Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I'm Not Dead Yet, Am I?

So, a professional colleague and friend called me yesterday wanting to know how I was doing. He had heard that I had resigned from the pastorate. I think he wanted the scoop. That is fine and good, but I have learned something interesting in many many such conversations over the last month.

Many people who have talked to me about my resignation seem to view leaving the pastoral ministry as like a death, and thus they talk about it as they would talk at a funeral - quietly, slowly, reverently, heavily, and sadly. I suppose every change is a kind of death. But I don't think that if I had gone from being a CPA to selling organic food at the Farmer's Market that people would have the same view.

It seems out of keeping with Reformed Theology that recognizes the fundamental dignity and significance of each kind of vocation and work. I have never for a moment believed that my work as a pastor was of greater significance than another person's work as a teacher or a businesswoman or brick mason. Likewise, if someone who had been teaching school for a long time decided to go into business instead I don't think I'd miss a beat, even if life changes contributed to the move.

Speaking of teachers, I remember back when I taught high school running into students at the grocery store. They would look at me with some confusion of mind as if to say "He eats?" "Yeah I eat, and I poop too." So there.

Which reminds me to be patient. If almost-adult students had a hard time seeing me apart from my "teacher" mantle or mode, then it's no wonder that people who have known me for 20 years as a pastor would have the same challenge seeing me apart from my "pastor" mantle or mode. Not all do, but many do, maybe most.

Perhaps in some deeper way all along, this very issue has made me a somewhat reluctant pastor. Perhaps I always chaffed at the difficulty of being seen as just a person, flawed and with feet of clay, with lot of things that interest me other than the Bible. I'm thinking lately that this very issue has been worming around in me for years.

I remember back when I was coaching a softball team there was a guy - one of the kid's parents - who often helped out with practices. We talked a lot. He was a very smart and funny guy, and laced his speech with certain profanities that added a kind of salt and spice to what he said. He was a good cusser.

I never ever ask people what they do for a living, but eventually he asked me. "Great," I thought, "there goes the relationship." I told him I was a pastor. I'm not sure he knew what I meant at first. He wasn't southern and so he didn't think "preacher." "You mean like a priest?" he asked. "Sort of," I answered.

Now this has happened several times with me, and almost always people start acting and speaking really differently. I've always hated that. I pray, "Lord, please don't let them ask me THAT question." But in this case he did ask, and, after my answer, he paused a moment as if to think about it, and then said something like "#*%&*, I wouldn't have thought." I loved that guy.

So, for real, I'm not dead, my faith isn't dead, and well, my vocational life isn't dead, as in, "Oh now that I have fallen from my calling I have to do SOMETHING (inherently insignificant) to make money."

Well, I do, have to make money that is. A lot. And so I continue to look and pray for a nice big regular job. And in the mean time, God is providing several smaller jobs, including a tutoring gig starting tomorrow. (I've always liked tutoring - science, math, composition, etc. So call me....) I was thinking today as I hobbled down Elm Street that it would be cool to lead tours of downtown Greensboro - hmmm, could I make any money at that?)

So, please don't tell but I am actually enjoying branching out. I don't feel like I am in a vocational funeral. It feels more like a kind of change of season, maybe summer to fall, and I like the breeze.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Twitter: From Mother Lode to Overload

So, I’ve been fiddling around with Twitter for a couple of months now. As I have come to understand how to use it better and search for people of similar interests I have discovered one of its more powerful features or attributes – a feature so powerful that I don’t yet know what to do with it. That feature? Twitter as a content provider!

For example I am following a lot of folks who are into various aspects of gardening. Not only do these gardeners share daily tasks (“Just finished harvesting the rhubarb”), but they share all sorts of links about every aspect of gardening imaginable. These links generally are to very thoughtful and informative Web sites or blog posts from which I can learn a lot. I have received
more of these than I can ever read!

