The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Hog Farmers Make Ugly Fences”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 9: 27-31
As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.
I had two requests when I negotiated our first call. The first was a joke that didn’t go over well. “You see, Kathy and I grew up in San Diego,” I said, “and all our family is in San Diego and, well, it would be really important to us to be with family at the holidays so I will need to make sure that we have Christmas and Easter off each year so we can travel.” The search committee was stunned, shocked, and even a bit horrified. I let it linger a bit and said, “I am just kidding.”
“All I really need is a fence,” I said. “We have young children, and we want to get a puppy, so we need a fenced yard.” The manse, located directly behind the church did not have a fenced yard. This was agreed upon.
When we arrived a few weeks later with our U-Haul and van chock full of all ouf worldly belongings, we were a bit concerned because there was no fence.
The next day, as we began to unload and organize our boxes and furniture, we saw two older men show up and start digging holes. I inquired, “what ya’ll up to?”
The shorter of the two men retorted. “You wanted a fence; we are putting in a fence.”
At first I felt relief, but quickly this became a disappointment; indeed, the fence became a sore spot during our time there.
You see, it was a really ugly fence. The shorter man, Dwight Dean, and his trusted side-kick, Jim Askoff, were indeed putting up a fence. But they decided to erect a chain link fence in the front yard of the manse. And it was a small fence, really a kind of dog run. What made it worse was that it was half-finished, the bottom of the chain link rose and fell with the dips in the lawn and thus created gaps any Labrador could easily shimmy under and run off.
Members of the nominating committee were quick to arrive and argue with Dwight who said the same thing to each one. “You want a fence; you got a fence.” He didn’t seem to mind their protests; in fact, he took great delight in them.
Now Dwight was the first hog farmer I had ever met. And my impression of hog farmers, which hasn’t changed much, they build ugly fences.
This was not a good start to our ministry, but it didn’t define it. It helped that many people complained about the fence, took offence at that fence, and even felt compelled to disparage Dwight as an onery man who is beyond anyone’s control. “He just does what he wants to do.” The sense I got from Dwight is that his actions were not a problem. Most people talked; he got things done.
A few months into our time in Pataskala, Ohio I learned that Dwight too could talk. “I ain’t signing that check,” he shouted at the secretary. She came into my office to say, “you need to deal with him.” At this point Dwight came into my office to say, “I ain’t signing that check.”
That check was for the purchase of something, something the session decided to buy, something Dwight thought was stupid. I know this because he said, “this is a stupid thing to do.” You see, Dwight was the treasurer as well as the builder of ugly fences. Unfortunately for both of us, he believed he possessed a kind of veto power, a sense of magisterial authority over decisions of the church.
“It’s not yours to decide,” I said. “I told you, this is dumb; I am not signing the check.” I took a deep breath and said, “sign it or resign; you’re the treasurer not the one who gets to decide if the session is right or wrong.”
There are moments that last much longer than others; this was one as Dwight’s eyes flashed and searched mine for weakness. Finally, he grunted, spun on his heals, signed the check, and huffed out the back door which closed with a crash.
My opinion of Dwight at this point in my time in Pataskala was not great. He was a curmudgeon, cantankerous and a bit of cur. Dwight, I came to find out, was married to Ruth and had one son. He was an extraordinary mechanic, a veteran, and successful farmer. There was little he couldn’t do; few things about which he was not sure; and quite unwilling to suffer fools which were most people other than Jim Askoff. He was quick to laugh and quick to anger.
For the better part of the next six-months we steered clear of each other. This changed one day when he was getting ready to replace a roof on a property owned by the church. I asked him if I could help. “You want to help? No pastor ever offered to do work before,” he said with a not too subtle contempt for folks who read books for a living. “I want to learn how to do it,” I said.
And I learned. Mostly I learned you should always hire a roofer. But I also learned that Dwight was a good teacher. He laughed when I did it wrong and was silent when I figured it out. He kept waiting for me to quit but took delight when I didn’t. After the day on the roof, we saw each other in a different way.
Over the next few years our bumpy start turned into friendship. He still held me in contempt as seemed necessary, but he didn’t dismiss me without good cause.
