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The late 1950’s were dry years in Lyon County, Iowa where we lived. The summer winds from the south were unusually hot and blustery.
The corn leaves rolled up in tight curls to protect the plants from excessive loss of moisture. The curled leaves turned a deep bluish-green. If it was dry too long, the corn stalks fired, usually first on the hillsides. Farmers knew from painful experience that once the corn fired it would not revive, even if the rains came later. Even the deep rooted alfalfa that usually grew up to two feet tall topped out in some sections of the hayfield at a short stubby six inches. Likewise, the oats remained short and the kernels developed lightweight shells or not at all.
In our family home, the prayers at every meal included a passionate plea for God to send rain “for the sake of our crops,” seeming to imply that if God had germinated the seeds, then surely God would want to take care of the plants that he’d started. Because I helped alongside Dad with all the farm work, the drought grieved me as well as it did my parents. My own prayers included impassioned pleas for rain.
The “long prayer” in the morning worship that summer usually included a request for rain — unless the preacher was a guest from the city and didn’t understand “us farmers.” As the situation grew more desperate we knew the consistory would call for a special midweek prayer service. That sermon might focus on Elijah the rainmaker. Or the pastor might use a passage from Deuteronomy linking the drought with the curse of God. Deuteronomy 11:17 was a powerful text: “The Lord your God cares for the land that drinks rain from heaven. If you turn away from God, he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will not yield its produce.” Almost always, these worship services included confessions of sin and a call for repentance. Everyone was quite certain that the Lord was teaching us a painful lesson by withholding the rain. That summer the prayer service was right on schedule.
Every evening my parents and I looked out to the west to see if a cloud bank was building on the horizon. Usually the western sky was cloudless. Or what looked like a cloud bank was just a series of clouds stacked alongside each other as the red sun broke through the perforations in the clouds.
In the elevator, at the feedstore, the drought captured every conversation. “I don’t think I have ever seen such huge cracks in the ground. . .I’ll be surprised if we get any corn this year. . .The best we can do is to put it up for silage. . . I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That summer the impact of the drought was even worse in the Rock Valley area because their soil was lighter than ours. Desperate to try anything, some farmers near Rock Valley signed a contract with a rainmaking company to seed the clouds. The company sent airplanes to fly into the few clouds that did show up to sow iodide crystals in the clouds. In addition, several of the gravel road intersections had desk sized aluminum covered boxes with cannons aimed at the sky. The box made a whirring sound as it shot crystals up into the cloudless sky.
Who should pay the rainmaking company contract created a dilemma. No rainmaker could promise that when the rain fell it would be only for the farms of owners who had paid the fee. Some of the farmers believed that they should join those who had instigated the project because if it did work they also would reap the benefits.
My dad and Uncle John, who lived near Rock Valley, discussed the proposal together. Dad didn’t put much stock in the rainmakers. He thought that they were taking advantage of struggling farmers and weren’t really able to make rain. Both Dad and Uncle John agreed, however, that the situation was desperate. Uncle John said, “I’ve heard that airplanes aren’t flying over our area because the air pressure is so high and the air is so dry and thin it won’t support their wings. Have you noticed that you don’t see as many planes flying over as before?”
Dad returned, “Yes, something is really unusual about the weather right now, but it seems that eventually we do get the rain.”
“Do you think that it’s right to hire rainmakers?” asked Uncle John as the farmers chatted after church. Jake Vanden Bosch firmly declared, “It just isn’t right to play God. If God doesn’t want it to rain, we should just accept it and learn from it. If God wants to send rain, that’s his business. Who are we to interfere with God’s plans?”
But other men standing in the shade underneath the big tree by the main door of the Christian Reformed church on that stifling hot windy day said, “Why not? Some farmers in Nebraska irrigate their crops because they seldom get rain. Hiring rainmakers isn’t any different from irrigation. If your garden gets dry, you take water out of your well and water your garden, don’t you? If you rescue your garden from the drought, why wouldn’t you rescue your crops from the drought?”
“Yes,” said Jake, “but to get water from the water from the well is quite different from seeding the clouds. The clouds are closer to God. Remember the Israelites and the pillar of cloud? I think we shouldn’t mess with the clouds!”
Later that week Uncle John talked to Dad. “Hank, what do you think?” asked Uncle John. “Bill McGill, who’s Catholic, is saying that we Dutch farmers don’t actually have any religious problems with rainmakers. We’re just using our religion as an excuse because we are too tight to spend any money. He says we are only thinking about ourselves by refusing to help the non-Dutch farmers pay for the contract.”
“I don’t know, John,” Dad replied.“ Bill has a right to his opinion, but for me the bottom line is that the rainmakers are trying to take you and the rest of the farmers for a ride.” Needless to say, Uncle John didn’t pay the per acre fee of the contract with the rainmaker company.
Long after the rainmakers had left the area, clouds gathered and welcome rains fell. Who knows whether the rainmakers made any difference?
The rain was too late for a good corn harvest, but early enough to make the red clover grow on the oats stubble, enough for grazing some cattle in the fall and even enough to bale for hay.
No one that summer quoted Matthew 5 when Jesus said, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Like the rainmakers, some of us are activists, reaching for solutions — reasonable and absurd. Others, like my dad, will rest in the assurance that God will send rain eventually and even if there is no rain, God still cares.