Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On January 4, 2017, in Commentary, Life, Personal, 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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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2014, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

Misty Field
It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather here over the last few days with a lot of rain and mist on the fields – fallow except for those planted with winter wheat. We saw our neighbor Jim Laramie earlier, who stopped by with the most amazing homemade toffee. He told us it was his first year trying his hand at it, and all I can say is that it was quite a success. We are even now hovering around the computer for the Skype call with our friend Malcolm from the U.K. There’s a fire in hearth, cranberry glazed pork tenderloin waiting for dinner; and after the maddening rush of Christmas preparation, we’re finally feeling the permission to breath again.

I have to admit at the outset that I came into this season with a tiny bit of dread. It wasn’t necessarily the quickening pace of our lives with all of the holiday expectations (we’re still “that family” that puts out 150 or so Christmas cards – and the list is only growing!). Actually, it took me a while and some real soul searching over the last month or so to put my finger on it.

The first string I picked up and followed was the realization that I wasn’t anticipating the Christmas gift exchange. Normally I’m at the front of the line with a list of the things I want; but when Jocelyn asked me what I wanted last month, I couldn’t come up with a thing. Even scarier, it wasn’t because I was feeling any sense of contentment with what I had. As I pondered it, I realized that it was a weariness of this practice of endless acquisition that we westerners seem to be locked in. I had simply become “gadgeted out.”

I also spent a lot of time thinking through my holiday malaise as I listened to Christmas songs on the radio (and yes, I waited until after Thanksgiving). It’s amazing how they can conjure up so much sentimentality with the warm images of family coming together and the anticipation of Christmas morning. After years of great family memories, the older generation’s passing and exodus of the younger generation across the country have thinned out the celebration of Christmas on the farm. What’s more, it felt as if the songs I once enjoyed became an inventory of the experiences that were more in my past than my present – or my future.

And I very well could have stayed in that funk, but I believe I was quite literally delivered by a Christmas carol you’ll rarely hear on the radio. Dating back to the 12th century, the Wexford Carol is one of the oldest carols that we know of in the European tradition; and it was the first verse that reached out and captured my heart:

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born

To consider well and bear anything in mind can be a real trick in the crush of the holiday treadmill – much less the spectacular thing that happened in that town in a backwater Roman province no one had ever heard of. How easily we – I – forget. But in those simple words I was reminded again of the gift that outweighs anything I could have gotten from Amazon. Amid all of the wonder that our holiday-industrial complex offers, this was the thing my heart longed for.

And somewhere in the second hundred playbacks of “Happy Holidays”, I started to realize that instead of mourning the loss of all of the family experiences of years past, it was far more life giving to be grateful that I ever had the opportunity to have those marvelous experiences in the first place.

Even better? Out of an overflow of that grateful heart, I need to pour myself out to give others a beautiful Christmas memory. So with my heart steeled with that conviction, let the real holiday begin…

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2013, in Commentary, Life, Personal, 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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Talking to a Teenager About Heaven

On June 5, 2013, in Commentary, Personal, by Chris

One of the cool things I get to do in my position at the church is fielding a lot of the tough questions that come in. Our weekend services have a great way of drawing people in and opening all kinds of questions in people’s minds, and that’s where I come in. The subjects are very broad, from the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture to what is Kensington’s stance on baptism or communion or any number of social issues.

One of those emails came to me recently that made me stop and think – a lot. After fielding these questions over the past few years, I’ve gotten pretty good at ripping out a concise answer in as few keystrokes as possible. But I had to pause with this one. After you read it, you’ll see why it was different:

Hi,

So first I would just like to say (what you probably hear a lot) that I love your church-going experience.

I’m only 17. We started going to Kensington after my parents got a divorce, now both of my parents will take us to listen to Chris Zarbaugh (ed. note – Chris is the lead pastor at one of our campuses and a fantastic communicator) every weekend, separately. This is something they never did when we went to Catholic Church. It has allowed me to start to develop my faith more and more, something I can finally do because I understand service.

After years of chatichism [sic] and Catholic Church though, there is one question I have that never gets brought up at church.

I believe in God.

But one thing just confuses me, something no one really can answer: Why do I want to live for eternity in Heaven?

Obviously no one wants go to Hell, but why would you want to live forever and ever and ever?

