Thanksgiving and Harvest

Give us this day our daily bread.

Late harvest, November 24, 2017. Photo by John

Late harvest, November 24, 2017. Photo by John

The word Jesus used, that we now pray as “daily,” is a mystery word. In all of ancient Greek literature it is only used in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of that model prayer our Lord gave us. So we have nothing to compare it to.

It might mean bread for the day. It might mean bread for tomorrow. It might mean the bread we need to survive–the bread that is necessary. Or, if old Jerome is right, it might mean “super-substantial” bread.

This time of year we look around and things appear not quite. It’s not summer. Not much autumn. Not yet winter. The leaves are almost all off of the trees. The ground freezes, then thaws, then freezes again. It snows, but then doesn’t.

Indeed, bread is what seems most on our minds. But not quite. Yet much more. The harvest in this part of the world is late in being brought in. The machines labor almost around the clock to finish the process of gathering. But it is more than beans and corn that we gather. Try as we might we cannot set our calendars and clocks by it. We cannot take it for granted.

It is far more than beans and corn. It is our sustenance for today and hope for tomorrow. It is what we cannot live without, and yet the cleverest scientists and engineers in the world could not make one bean or one kernel of corn let alone a single embryo to replace us if we starve this day.

Unless you give us this day; and unless you, by your giving, unlock our gratitude, we will perish.

Panic Is Not Pretty

Bilbo is the name of our gentle giant livestock guardian dog. His job is to defend the flock from the constant threat of coyotes and wandering dogs who go feral when they happen to get in with sheep.

Bilbo’s bark and the smell of his urine, has, so far, been quite enough to deter the coyotes at night and the dogs by day. But, while he can be a ferocious presence with his huge Pyrenees frame, and powerful, surprisingly fast stride, when it comes to people he is a pussycat. He will charge to the fence when an odd walker happens by, or when a biker dismounts and comes up to the fence along the road. But when he gets to the passer-by, he puts his feet up on the fence, wags his tail, and begs for a lick and to be petted.

And, though in his first year Bilbo used to periodically get excited and try to play with the sheep–something they definitely want no part of–he now simply walks gently alongside them, and is welcomed as a part of their family.

But twice now Bilbo has shown a different side of his personality. It happened first when a couple of the hands who were planting soybeans in part of our hay field reported that he had broken the chain of the pasture gate and gotten out. It may have been their actions that excited him, or it may have been the peels of thunder from a passing storm, but he indeed had pushed so hard on the gate that the chain snapped. He was now in the unfenced part of our farm.

When I got on my ATV and went out looking for him I quickly spotted him walking along the tree line that helps form the north border of our property. I called to him in a sweet tone as I approached him on the machine, but before I could get very near he picked up his pace. Suddenly he was running faster and faster. He went north, and I managed, in top gear on the ATV, to head him off. Then he turned south full tilt. I raced him, only to see him turn sharply west when I caught up. Now he was on a neighboring farm’s property and I raced again, bouncing violently on the rough field. Bilbo, by this time, was running right alongside several strands of a barbed-wire fence. After two aborted tries he fatigued just enough so that I was able to pinch him into the wire, jump off the quad bike, and grab his collar.

Whew! It was amazing just how wild he had become, and just how fast he could run. I was up to top gear on the ATV and just barely able to catch up with him, even after a good mile and a half run.

Thank the Lord I had my handy flip-phone with me. I got hold of my wife and she came around with our Toyota Highlander, and we got Bilbo up for the ride home.

We decided then that it was the thunder that set the whole thing off. But we were wrong.

A few weeks later and a change of routine in the sheep barn made me slip up this time. No thunder, but I brought some dog food and sheep mineral into the barn to put in barrels before moving Bilbo to the pasture. But in all that back and forth I had left the service door of the barn open and forgot about it. Then I let Bilbo out of his spot in the feedlot, forgetting about the open service door. Again he was out and strolling along the tree line. Again I got my ATV and tried to get near to call him to me. Again he set off, and again he went faster and faster. This time I had him again along a barbed wire fence and tried to pinch him in, but he had learned. And he just bobbed and weaved, and kept going. I tried the same maneuver several times and he got round me and kept barreling along.

And this time his journey went on and on until he reached a paddock with several horses, owned by good neighbor-friends of ours.

Bilbo, who was already running mindlessly, now became even more excited. I tried to speak firmly, but less urgently to him, because that tactic seemed to have worked to settle him when, as a youngster, he chased after sheep. But these horses were big. And they pranced, and they bucked, and they whinnied. And it was all a pile of over-stimulation to this giant who wasn’t about to settle back into gentleness.

And as Bilbo’s panic morphed, my panic became almost unbearable. “Are the neighbor’s home? Will they hate Bilbo and his owner? Will they call the police? If they come out with a gun, what should I do? I’ll tell them to shoot Bilbo, that’s what. And will my aging heart be able to take all of this?”

