“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way…” ~ Isaiah 53:6
I wasn’t raised as a farmer. In fact, except for the occasional school field trip, I had never so much as set foot on a farm until my late 20’s. Being a preacher’s kid, I grew up listening to the sound of traffic roaring by, because most churches are on main roads, and not far from shopping and modern conveniences. I always found animals and farming to be an interesting subject, but it was just something one reads about, not something one goes out to do.
But God has this funny way of fitting us for His plans. And, in my case, the plan involved learning small-scale farming in a remote part of the Appalachian mountains. And, as all God’s plans tend to turn out, I love every minute of it.
There’s something about being close to the soil and the animals that makes so many Biblical allusions very real and clear. When God talks about the wheat growing with the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), I think of my weed-strewn vegetable garden that first year I decided to grow my own food, and how it really did make more sense to just let them all grow together, harvest what I could find at the end of the summer and then till everything in and start over next year.
When Jesus bemoans Jerusalem (Luke 13:34), I envision our broody hen and her patient devotion to her fluffy, errant chicks. (If you ever get a chance to observe a mother hen with her chicks, do so; the example of selfless, persistent, attentive love will change the way you look at God forever.) When Jesus referred to the Pharisees as leaven contaminating the ideals of God (Matthew 16:6), I picture my newest attempts at making cheese, riddled with mold because I didn’t know you can’t bake bread and make cheese at the same time or else the yeast will ruin your cheese.
None of these things ring true in our modern world. We buy cheese from the store, mold-free and with a safe-to-eat-by date neatly stamped on the plastic wrapping. Our eggs have never been nurtured by a broody hen, and vegetables come pre-washed and bug free. We’ve removed ourselves from the world so well that God’s metaphors lose their relevance.
The Great Chicken Roundup
Since most of you will likely never become farmers, let me share with you an illustration from my own recent experiences.
My chickens have been needing a new hen house for quite some time, as the old one left much to be desired. It had no electrical outlets for lights or water heaters; it was far from the house, rendering it less safe from predators; and the admittedly small fenced-in chicken yard had long since been eaten down to bare dirt. Chickens love to roam, so we built new, modern housing in a safe part of the farmyard where they could free range and not be at risk from every fox or hawk in the neighborhood.
At long last, the great moving day came, and we moved the chickens to their new house. What a circus that was!! Animals in general do not like a break from their routine, and chickens are no exception. Regardless of the nice amenities in the new roost – clean, metal nest boxes; heating lamp for cold nights; automatic water dispenser, so they would never be thirsty – the chickens were all out of sorts. I gave them a couple of days to adjust, and then one bright morning I flung the doors open wide so they could enjoy their new freedom.
Here’s where my dreams of happy chickens met with reality. The chickens didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Most roamed about looking lost; a few took to eating grass and worms; then, as a group, they began drifting right back towards the old coop! Within 20 minutes, more than half the flock was clustered around the dismal chicken yard, looking for a way in. I chased them back to the grass; they ran around me and went back to the chicken yard. Finally I gave up and let them wander; sure that they would get it all sorted out sooner or later. Eventually, they did start to make use of their freedom to hunt for bugs. But, they stayed close to the old, run-down coop, unwilling to part with the familiar.
“But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog [is] turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” ~ 2 Peter 2:22
Finally, the sun began to set, and as if to add insult to injury, it started to rain. The chickens didn’t know that they could run back to the new coop for safety, and they were unable to get into the old one, so they wandered around in pathetic circles, clucking moodily, dripping wet. Realizing they weren’t going to help themselves, I grabbed a flashlight and some mucking boots and began to round up the chickens. I’ll let you imagine how fun it was to be out in the cold, with the sun setting rapidly, rain pouring down and mud up to my ankles, trying to catch a bunch of irritated, drenched, smelly chickens. There is nothing glamorous about it, I can assure you of that.
Eventually, I thought I had everyone from the yard inside the new coop. But, it was fully dark now, so I did a head count… 3 chickens were still missing.
I don’t know how much you know about chickens, but they have a roosting instinct that is pretty powerful. That is, when the sun sets, chickens settle in for the night, and nothing will get them moving again. So, wherever my missing hens had been when the sun set, there they would stay until the sun came up, regardless of weather or danger from passing predators.
My first thought was, “Stupid chickens, if they can’t figure out how to get home at night then they can just stay outside.” I was rather sodden myself at this point, and none too eager to continue the Great Chicken Roundup in the rain at night. But then, I had chosen to raise these animals; I had chosen to move them to a new home; I simply couldn’t in good conscience go indoors where it was warm and dry, knowing that I had three hapless, helpless hens lost in the darkness. The responsibilities of owning live animals go beyond succumbing to personal convenience; so I started trudging.
Turns out, they weren’t all that hard to find: they had found a dry spot underneath the old chicken coop. Wet, vulnerable, they were lined up like a little smorgasbord, still as statues for anyone who wanted them to carry them off. Thankfully, I found them before a fox or raccoon did. Of course, I had to crawl through chicken manure to get to them.
But, as I finally carried those maddening hens back to safety, a powerful feeling of compassion washed over me. After all, they were only chickens, doing what chickens do. With the roosting instinct kicked in, they were helpless to save themselves; without intervention, they would have spent a very cold and miserable night, if not eaten outright by morning.
The story of the shepherd seeking his lost sheep became very, very real to me that night, and I’m not ashamed to admit that those stupid lost hens brought me to tears of humility. Do we not do the same to our Heavenly Father? He shows us green fields, and we race back to the emptiness of what’s familiar.
When the night sneaks up on us, and the rains begin to fall, it is so easy to fall back on our own understanding and get lost in the storm, vulnerable to attack and injury. Then we get stuck, hopelessly lost and confused until—praise God!—we see a light in the darkness, and here comes our Lord, ready to crawl through the mud and manure to find us and carry us home.
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” ~ Romans 5:8
Our Farmer God
Maybe you’ve been struggling through a dark time in your life. We all have them; and even those with years of experience in walking with God, we can be caught unawares. All of us, at some time or another, stray away from God’s best (Isaiah 53:6), and need the Shepherd to come find us.
Sometimes we need the reminder that in our own strength we are unable to weather the storm. Sometimes we just need the practice in waiting, learning to trust, because the truth is God will *always* come for His children. Even when we’re surrounded with failures, He never fails.
Even when we fall, He is able – and willing! – to help us back to our feet. I am thankful, so very thankful, that we serve a God whose faithfulness and mercy endures forever (Psalm 136).
The steadfast love of the lord never ceases
His mercies never come to an end
They are new every morning, new every morning.
Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord;
Great is thy faithfulness!
Contributed by Joelle Heilemann