I’m aware that’s abstract, forgive me for it. I was just looking for any answers you might have.

Thank you for your time,
Lauren

I got that email two weeks ago. And if I’m brutally honest, I still don’t really know what to do with it – even after wrote an answer. I was really tempted to take a look at what some other person has wrote on the subject (they’re out there) and give that to her. But in the end I decided to take a more than a few minutes and plumb the depth of all my aspirations and insecurities and ask the sometimes vexing question: “What is my ultimate hope as I stumble along in this life with Christ?”

I offer my answer (for the moment) for your consideration…

Hey Lauren –

Wow – I make time for questions like this! I really do appreciate your curiosity, because I’ve honestly caught myself with the same question in my head. So here’s my attempt at an answer:

Have you ever had a day where you were with your best friends, the weather was perfect and you were doing something fun together and wished the day would never end? Do you remember the thrill of your birthday when you were a little kid and your parents knew just how to whip you into a froth of little toddler excitement? Have you ever done something where you just knew that it was what you were created to do?

I hope so. I really do.

Maybe there have been times that you have experienced exactly the opposite feelings. I’m just going to take a couple of guesses here – I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m off the mark. Remember how crushing it felt when your parents told you they were divorcing? Remember the fear that you might have felt as you stepped into the rhythms of having to make a home at two addresses? Were there times in the quiet before you fell asleep that an inner voice blamed you for your parents splitting up? (that’s a lie that a lot of kids struggle with) Are there times – not even related to your parents’ relationship – where you catch yourself saying, “That’s just not right!” The injustice of the world is as clear as its beauty.

All of those aching feelings – both the good and the bad – are your heart longing for life as it was meant to be. In short, Heaven.

My deepest conviction – the hope that I cling to as I slog through the frustrations of this life – is that all of the wonderful feelings I have ever experienced put together will not come close to the joy of living life at its fullest potential. I look forward to a time where will spend my days learning and growing and surprising myself with the marvels that God will accomplish through me, only coming to realize at the end of the day that I was thinking too small. There’s another adventure tomorrow to anticipate with all the glowing excitement of Christmas Eve.

Why heaven? Maybe it’s to finally be delivered from the sadness that still haunts me when I think about the fifth anniversary of my mother breathing her last, and the thought of seeing her again. Maybe it’s the anticipation of finally having the time and the heads space and the patience to learn guitar (that will take an eternity!). But perhaps it’s way more than the few words in an email can describe.

Maybe it’s simply to taste life as it was originally intended by the Maker of all that is good. Raw, real and so wonderful that your heart would be fit to break for just the sight of it.

Well, that’s my take on it. I haven’t even scratched the surface thinking about this, but I hope it helps a little.

Keep asking the questions!

I have a feeling I’m going to have to keep asking questions myself.

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 25, 2012, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

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It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. The house has long fallen asleep as I atone for my procrastination. I had every good intention to bang out this annual greeting in the light of day; but one marvelous distraction after another intervened. Visits with family and neighbors, eating way too much, quiet meadow walks in the first snowfall of the season, gift exchanges and a late night roughhousing session with Julia has its way chipping away at the time.

So here I am, bleary eyed and typing away feverishly next to a window, cracked open to let the chill of the night air keep me awake; but also in hopes that I will hear some spooky night sound that would quicken my pulse in my younger days.

WeatherVane-01Julia has lately come into the habit of waking early, sometimes as early as 5am, and this morning was no exception. I decided to let Jocelyn sleep and took Julia downstairs to snuggle in the cool darkness of the farmhouse in the comfort of her grandfather’s easy chair.

I love the moments of quiet that visits to the farm afford. They give me time and space for contemplations that simply will not deepen and grow in the shallow soil and frenetic pace of my daily life.

But as my daughter dozed on my chest, the thoughts that came to mind were not comforting ones. In the quiet of the pre-dawn light, I finally let myself embrace a taste of the pain to which I had been consciously numbing myself.

I’ve been watching, in horror, over the last several months as this world has seemingly been tearing itself apart. I pondered the empty arms of the parents of twenty Connecticut school children who are still in the throes of their grief. And I’ve watched as our nation – the world, in fact – struggles to right itself in the midst of the shock; our politicians and pundits scrambling for air time to push the “one agenda” that will supposedly be the solution to the mess we find ourselves in.

