To The Fields!

By Julian Wells

Series: Lessons From The Cotton Field

“When he saw the crowds. he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 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 9:36-38 NIV)

imageMy wife recently purchased a stalk of cotton, placing in it in a vase to serve not only as a decoration for our living room, but also as a reminder of this series and the lessons I learned in the cotton fields of my youth. Last year, as I drove by those same cotton fields in South Georgia that inspired this series, the above verses from Matthew’s gospel came to mind. They reminded me of one last lesson from the cotton fields which, while seemingly obvious on the surface, is often neglected in practice.

As I recall those days, I’m reminded that very little work was ever accomplished in the comfort of our home. Daddy would educate himself on the latest developments in the propagation, maintenance, and harvesting of crops. But all the work that had a true impact- the preparation of the soil, the planting of the seed, the application of fertilizer, the initial removal of excess cotton plants, the hoeing of weeds that would choke the remaining plants, the spraying of insecticides to control boll weevils, and the eventual harvesting that put food on our table and clothes on our back – took place in the fields. As followers of Christ, the work he has commissioned us to carry out takes place in the fields as well.

On another recent trip south, my wife and I were in Callaway, Florida, just outside of Panama City, enjoying some time with our grandchildren before they returned to school. Just down Tyndall Parkway from the hotel where we stayed, there is a new church advertising itself as “the perfect church for imperfect people”. The most intriguing aspect to me about this church is its location next door to a small plaza housing an electronic cigarette shop, a payday loan lender/pawn shop, and a tattoo parlor.

Initially struck by the irony of the site selection committee’s choice of that location, my views changed as I reflected upon the true mission of any local church. Those establishments next door exist to fulfill the perceived needs of imperfect people, be they financial, addictive, or simply products to establish or bolster an identity – needs that are better addressed by the Gospel of Christ which is now being proclaimed in that new building among that sea of imperfect people.

Sometimes we tend to forget that the bulk of the work for which we have been commissioned takes place in the fields of those imperfect people who are often more like us than we dare to admit. We grow too comfortable in our enclaves of fellow believers, preaching to and teaching one another, taking Bible study after Bible study, and enjoying the fellowship of other like-minded believers, while the world around us is starved for the hope that only the Lord we proclaim can provide.

It is fitting and proper that we gather to worship our Lord, to enjoy fellowship with one another, to encourage and pray for one another, and to equip ourselves for the greater work of spreading the Good News. But we must never forget that the greater work takes place outside the walls of the church building. We are called to be salt and light in a world filled with imperfect people and in a culture that is often hostile to our message.

Rather than withdrawing from that culture, we should engage it as Christ did, realizing that a life modeled on Biblical principles is a powerful testimony in itself. Then we must be prepared to give an answer for the hope that others see in us. (I Peter 3:15)

After class some years ago, a dear friend once commented that she wished she knew the Bible as well as I do. I replied, “I wish I lived the Bible as well as you do!” On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15-17 NIV)

Unless we put its teachings into practice, few people will ever be impacted by our knowledge of the Scriptures. James 2:17 says “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Faith without works and knowledge without action, like that stalk of cotton in my living room, is little more than a decoration.

As I learned in the cotton fields of Georgia, the work of growing the Kingdom of God takes place in the fields – not in our comfort zones. The harvest is still plentiful and all too often the workers are still too few. That might not be the case if we were as concerned over the fields of lost people all around us as we are uncomfortable around some of them.

All too often the church holds up a mirror reflecting back the society around it, rather than a window revealing a different way.” ~ Philip Yancey

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Harvesting The Crop

By Julian Wells

Series: Lessons From The Cotton Field

“Do you not say, ‘Four more months and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for the harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:35-38)

Harvest was my favorite season on the cotton farm. The weather was usually cooler at cotton picking time, making the labor a bit less unpleasant. The trips to the cotton gin in Locust Grove, riding in the back of Daddy’s truck, were a special treat. I could usually expect a Coke and a pack of peanuts to enjoy while the cotton was unloaded, weighed, and ginned.

For Daddy, those trips were the payoff for months of hard work in the fields. Perhaps that is why he let us share some of the profits, paying his children the same 3 cents/pound the other laborers received for picking cotton – the only farm chore for which I was ever paid. But more importantly for me, the harvest meant six months of rest before we started the cycle anew the following Spring.

When Jesus spoke the words above to his disciples after his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, cotton was the last thing on his mind. His focus was on the harvest of souls for eternal life. Responding to the disciples’ concern for his physical nourishment, Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 5:34) As his disciples, that should be our food as well.

During my time in Denver, Colorado, my pastor, Rick Ferguson, would often talk about approaching Denver on I-70 from the Rocky Mountains to the west of the city, seeing the city lights spread below, and grieving for the lost residents who would never know Christ. Like our Lord, he had the spiritual vision to see the fields ripe for the harvest of souls.

