Monday, December 5, 2016

Yes, it's been forever since my last post.  A couple of hard, unbloggable years, followed by a year too joyfully busy for blogging, thanks to my new job at Phippsburg Congregational Church...and The Piper is now managing our farm full time, and it's thriving--as are we!  Still, the world shifts around us, and this week's sermon was an exercise in exploring the challenge of love in diverse communities:

Light In The Forest: An Advent Sermon
(based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-9)

John the Baptist: prophet of Advent, preparer of the way for the coming of Jesus. Like most prophets, he's a sand-in-the-gears, nails-on-the-chalkboard kind of guy. Not exactly the sort you'd want at your Christmas party. John the Baptist, there in his camel-hair tunic and leather belt, like some wild dervish wandering the wastelands, or like a street-corner preacher with his fire and brimstone sermons, his cry to repent, repent...
He makes me uncomfortable because he's different. He has chosen a strange discipline, setting himself apart, dedicating himself only to pleasing God. He survives on locusts and wild honey: sounds like some weird Paleo diet. His choice of food and clothing, his behavior and his wild hair, all hint that he's likely a Nazirite, a particular type of Jewish spiritual athlete. Do you remember the story of Samson, the great and powerful hero who lost his strength when Delilah cut his hair? Same deal. Samson was a Nazirite too. Guys who became Nazirites avoided certain foods and did not cut their hair. They wore the original version of dreadlocks, to show their dread or awe and respect for the mighty power of God.
The Dread(lock)ed Prophet, John the Baptist

So here's this guy with dreadlocks on the riverbank, telling us we'd better repent, we'd better turn our lives around. I don't like his style. I don't like his attitude. I don't know what to do with his anger: this wild, wise, rooted, righteous anger. 
I don't know how you are with anger, but I struggle with it. I know it's part of being human. If I pay attention to Jesus and the prophets, it's even part of being holy. But anger makes me want to freeze, or hide, or just close my eyes and wish it would go away. It's like fire, and I'm not sure how to handle it—in myself or others—without being burnt.

But what is he saying? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This dreadlocked prophet is holding a sign that says, “the beginning is near!” And—as I hear reports of hate crimes on the rise, and every headline seems to trumpet the world's instability—any hint of hope, any news of beginnings grabs and holds my attention. 
He echoes another prophet, Isaiah: “a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse...” in other words, an old family line cut off, declared extinct, will send up a tiny green flag of life's renewal, a joyful giggle in the face of the power of death. Like the sprouts that come up from that weathered, ancient Linden tree outside our church every year...yes, prophet, tell me more about the God who has this power!
What the prophets know, and what the trees know, is that you can't welcome new life at all until you touch death--until you face it, study it, reckon with the parts of your life that have become hollow, the parts that have been cut off. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make room for Love to show up and shift things around, you have to spend some time crying in the wilderness.

Suzanne Simard knows about wilderness. She's a scientist—a forest ecologist—at the University of British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. And she went into the forest to research the relationship between different trees. What she expected to find—her hypothesis—was that the tallest, most powerful trees in the forest became so tall and powerful—and stayed so tall and powerful—because they could out-compete all the shorter trees for resources. Some of the giants, which the scientists refer to as "mother trees," were hundreds of years old, and the youngest seedlings on the forest floor beneath them looked like they were headed for sure death, blocked from spreading their roots to find water and nutrients, unable to gather energy from sunlight under the giant trees' shade.

Mother Tree in the woods of Tir na nOg Farm
But the longer Dr. Simard spent in the forest, the more she started to notice other things happening, other forces at work. There were old stumps that should have been rotting away to nothing, but they weren't. And there were spindly seedlings that should have been starving for lack of light, but they were thriving. Wasn't nature about competition? What about Survival of the Fittest? What was going on?

It took her a while to discover, not because the answer was over her head, but because it was under her feet. There, in the soil, a fragile, lacy network had spread throughout the forest. It was mycelium: the bodies of mushrooms, branching underground, their tiny filaments touching and wrapping the finest ends of the tree roots all around them. And that fragile living lace, draped across the forest floor, made it possible for the trees to do something no one had imagined: they weren't competing for resources at all. They were sharing them. 