The tragedy this year has not been limited to people outside my community. I’ve been watching over the past several weeks, sometimes helplessly, as a nearly thirty-year marriage of a couple very close to me has quite simply imploded before my eyes.

In so many domains, in so many hearts, a piece of our collective innocence has been taken from us.

And I wonder what is it about the holiday that brings this melancholia out of me. Never mind. You don’t need to know how deep that rabbit hole goes; and any of you who have been following these over the last few years will know that it ends with more hope than it starts with.

Later in the morning, I read the backstory of an old Christmas carol that a friend had passed along to me the day before. I was surprised to learn that it was adapted from a poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written in the depths of personal despair. Having lost his wife in 1861 to a horrific and accidental fire that permanently scarred him as well, he would write that Christmas of how “inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.”

But that would not be the only sadness that Longfellow would experience. His eldest son, against Longfellow’s pleading, took a commission as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac and sustained a grievous wound in 1863 (he would eventually recover after a long convalescence). A year later, on Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow penned a poem that began with despair and loss, and the seeming irony of the bells that tolled for peace in war’s midst…

     I heard the bells on Christmas Day
     Their old, familiar carols play,
          and wild and sweet
          The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     And thought how, as the day had come,
     The belfries of all Christendom
          Had rolled along
          The unbroken song
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     Till ringing, singing on its way,
     The world revolved from night to day,
          A voice, a chime,
          A chant sublime
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     Then from each black, accursed mouth
     The cannon thundered in the South,
          And with the sound
          The carols drowned
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     It was as if an earthquake rent
     The hearth-stones of a continent,
          And made forlorn
          The households born
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     And in despair I bowed my head;
     “There is no peace on earth,” I said;
          “For hate is strong,
          And mocks the song
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And if Longfellow’s verse had finished there, darkness would have won. And in my moments of despair, it has been scarily easy to let myself give in and be utterly overwhelmed by the hatred, the senselessness, and the crushing grief all around.

But there is so. much. more.

In the midst of the pain, there are reminders of the beauty that will eventually overtake it.

As a whole nation and I were struck dumb by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, while some commentators repeatedly asked if God was, at best, an absentee landlord and other commentators shot back with the standard right wing theo-social talking points, a friend decided that she was going to simply be different. Here is her Facebook post less than a day after the incident:

          This is my “Do Something” in response to my visceral maternal alarm bells.
          Hurting people hurt people. So I will love people. I’m going to be a one woman
          love flash mob. I will make eye contact. I will smile. I will love on my sphere of
          influence and help them love on others. It’s not just a gun control or mental
          health issue. I think its a love issue too. A fear issue. I will not live in fear
          and turn inward. Love always beats evil. Always. It has to. Join me. Share this.
          Smile. Love. Do Something.

I’m embarrassed to tell you that all I could manage at the time was to choke out four words in response:

Bravo, my friend. Bravo.

But for me, it was an early reminder that this season reminds us of: In love for us, God came to those who wanted no part of love so that the reorientation of history and the transformation of our futures could be made possible.

The small decisions to love are not all I stand in awe of. I have friends who are pursuing a creative way toward peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Others are pulling up stakes in the comfort of the suburbs to continue their lives in the neighborhoods of Detroit. Others have decided that clean water should not be a luxury for the Pokot people in Kenya and are working tirelessly to drill wells. Some of my favorite people in the world have committed their lives to build an enclave of hope and beauty in the midst of despair in Dowlaiswaram, India.

Perhaps the reminder of Love enfleshing itself in humanity on that unlikely day in that unlikely place is the invitation of a return to the innocence that we lost. It is in these and countless more reflections of that love where the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem is made manifest:

     Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
     “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
          The Wrong shall fail,
          The Right prevail,
     With peace on the earth, good-will to men.”

Peace on earth, goodwill to all humankind. To that worthy mast, I have fastened my heart. To that improbable, inconvenient, overcoming, all-consuming truth of a here-and-now Savior (who I do such a lousy job representing), I commit my life to pursue.

And whether or not you decide to pursue with me, I think we can all agree that the world would be a better place if we decided to love first and do something out of an overflow of that love.

I give God thanks for all that you do, and wish you all the best for Christmas.

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