Sunday, April 26, 2009

Straight Lines

Have you ever taken a ride out in country and looked at the straight rows of crops and marveled at just how perfectly spaced they are? Yeah, me neither. At least until about 20 years ago. That's when I married Nancy and thereby married into a family of farmers. So I started noticing things like straight even rows -- especially when I watched them plow or plant or harvest.

Still, I didn't think much about how they did it. Until I started taking care of the land at Ploughshares when began our stewardship here about 5 years ago. Trying to mow in straight lines so as not to mow down the trees we planted (especially since many were 6" seedlings and almost invisible from tractor seat height) was difficult.

There must be some secret to it, I figured. And here's what I've discovered -- yes, there are a variety of techniques for creating straight rows -- including giant planters equipped with GPS. But I've also come to realize that none of them seem to work for me (well, I haven't tried putting GPS on my golf cart with it's pull behind sprayer!). I can't go straight to save my life.

Today, as I sit and look at my office window, I can see my tracks through the prairie where I was out spraying for thistles. The first two rows look pretty straight -- I must have gotten off to a good start. And then the cart tracks start to wiggle and crisscross even. Yikes! I knew I was getting off track (though I didn't know how far off until I looked out of my second floor office) so I decided to go back to my tried, if not completely true method, of picking a point on the horizon and steering the golf cart toward it. The rows after I remembered to do that are somewhat less wavy than those before. Not perfectly straight mind you, but somewhat less wavy.

As I was steering toward my point horizon, I began to think (which is probably how the other lines got too wavy -- thinking too much and paying too little attention to driving) how similar this was to how I now try to live out my faith life. For many years, I looked down at where I was going -- trying to avoid that or hoping to keep in the right track or... Well, you get the idea. And my life, like most lives, was pretty wavy, bumpy. And I was dissatisfied with the results.

Now, with what little wisdom I've gained with age, I have quit watching the row immediately below me and have begun focusing on the horizon -- in this case the love and care of God. I try (and don't always succeed) to keep my spiritual vision up and out -- looking to God.

My life's rows are still wavy. But I think they're less so when I remember to steer this way. I find myself relaxing into the tasks before me more, too, instead of worrying whether or not they are perfectly done. I notice life around me and the scenery that surrounds me.

Now, if I can just remember to always keep my eyes on God.

-- Brent

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I'll Go Where You Want Me To Go, Dear Lord -- Well, Probably Not: A Bad Christian's Confessions on Faith

I grew up dreading missionary conferences at our church. Long hours (some lasting 70-80 minutes at least!) sitting in the Fellowship Hall listening to the good missionary families drone on and on about their work in India, or Formosa, or Kenya. Endless series of slides of people with unpronounceable names (at least to my Midwest tongue/ear). The pleas for money and more missionaries -- "who out there in the congregation is feeling God's call?" It wasn't me! And then chop suey. Yes, chop suey -- no matter if the missionaries were from Kenya, India, or Formosa -- where even they didn't eat chop suey. I still hate chop suey.

Then, as things were winding down, we'd sign that old missionary hymn, "I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go, Dear Lord."

I’ll go where You want me to go, dear Lord,
O’er mountain, or plain, or sea;
I’ll say what You want me to say, dear Lord,
I’ll be what You want me to be.

Except I'd always sing it under my breath like this:

I’ll go where You want me to go, dear Lord,
Let's skip the mountain, or plain, or sea;
I'm happy right here in Ohio, dear Lord,
Africa is for others -- not me.

Yep, even as an adolescent I was a bad Christian, I guess, even though I wanted to be good. Sort of. Following God's call halfway sounded about as far as I honestly wanted to to go. My biggest fear as a kid was that somehow I would hear "the call" to Africa. Terrified me. All I knew about the "Dark Continent" came from missionary meetings and Tarzan on TV, but it was enough to know that it didn't appeal to me. So I was pretty sure that's where God would call me. The Lord and his mysterious ways, you know? God seemed like the sort of chap (and back then, God was male) who would send me right where I didn't want to go.

After all, He had a long history of doing that. Ask Jonah.

I was glad when I reached the age that my parents quit making me go to the missionary meetings. I had escaped without hearing the call.

Of course, I did sorta hear a call to other "missionary" work -- with high school kids in Young Life and various church related youth groups, as pastor in local congregations, and so on. But still, they didn't involve any huge move. Nice and safe in the Midwest. And very spiritually enriching.

But I still harbor the fear that the call will come to Africa. And I wonder what my response will be? I'm clinging to the wisdom (as I perceive it) of what the great writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said -- “The vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet—something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.”

I'm trusting that God knows that I do want to go where "he wants me to go." Just, please, "dear Lord," not Africa!*

-- Brent

*of course, I know, that somehow I will end up in Africa before the end of my life. I once said, after a miserable night in a cheap hotel in a small city in Indiana (when I was from civilized Ohio) that I'd never been so glad to leave a town and would never, ever, under any circumstances return. Only to have God laugh and say, about 15 years later, "Oh yeah?" I ended up moving to New Castle and spending some of the happiest years of my life there. Hmmmmm....

