There is just something about kneeling on the ground, smelling the fresh earth, and trying to nourish growing things.

Or maybe it’s the green plastic water bucket with KB carefully stenciled on the side. That, and the new garden tools bought with a birthday gift card from my children.

Or than maybe it is about being stuck in the generation between someone’s past and some other people’s future.

Maybe it all came down to some old woman living in a nursing home; spitting five plum pits into a napkin and thinking, “With the right care those pits could become an orchard.”

Somehow, almost in another lifetime; I found myself (almost resentfully,) responsible for the care and nourishment; the future, of five plum pits; and – even being held to a degree of accountability for them. And she, who couldn’t remember whether the pits came from raw or cooked plums; couldn’t remember what I had just told her about how I was caring for them; somehow remembered that she had given something to me that was important to her and kept asking me, over and over again, month after month, visit after visit, whether I had planted them yet.

And so it came to pass that almost exactly a year ago I took five plum pits out of the freezer and lovingly placed them in the ground beside my red raspberry bushes and carefully watched over them for an entire summer with urgent fervency. The fervency was heightened soon after the planting when we also planted that dear person’s body on a hill overlooking a field of growing things. We planted her there awaiting a resurrection day. I watched for life for an entire summer and sadly saw nothing.

This morning!

This morning, with my mother’s green plastic bucket and my children’s birthday-present garden tools, kneeling on the grass, pulling weeds from my raspberry bushes, and caring for growing things; this morning, almost pulling it out for one of the weeds, I spied one slender red/purple stalk with perhaps ten delicate leaves; something that was not there last summer and was most assuredly not one of the weeds with which I was familiar.

I am not sure what a plum tree seedling is supposed to look like but if you were here I would gladly take you back next to the alley. I would be glad to let you vote whether you thought the carefully protected thin little stem and its little green leaves was actually a young plum tree. Together, we might voice opinions about whether it might someday become something. What is not up for vote is the effect that young plant had on me. What is not up for debate is “Whispering hope, like the voice of an angel. This morning, kneeling in the grass amidst growing things, that little sprig of life was “making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.”

And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Matt 22:12  KJV

 

Marlene recently asked me a question about the man that was thrown from the wedding feast that Jesus tells about in Matthew chapter twenty-two. Her probing also got me to mulling over this seemingly strange incident.

 

The background in this Parable that Jesus told is about a king who made a sumptuous feast to celebrate the nuptials of his son. When the servants were sent to retrieve the invited guests they were met with a variety of excuses and outright disdain. After dealing with the first invitees, the king commanded the servants into the hinterlands for a no-holds-barred effort to fill his house. Why then, after all this activity, would a guest be humiliated before the other guests and thrown out for the seemingly minor offence of not being properly dressed? The answer begs us to dig deeper.

 

In the Ancient Near East what one was wearing was considered very important. The people classes were extremely stratified and instantly recognized by their apparel. A beggar dressed like a beggar, and a harlot like a harlot. Bridegrooms and brides; married women and virgins were easily identified as well as merchants, farmers, political leaders, lawyers, tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees. Dressing out of your class was looked upon as an attempt to deceive and viewed with disdain. When the king invited his guests he added the proviso that all should abandon their positions. The humble were exalted and the high were made low. The garments included in the invitation specified that all should arrive at the feast classless, with no other status than to be the honored guest of the bride and groom.

 

Understanding this, we might more easily understand the disdain shown by the first invitees. Can’t you just imagine the reaction a scribe might have when shown the garment he was expected to wear? “Well who does that king think he is? For sixty-five long years I’ve been the head of the royal library. I have carefully copied, filed and maintained His Majesties’ documents and he expects me to show up dressed no differently than one of his lowly stable hands. I’m telling you, he can just take his silly invitation, and the robe with it, and shove it.”

 

This brings us to the man that did show up. While we’re imagining, perhaps we might divine the following exchange also.

