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Now is the time to rediscover the meaning of the local, and in terms of church, the parish. All churches are local. All pastoral work takes place geographically. ‘If you would do good,’ wrote William Blake, ‘you must do it in Minute Particulars.’ When Jonah began his proper work, he went a day’s journey into Nineveh. He didn’t stand at the edge and preach at them; he entered into the midst of their living – heard what they were saying, smelled the cooking, picked up the colloquialisms, lived ‘on the economy,’ not aloof from it, not superior to it.

The gospel is emphatically geographical. Place names – Sinai, Hebron, Machpelah, Shiloh, Nazareth, Jezreel, Samaria, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Bethsaida – these are embedded in the gospel. All theology is rooted in geography.

Pilgrims to biblical lands find that the towns in which David camped and Jesus lived are no better or more beautiful or more exciting than their hometowns.

The reason we get restless with where we are and want, as we say, ‘more of a challenge’ or ‘a larger field of opportunity’ has nothing to do with prophetic zeal or priestly devotion; it is the product of spiritual sin. The sin is generated by the virus of gnosticism.

Gnosticism is the ancient but persistently contemporary perversion of the gospel that is contemptuous of place and matter. It holds forth that salvation consists in having the right ideas, and the fancier the better. It is impatient with restrictions of place and time and embarrassed by the garbage and disorder of everyday living. It constructs a gospel that majors in fine feelings embellished by sayings of Jesus. Gnosticism is also impatient with slow-witted people and plodding companions and so always ends up being highly selective, appealing to an elite group of people who are ‘spiritually deep,’ attuned to each other, and quoting a cabal of experts.

The gospel, on the other hand, is local intelligence, locally applied, and plunges with a great deal of zest into the flesh, into matter, into place – and accepts whoever happens to be on the premises as the people of God. One of the pastor’s continuous tasks is to make sure that these conditions are honored: this place just as it is, these people in their everyday clothes, ‘a particularizing love for local thing, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.

From Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 128-130.

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“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief,” Wendell Berry says and sometimes I know he meant. Far enough into the wild things, I hold a six minute stare with a fox and keep my eye on the blue heron who stands alone, preening himself like a boy before his first date. Or maybe not his first but the one that feels like it because it is the first of all the rest of his life with her. My fox twitches and turns, dragging her white tipped tail behind her like a girl on her last date when she grabs her dignity and leaves.

The wild things are all around us if we’ll see them. It’s the peace that’s so hard to come by. We who are all looking for seven ways to rest and ten ways to declutter our lives. Yes, it is the peace that’s so hard to come by.

Here, by the lilypads and still waters, the peace is here. Yet when beneath it all is a soul not at rest, where can I come into the peace of the wild things? My heart is the wildest, raging one of them all.

I think I could learn from the wild peace of the animals who do not worry, what they will eat or where they will sleep, who they will impress or how, whether their homes will be good enough or the people kind enough, the time long enough or short enough. The peace of the wild things is there, in the turn of the fox, the dip of the heron, and here, in the heart of the Father’s wild child too.

Poets of People

August 26, 2014

A friend told me that he and I are farmers at heart, driven by seasons and weather, but that right now we’re called to cultivate people instead of earth. I cried when he said that because people are made of earth too, but it’s hard to tell with all the concrete around.

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A few weeks ago I met with one of my pastors who stared incredulously at me when I listed all the things I’m doing and how spent by it all I am.

“Lore,” he said, “that’s because you’re a poet. You need time for reflection and perfection. And all this doesn’t seem conductive to that. You need time to sow.”

I nearly wept right there. It has been a long time since someone said those words to me and I had forgotten.

“You are a poet.”

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Mondays are roommate nights in our house. We finish whatever chores are in our envelopes, cook dinner, set the table, sit in our respective chairs, and spend the next few hours being together. There is no agenda apart from that. We sow into one another with laughter, knowledge, prayer, questions.

The candles drip wax on our tablecloth, proof that dinner goes long and we are in no rush.

After the meal is finished we read the bible aloud. Last night we add some poetry (Walt Whitman) and the birth of Cain as told by Madeleine L’Engle. Then one pulls out her guitar and we sing. Not spiritual songs and hymns, but whatever comes to mind. We end the night going to separate rooms, but not before saying, “I love you,” to every one. Because in this home we are working the ground of Already and Not Yet.

