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.

 

 

Lent with Dante, I

 

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I’m not a fast reader. I often get bogged down in a book and simply don’t get it finished. I read a lot, though not nearly as much as I used too. It’s not unusual for me to have several books going at the same time. Often I read for information; but like most others who read, my best reading comes from books whose purpose is to entertain. I am drawn to a certain type of literature. I read Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis, Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver. And now Dante Alighieri.

I began reading The Divine Comedy over a year ago, beginning with Inferno. I don’t generally like poetry, but found the epic poem to be a different sort, a crafted story, an insight into a world I was not altogether familiar with. Though I stand on the bank of the Tiber, looking wistfully toward Rome, it’s not always been that way. The journey has been long and its not over yet.

Inferno was a relatively fast read. It was startling to read of popes actually in hell, along with all other manner of corrupt people. But then I got to Purgatory and found myself all over its pages. I could barely read a canto. Even now, a year later, I’m just a little over half done. It would be easier if I did not believe in purgatory. My conversion came gradually, over the course of the last two years. How shall we be made fit for heaven? I’m sure that my life prior to my death will not completely render me free of sin and the propensity to transgress. I know that my salvation ultimately rests with Jesus Christ, his person and his work. But like any salvage work, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do. What shape that salvage work takes in this life and the next, I don’t completely know, and that’s okay. I just know that the cheap grace often preached from churches today is hardly worthy of the Christ who said take up your cross daily and follow me. The biggest battle any of us will ever face is the battle inside. I have seen the enemy – and it is me.

…induced by lukewarm love of doing good. Dante defines for us true sloth, not just letting “grass grow under your feet,” as the saying goes, but a grudging half-hearted attempt at doing the good. In fact, all seven capital sins purged in purgatory deal with love that is gone astray. Pride, envy, wrath, sloth, coveting, gluttony, and lust – all have their roots in love that is disordered and must now be reordered to fully enjoy the presence of God.

So, this Lent my fast is social media, my replacement, Dante.

Driving Mr. Stoltzfus

I don’t exactly remember when I met Amos.  I’ve been doing business around the local plain communities for over 25 years now.  I’ve seen their children grow up, marry and have children of their own.  I’ve known a few of their horses, some to the point of buying them and bringing to our farm.  And so, this month I will reacquaint myself with some of my Amish friends in a rather intimate way – I’ll travel across the state of Virginia to help Jr. move back to Maryland.

I’m sure they could have found someone else to trailer the carthorse back up the road.  But I volunteered for this one, though I’d given up driving for the Amish years ago.  They like to travel in the dead of night, so as not to lose daylight hours.  That’s okay as long as the driver doesn’t need daylight hours, but I did.  Even so, I learned a lot driving Mr. Stoltzfus.

Amos has fifteen children, well over a hundred grandchildren, and is collecting greats into the dozens by this time.  We got together at an auction one wintery day up in Lancaster.  The truck he was riding in had crashed and he and his passengers needed a ride home – with all the stuff they had just bought.  The only seat in that truck that didn’t have two or three people sitting in it was mine.  The trailer nearly doubled the height of the pickup.  I suppose cops look the other way when they see a bunch of Amish stuff going down the road – who wants to inspect that mess!

Amos and I took a liking to each other.  He owned a farm machinery and welding shop (now taken over by his youngest son, Toby).  He was constantly going up to Lancaster County, PA to pick up machinery and parts.  I liked driving and seeing part of the country I’d never seen before.  We both liked talking about our faith in Christ and the Scripture.  Amos is a bishop, selected for the office by the casting of lots during a period of fasting by the whole community.

One time we so overloaded the trailer we had to stop at an overpass and measure the load.  We had three inches to spare!  On another occasion, I blew two tires on the trailer.  We had just loaded on the last piece of machinery – a hay baler –when we noticed one tire completely destroyed, the other nearly so.  It was after 5pm on a Saturday.  The Amish fellow that sold Amos the baler said he had a neighbor that had a manual tire machine.  We went over there and discovered that he had a machine, but now we needed tires.  Fortunately, the gentleman had two tires that had been sitting outside in his garden for several years.  It took us well over two hours to get those tires mounted and inflated (the tires had lost their form), but we got it done, tipping this kind Samaritan quite well for his patience!  We both returned home tired, each of us knowing we had to preach in our respective churches in the morning.

An Amish church service is an event.  It starts early in the morning, around 7 or 8am, and lasts for four hours or better.  The men sit on one side, the women and young children on the other.  The children are expected to sit still.  The men are expected not to snore.  The service is in German (PA Dutch), and the hymns are acappella.  The sermon is at least two hours, preached without notes, or any real preparation other than deep prayer.  The service is always held in a home.  A common meal is always served afterward.  Services are held every other week, with the off week being given over to the family reading from the gospels and getting the children prepared to sit still!

