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And God Said It Was Good…

Thoughts From the Porch

It was unusually quiet on the porch this morning. The birds were still singing, kept in time by the staccato beat of our neighborhood woodpecker, but there was no city sounds in the background – only a peaceful silence. Some would attribute to the “shelter in place” order we’re presently under. I prefer to believe that God quieted the noise so I could hear the beauty of birdsong and bask in the joy of a new morning.

I’ll exchange online church services for working at the farm this morning. A big rain is predicted for tomorrow and there’s tomatoes to get in before it comes. Besides, farming is its own worship service in so many ways. There are lessons to be learned from the never-ending process of life, death, and rebirth that only a garden can give.

From the very beginning in the Genesis creation story, God thought a garden was a good place for man to start. He planted a garden and gave it over to the care of the human beings He created in His own image:

“God spoke: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, yes, the Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of the Earth’.

God created human beings; He created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female.

God blessed them: ‘Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of the Earth.” (Genesis 1.26-28 – The Message- emphasis mine)

Working at the farm is a reminder of God’s instruction to be responsible for the Earth He gave us. I grew up hearing that passage as one of “having dominion over” rather than “taking care of” the gift of creation. I understand the difference today. Working in the soil, watching the crops grow, and seeing the happy faces of the ones who receive our produce is what was intended all along – be responsible and help others…

I take that responsibility serious at Opal’s Farm. That’s why I practice regenerative farming. I want to nourish and replenish the soil and leave it better than I found it. I take care of the gift entrusted to me. That’s what responsibility (and gratitude) is all about. I can’t take care of everything, but I can easily be responsible for my little place in the word. My prayer is that we’ll all do the same.

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Be Where Your Feet Are…

Thoughts from the Porch

Things in our world have changed drastically in the last few days. Don’t worry, I shan’t become one of the voices bemoaning the current toilet paper shortage. I’ve heard enough about that. The shelves are still empty and may be in the coming days. We’ve had to be a bit more resourceful about such matters – although I need to remind our family members not to throw baby wipes down the toilet.

I also need to remind everyone that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, not a gastro-intestinal one. It’s unrealistic to believe that you’ll use up that truckload of toilet paper you bought in this lifetime, much less during a two-week quarantine. Please use your head, exercise a bit of common sense, and leave some for the rest of us. That’s all I will say about that…

I am trying, like everyone else, to adjust to the rapidly changing situation with the coronavirus pandemic. As I drove to my regular 9:00 Sunday morning meeting I noticed how few cars there were on the road. It’s never heavy at that time and day but it was eerily quiet this Sunday. State and county health departments are following Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and limiting indoor gatherings to ever smaller numbers of people to prevent the spread of the virus. First, it was crowds of 500, then 250, and now 50. Moments ago, the White House said to avoid crowds of more than ten people and old folks should stay at home, period. Many churches were empty, opting for online or remote services instead. No wonder it was so ghostly quiet.

Social distancing has become a new normal.

One’s personal space just got larger. All I have to do to get through a crowded grocery store aisle is sneeze or cough – both of which are consequences of springtime pollen – and everyone gets out of the way. Sometimes allergies are a good thing. The absence of hugs and handshakes are painful though.

If it seems I’m being a bit flippant about this whole pandemic thing, I can assure you that nothing is farther from the truth. I’m taking very seriously. I check all the boxes for being at risk of becoming gravely ill if exposed – I’m over sixty, a borderline diabetic, and have a compromised immune system. I’m cautious around others but I refuse to allow fear and misinformation make my decisions for me. God knows, there’s enough of that already.

I hope to exercise a little common sense and get through this physically unscathed. It’s possible that most of us will do likewise. Unfortunately (and realistically), some will become ill and some will die. That’s what just the way this virus operates.

Then there’s the other consequences to be borne by people who can’t afford fifteen days or more of childcare, business shutdowns, and lengthy quarantines. Statistically, the vast majority of folks live paycheck to paycheck with little, if any cushion, for times like these. There will be some of you for whom this is extremely inconvenient. For most though, it will be life-altering and in many cases, devastating.

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The physical, mental, emotional and economic outlook is bleak, and not only because there’s no toilet paper to be found – given the severity of the situation, you’d think cleanliness in one’s nether regions would be of less importance – but all is not lost.

