Saturday, December 18, 2021

Deep satisfactions

Lately I have been experiencing some long-awaited joys. 

Tuesday my first grandchild arrived, a little girl, who bears as her middle name the name of my mother. The very existence of this tiny human being marks the passing and legacy of the generations. She is a word of my own finitude and mortality, and in that I am set free and overjoyed. I have not yet met her, but there will be time for that. 

Last night a small group of us shared a worship service in my barn. In my deepest heart and in a few quiet conversations, this has been envisioned over and over for the past year. Last night it finally came to be. We sat in the cold barn around a propane heater. We talked of Herod the Great and his architecture, and how in the face of those grandiose projects Jesus chose to be born in a place much like this. He came, as Peterson has it in The Message, for everyone. Nothing could symbolize that better than that first night's lodgings. So we shared communion with a bold red wine and homemade whole wheat bread. 

Outside the barn, one of those lovely December snows was beginning. The flakes wafted downward past the longhorn steer skull above the door on the barn, through the rarely-lit yardlight's illuminated cone, settling on the ground and obscuring the tracks of whitetails and cottontails that crisscross my yard. 

Then we adjourned up the hill to my house (remember the $350 trailer house I've been working on with the help of many of these same friends?) and shared chili and cornbread and lefsa and mulled wine and the joy and conversation that comes with shared life and deep trust. 

I find myself living out a manifesto of simplicity and contentment here. I've mentioned Wendell Berry before and his articulate advocacy for this kind of a life. Here is a piece in which he recommends some concrete steps that lead one into this kind of living. Enjoy. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Turning the corner into winter

 It's almost December as I write this. I'm sitting in that trailer house I bought last spring. A few friends and I spent a ton of energy making it livable. So though it's twenty degrees outside, I'm sitting comfortably in my living room listening to the furnace run. My coffee pot is happily keeping me happy on the kitchen counter. Shoes and bookshelves and TV and car keys each have their places. This has become home, though (like most homes) there is still a great deal of work to be done. I am hesitant to say so out loud, but I think I'm ready to face the Minnesota winter in this place. 

I've been working lately in the barn. There's a solid prospect of a horse or two coming to live here in the spring, and it's been fun to turn from cleaning junk out of the barn. Now I'm focusing on building a couple box stalls and planning for water, fence repair, and the like. I'm very excited about all that. The pasture fence will need a little work, but a few days of labor will probably have the place ready for equine occupancy. Then there will be more complicated things that need to be accomplished next spring or summer, like getting a source of water in the barn itself. But that's manageable. And I am so enjoying the deep connection to my farming roots and those kinds of projects. I don't know what I was thinking a few years ago when I figured I could live in the Twin Cities. 

Also tremendously exciting is that in the next few weeks I am becoming a grandpa. That is a deep joy waiting to come to full flower, and I'm patient. 

I'm thinking a lot these days about the chaotic times in which we live. As I write, the new omicron variant of the corona virus has captured everyone's attention. We continue to live in the midst of this global pandemic with great fear and conflict. We continue to be polarized around everything from politics to medicine to sexuality to ... well, to everything, it seems like. 

I think often about Wendell Berry (if you don't know him, look him up) and some of his philosophy around land and spirituality. Boiled down, I think it applies like this. In times of chaos and division, the responsible thing to do is build three things. First, land. Make sure you have space. If at all possible, own it. That provides a firm economic footing. Maybe this means owning a home. Berry in one interview said that it's incredibly important to find a few square feet of scrub land, if nothing else, that you can manage. I agree. 

Second, skills. As much as possible, know how to take care of yourself. This means everything from basic first aid to cooking. Learn how to do the necessary things to make your life work. Can you plant a garden? Butcher a deer? Fix your plumbing? Change your oil? If not, learn how. 

Third and by far most important, community. Build a network of friends who can do life together. Any shortcomings under #1 and #2 are covered if you build a strong community. Eat together. Worship together. Talk about important things together. Care for each other's needs and work on projects together. We too often fail to realize that community needs to be intentionally built. This is so important. 

Obviously we could dive deep into each of these three, but not right now. Suffice it to say that when you experience fear in the daily headlines, these three are a solid place to invest the energy that grows out of that fear. 

I'm not advocating being a "prepper" or having stockpiles of weapons or non-perishable food. Too often that just feeds the fear and division. Instead I'm saying as much as possible, build a stable life. When you have made some progress in that direction, the headlines can fly over your head like birds, without making nests in your hair. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Redemption: What is it?

 At its worst, it's a Christianese word. It gets thrown around in theological circles and church services. More likely you'd hear its cousin, "Redeemer." As in, "Jesus is my Redeemer." That may be true and correct, but what does it mean? In common usage the statement "Jesus is my Redeemer" doesn't seem to mean anything different than "Jesus is my Savior." It's just a comforting way for me to think that I'm important enough that Jesus died on the cross for me. 