Mycelium in the forest: sharing the carbon, sharing the love!
Through the underground fungal network, the powerful giant trees were sending carbon and nitrogen from their own bodies out to the struggling stumps and seedlings around them. They were somehow communicating, somehow sensing the suffering of other lives around them, somehow choosing to give of themselves—and it wasn't only for trees of their own species, either. Pines were sharing with hemlocks, firs sharing with alder, cedar sharing with birch, and beyond. And sometimes, the same carbon molecules were being passed along to two, or five, or seven or more different trees and plants that needed them. The researchers struggled with these findings. What could they call this shimmering network that helped trees grow in deep shadows? I'll give it a name they might be afraid to use: love.

This is a season of darkness—dark, like the depths of the forest. But listen to the voice in the wilderness: repent--turn yourselves in a different direction. Repent--turn your ears to hear other voices. They may need you to survive. You may need them. Repent--turn to each other, and learn from the forest: only when we reach out with love can the whole community begin to thrive. 

Love the stranger. Love the prophet. Love the one who challenges you. Love the one who eats strange things. Love the one who opens your heart. And you will find yourself sharing the sacrament of communion. You will be offering food to the hungry and light into darkness, over and over again.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

UnSeize the Day!

It's been a while since I've given a farm report. so I'd best sit myself down and take a stab at it, while I'm waiting for the sun to rise and do its morning stretch across the sky. 

How have we fared, since last September?  A glorious harvest feast of friendship sustained us through much of the long, cold winter.  We reveled in warmth, basking in the glow of well-stacked wood and well-stoked fires.  Then, with the new year, our minds turned to seed catalogues and greenhouses and the many, many promises of SPRING!

But Winter wasn't ready yet.

So our wood dwindled, and the deep cold got deeper.  Cows called out each afternoon, hungry for more hay.  The November-born piglets snuggled, first under a heat lamp and then, as they grew bigger and bolder, next to their mama's restless, bristly bulk.  We bought more wood, enough--we thought--to get us through to the fully-expected warmth that would come with February's longer days.

But Winter wasn't ready yet.

So we went into the forest--not once, not twice, but three times and more--to find wood to burn.  We bowed before fallen giants and then began to remove their limbs, sawing and hauling all we could.  The old Eastern Hop Hornbeam, once a statewide champion for its height and girth and massive green Summer crown, was the first to be divided and dragged.  I mourned its lost nobility even as I placed the long-fallen, rot-edged logs onto the sawbuck.  I sang its praises as we loaded that wood into the stove when February met March and Winter just dug in deeper, sinking our farmstead into the depths of cold.

And now?  Now it is April.  Far-flung relatives are posting images of daffodils and magnolias.  Here, the sap is running--albeit thinly--in the maple trees, and though I keep watching, there's no sign of green points that will be snowdrops or crocuses just yet.  I did spy my first robin this morning, though, so that's something...mostly, though, we sneak into the greenhouse to catch our hints of Spring.  There, in the corners, there is soil still frozen hard, but some of the middle beds are graced with the first blue-tinged tiny leaves of the first sprouts of the year: an extra-hardy heirloom variety of kale.  Some days, in the afternoons, it actually feels warm in there, warm enough to unzip my jacket and remove my gloves.  Tomorrow, they say, it might get into the forties OUTside, but I'll believe it when I feel it.  Friday, they say, it will snow again.

Ah, but I'm still the April Fool, here, though optimism comes a little harder after such a long, hard freeze.  I know, soon enough, there will be tall grass in the far pastures and I'll be munching on daylilies in the dooryard and swatting at black flies.  And, in the meantime, we have wonderful farmhands here to keep us from sinking too far into surliness...AND they've been great at tending our craitures and hauling all those logs out of the woods!

So, this morning, we prepare to plant more seeds.  We have the use of another farm's greenhouse, this season, and it sits in a broad open space where it warms faster than ours.  Whether or not Winter is ready, WE are ready to pry its fingers off this place.  WE are ready to welcome days of green growth under the April sun!

Muses are stirring, too, even if snowdrops are not.  Here's a morning offering:

Unseize The Day!

Oh, April Sun-- you ease too slowly over the rim.
You crinkle your quiet eyes at my skin's hunger:
The ache of crystal to relearn water's ways, cell by cell
Until these limbs can flex, sinews unclench
And body bend, all fluid, once again. Please—

Come in! This freezeframed house is too long cold!
Here: I lift the shades, fold fabric's
curves into curtainhooks, opening the way...
The bevelled glass invites your scattershine.

