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 his 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 the 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 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 a 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, of exposing 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 from 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 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 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 springtime 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.
Weedwhacker 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 back 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 for 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 hedgerow 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 complementary 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 a 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 minister, 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 a 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 workday 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 overgrown 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.
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.
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 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 a 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.
I’ve given birth to two kids and been around the barnyard to assist in many livestock births and let me tell you the quaint, sanitized picture we have portrayed in our nativity sets looks nothing like birth.
Just a couple of weeks ago one of our pigs gave birth, we call it farrowing. I had moved her closer to the house since the weather had turned cold and I might need to run a heat lamp. Try as I might to separate the boar into another pen, he kept breaking out and I’d find the two of them snuggled up together in her pen. True love, I guess. Anyway, by the time I discovered she was farrowing, the first two had already been born. Wendell was laying in the hut, snoring away while Mickey labored. She was positioned against him such that her backside was pressed against his huge belly. I couldn’t figure out how the first two piglets even made it out! I tried to rouse Wendell, but he’s an extremely heavy sleeper, all 700 lbs of him! Instead, I found myself crouching near or rather sitting on Wendell’s face so I was positioned to help the piglets get out and away from the danger of being crushed by either hog. I’m sure it was quite the sight, Bones huddled in the far corner trying to keep the already born piglets safe and warm, Mickey labored kicking and rolling and snorting through the contractions, and I played midwife to the piglets as I sat on Wendell’s face. All the while, he snored on, oblivious to the birth happening around him.
After a few were born, we felt the need to get Wendell out of there, so I fetched a half-gallon of old stinky milk and roused him with the smell of food. Typical. He happily followed the milk to another pen.
Mickey’s labor stalled at this point and it was getting late into the night. Bones set up the heat lamp and then went in to put the kids to bed. I came in for a cup of coffee, some warmer clothes and then headed back out to sit with Mickey. After several hours had passed with no new piglets born, I became worried and called the vet. It was around midnight, so I left a voice message on the emergency phone line. As soon as I hung up, Mickey kicked with a huge contraction and a gush of blood and piglet came out. I grabbed the piglet up and rubbed it vigorously with some clean straw, but I knew it was dead. Within a minute or two another piglet plopped out, I held my breath till I saw it twitch, then grabbed it up and away from Mickey’s kicking, rubbed it dry with straw, and held it against me for warmth. When Mickey’s kicking eased I placed it near a teat and it eagerly began nursing. Then my phone rang. Not having anywhere to wipe my hands I grabbed it up with bloody hands, just then realizing I hadn’t remembered gloves. The vet had called back, and just as I tried to tell her I thought everything was fine now, another piglet popped out. She surmised that the stillborn one had been the source of the prolonged labor, who knows why. The births were steady now, just a few minutes between them until finally 11 had been born – 2 of them stillborn.
After I saw her deliver what looked like the placenta, I decided to call it a night. Mama and piglets were nursing happily, the heat lamp would keep them comfortable, and Wendell had settled back down in his new pen. Covered in blood and straw and who knows what else, I stripped down in the bitter cold outside rather than traipse all that through the house. My clothes went straight in the wash and I went straight in the shower.
All I know about birth is that even with as much joy as it brings, it is exhausting, inconvenient, scary, messy, and sometimes heartbreaking. That’s pretty much how I feel about faith too. When we engage fully in our faith it pushes us into places that are challenging and scary. It calls us to actions that are inconvenient, at best, messy and terrifying sometimes. Following our faith means experiencing heartbreak sometimes or walking with others who are experiencing heartbreak. Even with all the joy, peace, love, and hope that we experience when we walk in faith with God, it is not easy and certainly not the sterile, idyllic scene we display on our mantels at Christmas.
Unless, like Wendell, you sleep through the whole thing, only rousing long enough to follow your own greedy desires.
I often write during a slow market day. I wrote this during a slow, rainy Wednesday market as we awaited the arrival of Hurricane Florence.
2018 has been an incredibly wet year. We are well above the normal yearly rainfall here in Central Virginia. I can’t find the exact numbers, but the little creek that runs the front of our property is usually dry this time of year. It has not dried out at all. As I write this Hurricane Florence is barreling toward the East Coast. North Carolina, which has already had as much rain as we have, is poised to experience catastrophic flooding. We won’t get the worst of it here, but even a few inches is more than we need at this point.
