This is a special time of the year in the Red River Valley of the North. Besides school restarting and colleges opening back up, the typical, normal part of our culture up here is that it’s harvest time. To be honest, the wheat harvest started a good three weeks ago, and now they are moving into soybeans, navy beans, sunflowers, corn and sugar beets and potatoes. You will recall I told you about ancient Lake Agassiz, which created perhaps the richest soil in the world on either side of the Red River. That’s a great advantage if you want to be a farmer, but there is ton of other important factors. You need the right seed, the right fertilizer, the right amount of rain and sun. You need good tractors for plowing and seeding and thinning and all the other pieces of equipment to walk the crop from seed to money in the bins.
The other thing you need, if you are harvesting wheat, is a combine. They call the huge machines combines, because more than a century ago, the way you harvested wheat was to “swath,” and then “thresh.” Swathing really meant to cut the wheat, and lay it down in windrows to dry out before separating the grain from the straw (threshing). I suppose 200 years ago it was all done by hand, with a scythe, and then stacked in upright piles to dry. That was when a farm of 5-10 acres was huge. Mechanics greatly changed how farming happened, especially when a machine was developed that “combined” (remember the word!) both the swathing and the threshing in operation. It was really a miracle of sorts, since threshing used to mean spreading the grain and straw on a stone surface, and having a yoke of oxen or donkeys stomp on the husks until the grain was separated. Lots of fun.
Anyway, you can imagine that the early combines were not very efficient, and probably threw as much grain back on the field as it carried into the hopper. Years passed, however, and combines became a standard part of any above ground crop. Today, a new combine will cost you upwards of $380,000, and with enough add-ons, you could hit $600,000. Of course, that would be a waste for 10 acres, so today, in the Valley, many farms harvest more than 15,000-20,000 acres in a season.
Now, I need you to remember, before I go on with the story, that I grew up on Air Force bases. I could tell you most all the names of fighter jets, bombers, tankers, supply planes, and the rest. When I fell in love with a certain Norwegian farmer’s daughter, and actually went out to a farm for really the first time, it was like walking into a foreign land. My great-grandparents farmed, but three generations sifted any knowledge out of me. Still, we married and they were stuck with me, so slowly I began to learn the names and function of much of the equipment.
We were up at the farm one summer week, and they were “combining” the wheat crop just across the road from the house. Cheri’s brother stopped and asked if I’d like to ride along for a couple of rounds, which sounded like a lot of fun. Brian pointed out all the switched and knobs and levers, and then asked if I’d like to try it. Knowing that it was like having a polar bear learn how to crochet, still I sat down in the driver’s seat and began to “harvest.” Brian helped me fine tune the height of the swather, and to gauge when the hopper was full, and then quick as a rabbit, he opened the door, and said, “You’ve got the hang of it – have fun!”
I’m sure the steering wheel of that combine still has the deep impressions of my hand gripping the thing. I made it until it was time to empty the hopper, and then Brian showed me how to swing the arm out over the grain truck and to engage the auger (boy, don’t I sound like a farmer?) and dump the grain. I went ahead and finished the day and the field, and so began a many-year summer job, helping the family farm operation.
By and large it was fine. I eventually switched from picking up swathed rows, to operating the combine with the 20-foot-wide swathing reel, which cut the grain, dumped it through the thresher and saved the wheat in the hopper all in one fell swoop. Just please remember that I am an air force brat, and this all never seemed normal, natural or even relatively comfortable.
The day finally came when I came to know Jesus in a whole new way. We finished one field, and so someone had the big idea to move the equipment to a new field and start work on that one. I tried to tell them that this had all been such fun, but I needed to go home now, but Brian said, “we are just going to head east two miles, and then north and go past the Johnson place, and then another half mile east and there will be the field.” If he would have said, “Stay on this street until you come to the second traffic light – that’ll be Elm Street – turn left, go three blocks and then turn by the grocery store and it’s the field on the left…” I would have been fine. However…
Well, they all shot out of there like they were drag racers, and very soon, I found myself driving a massive machine down a little country road all by myself. Was I lost? No – I just didn’t know where I was going. Eventually, I turned, because they told me to turn sometime, and I realized that it was not the right road. The ditches on each side went down a good 30-40 feet. I drove slowly. Soon, however, I came to a turn in the road, and it looked like it simply ended. I stopped the combine, and thought of calling AAA, but this was before cell phones. At that moment, I came up with the truly worst idea of my life.
I would just turn the combine around and head back to where I started. I would just turn this huge vehicle around on this tiny lane with huge ditches. It probably wouldn’t take more than a “Y” turn, I would guess. So… I turned the steering wheel to the right, pulled slightly forward, and then turned the wheel to the left, and put the combine in reverse. It was a bit sluggish, so I offered it a little more gas… the next thing I remember, a half-moment later, was that I was staring at the sky, like an astronaut about to lift off. The combine indeed had backed up, and over the road, and was off the road, on the embankment at a good 45-degree angle. Fortunately, my cat-like responses had jumped into action, and by instinct, I had slammed both feet on the brake pedal, stopping what would have been a rather spectacular rollover down a 40-foot ditch.
Remember about meeting Jesus? I had a vision, where Jesus came and sat beside me, and said very gently, “Are you some kind of idiot?” I replied that yes, I was, and now was the time I needed help. The only way out, of course, was to move from the brake to the gas, with enough force to make sure it moved forward. Without a break to go to the bathroom, or get a snack, I shifted, accelerated, and felt myself nearly flying out of the ditch – and over the road, and ending up pointing downward into the opposite ditch!
After many long minutes – perhaps hours – of slowly but surely turning the wheel, and slightly moving the vehicle, I eventually got it turned around. Thank you Jesus. I drove slowly back where I came from, and after about another 15 minutes, I saw Brian’s pickup barreling down the gravel – he cut a quick U-turn, smiled, waved his hand for me to follow, and we made it to the field.
I never told them this story.
You know how often I talk about accidental versus intentional. This is a good story to illustrate that point. If you don’t know where you are going, and you continue to go there, by accident you might make it, but more likely you will find yourself in a less than desirable spot. If you head out somewhere, unsure of the direction, but unwilling to ask questions, indeed you will also end up at the same spot.
An intentional life requires forethought, determination, and being interested in finding the right path. Being intentional means you don’t ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Being intentional also means you stop when you can still turn around, and you don’t take a road simply because it’s there. Being intentional means you do things on purpose, with purpose, and therefore, you stay out of the ditches.
I don’t combine much anymore – the machines have doubled in size and work of farming has become more and more complicated. I intentionally have decided to watch from the sidelines, and never drive down country lanes in vehicles that are ridiculously huge. I’d suggest the same for you. Intentionally act. Intentionally live. Don’t accidentally die.
Word for the day: xenodocheinology. This is just one to show off with, if you can remember it. It’s pronounced zenno-doke-eye-in-ALL-o-gee. It’s Greek, which is good, because it sounds Greek, and it really comes from the word xenodochein, which means, “inn” or “hostel.” Xenodocheinology is actually the study of the history of hotels. Not sure where you will able to bring that up in conversation, but if you keep it in mind, when they are telling the Biblical story of Christmas, you can say, “Oh – there was no room in the xenodochein…”
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.