See, Sun? There is nothing to hinder your reach
Into this room (this icy box)! Even my shadowed
spirit has clumsily undone its little locks,
Cramped fingers fumbling with the keys.
Won't you come in, you lovely April Sun?
Oh, please?
                         --copyright MaineCelt, 4/2/14

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How to Have a Celtic Farm Wedding

First, plan ahead with the farm and growing season in mind.  Arrange a visit from a wise flower-gardening relative early in the year.  She'll arrive with fifty dahlia tubers in your--and your Sweetheart's--favourite range of colours.  Together, you can plant them in the greenhouse in March, where each emerging green shoot will hint at the sweet occasion to come.

Start raising a pig for the feast.  Secure a farmhand who will spend hours romping with the piglets, scratching their backs and rubbing their bellies as they lay in the Spring and Summer sun.  Soak the pigs' daily rations of grain and veggies with leftover milk from a local dairy farm.  Watch them grow and thrive.  When a friend announces he'll be opening a restaurant soon with 100% locally-sourced foods, offer him a chance to supervise the pig roast.  Get some more farmhands to dig/build the pig-roasting pit.  Invite them to stay for the wedding.  Be delighted when they agree.

Send out invitations that you've designed yourself with some public-domain medieval woodcuts of musicians and beehives. Travel with your coloured pencils so you can colour them in during long conservation district meetings and on slow, hot afternoons at the farmers' market.  Be inspired by the displays of produce and flowers set out by the other vendors.

Trade a couple of roasts and some sausage to a fellow market vendor in exchange for help designing your wedding garb.  Stop by her place after the market one day for a consultation, and emerge with hand-written directions and the entire dress cut out.  Be thankful for this wonderful alternative economy.

The mother of one of your farmhands comes to visit with a gift of Highland whisky.  After enjoying some together around a campfire, go down to the Honey Exchange and get some heather honey to go with it.  Hand these off to a friend who happens to be a wonderful baker and commission a "cranachan" wedding cake, flavoured like the traditional Scottish dessert.  The raspberries on your hillside--a gift from your plantsman godfather--will ripen just in time to decorate the top of the cake.

As the seasons unfurl, take time to walk the land.  Meditate on partnership--both human and cosmic.  Consider how, in your shared life, you and the land have shaped each other.  Choose the orchard as your wedding site, knowing that the site plan will need to accommodate the tender bark of young trees and the hesitant movement of elderly knees, as well as a nearby sow and a hive full of bees!

Plan a service with a local minister--the one who "gets it," the one who once gifted you with a manure fork enscribed with the emblem of the church you now serve.  Think about all the people who worked and prayed and lobbied and educated and legislated and voted so that, at long last, you could have the opportunity to take this step and solemnize your vows with full legal and religious recognition.  Struggle to believe it's really finally going to happen.  Struggle to trust that this blessing--and all the legal protections it brings--will actually come to you.

When kinfolk begin to arrive, enlist their help to mow, move the picnic table, and set up the tent on the neighbor's lawn for the reception.  Send some relatives to the "small box" five-and-dime store for last-minute decorations.  Send the siblings off to the church to borrow tables and chairs.

Kill the pig.  Do it yourself, quickly and calmly and thankfully, offering a prayer for the life and nourishment of that sweet small beast.  With the help of sure-footed strong friends and skilled farmhands, prepare the pig and gather wood for the fire.  Honour the creature; waste nothing.

Old Friends arrive (with bagpipes!) and whisk you away from the happy chaos for a night out and a big ol' plate of barbecue.  The next day, let the visiting bagpiper and the bagpiping-bride-to-be indulge in an epic tune-swap while you work on your dress.  When the other Old Friend offers to help with the hemming, let her.  She will sew so quickly and quietly that, before you know it, the hemming will be completed before the other volunteer hemmers even arrive!  Be thankful for Old Friends, for their grace and grace-notes, for their calm and camaraderie.

On the day of the wedding, breathe deeply.  The flowers have opened and your mother and aunt have arranged them all into a host of beautiful bouquets.  Your father and siblings have bedecked the neighbor's lawn with tents and tables for the potluck reception and created an avenue of tiki torches (lent by a friend) between there and the orchard.  Your sister, with her grand sense of design, has used old wooden pallets, logs and stones to create a sanctuary around the drooping boughs of an old apple tree, and it is now flanked with sap buckets full of late Summer flowers.  Chairs are in place, the pig is roasting, and guests are starting to arrive.  Hand out readings to friends: Psalm 148, (to be read by another farmer), Colossians 3:12-15, (to be read by a clergy friend), and an excerpt from Marge Piercy's poem, "The Homely War," (to be read by another dear friend who understands the depth and challenge of love).

