The work of the land. 

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“Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them – neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them – and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.” – Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace. pg. 27, “A Native Hill”


Nine months ago we purchased 50 acres of land. Once wild forest turned farmland, the land is now mostly an overgrown mélange of moss, pine trees, and blueberries. Scattered throughout the land are the left behind reminders of the former residents. There are neatly piled rows of field stones made by farmers seeking to plant and harvest crops, and there are piles of scrap metal and trash left by the most recent resident. It has a history of both nurturing and abusing, of care and neglect.

We thought we were buying a place to call home and a place to try our hand at farming, but we have discovered that rather than owning a place…we are learning our place in the world. Like the character-shaping lessons of waiting and longing for a home…so are the lessons of being employed by the land. I like writing those words; because the one thing we have learned is the importance of remembering it is not us who employs the land. We are seeking to recognize there is a larger work that is already underway and join it rather than forcing our own way upon it.

Unfortunately it is the latter that is seemingly most common in life. We have forgotten our place in the world, neglecting our primary calling of caretakers. Some live in a posture of scarcity and consume at unsustainable and abusive rates. Some live with a crazed view, driven by poor theology, that our presence in the world is only temporary and thus justifying our left behind piles of scrap. 

It seems Berry is right that most live at odds with the land. Most tumble along ambivalent to the very land that sustains them.  We need to live with a new awareness. 

Living within the awareness that we are employees of the land is what allows us to become farmers. It would be impossible to call ourselves such without the land. The land itself allows it. And it is the land that shows us our place.

The land requires new practices. No longer do we look at our calendar and determine our days, the work of the land now determines our calendar. The chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and soon-to-be crops require a routine. Our schedules are determined by the land. The land requires aligning our lives to its seasons and ways. 

The land reveals our ignorance. When we pride ourselves as owners…the land chuckles at our naivety. One day we too will be gone and our home will rot back into the soil from which it came. Our finite presence on this land will soon only be a memory; and the memory of the land extends long before and after our own. Our lives are but the time it takes a pine cone to fall to the ground compared to the length of time it takes the topsoil to form. When we plant a seed in the ground, our effort is limited to the planting and the nurturing. We cannot hurry productively. We cannot cause any plant to grow. We participate, we cultivate, we hope…but we are dependent on a land that operates on its own accord.

The land provides limits. Only certain types of crops will grow here. There is a limit to the size of a herd that can be hosted here. These limits can be abused and the land will bear the weight of it, but only for a time. It is only with respect of its limits can the land grow past its current condition. Only with faithful care-taking can the not-yet become the now. The soil can be amended, but not replaced. The overgrowth can be tamed, but never ceased. The land is what the land is. And it comes with limits. 

It seems the land will have more to say as we continue to listen, but this is a start. These 50 acres have been a gift as we learn to love the daily routine of the chores, embrace the truth of our novice-ness, and live within limits. 

Homed and Employed.

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A year ago I reflected upon our life-transition in a post titled, Homeless and Unemployed. In the spirit of Epiphany, it seems this is a good time to share a few revelations we have experienced over the past year.

ash-family15Some background: Two years ago we moved our family of five out of the suburbs. We had no specific plan. Only hopes and a vision of owning land that would perhaps teach us something new about life.

We had become disillusioned with the duplicity readily recognized in our life and others. We desired to find something more rooted and grounded, something more simple and real – and we were drawn toward the agrarian life. Both Ashley and I grew up around farming…and we knew its inherent earthiness could serve as a re-formation school for our lives. We had no idea how to make it happen…but with a unanimous vote from our three children…we pushed all in. We resigned our jobs, gave away most of our belongings, sold our house, and moved to the Adirondack mountains of New York.

We lived in the garage of Ashley’s parents…it was both a life-changing gift and a humbling process. Such a mix of emotions with every turn into the driveway. We were incredibly thankful to have a place to live while we searched for jobs and learned the area – but with every passing month we were increasingly aghast with the feelings of failure. What we thought was a few week arrangement turned into an eighteen-month move-in.

But then it happened. I don’t have the space here to write out the full story. Parts of the story are nearly unbelievable. Things fell into place as they say. Finding meaning in our move began to be easier. And then, with unforeseen Provision, we purchased a 50-acre farm in need of restoration. It was as if the agony we endured in making the decision to resign, the angst of wandering, the anxiety of shame…they were merely illusional shadows on the path of faithfulness.

