in a microwavable container. It can be a warm meal that reminds recipients that they are loved and cared for.

“Church” can take place in our local park when we gather for “Tuesdays at Twilight” for outdoor worship in the beauty of God’s creation. Bike-riding children, parents pushing strollers, fishermen passing by can wander into our circle as we listen to the birds overhead, watch the ducks make a splash-landing on the water, and marvel as the evening sky is reflected in the pond. “Church” happens whenever and however we share God’s love. I believe we are invited to constantly discover new and different ways to be the church in a fractured, busy world. Church might mean Bible study in a classroom and could also be conversations about God, faith, and life at a coffee shop.

How will we do church? We will honor our traditions and we will look for new ways to reach out and connect with God’s people. We will continue to worship together in our sanctuary on Sunday mornings and be open to other times and places where we can learn, grow, rejoice, and serve together.

Church will take many new forms in the 21st century.  Who knows what “church” will look like next!

What does the church do?

“What does your church do, anyway?” It wasn’t a snide comment or a rude question, but an honest inquiry from someone who isn’t involved in a faith community and can’t really see any particular reason to bother.

It did make me think.  Especially since this coming Sunday we will be holding our annual congregational meeting, a time when we review not just logistical questions about budget and building upkeep, but take some moments to ponder – what did our congregation do this past year? What have we accomplished? What difference have we made?  Because really – if we can’t answer those questions, then what are we all about?

I tried to frame my answer in a way this person would appreciate. But where to start? Should I describe our showcase event, our Fourth of July Jamboree when hundreds of people gather on our common for music, fellowship, and old-fashioned fun? Or should I describe more serious efforts like supplying food, clothing, toiletries, and gift cards to the homeless and domestic violence shelters as well as to local families.

Should I talk about our public ministries like weekly worship that offers inspiration and fellowship or is our behind-the-scenes work more important? How do we measure the importance of visiting the sick, praying with and for the dying, and offering comfort to the lonely and mourning?

What is it that we do?  Is anyone grading us or keeping track of our actions? If they are, would they like to know about the school backpacks that are filled and delivered in September or presents that are carefully chosen and wrapped at Christmas time or perhaps the Easter baskets that overflow with bounty and compassion? Or would they be more interested in meals and cards delivered to the homebound or the efforts of our children and youth as they rake leaves and help with home repairs.

During the season of Epiphany we are encouraged to take our Christmas gift – the love and compassion of God – and share it with everyone we meet. Don’t, Jesus instructs us, hide your light but let it shine so that God’s glory and love may be experienced and felt. That’s our job. That’s what we are meant to be about.

Do we do it perfectly? No. There is always more to do and there are endless needs that go unmet. But we try to live out God’s commandment to love our neighbor. We endeavor to make a difference in our neighborhood and across the globe.

Perhaps our primary call – the purpose of the church – is to make God’s love visible and to remind people that God is near. “Emmanuel” isn’t just a pretty word for Advent. It means “God with us” and that means in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives. The church – each one of us – is called to echo the joy of the angels who said, “Behold!” Behold – God is with us. Our actions should reflect that good news every day.

Daring to care

“Do you have a cigarette?” the young woman muttered as I walked out of our local hospital. I didn’t even glance her way.  She persisted, “Can I get a ride into town?” My guard was up; I had just experienced the hurt and disappointment that comes from trusting a practiced liar. That person managed to take money from me and from members of my church before we realized she was simply conning us for whatever she could get.  That incident left me wary.

So who was this person approaching me at 7:15 a.m. on a frigid weekday? When I finally looked closely at her, I saw a young woman just few years older than my children. I was glad to see she was wearing a winter coat, hat, and gloves, but she looked tired. She smelled faintly of alcohol.

“Are you all right?”  I asked.  She rejected my offer of a cup of coffee or a breakfast sandwich, insisting that a cigarette would start her day off right. I drove her the short distance into town. She got her cigarettes and lit one with shaking hands.

“I’m on my way to go grocery shopping,” I informed her.

“I can wait for you,” she said. She seemed lonely and at loose ends, without any plan for the day ahead.

She perched on a chair in the store’s coffee area while I gathered supplies for Christmas cookies.  As she helped me load my groceries into my car, I asked, “Now what? It’s too cold to stay outside.”

When I asked about family or friends, she explained that her boyfriend “wasn’t that nice” and she didn’t think her family would welcome a phone call from her. I put on my best mother voice as I assured her that even when I’m mad at my children, I still want to know they are safe and cared for. She was unconvinced.

“Do you want to go to the homeless shelter?”  I was certain that suggestion would shake her out of her indecision. Instead, she agreed that was the best course.

