Continuing the work of Jesus, simply, peacefully, JOYFULLY, together.
Children go to Sunday school following their special time in worship, about 10:15 am.
Potluck is the first Sunday of the month.
17975 Centreville-Constantine Road, Constantine, MI 49042
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Sunday, November 8, 2009
A crowd of adolescent boys had surrounded me when I parked near City Market and the bakery. So just before coming home I bought some rolls to give to them as I got into the car. I put my other bags in the car and took out the two bags of rolls, about 10 altogether. By this time there were about 20 guys, mostly big guys, pushing and shoving and sticking their hands in my face; they all began to fight over the rolls right away, pushing me up against the car in the fracas.
She Dreamed of Cows
by Norah Pollard
I knew a woman who washed her hair and bathed
her body and put on the nightgown she'd worn
as a bride and lay down with a .38 in her right hand.
Before she did the thing, she went over her life.
She started at the beginning and recalled everything—
all the shame, sorrow, regret and loss.
This took her a long time into the night
and a long time crying out in rage and grief and disbelief—
until sleep captured her and bore her down.
She dreamed of a green pasture and a green oak tree.
She dreamed of cows.
She dreamed she stood under the tree
and the brown and white cows came slowly
up from the pond and stood near her.
Some butted her gently and they licked her bare arms
with their great coarse drooling tongues.
Their eyes, wet as shining water, regarded her.
They came closer and began to press
their warm flanks against her,
and as they pressedan almost unendurable joy
came over her and lifted her
like a warm wind and she could fly.
She flew over the tree and she flew over the field
and she flew with the cows.
When the woman woke, she rose and went to the mirror.
She looked a long time at her living self.
Then she went down to the kitchen which the sun had made all
yellow, and she made tea. She drank it at the table, slowly,
all the while touching her arms where the cows had licked.
"She Dreamed of Cows" by Norah Pollard, from Death & Rapture in the Animal Kingdom. © Antrim House, 2009.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Often times the parables of Jesus are viewed as simple, memorable stories, shaped with humble imagery, each with a single message. They are built upon comparisons—the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep or it is like a mustard seed. And these parables are commended for their ability to make ideas visual and clear. They are presented as painted pictures that even the simple can grasp.
In this way, the parables are seen as early representations of what we have come to know as Christian object lessons—the use of everyday items to illustrate Spiritual truths in a meaningful way. A Sunday school teacher brings in a photograph of a diamond being cut out of rough rock. He tells the students: like this piece of a rock, people may not seem like much, but inside is a diamond. It takes time and polishing to bring out the best in us.
I think this view of the parables—though morally edifying—is terribly limited. It takes a dynamic form of teaching and drains it of its very power to transform us. It is equivalent to what Disney studios have done to the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Stories that were once charged with mystery and dread—ominous bread crumbs and frightening witches with cavernous ovens—have been polished into predictable adventures, fairy tales that once had the power to disturb us into wonder and awe have been converted into reassuring tales of dreams realized and evil conveniently defeated with blood never needing to be shed.
I think Jesus parables have far more in common with Zen koans than with those object lessons told in Sunday school classes and around camp fires.
In the lore and history of Zen Buddhism, masters often instruct using strange sayings, a story, a dialogue, a question. Often these sayings contain aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition.
These short sayings are meant to confound conventional habits of mind; they are meant to shock the mind into some new awareness. To give a short example, one koan entitled “Manjusri enters the Gate,” reads “One day as Manjusri was standing outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Why do you not enter?” Manjusri answered, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”
The saying, which appears to end with a question, doesn’t have a simple answer or interpretation. Rather, it invites the reader into a paradox. Who is “inside”? Who is “outside”? What is even meant by “outside”? Are the categories of “inside” and “outside” even useful? Clearly, the intention of the saying isn’t so much to add information. If anything, its purpose is to take something away—to pull boards out from under the feet of the listener, to temporarily disorient them.
The Zen koan, then, is meant to shaken some foundation upon we stand. It is meant to first subtract something from our knowledge base—to take away those assumptions that stand in the way of true knowledge. It is meant to leave us dangling, suspended in space, with no obvious landing place. The “old” is no longer sufficient, but the “new” is not yet formed or established. Where are we to go? What are we to think?
Unfortunately, it is difficult to approach Jesus’ parables in this mind. They have become too familiar to us. We have grown up with them. And thus, many of them—the parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the seed sowed upon the various soils—have, in a sense, become dead to us, at least as parables. They have become didactic stories reinforcing assumed attitudes and understandings.
