Friday, May 28, 2010

Opened to the Prospects of this Day

Ever since experiencing them in their quintessential South Pacific habitat, we have potted a hibiscus plant on our deck.  Something about the blossoms -- whether pink or red or yellow or even orange -- is calming; soothing; slowing, like life in that island paradise.  The flowers open unreservedly; full face -- not so much as horticultural exhibitionists but rather echoing Eden's naive hospitality to the moment, as if to absorb anything and everything the sun or the clouds or the activities nearby might have to offer.  That's precisely the way we experienced the people of the islands -- present, open, attuned to each particular moment, recognizing that this moment is all we really have.  It is a strangely attractive, yet uncomfortably disorienting perspective for westerners like us bred and formed to plan and prepare and anticipate, occasionally remember, and live virtually anywhere except the present tense.  The very idea, for two people whose mother's milk was the Protestant Work Ethic, tempted us as something alluringly, almost borderline immoral.  We haven't been able -- actually, even remotely willing -- to let go of the idea.  What seemed so natural for those we met there among the blossoms has come to represent for us almost a spiritual discipline.

And so each spring we go out in search of the perfect hibiscus plant that can anchor the view on our deck; a reminder; an incentive. 

So it was that a week ago, while gathering a few extra bedding plants for the pots and the planter boxes, we kept our eyes open.  Unsuccessful, we finally asked an employee who showed us these bucket sized pots full of soil from which protruded a single wooden stub about 2-inches high.  Looking at our helper with barely veiled skepticism I asked, "Will I even still be alive by the time this thing puts out blossoms?" 

With the same kind of expression I'm guessing beamed from the face of the guy who traded Jack a handful of bean seeds for the family cow with the promise that they would produce a beanstalk that would reach to the clouds, the employee assured us that this perennial would be far superior to puny little plants with which we were more familiar.  "Blossoms the size of plates," he told us.  Fine, I thought.  If I live that long.

Nevertheless, we bought it; stuck it not in a pot on the deck but in the ground where it will supposedly reappear year after year after year in all its plate-sized blossoming glory.  And I will say that in the week since that planting already a sprig of new growth has emerged from the stump.  "August," he reassured us regarding its flowering.  Fine, but as energizing as anticipation can be, it sort of runs counter to the idea of focusing on the present.  So this weekend we plan to venture out again to the greenhouses in search of something for the pot on the deck -- a hibiscus plant with blossoms perhaps smaller but already opened to the prospects of this day, reminding us that we could be too.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Because Celebration Can Break Out Any Moment

I suppose it might have been the glinting reflection off the metal.  Otherwise, I don't know what caused me to notice.  I don't usually study the contents of passing cars -- especially on the freeway.  Whatever the reason, as I pulled by in the left-hand lane I turned to the right to pay closer attention to the one I was passing.  There in the car beside me was an aging African-American woman with close-cut graying hair.  She reminded me of a middle school assistant principal my kids had known and loved -- strong and lean, affectionate but tough; the kind of person you could trust with your aches while fully aware that her counsel could well be to "buck it up" and "get back into the game."  Beside me on the highway, in other words, was a woman who gave off sturdy, caring vibes, even at 70 miles per hour.

But it was the tambourine that snagged my imagination.  It wasn't laying in the passenger seat.  I couldn't have seen it if it were.  It wasn't in the backseat, out of the way.  It was resting on the dashboard, just above the steering wheel, as if ready to be shaken.  My guess is that it often is.

I like that idea.  You can't always tell, after all, when the need for praise might come along and surprise.  Never mind all that, suggested this woman I was passing.  The solution is to always be ready when it happens.  Green light just in the nick of time?  Grab that tambourine.  Swerve to miss a car dangerously out of control?  Go on and shake it.  Windshield perfectly framing a rainbow up ahead?  Cause for celebration.  Coasting on fumes to a stop beside a gas pump?  Thank goodness a tambourine is there when you need one.

I think this woman is on to an idea that could very well catch on.  No one, after all, can predict when hallelujah moments might come.  Why not just always be ready to contribute your note of praise?  Come to think of it, I already have the tambourine, buried in a bag beside the piano.  What good is it doing there?  Praise could break out any time and I would like to be ready --

  -- to notice;
  -- to be grateful;
  -- and to joyfully add my voice.

Or the shake of a nearby tambourine.

I drove on, envious of her forethought; somehow alerted and more attentive even if musically unprepared for happy eventualities that might fortuitously greet me.  You never know, but some things are too precious to be caught unprepared. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Prayer of Close Attention

Walking around Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture last week, it was the circle that impressed itself on me once again.  One thing leads to another, which dissolves into another, and then another...  The grass is cultivated to feed the sheep, whose enclosures are moved each day to a new stand of grass.  The sheep are followed by the chickens who feed on the bugs attracted by the sheep manure.  I've forgotten now all the sequences, but eventually the pigs move in, and then more grass, and then the sheep, etc.  In the finishing barn, paper from the administrative offices is shredded and mixed with hay for bedding for the pigs.  The urine from the pigs jump-starts the breakdown of the paper, which is eventually transferred to the composting area, the heat from which is captured by water circulating through plastic tubes to heat the greenhouse in the winter.  Once the pigs are butchered, the bones are converted to biochar that is used in the restaurant for grilling the vegetables grown in the garden and fertilized by the compost. 

