Around Martley and Wichenford there are a large number of farms, so Harvest is an important festival here as in other rural areas. But how do you celebrate Harvest after yet another poor summer?
This week the National Farmers’ Union announced that nationally, wheat yields were down almost 15% on the five-year average, with some areas in the west of England suffering bigger drops. They also reported that fruit and vegetables were also adversely affected – with apples and potatoes particularly poor.
That certainly reflects what I’ve seen and heard around here. A small orchard nearby lost almost its entire crop of plums and damsons. Seeing the barley crops here damaged after a deluge in August made it seem remarkable that so much was actually successfully gathered in.
Then there is the ongoing situation with bovine TB: a couple of farms have had to kill 20 to 30 cattle because they were suspected of carrying the disease. Meanwhile, farmers are unable to get prices for their milk that cover their costs, and it is hard to see how can anyone think that that’s a healthy situation.
I suggested to David Sherwin that it’s under these circumstances that a farmer could think he’s taken one blow too many and ends up doing something stupid like committing suicide; David looked at me and said “It’s already happened”.
Doing a Harvest festival that was relentlessly upbeat therefore seemed both inappropriate and artificial. It’s the kind of thing that can give the impression that Church doesn’t engage with reality – whereas in fact if we’re in a relationship with the living God, we should be better able to engage with harsh reality than otherwise.
On the other hand, an irredeemably gloomy service would be equally inappropriate. It could have been far worse, especially if the hot weather in March had indeed led to the drought that was then expected. And it’s certainly scriptural to give thanks to God in all circumstances.
When we did the Harvest Festival in Martley, we therefore had a section in the first part of the service called “Lament”, and we used one of the Psalms to help us. The Lament Psalms enable us to say to God “I’m finding life really tough right now, it isn’t just or fair, and I’m fed up with it!”. We used Psalm 13, which provides a straightforward example of gritty emotional realism.
Most Lament psalms move from complaint to thanksgiving and praise, and so we did the same in our Harvest. It’s entirely right to thank and praise God for what he has given us – as well as to ask Him to heal the land from all that has afflicted it in previous years.
Later in the week the two primary schools held Harvest festivals of their own, which were necessarily of a different ilk. I was particularly impressed by the one at Martley. The head teacher, Andrew Massey, has been inspired by a recent trip to Tanzania, so central theme of the service was water. This presented a great spiritual link to Jesus as the Living Water, and a practical link to Water Aid. The kids seemed very enthused by the theme as well. It was an exemplary way to do Harvest in a primary school.