Have you ever seen thistles in bloom? They are lovely lavender blossoms on long slender stalks, with silver-tipped prickles on the leaves and stems. They used to be one of my favorite flowers until I lived on a farm and learned that if the blooms go to seed, one plant can eventually take over an entire pasture. The summer my son, Matt, was almost three years old, he and I spent a few long, hot days clearing our fields of thistles with his grandpa Terry Chapman. Terry and Mary had recently moved from Weatherford, Oklahoma, to our farm in Tennessee to help us manage the growing demands of work and family. In addition to the upkeep of the farm, they were thrilled to be so close to Matt and his little sister, Millie.
There are several ways to deal with thistles. One is to cut them down and burn them before they go to seed, but in essence, you've simply pruned the stalk, encouraging a bigger root. You can bush-hog a field, making it good immediately, but the seedpods dry on the ground, the wind comes up, and then you've only dispersed your problem across a broader area. The only true remedy is to put on work gloves and pull them out by the root…or hire someone else for the grueling job. For whatever reason, this particular year, the thistles really bugged me, and I decided to take care of it myself, or at least start the job, with my father-in-law.
Terry had spent the majority of his life as an Assembly of God preacher. Somewhere in the process he mellowed into a gentle storyteller and conversationalist who intentionally or unintentionally taught lessons about life and faith in the context of everyday living. Pulling thistles is hard work. You dig and pull and pry and try to avoid the longest prickles, but the nature of the job makes for good conversation. You can't be in a hurry. It's going to take the hours it's going to take.
As the hours passed, Terry and I watched our pile of thistles grow in the back of the old orange and white farm truck while Matt crawled around in the dirt. We marveled at the singular carrotlike root that could support such a tall stalk. We sweated and laughed and talked for hours on end. And we made progress. Eventually we cleared the front pasture, just east of the house.
Terry's family had worked on farms his entire childhood. Every fall, he and his five brothers, father, and mother would leave Red River County and travel to West Texas to pick cotton until Christmas. He reminisced about the sight of his mother pulling a cotton sack down the row she was picking, his baby sister asleep in her mother's shadow. His stories of hard work and childhood mischief, of Sunday afternoons spent with other boys trying to hang on to the back of a bull calf, of long days and blessed, restful evenings painted pictures in my mind of a time different from the one I had known growing up.
We talked about life lessons that are learned in conjunction with the land, the changing of seasons, and the miracle of seeds sprouting and growing and yielding fruit. We talked about the patterns in nature, patterns of living and dying. At one point when I was struggling with a particularly tall thistle with a stubborn root, Terry called out to me, "You know, Amy, sin is a lot like that thistle you are wrestling with. It can look so beautiful to the eye, be so pleasing to the senses, you hardly notice the seeds are spreading until whole fields are taken over by them. Then they choke out the grass. Animals won't eat 'em. You can't cut 'em down and leave the root. They'll come right back. There is nothing to do but take the time and energy required to pull them out in one piece and fill the hole with something good."
I've thought about those days many times since then. My son has grown. The farm belongs to someone else now. But Terry's words are as fresh and alive in me as they were all those years ago, because they are true. I have had seasons of cleared fields and seasons of thistles in my own life, and thankfully some good, steady wisdom from an old Assembly of God preacher who took the opportunity to teach me about the time and energy required to do the clearing, and that part of life is learning to fill the holes with something good.
Several years after those days spent pulling thistles, I was asked to sing at the wedding of a friend's sister. She was an older bride, had grandchildren of her own. She was also a painter. When I arrived at the church on the day of her wedding, she handed me a wrapped canvas, her gift to me for singing. She said, "Amy, I stood in front of that canvas and asked God to help me think of something that would matter to you, something I could paint. I felt a little doubtful about painting weeds, but I wanted to say thank you." Inside the wrapping was an oil painting of thistles in bloom at sunset.