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.

Boxes

I’ve been fond of a few cats. L.O.S.T. is my current kitty, dropped off by someone, left to fend for itself on my farm. L.O. is like every other cat I’ve ever come across; she has a fascination with boxes. The smaller, the better. Young children at Christmas are similar – you can nearly always catch them playing with the boxes rather than the toys at some point during the day.

Boxes are quite useful, of course. They contain our stuff, and we are certainly a people of stuff. We’ve become quite adept at the size and shape of our boxes, going from the mundane and lowly cardboard variety all the up to the boxes that punctuate the wealth of an individual – the McMansion.

Along the way are drawers and file cabinets, closets and chests, all variations of the same theme. We are a people of boxes.

But there are also the boxes we can’t see, but are just as real, nonetheless. These are the boxes we use for people, ourselves included. These boxes have labels on them, just like the physical boxes we use for our stuff (or else the stuff is forever lost). We have religious boxes, political boxes, economic boxes, and moral boxes. They overlap, vary in shape, and are often inexact. We’ll call all of them identity boxes.

Identity boxes help us determine our tribe. Liberal or Conservative? Catholic or Protestant? Atheist or New Age? Blue collar or White Collar? Farmer or Everybody else? (Couldn’t resist that last one!) Our boxes inform our worldview – the smaller the box, the narrower our focus, and conversely.

Most people adopt the boxes given to them by their parents until a certain age; they then go through a period of exploration and discovery that tend to broaden the scope of the box. Some end up completely rejecting the box and seek another to fit into. Almost no one goes without some type of box. (It should be noted that a professional politician will fit into whichever one will get them the most votes).

And because we are human beings, capable of incredible self-deception, there are the boxes we say we belong in, and the ones we actually inhabit by our actions. It’s the subject of a life’s work to unite the two, especially if you’re a religious person.

Hypocrite is the tile we give to those whose words and actions don’t match well. It’s often the number one excuse of non-church goers – too many hypocrites go there. I used to rejoin that with the invitation that there was always room for one more. Until.

Recently, one of my favorite uncles passed away. Nothing untimely or unexpected. When I inquired of the funeral arrangements, I was told there would be none. He refused the funeral liturgy of the church. Uncle G. was a lifelong Episcopalian. His parish had gotten caught up in the fight over same sex marriage and the consecration of a gay bishop.   The result was an ugly internal fight within the parish that destroyed the bonds, which had held members together for decades. Uncle G. has a daughter who is a lesbian (actually one of my favorite cousins). One person’s slogan is another person’s relative, close friend.

The parish swung itself into the traditionalist box and locked out everyone else – literally. Uncle G.’s refusal was a turning point in my thinking. It’s one thing to be opposed to something. We’re all opposed to something, even if it’s putting ketchup on a hot dog. It’s another thing to hate.

There are a lot of ways to read the Scriptures. I’m pretty sure the same exists for all religious writings. I’m thinking specifically now about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We can read this as a to-do manual. And if we read chapter 6 in that fashion, we will come to the conclusion that we’ve screwed up before we’ve ever left the gate.

Every religious sect has its touch point from whence it builds out. Jesus’ words contained in these three chapters form the crux of the Christian’s life. But how should we read them?

One way has been to take the words of Christ quite literal and double down on everything. This is Fundamentalism. This is how I was raised. The members of this box are defined by what they do not do. Their piety is their observance of commands. Another view seeks to see Jesus’ words as examples to follow, but without the strict adherence of the Fundamentalist view.

But there are other ways to see Christ’s words. “Judge not…” Jesus proclaims a karma of sorts in our attitudes toward others. The mercy you show someone will be shown to you; the judgment you give will be given to you. This is an acknowledgement of the impossibility of keeping the law. Even if we can conform ourselves to its outward demands, there is the matter of the heart and where our minds go in its secluded regions. There are no areas where we are safe from the law’s exacting demands and we are all guilty…of being human. “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

I’ve walked away from my box. Oh sure, I still operate within a structure, but it’s a lot bigger now. I’ve taken the lid off to let the light in. I put in some windows and a couple doors. I’m inviting new experiences in the front door and keeping the back door open for any that need to leave. A few I’ve pushed out. Among the things that are gone is the idea that I have to conform my thinking to a specific group. I’m voting for Life, Love, Hope, and Faith. I’m rooting for Mercy and Grace, because I need to give and receive both. And I want to make sure my box is big enough for others who’d like to visit and stay for coffee. And pet my cat.

 

 

Perfect is…Not

Living life in a Plan “B” world

 John Lennon once said something to the effect that life is what happens when you’re making plans. I used to envy those who seemed to have all their plans locked up tight, marching down a straight path toward “the goal.” Most people I know are a lot like me (law of attraction?) – walking about with some general plans, stumbling onto something, pursuing it, and hoping that it all works out. And when it doesn’t? Well, that’s what Plan “B” is all about.