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On Being a Gentleman Farmer

When I was being introduced before giving a speech recently, the fellow doing the introduction said this -- "Brent is a gentleman farmer. He lives on 50 acres being reclaimed into prairie and woodlands. That mean he raises grass and trees. Now, as I understand it, grass grows on its own. And trees do, too. So he gets to sit and watch them and read books and think deep thoughts. My thought is -- 'That's the kind of farmer I want to be!'"

Everybody chuckled, of course, including me. It was a witty introduction. But part of it nagged at me a bit and I remembered that part whilst working -- that's right, "working" -- the farm this weekend.

Yes, I do fit the stereotype of the city gentleman farmer -- sort of Eddy Albert's Oliver Wendell Douglas character come to life. I grew up in the city and lived mostly in cities or towns until about 5 years ago. Now I still work weekdays in downtown Indianapolis and take care of the farm chores in the evenings and on weekends. I do own a tractor (modern -- not at all like Douglas's antique on "Green Acres") and various implements that get used on it. A flail mower, log splitter, bucket loader, box scraper, and more. And there are the various other implements -- chain saws of various sizes, chains for pulling logs and stumps, a spray tank, a pickup truck, and on and on.

And they all get used -- which is what made me think of that introduction. Yes, the 6,000 trees that have been planted over the last 3 years will grow on their own -- so long as Nancy and I keep them free of weed entanglement and damage from deers who like to munch on tender young shoots or rub the bark of young trees. That means weeding, mowing, and tying strips of dryer fabric softener sheets on each one (the deer hate the scent as much as I do). Let me tell you, that's a lot of cutting and tying.

It also means controlling invasive species -- like bush honeysuckles which takes over a woods and chokes out all new growth and the understory (wildflowers, etc). Hence the chain, chainsaws, and -- gasp -- bush killer herbicide.

The prairie has to be burned to kill off the woody growth and destroy weeds. Some, though, don't seem to mind the fire. So the bazillion thistle rosettes (that's a baby thistle, I've learned) that sprouted after the fire, have to be dealt with. So I've had to learn about herbicides and the effects and choose the most environmentally friendly ones I could find. Thistle is an invasive species in this part of civilized county, so if I don't control it, the county will -- and probably in a way that is less safe than what I use.

All this is to say, that this weekend has been a reflection (driving around spraying weeds or mowing with the tractor gives one a lot of time to think while doing) about the wonders humankind has wrought. One hundred and fifty years ago this land was prairie and woods. Then it became farmland and it's taking a powerful amount of work to restore it to the pristine way it was when God had charge of it. There was no bush honeysuckle here -- humans brought it in because it was pretty. There was no creek erosion on the scale we have now (the West Branch of the White Like Creek that goes though our land has washed out 1/2 acre at minimum of trees and carved itself a new creek bed) because there were no subdivisions with all their rainwater runoff.

I've appreciated, as Earth Day approaches, how many of us are more conscious of ecological stewardship than in the past. But know how much still has to be done. And how much work it is.

Gentleman farmer? Bah. I may not raise money making (or losing) crops -- but I'm working the land God gave us in hopes of being a good steward. And in hopes of spotting a few more wood ducks, deer, bunnies, and even the occasional coyote.

Excuse me now. I've got to pull on my boots and fire up the John Deere -- time to pull some more honeysuckle. "Green Acres is the place to be..."

-- Brent

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sweet Hour of Prayer -- Not! A Bad Christian's Thoughts on Faith

One reason that I am a bad Christian is that I am a bad pray-er. I know that St. Paul says that I should "Pray without ceasing" but I'm more likely to cease without praying. The idea of spending an hour on my knees sends a shiver down my soul -- and probably Jesus's, too. He must know that he'd hear the same thing over and over again. Either, "Thanks, thanks, thanks" or "Please, please, please" or "snore, snore, snore."

I've tried praying the hours. That works so long as I am in a community that is praying the hours and is expecting me to be there. I've tried getting up early (like Luther) or staying up late(like my wife), but neither much works for me. It's not that I don't care for prayer -- it's just that the usual proscribed forms don't work for me.

I known I have much to learn about prayer. Sometimes I feel that my prayers are hitting the ceiling above me and bouncing back down. At other times, I feel that my prayers bring me close to God and feel enfolded in his ever-loving, everliving arms.

What, I wonder, makes the difference? Why is it so easy to connect one time and the next it seems as if all the lines are down? Why can’t prayer be easier? At least for me.

Perhaps it has something to do with how sporadic my prayer life often is. Perhaps it’s because I pray when I feel like it or need something. Perhaps I need to become more intentional in drawing close to the heart of God.

