Merry Christmas Fellow Aliens!

Dearly Beloved:

We do feel guilty that we are taking the shortcut this year of posting our Christmas letter on our web site. But, “needs must,” as they say in jolly old England. Connie is still in a big boot and still in therapy after an ankle replacement operation at the beginning of October. So that means she shouldn’t drive a car, and she is slowed down in her other work. And that spills over onto John as well—so John decided to take this little short-cut in reaching out to all our family and friends, and catching you up on our lives, since our last Christmas epistle in 2017.

 

First, we want to lift up an important Christmas message.

 

The word “alien” is an ugly word. Today, as we speak, our entire world is being horribly fractured by politicians who capitalize on fear of “aliens.” So, worldwide, the issue of immigration is driving people apart, and preventing communities from solving the natural problems of immigration, and making for the shared welfare of all. For instance, before 2012 there was just a slight difference between white Democrats and white Republicans about whether our nation should welcome more immigrants to our shores. Today the gap between these two factions is more than 47% wide, and the misguided and ruthless among us are working to build their own power spooking us all, stopping any sensible solutions, and further dividing folk.

 

Meanwhile, this Christmas we meditate on the story of a young couple who find no place in the inn for their child to be born. They are displaced at the whim of an all-powerful government that insists people be counted in their ancestral homes, but has little regard for the hardships that demand imposes. The couple must travel, on foot, from despised Galilee of the Gentiles to Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and soon-to-be-born Jesus are Jews. They must share their accommodation with animals, but that is not all that uncommon for people of their place in society. Thankfully they find a place as “internally displaced” aliens in Bethlehem. That may well be because Jews have been taught for millennia that they are not to wrong aliens. Why? Because, as they are systematically taught, they themselves were slaves and aliens in Egypt! See Exodus 22.21 and look up over 50 places in the Torah where Scripture insists that God’s people should respect immigrants and should have one Law—one moral code both for aliens and themselves.

 

Building on this call for compassion, Jesus will tell us that if we expect to sit at God’s welcoming banquet table in the hereafter, we should get prepared by welcoming outcast people of all kinds to our own tables. Invite people on the basis of their need rather than on the basis of our own—not with the expectation that they can pay us back (Luke 14).

 

And the apostle Paul will remind us that we are called to act with this compassion because we are spiritual aliens—citizens not of a world of inequality and hierarchy, but of heaven and of the rule of the God of compassion, where we are blessed to have special concern for those dishonored by the majority (Philippians 3.20, cf. 1 Corinthians 11.17-12.31).

 

Our Lord bids us remember that the heart of a Jew or Christian is the heart of an alien. We must turn from living like colonialists or conquerors or overlords or masters or oppressors. We must turn from the heart that does violence to all others and violence to the earth itself by consuming and wasting so very, very much, without regard for those who are turned away from the inn. We must learn to be humble, to use less, to work hard, to be grateful for life—all lessons aliens and immigrants at our door can teach us best.

 

We must learn to welcome the Christ-child who comes to us today in the form of the aliens at our doors; and remember that we are aliens ourselves.

Granddaughter Rose reminds us of the beauty of the life God has given. Photo by Rebekah.

Granddaughter Rose reminds us of the beauty of the life God has given. Photo by Rebekah.

Now to our update on family.

This year daughter Rebekah and Mike and their daughter Rose made a big move from Tampa to Gainesville, Florida. They followed Rebekah, this time, who was offered a position as RN Case Manager at the University of Florida Shands Hospital. Mike left his retail management job and is now working with the United States Postal Service. And, of course, Rose Simone will be turning three (Can’t believe it!) on the Ides of March, 2020. She is keeping EVERYONE entertained with her love of being chased, her love of smiling, and her love of bigger and bigger words and sentences. And Rebekah and Mike are proving to be fantastic parents!

Mike, Rose and Rebekah in early 2019. Photo by Connie.

Mike, Rose and Rebekah in early 2019. Photo by Connie.

 

Meanwhile, son Jeremiah and Caroline moved out to Oakland, California, for Caroline’s new job in pediatric oncology with Kaiser Permanente-Oakland. Jeremiah continues with his position as VP of Product with Vokal LLC, a “digital experience” company. (Don’ ask us what that means.) They took with them their new puppy, Luna—an Old English Sheepdog/Standard Poodle mix—their sweet doggie, Stinkerbelle, died early in 2019. Of course, the BIG news is that Jeremiah and Caroline are expecting the birth of a daughter, already named Soleil (rhymes with Spanish “olé”), in February of 2020. They are taking child-birth classes, have a nanny lined up for after the birth, and are VERY excited. They are fantastic parents-to-be!

Jeremiah and Caroline in Taiwan for their wedding reception in 2017.

Jeremiah and Caroline in Taiwan for their wedding reception in 2017.

Connie’s year has been strongly affected by her operation. Up to October she was able to continue with her consulting work with the national center of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago, but took a break until early 2020. Over the last five years she has written grants for, and participated in, a leadership training program for the churchwide staff, synodical leaders, pastors and rostered lay leaders across the denomination. The program aims at helping leaders to handle emotions that come up in their leadership roles, to be more effective at handling conflict, and to move steadily toward goals and visions. Connie has also utilized her skills in qualitative case study research for the evaluation of this project.

