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Food, Faith and Farming

Learning Humility from the Back Side of a Goat

The sun spills out late here as it has far to climb before pouring down the hillside and washing the farm in a morning glow. The nightingales pass off their songs to percolating clucks of roosting chickens and the self-conscious bray of the donkey who is always afraid she is missing out. The rooster does not just announce the coming dawn but every moment of self-satisfaction, which is often. But it is the conversations of the goats, call and response of ewe and kid, and slight cracks of butting heads and jostling horns that form the center of this sonic dawn.

My hands are clumsy on the goats as I fumble to draw milk from their udders. Zerife, a village woman, smiles patiently as I make slow progress. She has finished milking five goats and I am part way through my second. She quickly finishes the goat I had been working on and then squeeze a few more drops from the other I had thought was finished.

She has headphones in and is listening to music as she milks. As we release the goats from their stanchions I see her sing a long to the music in her ears and for a moment, she even moves her hips. When she realizes she is being watched, she blushes and stops.

From her pocket she pulls two hard caramel candies. One for me and one for her.

The goats leave and she goes with them. I am alone to clean the milking parlor and then pen. A slow spray from the hose cleans the milk I dropped and the other gifts the goats have left behind. In the pen, I rake their leftovers together with the hay that has been dropped from the feeders.

The compost pile grows every day I am here. The heat from the center of this mound is constant as a hidden world of microbes silently works to create new rich soil.

The dark richness of the crumbling fresh hummus is prepared for a future garden planned for years to come. My next task is to continue the small stone terraces down the hillside that will be the home of future beds of tomatoes, peppers, beans and eggplant.

The ground here is clay and rock. It does no good to try and use a shovel without first taking to the ground without a pickaxe. Rough and hand hewn, the handle transfers its hardness to my hands. Each strike against unforgiving rock reminds me that this day will be long. The warming sun tells that this day will also be hot.

Rocks and goats. They are humiliating.

To be humiliated, in its greatest sense, is to have the sorts of experiences that cultivate humility within. Each day that I worked on this farm I have been humiliated. The more I have been humiliated the more I come to understand that it is exactly this experience I have needed.

No specialness of my person or charisma of my being makes a rock easier to move. No persuasiveness of my words or cleverness in my intellect charms a goat in need of milking.

A goat doesn’t care who you have met with, work for, or lines of text on a business card. A stone is no respecter of persons.

Everything that I have ever experienced had been through my own senses, intellect and understanding. I know the world first and foremost through myself. And every time a goat kicks my milk pail and rock resists my pick I am reminded that I do not define reality. The world in which I find myself does not bend freely to my will.

Nothing knocks you out of the center of the universe like goat droppings in your face.

The obviousness of these limitations reminds me of what has always existed but I easily forget. I have limits. What makes me me is not just what I am but also what I am not. These boundaries are what give me form.

To be humiliated is not to be made less than I was before. Rather it is to be more of the self that most deeply exists as all that I am not is stripped away. Being humbled is not a destruction from which we cannot recover but an essential refining without which we cannot truly live.

Oh consider the goats you sluggard! Consider their ways and be wise. If you do not see the wisdom in submitting to the whims and frivolities of the goats, can you see anything at all?

Your shouts of praise have become far too soft and this is why even the rocks now cry out! For they have discovered the joy of fulfillment in being all that their Creator has intended them to be.

Humiliation can harden our hearts and crack our spirits leaving us painfully pulled from others. Or it can be the Refiner’s fire which strips away from ourselves all the debris that has separated us from others all along.

As the evening comes we all share a beer at sunset. Dinner is cooked over a wood stove. We laugh and tell stories. Sharing together in the humiliation of the day, we connect.

There is joy.

Every Temple Falls

Little remains of the Temple of Artemis. Stray dogs and cats rest by the edge of the small pond that covers much of what is left of the ruins. The water is just a drop of what had been a bay which once lapped at the base of this wonder of the ancient world. The geese that make the green algae covered pond their home have long since forgotten the days when this spot was a bustling port. Aside from the small handful of vendors and the infrequent tourist it was, in contrast to the ancient city a mile down the road, quiet.

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Tourists pressed in thick at the remains of the city of Ephesus. The weathered white of old stone still stands in stark contrast to the browns and greens of the hill surrounding it. While each stone stands as visceral memorial to a long since gone civilization, it is hard to say your prayers for the past in a crowd.

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Pictures of Turkey

Near Riot on the Bus

Arms raised, passionate shouting, wild gesticulation, eyes widening and me in the middle. I am on the bus and a fight is about to break out. More raised voices, shouts of women and new men standing; I am in the middle.

The tension collapses. The din dissipates. Smiles wave backwards through the bus. I am pulled to an empty seat as the driver looks away.

I didn’t have the right fare. The bus driver had been telling me to go back to the station. The other riders revolted until he abdicated and I took a seat.

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The Most Interesting Bar in Istanbul, Or Not

I should have known. Everyone in the bar looked like they knew each other. But to my credit, it was an odd bar. It was long and thin. The right wall, as you walked towards the back, was lined entirely with books. It was not clear if they were for sale. It was not clear if there was a bartender.

