Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On January 4, 2017, in Commentary, Life, by Chris

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It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road, and the tired December sun has given up its fight to burn through the cloud cover. The dreariness of the day makes the sky almost indistinguishable from the snow covered fields were it not for the trees along the fence line. From a distance, everything has a monochromatic feel – as if the trees were penned into the horizon with India ink – but you can still discern the burnt sienna and nut brown of the woods across the west yard.

Jocelyn has outdone herself yet again with tonight’s meal. The smells coming out of the kitchen as my Dad and I played our cribbage game almost made us turn down my childhood neighbor and adopted mom Marilyn Gordon’s famous soft pretzels (ed. note: we each kept ourselves to one). The kitchen at the farm in the afternoon is always a marvelous center of activity, and its output makes packing the car with seemingly endless shopping bags the day before worth it as we head out from Detroit.

We always enjoy seeing livestock in the pastures and feed lots on our drive out from town and we often take a more scenic route to pass all of the farms that still have animals. It’s such fun watching Julia’s excitement as she points out the cows or horses; but winter draws them closer to the barn and out of sight like the farm implements sitting quietly in the tool sheds awaiting spring.

As appealing as the pasture can be, the snow and cold has a dampening effect on the ambitions of even the most adventurous heifer and drives her to seek the companionship and warmth of her sisters as they huddle together in the shelter of the barn. And if there were a monologue in the mind of that heifer, it would go something like, “June is for striking out and finding that untouched patch of clover. December is for being with my herd.”

I am often sadly forgetful of that rhythm of “being with” until I get to the farm, clear the snow from the walk up to the back porch, take my eyes off the thousand things I normally do and enjoy an hour of reading books with Julia in front of the fire. She picks a book, curls up next to me and I read. Sometimes she complains as I try to get her to say the words with me (her speech apraxia is still a challenge), but we are always right next to each other in the struggle.

It’s not until I steal my attention away from the daily and relentless voices trying to sell me something that I realize again the sacred nature of an exchange as seemingly mundane as reading together with my daughter. And it is that marvelous, connecting word that leaves my heart fit to break both in regret of past missteps and strange anticipation of the future:

WITH

It is the deeper understanding of the “with-ness” of God that I’ve been wrestling with for the past several months; and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only begun to really understand the length and breadth of its meaning. At the beginning of that journey, let me share a little of what has been revealed to me. And let me warn you up front – this is not the easiest read…

It is all around us now in the season we celebrate. It was foretold in ancient dreams of long dead prophets:

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel
(which means, God with us).

I’ll not debate the points of religious interpretation that often come with throwing around scriptural references. What I humbly offer is this: At just the right moment in history, when humanity had forgotten, rejected or simply given up on the hope of a God that was more than an absentee landlord, the WITH of a triune God enfleshed itself to erase any doubt in its charitable intention and ultimate authority.

And though there are wondrous times where the membrane is pierced between the infinite and the “here and now” of life, I’ve realized that there are many things Immanuel does not necessarily mean:

  • It does not always mean “God came and fixed everything.”
  • It does not always mean “God saved me from the scary diagnosis.”
  • It does not even mean “God calmed my fear.”

But it does mean that there is a promise that the divine WITH is exactly that – even in the most seemingly hopeless circumstances. Even when we feel most alone. Even when in our pain our soul chafes against the proposition of a loving and concerned Other.

The divine WITH is also shockingly powerful in its implications:

  • It destroys the divide between entrenched worldviews screaming at each other across the gulf of seemingly irreconcilable poles.
  • It silences critical voices that set themselves apart in their conceited exclusivity.
  • It demands that we move out of our nervous devotion to our own carefully constructed echo chambers and into the uncertain tension of actually listening to one another again.

And it is the thing that my daughter most wants from me that I find hardest to give in my day to day treadmill of the things I think are so important. Often, sadly, more important than her. So maybe I need to slow the hell down and simply be with her and give her the engagement that she so genuinely craves.

So in my admittedly crude understanding of Immanuel and even after nearly twenty years as a student of Jesus, it seems that there are two challenges that unfold that I humbly share with you:

In this season where we seem to naturally draw together, be WITH the herd of your birth or the herd of your choice or the herd you happen to find yourself in. And if you are in a season of seeming solitude, please know that you are still in the herd of humanity, wholly loved and pursued by God so that WITH can be experienced by all.

