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Five generations on the farm

Learning to use the tools on the farm.

In this month’s blog, Home Words Bound, the Rev. Benton Heisler recalls life on the farm in Indiana and ponders the future of The United Methodist Church.


Director of Connectional Ministry, Michigan Conference

Benton HeislerFather’s Day will be celebrated across our country this weekend. I am blessed to have many fine memories of my father and his father, my grandfather. If you have read this blog over the past 11 years, you know I have told any number of stories of times together with them on the family centennial farm in northern Indiana.

My grandmother was one of five sisters, born to a German immigrant family that settled there in the mid to late 1800s. My great aunt never married and died at the age of 86, just three weeks after needing to move from the house that had been the only home she had ever known, other than her four years in college, which is a whole other legacy story for another time. My grandmother and grandfather raised my father and his sister in the small Sears Craftsman home across the dusty dirt road from the family estate.

A few months after my great aunt’s death, the family all gathered one summer day, for another “reunion on the family farm.” There was less croquet, and the attire was more work-friendly. There was a job to do.  My great aunt had indicated that the estate was to be divided among the ten great-nieces and nephews.  No one at that time was interested in or able to farm, so the family reunion was the event for sorting, selecting and dividing artifacts, heirlooms, mementos and telling stories of the days gone by.

My aunt had included some Scripture in the will that made it clear, the sharing of this legacy was a gift to be treasured, not squandered, and peace among us all was a paramount value. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133)  When the estate was distributed there were tears of gratitude, but no anger or bitter resentment. There was no “winner take all” or attitudes of “by any means necessary, justified by a personal self-righteous end.”

Nephew learns to swing an ax and split a log on the farm.
Josh Nystrom becomes the fifth-generation of woodsmen to use family tools. ~ photo by Ronda Nystrom and used with permission.

When I take time to get off the usual direct routes and find my way down the 1-mile dirt road, past this farm, much has changed and yet everything is still the same. The two homes still stand. The 1860s barn now has a metal roof and siding, but all the hand-hewn structural beams remain intact, having withstood the test of time and winds and purpose.

Seven generations later this clan still gathers on what is usually a hot August Saturday in Indiana when you can almost hear the corn grow. We reminisce, reacquaint, meet the newest spouses, grieve another saint who has gone before us and celebrates the latest infant to arrive. If we all were present, there would be nearly 100 persons who are the family of these five sisters.

We have all branched out from the Church of the Brethren family faith roots. We are Mennonite, Independent Community, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, United Methodist, Nazarene, Brethren, searching…  We are Republican, Democrat, and Independent. There are teachers, nurses, attorneys, pastors, construction workers, IT specialists, professors, piano teachers, coaches, and a nuclear physicist. Some have gardens, but nobody is a farmer.

I spent most of last weekend in the woods of northern Michigan on the end of a chainsaw removing dead and dangerous trees to make space for a variety of outdoors opportunities. I showed my 8th-grade nephew some techniques for using a double-edged ax, splitting maul and wedges. He was the 5th generation to put his hand on those very tools. I vividly remember a day in the woods in the 1960s, watching my father and grandfather use a two-man crosscut saw on a large log. They set me up to chop down a tree with the very same ax my nephew was using. (Yes, I know they now have hydraulic log splitters and machinery that can quickly accomplish every step it took us hours to complete. But, expediency is not always the best guiding principle.)

We face some similar challenges as a denomination. … There is a substantial amount of clear disagreement. There is clearly some “sorting, selecting and dividing of artifacts, heirlooms, mementos and telling stories of the days gone by” that will need to take place. There is some “splitting” that may need to be accomplished.

Will we divide the “estate” in such a way that lives can be transformed, dreams fulfilled, and the legacy of faith expressions continue? Or will we live out an ugly “winner take all” or “by any means necessary, justified by a personal self-righteous end” pattern of self-destruction?

What lessons will we model for the world, the sake of Christ and His Church, and the children of the next generation? 


~“If you make my Word your home, you will indeed be my disciples.  You will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:13 New Jerusalem Bible.)”  Each article I write for this column is based in the guidance of a Scripture passage. I pray that these reflections, stories, and information will assist you in your own witness and service as a Disciple of Jesus Christ.

The Michigan Conference