The Lord and the Land

Tuesday 11 July

Frog Orr-Ewing is Rector of Latimer Minster, a church planted on an ancient farm halfway between Oxford and London.  The experience has enabled those involves to re-discover the context of Jesus’ parables and gain fresh insight into the agricultural illustrations of scripture.  Here’s a summary of the seminar in which Frog shared some of the insights he has gleaned from the last few years.

We are looking at the whole area of discipleship, spirituality and the land.  In the Bible, the land is to do with business, rather than romance.  It is to do with people’s livelihoods. Jesus was speaking to an agricultural economy.  My own appreciation of Jesus’ parables has gone up enormously over the last seven years.  Previously, the only real encounter I had had with farming was a holiday job on a wild flower farm pulling up thistles by hand! 

About eight years ago, we had a sense of wanting to plant a Christian community based on an ancient spirituality of connection with the land (e.g. wanting authenticity, organic food, the rhythms of life, hospitality). 

The more we are in a digital environment, the more our souls long for authenticity.  If we are planting churches for the next generation, we need a better understanding of a whole-life spirituality.  Jesus calls us to know and follow Him as Lord.  He is either Lord of all or he is not Lord at all.  His Lordship is over the totality of reality.  Our work, our play, our understanding of the land and seasons fit into our understanding of a God who is Lord of all.

We bought a patch of land.  We had a desire to see a church shaped like a barn that we could build together.  We wanted fruit, wild flowers and herbs growing around our place of worship.  We now have 70 acres and we have learnt an enormous amount.  I had a background in stockbroking and theology, none of which felt useful!  People said, “It is ridiculous.  You can’t do it.” 

I said, “If God isn’t in this, then it will be impossible but I would rather go down in flames doing what I feel God is telling me to than risk nothing and do nothing.” 

And God did something extraordinary! 

We had to sell everything we had to buy the land.  The parable of the “Treasure in the Field” suddenly felt like real life.    The journey cost us a lot!

We were seeing church decline and a whole generation living without Christ.  We had a great desire to STOP this decline.    The farm we got in 2012 (1 August) has been there since the doomsday book.  It is named after the well belonging to one of William the Conqueror’s soldiers!  

During the first few years, we recognised that this place had become a wilderness.  There was prostitution going on .  The land had becom a stash for stolen goods.  One of the first things we had to do was say was that from this moment onwards, the Lord is the number one authority here.  We walked around the land and put up fences.  Every week, people would break our fences down.  It was an on-going battle.

Then we had to start restoration.  The site was derelict.  We finally repaired one of the barns and on December 16 after many years of praying and dreaming, we were finally open for pubic worship.  We were meeting in the barns for 18 months.  After six months, we got a toilet!

We have turned the ancient orchards into a butterfly and wildflower sancturaty.  The sheep are used for holistic mowing.  We have 24 hives and the local beekeeping association is based there.  We have had experiments with micro pigs.  We have fruit picking (wild cherries, plums).  A couple of weeks ago we put in planning to restore the famr house and build our church!  It has been an extraordinary journey.

So, what have we learnt?

The Seasons

We forget that we are meant to exist within the seasons.  During the sowing season only a few people are needed but at the time of harvest everybody is needed.  We have learnt how to get over things.  We grew too big for the barn so we are meeting in a tent!  We have found a way of keeping our tent warm in winter.  Sometimes you wonder if your church has blown away.

Do you ever think that God will only love me and consider me beautiful when I produce something beautiful?  Yet fruit trees are beautiful (the blossoms) before they bear fruit.  It starts with recognising that God has made us beautiful and fragrant… the fruit comes later!

We used to think that we were there to build a church building but we have realised that the whole farm is our church!  The seasons have taught me a lot about revival.  You sow and then you reap.  It can take a long, long time and then suddenly your prayers are answered and the question is, do you have the energy to chase down the harvest?  If you work a 17 hour day all year, you will burn out.  There will be times to work and times to rest.  There are rhythms of life built into the natural world.  We need to work and rest!  We need to sleep and to wake up.

Work and Labour

I felt had recaptured the spirituality of hard work and physical labour.  A lot of the teaching about prayer and spirituality has been shaped by introverted pastors who are shut away in their studies.  These are often unrealistic for modern times.  We can feel like we are not matching up. 

I have adored one of my new tools - two weeks ago I got an Irish slasher.  Imagine a scythe but that you can take weeds out with.  It is for nettles and thistles and weeds.  It is a prayer-filled work out.  Something happens to your mind when you are doing that physical labour.  You start to think about things differently.  Walking helps me to process a spirituality that feels more productive.  You can have a spirituality that includes the land as part of your work and prayer life.  Is there some way in which you can work and pray?  This is something noble.  We live in a culture that considers that people sitting behind desks are worth more than people who are working with their hands.  Yet hard work is a good thing!

Within the body of Christ, people are not worth more if they are paid more.  It is important that we recognise people’s equality under God.  I want to make sure that as a pastor I am doing physical labour side-by-side with everybody else!

Family Business

In scripture,  farming and agriculture was usually a family business.

Philippians 2: 19 - 25  Here we see in scripture, the apostle Paul describes his relationship with Timothy in the same way you would describe a family business - deep affection but working side by side; a co-worker sharing in the work but also sharing in the reward.  It is also that sense of apprenticeship.

The main model for leadership development is “caught” not taught in a classroom.  Are we apprenticing people?  Have we got sons and daughters in the Lord? 

People come along to our church community because they can do something.  It is sad in churches where you come along for six months before you are “lucky” enough to join the coffee rota.  Our spirituality should be side by side, doing stuff together.

One turning point for us as a church was cladding a whole barn in a single day.  67 of us worked together side by side and at the end of the day, we saw what we had achieved together!  Look what we have been able to do together!  Let us do something meaningful and lasting. These can be worked-out parables. 

Sowing and Reaping

Galatians 6: 6 - 10 Paul used agricultural images to teach the body of Christ.  When you work on a farm for months and months, then you will start to see a harvest.  If you sow nothing, you get nothing.  If you sow into hospitality, you will create community.  If you are crying out to God for things, you are sowing in the spirit.  If you are sparing in your love for your local community, they will not see the riches of a relationship with Jesus Christ.  The reason why we are not seeing the answers to our prayers is that we are not yet doing anything.  We need to sow in deeds.  We need to do good, and not grow weary! 

Sometimes love is not just a feeling word, it is a doing word!

Parables of the land

Matthew 13 Jesus used walking with his disciples as teaching opportunities.  He taught while he walked.  Many of us as human beings need to learn our discipleship lessons whilst we are doing things.  Our capacity to move from an appreciation of the land and nature to a theology and spirituality of the land brings the New Testament to life. Do discipleship on the road!

Parable of the sower - this tells us about a theology of evangelism.  We cannot expect everybody to respond to evangelism and teaching.  But one seed really can produce 100-fold fruit!  How much of us are expecting to see deeply fruitful lives?  Think of that one hour you are spending with somebody.  That is time well spent if that can result in a 100-fold fruitfulness.

What is your field?  We don’t know where is the good soil.  How many people thought Saul was “good soil”?  He gave up his life of violence and became an incredible apostle.  

This is just a taste - I wanted to give you a sense of enthusiasm.  There is so much to discover.  You may not have thought that physical work was part of your spiritual life.  Our full, complete life will have an appreciation of rhythms and seasons, of work and rest, of sowing and reaping!