Saturday, December 29, 2012

Let Freedom Ring?

I'm supposed to be writing a sermon.

Tomorrow morning, I'll stand in front of a new-to-me congregation in a small church somewhere in Maine.  I'll preach my "candidating sermon," a sort of ecclesiastical audition, the penultimate step in the hiring process.  I've been waiting for this, training for this, for years--decades, actually.  Then, after a question-and-answer session, (which sounds much better than "grilling"), I'll leave the room and wait while they vote, as a congregation, on whether or not to accept me as their pastor.

It's all pretty exciting.

And yes, I should be finishing that sermon, the one I've been writing in my head all week.  Yet something else is tugging at my spirit's sleeve.  Something else has wrapped itself around my heart and--this morning, at least--has garnered my attention.

At midnight, when the seconds ticked just past and the day--12/29/2012--officially began, Maine's marriage equality law came into effect.  At Portland City Hall, couples lined up to acquire the first same-gender marriage licenses.  Hundreds of others lined up too, there to support them and cheer them on, there to witness to their loving commitments, there to stand in the freezing cold under dark skies and be a part of history in the making.  Earlier in the evening, a man who refused to give his name stood at the far edge of the plaza, shouting bible verses and singing gospel songs, bewailing the moral degradation of the state. By midnight, though, the miasma of his diatribe was effectively blown away by a trombone-toting bystander, who launched with gusto into the Beatles' tune, "All You Need Is Love." The gathered crowd joined in and took up the chorus, sending the Love, Love, Love echoing off brick and stone edifices and swirling up into the midwinter night air.

A local seamstress and fellow farmers' market vendor got in on the festivities as well.  She and two friends formed a boutonniere battalion, crafting over four hundred in time to hand them out, free of charge, to waiting couples and well-wishers.  Others handed out bubble-soap and rose petals so the raucously joyful crowd could fill the air as the first, freshly-married couples re-emerged.

I wasn't there--as much as I love the idea of history-making, the combination of late nights, icy roads, and upcoming professional presentations kept me home and found me under my own blankets long before the clock struck twelve.  But this morning, as soon as the farm chores were completed, you can bet I went online to look for news, and grinned extra-wide to see the very first couple sporting--in all the videos and photographs--purple boutonnieres made by my friend.

It turns out, there weren't as many couples lined up as many people expected.  But the licenses are only good for 90 days, and I imagine most Mainers--being practical, cautious folk--had the same thoughts The Piper and I have had regarding the challenge of winter travel for friends and relatives, the cost of out-of-season foods and flowers, and a general hard-won distrust of all manner of Good News.  Remember, this is New England, where harsh storms weed out the fragile, the foolish, and the unlucky, gentle weather brings biting flies, and the "home team" didn't win a World Series for 86 years. 

After reading a few news stories and looking through the photos, I was left mute and awash in the midst of my unsorted feelings.  The people who married weren't flashy hipsters or svelte society types--they were parents and grandparents, local working folks like me who--also like me--hadn't dared to hope for a long, long time.  They were wistful and reticent, even as the crowd cheered, shy as the press photographers vied to capture a glint of their rings.  Mostly, they were people who had lived together and cared for each other year upon year, always without legal protection, always a step away from the condemnation of kinfolk and strangers.  Now they were being welcomed into a wider community of support, a wider circle of protection.  Still, I thought, maybe some had stayed away because of that very fear: the fear that, in light of recent public shootings, Portland City Hall might not be the best place to be.

Still, I celebrate.  I celebrate my friend and her four hundred carnations.  I celebrate the couples who walked up the steps together and came out to shouts of joy from an eager and joyous crowd.  And I celebrate the weight that...slowly...lifts from my own wary heart.  Today, all loving, consenting adults in the state of Maine are now free to marry.  Sooner or later, with an eye towards our own hard-earned understanding of committed partnership and our own agreements on sensible scheduling, The Piper and I will make our way into that wider circle of freedom and protection.  All over the state, in their own leery and cautious ways, folks like us are making similar plans.  Yes, freedom--it's going to have a whole new ring.

Now... I guess I better finish that sermon.


(Photo swiped from K. Skillin.  Thanks!)




Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hardscrabble Harvest: A Thanksgiving Sermon

(This sermon was based on the Thanksgiving lectionary readings: Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126, & Matthew 6:25-33.  It was preached at New Gloucester UCC, November 18th, 2012)