I ducked under the fencing–actually more like crawled under the fencing on my two arthritic legs that complain loudly when I try to bend them. I tried to head Bilbo off, but he is younger and much more fit.

And what about the horses? How will they accept me? One of them slipped on ice and fell on its side. Yes I would gladly shoot Bilbo now. Then one came straight at me. Would it rear up and kick me senseless? Would Bilbo run it right over me?

Thank God the horse brushed by me and let me live.

But the whole mess didn’t settle down. Not for a long, long, long time. After Bilbo got close enough to one horse to bite at its tail, it turned on him and fought back. That was a good thing as Bilbo, while he kept chasing, did so at a much more respectful distance. I even managed to make him think just a bit and the distances grew and the demolition derby slowed down. When Bilbo left the paddock I dove under the fence and tried lying on my back and rolling in the grass laughing and calling to him. Sometimes, you see, dogs get curious, and you can trigger their play instinct. I think Native Americans even used this tactic to attract wild animals on the Great Plains.

Well, it didn’t work on Bilbo. He just disappeared around a barn. Did he go into the barn? I heard a bit of a crash and a rumble, and there was an overhead door that was raised just enough for a big dog to get in; so I went inside and hoped to trap Bilbo there. But no. I heard another clatter and went back out and around another corner, to find more horses in more paddocks! And yes, Bilbo was flying about, much more limber in ducking under fences, and getting a great ruckus going. There were several metal barns there and when I called to Bilbo the echoes just made the whole scene more absurd.

I dodged more horses. I said more prayers that the horses wouldn’t kill me and Bilbo wouldn’t hurt them. And it was just me and horses and Bilbo–no neighbors, and no time to call in reinforcements–and I was running out of ideas. I hadn’t a clue as to how to put a stop to this whole spiral of chaos. My knees ached more and more, and I slowed my pace of walking on turned up, frozen ground and doing belly-flops under horse fencing, until, finally, it happened. Bilbo turned in my direction and tried to slip through a narrow opening between a feeder and the corner of the barn, and me. So I was able to reach out and grab him. Just.

My heart was pounding. I was hot and sweaty. I stood there with a death grip on Bilbo’s collar, and tried to breathe and collect myself. I then waddled with him over to my ATV and got the chain lead to put on his collar. He still wasn’t back to his gentle giant mind, so I was super cautious as I phoned Connie to once again “come rescue me.”

I’m a slow learner, so it took hours for my mind to settle and to deduce that, if it wasn’t thunder or field hands who had set Bilbo off, it must be something else. So, when he escapes he strolls along the tree line. So, when I come after him with the ATV he bolts and doesn’t look back. It must be the ATV itself! He does not like being near it or the tractor when I work to fertilize or to top off the fast growing grass. No matter how sweet or how firm I might plead with him, if I have that ATV and try to get near, he will go into full flight mode.

So, wouldn’t you know it, just a few days after the awful mess with the horses, we came back from doing a sheepdog demonstration and were going in different directions to exercise the Border Collies, feed rams, etcetera. I looked for Bilbo in the field and assumed Connie had taken him to the sheep barn to feed him, and I backed the stock trailer to the pasture gate to return the sheep we had used in the demonstration. Then I casually opened the pasture gate; and as I turned, I could see out of the corner of my eye Bilbo flash by me.

Oh, dear Lord no! He will be off to the horses for sure.

But I said not a word. I did not dash off to the ATV. Instead, I went into the house and got a big hunk of smelly salmon roll from the little fridge we keep for animal meds and treats. I tore the wrapping back so that about half the huge roll was exposed, went out into the yard, saw Bilbo there, and tossed it right at him. He grabbed it in his mouth and took off. But fortunately he made a bee line to the barn door to enjoy his catch. By the grace of God, Connie was there and let Bilbo in. So we had him.

Panic is not a pretty thing. Not in a dog. Not in a slow learning dog owner. But thank God for the opportunity God give us to learn from our mistakes.

Turn the Page: Reflections on Lessons for Pentecost 24 A

The very first time I assisted with leading worship at my home congregation the very first thing I was assigned to do was to go to the altar and read aloud the introit from the big book lying there. I approached. I looked down at the open book, expecting to see the proper introit. But it wasn’t there.

I froze in place. I wanted to get it right. What a fool! I stared at that page. My knees wobbled a bit. Then I heard my pastor whispering from the side of the chancel, “Turn the page.”

Duh! Of course. Just turn the page.