But there is also the challenge (and this one is a tall order for me, to be sure) to welcome the stranger and be open to the different herd that WITH presents to you. It seems so counterintuitive in this era of shrill divisiveness in nearly every domain of life; but I believe with a deepening conviction that something better is on the other side of our embracing the WITH.

I give thanks for who all of you are in my life and wish you a Merry Christmas.

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Every Day is WDsD

On March 21, 2016, in Commentary, Julia's Journey, Life, by Chris

CrazySocks

My Facebook feed has been blowing up over the past 24 hours with all kinds of videos, images and well wishes from our community. It started last night with a video from a family that has been walking alongside us – then a text message from the principal of Julia’s school telling all of the students to wear their craziest pair of socks as the beginning of a more intentional celebration for a sliver of their community.

It’s World Down Syndrome Day – the one day of the year it is universally cool to be a friend of someone with Ds! So allow me to put on my “crazy socks” and tell you a little more of what’s going on from the perspective of a man whose life got ambushed by a little girl with an extra chromosome hitchin’ a ride with the typical 21st pair.

If you’ve been hanging around my social media feeds for any time at all, you’ve been acquainted with Julia. As a freelance photographer, I try to regularly put out a picture to let folks know how she’s growing. You’ve seen her through the walker stage into preschool, the endless hours of therapies, and the ubiquitous “giraffe horn” hair buns that Jocelyn fashioned to keep her from chewing on her hair.

We’ve received unceasing encouragement from all of you over the years – from the comments on how cute and precious she is to the challenges we hear from you to press on through the adversity of navigating the bureaucracy of service providers to get her the help she needs. Sometimes I even wonder if Julia’s social media following outpaces Jocelyn’s and mine combined! Such is the life of a little girl with her own entourage of stylist (Jocelyn) and publicist (me).

But even with the love we get from our community, I’ve noticed a change in the way strangers interact with her. There is now just a tiny minority of people who don’t quite know what to do with Julia when she busts into her ballet routine in the middle of a crowded mall or expresses her still inarticulate but very clear frustration with directions. Don’t get me wrong – there are still loads of smiles and comments on how beautiful she is. But sometimes I hear the unspoken “… for a kid with Ds” at the end of the compliment. There is a quiet standard I hear that seems to be applied to all school age kids where “typical” becomes “normal” and “normal” slides into “expected” and these young souls are filed on to the treadmill of striving and competition that will follow them through adulthood. It’s an atmosphere that my kid just isn’t built for.

We’re getting to the stage where, just like any kid her age, Julia’s innate cuteness is starting to wear off and the real differences (along with some of the attendant social embarrassment) are becoming more pronounced. Julia is very tentative and even fearful of high-energy situations that she’s unfamiliar with. She is a creature of habit whose desire for quiet and television time can torpedo an evening social gathering. And we are still fighting for every syllable in her speech therapy – the progress is real, but painfully slow.

I’m sure that some of this is due to my own hang-ups. I still have to remind myself that despite a world bent on progress and its hostility toward anything or anyone that isn’t economically value added, there are people – lots and lots of people – who know that value isn’t solely measured by productive output. There are those wonderful people who love the differently abled for their intrinsic humanity and not the packaging they come in. They’re willing to bear with our Julia because she belongs to them as well – no matter what her mood happens to offer up at the moment.

One thing you know you’re going to get: pure, unfiltered, no-hidden-agenda Julia. Sometimes impolite, other times a fist bump or a hug – all of it is very, very real. This kid has no guile and you never have to wonder what she is feeling. And in a world full of agendas and deception, that can be as refreshing as it is frustrating; because with every interaction, I have to decide if I am going to press my agenda or enter into her simple desires.

Julia forces me to step off the treadmill of my agenda and engage with hers. She encourages me to be a little less selfish and reminds me that my story is only a part of the larger story. How can that be a bad thing?

So here’s to our girl – with all of her love, simplicity and challenges. With a community like you behind us, we get to experience the love and support of World Down Syndrome Day all year round!

Julia-WDsD2016

 

 

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2013, in Commentary, Life, by Chris

Christmas Wreath
It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. The temperature barely got above 20 degrees today, but a strong sun melted off the dusting of snow we got last night and its reflection off the white and fallow fields made it hard to look outside today. But now the light has mellowed and the afternoon shadows have lengthened, and I sit in the living room as a Christmas Eve dinner of salmon with Meyer lemon is being prepared (don’t worry, I’ll be doing the dishes!). We may even get down the road later tonight for a bowl of Jim Laramie’s marvelous homemade gumbo!

