I live in a town full of subsistence farmers. Some of them have supplementary income sources, but their primary food source is the corn that they grow on their mountain fields. I do not have my own cornfield, but I sometimes accompany my friends when they go out to cultivate their land. The other day, we hauled sacks of freshly-picked corn over a mountain trail, shouldering the bags up the steepest slopes where the burro couldn’t manage. As I sat catching my breath in between loads, I marveled at the raw interaction these people have with the land they cultivate. They clear the mountain slopes, scatter fertilizer, bury the seeds, care for the growing corn, and then pick, husk, and shell the mature corn, doing all the labor by hand or with very simple tools. Sometimes they even sleep in the fields during busy periods or to protect the corn from marauding squirrels and raccoons! All this gives them a very intimate acquaintance with the land, the plants and animals that live on it, and the weather that passes over it. I’ve not lived here long, but already I have been intrigued by the depth of knowledge they possess about the land and the life it supports.
Another Kind of Farming
I thought about all this as I sat catching my breath, and then I thought of the contrast between this way of growing corn and another way I am more familiar with. I grew up in a farming family in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. Most roads in the valley will take you past cornfields, but those cornfields look different. They are very neat and orderly; planted by, not manpower, but machine power. Tractors pull the plows that prepare the soil, the drills that plant the corn, the spreaders that apply the fertilizer, and the sprayers that zap the weeds. Come harvest time, combines will roll through and pick, husk, and shell the mature corn. The farmer’s interaction with their fields and the life they support is mediated by steel, rubber tires, and diesel exhaust. There’s nothing wrong with this machine-oriented way of growing corn, but I was humored by the thought that many perceive my Cumberland Valley farming friends as being close to the land. Yes, compared to a city dweller surrounded by concrete and steel, they are close to the land, but the closest they will ever get to most of the land they cultivate is a distance equal to the height of their tractor seat. That relationship is a far cry from the close interaction my mountain farming friends have with their land.
How Close to God?
I enjoyed comparing these two methods of growing corn, but then a spiritual parallel (at least somewhat parallel) came to mind. How do I cultivate my relationship with God? Like my mountain-farming friends with their land, am I intimate with God, meditating on and obeying His Word? Do I know the Holy Spirit and hear the direction that He gives? Do I have raw interaction with God in prayer, entering the throne room of the Most High and falling before Him in worship and intercession? Is my experienced-based knowledge of God expansive, such that others can be discipled from the depths of what I have learned from the Most Wise? Or am I like my valley-farming friends whose relationship with their land is mediated by machinery? Do I cultivate my relationship with God through the machinery of commentaries, devotional books, and deep theological discussions? Have I let those things that should help deepen my relationship with God instead completely replace it, giving me the impression of intimacy when instead what I know of the Most High is all “head knowledge"? Sure, in this condition I may be much closer to God than the pagan that denies His existence completely, but it’s a far cry from true intimacy and experiential knowledge. And unlike the two equally-acceptable ways of farming contrasted above, these two ways of cultivating a relationship with God are not equal. God wants to know me and be known by me, and I mean really KNOWN! I need to get down off my tractor and work that dirt by hand.
Get down and dirty with me.
—Leonard H, from a Mixtec village