I’ve been spending time monitoring social media and the comings and goings around my community. I discovered that for every tale of bare supermarket shelves, panicked hoarding, and greedy resellers there are ten or more stories of the coronavirus bringing out the best in people. Here’s what I mean:

  • My “Next Door” neighborhood app is blanketed with messages of people wanting to help those who are older or immune compromised with getting groceries, medicines, etc. One of my neighbors living on Social Security put a “Need help” post up ad I’ve watched the constant stream of cars come to her home to deliver assistance.
  • People offering to help with child-care for those who are required to work even though their kid’s Spring break has been extended in most districts.
  • Companies like Apple that are still paying their employees while their stores are closed for the next two weeks.
  • Each of the countless churches and other organizations that open their food pantries for anyone struggling with the current crisis.
  • I was speaking with my ex-daughter-in-law yesterday and she told me of simply checking on the kid’s friends who were having to stay home alone due to the extended break and parents who couldn’t afford to miss work.

Thankfully, the list continues. I don’t know if it’s the same elsewhere. I would like to think so.

This pandemic and how to deal with it is uncharted territory for most of us. We’ve had scares in the past – bird flu, swine flu, and SARS/MERS (also in the coronavirus family) – but we haven’t seen a true pandemic in our lifetime. Despite the current Administration’s inept handling of the crisis and the plethora of wild conspiracy theories, lies, and minimalizations accompanying it, people show a resiliency that offers a glimmer of hope for human beings in general. My prayer is that we’ll fan that flame and take care of one another.

So, my friends, be kind to one another and yourselves. Don’t panic. “Be where your feet are”, as my wife often reminds me. Don’t rush or hoard. Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and think of others. Step back, take a deep breath and we’ll all walk through this one together. It may not eliminate COVID-19 but it sure can’t hurt…

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“And take up their cross.” That cross is already there, ready, from the very beginning; we need only take it up. But to keep us from believing that we must simply choose any arbitrary cross, or simply pick out our suffering as we will, Jesus emphasizes that each of us has his or her own cross, ready, appointed, and appropriately measured by God. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter

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Looking For An Out

Thoughts From the Porch

Like most kids, I put a lot of energy into pushing the boundaries imposed by my parents. Being a people-pleaser by nature, I constantly sought ways to do what I wanted to do while keeping the appearance of being the good son. I was always looking for an “out”. I became so good at it that my mom would frequently suggest I become a lawyer when I grew up. After all, lawyers are experts at finding loopholes, at rationalizing behavior. Might as well get paid for it, right…

I’m not unique in this ability. It tends to be a common trait among human beings. Everyone looks for an out: a way to bend societal rules for their benefit, to make unacceptable, self-centered, or somewhat dubious behavior okay. Some are just better at it than others. I know. I have kids…

The whole process is about justification. The dictionary defines justification as “attempt to explain or justify (one’s own or another’s behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.” For example, I still smoke (cigarettes, not weed. I live in Texas, not Colorado). I am once again in the process of trying to quit. I know they’re bad for me. Everyone knows they’re unhealthy. It’s a nasty habit. They stink, they cost way too much, and constant smoke breaks up my productive time (I don’t smoke in my office so I have to go outside). Everything screams out “stop smoking”!

Knowing all these things I will still try to find my out; the loophole that cosigns my bulls**t. I remember reading an old Rolling Stone interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They were into healthy living – good diet, exercise, good rest. The interviewer asked them why they still smoke if they’re so into health.

Their response always stuck with me – “We’re macrobiotic people”. What in heaven’s name does that mean?

The dictionary defines macrobiotic as “constituting, relating to, or following a diet of whole pure prepared foods that is based on Taoist principles of the balance of yin and yang.” Now I’m not judging, but what does that have to do with the unhealthy habit of smoking?

It’s a prime example of justification, of how we find an “out”. It may be plausible. It sure sounds good, but smoking is unhealthy no matter whether you’re macro or micro-biotic. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve used this excuse (and a myriad of other justifications) on occasion . Hey, I gave up my other bad habits. I’ve got to have one vice, right?

