Harvest Thanksgiving

One of the recurring themes of the In Residence column over the past seven years has been the importance of predictable patterns and rhythms in the lives of children and young people.  Such patterns span those that are daily, weekly, monthly, termly and those that are yearly. 

With the demise of religious rituals in the lives of many children in the UK it may well be that the media, multi-national corporations and state tend to provide most of the framework and shape to a child’s life.  Thus television programmes can dominate the time spent at home, while lessons shape life during the school day, and films or new games provide the next big event. 

There are some yearly events at school, such as Sports Day or Speech Day, but gone are the days when the life of a whole community was structured by festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Harvest.  Perhaps it is Muslim, Jewish and Hindu children in the UK whose lives are most in touch with, and embedded in, yearly religious rituals.

I can sense secular colleagues, whether agnostics or atheists, considering this trend to be evidence of progress, as today’s children are freed of the superstitions, institutions and practices of those who believe in the supernatural.  But there is a significant gap or even vacuum left by the trend, and it is not self-evident that the media and state are best placed to fill it.

The gap comprises that which facilitates a sense of belonging to a community, the joy of celebration, rootedness in the earth as a child of the universe, and a cycle of events that resonate with both human emotions (and longings) and also with natural processes and phenomena.  The Christian festivals listed above are about birth, death, resurrection, repentance, forgiveness, renewal and thanksgiving.

And without a knowledge or experience of these yearly festivals (or some equivalent) children are ill-prepared for the realities of personal and social life.  You can see how far things have changed when you consider the way in which the meaning of the word “Holy Days” has evolved to “holidays” and how the latter can mean package trips for many children where the object of the exercise is self-enjoyment.  And where Christmas and Easter become dominated by the market’s attempt to cash in on folk religion in order to make a profit, the deep meanings at the heart of Christian festivals is all but obscured, if not negated.

A Harvest Festival in the Countryside

Enough of the theoretical reflection: the reason I was prompted to write this column was what happened recently on a Sunday when I had been invited to preach at a Harvest Festival at a church in rural Cambridgeshire.  Six of the Mill Grove family elected to come with me.  The service was informal and lively with a congregation of all ages.  There was a mixture of modern songs and traditional harvest hymns including “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,” and “Come, ye thankful people, come”.  And there were about twenty present who were farmers, farmers’ wives or who worked on the land.

During the service one of the farmers, standing beside a table full of packets and tins of food, demonstrated two instruments that helped him to measure the dampness of the seed, and to estimate how many seeds to sow per hectare.  We prayed for farmers, particularly those affected by the 2007 outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in England.  We also reflected on global trends and the importance of caring for creation with its delicately balanced and interwoven ecosystems.  The talks were about parables Jesus told, one about what happened to seed sown; and the other about the problems caused by weeds growing among the wheat.  The whole tone and theme of the service was that of thanksgiving: that is, pausing to appreciate what we often take for granted and assume will continue without effort or thought.

After the service we had lunch in the farmhouse where some of our family friends live.  This was followed by a walk across several of the fields belonging to their (arable) farm.  The wheat had been harvested, sugar beet was next, and some fields had already been sown with oilseed rape, the plants of which were appearing in rows between the wheat stubble.  The hedgerows were laden with blackberries.  We had a football with us and one of the youngsters was wearing an Arsenal football shirt, so it wasn’t what you might think of as a nature ramble!

It was a short drive to a neighbouring farm where the farmer had invited us to see the onions that he had harvested the day before.  Nothing he said had prepared us for the sheer size of the total crop.  A huge barn was completely full from one end to the other and from floor to ceiling.  Our youngsters were encouraged to fill a sack with as many as they could, and to climb up and roll down this onion mountain along with two of the farm dogs.  For those of us from the city it was quite mind-boggling: we were lost for words.

Later we looked at another field which had also been planted with oilseed rape, and was suffering from slugs and thistles.  Before coming home we discussed recipes for pumpkins. This was because we had managed to grow at home in London, by our standards, two large pumpkins.  (We didn’t discuss recipes for blackberry jam, although we have also produced a creditable crop without trying in our flower beds!) The pumpkins seemed to pale into insignificance when compared to what we had experienced during this Harvest Sunday.

Taking the Experience Back Home

We drove home with the sack of onions, accompanied by an autumnal sunset followed by a cloudy, darkening sky, and musing over the events of the day.  Granted we are blessed with farming friends and a living relationship with the Christian community, but what of other children and young people in the UK?  What is the nearest they come to this sort of experience and event?  I fear it may be a lesson at school, a television programme or even a visit to the local or out-of-town supermarket.

We had engaged with people who lived on and worked the earth; we had gathered with a group of people who were intent on giving thanks to the Creator, using at one stage the words, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all His love”, and we had played among the harvest of onions.  (If you have never done this, take our word for it that it beats ordinary mountains, scree slopes and dry swimming pools by quite a margin!) 

I am not suggesting we can all enjoy festivals in exactly this way, but it seems to me that the youngsters who came were enriched by the experience, and that those who know nothing of Harvest Festivals have been deprived of a celebration that resonates in some way with every human being, whatever the content or depth of their faith.

By the time you read this I will have taken a few Harvest Assemblies in local schools, and I hope that these will manage to evoke something of the sense of wonder and thankfulness that this day north of Cambridge did for us.

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