Uncle Ray: An Old Farm Tale, Anew - (David Kupp - TRC participant)

Saskatchewan in the 1960s and 70s was many things: tough, vibrant, socialist, conservative, churched, impatient with politicians, and bullish on hard work and innovative hands. And it was heading for industrialized farming.

There are a few stories I could tell about my Uncle Ray.  He was not large, imposing or grandiose.  Nor was he a scholar, priest or public personality. But he was what my childhood needed: grounded, thoughtful, wise, even gentle.  And he was a master of the pregnant silence. In response to my ever-impatient ‘Why? How?’ he felt no need to rush. He was the only Brethren Zen master I ever met. And he was a small-scale farmer enamoured not with megafarms but with God’s creation.

Before we go further with Uncle Ray, allow a digression about “story.”  I like these wise words from Bill Harley to wannabe teachers and mentors (and priests and community leaders): “If we want it to be memorable, it must be a story.  Story is how we are reminded, and how we remember.” Perhaps we are here at Wycliffe to help each other develop our stories, join our stories, and tell our stories.  

So how do we find our stories, corporate and personal? A good question, especially for me, since my stories always seem to be under development and evolving. If you’ve been following this series in Morning Star, faculty and staff have been telling stories, and my observation is that no one is claiming that their story is entire and complete. We all have story parts that don’t make sense, chapters that are missing, and pieces that are far too complex and interesting for a cliché. Story-making means always trying, sometimes struggling, to see our story’s new pattern in context.  Story-telling is also how we, our clans and communities make local theology.  It does not emerge from lecture notes or PowerPoint slides, but from hindsight sense-making, co-woven with the threads of presence and text.

When I retrace the decades back to my Uncle Ray, I’m struck along the way by how often my personal story is frequented by both unintended and formal mentors.  Some tough, some old, some young, some surprising. There’s the story of Brother Bob, the mentor from hell, who… well, we’ll skip him. But there’s John, who schooled me in the Mennonite art of wood cabinetry. And there’s Fackelbararnas, the intentional 1970s community of peer mentors in Sweden who radicalized my passion for holistic biblical living. And there’s mentor and coach Linda, with her insatiable vision for gender equity. And there’s my Kenyan mentor who plunged me through the barriers of culture, race, unlearning and community transformation. And there’s the stories of profs Roger, Dale, Roberta and Colin, and their weavings of Matthew, Luther, Barth, Weber, Ellul and Guttierez.  

It’s only later in life, years after Uncle Ray is gone, that I realize our relationship was also my first story of mentorship. As a child, I thought he was a genius: he could deliver a calf, operate a hundred types of machines and tools, read the moisture on the wind with his nose, sense the growth of seed beneath the spring soil, and wax extemporaneous on Nebuchadnezzar.

And Uncle Ray was cool. He had the greatest collection of frogs in his creek, the best old stone barn and farmhouse, and the most ancient farming equipment that clanked and flailed and chugged along. He could build watches and clocks from scratch. He was also the father of my good friend and cousin, Nelson. Best of all, Uncle Ray let Nelson and I do amazing stuff together all over the farm.

“Your Uncle Ray was a failure,” a community member quietly confided, a few years ago. “He never really made that farm work.” That statement startled and puzzled me. It fueled a season of recollection about those summers and years on the Saskatchewan prairie. Ok, perhaps through the narrowed eyes of the modern agribusiness world, he was the end of an era; but for me he was a doorway to land, life skills, faith and insight.

My uncle Ray taught me much. It was probably through his soft-spoken words, his careful observations of birds, seasons, and animals feral and farmed, that I first inhaled the beauty and intricacy of the land.  God was not ‘heavenly’ for Uncle Ray, but abundantly immanent in every molecule of that small valley paradise. Jesus’ call to abundant life was just outside the door. I first learned camping in that valley, sheltered with cousin Nelson inside the rickety lean-to we erected for protection from the terrifying night beasts of the forest (a mere 100 metres from the house).

I first learned from Uncle Ray the wonders of crop cycles, seasons, weather and manure. I first learned about A.I. (artificial insemination, not appreciative inquiry) at the back end of one of his 1500-pound Simmental beauties. I learned to drive tractor, chase mice, cut hay, haul bales, wade creeks, light fires.

Often idyllic, but never perfect, life on the farm ran the normal gamut of livelihood, climate, family, community, inter-church and in-law challenges. There were many sparse winters when Uncle Ray worked two extra jobs.  But I saw his pattern: his quiet, wise, dogged persistence was thoroughly rooted in everyday practices of faith and gratitude, around the kitchen table, on the land, and with the neighbours.

Perhaps intuitively, sola Scriptura (so central for my gigantic, extended family of ethnic Anabaptist immigrants) was only a starting point for Uncle Ray. I realize now that he was also reading the divine texts of nature, and his refractions of life were richer and deeper for that. Every breakfast with Uncle Ray combined cereal and toast with Scripture readings and prayer. But pauses in the labours of field and barn delivered moments of wise observation – about the moment, about the good produce of creation, about his regret for needing to dismantle the beaver’s efforts to dam the creek, about this year’s return of butterflies, about what possibilities lay just beyond the horizon.

Years later, it dawns on me.  Uncle Ray was my personal Wendell Berry.  His faithful practices integrated text, tractor, community and earth.  

My story about Uncle Ray now includes a new ending, about mentors. It goes something list this: the people in front of us are no accident.  Within the special algorithm of choice, chaos, complexity and ὁ Ἐμμανουήλ  (Emmanuel) that carries us along this current stream, my life and faith – and perhaps yours, testifies to the purpose and value of mentoring and being mentored. Uncle Ray’s natural mentorship was an organic gift.  We had no set of learning outcomes, no scheduled meetings, no agreement.  (Although I do believe he promised my parents to steer me clear of dangerous farm machinery, and his irate bull.) Who is your Uncle Ray in this moment? And to whom might you be Uncle Ray?

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© David Kupp