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Not Quite Eden

All this world is God’s own field . . .
Raise the song of harvest-home.
—Henry Alford, “Come, Ye Thankful People Come”

Early July, four weeks to the day before my mother died quietly in her nursing home bed while Dad performed a funeral across town, my dad expressed the secret desire of his unsanctified heart. In the big-top camp-meeting tent, crowded with four hundred saved souls, many having grown up or old in churches he’d led, Dad accepted a plaque given in special recognition for sixty-three years of pastoral service. Weak from coughing spasms, he gave exceptionally brief unprepared remarks—his life story reduced to fit a short form. 

Back on the Pennsylvania-Deutsch dairy farm the August after graduating from high school, he’d been called by God who demanded allegiance by asking only one question: Will you preach? Afraid to say no, my dad enrolled in college, within three weeks boarding a train that took him away from the farm, to the mission field of New York State, ready for plowing and someday harvest.

“God asked me to preach,” Dad told the assembled, visibly respectful of his patriarchal stature among them. “And I said yes. God has blessed my ministry.” He paused. I don’t know if his next comment was prompted by fever or humility or pride for his sacrificial obedience. Rather abruptly he concluded: “But I always wanted to be a farmer.” That statement hung in the air until deadened by applause. Dad turned and shuffled toward the platform stairs.

Dad was obviously sick that night with bronchitis diagnosed the next day. Before the sermon started, he and I left. I drove him an hour home, to his own bed. 

I stayed up awhile, straightening his house, wondering if this admission that he only ever wanted to be a farmer would be the last thing he would ever say to such a large in-gathering of people he’d known as parishioners, his harvest.

My father always had “the conventional hobbies of a [German] country parson—bees and roses.” 1 But then there was the vegetable garden, which seemed so much more than an avocation. It supplemented his meager income. But it was also recreation in both the popular and the redemptive sense. The most ancient of stories with a positive twist: Adam tilling outside Eden but enjoying the sweat. (How many times did we hear his garden motto? The only difference between a golf club and a hoe is one’s attitude.) Cain raising crops, as an acceptable gift.

No matter where his pastoral vocation called him—country, city, suburb—Dad found a large vacant lot of lawn or weeds to plow under and plant in long straight rows, ordered in relation to the sun (the corn stalks must not overshadow the tomatoes) and surrounded by winter-squash vines prone to wander outside the frame.

It was not Eden, except in his view. On summer Sundays, Dad walked his garden in the heat of the day. “Want to check the garden with me?” he asked my older brother, Bud, as we pushed back from the dining room table. We girls would clamor to come along. But Mom had other plans. “Not until the dishes are done.” Mother couldn’t postpone Sunday’s only chore by half an hour. And only occasionally did Dad stay his garden stroll to include us all.

Characteristically, Dad and gloating Bud turned their backs on kitchen cleanup and went out the door. Vegetable by vegetable, father and son surveyed the scene. Carrots, beets, onions, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, chard, green beans, yellow peppers, melons, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, acorn and Hubbard squash. Bud tells me they walked in silence, unless Dad noted worthy growth—the first tomato blossoms, corn silk, melon balls—or explained a tactile lesson. Picking up and squeezing a fistful of dirt, he’d judge its water content. Too wet if it clung together. Just right if it crumbled. Too dry if a hard clump wouldn’t budge. Once, and only once, Bud uprooted a thorn. The reprimand was soft, the commandment clear: “No, Son. We do not pull weeds on Sunday.” 

Having twice walked the garden’s length, Dad affirmed the handiwork. “Nice garden, isn’t it?” 

Yes, good and very good. The ritual inspection complete, he headed back to the house for his long Sabbath nap, nodding off to visions of color-filled Ball jars lined along cellar shelves. Seriously overweight in his prime, Dad loved to sit with his family and consume the tasteful bounty, but for him the great joy of farming—reduced by circumstances to vegetable gardening and fruit gathering—was the process: plowing, planting, hoeing, picking, or digging. And the proud presenting: to Mom, his chief cook and canner, and then to his dinner guests, his outback neighbors, his roadside customers.