And that is good and true. But what does the word "redeem" actually mean?

Last fall I bought 40 acres of land. I remember the first time I saw this plot, about three years ago. I thought, "Why would anyone want that patch of scrub?" In late March I moved onto this piece of land, and I have slept nearly every night since here, mostly in a big-enough-for-me camper. I've come to love this land, though I recognize its shortcomings. It is covered with weeds, including some really nasty ones like thistles and cockleburs. The soil is so sandy it needs rain about every three days or things don't grow well. (This summer has been miserable that way.) The one building on the property is a decrepit metal barn that needs a lot of attention. When I moved in, there was no accessible source of water. There was a ton (literally) of garbage scattered between the barn and the tree rows. There was no functional electricity on the property. 

Lots of people had looked at the property and turned up their noses. The listing realtor is a dear friend of mine, and he told me. His authority as listing agent had also expired when I came to buy this land, because nobody wanted it. 

That's a lot of what the word "redeem" is about. If something is going to be redeemed, it begins without value. 

The only way we use the word "redeem" these days is in regard to coupons. I remember Mom clipping coupons when I was young. We didn't have a lot of money, and coupons stretched the grocery budget considerably. I was amazed that a piece of newsprint, cut (sometimes torn) out of the advertisements, somehow got us a dollar off that box of Cheerios. How was that possible? 

When you turn in a coupon, you "redeem" it. You and the grocer make an agreement that the piece of newsprint is valuable. It is not valuable in terms of cash. There is a long, complicated reason why most coupons include a line about "cash value 1/20th of one cent" in the fine print. It's not very interesting. But beyond that, there's no real value to that coupon. 

No value, that is, until you redeem it. You take what is of no value, and between you and the grocer you agree that it has value. 

In the Old Testament, there is a complicated system around something called a "kinsman redeemer." You see it in the story of Ruth, for example. The idea was that any property (a field, maybe, or a woman) that was unwanted could be redeemed by a close relative. In other words, if that piece of property was considered valueless, the kinsman-redeemer could give it value by claiming it as his own. So Boaz has to jump through some hoops when he wants to marry Ruth (read it, it's a great story) because there's a closer relative that has the right to redeem both Ruth and a certain field. But that relative doesn't want to take on the responsibility, so Boaz and Ruth get married. Ruth was a foreigner, dependent on a widow of no means, unwanted among the Israelites. Boaz redeemed her and declared her valuable. 

When I moved into this property, some fantastic friends pitched in and helped me along the way. We cleaned out the barn, dug up rotten posts, hauled a ton of garbage to the dump, replaced a decrepit overhead door on one end of the old metal barn. I invested in a well and a septic system. (You know thing are pretty valueless when an outhouse is a great improvement! The septic system seemed light years ahead.) Bit by bit, it became obvious that some people loved this place. The weeds got sprayed and cut down. We planted a garden. Recently I had the waterhole in the pasture re-dug and expanded, hoping that someday horses may use it. In the meantime, the deer and birds are grateful. 

What seemed valueless and unloved has become greatly loved. I've had people ask if I'm interested in selling, because suddenly the property looks valuable. It's being redeemed. 

And so we come to the heart of what the word means. At the heart, saying that Jesus is your Redeemer means that once you were without value. You were cast aside, rejected, unwanted. But Jesus declared you valuable. Just like this land, just like that Cheerios coupon, he "deemed" (an old English word meaning to decide, to evaluate) that you were infinitely valuable. You are so valuable that he spent himself, his own authority and his very life, to show how valuable you are. 

It's one of the best things about knowing Jesus personally and hanging out with others who know him in that way: You experience, day by day, the reality that you have been redeemed. 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Updating on the fly

This is at best a random update. What I wrote here in April is largely still true: I am working the same job, and enjoying it immensely. Our Home Church is an amazing tiny group that has become more than family. We gather weekly, more or less. A few times now we've all gathered for a weekend at my farm, and those dear ones have done so much to transform this place, on the surface and in my heart. 

I have a trailer house now that I bought for a pittance and we are renovating it. I'm still working on things like propane and septic and such. I have a well dug, though the water is not drinking quality. It's good for pretty much everything else, and I'll add a reverse osmosis system once we get to that point. 

Ten hour work days followed by a couple hours of tearing up subfloor and reframing windows are the rule  these days. My daughter asked the other day if I'm getting any breaks. Answer? Yes. Fishing a little, a movie now and then, an amazing meal at times. Lots of friends. It's good. 

I'm still pondering deeply about the church and what God is up to in that arena. I'm working on a book manuscript that is part Bible study and part contextual commentary / critique about how the institutional church (including the ones I have led) miss the mark so badly. They serve a purpose, without a doubt, but the institutional church is far from what the Bible describes as church. 