That’s not all bad, I think. Most of us, do not, for example, suffer the parochial views of those Jews who failed to see the Samaritan as their neighbor. We have, for the most part, shed the holiness tradition that separates people—black and white, straight and gay, Christian and Muslim—so neatly into categories of the good and the bad. As a community of faith you and I have, to a certain extent, absorbed Jesus’ inclusive vision into our own religious sensibility. And, perhaps, at least for now, we don’t need the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But what happens when we come upon a parable that doesn’t confirm our enlightened attitudes? What happens when we read a parable that seems to commend that which we find offensive and self-serving?
What happens when we find ourselves in exactly the some position as the Jews of Jesus’ day, gathered around the voice of man who stuns us with words that don’t fit neatly into our world view?
The parable of the unjust steward—as the story has come to be known—is one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. The seeming incongruity of a story that praises a scoundrel has been an embarrassment to the church for a long time. In the early centuries of the church, Justin the Apostate used the parable to assert the inferiority of the church and its founder. He found the ethics of the parable a disgrace to real religion.
It does seem odd that Jesus would tell a parable that ends wtth a master commending an unscrupulous steward, a commendation that occurs after this subordinate has wasted his boss’s moneys, admitted that he didn’t want to do physical work, refused to beg, and reduced the payment of the master’s debtors—all of these acts done in the self-serving hope that the debtors would return the favor by welcoming the steward into their homes.
What are we to make of this story? What is its message? Does it have one at all? And who exactly are we supposed to identify with in the story? The steward? The debtors? The master? Or are we lost in unable to locate ourselves in the story? If so, I wonder if this confusion is similar to that felt by many who heard Jesus’ words in first century Palestine. As Jesus put it: “You shall hear but not understand; you shall see but not but not perceive.”
Some commentators have found ways around the apparent problems of the parable. The seeming commendation of the steward is usually explained in one of two ways. Some commentators argue that Jesus commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness, not the shrewd manager for his dishonesty. Thus, the parable focuses attention on the steward’s inventiveness and ingenuity; the unscrupulous behaviors are but backstory to the real message. The master commends a certain shrewd behavior that one can find in the book of Genesis, in, for example, Jacob’s “stealing” his father’s blessing from Esau..
An alternative reading attempts to place the story in a cultural context. According to some commentators a steward in Jesus’ day would customarily take commisssion on all his sales of his master’s goods. Read this way, the steward, in reducing the debt, was simply sacrificing his own immediate interests by foregoing his legitimate commission. It is for this that he is praised as “astute.” He acts nobly; there is no disgrace.
I must confess that neither of these readings is satifsfactory to me. They both seem strained. As if the commentators are uncomfortable with the facts that are set out plainly in front of them. As if the commentators possess a moral prigousness that will not let them take in the unseemly details of the parable. As I listen to these two interpretations of the parable, I see the commentators scrambling to find a way to do justice to the parable within a certain moral compass that refuses to admit the ethical ambiguity found in the behavior of the steward.
So I find myself lost in the parable, with no clear way out. Read in moral categories, the parable doesn’t seem to make much sense. I can’t get away from the feeling that the steward’s behavior is craven and disappointing. And I pick around the edges of the parable for a way around this disappointment. But I can’t.
And I start to wonder if this failure to understand is the gift of the parable to me. After so many readings of parables that have yielded a simple confirmation of my Christian beliefs, this parable confounds me. And its inscutibility seems to reflect a state of mind that lends itself to the possibility of real transformation, if only I could stay with the parable long enough to let it do its work. Isn’t this the opportunity to hear a parable as the people in Jesus’ day heard it? To hear a parable, not as moral object lesson, but as transforming fire? I am surprised by how unfamiliar this territory is. I am disappointed in realizing how much I have domesticated the scriptures for my own use.
Is it possible that the disorientation, my discomfort, is meant to be my reading of the parable. Where else can I go but to the source of my discomfort.
I wonder about my moral judgment of the steward, and my disappointment in the master. And the criteria I use to make those judgments.
Is it possible that this odd parable is meant to challenge my smug sense of understanding the ethics of the kingdom. Is it possible that there are matters more urgent than acting with noble selflessness. Are there moments when we are called to act with calculated self interest? Does the steward get it and I don’t. I don’t really know.
But I do know that I have too easily exhausted the teachings of Jesus to a catalogue of liberal virtues. And in doing so have inevitably limited my ability to appreciate the largeness, the wideness of God’s work in the world. I have always admired the martyred, been moved to come to the aid of the innocent victim, have been attracted to the marginalized. I clearly have a list of values that I privilege. And the behavior of the steward doesn’t fit anywhere on the list.
But, I wonder, have I absolutized pieces of the kingdom and thereby lost sight of the larger dimension of God’s reconciling work. Have I done what the Pharisee’s did with holiness: grabbing ahold of something that in itself is good, but holdng onto it too tightly, thus perverting the good. Have I worshiped a code of ethics and lost sight of the living God who writes his law upon our hearts in words that may surprise us, even at times stun us. Is ethics—the good and the bad—far more contingent on God and our relationship with him than it is a set of moral codes that exist outside of Him?