Though he welcomed, even required, help from all us children, the garden was his domain. Mother herself came out only for major tomato or bean harvests—or to pick cucumbers the morning she brewed pickle brine. 

From his father he’d learned to hoe a straight seed-row, and every spring he eagerly passed along the lesson. The secret was not in the wrist as much as in the eye. You don’t look down or back; you look up. Pick a target spot—a stone, a stick, a pail—at the far end of the row. Set the hoe handle on your hip, dig the head into the dirt, press hard, and march for the mark. He modeled and explained this trench-making technique without ever handing over the hoe. We watched from the unplowed edge, stepping up to participate later in the planting: dropping seeds—not too few, not too many, the measure differing from row to row—into the open ditch before he filled it back in, tamping seed and soil.     

For plants started indoors—tomatoes and cabbage—Dad wielded the shovel himself, digging round holes, expecting a child at hand to pour into each a dipperful of water, and another on top of the tucked-in roots. 

In July he tasked us with weeding the immature carrots, beets, and beans, close in, where an undiscriminating hoe would take all. Every year he retaught the old lessons as if they were new. Kneeling, never sitting or squatting, he distinguished bad from good, weed from seed, in biblical language, tare from wheat. Pull the root; don’t just snap the top. 

All this, just the prelude to the sun’s ripening: its manufacture of colorful balls and beans (some hidden under wraps), its sprawling leaves and crispy stalks and buried roots. Dad hoed, prayed for moderate rain, and measured weekly growth, till at last he could gather in his ripe harvest. Picking, digging. Such tangible, practical rewards. 

When busy in his vocational prime, he left the shucking and snapping, peeling and chopping to the women. But as his church ministry wound down—with we daughters grown, Mother’s vision failing, his free hours weighing—he took to cleaning and paring. Cutting corn off the cob. Stripping elderberries from the pod. Chopping onions, without tears, as if they were turnips. 

Until I was forty, I remember few contented hours alone with Dad—except for our annual Labor Day blackberry picking in the woods. And one clear day, the first week in July. He was about seventy. I, thirty-five. Attending camp meeting, he’d had a heart spell that landed him in the hospital overnight. I was on hand when he was discharged, and I drove him back home. In the afternoon, he and I sat on the front stoop shelling a peck of green peas, until the bottom of my right thumb was sore. Surely I, not he, still recuperating, had picked the peas—with leaf lettuce and radishes his first fruits—though I don’t remember that solitary work. Just the hour with him, quiet enough to hear the sound of the popping seams. A harvest in hand, he was at peace.

That evening, Mom boiled a pot of the bright peas, then poured off the water, added milk, reheated, with lots of black pepper. Better than holiday fireworks.

Even as Mom’s eyesight, long-patience, and culinary touch deteriorated, even when her massive stroke swept her from the house, leaving Dad to get meals for himself, he never discovered the joy of cooking the fruits of his labor. He still wanted to—and did—plant a garden big enough to feed the whole hamlet. He gave the food away to neighbors and us children. In this autumn season of life, his delight was in the harvest. He found little taste in the bounty when eating it alone. And that lack of sensual satisfaction contributed to his lack of vision for learning any new tasks in the kitchen—a woman’s domain. This meat-and-potatoes man resisted knowing how easy it was to soften a root tuber. “I hardly ever eat potatoes anymore,” he told me, a bit mystified with himself. He who had modeled for me expert hoeing techniques now turned his back on my repeated lessons in baking potatoes in the microwave. “Don’t worry about me. I eat when I’m hungry. I know how to make oatmeal” slathered with honey.

