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Living in Exile

Thoughts From the Porch: We had a series of precipitation events this weekend; at least that’s what the weather folks called them. I thought it was just rain. Regardless of what you call it, the result is it’s too muddy to do a lot at Opal’s Farm. Brendan and I will harvest radishes tomorrow, but weeding will have to wait. Oh well. It means a little more time on the porch.

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I re-read “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile” by Rob Bell and Don Golden. I re-read many of my good books. After two brain surgeries and the trudge through middle age I get to enjoy them almost as much as I did the first time. I gain new insight and reaffirm old ones from re-reading some of my favorite authors.

I appreciate Don Golden for his work as Executive Director of Red Letter Christians (https://www.redletterchristians.org/). I had the opportunity to attend the Red Letter Revival last Fall in Dallas. Being around other disciples who strive to live out the radical, and often subversive, teachings of Jesus was the highlight of my year.   

Rob Bell ( https://robbell.com/) has always ranked high on my list of favorite authors; especially since his book, “Love Wins” put him on the outs with the evangelical community. He was labelled an apostate and a universalist (God forbid!) and exiled in the truest sense of the word. Questioning long-held doctrine and institutional religion is risky. Jesus can attest to that. I guess that’s where the sub-title came from…

A brief tangent…

I purchased “Love Wins” at my old church’s bookstore (a Starbucks-looking “seeker-friendly kind of place). I had seen it in the store the previous Sunday but could no longer find it anywhere on the shelves. It turns out that “Love Wins” had generated too many questions for the church. The Senior Pastor had asked that it be kept underneath the front counter. It was available only by request. I can assure that when the last copy was sold no more were reordered.

I asked for a copy and my purchase was quickly placed in a plain brown paper bag. It was like buying Christian pornography. Forbidden wisdom there, Don and Rob…

“Trendy” Christians

There’s a current trend among many churches to be “seeker-friendly”. Contemporary services with great bands constitute the worship experience now. Sometimes it seems like they should be taking tickets at the door. The experience is more one of entertainment than worship; for me anyway…

I retain a church home in name only. I’m not okay with sitting in the same place every week only to have the same people ask me if this is my first time at the church. This tends to happen a lot in mega-churches. It’s not the worshipper’s fault. Large groups tend to be impersonal.

My old church has a plethora of Pastors and staff members: so much so that a large portion of the budget goes to administrative costs. They do some wonderful and amazing things for the local community and in missions, but I can’t help but wonder what the early Jesus followers would think. Just saying…

I used to work on quite a few service projects the church took on, many of them having to do with community gardens and almost always working with young people. I was invited to go with the Youth Group on a service project to New Mexico. When they ran a background check (yes, a background check!) they learned I had a felony conviction from my old life involving bouncing paper. Suddenly, I was unfit to work with the young people I’d been working with for over five years. They said it was a question of liability, but I think they were afraid I’d teach the teenagers how to pass bad checks…

Honestly, I was pissed. I felt betrayed. Church was supposed to be a place of forgiveness and healing, not a business concerned with liability and self-protection. I tried to move past my feelings. I continued to attend for a while, and probably well past the expiration date…

My friend and mentor, Rusty, taught a class I enjoyed and corporate spiritual growth took place within our small, class-sized community. Unfortunately, the class was cancelled, and he was made the ‘Online’ Minister. Churches have gotten tech-savvy in the pursuit of new converts (and additional dollars? – I know, I’m a bit cynical). Quite frankly, the online community simply isn’t the same for me. I spend enough time in front of a computer screen.

Self-imposed Exile

I don’t think I’ve attended a service at my old church in three or four years. My spiritual appetite has been fed in other places: “being” the church instead of “going” to church. I get to do that daily. I’m blessed to work with a non-profit, Unity Unlimited, Inc. and Opal’s Farm, that is faith-based and inclusive of everyone. Its mission is to provide for and minister to (serve) oft forgotten and marginalized communities in Fort Worth. Jesus called them “the least of these”. I get to be of service daily. My vocation is the same as my avocation.

I was relieved to hear that others struggle with the same issue. In his book, “Scary Close”, Donald Miller said something to the effect that he was a “Christian writer who hadn’t been to church in five years.

Lately, there’s been a nagging longing for spiritual community. I’ve been missing a home church, or more accurately, a church home: a place where I belong, where I can have community with other believers, and where I can celebrate and incorporate the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus, in my life. 