Perhaps so, but I find myself still trying to catch my balance. It is hard to trust myself to fall.
So I stand in the presence of this confounding story of a steward , a master, and some debtors, wondering if the parable has the power to save me from what I too often regard as the best of myself.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Theologian Karl Barth once said that the role of the preacher is to be the ear of the gathered body – the person whose job it is to listen to all the stories of the congregation and to try to bring a sense of meaning to them. I have tried to take this task of listener for this peace colloquy seriously. To listen to all of your stories – in keynote addresses, in presentations, in the Friday day of prayer, in conversations in the hallway - and to ask what they all mean – to try to weave together all these individual strands of courage and heartbreak and peacemaking
I have heard a fantastic array of stories this weekend: the horrors of genocide in Darfur, the indignity of human trafficking, the degradation of domestic violence, the devastation of HIV/AIDS. We have shared stories about places across the globe - India and Guatemala, Vietnam and Mali, Washington DC and Independence, Missouri. And now we have almost reached the end of our time together. The challenge is how to take this home with us. This morning we are still bright and energized by the passion and the courage of those gathered here in this place. The challenge is how to bring this back home with us – back to the personal level, back to our cities and our families and our jobs. We know that there is no way that we can incorporate every one of these issues back into our lives. So what shall we do? How can we be a transformed people? How can we honor these stories with our lives? How do we live lives that are worthy of the people we love and the things that we have lost?
This morning our liturgy and ritual of healing has created a visible and tangible experience of both our brokenness and the love and healing that is available to us within the context of communities of compassion and conviction. We know that pain is real but we believe, as we hear in the book of Revelation, that all these losses will pass away and that we will be inhabitants of a new heaven and new earth. God will wipe away every tear. God will come and dwell among us. We believe that a better world is not just possible, it is promised. But when will this world arrive? How do we create a new heaven and a new earth? What is my part – what is your part – in this transformation?
I think we begin when we connect our own personal grief with our own personal joy – when we identify where our suffering reflects the suffering of the world. The best and brightest peacemakers that I know did not begin their prophetic acts of nonviolence and justice-seeking out of a desire for their own career. They each began it in an effort to heal their own pain. So this morning I am going to try to bring these big ideas about pain and peace, about grief and resilience down to the most practical, small and humble level. Today I am not going to talk about the things I have seen or the people I have met in Middle East or in Northern Ireland or in Africa. This morning, I am going to tell you a story about two women, about grief and joy and about trying to find resilience.
In order to understand how deeply the grief cuts, you need to understand first what the joy looked like. But in order to see how precious and impermanent the joy was, you have to hear how the story ended. So let me begin with two simple facts:
Fact one: my grandmother’s name was Betty Jean. She was the bridesmaid at my wedding, my favourite person to call on the phone for a chat and she was one of my best friends.
Fact two: Six weeks ago today, she died of cancer, at home, while I was sitting on her bed holding her hand.
I could tell you about a hundred adventures we had, about ten thousand good laughs we shared. I could tell you about how she was unconditionally loving, incredibly faithful and also amazingly silly. But even that would not really begin to capture this friendship.
My husband Matthew and I were living in Kenya when we learned that she had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. We immediately began making plans to return to the US and in July we moved back to Michigan to accompany her on this, her final journey. Betty Jean was in the process of becoming my ancestor – of leaving this life here on earth and beginning her journey in the next life. Exactly two months after we arrived, she passed away.
But this is not a story about me and Betty Jean. This is a story about all of us, about this journey that we are all on together. Everybody is grieving. We are all wounded. We are all mourning a person we lost, a marriage that ended, a job that was lost. We are all addicted and ill and wounded. When we suffer, it is hard to imagine that anyone else hurts the way we do. But look around this room, all of us – all of us are suffering in big and small ways.
Eventually we have to do something with our loss. There is a time and a place for being wrapped in a blanket and having a good cry but at some point it is time to stand up and move forward. What did I do in the wake of Betty Jean’s death? I will first tell you what I wanted to do. I wanted to wrap up in a quilt and watch endless episodes of Law and Order on television. I wanted to not think, not feel, not even move from the couch. And I think there is a time and a place for that – for simply sitting with the numbness.
But you can’t stay under that quilt forever. What will you do with this hole in your heart? What will you do with this longing for a world that is different? Where will you put all this pain? You can’t undo it. You can’t go back.
There is only moving forward. And sometimes, in the dark nights of the soul, just getting out of bed in the morning represents progress. Sometimes it is all that we can do just to attend to the bare minimum of survival – eat, sleep, repeat.