I remember in May standing around with other farmers complaining about the rain, as farmers are wont to do. It rained almost the whole month of May and none of us could get in our fields. Everyone’s plantings were delayed. We joked, almost hopefully, about how we’d all be standing around complaining about the drought come August. Instead, August brought what seemed like monsoons. One rain event dumped 4 inches in a half-hour on my field. Paired with the usual August humidity, that meant plant diseases were out of control. And the bugs! I don’t even want to talk about the bugs.
Farming is hard and every season, every year brings its own unique challenges. So I accepted the losses of summer crops and set my mind and heart on a bountiful fall. And now, Hurricane Florence. The tiny fall seedlings might survive a few inches, but any more may be season-ending. Mid-September is just not enough time to replant before the first frost.
I’ve been reflecting on water, such an essential substance, immense in its capacity to both give and take life. While we in the southeast stare down impending floods, California is being ravaged by wildfires. What they would give for even a fraction of our rain. I hate to curse the rain, because I know I will curse the drought in equal or greater measure.
Baptism, at least in the mainline, non-Baptist traditions, has lost a sense of the power that water has. An almost benign ritual, with vows hardly any parent or individual takes seriously. Yet the waters of baptism are meant to symbolize our entering the tomb with Christ and as we emerge becoming new with Christ’s resurrection. Not benign at all.
We, humans, have a propensity for building our homes and lives in the most volatile places on earth – coasts, river basins, lakeshores, deserts, mountains, fault lines, volcano valleys. Gorgeous, dangerous places. We curse the disasters when they come, the natural patterns of the places where we choose to live. Nature’s way to cleanse the land and allow new life to emerge. New plants thrive in the wake of wildfires. Floodwaters bring nutrients to the land. Hurricanes reshape the coast allowing new species to thrive. The death and destruction lead to new life.
What would it mean if we took baptism more seriously? If we acknowledged the life-altering power that the water holds? What would it mean as a parent to give your child over to this truth that we must move through death to find life? Baptism is to be claimed in the family of God, yet entering the family of God is entering into a world where everything is turned upside down – last becomes first, leader becomes servant, our king is crucified, death leads to life. Much more like a natural disaster than our benign ritual suggests. As a parent, it scares me a bit to offer my child to this world. But just like the coastlines and fault lines, entering into the family of God brings beauty and wonder and joy beyond measure. Life that eclipses the floodwaters through which we must wade.
Florence brought almost 5 inches of rain followed by another 5+ from Hurricane Matthew. The rain just kept coming. 2018 ended up being the wettest year ever recorded for our area. As I begin preparing for the 2019 season some areas of the farm have still not dried out. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to plant in my biggest section because there are still puddles and nowhere for the water to drain. I just found out a friend has decided he can’t farm this year because his field is still underwater. Meanwhile, I struggle to find hay to buy for my animals. 2018 was a disastrous year for haymaking. So, when I found this reflection, now still struggling with the effects of last year’s rain, I couldn’t help but wonder and worry about what this year will bring. And yet, I hold on to the hope that amid the floodwaters I will find beauty and wonder and joy.
Milking, all year long but especially in winter, is my favorite chore on the farm. Before her teat injury, Creme Brulee was our best milk goat. She gave 3/4 of a gallon of milk per milking and her big teats made for easy milking. Every morning I prep the milk buckets inside, sanitizing them then filling one with warm soapy water. I head out the kitchen door, bundled up against the cold, fill the grain bucket on the milk stand and leave the gate open at the bottom of the stairs. I don’t need to take a lead rope, Creme knows the drill. I open the gate for her and she sets off running for the milk stand. She beats me there and I close her head in the stand lock. The first task is to wash her udder. It feels good to plunge my cold hands into the warm, soapy water, washing her udder all over, knocking off any stray hairs or dirt. Then I wash my hands and begin to milk. The first couple squirts get directed off the porch to the waiting mouth of a cat or dog before I place the stainless steel pail below the udders. The milking rhythm is easy for me to find, second nature by now. Squeeze, release. Squeeze, release. The first few streams to hit the pail ring out the tin-y rhythm. On cold mornings I lean into Creme to feel the heat of her large body, my face pressed against her belly listening to the sounds of her heart, muffled by the churning of her rumen. My hands warm quickly with the work of milking and the warmth of her udder. It’s an intimate act, milking another animal. She has to trust you and you her. You can’t just throw any animal up on the milk stand, grab her teats, and expect good milk. It takes time and relationship. A hasty or unkind hand drives the goat to kick the bucket spoiling it or spilling it all over you. An untrusting goat may hold back her milk, refusing to let down, struggling, and fighting on the stand. With Creme it is all peace. We know each other and the rhythm of our milking together.