The truth is that I’m unwilling to go through nicotine withdrawal. I’d rather justify my actions than quit. I can ask God to help me quit a multitude of times but, if I’m honest with myself (and you), I’m unwilling to do my part. Justification always tends to center around my unwillingness (or outright refusal) to change or dishonesty with myself.

What’s your “out”?

In Luke 10, a religious scholar comes to Jesus with a question (and questionable motives): what do I need to do to receive eternal life? Jesus responded in His oft-used way of answering a question with a question.

“What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

The religious scholar answered:

“That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence – and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself. ‘Good answer’ said Jesus. ‘Do it and you will live.’

Here it comes:

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define neighbor?” (from Luke 10. 25-29 The Message Bible

Jesus goes on to tell the story we know as the “Good Samaritan” and the lesson of being a neighbor we usually focus on. Yet, the words “looking for a loophole” jumped out at me the most, because that’s what I do – look for a loophole, an “out” to get my way, a way to justify my actions. It’s been that way for a long time…

Loopholes, and those searching for them, seemed to frustrate Jesus the most. In Luke 11.42, Jesus tells all the religious bigwigs hanging around that:

“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love.”

The takeaway is that Jesus meant what He said – love God with all you’ve got and love other people like you love yourself. If we do this, everything else takes care of itself. We don’t have to look for loopholes (I still do anyway…). My actions speak much louder than my words.

Image credit Study for the Visitation Jacopo Pontormo

I want to be all in on this Jesus thing. I don’t want an “out”. I want to become better simply being me – to be a better husband, father, brother, friend, and to love and serve others, not just as I love myself (I still have days when I’m not so loving to Greg!), but as God loves His kids.

Being all in isn’t easy. Jesus takes “common sense” and turns it upside down. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the “Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ manifesto for living. Things like ‘turning the other cheek’ and thinking of others more highly than one’s self run counter to everything in me. If I really believe Jesus meant what He said though, then I can stop looking for loopholes. After all, I didn’t see any “except when” or “buts” after His statements…

When I became a disciple, a student of “the Rabbi”, I slowly began to face the justifications that cluttered my life. Slowly but surely, they were eliminated one by one. Some I still cling to (like smoking) and try to justify their place in my life. Yet, the deeper I step in to the whole faith thing, the more difficult it becomes to hang onto them. It’s easier to find the willingness to escape them and see life as it really is.

Today I trust the process. Today I want to be all in. Maybe, just maybe, one more layer of justification will be peeled away and I come closer to the man I was always intended to be…

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Songs About Spring

Thoughts From the Porch: A stunning late winter sunrise started my morning. I drank my first cup of coffee to the varied songs of our resident Mockingbird. Nesting season has begun and my little friend sings once again, reminding me that spring in almost here. He brightened my morning even more that the rising sun.

Sometimes I can’t offer anything more than a simple thank you in my morning prayers. I see mornings like this, and I hear God speaking quite clearly. It’s time to just sit here and listen, to bask in His glory and miraculous creation.

The Mockingbird fell silent around the time of our first early frost. I’ve missed my little friend who greeted me in song each day as I set abut my porch time. This winter has been mild – eighty-degree days in January – and I would’ve thought he’d come by now and then, but his internal timing told him to wait until now. He saved his melodies for me and this very morning. Thank you my little friend…

  

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Running In the Dark

Thoughts From the Porch

It’s a beautiful late winter morning here in North Texas. After a few days of rain and cold the sun slowly warms the day as it rises higher in the sky. There’s much to be done today and I’d love to take time to pass on deep spiritual thoughts from the porch but truthfully, such thoughts are elusive over the last few days. I struggle to write, to put thoughts to paper, and a cloud hangs over me even on a bright, sunny morning. I get frustrated, I pray, and try to listen, but it feels like God has put me on hold while He’s busy attending to other things…

My wife likes to remind me that there are times when no amount of spiritual awareness will take our pain or fear. My friend Jim used to say that “in the meantime, it’s a mean time”. There are times when God seems silent and I need to act as if He’s not. It’s the old “fake it ‘til you make” thing. I’m thinking I might be going through one of those times.

I don’t hesitate to tell of God’s unfailing love and grace in my life. Hindsight tells me that God has always, one hundred percent of the time, taken care of me (even when I was far from Him doing my own, self-destructive thing). Unfortunately, the lens through which I look forward can be awfully opaque at times (we walk by faith, not by sight, right?). I speak the truth when I share about God’s provision and care, but I’m surprised at how quickly I forget that when life feels overwhelming.

