Putting Down Roots

                 I grew up looking at a particular oak tree.  It was a pin oak, just below the house, in view of my bedroom window.  It sat at the head of a spring that had never run dry in my father’s time nor in mine.  It was massive, dominating the landscape with its large canopy of limbs and leaves, easily four feet in diameter at chest level.  I played around it, but could never climb it, as there were no limbs low enough to grab hold of.  The tree saw an awful lot of “cowboys and Indians,” hide and seek, and the like.  It continued to stand proudly on the landscape until the day it didn’t.  Hurricane Isabel knocked it flat, root ball and all.

                I decided to saw the tree for lumber since I owned a portable sawmill at the time. The first order of business was separating the trunk from the root ball.  Because I am a lover of tools, I owned a large enough chainsaw to do the job – a Stihl 088 w/ a 36 inch bar.  (If you don’t know what that is, be impressed anyway…)  Even cutting down both sides of the trunk there was still a small piece in the middle I couldn’t get, a situation that called for the old two-man crosscut saw.  My father was a good sport about all of this.  In the end, the trunk was separated and I was able to count the rings on the tree – a total of 70.

                In the event you don’t know, that’s a pretty young tree to be so big.  A tree that large usually has well over a hundred-fifty rings.  But the tree never had to work for water or nutrients.  It sat over top a good spring at the edge of a cattle pasture.  Of course it grew big.  But it never went deep.

                This is the week in the advent season where we read about the prophecies of Jesus’ birth.  We also read about that incredible man, Joseph.  This is a man who was faced with the worst possible situation he could have imagined – his fiancé had become pregnant and he knew he wasn’t the father.  Yet there is no thirst for revenge, only the quiet determination not to bring anymore hurt into Mary’s life.  He would end the engagement quietly. 

                It was an angelic visitor delivering a special message that put Joseph into an even more uncomfortable spot.  Joseph was told the unique, miraculous nature of Mary’s circumstances and instructed to continue his engagement – and his protection – to Mary.  We’ve heard the story often enough that it can lose its edge, its awkwardness, its pain, and of course its joy.  Joseph would not fall over in the strong wind of adversity, but would complete his duty with obedience and tenderness.

                The prophet Isaiah is sent to the king of Judah and tells Ahaz to trust in God for victory, even though three nations have joined forces to overthrow his kingdom.  The passage ends with the incredible promise of a young woman, a virgin, conceiving and bringing into the world a savior.  But in the middle of the conversation between prophet and king, God says to Ahaz, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” (Is.7:9b NRSV).

                Faith is about believing that God will accomplish what he has promised.  For the Christian, it is about Jesus Christ and the promise that God is reconciling the world to Himself through Christ.  We are being made fit for heaven here, in this place and at this time.  When I go through tough times, I’m being called to put down deeper roots.  Illness, depression, “the dark night of the soul” where it seems we can’t even pray, difficulties in our relationships and in our marriage. 

                The temptation is to always want to “drink from the spring,” take the easy path, or think that our difficulties mean God has abandoned us.  We easily forget the lives of those gone before us, the saints, the martyrs, and those that live on in Christ.  We are on a journey of transformation.  Here’s to going deeper.


Unlikely and Unexpected

                The day has finally turned snowy, just as the forecast said it would.  I’d slept in a little this morning, resting after a long day on Saturday filled with the farmer’s market, farm chores, and a successful late afternoon hunt.  We knew the weather was forecast to be foul on Sunday, especially further west where we go to church, so we’d made the decision to “shelter in place.” 

                When I arrived at the barns to do the morning feeding, I was greeted by one of the sheep, “Tess.”  Tess was just off to the side of the road, nursing a newborn lamb while her other lamb lay next to her.  Twins, alive and well, just a little over an hour old.  Grace and I got them up into the barn to keep them out of the weather for the next couple of days.  No real surprises, simply pleasant farm life following a likely pattern.

                I finished feeding, making sure everything had water, feed, and sufficient bedding to stay warm.  Toward the end of the chores, the snow/sleet had begun to fall.  Finally, we had our breakfast and then settled down to a time of family worship, as we would miss going to church today.

                Everything about what I’ve just described was expected and likely – the result of planning and working within a natural system that is predictable (a pregnant animal will give birth on a snowy cold day, etc.).  Gestation periods are fixed things; strong animals make better breeding stock; quality feed gives quality results.

                So when things come along that shake up our expectations, we take notice.  Especially when it involves people and outcomes. 

                I’m always struck when I meet someone in a certain situation that would seem to dictate a certain background and find that I’m completely wrong, like the carpenter with a master’s degree in philosophy or the farmer with a Ph.D.  Yes, these are real people, and I bet you’ve been similarly surprised by people yourself, good and bad.

