Aug 25 2010

Wheatfield Trust

A close cousin to the truth that “God loves me” is the belief that God is absolutely trustworthy. When I was a child, I was taught that we could trust God, no matter what. As Psalm 55:22 says,

Cast your cares on the LORD
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous fall.

This simple truth – what some would call an over-simple truth, or even a fairy tale – was taught in Sunday School and also reinforced in the “grown-up” Sunday morning sermons, with topic verses such as “Remember the lilies of the field… (Matt. 6:28)” and “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? (Matt. 10:29)”

The “rugged individualism” of American culture would tell us to be self-reliant, trusting in our own abilities and hard work to succeed. Trusting in God is seen by many as merely a cop-out. However, trusting in God’s provision was a way of life in northwestern Minnesota, which was a completely agrarian culture and full of hard-working folk who expected very little in the form of hand-outs. When I was growing up, the area consisted mainly of small family-owned wheat farms. There was no pretense that we could control much of anything. We tilled the soil, planted and fertilized; the rest was out of our control.

I lived about four miles from the Red River, which boasts some of the best farm land in the world. What that meant was that about half of our land could be flooded every spring. Eventually it would be dry enough to cultivate and plant. And with one 3-month growing season, we didn’t have much time to spare. As the grain would grow and ripen, hail storms were our greatest fear – one good storm could wipe out the majority of a crop. Storms, it seemed, could come out of nowhere. It could be clear in the morning, then all of a sudden the air would change; in an hour, it could be pouring rain.

If we made it to late summer without losing any crops, we battled the rains which always seemed to show up the week of harvest. After the grain was cut and laid into swaths to dry, every rain diminished the value of the crop by washing away color and nutrients, and delaying the harvest for another couple of days. It was like watching your money washing down the drain.

Until the grain was sold or put into storage, nothing was for certain. Even then, there were risks. Grain is a commodity, sold on the open market similar to how stocks are traded. With one shot for a year’s income, sometimes farmers would take out loans with the crops as collateral; other times, grain would be sold short if the prices were high enough, with a guaranteed future delivery. Will the price drop, or go up? We were always subject to the whims of the grain markets.

We trusted in God’s providence. We could control nothing; all we could do was to be faithful and plant the seed. (All this was much too stressful for me, which is why I finally gave up farming.)

Living a lifestyle in which we knew the world was out of our control, trusting God was a logical decision. As Peter put it so well, “Where else would we go? (John 6:68)” Of course, many of us know that even in a culture of semi-monthly paychecks and 401(k)s, nothing is guaranteed. In the last couple of years, millions have learned this the hard way. Jobs disappear, as do investment portfolios, homes and retirement plans.

The myth of self-sufficiency dies hard. But when you’re a child growing up around people who are wise enough to see “from whence our help comes,” it’s perhaps easier to learn trust.

Questions:

  1. Have you ever stopped to think about the culture in which you grew up?
  2. What did your culture as you were growing up teach you about trust?


Jul 22 2010

Steeped in God’s Love

(A personal reflection)

I was raised a Lutheran, in a small community in northern Minnesota that very well could have been the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon. My dad came from a long line of Swedish Lutherans who had been part of the Swedish Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, which merged with the Lutheran Church in America (now part of the ELCA). Kittson County, where I lived, was at least at one time considered the most Swedish county in the United States and still boasts the highest percentage of Swedish speakers in the country. My dad was raised speaking Swedish at home and my grandfather, who lived with us when I was little, never fully converted to English.

The church we attended was called Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, a truly wonderful name for a church. “Evangelical” was the term Martin Luther used to refer to his reformation movement, and was kept in the name to honor the former Augustana church. My church was the largest church in town, with a membership of over 1,000 (but an average attendance at less than 1/3 of that). While the LCA was apparently known as the most liberal of the Lutheran denominations, I remember our church as being quite conservative, both socially and theologically.

Oddly enough, the Swedish Lutherans had been pietists, something that I’m sure would have caused Martin to spin in his grave. It was the very thing that Luther had warned about in the introduction to his commentary on Galatians:

I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, once again to expound the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians; not because I desire to teach new things, or such as you have not heard before, but because we have to fear, as the greatest and nearest danger, that Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions.

When my dad was young, for example, playing cards were not allowed (although they could play regular card games with a deck of Rook cards), alcohol was wrong (except for medicinal purposes), and frivolous music was frowned upon.

These trends obviously didn’t stick in my family, as my dad and his brothers were self-taught musicians, my dad playing piano, guitar, and clarinet in a local swing band. My mother was Episcopalian, but joined the Lutheran church when I was little, and began teaching Sunday School, which she did for fifteen or more years. Neither of my parents were drinkers, although they no aversion to making home-made wine on occasion. By the time I was born, playing cards were in abundance in our house, and I could play Rummy as soon as I could count (if not before). My parents certainly demonstrated very high moral standards; however, I was never taught that God would be mad at me if I failed.