After a few minutes, it did not become clear that there was a bartender but, there was a person who gave me beer in exchange for 9 lira. I sat down with my laptop. And as one often does at around 9 p.m. Eastern European Standard Time on a street that follows like a tedious argument over a hill in Istanbul, I became thoroughly engrossed in a recent Pew Forum report on the changing demographics of American Christianity.

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Turkey Update and Portland Recap

In about a week, I’ll be at a farm whose name translates only as “squirrel” in the village of Yaka Koy off the coast of southern Turkey with a farmer named Cem who was a cyclist and former touring Scottish/Irish folk musician before deciding to dedicate his life to sustainable agriculture.

About a week ago, I was pulling three pig carcasses off the back of a pickup truck on a farm outside of Portland learning how to break down the meat into “primals” and “sub-primals” with a butcher named Zephaniah while two blonde twin boys ran around the barn wearing nothing but their muck boots.

The week in between, I spent cleaning our sheep pen, working on a new fencing system for the flock and hoping I didn’t pick up any poison ivy while helping my brother clear fence lines back to their approximate place in the 1950’s while minding federal restrictions concerning wetlands.

On the side, I’ve started taking a look at religion trends for the online journal, Religion Dispatches. If you are interested in a quick take on the recent 245 page Pew Forum research report on global religion trends you can check out my thoughts here.

In sum, I can say with confidence, I highly recommend the long way home.*

My month in Portland confirmed all my greatest suspicions:

  1. Portlandia is a documentary.
  2. It is possible to build an entire economy off of micro-breweries.
  3. Always be nice to homeless people because they may, in fact, be the owner of one of those successful micro-breweries. It’s the Portland version of “entertaining angels unaware.”

I was hosted by Adam and Sarah Phillips who are starting a worshipping community called Christ Church Portland. They can always use the support and you can learn more about what they are doing and how to support them here.

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My agricultural education was provided by Zephaniah Shephard, the owner and head butcher of Proletariat Butchery. Proletariat is full carcass butcher shop which means when we would work through a few hundred pounds worth of animal, less than two pounds would end up being thrown away.

At a typical grocery store you are paying for both the meat you are consuming and the meat that is being thrown away at the end of the week. But Zeph cuts everything to order. While that is an extra investment of time, it also means you aren’t paying for waste.

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While a strong commitment to using as much of the animal as possible is unique today, that has only been the case for a few generations. These practices, until relatively recently, were the norm. Making full use of a pig head still seems like good sense to my grandmother while it remains at the cutting edge of hip foodie scenes.

This short documentary probably says it best:

More updates to come from the Aegean coast!

*While all are invited to enjoy my use of Supertramp videos, this link goes out especially to Michael King.

4 Key Concepts to Help Your Community Talk About Environmental Ethics

After participating in a recent panel at North Park University, NPU philosophy professor Karl Clifton-Soderstrom (KCS), sent me an essay he penned entitled* “Becoming Native” that gives a great introductory approach to how people, and specifically faith communities, might be able to approach environmental ethics.

His proposal focuses on the three concepts: place, narrative and community. To these, I would add a fourth principle borrowed from the core values of permaculture, “observe and interact.”

These ideas provide an excellent framework for thinking through controversies like Jonathan Franzen on climate change and conservation that I jumped into last week.

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In a world of highly charged political rhetoric, the essay provides language and a framework for a community discussion on environmental ethics that takes a step back from immediate policy debate. This work doesn’t diminish the importance of these other discussions, rather it provides a context in which that work might be more readily possible.

Our ability to make meaningful collective moral decision requires us to be able to first have enough common moral language to have a conversation. This might be a good place to start.

Place

The first step to discerning an environmental ethic is understanding the place we are in and from. To do this KCS argues, we need to distinguish between “place” and “space”.

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“Cheap Grace” and Climate Change

Novelist Jonathan Franzen was getting hammered last week. He recently wrote a piece delving into his ornithological passion in The New Yorker entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?”

The Audubon Society has accused him of “extreme intellectual dishonesty,” Grist has labeled him “confused” and Think Progress held nothing back and called his recent article “bird brained.” (My favorite so far might be the Washington Post saying that the Audubon has “flipped Franzen the bird”.)

Some of this criticism, in my opinion, is justified. Franzen set up an option between treating the planet with “disfiguring aggression” to try and mitigate climate change related emissions or “with palliation and sympathy” since the battle has already been lost. This choice, as the pieces above point out, is a false one.

Unfortunately, those controversial statements have covered over what I found to be the core argument of the article, and his most compelling case. Here is where I think Franzen nails it:

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Home and the Particular

The Center for a Just Society is hosting a symposium on “home” that I contributed an essay to. Below is an excerpt from my piece that you can read in full here.

