Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. ~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead
It is ordinary time, in the church calendar and in my life…
As I am covered with Sabbath rest quiet and deep as if planted in soil finally warming from a too long winter~
I realize there is nothing ordinary about what is happening in the church, in the world, or in me.
We are called by the Light to push away from darkness, to reach to the sky, to grasp and bloom and fruit.
We begin as mere and ordinary seed.
Therefore, nothing is more extraordinary than an ordinary Sunday.
A new book available from Barnstorming can be ordered here:
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer, for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.
In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields, dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats. All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machineclacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;
and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres, gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack, and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn, three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.
Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns. Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.
When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze, one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond, and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,
and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear, and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave, shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you, where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.
For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses, roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs, yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost. ~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”
As a child, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.
She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.
At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.
When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.
Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.
Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.
From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow In the spring.
The place where we are right Is hard and trampled Like a yard.
But doubts and loves Dig up the world Like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place Where the ruined House once stood. ~Yehuda Amichai “The Place Where We Are RIght” from A Touch of Grace
Sometimes I am so certain I am right, remaining firm in my convictions no matter what. Yet when there is no movement, the ground beneath my feet hardens with my stubborn trampling. Nothing new can grow without my crushing it underfoot; any possibility becomes impossible.
Sometimes I harbor doubts and uncertainties, digging and churning up the ground upon which I stand. When things are turned over, again and again, new weeds and seeds will take root. Sorting them out becomes my challenge, determining what to nurture and what is worthless.
As I look ahead to this coming week, treading the familiar ground of the events of Holy Week, I cannot help but question and wonder: how can this impossible Love save those, who like me, feel dry and hard and devoid of possibility or who unwittingly allow weeds to proliferate?
Then I hear it, like a whisper. Yes, it is true. Loved despite sometimes being hard ground, or growing weeds or lying fallow as a rocky path.
I too will rise again from the ruins. I too will arise.
My father did field work with horses when he was young and honestly — he hated every moment of it. He badly wanted a tractor though his father could never afford one, so the draft horses were their meal ticket, swerving around the large stumps on a farm that would never produce enough to sustain the family.
My father wanted more when he grew up. For him, it wasn’t about the rhythms of the seasons or his relationship with the horses, or the romance of the soil turning over to be planted. It was hard sweaty frustrating often futile work.
He didn’t welcome my interest in horses but he still supported me. He loaned me the seed money that got us started with a small breeding herd of Haflinger horses and he had advice for us when we asked but not unless we asked. He built stalls in our barn and fashioned hefty metal stall closures and helped in whatever way he could with the handy skills he had learned growing up on a farm that never could succeed.
As a child, I had stumbled after my dad in the figurative furrows he plowed ahead of me, always leading me to pursue something better. He reminded me regularly that I could do whatever I set my mind to, like setting the wing of the plow and eyeing the straight line, mapping the course ahead. And I did, largely because of his encouragement during the 60’s when most girls didn’t hear that from their daddies. Instead it was usually angry bored moms who became the voices who pushed their daughters to dig deeper and plow stronger. Not my mom.
My dad’s encouragemnt still echoes in my mind. He gave me momentum in the furrow. He is still there behind me, ready to steady me when I stumble.
I’m glad he led me down his plow line, and all these years later, he still follows me and isn’t going away.
Our toes, our noses Take hold on the loam, Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us, Stops us, betrays us; The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on Heaving the needles, The leafy bedding,
Even the paving. Our hammers, our rams, Earless and eyeless,
Perfectly voiceless, Widen the crannies, Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water, On crumbs of shadow, Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing. So many of us! So many of us!
We are shelves, we are Tables, we are meek, We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers In spite of ourselves Our kind multiplies
We shall by morning Inherit the earth. Our foot’s in the door. ~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”
This overnight overture into the light, a parturition of “ink caps” after a shower. As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile, they sprout three inch stalks still stretching at dawn, topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.
Nearly translucent as glass, already curling at the edges in the morning light, by noon melting into ooze by evening complete deliquescence, withered and curling back into the humus which birthed them hours before.
It shall be repeated again and again, this birth from unworthy soil, this brief and shining life in the sun, this folding, curling and collapse to die back to dust and dung.
Inedible, yet so Chrisincredible, they rise beautiful and worthy as is the way of things that never give up once a foot’s in the door.
As a child, my father helped me dig a square of dense red clay, mark off rows where zinnias would grow, and radishes and tender spinach leaves. He’d stand with me each night as daylight drained away to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe as I would practice leaning so on mine.
Years later now in my big garden plot, the soggy remnant stems of plants flopped over several months ago, the ground is cold, the berries gone, the stakes like hungry sentries stand guarding empty graves. And still I hear his voice asking what I think would best be planted once the weather warms. ~Margaret Mullins “Lonely Harvest” from Family Constellations
We were both raised by serious vegetable gardeners; as kids we helped plant and weed and harvest from large garden plots because that was how families fed themselves fresh produce rather than from a can. Even frozen vegetables were not plentiful in the stores and too expensive, so grow-it-yourself was a necessity before it became a trending hashtag.