Go upstairs, in the little woodshop you spent three years turning into your house.  Get dressed.  Your partner wears her new utilikilt (in brown Carharrt-style canvas, complete with hammer loop) with an Indian cotton shirt and brown velvet vest.  Her "something borrowed" is a pair of kilt hose from our friend Bruce, whose spirit lingers in the circle of love that surrounds us.  Put on the newly-finished and wonderfully-hemmed linen shift, the rusty silk overskirt and the borrowed plum-coloured medieval bodice. Add "something old:" a silk panel from your great grandmother's dress, and the petticoat she wore to her own wedding.  Have your sister tuck a tiny blue butterfly clip into your hair.

Friends have assembled in the orchard in the golden light of a September afternoon.  Kith and kin, neighbors and long travellers, farm hands and farm mentors, dancers and musicians, wise elders and wee bairns, chefs and bakers and clergyfolk and druids... there, among the trees, near the new sow's pen--and a respectful distance from the humming beehive--there is room for everyone.  This is the circle of love we celebrate: the people and other creatures who make our own love possible, the ones who lift us up and nourish us, the ones who affirm and celebrate the life we've made on this land and all the history and possibilities we share together.

The piper is tuning up. Other Old Friends have arrived with harp and fiddle.  (You don't know it yet, but their gift of music will be a song written just for this day, and everyone's hearts will bust wide open as they lift their voices, singing together a chorus of hope, freedom, kindness, love, and a Brand New Day.)  Take your Beloved's hand and proceed to the wooden arch her son carved and raised, with friends, at the top of the hillside, just above the blueberry bushes and the raspberry patch.  Begin the procession...and let Nature, in all her wild beauty and raucous good humour, take it from there:

(Thanks to our friend, Mudranger, for capturing the unplanned hilarity!)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hard Roads and Empty Nets

Disclaimer: Yes, this is a farmer's blog.  I'm a farmer, and that's at the heart of what I do and how I move around in this beautiful, bruised, burgeoning world.  Now, part of a farmer's job is to pay attention to EVERYthing, especially the connections that bind us all to every other aspect of Creation.  Sometimes, those connections--and their implications--are so powerful that it's hard to explain.  Dry facts won't do it.  So I reach into the storehouse of sacred stories, and it comes out less like an essay, more like a sermon.  Still, the farm--and our way of farming--is right there, mixed up in the myths.  If you've come here to read about farming, you can sidestep the sermon and skip down to other entries as you please, or enter the story here.  Either way, welcome!

Hard Roads and Empty Nets”  
A sermon for April 14th, 2013 (Easter3C) 
(Based on Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19)

I have a lot of questions, today. The first one is the most important, so pay attention—maybe scribble your answer down—and we'll come back to it later. Where do you see Jesus? That's the first question. Think about it. I'll ask you about it later.

Second question: what do you do when a nightmare becomes real? What do you do when the center of your life gets scooped out like the seeds of a pumpkin, leaving you hollow as a jack-o-lantern, staring at the world with empty eyes? What do you do when it all goes south, and you don't know which direction to turn?

That's where they were, Peter and the other disciples. The beautiful vision had crumpled, their hopes were shattered, and they didn't have the first clue of how to pick up the pieces and move on. Everything had gone off somewhere in a hand-basket. So who can blame Peter? He grabbed his favorite John Deere cap—the one with the brim curved just the way he liked them—and his old barn coat, his fleece vest and his rubber boots, called up his buddies and told them to meet him at the old place—you know, just off the side of that back-road bridge down on Range Pond. He grabbed his rod and his old tackle box and headed out, slamming the door behind him. He felt the muddy ground beneath his feet, and then felt the crunch of gravel as he stepped from the driveway onto the road. “When the going gets tough, the tough go fishing.” (Well, maybe that wasn't how the saying really goes, but in Pete's mind, it should have.)

