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Rain, Chickens and Other Foolish Hopes

Most of the United States is coming through some of the highest steady temperatures in a century, coupled with not a drop of rain. Last week, over 4,000 new record-high temperatures were set across the country. We’ve sought out shade, ice cream and A/C—it’s just been so hot.

Here in Wisconsin, it has not rained more than a sprinkle for over a month—3/10ths of an inch, we’ve heard, making it the driest summer on record. The only green in our yard is thistles. We haul out a hose every few days, watering what we can. Our neighbor’s cornfields are stunted, and his cattle maw on a field of brown stubble. The heat index here hit 108. The very idea of trying to grow things sounds stupid.

Nothing—no prayers, hopes, dances, cloud seeding—is bringing the rain back.

This was supposed to be our summer of growing things. A year ago, we moved into a new home surrounded by a half-acre yard, an acre of woods and an acre of sunny fields. We read the happy books about turning your land (whether vacant lot or boulevard, farmette or NYC rooftop) into a locavore’s paradise, complete with small livestock.

So we dreamed. We rented our acre that had been a hayfield out to a farmer who started planting vegetables for a mini-CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. He put in mulch and cover crops, working organic matter into the soil to improve it for years to come. A dozen families signed up to eat the vegetables growing outside our window. The mercury rose, but we were all sure it would pass.

We also put together a chicken coop and picked out five cute, fluffy, heritage-breed chicks. They grew feathers in our basement, then moved out to their sweltering home in the yard to grow up and start laying eggs.

We borrowed a friend’s truck, drove it to the city compost site and paid $10 for a huge backhoe scoop of rich black compost to shovel across fruit and flowerbeds. We researched native plant varieties and spent $70 bucks on a few choice varieties that promised to cover the soil where we’d pulled out invasive plants. We planted wildflowers, collected perennials from rummage sales and friends’ yards and sunk serious money into a grapevine, strawberries, raspberries and a couple of apple trees.

That’s when it stopped raining.

The lack of rain has made it very hard to grow things. Walking around with a hose gets old fast, and in 100-degree weather, a five-minute soak doesn’t last long. We stopped our weekly Sunday-night tradition of cooking dinner over a campfire for fear of burning down the neighborhood. Of the few plants left surviving the dry heat, groundhogs and chipmunks dug up another half dozen. We holed up with our precious central air as we swung into the second week of blazing record highs.

Then one morning, Adam walked out to the front porch to drink his tea and spotted a raccoon slinking away from the coop. He ran outside to scare it away, then saw another one cowering in the live trap we’d set outside the coop in case of predators. Peeking inside the coop, he found a third raccoon hunched in the back corner.

Plump, lip-smacking raccoons. Feathers stuck to the walls of the coop in blotches of blood. All five chickens had been devoured.

The “Ladies” had names—Jessica Over Easy, Scrambler, Frittata, Omelette and Mrs. Custard. Our children had held them, fed them, sung to them. These were not some meaty birds to fatten up and die after eight weeks crammed in cages. We lost not just future food but loved ones we’d nurtured.

Loved ones we’d nurtured.

It feels so foolish sometimes to believe that we might grow things in this life. Predators break in and steal, and when it comes down to it, we have no control at all over most of the key factors in life. Like rain and raccoons.

This battle isn’t just for eggs, tomatoes and purple coneflowers. There’s a real battle in the souls around us, too. Satan, our enemy, prowls like a lion to devour what (and whom) we love and work for. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. We hate that this world is full of raccoons, drought, blistering heat waves and everything else we growers run up against. Our own small hands make weak weapons in this fight against the invisible.

How stupid can we be to try to put seeds in the ground and nurture fragile little creatures in this crazy world? Wouldn’t it be easier not to try, not to grow, not to love?

We have felt this foolishness of hope in years past. We worked overseas, trying to bring good news and justice to messed-up situations. When we tried to demonstrate sustainable ways to plant healthy vegetables on hillsides in Nicaragua, another drought killed everything but our radishes. (And it turns out that our friends thought radishes tasted gross.) In South Africa, a wildfire swept through our town, killing several people and destroying dozens of homes. And the South African seminary we taught ran out of money and had to take drastic measures. We have seen families forced to choose between the financial burden of a dad finishing college or a son going to first grade, between a wife going to the doctor or purchasing seeds in hopes of the year’s harvest.

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These things are not fair. We have sweated and cried trying to stop these injustices. We often have failed.

The crushing weight of bloody feathers

On the night I (Chrissy) hosed feathers clotted with the Ladies’ blood off of our little chicken coop, I felt the tremendous weight of every logical reason to give up planting and growing things. That night I read in Psalm 94:

O Lord, you God of vengeance … shine forth … How long shall the wicked exult? … They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, and they say, “The Lord does not see.”

Usually I hate passages like that about punishment and vengeance. But when you come face to face with what’s wrong in this world, you realize it’s going to take Someone way bigger than ourselves to fix it all. I want to know the God who cares about my chickens—and cares more so about children being sold into prostitution, orphans left on city streets, and selfish world leaders who allow famine. I want to know the God who redeems and restores the broken.

The psalm continues:

He who planted … does he not hear? … The Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return … If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would have lived in the land of silence … But the Lord has become my stronghold.

Zucchini, eggs and eternity

Looking out into our field of vegetables, I see beacons of green bursting up from the brown dusty soil, watered by a drip irrigation line. Thanks to this faithful, slow watering right to the roots where it won’t evaporate away, we’ve harvested peas, cabbages, beans, spinach, kale, lettuce, turnips, beets and enough zucchini to feed a flash mob. We carry buckets of zucchini in our trunk to give away. Meanwhile, more chicks grow in the basement, their first real feathers starting to sprout.

Drought, raccoons, record heat, trafficking, famine, selfishness and sin—in these, we will keep working and trudging in hope. Because in the long haul, the Kingdom of God grows, like a mustard seed in a drought, like zucchini on a drip line.

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