Fellow Passengers: When I started reading this week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Corinthians 9:1-18) this morning, I was transported back a few years to a day I spent at la finca, a farm operated by Rosalva and Fidel, our good friends in Piedrecitas, Cuba. The Hebrew maxim Paul quoted, Don’t muzzle the ox that treads the grain, took me to the time I spent that day with Machin, the farmworker on their finca who plowed a team of oxen through rows of corn and beans and peppers. I was thinking this morning about how before that trip to Cuba, my sister-in-law Carolyn, who has done a lot of research and writing and advocacy around rare breeds of farm animals, had asked me to take some photos of oxen working the fields. I knew she’d love the photos I took of Machin working his team. He understood the deuteronomic maxim; his oxen were unmuzzled and he was patient to let them graze along the way. I knew, also, that she would love seeing how the beautiful black, loamy soil responded so easily to the slow turning of the plowshare. I was thinking this morning about how Carolyn would ridicule those who label Cuba a Marxist country; workers like Machin and Rosalva and Fidel certainly don’t own the means of production; the land and the farm equipment are under strict state control, and the workers are as alienated as any laborer in the bourgeoisie capitalist world. Navigating the random bureaucracy of the controlled economy and state owned property was much harder work than plowing the rich Cuban soil.
So much has been made of the apostle Paul’s use of this farm maxim in his appeal to the Corinthian church to pay the preacher. Was Paul an early advocate of a living wage campaign or essential worker benefits? Were he and Barnabus pushing for a collective bargaining agreement? Was this an early draft of a pamphlet I got in seminary, from the SBC Annuity Board, outlining what salary range a pastor should expect, depending on education, size of congregation, and whether it was in a rural or urban setting? No, I think Paul simply wanted to make a living as well as make a life, to enjoy the rewards of a job well done. He thought it fair to reap a decent livelihood from all the seeds of good will he had sown. And I love that he used agrarian imagery to make his point: hungry oxen grazing as they work, seed time and harvest, shepherds and milk, the fruit of one’s labor. Paul understood the value of skilled labor, and he learned that value from observing the mastery of labor in the fields and pastures surrounding the city.
All this was swirling around in my head, and I was getting ready to write about it, when I got a call from Carolyn’s husband, Ron, telling me that she was in ICU, after a severe asthma attack, followed by two cardiac arrest episodes and emergency resuscitations. I was soon on the road to Chapel Hill, picking up my wife Kim and her parents along the way, and after spending time at her bedside, hearing bleak news from the medical staff, am now back at the home of my in-laws, while Kim is maintaining vigil with her sister, reading Warhorse to her as she struggles for life. Carolyn has always been a horse lover. And she’s always been drawn to the work of farmers. I have always been greatly impressed by the intensity and quality of her work, as she has researched and written brilliantly about the challenges of people like Machin and others engaged in sustainable agriculture. When I think about the hard work Carolyn is now doing in her hospital bed, struggling to get her lungs working again, I remember Marge Piercy’s poem, To Be of Use: The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight. They seem to become natives of that element, the black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half submerged balls. I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again. I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out. The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real. Carolyn has always, and continues, to engage in work that is real, whether it is around farm issues, community health care, discrimination, literacy campaigns in the local elementary school, or child-rearing for her son, Francisco. My prayers are with her tonight, and I pray that she gets to enjoy lots more work in this world before she goes to meet her reward.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.