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I’ve been reading in Genesis this week, the creation account. Thinking about design and flaw, disobedience and animal skin, craftiness and provision. God gave his people what they needed, even after they chose exactly what they didn’t need. But before all that, he blessed them and gave them something to cultivate.

And God blessed them.

And God said to them,
“Be fruitful
multiply

fill the earth
subdue it,
have dominion
over the fish of the sea
over the birds of the heavens

over every living thing
that moves on the earth.”

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It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction,” and I think of rows of tilled soil whenever I think of that quote. Eugene Peterson used it as a title for his book on discipleship. What is discipleship if not cultivating the earth by cultivating people? And how do we cultivate people if we do not do the slow work of farming, working in proper seasons and times? Perhaps discipleship is the work of poets, those “holding onto the mystery of faith with clear consciences?” Poets are the the seers, the nuance holders, and the farmers.

“God, make me a poet of people.”

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A Two-Part Invention

July 29, 2014

I have forgotten how to imagine. This year snuffed out my belief in the possible, brought me face to face with reality and it stung, over and over and over again.

I believe, help my unbelief.

I wake this morning in our new home, my bedroom at the back of the house cool, still dark, and quiet. The sound of a closing door, feet padding across carpet, the smell of coffee. These will be our morning rhythms now, the same, but different.

I believe.

Plans have changed and I find myself planted for another year in Texas. I’m grateful to have people wiser than I, and with better counsel, in my life, but cannot deny the panic I woke with yesterday, on moving day. I think I love our new home already, but want to imagine that imagination hasn’t gone the way of hope this year.

Help my unbelief.

Jesus is better than we imagine, but if we imagine nothing, then what is He better than? I feel soul-sucked and dry, that is the honest truth. Lonely and thirsting for things I love that he hasn’t promised me, not ever. But I want to imagine he’s better than all the mountains and seasons and people and clear air I ache for.

I believe.

The thing about mountains I love the most is not standing on top of them, though it is beautiful, to see so far, so deep. What I love more is standing beneath them. When the clouds part and the peaks show and I gasp. Who can imagine the time and folding and faulting that brings them to their full glory? I cannot. There is scope on the mountain top, bringing with it a grandeur. Here at the bottom, though, I am only small and inconsequential. Unimportant.

Help my unbelief.

He must increase, I must decrease.

I believe.

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Four years ago, on February 11th, 2010, I lifted my head from the snot soaked carpet, turned David Bazan off my iTunes, and reread a blog-post written by a guy who pastored a church a few hours from me. I was in the middle of not the driest season of my life, or the valley, or whatever metaphor the church folk like to give to people who have swallowed another gospel. I was weak, acquainted with sorrows.

Each of us has felt the aching weakness and realization that what we are believing (about God, salvation, suffering, the cross, blessing) is a crude misappropriation of the real thing. God help you if you don’t sometimes question what you think you believe. We need that kind of desperation just as much as we need the comfort of security. Those months of weakness led to years of weakness—a weakness I hope I never recover from.

The blog author had uprooted his family from the bible belt where he’d been on staff at a few churches and moved to central Vermont to work the ground of a small local church. Faithfully God worked in him as he worked that land. He penned a book called Gospel Wakefulness and that book led to more nights of snot soaked carpet in my house. This guy left the land of church-growth-opportunity, embraced his weakness, and woke up to the gospel. For the past four years Jared Wilson has discipled me from afar in what I think, ironically, may be the most undernourished area of Christianity: weakness.

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The churches dotting the countryside of the northeast are sometimes only 20 or 30 faithful people. People who day in, day out, deliver crockpots and shovel driveways, sing robustly from an overhead projector or a hymnal. It’s not that they’re legalistic fundamentalists, they’re not. They just don’t have the trappings of most modern churches. They don’t use Twitter and barely use Facebook. The concept of a celebrity Christianity is as foreign to them as a pastor who wears skinny jeans on their single Sunday morning service.