 

“I have heard that the king places a special emphasis on humility If I show up dressed as a pauper he would most likely extend special recognition and honor my self righteous attempts at pleasing him.”

 

The Great King has always been a “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  He hates pride, and recognizes it in all of its many disguises. He began his cleansing career by banishing the Angel of Light from his presence. We should not marvel about the actions implied in this parable.

 

I AM COVERED OVER

 

I AM COVERED OVER WITH THE ROBE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT 
JESUS GIVES TO ME, GIVES TO ME,
I AM COVERED OVER WITH THE PRECIOUS BLOOD OF JESUS 
AND HE LIVES IN ME, LIVES IN ME,
WHAT A JOY IT IS TO KNOW MY HEAVENLY FATHER LOVES ME SO, 
HE GIVES TO ME, MY JESUS,
WHEN HE LOOKS AT ME HE SEES NOT WHAT I USED TO BE,
BUT HE SEES JESUS, JESUS
 
                                 By Unlisted
 
 
Jonas Borntreger

The other day Marlene and I were driving through some of our old haunts. As we approached a certain spot of the road, she reminded me about what is probably the most bizarre experience I ever encountered.

When Marlene and I were courting we were in a fever and stretched ourselves far beyond propriety and what was physically good for us. I would often get off from work, drive thirty-five miles, pick her up and drive another twenty miles to some church activity. Afterward, I would retrace the miles and often had a harrowing drive, late in the evening, for the last leg home. On one such night I kept drifting onto the gravel shoulder, waking up and correcting my course for the next several miles and then do it again. Finally, I was on the shoulder, approaching a concrete bridge banister, and not waking up. At the last moment a voice in the back seat sharply called my name. It was so real that I pulled onto the shoulder and got out of the car to check for someone in the backseat. The highway has been rebuilt and the banister replaced with a culvert, but forty-five years later I still feel a strong sense of awe as I approach that spot on the road.

I’m convinced that repentance was appropriate; I should not have tested the grace of God by my actions. I am however grateful that he looked beyond my faults and provided for my needs. This experience also confirms to me that He had his intention for me and for my family in mind and determined beforehand to bring it to pass for His purposes.

It’s ‘show-and-tell time. Tell of a time when you witnessed the supernatural providence of a merciful God in your life.

I recently watched a video where Floyd McClung answered the question, “What was the highlight of your life this past year?” After admitting that many would seem it strange, he said it was the funeral of his father.

His answer struck a responsive chord with me. I also had a part in an end-of-life service this past year. My mother”s home going last April was the climax of an humble and unselfish life. Being a participant as we watched a mother lead her extended family to the crossing, and then, without fear or complaining showed us, “This is how it’s done;” was fantastic beyond bounds.

If you care to comment; I would be interested to hear what was the highlight of your recent past.

Yea a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. Luke 2:35

In my reading this morning, I once again came across the concept about how unfairly Jacob treated young Joseph by presenting him with favor and a special coat. The author seemed to fault Jacob for “Promoting Joseph prematurely”. The writer was certainly not alone in the opinion expressed, and while this lesson may have value when raising children, (a concept, which I also sometimes question,) faulting Jacob seems to me to be short-sighted and ignores what I suspect may be an element of wisdom in Jacob’s dealing with his sons.

The basis of my suppositions is the activities which I see from my Heavenly Father, himself. As I study the scriptures I come up with a whole variety of examples where God seems to choose, and, rather arbitrarily, sets the stage for conflict among his children. The first of those examples is none other than with the first set of his children. Two young men bring an offering to him. How nice! He accepts one and rejects the other. How unfair! And it just goes on from there.

He gives Abraham and Sarah the promise of a special son and then holds out on fulfilling that promise until, driven to the point of desperation; Abraham takes matters into another woman’s bed and sets the stage for the Arab conflict that lasts to this day. Next, Abraham’s Daughter-in-law is told, “I reject your first child for the birthright blessing and instead pick the younger.” In case you miss the point, let me ramp it to the next level.

