On Mad Farmers and Mindless Scurrying, or Why I’m Not (So) Afraid Any More

HT to this site for the image.

The people that are Mill City Church have been talking about “What’s So Great About Easter.” We’ve been focusing on one of our “mission priorities” for 2017, “Gospel and Neighbor.” Specifically we’ve been working our way through a series of questions that might come up in a conversation with a neighbor about the gospel. Last week one of our pastors, Michael, wrestled with theodicy as he sought to answer the question, “Why Is There So Much Pain and Hurt in the World?” Something that stood out from that sermon which I live-streamed while sitting flu-ridden on the couch was his use of Hebrews 2:14-15:

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

If you read my last post, you’ll recognize the ongoing theme, slavery (and freedom). Michael went on to say something  very compelling about living “in slavery” because of the fear of death. He said:

“When we live our lives afraid of what might happen to us, afraid of what ultimately may come whether it’s today or next week or next month or next year or at the end of our lives, we live different lives than the lives God intended for us. So the Christian perspective on this is Jesus makes it possible for us to not be afraid all the time. Jesus makes it possible for us to not even be afraid of dying because we know that the God that we serve, that we love, that created us… will bring us back to life, and that means you can live your life way differently than you otherwise would. That means that today matters in a really different way than it otherwise would.”

Thinking about this today I was reminded of something Eugene Peterson said that I saw on the Twitter account dedicated to quoting him:

In this season of Lent, as we focus on following Jesus to the cross so that in some mystical sense we can participate with him in both his death and his resurrection, it’s fitting to focus on how we should “practice resurrection” now. Practicing resurrection is what Peterson was alluding to, and I think it’s what Michael from Mill City was talking about too. As he said, because “God…will bring us back to life…today matters in a really different way than it otherwise would.” Indeed, it matters precisely in a resurrected way. This too has been a theme running through many of my recent posts, because it has been a theme running through my life. Again as N.T. Wright alludes to, Jesus didn’t “have to die” so that we could secure our heavenly retirement plan and leave earth in order to get to heaven. What God promises is that in some way we can’t quite yet understand, heaven will come to earth. So the earth matters, and what we do each and every day on the earth matters.

That little phrase, practice resurrection, is one that is common among the likes of some of my heroes, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. As far as I know, though, it comes from another hero, Wendell Berry, who wrote in his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

It goes on for a bit, and then concludes:

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Powerful, prophetic, and, frankly, damning, isn’t it? He starts by offering one way to live: “Love the quick profit…vacation with pay…Be afraid to know your neighbors, and to die.” This indeed has been the only way to live for those who have been “held in slavery by their fear of death” as Hebrews spoke of above. I’m afraid to admit that for much of my adult life, I have been just such a person. Kirsten and I talked about it recently. It’s hard to know just when it started. It may have been when Samuel was born, so premature, so fragile, so subject to death which could come at any moment, from the slightest fluttering of his fledgling heart, from the slightest infection that slipped past all the sterile precautions we religiously observed when visiting him in the NICU. It may have started when my Dad’s life ended, an event which I feared and expected to come for so very many years, and which finally did. However and whenever it began, for the better part of a decade, and maybe longer, I have in fact been quite afraid of dying. My first foray as an adult into a healthy lifestyle and running came in 2009 as the swine flu pandemic raged and I knew it seemed to have a worse impact on “fat people.” Some health issues along the way including a few bouts with various stomach bugs only moved this fear more deeply into the core of my being.

Whatever the cause, fear became a part of me. I experienced it as recently as with this latest bout with influenza, as I read about young, otherwise healthy people who lost their lives to flu this year. Thus, hearing Michael’s message and being reminded of that Scripture about being enslaved by the fear of death was a very timely word for me. It is indeed gospel, good news, to know that I have been set free from this fear, and need not live in subjugation to it. Of course, it’s never as simple as all that, and to my credit, I suppose, I sometimes make forays in quite the opposite direction. Take, for example, my recent post that explored the Rich Mullins song, Elijah. In that song, as I’ve said, Rich talks about just how he wants to “go” (like Elijah) and just how, in some sense, ready to do so he was (“my heart is aging, I can tell,” he wrote). I wrote in that post that I could tell how my heart was aging too, and I expressed my acceptance of this fact. It is a fact, no matter how fearful I sometimes feel. I only pray for the strength to more faithfully and consistently live into that truth.

