The creases on their palms were like dark rivers flowing through callouses and scars. Black streaks of grit and grime were permanently etched around nails.
Fingers were missing. A pinkie gone, leaving three digits alongside the thumb. Or the upper part of a ring finger ended at the knuckle. I recall a few pointing, perhaps giving directions to a neighbor’s place, but there was no index finger to aim.
Is farming the most dangerous job in America? Oh sure, others could protest that distinction. Soldiers face bullets and bombs. Who wants to be a cop or firefighter rushing into a building ablaze with angry citizens or fires or both? Loggers with chainsaws always make the danger list. Don’t forget the construction workers atop half-built skyscrapers, a stumble from experiencing gravity in a bad, bad way.
But when I was a pastor in several of Wisconsin’s rural churches, in the land of milk, honey and a whole lot of cheese, I witnessed first-hand (and by way of missing fingers) that farmers earned their spot on any top ten of tough jobs.
Maintaining a family dairy farm is a twice daily trudge to the milking barn. Cows don’t take vacations. The fields surrounding the buildings, with corn planted like a standing army, represent the cattle’s feed for the year. If the corn grows well, if a tornado doesn’t wreck it in a furious second, if sufficient rain comes, if—by early autumn—it has dried to the right amount of waning moisture in the cobs—then all is well and good. Bills can be paid. A little money can be stashed for the kids’ college fund. But each dawn anticipates more work. Repairs. Using machinery with a thousand moving parts. Bailing hay. Stacking hay. Planting. Growing. Harvesting.
Hands maneuvered around spinning blades.
Shovels, metal edges like Bowie knives, plunged toward the hard earth and tender toes.
Caught between a sturdy wall and a Holstein weighing close to a ton, a farmer can be slammed and broken in the “simple” act of tending to his (or her) daily chores.
I merely preached. Visited in the hospital. Attended meetings. Made sure there were Sunday school teachers. Soft work. Cushy job.
At one church, the woman who played piano—quite well, I might add—was the farm wife that fixed the four meals a day (yes, four), herded the kids, used the riding mower to tackle the two-acre lawn, and was battling cancer.
At another congregation, the long-time church treasurer, a bachelor nearing fifty candles on his cake, ran a dairy spread with help from his brothers. He also cared for the parents, no longer easy when I was his pastor. His mother, a slender and once gorgeous woman (so faded photos revealed) had dementia. Turn your back and she’d turn the stove on to cook “something.” The farmhouse always seemed one mistake away from going up in smoke. Between the bachelor son and his cranky old father (who adored his wife), they figured out a system to keep her home and keep her out of trouble.
Most of the time.
I visited a retired farmer and his wife. They’d sold the farm to their kids. While sipping afternoon coffee, and chatting about nothing and everything, I asked Madge (we’ll call her that) if she’d traveled much.
“Oh yes,” Madge said. “I love to travel.”
“Where to?” I wondered.
“Went to Milwaukee once.”
I kept a straight face. She was serious.
This was not so long ago. This was then, like now, an era of jet planes and vacations to Hawaii or Vegas for a week of pleasure. Milwaukee was Madge’s limit.
On my first Easter in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area—you can search for that geographic anomaly on your own—I served communion for the sunrise service.
The decision was selfish. I was a young pastor though, and didn’t know better. After all, early morning was all about those Holsteins in the milking barns. Long before the sun teased with gray light and lengthy shadows, the farmers were deep into their chores. They’d gulped a gallon of coffee, repaired the tractor, and collected eggs from the chickens. Some farmers, to earn extra bucks because the market looked good that year, had also fed the hogs. My, my, my—how those hogs, when the wind was right (or wrong) could stink up the countryside! But, if the risk paid off, if the price of pork held, the year’s budget might see more black ink than red.
And yet, they left all the rest of the chores that Easter morning, mostly because the young pastor announced they’d have a sunrise service.
I baked bread.
I prepared the juice, a poor excuse for wine.
I praised Jesus.
I spoke of resurrection and the righteous path of being neighborly. Talked about the empty tomb and the wonder of faith.
We worshipped on the church’s front lawn, a ragged circle of folding chairs marking our morning sanctuary, while the sun cleaved the horizon. Dawn upon us.
I broke the bread.
Invited them to the feast.
In the fresh sunlight, sweet like honey through the trees, they came forward. With a cool breeze keeping them in vests and sweatshirts, for this was spring in Wisconsin, they came forward.
The bread of life.
The cup of salvation.
I recollect gazing at their hands while they cradled the elements, eating the simple bread that simply declared sublime and divine and forever love. How rough and scarred they were: men and women, young and old. The missing digits, the long-gone thumbs. Hands, in a barn an hour before, cleansed with hot water and ample soap, remained dirty. Several limped as they stepped to receive God’s gift.
We are all wounded, aren’t we? The flesh is weak. The world has countless sharp blades and mean words. There are too many random acts of cruelty. Our past haunts us. Our regrets shadow us. We’ve sinned, with the best and worst of them. The days feel long, the nights longer. We’re in debt, in hock, in arrears. There’s too much rain or not enough. We fear our spouse might leave us. The kids say they hate us.
Every day is glory; every day is misery.
They received the bread.
Communion we call it.
Community. A holy community of the wounded and wonderful, the cursed and blessed, the hurting and hopeful.
Take this bread, Jesus once declared. It’s for you. It’s for daring to remember that God loves you more than life itself.