The same goes for almost every other “topic” that I can think of. It’s like I’ve hit the mother lode of information, so much that I am suffering from information overload, and need to figure out a way, such as with third party apps, to save and categorize all this amazing information.
I ponder what this all means to how we think and work and gain information and expertise. But it is a remarkable phenomenon at any rate.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Birds

Wednesday evening I came home late from the office - it must have been about 8:00. I parked the van on the road near the driveway (on the cul de sac). As I got out of the car some birds caught my eye, and I stopped to look. Apparently it had just rained, and the water from the pavement on the cul de sac was evaporating. I stood in the middle of the road.

Then they came - the birds that is, first a couple and then more and more. I think they may have been swifts or swallows. They would fly in very fast, then do an arc like an ice skater and be off, circling again a couple of times around trees or just in the air. Their wing beats were incredibly fast. Several flew straight away from me and their wings were just a blur surrounding their body. They would dive into the "asphalt zone" on a steep glide, turn on a dime, zig-zag, and be off again on a circle around a near by tree or just up in the air.

Watching them in front of me, above me, behind me I kept thinking of how an anti-aircraft gunner might feel with planes coming from all directions. On several occasions one or another of them would fly within feet of my head and I could hear the wings and the high pitched twittering. They acted as if I were not even there.

I assume that there were insects rising up perhaps with the humid evaporation off the asphalt, but I could not see anything. The birds zig-zaggy change of direction as they entered the "asphalt zone" suggested feeding, but I could not tell for sure.

There is something joyful and humbling about being in the presence of another creature's life and activity, especially when we are completely irrelevant to that creature. There is a sense of transcendence when we are brought out of ourselves into self forgetfulness and wonder at that which is truly "other." Our overly self conscious selves need this - but it has to come to us, as if by accident, and we have to be prepared to be caught up in it.

The birds kept on whipping in and out and around. I stood in the midst of them for maybe 10 minutes and eventually went into the house. It was the highlight of my week.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Summer Garden Past

Our humble backyard in a summer past.

Working It and Keeping It

It says in Genesis 2:8 that “the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” It goes on to say in 2:15 that “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” All this of course follows, and to a great extent explains, the more general description of man’s purpose as found in Genesis 1:28 - And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

OK, so back to our yards…for those of you that accept the importance and significance of what we read in Genesis above…

Our yard or garden is one little spot under the sun that God has given us that we might exercise dominion over His creation. We can rightly say indeed that by God’s providence He Himself has given our yard or garden to us and placed us in it. Genesis 2 helps understand the nature of this dominion. We are placed in our little bit of creation “to work it and keep it.”

So what does exercise dominion in the sense of “working it and keeping it” look like?

I think that “working it and keeping it” means making our place as beautiful as we reasonably can, since God made His world to be beautiful and pleasing, reflecting back as it were the beauty of His own person. As He created, He Himself liked what He saw, and He pronounced it “good.” I wonder if He would say “good” as to how we have worked and kept our bit of creation? Beauty is important to the Creator of all that is beautiful, and it is important to our neighbor. Indeed, we have more than enough ugliness to contend with on a day to day basis as it is. Beauty is itself a kind of sanctuary.

"Working it and keeping it” means that we seek to extract as much potential goodness out of our little piece of God’s earth as we can. This may mean working the soil to make it even richer, or planting trees and shrubs and flowers that will draw out the fruitfulness of the earth in beautiful and exciting ways. Many of these plants will then provide food for our animal friends. We can plant food for ourselves too – enough even to give some to our needy neighbors. In so doing we extract out a goodness that was there only as it were in waiting for us.

“Working it and keeping it” includes seeking to bless not just other people but all of God’s creatures in and by the bit of the earth He has loaned to us. Birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids – all these can find a home and sources of food in our little spot of the earth. Each adds richness to creation and joy to human life (yes, even spiders when adequately understood). I think of the various animals being brought before Adam (who was alone), each of which (with affection I believe) he named (and blessed in so doing), and I can’t help but think that we were meant to be friends to the animals, and a means by which God blesses them. I believe that animals (especially the higher animals of course) experience a kind of happiness in living, in simply being unselfconsciously what they are. And we get to help bring that about, working in cooperation with Him “who fathers-forth whose beauty is past change. Praise Him.”

“Working it and keeping it” would include I believe care for our human neighbors all around us – within sight and earshot, but also downwind and downstream. