Harvest Thanksgiving 2019
‘The farmers don’t come to Church any more’. So said a person I visited recently. And it is true. There are a number of farmers’ families on the roll of both congregations, but we do not see them worshipping along with us week by week. Why mention farmers? Lots of people don’t come to church any more, whether they are joiners, plumbers, electricians, shop keepers, cooncil workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, carers or whatever. Maybe however on this special day we can mention farmers specifically because they show us clear examples of the general decline of faith in God in our nation and society.
On ‘Songs of Praise’ recently a farmer down south was asked if he prayed and he said ‘Yes, I pray for good harvests’. I suppose not many farmers pray for good harvests. And the reason is that they and we think that we are more in control of the process of planting, nurturing and harvesting than previous generations. Farming is a scientifically based occupation today. Nearby there is a farm with robot milking of cows. Genetic modification of crops and animals is prevalent. Weather predictions are more accurate. The agri-food business contributes more than £120 billion to the economy. All is computerised, even hill sheep farming. Farming is subsidised with large scale grants from the European Union. Yet some farmers are struggling to make a living and many have diversified into other areas of business such as horse stabling, caravan parking, bed and breakfast, cafes and holiday lets. Among farmers, poor mental health is the biggest health topic in the UK at present – one in four people have been diagnosed with a mental illness and in farming, mental health issues including depression continue to be of great concern. More than one farmer a week in the UK dies by suicide. Rates of male suicide among the farming community are higher than that of men in the general population. Rates of female suicide however are lower in the farming community than in the general population. Ayr Presbytery was told recently that Christmas hampers were to be given out to a few deserving cases.
Is there a connection between the loss of practising Christian faith and the rates of suicide among farmers? Is that true also of the general population? Was the knowledge of the love of God a key ingredient of the mental health of previous generations of farmers? Of everyone? Why are so many people cracking up from early childhood, through teenage years into adulthood and towards maturity? Is it just the professionalisation of the human condition? Have you heard of pervasive resistance syndrome? That’s when children and teenagers are asked to do something and they say ‘No’. Once it resulted in a clip round the ear, now it gets a diagnostic label.
It is only relatively recently in human history that we have distinguished first and secondary causes. For most human social evolution so far it was thought that God was directly responsible for rain, hail, thunder, lightening, snow, storms and drought. That is certainly true of the Bible peoples. But now we do not hold God responsible for our weather patterns and conditions. We have accepted responsibility ourselves for climate change and global warming. God is very much left out of the argument. Extreme weather events have also diminished faith in a good God Maker for who can trust a God who sends earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and floods which bring much resulting human misery. Farmers at the sharp intersection of weather providence have given up on God by and large and seek to overcome unpredictabilities by wise and prescient management, year to year.
And yet, people turn to prayer when all else fails. Even atheists and agnostics turn to prayer in difficult and stressful times. They do so in the hope of an answer to their troubles and problems. Those who have received answers there and then have turned to faith. Unanswered prayer has confirmed many in their atheism. There is scarcely a human being who has not also filled with wonder and unconscious worship at the beauties of providence on earth, the miracles of existence and consciousness, the joys of relationships, of interests, vocations, discoveries, purposes and recreations available on our playground planet. The more we are told about the extraordinary scale of our universe and of possibly billions of other universes, they more we find it awesome, stupendous and impossible to fully understand. For us in the Judaeo-Christian tradition we have words to offer from Psalm 8. 'What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honour. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen—Even the beasts of the field, The birds of the air, And the fish of the sea That pass through the paths of the seas'.
We may also join the prophet Jeremiah when he wrote, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins, and the palace will stand in its proper place. From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honour, and they will not be disdained. Their children will be as in days of old, and their community will be established before me;”
Above and beyond our limited human knowledge there are much greater forces in operation, forces which we do not understand and do not control. I am not talking about what was once known as ‘The God of the Gaps’. That is you put God in when you have no other option of explanation. The purpose and destiny of our individual personal life is a great mystery. And we must listen to anyone who offers credible answers. Richard Dawkins takes us nowhere and confines us to a godless flat earth existence. Jesus Christ offers Himself as ‘The Way, the truth and the life’ and we are bound to try to find out what that means for us.
The Old Testament prophets gave hope, inspiration and direction in their days. Did their words come true? Some certainly did. Take Israel today. It is a genius society with inventions, innovations and discoveries benefiting all humanity. It invented modern drip irrigation; it harnessed dew collection methods; it is the world leader in desalination on which all middle east peoples will come to depend. An Israeli invented the Intel 8088 microprocessor from which all others were developed. Considerable discoveries in medicine have been made in Israel in recent years alleviating troublesome symptoms in the human body. Why should it be that Jews contribute disproportionately to the betterment of the human condition? Might it not be an effect of that ancient calling to the knowledge of God the Creator?
Jesus when he came did not come with just words. His good news was validated by actions. Extraordinarily he proved to those who witnessed his ministry that the God Creator’s original powers were with and in Him. He could and did change and abate destructive weather patterns. He could and did heal congenital illness and conditions. He even brought back from the dead a little girl, a widow’s son and his friend Lazarus. And he rose from the dead Himself and appeared to his erstwhile disciples and to his wider congregation of followers. It is not reasonable to deny the truth of these events based on distrust of the testimonies of those who were present. This happens of course much these days by arrogant people with their own axes to grind. But the Body of Christ in the world, the Christian Church is still the means of liberation for countless oppressed peoples throughout the world as it was once for us here in this northern fastness.
The teaching of Jesus is not ancient wisdom, it is living truth. “My food,” he said “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.”
Christian faith offers us a different dimension of consciousness, a larger, higher perspective in which to place and ground our life experience. The life of Jesus is a correction to human pride and self-sufficiency. The brutality of its end on earth a terrible commentary on the worst of human nature. The triumph of His resurrection demonstrates the future prospects for all who open their hearts to Him. “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” That is true in many places in this world today. Is it true of Scotland? Have not thorns and weeds and rocks choked the fields and made a harvest of souls impossible. Has the Church of Jesus not been pushed to the side and ignored in counsels at the highest levels? We have no spiritual combine harvesters at our disposal. There is no need. The crop is poor. One or two here and there throughout the land. The internet is a useful alternative but not creating a visible Body of Christ, fellowships, congregations, Christian families. A casting of bread upon the waters perhaps and helpful at an introductory level. Nothing however, to take the place of authentic Christian witness, confession, testimony.
What chokes us up here? What prevents revival? What stops the Holy Spirit moving in our midst? Are there too many weeds and thorns among us? Can the good seeds not grow? We are God’s crops, we are the harvest of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we should say so and live accordingly. We should not be cowed by others but confident in the Christian promise of eternal life. We should aspire to personal knowledge of this same Jesus and in the time given to us still on earth. Seek the Lord of the harvest while he may be found.