Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cattle and the kingdom of God?

Preface: Initially I figured I'd write some reflections on the difference between "following Jesus" and "being a Christian." That's a topic that runs constantly under the surface of my life like the hum of an electrical current, and I'm constantly reminded of it in various contexts. So I was thinking about it again today, and planned to write about it ...

I got home from a moderately short (ten hour) workday, anticipating a 6 am start tomorrow, since the wind is supposed to go down and we should be able to spray all day, unlike the last couple days.

I'm going to take a shower quick before supper, I said when I got home. So I did.

Let's eat, they said. Supper was delicious.

I thought about retiring to my room, writing a blog post, and going to bed early, delightedly clean and good-smelling.

We're going to work the cattle, they said.

Oh. I said. Need help?

Yes, they said.

Plans change.

Now, let me hasten to say that my brother and his wife have a remarkable herd of Hereford cows and calves. They run a little less than 20 cows, and I don't think I've ever experienced a herd as well-tended or as carefully cared for as these cattle. My brother and his wife intentionally walk the pastures each evening, scratching and talking to as many of the animals as possible. They know each animal's individual personality. They intentionally handle the calves, interacting with them so they get used to humans in a positive way.

All this means that rather than your stereotypical images of a cowboy roping a calf either by the head or by the heels and dragging it over to a fire so it can be branded, "working" these cattle means being right down in the pen with them, in very close contact. We would select two or three or four of them, carefully move them into a smaller holding pen, and most often down into a chute too narrow for the cows, and challenging for the calves, to turn around. Then (I am not making this up) my job was to take a rag soaked in an oil-based insecticide and rubbed it first up the length of their spines, then down each leg (ever been kicked by a cow? I have -- multiple times. I remembered those times vividly tonight. But none of these cows even tried to kick me) and then across their face and around their eyes. Though not every one of the animals really enjoyed this process, and some protested significantly, this was not so challenging on the cows, who have mostly been through this process a few times over the years. But it was significantly more challenging with the calves, who sometimes get nervous and might just jump over your head or try. Fortunately none of them made serious attempts at that tonight, though it was close a couple times. My favorite moment of the whole evening was me, hip-checking a calf who is very nervous and wanting to turn around, holding one hand over the top of his head to keep him from getting the idea he can climb over me, starting to rub down his spine with my rag, when he decided to shift position significantly, and my glasses came off. I caught my glasses in the same hand that was keeping his head down and held them there while laying down across his back to reach his front hooves, then his back hooves, holding him immobile the whole time in the chute. Then I put my glasses back on, wiped my rag once across his face, and let him go.

So we wiped down each of these animals, including the herd bull. While I was doing that, my brother inserted an ear tag that helps keep flies off the animal. So all of this is helping these cattle live more comfortably and healthy through the summer.

It was a workout. Here are a few pictures:

Above you get a little idea just how closely we're working with these animals. One of the things I love about Herefords is that in general terms, they're more docile than a lot of other breeds. At this distance, that is important. 

Here you see my brother Darin in the chute, keeping a calf in place with one hip. In the next few seconds after this picture was taken, I eased in next to Darin (personal space, anyone?) and rubbed the oily insecticide on key parts of this calf that are especially vulnerable to flies and other insects. This includes laying down across the calf's back and reaching in turn down each leg all the way to the hoof, since flies love to bite cattle legs. Remember that shower I took? Yeah. Didn't last long.

Can you find Stacey in this picture? She's working in among the cows and calves trying to move those that haven't yet been treated down past where I'm standing, toward the holding pen and chute. 

After the last of the cattle were treated and tagged, including the smallest calf that was born just a month ago who was napping on the hillside and we (again, I am not making this up) walked up to the napping calf, sat down next to it and gently rubbed it with an oily rag with some bug preventative incorporated into the oil while it languorously woke from its nap. And this little calf just loved it, a little like a favorite dog that loves a good rubdown. 

Then we turned the cattle out into a new pasture where the grass is belly deep down along the creek bottom. They were incredibly excited (oh, yes, cows get excited) to get into that pasture. They wandered up and down, sampling the grass and exploring their new digs. We had to spend some time walking fencelines and making sure everything would hold them in place. Here are a couple shots of Calli (a favorite dog who loves a good rubdown) and her idea of farm work:

So after making sure the fence would keep the cattle contained, I came back to the house and washed up again. It's a long time since I worked cattle on anything like a regular basis, and it seems that every time I get to work with them, whether it's feeding them in -20 degree weather last winter for another brother while he was out of town, or what we did tonight, I love it. I love the connection with my roots, of course, but there's more to it than that. 