It’s tempting to think that’s when our journey finally began, but I’m certain it was the eighteen months of sitting on the shelf that actually preserved us. It was in those waiting days that we had to face the continued duplicity of our own lives. We discovered it wasn’t merely an issue of shifting our context, but an issue of sifting our character. Not an issue of mere affluence, but an issue of what/who would be our influence. Not merely an issue of ending want, but an issue of beginning abundance.

We no longer had a title or position to hide behind, we had no paycheck to numb our pain, we had nothing to give or to invite others to join, and we were left with only the growing awareness of ourselves. It was in those moments we identified how we did not want to live. It was those months that revealed the implicit intentions of the dominate narratives that had dictated so much of our lives. We had to do more than identify the mindless consumption and want that controlled hours of each day and the scripts of anxiety and shame convincing us of our worthlessness…we had to resist them, relinquish them, and to replace them with new scripts.

In a recent conversation, Walter Brueggemann reminded me that “we are all in the process of changing narratives. That is the work we are tasked to do.”

For the past year we have lived into a different story that I will attempt to share here over the next week. It’s these new narratives that encourage us to continue forward. Like migrating animals who instinctively return to the same home each year, we are becoming homed to these new scripts. We are awakening from our slumber and learning to lean into the new thing God is doing. We are being homed to the boundary-less Kingdom. Homed downward to the everyday details of the good life around us. Homed to the image of God in the face of others. Homed to celebrating love as the existence of God.

And being homed in such a way provides a new kind of employment.

It’s that new work that I will share about over the next few days. The work of the land, the work of community, and the work of enough.

3 Men, 3 Days, and 90 Miles in a Canoe

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We were novices in the paddling world; dangerously inexperienced. Our two short practices in the month before the race both ended in disaster. One with a capsized canoe and one with a “we’re lost” call to the forest rangers.

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On the first morning of the race, as the other boats eagerly bobbed near the starting line, we steadied ourselves at the edge of the dock. Perhaps it was fear of the unknown obstacles ahead; the mystery beyond the mist of the morning. Or maybe it was a lack of trust for the others in the boat.

We had started as a team of four, but those two practice experiences led one to jump ship. The empty seat could have been the final motivation to withdraw from the race, but instead, it became our rally cry: “There’s no quit left in this boat.” For although we lacked experience and although we did not yet know what the journey would require of us…we were curious enough to try.

Each man in the boat has a unique story. Each walked their own path to this point. I arrived in the stern of boat by way of my role as an addiction counselor. My task was to keep the boat pointed in the right direction, to avoid obstacles, and encourage forward movement. Two seats ahead of me, in the second seat, was our power. The speed of our boat rested in the hands of a disabled determined veteran with fused wrists. At the bow of the boat sat yet another veteran, accustomed to merely hiding in the crowd, now given the mission to lead our pace. In the third seat, the empty seat, should have been an additional power paddler. But instead we filled the seat with the names of the “missing” in our life. Remembrance is its own strength.

The gun sounded and carefully we pushed off the dock. 8 hours the first day, 6 the second, and 4 hours on the final day. Each day we were faster. 90 miles in 18 hours. Three inexperienced paddlers finished a race they shouldn’t have entered.

We certainly weren’t the fastest. Our routes weren’t always straight. But there was something unique about our crew. We knew our weaknesses and we admitted them. We learned our strengths and we used them. We recognized when the other wanted to quit and we encouraged them.

I suppose it was more than a canoe race for us. It was a three-day submersion into the surrendered life. In addiction counseling and in AA/NA there’s a lot of talk about admitting powerlessness. Some struggle to find that place of surrender. Some jump ship at the moment it’s required. But the surrender to powerlessness is required for any real life-journey to begin.

Perhaps our powerlessness moment happens when we finally admit our own success is dependent upon the success of the other. Living with an awareness of the other helps us see that everyone is paddling through the same currents. For me, the past couple of years have required a surrender of an identity I once held too close. For the two men I sat behind for 90 miles, they too are in process of letting go of their false-self. Their warrior narrative is fading. Their addict label is beginning to peel.

As we crossed the finish line the final lesson became obvious: our highest joys come in moments of shared experience. Our lives are best lived in recognition that we are all in the same boat.

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A prophetic cry.

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Two years ago this month I walked into Conception Abbey to begin a week-long prayer retreat. It was the end of our summer sabbatical and I was wrestling with the dread of unresolved decisions. We sensed what we were being called toward, but we lacked the courage to act. And it was in that week that I dreamed. Sabbatical dreams. Over the past two years I have written out that sabbatical journey. Here is a tiny glimpse into how the week began.

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Conception Abbey

I shivered. The cold air of the basilica was at first a reprieve from the August heat, but now my body was shaking with the shock of the temperature change.

