Compost Transfiguration

This was my sermon from this past Sunday – Transfiguration Sunday.

Much of my time on the farm is spent managing manure. The average cow produces 100 pounds of it per day. Then there’s the pigs and the goats and the chickens, and well, you get the picture. It’s a lot. And it all has to go somewhere. All of that… stuff and the used straw bedding gets composted. When I first muck out the pens, it is smelly and gross. If I don’t get to it soon enough the smell of ammonia is overpowering.  It all gets tossed into one big, festering pile of… stuff. Since I want to eventually use this compost on my vegetable gardens, I monitor and manage the piles pretty closely. I keep a thermometer nearby and take the pile’s temperature every day aiming for a temperature of around 130-140 degrees. Then comes the task of turning the pile.  Steam billows out from the pile and white streaks of thermophilic bacteria lace the decomposing material. The smell of muck and ammonia is gone. I turn the pile every few days at first, each time the pile has changed. Each time the contents of the pile become more indistinct, darker, richer. Finally the pile no longer heats up and the worms move in to feast. I don’t have to turn it as often, but when I do, the soft, pink brown bodies of the worms squirm and writhe with each forkful. Before long, the pile is something altogether wonderful. Earthy and sweet smelling, soft and crumbling in my hand, full of vital nourishment for the garden. A complete transformation from smelly, festering waste to sweet, life giving compost.

We call this Sunday in the church year, Transfiguration Sunday. Every year it is the last Sunday before the season of Lent begins and always this story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John to the mountain top where they see Moses and Elijah and Jesus is transfigured into a glowing figure. The disciples are almost overcome with sleep, but they manage to stay awake just long enough to see Jesus in all his divine glory. Then a cloud or a fog moves in and they are overcome with awe as they hear God’s voice telling them to listen to Jesus.

This story is always paired with the story of how Moses had to wear a veil to shield is eyes when he would come before God’s presence on the mountainside. He could only remove it to see God’s backside as God passed. But here, in Luke, it’s as if the disciples were allowed to have that veil lifted, even if for just a brief moment, to see the fullness of Jesus, the glory of God. Jesus is transfigured, which means the truth or fullness of who he is was revealed. And the disciples were transformed in their witnessing it.

Well, except they weren’t, at least not completely. Because Jesus and the disciples come back down from mountain and the next day a man brings his son to have a demon cast out and he tells Jesus he asked the disciples to do it, but they couldn’t. So Jesus does it, and again the disciples stand in awe. The disciples couldn’t be the agents of change for the boy because even though they saw and experienced God’s glory on the mountain they were not fully transformed, not yet.

Next Jesus tries to tell the disciples about what is to come, but they just don’t get it and they’re too afraid to ask. And you can almost hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice – “Let these words sink into your ears.”

And then they argue about who will be the greatest.

And then they complain because someone else, who is not part of their group, is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They are jealous and bitter and… clueless. And you can just imagine that Jesus grabs his head in frustration – “At least that other guy gets it!”

It’s just this constant litany of the Jesus showing or telling the disciples who he is and they don’t get it. Till finally someone comes to Jesus and declares “I will follow you wherever you go… but first let me do this other thing.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand on the plough and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

In every encounter the veil is lifted, just for a moment, and Jesus tries to reveal himself to the disciples, but they are not fully transformed. And they won’t be until the Resurrection. And even then, the transformation has to happen in many ways and times over their lives. And oddly enough I find great hope in that. Even with Jesus right there in front of them, the disciples still struggled. Jesus kept revealing himself to them, over and over, lifting the veil just a little bit more each time. I’ve had times when the veil has lifted for me, times when the space between me and God’s divine glory was erased, and like Peter I’ve wanted to pitch a tent there, to stay in that glory. But then the complicated, messiness of life returns. Like Carrie Newcomer’s song sometimes I want to yell, “If not now, tell me when.” I’m looking at you Methodist church. But I have to hold on to the hope that I have been changed, that the church has been changed, that the world has been changed, even if only little, and that God’s glory will be revealed again and again in more fullness each time.

