Bringing in the Sheaves: Do We Care Who Leaves?
by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 1 February 2023 |
Moving to the Pacific Northwest introduced me to a different agricultural reality. Our peninsula is hemmed by timber patches, cranberry bogs, and fisheries. Harvest here involves chainsaws, cranes, and thundering log trucks. Instead of threshing barley, or cutting hay to dry and bale, coastal cranberry farmers open pipes and sprinkling systems to flood the bogs, while odd machines with paddle-wheels rake the submerged vines until berries pop to the surface and cluster like red and pink bubbles on the flooded fields.
At night, the crab and fishing boats appear as points of light dotting the water. When we first moved here, I would look out my window and in the darkness forget where I stood; for a brief second I would think the shining circles were the yard lights of the farmhouses down the lane.
If you’ve lived in a rural place where agrarian cycles still mark time, you’ll recall that harvest seasons launch festivals and joy. Getting paid after a long season of financial and physical investment is something to celebrate. Whether it is the harvest of logs or cranberries, fish or grain, gathering-in is a cumulative effort and a goal necessary for survival. Most people understand its importance.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is fond of harvest-as-metaphor. We’re not the only ones, of course, but few other churches have employed those images with such vigor. At any significant event, be it a local camp meeting or the sprawling silos of General Conference sessions, the harvest theme has dominated song services, sermons, banners, and Power-Points.
Administrative sessions delve deep into mission and division reports to sift and count the returns. Those calculations are shared back to congregations and are greeted with loud amens. Despite the gains reported, higher goals appear next year, as though no effort is quite enough.
I’ll confess that even as a rural resident familiar with the joys of harvest season, the metaphor often left me uncomfortable.
Ripe with resignation
The only thing more predictable than harvest goals and baptismal statistics at church gatherings are the grim reminders that “we are losing our youth.” This was the crossroads where my discomfort with the harvest-goal metaphor became a specific concern, a leaning and lingering grief.
It was the last morning of camp meeting, and I was seated near a group of “our youth.” To be specific, these were my own kids and some of their friends. In the layout of that academy gymnasium, the tarp-fabric Harvest 2009 banner hung directly behind them, shining with numbers and glistening fields of wheat.
I’m not sure the youth were listening. Part of me hopes they were not. As for me, I was struck by how news of generations vanishing was met by such helplessness.
“We are losing our youth!” That much was emphatic and clear, but the words were left hanging, as though this peril was beyond solution or even understanding. The audience sighed in dismay and resignation. It was just a familiar refrain like “we have this hope” sung in benediction.
Immediately after the lament over so many young people’s falling away came the reassuring news of how many more were coming in. Day-long baptisms of hundreds (and world-wide, thousands) were happening—but elsewhere. Blessings were pouring in, miracles abounded, the membership records were crammed full of the harvest at hand.
It made me wonder if our harvest metaphor has led us to view young people blowing away as just so much chaff—never really solid grain bound for the trains and silos of glory.
This shrug where the metaphor fails requires a closer response and responsibility. After all, harvest was a frequent reference in the parables. So what has brought us to this clash of gains and losses within Adventism’s favorite metaphor? If harvest themes work in the teachings of Jesus, why aren’t they working for us?
A malnourished model
The failure of this methodology to build a healthy body of abiding members lies specifically at the heart of why the harvest message doesn’t take root. A close inspection of Jesus’s harvest imagery shows how we have stripped it of the portion that leads to fruitfulness and germination. We’ve baked a white bread evangelism that fails to feed the hearts, minds, and souls of those hungry for meaning and growth.
There are two gospel passages cited most often as our call to harvest.
The first is Matthew 9—the same chapter as the calling of renegade Matthew. It is quoted specifically because it appears as a direct command:
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37-38 NIV).
Narrowly viewed, it makes an excellent headline. But as is always the case with headlines and banners, the details of the story are the heart of the matter. Jesus makes this proclamation in the face of obvious need. The preceding verses tell us that
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:35-36 NIV).
When we downplay or shame those calling for social or cultural relevance, those want to relieve suffering in the here and now, we are avoiding the details that matter to Jesus. To Jesus, “harassed and helpless” people with pressing needs will always look like a group ready to be gathered in.
Jesus isn’t sifting grain from chaff and wheat from weeds based on their having learned the perfect answers or all the right doctrines.
The second passage co-opted to this metaphor is in John 4. It’s the story of a whole town converted in a single day. But even this story of overwhelming harvest begins humbly with a single woman and a conversation with a stranger in need. At Jesus’s harvest in Sychar, the first-fruit of his harvest was the woman at the well.
When she launched into the usual doctrinal debate, Jesus answered with a theology that surpassed the differences of their nationalities. He moved quickly on to what was most urgently relevant to her. He spoke to basic needs: thirst, water, mercy. He dug deeper into her vulnerable status as an abandoned woman in a time and culture where survival was dependent on a man’s agreement to provide. He addressed the uncertainty of the bargain she’d struck with a man unwilling to permanently commit to her safety or dignity.
When she shared his insights with her community, the whole of it poured out of the city and up to the well to find Jesus. Such a mass-conversion would be prime mission report material—but the numbers would obscure what is important about the story. Though his own hometown had recently dismissed Jesus as ordinary, these cast-offs from Israel claimed Jesus as their messiah. They begged him to stay with them.
If we want our young people and the world to wish Jesus to abide with them, we must portray a messiah and a body of fellowship concerned with their questions and needs.
What remains to be said about our church’s harvest-goal obsession may seem harsh to those who love a good fall festival. I’m gathering courage here from the fact that Jesus had some words of his own. To leaders certain in their truth and status as the chosen ones, he had this to say:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15 NIV).
Strong words, which emboldens me to apply them to our church in our age. The harvest theme head-counting is impersonal and unbecoming. At its worst it is dehumanizing and blind to the value of the individual we’ve always claimed was sufficient reason for Jesus to have lived and died.
As long as the church views the gospel commission as only a numbers game, the grain gathered in will be blighted. The harvest will be brought in, chewed up, swallowed and processed-through without bringing meaning or sustenance to humanity. The hundreds-in-a-day converts, our fellow members, and our youth and children will go out the door as quickly as they came in.
Replanting and repurposing
At the end of this discussion, I am just a desperate and frustrated mother crying out for crumbs from my church’s table. Find a way; don’t look away. Share the blessings. Give my millennials, their friends, and these youngest generations more than the scraps of our focus and attention. Listen to their needs and questions with the same commitment given to printing harvest banners and pulp paper Great Controversys bound for the recycling bins of our cities.
This is not meant to devalue the significant investment and time Adventists devote to children’s programs and to our educational system. But it is telling to see the challenges these programs face now as families and economies change. Dispatching funds and programs without considering reality and relevance is casting seed without first examining the condition and state of the soil.
Ultimately, what needs doing does not require much financing, elaborate plans, or campaigns—just a listening ear. Patience and tolerance proves we value and respect our young people (and all people!) and what matters so much to them.
Whatever we may think about their theology, political alignment, sexuality, or reputation, we must invest and care the way Jesus cared about the Samaritan woman. She personified these exact same concerns to the religious community. Jesus knew them all and cared and listened anyway.
I’m not asking the church to save our young people—that is Jesus’s job. I’m asking the church to become a safe and welcoming place for them to exist, learn, grow, and worship. None of this can happen unless it first becomes a place where they can come as they are, and ask honest questions, a place that cares more about a hurting world than it cares about keeping count.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from Advent Source.
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