About James Bourne

James (Jim) grew up on his farm in Southern Maryland. A traditional tobacco farm, Jim now raises animals and vegetables on this 325 year old family farm. Jim studied to be a minister, was a Maryland State Trooper, has four daughters, and enjoys writing and teaching/speaking.

The Journey

Flying to Instanbul in order to get to Rome is rather like trying to get to your pinky from your thumb by way of your elbow. But the price was right; the timing so far as the rhythm of the farm was concerned, almost perfect; and the need was great. And so, for the next few days, I’ll be blogging from Rome. Of course you know I don’t really blog – I essay, but let’s not quibble over details.

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It’s after midnight here and I’ve been traveling for most of the last 24hrs. This can be a lonely prospect, but I was fortunate to have a friend along. C told me about the flight. She knew I’d been looking to get away, clear some cobwebs, and do something for myself. C.’s husband, M., was in Rome on business; she had planned to join him. And so, what could have been a tedious trip was made bearable, and sometimes even enjoyable, by taking the journey with C.

Most of my time will be spent exploring the great sights, visiting the great art, and enjoying to good food here. I’ll probably get lost a couple times, but so what. Journeys are like that. Sometimes, it takes getting lost in order to find your way ahead.

Entangled

A Few Words on Community

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The day started off like most others when I take a trip to get feed from the mill. I travel 36 miles to an Amish community in St. Mary’s County, MD. My relationship with Stoltzfus Feed LLC has been mutually beneficial. I get the feed I want at a reasonable price. They’ve started two completely new lines of feed over the years to satisfy my requirements. These new feeds now account for over half their total business and is their growth sector.

After I’d loaded 5000lbs. of feed, I went over to visit my good friend, John Y. John and I have been friends for years. We do a lot of business together, helping each other along. John Y. is a good farmer, supported by a great wife, Barbara. Now that Stephen is out of school, John Y. has been able to expand his farm.

As I traveled down the gravel lane to John’s farm, a dump truck driver flagged me over. He motioned to a horse that was entangled in a barbed wire fence and asked me to get the horse some help. Pretty soon, John and I were over in the field, looking at the horse.

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The horse was a roan draft horse who had attempted to go through a barbed wire fence to get with his buddies. Apparently, the whole crew had gotten away from their farm and had been wandering around when someone let them into this particular pasture to keep them off the road. By the time John and I arrived, the horse had freed itself, but was bleeding profusely, having been ripped up by wire just above his right rear hoof.

Pretty soon, a whole crew came together to take care of the horse. John and I got Eli to help us catch it. Then we went over to get Benny, the community horse vet. When we got back, Eli had led the horse to a better area, where we had access to some water. Tranquilizer applied, the horse went into a slumber while Benny worked on him. Fortunately for the horse, no ligaments were damaged. Benny sutured the vein that had been severed, and administered the antibiotics through an IV saline solution.

This may seem like a typical farm type thing to you, but please note, not one person involved in this story owned this horse. The owner, Isaac, has had a run of bad luck and isn’t doing well. Overworked with no breaks, he’s hit the breaking point. That’s right – Amish are human too. Every person there had their own work to do; yet we all put those things aside to help. For me, I wasn’t going to leave until that horse had been seen to, and also because of my long friendships in that community. John, Eli, and Benny were there to help a neighbor in need. We did what needed to be done. When the doctoring was over and done, Eli led the horse to his farm and put him up in a clean stall. Eli will continue to look after the horse until Isaac can get him.

Entangled. We think of it as a negative word, something to avoid. The draft horse would have been better off had he not become entangled with the fence. And yet, entangled is also a way to describe community. Not only did John know whose horse it was, but he also knew the depth to which his neighbor needed help. Isaac’s uncle, John F. offered to pay us for our time. I told John Y. to just send my share onto the Hospital fund the Amish keep to help pay medical bills.

Pope Francis has asked Christians to have a different take on Lent this year. He’s asked us to focus on giving to the less fortunate and those in need, to look for opportunities to shine the light of Christ into dark places. I’m sure that the Pope’s namesake would agree that a poor Amish draft horse qualifies. I’m also sure if we all lived in communities like this one, the vast majority of our societal problems would solve themselves.

A Few Words on Life

The sheep were on the hill grazing as I walked out to feed the hogs. It was a picturesque site –forty some sheep contentedly grazing, despite the fact that it is now late December. The grass is still green due to our unusually warm temperatures of late. I spotted Tess with her twins, less than a day old. She didn’t like the fact I was trying to take her picture – because I’m not a sheep I must be related to a wolf (sheep thinking).