Just so we're clear, I didn't want to preach about Thanksgiving. Like [the pastor of NGUCC], I'm mostly a lectionary preacher, and I love wrestling with the assigned readings for each Sunday, sitting with them, praying with them, researching the almighty heck out of them, and figuring out how and where those stories meet up with our stories, figuring out where the Good News might be hiding on any given day.
So, last week, I hit the lectionary, and got hit back by a scriptural superstorm. There were wars and rumors of wars. There was fleshly sacrificin', earthquakes and famines, and—in the middle of it all—there's old Hannah, praying and weeping bitterly because she has no children, and getting cussed out by the prophet Eli 'cause he thinks she's just a crazy old drunk (1st Samuel 1: 4-20, if you're interested).
Well, when it comes to scripture, I'm a bit of a storm-chaser, so all this had me pretty excited... until I made the mistake of sharing that excitement with a friend who's known me a little too long. “Too easy,” said my buddy Darlene, who knew me back in seminary. “You already know how to do the distraught woman thing. Too easy. Go look at the alternate readings for Thanksgiving. You want a real challenge? Go with THANKS.”
I don't know how it is for you, but for me, giving thanks IS hard. The worry card, the angry card, the bitter card, the why-me-Lord card...those are the easiest to play, the most dog-eared cards in the deck. Anxious: no problem. I know how to play that one. Fearful? I know how to play that card, too. But thankful? I don't... quite... know... what to do with that. It's a bit stiff, probably from lack of use. I know I should use it, but I seem to have misplaced the instructions. Yes, thankfulness is a challenge.
Thanksgiving is not built in to our culture, in spite of the federally-declared holiday. The self-mocking media stars teach us to accept nothing at face value. Don't trust the news, don't trust the police, don't trust the established authorities of corporations, churches, or the state, don't trust your parents, your children or your spouse, don't trust anyone over thirty...so, for more than a decade, I haven't been able to trust mySELF!
Be cynical, they tell us. Doubt everything. Assume an air of constant frustration, irritation, and disappointment. Yet, at the same time, crave everything. Crave authority. Covet power. Covet sweet luxuries and a new flat-screen plasma tv. Covet the latest entertainment and technology, even if you have to throw out all your old gear and buy extra accessories to make the new stuff work. And somehow, in the midst of it, crave comfort. Crave peace. Crave nourishment. Crave safety and stability. Crave love.
It's like the story Dahlov Ipcar tells, in her book, “Hardscrabble Harvest.” It's the story of a New England farm year, from May through November, and it seems to have been drawn from her own hard-won experience. You know it from the first page, with a full cast of vermin lined up and waiting at the edges of the freshly-turned earth. The text reads, “The farmer plants early in the spring. She'll be lucky if she harvests a thing.” The next several pages show crows stealing seeds, pigs busting the garden fence, ducks eating the strawberries, and deer daintily devouring the cauliflower. Finally, a small, hardwon harvest is gathered in. Pumpkins are made into pies and a turkey goes into the oven. The tired farm family is shown setting the table, with the side door slightly ajar and several faces peeking through: “gather 'round the feast, hungry as a pup...here come the relatives, to eat it all up!”
It's not a particularly nice story. There's no moral here, no happy ending. Yet it's compelling—maybe a little too close to home—and when I get to that last page, I can't decide whether to laugh or cry or fling the book across the room. Some years are hard. Sometimes it gets to the point where the sun goes behind a cloud, the sky darkens, and you're right there with the prophet Joel, half-expecting another plague of locusts.
This was a hardscrabble year. I started seeds indoors, prepared to plant them out when the soil grew warm. I didn't have high hopes—our soil is what they call “marginal,” nutrient-poor. We suspect an earlier tenant, facing their own hard times, sold off the topsoil for extra cash, a common practice in the 50s and 60s. In some places the drainage is bad, thanks to a thick band of clay a foot below the surface. In other parts, the soil is almost pure sand, and the water drains so fast the plants can hardly get a sip. Still, we usually do alright, growing some food for ourselves and a little extra to sell. There's usually one or two crops that fail, over-run by bugs or eaten down by rogue chickens. I was resigned to another year of that...and then, in May, we got word that, after three years of applying, we'd qualified for a small grant to buy a high tunnel greenhouse--in May, right when everything was supposed to be planted. So, those seedlings sat while the tractor came and leveled the pale yellow ground. They sat, leaves drooping, until the kit was delivered and the volunteer crew came, weekend after weekend, to help hoist the metal ribs, assemble the bracing, tighten all the bolts, and finally, to get the plastic skin rolled down and secured on the hottest, most humid day. The leaves on the seedlings turned brown as they became rootbound, and started, selectively, to die.
Still we scrambled, building end-walls, hauling soil, and finally—in mid-July—we planted the wizened remnants in the seedling trays. We watered them in, threw in a few onions, planted lettuce and swiss chard and squash for curiousity's sake, looked at the strange new structure, and resigned ourselves not to hope for much. A new greenhouse? So what. The plastic would probably split in the first windstorm.
Nothing turned out as we expected. The lettuce was early, and we couldn't eat it fast enough. So the pigs got lettuce. The chickens and the cows got lettuce, and so did we. It bolted in the heat and had to be pulled. Meanwhile, the onions apparently melted. We never did find them. But oh, the swiss chard, with its stalks of bright ruby red, golden yellow, snow white and shocking pink! The little four-pack of pansies, tucked along the edge of the farthest-back bed just bloomed and bloomed and bloomed for no apparent reason, and –even now, in spite of the frost—they're blooming still. And the three zucchini seeds we planted in August as a joke? They grew waist-high, their golden blossoms sprawling, bigger than my outstretched hand! I served up squash and picked them, tender and young, for the farmers' market.
On November 5th, convinced it was time to yank everything and lay the beds to rest, I found a single, perfectly ripe cantaloupe hiding under some leaves. I took it in and cut into the soft orange center. It was sweet & juicy & utterly ridiculous. Fresh cantaloupe in November in Maine, on marginal farmland, off a dusty road at the edge of town. Who'd a thunk it?
My hands had been clenched so long. My soul had been as pinched and parched as that soil. My dreams had been rootbound in the tiny space I made for them. I had forgotten. I had forgotten that God deals in wildflowers and desert streams. I had forgotten that God deals in sunlight and soft rains, blanketing snows and sheltering branches and fragrant blossoms. I had forgotten that God speaks the language of boulder-busting roots and improbable cantaloupes.
There's a word for this in Gaelic. The word is “gu leor.” It's the source of the English word, “galore,” as in, “this Black Friday, our door-buster deals will give you bargains galore.” But gu leor means something better than that. It means two things at once: sufficiency, or having enough to meet your needs, and...absolute abundance. An old poem attributed to Saint Bridgid goes, “I wish that Jesus, the king of heaven, would come and visit me. And if he should visit me, I would wish for him an entire lake of ale.” That's gu leor: having enough, and in that enoughness, having enough to share, so that every meal is a chance to make room for blessed guests, and every guest is an excuse for joyful generosity. In such hospitality and grace, we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them." The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced....
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Joel and the Psalmist and Jesus are all full of this Good News today: the Good News that, into the midst of our human scarcities, our crop failures, our dream failures, our broken relationships, broken bodies, and hardscrabble lives, God keeps showing up with abundant enoughness. Yes, the cows may have chomped the tops off the turnips, and the raccoons eaten the corn, but on the other hand—all of God's creatures have been fed, and we still somehow have enough to bring in the sheaves, to gather with kith and kin, to rejoice and give thanks, to offer a prayer, and call it a feast.
Thanksgiving is a challenge. May we unclench our hands and embrace it—and each other—surprising ourselves with a harvest of laughter, a harvest of joy, a harvest of grace.

(All photos copyright Mainecelt except book cover, found here.)


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Of Balance and Bonfires

We were laughing, last night, at the fire's edge.  The Equinox was our excuse, after weeks of hard endeavoring, to sit and bask a bit in the space between darkness and light.  So we touched off the blaze as the sun hung low in the sky and set the shepherd's pie to bake.  At the behest of our farmhands, a run was made to the gas-n-go for marshmallows, graham crackers and bars of chocolate.  Pointy sticks were searched out and trimmed before the gloaming deepened beyond stick-searching light.  And then, the sun slipped behind the edge of the world.  The fire sang, flames danced, and then the light lowered further as coals began to glow across the bonfire's splendid span.  We sat ourselves down, each with a steaming bowl of shepherd's pie, and fit our bodies to the slope of the ground.

There we were, arrayed amidst the splayed shadows of wild asters in the fire's flickering light. After a few minutes of contented, food-shoveling silence, the banter began.  There were snippets of song.  There were questions about tradition and experience of the season and its shifts.  One farmhand asked if I knew any "Mabon myths," Mabon being the pagan name for the observance of the autumnal equinox.  I laughed dismissively.  "Celts tend to focus on the cross-quarter days, (the mid-points between solstice and equinox), but we don't really do much for equinoxes.  The cross-quarter days represent big changes in seasonal work and human agricultural activity.  Nothing much changes at equinox.  Anyway, balance is too boring to celebrate."



