Sunday, August 17, 2008

State fair

by John D Ramsey

We just returned from the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. We went to see Claire’s 4-H projects on display, but I was also looking to see if there were any miniature cattle. There is a long story behind that, but I did not see any mini-cows. If they were there, I overlooked them.

Agriculture in the United States intrigues me. I remember bucking bales, killing chickens, and digging thistles on my grandparents’ farm when I was a child. I remember almost passing out when my grandfather and the veterinarian castrated a bunch of shoats before a farm sale. It was my job to pass the bottle of iodine to the vet, but the intense squealing, the blood, and the bucket of [redacted by Lisa] sent me into early retirement from hog farming. I cooled off and regained my color in front of my grandmother’s window air conditioner from Sears. I think I was ten or twelve years old at the time.

I first learned to drive a Ford 8N tractor. I was probably thirteen when my grandfather decided that it was about time for me to learn. The 8N produced about 25 horsepower. In a school science experiment later that year, I produced a little over one horsepower running up the stairway from the school’s cafeteria.

Today I photographed Gabby sitting inside the rim of a 530 horsepower John Deere 9630. I remember I was impressed with how easily my grandfather’s 8N turned the soil in the north garden patch with its one bottom plow. I am older now, and realize that a 25 horsepower tractor is but a lawnmower. Still, the John Deere 9630 is beyond my comprehension.

Huge machines, such as the John Deere 9630, amaze me, but such a beast is inaccessible to me. My interest lies more with self-sustaining agriculture. For instance, this year I am confident that I have produced enough tobacco to meet the needs of the entire family. Moreover, my few plants will produce more than enough seed to let me plant tobacco again next year if I so choose. Additional expenses on potting soil and peat moss followed my initial investment of $3.00 for seeds. If I actually had a use for the tobacco, I am sure that I would be money ahead.

Earlier this month, Lisa and I drove past McGonigle’s Meat Market in Kansas City. Their sign advertised heirloom tomatoes for $5.99 per pound. Price Chopper, a few blocks from our house, sells homegrown tomatoes for $3.99 per pound. The other day I came in from Claire’s tomato patch cradling more than a dozen tomatoes (some heirloom and others not). I let them roll on to the counter and told Lisa, “There’s twenty bucks.”

Lisa looked at the pile and scoffed and said, “At least!”

Yet as we enjoy the fresh tomatoes and basil from our garden, I wonder what it would take to supply all our tomato needs. If we grew enough tomatoes to last us a year, what other costs would be involved in preserving them? At what point would I break even, or have I already by only supplying fresh tomatoes during the summer months?

Lisa and I have concluded self-sustaining agriculture is a difficult puzzle. It suffers from the same economic pressures as commercial agriculture. For instance, if someone were going to buy a John Deere 9630, he would need to use it enough to justify either his financing payments or the amortized return on his initial cash investment. The tractor can make quick work of many things, but if the 9630 is underutilized, it saves time but wastes money. Likewise, any expense I make in the spring preparing the garden must be balanced against the savings I receive eating tomatoes that I did not buy. Otherwise gardening is just a hobby.

A friend and I have been looking at the prices of miniature cattle. According to the Wall Street Journal they produce milk and beef more efficiently than regular cattle, and they are supposedly more suitable for sustainable agriculture. Nevertheless, the prices of the miniature bulls and cows include the valuation of their future offspring. Consequently, for the would-be rancher there is a significant barrier to entry. For instance, I noticed online a bull and two cows on sale for $4000.00. I can buy much beef and dairy for four grand. Yet finding the break-even point is intriguing to me. Dollars spent at a grocery store is money gone, while herds retain and even increase in value.

Do not worry, Lisa, I am not buying mini-cows. We do not have room for them. For me farming and ranching is merely a hypothetical mental exercise. Nevertheless, next year we are planting more tomatoes.

Attending the state fair and walking through the livestock exhibits, reminds me of the celebration of the tithe in the Old Testament. Without getting into too deep a discussion of ecclesiology and tithing, I digress to the history of the tithe. The Old Testament concept of tithing began with Abraham. After rescuing Lot from the five kings from Mesopotamia, Abraham brought the spoils of war to Melchizedek, the king of Salem, and gave him a tenth of all.

