Chopping Cotton

Series: Lessons From The Cotton Field

“Other seed fell among thorns which grew up and choked the plants. … The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” (Matt. 13: 7, 22)

imageI vividly recall my first day working in my father’s cotton fields. When I was around eight years old, Daddy decided it was time I learned how to “chop cotton”. After he shortened the handle of my own personal hoe, I crawled into the back of our 1950 Chevy pickup truck along with several other workers and we headed to the field just above our house.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, chopping cotton is the first hoeing that occurs after the young cotton plants become sturdy enough to withstand the process. It involves thinning out excess plants, leaving groups of two or three spaced apart by about the width of the hoe blade. The crusty soil is then tilled with the hoe and gathered to reinforce the remaining plants while removing various weeds, such as Johnson grass, coffee weeds, and thorns. The end result is similar to the photo shown here.

I was actually pretty excited over the thoughts of spending the day working alongside my father and maybe earning a little spending money. The prevailing wage for chopping cotton at the time was $3/day. (I soon discovered to my dismay that it did not apply to family members!) However, the excitement I felt that morning quickly faded as the heat of the midday Georgia sun began to take its toll and the length of the rows increased, taking us far from the next refreshing drink from the communal water jug.

A few weeks later, we would return to the fields to remove any additional weeds that had sprouted up around the cotton plants since the initial chopping. Daddy would then plow the ground between the rows one last time and speak those words that soon became music to my ears, declaring the crop to be “laid by”, meaning work in the cotton fields was complete until the harvest.

imageLittle did I know at the time that I was learning a foundational Biblical principle found in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. We spent many hours in those fields removing weeds that if left unattended would have choked the young cotton plants and greatly reduced the yield at harvest time. Thanks to meticulous soil preparation and timely hoeing and plowing, Daddy rarely failed to achieve his goal of harvesting at least a bale (500 lbs.) of cotton per acre planted.

In the Parable of the Weeds, also found in Matthew 13, our Lord revealed Satan as the sower of weeds designed to make our lives unfruitful. Those weeds may be sins that entangle us, restricting our spiritual growth, and hindering our testimony. (Heb. 12:1) They usually involve activities more aligned with the world’s values than with God’s.

Weeds may be nothing more than trivial pursuits which keep us from setting aside a daily quiet time of spiritual refreshment alone with the Lord, praying and studying His Word. In this day of 200 television stations available 24 hours a day with a simple click of the remote control, and smartphones beckoning us to check out the latest text message, tweet, or Facebook post, we are bombarded with more potential distractions than ever before.

Our personal time bandits may even be worthwhile activities. But just as overly crowded cotton plants strip limited nutrients from the soil and block out sunlight needed for maximum blossoming, too many worthwhile activities can rob us of spiritual nourishment when they leave little time for rest or appropriate quiet time with the Lord. That was Martha’s mistake when she asked Jesus to tell her sister Mary to help her in the kitchen. Our Lord was quick to inform Martha that by sitting “at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said“, Mary had “chosen what is better“. (Luke 10:39, 42)

Ephesians 5:15-16 (ESV) says “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”  No matter where you are in your spiritual walk, you will always encounter those weeds that can choke the impact of the gospel and make you unfruitful. In fact, the stronger we grow in our relationship with the Lord, the more weeds Satan seems to sow.

You will never hear the Lord declare you “laid by” until the day he calls you home. The work we’ve been called to do is too important and the enemy is too formidable.

What people, places, or activities take up the space in your life that is meant for God? Is it time for you to start chopping?

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you.” – Carl Sandburg

Note: All Scripture from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.

Lessons From The Cotton Field

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.’” (Matt. 13: 3-8 NIV)

imageJesus often spoke to the multitudes in parables, which are simple stories designed to illustrate spiritual lessons. Many of his parables were related to agriculture, since most of his listeners were familiar with agrarian principles. Having grown up on a cotton farm in Georgia, they speak to my heart as well.

This particular parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, has always been my favorite. As with so many of Jesus’ teachings, it seems that every time I read it and take the time to digest its full meaning, I see something new.

If you’re familiar with the story, you know that our Lord went on to explain the parable to his disciples, telling them that the seed represents the message of the gospel. It sometimes falls on hardened soil, never penetrating the listener’s heart. The seed falling on rocky soil represents those who receive the message with joy, but whose roots of faith are so shallow that trouble or persecution causes them to fall away. The seed falling among thorns are those who allow the “worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches” to choke the word, making it unfruitful. And last, of course, are those who hear the word, understand it and produce a bountiful crop.

As I reflect on my own faith journey, which I shared in my last post, The Eternal Question, I can see myself in all four stages of this parable at different times in my life. My heart was hardened for many years, not allowing those seeds of the gospel to take root at all. After coming to faith at the age of twenty-four, very little spiritual growth took place in the rocky soil of my heart for the next twenty years. Even after finally surrendering my heart fully, I still struggle with my sinful nature and the cares of this world to maintain a fruitful, Spirit-filled life. Invariably, when I come to this parable in the Scriptures, I still stop to consider where I am on the faith spectrum illustrated by Christ’s words.

Others may view this parable from the perspective of the farmer, seeing their role as simply sowing the seed, sharing the gospel with whomever may cross their path, knowing that it will often fall on hardened, rocky, or thorn-infested hearts. A major flaw in that perspective is not realizing that the farmer sowing the seeds also has the responsibility of preparing the soil. Never lose sight of the fact that the determining factor of the impact of the gospel in this parable was the condition of the soil.

imageAs planting season approached, my father would spend countless hours preparing the soil of our fields before a single cotton seed was sown. We would often start by clearing the fields of rocks lying on the surface. Prominent in my memories are vivid images of him clad in his overalls, setting up the plows and harrows on his International Harvester Farmall tractor, and heading for the fields with a wide-brimmed hat cocked on his head and a dust cloud trailing behind. Soil samples were tested to determine the nutrients to add to the soil as we planted the seeds. As in so many aspects of life, preparation was vital.

And so it is with spreading the gospel. We can spout the truths of God’s Word on every street corner and to every person we meet. But if we have not prepared the soil by first establishing a relationship and living a life that reflects those truths, our testimony will often fall on deaf ears. If people do not sense the love of God in our hearts or experience from us the grace of God by which we claim to have been transformed, they will want little to do with the Christ we profess.

1 Peter 3:15 says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect…” (NIV) As you digest that verse, ask yourself, “Does my life reflect the hope that Peter is talking about – a hope so visible that it would prompt such a question?” That is the essence of lifestyle evangelism.

The world desperately needs the hope that only Jesus Christ provides. As a good friend often reminds me, “You never know who’s watching or whose life you are impacting by your actions.” It is often those daily, seemingly inconsequential interactions with others that  prepare the soil of someone’s heart to one day receive the life-changing good news of the gospel so that it takes root, flourishes, and yields a bountiful crop.

Prepare the soil of someone’s life this week by making God visible through yours.

“Most people draw conclusions about the Christian faith by observing the lives of ordinary believers, not by studying doctrine.” – Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace