"The raspberry is the Cadillac of berries," Don used to say. Affectionately known as the Berry Patch Man, Don was a gentle soul who, each July, opened wide his heavy wooden farm door to the best raspberry patch in town.
Summer after summer, day after day, I'd drive down the long and winding gravel road to pay for the privilege of searching through his bushes for multitudes of hidden red gems. It was lucky for us, the pickers, that the Berry Patch Man always charged less for his pints than what the grocery stores were charging, even though his berries were twice the size and twice the sweetness without the 'help' of a bit of insecticide. Often I would have to insist that he take a couple of extra dollars for all the berries I ate while picking!
Even on the hottest days the Berry Patch Man always dressed in denim overalls and a crisp white shirt and would relax in a lawn chair under the shade of his truck's canopy. He liked to keep a watchful eye on his pickers who were usually happily chattering away about raspberry pies, raspberries on ice cream, raspberries in cereal. But once out of earshot of the contented farmer, the conversation in the prickly rows would often turn somber and a familiar nagging question would surface: what will become of the patch when Don dies?
My friendship with the Berry Patch Man had grown over the years and I had discovered that he wasn't much interested in the things of the Lord. Sometimes I mentioned certain Bible verses to him, but he was always "too busy" to check them out. But spiritual issues aside, there was still an openness between us.
One day he told me about a large lump in his abdomen. It was nothing, he insisted. The doctors were smart and medication would handle it. A little radiation, a little chemo, and that would be that. "I'll be back next year," the Berry Patch Man assured me as he bent down to encourage one of his littlest pickers with an Oreo cookie.
He did return the next year but he was also spending more time in the hospital. "Don might not be around another year," I told a friend who shared my fondness for this man in overalls. The two of us began to pray in earnest: "Please Lord, don't take Don until he knows you."
That fall I received word that there was nothing more the doctors could do for the Berry Patch Man and he was now in hospice. He remained in denial as to the seriousness of his condition. He informed me he was going to get well and leave this place because he had to prune and ready his bushes for the next year as well as fill in low spots in the gravel road where the rains had washed out.
During my visits I would sometimes talk about the Lord and he would carefully listen. Each time before I left I asked if he wanted me to pray for him and he always said yes. As I gently rubbed orange-scented lotion on his 80-year old hands and swollen feet, I kept pointing Don to the Lord Jesus, the true Door, according to John 10:9. I wasn't even sure how much he understood, but I kept encouraging him to walk through that Door, trade his denim overalls for a white robe of righteousness, and give his sins to Jesus. "I'm trying," the child in him once said.
Then one day he was agitated and upset. The spiritual atmosphere in his room had changed dramatically and I became painfully aware of the truth stated in Ephesians 6:12, that we don't wrestle against flesh or blood, but against principalities and powers of wickedness. "I've got you figured out," he glared at me. "I know what you're up to. You're concerned about my soul. Well, I'm telling you that I'm not going to stand for it and I won't have it!" I left the hospice center tearful that day and vowed to give Don emotional and spiritual space.
I stayed away for two full weeks and prayed and meditated on Job 33:14-18: "For God may speak in one way, or in another, yet man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, while slumbering on their beds, then He opens the ears of men and seals their instruction. In order to turn man from his deed and conceal pride from man, He keeps back his soul from the Pit and his life from perishing by the sword."
One day the first thought that came to me as I awoke was that I should resume my visits. "There's just the person I want to see!" he smiled in warm recognition as I approached his bed. "I've been wanting to talk to you and tell you that I think I have a better understanding of things now." I asked him to clarify. "I think I've gotten somewhere...from there to here," he said. "I think I've made some progress."
Was the Berry Patch Man telling me, in his own simple and unique way, that he had completed some necessary and important spiritual work to prepare himself for eternity? In Acts 16:14 the Lord opened the heart of Lydia. Had God opened the heart of our Berry Patch Man and given him wisdom and instruction in an unseen way as he slept?
The Berry Patch Man spent more time sleeping as that gray December advanced. Eventually he slipped into a coma. He died a peaceful death and I was with him just two hours before he left this world.
Today the Berry Patch Man's acreage is owned by his family who has no interest in the raspberry business. The neglected patch is overgrown; Don's experienced and weathered hands will never again prune the bushes. The berries wait to be plucked each July but the only pickers to be seen are the hungry birds. And the sturdy farm door that once gave access to hundreds of eager raspberry pickers? It remains securely locked.
But there's another, far more important Door to consider. I'm grateful that this Door is always open, and I'm hoping that a certain raspberry farmer took hold of nail-scarred hands and walked through it.