The quiet and much slower rhythms of the farm are a welcome change from the frenetic pace of the city. Most of the farm implements have been covered up for the winter and the farmers in Saline Township take a grateful sigh of relief now that the season’s crops have been harvested and the winter wheat has been sowed.

It’s interesting and a little sad, though, that the Christmas rhythm out here got a little slower this year. We normally would have been out the door not long after breakfast today, making a round of visits to the older family – especially my aunts. I said my last goodbyes to my Aunt Cora a month or two ago, and her sister Pat has moved down south to be with her children. And so our family’s world got one orbit smaller this year.

I’m seeing it along Willow Road as well. One by one, the dairy farmers let go of their herds until the nearest operation is three or four miles away. Our neighbors (and my adopted parents) have finally divested of their hog operation after nearly fifty years. After abusing their bodies for so long, they said that all they would feel was achy after a long day tending the farrowing house and finishing barn.

Even my Dad is getting to an age where he doesn’t want to bother with a lot of things these days – and at nearly eighty-three, he has every right. I came out a couple of weeks ago and got a Christmas tree up and the traditional wreath on the house, more for my own nostalgia than anything else. Now that he has throttled back on his volunteer hours up town, many of his days are spent with crosswords or books in the quiet of the farmhouse, coffee or an occasional breakfast with friends and afternoon cribbage with his girlfriend, Sue.

And it would be really easy for a guy of this age to begin to despair of life. With friends and family of his generation passing away and the natural physical inconveniences that come with age, retreating from life can seem like a reasonable choice between a lot of unsavory alternatives.

Dad RecordingBut it took one of those silly recordable storybooks you buy at the Hallmark store to remind me of a more hopeful trajectory of a life well lived. Jocelyn had picked it up last year during the post-holiday liquidation of all the Christmas merchandise. She brought it along to the farm, intending to record the story for Julia to follow along and learn about the Nativity; but I suggested we have Dad do it. It’s not much fun to think about, but one doesn’t need to have skill in actuarial math to realize that we will outlive him. I thought it would be a nice way for Julia to remember her grandfather on a special day.

So Dad and I sat down at the kitchen table while Julia was napping and recorded the story; but the weight of it didn’t really hit me until later when I played it for Jocelyn. It was a tinny, digitized recording depicting a childish, sentimentalized version of Jesus’ birth, but its pricelessness brought us both to tears within the first few words.

Behind that simple story – from the promise that love finds a way to the final words of my father’s love for his granddaughter – was the voice of nearly eighty-three years of experience. Those years had seen many things – marvelous and tragic – from living through the Great Depression and a world war to serving his family and community through the country’s meteoric growth. There were, to be sure, glimmers of the prosperity in his voice, but it was the heartbreaks that he lived through that imparted its weight and depth.

And it was the story my father read of an improbable birth in a place fit only for animals and castaways that reminded me: despite the frustrations of life and the slowing, painful pace of age, Love played the ultimate trump card that overcame the separation from everything good that is the ultimate fate of us all. Love did not give up on us, even while we were still shaking our fist in defiance. Love loved anyway, sacrificed anyway, became vulnerable despite humanity’s track record and pitched his tent among the lowliest, yet could still run circles around the mightiest.

Love came not to condemn us – any of us – but to save us. Because each life that walks this planet is of inestimable, intrinsic worth.

And I heard – again – the wonder of this Story read in the quavering voice of my father on a cold Christmas Eve.

I give God thanks for all of you and wish you all the best this Christmas.

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Goodbye, Bill

On December 18, 2011, in Life, by Chris

I didn’t want to go too long before I paused to remember the passing of one of the last of the old farmers. Ever since our family made its home on sixty acres in Saline Township, Bill’s family was a part of the fabric of the community. His great grandfather settled there around 1870 and the family has been there ever since.

Bill ran the farm on his own after his parents died, eschewing the large scale, specialized farming methods and continuing to keep a few pigs, a few sheep, an orchard known throughout the county and a marvelous herd of Holstein dairy cows all descended from the single cow that his grandfather acquired in 1922. Apparently, her name was “Corny”. Seriously.

But that’s not what I really remember of Bill. He was truly a man born of a different and gentler age – and one of the finest 4H leaders I’ve ever known. Other than my father, he is the one man most responsible for getting me through nine years of show cattle projects that ultimately paid for three years of college. As one of the elder statesmen of Washtenaw County agriculture, He also took a ragtag team of teenage boys to the state livestock judging finals. We didn’t get into the top five, but it was his tough but fair coaching that got us there in the first place.

He was one of easy nature and temperament – I only remember him losing his temper once, (for which he immediately apologized). His patience for kids, as I look back, was truly saintly. Although he remained a bachelor his entire life and had no children of his own, Bill has adopted kids all over the world through his tireless efforts introducing so many to the unexpected beauty of agriculture.

It took no patience on my part to hear his stories – from his time with a German family while he was in the Army to the inner workings of relationships from generations back to controlling fire blight on the young apple seedlings. Bill was the consummate yarn spinner who would regale me with tales as we drove the back roads of Washtenaw County on our way to the next judging practice.

But mostly I remember him as one of the hardest working men in that same county. For as long as I can remember, he worked that farm – alone – with the care of his whole heart. He never took a vacation (dairy farms are a tough mistress that way), but in the forty years I knew him, I never heard one complaint. And the barnyard was neater than many fully staffed farms twice the size.

He chose a quiet life of communion with the land, teaching others the ageless value of responsibility, reliability and simply keeping promises. His death was sudden and, at the age of 71, far too soon.

And I’m going to miss him.

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Bring It + 365

On September 12, 2011, in Commentary, Life, by Chris

It was a warm Sunday afternoon a year ago that I settled into the comfortable chair in my daughter’s as yet unoccupied nursery to begin the adventure in words and pictures that you see before you.

After recounting the challenges we had seen in the months before and those in the future that seemed to be lining up against us, I began this blog with a simple, scary request of God:

Bring it.

That request was not made lightly or flippantly – but it wasn’t without more than a little trepidation. In fact, it was nearly an act of desperation as Jocelyn and I clung to the possibility that amid the cloud of Julia’s frightening diagnoses of Down Syndrome and heart defect, God was there with us. If he wasn’t, we were going to be in deep, deep weeds.

I hesitate to use such a trite metaphor, but the only way I can describe the last year is that it was a roller coaster. But I will add that it was a roller coaster after your fifth corn dog.

So where are we now? Well, the fact is that I’m writing this at the end of the day with my wife crashed beside me after the bottles have been washed and sterilized and the baby’s in bed. Julia’s had a few fitful nights (teething, we think) and we are all feeling the ache of fatigue that comes from a couple hours less sleep.

But if you’ve been following this little narrative, you’ll know that Julia got through the surgery successfully and the scar on her chest is fading even as the memories of the long days at the hospital fade a bit from our minds.

Honestly, a year after “Bring it” finds me wrestling with a lot of the same questions as before, although their shape and texture have become a touch more conventional as I settle more comfortably into being the dad of a delightful little girl with a mended heart and a tad extra on Chromosome 21. What kind of cruelty will Julia face from others because of her condition? How will she live once we are gone and she is on her own?

A lot of the time, I can push those uncomfortable questions down with a household project or the hum of activity in the office, but it came to the forefront of my mind last Sunday at church as we commemorated the somber tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Since that ugly day, our pastor observed, we as a country have become consumed with security in a very dangerous world. And it was in the middle of the message I got that horrible feeling that I’m really no different.

I am wondering if the crush of the last year has caused me to hang on just a little more tightly to my life, my family and my stuff.

There it is. It’s true that adversity can draw you close to God. But the pernicious flip side is that it can just as easily make you run in the opposite direction. Even when I’ve experienced the Life that is God, I still often find myself clinging dumbly to things that will eventually end up in a landfill, expecting them to give me life.

I hear him asking me, “You’ve trusted me with your life. Will you trust me with Julia’s?” I’m ashamed to tell you that far too often, if I were really honest, the answer would be no.

But here is where I have to go back and do the gut check. Do I still believe that God’s dream for Julia is better than anything I could ever conceive of? And if my faith says that God spoke the universe entire into being, who is more equipped to unlock the best from her (and from me, for that matter)?

Yeah, this “Bring it” thing is hard, hard work sometimes. But all I have to do is listen to the satisfied coos of my daughter and watch my wife as she sleeps beside me, exhausted from the day (“But a good tired,” she says). These are the little reminders that something deeper and more wonderful awaits those who press into life’s occassional discomfort and abandon themselves to the adventure that God has for them.

Here’s to another year.

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