Meanwhile, down another dirt road, on the other side of town, along came Saul. You know Saul, right? He's that guy who's always got an ax to grind, the one who gets up at meetings and starts shouting about THOSE people, and how THEY'RE the cause of all the trouble? You all know Saul. Well, Saul was on his way down to the Town Office to give them a piece of his mind. The closer he got, the more he thought about everything that had gone wrong. He was sure he knew who to blame, and how to shut them up once and for all. He'd done it before. He could do it again. And if he could just get a-hold of the authority to do it, why... I hardly need to tell you what ol' Saul was planning to do. With every step he took, his heart beat a little faster, wrapped up in the heat of his self-righteous rage. Yes, Saul said to himself, SOMEbody's got to clean up this town, and I am the MAN to do it. “The Lord helps those who help themselves...” wasn't that what the Good Book said? (Don't tell Saul, but it isn't in the Good Book. It was Ben Franklin who came up with that one!)

Down at the shore, Pete and his buddies fished for hours. Pete, Tom, Nate, and the rest of the guys stayed out all night, in fact, sometimes talking low so's they wouldn't scare the fish, sometimes just staring out into the darkness, wondering if the sun would ever rise again. Not once did any of them feel a tug on their lines, even though the fishing was supposed to be good. Well, it figured. Hadn't everything else gone all to heck? Well, Jerusalem crickets, why should this be any different? When the dawn did come, it was a cold light—that weak, early Spring light that shows the lay of the land but doesn't warm it one bit. Their lines were empty, their hearts were empty, and—frankly, with all the stress of the last week catching up to them along with the sleep deprivation—their heads were kinda empty too. So when the stranger showed up, right there, between the pond and the bridge, well, they just couldn't figure it out at all. Had he been standing there all night? Nobody had heard a motor, and you know the way sound carries over water. Had he come on foot, or by boat, or what? The light was still weak, and they couldn't quite make out the guy's face, but there was something about him that seemed familiar. None of them could put a finger on it.
“Good morning!” the stranger said. He looked at their empty nets, their slack lines. He gestured over to the other side of the bridge, where there was just a small ledge between the water and the road. “They not biting? How 'bout you try the other side,” he said, and there was a funny catch in his voice, as if he were halfway between a laugh and a sob. Pete thought he must have a screw loose or something, but the guy sure seemed earnest—and, frankly, at this point, what did any of them have to lose? They'd already lost pret-near everything. So Pete and Nate and Tom and the other guys ambled up onto the roadbed and then sidled down onto that little ledge and cast their lines in. And the stranger walked up to the pull-off and started setting up a beat-up barbecue grill.

Now, Saul, meanwhile, had about walked the soles off his shoes, stomping along towards town. In his mind, it played out like some old Western: him all spurs and pointy boots, ten-gallon hat and silver star, catching the unsavory riff-raff and ridin' 'em out of town on a rail. Maybe he'd tar-and-feather them first for extra effect. He'd get rid of everybody that didn't belong, starting with the People From Away.
And that's when it happened. It was like all the lights at Oxford Speedway, come on at once, so bright he couldn't see. And a voice—a voice like the saddest country song you ever heard, calling his name, asking, “why do you persecute me?” Saul flung himself on the ground and asked, “who are you?” and the voice answered, “I am Jesus, who you're persecuting. Now get on into town, hush up and listen. This time, listen good, 'cause somebody's going to tell you good. There, you'll find out what to do.”

Now, maybe you've got the story all figured out. You know what's coming next: Saul loses the spurs and the silver star. He meets up with a Guy From Away—and, because he's been blinded, he doesn't even see the out-of-state plates or the peace bumperstickers all over the back of the guy's Prius—and, even though they circle each other like wild dogs at the start, it turns out they both take God seriously, and the scales of judgment fall away. Both of them change. Together, they create a whole new ministry. And down by the bridge, Pete and his buddies have filled up every bucket and cooler and the whole back of Nate's big Ford truck with the craziest catch of fish you ever saw. The guy at the grill in the pull-off calls them over for breakfast, and they have themselves the best fried fish ever, and suddenly they understand: it's Jesus. And we all know how it ends...or maybe we don't.

Because here's the thing. This is how the resurrection happens. Jesus shows up—in the garden, at the shore, on the road—and we don't recognize him. Jesus calls us by name when we're not even ready to hear. Jesus shows up among the people who make us uncomfortable, the people who tick us off, the people we reject, the people we hate. And Jesus shows up at the table, right when our hearts are aching and our souls are absolutely starving, and he reaches out and offers to feed us.

So, maybe we don't know the end of the story. Because maybe the story hasn't ended. Maybe there are new chapters waiting to be written. Maybe God needs us to help the story continue, to help the Good News unfold.

