Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lessons Learned Farming

This is the time of year when farmers all across North America are in their fields, preparing the soil and planting seeds that will grow into the food products that will feed their families, their communities, their nation and the world. With more than 309, 600,000 acres of harvested farmland in the United States and another 167,000,000 acres in Canada, the task of preparation and planting is huge indeed. Yesteryear's single-bottom, walk-behind plow pulled by a mule has been replaced today by huge contraptions like the John Deere 3710 10-Bottom Plow pulled by a monster tractor complete with GPS, air conditioning and satellite radio. Still, regardless of the machinery farmers use to work the ground, farm families typically shares traits of honesty, hard work and respect.

Sitting on the seat of an open-air Allis Chalmers D-19 plowing rich bottom land at sunrise is one of the best memories I have. The rich, organic smell of the soil being turned over as it mingles with the diesel exhaust forms a memory that brings a sense of peace and contentment. Knowing the land would soon yield an abundant crop instills a sense of purpose to do the best possible job. The solitude of the field and the simple mechanics of the task naturally lead to some musings about the lessons one could glean from farming.

Make hay when the sun shines. This oft-repeated axiom reminds us we must do the task at hand when the time is right -- not before and not after. Trying to cut and bail hay in the rain is not only difficult, but destructive in the long run; warm weather with dry clover makes for bails that will feed animals throughout the winter. This phrase also reminds us we must prioritize our tasks. Cut hay that's waiting to be bailed takes priority over most anything else.

It's hard to straighten a furrow after a crooked start. No matter how much effort, the first furrow needs to be accurate. It must be straight and true since each furrow thereafter will take its shape from the first one. We must always start our tasks on the straight and true for everything else is built on that first pass. It is true for plowing, and it is true for most tasks: we must build on a firm and true foundation. This works with relationships and raising children, too; we must start right.

Don't count the chickens until the eggs are hatched. Once a friend of mine shared he had a 120-bushel-an-acre corn growing, just waiting to be harvested. The only problem was his crop was sitting in five feet of water. His harvest was lost to a late summer flood that prevented him from getting the crop out. Another friend shared with me he lost his entire soybean crop to a severe spring, complete with storms, hail and wind that stripped the leaves off his plants. He had to write off the crop and try something different. Storms, water, wind and lack of rain can all turn a potential bumper crop into a total disaster. Knowing the harvest only counts when it's in the barn keeps one focused on the important things. Each of us can learn to not count on the "what ifs" and "if onlys" we encounter, but instead work for the harvest that lasts.

A little hard work never hurt anyone. A day filled with hot sun and hay bales will stretch muscles that one never knew one had, and makes for a deep night's sleep. Hard work is something not to be avoided, but to be embraced as a way to accomplish great deeds.

Thanks to all who work the land. We pray you have seasonable weather and good crops.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In Memory

The lone bugler stands away from the grave site, often beyond the family's view. The flag is respectfully removed from the top of the casket and folded in a tradition filled with symbolism. The command is given and the rifle volley echoes across the land. The bugler snaps to attention, brings the bugle to his lips and begins the slow, mournful tune of "Taps." The honor guard bends and presents the folded flag to the family and offers the thanks of a grateful nation for this: the supreme sacrifice. The last notes of "Taps" are lost in the wind as the family slowly leaves the graveside -- filled with emotion.

For those who have stood next to the flag-draped casket of a loved one killed in service, the sound of "Taps" serves as a poignant reminder of their fallen family member -- an individual who offered his or her all so others may live free. For those who have stood next to the graveside of family members who have died after returning home from service and now are being laid to rest with full military honors, the sound of "Taps" is just as haunting and memorable.

The powerfully expressive notes of "Taps" remind the family of the sacrifice and honor their son or daughter exhibited in behalf of a nation and its citizens. And in that tune's somber cadence is embodied the soldier's sacrifice, which is measured in so many ways: the sacrifice of time spent separated from loved ones, the horrors of unspeakable atrocities witnessed and forever etched on the mind, the injuries to the body and spirit -- some visible, most invisible.