Now, with his parents’ past guidance in his ears, my husband works the soil to prepare it yet again for yielding: the over-wintered shells of squash, the limp left-over bean vines, the stumps of corn stalks. Dark composted manure is mixed in, rototilled and fluffed, grass and weed roots pulled out. Then he carefully marks off the grid of rows and the decisions made about what goes where this year; what did well in the past? what didn’t germinate and what didn’t produce?
Then he lays the seeds and pats the soil down over the top and we wait.
Our garden has been yielding now for two weeks – plentiful greens and radishes and now fresh strawberries with peas coming on strong. It will be a resource for our church community and our winter meals as well as a fresh bounty for our table over the next three months.
Planting a garden is our very tangible expression of hope in the future when the present feels overwhelmingly gloomy with despair. Yet a garden doesn’t happen without our planning, work and care making that first spinach leaf, that first pea pod, that first strawberry taste even sweeter.
“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” ~Voltaire’s last line from Candide
Spring flew swiftly by, and summer came; and if the village had been beautiful at first, it was now in the full glow and luxuriance of its richness. The great trees, which had looked shrunken and bare in the earlier months, had now burst into strong life and health; and stretching forth their green arms over the thirsty ground, converted open and naked spots into choice nooks, where was a deep and pleasant shade from which to look upon the wide prospect, steeped in sunshine, which lay stretched out beyond. The earth had donned her mantle of brightest green; and shed her richest perfumes abroad. It was the prime and vigour of the year; all things were glad and flourishing.” ~ Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist
Despite a pandemic, despite economic hardship, despite racial tensions and in-the-street protests, despite political maneuvering and posturing:
life is green and flourishing and vigorous even when we feel gray and withered and weakened.
May we not forget why we are here. May we never forget our calling and purpose to steward the earth and care for one another.
I like to live in the sound of water, in the feel of mountain air. A sharp reminder hits me: this world still is alive; it stretches out there shivering toward its own creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing enters into the elaborate give-and-take, this bowing to sun and moon, day or night, winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil chaos that seems to be going somewhere. This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it. This motionless turmoil, this everything dance. ~William Stafford, “Time for Serenity, Anyone?” from Even in Quiet Places
We are, as breathed on dust, called into the service and company of another, called to do work other than our own. This creature, formed of dust, is entrusted with the garden, with all the animals, and with all living things. Our creatureliness binds us to the role of steward, friend, and companion of all other creatures who share our fragility. ~Walter Brueggemann from “Remember You Are Dust”
As a physician, I am reminded daily of the fragility of our bodies and minds, this breathed-on dust of us, especially now as a mere novel virus has immobilizes the world’s population.
As a farmer, I dwell compatibly with the dust I’m entrusted to steward. I carry it around under my fingernails, on my boots, my skin smudged in unexpected ways and places as I go about my chores and tasks. The dust of the barnyard wilderness clings to me, not wanting to let go of one of its own as I return indoors. Sunbeams in our house swirl with released dust motes given new life through solar energy, each mote a source of fragile strength, tranquil beauty, complex simplicity. Such joyful dust dance makes me reluctant to get out the dust rags and cleaning solutions.
As a child of the Creator, I am well aware of the cleansing needed in this grimy, desperately soiled world. The dustiest parts of me lie far deeper than my shedding skin — the breathed-on dust that innervates, circulates and motivates me.
God sent His Son to be the dust rag I sorely need; I cling to Him as He comes to clean house.
O wet red swathe of earth laid bare, O truth, O strength, O gleaming share, O patient eyes that watch the goal, O ploughman of the sinner’s soul. O Jesus, drive the coulter deep To plough my living man from sleep…
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn, And Thou wilt bring the young green corn, And when the field is fresh and fair Thy blessed feet shall glitter there, And we will walk the weeded field, And tell the golden harvest’s yield, The corn that makes the holy bread By which the soul of man is fed, The holy bread, the food unpriced, Thy everlasting mercy, Christ. ~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy
As my farmer husband applies our rich composted manure pile to the spring garden, turning over the soil, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dive for cover. Within seconds, the naked little creatures …worm their way back into the security of warm dirt, having been rudely interrupted from their routine. Gracious to a fault, they tolerate being rolled and raked and lifted and turned upside down, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will continue their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed the seedlings to be planted.
Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, (especially only part of one) and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work.
We humans actually suffer by comparison — to be called “a worm” is really not so bad but the worm might not think a comparison to humans is a great compliment.
My heart land is plowed, yielding to the plowshare digging deep with the pull of the harness, the steady teamster centers the coulter.
The furrow should be straight and narrow. I am tread upon yet still will bloom; I forgive the One who turns my world upside down.
The plowing under brings freshness to the surface, a new face upturns to the cleansing dew, as knots of worms stay busy making fertile our simple dust.
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors which it passes to a row of ancient trees. You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.
leaving you, not really belonging to either, not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent, not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing that turns to a star each night and climbs–
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads) your own life, timid and standing high and growing, so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out, one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star. ~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy
We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.
As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.
Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?
Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?
Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.
We can be mere stones no more.
This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:
God sees us as we are, loves us as we are, and accepts us as we are. But by His grace, He does not leave us where we are. ~Tim Keller