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In the last 24 hours, we’ve had 6 lambs born; two sets of twins and two singles. That makes 7 this week, with more on the way. Each morning has been like a rebirth of Christmas for my youngest daughter. Grace loves the flock and names each new addition, in spite of the fact they are meat sheep. Of course, this does lead to emotional trauma several times a year, but I digress.

New life is simply a miracle. Despite the fact that we can scientifically explain how it happens in the remotest of terms, once you’ve been a part of a birth your outlook on life is bound to change. Today, I had the chance to be a part of the process one more time.

April was out on the hillside with the rest of the sheep, but it became obvious she was in heavy labor. I noted the time and that she appeared to be having some difficulty. I finished my rounds and went in for a quick breakfast.

The sheep will sometimes get out and invade our yards, looking for the “greener grass.” I had just finished making the coffee when I noticed they were literally at my doorstep. I rounded them up and drove them back to their pasture. April was still in labor and not progressing, laying down, pushing, getting up, bleating, looking bewildered. Two small feet and a tongue presented. It was time to intervene.

Did I mention that sheep think everything other than another sheep is a wolf? It was impossible to approach April in the open field – she just ran away. She would have to go up into the sheep/hay shed. Once there, I still needed to pen her in a small space in hopes of working with her. I set up a place, but she had other ideas – she wedged herself between two large round bales of hay.

I had taken the time to grab several pairs of vinyl gloves and some baler twine (for attaching to the feet in order to pull). I simply didn’t have time to utilize either – I grabbed a little hoof and began to pull downward. April went down on her side and began to push. I reached in and freed the lamb’s head. Within seconds, the lamb was out. I did a quick check to see if there was a twin, but no, April had had a healthy single lamb. I’m happy to report mother and baby are doing well.

Life is precious. We don’t realize that until we are confronted with death. And yet both are completely natural – to decry death is also to decry life. We are part of a circle. What the ancients feared most was not necessarily death, but sterility – the inability to bring forth life, whether human, animal, or plant. In late summer, weeds begin to produce seed at an amazing rate, animals in heat seek a mate, humans have that clock thing going on. It’s nature way of saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

I’ve delivered calves, kids, piglets, and lambs. In all kinds of weather. With all kinds of outcomes. Breakfast was late today. The coffee was cold. But I saved a little lamb and his mom. There’s no need to hear any other sermon on a Sunday.

Christmas Tidings

I’ve a bit more shopping to do before Christmas. I know it’s late for this sort of thing, but my excuse has always been that I’m a guy, and that’s just how we do things. You know, drive around the mall parking lot for hours looking for a parking spot on Christmas Eve, just so we can find the perfect gifts for everyone on our list. Except that we have absolutely no clue what those “perfect” gifts might be. I’ve met a few guys who do early Christmas shopping (you know, before Dec. 1) but I think they are genetically modified…

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Our slogans for the season tout peace and goodwill. Of course, those traits vanish when two drivers head for the same parking spot, or a brawl breaks out at Wal-Mart over the last favorite toy available…until tomorrow. We are not a species constitutionally given over to peace and goodwill. We are not content. I am not content.

One of the principles I learned in management class many decades ago was that money is always a dis-satisfier. No one has ever said they have enough money with a straight face. Of course, there are varying degrees of this monetary dissatisfaction. Some are more driven to be dissatisfied than others. This is not unusual, or even a purely human phenomenon.

I’ve raised and tended to animals all my life. I bet when you read that sentence, the thought of cows and sheep contentedly grazing on a hillside pops into your mind. Or perhaps the hours spent tending to a weak newborn, or cutting hay in the summer to insure the animals have enough to eat in the winter. Yes, these are all accurate pictures. Then there is that old saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Yeah. Always.

I’ve spent more time chasing animals back to where they should be than any other activity on the farm. Given the right pasture and rotation, cattle tend to be the most content of the animals I’ve kept. Horses are pretty good too, though they are pasture killers. Both will exploit any weakens in a fence the moment they become dissatisfied.

And then there are sheep. Specifically, my sheep. They are a breed specifically designed for meat, shedding their wool/hair, and apparently, breaking down fences. They are simply not contented animals. I’ve had them destroy older barbed wire fences that have held cattle and horses for years. They laugh at an electric fence, their wool being a perfect insulator. If they want something on the other side of a fence, they will figure a way to get to it. I’ve had them push through a seven-strand barbed wire fence – brand new. Frustrating.

