A Well Story

old well

The school bus pulled out of the drive and I began clearing the table of its breakfast remains.  Without the luxury of a dishwasher, I filled the sink with hot soapy water and carefully slid the dirty dishes into the water.  After six weeks of carrying water from town, I still celebrated running water from the faucet. This dishwashing process had become therapy.

Shortly after we moved, we had located a spot near the house where Oscar, the original owner, had placed an old water hydrant.  When the well diggers finally came, it had not taken long before we had a functioning well.  The aquifer was only 60 feet down into the earth, right near the back porch.  A blessing, so it seemed.

The process of carefully running the dish cloth over each bowl, cup, and silver ware, rinsing each piece, and then drying and returning them to their rightful place filled me with a sense of accomplishment. It had become my meditative time.  Usually, this was a peaceful time, but that morning I was troubled, and I battled between my heart and my mind.

The weekend had been frenetic to say the least.  Looking out the window I saw mud, six-foot weeds by the buildings, work, and more work, and more work. Entropy had set in to this old farm, and although we had been working as hard as we could for the last five months, we were overwhelmed with all that still had to be done.

My heart was heavy.  This was to be a ministry, instead, work was the focus of our lives.  It took a lot to tame these tangled fields, overgrown yards, broken down fences, dilapidated buildings.  On the weekends we had help from the college students who seemed to actually thrive on the challenge.  But during the week, we, our little family, were faced with the stark reality of what we had jumped into with such enthusiasm.  And . . . all we had was our muscle.  No equipment.  After we had signed the papers for the farm, there had been a farm auction.  All the equipment that Oscar had used was gone now.  What we had in our possession were shovels, picks, rakes, the always in-use brush clippers, and a newly purchased old pickup truck to “haul things.”

The kitchen clean, the dishes put away, I slumped into the soft easy chair in the living room. It was time for “quiet time” with the best listener I have.  And I had lots to say that morning. “Lord, I am confused.  Our lives have become consumed with the farm, the buildings, the mud, and . . . hard work!  Did we not hear you right?  Are we stuck here out of our own folly, thinking that you were going to bless us with a wonderful ministry of serving others?  Please, please let us know that we are where we should be, that you are in this with us.”  The lament and the pleading continued for a while. I was trying to listen, but my thoughts were too loud to hear anything from him at the time.   “I need to hear from you,” I concluded. “I am willing to do what you want me to do, but I need to hear from you.”

There are times when God responds in ways that shake us to our core.  Times when we know, without a shadow of a doubt that he is speaking directly to his child.  This was such a time, although the interpretation was not immediately apparent. What happened next was one of those moments.

Feeling thirsty, I rose from my seat of lamentations and headed to the kitchen.   Grabbing a glass from the cupboard, I turned on the faucet and held my glass out expectantly.  But, no water came from the tap, that tap which had been running freely while I had done my dishes. That tap for which I rejoiced earlier that morning.    I froze.  God was speaking, and he definitely had my attention, but the dilemma was, what was the message?  My first thought was, “God is saying, ‘Get out of here.  This was a big mistake.’”  Or . . . what???  This was something I had to share with Judd, immediately.  (To be continued next post)

 

 

 

 

How to Begin?

image

A great invention, those strings that sew shut bags of animal feed!  For years I have fumbled my way from one end of the seam to the other, trying to find the magical string among the bundle that will, with one quick tug, untangle the stitch all the way across the top of the bag.  But it has to be the RIGHT string; no other will work.  And then, voila, the bag is open and the contents are available.

In writing the story of the farm, I feel like I am opening that feed sack once again.  How to find the right string?  How do I untie this story so that the contents will be available to the reader in quality and quantity?

So many ideas have crossed my mind as I go from the front, to the middle, to the end of the story of life here on Kitten Creek Road.  Should I start with the people?  Should I start with the plan?  What about the memorable events that have brought joy and life changes?  Or the special landscape, buildings and spots that have been the backdrop for all of the life that has gone on here in this little part of the world?

There must be the perfect string that will begin the story so that it will all tumble out in a nice orderly and captivating story, just the way God revealed Himself:  not all at once, not immediately evident, yet sometimes startlingly evident.