I grew up convinced that God loved and accepted me unconditionally. I don’t know where I first learned this, but I was surer of this than anything, even of my parents’ love for me. I’ve often heard that children will form their ideas about God from their relationship with their father. While I had a wonderful dad, I can’t really say that this principle held true for me. Rather, from a very early age I understood that God was the only person who would ever really love and accept me unconditionally. My parents were fallible, God was not. I might fear the wrath of my parents or other authority figures, but I never feared God’s wrath.

And to this day, I never have.


Oct 3 2009

Reminder of a kinder, gentler (Lutheran) time

Whenever I visit my home town of Hallock, MN (which isn’t often), I am reminded – a lot – of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. Besides all of the small-town weirdness and the Lutheran culture, there’s something simple and nice and decent about it.  I tend to forget this; living in a non-Lutheran culture, I forget just how civilized rural life can be among Minnesota Lutherans.

Yesterday I along with my Mom and sister were invited to the home of my high school science teacher, Phillip Peterson, and his wife, Marlys. Besides being my science teacher, Phillip was also one of my Sunday School teachers (in the Lutheran church, of course).  Marlys and my mom graduated from high school together and have remained fairly close friends.  So, knowing I was coming home for a quick visit, they called to invite us over for coffee.

I had forgotten how Lutherans do coffee.  Similar to the British tradition of Tea, Minnesota Lutherans routinely stop whatever they are doing and have coffee along with something sweet – cookies, cake, whatever.  We used to call it “lunch.”  Dinner was the noon meal, supper was in the evening, and lunch was around three P.M.

We got to Peterson’s at 2:00 and were ushered into the family room, where we had a nice talk.  After a while, Marlys went to make some coffee.  After a few minutes we were invited to the dining room, where the table was set like something from HGTV.  Upon each dish was a bowl containing 2 varieties of ice cream. There were cups for coffee, and glasses of ice water. There was a plate with 2 varieties of cookies, a plate of chocolate-iced rice krispy bars, and 2 bowls of chocolates. Just looking at the table caused my blood sugar to increase.

I had forgotten what Midwestern hospitality was like.  We’ve become so relaxed, so comfortable in our post-cultural-revolution that we’ve not only lost any concept of formality, but we’ve lost our concept of hospitality.

It’s the same with church, and even our relationship with God.  So many have lost formality, becoming so relaxed and casual that our sense of hospitality and respect for all that’s holy has been lost.

I really enjoyed my visit with the Petersons.  I was reminded of a kinder, gentler time.  I was also reminded that formality and intentionality may be rare, but it’s never out of style.


Jul 15 2008

I used to be from Minnesota

I used to be from Minnesota. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but I do… However, I don’t think I ever voted there (maybe once?), so I guess I don’t feel responsible for Minnesota politics.

I happened to catch Jesse “the Body” Ventura on Larry King a moment ago. Apparently he’s not running for Minnesota State Senator, but he’s leading Al Franken, who really is running.  What a weird state.  Of course, I can’t imagine Al Franken as a serious politician, even in Minnesota. Even after Jesse Ventura. Or after Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.  Of course, I live in Oregon, so I can’t brag. We’re so lazy here that we all mail in our ballots days early, just so we can stop paying attention to the political ads.

I did think Ventura was kind of a kick as governor, especially as he wasn’t my governor. However, hearing him on Larry King tonite reminded me of just how ignorant the man really is. It’s kind of funny that he says what he thinks, but then you realize that this is what he really thinks! He was making fun of Bush praying before his decision to to into Iraq.  I don’t know that Bush ever said that God told him to invade Iraq, only that he had prayed about it. I appreciate that – I don’t for a moment think that it was an easy call for Bush, and those who do think that are just plain idiots. No one makes a decision like that – even from a career standpoint – without giving it a lot of thought, and often, prayer.

Ventura, though, is too smart for that, saying that in his nearly 57 years, God has never spoken to him. As my favorite rabbit would say, “what a maroon.” Jesse, you may have never spoken to God, but if you’ve never heard Him speak (in the land of 10,000 lakes, yet!), you just weren’t listening.

He did make one sensible comment though:

“I think that bodes very badly for the Democrats in the fact that you have an unpopular president, a more unpopular Congress and a senator in lockstep with this president and now you have a third party candidate who hasn’t announced and you have fallen behind him. I think the Democrats are in some serious trouble.”

But, today is apparently the last day to file, and it appears that Franken’s lack of success has awakened hope in a number of would-be contenders.  So who will it be?  Another pro wrestler?  Another comedian?  Maybe a real politician who wants withdraw yesterday from Iraq and raise taxes??  Or, perhaps a retired hockey player whose campaign will focus on bringing pro hockey back to the Gopher State? I think he’d get my vote.

Ah, but it’s all good fun, as they say…