My youngest daughter is the farm shepherdess. Her physical education consists mainly in rounding up the sheep from where they shouldn’t be. My temporary answer to all of this has been to expand the list of places they can be. Off-limits now consist of the highway, the neighbors’ flowers, and my front yard (most of the time).

Contentment is an elusive commodity. If you’ve acquired it, congratulations. You’re at peace. The rest of us, not so much.

When the angels proclaimed peace and goodwill to the shepherds in the field, what were they saying? My take is that with the presence of the Christ child, the Almighty had entered our world in a unique way in order to bring about a peace that would reflect His character. Jesus became God’s unique expression of peace and love to His creation.

What we sometimes miss in the story is the fact that Jesus spent the first 30 years of his life preparing for the last three. Or perhaps we can say, maturing.

The fact that I have not arrived at the point of contentment and peace only means that I am still on a journey and the question isn’t so much about the my present location (in the weeds…) but the road and the destination I’m heading toward. John Bunyan wrote a book a few years back entitled “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” It’s about the journey, folks.

Western Christians tend to be pretty cerebral about their faith. Just browse the R. Catholic catechism. Eastern Christians are a bit different. Faith in the east has always been harder as it’s been up against other well-formed, dominant religions for centuries. It is a faith lived out against the backdrop of conflict and persecution. It is truly a life lived in prayer for “our daily bread.”

I’m tempted here to get all theological and write about Dante, theosis, and yoga. But nope, need to keep this focused. Just like the rest of life. Perhaps the key to finding peace this season isn’t so much looking at the big picture (“look at all the grass on the other side of the fence”) as focusing on the small. Here. Now. Our daily bread.

My wish this season is for each of us to be in the moment, but to also realize you are on a journey of incredible importance. You are loved, not by an impersonal force, but by the Creator who has plans for us for peace and goodwill.

Merry Christmas!!!

Presence

There are times when I sit down to write and I have a pretty good idea of what the piece will look like when I’m done. This is not one of those times. It may end up being one of those essays I share with a few friends and tuck into the back of my blog; then again, it may see the light of day as the sun burns through the mist and lifts onto a new day.

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Mist. I often forget the beauty of my farm in the morning, especially this time of year, as the mist settles into the small valleys we have and then gently begins to lift. All too often, I make a note of the beauty but rush to accomplish the tasks of the day. This morning was different. From the window of my hovel, I saw the mist against the trees in the distance.   I strolled onto the hill, took the photo, and enjoyed the beauty of the present. Magical…

There is beauty in the moment that is all too often overlooked. I believe most Westerners, and certainly most Americans, are oriented to the future. We get wrapped up in the “what’s it going to be like” mentality, the planning of success, the desire for more. When we are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the moment, it’s brief. We are constitutionally unable to hold it for long – the future beckons.

I love the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. It is brief, yet economy of words doesn’t equate to poverty of meaning. Jesus asks us to live in the moment of the day – “give us our daily bread.” He tells us to forgive in order to be forgiven – “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus calls us to live each day with a clean slate; make your worries small and your heart generous.

I’m now well entrenched into my “middle ages.” My worries are not small. My generosity for forgiveness is under repair. It’s simply earth-shaking to wake up one day and discover you’re the Pharisee you’ve always preached against; to realize that I am the “eldest son” in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal. And then to grapple with the fact that the first person on the list to forgive is yourself.

Choice and change are the currencies of life. Change will occur; the choice of how to handle it will dictate who you become. My choice is to begin to live more in the Present. I’m encouraged to do this by friends who are already there – “Future cares have future cures…” a friend shared with me (from Sophocles). While we need plans to move ahead with the future, we live in the moment with family, friends, and ourselves.

The Christmas season, a time that should bring joy because of it’s profound message of peace and reconciliation is often the time of tremendous stress, anxiousness, and depression, largely because we are not at peace with ourselves, nor are we reconciled with others. I am quite frankly dreading the holiday season. I’m sure I’m not alone. How exactly does one manage a family situation that has become absolutely toxic?

My proposed solution is to live in the Present. To let the gift to myself and others be the gift of “Being There.” To let the future wait. And how does all this happen? Prayer.