Returning to Berry’s poem, he seems to have a lot to say to USAmerican consumer/war-making culture, doesn’t he? “Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know,” he writes. Against this possibility of how life can be, he offers another one:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

“Take all that you have and be poor.” This is a direction our family has felt called to move in as we’ve worked to “get small.” It’s unlikely, of course, that we will ever be truly materially poor given our education and status as people of European descent, but that is only all the more reason why we have been so terribly convicted about how faithfully we’ve been serving Mammon all these years, rather than God. As we’ve put our trust in banks and business and retirement plans and college savings funds, we have failed to put our trust in he who clothes the birds and the flowers of the field. All the while, we’ve cast our judging eyes on the conspicuous consumption of some…

HT to this site for the picture of the now “First” family.

…while somehow justifying our own conspicuous consumption…

Those are my feet. That used to be “my” TV. Thank God, I came to see it as one of the chains I continued to allow myself to be enslaved by, and I have since cast it off.

…because we were focused only on the orders-of-magnitude-more-conspicuous consumption of the very, very few (the Trumps, above). Meanwhile, our own consumption is just as conspicuous to the very, very many in the world who live like this:

This picture came from this article, which is probably worth a quick read.

Wendell Berry is sure a sage for our times, is he not? Meanwhile, having worked through all the “God’s Economy” related books that helped move us in the direction of “getting small” in January, I’ve moved on to peacemaking as a topic for Lent. I finished A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, and am now well into Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf.

I knew Free of Charge wasn’t about peacemaking per se, but I also knew that radical forgiveness will be a necessary component to peacemaking as a way of life on the way with Jesus; so I’ve been glad to dive into this book. The book is divided into two parts, with the first three chapters having to do with giving and the last three having to do with forgiving. Ironically, I’m not even to the “forgiving” part of the book yet, and already I’ve been radically challenged, again. If I could sum up in a few words what I keep running into in the first half of the book, about God as giver and consequently how we were made to be givers too, with little eloquence or precision I would say that Volf argues that, like Israel, we are “blessed to be a blessing.” God gives to us because fundamentally it is in God’s nature to do so, and also because his gifts are meant for our benefit and flourishing. Crucially, though, God also gives to us because it is likewise fundamental to our nature, the nature God gifted us with, to be givers too. The people of Mill City Church touch on this whenever they say, “Generosity isn’t something God wants from you; it’s something God wants for you.”

Volf, for example, touches in passing on the problem of food scarcity and abject poverty in the world, and has this to say:

The relationship between God as giver and the growing poverty in the world is a complicated one that lies beyond the scope of this book. We should keep two things in mind, however. First, God doesn’t just give so that we can have and enjoy but so that we can pass gifts along to others. As we have seen in previous chapters, we are given to so we can be givers, not just recipients. Second, what’s primarily at issue is not why God doesn’t just give more, but why we don’t pass on to the needy what we already have. At the current levels of economic productivity, there is enough “stuff” around that no one need go hungry and everyone’s basic needs can be met. Yet they are not. We pass too little on. If Christians in the United States alone gave 10 percent of their income, the problem of world hunger could be solved. But those of us who have tend to squander or hoard, and what we do pass on is often misappropriated by middlemen. No, it’s not clear that increasing the amount of things given by God would actually help.

He goes on to challenge us to remember that everything belongs to God, and we must therefore fundamentally redefine our relationship with everything. All that we “earn” is a gift from God, who made our lungs and filled them with the breath of life. Thus we are to hold every single thing that comes across our path loosely, and pass it on as often as we can for the benefit of others. Instead, I’ve spent my adult life squandering and hoarding. God, forgive me.