My words stuck in my own craw.  I'd spent most of the day at a conference for members and leaders of small UCC churches in Maine.  This year's theme was, "full-time church, part-time pastor," a description that applies to the majority of the state's rural UCC congregations.  There had been all manner of workshops during the day: successful stewardship, improving worship and music, dealing gracefully with progressive/conservative tensions,  involving children more fully, developing local caregiving ministries, and so forth.  I was especially interested in a panel discussion of part-time pastors, as I myself hope to be serving a local church as a part-time pastor soon.  I sat and listened as every single pastor on the panel admitted that they worked more than their contracted hours each week, and none of them found it easy to manage the boundaries between work and the rest of their lives.  All of them felt some aspect of their lives had suffered as a result: their families, their physical health, their intellectual depth and breadth, their engagement in larger issues, and especially their own spiritual well-being.

So, I'm wrong.  Balance, it turns out, may be a rare enough treasure that we need to stop, consider it, even marvel at it when it is revealed.  Balance is a gift, a source of health and grace.  Balance isn't boring at all, but rather distinctive and uncommon.  Balance IS worthy of celebration, after all.  Maybe I need to start marking the equinoxes with more intention!

Now the coals have burned down, the smores have been consumed, and the sound of singing wood and chirping crickets has faded in the bright, clear light of another September day.  After a morning of rushing around, I took off my shoes and grabbed my newly-acquired issue of the journal TAPROOT, the one with a theme of "retreat."  I headed up the stairs to my bedroom, each riser a tentative step towards some sabbath-keeping in an effort to build better habits of balance.

It was hard work.

Much to my chagrin, even with a good soul-food journal in hand and my head cradled on my favourite pillow, I could not make myself relax through force of will.  When my eyelids began to lower, my internal protestant cattle-prod started jolting away with as much shouldness and oughtness as it could muster.  My farm-manager mind came up with a thousand tasks I might yet accomplish in this particular weather and span of time.  I pressed on.  Taproot offered me an essay by  Shannon Hayes  on "Radical Homemaking" wherein she explained that her investment of time and presence at home was not an attempt to flee from the day's pressing issues, but rather an effort to engage those issues more fully, an effort to defy consumer culture with deeper interactions, more sustainable livelihoods, and healthier ways of being.  This was followed by a gently reflective poem and a photo-essay of various sleepy people settling into their beds.

Something shifted, then.  Perhaps the twinging tension of my spine untangled itself a bit.  Perhaps the neglected depths of my lungs received long-awaited oxygen as I drew a deeper breath.  Somehow I realized, more viscerally than before, the grace that emerges in the tandem disciplines of recreation and rest. I followed the example of those sweet, sleepy people draped across the pages.  I let my eyes close.  I let my heart and breathing slow.  There, in the amber afternoon light, with a slight breeze from the open window and soft sounds of conversation drifting up from the room below, I slipped into the blessed torpor of a good old-fashioned afternoon nap.

Yes, I slept.  It wasn't long, but there were dreams and delicious, languid rest.  Meanwhile, the rest of the household happily read and breezed and puttered about.  Meanwhile, the plants grew and the livestock calmly meandered without my professional intervention. Creation continued to weave its cosmic patterns of mystery and grief and beauty, all without my help.

Huh.  Balance.  I need to try more of this sabbath/napping stuff.  Let's call it...professional development.                  

(Happy Equinox!)




Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hold Everything: Last Sermon of Summer






Sermon for Proper 16B 2012: “Hold Everything”

(Based on 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 & Ephesians 6:10-20. Copyright Mainecelt 2012))


We had to stay awake. It wasn't easy-- most of us at the Conservation District meeting were farmers, and we'd been up since dawn for one reason or another: nursing a sick animal, repairing a fence, picking greens and packing them off for a long day at the farmers' market. But the District's monthly meeting was an important one. The hard metal chairs and the fluorescent lights would have to be endured.

Now, usually, these monthly meetings are pretty routine. Maybe a landowner needs help with erosion control, and the District's staff works with the board to develop a service plan. Or maybe a town has trouble with storm-water runoff and they ask the Conservation District to help with assessment and management. Usually there's great news from the one of the District's educators, who works with schoolkids on all kinds of projects, like local food lunches and hands-on science where they study the ecology of wetlands and streams. We hear the reports, smile and applaud, and go home feeling pretty good about all these good local efforts to care for our land and water.

But this time around, everything was different. After the usual reports, a new document was handed around, and the room grew quiet. When a copy reached my hands, I realized why. The title read, “Going in Reverse: The Tar Sands Threat to Central Canada and New England.” Nineteen different organizations had signed on, from the Maine Clammers' Association and the Appalachian Mountain Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Maine Interfaith Power & Light.

In twenty pages, it laid out the properties of tar sands oil, a type of bitumen: extra-corrosive, extra-acidic, extra-abrasive, and basically extra-everything-bad. There was a map of the 60-year old pipeline they want to send this stuff through, from Alberta, Canada, to Portland, Maine. It explored the potential harm to waterways and watersheds, from the Great Lakes to the Androscoggin, Sebago Lake and Casco Bay, if this bitumen ever busted through the aging metal anywhere along the way.

Turns out, the stuff is so heavy and thick they have to dilute it with lots of chemicals to make it flow at all. They have to pump it at higher pressure, and it tends to heat up as it flows. The more we learned, the more concerned we became. That 60-year old pipeline was built before they imagined pumping anything this thick. And because the pipeline was already built, the company could reverse the flow at any time, without even informing the public.

I lived in Alaska from 1989 to 1994. I knew what a regular crude oil spill could do to wildlife and fishing communities. But this stuff wouldn't just float on the surface and wash up on the beaches. Bitumen sinks. We don't have any containment systems designed for that. If the Conservation District was going to figure out how to serve the public in the event of such a disaster, it was going to require the wisdom of Solomon.

Unfortunately, Solomon had his own containment problem. His people had been on the move for so long, pushed from one place to another, caught up in conflict after conflict...and now that Solomon was king, he wanted to make good on his father David's promise: to raise up a temple with a solid foundation, to root God's people in one glorious place, to announce that God's favour had come to rest right here, right now, finally, in a purpose-built structure with the best materials and designs and craftsmen that royal money and influence could buy.

Solomon was probably a little bit stressed about this. His own route to the throne hadn't been particularly neat and clean. His older brothers had all been victims of wartime schemes, power-plays and horrible misunderstandings, until finally Solomon was the one left standing—the tenth boy-child of David, practically the last in line. And so Solomon prayed. He prayed not for riches or power, but for wisdom and understanding. And God heard Solomon's prayer and blessed him with that very gift.

Now, after all that, the big day arrived: the precious box of holiness that had rolled alongside God's people for so many years, that bouncing little God-buggy called the Ark of the Covenant, was carried up the steps by specially-selected priests, observed by the gathered elders of all the tribes of Israel. They proceeded to sacrifice so many sheep and oxen that the Bible says they lost track. Then the priests carried the ark into the inner sanctuary and installed in the newly-completed temple.