This Sunday’s first reading from Zephaniah–1:7, 12-18 can leave us wondering what kind of God we have. This God says he will punish those who “rest complacently in their dregs,” saying to themselves that the Lord is completely irrelevant. But that punishment is described in way too much detail: “a day of wrath…distress and anguish…ruin and devastation…darkness and gloom.” Sinners will “walk like the blind” and their “blood shall be poured out like dust.”

Of course in our times the belief is waxing that the concept of God is nothing more than a relic of an ignorant past, and that religion itself is way worse than irrelevant, but downright poisonous. And passages like this confirm the notion that the biblical image of God is characterized by mindless brutality.

But turn the page! Turn back and you will see that the wrath of God that the prophet wants to give voice to is a needed rebuke of those who were entrusted with leadership only to betray it. And turn ahead to the end of the book and you will hear the prophet call for a song to celebrate a God who takes away judgment, turns back enemies, gives a swift kick to oppressors and turns back disaster. All of this is because the Lord does what good leaders are supposed to do: lifts up the weak and the fallen. The Lord gathers people and brings them home (Zephaniah 3:14-20).

Our gospel reading for this week, Matthew 25:14-30, is also a downer. A master goes on a journey and entrusts his property to slaves. Two of these slaves make investments that turn out to be lucrative and the master is pleased. A third one, rightly fearful of the hardness of character of the master, buries the wealth he has been entrusted with and returns it when the master returns. The master concedes that this man has judged his master rightly to be rather mean spirited. He should also concede that his slave has not run off and has demonstrated great honesty. But instead, he deems the slave “worthless” and commands that he be thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

If we get stuck staring at this page and trying to turn this parable into an allegory where everything symbolizes something else, then the master must be God–and a hell of a god he must be. Quick tempered. Vengeful. Completely lacking in understanding or compassion.

But when we turn the page we read in the very  next parable that Jesus has a deeper kind of investment in mind. He tells the parable in Matthew 25:31-46 of the judgment of nations–of peoples. One kind of people are in tune with their king. They give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and good company to the prisoners. Simply put, they see pain and they reach out and touch it.

When we turn the page we see that the investment Jesus is urging upon us is the investment of our Maker’s compassion for others. It should be a first principle with us. If our religion or our own hang-ups should make us fearful, and more concerned with our own image or our own standing before God, we should quickly cast those demons off and cling to the assurance of the gospel: that God in Christ has already taken care of all we are obsessed with. God has already clothed us in the righteousness of Christ. So we can see the hunger, nakedness, loneliness and bondage that our neighbors are suffering.

And the beauty of that frightening parable of the talents is a startling wake-up call. It is a warning that sins of omission are just as serious as sins of commission. For years men in power in entertainment, government, churches, and elsewhere, have known of the abuse, harassment, diminishment, and exploitation of women. But for the sake of preserving an illusion of wholesomeness, they have kept silent. For the fear of awakening demons they can’t handle they have kept passive. And because of the silence and the sweeping of things under the carpet, and the burying of the gift of compassion, the horrors have festered and multiplied. People have lost faith in their leaders and in God.

We must turn the page.

We must, indeed, turn the page of the Bible and look for the Christ who saves us and enables us and forgives us, and who died on the cross for us; and we must keep that at the vital center of our interpretation of God’s Word.

We must turn the page of the Bible and accept that it not only is our authority, but that it also authorizes us and calls us to think new gospel thoughts for a new day.

We must turn the page as pastors and preach two sermons on Matthew 25:14-30. In one we must acknowledge what Jesus probably meant: It is serious stuff when we bury our talents–when we sin by omission and fail to share God’s love with the victims of evil all around us. But we should also go beyond the Bible itself and preach that it is wrong to have slaves, wrong to use dogma to clobber others, and wrong to punish without mercy or wish punishment on our enemies. It is wrong to try to force a binary worldview on the analogical world we live in.

If we ourselves are to stand before our Lord, we must admit that we are the lazy and worthless ones, we are the sinners, and we have no choice but to cry out for mercy, and for the chance to do better toward women, toward all the victims of injustice and violence, and toward the hungry, naked and imprisoned ones in our world. We must follow our Lord in fearlessly touching the pain of others.

Reflections on Lessons Pentecost 23 A

We had a spirited discussion today in our weekly Bible study of area pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It was fed by a feeling of dread about recent signs of sickness in our society. One of our number put it something like this. “Why is it that we are Christians, and so we should be animated by compassion for others, yet when sisters and brothers call out for understanding and help, others turn away, often meeting their pleas with scorn?”

The issue topmost on the mind of this colleague was the issue of sexual abuse and harassment of women. Of course, we also expressed concern about the reaction of many whites to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But it could have been any of a list of other concerns as well: LGBT rights, reproductive options, gun violence, mental health issues or the needs of the disabled.