As Christ’s followers, we should have that same concern for the lost and that same spiritual vision to see the fields around us that are always ripe for harvest. There should never come a season of rest from that work. Unlike with cotton, it is not always readily apparent to us when a soul is ripe for harvest. But never forget that we are not the reaper of lost souls. That is the responsibility of our Heavenly Father through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Our job is simply to be spiritually discerning and obedient to his leading, preparing the soil of people’s hearts as we live a life grounded in Biblical principles, planting seeds of the gospel as we interact with the lost around us, and being prepared to share our personal gospel story when the time is appropriate.

The joy shared by the sowers and reapers at the harvest of souls far surpasses that joy I felt when the cotton harvest was completed. But unlike those cotton harvests, we may not always see the fruit of our labor in this life. My Granny Wells never knew the ultimate spiritual impact she had on me – the fruit of her labor did not ripen in my life until years after her death. But because of her faithfulness, I look forward to sharing that joy with her one day in Glory.

Recently I read the story of Dr. William Leslie, who began serving as a medical missionary in a remote corner of the Congo in 1912. After 17 years he returned to the United States a discouraged man, believing he had failed to make any discernible impact for Christ. He died nine years after his return, regarding himself a failure in his life’s calling. In 2010, a network of churches was discovered in eight villages scattered along 34 miles of the Kwilu River where Dr. Leslie had been stationed. When the tribal people were questioned about the origins of those churches, they only knew that it had been the work of a man named “Leslie” some 100 years earlier.

We never know who’s watching or whose life we’re impacting. We never know when the fruits of our labor as witnesses for Christ will ripen. But that joy Christ talks about in this passage will be ours one day, perhaps in this life, but most assuredly and most importantly, in the life to come, when we are reunited in the presence of our Savior with those we helped steer to the foot of the cross.

“But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” (Matt. 13:23)

Note: All Scripture from the New International Version (NIV)

Remembering Daddy

Series: Lessons From The Cotton Field

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. … When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first’.

The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:1, 8-16)

Cotton farming in the days of my youth was very labor intensive. With a supporting cast of five children and a hard-working wife, my father could handle most of the work of preparing the soil and planting the seeds. But the process of chopping cotton, as I described in my last post, and gathering the harvest required him to hire additional help. After breakfast, he often began his workday by driving to various homes of farm workers in the area and transporting them to our fields.

The prevailing daily wage for chopping cotton in those days was $3.00. Unlike the scenario described in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in the passage above, all the workers started their workday at the same time and worked the same number of hours as every other worker. While some were likely more skilled at chopping cotton than others, all received the same daily pay. (Except for the children of the landowner who received nothing! Did I mention that already?)

At harvest time, Daddy would hire those same laborers to gather the crop. But rather than paying a daily wage for picking cotton, each picker was paid a piece rate of three cents for every pound of cotton picked. A highly skilled picker could gather 200 pounds of cotton daily, doubling the wages they earned for chopping cotton. At the end of the workday, each worker’s burlap spread of cotton was tied up and weighed. Daddy carried a ledger in the pocket of his overalls in which he recorded each one’s daily pickings, totaling it at the end of the week to pay each his due.

Writing this series of articles about growing up on a cotton farm has brought back many memories of my childhood and given me time to pause and reflect about my father, Sammie Paul Wells. While he rarely talked about his own childhood, life had surely been a struggle for him growing up on a farm himself. His own father died when Daddy was only ten years old. He was sixteen when the Great Depression hit in 1929. My selfish complaints about not being paid for chores on the farm seem petty when I consider what those early years must have been like for him.

We are all shaped by life experiences. His own life experiences gave Daddy a keen appreciation for the value of hard work. While he had his faults, laziness was certainly not among them. Hard work had undoubtedly sustained him through many difficult times and engendered within him a driving desire to be an independent businessman. Armed with only an eighth grade education, he not only ran a successful farm, he also maintained a profitable upholstery business for those times when there was no work to do in the fields.

Given his skills as a master upholsterer, I always felt he could easily have charged more for his services. He didn’t just recover furniture, he rebuilt it completely, replacing springs and batting to restore each piece as close as possible to its original condition. The quality of his work was unparalleled. But he had a sense of what his labor was worth and refused to charge more than that, no matter the market demand or the prices charged by his competitors.

As I consider those things about my father in light of this parable from Matthew 20, I’m sure he would have never entertained the idea of paying someone who chopped cotton for only the last hour of the day the same $3.00 he paid those who had borne the burden of the work in the stifling Georgia sun all day long. Had he done so, he would have soon lost many of the loyal workers he depended upon.

But this parable from our Lord is not a picture of man’s sense of a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. It is a picture of grace – the unmerited favor of God. In this parable, my father is not the landowner. He is that last hired worker who, like the thief on the cross, came to experience the unmerited favor of God in the eleventh hour of his life, placing his faith in Christ at the age of 59 while on his deathbed in the VA Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

And because of that, I can join so many others this weekend in saying, “Happy Father’s Day in heaven, Daddy!” And I will be eternally grateful for his close friend, Tony Hay, who refused to let him enter eternity without hearing about the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ once last time.

“The thief had nails through both hands, so that he could not work: and a nail through each foot, so that he could not run errands for the Lord; he could not lift a hand or a foot toward his salvation, and yet Christ offered him the gift of God; and he took it. Christ threw him a passport, and took him into Paradise.” – D.L Moody

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 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