I have a garden these days that is becoming more and more fruitful. I have friendships that also are tremendously fruitful. God is faithful and continues to speak, continues to work, continues to use us to touch the lives of others in profound ways. It's such a privilege, and frankly (speaking only for myself) at times a bit of a surprise. 

And maybe that is what it comes down to: In the midst of brokenness, betrayal, craziness, bitterness, sin and shame, God is not deterred. He is close to you, and he is doing stuff. That's something like what Jesus meant when he said, "The kingdom of God is near you." 

For now, it's enough. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Did you fall off the face of the earth??

 It's been a full year since I posted anything new on this blog. That wasn't something I planned. During the past year it's been hard to know what to say in so many areas, and maybe I've just kept my silence. Was it Lincoln that said it's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, rather than to open it and remove all doubt?

Things change. We've experienced wave after wave of Covid, racial and social unrest, and massive societal challenges. I haven't quite known what to say about those things. Just recently, with the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd almost a year ago, there are so many voices speaking into the chaos. I applaud them. It is necessary for people to speak into the face of the challenges we've faced as a society.

I've had my own challenges these past months. Almost a year ago as I was in prayer one spring morning, I heard God say, "Get ready to get out of the boat." Beyond the allusion to Peter stepping out on the water to meet Jesus in Matthew's gospel I wasn't sure what that meant. It was such a clear word, and I pondered it for weeks and months. In spite of all the unrest in the world, my own life seemed pretty solid at that time. I had a large social network and a position in which I was able to preach and teach in what seemed like a thriving church setting. In my teaching, I was able to develop themes I'd taught in the past and lead people more deeply into God's Word and the life of following Jesus through the power of his Spirit. It was good work, and it was bearing good fruit.

Because so much in my life seemed so good and stable, I wanted to invest more deeply in the local community where I lived, so I bought 40 acres of land a few miles away. It included an old farmstead with an aging metal barn, a little pasture, and some cropland. I explained to my friends that it was a way to double down in this specific part of the world. I wasn't going anywhere. I expected that the land would provide a place to reconnect to the land and my roots. Last November I bought a small tractor, and I started spending some of my spare time playing with projects out on "the farm." Far in the back of my mind, I toyed with someday putting a home on the property, though it was far from livable. 

Over a period of a few months, God's word to me about stepping out of the boat began to be fulfilled. My position in the church (and with it my living situation, since I was living on church property as a site manager and security presence) became unstable. Over my objections God spoke clearly through my circumstances that it was time to move on. During the winter I resigned my position and made arrangements to move to my land. At the end of March I purchased a good-sized camper. I felt like something between a pioneer and a refugee.

I'm sitting in that camper as I write this. Most of my belongings are packed away in the barn a few feet away. Little by little, investment by investment, I'm figuring out how to make my life here. With a lot of help, the barn is being transformed into usable space. What looked like a sea of weeds when I first saw this property has been mowed and might someday become a garden, an orchard, a pasture, a front yard. The buckthorn and burdock is giving way to miraculous amounts of green grass and beauty. I'm working on things like a well and electricity and a septic system. My views these days are of the sunrises and the sunsets, of the deer and pheasants that inhabit my few trees and lowland pasture. 

Work and church have both changed. I'm very much enjoying my job these days, which is in a light manufacturing company that supplies taxidermists with fish replicas. I've learned a ton about so many things, from fish to leadership to shipping to economics to my own strengths and weaknesses. And while it is odd not to be employed by the church, to be honest it's a joy not to draw my salary from people's donations. It has been a crazy adjustment to have discretion over my evenings and weekends, and to be paid overtime wages when I work more than 40 hours in a week. 

At the same time I'm rediscovering what church means. A few of us meet together weekly to share food and worship and scripture and prayer. "Home church" as we've taken to calling it might last anywhere from a couple hours to most of a day. Each of us who participates brings something of value into the gatherings, and it is such a joy to be together. I have better relationships surrounding me than I have ever known. 

There are deep wells of meaning in this life, along with challenges that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. In the coming days I'd like to write about redemption: how God takes things of no value and gives them great worth. I'd like to write about this land, and how in the specific details of loving it, it is coming back to life, and so am I. I'd like to write about where I see God moving these days in his church and what that means. By God's grace, I will do so. Like so much in my life it will no doubt be sporadic, so I apologize in advance. But any of you who are still in touch with this blog have endured seasons when it's disappeared altogether, so I trust you'll be patient. 

I'll close this one up with thanks to Stephen who reached out via email a while back to check in, and who told me in no uncertain terms that I should be writing my blog again. The Spirit used that nudge. Thanks!