                Today’s scripture reading from Isaiah starts with the unlikely and unexpected – a stump (family line) branching out and re-establishing itself as a tree.  And not just any tree, but as a tree that will eventually change the natural order of the world, wiping away the prey/predator distinction and the fear that comes with it (Is. 11). 

                I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods as a logger/sawmill operator and as a gatherer of firewood.  I joke that I have no need of scary amusement park rides when I can go cut down a tree.  Most of the time, a stump simply rots away; sometimes it will send up a new shoot.  Never have I seen the new shoot become a dominant tree.  A stump speaks of destruction and death, seldom new life for the individual tree. 

                Yet Isaiah sees the family line of King David as a stump come back to life.  David himself was unlikely and unexpected, the youngest son, sent away to tend the sheep while his older brothers were presented before the prophet Samuel.  But God likes unlikely and unexpected.

                When John the Baptizer is preaching in the wilderness, it rings with the unlikely and the unexpected.  John doesn’t dress for success, doesn’t worry about people’s feelings, and really works to repel the moneyed and powerful.  He’s doing everything the “big church” people couldn’t imagine.  But John’s not trying to build his own kingdom; instead he’s busy pointing the way to someone greater – the root of Jesse that Isaiah wrote about, Jesus.

                God loves using the unlikely and the unexpected, the poor and the insignificant, the lost and the hopeless.  His grace and power falls to the humble, the meek, and the spiritually impoverished – people who know their need and are not afraid or embarrassed to cry out to Him for relief.



One of our spring lambs.

Advent I

                The week went better than expected.  The turkeys were processed without a hitch, and with 8 people helping out, was actually fun.  Delivery day was rainy and cold, but a late lunch at one of Alexandria’s nicest little restaurants warmed us inside and out. By Thanksgiving Day, I was ready for a holiday, a quiet time with family, enjoying the company of those closest to me, not only by blood, but also in friendship.

                Kinship can be a difficult thing.  It imposes certain obligations that are not always welcomed and are sometimes actually shunned. It is not easy to walk with a relative through a difficult time when there is poison in the past; it’s at times challenging to watch children grow into adulthood and parents regress to children.  Shortly after Miss P and I were married, a couple with teenage children told us not to fret the teen years, but to embrace them with our children.  “If you’ve raised them right to that point, you’ll have little to fear.”  Mine are by no means perfect, for their parents haven’t been; but I can still talk with them, and they still seek me out.  Something to be thankful for, indeed.

                I’ve now “officially” ended the 2013 farming year.  Once the turkeys are gone, the work of the year changes.  As the old saying goes, “if you haven’t made it good by now, you’re not going to.”  Now is the time to plan for 2014 – plan what our CSA will look like, what markets we will do, fields to plow and fallow, the movement of the animals over the next year. It is a season of taking stock of things that have been and preparing for how we want things to be.

                And so it strikes me how similar our year at this time looks like the church calendar.  Today marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church year.  Advent is a season of preparation as we approach Christmas.  The retailers have been on to this for a while – Black Friday and what not.  Buy your gifts, only so many more shopping days till Christmas.  Yet Christmas is more than shopping and gifting.  It’s about the coming of the King and His Kingdom.  It’s about the gift of the Christ Child.

                The lessons from the Scriptures for this first Sunday of Advent talk about what that Kingdom will eventually look like.  Isaiah sees a mountain and on that highest mountain, the House of the LORD.  People are willingly going up the mountain to learn.  The nations are at peace; metal once destined to produce death now helps produce life from the earth.  War and fighting are forgotten.

                Paul in Romans sums up all of God’s laws in the simple injunction to love.  “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Peace starts in our own families, for who else is closer to us than the people under our own roof?  The school of love takes us to the difficult kinfolk, where the path of relationship is littered with hurt.  It carries us out to our neighbors with whom we share boundaries (real and imagined). And from there is takes us to a world in need, whether down the street or around the world.

                I read this week a challenge from Pope Francis’ almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski.  “Being an almoner, it has cost me something so that it can change me….Take a poor person, bring him to your apartment, let him take a shower – and your bathroom will stink for three days – and while he’s showering make him a coffee and serve it to him, and maybe give him your sweater.  This is being an almoner.”  The love that Christ wants us to give is costly.  And most times I struggle with the challenge.

                The gospel lesson from Matthew speaks of watchfulness, being faithful, never letting our attention slip, of always expecting Christ, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.”  And what is that work?  “…to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time.”

                God wants to change us, to make us truly human, a perfect reflection of Him.  That reflection is one of love, a love that is sometimes difficult and challenging.  It’s a love that is humbling, calling us to “condescend to joy.”  Love always involves giving; it is always a verb.