For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.
The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Duet. 7:6-8 KJV

So tell me mister! Why should a band of scruffy nomads get plunked down into a strategic area in the middle of the Middle East – and with a special promise like that?

It certainly doesn’t stop there:

God somehow gets a virgin pregnant, and puts her under the threat of being stoned. Next he claims that her offspring should be “His Only Begotten Son” He announces that son with a special star and an angel choir. This action trips a pagan king into mass executions; (Rachel, Abraham’s daughter-in-law, still weeps for her children.) and makes that special son a fugitive in Egypt. When the Heavenly Father next declares that son before the world, it is with the proclamation of a prophet, the descent of a dove, and a thundering voice from heaven, “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED. Jesus wore his own version of the many colored coat; walked a path of specialness; and followed a course that had no options short of leading straight to a Roman cross. Once again, God demonstrated that “His ways” and “His thoughts” are certainly not ours.

Somehow I suspect that Jacob knew; he was doing more than just spoiling a son.

Sometime in the later half of the fifties, when I was in the later half of my teens, I was parked at an intersection out in the country, in Calhoun County, Illinois, down towards St Louis. I had a stack of shiny tin buckets sporting a label that proclaimed; “Nothing is better for breakfast than hot cakes and sorghum.” I was on the business end – the final step of an outrageous enterprise. Business was slow; the afternoon was hot and boring when an enormously long, gaudy green, stretch limousine pulled up to the stop sign, the windows rolled down revealing the biggest bunch of tall, laughing black guys I had ever seen in one place.

“Sorghum – Get your sorghum here,” I called.

“Look at that kid. He’s selling sorghum for a living,” they hooted. “Yah, we dribble for a living.”

As the limo turned the corner, I memorized the words painted in big yellow letters down the side of it; “The Harlem Globetrotters.” At that time, and for several years afterwards, I had no idea what the Globetrotters actually did, or what “dribbling” was all about. Today, I find myself the head of a clan that is almost equally ignorant about the art of growing, cooking, and enjoying Pure Cane Sorghum Molasses.

My family plunged headfirst into the molasses business just as the business itself was in its final death throes. Today, almost all of the sorghum that is cooked is, more or less, a nostalgic hobby rather than a business. When our country was young, sorghum provided a ready source of sweetener. Throughout the Midwest, almost every community once had a sorghum mill and almost everyone had a patch of cane which was cut and taken to the mill to be turned into this sweet nectar. As we were getting ‘into molasses,’ molasses was increasingly being replaced by Karo Syrup and refined sugars. Today our craving for sweeteners is further fulfilled by little packets that have no sugar in them at all and by corn sweeteners, rolling, in long tank car trains, from large processing plants scattered across our land. Totally heedless of this trend, we never the less persisted through three seasons raising, cooking and marketing molasses.

As time goes by, I find that each fall I more wistfully desire to do it again. Maybe it is my own nostalgia; plain and simple. Maybe it is because I remember a dad and his son working together, pushing against our physical limitations and in three short years stretching the technological envelope of our enterprise; ‘Boldly, going where no one had gone before.’ Sometimes I rue that we only had three years at it and long to go back and finish the job we started.

The actual process of ‘cooking’ molasses requires a lot of energy to remove the moisture and reduce the juice into syrup. We had a saw mill and a cheap energy source in the form of slab wood. This idea only persisted the first year. Trying to get a consistent even heat under a large evaporator pan with wood that is sometimes Oak, sometimes Elm, and sometimes Hickory; wood that is sometimes wet and sometimes dry, was an art that we never completely mastered. The second season we switched to fuel oil. We installed a collection of burners salvaged from heating furnaces. This was much better but still the only way we had to regulate heat was adding and removing bricks from under each burner to move them closer or farther from the pan.