Belief, though, in the northeast is not rare, as the pundits will have you believe from their polls and surveys. I think belief may actually be strongest in the northeast, so deeply rooted in history and the birthplace of many of America’s richest belief systems. The ground is not hard up there. A deep sense of belief is the soil tilled for hundreds of years. Trust me when I say the ground there is ripe, the best kind of ground for the gospel to take root in. I am biased, I know, but the northeast has had her years of soil rest—it is time for planting.

It will take humble, humble men and women to do that work. Northeasterners see through genteel platitudes permeating the Church these days and will raise you an honest reply. The northeast will not revive on mega-churches, but small steeple dotted hills full of saints led by men and women who aren’t seeking a platform, but offering a haven. We know what it is to need shelter and if the northeastern church is to thrive it will be because it is filled with leaders who are unafraid to be weak, to need a crockpot or a shoveled driveway.

To his parishioners, Jared is simply their pastor, but Jared is pastoring thousands of rural pastors all over the world. He is modeling the long, slow work of church work. It is inglorious, it is messy, and it takes a long, long time with very little financial gain.

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Are you a weak Christian? Not riddled with false or partial gospels, but weak. Acquainted with sorrow? Have you suffered? Are you more impressed by hard work than by a quick rise to fame? Are you willing to farm, to get your hands dirty in rich, rich soil, to dig below the historical layers of the upper east coast? Are you okay with not being okay and are you okay with that knowledge, day after day after day?

Are you swallowed up by the grandeur of God, so much so that your success matters little to you? Do you know how to count the days and the sheep who come home, one by one by one by one? Do you know how to rest in the winter and toil in the summer; to truly work and truly sabbath?

If you do, if you are a weak Christian, than I beg you to consider rural church ministry. I think all churches need weak Christians, but I think you’ll be especially suited to the rural church—the long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson says. You cannot go in there planning changes, ways in which you will revolutionize the “simple people.” You really just have to farm.

But if you will farm alongside those people, you will see a harvest. Trust me, we plan for the seasons up there, and we’ve planned for this one for a long time.

Jared is offering a Pastoral Residency for his church in Middleton Springs Vermont. If he can’t grab your attention with the amazing photos (yes, it really does look like that up there), then maybe this blog post will convince you of the need. I hope you’ll check out this residency

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*I say “we” because you can take the girl out of the northeast, but you can’t take the northeast out of the girl. As for why I’m not up there? I don’t know. It’s my near constant prayer, though.

Silent Sanctification

August 1, 2013

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I’ve written here for 13 years, about doubts, fears, concerns, questions, deaths, divorces, heartbreak, joy, moving, lessons, and learnings. In many ways this place is the very public working out of my salvation. Were you to peruse the archives you would find much poor theology and even more straight up narcissism. This page was my heart splayed out for anyone to read and I bled myself dry for it.

Last night I said to one of my closest friends that sometimes silence is the best sanctification, and I gave her a numbered list of all the things happening in my life right now that I can’t talk about publicly. At least not this publicly.

There’s so much of the blogosphere that lauds transparency and authenticity, but even that is rife with trophy stories and humble brags and I am strangled by the fear that I will join their ranks if I so much as whisper the numbers aloud. The truth is that even good things bring with them deep breaths and open palms. I do not know how this or that will turn out and I can’t even guess. And I don’t want to give you the opportunity to guess. Because I am selfish? Perhaps. Because I am fearful? For sure. But also because some things are best worked out in quiet, gentle, and still ways. Sometimes our rest is found there, in the stillness, in the mind’s sleep.

Sometimes writing in this place has been the best sanctification for me. But today silence might be my best sanctification.

In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
Isaiah 30:15

A Life Full of Sabbaths

June 10, 2013

It’s Wendell Berry all this month. I drink in his essays, turning words over and over in my mouth. I read him aloud, even when no one is listening. Last night as she spreads cornmeal on wooden boards, I read her three paragraphs to give context to the quote written on the chalkboard: Though they have no Sundays, their days are full of Sabbaths.

He speaks of the cedar waxwings eating grapes in November. But he penned the poem The Peace of the Wild Things nearby then and poetry is meant to speak of the mysterious in the mundane and so he speaks of us, or the hoped-for us.

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This morning I read in Mark of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, the pharisees outrage, and the calm response of the Lord of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

How we have forgotten that. How have we forgotten that?

