For Russell

russ-c

Some of my favorite people are farmers.  They are practical, resilient, smart, deeply committed to their work, and graced with a sense of humor, if only for longevity’s sake.  A few weeks ago a cattle farmer named Russell Christensen died.  He was a dedicated father and grandfather, a wise leader in his church and community, a fun-loving storyteller, and a key player in the growth of the cattle industry in Iowa.  It was a privilege to know him.  

Solid as a tree he was

at least by all appearances.

He had his soft spots.

Mary knew them best.

 

Roots deep in the soil,

stories reaching through time,

pulling nutrients from the memories.

Riches no farm report could touch.

 

Shade for the cattle,

lumbering beasts graced with his care.

 

Branches extended

across acres and country and continents,

wood grained with faith and love

in equal measure.

Now felled, lives on

in each new sapling.

 

Grow tall and strong,

for him.

A Way in a Manger

A Christmas Message

           Tatya was a sweet girl, a typical teen with plenty of homework, friends and text messages.  Her parents were model citizens by all appearances.  They were almost too busy to recognize Tatya’s increasing silence.  They noticed that she was more withdrawn, but they thought it was a normal teenage thing.  They hoped it was just a phase.

Tatya herself couldn’t put her finger on the problem.  There was just this…emptiness.  It was hard to get up in the morning, and it took every ounce of her energy to get herself dressed and off to school.  She didn’t care about her classes, even creative writing with her favorite teacher.  Then Jose got assigned as her lab partner.  He was quiet like her, and nice.  They started sitting together at lunch, and within a week they were inseparable. Jose was funny in a shy sort of way, and Tatya liked that he was different from anyone she’d ever met.

Mom and Dad were happy that Tatya seemed more happy, had more energy.  Jose’s family was Catholic, they didn’t mind that.   They seemed serious about their faith.  The kids never stayed out past their curfew, and Jose treated Tatya like a queen.

Then it happened.  Tatya started losing her appetite, missing school because she felt sick.  Mom was suspicious, but didn’t dare entertain the thought until one day she couldn’t ignore it any more.  She confronted her daughter, and Tatya tearfully confessed that she was pregnant.

Their family would never be the same after that.  Accusations were hurled, doors slammed.  Silence hung heavy for hours, then more bursts of anger and cries of anguish.  Tatya would not consider abortion an option, and her parents agreed.  She loved Jose, and she loved her baby.  Eventually the arguments lost their steam, and acceptance settled over them.  Anticipation, even.  By the time little Joey was born, both families were thrilled to see the baby.  Tatya’s parents provided room in their home for a little one.  Jose’s family helped support the baby.  The young couple wasn’t sure if they had a future together; it would take time to figure that out.  Meanwhile, baby Joey needed lots of love, and he got it.

A baby changes everything.  Whether born into a stable home or as a feature on the old reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” a helpless infant reminds us what really matters.  A new life forces us to rediscover how much we can care and nurture.  We change the object of our focus to the needs of a small child instead of all the other aspects of our lives that demand attention.  This is what life is all about, we tell ourselves.  The baby is worth whatever it takes to protect him and provide for him.  Our hearts are captivated by a tiny, wet, innocent baby.  We shake our heads and smile, and admit that life is good when it’s all about the baby.

This week we will celebrate Jesus who came into our world like that.  He was a vulnerable, hungry, sleepy little infant cradled in his mother’s arms.  The baby was Joseph’s top priority, and he managed to get Mary a warm, dry place for the night, even though it was among the livestock.  What a night for Mary to go into labor!  What a strange way for God to appear.

One way of thinking about Jesus is that he came to set things right in the world.  You would think that in order to do that, God would make an appearance in a way we could understand—as a mighty warrior king.  Powerful, commanding, authoritative.  The world needed a firm hand back then.  The powers that kept shifting through political schemes and military battles could have been instantly quelled by a show of God’s spectacular strength.  Then they would know who was in charge, once and for all.