Sometimes there are epiphanies.  I may be standing at the kitchen window of our new house.  Across the gravel road I see my two grandsons gleefully sledding down the hill on the white snow away from the farm house, barreling toward the gravel road. I hold my breath as they come to a safe halt.  It was only a blink away when my own children were sledding down that same hill. And watching, I recognize the over-arching plan of my Father, as He allows me to see the same scene repeated in the next generation.  God did this.

Or, I may be standing among the large group of costumed cast as we meet at the foot of the cross and my son leads in the devotions before we begin the evening event of Bethlehem Revisited.  Tears well up in my eyes as I look around at the joy on the faces of those who will soon be at their appointed spots, and the program will begin.  I remember the early days when it was just a family and neighbor event around a couple bales of hay.  Today, BR, as we have grown to call it, is a walk-through, forty-five minute guided tour of the prophecy, life, death, and resurrection of the Christ Jesus. We have grown to about two thousand who come the first weekend of December to experience this.  As I look around the crowd I see, scattered among the many, my daughter and her husband (who oversees the tech crew); most of my grandchildren in various rolls; my son, Dan, who so reverently and prayerfully writes the script and directs the cast; and my dear husband who is the networker and community relations guy.  And God did this.

God is the string that unties the story and allows all of the goodness, the surprises, the twists and turns of lives lived here on Kitten Creek to be turned into something beautiful.  There was a time early in the first year on the farm when we needed some kind of assurance from God that we were on the right track, that we had actually heard Him and were not pursuing our own folly.  God gave us a well story, the story of a well gone dry.  The verses he gave us were in Isaiah 41:17-20.  These verses quieted our hearts, assured our steps, and pointed to the reason for his blessing:  “That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it.”

So  . . . in writing this story we will begin pulling the string that tells of the well that went dry.

A Sense of Anticipation: Part One

As I write this blog I am looking at a picture that was taken of our dining room table on a Thanksgiving day several years ago. It is set in expectation that someone will enjoy fellowship and refreshment at this table. Many family memories are represented here. We had collected those blue dishes that adorn each place setting from our neighborhood grocery store when the children were young.  The dishes, like Judd and I, are now antiques.  The tall blue drinking glasses were gifts from my daughter Sara.  The antique oil lamps which came from my father-in-law’s collection are a silent reminder of his presence at this table. Name cards attached to fall leafs have been carefully placed on each plate identifying the anticipated guest at that spot.  In the forefront lies a Bible, opened and waiting for Judd to read before the meal begins. A delicious Thanksgiving dinner will soon grace the table, and people will be looking for their seats. Laughter and conversation will fill the room.  But at the moment of this picture, one can only perceive a sense of anticipation.

Is this not what God asks of us?  Anticipate me.  Prepare for me.  Look for my presence in what is about to take place, in what is taking place.  Set the table in expectation.

So, I rise early in the day, take my cup of coffee to my special spot, open my Bible and anticipate that God is going to meet me there.  I walk through the day and I anticipate that God will guide my thoughts, that He will bring people and incidents into my life that may give me a new glimpse of Him, I anticipate that my steps are ordained by Him and that He will finish the work that He has begun in me.  I anticipate in all of these little encounters, in all of His “supping with me,”  they are only a minute foretaste of that great feast we will enjoy with Him someday.

 

What Did I Miss?

I am sure that I missed it. But I am not sure what it was because I wasn’t looking for it. Oh, yes, I caught some of it, but I diminished it by grumbling, complaining, and wishing for something other.

Although, I know I miss much of God’s presence every day of my life, this blog is a reflection on my failures before we moved to the farm.
We lived in California temporarily for eleven years, and I was always looking for the escape clause.

I was seven months pregnant with my second child when I had my first introduction to the San Fernando Valley. Barb, one of my lifetime friends from college had picked us up from the airport, and we were headed to the home where she and her husband would host us until Judd arrived. Judd was making the trek by car from North Carolina bringing our meager life possessions with him. With my one year old on my lap (no seat belts and no child restraints then) we descended the hill between Los Angeles and the Valley.

Barb was cheerfully chatting, but I had stopped listening. I was in a state of panic. “Oh, my dear Lord, so many people; so much concrete, so many buildings, and . . . the smog. I am going to be lost in this place.” I had grown up on the East Coast. I loved the green, the open fields, and the farms. Open spaces spoke to me of a loving and caring God. Here I was descending into a man-made concrete world, speeding traffic, blaring horns, millions of people, and an arid land that was green only if irrigated by the human inhabitants. I felt I was losing my soul.