Slowly I continued down the center aisle. The brick floor, grouted with sand, launched a crunching sound with each step in the cavernous space. I wanted to be unnoticed, but every step forward announced my presence.

I had arrived early for evening vespers. Perhaps because I was looking for something. Or bored. Certainly I was alone; both at this moment and in my anxious mind. I continued forward to the fourth row, close enough to be seen as sincere, but not so near that I would be uncomfortable.

As I sat down, a familiar cracking and creaking of the wooden pew echoed through the space. It was a sound embedded in my memory. That sound of the cracking pew and my imagination took me back thirty-eight years. I was once again sitting on the wooden pew of my childhood church. A small chapel on the South Dakota prairie where my parents faithfully attended for many years.

Three times a week we religiously drove the thirty miles. It was a simple place, a gathering of family and a few others who lived scattered across the prairie on small farms. I’m sure there was preaching. But I don’t remember it. The liturgy stuck in my memory was the weekly testimony of those gathered. Sincerity wasn’t lacking, but joy was hard to find. A fear of the world was woven into most of the stories shared. Prayers were offered from our knees, consisting of loud and fervent petitions for rescue us from the evil world. Stories of signs indicating the end of the world were told with conviction. It was readily assumed we were living in the very last of days. According to Uncle Harry, the perfect red heifer was already in route to Israel. Any prayers for peace or to hope for war to cease, was in some ironic way, thought to be joining the feared anti-christ.

In my young mind, my own future…if there was to be one…was already determined to be miserable and meaningless. If I was hearing correctly, my only hope was to be redeemed by suffering. Persecution was my predetermined future. I began to prepare.

If this was my only memory of church, I’m certain I would have either simply chosen to laugh off the absurdity of religion and prophesy a future of my own, or perhaps I would have sought to spend my life prepping for the mythical end-times in some remote prairie abyss.

But it was the witness and action of my parents that shaped a different way forward. Occasionally in those testimony services there was a tearful moment of honesty. Specifically, a confession of yearning from the voice of my mother. She would stand and begin with words of gratitude, thanking the Lord for the blessings of life. As she spoke, her voice would slowly increase in pitch until it reached the sound of desperation. Tears mixed with words of gratitude. A hodgepodge of sorrow, joy, pain, and hope.

As I sat waiting for the vespers to begin on that August evening, the creaking pew and my Mother’s cry filled my mind. Maybe it was what I was looking for; that innate desperation to confront the anxiousness. I too was searching for something deeper, something beyond the religious routine. And in that moment I knew that if I listened, my mother’s prophetic cry would begin to lead me home.

 

 

Because God is, I am.

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For the past six months I have served as a counselor in an addiction treatment facility for men. While many people stigmatically look upon these men with pity…I am learning it is not these in recovery in need of pity. They know their struggle. Most readily admit their weaknesses. They are self-aware. They live everyday confessing their need of strength and grace…while knowing full well those gifts must come from outside of themselves. Though they are given the label of “addicted,” in truth, they are often more free than most.

Being daily submerged in such a confessing community exposes the “outside” lives as the ones in need of freedom. The truly enslaved are those fooled into thinking they are free.

Richard Rohr says, “There are two ways to be a prophet. One is to tell the enslaved that they can be free. It is the difficult path of Moses. The second is to tell those who think they are free that they are in fact enslaved. This is the even more difficult path of Jesus.”

Only when confronted by our own enslavement does our real journey begin. The Christian journey of finding our True Selves (our identity in Christ) requires honest awareness of how ingrained we are in the pattern of self.  Without ongoing confession of these patterns, we are fooled into self-holy thinking that creates a comfortable rhythm of non-growth.

What happens when we are made aware of our enslavement? It’s then the work begins. We must begin the painful process of “dying to self” (Rom. 6-8), “putting off the old” (Eph. 4), “leaving the former” (Is. 43), and “decreasing” (John 3:30).

I am daily reminded of this spiritual formation work as we continue rebuilding our old house. Every swing of the hammer has served as a spiritual metaphor for me. The house, like our lives, must be stripped down to the skeleton core. All of the wall coverings have been removed to expose the true structural integrity and the foundation examined and reinforced.

These hidden pieces, the foundation, studs, etc., are what sustains the house. The house cannot last without its core essentials. So it is with us. Our identity must be securely rooted in the image of God…the aesthetics matter but only in relation to the well-being of the structural core.

So today, I post these journal words as a reminder of who I am in Christ.

Resting on the foundation and formed by the image of God; I am loved and enough.