But maybe "circle" is not an adequate description.  Circles, after all, advance in one of only two directions, and what we observed was almost omni-directional.  Perhaps "web" is a better suited description.  All I know is that in this view of life miniaturized to a comprehensible view, everything fit together in a constant flow of inter-dependence that enabled each expression to simultaneously benefit from and contribute to another element of creation in a way that evoked the wonder and intrinsic value of each.  Operationalized was a kind of systemic graciousness that found ways for each element not only to flourish, but to shine.  Humility and glory no longer made opposites, but co-existent; each part honoring the "other" and the "next" without diminishing the "is." 

This, I left thinking, is the essence of abundance.  Why is it -- and when did it come to be -- that we became so afraid of scarcity that we grew jealous of any and every other; defensive and protective and stingy?  Why did it seem wise to atomize the fabric into discreet threads instead of celebrating their interwoven patterns?  And has the biochar of the divine spirit become so blackened and cold that nature's intrinsic and generous grace can no longer be heated into contributing use?

I  am too much of an optimist to believe that, but I pray that we begin to pay less mind to the faux-improvements we can impose on the world around us and more to the insights that world can teach us about all we have to share with one another. 

W.H. Auden once suggested that the essence of prayer is paying close attention.  Amen.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Whether Farming or Faithing, the Field is Local

In a recent essay, poet-farmer Wendell Berry reflects on the influence of place not only on his farming but on his writing.  He could just as well have added "on his being."  In so reflecting he manages, unintentionally to be sure, to offer perhaps one of the best explanations of the spirituality of terroir I could hope to find.  Noting what he calls the "difficulty and the discipline of locality," he goes on to ruminate about the particularities of farming an "actual place."  Recalling an earlier essayist who had influenced him, he quoted him observing..."the problem on any two hundred acres is never the same:  the richness of the soil, its qualities, the neighborhood, the distance from the market, the climate, the water, and a thousand such things make the life on every farm distinctly individual.

For Berry, that recognition "sets forth the challenge, not only to all forms of industrial land use, but to all other approaches to land use, including agrarianism, that are abstract.  The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm.  Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of creatures that lives there.  This has nothing to do with the set of personal excuses we call 'individualism' but is akin to the holy charity of the Gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of rights.  Such practical respect is the true discipline of farming, and the farmer must maintain it through the muddles, mistakes, disappointments, and the frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and exultations, of every actual year on an actual farm" (Imagination in Place, 2010).

Exchange the word "church" for "farm" and you pretty much get the point.

Preaching to the Window

It was Dave who called attention to the irony.  We had been visiting with the pastor about the shape and character of their ministry, and he had unambiguously narrowed the focus to worship.  Deep worship and good preaching.  When I asked about other programming he mentioned a Wednesday night Bible study, but "we don't expect people to live here" he retorted.  As to activities or involvements with the community, he dismissed the notion.  "I don't much care for other preachers, and we're not here to be a community center."  They don't, he went to amplify, make the building available for birthday parties or the like.  "Let them mess up their own houses," he chortled.  

Recently, as church savings had begun to accrue, someone had suggested they help fund a Habitat for Humanity project in the area, but the pastor had quashed the idea.  They were concentrating on getting their own house in order, he explained, which involved endowing the pastoral position.

Finishing our conversation, he handed us off to one of the docents to interpret for us the famous Matisse and Chagall stained-glass windows.  The Matisse is a rose window behind the altar.  Facing it from the back wall -- facing the preacher as he or she proclaims the Word -- is an immense design by Marc Chagall depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan.  That was the irony that Dave had discerned:  in this edifice made famous by its depiction of the one who went out of his way to help, apparently worships a congregation who routinely passes by on the other side of the road.  

Leaving Gifts as Well as Taking

He came across as wily -- or perhaps cagey.  The introduction matched the preliminary impression I had gleaned from emails we had exchanged arranging our visit.  He seemed to prefer sparse communication -- a few words, emotionally economized.  After the fact, our group members were conflicted as to just what to make of him.  After listening to our introductory summary of the reason for our visit, he ajudged with a mocking laugh that we were "goldbricking," pursing little that was likely to further the cause of the gospel.  But he was happy to visit with us if we wished.

He seemed to enjoy parrying our questions.  When I asked what drew him to this particular church, he curtly responded that he had been "called."  When we asked if it could sometimes be intimidating to have the Rockefellers in your congregation, he dismissed the suggestion, avowing -- somewhat unbelievably we thought -- that he hadn't really even known of their involvement until after arrived, despite his later admission that Mrs. Rockefeller had served on the Call Committee.

He took great pains to insist that despite the artistically significant windows by Matisse and Chagall that drew a steady stream of visitors, that this is a church, not a museum.  It's reason for existing is to gather people for worship, not to gather people to gawk or even necessarily to gather people to serve.  "This isn't a community center," he asserted.

But finally, as we continued to press and explore the nature of ministry at this curiously magnificent little church, he said it:
"This is a unique place." 

That's what I had been waiting to hear.  It is different.  Indeed.

After all his protestations about the ordinariness of his church -- all the reasons it is just like any other, with "real people" gathering for solid worship and good preaching -- I would like to think we left him a gift of terroir-related insight.  Along with those very accurate elements held in common with congregations the world over, his little flock is nonetheless unique; that their Rockefellers and their windows and their busloads of tourists and their symbiotic relationship with the local historical society codified in the legally crafted "sweetheart deal you would die for" indelibly influence the taste of their place.

And so we "goldbrickers" took our leave, sensing that unlike the other interviews, we gave, in this one, more than we got.

Fair enough.  We did enjoy the windows.