You CAN just toss a bunch of manure and leaves and garden waste and such into a pile and wait. Eventually it will break down. Mother Nature will do her thing. But along the way it will be a stinking, festering pile. And what you’re left with will be riddled with weeds seeds, harboring potentially harmful bacteria and leached of its nutrients. Not at all the vital, life giving compost you want to add to your garden. To get good compost, you have to expose all its contents to light and oxygen and most of all heat. You have to do the hard work of turning it over and over. Transformation is not a one and done thing.

On Wednesday we move into the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. As a part of the typical service folks have the opportunity to have ashes imposed on their foreheads. A reminder of our mortality and our need of grace. Ashes are one of the things I add to my compost. Like compost they are the product of exposing waste materials to heat – in this case fire. Ashes are high in phosphorous and potassium – important nutrients that support root development and fruit production. This season of Lent invites us to add these ashes to our lives, to do the hard work of praying, of reflecting, of fasting, ofexposing ourselves to the heat that can root us in good and produce the fruit of a faithful, transformed life.

God’s glory is all around us. In the mountains and the rivers, yes, but also in the faces of those we encounter every day. But, like Moses, we are wearing a veil that keeps us form seeing that glory. Throughout our lives we get these moments of pulling back the veil, but in between we have to do the hard work of transformation, continually turning the soil of our souls.

Snakes in the Hugelkulture

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photo by Paul Jeffery UMNS

Snakes are a hard subject for a gardener to write about. Biblical imagery of snakes depicts them as evil, a stand-in for the devil. Like most folks, my gut reaction is one of fear and revulsion. On the other hand, as a farmer, I know, intellectually, that they are an important part of a balanced garden ecosystem. So while the sight of snakes chills me to the core, I don’t kill them unless they pose a direct threat to our chicks or rabbits. Often in life and in farming, I find myself needing to hold in tension something that performs a vital function even as it invokes fear and revulsion.

I’ve paired these stories of snakes with the story my of switching denominations because something about the stories felt to belong together. I’m not sure though who the snakes are in the story. Are the snakes evil? Scary? Misguided? Misunderstood? Useful? Sacred?  Am I the snake? Or are the snakes in the church? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

Although we are not strictly following a permaculture design for our farm, we do attempt to use some permaculture principles and design elements in places. One I was eager to try was hugelkulture – a layered bed made from logs, leaf litter, compost and soil. The logs take a long time to decompose and meanwhile provide moisture retention and slow nutrient release for the bed. I identified one area on my field that was too riddled with roots to really dig down to make a garden bed and decided to place a hugelkulture bed there. I built the bed during the late winter/ early spring time and seeded it with clover and rye, which I planned to weed whack back and then plant into once the temps warmed up. All was going to plan as the temps warmed and a nice crop of clover began to emerge across the bed.

Weed whacker in hand, I moved through the garden taming the overgrowth between the rows as I approached the hugel bed. Now the bed was about 3 feet tall, and uphill from me, so it was difficult to see around it. As I turned down the walkway beside it, attentively watching what I was weed whacking, I saw a flash of black lunge at me over the head of the weed whacker. I dropped my tool and ran backward a few yards. Glancing back at the area, I saw a large black snake. I moved back, my eyes squarely fixed on the snake as it slithered back into the hugel bed. As the last of its tail slipped into a hole in the bed, I noticed the whole 30 foot long bed was writhing. Another snake appeared and another and another. Soon I saw at least half a dozen, maybe more, black snakes moving in and out of holes in the soil of the bed. Turns out snakes love hugelkulture beds and I had disturbed their nest. Needless to say, I did not weed whack that bed again or go anywhere near it the rest of the season. After a few frosts the following fall gave me hope the snakes were gone, I removed that hugel bed. Experiment over.

