Messy Faith

kimg0286.jpg

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 striped 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.

Milking Prayer

17190422_1340784369347109_3440583759223038064_n

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 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.

Touch

KIMG1955

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 heavy 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 the 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.

River of Fear

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’ south westerly 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 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 more achy 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 wild fires, 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 over state 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.

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.

Joy

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 hand out. I get a scoop of the goats’ grain and toss it onto the lawn. The chickens have their own feeder in the 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 they 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 with out 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.
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.