She is leaving to get bread flour to bake round loaves in the brick-oven. Do you want to come with, she asks, dropping her prepositional phrase and picking up her purse. I am drinking coffee on the side porch and nothing could bid me leave the wild rushing of the river in front of me and the song of the orioles above me. This is my sabbath and I am made for it, I think.

The last time I was home was a year ago, in May, and I have waited a year for these few days. They are not exactly as I imagined in my mind, other duties and events capped its full breadth, but it is a few days at least of quiet and still. I was made for this week, I think. The coals burned hot in the brick-oven the other night and faces gathered around the tables, children everywhere, laughter lingering. A phone call from Malaysia from a globe-trotting brother: you always sound so happy when you’re home, he said, and it is true, except when it hasn’t been.

I have lived this year holding my breath, it seems, waiting for the mornings when I could sleep past 4:30 or when I at least didn’t have to hit the ground running, literally, as soon as I woke. I have lived this year waiting for Sabbath, guarding it with a fervor I didn’t know I had. If anyone came near it, I would square my jaw and shake my head: it’s mine!

I preened myself for my Sabbaths.

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Whenever I rest and really rest, empty my head of expectations (yours and mine), listen, really listen, I remember there is nothing of my doing in salvation; that salvation is one long rest in the same direction. There is work too, obedience and sanctification, moments of weakness and moments of strength. But at its core and its very marrow, the work of salvation is rest, Sabbath. It is to say, again and again and again, I rest in You, Lord of Rest. I find my Sabbath in you, Lord of the Sabbath.

The work of salvation is to live a life full to Sabbaths, even when there is no margin and little space, when there is demand from every outside element and every inside emotion. This is to trust that a God who rested when His work was not done—even when it was good—to set an example for His people: You are not done, children, no, but it is still good. And so rest. You are not made for Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for you.

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THE BIGGEST CATCH

October 17, 2012

She’s a little like Jesus in that she always teaches me in allegories. Gardens and graveyards and apple picking—there’s always some lesson lurking beneath her well timed speeches, and there’s certain to be a prayer at the end of it all: go and do likewise.

Tonight she’s talking to me about fish.

She can stand at her kitchen sink and overlook the Grasse River. The thing about this particular juncture in the Grasse River is that it is the last dam from that river flowing down the Adirondacks and into the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The house used to be an old mill and that dam was once crucial to the life of the home and, in some ways, it still is.

It is at that dam that the salmon who make their way against the current from the Saint Lawrence end their journey. They jump and twist and spin and no matter how hard they try, they cannot make it over the dam.

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It is a lazy fisherman’s sweet spot. A bastion of swirling thirty inch salmon meeting their demise through hook or weariness.

But this is not the allegory she spins for me tonight.

We are talking about prayer and she is talking to me about asking big prayers, specific ones, naming things, not so that I can claim the things themselves, but so that I can hold a quivering hand to God full of childish requests and I can praise Him when He answers so specifically back to me.

I am not a big asker.

I stopped asking God for anything three years ago when I determined that He was not good and did not intend good for me. I let the anger build and boil inside of me until two years ago when I stopped asking God for anything for a different reason: I finally understood the gospel was the fullness of God for me, and what more could I possibly want? This girl was done asking because her cup runneth over.

But at a table the other night a friend talks about specific things she asked for and challenges my personal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And I had answers for her, I always do, but I can’t get that conversation out of my head. I’m not the girl who asks.

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Tonight my Jesus-friend is talking about how badly she wanted one of those fisherman to haul thirty inches of pink salmon up to her back-porch, how the taste of fresh fish would be so delightful and generous. So she asked. Well, she sent one of the many adoptees who frequent our house (of whom I am one) down to the riverside to ask. He brought back as fine a specimen of salmon as can be expected from one who’s made the twenty mile journey down the seaway to the dam.

But here’s the thing, she said, it was awful tasting, tough and old. She tossed it in the garbage and I can’t be sure, but knowing her, she whipped up a finer feast from leftovers than you’ve ever tasted in your life and called it dinner.

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The allegory here is that big asks do not always result in exactly what we thought we were getting, regardless of how fine it looks on the outside.

Who of you, I thought and she said, if your son asks for fish, will you give him a stone?

But sometimes He gives me stones, I said.

