One of the oldest and noblest occupations on earth belongs to those who labor in the soil. We call them farmers. My heritage during my growing up years belongs to what is often referred to as the “Great Plains” of our country. Another description commonly refers to it as the “bread basket” for supplying agricultural abundance. Generally, the Great Plains comprise that area which is west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains. It’s huge! Beautiful country for raising grain. It attracted my grandfather to this country about a century ago. Emigrating from Denmark, he brought his bride and three children to this country during the great depression. He was a farmer in Denmark and he planned to be a farmer in America. America had more land and an opportunity to grow. More promise for a young man with a growing family. As a young man, my grandfather shared with me that his favorite song was “America, the Beautiful”. Those amber waves of grain were true….he found that here. My grandfather was a farmer and he was a noble man. Grateful for his courage, hard work and his sacrifice. Characteristics very becoming of farmers.
While never holding the official occupation of being a farmer, I was very fortunate to be associated with many who did. My grandfather, my father, my friend, my friend’s fathers and many more. You see farming permeates most of life and business in the Great Plains. It’s the main thing and much of life and business revolves around the seasons of the year. The spring brings a new season of planting. Moving into summer comprises fertilizing, cultivating and irrigation to help the crop prosper. And, of course, the autumn season turns into harvest where the crop is taken to market to be sold. Winter is a time of rest, repair and getting things ready for the next season when the whole process starts over again. And so goes life for the farmer year after year. An annual cycle that repeats during their life time. Repetitive? Yes. Boring? Not! Farming is anything but predictable with the weather being one of the greatest variables that will keep your anxiety and even your blood pressure rising. Another can be the unpredictability of the markets and commodity prices. Will there be a gain or a loss this year? A farmer’s life is filled with risk and reward. And yet, the farmer must carry on year after year. Sowing seed to plant a new crop with the hope that THIS year will be one of great abundance, great weather and great markets.
In one of his parables, found in the gospel of Mark, chapter four, Jesus uses the life of a farmer to illustrate a principle of the kingdom of God for his disciples. Jesus tells the story about the farmer who went out to sow his seed. Some falls on the path, and the birds ate it up. Some seed fell on the rocky places where there was little soil. It quickly sprouted with the sunshine but was soon scorched because it had no root. Other seed, fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants so they did not bear fruit. Still other seed fell on good soil and sprang up producing a crop thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was sown. The twelve disciples who were following Jesus, asked him to explain the parable for them. Jesus replied, “The farmer sows the word.” Jesus knew that they were going to experience many different types of “soil” in the hearts of men. The key for them was to keep on sowing the word of God. Season after season after season. Just as the farmer who plants a new crop each year. Faithful, hopeful and looking forward to the harvest.
The way of a Christian is like the way of a farmer. We are to sow the word of God, in season and out of season as the apostle Paul would say. We do not know when, how or if the seed we have sown will grow. For God is the one who makes the seed grow. We must be faithful to keep sowing the word. Not only in our own life but also in the lives of others. Just like the farmer. It’s a noble calling.
One item on my “to do list” at the beginning of each year is to work on a list of goals and objectives to help chart my course for the year. Generally, one of those goals is to spend time in the Bible during the year. Encouraged to do so by those who were faithfully helping me to grow as a disciple of Christ in my 20’s, the practice has stayed with me through the years. The principle of being saturated in the Word of God through hearing, reading, studying, memorizing and meditation has yielded a multitude of blessings. For example, one of my goals is to read through the Bible in one year. Another goal is to meet with others to study the Bible. The Word is the sword of the Spirit; God speaks to us through His Word. (Ephesians 6:17) Indeed, it’s quite difficult to hear God’s voice when I’m not in the Word of God. The Bible is essential to my growth as a Christian.
In reflecting back on 2017, growing to be a better “listener” was not to be found on my list of goals and objectives. Not even a whisper in the back of my mind! But as the year progressed, the need to improve my listening capabilities became more and more apparent. In a meeting with a group of men in studying the book of Proverbs, a couple of Scripture verses were particularly impactful. A major theme in the book is the distinction between the wise man and the foolish man. A distinction that is made manifest in the choices one makes and the eventual consequences of those choices. Pride and humility, another theme, are contrasted throughout the book. One rests with the fool and one with the wise. Proverbs 18:13 was especially poignant, “He who answers before listening, that is his folly and his shame.” As a person who greatly enjoys being with people, I have the tendency to also enjoy talking. Imagine that! A tendency that shows itself when I begin to think how I will answer someone while they are talking. Doing two things at once is not possible for me. So when I’m thinking about my answer, I’m obviously not listening. That’s where the fool lives and it is to his shame. I was convicted that I live there far too often. The second verse from Proverbs was also in chapter 18, verse two. “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” Obviously, my desire to share my opinions comes at the expense of not truly understanding people when I am with them. Now I’m twice the fool!
Another reminder of the need for good listening skills occurred during the Bible study, “Every Man a Warrior” series, which another man and I studied last summer. Specifically, the second book which zeroed in on my role as a Husband and a Dad. It hit this area hard. It’s extremely difficult for me to know the deep issues going on in the lives of those closest to me, my wife and children, if I am not a good listener. And to be a good listener, I need to spend “time with them!” That requires an alteration in my agenda and my schedule to accommodate theirs. The time involved here is quantity, rather than quality. The time is also dedicated toward me “asking questions,” rather than telling others what “I’m doing” or what they should be doing! The study required us to put these skills into practice. In doing so, one becomes painfully aware that my skills are not anywhere near where they ought to be. Felt a bit like I was back in sixth grade instead of operating at the PhD. level which is where I should be by now! Gratefully, God never gives up on us, so there is still time for me to change.
As the year progressed, more hints came my way. Another Bible study called “The Way of the Alongsider” carried a chapter entitled the “Way of Depth”. In order to grow deeper in relationships, we need to be exceptional at listening. By this time in the year, I had received the message that this area needed a lot of focus. Good communication can only take place when I listen well. As Stephen Covey noted many years ago in his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we must “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Toward the end of the year, a good friend asked for assistance in facilitating the “Deep Dive” coaching seminar with him. A seminar dedicated to help leaders turn their ministry dreams and life goals into practical and life-changing realities. One of the sections that fell to me, (Yes, you guessed it!) was on developing “active listening” skills. Needless-to-say, the opportunity was welcomed as another venue to put these skills into practice.
Improving in this area of “listening” is indeed an art. It takes on going practice and diligence to truly seek to hear what others are seeking to communicate. In doing so, my understanding of others and my relationship with them will greatly deepen. I’ve found that it clearly takes focus to ask good questions instead of telling my stories and my experiences. My goal is to reach a high school diploma in this area of listening. And perhaps even grow further! Gratefully, God is answering prayer and enabling progress one step at a time. In the words of Familyman Todd Wilson, “It’s hard, but it’s good!”