Circle of Life

By this evening, fall shall have arrived.  Another summer of work has melted into a fall of preparation; putting things away, planting greens for late fall, winter, and early spring, cutting the last of the hay.  This is the time nature begins to turn to slumber, rest, and ultimately, renewal.

We take so many things for granted.  We seldom think of what it takes to live, the cycle of life and death that is constantly at work around us.  Every seed planted dies in the ground, and in dying mysteriously brings out life; the decay of an animal brings about a rich hummus that will once again nourish the earth.  It’s as though we are all part of a great dance, orchestrated by higher powers, spirits unseen, taking our place in the circle of life.  Dust to dust…

The minister spoke on Lazarus.  It was a great sermon, a thing of beauty actually.  He brought out things in the gospel account I’d never considered.  How Jesus differed in his response to Martha and then to Mary; to Martha he gave an acclimation (“I am the resurrection and the life…”), to Mary he gave his tears (“Jesus wept.”)  To each he gave what was needed at the moment.

Then he went on to say how Jesus was angry at death, and called Lazarus out from beyond the grave and restored him to life.  And yes, that is what Jesus did.  But I’m not sure that his anger was simply at the act of dying.

Death is part of the created order.  Fertility is based upon death and decay in order to bring about new life.  Unless we see ourselves as somehow apart from this process, we must reckon our place within it.  The fact that we continue to live means that something in nature must die, be it animal or plant.  Death is not the enemy of life; sterility is.  While I want the doctor to use sterile tools to perform whatever procedure he must perform, I do not want my food to be sterile and I certainly do not want my animals to be.  Sterility is rather final all around.

Jesus deep emotion, anger if you’d like, at the graveside of Lazarus was at the separation that human death causes.  When God judged our first parents in the garden after they disobeyed, death was not immediate, but separation from God was.  And physical death for humans has provided the exclamation point to separation ever since.

So this is how I see it.  Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead as a sign of fellowship restored.  Lazarus is in sheol (the holding place for the dead O.T.) and calls him back to life, back to Him.  When Jesus dies on the cross, he descends to sheol (hell) and winnows hell, leading the faithful captives free and ushering them into the presence of God – separation reversed, fellowship restored.

On this side of the cross, we have hope of eternal life, but we also have fellowship restored.  In the great Eucharistic feast, we gather with those living on either side of the altar – those who’ve died and yet live in the presence of God, and those of us not yet “perfected,” working out our salvation and being made fit for heaven in the process.

The sun is up now.  Time to put these musings away and go into the day.

Putting Down Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen+ 

Unlikely and Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen+

Prepping

One of our spring lambs.

Advent I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen+

Shepherds

Sabbath Reflections

                The ewes are heavy with their lambs.  The weather has taken a definitive turn, sending the wind up and the temperatures down.  I had to count them four times, and I was still missing one, “Pep.”  Yes, Pep, the ewe most likely to wander away from the flock, be on her own, show absolutely no sheep sense (not that sheep have a lot anyway).  I finally found her, safe and nibbling hay well ahead of the others.

                I’m well into my second year as a shepherd, or rather an owner of sheep.  My daughter is the true shepherd in the sense that she can tell you about the condition of each sheep or lamb.  I’ve learned a lot over this short time.  Sheep are not cattle at all; this is both good and bad.  A sheep when ill will simply give up and die.  A cow (beef as opposed to dairy) will struggle to stay alive.  A sheep is scared to death of the woods; a cow simply sees the forest as a nice place to lay around and perhaps escape to.

                Yet from a management point of view, they each need one thing, everyday.  They need to be counted.  Are they all there?  Is any not feeling well?  Are the mothers close to birthing?  What do they need today?

                For those who follow the Christian calendar, this is the last Sunday in the season of Pentecost.  Next Sunday will begin Advent, the beginning of a new church year.  This Sunday is known as Christ, The King and the readings from the Scriptures reflect aspects of Christ as King.  The reading in Colossians points to Christ as creator of the world and peacemaker/reconciler through His death on the cross.  The gospel lesson in Luke recounts that death, focusing on Christ’s promise to the thief who was executed beside Him – “today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Christ is the king who overcomes death by accepting it and overcoming it.

                Yet it is the passage in Jeremiah that holds my attention most.  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”  The scriptures often talk about God’s people as “sheep.”  (I’ve found this somewhat comforting, in that we see God as our shepherd.  But the picture of being referred to as a “sheep” is less than flattering). The shepherds referred to in this context are the religious leaders.  It was these leaders who had dispersed the flock, left them unattended, unfed, and uncounted.

