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The Farmer's Foot

With the temperature having stayed above freezing for a few days, minimal rainfall, and even some nice spells of sunshine, some optimistic local farmers are beginning to believe spring weather might be just around the corner. Various social media feeds are showing images of the first tentative steps towards fertilising crops and preparing to sow spring seed - it’s amazing how quickly another season will come around.

With this in mind it’s struck me again recently that the longer I’m involved in farming, the more I realise why Jesus used so many agricultural stories to illustrate the Kingdom of God. Parables about sowing seed (Matthew 13:1-9), patience and the miracle of growth (Mark 4:26-29), and many illustrations based on sheep and goats. For me however, one of the virtues I constantly seem to require as a farmer (and often fail to display) is that of patience, and as I’ve related this tendency to the church here in the UK, I think we have much to learn, in what for many are turbulent, worrying times.

I have a good friend who talks about the ‘farmer’s foot’. Okay, I agree, it’s perhaps not the most endearing image, but it speaks of the ability to wander into a cultivated field, take a good look around, give the soil a kick to turn it over, and seek to discern whether conditions are right for sowing. As this process is carried out, further credence is given to the wider context; has there been too much rainfall recently, or conversely do we need to wait for more moisture? Are we on heavy clay soil or lighter sandy ground? As a general rule, soil conditions are more important than the calendar; just because we did a certain thing at this time last year, doesn’t mean we do it at the same time this year. Then of course there’s the danger of looking over the hedge, even though your neighbour may be going hard at it doesn’t mean it’s the right time for you. Finally, when the time is right, there’s selecting the correct machinery for the job; bullying the ground into submission with ever increasing horsepower isn’t often the answer!

UK agriculture is going through change, we’re sat between the old EU based regime and new schemes, it’s a worrying time for many, and as Simon helpfully wrote recently, we’re in a place of liminality: an in-between space. I’d suggest much of the UK church is in a similar spot; the way we used to do it isn’t working anymore, and perhaps it’s just me, but I sense that in these turbulent times it’s easy to think that we must be doing something, indeed anything, just to keep the show on the road.

Like the ‘farmer’s foot’ are we taking the time to discern what God’s best might be for us, both as individuals and in community? Are we listening and observing the context in which we find ourselves, and waiting for the right time to move forward? How easy it can be to try even harder to repeat a certain event or continue a particular ministry just because we did it last year, or indeed we’ve done it for the last 100 years! Are we looking over our ecclesiastical hedges to see what ground neighbouring churches are ploughing? After all, if they’re seeing success, maybe we ought to do the same.

I’m not sure I have many answers, but recently after a conversation with some other rural church practitioners I was challenged by what it might mean to be a patient, non-anxious presence amidst these times of confusion, and concern for the future. A place where we are able to actively listen to our context and discern when the time may be right for activity, or conversely and perhaps of greater importance, when we may be called to sit tight in that liminal space, actively listening and observing where God may be at work. Jesus himself modelled that non-anxious presence in many ways (Mark 1:35-36, John 11:1-44), often seeking out prayer and times of rest amidst what would seem to his disciples to be unmissable ministry opportunities.

So, as I go into this new week I’d urge you to join me in praying for patience, that you and I might be that non-anxious presence in the lives of those God brings across our path, guided not just by the Farmer’s foot, but by the Saviour’s hand.

Alistair Birkett

Director: Scotland & Northern England


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