I missed the gift of seeing with God’s eyes.

I missed the fact that He was inviting me to walk this new walk with Him.

I missed the gift of anticipating what this adventure with God would bring.

Maybe part of my uneasiness that day was the hormonal imbalance of a very pregnant woman, or the fact that I had just traveled across the country with a toddler and without the aid of my dear husband. But I was definitely not experiencing the thrill of an adventure with God, and I was not anticipating His presence in this new life. I was scared, homesick, overwhelmed. The days that followed seemed to fulfill my initial reaction. In many ways I became wooden, bracing myself for what I was going to have to do and who I was to become in this new, strange world.

I missed the chance to flourish.

I did grow. Now that I look back on those eleven years, I see that all of my struggles kept leading me, inch by inch, into a grown-up relationship with my Father. But flourish? To flourish you need to be working with God. I was being dragged, almost unaware that He was involved in what was happening.

That first year we struggled to get our feet under us. Judd worked three part-time jobs until he was hired full time with the mega church where we served. Three part-time jobs meant he was gone . . . a lot.

I missed the gift of peace that passes all understanding.

We  had settled into our new home about three months when fire surrounded the San Fernando Valley. Panic! I had a toddler at home, Judd was at work, my laundry was hanging on the line being dusted with black ashes that floated down from the skies, and I was without a car. The fire trucks flew past the house. Although Judd helped to fight the fires that surrounded his brother’s home, our home was far from the danger of burning. But I was not becoming any more enthralled with my adopted environment.

I missed the gift of security that God was offering. I lived more in fear of a life out of control than the peaceful confidence that God was covering me with His presence.

As if the fires were not enough, we were to become more closely acquainted with another of California’s environmental offerings. Our new baby, Dan, was three months old, and Derrick was a year and a half when we experienced the 6.8 earth quake centered in the San Fernando Valley. Judd and I were sound asleep in our front bedroom when the house began to shake violently. My first thought was of my babies down the hall from us, and I jumped up to go to them. But I could not walk. The floor was rolling like solid waves. I fell back into bed and prayed. Our friends in the east had warned us about this. California was going to fall into the ocean. This prediction was in the front of the news those days, and everyone was sure it would be soon. When the shaking stopped, I went directly to the nursery. Both babies were sleeping soundly. No trauma there.

Our house had a little damage, dishes had fallen out of the cupboards, bookcases knocked down, but nothing that could not be fixed. My psyche was another story. Concrete walls had fallen. Bridges had collapsed. People had died. I, as the mother of two helpless babies, had been given a new mantle. I must, at all times, be aware of where my babies were, ready to grab them and take them to safety when the earth which had always been my terra firma should begin to threaten our lives again.

A low-level anxiety filled my heart because I felt God had abandoned me. I missed the peace that passes all understanding.

Our rough introduction to California slowly faded into a routine, less dramatic lifestyle. We attended the mega church where Judd worked and we learned how to relate to others on Sunday, and how to develop some relationships. The redeeming aspects of those years for both of us were the friendships we forged through Judd’s counseling center and a women’s group that I led. We shared community in those groups. They became the “home” for our souls.
Through the years in the Valley, two of our children were born, our extended families surrounded us; we shared holidays and created many, many wonderful memories. But my heart was never at home. I was discontent with the “foreign” feel of my surroundings. I disliked the emphasis that I saw on materialism that seemed to pervade everything, even the church. I longed for a yard that would survive without constant watering (such a little thing). I wanted to go somewhere and not have to stand in a line, or fight all the traffic every time I left the house. I felt like a prisoner during the smog alerts when the children were advised to stay indoors for the day, or when we could no longer allow our children to go alone to the park two blocks away because of the murders there.

Some people thrived on the California lifestyle. Even good people, people whom I admired and loved. I, on the other hand, pled with God to remove us from this strange foreign land.

The last three years of our California experience we stepped away from the mega church and joined an unusual church family that met at a restaurant and welcomed those who would not darken the doors of a church. It was a mission church. We flourished in our new environment. This group with its understanding of church, its practice of community, its desire to grow as disciples of Jesus, gave us a model that we would pursue when we moved to Kansas. This experience inspired us to pursue something similar, something that would grow deep into true spiritual community when we moved away from our California home.