 

During Connie’s weeks of recuperation she has enjoyed getting back to her writing projects, including a children’s e-book that tells the story of how our first Pyrenees livestock guardian dog, “Frodo,” took on the “apprenticeship” of a protégé of the same breed—our current guardian dog, “Bilbo.” She is incorporating over 50 photos to illustrate this wonderful relationship.

 

This year has marked a bit of a shift in emphasis for John. He has decided to curtail his sheepdog herding competition and work with the Wisconsin Working Sheepdog Association, to concentrate instead on his continuing education in biblical studies. He took in a summer school at Yale Divinity School and a summer biblical institute at a Catholic seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. He also renewed his memberships in the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association, and joined the Chicago Society of Biblical Research—attending meetings of those organizations. What is he doing with all those studies? He continues to teach Old and New Testament, doctrine, and church history in a Lutheran lay theological program called diakonia, helps to lead a weekly study circle at our church, and continues to do substitute work as preacher and worship leader in congregations in our area. On quiet days and evenings he joins Connie in writing, and is trying to complete a book he calls “The Little Book of Belonging,” that seeks to explicate the common and universal need to belong, and how the Bible invites us all into a vital conversation about the ways God wills and enables the universal gathering of humanity.

 

Of course, our life on Heatherhope Farm still fuels our souls and shapes our understanding of God’s grace. We continue to do sheepdog demonstrations all over the western suburbs of Chicago. We even ventured several hours south this past summer to do our demonstration on the site where Abraham Lincoln and his relatives farmed and had a log cabin in central Illinois.

 

We also continue to enjoy hosting a couple of four-day sheepdog training clinics each year with our friend, Gordon Watt, as the instructor. Through many years we have seen a lovely, mutually supportive little group of dog handlers take shape. Lots of laughs and good times go along with the learning.

 

It is well known that, if you have a farm, you live with both death and life. But, with the Lord, the loss leads to deeper thankfulness. In 2018 we had to say goodbye to Border Collies Cap, and later, Bess. Then, just on John’s birthday, December 5 of this year, we bid our tearful farewell to Abbie. It was tremendously hard to do, but it opened our hearts to all the amazing things these dogs have brought to us and to others. It is a blessing that we still have three of the offspring of Cap and Abbie: Hector, Betty and Zac—as well as Nell, who is up in years, but still going strong. Four times a day we run them around the fields and breathe in the fresh (often cold) air. We move the sheep with them. We sit with them at night. And all the while they look into our eyes with the loving eyes of God.

 

Indeed, you can find a post about Abbie’s death by going back to the main page of this web site.

Connie and John with Abbie. Photo from our church photo directory.

Connie and John with Abbie. Photo from our church photo directory.

If you have read on to the end of this posting, you are a trooper. And you are unique. And, of course, you are dearly loved—both by us, and by the God who sent his Son, along with his parents, door to door till they found a place to lie down with the sheep, goats, perhaps a donkey and a dog. And when we despise no one, but love them all, we feel God’s arms embrace us all.

 

Blessed Christmas and a compassionate New Year!

 

Connie and John

Misplaced Apocalypticism

[A form of this post appeared in the Daily Chronicle newspaper on 12/10/2019]

Apocalypticism, the belief that the end is near, is helpful only to get oppressed people to tomorrow. It encourages them to hang in there.

 

It is less helpful, and can be destructive, in getting through today.

 

Listen carefully and you will hear many citizens excusing horrible things out of their belief that if their side loses, civilization as we know it will come to a flaming end. President Trump is a big bully who plays fast and loose with the truth, and who sweeps aside all decency in public discourse, diplomacy and in the checks and balances of our form of government. But we excuse all of this because it’s all “necessary evil”—all “the ends justify the means.” We bless the mess he makes because he stacks the judiciary to bring an end to abortion, and makes the world safe for Christmas. If we don’t win with him all civilization will collapse.

 

On the other side of the spectrum we hear many excusing a candidate like Elizabeth Warren for claiming that every billionaire and every big corporation is ready and willing to sacrifice the public good on the altar of greed. That little “rhetorical flourish” is okay since we need a revolution—no small steps—and folks like us, in this critical moment, are our only hope of avoiding catastrophe.

 

This “us against them,” and “ends justify the means,” and utter fear of the end, all spell the doom of today. Today we truly don’t need saviors for our apocalyptic moment. Today we don’t need people with all the answers. Today we need people who need people—people who know how to listen to, and work with, others to do the pragmatic things–to make the compromises that will move us forward.

 

We don’t need more fear of doom that scares us into making deals with the devil. We need a president and a citizenry who know what good, biblically apocalyptic people believe: The end is not near. It’s not even the end. There is hope beyond tomorrow, beyond the end, and beyond what “our side” can do and “their side” is totally against..

 

There is always hope because the world doesn’t belong to the doomsayers. The world belongs to a God who just wants us all to get along.

 

Abbie's Death Leaves a Hole in Our Hearts

Yesterday we put down our beloved Abbie. It has left a big hole in our hearts!!

Of course, if you are part of the human race, you have already flinched, because you have the pain stored in every cell of your body. And, if you are among those who share with us a special fondness for working Border Collies, you know even more of the bitter-sweet flavor of this kind of experience.

Each dog is a miracle of God’s grace. Yet each dog is a unique version of that miracle.

