Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ghosts of Mississippi

I wish to share a most beautiful piece of imagery written by Owen at his site: The Ocholophobist.

While it devolves briefly into a rant about the decadence of our parishioners at one point, I ask you focus on the ache and beauty of his memory of his Sunday School teacher Mary, and of his friend Davey.

Owen is a man of learning - apparently mostly self-taught (as all good learning must be), with a wide grasp of things philosophical, theological, and sociological. He provokes and is opinionated, but always worth reading.

Owen lost his job a while back. I think he is going to school again or still looking for work, or both. Keep him and his family in your prayers.

I have never met the man, but I have corresponded with him and read his work. I hope one day he will journey out this way, for he would find friends, drink, food, and fellowship. God willing.

This piece makes me think of my own teachers and relations - Missouri baptists forged in the troubles of the Depression; Kansas farmers become loggers become steelworkers who, like Owen's mentors have that:

"disposition [which might be called] the Mississippi of the heart. It is that peculiar tenderness that is found among those who have an ache that will not heal in part because the wound has no rest due to the constant motion of being given to others (even if in the quiet, in prayer), but are so glad to be able to give that they count the pain as nothing.

It makes me think of the North Dakota ranchers who came West as an entire family - never rich but in love for one another and generosity which seemed to spring forth from unknown resources, my own Grandmother being one who ended her days in a single-wide striving to remember her children from pictures on the wall while the Alzheimer's ravaged her mind, but always ridiculously, but yet in childlike wonderfulness telling us in song that "the more we get together the happier we'll be."

I am reminded of my neighbor in North Carolina who spent her life protecting her 'angel baby' who lay motionless for 21 years before giving up the ghost, who drove up the street a mile where the 'preacher-man' gave his sermons and was brokenhearted when her husband died. She and my other neighbor had been friends for decades, but the color line was still strong and they only spoke to one another outside the houses and went to different baptist churches. But they baked and shared their abundance with one another too and I believe truly loved one another. Hard to figure.

I'm afraid that I am more like Owen:

I know I have never had much in the way of faith, and maybe that's it. In my life, every time I've had a come to Jesus meetin' of any sort, every time I have tried a bit harder to be a Christian, I have found that my general problems in life have increased, and that I start to screw up more than I did when just coasting. Grant you, I have not tried all that often. In part because I came to wonder if laying low wasn't a more careful route to go.

And I wonder how we, my people, came from where they did to the debacle that was the nightly show of my childhood. I will not tell you that tale, no.

But when I look at where I am at in life, and what people may assume about me (look at him, he's never really had to suffer!), and compare that to what really has gone on in life, I am reminded that we do not know the contours of many another's life and we must assume there lurks there untold stories, and untold pains. They all have ghosts haunting them, whether old gnarled-hand Mississippi Sunday School Teachers or Gucci purse carrying urbanites - let us love one another as we would ourselves.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Worthy Thoughts - Good in Every Man

Stop looking for that which is bad in your neighbors but rather find and love that which is good in them and you will save both them and yourselves.

You will save them since every man already believes in his own goodness, everyone likes and wants to be good, everyone feels that eternal and divine calling to perfection. One should, therefore, support others in this: believe in them and help them develop that which is good, which abides in them and which they ultimately respect in themselves, that they develop that inner goodness, that it be strengthened and that it bring them victory over evil… For, it is only that which is good in man that can be loved and it is only in love that one can live.

It is with this teaching that the Apostles set out into the world on this day [Pentecost].

—Bishop Hrizostom (Vojinović)

To read the whole from which these excerpts are taken, visit Fr Milovan's blog Again and Again, and read the post entitled Good in Every Man.

H/T to Romanos at and, of course, Fr. Milovan

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Red Pill - Leaving our Delusions Behind

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he's expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: 'Cause I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there. Like a splinter in your mind -- driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Neo: The Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
(Neo nods his head.)
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.


My friend John at Notes from a Commonplace Book once quoted at length from Fr. Alexander Schmemman's journals about the problem of how we view (or ignore) death. In reading Fr. John Behr's "The Mystery of Christ - Life in Death," my mind has turned to contemplate that great mystery.

Reviewing John's post spurred me to think - we've really got it wrong, how we view death as a 'natural part of life' and sit around expecting the coming of the 'sweet by-and-by.' Our true death is also our rebirth - and it happens in our baptism with water and Spirit. But to walk around as if we are alive in ourselves ignoring that we must, in fact, be buried with Christ and raised in Him, is to live 'in the Matrix' - "the world that has been pulled over [our] eyes to blind [us] from the truth." What truth? That actually we live in bondage to sin and spiritual death, in separation from God, and that apart from dying to self and being reborn, we are already lost.