Having recently read that bit from Volf, as you might imagine my ears were ready to hear when Pastor Michael from Mill City preached again this morning, this time talking about “why Jesus had to die.” He said a lot that was very helpful, but again what stood out was when he talked about Jesus’ work on the cross being less about saving me from the never-ending checklist of all my sins and moral failings, and being more about satisfying God’s original covenant(s) with Israel and thereby fulfilling Israel’s mandate to be a blessing for all the world. In failing to do so, in failing to receive God’s blessing for the sake of the world and then passing it on to the world, Israel became, borrowing a term from Volf, an “illegitimate taker” where it was supposed to be a giver. Do you see, again, the theme I keep running into at every turn? Would it surprise you to hear that it was reinforced from yet another direction today, again in a poem? Circle of Hope, our former and still very formative church in Philly, puts out a lot of great resources for following Jesus from “under, not over,” as I keep mentioning. One of them is one of their two (as far as I know) daily prayer blogs. In yesterday’s post, they included this poem:

Catch Me In My Scurrying, by Ted Loder

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and my neighbors on this Earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day,
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared for your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying child,
in the hunger of the street people
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smoldering resentments of exploited third world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;
and somehow,
during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something…
something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a savior followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me peace enough to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you…
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me a torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something…
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

I think I’m experiencing something like being “caught” and “held,” for I am beginning to die to those things that have kept me from living with Jesus and my neighbors on this earth. More than that, I’m beginning to recover from my dis-ease, and am listening “cup-eared” for Jesus’ summons, which I hear all around me, in every direction. Thankfully, “during this season of sacrifice” I have felt enabled to “sacrifice time and possessions and securities” and “to do something…something about what I see, something to turn the water of my words into the wine of will and risk, into the bread of blood and blisters, into the blessedness of deed, of a cross picked up, a savior followed.” Over the past two months we have purged probably thousands of dollars worth of “stuff” in our efforts to “get small,” and I couldn’t be more grateful. I perhaps have never felt more free. Thankfully, the “wine of will and risk” is becoming “the blessedness of deed” for us. Soon we’ll move into a smaller place in NE Minneapolis, the geographical community which Mill City Church is working so hard to love in Jesus’ name. This is an opportunity that we couldn’t have imagined just a while ago, and which is possible now only to the extent that we’re getting “small” enough to “fit” into this literal and metaphorical space. Thanks be to God for that.

The great Daniel Berrigan (a newly discovered hero and saint; God forgive my ignorance!) said, “If you want to follow Jesus….you better look good on wood.” As I dare to take up my cross and follow Jesus on his way to crucifixion in a few short weeks, I turn my mind again to just why Jesus “had” to die, to just what it is I need to be saved from. It was with those thoughts in mind that I wrote this:

Jesus save me from my fear of death; save me from clinging to your gift- life itself and every breath by which it continues- as if it were scarce, as if you, like me, were a stingy giver.

Jesus save me from my insatiable greed, which manufactures desire where there was none. Save me from thinking that the next trinket or shiny thing offered by the ad-man is finally that thing which will make me whole or complete.

Jesus save me from my own colonized mind, which is all too willing to do the work of the colonizers for them. Save me from the head games I play, from the elaborate justifications I concoct for why the thing which in principle I know is wrong is in practice okay, just for me, just this time.

Jesus save me from my captivated imagination, which refuses to consider that another world is possible.

Jesus save me from my blinded eyes which will not see when that other world draws near, as it is doing even now.

Jesus save me from my stopped up ears, which will not hear the cries of my oppressed neighbors far and near, let alone what your Spirit says to the churches.

Jesus save me from my tiny, selfish heart, ever hell-bent, literally, as I constantly seek to save my own life instead of losing it, which is the only way it can ever be found. Save me from thinking that salvation is primarily about me.

Amen.

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2 thoughts on “On Mad Farmers and Mindless Scurrying, or Why I’m Not (So) Afraid Any More

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