This Memorial Day I will gaze on the framed tri-folded flag from my father's casket and voice a silent "thank you." I will thank him for many things. Chief among those will be his service to help ensure freedom for me and this country. In that service, he -- and the countless multitudes that have joined him in military service -- gave their families and all generations to follow a reason to say thanks and an example of valor to live by.

Our country was forged by the heat of battle and paid for by the blood of its combatants. On this important fact we cannot let down our guard, for there will always be those who would claim for themselves what is not theirs. To this day, our nation sends warriors to stand in the path of those who would strip us of our freedoms, our liberties and our way of life. I will always say "thank you" to those who have served and those who will follow. I pray that God would keep each one safe, so they may return to their families, their loved ones, and reap the benefits they have so valiantly fought for.

In memory of those who have served and died I will always rise to attention and place my hand over my heart as the flag of our nation is carried past me. In honor of those who still serve I will rise and sing, "The National Anthem," always thankful that we have this nation. In memory of those who have served and are now departed I will honor them with my words and deeds.

Memorial Day ~ a time to remember, a time to be thankful, and a time to count the cost of the days ahead.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lessons Learned in a Wood Shop

I never tire of the smell of fresh sawdust. I walk into the workshop and can smell the pine -- not from a bottle -- but from the tree, and I breathe deep. Other smells come forward: stains and varnishes, the pungent odor of burnt wood and the sweet fragrance of cedar. The odors bring back images of past projects. Among them are shelves, cradles, even a table. The smells are a powerful reminder of many hours spent planning, sawing, sanding and fashioning a piece of timber that becomes something both functional and practical.

I always smile when a project is finished. The project started out as an idea in my head and took root. Soon the idea grew into plans that took the form of crude drawings that outlined the basic design, shape and look. Then the plans were revised over and over again until the project appeared -- bold and possible on the paper. Soon a list detailed all that would be needed to complete the project: more wood, some fasteners, glue, stain, etc. Then the real fun starts: putting it together.

It is the construction phase of a project that appeals most to me. I am always amazed at what the tools can do. Whether I am using a handsaw or a power lathe, each tool shapes and molds -- but only as directed. I am in control, if just for a moment.

With each segment completed, the project slowly rises up as one piece is fitted to the next. I always pause when the raw project emerges. It doesn't matter if it is a simple shelf or a complex piece. It is always something to behold when the plan actually comes together. After that, the finish is applied and the project is ready to be shared.

Each completed project reminds me of the following:

"Measure twice -- cut once." I need to check my measurements to avoid costly mistakes. I sometimes heed this advice when tempted to speak out. I measure my words twice before I speak them.

"For want of a nail, the battle was lost." This old rhyme about a battle being lost due to the lack of a rider, due to the lack of a horse, due to the lack of a shoe, due to the lack of a nail reminds me that each piece -- no matter how insignificant it may appear -- is important. The joint may hold together without glue, but it will not last. The small action I take today may seem insignificant, but it may have serious implications in the future.

"Haste makes waste." When I get in a hurry and rush steps, the finished project suffers. If the paint is not dry before I touch it, my fingerprints will remind me to give it time. If I put pressure on a joint before the glue is set, the joint fails. I need to slow down and complete each part fully before moving on. It is true in wood. It is certainly true in life.

"Use the right tool for the right job." Each tool is designed to perform a specific function, and it is best to use the right tool. If I try to use my legs as a vise, chisel with a screwdriver, hammer with a pair of pliers, or turn a screw with a coin the results are usually poor. I must also be sure to use the right tools in my life. I can't use discipline when understanding is called for, anger when action is needed, or apathy when empathy is required.

"What you don't see is as important as what you do see." A coat of paint may hide a bad piece of stock, wood filler may obscure a weak joint and a lap joint will not be noticed where a dovetail joint is called for, but what is hidden often determines the real quality of a finished project. I need to make sure there are no weak links in my construction.

On that note, I gotta go. There's wood to plane and nails to pound before I sleep.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who Is Watching You?