In 1944, the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division jumped into Normandy as part of the campaign to liberate Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany. "Easy" Company of the 506th, made famous by Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, jumped into Normandy with 139 officers and men on June 6th. Twenty-three days later they came off the line with 65 fewer souls [if my math is correct].

In the HBO/Play Tone production of Band of Brothers [which, incidentally, IMO is the best 'war movie' made to date], there is a conversation between a feared and respected Lieutenant Ronald Spiers and a Private Blithe. Blithe is struggling with the shock and fear of combat and confesses that he hid in a ditch after the jump rather than seek out his unit and join the fight. Factually, Albert Blithe was wounded in combat during the Normandy campaign and never fully recovered from his wounds, finally dying in 1948.

Spiers: "We're all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there's still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead."

While the point of the [perhaps imagined] conversation was to give a soldier the means to overcome the fear of war and to act effectively, the idea of 'hiding in a false hope' due to fear has some application.

As Christians we are to also accept, as St. Paul says, that we have died to self and live only in Christ. Not "I" but Christ who lives in me. The only hope we have is to accept the fact that we're already dead without Christ. Moreover, in baptism we die with Christ, and our new resurrected life is hid in his.

We put our hope on accepting the fact that we are already 'dead' to the World - and we are [as St. Paul says] truly pitiable if Christ has not, in fact, risen. Then we are men bound to a false hope.

But if our belief is true, there is no other hope than to accept the fact that we were already dead in sin, and will only be alive in Christ by dying to the World and being raised with Him, and that acting otherwise is to hold out hope that we somehow will be able to live without Christ.

We hold to many truly false hopes. Recently, after realizing a sinful behavior, despite 'knowing better,' I was given to think as I suspect we often do: "perhaps I can yet redeem myself in the eyes of my Lord by the improvement of my behavior." If Jesus is (as I believe and confess) God from God, the Existing Logos, there is little I could do to 'redeem myself' in His eyes. I realized that I was clinging to a false hope, like Private Blithe, thinking this was a way to cling to life.

I believe this is a common false hope to cling to, even when we 'know better' through having been taught that no man can justify himself through his works (rather, his works are an external indicator of obedience to the commands of Christ and faith in Christ). We still want to hide in the ditch thinking there is still hope for life while remaining just where we are, hoping that at some little moment we will redeem ourselves in the eyes of our Lord - that we will be our own Savior in the eyes of our Judge, rather than really accepting, deep in our nous, our 'heart of hearts' that our Judge is our Savior, and realizing that there's nothing we can do to redeem ourselves. As we stand before him all we can do is throw ourselves upon his infinite mercy.

"To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a transrational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. 'In him was life; and the life was the light of men." All Christian doctrines--those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement--are explanations, consequences, but not the 'cause' of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become 'valid' and 'consistent.' But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that 'proposition' about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. 'For the life was manifested and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us' (1 Jn. 1:2). In this sense Christian faith is radically different from 'religious belief.' Its starting point is not 'belief' but love. . . And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the 'content' of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life."

-- Fr. Alexander Schmemann, from Ch. 6 of For the Life of The World, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (1973).


Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled in to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occurred to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations --
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as -- often, in light, on the open hills --
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then -- even before you see --
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That's the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now -- these few more words, and then I'm
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way --
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

- William Stafford

Monday, June 08, 2009

Of Wisdom and of the Voice of Truth (revised)

I have edited the original post. My apologies to any reader who did not comment but might be looking for it. I reflected on this post over the weekend and decided that it was unworthy musing - worthy for a fireside chat with an old friend, perhaps, but when written in public blogdom it shows both my ignorance and does not serve to edify.

Thus I have redacted the discussion of time, and the discussion of a wistful desire to be an intellectual, a goal which I will never achieve but which I realize isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be.

The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.

Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.

But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.

Proverbs 8:22-36

Although Divine Wisdom is typically referred to in the feminine in the OT - the Fathers consistently saw this passage as a description of the Christ. The great Church Historian, Eusebius, almost casually ties the two together in talking about the eternal begottenness of the Son.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well (Gospel of John) that the time is coming, and now is, that people will no longer worship in the temple or on mount Gerezim, but the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. In the same Gospel he explains he is the Truth, the Way, the Life and he promises that the Spirit will come and lead the Apostles in all Truth. All who hear His Voice hear the Truth.