I’ve been blessed to have stepped out of my comfort zone. Stepping out is never easy, but over the last few months I visited several churches outside my long-held religious tradition. I’ve discovered how much I miss corporate worship of the Creator and the community of other disciples. There’s a huge difference in being a Christian and being a disciple.

This past Sunday I visited a church my friend attends. The service was beautiful, the people friendly, and the Eucharist was celebrated in a way that reminded me of the beauty of community. Our time together was holy. I left feeling far less alone in my faith. That’s a good thing…

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I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know my faith was never meant to be exclusive of other Jesus followers. The writer of Hebrews urges the Hebrew Christians to remain faithful to gathering together. It’s for their benefit and growth. It’s time for me to revisit this advice.

How About You?

What is your experience with this? I’d love to hear from others who struggle with this issue and how its resolution (of suggestions anyway).

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3 Easy Steps to Better…

I’m as voracious reader. I keep up on the news. I read articles and books that help me professionally: that hone my writing skills or help me learn to be a better farm manager. Above all, I love reading books and articles that nurture my spirituality and find simple pleasure.

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I receive several newsletters each week about issues important to me, especially those that help me help my clients better. Recently, one of them reemphasized the basic marketing concept of successful titles in catching the reader’s attention. From a marketing standpoint, classic titles saying things like, “How to do XYZ, Five Easy Steps to a better ABC”, and so forth, invite the reader in and are more likely to be read. Basic copywriting and Marketing 101. I do it for clients all the time.

However, it occurred to me while I was reading another “Five Easy Steps” article that it’s rare for such articles to exceed the number five. It may on occasion be “Seven Easy Steps to” but that always seems to be the limit. There’s a myriad of reasons why smaller numbers elicit attention: psychological, neurological, and social. Everyone wants to solve their problems in a few quick, easy steps. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way; at least in my personal experience…

For years I sought quick solutions to life’s pressing problems, but “Five Easy Steps” never seemed to work. I always found myself in the same state as before. It wasn’t until I discovered a recovery program from my “seemingly hopeless” condition of mind and body my condition began to change. It was going to require more (and steeper steps) if I were to become the man I wanted to be. In fact, I found it to take twelve of them.

People tend to have a love-hate relationship with twelve step programs. What can’t be denied is Twelve Step recovery programs have helped thousands of people through the years, no matter what the specific problem might be. It should come as no surprise there are around 240 such programs today; each dealing with specific issues – alcohol, overeating, addiction, gambling, sex, shopping, ad infinitum… I don’t know if it’s the solution to everyone’s problems, but the twelve steps of recovery were for mine. I have been transformed in mind, body, and spirit by taking all twelve steps. I have a relationship with God today. Moreover, I’ve witnessed the change in countless others as well.

I tried many times and countless ways to solve my dilemma. If I just work harder, if I do it this way or that way. Hey, I’m a reasonably intelligent guy. I can handle this. I should be able to reduce twelve steps to something more manageable like five or seven, right? It wasn’t until I was completely beaten that I decided my way didn’t work. I’d take the steps like those before me had. Maybe, just maybe I could achieve the same results and move toward positive change.

The stories the same for so many. The evidence is (and was always) right in front of me. So why did it take so long to believe it?

It may have to do with the number of steps involved. Maybe twelve is overwhelming. Maybe it’s difficult to see past three, five, or seven of them. Maybe it’s just poor marketing on the part of all the people involved. I don’t know.

The bottom line for me is in the results. I’m not who I used to be. I’m becoming the man God meant for me to be. Had I been able to see into the future all those years ago I probably wouldn’t have cared how many steps I had to take to get here today. It’s easy to say that in hindsight though.

The payoff has been far greater than any investment on my part. If I were developing a marketing campaign for such programs, I’d eliminate the whole “Twelve Step” thing. Too many steps. Won’t attract enough readers, you know? I’d break it down to what has become a bit of a mantra to me: “I can’t, He can, and I think I’ll let him”. It’s the cycle of threes seen in all twelve and, hey, it’s only three easy steps, right?

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Easter People…

Thoughts From the Porch: Another beautiful Spring Day here in Fort Worth so it’s off to the farm. No time to write this morning. Before I go, I just wanted to say I hope you all had a wonderful Easter. We did here at the Joel household! Any time you spend you get to spend a whole weekend with close friends it’s a great weekend!

