Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On Fences, Grass, and Relative Greenness

I feel the need to make a disclaimer:  These won't all be about sheep.  I promise.  But this one is...and the last one was.  So I get that you might be suspicious.

Curb that suspicion, gentle reader, and ask yourself, instead, why it is that sheep still speak in our modern and far less sheepy world!  Think about it.  Whether it is the old idea of counting sheep to help get to sleep or slinging all manner of sheeply metaphors or colloquialisms while living in a mostly urban or suburban existence, these critters just seem to persist in our homo sapien psyche.

When I was in the business (not so very long ago) of doing funerals on a regular basis, I would meet with grieving families to plan a service for their lost loved one.  Many times these were awkward meetings between a pastor and relatives of the deceased who often had little or no relationship to the church.  They came to the church out of some sense of....what?....duty?  Cultural norms?  Where is one supposed to go in such a time?  It turns out, after a long life lived with only vague attachment to any particular community of spiritual conviction, people for some reason felt the need to invoke religious language and ritual at the end of their lives.

I don't say this with judgment, far from it - I was just plain perplexed as to why they didn't create some family observance of their own, why the need to set up this thing in the church they didn't attend with a pastor they didn't know?  Probably this is some kind of residue, a muddled mix of felt needs that arise in the midst of a culture that has a significant number of people who consistently claim some kind of Christian identity, yet rarely, if ever, darken a door of an actual church community.  Well, they darkened my door often enough, in their hour of perceived need, and awkward conversation ensued.

"So," I would ask at some point in our meeting, "did So-and-So (the deceased) have any particular verses of scripture that they were drawn to?" This question was often raised during my fishing expedition with the family, trying to draw some inspiration for the heartfelt and moving message they hoped I would give on behalf of a stranger.

"Oh, yes," they would say, eyes widening as they looked around the table for help, "Yes, yes...old So-in-So just loved that one.."  Their eyes scanned the room in desperation, hoping some fragment of religious-sounding speech might leap out at them.

"Maybe," I would prompt gently, "something from the gospels?.....or....the Psalms?"

Their faces would light up with relief and recognition.  The Psalms, of course, everyone has heard of those!  "Yeah, the Psalms," they would exclaim, "especially that one!"

"That one?" I would ask, even though I knew the answer already.

"Yeah, that one about the Shepherd!  So-in-So loved that one!"

That one about the Shepherd.  They meant Psalm 23, of course, which in the big wide world of the Psalms is the one that folks tend to remember.  There are probably several good reasons for that, but one of them has got to be the fact that the Psalm talks about sheep.  Sort of.

It talks about a shepherd, anyway, and about green pastures and other things that sheep like, so the actual sheep are strongly inferred.  And we like the sheep, we human folk, probably because we have had a long relationship with the woolies, and by long I mean like buried in our DNA sort of long.  So when we read an ancient text, like Psalm 23, and those long-ago, far-off people start dropping sheep references, some part of our brain springs to life and says, "Hey, yeah....somehow, that makes sense."

That's the part of our brain that recognizes some kind of content to a little aphorism like, "The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence."  We might live in a condo in Phoenix, unfamiliar with both grass and fences....but still, we get it.  I hope you don't live in a condo in Phoenix, that really sounds like the worst.

Can you tell where the fence line was?
What is all of this driving at?  It's all about that grass and those fences and relative greenness.  That old wisdom about fences and green grass arises out of a real observed phenomenon with sheep and other grazing livestock.  Placed in a pasture, they seem to think that the grass that is just out of reach is always the best and most desirable grass they can imagine, and they will put themselves in sometimes ridiculous situations trying to get to it.  Their antics wind up as our country wisdom, and the whole fence and grass proverb describes a kind of vain longing for something different, when what you have right  now is more than adequate.  It warns of disappointment if you risk the effort of getting over, under, or around the fences, the boundary lines that prescribe your life and circumstances.  And like most folksy wisdom, it is true.  Sometimes.

There is an alternative yet complementary truth of pastured life, one that is hinted at in that old Hebrew poem.  You might recall that little stanza, "He makes me lie down in green pastures....he leads me beside the still waters...he restores my soul."  There is the necessity of constant movement in sheeply life.  A shepherd does a lot of leading, choosing new, greener pastures on which the sheep can find forage.  They need to do this because they are incredible eaters, walking, breathing lawn mowers and weed trimmers rolled up in a woolen package.  Around this little farm, after a long winter of eating bales of alfalfa and dried orchard grass, they are eager to get after every new shoot of green that has the audacity to spring up out of the ground.  In just a little time, they will eat their pasture down to the ground, and then they need to get moved.