Abbie certainly was unique. I had asked Gordon Watt, when he was shepherding in Norfolk, England, to be on the lookout for a one-year-old bitch with good trial potential. These were the days of long distance phone communication. He soon said he was helping train two bitches for a woman, and she agreed to sell Abbie, since she favored her other one. Gordon told me Abbie had the whole package and was one of the quickest learners he had ever worked with—if not the quickest. He had put very few hours in on her and she needed absolutely no pressure.

Connie and I picked up Abbie from Gordon when we were in Wales for the 2008 World Trial. Gordon was there with his sidekick, Mark Day, who had also worked Abbie on the hills; and Gordon put Abbie through her paces—everything but shedding (separating sheep from sheep). She showed everything I had learned to look for in a fine working dog.

We then took Abbie with us to the World Trial for a time, but soon discovered that she wanted to be everyone’s dog. She sidled up to folks on the walkways and in the bleachers, and everywhere—so much so that we soon realized that if we were going to focus on the competitions and not on everyone’s fondness for Abbie, we were going to have to leave.

During our time at the World Trial we stayed with the local Vicar, Roger Hughes and his wife, Jen. Roger even arranged with Meirion Owen to let us use one of his nearby fields, with a packet of sheep, to work with Abbie. Meirion was the head of the organizing committee for that 2008 World Trial, and had one of the amazing top runs, with just a small glitch at the pen putting him out of the very top score. It was especially gracious of him to allow us to use that field and those sheep. Abbie’s time working there was a thing of beauty, in the tall South Wales grass, with the ancient church and vicarage in the background.

Abbie practicing in Meirion Owen's field, with the Llangathen church in the background. Photo by John.

Abbie practicing in Meirion Owen’s field, with the Llangathen church in the background. Photo by John.

 

From Llandeilo, Wales, we toured the ancient standing stones of Avebury, and then on to a farm B & B in Oxfordshire, England. Abbie popped up, like a garden troll, in every photo of every place we visited—even being invited into the pubs. But one of the most touching episodes came when we made acquaintance with an elderly man—an inventor—whose beloved horse had recently died. The death of that horse hit him so hard that his wife wisely decided that what he needed was a road trip to visit old friends. He was finding that trip medicinal; however he too had a big hole in his heart. Abbie sensed it and leaned against him for the longest time, and gave him a very special outpouring of loving kindness. He thanked Abbie, and he thanked us.

Back home in the USA I soon learned how special Abbie was on the competition field. In England, Gordon had her in just a couple nursery trials. And Gordon’s policy is to put no pressure on dogs in nursery—just to have them move right, and forget about getting through the gates. I suppose that, in my excitement of running her, I moved her up too quickly. But I only had her in a couple of pro-novice runs, just to get the feel of her. So, when Abbie was two years old I put her in her first open run. It happened to be one of the most challenging open runs there is in this country, I think: the “720 yard” run on the back side of the Marvin McLeish farm in Caledonia/Portage, Wisconsin. That 720 yard measurement is as the crow flies, I believe, and it is much more difficult than you might think, going over several hills along the way, crossing a dike, and up a final hill to pick up the sheep. I probably wouldn’t have tried Abbie out on that, but Gordon said that when she was even younger he sent her on a 600 yard gather and she did it perfectly—no sweat.

Abbie in action. "I can't wait to dominate!" Photo by John

Abbie in action. “I can’t wait to dominate!” Photo by John

Many dogs never made it to their sheep on that outrun. But when I sent Abbie, she flew and flew and flew. Now, the sheep were set out in the shade of some big trees, behind which was the set out pen and sheep. I watched Abbie, and she disappeared. I thought she had gone off behind—around the set out pen. So, after a moment, I blew my recall whistle. After a moment Abbie appeared at the top of that last hill before the set out. So I sent her back for the sheep. She brought them up, perfectly on line, over that hill, then to the top of the next. But at that point there was a ewe with a huge udder, who refused to budge any more. You see, all the sheep had been fun for perhaps a mile and a half, over some big hills, to get to that set out pen just before the trial. The ewe was pooped. And so we retired before finishing the fetch.

But at a break in the trial Jean Bass, who was part of the set out crew for that run, came to me and asked me why I had called Abbie back after her outrun. I explained that I had lost sight of her and I thought she had run behind the set out pen. But Jean told me Abbie had outrun exactly to the right spot for the lift. It was the best outrun of the day, she said. A thing of beauty.

So that was the propitious beginning of our competition partnership. Abbie was wonderful to work. I could relax. She would do her thing. I would hug and thank her every time. The three highpoints, I suppose, were when we came in third, behind Gordon’s Storm and Moss, in a pretty big field of dogs at Happy Hollow one year. In fact, we might just have beaten Gordon if he had been a bit more precise when he explained that I was to go just on the other side of the “dead tree out there on the cross drive.” Of course, there were two dead trees, and I sent Abbie around the wrong one. The other highpoint was at the end of the next year’s season when Abbie won one open and was best all around at the Crook and Whistle. Then there was the WWSDA trial at Hudson where Abbie had a fantastic run, in my humble opinion. But we had missed the handlers meeting, and so, when we were coming off the field, and I was feeling pretty high, someone said to me it was a shame I had missed that meeting. I soon found out that they had shortened the fetch significantly by putting a traffic cone at the bottom of the hill up to the handler’s post, at which we were to turn for the drive. I didn’t know. We had run a far longer course—which put us off course for much of the way. But what a beauty of a demonstration Abbie made of it anyway! So, in spite of lots of handler error, and relatively few trials to compete in, Abbie seemed to thrive on competition.

