|Twin kids born at Mark and Theresa Wood's farm, March 2017.|
This is an edited version of the message I gave at church this morning:
When I looked on the church calendar and saw that May 6th is “Rural Life Sunday”, I thought -- a celebration of rural life is exactly what we need as we head into this year’s growing season.
There really is no way to put the brakes on rural decline but inevitability doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean our society won’t suffer. The danger in losing the vibrancy of our rural communities is that our country, like our faith, is built on the hard work and commitment of rural people.
Everyone is wracking their brains on how to keep rural communities – and rural churches – not only existing but thriving. There are pockets of revitalization in communities that are close to the city but those places that can’t offer an easy commute are left to flounder as large employers shut down, and there are fewer opportunities to keep young people in rural areas.
At 83 years of age, American poet, novelist and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, is a seventh-generation Kentucky farmer who, through his prolific writings, has brought global attention to the plight of fragile rural economies and the importance of sustainable agriculture.
In an article published in Modern Farmer last October , Berry laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”
Some might call him a curmudgeon but others recognize his “clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress.”
I agree with Berry, that in our rush to modernize and be progressive, to centralize and regionalize, to think globally and attempt travel to Mars (!) – we are losing two inter-connected ways of life and wrecking not only the Earth but also our souls.
I didn’t grow up on a farm, and I didn’t have grandparents who lived on a farm. I knew country living because that’s where my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles lived, but the only time I experienced farm life was during my family’s two-week vacations on Pugwash Point in Nova Scotia.
And even though I’ve lived here for over ten years, I didn’t see a baby animal being born until just last year.
My experience with "the country" came through cottages but it’s really not the same thing. It’s playing at country – it’s not living it.
I really do feel, deep down, that I missed out on a lot by not growing up on a farm. And I think our world – and our young people – and our future as a humankind – are losing A LOT as we lose our farms and rural ways.
Now, this message will try to weave together rural life and church life – rural communities and communities of faith. It will be broad strokes and generalizations, and probably something that calls for deeper conversation, but for now, this is just to get you thinking about rural life.
Jon Katz, an author who lives in rural New York State, wrote this about farms on his blog in April 2015: “Real farms have always been beautiful to me, manifestations of family, values, individuality and the hardest imaginable work.”
So first, I want to outline what I think young people are missing by not being raised on farms:
- doing chores and having responsibilities
- witnessing both birth and death
- knowing where food comes and what, and who, is involved in producing food
- learning to take care of what you have, to repurpose items and to solve problems with what's on hand
- helping neighbours – relying on each other, especially in times of crisis
- being resilient and self-sufficient
Like I said, broad strokes, but for me, looking back over a variety of life experiences and being married to a farm boy who misses farming, I believe I’d be better off if I’d been raised with all of those things – including the hard work that goes into a rural life.
Now I’d like to outline what I think people, of all ages, are missing by not being part of a community of faith:
- showing devotion and commitment to something and someone other than yourself
- taking care of each other
- accepting death as a part of life
- welcoming the stranger and embracing diversity
- developing interpersonal relationships with people of different ages, backgrounds, perspectives, experiences
- being resilient and self-sufficient
In making these lists, I was struck by how much our rural communities, and our communities of faith, have in common. They really are interconnected, as suggested in this quote from 14th century philosopher and theologian, Meister Eckhart, that uses farming imagery to speak of why we need time set aside for prayer and worship: “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”
[This is an idea that needs further exploration.]
At the same time, let’s recognize that both rural areas and communities of faith also have their faults:
- not extending hospitality to new people, being wary of new ideas
- being judgemental, reacting out of fear rather than faith
- being resistant to change – the old “This is the way we’ve always done it” mindset
Most significantly, I think we have failed to be good stewards of the land, and of creation. I think there is a lot of talk, in barns and in sanctuaries, about taking care of the earth, but in reality, economics and convenience win every time.
While I think bureaucracy and over-regulation, as well as the growing expectations that the government should fix everything and pay for everything, have contributed to the decline of our rural areas AND our rural churches, our resistance to change and the inability to evolve in our ideas and understanding also play a huge role.
We get stuck in old ways that no longer work or make sense in the modern world, and we lose people; they leave their rural area, they stop coming to church. They go where there are more opportunities for employment, for interaction, for meaningful experiences.
Now, I’m a city girl with the best of them but do you know why I wish fervently we could not merely stop, but actually reverse, the decline of our rural communities, and our communities of faith?
Because I chose to move here.
Because I expect(ed) to spend the rest of my life here.
What drew me here, almost on a spiritual level, are the very things that make country living and rural life so important – the people, the space, the wildlife, the ability to grow and raise our own food, plus that whole idea of being known in a community (for better and for worse!).
I appreciate the idea that if my mail doesn’t get picked up, if my porch light doesn’t go off in the morning, if I don’t show up for my dental appointment, someone is going to notice, and wonder why – and actually act on that concern (I've come to appreciate that nosiness has its upside!).
Losing our rural communities is like everyone using Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat: We will forget how to talk with our neighbours, we will forget what it’s like to take care of and support people in real life, we will forget that the land and the sea and the sky existed long before skyscrapers and big box stores and articulated buses.
American journalist Susan Orleans once wrote, “Living in a rural setting exposes you to so many marvelous things: the natural world and the particular texture of small town living, and the exhilarating experience of open space.”
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “With what can we compare the Kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
And that is exactly why we need our rural communities, and our communities of faith – for we are those mustard seeds, and without us, where will the birds build their nests?
May these words be wisdom for our living. Amen.