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“Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask but when we are challenged to be what we can be.”   — Morris Alder

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“Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”   — Desmond Tutu

Easter symbolizes resurrection and rebirth. May we all live as Easter people today.

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Good Friday

Thoughts From the Porch: The wind is a bit frisk this morning, but all is well on the porch. It’s still too wet to work on the farm so I’m enjoying the quiet solitude of our little cul-de-sac and my second pot of coffee.

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always been curious how it came to be called “Good” Friday. I get the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion led to a Good Sunday (Easter), but there’s really nothing good about hanging someone on a cross. Maybe Christians would do well to change their iconography for the cross to a stone. I’d rather constantly remember the resurrection than a barbaric and humiliating form of capital punishment. I want to be a resurrection disciple.

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Those who have experienced God’s grace on a deep level tend to be aware of the price paid for their redemption. They know spiritual death. They know what the proverbial “end of the rope” is. They know what it’s like to have nowhere and no human being to turn to. They know that accepting God’s grace is the only thing that will bring us back to life and there’s no doubt how costly that grace was and is. They eagerly cling to Easter and resurrection.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to stay stuck on the crucifixion, to live in the past, and forget that the real joy in life comes from the resurrection. God did, and does, the impossible. He often does for us what we cannot, and sometimes will not, do for ourselves. That’s where the real power lies. Not in the cross, but in the rolled-away stone…

“I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of”. John 10.10 (The Message)

Today, I’m living in the present, enjoying the resurrected life I’ve been given…

“Yes, all the things I thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant”. Phillipians 3.8 (The Message)

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Two

I spent last Friday morning at the farm with a prospective donor. We talked about the mission and purpose of Opal’s Farm for over an hour. The farm is about more than simply providing access for fresh produce to a largely forgotten neighborhood. It’s about building a better Fort Worth and serving our community. While that’s a worthy mission, the means by which we accomplish that mission is the tangible “goods” that the local community receives. What makes Opal’s Farm so special and why should you be a part of it? This is the second reason “why”.

Last Friday, we talked about “dirt therapy” and the physical and emotional well-being that comes from working the soil. The sense of community, of connection, and the increased physical activity shared with others of like mind is amazing. Even though that’s reason enough for anyone to come out and work or support the farm, your “why” might be as simple as providing food for your neighbors.

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When I was talking to our prospective donor the other day, I mentioned that Ms. Opal had been late for a dinner meeting the evening before because she had to drive a long way to get lettuce for the salad. He looked at me with a bit of confusion, “Why couldn’t she go to a store around here?”, he asked.

I told him that there was no store around here. The closest one was several miles south of the neighborhood. I explained to him that United Riverside, our neighborhood, is a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as anyplace were access to fresh, healthy food is more than one mile away. He was a bit shocked that there were over forty food deserts listed in Tarrant County alone.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Everyone touts the great economy and growth Fort Worth has experienced over the last few years. Politicians and business leaders point to the success Fort Worth and the growing economy has had. We often don’t hear the grim statistics and the reality for many of our neighbors. I’ve thrown them out there many times before, but statistics are often abstract and overwhelming.

In Tarrant County, one in four children go to bed hungry each night. One in four, 25%! For blacks and Latinos, the number is even more staggering – one in three children face hunger. That’s 33% of kids right here in Tarrant County!

What can you do about it? Now that you know the numbers it’s overwhelming. When a problem is of a scale that’s overwhelming it can foster inaction. It’s easy to say, “I can’t help everybody” and so no one gets help.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Teresa. It’s at the bottom of every email I send out. It says, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” We do what we can, and Opal’s Farm provides the “why”. Through a simple farm we begin tackling the issues of food success and food scarcity. We can’t feed all of Fort Worth, but we can bring health and vitality to a neighborhood through each season’s harvest. You have to start somewhere…

Maybe you’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Maybe you feel like you don’t make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, you do. Helping at Opal’s Farm, whether by donating or volunteering is the first step. It’s something tangible.

Mother Teresa said something else that always comes to mind, too. She said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” I’m no math genius but I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of small acts with great love constitutes a big thing.

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If you’re wanting to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of others please consider your donation or volunteer at Opal’s Farm. If you’re still not sure, I’ll give you another reason “why” tomorrow…

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A Little Clarity is in Order…

I sat down to go through our social media posts and comments this morning and I had to take a hard look at how we post for the farm. I often post articles from my blog on WordPress to Opal’s Farm page as well. It was brought to my attention that I could communicate the purpose, goals, and impact of the farm more clearly. I appreciate any comments coming from our supporters and other urban farmers. One thing I have learned is that it truly takes a ‘village’ of people to make the farm and, everything else positive in life, a success!

Jeff Williams, Team Depot Captain at the White Settlement Home Depot (#8521). Thanks, Jeff!

Starting the beds

While our Mission Statement is written in the “About Us” section of the page, it can be easily overshadowed by other postings (including links to my own blog…). Our Mission Statement sums up our overall goal in a simple fashion – “Opal’s Farm restores hope and vitality to neglected communities through an agricultural intervention and education.” However, mission statements make more sense when they are broken down into bit-sized chunks and we certainly want to bring clarity of purpose to our supporters, followers, and ‘farmers’.

Statement of Purpose

Opal’s Farm is a model for regenerative, organic agriculture that:

  • addresses the elimination of local food deserts and scarcity in low-income communities.
  • offers education in sustainability, soil conservation, food distribution, and nutrition.
  • creates jobs, job training, and entrepreneurial opportunities that provide a living wage for low-income community members.

We developed our statement of purpose by listening to the community and getting input from other successful urban farming projects. Ms. Opal Lee, who as many of you know, is our namesake, is the President Emeritus of the Community Food Bank in the United Riverside neighborhood of Fort Worth. She spent many hours speaking to the folks served by the food bank and found that many of those folks had issues with finding employment paying a living wage because of previous incarceration. Moreover, they would be willing to grow their own food and exercise a degree of self and community-reliance. As a result, the vision of Opal’s Farm was born.

Once the vision became a reality, we began to seek guidance from other successful urban farm projects. Bonton Farms, located in the Bonton neighborhood south of downtown Dallas, provided much of the model for Opal’s Farm, especially in developing economic sustainability. Paul Quinn College offered support. God opened so many doors and people came from out of the proverbial woodwork to help Opal’s Farm.

The start of the 70 beds we made so far!

Jeff Williams, Team Depot Captain at the White Settlement Home Depot makes the first delivery to Opal’s Farm- – Thanks Jeff!

Charlie Blaylock, of Shines Farmstand and the Cowtown Farmer’s Market, has been our closest consultant and friend. Paula Pacanins with Container King provided a shipping container to store our equipment. Natasha Neidhart, Store Manager for the White Settlement Home Depot (#8521), and Jeff Williams, the Assistant Manager and Capitan of Team Depot partnered with us to provide substantial support in tools, equipment, and supplies. Brandon Hendrickson, the Rental Manager at Zimmerer Kubota provided us with a tractor and farm implements to plow the almost 4 acres that makes up the total area of Opal’s Farm.

We also have the support, and are a member of, Grow Southeast, a coalition of growers dedicated to building urban farms and gardens throughout the southeast side of Tarrant County. The Healthy Tarrant County Collaborative purchased a BCS tractor for all the growers to share as they built and prepared beds for planting. So far, we’ve built 70 beds (a whopping 28,000 square feet!) in the last four days because of their help. TCU has come alongside of Opal’s Farm as well through the Tarrant County Food Policy Council. Students are assisting in a variety of ways this semester to make the farm a success. Last, but most certainly not least, is the Trinity River Water District that provided the acreage and believed in Ms. Opal’s dream. Without them, none of this would be possible.

What I’m trying to say in all of this is that Opal’s Farm is about Fort Worth, about our community, and our home. That’s why Opal’s Farm is so important. Each of us has an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of our neighbors. We can’t do it alone. We need each of you – individuals, businesses, and organizations to bring health and vitality to the community. This is very real work, with very real results.

People often ask me if this is a “faith-based” project. I’m not trying to be funny when I say the honest answer is yes, and no. We believe that one’s faith is best reflected in the actions one takes, not merely words. Our faith is reflected in the lives we change and the people who are united in making a better place for everyone. Fresh produce is the means to the real end: helping others. Faith says, always err on the side of love” and that always benefits all of us.

Future posts will include articles from my blog and updates on the farm. It’s not to promote the writing business of one individual but to share what’s going on and how everyone can be a part. Mother Teresa was once asked about her work among the disenfranchised and poor in India. Her response was, “Come see”. Come see what we’re doing at the farm and we might just make a farmer out of you.

You can learn more about Ms. Opal and Opal’s Farm on our website, www.unityunlimited.org and our Facebook page. You can also make a secure donation online.

In the meantime – “Come see…”