Truth is a man. We worship in Trinity - Father, Truth (Son), and Spirit. This is Wisdom. Wisdom, if we find it, giveth life (Proverbs 8) and if we hear Him, we hear the Voice of Truth, we hearken unto Wisdom, who was with the Father when Time was not.

No philosophy of man or sophistry of education will get me farther than this, that I should truly know what Jesus is talking about: "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3).

A little child can hear His voice better than I can, and no 'book-larnin' will bring me closer - but there are things that will. I pray I may find that, for that is what I really long for. No field equations exist for love as yet. No mathematical nicety can model what happened at the Cross.

Today's Gospel reading (Greek lectionary) is:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."

Monday, June 01, 2009

Of Grass, Sheep, Moles, and Dirt

Currently it's in vogue to consider oneself, as a shepherd, to actually be in the business of being a 'grass farmer.' Of course, this assumes one actually understands the culture of various grass species and legumes, which I can say I don't. I am a novice. I can recognize winter rye and red and white clovers, and tall fescue. That's about it. So I'll stick to 'novice shepherd' for now as I feel my way along.

Right now my small flock cannot keep up with the grass on our current pasture rotation. So I spend time on the small tractor mowing. If I had a good farmer's mower, I'd put up some of the cutting for hay rather than mulch it with the mowing deck on the small tractor (it's a John Deere, but with front and back PTOs and can do a great deal - a lawn and garden tractor on steroids). If I had a good scythe and knew how to wield it, I'd take a swipe at cutting hay and gathering it into shocks after it dried.

Walking the North pasture last night, while rounding up the flock to put them in the fold for the night, I examined grass, which now nearly exceeds the height of the sheep, and generally am pleased with what was, over winter, a bit of a poorly pasture (the South pasture is much more lovely). The combination of overseeding with the gentle planting action of sheeps' hooves on moist soil seems to have encouraged some recovery.

Nevertheless, I continue to have moles working the soil in the North pasture far more abundantly than anywhere else on the property.

I have mixed feelings about moles - within limits they are actually good tillers of the soil and I will leave them be as they go about their business of aerating and mixing soil layers and providing better drainage, as well as eating large numbers of insects, insect larvae, and other pests. I sometimes take some of the freshly tilled soil to use for soil layers in the compost heaps and for mixing in the garden with compost and more sandy soil (our native soil on the farm is a silty clay loam of volcanic origin - fairly productive but I like to mix it for the raised beds in the garden). So the moles provide some benefit, so long as they don't get out of hand.

So far, one of our resident cats has ensured just that. Everyone earns his or her keep on the farm, whether sheep (grass management, wool, natural fertilizer, meat), chickens (eggs, some grass/weed control, bug control, some meat), dog (all around warning system/deterrent, hunting companion), cats (rodent management) . . . and of course, the farmer (caretaker, weed-puller, cultivator, ear scratcher, etc., etc.). Even the mole earns his keep - and for that I think some hills in the pasture are a fair trade. I like to think that moving the soil into other parts of the system (compost, garden) is a means to conserve the now-exposed soil and avoid any significant scatter/topsoil blowout as a result of wind-driven dust.

Today at lunch I got out the Farm Journal (sort of a log of doings so maybe I'll learn lessons from it), which I had failed to update in about three months, and started thinking of all that the last three months has brought. That got me to thinking of the inventory of all the things growing on the farm right now (besides weeds and grass and invasive but delicious blackberries). So here, dear reader, is an inventory of things striving:

In the Garden:

Lettuce (3 kinds)
Onions (Walla Walla)
Garlic Chives
Pepper plants (one red, one yellow)
Tomato (3 varieties)
Pole Beans
Summer Squash
Yellow Zucchini
Blueberries (six bushes)
Grape vines (two old vines - "eating grapes")
Strawberries (Everbearing)

In the "Orchard" (actually orchard and other locations)

Apples (six+ varieties)
Pears (5 varieties)
Cherries (two varieties I think - one is Bing)
Italian Plums
Figs (3 varieties)

Persimmons will come on just after Thanksgiving
Walnuts (5 English Walnuts - aged but still producing beautiful nuts for October)

In noting this inventory today I realized how God-blessed we are to have this place, for we reap what we did not sow and we will sow what others will later reap. It is a special stewardship to hold the land for the time we will be able to hold it, however long that is.
In that regard, I recommend to you read "Mad Farmer Liberation Front" and consider the import of these words of Mr. Berry:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium.
Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit.
Prophesy such returns.
May you have a blessed next few days awaiting Pentecost.