My daughter, Hannah, and I are crazy about a movie/documentary entitled “Buck.” It details the life an abused boy who grew up to be one of the foremost horse trainers in the U.S. today. In-bedded in the film is a quote from Buck’s foster mom – “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”

Flexibility, though a necessary part of anyone’s attributes, seems to be getting rarer these days. I think it’s linked with compromise in a lot of peoples’ minds and we all know how foreign that concept is. We don’t seem to want our politicians to compromise, we want our food to be uncompromised, and we’ll give no quarter to anyone who negotiates anything. All the sudden, one of the chief attributes of America’s civic life for the last 200 years is about to collapse. We now cater to the extremes.

Of course, there was that Civil War thing. Civil war is pretty much a struggle for a “reboot.” Sometimes those reboots in life are necessary, but they are always costly. And they always involve unintended consequences. In other words, lots of Plan “B’s.”

It’s almost never what we know that trips us up, it’s what we should have known, what we didn’t see, the things we had no earthly idea about. And then we are afflicted with the COWS of life – could ‘a, ought ‘a, would ‘a, and should ‘a. Isn’t it amazing how clear we can see things in hindsight – maybe. Except we keep making the same mistakes.

John Calvin, the Reformation theologian, wrote that the human imagination is an idol factory. Soren Kierkegaard put a little kinder – we’re all walking around with a God-sized hole in our lives that we keep seeking to fill. My observation of God is that he relentlessly seeks us out, destroying the idols we continue to fill our lives with, until we see him.

Like Dante, the Poet/Pilgrim of the Divine Comedy, we find ourselves in a dark wood, with the path to the light blocked by terrors and the only way out is through. And that is when God gives us our Virgil, our guide.

Life is not meant to be lived alone. In the creation myth, Adam is created first purposefully so he can realize the pain of loneliness. Eve completes Adam (Adam completes Eve?). Human companionship is a requisite part of beginning to be whole. As an aside, the reason we are all Plan “B” people is because our first parents – A&E – messed it up. They wanted the still more mythical, mystical “more” – knowledge, and with knowledge, choices. Want to make someone miserable? Give them an overabundance of choices.

The gift that we can give another is the gift of companionship. But therein lies the shoals upon which we run aground. The best description of marriage I’ve run across goes like this – two shipwrecks looking for a safe harbor. We’re like a group of porcupines seeking warmth on a cold night. The closer they get, the greater the chance of pain. Companionship, friendship, love, they all have the same capacity for causing pain.

And so what do we do? Forgive. Woe the person who bears every wrong ever done them. They will destroy everything around them. We all have forgiveness issues, because we are all Plan “B” people. But being able to forgive someone even when they do not, will not, ask for it is the most freeing thing one can do. Forgiveness in this realm is the surrender of the right to vengeance. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. It does entail loving yourself enough to love your neighbor correctly.  And when someone asks for it, grant them the mercy of forgiveness.  “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  Jesus always has a way of making the point clear.

It means seeking forgiveness when we inevitably screw up in life.  The Prayer Book states that God’s chief attribute is to have mercy. The COWS of life will haunt us to our graves unless we release the bitterness, forgive, and accept forgiveness. It will certainly mean finding someone to walk the path with us, however imperfect they maybe. And it may mean going through a dark wood, facing the fears, failings, and idols of our lives in order to emerge in the light of an Easter that is waiting for us.

 

 

 

 

Foxes, Snakes, and Owls: Critters I Have Known

I was on the last of my chores this evening. My job is to gather all the eggs from our chickens while Hannah does the feeding and Grace waters the stock. It’s a pretty efficient operation and one I’m glad to have help with. As I got out of the truck, I could hear the some of the chickens making a rather loud ruckus just on the other side of the henhouse.

As I investigated I saw a chicken on the other side of the electric poultry netting. Nothing unusual there. And then I looked down toward the woods where the gully begins and saw the reason for the loud alerts – a fox at the edge of the woods. He moved back into the woods and I decided to linger. After a few minutes, he came out again, wandering around without a care in the world, a nice size red fox totally oblivious to my presence.

At this point, all I could do was watch. He progressed along, scenting the air and turned to walk away from the henhouse. And so I spoke. Foxes are pretty sly animals, so when I get the chance to startle them, I take it. With my gun hopelessly far away, the fox simply received a lesson in observation. Next time, it may learn a lesson in shot placement.

One of the first things I learned when I was a young boy on the farm is that chickens are vulnerable to attack from a lot of animals. When I started raising a lot of chickens, I found out just how many.