What happens next? A cloud of glory fills the whole temple. It knocks the priests to the ground and rolls through the corridors and seeps out of every possible crack and opening. The temple cannot contain the raw power and beauty and love of the Creator of the universe. Solomon has a serious containment issue. He cries out to God: “But will God indeed dwell on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built. In other words, never mind the oil. This is a Godspill of epic proportions, and nobody makes clean-up gear or haz-mat suits for that.

Good thing Solomon prayed for wisdom. Wisdom tells him to open himself up to all God's glorious possibilities—and it tells him to keep praying. Pray he does—not just for his royal house, not just for the priests and the elders, not even just for the people of Israel. God is uncontainable. Solomon gets it. And so he prays for foreigners, for everyone beyond the circle of the chosen and the blessed. He prays that all the peoples of the earth may come to know the God who spills out everywhere, and that God would hear and answer even the prayers of the lost and wandering, the poor and the placeless.

Meanwhile, over in the New Testament, Paul is having some containment issues of his own. He's under a special kind of arrest, literally chained to a Roman soldier—sort of a living ankle bracelet for rabble-rousers. Waking and sleeping, he hears the clatter and clank of his captors' plate-mail, the iron rings rattling as they shift, leather bands creaking underneath. There's no ignoring the flash of the swords and daggers suspended from their wide copper-plated belts, or their bronze helmets with the long cheek-guards and wide brims, fancy crest-ornaments stuck on top for extra show. Every soldier's footfall rings on the tile walkways thanks to the iron hobnails on their leather boots. These sights and sounds, along with the clanking weight of his own chains, create the rhythm of Paul's days and nights.

Yet, somehow, Paul is allowed to write. Manacled and under watch, he is still allowed to compose and send letters that travel far. He knows his words may be carried from one household of believers to another, from one faith community to the next. And so, for the sake of his brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul has a little fun at the soldiers' expense. He suggests another dress code for followers of the Christ: not the gear of an imperial warrior, certainly not the gear of his Roman security guards: “ Put on the whole armor of God...fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Shoes that make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace... Not Bean boots? Not Nikes? Not Crocs? What is Paul suggesting? He goes on with his list of recommended gear: a shield of faith. A helmet of salvation. And the only weapon in the list: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

This is not, as some Christians suggest, battle gear for Armageddon or the Rapture. This is how we prepare ourselves for all the everyday temptations, all the subtle evils and seductive double-talk that bleed us, bit by bit, in our daily lives. It is gear for our efforts on the home front: gear that shores up the spirit, gear that keeps a heart from breaking in the thankless, exhausting work of care-giving, gear that keeps us engaged in community outreach, gear that helps us respond to those who fear disaster, gear that keeps us connected to the health and healing of our wider world.

The whole armor of God is a metaphor, a way of reminding ourselves that we cannot fight evil with its own weapons—we have to use something different. It is a reminder that God's loving, creative, redemptive power trumps all our clever human constructions, from fancy shoes to temples to pipelines and empires. It is a reminder that we are God's beloved family, bound into the same cosmic network of action and accountability.

Especially, it is a reminder that this work is not for superheroes in a galaxy far, far away. It is here, now, in our own time and place, that we must take on the work of living faithfully. It is here, now, that we shoulder the challenge of reconciliation and justice-making. It is here that we must learn how to walk, proclaiming with each step the Gospel of Peace.

We have to stay awake. Because, all around us, people are trying to shove and shoehorn God into boxes and temples, trying to blind us to the glory of God that seeks to bust out in our midst. They're trying to weigh everyone down with the heavy armor of empires, until our helmets cover our eyes and we trip over our own chains. But we serve the God of the foreigner, the God of royal wisdom and holy foolishness, the God of the last-in-line. We serve the God who longs for our wholeness— and the wholeness of Creation.

We serve a God for whom there is no containment system, and God's power and love spill out everywhere, transforming and healing each of us. This is the Good News. Thanks be to God!


Photo credits: Solomon's temple found here. Roman armour found here. Maine local lunch found here. Ruth Duckworth's "The Creation" found here. Sebago Lake map found here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

ELEVEN!

It's Lunasdal Eve, 2012.

Lunasdal, (a.k.a. Lughnasadh or Lammas), the old Celtic feast of the grain harvest, has been my mini-New Year for these last eleven years, ever since I boarded a plane in Scotland and ended up in Maine on August 1st to begin my post-seminary life on a new coast. Each year at this time, I do my own bit of in-gathering as I consider the harvest the past twelve months have brought.

I hardly remember that first year, except for the waves of grief and despair that washed over me and lapped at the edges of every small, anxious attempt to explore new ways of working, thinking, loving and being. Just prior to my month-long Trip of a Lifetime in Scotland, I'd been told by the pastor of my home church that my gifts were not evident and my vocation to Christian ministry was unwelcome. Just prior to that, I'd graduated from seminary with honours in a beautiful ceremony that abounded with signs of grace, welcome, and radical inclusion. The pastor's words were a spiritual sucker-punch from which it took years to thaw out, heal, and recover.

The Scotland trip passed in a blur, my intended joyful adventure lost in a fog of pain and betrayal. How I'd love to go back and experience those things while fully alive, fully engaged, fully awake! Still, it was a good gift and I tried to make the most of it, intellectually if not emotionally. There was a week at Ceolas, the traditional Scottish arts school on the isle of South Uist. The Piper and her two sons travelled with me. During the days, I studied traditional singing with Margaret Stewart while The Piper and her eldest son studied with Allan Macdonald and other tradition-bearers. There was a week at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the isle of Skye, where I took an immersion class in intermediate Scottish Gaelic with Muriel Fisher. There were wonderful rambles up and down and around the Highlands and Islands, with stops in Lewis, Harris, Mallaig and Oban. Finally, there was a week on Iona, place of dream-pilgrimage, heart-home of Celtic Christians the world over.

When I returned to the States, my head was buzzing with cultural riches and vocational longings, neither of which had any apparent outlet. I had only one firm plan in place: get to Maine and find a small place just big enough for my and my shadow to set up housekeeping. Essentially, I went underground, hoping that the old promises of seed and harvest would still prove true, hoping that time wrapped in darkness would one day lead to emergence and fruition.

It was not the darkness of death. My Piper lived only one town away, and her constancy kept the darkness warm and rich and full of earthy promises. Slowly, slowly, I began to put down roots. Slowly, slowly, my new life began to unfurl. The string of hand-to-mouth jobs included barista, deli worker, house-cleaner, nanny, farm-sitter, craftswoman, Gaelic teacher, concert promoter, and "educational technician." Yet there were also days spent tending The Piper's garden and talking together of how we might create a shared life, a shared farm. There were nights among friends, singing our hearts out and playing centuries-old tunes into the "wee smas." While my seminary colleagues were out serving churches, raising families, and organizing labour unions, I was arduously seeking my place in the grand scheme, listening for the sometimes faint, but always present, whispers of guidance from a loving Cosmos.