Prayer is a wonderful thing really. While we pray about things past (forgiveness) and future (petition) we are wonderfully anchored to the present, in the presence of the God who lives in the eternal now. All things are “Present” before the Almighty. When we are able to be “Present” with ourselves and those around us, we extend the gift of God to them.

To those of you who read this, be present. Be present with yourself. Be present with others. Enjoy the life you’ve been blessed with. Breathe deep, don’t let important things go unsaid because of fear, live secure in the knowledge that we are all loved. That is what this season is all about.

 

 

A Cry Will Do You Good

Fifty years ago today, I received a gift. I don’t remember Brenda coming to live with me, since I was only the tender age of 18 months. But I never really knew life without her until 22 years later when she died of melanoma lymphatic cancer. I’m crying today for the first time in forever. There’s a lot going on and I guess I’m feeling the loss more than I have since she died.

If you were lucky enough to know Brenda, you understand my loss. She lived a life that touched everyone around her. She was the golden child, the smart one, the kind one. She knew what it was like to be a friend and what needed to happen in order to make friendships grow.

Brenda was the Farm Queen, the Fair Queen, the Tobacco Queen (yep, it was those days in Southern Maryland). She was 1st runner up at the Maryland Farm Bureau contest. She played French horn in the high school band, played piano, and sang. She won her trip to the National 4-H competition in Chicago. She simply excelled in everything she did.

She was fair skinned and blond. She wanted to tan. What she got was a mole on her knee that turned out to be skin cancer. She was 18. The doctors removed the mole, and declared her well. Brenda went on to Grace College, graduated in 3 ½ yrs. and married Rick. Everything looked great for them and then Brenda began to have a pain in her leg. The rest is statistics. The experimental treatment spared her the long death.

It’s been said that life is made up in the dash, that dash between Dec. 6, 1965 – Feb. 2, 1988. A good friend of Brenda’s called me about 6 months later. She told me she had had a dream, a vision, and Brenda came to her and told her she was all right. However, the family she left behind was not.

It has taken me nearly 3 decades to acknowledge the depth of that loss. I can only do so now as I look at the death of another relationship, the undoing of another family. Change should be embraced and even celebrated, since our lives are made up of changes. Some changes need to be mourned and grieved. And then there is the change that one feels the need to fight for whatever reason. But change can be unacknowledged and ignored, left to fester in the soul. There is poison in that well.

Brenda would choose to embrace and celebrate the change. As a Christian, I believe I will see her again. In the meantime, I must be mindful of the dash.

Intimacy

Not your typical farm-related blog title.  I have an intimate knowledge of certain things on my farm.  I know it’s plumbing and electrical systems.  I know the mechanical systems in the houses here.  In all these examples, I know them because I’ve either installed them or worked on them.  I know the soils of this farm.  The field right behind the brick rancher where I grew up will never warm up early in the spring.  It slopes toward the north and is heavy with clay.  A mid-spring planting suits this field best.

 The field out in front of my grandparent’s house was acquired in the 1970’s and it’s five acres are suited to fast growing vegetation.  The heavier soil on the rise toward the back is much better land.  The British probably burned the house that was there during the war. 

 We push old bricks around in certain fields, the last remnants of a culture too long here, not far enough gone.  The old orchards are gone now, cut done to expedite the use of the tractor and haybine.  Many apples fell to be consumed by the lowliest of farm creatures – the groundhog. 

 The barns are filled with the acquisitions of three generations.  The workhorse harness of my grandfather’s still occupies the same pegs in the old stall that it did when my father gave them to me – the day after he buried his father.  My harness gear is on the other side of the barn, in the “new” shed, my attempt to recreate what is probably forever lost.

 Intimacy comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yet there is a common thread, the binding element: Care.  Care to prevent harm, promote well-being, and most importantly, to understand.  Intimacy can be lost through neglect and carelessness.  The greater the knowledge, the deeper the intimacy. 

 True intimacy is something that is worked out over time.  It takes some living and some failures to bring it out.  I did plant that field behind my mother’s house in early spring peas one year.  I know whereof I write. I’ve seen love blossom because of intimacy; I’ve seen it die without it.  Love is a funny thing, but I digress.  Who’d read a farmer’s take on love anyway?

 “Pep” recently had a C-section due to complications of her labor.  Both lambs were lost, but the ewe was saved.  I am blessed to have a great veterinarian.  Yet the procedure cost far more than the ewe was worth, dollar-wise.  But there were other levels of valuation in play here.  “Pep” is the friendliest sheep we have.  Too friendly.  Bottle-fed as a lamb, she was raised on the back porch of an Amish farmhouse.  When I purchased my flock, Micah threw her in the deal, just to get rid of her.  I soon found out why.