As dominating as Abbie was with her sheep, she was just that gentle with all humans—old and young. At our many demonstrations she would thrill the many children by offering her body up for hugs and pets, with many squeals of delight. And Connie has spent many years taking Abbie to a local nursing home and rehab center and a retirement home. Abbie is everyone’s favorite because of the way she just goes down the line of people, making sure everyone who wants to could have a pet and hug.

Abbie with her admirers after a demonstration. Photo by Connie

Abbie with her admirers after a demonstration. Photo by Connie

So, as I write this, I have to keep going back and changing the present tense to the past. We have taken Abbie on her last road trip—down to the animal hospital.

Two nights ago it was as usual. Abbie had been getting weaker and weaker, especially in her hind quarters. A bump by another excited dog and she would fall over. There was a time or two when she needed help getting up in the morning, or off of her little bed in the living room. I thought, at times, that she just was being stubborn, and didn’t want to leave us in the living room, but she was obviously failing. Connie and I worried that she wouldn’t make it through the winter. I couldn’t visualize her making it through heavy snow. But, two nights ago it we made it through the fourth of our four daily trips around the 26 acre hay field. Abbie walked most of the way—trotted a bit here and there.

But yesterday morning I she wasn’t up with the other dogs as they bark to get going. She was lying, with vomit and feces all around her. I had to carry her out to the yard, and went back in to clean up the mess. When I went back to her I could see clearly that her eyes were darting rapidly back and forth. It was the dreaded vestibular syndrome. Our experience with two older Border Collies of our own, and the dogs of other friends, did not bode well. This affliction attacks the inner ear of the dog, and therefore the sense of balance. The dog feels it is on a tilt-a-whirl all the time, and gets nauseous and dizzy.

Abbie could not stand. She fell over, then struggled to get upright, then stumbled in a circle, then fell again.

We took the last road trip to the veterinarian, who told us that a decision to put her down “would not be wrong.” Then she allowed Connie and me the chance to talk things over. Through our tears we considered that Abbie would have a miserable time this winter with the snow and her underlying weakness. Making her struggle with this nausea and dizziness would just make things intolerable. So we decided to have her put down.

We hugged her and spread our tears all over her as she laid her head on our arms. We held her as the doctor injected the blue, then the clear fluids. Within seconds we were left with this hole in our hearts and her collar for remembrance.

But what is the meaning of this hole in our hearts?

It means that we had a holy, sacred being in our midst for 13 years. The pain and loss we feel points us back to this incredible stream of blessings: her “I can’t wait to dominate” attitude with sheep, her flight on wide outruns, her quickness to please, her easy ways and accompanying aversion to any temper or shouting, her gentle generosity and way of saying to everyone, “I want to be your doggy too.”

This hole in our hearts reminds us that this whole world is full of dogs that bless. And a surplus of other things that bless as well. This world is saturated with sacred. Because God is holy, all things are holy. And the only thing that taints this world is that we don’t notice and cherish and treasure these things. This is our sin.

So this hole in our hearts is something that makes room for God to fill it.

Tonight, just before I finished typing this posting on our web site, as the sun was setting in the West, I put out hay for the sheep, put Bilbo, the guardian dog, in the barn, let him lick me as I mentioned Abbie and spirit and God. He turned and looked me in the eye.

I then got Abbie’s daughter, Betty, and let the sheep out of the pasture. They wanted to make a bee-line for the hay feeders in the feed lot, but I had Betty head them off and move them about a bit in the hay field. They fought her, but she has her mother’s willfulness. “Thou shall not pass! I can’t wait to dominate!” Then I commanded Betty to stand there and let them go to their feed. She did as I said; and I called her to me and thanked her with a long, long pet.

Then I took out for their run-before-feeding, Betty, Hector, and Zac—all pups of our Cap and Abbie (Cap passed the summer of 2018). Silhouetted in reddening sky they flew. They flew with the spirit of Abbie, and of the living God pulsing through their lungs and veins. A long formation of geese glided overhead and trumpeted; and all the universe was filled with ALLELUIA. Nell—our in-season bitch—went out too, and seemed to have a high-stepping joy that needed to get out. She too looked at me with the eyes of God.

Holes in our hearts mean we notice, and we honor what deserves honor. We cherish it and suddenly it is everywhere.

Abbie. Alleluia. Photo by John

Abbie. Alleluia.
Photo by John

 

Someday all this world will be cleansed from our forgetting. The days are surely coming when ALL will be ALLELUIA!

Gordon Watt Returns April 23 to 26, 2020

Mark your calendars for our next Gordon Watt clinic here at Heatherhope: Thursday through Sunday, April 23 to 26, 2020.

Gordon moved to the US from England several years ago. Before that he lived on the Isle of Man and was born in Ireland. He and his father before him were lifetime shepherds, and Gordon has won all sorts of singles and brace championships, including National Championships of Ireland and England and the World Sheepdog Championship. For many years he has dedicated himself to teaching others the fine art of sheepdog training and handling, and helping people to advance as far as they aspire to in that beautiful partnership of dog and handler.