There is no one to rescue us – there is no magic intervention that instantly changes the misery into something more tolerable. In our losses, great and small, we only have each other. We only have our own histories, our own faith, our own hope.
Until that happy day arrives with the new heaven and the new Earth, we are all we have. And we are all that God has to do God’s work here and now.
And this does not mean that we all go out and start organizations or write transcendent hymns for peace. So I am going to tell you what I have done, the places that I have tried to store this grief, this longing for Betty Jean. But I want to give you a disclaimer here: and that is that I am sure this would be a better sermon 10 years from now....ten years when I have integrated this loss and it is not just a gaping wound. But I trust that you will have the grace to hear this story this morning, mid stream, as it unfolds. And I hope that in this simple little story, I can suggest some of the ways in which we can link our grief with our joy as a way of healing ourselves and each other.
So. In light of Betty Jean’s death, I have undertaken two projects.
Project number one: I have started knitting a blanket. Now, in order to appreciate the magnitude of this task, I thought I would show you the only other thing that I have knitted before this blanket. And it is this – this tiny blue dishrag. So, as you can imagine, my decision to knit an enormous blanket is an...ambitious project.
Project number two: I have been inspired by the book and movie Julie and Julia – the story of one woman Julie, who is stuck in a mediocore job and decides to cook every recipe in Julia Childs’ cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I decided to create my own version of this project. I selected a cookbook called Extending the Table - recipes from around the world and I decided to cook every one of them.
I chose these projects not simply to fill the time but because they create a tangible, concrete link between my grandmother and I. For me, these projects are about finding joy and participating in transformation even in the midst of grief. As we look for ways to address our pain, we need to connect it to the things that give us joy. So what do these two projects of mine tell us about how we seek out our path, our particular way to integrate the suffering of the world and the promise of God’s healing?
I think the first thing we need to remember is that our grief is always intimately connected with our joy. We only mourn because we first felt joy. So when we decide what our tiny way to act for justice is, it has to be connected to the things we love, the things that give us joy.
The discipline of a physical task can be a very grounding experience. Knitting is actually a fairly undemanding thing – the simple task of tying a single knot over and over. I am literally tying my grief into little individual knots. So my project is both manageable and ambitious at the same time. One knot at a time. Row after row. Day after day. Marking time – away from that day when the pain was most acute and towards the hope that pain can manifest itself in joy, in hope, in the promise of things hoped for.
We begin to find our own transformative action by using the gifts that already surround us. I am surrounded by Betty Jean’s mixing bowls, her casserole dishes, her measuring cups. We find our transformative action in the world by linking our own setting with our own gifts. My gifts are not the green beans, fried chicken, corn bread and chocolate pies of my grandmother. I can’t compete with the matching tablecloths and placemats of Betty Jean. What I have is a passion for travel. What I have is a curiosity about the world. What I have is some purple Katanga cloth from Kenya and some green woven placemats from the Philippines. What I’ve got is this recipe book with 400 recipes from around the world. So my tiny little transformative act is standing in my grandma’s kitchen cooking arroz con queso from Mexico, Kanda from Chad, merchimek chorbasi from Turkey, salata from the Middle East and chasoh juhn from Korea. (and that is just last week’s menu!) Betty Jean cooked to the sound of Southern gospel music. I am cooking to the sounds of salsa, Afro-Cuban jazz, Palestinian hip-hop and African drumming.
I think that another indication that we have found the place where our grief meets our joy is that it calls us to a place that makes us slightly uncomfortable. The thing about this cooking project is that I can’t do it alone. In rural Michigan, we have many things. We have beautiful fall foliage, we have sparkling lakes, we have crisp autumn mornings. What we do not have – and I am just giving you an abbreviated list here –are many things necessary for international cooking. Things like fish oil, seaweed, African plantains and pig weed. And then there is the issue of venison. Now here are some things about me: I hate being cold. I cry easily and I am afraid of guns. So, needless to say, I am not a hunter. But now I have got this recipe and it calls for venison. No – it doesn’t just call for it, the recipe is CALLED Venison Stew. There is no way to get out of this. So I do what any modern, tech-savvy young person does – I log on to Facebook and I post three words – “looking for venison”. And almost immediately I get a response from someone that I went to high school with – she just happens to have a freezer full of venison that she wants to get rid of. And the circle of one person’s tiny project widens. A local farmer from my church just happens to have some pigweed on his farm. And the circle widens just a bit more. I can’t do this without other people and so slowly, I am being called out of my comfort zone, out from under my quilt on the couch and into the lives of other people in surprising and unexpected ways.