That movement, that change, is necessary for health and life.  The longing for other pastures is not always fickleness, as the fences proverb warns.  Sometimes the longing for change is part of the need for new fields in which to roam, new nourishment on which to feed.  Sometimes change is necessary if what we are really looking for is restoration of our souls.

Find yourself longing for something new?  One of the voices in our heads invariably tells us that we are just dreaming vain dreams, that the higher good is to stick it out right where we are.  Certainly as I contemplated this big change in my life (Everything is Changing), I encountered a strong thread of advice, internal and external, that suggested I was just a little tired, and after a rest I would find the stamina to carry on doing just what I was doing.  Not only that, this advice came along with a sort of ethical argument that named the "good" as staying the course, and called change the "bad."  This kind of ethical rationalization is especially prevalent in ministry circles, where "faithfulness" is defined in one way - a lifetime committed to the calling of the clergy.  It is not uncommon to hear the idea that if someone exits the ministry it must have been because they were never really "called" to it in the first place.

But, just like the sheep, we are made for change, for movement.  That longing inside of you might just be telling you that it is time for new pastures or quiet waters.  Those dreams of a different life could be your very soul making a case for restoration.  So, don't let one bit of country wisdom hold you back from pursuing your big change.  That little proverb on fences doesn't tell the whole story.  Remember those sheep that you sometimes count to get to sleep?  Take your cue from the woolies - they are out there in your near-dreamland jumping fences.  Maybe it's time for you to do the same.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sheep's Clothing

It's the Year of the Leap, and I am taking time to blog about the strange experiences of a big life change.

This past week was my first as an person.  On Monday I cleaned out my office and walked out into a brave new world.  Oh, the freedom that awaited outside those doors, oh the liberty!  I imagined the first days would be filled with leisurely reflection, a slow and careful assessment of the path ahead.


There is an interesting psychological backlash to becoming suddenly vocationally unattached - rather than creating a sense of freedom, instead I experienced an immediate and overwhelming urge to get some stuff going, to get irons in the fire, to get things FIGURED OUT!  Probably not a mystery, my "provider" identity was suddenly in real crisis and the compulsive business that resulted was a predictable reaction to fears of destitution.

And so I launched into a maelstrom of productivity, a near fit of projects, chores and new initiatives.  My to-do list has been enormous and unfocused, my days so full that I felt a gnawing frustration that there were not enough hours in the day to address my ambitions.  Though it scratches that little insecure itch that says, "you're not DOING anything," it is otherwise impractical and unsustainable.

There are lots of things that are disorienting about a big change, stuff that is confusing to yourself and to others.  I had occasion to reflect on this while I was doing a chore that comes up around the farm in the springtime - the time for sheep shearing has arrived.

I have been keeping a little flock of sheep for several years now.  You can go into the Wayback Machine and check out some of the genesis story here.  Since those first days we have grown that little flock, which, with the addition of 10 lambs this spring, now numbers 23.  Their wool grows with relentless consistency, and each spring I take up shears and commence trimming.  It is not particularly easy work, but it is satisfying in many ways.  Certainly I am standing in the footsteps of my Scottish ancestors, those muddy, manure laden footsteps - and that is sort of a nice feeling.

The sheep are corralled and picked out, one by one, to suffer the indignity of a haircut.  With each blow (thats what they call a cut of the shears, in sheep-handling parlance), their heavy coats are cut back, revealing a creature that is by many degrees cleaner and smaller than they appeared before.  Their wool, if white, glows anew, and if they were caramel colored before, their wool bleached by a season's sun, they are returned to the pure black of their younger days.  It is a pretty remarkable transformation.

Now, sheep suffer from a poor reputation in the smarts department and though they are winning creatures in many other ways, that particular slight is at times well-deserved.  One annual demonstration of their dimness inevitably arises at shearing time.  A freshly-shorn sheep is unrecognizable to his or her peers - really.  Sheep don't recognize their colleagues after a haircut, to such a degree that, for instance, the rams will set upon one another with all kinds of head butting and other displays of dominance because Odin, our younger ram, believes that old Atlas, freshly shorn, is really a new kid on the block that needs to be put in his place.  But Atlas is still Atlas - the king of the pasture, something Odin will rediscover in short order.