 “Pep” didn’t view herself as a sheep at all.  She viewed herself as a human.  She’d have gladly accepted a room in the house and completely rebelled against the idea of being part of the flock.  Getting her off our front porch and putting her back with the sheep was a daily (hourly?) routine.  To this day she does her own thing, and is always the last to come when rounded up for the evening.

 So, why spend that kind of money on “Pep?”  There are other traits about her I like, not the least of which is her name.  “Pep” is my children’s short for the Spanish pequeno (little).  When she came to us, she was the smallest little lamb we had.  And she wormed a place into all our hearts.  Maybe a farmer is allowed to have a pet after all.

 Intimacy is what you make of it, much like all other things in life.  Water it, and it will grow; starve it, and it will fade.  Choose well.

Apologia

Apologia – (noun) 1. a formal written defense of something you believe in strongly (fr. the Greek).

 Last week, Senator Sanders (I. VT.) spoke at Liberty University. It was an event that was covered well in the national media, most notably for the unlikely venue and the unlikely speaker. I noted on my Facebook page my approval of the one and my support for the other, the other being Sen. Sanders who is running for President. Two longtime friends (real friends, not the typical FB variety) called me out on my support for Bernie, wondering what I saw in him.

D.M. – Sorry Jim – I don’t get it. The Senator is obviously a decent man who clearly means well, but I don’t see much that’s particularly attractive about his rhetoric. Basing one’s politics on picking a higher class of people to loathe doesn’t strike me as especially uplifting. Liberty U. comes off well, though.

 A.M. – Jim, I’m with D. After reading his speech I do not understand why he is attractive to you. It’s typical communist propaganda; pitting one class of people against the other. It’s bad enough he’s a communist; he’s also an atheist. Tell me how this is good for our country??????

I’ve known D.M. for nearly 15 years; he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, extremely well read. A.M. is a friend of my parents from long ago. I attended church with both of these fine people for over a decade and consider their friendship valuable, and their challenge to me one I must carefully respond to.

My support for Bernie Sanders is not taken lightly; I did not arrive at this decision without considerable thought and reflection as to the needs of our country and my own Christian responsibility in a time when our culture has shifted dramatically away from a traditional common understanding of what American culture is.

A little history. Until now, I’ve been a lifelong Republican. For most of my life, I’ve identified as a conservative, an evangelical Christian, pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy. I’ve attended Christian educational institutions of some stripe throughout my educational life. I’ve studied to become a minister. I’ve been a licensed lay preacher. My world-view on these matters is not thrown together or ill formed. Above all, I am committed to Jesus Christ as my Lord.

So, let’s deal with the red herring first – Bernie Sanders is not a communist. He is a socialist and there is a world of difference. One of the things that is wrong with America today is that we can no longer speak accurately and graciously about our opponents. So put the “flamethrowers” and the ad hominine arguments away. If you can’t, then don’t expect mercy when someone attacks your silliness.

What strikes me strange with the critique of class opposition is that Republicans have been doing this for years; only the target has always been the poor, not the rich. In fact, what budget cycle has there been in the last 30 years that Republicans didn’t seek to strip our domestic programs designed to help the poor? We may argue about the efficacy of such programs, and how they could be improved, but when your underlying value system dehumanizes the poor, I simply can’t see how that is not class warfare.

To me, the two biggest obstacles to support for Senator Sanders hinges on what he began his speech with at Liberty U.; his support for abortion and same-sex marriage. To his credit, he did not mince words, or try to explain away his positions. He put it out there and let his hearers deal with it. And I’ve come to a different view than most of my tribe on both of these issues.

I abhor the killing of the unborn. And making abortion illegal will not end abortion. It will only lead to the needless death of hundreds if not thousands of young women whose situation in life has led them to this unfathomable place in life – me or my baby. God help us all. I’d rather work on the conditions that bring about that decision, not the least of which are economic, but more importantly our view about how precious life really is – whether its here or in some third-world country that we want to bomb.

Ted and Steve exchanging nuptials does not impact my traditional marriage. My marriage (and theirs) will rise or fall based upon its own internal dynamics. Not allowing same-sex marriage doesn’t do away with homosexuality. “Traditional” marriage has been a disaster for decades now, with over half of marriages ending in divorce, and non-traditional families now the norm. My only concern here is that churches not be compelled or otherwise penalized for refusing to perform same-sex marriages.