In some ways, it ties back into what I've been thinking about following Jesus. I just recently finished reading N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began. Wright makes the argument in this book and elsewhere that Christians have mistaken Jesus' main message. We've made Jesus all about "how can I get to heaven when I die" -- we think that in fact is what Christianity is all about, that and an agenda that each of us should be morally good and respectable -- and that doesn't seem to have even been on Jesus' radar, if you read the gospels. What Jesus talked about in great detail was the kingdom of God. That seems to be the theme he was really excited about, and he almost never talked about how you can go to heaven when you die. 

Are we missing something? 

What Jesus seems to have meant by the "kingdom of God" is that in every area of our lives, and of our world, God is King. So to understand what it looks like that God would be King, we can look at a few different images from the Bible. The garden of Eden is a good place to start. Adam and Eve are given a significant amount of authority to manage the garden as servants of God, to "till the garden and keep it." Of course, they botch it up, but wait. Have you noticed how the Bible again and again talks about a new creation? New heavens and a new earth. Peter uses a phrase I just love to describe this new creation, saying it will be "a land in which righteousness is at home." There are significant signs that Jesus was trying to communicate exactly this sense of humanity's role on this earth -- that we are entrusted by God to manage his creation, to be his "image-bearers" so that every area of our lives -- relationships, work, play, worship, and more -- reflects his identity, his love, his goodness. That theme is all over through the Bible!

So maybe, just maybe working the cattle tonight gives me a vivid image of what following Jesus looks like. What would it look like for someone who bears the image of God to keep cattle? Would they tend and care for them with diligence and affection? Would they make sure that these cattle are well loved in appropriate ways as part of a good, God-reflecting creation? I think so. And if you are a Jesus follower who is called to keep cows, I suggest that this is the kind of thing you have to think about. 

So as we finished mending fences, and I turned to walk through the lush creek bottom pasture, I looked back westward over my shoulder and saw this view -- the moon coming out over the fields and the cottonwoods. If you look close, Darin is in the picture, taking a moment off from fixing fence to talk on the phone to another cattleman who called up to tap his wisdom about how best to manage his herd. 

There's a little bit of the garden of Eden in this sweaty, stinky, oily evening, in spite of the fact that every stitch of clothing I wore as I shot this picture went immediately into the hamper when I got home. Life is messy. Even reflecting the image of God, working for his kingdom, is messy. Jesus' life may have been the messiest of all. But that's fodder for another post. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Treasure in a field

It's so easy to miss the good stuff.

In this transition time, I find myself at loose ends, especially when it's been raining a lot and I can't drive truck in the beautiful fields of southeastern Minnesota. So, since I am curious about the world and wonder what's out there beyond truck driving and pastoring, I've spent a lot of time the last few rainy days on job boards.

Yesterday the walls were closing in and I needed to get out of the house, so I went to downtown Red Wing to find a coffee shop. Lo and behold, what I found! The largest Caribou store in the chain (the manager explained to me) and a gorgeous old building that used to be a railroad depot, then was a restaurant, and now is an amazing, spacious, two-level beautiful coffee shop with a fireplace and a conference room and dark wood and brick and oh, my goodness.

You never know when you're going to run across a treasure. I rearranged a bit of my day today to come back here and enjoy the ambience. Delightful.

Thing is, I've driven by this Caribou dozens of times. It's a coffee shop. They're all the same, right? Wrong. So wrong. This picture doesn't really do it justice. I mean, you get the whole standard thing with their best coffees -- the Obsidian and the Mahogany and the Starlight all lined up right next to each other on the shelves, and the custom coffee mugs, the apple fritters and espresso beans and chalkboard and leather chairs and all of that. But there's something about the space, the luxurious space, that is just joyous. Welcoming.

It's a treasure. I don't know how to put it better than that.

So what do you do when you find a treasure?

You can walk by, or drive by, and smile and nod. Most of the time we do. Or you can rearrange your schedule, your circumstances, your life, and let yourself be shaped by the encounter.

