Barn raising: thoughts on going through change with the help of others.

In the summer of 1983, a tornado cut its way through rolling hills of Holmes County, Ohio.  It only took twenty minutes to gouge 15 acres of land, destroying a forest of magnificent, 100-year-old hard woods.  Trees weren’t the only casualty that day.  Four Amish barns were also leveled.  As though the tornado had been given a mandate to destroy them, these four magnificent pieces of Amish craftsmanship were turned into nothing more than kindling.  For the Amish farmer, or any farmer for that matter, this would have been devastating.  To lose a barn means also losing  the livestock, hay, grain and equipment they housed.

What happened next was astonishing.  Gene Lodgson, a local farmer and writer in Upper Sandusky, Ohio had this to say about what happened after the tornado:

…what followed in the wake of the tornado during the next three weeks was just as awesome as the wind itself. In that time—three weeks—the forest devastation was sawed into lumber and transformed into four big new barns. No massive effort of bulldozers, cranes, semi-trucks, or the National Guard was involved. The surrounding Amish community rolled up its sleeves, hitched up its horses and did it all. Nor were the barns the quick-fix modern structures of sheet metal hung on posts stuck in the ground. They were massive three-story affairs of post-and-beam framing, held together with hundreds of hand-hewn mortises and tenons.

The Amish farmer who was the recipient of this new barn smiled. The structure, complete with donated hay, grain, and animals to replace all that was destroyed by the storm, cost him “about thirty thousand dollars, out-of-pocket money”–most of that funded by his Amish Church’s own internal insurance arrangement. “We give each other our labor,” he said. “That’s our way. In the giving, nothing is lost, though, and much is gained.  We enjoy barn raising.  So many come to work that no one has to work very hard.  And we get in a good visit.

I can just hear it.  As beams are being raised and joined, the conversations are

So, where were you when the tornado hit?
Hey, did you hear Jacob and Beth are expecting again?
(Ishmael – More nails!)
So, what do you think crop yields will be like this year?

This is so wonderfully weird.  Something terrible happens to one and many gather for a bit of work and a visit.

Mandatory

How does this happen?  How does a farmer who just saw his barn reduced to scrap seem to be at ease about the whole thing?

The answer is they relentless participate with one another in creating a future.  There is this covenant among them that sounds something like, “When your barn is leveled, I will drop everything to help you rebuild.”  Even before the tornado finished its work he knew his neighbors had his back.  His life may have been threatened, but not his livelihood.  He knew no matter the damage, rebuilding would be a group effort.  And he knew this not because it was written down somewhere in some book on Amish life (though I’m sure it is somewhere) but because he had seen this lived out since infancy.       

If you’re Amish barn raising is mandatory.  Young and old, women and men – everyone rolls up their sleeves to help in some way.  Though all you see in the video above are the men hard at work during a one-day barn raising, there are dozens of women and children present.  Everyone has a task to do.  Whether it’s feeding mouths or pulling nails out of old boards to be reused, or serving as the job site gopher – everyone participates.  And to this farmer’s point, no one is utterly depleted by day’s end, for it’s not on the shoulders of a few, but everyone.

At the end of the day, a farmer get a barn.  But really, he gets something better: a future.

There is this verse in Jeremiah that Christians love to quote: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Many are confused by this verse when unwanted change happens in their life.  All kinds of unhelpful beliefs tend to seep in.  Seven years ago, I feel off a roof and shattered my ankle.  This event sent shockwaves through every aspect of life for me and my family.  On several occasions, I heard people say to me, “Boy, God sure is trying to get your attention.”  I remember thinking, Really?  And he’s not yours?  You think God needed to give me a hip-check off a roof to do that?  Why do we so easily assume that God is authoring “tornadoes” in our lives?  What if it’s just a powerful wind that destroyed a barn, or a wild fire that burned a neighborhood, or a tormented young man who ended the lives of 17?  What if instead, God’s trying to do his best work in all us by embedding the learning and transformation we most seek for ourselves in the very acts that build a better future?

What the Amish understand is that tornadoes happen.  But futures don’t.  Those get made – one bulky beam at a time, which are best lifted by many hands.  They know that it’s in the many hands lifting that beam where the mystery of their faith and love for one another is realized.  They know that the best plans to become better humans – that being more loving, creative and courageous – don’t get rolled out for us like blueprints.  God doesn’t drop a future in our laps.  God invites us again and again into an experience, a relationship of participation with him and one another, to co-create something better.  Given that each of us are creatures charged with the responsibility and freedom to create meaningful lives, it would seem to take away from that truth if we weren’t invited to participate in being that for our futures.  You don’t sit and passively wait with hope for a future you wish you had.  You help create it.  What a gift, really, to not be robbed of that opportunity to participate in future building.