Gordon Watt at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Gordon Watt at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

As always we will welcome dogs and handlers of all levels. To guarantee a working slot, which gives you two times out with Gordon with your dog for one day of the clinic, send a check, dated for April 1, 2020, in the amount of $140. That is a $10 raise in price from the past, but allows us to cover all the costs of the clinic, including Gordon’s fee and a little to provide sheep. When you attend to work a dog or to audit we provide a continental breakfast, snacks, and a full lunch. Make checks out to John Seraphine, and mail them to the address on the “contact us” tab on the pages of this web site.

The price of auditing will be $45 as in the past.

You can sign up for one to four days, and you can run either a single dog in a day’s slot, or two different dogs.

On this web site you will find directions to the farm (see the “directions” tab at the top of each page), or you can phone, mail or email for more information.

Say It With Your Body

“Lean on him!”

That’s what Gordon Watt used to say when I was working my young, excitable dog, Zac. It has taken me years to understand all that was bound up with that tiny bit of advice.

Gordon Watt (r) demonstrates how to get a dog in the "zone" with body language. Photo by John

Gordon Watt (r) demonstrates how to get a dog in the “zone” with body language. Photo by John

We just completed one of our semi-annual handling clinics with Gordon, and I was reminded of how important, yet mysterious, this advice is. I think all novice sheepdog handlers make the mistake of thinking they are there to put something into their dogs rather than draw things out. With this comes the mistake of thinking they communicate with and control their dogs with their shouts, their whistles, their grand gestures with their wands or crooks or boogey bags filled with pebbles.

The truth is they are there to draw the sheepdog out of the dog. Because of this they are there to communicate mostly with their bodies.

Young border collies first on sheep are feeling the stuff come out of them. They are so excited to be finally getting to do what they have been created to do that their own emotions are skyrocketing. Hyper alert, they are first and foremost figuring out the meaning of the body movements—the ear twitches and head turnings—of the sheep. Second, they are coming to terms with their own potential. Gradually they are also reading carefully every sound and even the tiniest movement of the human bodies of their beloved owners.

Border collies are wired to watch and react to the movement of sheep and handler. This young pup cant keep eyes off!! Photo by John

Border collies are wired to watch and react to the movement of sheep and handler. This young pup cant keep eyes off!! Photo by John

So, less is more. “With all this happening at once, someone out there has to be the calm one,” a wise shepherd once advised. So when the shepherd/dog handler moves, every movement, if it is to get the right job done, must bear the right meaning.

The most important thing I can tell a novice handler, who is taking a lesson or attending a dog handling clinic, is to watch the way the best handlers move their bodies. You will learn that the best handlers are letting the dog learn—not teaching. The best handlers are not hyper-reactive. They move quietly and calmly. And the exact way they turn their body has a powerful effect on the dog. A lean to this side or that, or a step in this direction or that makes all the difference in putting the dog at ease and getting the dog into that zone where it is feeling its own power come out.

Indeed, it is best, with a beginning dog, not to use verbal commands at all. Instead, a very occasional growl, or “hey,” or a mere slap on the leg, if they are used to convey the same meaning consistently, have a helpful effect on the dog. But a well thought out lean is always, always better than throwing up a wall of sound with shouts that have no meaningful body language to back it up, or a confusing random display of flailing arms.

Now, if this is true for dog training, it is perhaps even truer for people. In our smart-phone, and text-messaging age we have surrendered our most important tools of communication. The tone of voice has been surrendered because we prefer texting to voice mail. But it is even more tragic that we routinely deprive ourselves of the power of facial expression and the leaning in and out of face-to-face communication.

We used to learn and practice the art of salutation. A smile, a bow, a handshake as we spoke to people laid the foundation for our relationships. With them we said, “I respect you. I trust you. I believe in you.” And with this body language, so common that we were barely conscious of it, we calmed each other and got ourselves ready to get down to business. We weren’t there to be the center of the circle of belonging, or to control the other. We were there to lean on each other–to cooperate!

How many walls could we repair—how many wounds could we heal—if we could put aside our devices, take deep breaths, calm ourselves, lean in, and look into each other’s eyes when we talk?

Bullying is on the rise; but people don’t bully as much when they see a full human being in front of them. Opioid addiction is on the rise; but people don’t feel isolated, bitter and depressed, and turn to chemicals, when someone is there to understand them. Division and polarization is on the rise; but people become visible and valuable when we see their bodies and their body language. Face to face we don’t throw them away or throw them under the bus with our digital memes. The best instruments we have for communicating are our bodies. We are tuned to read each other’s bodies just as our dogs are tuned in to us. We just need to put our best instruments to good use.

 

Another Snowy, Character-building Gordon Watt Clinic

It happened late last April. It happened again this Halloween. Our semi-annual Gordon Watt clinic here at Heatherhope Farm is getting to be the kind of thing that builds real character. It was in 1895 that we last had an October snow like this—with three or five inches of the stuff and a good stiff wind to make it come down horizontally. Just as, last April we had almost eight inches of the white stuff enhance our event.

Happy Halloween! The first day of our fall, 2019 Gordon Watt Clinic saw about 5 inches of snow. Great training weather! Photo by John

Happy Halloween! The first day of our fall, 2019 Gordon Watt Clinic saw about 5 inches of snow. Great training weather! Photo by John

But our intrepid team of students, and our hearty leader, forged on. In fact, we didn’t skip a beat, but got 11 dogs out twice that day.