So, where's the crossroads? Where do we see Jesus now? Think for a minute. Who are the people we persecute? Who are the strangers here? Who reaches out and serves us? Who disturbs us? How does the Risen Christ come to each of us, and in what disguise?
I can't finish the story myself. Remember, I'm one of those People From Away. And so, now, I ask you to help me out. Someone—Anyone: where do you see Jesus? And by that I mean: who challenges you? Who feeds you? Who do you persecute? Who opens the way to New Life?

This is how God comes to us. This is how Jesus is revealed. Not locked away in some dusty old book, not a holy relic in a climate-controlled vault. The Risen Christ reaches out to us on the roads we travel, on the shores we stroll, the place we fish, the place our kids learn to swim. Here, now, where our Good Fridays keep bumping up against his Resurrection.

Next time you see Pete, or Nate or Tom at the boat launch... Next time you run into Saul at the Dollar Store, reach out your hand. Because this is our new chapter. We have seen Jesus, and now we have to do the hard work together: living out his kind of love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Blessing of Dust

I am home, smudged and sweetly satisfied, marked with dust and blessed by it.

The day didn't begin this way.  It began in pain--fully embodied, attention-hungry suffering, bone and muscle in plaintive agreement and vociferous demand. I greeted the rising sun not with joy, but with more of a whimper.

See, a recent blizzard required the shoveling of many paths, and as we are without farmhands, I pitched in a little too earnestly the day before, leaving my back on fire.  After a restless night I awoke stiff and sore, able to move only slowly and with long exhalations, calling on my old Hatha yoga training to "breathe into the stretch."  The Piper performed all the morning farm chores while I watched rather helplessly, unable to lift more than a piece of firewood without wincing.  I managed to make breakfast and tend to household things, but that was about all.

The chiropractor (desperately sought and providentially found) sent me off with into the afternoon with a gracious smile and gentle warnings.  "Don't expect to be healed all at once.  Over the next few days, you'll find the pain moving around as pathways open.  Rest when you can.  Drink plenty of water.  Be gentle with yourself.  Attend to what your body is saying."

My body said, "go home and take a walk."  Back at the farm, the late winter sun was low and golden over the three-day-old drifts.  I gulped a glass of cold well-water and stepped outside.  The snow near the house was speckled with cinders, carried on the wind from the woodstove.  The drifts near the henhouse were scattered with guinea fowl feathers, the exquisitely-patterned calling card of a Cooper's hawk who had slain one of our birds two days before.  Elsewhere the snow was marked with bootprints, animal tracks, sawdust shavings, and blizzard-blown debris: here a spray of pine needles, there a dry oak leaf.  Everywhere I walked, the once-pristine snow was marred with evidence of life and death, decay and disarray.

And then it was time to gather my gear and drive down the road, into the dark, to lead an Ash Wednesday service at my church--MY church, yes, my new and beloved congregation, with their thrift store and food bank run out of the peeling 1800s parsonage, their town populated by hardscrabble locals and seasonal pleasure-seekers.  We put the folding chairs in a circle in the little parish hall.  We shook the ashes of last year's Palm Sunday branches into a small dish.  We sang, haltingly and hauntingly, and listened to the ancient challenges of prophets:
"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" 
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. 

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? 

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? 
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; 

when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; 

your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, 
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, 

and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, 
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; 

you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 
                          --Isaiah 58:3-12, NRSV

Then we passed around a basin, gently washing and drying each other's workworn hands.  I thought about parched places and watered gardens.  Sitting there in the circle, with my back newly flexible but still tender, I thought about bones made strong.

Another reading, and then it was time for the Imposition of Ashes.  As each person came forward, I pressed my thumb into the ashes and drew the mark on their forehead, saying, "remember: you are dust and to dust you will return, God's beloved child forever."  In silence, we put the chairs away and blew the candles out, then headed out to drive off into the night.

There was grit on the roads and a deep peace over the barren, frozen countryside.  When the pavement gave way to gravel, I could hear the crunch and spatter as my wheels moved over the uneven ground.  The easing of pain, the elemental engagement of the day, the challenge and joy of full embodiment in an imperfect world--all of it rushed sweetly together as the car bounced and jostled down the dark back road.

I have been waiting years for this sweet confluence of ragged edges, this blend of water and ashes into lovely mud.  Praise be for compost and chiropracters and congregations.  Praise be for pain that moves as pathways open.  Blessed be the dust.

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, 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 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.)