The third year we hit Bonanza! We learned that we could salvage light insulated fire brick from the scrap pile at a local refractory plant. From those brick we built a new fire pit. We got a big LP gas tank and installed gas burners. Now turning the heat up or down was as simple as turning a valve and opening or closing the air inlet at the burners. Back in those days there was an expression that was frequently heard: When something worked exceptionally well, someone would say, “Now you’re cookin with gas.” Who knows; we might have invented that little ditty.

The labor component was something that always seemed to get short shrift when Dad put together a business plan. It is one thing to see us get filthy rich off of the east three acres in the middle field. It is something else entirely to turn the plan into reality. Dad never took inventory and determined that there were some practical limits to how much free labor he could get out of his household. You always ran right up against the limits and at that point tried to invent a way around them. We might also have initiated the saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ During those three years we were certainly not bashful about invention.

First off, the cane had to be planted. We didn’t have a cane seed planter so; we’ll use the soybean plates instead. Never mind that that still put way too many seed in the ground. “As soon as the plants come up we will go through the field with hoes and thin out the weaker plants.” (When Dad used ‘we’ in that sense he was never referring to himself and the mouse he had in his pocket.) For one of the first inventions Dad took a set of planter plates to his favorite welding shop, had the holes welded shut and a new set of smaller, more properly spaced, holes machined in them. Sometimes my dad learned very fast.

There is a relatively narrow window in the fall when cane has to be harvested. If you start the process before the cane is ripe you lose a lot of sweetness. At the other end of the window, the juice in the cane will sour soon after the first hard frost. Harvesting cane in the conventional way was an intensely laborious process; and remember, we’re not talking about the common several rows at the edge of a truck patch; we’re talking about acres of the stuff.

Conventional sorghum cane harvesting required that you first remove the leaves. This was done with sharpened wooden paddles as you walked down the rows. Next you bent the stalks down and removed the grain heads with a machete. After that you chopped off the stalks and laid them orderly across a flat bed wagon for transport to the mill where the stalks were run between rollers and the juice was squeezed out of them.

One of the first rebellions against conventionalism was with the beheading process. The grain heads were animal feed. Why should they be scattered across the field and then later retrieved and fed to the cattle? We left them on. We laid the cane carefully across the wagon with the heads hanging over the edge. When we got to the mill, Dad took the chainsaw and neatly zipped off the heads in one fell swoop.

We next asked why the leaves needed to be removed. Convention said that something bitter would be squeezed out of them when they were pressed. Dad didn’t believe it. He grabbed several hands full of leaves and ran them through the mill. When there was no juice forthcoming he considered that conventional wisdom relegated to the myth bin. When we started pressing cane with the leaves on, we however soon learned that there was a downside to doing so. Instead of pressing something from the leaves the leaves actually soaked up a lot of the juice and reduced our yield. The next morning we brought in a load of cane while the dew was still on the leaves. The dew prevented the leaves from soaking up the juice and I never stripped the leaves from another stalk of cane. That’s what I call Win-Win.

We soon realized that our pioneering had removed the major obstacles to the biggest labor reduction invention of them all.

For many centuries farmers had typically brought their crops in from the field and then threshed or otherwise processed them. With the advent of our industrial era that started to change: More frequently now, farmers were taking their threshing equipment out into the field. Why couldn’t we do the same? It was an idea rife with audacity but that had never stopped us before. By our second season we were dragging the largest sorghum press that we could find right down the cane row and bringing only the juice to the plant to be processed. How we accomplished that resulted in the most ‘Rube Goldberg’ parade of farm machinery that you ever saw in your life.

To lead this parade we needed a tractor that would go extremely slow, so we built one. We started with the chassis and drive train of a thirties vintage Dodge truck. We next added another transmission in tandem with the one that was there. With both transmissions in a low gear we satisfied our ‘need for (no) speed.’