In July, the rainy morning after I brought bronchial Dad home from camp meeting, I ventured down into the basement. Over in the north corner, I found two old crocks and two white plastic buckets. This time of year they should have been empty, the contents simmered into winter stews or roasted with Sunday beef. But this was not a normal year. In the containers I discovered the rotten remnants of last fall’s harvest. Onions, carrots, potatoes, apples. I rummaged a little, reclaiming a usable onion or two. I smelled and winced and groaned. The sprouted, rubbery, root vegetables could wait for a week, till my brother came to visit. The apples required immediate attention; they were soft as sauce and feeding broods of fruit flies. 

Because Dad wasn’t aware of the problem, I figured it just as well if I didn’t explain my solution. While he slept, I slipped back downstairs and then outdoors. In the shed I found a shovel, and in the rain and garden mud—between rows of thorny raspberry bushes, fruit not ripe—I buried what had once been a half-peck of red apples. 

I didn’t expect to visit him—and Mother—again until Labor Day, when I anticipated cooking him up a hearty stew from new potatoes and tomatoes and carrots. But then Mother died, in the heat of the summer, just as the garden was coming on. For five days, as July turned to August, the house was a flurry. The phone busy. The beds full. The table laden—thanks to the generosity of neighbors returning the favor of food. Given out raw in baskets, given back cooked in casseroles. 

Three hundred people came to Mother’s midweek service, blowing Dad’s theory that people go to funerals only for the young. I’m not sure they came to pay respects to Mother, as much as they were there to show the Reverend that his sixty-three years in New York State had produced a fit harvest. 

By Thursday night, the crowd had emptied out, with only my younger brother and me staying on a few days at Dad’s house. Friday morning, over bowls of sweet oatmeal, we three discussed the day’s schedule and tasks. Dad had to read Scripture and pray at a funeral in town. Not for a churchgoer, but his mechanic. 

“Dad, you could have said no,” I scolded. “You’re carrying your own grief right now. You’re tired and stressed.” And old. “No one would expect you to serve at a funeral the same week as Mom’s . . .” 

“I just have to do this—for that family,” he retorted. A widow and sons so close to the kingdom. Suddenly Dad changed the subject, or maybe he got us back on track, to the day’s agenda. “This afternoon when I get home, I want to go pick blueberries,” the week’s ripe fruit. There weren’t any bushes in his own yard, but he knew exactly where to find them, ten miles away. “You kids come along and help?”    

Sure. For the lesson. For the fruit. For the harvest-home ride.

1 Ruth Rehmann, trans. by Christoph Lohmann and Pamela Lohmann, The Man in the Pulpit: Questions for a Father (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 70.

Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table, 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests (Upper Room Books). She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.

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Reader Comments (24)

What a beautiful tribute! And it reflects your Dad so well. So well written too. I was getting hungry for those peas with milk and pepper. And it reflects your Dad's priorities too--always with a heart for the spiritual harvest.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKelvin Jones

Jim Bence was my fiirst district superintendent as I began ministry. He was a man I greatly feared as a young man but came to love and respect as we both grew older. What he grew in his garden, he shared with others. What he grew in those of us who came to call him FRIEND was more than he would ever know, and more than we knew until much later in life. His love for his Savior, his tears for the lost, his compassion for those he mentored [like me, and I suspect many others], cannot be measured.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterD Larson

This account reminds me of Wendell Berry's writing--wonderful prose tied to the earth and the humble people who walk on it.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPhil

Really enjoyed this article. This man truly did answer God's calling to preach. His father had invested in a farm for him and he was brave enough to confront his dad with the charge that God had given him. He had grown up on a farm and all his siblings had learned and performed many tasks involving crops and animal management. He left his home state but never forgot his "roots". His harvests, both souls and crops, seemed to be multiplied like the loaves and fishes, by God's hands!