But God wouldn’t compete for attention like that, with something even louder or more forceful than our own methods of control.  I grew up in a large family with five siblings.  Mealtimes could get pretty noisy.  As the second to the youngest, I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention.  I certainly couldn’t holler above the voices of my older brothers and sisters, and that was frowned upon anyway.  So I took to quietly tapping my neighbor and then whispering in their ear, “Pass the salt.”  It worked; my quiet method of communicating was noticed, at least by one other person, and I got what I needed.

God sent Jesus in the most unassuming, humble, quiet way that demands a different kind of attention than the noise and force of a busy, sometimes violent world.  He overturns our understanding of what God should be like to show us how God operates: through the poor, in the quiet, almost hidden.  It’s as though God prefers to come in the back door instead of the front.

God’s way is reflected in the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1: “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

A baby reminds us what is important, and that is what Jesus did.  Babies don’t care if we are rich or poor.  They don’t know anything about reputations, beautiful homes or sculpted bodies.  Babies ask only to be cared for and accepted as they are.  They teach us to love simply by loving us without condition.  If you think of it, Jesus does that too.  He simply asks us to accept his love, accept him as he is.

And of course our innocent little ones aren’t always so innocent.  They start knocking over each other’s blocks and pinching their little brothers.  They get bigger and cheat on tests and wreck the car.  They demand a different kind of attention.  Kittens grow up to be cats, they say.

Jesus grew up too, but the message we get from the manner of his birth didn’t change.  His birth signaled God’s way, different than that of the respected religious leaders of Mary and Joseph’s time.  They emphasized purity and strict obedience, while Jesus grew up to focus on forgiveness and grace.

His way was different than the Roman way too, that of enforced oppression and containment of the masses.  It seems that wealth and political power were coveted as much back then as they are today.  Jesus insisted that the force of God’s love is made perfect in weakness.  He showed how God’s goodness is reflected in humble personal relationships, over time.  Jesus’ way is never in a hurry to prove itself.

In order to show us his radically different way, the way of love and mercy.  Jesus came into the most vulnerable situation: an infant in a common, working family scraping to get by, subject to the whims of the Roman powers.  He asks us to meet him there, not in the temple or the state house.  He came in the same way he wants us to follow him, where it is messy and human and often inconvenient.

Maybe his way involves loving your annoying sister-in-law or being patient with the slow progress of your child.  It could mean giving in on a longstanding dispute, purposely trying on powerlessness as an act of love and humility.  Or standing firm for those who have no voice. In other words, making his way your way, in your own life right now.

There is one other aspect of Jesus’ coming that is easy to overlook.  In this season, we have come to think that generosity is God’s way, and that is true.  God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus.  But Jesus came and also intentionally received from us—from humans—the whole time he was growing up and even sometimes in his ministry.  He let his mother Mary raise him.  He let his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus fill his need for friendship and comfort.  He enjoyed the friendship of his disciples and sometimes made jokes with them.

We are invited to be givers as God’s people, but giving can also be a position of power.  Jesus shows us how to have less control for the sake of more love.            His way sometimes means we listen to others and learn from them, even though social or educational or financial status would dictate otherwise.  Jesus sees what everyone has to offer and blesses it, blesses us.  And he asks us to do the same for each other.

A baby changes your focus for good, if you let the experience affect you from the inside out, like Tatya’s and Jose’s families.   It changed Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and Elizabeth.  It changed the shepherds and the magi too.

The Christ child demands our focus.  Nobody has to tell us “what Christmas is all about.”  It’s all about Jesus.  The trick is not to discard the infant after Christmas, as you might toss the Christmas cards into the trash.  To turn your attention from the noise and demands of popular culture often enough to hear his message of love.  Let your heart be moved by Jesus on his terms, in his way.

God did not come to a world that was expecting a baby.  It was a messy, obstinate, power-hungry world then, and it still is today.  It is a world of chaos and disappointment, greed and violence.  We see it in shootings and political standoffs.  So many in this world continue to suffer from lack of resources.  We are desperate for peace, for well-being, for some idea of what life is about.