A subtext in all of this was cowardice–the cowardice on the part of politicians as they avoid making difficult decisions to respond to suffering because of pressure from special interests (like the NRA), but, above all, the cowardice of Christians as they avoid the necessary engagement with vital issues of social justice.

My own opinion about all of these concerns is that leaders of the church, from pastors up to the level of our most senior theologians and bishops and other ecclesiastical officials, must first and foremost do justice as ambassadors of Christ.

We live in an age when secularism and pluralism are in vogue. But if the disciples of Christ strive to speak the language of the marketplace, they are in danger of forgetting the language of the gospel. Then there is a void. People inside and outside of the church lose their literacy. We may be left with activism that has no context, lives toward no particular vision, is unaware of its story, and has then no staying power.

The Gospel lesson for this week is Matthew 25.1-13. The scene is the second and main half of a first century Jewish wedding when the groom takes the bride to his home, to become part of a new family. The audience of Jesus would have understood that this point in the extended wedding ritual would have been the most festive. The early Christian audience of Matthew’s Gospel would have understood believers as the bride and Jesus as the groom. But the issue in this parable is the virgins whose simple job was to be ready for the party. Foolish virgins don’t keep oil for their lamps and so they aren’t ready to party. Wise virgins keep fueled.

My favorite seminary professor was Doctor Frederick Danker, known affectionately as “Red Fred” for both the color of his hair and his fiery personality. He spoke of the Christian life and the Kingdom of God as being part of the “Great Party.” Waiting wisely means leaning into the party that has already begun to get into full swing. And that is the way Christians keep their courage to speak out for the voiceless and stand up and stand fast for the powerless.

Our second reading this coming Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 where the Apostle Paul says we are not to “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Death has lost its power over us. If we keep our lamps oiled we can stare down Death. If we take advantage of the nourishment God provides for us in the church, we can be confident in the face of social evil.

The first reading this Sunday is Amos 5.18-24. It sounds a warning about perhaps the most fundamental error of social activism and our religion: self-righteousness. How many would-be prophets and agitators lose their effectiveness and perhaps their souls by getting so caught up in pointing the finger at others that they become blind to their own need of repentance? That’s what Amos’ audience has done. The first part of the book that bears his name is a litany of warnings of impending judgment aimed at Israel’s neighbors. But then the prophet moves from preachin’ to meddlin’ by saying that judgment is coming also for Israel herself. Then he writes, in our lesson, that the Day of the Lord, that is so eagerly awaited by Israelites as a day of judgment for “those people out there,” will also be a judgment against the injustice tolerated and perpetrated by Israelites.

Now is the time for Christians to be bold and public and loud and proud to bear the name of Christ. This is the time to be not just political activists, but Christian activists. Today is the day for us all to be politically active and not quiescent. But it is vital that we do so as Christians, directing people to the fuel of their faith. We need to be hard at work studying the Bible, praying, partaking in the Eucharist, repenting and receiving absolution, comforting and encouraging our fellow believers and opening ourselves to the strength they give us.

We need to do all these “churchy” things so that we can keep our lamps lit in this dark and dangerous time. And so that we can be living it up in the Great Party! It’s coming soon! It’s already among us!

What Lives Matter? What Truths Matter?

What is it that feeds resentment in today’s political climate?

National Public Radio’s David Greene in a piece that ran on NPR’s Morning Edition on October 30, 2017, asked a woman named Jessica, who lives in southern Virginia, and is also a member of a group called “League of the South,” about her reasons for joining a “White Lives Matter” demonstration in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Jessica started out by sharing, “We just want to be left alone. That’s it.”

When asked by Greene who was not leaving her alone, she started by referring to the “Confederate war.” I suppose the shelling of Fort Sumter was the Confederate way of saying, “Just leave us alone.”

Greene then asked, “And what about today?” To which Jessica explained, “Well, today you have people who, you know, I’m a Christian, you know, Christian background, so I have virtues and values. And things that they are promoting out, you know, like on commercials and stuff like that, you know, that stuff’s not right to me.”

Again, Greene asked about the things that bothered her.

Jessica said, “You know, the LBGT stuff. I don’t agree with that stuff. I mean, I don’t hate those people, but if they want to be that, that’s fine, but don’t shove it down my throat, you know? And as far as multiculturalism – you know, every commercial you see on TV, it shows that multiculturalism. Why? Why is that? What – are they trying to paint a picture?”

Greene then asked about what, in Jessica’s thinking, was the difference between not liking multiculturalism and racism, a label Jessica resented being applied to herself.

“I mean, you don’t have to – I mean, like I said, the League of the South is not out to destroy another race. They are out to preserve our race. What’s wrong with that? I’m not embarrassed to be white. I’m proud of what my ancestors made me and I’m proud of what my ancestors did because they fought for my state, my homeland. You know, they created me (laughter). I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no problem whatsoever with being proud to be white.”