So what is the way forward? The way forward is beginning with your own woundedness, with knowing the places where you ache. The way forward is figuring out the link between your own lamentations and your shouts of joy. The way forward is starting right where you are, with the things that surround you, in the place where you live. The way forward is knowing your own gifts and using them in pursuit of joy. The way forward is reaching out to the community around you to join you in your projects.
We all have scars. Scars are what we have after the tears. When our body is injured, it has the amazing ability to begin to heal itself. But when the injury is severe enough, it never really goes away. We develop scars – visible ways in which the story of our suffering continues to be drawn on the canvas of our bodies. Our scars tell our stories, mark our experiences. But there is also a utility to these scars and that is what can motivate us to action and activism. The challenge is how to do this in authentic and positive ways – to act out of our love and longing for a different world and not out of simply pain, anger or a desire for revenge.
In recent years, the peace studies community has started talking about the concept of resilience. Resilience means that we acknowledge that pain and suffering can break our hearts, can change us forever. We can’t undo the hurts and the horrors of suffering - but we can acknowledge our brokenness and say yes to both our grief and to the hope that life can be different. We can never go back, we will never have the utter healing here on earth that we hope to find in heaven. But we can celebrate resilience – our ability to bend and not break, our human capacity to overcome. We can look with clear eyes at our scars.
God works in the world through us, through our hands, our lives, our commitments. We are the bridge between the world we live in and the world we want. We have all this pain and all this joy. And we have this huge challenge – to make God visible in the world. It’s up to us. There is no one but us. But we have each other. There is a lovely expression that is often sung in Zulu – the expression is Hamba nathi, kululu wetu. It means, come walk with us the journey is long.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is already here. We have heard it in the stories of our brothers and sisters this weekend. We know that it is a reality in our own lives. And we know that we can’t just wait for a day in which things will be different. We can’t just wait for this new heaven and new earth. We are the bridge between this world and the next. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are wounded, yes, but we are also the healers. We have the crucifixion but we also have the resurrection. Come walk with me, the journey is long. Come, walk with each other, the journey is long and we need good companions. Come walk with us – the journey is long but we have each other, we have abiding hope, we have unspeakable joy and we have the love of God and the promise of a more peaceful future.
Friday, October 16, 2009
I never really thought about how much work acting involved. But as I have spent two months desperately cramming lines, delving into a character and trying not to laugh on stage, I now understand why theatre majors in college always looked so tired.
Indeed, it is quite incredible that community theatre groups survive. There is the building to manage, donations to solicit, sets to build, lights and sound, make-up and costumes. That people put so much time and effort into something that gives them no monetary return is a testament to the energy and dedication so many people pour into local arts. One can almost hear the economists of the world scratching their heads.
The scholar Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, has lamented that in the era of television, computers, automobiles and suburban sprawl, American society has atomized into individual and family units. There are not many vibrant broad-based groups that cut across race, class, professions and backgrounds, to the detriment of community solidarity.
But by taking part in this production, I have discovered the important role local theatre can play in building community by bringing all sorts of unlikely people together. Our cast includes a construction worker, a translator, a retired teacher, an artist, a choir leader and a political scientist. How many other venues in society put all these different kinds of people in one room for two hours a night, four nights a week?
By transposing myself into another person, this experience has also been educational and developmental for me. While the play is not a particularly profound one, it has nonetheless been an enlightening experience to put myself in another, admittedly fictional, person’s shoes. I feel it has given me a new appreciation for empathy as I think about what makes my character tick.
And it is not just the cast that benefits. A visit to a professional theatre can set you back $50 a head – way beyond the means of most people, particularly in today’s economic climate. For its modest entrance fee, community theatre opens its doors to the gamut of local people.
Almost every culture, almost every sector of society holds special regard for storytellers. Local theatre gives audience members the opportunity to escape into a parallel universe for two hours. To suspend the worries and anxieties of their daily lives and immerse themselves into the sparkle and magic of the constructed world of the playwright and players.
Matthew Bolton will be playing ‘Buttram’, an English butler in a comedy murder mystery A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody by ??? at the Three Rivers Community Players Theatre in southwest Michigan this weekend and next weekend.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
EXCERPT from Landscapes; magazine of Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, vol 18, No. 1 (Go to http://www.swmlc.org/ for the full article including the story of Henry and Martha’s romance in Costa Rica J)
Spend five minutes with Henry and you see it’s not just crops yields and profits that excite him. What keeps this denim clad 61-year old dynamo energized is the cerebral challenge of agriculature: the daily chess game, of sorts, to find the right balance of moisture, fertilility, and pest controls that allow edible green things to grow and flourish.
A case in point is the 187-acre parcel that he’s standing on. It’s one of three adjacent properties —totaling 347 acres — that Henry recently protected with a SWMLC conservation easement.
“When I bought this field in 1991, it had been continuously planted to corn,” said Henry, as his gaze scanned the horizon. “I’ve been rotating crops on a yearly basis ever since — with green beans, navy beans, soy beans, corn, and now wheat. “The rotation helps break up the life cycle of weeds and insects, which means we can use less chemicals. We also plant cover crops in between harvests, so the ground’s never bare. All this organic residue cycles into the ground, where it decomposes to help next year’s crop. So, although it’s a farm, it acts a lot like the natural soil in the woods across the street.”
As good farmers have always known, take care of the soil and the soil will take care of you. As proof, this particular field is among the county’s top producers of Pioneer brand seed corn. And that’s saying a lot, since St. Joseph County annually produces 25 percent of the entire world’s seed corn crop.
Despite its value as first-rate cropland, southern Michigan properties like this one are under constant threat of development. That’s because the sandy loam soils are equally well-suited for a more permanent crop: suburban houses and “mini-farm” estates. It’s this vulnerability that interested SWMLC in the Miller property, says Geoff Cripe, land protection specialist.
Henry Miller’s farm represents two extremes for us,” Geoff said. “It’s the biggest piece of ag property we’ve ever protected and the most intensely farmed. But it also includes the biggest stretch of undeveloped river frontage — more than a mile of wooded corridor along the Portage River. It’s a clear, clean river and a first-rate smallmouth bass fishery.”
And for Henry, it’s simply unacceptable that this land becomes anything but a place that grows food for the world.
“This is our legacy,” he says with conviction. “We want this to be open space 200 years from now. It really disturbs me to see people buy 20-40 acres of prime ag land in places like Park Township and then build a house in the middle of it.
“We can’t keep doing that. It takes good land out of production, fragments fields, and makes the practicality of farming very difficult. A few years down the road, who’s going to farm it?”
…The Villa-Mil Farms sign in their front yard reflects the commitment [to honor Martha’s Costa Rican culture]. Villa is short for Villalobos (literally village wolf ) which is Martha’s maiden name.
As befits a farm family, the Millers have sunk deep roots into their community. Both are active in the Florence Church of the Brethren, a rural congregation of Mennonite heritage. Martha has worked for the court system, hospitals, and local businesses as an interpreter. For 10 years, she taught nutrition and breast cancer awareness for Michigan State University Extension.
And Henry? He’s known and respected countywide as a successful, detail-oriented innovator who adapts new techniques before other farmers even know they exist.
“Henry’s on an intellectual quest to do modern farming — big farming — as sustainably as it can be done.” says Tim Peterson, program director for the St. Joseph County Conservation District. “We look to him to see where everyone else will be five years from now.
“And his analytical skills are incredible. He’ll delve into the inner workings of the soil and ask little questions about things like pollination or irrigation rates that most farmers don’t take time to think about.”
On a tour of Henry’s Pinhook Road parcel east of Parkville, that extra care is evident. The field borders the Portage River, and many farmers would run their plows almost to the river’s edge. Not so here. He’s planted a 50-foot wide buffer strip of hardy perennial grass that gradually gives way to raspberries, woodland sunflowers, and oak trees as it nears the river. It’s a farming practice, Henry says, that prevents fertilizer overspray and soil runoff from entering the water. It also leaves more elbow room for wildlife.
“Over there, did you see them?” says Martha, from the cab of Henry’s jostling pick-up truck, “the flock of turkeys?”
“Nope, I missed ‘em,” says Henry. “But I saw something interesting by the river last week: it was a mink chasing a rabbit —and neither one was worried about me.”
Under the Miller conservation easement, all this will remain. What’s grown here may change: the tilled land could revert to prairie, or if oil prices place a premium on locally grown food, it could become an orchard or vegetable farm. But what it won’t become is a subdivision, despite the lucrative deals that Henry could make with would-be developers.
Tom Springer is a former board member.
He is currently senior editor with the W.K.
Kellogg Foundation and a freelance writer.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The Dying Need Our Support, Not Partisan Backbiting
Three Rivers, Michigan. It is unfortunate that Sarah Palin’s irresponsible dismissal of end-of-life counseling as ‘death panels’ has created more sound than light on how to deal with terminal illness. She has taken advantage of people’s fear of death while preventing substantive discussion on how to make the dying process more comfortable, less painful and less full of fear.
My wife Emily’s grandmother, Betty Jean Seal, died last week, in her own bed, surrounded by family who prayed and sang for her in her final hours. It was as she wished.
Having received helpful advice and support from a variety of sources, Betty Jean was able to decide the surroundings in which she would die. She wanted to be close to family, friends and community, rather than isolated on a hospital ward. She wanted to be in the house that she had lovingly dusted, swept and vacuumed for decades.