And so God calls us to come away to a cow shed, to a makeshift nursery.  Our gaze is drawn there to a baby, the Son of God himself bearing God’s unmistakable message of love.  Go and find the nearest baby and let Jesus teach you his way, the way of love, the way to life.

 

 

“…And He Shall Purify”

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.  (Malachi 3:1-4)

              Despite the bass solo from Handel’s “The Messiah” running on a loop in my mind, I’m taking a closer look at this text from Malachi today.  In the past, I have glossed over this passage as a prophecy about the Day of the LORD. But could it not also be about Jesus’incarnation?  His “sudden” coming was not as many anticipated, but instead he arrived as a poor baby.

              I have seen poor babies.  Their vulnerability touches the deepest part of me.  They stir compassion but also a connection with my own vulnerability.  It seems to me that this is actually a refining, purifying process. 

              Seeing any baby, from any background, is arresting. They remind me that everyone begins his or her life this way.  Babies often remind me what really matters,and other concerns can seem petty when I am captivated by a baby’s smallness and innocence.  Maybe this is a reason the nativity of Jesus draws us in. God!  Like this?  Wow. 

              In the non-Advent/Christmas months, time spent in intentional awareness of God’s presence often conjures images of Jesus engaged various moments of ministry: healing,teaching, debating, showing compassion, feeding people, or just being himself.  The more I learn of him—learn from him—the more my ambitions, greed, and pettiness are put in their place or redeemed to become “offerings of righteousness” (or “right offerings”) for him.  The process involves not only repentance and purging, but also the cultivation of loving desires and a compassionate heart.

              This takes time, and I am often impatient.  But I am realizing that much of my spiritual growth these days comes not from conscious self-examination or intentional changes that I control. Instead, the changes happen mysteriously, almost passively, from exposing myself as openly as possible to God’s loving presence.  And at this time of year, it happens when gazing at the Holy Child.  “He shall purify”simply by letting me come close.    

Addressing Your PESD*

This post was originally written for the November 9, 2018 edition of the Spencer Daily Reporter.   

Today you might be experiencing a syndrome many of us had two years ago, after the 2016 presidential election: *Post-Election Stress Disorder.

The first thing I did when I got up the morning after mid-term elections was to look up the results for Iowa online.  After that I checked a few races around the country.  What was striking was how close so many of the races were.  As encouraging as the turnout was, it revealed more clearly than ever how much we are divided about the way we think our political life should be conducted.

For many, the election was a referendum on protecting an “American way of life.”  Yet we are not united in what we think that is.  Does it mean bigger government or more local autonomy?  Does it mean protecting our borders with a wall and firepower or a more liberal immigration policy?  Does it mean centralized health care or more individual choice?

For followers of Jesus Christ, there is a way of life we profess that does not necessarily align with what is touted as the American way.  In fact there is a sharp contrast between the two.  The compulsion in our culture to attain more and more possessions is not supported by Jesus.  He urges us to be free of materialism and instead share with the poor to the point of self-sacrifice.  The temptation to wield power over other people is also counter to Jesus’ teaching of servanthood and submission.  These are only two examples that distinguish between the American way and Jesus’ way, which the gospels call the kingdom of God.

Whether you are disappointed with the results of this week’s election or not, you may still be disheartened by the divisiveness that pervades the United States right now.  This is felt most keenly in personal relationships.  With the holidays approaching, you might be dreading the tension around the Thanksgiving table, or planning to avoid it altogether.

How can we find a new level of charity in our relationships with one another?  It won’t happen through legislation or political rallies.  We cannot elect a leader with enough wisdom and influence to cultivate the peace among us we all crave.  It feels out of our control.

Yet Jesus taught by words and example that we always have control over the way we move through the world.  In every situation we have a choice about what we say and do, and how we might restrain ourselves in an effort to understand and care for one another.  One of his teachings is, to me, critical for our times.