The picture I get is that Jessica, for one, sees on television and elsewhere, images of people of diverse races and sexual orientations. This is obviously something new to her, and so she believes they are “shoving down her throat” a different set of “virtues and values”, than those she is comfortable with. She believes she is being harassed–so much so that she joins an organization and drives hundreds of miles to tell people to leave her alone.

One thing that is fascinating about this interview is that the name of the demonstration Jessica is attending is “White Lives Matter.” Jessica sees it as an important expression of pride in virtues, values, race, and ancestors. This name is a direct stand against the “Black Lives Matter” movement. And on the other end of the divide in this debate are people who regularly declare that the group of people they identify with have, in the past, been routinely marginalized, silenced, and left politically powerless. So, the Black Lives Matter and the LGBT communities, in effect, are saying the same thing that Jessica believes: “There is no problem whatsoever with being proud to be who we are.”

Pride in one’s own identity is a primordial motivator. People of all time and people from all over the world have such pride. They work to nurture it. They are passionate about defending it. But respect for the pride of others, for an identity that differs from our own, is a most rare thing. Jessica hits the nail on the head when she says, “That stuff’s not right to me.”

And when Jessica adds the point that she is Christian, and then, immediately qualifies that a bit by saying “you know, Christian background,” she is sharing a most salient detail. Because Christianity is not renowned for being a tolerant religion. In fact, many scholars have pointed out that the two features shared by today’s major, global faiths, tend to make adherants intolerant of things that just don’t seem right: monotheism itself and sacred scripture.

In a polytheistic, or pagan world, there are lots of gods. Understanding of those gods tends to vary according to locality. Things get fuzzy. The same god may have many different names with many different sets of characteristics, and many different ways of devotion.

But the monotheistic faiths tend to be particular. When the stories, laws, and poetry of those faiths get written down in black and white, the notions of what’s right and wrong tend to be seen in black and white as well. The priesthoods of the faiths get passionate and particular, since they see themselves as guardians of what’s right. In short, things get absolute.

For me and my house the key question is, “What absolutes are the right ones.” And I am going with two at this time–two absolutes that are absolutely vital for Christians to keep before their eyes.

The first is human fallibility–a fallibility we cannot wiggle out of, and we cannot afford to forget. There are rights and wrongs. There are truths and falsehoods. There is truthful news and fake news. But it is part and parcel of our human identity that each of us is often wrong about which is which. Not just sometimes, but often. We are limited in our perspective and in our experience. No matter how well educated and scientific we are, almost everything we think we know we have no direct proof for. We are fated to live by faith on almost everything. And to keep faith true we must test it. We are driven by passions and needs we also do not understand, and we must admit the bare fact that other people, of different worlds, have different passions and needs.

And any set of values and virtues we live by should have, at the top of the list, humility. There are truths and there is Truth, but we cannot possess either. Truths we must test and Truth itself must be bigger than we are and so must possess us.

And this fallibility and humility is indeed highlighted amply in the Christian Bible. The two cardinal Truths of the Bible are that God is God and we are not. The true God is compassionate and the creator and controller of all things. The one true human enemy of God is the person who pretends to be God.

The second important absolute that I believe we need to recover for our time is that the God of the Bible loves all people and wants to gather them into a whole with the God of love in the center. This is a Truth that is evidently too obscure in the Bible.

It is easy to see the biblical God choosing and covenanting with Abraham and his offspring. It is hard to notice that God intends this chosen family to be a blessing to all the families and nations on earth. It’s easy to root for the survival of a tiny people of Israel, as they create a religion around their pride of being covenanted to the LORD God. It is hard to think that the people they drove out of Canaan and the people they shut out of the rebuilding of the Temple after exile also loved their land and were proud of their ancestors. It is easy to notice the 144,000 of the sealed and saved of the House of Israel in the Book of Revelation, but all too easy to miss the fact that the prophet hears that number but immediately turns and sees a different truth: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” redeemed and worshipful.

The vast Roman Empire coveted the idea of a single, universal religion that could help them unite a vast and diverse world state. But eventually things fell apart.

Again, the kings of Europe saw the potential of a tightly regulated religious establishment that could apply control over the hearts and minds of barbarian tribes. But, again, things fell apart quite violently as a result of the Reformation.

And today a quick ride around the block will demonstrate that we Americans continue to be divided by denominationalism just as we are shamefully segregated during the worship hour by race.

And we will continue to be segregated and divided and crippled, to the extent that we forget these chief absolutes: We are fallible human beings. When we strive to know the truth, we should also be striving to be possessed by the Truth. And this Truth is that we have a God whose will is to love and gather all people.