The whole summer was filled with more snakes than I had yet seen in my life. There was the one I almost grabbed thinking it was a hose. Numerous snakes crossing the driveway as I arrived home. The snake I almost stepped on because it was sunning itself on the steps of my back porch. The snake in the shop that bit Bones when she reached for a tool on the shelf. The snake that ate all of the eggs our broody hen was trying to hatch. The snake that lived in the hedge row along the garden edge. The snake that got caught in the chicken wire along the bottom of the garden fence line. So many snakes. I mentioned this to a friend while helping trellis tomatoes at his farm one day. He said they hadn’t seen any snakes that year. I said, “Except for that one you mean?” And pointed to a huge rat snake that slithered by just at that moment. I’m pretty sure it followed me from my farm.

I saw so many snakes that year, I decided it must mean something.

I’m a cradle United Methodist. My parents met at youth group at their UMC church in Charlottesville, got married in that church and I was baptized there. We weren’t at a UMC church for my first 11 years, but that was more a function of military life and frequent moving. Once the moving slowed and we moved off base, the UMC is where we returned. I would say I grew up in Fredericksburg UMC. We moved to Fredericksburg as I entered 6th grade. Mom “shopped” around at the various UMC churches in the area, but it was when my friend Sarah invited me to come to church with her that we settled on a place. I actually remember that first day going to Sunday school with Sarah at FUMC. Susan was the 6th grade Sunday school teacher. I remember how warmly she welcomed me and how much I enjoyed the class. I don’t remember anything we learned that day, only that I felt loved and welcomed.

FUMC was a vital home for me through middle school and high school. I found so many folks there who offered themselves to the youth of the church with such love and devotion. From Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, volunteers, pastors and other adults who loved and supported me, raising me in the church to know that I belonged and mattered – to them and to God.

I actively sought out a Methodist college, Pfeiffer University, where I majored in Christian Education and church music. My whole life revolved around hanging out in the Christian ed department or participating in the religious life programs of the school, with a smattering of lacrosse thrown in. My first summer in college I did a summer intern program with the UMC Board of Global Ministries where I was placed at a Methodist affiliated community center in San Marcos Texas to provide programming for their summer youth work camp.

That following fall I attended an event called Exploration ‘98 put on by the UMC to encourage young leaders to pursue ordained ministry. While I was there I felt a clear calling to pursue ordained ministry. I contacted my home church almost immediately upon returning home and began the ordination process with the UMC. Eager and precocious, I sped through the ordination process during my remaining years at college, completing everything I could before attending seminary. Once I decided to attend seminary, it had to be a Methodist school. I looked at all the Methodist affiliated seminaries on the east coast. My mom and I even did a driving tour hitting Wesley, Drew and Boston. I eventually applied to just Wesley and Candler. Both schools offered me full scholarships funded by the UMC. I accepted at Candler. During my time in seminary, I worked as a youth minister as a large UMC church in a suburb of Atlanta.

My whole life was firmly rooted in the UMC and my future with the UMC seemed assured.

Seminary, if you are engaging in it fully, has a way of upending one’s world. I had known Candler was a fairly liberal place and was prepared for that, though I would have counted myself more of a moderate theologically and somewhat conservative politically. For the first time I was meeting folks whose beliefs were quite different from mine. The conversations pushed and stretched me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And although I was somewhat neutral on the subject of homosexuality, I had never before met a person who was gay (much less considered myself so!) until I encountered some folks at Candler who completely wowed me with their faithfulness, deep theological thinking and clear calling to ministry.

 

After coming out, I fairly quickly developed a solid, integrated identity that acknowledged my same-sex attractions as but one part of the larger picture of who I am. I still held strongly to my identity as a person called to ordained ministry and saw no conflict between the two, or rather saw that both identities were important and in some ways complimentary parts of me as a whole, beloved child of God. Not that it was without its bumps, but once the words “I’m gay” were out, I came to self acceptance fairly quickly and easily. The hardest part was wrestling with where that left me with the United Methodist Church. As you’ve read, my whole life had led me to deeper and deeper attachment to and engagement with the UMC. I was Methodist through and through. But did the Methodist church want me any longer?