He said “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  (Mk 10.14b-15) Then he let them onto his lap and blessed each one.

How striking that Jesus talks about receiving the kingdom of God in this instance.  He asks us to accept God’s way as our way instead of expecting him to endorse the way we order our lives.  He recommends openness instead of pushiness.

Rydia

What is it like to be a child?  Think of it.  Children’s needs are so obvious, and relentless.  They need love.  They crave attention.  They need protection, and food, and guidance.  They are often confused and naïve.  Afraid sometimes.  And it’s tough being a kid, because everybody is always telling you no.  You can’t do this or that, you can’t go there.  Shame is practically a daily occurrence.  Children are not allowed many choices.  If you hang around children very much, you know that one of the things they want most is for someone to listen to them, to acknowledge them.

But aren’t we all a little like that?  We want to be loved and valued, taken seriously.  We just don’t wear it on our sleeves as kids do.  We get confused too.  We feel left out sometimes, and we worry about having what we need.  Shame and fear drive our behavior more than we want to admit.  Scratch the surface, and there is a child in all of us.  Maybe Jesus is simply asking us to own up to that.  To admit that we don’t have it all together, that life is confusing and disappointing and sometimes downright unbearable.  Confess that we have acted shamefully at times because we felt lost or threatened.

In Matthew 18:4 Jesus tells us to put ourselves in the position of a child in order to  participate in the kingdom of God—the way we are created to live together: “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

How might we approach each other intentionally as children then?  Some possibilities: See the child in one another: the desire to be loved, the disappointments of life, the fears.  Play together sometimes instead of arguing.  Find a common cause to support so we can all practice love together, and remember what we like about each other.  Practice saying “please” and “thank you” as our mothers taught us.  And listen.  Just listen, even if we disagree.  We don’t have to approve or agree in order to listen well.  Be curious—like a child—instead of arguing.  Let someone else have the last word, just once.  Or even twice.

We do not have to be stressed.  Truly we don’t.  Like children, we can trust that Someone loves us and will always be with us.  We can make mistakes and listen to each other.  We can resolve to love fiercely instead of defaulting to hatred.  We can do the hard work of compromise that reflects the basic values we share.  We can work together to care for those who are suffering.

We always have control over this one thing: We can love.

Big Small Things, Like Voting

Ballot

It’s mid-term election season.  Also known as do-not-answer-your-phone season.  Or my-yard-signs-cancel-your-yard-signs season.

This year promises to be another ‘voting against’ year, like the 2016 presidential election, when everyone I know was voting against a candidate and not for someone they really respected.   At this point I know a lot of people, maybe including me–not sure yet–who are voting with the hope of creating a critical mass in state or national legislatures, enough to move things along in another direction, or to maintain the current policies.

Even if your “side” won both contests, you know the danger of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner this year.  The gridlock in Washington right now has everyone distressed.  We used to think that if we can just get more of our side elected, sanity might return to our system.  But it hasn’t proven true, not at all.

It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in despair.

Don’t.

Your vote might not count that much in most elections, but voting accomplishes more than selecting leaders for public office.  We have stop thinking that unless we can do something substantial or measurable, we might as well do nothing.

What does that felt-tip pen in your hand at the voting booth accomplish besides filling in little ovals that seem to disappear into a giant hopper of abstraction?

I could remind you that it is an action worth dying for, as in our military fighting for freedoms such as this.  I could wax eloquent about the democratic form of government.

This time I want you to think of what it does for you.

Voting makes a statement that you not only exist as a name on a voter registration list.  You inhabit a body that needs care, whether the way you are treated comes through Affordable Care or is maddeningly controlled by third party payers (insurance companies).

You have opinions about the candidates because you grew up in a particular place and time, in your family, in your circumstances.  You read and pay attention. You have experience that affects the way you perceive people.  You know what kind of people you trust as leaders.  Voting is a statement that you matter.  Sometimes you have to do things to remind yourself that you care.