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith Zurenko

A great remembrance of my grandfather.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKarin Alexander

Jim was one of my dearest friends. I held meetings for him at several churches. We did not always agree, but we always had a spirit of love.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHarry Barrigar

All things said and done decently and in order. So much like the Bence family. I have been blessed by this account and cherish the same heritage for our family. God bless all of you, today and always.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBess Barrigar

Evelyn's essay was a wonderful thought-provoking review of her father's impact on his daughter , probable other siblings and family members. No doubt many friends of his learned from observing his life-style and even benefited from the bountiful garden which he grew each year. Evelyn, you shared insights and values that many of us will include into our lives. Thanks.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNBG

Dindy thank you so much for writing this. It is simply beautiful. I still find myself referring to your dad in my sermons and his lessons and mentoring have been and continue to be a blessing to me as I work in the fields that God has placed me in. God called a farmer to work in the fields that most needed harvesting.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Jones

What a beautiful essay! As a PK whose father also served with Rev. Bence, as a CNY District pastor, and now District Superintendent, I am mindful for and appreciative of the ministry of your father. The truth is your father's sixty three years of labor in NY State continues to produce a harvest. I am blessed to benefit in so many ways from the foundation laid by Rev. Bence's district leadership and pastoral ministry.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Pickering

I've read these comments, above and am so grateful that ArtHouse published this piece and that it has found readers in NYS. Some of you (above) were there at camp meeting the night he gave his "farewell" (I have a photo to prove it) and I especially hoped you'd read--and appreciate the event, for my own life and the image/metaphor (gardening) that was so much a part of his, yes, "all the world is God's own field." And then also there was the mess in the basement I found that night when I took him home...Blessings to all. EB/DB

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEvelyn B.

DEar Evelyn, Your mother and father had such a great and positive influence on the lives of Herb and me, and my sister and brother-in-law, Jack and Edythe Nightingale. It was HErb's and my privilege to sit under Pastor Bence 's ministries at both Gates and Penfield Wesleyan Churches . THank you for sharing this marvelous essay..
YOurs and His, Doris Doetsch

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDoris. Doetsch

Dindy, I truly enjoyed and appreciated your "harvest" article about your Dad. I knew him from the time I first went to camp meeting (now Family Camp) at Chambers. In my teen years, he and others came to help paint the Redfield Church where my Dad was pastor. I knew him as Camp Chairman and as Ass't. District Superintendent.
I recall how he and Dr. Rees said they could work well together because they had "agreed to disagree agreeably."
Eventually he became our District Superintendent, early in my ministry. As an early riser, he would sometimes call quite early in the morning and say that he would soon be passing nearby and might stop in for coffee. He would give encouragement when due and sometimes advice when it was needed. I respected his role in enforcing District policy about pastors' involvement in District and Camp functions. I knew him when he, in his later years, was painting the water tower/tank at Camp, and I figured I should get up there and help him.
I have always been amazed to observe that all the children of Rev. James and Florence turned out to know and love and serve the Lord. What a wonderful tribute and heritage. He was always true to his Lord, his calling and his convictions. So, it wasn't all that surprising that he had such a great "harvest".

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEd Crandall

Beautiful tribute! Now I know why Phil his son who mentored me at the Wesleyan Flame classes and his sister Evelyn are so precious raised in a family like that with so much love and compassion. Renee and I read Evelyn's devotionals in the Guidepost and often talk about our time with Phil and Kathy. The Lord gave me this poem a few years back. I'd like to share it with Phil and Evelyn and the rest of the Bence tribe.

When God Calls His Home

When God Calls His loved ones home
Never more to roam.
Some of us are left behind to grieve,
But we will be comforted if we believe.

For Jesus promised the Comforter He would send
If we would bring our as our knees we bend.
If we give to the Holy Spirit our sorrows and our cares,
With His mercy and His love He will help us them bear.

For God has promised us you see
If we accept the gift of His Son He gave to you and me.
Live by His love and increase our faith each day,
Walk in His light and praise and love Him in every way.

Someday when here our race has been run,
And the victory we have won.
We too home to Him shall go
To be forever with the ones we know.