One of the refrains that regularly haunts my life comes from a poster in a student lounge when I was in college. It said: "The secret of life is this: To be ready at any moment to give up all that you are for the sake of all you may become." That thought is both inspiring and terrifying.

The other day a friend said he was struggling with a question. "When was the last time I did something for the first time?" he wondered. Too often we wear ruts in the soil of our lives and miss so much.

Are you keeping your eyes open for the treasures God puts in your way? Jesus told that story, you might remember -- that the kingdom of God was like a man who found a treasure in a field, and in his joy, he went and sold all that he had in order to buy that field. It's easy just to blip over that story and not take it very seriously. But if you think much about it, it's a very challenging story.

Here's one shot of the Caribou in downtown Red Wing. It doesn't do the experience justice, but you get a little idea. It's worth the trip!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Pondering Sunday's sermon

Went to church on Sunday.

With a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines job, that was a rare pleasure out of the last few weeks. Seems like contrary to Minnesota's regular habit, Saturdays and Sundays this spring have been bright, sunny, and good for being in the field. So I haven't been in worship much lately. I've been in scripture and devotional readings and prayer and even some pretty meaty theology, often while sitting behind the wheel of an enormous truck (but not when it's moving).

But Sunday was rainy and wet and I went to church. Traditional Lutheran service. I wasn't at Faaberg Lutheran (the church where I was raised) but it was very much the same kind of thing. Fifty people in worship (including me and the pastor). Traditional hymns. Traditional liturgy. Traditional prayers and benediction. It was good.

I choked on the sermon, though. Not just because, in a sermon that used children repeatedly as illustrations, the pastor when he intended to talk about a popular restaurant slipped up and said, "Kentucky Fried Children." I can forgive that. Lord knows I've slipped up enough while preaching!

The thing that choked me was how this preacher took Jesus' words in John 14 -- "If you love me, you will obey my commandments" -- and made them into a non-specific sermon that could be summed up as follows:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. (That is actually a direct quote from multiple points in the sermon.)

No definition of what, exactly, Jesus meant by "my commandments." No discussion of why the heart of God is impacted by sin. No parsing of what an adult is supposed to do with morality designed for five year olds ("Don't write on your little brother's face with permanent marker." Another direct quote. That and "Don't stick a knife in an electrical outlet.") No thought to the developmental stages of human beings and how, in our teen years, we undergo a major shift in how we understand "being good." No acknowledgement that more often than not, "being good" is held over people's heads as a tool to impart guilt, and thereby to maintain control.

Where I really wanted him to go was Galatians, where Paul says that the Law is our "paidegogeia," our tutor or nanny, designed to tend us until we mature and are ready for the loving freedom of the gospel. But that is dangerous and uncomfortable territory for those of us who have been raised on guilt.

The pastor did actually, to my great joy, talk a little about how we need both Law and Gospel, we need both the rules of God's Law and the freedom Jesus won for us at the cross. But that was sort of an aside, along with a nod to Bonhoeffer's idea of "cheap grace."

So what we all left with was a basic lesson in morality:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. Like your mom was sad when you misbehaved. And it's okay for her to let you feel the weight of her sadness. It's okay for her to say, See? When you did that Mommy felt sad. Strap on your codependent guilt and get back out there, kids.

I left worship thinking about how so much preaching in the church today comes down at about that level. It lands at the level of "You need to be good" -- be good or God will be sad, be good or you'll get in trouble, be good or you're going to hell, be good or you'll miss heaven.

Isn't there more than this?

Why did Jesus go on and on about the kingdom of God? Why did he focus on that SO MUCH MORE than focusing on people going to heaven? (By the way, "kingdom of heaven" which is used primarily in Matthew's gospel is just his way of saying "kingdom of God" and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with some paradise you go to after you die.) Does "be good" really help us grow into the love of God?

Sit through an average church service and you'll hear, be good. Because Jesus wants you to.

It makes me sad. It's not the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. It's not the gospel. It's probably not even Christianity.

It was good to be in church on Sunday. There were powerful words spoken, powerful messages in the liturgy, in the hymns, in the baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the benediction. It was good to be reminded of those saints at Faaberg and of so many other gatherings of God's people. So good to be wrapped into a fellowship of believers, even if I arrived during the welcome and left during the closing hymn. It was good to hear scripture read in public, and to hear the words of Jesus lifted up in some form.