Dogs that wanted to buzz learned to calm down and get into the zone. Dogs that wanted to avoid conflict, learned to have confidence. And most importantly, all the handlers got better and better and polished up their skills throughout the four-day clinic. And when they weren’t on the field themselves they were watching how problems-to-come might be handled as they watched Gordon with other dogs. And when they weren’t watching dogs they were laughing and solving all the world’s problems around the great food they brought to add to the typical yummy spread that Connie puts out. (Connie, her foot in a cast, is very appreciative of the special help this time around.)

So, it was cold outside, but we are all warm inside—the way farming and sheepdog handling should be.

So, we look forward to April 23-26 as our dates for next spring’s Watt clinic. Perhaps the good Lord will grant us a little less character-building!

Friday, Nov. 1 of our fall Watt clinic saw the sun rise beautifully over the snowy land. Photo by John

Friday, Nov. 1 of our fall Watt clinic saw the sun rise beautifully over the snowy land. Photo by John

Should We Buy a New ATV?

Reflections on Luke 12:13-21, the Gospel reading for the 8th Sunday of Pentecost.

Almost every day on the farm we are faced with quite consequential decisions. Today it is about our ATV. Most days we use it several times for all sorts of jobs. But now it is squeaky after 17 years of hard use. Now it is very lopsided after a good friend had a hard encounter with it and the machine shed. Now we are afraid it won’t make it through another winter.

But both my wife and I are up in years; so a different kind of calculus comes to mind. Is this a wise investment? How much longer will we have the sheep to tend, or the dogs? How much longer will we live.

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke relates a “parable” of Jesus about how God positively mocks a farmer about making a dire calculus. This man has had a surprisingly good harvest that his barn cannot contain. So he has an interior monolog with his own soul and says he will have to build a bigger barn that will allow him to store so much that he will then enjoy years of leisure and pleasure.

That’s when God interrupts and says to him, in effect, you have left me and my calculus out of your equation. Today they will be calling in your chips. Today they will demand your life!

Who the “they” are in the rather creepy Greek third-person-plural verb for “demand” that our English translations avoid by making it passive? We are left to speculate about that. Are these the angels or demons of death?

But then Jesus adds his own stark and demanding conclusion: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

With this in mind I am shocked to have to admit that, really, all my life I have had to make similar consequential decisions. And often I have figured wrongly. Shall I strive for this? Shall I invest my time in this? Shall I buy this?

Here Jesus is challenging me to consider always not self, but God.

Perhaps the most haunting of all of the teachings of Jesus, recorded by Luke, that relate to these sorts of decisions, comes in chapter 14.

27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

There is virtue and even stark necessity for planning and critical decision making—for saying to your soul, “Soul, what shall we do to see the job through—to make this a meaningful life?” It is vital to get set and to set a good foundation and to build on it, and to finish the job. Most decisions are much more consequential than we realize. And, the real way to see life through to the finish—the real way to have a full life—is not to accumulate, but to give. The real way to be rich it to be rich toward God. And the real way to be rich toward God is to look around and see what others around you need, and to give to them.

What can help me make the right decision about our squeaky, lopsided ATV? According to Luke, Jesus goes on and on about us and our possessions. He says it’s worry and fear of the future that trips us up—that distracts us from the calculus that counts—about our relationship with God and with the people who need us. It’s this Kingdom—this invisible network—this wholeness of humanity that counts. The good Father knows we need stuff. But it’s the Kingdom that really counts. And, here’s the thing that frees us to do good calculus:

          “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

How much of the stuff that surrounds me and clutters the machine shed and the basement of my house, and the corners of my soul? All of it is a rather embarrassing and shameful testimony of how bad I am at this calculus—how many bad decisions I’ve made.

Good Lord help me get rich toward you!

Dare I Share This Photograph?

A child reminds us of the beauty of the life God has given. Photo by Rebekah.

A child reminds us of the beauty of the life God has given. Photo by Rebekah.

I can’t help but share this photograph, though I have strong reservations. Yes, I know people use their smart phones to share countless pictures every day of their precious children. But it’s also no secret that there are not-so-nice folk who misuse such images. And, yes, I know, with the help of my son-in-law, that I am a peculiar Luddite and curmudgeon. He asked me this year if there was ANYTHING modern that I liked. He was joking, and believe me, we had a good laugh together.

But, still. I use my share of technology, but I have implicit trust in none of it.

I stick by my cautious approach to technology in general, and the Internet in particular. I know technology has done and is doing wondrous things. But the easy power it puts in the palms of our hands is a power that the worst among us eagerly put to destructive use.

That said, just look at this picture! Look at this child! Her image here is so eloquent and so pure. It is hard not to see it as a symbol of an entire generation, unspoiled, fresh-faced, looking expectantly for what is coming over the horizon.

She is thinking. This world is so absolutely overflowing with big things and little things, things that are rough and things that are smooth, things that are solid and everlasting and things that are here one moment and burst away with delight the next. And the people: all sizes and shapes, and each of them full of stories that open up even more wonders. In short, “Wow! Awesome! Amazing!”

Could this beautiful emblem of a girl also be wondering, “Why would anyone want to throw even the tiniest bit of this away? Could there be people so ignorant that they exploit, spoil, waste, and destroy any of this?”