No POTUS is going to change a woman’s right to choose how to handle her own reproductive ability. No POTUS is going to change the right of homosexuals to wed. These two items are now settled law. It’s done. The culture war is over, and the terms of surrender are being drafted. And that is why I think supporting Bernie Sanders is critical.

Instead of pursing the overthrow of established law (ever since Reagan, every Republican POTUS has passed the litmus test on the pro-life issue, yet Roe vs. Wade still stands) why can’t we concentrate on doing what is also clearly the heart of God, and help the poor? Income distribution in the USA is obscene! The laws are written to protect and expand the wealth of the select few. The poor don’t write laws establishing offshore tax havens. Usury is still a sin. And American-style capitalism is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures.

Our Lord taught us to pray that we might have our daily bread. It is Lazarus who has a name and is in Paradise, his rich overlord nameless and in hell. At the great Day of Judgment, joy and fellowship with the Lord await those who “did unto the least of these.” Outer darkness for those who withheld their hand from helping the poor. Our Lord teaches us that the stranger is our neighbor (so much for the immigration debate) that our duty to him/her goes beyond the convenient to the inconvenient, the sacrificial way of love.

The prophet Amos is replete with judgments against the rich and condemnation for a system rigged against the poor. Perhaps he too was a communist. The great theme of all the prophets is justice for the poor. When the prophet Nathan confronts King David over his murderous adultery with Bathsheba, the prophet uses the image of the rich man stealing the lamb of a poor man to illicit David’s own condemnation of his sin. It is clear that the poor have been robbed in this country as well. We have no level playing field.

I was chatting about this with one of my Amish friends last week.    Danny asked me what I thought of Donald Trump. I told him my true thoughts were too colorful to express. He laughed and then gave a pretty accurate opinion of Trump as a man all about himself. No Christian should be attracted to supporting Donald Trump. And yet so many are. How do you think Jesus sees “The Donald?”

As Danny and I conversed, we agreed that the pressing need was to do something to bring hope back to those who have none. People who have hope don’t burn their neighborhoods down, and don’t let others come in and destroy their towns either. We are reaping the sin of generations, the denial of “forty acres and a mule” to the freed slaves, the Jim Crow laws and the lynchings. How can anyone claim that we were a Christian nation a hundred years ago when a black family would be lynched and then body parts carved up and taken away for souvenirs? These sins have come home to roost with a vengeance. People who think Ferguson and Baltimore were anomalies are kidding themselves.

It should be Christians talking about the inequality of income distribution and the laws that enable it, not an atheist. And yet when so many Christians would rather be hysterical about things they can’t possibly change and support politicians and a system so out of touch with the heart of Scripture in relation to the poor, it is refreshing to have anyone, even an atheist, call us back to our foundational roots of mercy and justice for all. If Christians can make their focal point the cause of the poor (and I realize there are many that are already doing this) and identify with them at a personal level, I believe it may help us as we attempt to carve out a space for continued religious liberty in America. (And here I in no way want to lend support to someone who refuses to bake a cake or fulfill their sworn duties to uphold the law).

Identifying with the poor on a personal level is the most basic thing someone can do. Give money to the homeless – yes, go for the big bill in your wallet – without demanding to know the outcome (drugs? liquor? food?). Stop posting that stupid stuff on FB about making everyone on welfare get a drug test. Get involved with organizations that are making a difference, whether they are specifically Christian organizations or not. And always love.

This apologia has been long, and there is so much more to say. D.M. will instantly find the holes in my reasoning, because I’m sure they exist. A.M. will vote for the most conservative Republican out there, regardless of the strength of my arguments or not. I’m sure there are plenty of issues I don’t agree with Sen. Sanders on, but I think its time to start talking about the issues he’s pressing. These are truly moral issues. And yes, I’d rather be accused of being naïve, than being heartless.

James Bourne

The Lamb’s Quarter

 

The Amish

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Of all the things I talk about, none generates more enthusiasm than when I detail the Amish lifestyle. The Amish are viewed as an enigma in our culture, the ultimate Luddite rejection of technology. And yet, they are romanticized for their simple ways, the horse-drawn buggy, straw hats, and shewfly pie.