During the 20 minute drive to the shelter, she kept me amused with her description of growing up in our area, studying at community college, even attending our church’s Fourth of July Jamboree. My heart ached for her as she casually confessed she was an alcoholic with little hope for the future.

The shelter’s in-take clerk was brisk and to the point:

  • Arrest and sex offender lists are checked before entry.
  • No smoking, no drinking
  • Inside hours are 8 PM to 8 AM. After that, everyone needs to be outside.

I realized just how little I was giving her. She had a warm place to sleep that night but had a long, cold day ahead of her. I gave her my name and phone number and encouraged her to call. I described de-tox programs that could help her and counselors who could offer guidance.  I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from her again.

What I wanted, of course, was a happy ending. I wanted to solve her problems and help her find a safer, healthier path. Instead, I was left a lingering sadness and unsettling glimpse of a difficult life.

Will my small gestures help?  Maybe. Maybe we are all pieces of a much bigger puzzle. Maybe someone else will offer her another helping hand. And then another and another. Maybe each one will add up to make a difference.

Just because we cannot solve a problem is not a reason to hesitate to do what we can.

There are needs all around us. One way we share God’s light is by offering our hands and our hearts. Let us do what we can to help one another on the journey.

How does the church work?

As a small-town pastor, I marvel every day about our church – this unlikely collection of volunteers who allow the love of God to shine through them. Our church looks something like this –  When I arrive early on a Sunday morning, the building is empty, locked and dark.  I begin the weekly process of resuscitation by opening the shutters and unlocking the doors. The real vibrancy arrives as people drift in. There’s the guy who makes coffee each week, here are a couple of people who baked cookies and cut up fruit for fellowship time following worship.  The choir, those impossibly busy people who somehow squeeze in weekly rehearsal time, clamber into the choir loft, eagerly anticipating their anthem.

Dedicated parents and grandparents are organizing paper, scissors, and glue sticks, anxious to share Bible lessons and crafts. The sanctuary hums to life as someone flips on the sound system, another carefully places flowers on our communion table, and some friendly volunteers welcome visitors and regulars alike.  The building is brimming with activity now, as neighbors greet one another and weary young mothers grab precious moments with a kindred spirit. Gray-headed seniors lean in for conversation as teenagers casually compare phones and screens.

Before entering the sanctuary, the deacon questions her ability to draw the attention of this noisy, somewhat unruly crowd to the still, small voice of God.  There is Good News to share – God has promised to show up, right here, in our little corner of CT, because we are gathered in God’s name.

Good morning! The deacon asserts boldly.

Good morning!  The congregation booms in reply.

Peace, one might even say the Spirit, descends upon those gathered, not at all distracted by wriggly babies or bored teenagers. Somehow God meets each one of us, exactly where we are this morning. God is in this place and suddenly – we become the church.  We are the people of God, flawed, imperfect, falling very short of the glory of God, yet blessed and renewed by God’s love which welcomes every single one of us. And because God names us the church, the Body of Christ, we can claim that title as well. Together we can endeavor to serve God by sharing God’s love.

That’s church on a Sunday morning.

How does it work on the other days?

  • Someone drops by to donate skeins of yarn she found on sale. Less than an hour later an older woman stops by to ask for prayer shawl materials. She leaves, eager to knit and pray for some yet unknown recipient who will receive a reminder of God’s encircling love. The church works when we share.
  • Two $50 Visa gift cards arrive in the mail. An out-of-state daughter wants to honor her parent’s anniversary by passing along the love and compassion she inherited from their relationship. Later that same day a young woman was weeping in my office, devastated by the husband who abandoned her and their two-year-old child. $50 wasn’t going to solve her problems, but it heartened her to know someone cared. The church works when we celebrate love.
  • One of our snowbirds returned from Florida, bubbling with excitement. “I discovered Tai Chi,” she exclaimed, “and I want to share it with others.” Her enthusiasm draws in 15-18 people, members and visitors to our church, twice weekly as they share fellowship and gentle exercise. The church works when people follow their enthusiasm.
  • “Art makes people feel good,” a gifted woman in our congregation told me. She has the ability to transform paints, fabrics, or flowers into beautiful creations. “More people should be exposed to art,” she declared. Her invitation inspired 20 artists to gather for a show and sale, transforming our fellowship hall into a combination art gallery and cool craft store.  Visitors receive a transfusion of color and creativity on a cold winter morning. Church works when we share our passion and abilities.
  • Meals shared, prayers offered, cards sent, clothes distributed, hugs given, a listening ear offered.

Seminary professors call this “incarnational theology; the Word made flesh.”

I call it making God visible to the world.  That’s church.


*Oil painting by Karen McFarlin:  kmcf3470@gmail.com