Abraham’s tithe was a one-time gift. Moreover, Abraham kept none of the spoil. He gave a portion to his fighting men and the rest he gave to the king of Sodom, saying, “I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’” Genesis 14:23 (NIV)

From the passage, it does not appear that God compelled Abraham to make a gift to Melchizedek. Nor is there any other account of Abraham making a similar gift. Many years later, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, vowed to God, saying:

If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.

Genesis 28:20-22 (NIV)

Again, God did not compel this pledge from Jacob. Perhaps Jacob remembered his grandfather’s account of tithing to Melchizedek and decided that he should do more. We cannot be certain of his motivation; nevertheless, God remembered his pledge and tithing became part of the Law of Moses at the very end of Leviticus. “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” Leviticus 27:30 (NIV) Why did one tenth of everything belong to the Lord? It belonged to God because Jacob (Israel) had so pledged. What is most interesting to me is not that God demanded a tenth of everything, but rather how he instructed Israel to give it.

You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns—and you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to. Be careful not to neglect the Levites as long as you live in your land.

Deuteronomy 12:17-19 (NIV)

Who consumed the tithe that God commanded Israel to give? The giver did! God did not want Israel’s possessions; he wanted their hearts. He tells them to come to the place where he will establish his tabernacle or temple, bring their families, servants, and the Levites living nearby to “rejoice before the LORD [their] God in everything [they] put [their hands] to.” Deuteronomy 14 expounds upon the instruction because bringing a tenth of livestock and grain would be a burden to some that lived far away. God tells them they can exchange their tithe for silver and bring the silver to the place of gathering. He tells them,

Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

Deuteronomy 14:26-27 (NIV)

In every third year, this tithe or perhaps an additional tenth, went to the storehouses that the Levites managed. A tenth of the Levites’ receipts went to support the priests in the temple. The Levites shared their allotment with widows, orphans, and foreigners who lived in the land. This special year was called “the year of the tithe.”

Imagine all the people in an agricultural society coming together to one place and bringing with them a tenth of all their produce. Imagine all their friends and family joining them. Imagine that they stay in this place until they consume one tenth of the national GDP. Imagine that the focus of this event is rejoicing in the Lord and his bounteous provision. This event would outshine any state fair!

Imagine the heart of God telling Israel to take the gift that they promised to him and use it to celebrate his name! The celebration would foster brotherhood. Moreover, imagine the economic stimulus! A man with many cattle might sell them for silver and then use the silver to buy grain and wine. Imagine the man with a surplus of grain gladly exchanging it for silver, which he could use to buy what he lacked. God’s blessing upon his people did not deprive them of bounty. Rather he shared and multiplied his blessings through the economic activity associated with tithing.

When we consider the calendar, we realize that the celebration of the tithe corresponded with the Feast of Tabernacles. At the harvest moon, Israel was required to gather together at the Tabernacle or in Jerusalem and live under the sky for eight days. They built temporary shelters commemorating their sojourn in Sinai. Nevertheless, in Israel’s memory this feast celebrated much more than the Exodus because immediately prior this feast Solomon dedicated the temple. Read about it in 2 Chronicles.

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD, saying,

“He is good;
his love endures forever.”

2 Chronicles 7:1-3 (NIV)

The glory of the Lord filled had filled the tabernacle and now it filled Solomon’s temple. The glory of God came down to earth and when Israel saw it they fell down with their faces on the ground.

As Christians we cannot read 2 Chronicles 7 without remembering the words of the Apostle John, “The Word became flesh and [tabernacled] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 (NIV) We realize that celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles looked not only into the history of Israel but also unto the promise of Christ! Without too much stretch of the imagination, we realize that when Israel celebrated God’s bounteous provision during the Feast of Tabernacles, their actions also looked forward to God’s amazing provision of eternal life through the Son, Jesus Christ.

As believers, the history of the tithe challenges us to use our resources – the blessings that God has given to us – to celebrate Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, God is not seeking a tenth of our increase. Just as he wanted from Israel, he is seeking 100% of our hearts.

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