 

While I was completely out to my seminary peers, friends and family, I remained somewhat closeted at the church where I worked. The lead youth minister was very conservative and I feared telling him most of all. Instead I took tentative steps into coming out. First I told the other assistant youth minster, who was a fellow student at Candler and would almost certainly find out if I didn’t tell him. I imagined staying closeted until I graduated and never having to face possible backlash at that church. I might have except my last year, the Youth Pastor decided we should do a unit on sexuality with the youth. Knowing this would cause some internal conflict for me, I decided to discuss it with the Senior Pastor. I hardly had contact with the Senior Pastor given how large the church was. Being with the youth on Sunday mornings, I rarely ever even heard him preach. So I scheduled a meeting with him where I came out to him and told him I was struggling with how I would lead the youth in this unit on sexuality. He said I could share that there are a variety of opinions, but be sure to emphasize the official statements from the denomination. I felt somewhat okay about that. He also said that I needn’t come out to the Youth Pastor until after the sexuality unit, but then I needed to tell him. All in all, it was less scary than I had imagined, and I thought the Senior Pastor was at least a little bit in my corner.

 
I kept quiet through the whole sexuality unit, but the internal pressure from hiding was becoming unbearable. Finally the build up was too much and I told the Youth Pastor when he came by my office (a desk in a closet!) one afternoon. He did not respond, mumbled something about the schedule and walked away. A few days passed before my next work day and I knew I had to confront it. After settling in, I went to the Youth Pastor’s office and sat down. He started in on some questioning about our plans for the upcoming youth retreat. I stopped him, asking if he had any questions about what I had said. He got up, walked over and closed the door and then sat back down. I don’t remember what he said after that, it was not awful, but not supportive either. He said he needed to spend some more time thinking about what to do. And he insisted that I tell the Minister for Congregational Care, his boss. I really did not want to tell him.

 

The Minister for Congregational Care was my official mentor for the ordination process – the person who would write my recommendation for ordination and the review of my work at the church. Telling the Minister for Congregational Care meant jeopardizing my ordination status. Not knowing what else to do, I did as I was told and told him. His response was also quite mixed. On one hand he seemed personally supportive, on the other hand he expressed the opinion that he was now compelled to report this to the ordination board. I begged him not to, to let me figure out on my own how and when I would handle it. He agreed not to do anything immediately. Still, fear now hung over me.

 

One day I was out in the garden preparing to weed whack. As I knelt down to pull the starter, I noticed a black hose near the head of the trimmer. I let go of the starter and reached for the hose. It moved. The hose, of course, was a long, black rat snake. It darted past me and slithered under an over grown bush. After my breath returned to me, I decided against weed whacking that afternoon. A year later I was working near that bush when I realized I had been avoiding it since the snake sighting. Since I was too afraid to work near the bush, it was even more overgrown than last year. I laughed at myself. How silly of me to avoid somewhere just because I saw a snake there last year. So I mustered up some courage and walked toward the bush. After a couple of steps, I saw the familiar rustle in the grass and caught the glimpse of a snakes tail as it darted under the bush. Snakes do strike twice in the same place.

 

As my seminary career progressed and my security in my gay identity increased, I began considering that I may need to switch denominations. However, I knew that my scholarship depended upon me staying United Methodist, so I made my peace with staying, at least until graduation. I’m not one to just go through the motions though, I needed to find some sense of integrity in my actions. So I continued moving forward with my ordination plans in the UMC. At this point, it meant completing my ordination papers. A long set of questions covering theology, doctrine, personal history, practice of ministry and adherence to the Discipline of the UMC. Two days a week I kept an appointment with myself in the library and diligently worked through writing responses to all the questions. At first the writing came easily. Until this question:

You have agreed as a candidate for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness of the gospel, and in consideration of their influence as ministers, to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life, and to this end agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God. What is your understanding of this agreement?