I’ve never had a cow or a sheep kill a chicken. Foxes are a given; raccoons, and possums, sure. But have did you know a black snake will decimate a group of week-old chicks? Or that a skunk will move from the eggs in the nest box to the chicken laying them. And please, don’t let a chicken wander into the pigpen.

Winged predators are a special problem, since most of them are protected by law. But I will say that if one was to shoot a hawk in a tree with a 30-06 at about 80 yds, the feathers will keep fluttering down for a good 5 minutes or so. Owls typically like the heads; they perform a surgically clean decapitation leaving the rest of the body untouched.

And then there are buzzards. Normally a good thing, they can easily become a mob. Last year I had one take up residence in a broiler house. Seems like he wanted to dine in. His invitation was short lived. This year they’ve been worse than any other predator, killing piglets and broiler chickens. It sometimes comes in waves.

But by far, the foxes have been the most interesting. Our farm of 145 acres is well over half wooded. There are very few places that are more than 150 yards from a tree line. We have two types of foxes in this part of the country; grey and red. I’m told the greys are native and the reds were brought in for sport. I mostly see reds, and some that look as though they’ve intermingled.

They are mostly nocturnal; a fox seen after 10am is sick and possibly rabid. They mostly stay in the woods and hunt there. But every once in a while, one gets lazy and calls for a take out chicken dinner. That’s when Mr. Remington and I go to work. I remember going out to the far field one night to check on the chickens there. They had been hit pretty hardly lately and I was trying to get the critter. I turned the corner in the field just behind a fox who was pleasantly trotting along, heading for my chickens. He didn’t make it.

This year I began building a new chicken facility in February. As I began working, I noticed that an old groundhog hole (no, they don’t eat chickens either) had been worked up. The clay dirt stood out against the snow. I went to investigate and confirmed my suspicion – a fox had moved in. All this 200 yards from my new chicken house.

I declared war. Within a couple weeks, the foxes (3) had been cleared out, and groundhogs now happily (?) live in their old residence.

A fox is sly, but it is also curious. This curiosity is what usually does them in. Being one of the top predators in this area, they are not accustomed to running away unless given good reason to. I’ve had them sit at the edge of a field and watch me bale hay in the late evening. I like the company. I’ve also had them stalk me in the woods, as I was deer hunting. I didn’t like that.

The only other creature in our menagerie of predators is the bobcat. I’ve never seen him. But I hear him. He does not live here, but hunts here occasionally. And when he kills, its as though the plagues of Job descend. I’ve picked up over 120 dead chickens after one of his nights on the hunt. If it moves, he kills it. And then he’ll go and I won’t have any trouble for 6 months, 2 years, whatever. But he’s always around, waiting for his turn.

 

 

A Burden

It’s Sunday. We’ve weathered two significant rainfalls in the last 10 days that have dumped nearly 6 inches of water on us. My farm roads, which have never been in great shape, are a disaster. This morning I worried that I’d lose my truck axle in the worst of the ruts (gullies?) carved out by the cascading water. There is nothing more powerful on earth than water. Hoover Dam is only a temporary impediment; nature always wins.

The tractor came to life, the 8ft. blade attached. I worked to bring the gravel road back to it’s original position. With the road repaired, I turned to other thoughts I’ve been turning over the last few weeks.

Farming affords a lot of time for thinking. Perhaps that is why I farm, for Lord knows I’m not a natural farmer. I look at myself as a placeholder, a generational bridge, a steward entrusted with a precious gift to deliver to the next generation. The precious gift of good land. This good land.

“Since 1690” is what our business card reads, and that’s as near as I can figure it. The farm I live and work on, the place that has come to identify who I am and perhaps even where I’m going, has been in my family that long. Three hundred and twenty five years is a long time.

The story I like to tell is pretty basic; my ancestor was a ship captain and brought a group of settlers to the colony of Maryland around 1680. For his trouble, he was granted 5000 acres of land in the southern end of Calvert County (Drum Point and what is now know as Solomon’s Island, originally Bourne’s Island). But the Bourne’s had a knack for loosing land and within a couple generations, the original tract was out of their hands. They slowly made their way north, having the good fortune to marry into land from time to time, until my great-great grandfather met his end in a horse racing accident. His widow then married a man from across the Patuxent River in Croom.

If you’ve ever spent some time in Southern Maryland, you’ll notice that all the old families here are pretty much related. We’re somewhat affectionately known as SMIB’s (Southern Maryland In-Bred’s). Instead of family trees, we have family trunks – they just keep going round and round.