I know that an active prayer life feeds and nourishes my interior life. An active prayer life helps keep my “on the straight and narrow.” As Brother Lawrence wrote 400 hundred years ago, “when we are faithful in keeping ourselves in His holy presence, keeping Him always before us, this … prevents our offending him or doing something displeasing in his sight (at least willfully).”
But an active prayer life does more than keep me from going astray (which I have to admit, I have a tendency to do). For Brother Lawrence continues his thought, saying “[prayer] also brings to us a holy freedom, and if I may say so, a familiarity with God wherein we may ask and receive the graces we are so desperately in need of.”

You see, prayer opens me to the hiddenness within where I become aware of who God is and who I am. Prayer gives me time to focus our thoughts on the important things of life and faith and helps me connect with God.

When I think of that way, I see prayer as a glorious invitation -- an invitation from God to meet with Him. This meeting is not scheduled to take place in a high temple or on a holy hill. Rather it is an invitation to meet God close to his heart.

This is an invitation I often take too lightly. I disregard it because of the busy-ness of my life (and mine is full, to be sure). And there is grave danger in that. As Henri Nouwen said, “it is clear that we are surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when he is speaking to us. We have often become deaf, unable to know when God calls us…”

Communicating is more than keeping the lines open. I may have a phone line that has a telephone answering machine, a fax machine and a modem all in working order. Yet, if I do not use it to call people or send them e-mail to them, I shouldn’t wonder why, when I come home at night, there are no messages waiting for me. I have to reach out and touch someone.
Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, tells his readers that is not the case. Foster says “God has graciously allowed me to catch a glimpse into his heart ... Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.”

I would do well to remember this as I think about prayer as an invitation. It is first and foremost an invitation to God’s heart. I am called, by faith, not to a life of rules and regulations, but to a relationship with the lover of my soul. A relationship with One who wants me to share with him and who wants to share with me the joyousness of life in the Spirit. Why is it easy to neglect the key to this relationship when I see the obvious peril of doing so in our other relationships?

I have a choice. I can spend time with God in prayer or not. If I do not, I do not just deprive myself of the joy of the life of the Spirit, I also deprive God of joy from spending time with me.

Perhaps that hour of prayer is sweet after all.

-- Brent

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Association of Bad Christians

Well, I was outed recently. Actually, I guess I outed myself. I picked up a copy of Diana Butler Bass's new book A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story and, while reading along, found this "'When someone asks me what kind of Christian I am,' says Brent Bill, a Quaker writer, 'I say I'm a bad one.' He goes on to say, 'I've got the belief part down pretty well, I think. It's in the practice of my belief in everyday life where I often miss the mark.'"

While it's probably not the smartest thing for guy who writes books on spirituality to admit, the above quotation is accurate. I am a bad Christian. By bad, I mean, just not very good at it. In spite of just shy of 60 years of attending Sunday School, worship services, summer camps, revivals, prayer meetings, religious colleges, seminary, being a pastor, reading books, memorizing Bible verses.

I mean, I know what a good Christian should look like -- she or he exhibits the fruits of the spirit:
  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Long-suffering
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control
But often, when I look in the mirror (even if it is looking through a glass dimly to quote St. Paul), I see a man who believes those things but doesn't always live them out very well. I want to be loving, joyful, peaceful, long-suffering, kind, good, faith, gentle and full of self-control. But I am just not any of those things nearly enough of the time.

Which, in the past, has been awfully discouraging. Every day in every way I am not getting better and better. Or am I?

That's what I've been thinking about these past few days. As I told Diana when she interviewed me for her book, "I see myself as a pilgrim -- traveling the faith path to the destination of being a good Christian -- and into the eternal presence of God." Since today is Easter, I decided that, instead of the faithful women who went to the tomb and heard the GOOD NEWS, I would have been one of the fellows on the road to Emmaus, heading away and thinking about all the happened. It takes Jesus to come walk alongside me and instruct me before I get it anywhere close to right. And I don't think I'm the only one.

A number of us, even on Easter (or maybe especially on Easter) recognize that we are bad Christians. We want to be like Jesus, we try to live in the way of Jesus, we know that we believe in Jesus -- but we mess up a lot.

So perhaps we need to band together and support each other on this pilgrimage together (less for protection from bandits and baddies who would attack us on our way, than from "good" Christians who like to take potshots at us for not being good enough). So I propose forming an "Association of Bad Christians" -- A group for folks who are just not very good at being Christian -- who don't always do do what Jesus would do and aren't always peacemakers, humble, kind, loving, truthful, ... and know it. But who wish they were.

Members must self-nominate. After all, part of being bad is recognizing one's badness. Denominations, theologians (Calvin, Luther, or anybody dead or alive), judicatories, local congregations and their officials are not allowed to name prospective members.

In fact, I've set up a group on facebook for anybody who is interested. Perhaps we'll have a membership card and motto (in Latin? Greek? Hebrew?). An official Bible verse? Who knows? The only thing for certain is that a bad Christian knows he or she wants "to be a Christian inna my heart" -- and does so only by the grace of God. On Easter or any other day.

He is risen. Risen indeed!

-- Brent