Wounded Wise

This week’s “Dear Abby” column in our local paper started out with a letter from a 25-year-old woman lamenting the absence of a healthy role model in her life. Her father had abandoned the family years earlier, and her mother couldn’t seem to think of anyone other than herself.

It’s easy to get the impression that young people long ago renounced all need for role models and certainly for advice from their elders. The “Father Knows Best” days gave way to the “Never trust anyone over 30” generation, and Hollywood has given us a steady stream of films in which adults in positions of authority are uniformly portrayed as a bunch of clueless losers.

But I have been very recently reminded of just how thirsty people of every generation are for the example and guidance of what I would call the “Wounded Wise.”

I made a quick trip back to the congregation I served 28 years ago. Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont, Ohio celebrated its 125th anniversary. They invited back the clergy who had served as pastors, and the many “sons and daughters” of the congregation who had gone on to become clergy themselves.

The church was packed for a hymn sing, Eucharist, and luncheon. I was particularly impressed with the way generations of members of this congregation had built and maintained a fabulously beautiful sanctuary and church building; and with the legacy of excellent lay leadership, which carries on multi-faceted ministry to this day.

But the overflow of conversations I had with the people who graciously greeted me during this event reminded me of a powerful lesson I learned while serving at Grace: It was my own painful experience of a divorce during my tenure there that opened the floodgates of people who looked to me for counsel.

I came to Grace in the early summer of 1977; but it was after my divorce in 1981 that many parishioners came to me in large numbers. I could understand that those struggling with marriage difficulties and divorce would see in me someone who knew their troubles, but I also was called on to minister to and give advice to parents with troubles with their children, couples just trying to get a good start in their relationships, and people simply troubled by religious doubts.

And 28 years later many of these people approached me at the anniversary event, thanking me for standing with them, understanding them, forgiving them, and just being the person that I am. It was all very humbling, not least because I could not clearly remember the kinds of encounters I had had with them. But the cumulative effect of these mini conversations was to remind me of how surprised I was, so long ago, deep in this age when seniority and faith were said to be in such low esteem, that there was truly such a hunger and thirst for good counsel.

And I think the counsel that was sought was indeed wounded wisdom. People saw my suffering. They saw and heard from me that I didn’t have all the answers, but I did, in truth, have a God walking with me.

The Old Testament was drawn together, shaped, and written down during a time of great suffering—during the collapse of Israel and Judah, the exile of the faithful in Babylonia, and the struggle to rebuild the nation. The most powerful idea of all that came out of that entire experience was that Israel was being shaped by Yahweh into a Suffering Servant. It may be that the prophetic mind and voice of one author saw this role developing for her- or him-self, but eventually thought that he shared this mission with the entire nation of Israel, or what was left of it. By their shared suffering they were taking on themselves the sins of the world. They were suffering in the world, for the world.

Centuries later Jesus Christ came on the scene. His preaching and healing ministry made a deep impression on his followers; but he was arrested and crucified for his trouble. Many thought, “Just more useless words. Just another wasted life.” But some of his followers saw in Christ a perfect expression of the power of suffering to atone and to reconcile–the perfect font of empathy and healing compassion.

The world needs role models. Young people are desperate for role models. They are hungry and thirsty for people of experience, and people who are honest with their sufferings and doubts. They are desperate for people who aren’t trying to sell them half-truths and calculated lies. Today they are desperate for people who can counsel consistently for reconciliation and peace.

I myself, as a certified old person, often think of the things I can no longer do. My knees, ankles and hands are failing me. But, as the Apostle Paul says, while my body may be gradually wasting away, my inner self is being renewed day by day when every intimation of compassion, born of sorrow, works its way through my veins to my words and actions. And it is so encouraging to remember why people sought out my example and advice years ago. It wasn’t because of my muscle or memory or elegant answers. It was because of common pain, and sorrow and the shared hope that a great good God was walking with us through it all.

Blessing of the Animals September 30

We share great joy with our animals. Photo by John

We share great joy with our animals. Photo by John

Connie and John invite you to bring your pet or pets to Heatherhope for a service of “Blessing of the Animals” on Saturday, September 30, starting at 10:30 a.m.

Our pets bring God’s grace to us as they tune into our emotions, give us unconditional love, and faithfully celebrate our return from our duties far and wide. They make our homes and our whole world alive with goodness and grace.

In this service we will praise God for this gift and rededicate ourselves to compassionate care for all living things. We will also remember Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, whose feast day is the following Wednesday.

Bring your pet; or if that is difficult, simply bring a photo, memento, or  story.

The service will be brief, but you are welcome to stay and chat or watch a demonstration of our dogs herding sheep, if you like.

You are encouraged too to bring your two-legged companions to share the joy.

Feel free to phone us at 815-895-9736 for more information. And be sure to find directions to the farm by clicking the “directions” tab at the top of this or any page of our web site.