Once it became clear than there were no curative options to Betty Jean’s terminal lung cancer, she decided to take advantage of the local hospice care. Hospice differs from traditional healthcare in that its main aim is not to keep people alive, but rather to help them be more comfortable as they die.
This makes some people feel nervous, because we are so used to believing that there is a potential medical cure for everything. But the fact is that medical science, while certainly successful at lengthening life, cannot prevent us from dying. Eventually we will. At a certain point, many curative options for diseases like cancer become more traumatic and painful than allowing it to run its course in the comfort of one’s own home.
This may mean that one will live a few weeks less, but the quality of that life may be better than if one is stuck in a hospital bed, woken through the night to take medications, covered in pricks from an IV needle and with a tube down one’s throat.
The local hospice took seriously the importance of working with the whole family, not just the patient. The nurse gave us advice on how best to care for Betty Jean. A social worker came to check on the family and see how we were doing. They brought all the medicines, nutritional supplements and equipment Betty Jean needed right to our door.
Hospice may not be for everyone. Is it certainly not appropriate when there is a distinct chance of recovery and the patient wants to survive. Other people may feel they want to keep trying till the end.
However, as a society we must support those among us who are close to death and provide them with all the information they need to make a decision on what is best for them. Provoking fear in the political arena does nothing to help those who need our care as they face their final journey.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Every time I leave the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater MI after visiting our son Mark I feel a sense of angry frustration. Not with Mark -- the visits with him are increasingly pleasant and positive and forward-looking as we spend more time together -- but with the prison system in general, and in MI in particular. Mark wants to communicate, wants to learn, wants to take correspondence courses (currently applying for an art history class) wants to prepare for his release in a few years -- but he has no access to a computer. This is proof to me that the prison system does not want inmates to succeed in life outside prison walls. If this were the goal, computer skills would be at the top of the list of requirements for all exiting prisoners. I know in my heart that it is wrong that MI has chosen to build more prisons rather than provide true education for change and success among its huge prison population. I know that this issue is a deep one of racism and the American “throw-away” culture.
So I dream of being the little old lady who fought the system and got computers and computer classes into every state prison in MI. [Hold up my placard saying “I care about prisoners!] I get on the internet, I search and surf. I haven’t found much so far. There don’t seem to be organized groups that I can join for concerted effort. I haven’t yet found evidence of legislators who have suggested providing computer access for prisoners. Some of you probably know more than I do about computer access in prisons. I admit this is a dream and I feel quite hazy and lazy about pursuing it. What am I going to do? [Hold up my sign saying “I ___?___] Do I have the time, energy, commitment and patience needed to be an advocate for computer access for prisoners in MI? Will I make the longed-for waves, or join the ebb and flow of the guilt tides, or let it fade and see if it pops up again in some “directed” way, or forget it?
I do this over and over. An issue, someone suffering, my race/country/community/self complicit in some awful injustice. I rise up! I want to be involved in bringing change! Rarely do I immediately fall into something easy, like clicking on “sign here” boxes for petitions and email letters to people in power (though I do a lot of that and feel very good about it). I calculate time and money required to make a real commitment. Usually I step back reluctantly, squash the bit of guilt, and say a silent “sorry” to the universe. Do I listen for God’s calling, as we’ve been learning to do this month? Is this what I’m doing when I make the initial stabs at involvement? Is that my Way of finding my Way?
Take a couple minutes to think of the things that you advocate for, that you care about in a special way. Immigration reform? Health care for all? Conservation? Save the whales? Children, what are things that you really care about, things that you’d like to work for? Stop pollution? No more bullies on playgrounds? World peace? Can you think of something you care about and write it on one of the placards on your pew? Adults, you do this, too. Okay, everyone hold up your placards and turn them around so we can read all the advocacy ideas in this group!
Our OT scripture this week is the story of Elijah proving that God is stronger than Baal. Last week at the camp-out we learned about how difficult it was for Elijah to find out how to be a strong advocate for God when the people had turned away from God and were worshiping Baal. Elijah knew he was chosen by God to be an advocate, but it took forever and put him in a lot of danger and hard places. He suffered right along with everyone else when there was no rain for three years. Now it’s time for him to let Ahab know that the rains will come again, even though it doesn’t say that the people had returned to following God. He frightens dear faithful courageous Obadiah when he asks Obadiah to serve as messenger. And then he sets up a dramatic sound and light show to convince the people, and bad King Ahab, to change their ways. It certainly is effective with the people but also results in the gory death of 450 prophets of Baal. The chapter ends with Elijah inviting Ahab to celebrate the coming rains at a banquet and then, after an anxious time of waiting to see if the rain really would come, Elijah warns Ahab to get home before the deluge hits, and even runs powerfully in front of the king’s chariot all the way back to the castle. Is he now in collusion with the evil power of the government? We could spend a lot of time picking this apart! But one message is clear: When God “calls” us in to advocacy, it probably won’t be a short project and results will always be hard to predict.