Margaret and I are going through some difficult financial times right now. Almost two years ago, I made a commitment to the mission of Opal’s Farm and made it my full-time endeavor. We knew this would be difficult because we’re dependent on donations for my salary. Unfortunately, winter is a slow time for both the growing season and for contributions to our non-profit. Although Spring brings a wealth of opportunity for market sales and donations that doesn’t pay this month’s bills.

I mention this is not to whine about it – we took this on after prayerful consideration and eyes wide open – but to say that finances are one of the toughest areas in my life to turn over to God. Margaret is far better able to do that than I am. It may be because as a man, I sometimes feel I’m not doing my part to take care of my family. To Margaret’s credit, she’s my biggest cheerleader and reminds me I’m on the right path.

I begin to doubt I’m where God would have me be and think I should throw up and hands and go find something else. The little committee inside my head begins to tell me how foolish I am. Negative self-talk and doubt of God’s blessing fill my days. Honestly, I feel like a hypocrite at times. I’ll tell everyone of God’s faithfulness while my mind tells me I’m a fraud, that God isn’t really taking care of me.

That being said…

You might notice that the word feel is in italics. There’s a reason for that. You see, it took me years to learn to separate my feelings from my reality. That lesson may have come much easier for others, but it was a long, painful, and often frustrating journey for me. When I began to see what was going on around me for what it is rather than what it feels like it is, I began to understand that doubt was an essential part of my faith journey.

That may sound a bit oxymoronic – doubt and faith are mutually exclusive terms, right. Still, it’s possible to doubt and still be faithful. It’s a painful process to walk in faith through doubt and darkness. We can’t see in the darkness. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite priest, called this “the dark night of the soul”.

The journey through the darkness leads us to shed all our preconceptions about God. We begin to let go of our ego, our perception of our self, and rest in “unknowing”: the unfathomable spirit of God. The journey can be long or short. For me, it’s often been a case of “two steps forward, three steps back”. In the darkness I find my union with the Father deeper each time. My petty worries and struggles seem a tad easier. Trust begins to return. I just keep walking…

St. John of the Cross

Sharing the journey, the struggles, the fear, and “the dark night of the soul” is frowned upon in many churches. We don’t like to talk about it. We write off what we fear or don’t understand so it won’t “wash off” on us. It’s dangerous to around a “doubter”.

Honest lament is frequently met by simple answers and platitudes. Things like “we’re praying for you” just have faith”, don’t doubt God’s promises” – that do little to illuminate the path.  

Some give up, retreating to the relative safety of sameness. Others throw up their hands, utter “what’s the use?” and leave behind the very community that God created for us. I don’t think that’s what Abba intended…

A Few Days Later…

I began writing this last Saturday. Yesterday was a great day at the farm – a special visit by Mailik Yakini from the Detroit Food Policy Council, getting to spend time with other local farmers, and getting a lot of planting done. The financial worries slipped away, replaced with feelings of fellowship and connectedness. At the end of the gathering, Ms. Opal pulled me aside. She whispered, “the Lord is so good, and He’s provided again. We received a check from a donor and there’s a check for you at the office.”

We’re able to pay all our bills for this month. One more time, like countless other times before, Abba has provided for all our needs. I used to beat myself up for doubting God. Today my doubts are merely one more opportunity to demonstrate God’s goodness and care. Hindsight reveals even my darkest periods, those which God felt so absent, have been the greatest blessings in my life.

What I thought was bad turned out good. What I thought was good wasn’t always so great (if you know what I mean). It reminds me that I don’t know what’s best for me, but Abba does.

We will encounter difficulties once again (especially financial ones) and I’ll begin to question God about His sense of timing. I’ll have some fear, but it seems to be a little less each time life shows up. God’s promises always hold true, even when my faith wavers so I’m just not going to worry about the process anymore. In the darkness I discovered a light that never goes out. I don’t always see it, but my vision is becoming clear with each step in the journey.

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God Is…

“We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression… Prayer is the opening of mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing—closer than consciousness itself.” —Thomas Keating

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