When we first started our farm I was hesitant to bring on a dairy animal. Having milked goats before as part of a co-op, I knew that milking is an everyday obligation and ties one to the farm in ways nothing else can. I was still nursing baby Jake at the time and would often quip that I needed to be the only animal in milk on our farm. When Creme Brulee finally arrived, I fell right into the rhythm of every day milking. Rather than a burden, it became a ritual that defined my day. We are in between milking right now. Since Creme’s teat injury I have not had another goat step up to regular milking. Our cow, Molly Weasley, is due in March, at which time my milking ritual will resume. I miss the milking. I miss the ritual of the pre-milking prep. I miss the quiet of the milking stand. I miss the warmth and intimacy of the milking relationship. I miss the time to pray and the way I hear God’s voice more distinctly as the stream of milk hits the steel of my bucket. I’ve tried other disciplines of prayer, following a prayer book, setting aside some quiet inside before the kids wake for the day, even this habit of writing, but nothing compares to milking. A line from Mary Oliver’s prayer “The Summer Day” comes to mind. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is/ I do know how to pay attention.” I don’t know exactly what a prayer is either, but I do know how to milk a goat and in my milking I find myself drawing closer to God.
It happens every time, I schedule all the pigs of market weight (225-250) to go to the butcher on the same day. Usually, that’s around 4-5 pigs. We talk big about getting them familiar with the trailer and easy to load, but loading day always seems to catch us by surprise. I’ll save the crazy loading stories for another day, but the result is almost always the same – we fail to load all the pigs. This last time one female got left behind. I’ll call her Miss Piggy. I considered just keeping her, adding another sow to our breeding program, but that didn’t really fit with my plans. I rescheduled Miss Piggy for three weeks later at the butcher and left her in the pen by herself. Something you should know about pigs is they hate to be alone. The next morning I found her in the pen with Wendell, Mickey, and their piglets. Not wanting her to get pregnant, I moved her to a pen well away from Wendell. She stayed put for about 2 days before I could tell she was getting antsy to find some fellow porcine friends. About that time the piglets, now just over 2 months old, kept escaping from mama’s pen. Knowing it was pointless to try to make them stay put, I decided they must be done nursing and opted to lock them in the chicken coop for a short time while I figured out a better plan for them. Miss Piggy must have smelled them nearby and decided she could no longer be alone. She busted out of the pen where I was keeping her. When I went to feed the piglets in the morning, I found her lounging outside the coop. As I opened the door to feed them she rushed in as well. I left the feed bucket and went to get more feed, resigned to just leaving her with the piglets. When I returned, rather than joining in the tussle of the morning feed, she was snoozing contentedly while piglet after piglet climbed all over her. She was starving for the touch and companionship of another pig.
This morning I could hear Jake coughing heavily from his bedroom. It was still too early to wake him, but I went up to check on him anyway. The poor guy was restless from coughing and breathing heavily from a fitful night of sleep. I laid down with him, elevating his head against my chest and wrapping him tightly in my arms. His coughing stopped and slowly the pace of his breathing changed to match mine. As I felt his body relax into my embrace, I thought of Miss Piggy and the desire for touch and companionship. I also thought of those who don’t get to experience a loving touch. How hard it must be to go through life without that closeness to another or worse, to only experience abusive touch.
The stories of Jesus healing the lepers comes to mind. Jesus reaching out to touch another, violating the norms and even religious laws of his time. Which was the greater healing – the healing of leprosy through the divine touch or the restoring of dignity and humanity through a simple human touch? I know where Miss Piggy comes down on that question, the hunger of her belly could wait until the hunger for companionship had been sated.
A reflection on fear I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence this past fall.
Hurricane Florence is working its way through the Carolinas right now. Although the winds have not been as bad as they could have been, the rainfall and storm surge are causing devastating flooding. Earlier this week, meteorologists predicted all that rain would hit central Virginia. On Monday I was preparing for 2 feet of rain. I dug extra drainage ditches, built more shelters for the critters, cleared debris from our small creek, drained the cisterns to make room for the rain, and stocked up on supplies. It wouldn’t have been enough, but it was all I could do. Fortunately for me, but not the Carolinas, the storm shifted south. Instead, we only got a few inches of rain. But as the storms’ southwesterly track became clear and my need to busily prepare eased, I realized how much fear I was carrying.