                It’s pretty easy to look at the professional religious set today and see the same thing.  Too many trying to build their own kingdom’s instead of God’s; allowing the flock to go on half-rations by serving up “sugary snacks” (empty calories), or pursuing ideology (left or right) over grace.  I look at the bishops, priests, pastors and other ministers I’ve known through the years and find a mixed lot.  It seems the higher you go up that scale, the worse it seems to get.  Too many times, the example of the Good Shepherd is lost.

                One of the first things a shepherd does is count the sheep.  “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.”   Jesus casts Himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who counts His sheep, and finding one missing, goes off in search of it.  That sheep may be in trouble, lost, disoriented, and stuck in a gully.  It might being laying down to die, sick of living, eaten up with parasites.  It may simply be scared, overcome with anxiety because everything out there looks like a predator.  Jesus finds us.  Jesus takes us back to the flock.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

Amen+

Patience

Lenten Reflections  2013– Week 1

Temptation.  We know it well.  We joke about it, sing about it, and wrestle with it.  Often, we fall for it, especially if it promises a quick route to what we think we really want.  Do you want to feel good?  Eat some chocolate.  Thirsty?  Drink a soda.  Want love?  Uh, oh – let’s not go there!  Come to think of it, temptation is often about getting something we really need or want by way of a shortcut.

Shortcuts.  They are those things you take to save time, increase efficiency, and generally help out with life, or so we think.  However, my personal experience tells me something else about shortcuts.  They often aren’t.  When I take a shortcut on the farm that I think will save me time, it often ends up costing me plenty.  Leave a gate open thinking that I’ll get back to close it before the cows or horses notice; next thing I know I find myself chasing livestock for an hour all because of that “shortcut.”  Why did I take the shortcut?  Because I tend to be impatient.

Impatience. It’s the thing you learn early on never to pray for.  That prayer guarantees you a tough, challenging day.  I’m an “on-time freak.”  Fifteen minutes early is on time.  I married a wonderful gal who couldn’t begin to tell you what fifteen minutes is.  God not only wanted to teach me patience; He’s taught my wife plenty as well, which leads to the point of this Lenten reflection.

Impatience, shortcuts, and temptation seem to come from my frustration with timing, and specifically, God’s timing in my life.  I just finish reading “Fill These Hearts,” by Christopher West.  West proposes that our original parents – Adam and Eve – sinned when they failed to trust God.  That fruit looked great, she was hungry, and there was that outside voice saying you can’t really trust God, can you?  So Adam and Eve took control of the situation, took matters into their own hands.  Temptation, supported by impatience, offered a shortcut.  And I’m still impatient.

How about those weeds?  Crop rotation takes a long time.  I need to do more, be faster, get more “efficient.”  The temptation is always there, personally and professionally.  America suffers from obesity and type 2 diabetes largely because we’ve decided to take a shortcut to eating.  We have literally eaten the fruit of temptation and it is killing us.  I love the concept of “slow food.”  I sometimes find little patience to practice it.  I’ve been married 20 years; I’m just beginning to know the true nature of love (“love is patient, love is kind…”).  Those weeds aren’t just annoying; they’re a sign of something lacking in my soil.  If I truly love my soil, I need to find out what it needs rather than just spray the weeds out of existence.

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We need to come to a place in our lives where we say faster is not always quicker, more won’t necessarily make me full, and bigger is certainly not better.  We need to tell the “serpents” in our lives to shove it, we need to walk away when we know to, run when we must.  Often, we simply need to listen to the still, small voice that says trust me, wait on me, I will provide your every need in my time.  Amen+

 

Independent Thoughts

(Originally posted on July 4th, 2010)
Today is the Fourth of July, our nation’s celebration of independence from Great Britain. Our course we all know that what we celebrate is the declaration, not the actual fact. Independence was only achieved after a long hard war.

Farming has a lot to do with being independent. Many see family farming and small farmers as the final frontier in the struggle for independence. I used to think this was a lonely venture, to be trod in relative solitude. No more.

This year I have discovered that many people want to stake a claim to freedom that is found in the economics of the small homestead farm. We have had the most amazing number of volunteers turn up at our farm-gate, wanting to learn how to feed themselves. I’m witnessing a small revolution, one that is centered on the gift of good land and all that it implies in our lives.

This year, the 4th fell on a Sunday. And so it is appropriate to acknowledge that freedom is ultimately a gift from the Creator, and we are blessed with the ability to choose how we use that freedom. What my volunteers are teaching me this year is that many are using that freedom to help others and grow themselves in ways that only a connection to the creation, and ultimately the Creator, can. I do not know what the future has in store for this country. I do know that the liberty of freedom is coupled with the burden of responsibility – to each other and to our gift of good land. JB