And we did move. We did leave that California home. But as I reflect on those years I have a sense of remorse. I missed so much because of my discontentment.

In Acceptance Lieth Peace

In acceptance lieth peace,
O my heart be still;
Let thy restless worries cease
And accept His will.
Though this test be not thy choice,
It is His—therefore rejoice.
In His plan there cannot be
Aught to make thee sad:
If this is His choice for thee,
Take it and be glad.
Make from it some lovely thing
To the glory of thy King.
Cease from sighs and murmuring,
Sing His loving grace,

This thing means thy furthering

To a a wealthy place.

From thy fears He’ll give release

In acceptance lieth peace.

Hannah Hurnard

The Group at the Place by Nancy Swihart

 

In those first years we called ourselves “The Group at the Place With a Plan.”  Later we were to incorporate as Wellspring, Incorporated, a 501c3 which was to be active for a number of years. (We have since shut down the corporation, but still call ourselves Wellspring. ) This is the story of what developed from that ragtag group as we formed and then as we followed where the wind of the Spirit led.

The hundred and sixty acre farm on Kitten Creek Road which created the backdrop for this book has become a rich community of family and friends.  Many, many people have contributed to the fabric of our lives and, as a result, have been a testimony of God’s presence and His involvement in our otherwise mundane existence.

Our family of five, Judd and I and our three children, Sara, Daniel, and Derrick, moved from Southern California to Kansas in 1981.  Besides the allure of a position at Kansas State University, the move fulfilled a desire to experience serving God as a family.  After eight months of searching, we found our dream home: an old farm grown up in weeds with a 950 square foot house that sported no indoor plumbing, out buildings that were falling down, a substantial, lovely old barn, and  . . . lots of potential. I had the gift of vision, Judd had the gift of frugality, and we both have the gift of faith in a transcendent God, so the farm fit us perfectly.  God has given us an opportunity to “unwrap” His presence throughout the years of taming the farm, raising our children, hosting incredibly gifted people, and learning to live in community.

The original farm acreage is now home to six families. Our son, Daniel, and his wife Nancy bought acreage and built a home in a beautiful setting down the lane behind our new home.  They live there with their nine children and raise chickens, calves, sheep, ducks, and geese.   Our daughter, Sara, her husband, Dan (yes, we have two Dans and two Nancys) with their two sons bought the original house (much improved through the years with indoor plumbing to boot), the barn and out buildings, and much of the acreage. They raise goats, cows and chickens.  Our son, our son-in-law, Judd, and two of the oldest grandchildren built our new home.  From the kitchen window we have a good view of the old homestead, and we can see from our dining room picture window Dan’s and Nancy’s family coming and going down the gravel lane. The Reppert family, with an organic focus to their farming, were the earliest to buy land and build on the farm. Down the road a bit, the Bascoms, retired missionaries to Ethiopia, live in a log home they built along with their sons many years ago.  The Bascom’s son Nat and wife and children, recently returning from Kenya, built their home near their parents.

The community that formed here has had an impact far beyond Kitten Creek.

Our focus from the beginning was to live in a way that reflected an infinite, ever-present God who desires to be in relationship with His creatures. Many, many people have walked though this life with us, stayed a while, and added to the richness of that reflection. With our various personalities, gifts, and visions, God has allowed us to touch the world:  Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, India, Nepal as well as the inner city USA.  Many have also have the gift of writing and have published books that reflected a continual pursuit of building the Church.  The land on Kitten Creek has also been a place of solitude and silence for those who have desired to be spiritually recharged and find refuge in God’s presence.  For this purpose we offer a few rustic cabins and some hiking trails that wind through woods and over pastures.

Last, and by no means least, is the story of Bethlehem Revisited which grew from our small community celebrating the birth of Christ thirty years ago to several thousand visitors who come each December to walk through a forty-five minute guided tour telling the prophecy, birth, and resurrection of Christ.  Bethlehem Revisited is a story in itself which will find its place somewhere in the pages of this blog.

Unwrapping His Presence:  Gifts from The Farm

Today is my husband’s birthday.  It is not until he opens the lovingly wrapped presents that he will discover the gifts inside. And the givers will find joy in all of his responses because they love to give.  I think this is a great analogy for how we unwrapped the gifts that God offered to us in our daily lives.  Inside the package that was the farm were wrapped many layers of gifts.  Most of these gifts we could never have guessed by shaking the package.