And not just about the storm, though the storm gave form to my fears. The stresses of farming are constant. This year I’m worried about too much rain, but last year it was drought. I worry about when and how much to plant. Will this variety work in my conditions? Is there enough fertility in my soil? Will the flea beetles decimate the arugula crop again? Should I just give up on squash and surrender to the squash bugs? Will my tomatoes get blight again? Will I have anything to sell at the market? Will anyone buy from me? How will I pay for all the expenses that add up and up in the early spring? Will I ever be able to pay myself?
And then there’s the livestock. Are they well? How can I afford all their feed? Am I feeding them the right thing? Am I moving them enough so they don’t destroy our woods? Will they escape? How do I keep them safe in the storm? I feel so much responsibility for their well-being.
The financial pressures are real. It takes so much money to run a farm and the margins are tiny. We are close to breaking even. Will we ever earn an income? Will Bones be able to retire? Can I really call myself a farmer or is this just a really expensive hobby?
And the time away from the family. I’m always working. Will the kids resent the farm and all it requires of me?
Meanwhile, my body suffers. I feel achier every day and stupid mistakes threaten me with injury. What if I got more seriously injured? Would this whole farming experiment be over?
Meanwhile, the world seems in chaos between hurricanes and wildfires, wars and conflict, increasingly visible racism, homophobia and xenophobia, the collapse of our political discourse, and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
The fear and anxiety are a river raging just below my surface. Lately, the river seems ready to breach its banks. The fear sits heavy in my chest, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. Some days I feel paralyzed. And yet, the goats remind me vociferously every morning that they need to be fed. And so I go about my work feeding, weeding, planting, mucking, harvesting. I carry the fear with me, but I can’t let it stop me. I can’t overstate how vital the relentlessness of farming work is to my soul. If I didn’t have to haul water to the pigs today, I might become trapped in the fear. But I do. So I pull on my boots, drag the hose to the buckets, and bring the pigs their water. Whether it is raining or snowing, blazing sun, or dim with clouds, whether I want to or not, I go. And I’ll wake up tomorrow and do it again.
It is a discipline for sure, and a prayer of a sort, in that all our work can be a prayer to God. My work is a prayer that I will eat well and feed my children well, a prayer for this land that I steward, a prayer for my community I feed with the vegetables and meat I produce, a prayer for the well-being of my animals, and prayer that I will faithfully fulfill God’s command to keep and till the earth. And in that prayer, God lifts my fear, ever so slightly. I do not succumb to the fear, my prayer, my work move me forward with God.
I had so much fun chatting with Sam and Anna on their podcast – The Food & Faith Podcast. We talked about food, faith, community, and pigs, of course. You can listen here. And be sure to listen to other episodes. Sam and Anna have wonderful conversations with folks engaged in all sorts of creative intersections between food and faith.
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. – Rumi
I’m not a big fan of winter, especially on the farm. Everything takes so much longer. Just getting out the door is an Olympic sport – base layer, mid-layer, hoodie, barn coat, hat, thick socks, lace up the boots, scrounge around for some gloves, but decide to go without them – they’ll only get wet anyway. I start with the goats, grabbing a big armful of hay. I toss it over their fence line to lure them away from the gate. Then fill their bucket with grain, unplug the fence, no sense in electrocuting myself, and then push the gate open against the weight of the goats. They’ve abandoned their hay in favor of the sweet grain. Stepping through the pen takes concentration and agility. One goat is under my legs, another is trying to rip the bucket out of my hands. The twins decided now is the best time to go head to head in another round of head butting. And the littlest one stands in their feed trough, vying for the best spot to scarf some feed. I start to pour when Caramel knocks the bucket from my hand, sending grain cascading over goat bodies. At least half makes it in the trough.
Next, I check their water. It is frozen, of course, so I grab a stick to break the ice. Their bucket fills from the rain cisterns on the house. The line is frozen at the moment, but the sun should hit it soon and restart its flow. In a few weeks, it will stop flowing as the temps refuse to rise above freezing. Then I’ll have to haul water in buckets from the house.