“Home,” Robert Frost noted famously in “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” An unreliable vagrant worker, who still cuts a sympathetic figure, returns to a place where he had been shown grace and compassion to die. With nowhere else to turn, he goes to the house where he knows he will not be turned away, and thus comes home. In this poignant poem, Frost illustrates that a home does not need to exist as one’s primary residence, a particular set of coordinates indicating longitude and latitude, or even as the matrix of direct biological kin. Home is the place that allows one to discover a deeper humanity in the interpenetration of one’s life with the lives of others.

Even the word “place” in this case is not limited to the idea of a point on a map. Speaking about place, Robert Farrar Capon says, “Location is accidental to its deepest meaning. What really matters is not where we are, but who—what real beings—are with us.”

A “home” can be made anywhere.

Still, although a geo-specific location is not a necessary pre-condition for “home,” it still matters. Consider the Hebrew Tabernacle and Temple. The Tabernacle was not a permanent structure and occupied no long-term territory. Still, it met all the necessary requirements for the presence of God (Shekinah) to dwell there (Exodus 40:34-35).

But the Tabernacle was not the ideal. The Most High was supposed to dwell in the Temple in the land God had promised the Israelites. The Tabernacle was a temporary provision until that was possible. Rootedness was the end goal. While accommodations were made for this nomadic period, it was not an excuse to forever put off creating a place, with a geographic location, for God to dwell.

While the coming of Christ allowed for a transcendence of Temple worship and its ties to a specific geographic location, it did not nullify the significance of particularity in worship. The Word took on flesh at a particular time in history, in a particular place in the world, coming to a particular people. Jesus came not as an illusory projection of ethereal truth but as a particular manifestation of the Word through which we can experience truth.

While God does not need a particular place to be worshipped, it is only in a particular place that we ever worship God.

While a “home” does not need any particular place to be experienced, it is only through a particular place that we experience home.

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The Wisdom of Those Who Plant Seeds

The day after Easter, it snowed. I was carrying in my last buckets of sap before leaving for Portland and was not surprised by the flurries, but they still stymied my expectations of warmer weather. The equinox had passed several weeks before and while the start of spring had been marked on the calendar, it was (is) dragging its feet in coming.

Who has known the mind of God or even a good seven day weather forecast?

We see and know in part. Certainty has never been the steady state of the human condition. Our lives are stretched with the awareness that clarity, at its best, comes with a smudge.

The experience of knowing we do not know can be felt in different ways. One is confusion, another, mystery. Both are confrontations of the hidden or unknown but one brings us to awe and the other despair. One can leave us feeling isolated and the other in wonder at our relationship to that which is so much greater than ourselves.

The space between the two is not in the level of knowledge but rather our relationship to the knowing and unknowing itself. In the midst of our unknowing, we are faced with a choice; passive uncertainty or the stumbling action of faith. The beginning of wisdom is not the expectation of certainty with knowledge but the understanding that the kind of life most worth living is always an act of faith.

A farmer went out to sow his seed…

Whenever a seed is planted in spring, it is an act of that faith in the midst of unknowing. Some might fall on rocky soil and others eaten by birds. You do not and will not know whether there will be enough rain (or too much), enough sun (or too little), or even another coating of snow in the middle of June.

A gardener knows that even after doing all they can, the end results do not rest with them. They are fully aware that there is nothing they can do to make every seed sprout, every plant be healthy and to guard what they have worked so hard on from all possible disruptions and destructions. And still, they sow.

Planting a garden is foolishness to the perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the glory of God!

By the time I had finished collecting sap (I had predicted we would be done by March 23rd) the flurries had finished but the blue sky had not yet emerged. I looked up and saw the bright disc above me and realized that the closest I ever get to looking at the sun is always through the clouds.

The Mundane Resurrection

It was 5 years ago now. I had recently finished a few week stay in the ICU, over two months in the hospital and more than one conversation between my parents and doctors about whether or not I would pull through. Still, I had made it, and after several months of regular home nurse visits, fentanyl patches, dilaudid pills and twelve hours a day on an IV for liquid and nutrition, I was stable but still far from recovered.

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The Saturday before Easter was sunny and unseasonably but appropriately warm. My mother and I took a walk outside, over a mile, the furthest I had gone in nearly five months.

“Wouldn’t it be poetic,” I asked, “If suddenly this whole illness, everything that went wrong in the hospital, all made sense tomorrow on Easter?”

“Hunny,” my mom responded kindly, “I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on the pastor. Don’t you?”

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What The Bachelor Didn’t Teach You about Farming

Three Things to Ponder About Food

Last week I traveled back to my alma mater, North Park University, to participate in a panel discussion about food. Dr. Norman Wirzba, of Duke Divinity and author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating was the keynote speaker and Ericka Elion, formerly of Bread for the World and my friend Ryan Anderson at the Delta Institute all joined in the conversation.

Many thanks to Karl Clifton-Soderstrom for the invite and University Ministries for hosting.

Here are the notes for my talk.

Farmersonly.com or You Don’t Need to Win The Bachelor to Have a Relationship with a Farmer

You are in relationship with a farmer. In fact, lots of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have been frequenting farmersonly.com or the winner of the most recent season of The Bachelor. What this means is that you, like every other human, eats food. And that food is raised, grown, picked or collected by someone.

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