Yes, darling one, take the word of your curmudgeon of a grandfather, there are such people. And we all are them. Sometimes we just forget. Sometimes we are lazy. Sometimes we have an emptiness inside that gnaws at us until we just lash out. Sometimes we get feeling sorry for ourselves, or resentful, or fearful; and we let things rot, we misuse them, we annihilate them. And, horror of horror, we do it all to people too. Routinely we do it to fresh-faced, innocent children like you. We worry more over our right to keep guns than we do over how many children are killed by them. We love the freedom to drive fast more than we love the children in the streets. We love balanced budgets more than we love good schools. We love building prisons more than we love providing safe sidewalks for kids to walk. We are fools, sometimes, believing stupidly that hoarding stuff is a more urgent need than protecting and nourishing young souls.

Please, child, never lose your capacity to behold in wonder this miracle-filled world we live in. Look! Gaze in sweetness at it all! Share that sweet joy with others–it will help heal us all. Put some cautious hope in the virtual world of technology, but hope extravagantly for the living world of birds and bees and people.

But, above all, be prepared also to pray often for us fools, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And know that, as you pray those words, Jesus is praying with you.

A Brother’s Death and Thoughts of Home

My big brother, Jim, died last week. So I drove, alone, to Louisville for his funeral. Connie and I couldn’t make the arrangements for the care of the animals on the farm with the storms and coyotes and a bitch in heat. And so I drove alone.

My big brother, with a big heart, Jim. Photo by John

My big brother, with a big heart, Jim. Photo by John

The rain poured and wind forced me to fight to stay in my lane, and stay safe for the six hour drive. Then I walked into the Evergreen Funeral Home on Preston Highway, and all my composure collapsed.

I was back in the loop. Hundreds of miles, a different time zone, a different world of busy concerns, and we drift. We aren’t in touch as much as we should. But cords bind tight, nonetheless. And the instant I walk in those doors where we said goodbyes three and a half years ago when Jim’s wife, Carol died, and the instant I saw Jim’s sons Jeff and Jimmy and Jason, their wives, and then my sister, Jane…the sobs just kept coming.

Hours of talking with family and friends drained me; but the next day, after a good breakfast and good coffee, I went for my usual Louisville drive—tracing the way of almost all my dreams.

First impression: Preston Highway looked old and beaten down.

Second: Madhouse traffic along the Interstate, around the airport and fairgrounds; and I could see my younger self, picking up my papers for delivery, and wondering where the hell all the people were going.

Third: No matter how many times I’ve made this pilgrimage as an adult, I’m still surprised about how small and close everything seems. I still carry that childhood perspective of this personal universe. Fayette Avenue to Fern Valley Road? So way out there! But really only a few minutes’ drive.

Fourth impression: Entering into my old neighborhood is like going through a decompression chamber—up too fast—getting the “bends,” kind of feeling. It’s not just memories—it’s the eruption to the surface of all I’ve carried with me.

Overall impression: The closer to home the more shocking the change. The streets are the same. The trees are the same. The sounds of the birds are the same. But all is different. Value City Furniture stands where my school used to be. Lots of other stores instead of the two little farms where I delivered the papers. No Doug Shirley on that corner. No Kenny Jackey in that house with the Magnolia Stone. No Butch Boblitt, or Moody kids, or Georgie Miller. No kids outside at all. No ball games. No shouting. No dogs wandering from back porch to back porch. Too many cars out front. Too many cars, nobody walking or biking or running.

A train was standing along the tracks. Okay. But the planes were obviously using a different flight path and were no longer scraping the top of our chimney as they roared overhead.

And our old house. Which one is it? And no Lynn Werst next door, or Miss Borman, or Davy Hamilton or Sarah Mary or Louis. And no Ruth Seraphine putting the sheets on the line to dry. No Dudley, smoking a cigarette in the swing and looking for the Purple Martins to come enjoy the double-decker house he had cleaned out for them.

Everything the same. Everything changed. Everything empty.

I drove back to my motel, at the Interstate intersection and on an industrial corridor. Then, at the light to turn into the service drive to the motel, a young woman stood, facing the traffic, holding up a cardboard sign that said “Homeless.”

Homeless.

It killed me to think. Asphalt, and concrete, and car exhaust, and noise, and decay, and confusion, and no retreat–no one to touch the pain, and no one to share the questions with no answers.

There are three things that abide—these three: Faith, Hope, and Love. And the greatest is Love.

But love lives in family. Not family contained by a house, but family that overflows into home—family that is fueled by an instinct that EVERYONE hungers to belong. Everyone should belong. We must be restless until everyone rests and belongs.

The Apostle Paul called all believers in cross-formed love, adelphoi. We used to translate that “brothers,” but now know to translate it “brothers and sisters.” But adelphoi live in a cross-formed family in which people believe no one belongs outside. All belong inside. And we ache as Jesus ached to see anyone homeless and family-less. Jesus thought and ached like a hen aches to gather every chick and every sheep–even those outside the fold. Even those way outside.

So, while concrete can be poured, and “progress” can whiz by and pollute and destroy, there are things that abide: Faith, hope, love, and the belonging we all hunger for.