And I am pondering, pondering how we might preach, teach, live more true to Jesus' own words, to his own proclamation.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Eclipsed by glory

I had coffee with my friend Matt today. He is a vibrant young man who has been a great supporter and friend of mine for many years. I have also had the privilege of being a close friend of his family for more than a decade now.

A few years ago, Matt faced some excruciating health crises. One morning a few days before he was to go into surgery, I was praying like mad for Matt and sent him a text that included these words, quoting a popular worship song:

He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
bending beneath 
the weight of his wind and mercy

When all of a sudden I am unaware
of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful you are
And how great your affections are for me

I have thought often about these words, especially the line about how "I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory". What are "these afflictions" in my life (or yours), and how do they get "eclipsed by glory"? And how could this glory of God "eclipse" them to the extent that I am "unaware" of them?

I don't know about you, but when I am in affliction I tend to get absorbed by, consumed by, totally overwhelmed by, my own suffering, whatever form it takes.

I had a long conversation with my niece the other day about loneliness. Being an introvert from a family of introverts, you wouldn't think loneliness would be an issue for her, or for me. I spent almost a week one year ago in the Boundary Waters on a solo trip, and I didn't see another human from mid-day Monday through mid-day Friday. I reveled in the solitude. I loved it, lapped it up. Never missed human company and never regretted my choice to go out into the backcountry alone. In fact, I was sad on Friday to come to the landing on Round Lake and have to talk to people. One of the ideas I've toyed with during my current time of transition is, why not take a month and head into the BWCA solo? Spend a couple thousand dollars on a good canoe and provisions, and just head out? Some small part of me yearns for that kind of solitude. At the moment, though, my guess is it wouldn't be a wise choice.

But I digress.

My niece and I talked at length about loneliness. She's got a new baby, and her husband works long hours. She's often alone with the little one in their apartment, and the lack of human companionship can be crushing. Absolutely crushing. I have a ready cadre of friends and family that I try to stay in contact with, but at times the loneliness of my days (especially rainy days when I'm not driving truck and boredom rears its ugly head) is still crushing. For many people, the worst kind of isolation, the worst loneliness, is what they experience in a crowd.


How is this affliction eclipsed by glory? Maybe the more important line in the song is "I am unaware" -- in other words, it's not that the affliction goes away, but that the glory of Jesus eclipses the affliction. Ever seen an eclipse? I've watched a few, both lunar and solar, and they're pretty amazing. Either the moon moves between the earth and the sun (solar eclipse) or the earth moves between the moon and the sun (lunar eclipse). The image in the song means that the glory moves between your view and the affliction. So the glory of Jesus somehow moves between you and your affliction.

So what does it look like for the glory of Jesus to move between me and my loneliness, for example? What does it look like for his presence, his glory, to eclipse my affliction?

First option is that somehow, in my devotional time, in my prayer, or in some other encounter, Jesus becomes so present to me, I experience his glory in such a tangible way, that it cuts me off from a preoccupation with my own struggles. You can read about such experiences in the writings of John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila, or others who have focused deeply on the life of prayer. They had these kinds of experiences, and such a present, tangible sense of Jesus' presence is certainly available to believers today at times. The story goes that when Thomas Aquinas, who wrote thousands of pages of teaching that still guide the Roman Catholic Church today, who basically reinterpreted Christian theology so it could take account of the newly rediscovered writings of Aristotle -- when Thomas was near the end of his life, he slipped into a vision and upon coming back, is reported to have said, "I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw."

But most Christians never experience that kind of direct revelation of the glory of God, at least not in an enduring way, though we may be stricken by God's glory for a moment watching a sunset or experiencing worship in a powerful way or watching a baby being born or something like that. But it's fleeting at best. And in my experience, those moments are difficult to hang onto. It is interesting that as soon as the Transfiguration was over, Jesus called Peter, James and John to come down the mountain with him, back among people. It's like he didn't want them to focus on remaining on that mountaintop.

The second option, and a much more common one, is that the glory of Jesus comes to you and me hidden, embodied, incarnate in the life of another person who bears the image of God to us. In other words, God sends you a human being to be his image, the representation of his glory, to stand between you and your afflictions, to eclipse them. This is why the fellowship of other believers is so critically important. If you have eyes to see, it can be an incredible thing to see the presence of God in someone who loves you well, who stands even for a moment between you and your hurt, your lack, your pain. In my sense of isolation today, I had no less than eight people step between me and that loneliness, eclipsing it for a few minutes or for a few hours, letting a deep, Jesus-centered connection with them make me unaware for a time of my afflictions. Most were people with whom I interacted in the flesh; a precious few were loved ones whose faces and memories I could bring to mind in the moment, cherishing their presence in a life-giving way. And if we are paying attention, these loving, lovely people who embody God's glory to us not only give us a few minutes' respite. If we are attentive they can help us to reinterpret our afflictions, to see them in a new way.

At the end of the day, I can still be overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and isolation. But -- and this is what I choose right now -- I can also focus on the glory, on the embodied glory of God in each of those individuals who carried God's image into my life and eclipsed my afflictions for a time. It can be a beautiful thing to be unaware of our afflictions, to have them eclipsed by the glory -- present and tangible -- of Jesus.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pondering again

It's been a while.

Some of you know that I have been in a significant time of transition these last few months. To quote from The Princess Bride, "Let me explain ... No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

I am no longer serving as a pastor. I resigned my post at Calvary in March. My professional and personal life has been in something of a freefall since that time, for a variety of reasons. I've moved outside the Cities, which has been a great relief to me. I realize more than ever what a farm kid I am, and how much I need to be out in open fields to stay healthy. I've been living on my younger brother's small farm near Red Wing, MN and driving truck for an agricultural supply company in southeast Minnesota. I have loved being out in the country and dealing with farmers again. What a gift.

At the same time, I recognize that my exit did a lot of damage to the church and to a lot of people that I care deeply about. While there is a complex backlog of reasons why I've done the things I've done, the damage I've done is huge, and I carry the weight and remorse of that every day. Yes, there is forgiveness in Christ. Yes, I believe Romans 8:1 ("There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus") as much as I ever have. Yes, I have huge regrets for relationships broken and friendships lost and colleagues alienated. Absolutely. At the same time I cling to Jesus who forgives sinners, who redeems our brokenness and brings great good out of terrible evil. Including mine.

And yes, I am still in close fellowship with God and in various shapes, with his people. One of the things I'll no doubt be writing about in the coming days if I decide to keep posting to this blog is my changing ecclesiology -- what I believe about the nature and purpose of the church. I've been learning and thinking a lot about that recently. And I still support, in a variety of ways, the mission of Calvary Lutheran Church, and of the Christian Church in more general terms.

I've also been brought face to face with myself -- with some of the things that are deep in my core, things that make me who I am, things that I thought I could just set aside to do a challenging job at Calvary. I intentionally laid aside much of what is at my core as a farm kid, as a hunter, as a guy with deep rural roots, not to mention as a writer. I had friends who would occasionally call me on that, and rightly so. How could I live on a postage stamp suburban lot in the inner suburbs? Moving to Zimmerman in 2003 was a stretch toward a more urban environment than I wanted. So when in 2014 I moved into the first ring suburbs, they rightly challenged me. Seriously? Jeff was going to live in the city?

And it didn't go well.

There are lots of factors in this transition, lots of things for me to learn, lots of things I have learned already. I don't intend to bring them all out and process them on this blog -- I have more appropriate venues for that reflection, and friendships in which I can do some of that sharing and thinking, thank God. I am continuing, as I will throughout life, to grow into what it means to be the beloved child of God, to live into that Romans 8 authority as his beloved son. I continue to have lots to learn in that arena.

But at the same time, I know that is the core of my identity, and I have to embrace who he has created me to be. I have missed sharing my reflections in this format. I have missed the chance to ponder in print in a more disciplined sort of written reflection and to let other people interact with what I've been thinking. I miss writing in a way that impacts the world, at least a little bit. So maybe there are still a few die-hard blog-followers out there, and maybe not; but at any rate, this kind of writing demands a little more disciplined approach than a simple journal, and I'm excited to occasionally post a little of what I am pondering and learning.

I'm still obsessed with the same questions. What does it mean that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not? What does it mean that in his death, Jesus conquered the powers that so dominate our lives? What does it mean that Jesus sent his followers to proclaim his kingdom, and how is that going in 2017?

Looking forward to pondering with you.