I think we are prone to the same mistake, in our own ways.  Our culture associates so closely the ideas of "who we are" with "what we do" that when someone makes a dramatic change in the latter we are tempted to translate that change to the former.  In my own case, leaving behind a career in church ministry has brought about all kinds of confusion in some folks.  It is as if, having embarked on this change, I have become unrecognizable.  And it's not just them - I think that half of my frenetic doing of all the things this past week is rooted in the same misconception.  Cut loose from what I have been doing for so long, I have been instinctually filling in the gap with lots of other stuff, scavenging a new identity from bits of activity.  A fearful shield to guard against the inevitable question, "So, what do you do?"

As I have been working through this big life change others have reached out to talk about their own life transitions and I realize I am not alone in this.  One of the impediments to embracing a needful change is a sense of identity conflict.  We get wed to a particular path, a career trajectory, and some of the reluctance to changing that is the sense that it somehow it would be inconsistent with who we are.  A friend of mine was struggling with this very problem, wondering if his desire for a change somehow painted all of his past endeavors as mistakes or misjudgments, a grand waste of time.

I don't believe that's the case.  Old John Locke, that english thinker from the 17th century, used to talk about things having a "real essence" and a "nominal essence."  The nominal essence was what we could observe and describe about a thing, but the real essence was what lay underneath, a kind of core.  Maybe I can suggest that we have similar layers to our own identity - of course we are in some way reflected to the outside world in the things that we do, the work we engage in, etc. - but those identifiers are not who we are, our real essence.  Underneath the dirty woolen fleece we are the same person - a big change just gives us a chance to shake off some of the tangled, matted accumulation of life and step out feeling lighter, fresher, newer.

There was a story out of New Zealand that ran around the interwebs a couple of years ago about an old sheep named Shrek.  This cagey fellow managed to avoid the indignity of the shears for six long years, apparently he'd taken to hiding in caves when the shepherds came calling (maybe not so dim after all).  His fleece, left unattended and unchanged, grew....and grew....and grew.  Impressive, but not particularly healthy.  He was finally caught and shorn, yielding a 60lb fleece, stepping out into life a new  New, but also the same.

Are there lessons here?  How about this one...don't hide in a cave when it's time for a change.  Step into it, welcome it, let the old trappings fall off like sheep's clothing.  The you that is always you (ewe that is always ewe?) will be happier for it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Year of the Leap

The past several months have been a something like a climb up the ladder to a high dive platform.  Over the summer I went public with my impending retirement and since that time have been occupied with all kinds of regular-type work, helping to guide the church I have served for the last six and a half years through this big transition.  It felt sort of good to retreat into the routines of work, even if those routines were now being carried out in the shadow of a looming deadline.  But yesterday, Feb. 29th, 2016, I  reached the top of the ladder and stood with my toes hanging over the edge of the platform.  Yesterday was Leap Day.

It was my last day as a pastor at Yakima Covenant Church and, more than that, my last day working in church ministry.  I am walking away from all of that, for reasons you can read about in posts like "Everything is Changing" and "What's Love Got to Do With It?"  Our farewell was marked by an incredible outpouring of love and support, for which we will forever be grateful.
But with the support of my amazing wife and kids, I am striking out on my own, vocationally speaking, seeking a new kind of life, new ways to make a living.  It is a little bit crazy - to leave behind the security of a successful career.  I have only a few answers to the many questions this usually provokes from reasonable people.  What will I be doing?  How will we pay the bills?  Have you been taking your meds?  All will be answered in due time!

Leap Day was a wildly appropriate day to mark such a radical change in our life.  I admit that as I packed up the last things from my office and walked out for the last time, I felt a moment of panic - this is really a big leap, a risk, it will bring new challenges, some of which we can anticipate and some that I am sure are the sneaky type, waiting around corners we haven't reached yet.  While I've been observing a sort of radio silence since last summer, wanting to give the community that I served plenty of room for the big changes they have been and will be experiencing, that will be changing.  Over the next weeks and months I will be positively prolific as I try my hand at this new thing, whatever this new thing looks like.  And I'll reflect a little not just on the "what" that occupies the coming days, but also on the "why."

Here's how I figure it: everybody has got some big leap they are contemplating.  If the faltering, stumbling, bumbling steps of an aspiring beekeeper-shepherd-farmer-philosopher can be of any help at all as you consider taking whatever plunge you are staring at, then I call that a win-win.  I'll chronicle adventures and reflections during this whole Leap Year.  What kind of story will it end up being?  Time will tell - it's the year of the leap and we'll take it as it comes!