Ever since the late 60s, the concept of our government invading an individual's privacy has been a popular subject for novels, TV shows, films and a small army of talk show hosts. People traveling on airplanes know just how much the government watches you, especially as you stand still with your hands over your head posing for an X-ray scan. Even if you aren't singled out for a scan, the agent with the wand can get very friendly in an effort to get to know all about you. Now, don't misunderstand me, I fully agree passengers boarding airplanes should not carry weapons or have more than three ounces of fluids. And in this I applaud the government's efforts to thwart would-be terrorists.

Driving recently through a construction zone, it was brought to my attention again how the government is watching me, or at least how fast I am driving. The sign proclaimed something along the lines of "Speed Photo-Enforced." I had a mental image of a giant photo, flashing red and blue lights, pulling me to the side of the road.

Wherever there are opportunities for substantial money losses, cameras are used to keep track of people and record any wrongdoing. That's why you see them in banks, department stores, casinos and (perhaps the joint with the largest potential cash loss) gas stations. Yes, our movements are watched and recorded, along with our e-mails, website visits, and phone calls -- often for training purposes.

Okay, we are being watched -- a lot -- by all sorts of agencies and identities. But that is not the most critical. An honest man has nothing to fear by being watched. I smile at bank cameras and chat with TSA agents. I even slow down for construction speed limits.

I do get a little nervous when my children watch me however.

My spouse and my children see me at my best ... and at my worst. They overhear the anger and they notice the disconnect between actions and words. I may tell them it's important to go to church, but if I play golf instead of attending, they get a strong message that golf is more important than church. If I bellow at them to stop fighting and encourage them to act civil, but then start yelling at the news about how I disagree with what is being reported, I send a strong message that my commands are not to be obeyed -- since I can so easily break them. If I promise to be at their game and stay late at work instead, then my children understand they are second place in my life and will treat me as a second-place father.

Guys, you are being watched by little eyes and heard by little ears. And for better or worse those little eyes and ears will remember.

Who is watching you?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Until Death Do Us Part"

Like most of the world, I witnessed a couple getting married this past weekend. However, unlike most of the world, I had a seat in the sanctuary and heard the entire ceremony firsthand. The attendants processed slowly down the aisle, and the littlest ones almost stole the spotlight. The bride was radiant as she approached the altar to take her position next to her nervous groom. The ceremony began, the preacher spoke and vows were exchanged. The groom had a bit of a problem with the bride's ring, but all ended well with the couple's first kiss applauded by an enthusiastic audience.

Yes, I attended the wedding of a close friend this past weekend ... in the United States. Did you think I was in London?

As I heard the couple exchange their vows, I re-lived the day that I, too, spoke those words of commitment, words pledging my faithfulness and oneness for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and cherish, from this day forward -- until death do us part.

Until death us do part. That is the vow. At those words I looked at my wife and thought about some of the situations in our marriage. These range from semantical discussions about being "on time" to being "late." They extend to thermostat settings and length of showers. They consider everything from dirty socks and the subdivision of closet space to ordering food and selecting movies. That's right, trials we have had. But I also look at her and remember the times she loved me and cared for me when I was more than unlovable. When I was sick, she loved me. When I was ill, she brought me soup and aspirin -- and a smile; she even let me know I was her first concern.

I gazed at my bride and heard the words, "Until death us do part." There is no wiggle room in that line, is there? It's for life. The vow wasn't "Until I find someone better" or "Until my needs are unmet" or "Until I fall out of love." No, the words take it to the very end: "Until death us do part."

Guys, take it seriously! Love your spouse; treat her as you would treat yourself -- only a whole lot better. Take care of your part. Pray for her. Pray with her. Show her you love her. Speak kindly to her in front of the kids; talk to her honestly and affectionately. Help with the chores. Appreciate her beauty; spoil her and cherish her until death parts you.

You may not have married an English princess, but you did marry the most beautiful, gifted, talented and wonderful woman in the whole, wide world.

Sometimes it helps to be reminded of that, doesn't it?