There are two moments in the middle of our years together I cherish. One was the arrival of a new microphones and amplifiers. The elders, in yet another dumb decision, decided to replace the 1950s PA system with something more up to speed. Dwight thought this was a bit of a waste until it was installed. On the first Sunday it was up and running he shook my hand and said, “preacher, I could hear every word you said today.”
I turned to the elder next to me and said, “fifty-fifty if Dwight will be back. Now that he can hear what is going on he might realize he is not a Rotary meeting.”
The other moment was standing on the flat roof of the fellowship hall and examining the places causing the leaks requiring a replacement. Looking over the roof as someone who should know stuff, I asked, “How long are these roofs supposed to last.” Dwight answered, “Thirty, forty years if you are lucky.” I let the decades pass between us in a moment of silence, and then I said, “well, this won’t make a difference to us. Thirty years, you’ll be dead, and I’ll be gone.” We laughed in the thought of the church after us, we could see it almost.
Before I knew my time in Pataskala was ending, I watched Dwight die. It started with a hospital stay, something he was none too pleased about. I was in the room when the doctor told him the cancer in his body was everywhere and his time was short and there was nothing to be done. No treatments, no surgeries. They would make him comfortable. After the doctor left, Dwight pulled out the tube that was down his nose, got dressed, and said, “I am outta here.”
A few weeks later I came to his house and sat in his living room and listened to Ruth his wife. “Dwight is going to take the treatment,” she said. “He is going to fight it; nothing can keep him down. The doctors don’t know what they are talking about.” When Ruth left to get us coffee, I looked at Dwight and my confusion was clear enough. “She won’t accept my death,” he said. “She won’t accept it if I don’t take the chemotherapy, if I don’t try to fight. I can’t have her living her life and believing this was a mistake. She needs me to do this.”
For the next six weeks I came to the house where Dwight was in pain, in misery, his body being torn apart by cancer and chemotherapy at the same time. Those were hard weeks, hard visits. And with each one he spoke more and more with his eyes. You do what you have to do for the ones you love is what I heard and saw.
On the last day of Dwight’s life, he was back in the hospital. His agony was too much for the house. His son met in the hall and we spoke for a moment. He was angry and frustrated. This all seemed pointless to him. What I said came from some place inside of me; it felt like someone else’s words. I looked him in the eye and said, “he showed you how to live; now, he is showing you how to die. Pay attention.”
I am not sure why I thought of Dwight and myself two decades ago, why my mind went to our bumpy start, our tenuous friendship. I guess I remembered him and that ugly fence because we were both blind. Not blind physically. But we were blind in that we couldn’t see each other as someone to value, someone who mattered, and then we did.
Each of us had a blindness that was healed. We couldn’t really see each other, and then, we did. One day we were blind and then we could see.
It wasn’t that I saw Dwight in a wholly different way. I didn’t seem him better. Dwight was a hog farmer who built truly ugly fences; he was onery; he had a temper that caused him lot of problems. I could always see this. This didn’t change.
And I didn’t change in his eyes. I was a brash, foolish young man who read too many books to be much help for the most part. On the roof where we laughed together it was not that he now believed pastors were okay. I was genuinely concerned when Dwight could now hear the entirety of my sermons.
No. The healing, and it was a healing, was that we could see each other as someone to love, to enjoy. We were unlikely friends. Part of this a strange truth: it didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t need each other, didn’t need to love the other. Had the twists of fate turned the other way, the universe would have continued to spin. And even though we found delight in the other, the world was not made right for all concerned.
I could see Dwight’s heart and he could see mine, the good and the not so good. We saw each other as someone who mattered. That was it.
Jesus asked the blind men; do you believe I can do this? And they said yes.
Although they might not have thought of themselves this way, but I believe the blind men were lucky in that they knew they were blind, and they believed they could be healed.
For the most part we don’t know we are blind, or we don’t realize how often we turn a blind eye. We look at people, but we don’t really see them. We are especially blind if people are different, other, less. In truth we see them as a thing. We can look at people, but unless we value them, we can’t really see them.
The gospel is truly seen and heard when it is very, very simple. We are quite often blind, and we can’t see it, and thus remain unable to see. It’s hard to see our blindness, let alone believe Jesus can heal us. Amen.
- Isaiah 9:1 - 7
- Matthew 9:27 - 31