At his funeral we were reminded by a dear friend that Jim, my big brother, presided for years over youth athletics on Louisville’s south side. He saw lots of kids who wanted to take part, but didn’t have much in the way of family. So he welcomed them into his. He gave discounts. He gave candy. He taught kids how to follow the rules that mattered, and how to break the rules that got in the way. He helped them shoot off a lot of fireworks, and eat more and more candy. Through it all he was the Good-Time Charlie for three generations. And the spirit of a cross-formed love that rippled and shaped Jim’s spirit, keeps rippling out for all the generations to come

And so, there were lots of sobs going on at Evergreen Funeral Home this week. But before they sealed Jim’s body behind the granite at the Mausoleum, there was a good-ole funeral rule-breaking song to celebrate his spirit that can’t be contained. I guess it was called “Baby Shark,” a song the grandkids and their friends knew Jim hated. But they also knew he loved to tease and to be teased, he loved to break the boundaries of family, and he loved it when people broke the rules that got in the way. And so they sang it for Jim and for all of us, so that we could cherish the things that abide.

The ripples keep on. And these things abide.

 

 

Thinking of Death Surrounded by Life

On this sixth day of May, 2019, Connie and I have just come off of hosting a four-day, Gordon Watt-led training clinic for sheepdogs, and leading two days of sheepdog demonstrations at Kline Creek Farm in DuPage County. And like Lilli Von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles,” let’s face it, we’re pooped.

At my age, and in my condition, with knees that feel for all the world like they are much older than the rest of my body, I sometimes think about my own death. How will I handle it? What will it feel like? What will meet me on the other side? Will my faith let me down, and will there be no “other side?” Golden streets and crystal fountains do not excite me. What am I to hope for and expect?

This morning—the morning after the demonstrations, these thoughts crept into me as I was exercising the dogs around our alfalfa fields. Fields of deep green, dripping and sparkling with last week’s rain. Sky of blue. Tree leaves finally bursting from their buds. The air filled with the trills of house finches, robins, red-wing blackbirds, meadow larks, and noisy sparrows and starlings. Thinking of death, surrounded by life.

Death thoughts numbed me a bit—wetted my eyes, clenched my chest. I thought, of course, of the halo of holiness that was spun around me by mother, father, faithful pastors, noble friends, and heroes. All these things formed me, but what would happen to me after they shoveled the soil on my casket or consigned me to the flames of the crematory?

Then that organic, cosmic, bright green birthing thing that surrounded me finally seized my imagination, and I felt invited to rightfully take my place as part of the All.

I recalled the cardinal teaching of the Buddha–that striving to possess is the problem, and that “no-self” is the path to the solution. As a Christian, clinging in my particularly western way of understanding the resurrection of the Body, I used to be repelled by this idea of ultimately losing my self in death. But, if I now understand the Buddha rightly, the self is what we construct when we cling and strive to differentiate ourselves from all “other” things. The emptying of self may well be a necessary step toward living (and dying) not as islands, but as part of the sea.

But are we western Christians reading our Bibles rightly? Wasn’t the first Adam an earth creature, made of the dust of the earth, and made a living creature not by it’s own physiology, but by virtue of sharing in the breath of the Creator? Before all the “chosen people” stuff, doesn’t the Bible fix us firmly among all the people’s of the earth ala Genesis 10? Isn’t anyone chosen not chosen to bless—to heal and nurture the webwork that connects us to the All? Have we ever begun the plumb the depths of Jesus as the vine and we the branches; or of the image that “all things have been created through him and for him…[and] in him all things hold together (Colossians 1.16-17)?

And right smack dab in the middle of this “no-self” idea, funded as it is with the idea of the life of all things, and resonating as it does with Jesus the Vine and the holding together, is the glory of difference. When Connie and I demonstrate the grace of Border Collies it’s natural to stress that each dog is different. And that is a great good thing. We used our Hector for the first time in a demonstration yesterday. Excited by the crowds he reverted to his old ways of bossing the sheep around with little (or no) regard to my commands. It was a bit embarrassing to me as a so-called handler. But he was indeed showing off his amazing power over the sheep. Tired and hot with their fleeces still intact, the sheep tried to hide in the midst of the panels the farm volunteers had set up in the shape of a Maltese cross. These barriers frustrated our other, much more obedient and careful dogs; but Hector, like a little bulldozer, had little regard for the obstacles, and quickly pushed the sheep to me.

So, I explained the audience, “All dogs are different, just like people. But each has gifts to share.”

And when I compared that to the people of the world, and commented on the widespread, irrational fear of immigrants and refugees who are coming to our borders, I could see many nods of agreement.

But what about this on the cosmic scale? On the scale of eternity? What of the Buddhist, or vine-and-branches, or Holy Eucharist scale. Are we not invited to a banquet that does away with the poisonous aspects of self? Is this vision true: The “other side” is a banquet with guests from the highways, and byways, and alleyways—all those places where we relegate the in-valid ones? Will we not be seated with the people we fear and have even grown to hate?

Perhaps this loss of self is a doorway to the “abundant life” of difference! Perhaps the loss of our selves is something good. Perhaps we should have taken care of it a long time ago when we realized how our own insecurity, and competitiveness, and fear of difference were impoverishing our lives. Perhaps what awaits us on the “other side” is a dissolving for the sake of a Great Rejoining. Perhaps hope is indeed one of the things that remains; but hope not for a new hermetically sealed, resurrected body that keeps coveting and acquiring, and indulging, but a rejoining of us to the eternal birthing that surrounds us every day of our lives—something like the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4.18).