If Not Now, When?


This is certainly an opportune time. A kairos moment as the Bible might put it. The Lord has called us to love one another and now is the time for strategic, bold, and courageous love in action.

We have an unusual man in the Presidency–perhaps without parallel in American history, and so in global history. All American Presidents, good or bad, have tried to serve all the people with dignity. This President panders only to his “base.” He respects only those who, support him unwaveringly today. What you did yesterday doesn’t matter. This President only possesses, and only uses, the tools of bluster and bullying that have served him well in the real estate business. But these are the very tools that divide the people and bring contempt upon the office of Presidency and upon the place of the United States in the family of nations.

The phenomenon that now makes this a particular time of crisis is that there are groups of people who recognize many of the character flaws of this President, but who make excuses for his behavior and support him in any way they can despite those flaws. They do so in the vain hope that in his exaggerated appetite for power he will drop some crumbs their way. Republicans hope for control of government. Their benefactors in business want less regulation and taxation for the sake of more profits. Evangelicals hope for a Supreme Court to roll back limits on their influence and roll back the laws that protect reproductive choice.

All of you who support this man, please wake up!! The man in the Presidency holds all the principles you think you share with him in utter contempt. He has amply demonstrated this in his career as he has run vastly different flags up the flag poles until he gets enough salutes. And he never, ever, takes responsibility for his own mistakes. He never cleans up his own messes. He never flinches at throwing his allies under the bus when it seems expedient. So, eventually he will do the same to you.

The saddest thing of all is that these many supporters of this President, people, full of resentment over their own lack of power, and full of appetite for power at any price, are allowing this President to destroy our fundamental democratic institutions. The bedrock of all these institutions consists of the pursuit of truth and fairness and our system of checks and balances. This President now attacks all time-honored principles of objectivity. Daily he attacks what he childishly calls the MSM (main stream media) and “fake news,” when they have only followed long established processes of fact checking, and even when they have largely only shared what he himself has said and done. He sees nothing wrong with his own allies making vast profits by the public policies they set. This President blatantly undermines the all important freedom of the press, the independence of the courts and even now his own staff and the entire intelligence establishment and the Department of Justice. And he has a well practiced habit of, whenever he is caught out for his own blatant crimes and faults, concocting lies by which he attempts to smear his opponents with the very same kinds of sins. The upshot of all of this is that our citizens are being fooled into thinking there is no such thing as truth at all. They are being made to think that anyone with a gift for government is an agent of the “deep state,” that anyone who points out the President’s mistakes or lies is out to destroy him, and that anyone who advocates cooperation with other nations is selling out American sovereignty. So citizens are being fooled into mistrusting any honest government and trusting only their strong-man President.

And so, we should embrace the ageless wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, recorded in the Pirkei Avot and the Mishnah: “If I am not for myself who is for me? and being for my own self what am I? If not now when?”

We need to act on enlightened self interest. We need to act for the sake of our community, our society, our nation and our world. But that last part is most urgent now. This is the time for action. We cannot allow this President to establish a new normal. He is President and will be for four years (God willing, no more!). But we are the nation. And if we refuse to be bullied or to have sand thrown in our faces–if we refused to be silenced, but speak up often and loudly, we can join our voices and make a difference.

We are waiting, defiantly for the election of 2018 when we can cut away some of this President’s cheering section in congress. We are leaning out toward 2020 when we have the opportunity to elect a brand new President who is an adult and is not so pathologically self-centered. But these dates will come up on us fast, so we must make this a fruitful waiting. We must talk to each other, listen to each other, respect each other, and make plans with each other to bring this nation back from the brink of a very bleak new normal.

If we are giving our President the benefit of the doubt, we should say, “Resist till he grows up.” But it is a bit late in the game to be expecting him to change. He has not the talents nor the character nor the inclination to be presidential. So we must call him out, resist, and act.

If not now, when?

The Beauty of Cooperation--The Comedy of Competition

Last weekend the dogs, Betty and Nell, and I, took part in a sheepdog competition. Though the kind of sheepdog trial that we partake in does indeed test almost all of the skills of dogs and handlers that are called upon in practical flock work, I find myself almost always having to check myself when my dogs come away with low scores, or even no scores at all because of disqualification.

There are very many ways to lose points and to be disqualified in a sheepdog trial. It is, almost by definition, a cruel sport. There are many ways to find yourself and your dog out of the prize list. In real farm work you simply shrug these things off, and perhaps quietly stop your dog, regroup, and start over with the right moves rather than the wrong ones.

But in sheepdog trials you get tunnel vision. You sometimes get fooled into thinking you or your dog are no good because of one or two slipups. In fact, odds are, every dog who dares to go out on such a field, with top competition, is still a miracle in motion for their instinct and their skill at moving sheep. And most of the handlers do quite well moving sheep about on their farms or home flocks.