How could I answer that question with integrity knowing that the UMC’s definition of marriage did not include me? Each time I would open my file on the library computer, this question would scream at me on the screen. The cursor blinking at me as if begging me to just write something generic. Not lie really, just leave out some pertinent details. But I couldn’t. The deadline to submit papers arrived faster than I could process the next right step for me, and so I never turned in my papers. It was agonizing, but I knew I needed time.

General Conference, the every four year gathering of the entire UMC was scheduled to happen the summer after I graduated. I was taking United Methodist polity for my last semester and we spent much of the class talking about the upcoming conference. Instead of final papers, we had the option of writing and submitting petitions for General Conference and then traveling to Pittsburgh to watch our petitions get processed and, hopefully, debated by the body. With a couple of friends and the help of another professor, I wrote the following petition. I even discussed it with the Senior Pastor of the church where I worked.

PETITION TEXT:

Amend ¶ 304.3:

While persons set apart by the church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. the church is of a divided mind on the issue of homosexuality, it is the responsibility of the Board of Ordained Ministry to determine the character and relationship of its candidates for ordained ministry.

RATIONALE:

Homosexuality is a divisive issue in our church and in the world. Faithful Christians read the same Scriptures and come to vastly different conclusions and cannot agree on the matter. We believe that the integrity of the church is at stake over this issue. It would be disastrous to divide the church over an issue that is still unclear. ¶ 304.5 states, “It is understood that the requirements set forth herein are minimum requirements only.” Consequently, each conference is already given the latitude to establish requirements for ordination above and beyond what is listed in the Discipline. Our Methodist heritage teaches us, “As to all opinions which do no strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” and “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity” (¶102). This is a way to move forward at a difficult time without losing the valuable people on both sides of this issue.

Thousands of petitions are submitted every year, 21 were submitted regarding this same paragraph in the discipline, so I didn’t really expect mine to go very far. The petition was taken up in the Faith and Order committee, amended slightly and sent to the main floor for vote. I sat through every committee meeting while it was debated. The debate was hard to hear, but I left hopeful that the petition had made it out of committee, even if narrowly. Then the petition came to the main floor of the conference. The debate was as expected, the same old arguments for and against. One, though, stood out. The Senior Pastor of the church where I worked, who I had thought was somewhat supportive, was a delegate that year. He stood to speak against the petition saying, “The heart of this petition strikes at the heart of United Methodism.” He knew whose heart was behind that petition. The petition failed on the floor 466 to 436. The photo above was taken just as the vote results flashed on the screen that day.

After the vote the plenary session was adjourned for a break. I, and many other grieving folks, came forward to the altar table to gather for a service of communion. As the prayers and invitation were spoken, someone lifted the chalice high above their head and opened their hands letting the chalice fall and shatter on the floor. As I watched the chalice shatter, I knew I could no longer be a United Methodist.

Like many other current and former United Methodists I will be watching the special General Conference in St Louis this week. Not because I want to come back to the UMC, I don’t, but because the UMC is my faith family of origin. I care about what happens there. I care about what happens to my queer siblings who chose to stay. Fifteen years ago when I submitted this petition to let each conference decide this question, it felt like a small, hopeful step in the right direction. The One Church Plan has much the same intent. I’m not sure it is enough anymore. Fifteen years ago it felt like something, now it feels like too little too late. How many LGBTQ folks, many of them talented, faithful servants, is the UMC willing to let walk away?