Yup, that’s right, sometimes he gives you stones, she said. But does that means you shouldn’t have asked for what you thought was best in the first place?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Even after she ends our phone call with a prayer and deep assurances of her love for me (she’s a little over the top sometimes), I still don’t have the answers. Flannery O’Connor said she wrote because she didn’t know what she thought about something until she wrote about it, and I feel the same way. It’s why I’ve written this.

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Once I stood in the bed of that river, feet from the open dam, water spilling over it. I stood there in my bare feet and the fish swirled and swam around me. I don’t think you can be that close to nature, that close to nature doing what it was meant to do—swim against the current, dive and jump and try and try again to get past that obstruction—and not feel the hopelessness that comes in life sometimes. Those fish are asking big asks and in the end the answer is no.

But I wonder what kind of life that thirty inch salmon lived before it was caught and brought to the table in the old mill house on the river. I wonder if he swam through nooks and crannies and over rocks and through storms to his end.

And if it was a good end indeed.

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These photos are what I talk about when I talk about home. 

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Bride of Christ most of my life. In the times I have needed her most, I have felt failed by her, and in the times I have felt myself stray far from her, she has pursued and loved me. These are strange words to use about an entity, a full body of individuals, imperfect men and women stumbling through life and the Bible as clearly as they can, but they are true words.

There is nothing on earth I love more than the Church. 

I have felt her failings near and I have chased her down in desperation—and there is no other place I would rather commune, break bread and share wine, than within her haven.

Ephesians 4 speaks of building the unity of the Church and oh how that resonates.

To see a whole body purified, strengthened, and grown into full maturity, ready to be presented to Christ—this I love.

And so I’m grateful that I’ve been asked to contribute monthly to a publication that pulls from every fold of her robes, every particle of her skin, and every joint and marrow, to build up and unify the Church as best we can with our earth encrusted words.

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My first column is up today:

Bearing the Weight of Thirty Blackbirds or More

I pass a field of blackbirds every morning on my way from class to work. There are a thousand of them wide in a Texas spread and I can’t stop trying to count them with my mind. Thirty of them are perched on a shrub close to the ground, but its branches do not bend or weep. I marvel at its strength. I marvel at the lightness of the birds, all thirty of them.

This desert shrub carries the weight of the blackest birds and I think of Jeremiah 17 while I drive. Continue reading…

 

 

FISHING on the FLY

June 23, 2012 — 1 Comment

I read stories, A River Runs Through It and The River Why, and both made me into a fisherman. But two summers ago, on one of my last nights on the lake, I caught a fish and it made me a storyteller. The fish got away, but it was a big one, heavy and strong, as all the ones that get away are. My friend Matthew let me have my story and a week later his older brother caught my fish. It was as heavy and strong as I knew it was.

When I was small, I went fishing in the early morning with my father and my older brother on Lake Nockamixon. We wore denim jeans with holes in the knees and we wore flannel shirts. We stood on the rocky edges in the cove casting and reeling, casting and reeling and I caught a small bass, my first fish and my father said we should let it go. I slid it from my hands, into the pool beside me and watched its speckled body through water reflecting the sky like one of those paintings on the PBS shows we watched in the afternoons. My first fish.

I helped my uncle catch a fish when I was nine years old. He kept it for himself and I never said otherwise. Hindsight says that if anyone was helping anyone it was probably my uncle helping me. But I wanted bragging rights more than the fish itself.

A writer never knows when the stories will quit him or her and the stories have quit me this month. I feel like every word I bring up is a bottom dweller and better left to swim away in clearer waters. The words I bring to the surface are the ones that get away, no matter how strong they feel on the line and in my hands, they get away.

This makes me still a storyteller in the same way, though. I am simply telling the story of words instead of letting the words tell the story that should have been.

Tonight I feel sick in my soul and the words feel far, far from me.

I remember a line from A River Runs Through It. It was underlined in my copy of the book and probably written it on a scrap of paper tacked to my wall: Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect. 

And I know that is me, that I am watching and waiting for something to become perfect, a final crescendo into resolution, the one that doesn’t ever get away. But I am a writer, I am. I may spend half my time trying to convince myself that I am a writer, but the truth is that I am one and the only way I am one at all is to stop waiting for the perfect fish to hook my line and still cast anyway.

  …I am watching and waiting for something…Click to tweet this post