I was invited to Amos Jr.’s wedding several years ago.  I had taken Jr. to see his girlfriend several times and had come to know Lizzie’s family as well.  Isaac always treated me well.  He was a successful farmer in Charlotte Courthouse, VA.  I’d witnessed a barn raising there and marveled that no one was actually killed in the process.  “Organized chaos” is how it was described to me then.  I felt honored to be invited to the wedding, even though my greatest attribute was my minivan capable of hauling 7 people and several chickens.

Jr. initially settled next to his father in Maryland.  That’s always the rub when a couple hails from different communities.  Someone has to give up and settle someplace new.  Jr. worked at the local sawmill and Lizzie kept the house and a flock of chickens.  Over time, a child was born.

Amos Jr. decided he wanted to farm, and a farm went up for sale next to his father-in-law.  I walked the farm with Jr. several times.  I could never get used to the red soil in that part of the world, but it was a pretty farm that had potential.  With the children beginning to come, it seemed right that they would move to be near her home.

And so I helped move them down to Virginia.  And I got stuck.  And my trailer got stuck.  And I found out just how much strength a group of men have if they want to something unstuck.  They tied a rope to my truck and trailer and pulled them out!

Sometimes, things don’t work out.  Farming is a tricky business.  Markets that are high will fall in six months.  The joke about earning a small fortune farming by starting out with a large one is not too far off the mark.  All it takes is the unexpected tragedy/event to push a tenuous situation over the edge.  Premature twins can be that event.

The farm was sold to Jr.’s brother who lived close by.  Amos and Lizzie continued to live on the farm and Amos took up carpentry work to support them.  I drove Amos Sr. and B. Yoder down to Charlottesville where we met Jr.  Jr. and Lizzie were staying at the Ronald McDonald house next to the hospital.  The bill for over a month of NICU for the twins was high.  The community self-insures.  Negotiations brought the bill down to under a million dollars, but in order to get that deal, it would have to be paid in cash in 30 days.

Joe S. later joked that he was going to go around with a 55-gallon drum that had money slot cut in it, just to give everyone in the community an idea of the need that must be met.  Thirty days later, the bill was paid.  A community that works like that is better than any insurance company in the world.

Now it is time for Amos Jr. to move back to Maryland and start over.  The twins are nearly four, Toby desperately needs help in the welding shop, and I think Amos and Mary look forward to more grandchildren living close.  That same community that paid a huge hospital bill also helped build a new house for Jr. and Lizzie to live.

I’ll go down and help them pack up, load up the horse, the cow, and some furnishings.  I’ll try to stay away from the heaping loads and blown tires.  But I’ll never forget the difference knowing a plain family has made in my life.

 

Taking Stock

It’s been a long season.  This is not a new realization, but one I’ve become familiar with over the last eight years.  We stand in the midst of week 19 in our 22 week CSA program.  There were a couple weeks where we were really wondering if we’d have enough, and yet we always did.  The staff has dwindled as people have moved on from their farming venture.  Ed will be leaving at the end of the season, Bowie has gone back to school, Erik has his own farm to tend to, and Rob is rejoining the Washington D.C. office crowd.

It’s been a good season.  We finally broke the barrier on winter squash.  I kept the sheep in their designated pasture for the most part.  We butchered more chickens than we’ve done before, and even ventured into packaging parts.  I purchased some corn equipment and will harvest eight acres of field corn starting next month.  This will help offset our feed bills for the hogs and chickens.

We expanded into three more markets.  In the end I dropped one (just can’t work 7 days a week).  We’ve been able to introduce The Lamb’s Quarter to new friends.  We continue to make a difference.

One of the ladies at the butcher shop tells me I should just move in.  It’s true – I’m there at least once every week.  The butcher shop is 75 miles away….  I’m blessed to have access to a small slaughterhouse/butcher shop where my business means a lot to them.  They certainly mean a lot to me.  We’ve moved more meat this year than at any other time in our history.  I know the vegetables are good and simply taste better than nearly anything else you’ll find, but the meat is absolutely amazing.  You won’t beat it anywhere else.  We’ve built a business around the concept of shared blessings.

Now comes the tricky part.  As I’ve alluded to earlier, things are changing here on the farm as we look for new staff to help us, and take the time to look at our business model to see how we can better serve our friends, new and old.  I’d like to develop a delivery service for our meats and eggs.  We experimented last year with opening the farm store on Tuesday after the CSA season.  I’d like to do that again.

I’d like to hear from you.  What do you like, how could we improve, your ideas for the future of The Lamb’s Quarter.  I’d also like to identify young people who really want to farm but need to acquire skills.  And if we can grow this thing, someone who’s retired willing to drive a delivery route.

Thanks for being our friends and allowing us to share our blessings.