Many days, my conversations with God felt like the Burnistoun elevator sketch, where two office workers in Glasgow try to direct an elevator's voice-recognition system to reach floor number eleven. (Watch it here. Note: contains a smattering of terms common to frustrated Glaswegians.) There were so many things I wanted to share, wanted to give, wanted to offer up to my community and the world beyond, but I no longer trusted myself to communicate in ways that would reach others or be recognized. And then, one day, I found myself in church again--not the denomination I'd grown up in, but a different one, where I'd heard that all people were actively welcomed. Four years later, I have now passed my Ecclesiastical Council and Examination for Ordination in the United Church of Christ, and I'm now in the process of seeking a church to serve as a local part-time pastor. Yeeeeee-haaaaaaw!!!

Eleven years: eleven season-cycles of fallow time, planting, growth, and harvest. In that time, I've planted fruit trees and watched them bear, taught students and watched them thrive, served churches and felt the Spirit move in our midst. (In between, there have been plenty of failures, plenty of frustration, plenty of hand-wringing and exhaustion!) I've come to understand that my vocation to ministry includes this history-rich, nutrient-poor parcel of land on which The Piper and I have created our farm. Here, rooted in this place, surrounded by love and all the challenges and joys of our rural community, my spirit has been nurtured and restored. Other travellers have found their way here for a weekend, a fortnight, a season...and they have been restored and nourished too. Their paths toward wisdom have varied widely and rarely matched mine. This, too, has been a source of richness!

Eleven years--and was it really two years ago that we bought the farm, after all those years of agonizing? Last year, we bought a Highland bull, a Tamworth boar, and a Devon sow. This year, with the help of friends and WWOOF volunteers, we've raised two greenhouses and an artisanal outhouse. We've welcomed a new heifer calf (born at Bealtuinn/Beltane) and Welsummer hens. A friend stopped by for a music session a few weeks ago, sized up the new greenhouses, and said, approvingly, "You know, this place is really shapin' up to look like a farm."

Happy Lunasdal, Y'all. May your own hardscrabble efforts blossom and bear. May you be blessed with the riches of harvest, joyfully welcomed and safely gathered in.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Crackpot Jesus and the Bottle-Diggin' Pig

Sermon for the First Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 10, 2012
(copyright Mainecelt 2012, based on Mark 3:20-34 & 2 Cor. 4:7-5:1)

Bridie, like most pigs, is a great digger. Ever since we expanded her fencing, our one-year-old Devon sow has been exploring her new digs—literally. Where once there was green lawn, there's now a lovely patch of dark, upturned earth punctuated by the portly form of a very happy pig.

The first day or two she was mostly concerned with digging up the sod. But midway through the week, one of our farmhands found her chewing on something that was definitely not a proper pig chew-toy, something that went “screek!” and “clink” against her sharp piggy teeth. We managed to distract her with some two-day-old baked goods and took the object inside and rinsed it off. It turned out to be a sixty-odd-year-old broken glass bottle, the words “Casco bottling company” still clear on the scratched and dirt-filled glass.

We were surprised—and we weren't surprised. Like most old farms, our land is littered with the detritus of generations. Each time we turn up new soil, we find all manner of broken bits and artifacts. Mostly, we find old leather soles from children's shoes—the legacy of the eleven Edwards orphans who ran the farm in the fifties,hardscrabble to the extreme. The next two most common discoveries are broken crockery—mostly bean-pots—and the glass shards of old bleach bottles.

The Edwards children became orphans during a hurricane, when their parents drove out through the storm and the floods to get some food. With the water over the road, they couldn't see that the bridge wasn't just covered with water. The bridge wasn't even there. Eleven children, motherless and fatherless, the secure structures of their family suddenly broken apart, and in the midst of their grief, forced to work the land all on their own, to feed eleven hungry mouths... sometimes we just stop and look around our land, our thoughts heavy with the memory of all that suffering.

Jesus understood what it's like when the strong walls, earthen vessel of family, begin to crack. In fact, his family had strong views about this idea as well, as we see in our Gospel lesson. Jesus is out there with the crowd, doing his thing, and his mother and brothers show up to bring him home and pound some sense into his fool head. They're pretty sure, based on reports through the local grapevine,that he's gone right off the deep end. One translation says, “they heard he was beside himself.” And the scribes who'd come down from Jerusalem—a group with a tendency to leap to conclusions—claimed Jesus was possessed by the Prince of Demons.

Basically, the word on the street was that Jesus was an absolute crackpot, and his family was determined to haul him home, even if they had to resort to hog-tying and carrying:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside,asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and
my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said,"Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

They must have been some upset. There they were, trying to get their crackpot relative out of the public eye before he brought shame on the whole household, and what did he do when they called him out? Well, he turned right around and returned the favour, saying he wasn't much pleased to have them as kinfolk either.

See,the household was what they called the “primary social and economic unit” of the first-century Middle East. There was no escaping it. The household you were born into determined everything that happened to you for the rest of your life: your social position, your choices for work, the approved vocabulary of your speech, the cut of your clothes, the way you wore your hair, and—especially--the other sorts of people you could spend time with, who all had to be from the same sort of household as yours.

Now,on the surface, it's easy to take this story as the standard sharp-tongued retort of any rebellious young man. Nobody likes their mother—or their siblings—to embarrass them in public. We get that—and, if we don't, our young people are quick to remind us. But Jesus says something new, something different—something that proves to his birth family that he's a crackpot for sure. He redefines, completely, what a family can be.

For Jesus, a true family is not the household into which you're born, but a community of people united by the love of God, a community of shared purpose, dedicated to seeking and doing the will of God in the world. It is a gathering of cracked pots, people united by an awareness that the world is broken—and WE are broken—and God wants something different and more wonderful than anything the world's rules and powers have ever offered up.

It's a bit like the old story of the water-bearer:

Once upon a time, in a village in India, there was a man whose job was to bring water from the river to his Master's house. It had been his father's job, too, and his father before him—for he came from a servant class that was expected to spend their lives doing just this sort of heavy, repetitive labour. Now, this man, like his father and his father before him, was very poor. He had very little in the world besides the clothes on his back and the work-gear his father had left him: two clay water jars and a wooden yoke from which they hung, so he could carry them from the river to his master's house,over and over.

One of the clay pots was perfect in every way for its purpose. The other pot had once been just like the first one, but on the day the water-bearer's father died—when his old heart had stopped in the middle of his journey—the pot had fallen against a stone and developed a crack. Now, though the water-bearer had tried to patch it, the fact was: that pot leaked.
It leaked so badly, in fact, that no matter how the water-bearer hurried from the river to his master's house each day, he never successfully arrived with that pot more than half-full of the precious water on which the whole household relied. He couldn't run too much faster,or he might spill the water from both jars. So every day he worked as hard as he could, making trip after trip, always with the fear that his master might decide he was unfit and hire another water-bearer for the job. Every night he lay down, bone-tired, and worried. He was miserable.