To cut the cane stalks and orient them for feeding through the press, we started out with a forage harvester. Farmers use forage harvesters for chopping row crops and blowing them into a wagon for silage. For our application we removed the blower/chopper wheel and pretty much left the rest of the machine intact. We installed an engine as a power source and added another set of wheels and an axle in back to support the tremendous weight of the mill. Next, the mill was mounted with its throat right where the chopper wheel had previously been. Shafts, bearings, chain drives and gears were supplied to tie it all together and make all of it turn the right way and at approximately the right speed.

A small pump in the catch basin under the mill gathered the precious juice and routed it to a tank trailer bringing up the rear.

When we bolted all this together and drug it to the field it even worked. (Sort of) Actually, it worked pretty well. We had some fine tuning to do with drive ratios etc. but it all wound up, in the end, being quite minor stuff. We were however not completely out of the woods. When we built our tractor it had too long a wheelbase to do a good job maneuvering in the field. It was also too light and often the weight of the mill picked up the tractor and set it down where it decided instead of the other way around.

The other downside was that we could no longer use the chainsaw for zipping off the heads. We were back to using the machete, a row at a time ahead of the mill. Dad made a substantial investment to correct those two problems prior to season three.

As far as I can remember, Dad, in his lifetime, only bought one piece of brand new drive equipment. It was a shiny red Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. We bought it special, with extra small wheels so it would go slower. It replaced the Dodge tractor. To remove the heads we were back to inventing. We mounted a conventional manure loader on the tractor. Above, and off to the side of the bucket, and in line with the cane row, we installed a short piece of sickle mower and powered it with a hydraulic motor. Now as we drove down the cane rows, we raised and lowered the loader to compensate for shorter or taller cane. The sickle cut off the heads and a chute directed them into the bucket. When the bucket was full of heads, the cavalcade would stop briefly, and the bucket would be rotated to dump the seeds in a pile in the field where they would later be collected.

By the third season our harvesting routine was pretty well established. With the dew on the leaves, Dad and I would hit the sorghum cane field around 4:00 A.M… By daylight we would have pressed a days worth of juice and have it deposited in a settling tank. In the meantime, the rest of the family would have done the chores and we would now sit down together for breakfast. After breakfast the pans were fired up and the cooking started. Around noon someone would bring out lunch and we ate on the fly. The cooking continued till dark when we retired to supper and a few hours of sleep before the routine started all over again.

That’s an awful lot of shiny buckets of sorghum. But no problem! After all, “Nothing is better for breakfast than hot cakes and sorghum.” Years later, after we ate or otherwise got rid of the last sorghum, I’m not sure that we thought so any more. But just maybe – for breakfast tomorrow morning – one more time for old times sake.

This morning Marlene and I were going through some of my old books. I pulled a German book from the shelf that was printed in 1896. It was a collection of youth stories written by S. B. Shaw emphasizing the value of prayer. She had me read one of the stories and I thought it would be fun to share my translation of it with you. This story teaches the value of being honest when dealing with our children.

A young lad was told by his mother not to play on some nearby sand dunes. “A bear once attacked and tore a child playing there,” she said. One day a playmate asked him to go play in the sand with him. “I can’t,” the first boy said, “I am scared of the bears.” “There are no bears in the dunes,” the lad replied. “Oh yes there are. My mama said so.”

As they were debating the preacher happened to walk by. They decided to ask him. “No,” the preacher replied, “There are no bears.” “But,” the first lad said, “My mother told me there were.”

“I am very sad that your mother told you so,” the preacher answered, “But there are no bears.”

The young lad started crying and ran straight home to his mother. “O Mamachen,” he called, “Did you tell me a lie?” Did you tell me there were bears in the dunes when there actually were none?”

The mother admitted her wrong but said she had told him so for fear that he would get lost in the dunes.

“But Mamaschen, it is so wrong to tell a lie.”

“I know it, Tommy, I know it,” she replied, with tears in her eyes. “We will now asked our loving Lord to forgive me and I won’t ever do it again.”

As they knelt together to pray, Tommy suddenly called out “Wait Mamachen, let me pray. You might neglect to tell the Lord the whole truth.”