Snakes are complicated creatures. They stir fear and revulsion in some, curiosity and even affection in others. A very small percentage are dangerous, but many, if not most, are beneficial. Mostly they are misunderstood, wrongfully vilified. I’m not United Methodist anymore; I’ve planted my garden in a different land. I have mixed feelings about how much I still care about what happens with the UMC and whether I even have a right to share my opinion about it all. But I know this, a balanced and healthy farm ecosystem has snakes. And a wise farmer allows, or better yet, welcomes their presence.

The Bi-Vocational Life

Folks often ask me how I balance being both a farmer and a pastor. Mostly I quip that farming is essential for my mental health. The truth is some days finding a balance in the two can be quite challenging. Throw in being a parent to two young kids and life can be down right exhausting!

As we began gathering for Dinner Church we only met once a month. Seems reasonable to expect that being away from the farm a couple of hours once a month would not prove difficult, but that would be wrong. One Dinner Church Sunday I was getting ready for worship, bread was baking in the oven, soup simmering on the stove, everything packed a ready to go, so I decided to slip out and check on something in the garden before I left. Walking past Mickey’s pen (our sow)I noticed a wet, squirming piglet next to her. Then I saw another! It took a minute to dawn on me that she was farrowing (farmer speak for pigs giving birth). Of all the days! I called Bones and the kids over to watch. While we looked on she had 7 little piglets.

 

Looking at my watch, I worried that she wouldn’t finish before we needed to leave for church. Not that she really needed us there to help, but the occasional piglet can end up in the wrong place and get crushed while mama pig is in the throes of delivery. So I called the friend we bought Mickey from and asked her to come. We drove off as piglet #8 was entering the world. As church began, my phone in my pocket was still buzzing from texts as each new piglet arrived. We came home from church to a quiet farm, mama pig nursing her 11 piglets and our friend had returned home. Satisfied that all was well, I laughed about how I might be the only pastor who gets ready for church by calling in a friend to take over pig midwifery so she can get to worship on time.

 

Another day was a bit more hectic. I sometimes help out when my friends are butchering poultry, so leading up to Thanksgiving I spent several days with them processing birds. The first day was the most miserable weather day of the year – high winds, driving sleet and rain, bitter cold. I had planned to get there just after dropping the kids off at school and feeding my animals, but school was delayed 2 hours. So instead, I headed out early to get my animals fed and watered before bundling the kids up for school. I arrived to help with turkeys but kept my phone close figuring it was likely school would get called early due to the rapidly deteriorating weather. I did get a call from the school, but it was a message that they were on lock-down due to a threat of gun violence at the high school. Freezing cold, worried about my kids, I continued eviscerating turkeys until I had to leave for an appointment in town to counsel someone. I changed pants and shoes to at least try to look presentable. After the appointment I raced back to pick kids up from school. I had planned to return to help with the turkey processing when I got a call that our boar was on the main road near our house. I dropped the kids at the house and went back out driving up and down the road looking for him. No luck. Soon Bones arrived home and we set out walking in different directions to find him. Finally, I heard her coaxing him down the old logging road between our two properties. With him back safely (thankfully not having caused a car accident!) I had just enough time to shower and change into “city” clothes and head back to town to lead Eucharist/Vespers at church. As I walked out the door, Jake reminded me about some item he needed for a craft project at school and it had to be there the next day. So I led worship in town followed by a quick run in to the craft store on my way home, where I crashed. A big day of playing mom/pastor/farmer!

 

Most days are not quite so crazy, but there are moments when ministry and farming collide in interesting, surprising, sometimes difficult, but often wonderful ways. Like talking with someone about faith and life and God while standing at the evisceration table processing chickens. Or having to ask the host for Dinner Church to please cover up the dead lamb in the back of his pick-up as people begin to arrive for church. Or talking to potential new church folks across my table at market when they find out I’m a pastor as well as a farmer. Or providing support to my fellow market vendors, because they call me pastor too, as they go through the same ups and downs of farming that I know so well. Or watching a parishioner’s farm when they go away. Or being able to feed people with really great food that I’ve grown myself and inviting them to the farm to share the peace and tranquility I find here.