I start to leave the goats when the chickens come running across the lawn. They heard the sounds of the goats’ metal feed can and are hoping for a handout. I get a scoop of the goats’ grain and toss it onto the lawn. The chickens have their own feeder in their coop, but they seem to think the grain is sweeter on the goats’ side of the fence.
Next on the feed line is the hogs. I have to walk back to the barn for their feed. There I measure out the right amount for each set of pigs. They are separated into three groups at the moment. Mickey and the piglets, Wendell (our boar), and the market hogs. I distribute a bucket each to Wendell and Mickey and then fill their water buckets from the house. The buckets are heavy and awkward when filled with water. Some near-freezing water splashes on my legs and feet as I walk. My hands are already wet as I try to lift the buckets over the fence line, splashing more down my front. Mickey turns to the water immediately, drinking in deeply, before burying her snout again in the bucket of grain.
The market hogs are off in the woods, so rather than carry buckets of water, I fill a rain barrel on my tractor cart and haul it back there. The road is bumpy and uneven, so the water sloshes about. The animals know the hum of the tractor means food is coming. As I round the back of the cow pasture, Molly Weasley (our milk cow) comes running up the hill. Her water is still full, thank goodness, but I do have to reach in to break the ice. My hands, red and cracked now from cold, tremble a little as I stuff them back into my pockets. I need one hand to drive though, so I alternate warming them up against the warmth of my skin under my shirt. Molly looks at me eagerly expecting hay, I assure her I’ll be back with it soon. As I hop back on the tractor and make my way through the woods.
The market hogs are still sleeping soundly, I’m a little early this morning. As I approach, I can see them snuggled snout to tail in their pig “donut” – a nest made of leaves and straw. The sound of the tractor startles them and they shoot out from the nest in four different directions, squealing in alarm as they run. We do this every morning. A waft of steam rises from their nest. I’ve tried before to give them shelter, but they prefer the pig donut. I once found a previous group of pigs lying in their snug donut covered with several inches of snow. Finally, they realize it’s me and rush back to the fence line, snorting happily and hungrily as I toss in their grain. While they nose around in their food, I fill their water buckets from the rain barrel, once again getting splashed with frigid water.
Pigs fed, I drive back to the hay bales to fill the cart with hay for Molly. It feels good to do the work of forking hay into the cart, finally generating some heat to warm my body. With a full cart and a slightly warmed self, I drive back toward the house with Molly’s hay. She is waiting, not so patiently, where I left her on the fence line. I toss the hay over and give her a good scratch behind her ears. She’s too busy eating to pay me much mind, but I’ll stop back in later and give her a good brushing.
My final stop of the morning is to open the hoop house. It is always surprising how much warmer it feels in the hoop house, even without a heater. I’m a little late getting it open, so the sun hitting the plastic has already formed a condensation that “rains” on me as I walk through the structure. Everything outside is frozen, but in here, it looks like spring.
With all my chores done, I head back to the house for a warm cup of coffee. My toes are frozen, I can’t feel my fingers, I’m huffing a bit from trying to move quickly through the routine, and my stomach is rumbling from hunger. Having fed all the humans and animals in my care, I finally get to feed myself. There are plenty of things on my list to do today, the to-do list is never complete, but first, coffee and warmth.
I suppose this may seem like an odd reflection to have about joy. I can see how this might come across as misery to most. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite part of being a farmer and I am known to engage in the favorite pastime of farmers everywhere – complaining about the weather. Still, there is much joy to be found here. I find joy in caring for these creatures of mine. The goats, an endless source of entertainment in their antics and mischief, but also the affectionate way they push against me or press their faces against mine. The earthy-ness of the pigs with their soulful eyes and the warmth that emanates from their rotund bodies. The gentleness of our cow and the peace I feel standing beside her. The ache in my muscles and the bitter cold sting in my hands, reminders that I am alive and able to do the job that I love another morning. The sense of pride in my work, a job well done, a life well-lived. And finally, the coffee, warming me from the inside, made sweeter by the morning’s work.
In one of the Facebook groups I follow related to market gardening, someone recently posted a question about soil prep, but with a wonderful typo, “How deep should I dig for soul prep?” In my experience, this is by far the better question.