Imagine how a community like the one in the video above feels at the end of that day.

Community through Transition

Let’s say Amos, another Amish farmer, wakes up one morning to his barn engulfed in flames.  Scratch that.  Instead, let’s say the story is about abundance, not hardship.  Amos is skilled in the art of organic fertilizers and his crop yields for the last several years have been extraordinary.  Seeing the need for more storage space, he decides it’s time to build another barn.  But Amos does not want to inconvenience his Amish brothers and sisters for help.  He decides that they’re all too busy with their own work and families.  So, he shares nothing of the need.  In secret, he hires outside contractors to build a new barn without anyone in his community knowing.  Instead, Amos keeps it to himself acting as though everything is normal at monthly meetings and social gatherings.

How would the community respond to Amos when they find out?  What it would not be is congratulatory slap on the back followed by an, “At a boy, Amos!  Well done!”  They would be in confused.  Shocked.  Devastated.  Angry.  And, I think, quite hurt.  Why? Because somewhere along the way Amos forgot that a barn raising isn’t for him; it’s a visceral reminder to everyone that no matter what characterizes the season – calamity or abundance – a life is best lived in relationships that relentlessly participate with one another.

In my work with those going through a significant life transition, I often ask them to put together a coalition – a community of mentors, friends and colleagues who will help them see and tell the truth, identify and follow clues, provide encouragement and accountability, show up and really help, etc.  Hands down, the number one response I get from clients after introducing this idea of inviting others to participate in this way – and I’m not even talking about relentlessly, just occasionally – is,

I’m hesitant to ask.
I don’t want to inconvenience them.
They have their own problems.
They are so busy.

I live in a region where if you feel stuck, aimless or in any kind of pain the only real option is to hire a pro (e.g. a therapist, coach, pastor, spiritual director, etc.).  Commiserate with those who love you, but don’t ask them for help.  That’s what professionals are for.  Which, at times, hiring a pro is good and necessary.  Certain locked doors need the help of an experienced key maker.  I think what many of us are needing though is a barn-raising, an experience within a set of consistent and persistent relationships that roll up their sleeves and build a future together – during times of calamity or abundance.

We love the narrative of rugged individualism, the freedom to help ourselves out, choose our own way, and make a future.  There is a gift in that freedom of choice.  But somewhere along the way that gift gets perverted when we believe that’s something to be achieved without help.  No one person’s future is really self-made.  To be viewed as such is in my experience more a statement about what kind of person he or she has become in relationship to themselves and to those around them, and less about what they’ve accomplished.

Frolic

The Amish have this strange and wonderful word to describe an activity that combines the following three things: the celebration of community, hard work, and common goals.  Any practice that satisfy these conditions are called “frolics”. For them, a barn raising is the most prolific frolic.

To feel everything from stuck and lost to progress and growth, are ordinary things; it’s what comes with being human.  Wanted or not, seasons of change come and go.  Some bring good.  Others a lot of difficult.  And many seasons serve up both.  These turbulent experiences aren’t to be avoid at all costs or moved through as quickly as possible.  Since they are going to happen, what if they could become that “transformational experience” to be engaged and frolicked through together?  Navigating through turbulent times isn’t something we need to fix or correct.  It’s something we need to engage and anticipate just what will happen.  The tornadoes and “high yield crops” are not the problem to be solved.  But learning to frolic during transition – engaging community in hard work and common goals – is the solution.  A good frolic best honors the challenging season by going into the loss, pulling out the beams, and building a desire future.

Given the times we live in with turbulence and uncertainty felt at almost every level of society, there lies a profound opportunity to build a better future.  Imagine how this kind of relentless participation changes a person’s heart and faith.  No, not the guy who got the barn.  Who wouldn’t be engorged with gratitude if you’re that guy?  The harder and more rewarding thing for us to connect with is how this kind of participation transforms the heart of everyone helping raise the barn.

When we choose to go through a life transition without the help of others, we steal away from those around us the profound joy of building up a future – real acts of hope, faith and love in the world.  To frolic through them reminds us of how we were created to be in the world: in relationship with one another, always connected, through all seasons.  For all seasons, wanted or not, hold valuable lessons to teach us about what it means to be human.  And hopefully along the way, get in a good visit.

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