So are you.

Free

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Written on the top of the page are these six words; “You have no obligation to Pharaoh.”

Those conversation notes are almost a year old, but yet, when reviewed, spoke to me again today. I don’t remember all the details of that particular spiritual-direction session, but I do remember the feeling. The tension of anxiousness and despair. The gift of freedom delivered in gentle prophetic words.

“You have no obligation to Pharaoh.”

Perhaps every person hears it with a slightly different tone. For we are all, in our own ways, charmed by the character of Pharaoh. 

However, it’s shortsighted to only see Pharaoh embodied as those “in power.” For that is not the point. “Pharaoh” need not be a specific person…it is a posture of power. It is the lure of anyone or thing who disregards human dignity and worth. And, lest we miss the obvious point of the gospel narrative, God is not idly content or controlled by these imitation powers.  God has already declared, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (Ex 9:1)

Perhaps addiction is the best present-day description of Pharaoh. For in every addiction there is a hidden human desire being sought and satisfied. Like in our addictions; comfort, security, and basic worth is being met in Pharaoh’s rule. And although we recognize its abusive power, we surrender our dignity for the sake of being served. The thought of freedom to choose now becomes a fear itself.

As Gerald May wrote in his book Addiction and Grace, “Once attachment is fully entrenched, our motivations become so mixed that freedom to choose is seriously compromised.”

It’s easy to see the character of Pharaoh at work in the obvious attachments of drugs/alcohol/crowds. But the daily heart-and-life addictions of the Pharaoh culture we live within are more difficult to confess.

  • We begin to expose the attitude of Pharaoh when we examine our addiction to being right. Our addiction to our own way of thinking. The curse of individual certitude. The judgement of others that condemns only ourselves.
  • We acknowledge the scarcity-driven anxiety of Pharaoh when we confess our own addiction to consume without regard for our neighbor or creation. Our insatiable want. Our willful covetousness of more than enough.
  • We expose the insecurity of Pharaoh when we confess our own tribal behavior, our racism, our neglect of the Imago Dei (Image of God in Genesis 1:27) of every human.

These are a few of the heart-and-life patterns we have become entrenched within. Perhaps, to find freedom from the attachment to the culture of Pharaoh, we need to hear those words again…

You have no obligation to Pharaoh.

Eating is a Resurrection Act

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Luke 24:13-49

As I was reading through the Gospel passage for this week I couldn’t help but read a few extra verses. It seems Luke’s story of the disciple’s reaction to the presence of the resurrected Jesus is about more than their shock.  Perhaps it also foreshadows the reaction of those who grow accustomed to having Jesus around, those who think they already know what Jesus is all about, who then get interrupted by the unexpected twist of Jesus’ priorities in the resurrection life.

This verse captured my attention today: Luke 24:41 – While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Eating was an important “bodily resurrection” proof I suppose, but it seems more. Think on this: The night before dying, Jesus institutes the table as his own ongoing memorial. After resurrection, Jesus is first recognized as the gardener. Jesus then breaks the bread on the Emmaus road. And now Jesus is asking “Where’s the food?” And not long after he is again telling his disciples to “feed my sheep.” In Jesus’ final days before death and first days of resurrection…Jesus was strangely focused on eating.

As I read the passage, Wendell Berry’s famous statement ofeating is an agricultural act came to mind. Berry has famously written on how food, and its inherent economic/work/enjoyment/community effects, is always near the center of our humanity story. The Bible reader should already know this; for the Bible starts in a garden and ends with a banquet feast. But Berry’s phrase came to mind when I read Jesus’ question, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Why was Jesus asking for food? I won’t pretend to know…but I like to wonder. Perhaps, rather than fixating on the disciple’s disbelief and awe in the act of resurrection…Jesus points us back to the fleshy resurrected reality of the everyday.

We too, like the disciples, might need to refocus on Jesus’ priorities. We tend to look to the sky thinking God is far off. We spiritualize incarnation. We idolize worship-service feelings or huddle in fear wishing for an end-time rescue. But Jesus interrupts this disbelief and calls us back to the reality of resurrection…the everyday, the ordinary, the life-on-the-ground neighborly reality of today.

Perhaps we could say, “eating is a resurrection act.” For eating represents what the resurrection life is about…the preparing, planting, nurturing, harvesting, and enjoying the making of all things new. The resurrection life is about good work, the circle of followers around the table, the ongoing storytelling of Jesus’ ways, and the continued works of restoration and hope. It’s the heaven-come-to-earth kind of life.

“Have you anything to eat?” – Jesus