Finally,one day, he mustered up his courage and went to his master. "Master,” he said, “I am so very sorry. I work hard, hard as I can. Yet, because one of my pots is cracked, I've only been able to deliver a portion of the water to your household, and you don't get all you deserve from my poor efforts."

The Master smiled at the water bearer, and invited him to go for a walk down to the river. “I know you work hard.” said the Master. “And because you try to make every step count, I know you watch the ground beneath your feet as you carry water to my house each day. Now, as we walk back from the river, I want you to lift your head. See what a beautiful place this is? People say my estate is like an oasis. Look around. Notice the lush greenery, the fragrant flowers."

Indeed, as they climbed the path from the river to the Master's house the water-bearer took notice of the sunlight touching the beautiful flowers along the side of the path, and he noticed how the winds were softened by the leaves of young fruit trees. But when they reached their destination, his sadness returned. "Master, thank you for the honour of your presence and for sharing the beauty of your estate,” he said, "But I still must apologize for my failure."

The Master said, "Dear water-bearer, you haven't understood what I was trying to show you. Did you notice that the flowers and trees only grew on one side of the path? That's because of your cracked pot. I planted flower seeds and saplings on that side of the path,and everyday as you walked from the river the water that leaks from your pot has watered them. I could have hired a new water-bearer, but I preferred to grow flowers and trees. With those flowers, I have perfumed and decorated many rooms, and these last few seasons the fruit of those trees has graced many tables."

We are all gathered into this community of faith as earthen vessels,each with our own rough edges, our chips and our cracks. As Paul says, in his letter to the Christians at Corinth,
... We have this treasure in clay jars ...We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

“Yes,”he says, “we're all cracked pots.” We carry, in our fragile human bodies, both the death and the life of Jesus, and it shines through every crack and broken edge. For our lives, in faith, are formed from clay and fire, into something beautiful and broken that God can use for Glory.

So,this is how we show ourselves as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We root around. We find the shards and jagged edges, the chipped and broken vessels, and we wonder whether they have any use in this world. And then we open ourselves in prayer, inviting God to use all this brokenness, inviting God's healing spirit to bless it and use it to make something beautiful.
We are all cracked pots, and we follow a crackpot Savior who challenged the structures of his day, busted the bonds of death and cracked open the gates of heaven. We are his family, each one of us broken, each one of us holy. Praise be to God!

(Thanks to Rev. Peter Heinrichs, from whom I learned the story of the water-bearer--and thanks to our WWOOF volunteers, who keep our livestock safe from sharp objects!)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Paint Yer (Egg)Wagon

So, we were sitting at Fat Boy's with Coyote, talking about chicken eviction...


See, there's a wee barn on our farm that was originally built for The Piper's Jersey cow, Biscuit. Biscuit and her calf, Red Emma, have been gone from the farm for many years. The "two cow garage" morphed first into a woodworker's storage shed, then was repurposed to hold gardening supplies, pigs and chickens. Now, after several generations of pigs and chickens, we have a new plan in mind: tear the whole thing down to the frame and turn it into peoplespace. We imagine book groups, workshops, some nice south-facing windows for seed-starting, and a place for the occasional swagman (or swagwoman) to waltz his (or her) matilda.


That said, the chickens gotta go. We'd been thinking about this all winter and considering the process. We figured we'd cull the non-egg-layers (Mmmm! Chicken stew with dumplings!) and then put them into a moveable coop of some sort. We started looking around at plans and images and studying other people's portable poultry palaces, and the harder we looked, the more perplexed we became. Thankfully, along came Coyote, who had been raising and tending chickens for years and had some ideas and skills to contribute. We decided it was time for a hardware run. Coyote and the Piper and I headed out, with a stop at our favourite cheap seasonal eatery, Fat Boy's, for fortification.


Now, in addition to good, cheap, locally-sourced hamburgers, onion rings and frappes (milkshakes), Fat Boy's has another important feature: crayons and paper placemats. Many a farm project has been sketched on those placemats over the years. We set the paper cup of crayons in the middle of the table and set to work, tossing out possible names for the structure as we went. "Yolks-Wagon" was a solid favourite, but with my taste for the obscure I lobbied for "Taigh-Beak," a play on the Gaelic word for "outhouse." By the time our meal was consumed we'd come to no firm agreement on names, but we did reach the shared conclusion that our moveable coop, in order to fit with our farm's Celtic/British theme, should look something like a traditional Traveller/Gypsy wagon. Alas, due to a local dearth of Travellers and Gypsies, we had only our imaginations and memories to go on, so we boldly scribbled our best approximations of a few paint schemes and sallied forth to the hardware store for said paint and two sheets of red metal roofing.


After we got home, we searched the internet for traditional caravan images. Huzzah! Our paint choices were culturally and historically correct! (Well, mostly. It turned out that "Montpelier Red Velvet," which looked like a basic cherry red under the fluorescent lights of the store, turned out to be sort of a deep raspberry instead.) Our other colours, "Orange Glow," "Blue Flame," and "Globe Artichoke," were right on target. As soon as Coyote had finished the actual carpentry of the structure, with The Piper's occasional help and guidance, I primed the structure and started to paint.


We got one coat of "Globe Artichoke" on the structure before Coyote left. Another WWOOF volunteer helped apply two additional coats, and then I started to play with the other colours. First, I tried out the red paint on the window trim and watched it dry into the aforementioned deep raspberry--not the effect I'd been going for. Next I tried out "orange glow," (really more of a school-bus yellow, but also close to the lovely deep hue of the yolks from our free-range chickens), on the lower portion of three sides. Well, that made everything look bright and cheery, but the big blocks of colour were also intimidating. How shall we get from these bold patches to the complex motifs commonly seen on old caravans? Well, I.....have absolutely no idea. My coop-painting muse has utterly deserted me--and besides, now that it's Spring I have other pressing priorities. It seemed a bit more manageable when the whole thing was three inches high, two-dimensional, and scribbled in crayon on a placemat.


Meanwhile, the chickens seem utterly undisturbed by the paint scheme (or lack thereof). We've been leaving the front door of the structure open and the hens have been seen hopping in and out. I haven't found any eggs in the structure's two laying boxes, but the two-inch layer of pine shavings with which we lined them has definitely been disturbed. More than one hen has apparently been road-testing those nests. Within the next few weeks, I think we'll go ahead and begin culling, then shut the diminished flock in the new structure for a few days to re-imprint their tiny chicken brains with a new concept of "home." From then on, the little hatch on the side of the barn will be closed and their best option for evening roosting will be inside the yolks-wagon/taighe-beak.   (With the chickens relocated, we'll be able to start cleaning out the barn in preparation for its overhaul and eventual repurposing.)  After a week or two of reliable coming and going from their new abode, we'll move the structure a little farther from the barn each night, and eventually the wee chicken caravan will take its rightful place in the pasture where the chickens can clean up after the cows, following Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm model.