This blog cite is based on the adventures of unwrapping those presents given by the God who loves to inhabit our space.  Perhaps it is really a telling of our attempt at sacramental living.  We have been given opportunities to unwrap in our clumsy and fumbling ways His presence in our everyday lives.  It is in the moments we willingly accept and unwrap those gifts that we find ourselves living a sacramental life

 

 

A Sense of Anticipation: Part Two

When our little family crossed the western states decades ago to replant ourselves in Kansas, we were in great anticipation. Leaving behind friends and memories, we began our journey. We were anticipating that God was going to “set our table” before us, a table of blessing and promise.

The scenery had slowly changed from browns to various shades of green. Long fields of yellow wheat gave way to rolling pastures dotted with Black Angus and red Herefords. Fancy, our orange tabby, was all but voiceless by now. Not enjoying his close confinement in the cat carrier, Fancy had been incessantly verbalizing his complaints across the desert and the mountains. After the first few hours he had minimized his loud comments to specific incidents. If we were quiet, he would be quiet. If we talked, he would try to drown us out. We had committed ourselves to long periods of quiet thoughtful travel. Berry, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” our young Doberman, on the other hand, seemed to have caught the sense of adventure that was permeating the Swihart family, and was thoroughly enjoying herself.

We were caravanning across the country. Judd was driving the large U Haul with most of our earthly possessions. I followed in the family station wagon, loaded with the cat and his carrier, the dog, and our suitcases. The boys took turns riding as navigator in the truck with Dad. Sara, just turned six, rode wherever she wanted. When Derrick rode with me he would read aloud from James Herriot. We howled in laughter together at some of the strange predicaments Herriot painted of his escapades with the English country folk and their charming way of life. These stories were to be the backdrop for my perception of the flint hills of Kansas. Later, when I would look upon our hills, the ghosts of Herriot’s stories lingered in my mind.

The truck, station wagon, and their occupants seemed to move across the western countryside in a cocoon of God’s protection. From where did this sense of safety and destiny come? In the natural reality of things, we were apparently very foolish. It seemed to most that we were choosing anonymity and seclusion in that barren land of the Midwest. We were leaving the West Coast which, at the time, was the center of everything avant garde. The connections and friends we had made in California had been stimulating and fruitful. Judd had just published a popular book on languages of love, the first ever to be published on the subject. Now, we were going, by choice, to a little town in the Midwest that few of our friends knew existed. It was rural, it was small, it was isolated, and it was unknown.

Somehow we had failed to be discouraged by the doomsayers. Having asked God for His leading, we were filled with anticipation of the adventure of His choosing. And an adventure it was. We needed to rent a three bedroom home that would allow animals. It was a difficult assignment for our friend who was trying to locate a livable option for our family. It was on the same day that we arrived in town with our moving van that Sharon had found the perfect home, a former parsonage for a local church. When we arrived in Manhattan, we spent that first night in our friend’s home. The very next morning, with young men who would become the core of our soon to be developed ministry, we unloaded our belongings into the perfect transition home. Our table was set.
What was God doing? What plans did He have for us here in this Kansas town? As we began to settle in to life in transition, little did we know what was happening at the little farm on Kitten Creek Road which God was preparing. Loss and transition for the elderly farmer was causing him to close down his decades of farming. Grass and weeds were thriving, the house and buildings which had been lovingly cared for were growing more and more in disrepair, and old, worn-out farm equipment dotted the yards. A gift? Only we would be able to see with eyes of faith the beautiful setting that was to be ours. At the same time as Oscar was winding down his life at the farm, we were beginning our own venture of searching for the “right” place for a family-based ministry.
We have had many conversations over the years about the sense of God’s presence here at the farm. The farm was in anticipation, dressed with God’s blessing, laden with the accoutrements that would offer solace, refuge, encouragement: “food” for those who were to come. God had set the table for us and we came and dined. Through the years He has continued to set the table, sometimes changing the place setting, sometimes needing to wash the table cloth, and many times changing the guest list. We are always blessed as we see these settings, and even the changes, as true gifts from the Holy One to be unwrapped and enjoyed.