My first garden was a 4×4 raised bed in our mostly shaded backyard in Atlanta. Bones had a book called Square Foot Gardening that I read cover to cover before embarking on my gardening journey. I planned my little garden out meticulously, on graph paper, hoping to cram as much into that tiny space as possible. A small corner of our yard got a decent amount of sun but had a large bush growing in it. Ever supportive of my projects, Bones spent a whole weekend digging out the deep roots of that bush to make way for my garden. We built up the bed, filled it with good soil, and laid out the square grid with string. A local community gardening project had their annual plant sale so we hitched up the trailer to my bike (we liked to bike around town in those days) and pedaled off to get our very first plants.
At the sale, I picked out 2 tomato plants, a pepper, an eggplant, some herbs, and some onions. I also grabbed several packets of seeds for green beans, carrots, and spinach. We nestled the plants into the trailer, trying to secure them for the bumpy ride, and then set off back home. The streets of Decatur can be quite a rough ride. Coming up a hill on a quiet side street I hit the edge of one of the infamous steel plates used to cover potholes and unfinished construction on the roadways. Although my bike held steady, the trailer clipped the edge and tipped over, spilling my precious plants onto the street. We gathered them up, pressing the soil back in around the young starts, righted the trailer, and set off again.
Once home, I carefully planted and watered, following the instructions from my book precisely. I dreamed about the bountiful harvest that awaited. I tended my garden faithfully over the next weeks, excited with each sign of life and growth. In the end, the harvest was not abundant. We got a few tomatoes, enough to make a few tomato sandwiches. Maybe a handful of green beans. No carrots, no spinach, no peppers, and perhaps one eggplant. I’m not even sure why I planted the eggplant because neither of us likes to eat eggplant! Turns out what I thought was decent sunlight was not nearly enough hours during the day to support vigorous vegetable growth. I also had much to learn about timing and seasons; carrots and spinach don’t do well in the hot Georgia summers. Still, tasting my first homegrown tomato had me hooked.
That garden was 13 summers ago. I suppose it is trite to say so much has changed since then, still, it is true. We’ve moved twice, got married, had two kids, and changed jobs numerous times. What started as a 4×4 raised bed in my backyard hobby is now a 25-acre farm with 4 species of livestock, a half-acre blueberry orchard, and 1/2 acre of vegetable production – more than a full-time job. As impressive as those details are, they just scratch the surface. The change runs much deeper.
The garden is where I go when other places in my life become unbearable. I’d say it is cheaper than therapy, but I just ordered this year’s seeds and well, I might be better off financially if I just went to therapy. But nothing soothes my soul like working up a good sweat in the garden, the sun shining down on me, soil in my hands, complete physical exhaustion. I joke that some moms like a glass of wine at the end of the day to decompress after the kids have gone to bed, but I just need an hour in the garden weed whacking the paths to set me right again. I remember one fight Bones and I had, actually, I don’t remember the fight it was probably trivial, I just remember being so angry I couldn’t think straight, so I headed down to the garden and weeded ruthlessly until the garden and my soul was free from the stranglehold and weeds and anger.
As someone who cares about the state of the world, longs to make a difference, and gets involved in all the ways I can, I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems. Like the popular Facebook meme says, “My desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane.” My personal overwhelm does nothing to fix the world, in fact, the overwhelm leads to a sort of paralysis in which I disengage from the causes I care so much about. I’ve learned instead that my best response to feelings of overwhelm is to either dig a hole or turn the compost pile. The physical exhaustion that comes from these two activities leaves little room for anxiety-induced paralysis. Instead, I find the physical exertion allows my mind to wander in more constructive pathways. Each pitchfork full of refuse – garden waste, leaves, soiled animal bedding, manure – gets turned, exposed to heat and microbes, and eventually broken down into something useful, full of life.
I can’t solve the world’s problems, sometimes I can’t even solve my own, but I can turn a compost pile. With that compost, I can grow healthy food to feed my community. With that compost I am caring for the 25 acres of this earth I am blessed to steward. With that compost, I am reducing my negative impact on this earth with less waste, less tillage, less fossil fuel consumption. With that compost, I am keeping nitrogen-heavy manure from entering and polluting our watershed. With that compost the demons of anxiety and overwhelm that so often rage inside of me are quieted allowing me to be present for my kids, for my spouse, for my friends, for my community. With that compost, I turn the anger and fear into words of hope and encouragement for my congregation.
So how deep do you have to dig for soul prep? If I ever finish digging, I’ll let you know.