And one of these days, maybe we'll even finish painting the silly wee thing.




(All text and images copyright Mainecelt, 2012, except caravan, borrowed from here.)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Stranger/Angel

After three wonderful weeks, we said goodbye to Coyote, our first WWOOF volunteer to arrive on foot. As with every one of our WWOOFers, the farm is better for Coyote's contributions: potatoes started in barrels of soil and seaweed, fruit trees gently pruned, (and the budded branches saved in a vase for forcing), blueberry bushes well-mulched, animals well-fed and tended, fenceline cleared...not to mention some serious sourdough bread-baking, ukulele-strumming, and a couple of epic scrabble games.

Our first year as WWOOF farm hosts has been the best sort of adventure. Yes, there are risks. Perhaps it takes a certain temperament to open one's home to strangers, to gently negotiate shared space, to relinquish a measure of privacy, to build trust...yet the people who have chosen to travel here have truly blessed us. We have welcomed their widely varying stories and experiential wisdom as much as their energy and willingness to work.

On this Easter morning, as the Piper played the sun up and--gathered at the town landing at daybreak--we heard the story of angels at the empty tomb, I looked over at Coyote, face to the water, perhaps pondering leave-taking and the next leg of a personal pilgrimage. The quilted patterns on Coyote's poncho hinted strongly of wings. Why not? If the risen Jesus could be mistaken for a gardener, why couldn't a travelling farmhand come with wings? There are deep reasons why, in many wisdom traditions, angels and strangers are closely intertwined...

So, on this day of resurrections and possibilities, may we all be surrounded by winged strangers and shining gardeners. May we all be open to winds of change and wild gusts of blessing.

A CELTIC RUNE OF HOSPITALITY

We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place,
& with the sacred name of the truine God,
[They] blessed us and our house,
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often goes the Christ
In the stranger's guise.

--Traditional

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Confession

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Here's my latest hand-crafted "Wise Tiny Creature" to greet you. He has a wee confession to make:

















PATRICK'S CONFESSION

Serpents of Ireland, I'm sorry.
You did not then, nor now, deserve my ire.
These last few centuries,
I've learned a thing or two,
Cooling my heels under the gentle rains,
Conversing with worms in the earth.
They have taught me with their slender, winding ways
Of the goodness of snakes,
How even our Dear Lord loved them,
Telling his disciples to be as wise.

Yes, I've been thinking,
Hidden away from the weary tread of pilgrim feet--
No zealot now, no fire-starter,
This dark cradle a subtler, slower crucible of sorts--
As I and earth transform
Into each other
And shallow shamrock roots
Spread a ticklish carpeting over my head
How did I ever believe
The Trinity could be my Own Big Thing
In the already ancient, intimately wise
Thousand-green three-in-oneness
Of this scarred and shining land?

Serpents of Ireland, I'm sorry.
In my arrogance, I sinned against you.
You, no less than all God's other creatures
Deserve to live unmolested,
Blessed, not cursed, from the beginning.
These things--at last--I understand
Now that I, too, have shed my skin.

--copyright MaineCelt 3/2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wild Beasts and Angels

Wild Beasts and Angels: A Meditation for Lent
(Based on Genesis 9:8-17 & Mark 1:9-15, common lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent, year B.)

Ten nights back, and the moon was still bright, just past its full, round glory, waning gibbous above the faithful remnant of snow. The wood stove had been well-fed, that night, and the warmth had poured up through the grate into our half-attic room. There, in the midst of February, the small room had become stifling. We opened the window half-way and settled in for the night, the bright moonshine spilling in over the sill.

For a while, all was quiet. Wrapped in the cares and business of the day, we gradually eased our whirring minds down into sleep. A truck went grumbling down the dirt road. Again, silence, then—blessed sleep, deep, restoring, healing sleep, peaceful oblivio—WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?

We struggled awake, sat up in bed, and strained to make sense out of the unearthly series of noises, the rising, dipping pitches, the staccato yips and echoing, resonant howls. “Ohhhhh. Coyotes.”

Once or twice a year, in the deep eroded stream beds that carve through the 30-acre woods behind our house, the coyotes gather. It's often more than one pack that converges, and the range of voices is eerie and amazing. Have you ever heard the coyotes when they gather and begin to sing? One wild call rises into the night, answered by another. Other voices join, and they go on for hours, vying for attention, trying out for solos, and then breaking out into a rolling, wild cacophonous chorus that goes on almost too long to bear, full of spell-binding syncopation, intense dissonance and hackle-raising harmonies.

We lay there, in the over-warm house, in the cold blue moonlight, trapped between the security of our blankets and the unleashed wilderness just beyond our half-open window. And that's as good a place to begin as any. No matter where you are, it's a good place to begin the season of angels and wild beasts, the season of Lent.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Immediately. It's one of Mark's favourite words. He is so eager to get out the Good News, so hungry to share the power of this life-altering experience, this world-transforming story! Never mind the baby in the stable. The gospel leaps right in at the Jordon, with Jesus being baptised by John. And immediately, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice names him as God's Beloved child! And before we even have time to figure this all out—before JESUS has time to figure this all out—he's driven, lobbed, forcefully flung right out into the wilderness.

What would have happened if the story took a different direction? “Jesus was baptised, and then immediately went back home.” No, that's not how ministry works. “Jesus was baptised, and immediately went into town.” No, town is for commerce, not transformation.

He had just been baptised. He had gone under the surface of the water. He had been submerged in the flood, a ritual drowning of all the old ways, and he had broken the surface and emerged into light and air and possibility again. He was the new Noah, water streaming off of him, there with a dove of promise and God's voice to declare a new covenant. And, like Noah, in a radically altered landscape, he had to figure out life all over again. Yes. Wilderness. There, with the wild beasts, tended by angels.

Because wilderness isn't just a place we go. Wilderness is something inside of us. We each carry, inside our hearts and minds, a bewildering landscape full of barren places and tangled thickets. It is full of strange characters: shadowy schoolyard taunters, lost and lingering loves, and other ghosts that haunt us, the harsh or compassionate faces of our ancestors, the sweet and frightening demons of our dreams.

We wake and walk with this, move through the world with this wilderness inside us. And, in the neat compartments of home and school and office, in the blind repetition of the daily grind, we cannot expect this wildness to make sense. The paved roads and square rooms—the ones that work so well for machines—do not work so well for our suffering, searching souls.

There's a reason seekers have gone into the wilderness—or created quiet times and sanctuary spaces—for century after century. Whether we hike or paddle into actual wilderness or simply set aside time to pray, meditate, and wander our inner wilderness in God's good company, these spiritual adventures feed our souls.