I am intrigued by a very different but also illustrative story from the NT: the parable of the persistent widow in Matthew 18:1-8. The subtitle of this parable is: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Jesus says he is telling this story to show the disciples that they should always pray and not give up. He uses an uncaring judge and a pestering widow to introduce the concepts of justice, persistence and non-violence to the advocacy issue. He points out that God cares very much about those who suffer injustice and that he is able to use even unjust people to work for change. Even though we are tempted to holler, “But we don’t see those who cry out to God day and night getting justice, and certainly not quickly!” Jesus is making the point that persistent prayer (widow’s plea: grant me justice) and action (knocking on doors) can make a breakthrough for justice, and that Jesus is hoping to find people of faith working for justice whenever he is among people.
These two stories give us the guidelines for advocacy, which, as the children showed us two Sundays ago, is what we ADD to the VOCA (calling) of vocation and avocation.
We all know these things, and when I think about this congregation I am aware of a myriad of advocacy efforts going on everywhere. We are blessed to be in a setting where resources for advocacy on important issues are very, often overwhelmingly, available. So I am not saying we need to do more, or trying to convince you to join me in the advocacy activities to which I have been drawn. But I do want to encourage you to 1. Believe that actively working for justice is part of Christian life. 2. Listen when your heart is drawn to something that needs justice work. 3. Don’t overdo it, but don’t give up, either.
Now pick up another sheet to put on top of the one you just wrote. This time you will fill in the line to say what you do as an advocate: I ________________. Write letters? Make phone calls? Give money? Talk to someone who might help me know what to do? Re-cycle? Great! Turn these around so we can celebrate the things we do to work for justice. During the rest of the service you can be thinking of other things and changing your placards. We’ll share more at the end of this meditation time.
When David and Maria were about three and four, I began to have nightmares of horrible things, mostly torture. I was at that time becoming more aware of the use of torture by many governments around the world. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and somehow sensed that I had to do something. [Hold up I care about torture placard] I joined Amnesty International, began to write letters on behalf of political prisoners, worked as a writer for the group called American Christians for the Abolition of Torture, and later was able to do some research in a South African homeland, documenting the case of a political prisoner there. [Hold up I write letters placard] The nightmares stopped as soon as I’d signed my first letter, I think. And the connection with AI has been a constant thread in my life ever since. Somehow, even when I have been out of touch for a while, a request appears that I feel a strong longing to respond to. I honed the general interest down to a focus on Africa and on the death penalty for a long time, but the revelation of what young people the same age as my children were doing in prisons in Iraq to prisoners brought a “surge” of anger and horror that has not yet found its focus. At least I did renew my membership a couple weeks ago. [Hold up I give money placard]
Many issues previously hidden began to be revealed in the 80’s and when Ellie was a baby I learned that child abuse was not something horrible that happened in a few really messed up families, but was a way of life for a significant portion of the American population and takes many forms all over the world. [Hold up I care about child abuse placard] In South Africa and Congo I have learned more than I can sometimes bear about abuse of women for health and political reasons, and as part of the evil of greed, corruption, and “enforced” poverty of the contemporary world. [I care about women’s bodies and rights]
The tie that binds all this together has slowly emerged as I have tried to respond without being overwhelmed. The thread throughout all the issues to which I feel drawn is the horror of economic madness, the total loss of soul which greed can introduce into even the most principled of lives. [I do research.] People owning people and people trying to own the earth have resulted in crippling post-traumatic stress syndrome behaviors and self-perceptions among the majority of the world’s people, making most of them unable to create the societies their hearts long for. [I pester people with emails] Those of us who might be tempted to be crippled by guilt and anger at God and ourselves because of this thread, which is so deeply sewn into our own psyches, need to focus on the lessons of the two Bible stories we have heard today:
The simple lessons I take from these stories, which give me a sliver of solid ground from which to listen for the call are:
Advocacy means working for justice.
You will be called to be an advocate. Listen. Listen to God and Gut.
Choose your issue, and your actions, based on what you are good at and what you like to do.
Do your research or hook up with those who have already done it.
Be persistent; rarely will it be over but it’s exciting along the way, especially if you are not alone, and there will be miracles and revelations.
Turn guilt into intercessory prayer [I pray] but have symbols [I light candles] or actions [I talk too much] so it’s not all in your head and heart.
Like I said, you know all this already; each of you has listened for your advocacy call and done something about it. But I wanted to affirm and encourage and celebrate. So hold up your placards!