I’ve been doing business with the plain-folk of St, Mary’s County, MD for nearly 30 years. The plain people (a term they use for themselves) encompass both the Amish and the “team” Mennonites who still maintain the horse and buggy lifestyle. During this time I started driving for them, taxi service and equipment hauler. I spent nearly three years waking up at ungodly hours of the morning or responding to last minute pleas for emergency transportation before I’d had enough. The best stories I tell come from these experiences.

While I was driving, I usually kept the radio off and chatted with whoever was riding with me. Over the course of a 12+ hour road trip, you can learn a lot about someone. My favorite employer was Amos Stoltzfus (yes, nearly everyone who isn’t a Hertzler, Yoder, or Swarey is a Stoltzfus). Much of what I know about the Amish I’ve learned from him.

Amos is soft spoken, reflective, and good at seeing thru the presenting issues. That he is a bishop will not surprise anyone who knows him. Amish life is centered upon the church, and practically, the church district. There are no church buildings. Everyone builds their homes with the reality that it must also function a gathering place for the local church at least twice each year. A church district is made up of about 30 families. It is not unusual for a family to have up to a dozen children. Amos stopped counting grandchildren when they reached over 120.

The church district meets every other Sunday. (During the off weeks, the father reads the gospels to the family and the young ones get to practice sitting still.) Each district maintains a wagon that contains benches and hymnals. The service is usually 4 hours, during which time there is singing, preaching, and a chance to deal with the issues that each community faces. The Amish community is a fully functioning governing body, regulating the details of daily life, providing assistance to those in need, and “admonishing” those who stray from the narrow path.

That narrow path is defined by each community and encompasses nearly every detail of daily life. A church district is part of a larger community, and thus in St. Mary’s County, MD, there are 7. The larger community sets the guidelines for daily life. And they will vary from one community to the next, based upon the needs of the community and its relationship to the world around them.

Most people are familiar with the Amish communities in Lancaster County, PA. They are the oldest, most established communities in the United States. They are also the ones most in danger of being swallowed up by modern culture. Such a high percentage of young people leave the church to seek their fortunes in the greater world that they have spawned a new church group, the Amish-Mennonites. Of course, one of the coarser features of the Amish, and the thing that has traditionally set them apart from the Mennonites is their practice of “shunning.” If a child does not join the church, or if they join and then leave, that child/person is shunned. No contact; completely cut-off. This issue seems to be second only to the scarcity of land when it comes to the Amish leaving Lancaster, PA to establish other communities.

Not every community believes in letting their young people “sow their wild oats,” but most in Lancaster do. I’ve seen elaborate stereo systems in decked-out buggies (one wonders why the horse didn’t go off in a shear panic). I’ve eaten in restaurants late at night to see teenage Amish girls with their freshly applied makeup flirting with their non-Amish “friends.” While this is perfectly normal to our way of thinking, this is hardly the Amish way.

Amish school life is contained in a one-room building that goes to the 8th grade. At age fourteen, formal education ends. For the net two years, the child is under a “work apprenticeship,” to satisfy the compulsory education requirements of the state. At age sixteen, Amish nightlife begins – sort of. Every Sunday evening, the young people gather at a farm to sing, play volleyball, etc. It is here where the matchmaking begins. As families visit from other communities, fresh faces appear. Long road trips might get planned. Buggies coming home late at night (or wee early Monday morning) happen.

By age 20-21, weddings happen, but only after the crops are safely in the barn. An Amish wedding is a big affair – 300+ people in one house (remember, there’s lots of family to invite). Another 4 hour service, in German, a hymn sing, best men passing our candy, a volley ball game, and yes – a meal. Those benches will convert into tables, and you have never seen so much food. The bride’s family has been cooking for the last three to four days straight for this thing (by family, I mean sisters, aunts, and cousins too).

The honeymoon is a drawn out affair, with the new couple spending the next 4 months visiting all the people they invited, collecting their wedding presents – usually things needed to start housekeeping.

The Amish community reflects the attitude of little things done well. They generally have the same problems we have, for they are human as well. They recognize mental health issues and have their own facilities to deal with that (here is where their greater reliance upon the Mennonite Church helps). They operate their own insurance funds and are able negotiators when that is called for. They have an exemption from Social Security since they abhor involvement with the government. They are most noted for their contentious objector status – they will not serve in the military.

By being in such a tight-knit community, they have largely avoided the hero worship/hero thinking that permeates so much of American culture. Not only do they not watch TV (they don’t have electricity or personal telephones) they don’t read the Bible with the assumption that they too can be a David killing a Goliath. They recognize that David killed Goliath because he did small things on a daily basis that enabled him to fight Goliath when the time came. The Amish way is not just to focus on the small things, but to take pleasure in them.