So let the Holy Spirit fill your heart with cheer.
Knowing God and your loved one is always near.

What a beautiful expression concerning Jim. He had an influence on several generations of the Wright family. We spend not only camp but also vacations together on the campground. He was DS for many years when I was a pastor in the Rochester Conference/CNY Disrict and on the DBA and DBMS together. We did not always agree, but we were always good friends and had the same goals. He gave me many opportunities for ministry that I would never have had without his influence. As a young pastor I followed him as the pastor in Gates when he started the Penfield Church. Even though it was geographically close he never made that transition hard for me. It is impossible to know the spiritual harvest he has had in district leadership and as a pastor in Buena Vista, Corning, Gates, Penfield, Haskinsville or other churches or in various board roles at Houghton College. Thanks for the reminders. When we moved to Gates parsonage, that huge garden and the bees were still there so we reaped some of the benefits of that also. Thanks for the reminders


July 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Wright

What a wonderfully written remembrance of your Dad. Very very touching.
(and we had some of his hives at our house...I remember your Dad in his bee suit .)

July 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGail Knapp Florence

I remember grandpa's gardens and wondered why I never got to go see the garden. I was washing dishes

July 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBecky Weichenthal

A beautiful tribute to someone I have known my whole life. He certainly had an impact on the Lawrence family including doing three funerals. His family still makes an impact on us!

July 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEsther Swimley


Thanks for these memories! We were especially close to your parents during the years they were in Big Flats, while Bern pastored the Big Flats Wesleyan Church. Even after they moved to Haskinsville, we enjoyed visits. They were the family members close by who helped celebrate birthdays with us when Andy and Lisa were little. They mentored us, they fed us, they shared their garden - and their lives. Your parents were vital to our early ministry training! Uncle Jim & Aunt Floss, wonderful family members and servants of God.

July 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Lytle

The gift of a skillful writer is to take the common activities of an individual and freight them with personality and character. Well done, Evelyn. As I read the essay, I could vividly envision that walk to the garden with Pastor Bence on Sunday afternoon. But probably it was easier for me to imagine that act because I was the older brother who abandoned his sister in the kitchen while walking to the garden in the shadow of a great man, my dad..

July 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBud

In reading this I would just want to say thank you to all the Bence kids for sharing your father with all of us. He had a big heart and a lot of down to earth wisdom. I was blessed to have known him

July 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLes McClelland

Dindy: First let me say that I am tickled to find a forum where you are still "Dindy", the girl that I always looked up to as I was a few years younger during our Chambers Camp years. I drop everything when I see something written by you because I am immediately transformed back to "the good old days". (I am still amazed that I have hit the time in life when I can use that term!) As having been very young when Dr. Bence (as my mother always referred to him) became our District Superintendent, I well remember many times of fellowship around our dining table with him and members of the Bence family. I am sure that only heaven will reveal the impact that this humble farmer had on eternity, but I can firmly say that he always had time to have a chat and a word of encouragement, no matter where our paths would cross. The Turverey family was certainly richer for having served in ministry with this spiritual giant. Please keep sharing your memories and insights of those "good old days".

July 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Turverey Webster

Evelyn, I enjoyed reading this beautifully written article. I appreciate how it all centers on one simple statement made by your father. Even though he wasn't destined to be a farmer, I am glad your father had a wonderful and treasured garden and earthly and heavenly harvests. I think your article is a wonderful tribute to your father, but almost as moving are people's comments who had the privilege of knowing him. He sounds like a truly wonderful and devote man. I hope your family is treasuring all the thoughtful comments and memories from friends of your family. Thanks for sharing this beautiful and calming article with me.

July 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret S.

Thank you again for your kind words--about my dad and also the piece. The anniversary of his passing was last week, and I bought myself a long-stemmed rose, which has stayed fresh. Margaret, you're saying the article was "calming"--that in itself was calming to me. Yes, thank you. EB

August 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEvelyn B.

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