My great-grandfather, Joseph, proved this doubly true; he married his double 1st cousin. I suppose he was simply grateful to have survived the Civil War. As a 16 year old, he joined up with the 1st Maryland Calvary (CSA), Company “D” and went to war. He somehow eluded death one time by using a reed to breath through as he hid in the Patuxent River while Union soldiers were hunting for him. He was finally captured outside of Richmond and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

His father having died young, his mother remarried, Joseph didn’t have any land from which to start off. But Maria did. She had 200 acres right on the Patuxent River, near Hall Creek. Her siblings owned another 300 acres, contiguous with her land. This had all been part of a 650 acre grant the Gantt family had purchased from the Hall family around 1690.

They were double first cousins, the previous generation having married together also. They had several children not survive into adulthood. But Henry, Tom, Joe, James, and Grace did.

Maria had two siblings that I know about, George and John (“Uncle Johnny”). It is Uncle Johnny who colors the family history. The Gantt’s are know to history as ambitious people, doctors, lawyers, and clergymen. One of my ancestors was married to the first Episcopal bishop consecrated on American soil, Thomas Claggett. It must have all run out of the family gene pool by the time Uncle Johnny came around.

Uncle Johnny could never quite settle down. He was a gambler and a drunk (they go together?). His addiction to gambling was so bad he lost his 150 acre farm in a poker game. How he was picked to be my grandfather’s godfather can only be due to family proximity and the lack of other qualified men.

This is the person who watched the family home burn to the ground while sitting on a fence, clapping. His $10,000 gambling debt in the 1920’s ended his independence. He spent the rest of his days sheltering in the bedrooms of relatives who had no real choice. Fortunately the farm was sold to my grandfather’s brother in law. The really good part here is the fact I will one day write a book about that side of the family.

My grandfather, James Sr., purchased the farm I now live on from the widow of Maria’s brother, George. James had returned from fighting in the trenches of France in 1919 and married Helen Howes from across the creek. They moved down to the home place, but Helen soon found living around her in-laws a burden in the task of reforming her new husband. (By this time, Maria had died, being struck down by the Spanish flu in 1918.)

So my Methodist grandmother persuaded my Episcopal grandfather to sell out and purchase Uncle George’s old place up the road. Relieved of the annoyance of those wine-making Episcopalians, my grandmother could now rear her growing brood in the strict manners befitting the temperance movement.

The farm was ill-used. Uncle George had been absent from the place for many years and a tennet family lived in the old house. Tennets were the remnants of the slave owning culture of Southern Maryland that had gone on for centuries prior to the Civil War. Emancipation had changed little in the day to day life of the former slaves. One day they were property, the next they were free with nowhere to go and no means of feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves. So while the worst practices of slavery were put aside (the breaking up of families, the overt beatings, etc.) they were still economic slaves of their former owners. This is a situation that continues to this day in some parts of Southern Maryland.

My father, James Jr., spoke of where four slave houses had been. I know two of these sites were pushed into the gullies in order to create more tillable land. One site lay in a tobacco field just beyond our oldest barn. Occasionally we find bricks; my sister found a crystal stone, worked round with a chisel and had a hole drilled in it. Clearly someone’s necklace.

I am sometimes burdened with the thought of those slaves. Until the late 1990’s the agricultural economy of Southern Maryland had changed little since the time Capt. Samuel Bourne settled here in 1680. Colonialism is largely an extractive economy; nothing reflects that more accurately than tobacco. It is a crop that is always taken off the ground and sent elsewhere. Tobacco was grown on my farm since it’s inception until 1983, when my father went into semi-retirement.

Little has changed about the cultivation of tobacco in 300 years. There is only so much mechanization that can be brought to it. It is largely hand labor over long periods of time. And so my ancestors answered that problem by purchasing African slaves.

I have no idea how my ancestors treated their property, their slaves. I’d love to think they were benevolent owners. I suspect they weren’t always, if at all. In order to justify the enslavement of another human being, one must see them as “the other.” And when you see someone as “the other,” it doesn’t take long to justify all manner of ill against them. It’s especially easy when they don’t look like you or speak your language, or act differently. And in order to make sure they stay that way, actions are taken to keep “the other” suppressed.

I’ve worked those tobacco fields. I’ve pulled the calves out of the gullies, had my ribs cracked, nearly passed out from the heat. I’ve bled, and sweated, and gotten soaked through. I can carry a 100lb. feed bag wherever it needs to go, cut a pig, butcher a hundred chickens, and kill anything that threatens my animals with exquisite proficiency. I am hardened by my life here. I am humbled and softened by the responsibility I have to those who actually worked this good land before me.

I dedicate this to all those who have and will work this piece of land in this small corner of God’s great universe. May we keep fidelity with each other. To those who had no choice, your work is remembered. To those who’ve had and will have a choice, know your heritage and the carry it with dignity and love.