For the good of our souls, we need time and space away. We need stones under our feet. We need rough old trees. We need the purity of deserts, the rough angles of mountaintops. They help us unclutter our vision until we can see the wideness of God's love. They help us empty out all the competing voices until we can name our personal demons...and only those pure, elemental spaces can bring us the needed clarity. And we don't need to be afraid of this adventure. Remember what happened to Jesus when he went out:
...the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Yes, he faced temptation—really, more of a series of spiritual tests: hurdles to leap on a marathon journey of the soul. But Satan, the great tester, was not his only company. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him. You see, they go together, those angels and wild beasts. God made the rainbow sign as a promise to all of Creation, every blessed thing that lives and breathes in that wonderful, fragile, ferocious, wild and wonderful community of life.

In the wilderness, Jesus was among his sisters and brothers—some furred, some leafy, some buzzing or burrowing, some smooth or scaled, some fringed, some feathered. There, with his wild kin, he was never isolated, not even in his deepest fear, rage, grief and anxiety. Tended by angels, he was shown the blessing of hidden springs and the beauty of unexpected wildflowers. His soul blossomed with them. And after forty days in such company, Jesus was ready to live into the promise of his baptism. He was ready to face the extraordinary work that God was calling him to do.

So, the adventure begins: immediately, whether we are ready or not. We can hide if we want to. We can pull the blankets over our heads or turn up the volume and stay hunched over our little glowing boxes. We can drive faster so we don't see the wild things moving beyond the pavement's edge. But the season of Lent beckons to our spirits, welcomes us into wider and wondrous possibility.

Listen: the wind is rising. Bulbs are starting to stir under snow and half-frozen mud, down in the dark earth. Listen: the stars are dancing above us, pulsing and shimmering to a celestial rhythm we were meant to notice, learn, and share. There are crows in the branches, throwing their glossy heads back with raucous laughter, joyfully urging us on with all their might. Listen: there are coyotes outside our windows, calling us out with their soaring songs.

Come, all you, baptised and blessed. Let us go, immediately, into this season of pilgrimage, these forty days of wild beasts and angels. Let us launch out, immediately, where our inner wilderness and God's creative wildness can meet!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dust to Dust: A Poem for Ash Wednesday

As I work through my winter reading list, (mostly Kirkpatrick Sale and Wendell Berry, with an occasional dip into Madeleine L'Engle), I've been thinking a lot about dirt--and angels.

Ancient stories are full of people freaked out by angels, terrified to come into close proximity with The Light & Power of the Divine. Today, in this hyper-tech age, we seem more likely to reach for, grasp at, and embrace anything that hints at God-like power. Our cities are now so bright they drown out the stars people used to regard with awe.

So... it seems we have the opposite problem of the ancients. We are not frightened by divinity. Instead, we are completely freaked out by dirt. We cringe at the "antiquated" language of "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" because we really can't bear to acknowledge our proximity to decaying matter. We really can't handle being that intimate with earth.

Tonight, I will celebrate Ash Wednesday. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, the dry and brittle palm fronds saved from last year's Palm Sunday are saved and burned into ashes, then mixed with water or oil. In a quiet, meditative service, often after nightfall, we pray together, perhaps sing together, and receive the "imposition of ashes." A finger or thumb is dipped into the ashes and simple cross is marked on each forehead, usually accompanied by the words, "remember: you are dust, and to dust you will return." We then move out into the night in silent meditation.

Here, then, is my offering: a prayer/poem for this strange, earthy, ancient day:

INVITATION TO ASHES:
We are people of the earth:
the grey blowing grit of it,
the shoe-sucking mud of it,
the rich fertile muck of it.
Our bodies are the soil where dreams decay
and seeds of new hope spring up.
In our bones sleep the ashes of ancestors, stuff of old stars.
We are mountains tumbling into sand.
We are crushed stone.
Wait. Be not resentful, nor ashamed by earthiness:
Even dust rides on the breath of the Spirit.
Even the darkest rot is God's fertile ground.
So, Beloved, come: feel the gentle touch.
Accept the ashes.
Wear the dark smudge with quiet joy:
a holy sign that we are never far from Creation's embrace,
and a promise that not even fire can destroy
the startling traces of God's abiding love.


--copyright MaineCelt 2/22/12

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Happy Imbolc! More Farmyard Haiku!

Imbolc is here again: the old Celtic celebration of women, poetry, milk, and fire. I've tossed back a celebratory mug of hot chocolate, sent off a few letters to women I admire, and stoked the wood stove... so now it's time for poetry!

Here's a haiku almanac of the last few months on the farm:

HARVEST SEASON:
Our thirteen guineas
fed dogs, hawks, and foxes too.
"Free-range" comes with risks.

Chanterelle shining
Amidst shadows in deep woods:
Gold in them there hills!

Celtic year's turning
small lights guide along dark paths
Tonight, we shall sing!

Old Celts used turnips
To light the dead home. Pumpkin's
A New World trade-up!

Into year's dark half
We delve. Opposite of Spring
Isn't Fall, but Root

Brought home hay today
So pigs can burrow and build
a grand storm-proof nest

Come, sweet autumn rain:
All the tools are put away
And pig's got a roof!

O, well-carved pumpkin
Weep not. Full of light you go,
Now to join the saints.

Rural peace of mind:
high woodstacks, jam-full pantry,
Pig's jolt-squeak (fence works).

Bare witness of trees
documents the naked truth
at the branch office.

November closes
Wet snow swells the woodland streams
in shade, mushrooms bloom

Little Shiitake,
such goodness in such small space:
Edible haiku!


WINTER SETS IN:

Ice-rime all around.
Farmstead feathers stir, birds cluck:
Tea-time for chickens!

(Holiday Dollmaker's Lament:)
Artisan's eyestrain
overtakes. Help! Need some elves
to finish more elves!

Ah, Christmas! Warm fire,
Frozen fields, frozen streams, and...
Frozen shower drain.

Oh, pipes, won't you sing?
Warm, uncrystalize and flow.
I need a shower!

Drink deep, my cattle.
Hose uncoils, fills trough to brim
Before ice returns.

Subzero at dawn
hens huddle in nestboxes
laying eggsicles.

Ah dinnae ken gin
Ye can screeve haiku in Scots;
Thocht I'd hae a gae!
(I don't know if / you can write haiku in Scots / Thought I'd give it a try!)

Dawn o Rab Burns Nicht
Craitures blether poetry
tae toast Scotia's bard.

(Thoughts on retrieving wayward livestock after nightfall:)
We heed neighbor's call,
with rope and boots in snowstorm.
Wanna buy a bull?




Alright, folks: your turn! 'Tis the season for poetic inspiration and creative merry-making. Leave a comment with a haiku or two!