I had helped one of my friends put up some corn silage one day, and we had taken a break for lunch. Sam tied the horses to a post near the corn bin. We came back out to find the horses had pulled out the sliding gate closure to the bin and let the corn out. A lot of corn out. Sam got the horses away from there and called for his wife, Sylvia. I stopped the flow of the corn as best I could, but we had a problem – buried under this three foot mound of corn was the gate closure for the bin. Sam and Sylvia then swapped with me and held the corn while I went digging for the gate. I was frustrated at the situation until I heard Sylvia laugh. And then Sam started. And pretty soon we’re all laughing. Because why wouldn’t you?

Givers and Takers

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Mike stopped by last night. I hadn’t seen him for a few years, though we don’t live that far apart. Life had taken him one direction, me another. So we do what guys do. We walked around, talked about work, big bucks, and finally, life. Back in the day, we had a lot of fun working out of the same barracks of the Maryland State Police. He was the one always keeping in touch, which is fortunate for both of us.

As we caught up, Mike told me about losing his father to cancer not that long ago. I’ve read that guys never really become men until they bury their father. I know it to be a fact in my life. While mine died quick, Mike’s had time to linger. Some might call it suffer, and though I’m sure he did, Mike told me how his father lived his final days. Helping others. Comforting others. Witnessing the goodness of God in Christ for his family and friends to see.

Mike was with him when he passed – a blessing. He told me how his dad opened up his eyes wide, his face brightened as if seeing something he’d been longing for, and then slumped back and died. At first Mike thought his father was excited to see him, but then the Hospice nurse told him, no. He wasn’t seeing Mike at all. He was seeing his final destination, Christ.

Mike’s dad was unique. He left a high paying job as an industrial engineer to work in children’s homes run by the United Methodist Church in West Virginia. He explained to Mike that he never felt he could really touch anyone’s life being an engineer, but he could working with people. Apparently he did, for over 3,000 people came to the viewing and the funeral. Mike’s father was a giver.

I’ve come to believe that we fall into one of two categories in this life – we are either givers or we’re takers. That not to say that a giver never takes and a taker never gives. But these are the two dominant themes people have in life.

When Jesus was explaining the final judgment to his disciples, he talked about dividing sheep from goats. One of the fascinating details of this story is that at the time Jesus spoke these words, sheep and goats were grazed together. In fact, the term “sheep” was a generic term covering both species.

So the picture is like this – at the final judgment a division will occur over a group that had up to that point been together – the righteous and the unrighteous. And the dividing point is not what you’d expect it to be. A theological quiz is not given. A statement of faith is not asked for. Political parties are not mentioned. Rather, the dividing point is very solid and fixed – how did you treat “The Other.”

“The Other” in Christ’s story is the poor; “the least of these” for Jesus identifies himself with them to the point of no separation. What we do (or didn’t do) to the least of these, “The Other,” we did directly to Christ.

The interesting part of this story is the ignorance of both the righteous and the unrighteous as to when they did (or didn’t) do these things. In fact, the unrighteous said they were looking for opportunities, and never found them. And that’s the heart of the story. While the unrighteous were looking (so they could be noticed?!) the righteous were doing. In fact, their actions were such a habit of life; they were unaware of their eternal significance. The unrighteous were too busy with life to notice. Givers vs. Takers.

The easy thing here would be to say one group is selfish, while the other group was selfless. I’ve come to believe these are two sides of the same coin, and it’s bad currency.

The command is to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The first understanding here is that I love myself. If I do not know how to properly love myself, I’m probably going to mess up loving my neighbor too. Instead of concentrating on being selfless, or fighting selfishness, perhaps the better way is to be able to fully embrace who God has created us to be. We are not a mindless blobs running around to be everyone else’s doormat, nor are we God’s singular gift to the world to whom every owes allegiance. We are created to be partners with God in his creation. We are far more than the sum of our parts. We need a full sense of ourselves image-bearers of God.

It is only when we are striving for that full sense of ourselves, when we hit the “Goldilocks” moment of just right, then we can give without being drained, without the martyr syndrome. Then we can live out of a sense of calling and into our truer selves. It is the truer self that will be most near the heart of God, reaching out to “The Others” in our life with the comfort and blessing we all desire.