Deep down, you know that small things—like your single vote—matter.  You know how to hunt because your dad got up early on fall mornings and not only took you along, he asked you what kind of sandwich you wanted him to pack.  You love to read because Mom read to you , at least when she wasn’t too exhausted from work.  You hunt mushrooms every year because a friend asked you to try one just once.  You have brown eyes because of a tiny gene contained in an embryo that grew into the person reading this.

Link and Wyatt Raking

Do you want your vote to matter more?  Back it up with more votes you get to make every day.  Smile at the young person who puts the groceries in your trunk.  Write a check to support your church.  Pick up your neighbor’s branches when you’re in the yard working anyway.  Make the choice for restraint instead of reacting once or twice today.  Listen to your cantankerous uncle—be curious—instead of arguing, just this once.

The little ovals we fill in on the ballot (the format where I live) are as small as seeds.  But seeds grow into life-giving plants that actually bear fruit.  It is remarkable what comes from such a small thing.

 

 

The Existence of Other Things

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Art by Candice Hartsough McDonald. Used by permission.

I am Deborah.

Named after a woman who lived

thousands of years ago.

Sage, prophet, tribal mother.

Her tale anomalous,

her voice a string Yahweh strummed

undeniably in desperate times.

The impending story unfurled before her

as familiar as the line on her palm,

insistent as the blood of afterbirth.

She was not your typical judge.

 

Deborah means “little bee”

and “seeking one.”

Some bees are social,

form hives, assign tasks,

share the burden of re-creating the world,

flower by flower,

tree by tree,

driven by hidden forces

to seek the sweetness of many kinds and

participating in the alchemy

of a deeper, richer sweetness

that blesses the world.

 

The bees I was not taught to admire

or even honor

are solitary,

burrowing deep for dwelling,

free of the hive,

bound to the quest,

independent in the

interdependence that

sustains everything.

 

There are many kinds of transformation.

 

I used to settle for nectar

from the closest blooms.

It was sweet enough,

and everyone was happy with

the abundance I labored to offer.

But as I made my flighty patrol

I often caught sight of

flashes of color beyond.

I could feel the low hum

of kindred seekers

and I wondered at the

wideness of the fields

the profile of the horizon

the existence of other things.

 

One day the wind caught me unawares

and I was buffeted

not unwillingly

to another meadow where

there were new colors

and the old ones too

and although I have a bee’s sensible

sense of direction

I lost the way back anyway.

 

This nectar, this sweetness has an edge

that cuts through the newfound wonder

to something more earthy and elemental.

I find myself manufacturing less while harvesting

more, at least for now,

noticing what is underneath and unblooming

and reliable, what has died to give new life,

what has been killed and is only loss.

 

My other namesake is calling me with

her sage fierceness, her stage whisper,

her tragic warrior spirit.

She has turned my gaze to others

living parallel questions,

producing a collective, insistent hum.

They are not hive bees either.

The Time It Takes

The longer I watch him

Clarissa cross
Painting by Clarissa

the more I wonder

whether the Cross of Jesus

was not the only moment

our saving happened,

as if such cruelty could solve

an inevitable, deadly equation.

Perhaps it was only the

penultimate moment

to resurrection’s triumph—

though unheralded,

un-choired—

the sealing of

love’s new first word.

 

But even then it

would be hollow

without all those

other interruptions:

the divine impulse

making food blossom

in their hands

on a hillside,

a girl’s lifeless eyes

fluttering open,

Lazarus leaning into

the muffled announcement

that even time must step aside

for love’s insistent force.

 

The shape of all the saving—

all the loving—

required the alignment

of his arms.

 

He extended them

in one terrible

timeless moment

into which he gathered

all the other moments

and offers all of it

time after time

resisting confinement,

elusive as spirit,

expectant.

Constant.

 

Be still and see

there he goes again.