Come to think about it, just about every sport humans have invented–every test of skill there is, is a great and almost silly abstraction. Life takes hard work, strength, stamina, speed and precision. But, in our sports or games we always verge on the ridiculous. We put goal keepers in front of nets. We make the target as small as we can. We stretch ourselves.

Take the spelling bee as an example. Every year there is a ritual we go through where we put a story or two or three on the front page of the papers about the kid who wins the spelling bee. These days it is usually an Asian-American who wins. And always–always that child has had to endure round after round of spelling some ridiculously obscure words. Today we have spell checking software, but some of the words used in the spelling bee can’t even be found in those applications.

This is sport. This is the nature of competition. And we love it when the task is next to impossible, and someone has dedicated their life to being the very best at it.

And the rest are losers. In fact, almost everyone is a loser for the sake of the one who is very best. And those losers feel terrible about it. They came so tantalizingly close, but they just missed.

It is a comedy, isn’t it? Grown men hitting little balls around the hills and into tiny holes–and spending a fortune on expensive clubs and lessons–and getting drunk and cussing, and smashing their expensive club against a tree if they flub a shot. A child breaking down and crying because they left out that all important second “t” in scherenschnitte. What in the world is scherenschnitte? Or being embarrassed about that wonderful dog of yours just because on this day it couldn’t read your mind better when you tooted out all those commands on your whistle.

All the sports and games in the world amount to a great way to kill time and even get your blood pumping faster. You might, once in a while, proclaim to the world that you are number one, and a winner. But never forget, it is all a big joke.

But if it’s beauty you are after, try cooperation. My good mentor, Gordon Watt, was working with my dog, Betty, and me, on blind outrunning–that is, sending the dog to gather sheep over or around hills or woods and out of sight. Betty is quite used to moving gracefully around sheep and bringing them to me. But now I am asking her to bend out the right way when she hasn’t a clue where the sheep are and so doesn’t have anything to bend away from. And at one point, when I am whistling and speaking commands calmly and clearly, and Betty is bending out just right, and heading the right way over the hill, Gordon says, “Now you’re helping your dog!”

Of course that’s what I was always trying to do. That’s what Better was trying to do for me–helping me get the sheep. But now we are making contact. Now we are a team.

And that’s beautiful. That is the most beautiful thing in life, I think. That’s what makes flock work with the dogs so beautiful at home–so beautiful that we can see our dogs relax and enjoying life so much that they seem to smile about it.

Once in a great while sport can get at this, as when the Soviet hockey team skated and passed the puck in magnificent circles around their opponents. But it amazed and frustrated the fans of the teams they beat–the masses of people who think hockey consists of simply knocking people’s teeth out–the people who are stuck in the hilarious comedy of pure, brute competition that produces one winner and a pile of big, fat losers.


Merlin and Bald Eagles Add Drama

You can’t beat beautiful raptors for excitement.

About a year ago I was running the dogs and a huge bird flew up from the field. Could it have been a bald eagle?

About six months ago, sure enough, one cruising along parallel to my car as I drove down Airport Road.

Then Connie and I found the nest, and saw one on a nearby branch. Then, recently, I saw a pair of them perching, then going off to hunt. Good friends of ours saw a couple of eaglets sticking their heads up that same day. And I snapped some good shots.

A pair of bald eagles nesting about a mile from Heatherhope. Photo by John

A pair of bald eagles nesting about a mile from Heatherhope. Photo by John

I have also seen a big falcon flying about in winter and early spring. I think, because of its light color on the underside, that it could possibly be a prairie falcon–but they are very uncommon around here.

Yet I keep finding piles of feathers about the yard, and even inside the barn once.

Then, yesterday, I looked out the window, and there was a beautiful falcon, in the midst of a pile of feathers, finishing off his meal. I snapped quite a few pictures; and looking at the bird books, I feel pretty sure it is a Merlin–which is a bit smaller than a prairie falcon, but doesn’t have that bird’s distinctive mustache that curves down from its beak. Here is a couple pictures that I took.

I still think the other bird I’ve seen flying in the past might be a prairie falcon, since it has the light underside, unlike the Merlin. But we will see.

In any case, these birds are quite dramatic, and fun to watch. I inspected the remains of the bird the Merlin killed and ate, quite near our house, and it was interesting to find the head and attached beak of the dead bird, picked very clean indeed. I am guessing it had once been a grackle.

The Merlin, which migrates through Illinois, adds drama to our day. Photo by John

The Merlin, which migrates through Illinois, adds drama to our day. Photo by John








A Merlin falcon in our back yard, finishing off his dinner of a grackle. Photo by John

A Merlin falcon in our back yard, finishing off his dinner of a grackle. Photo by John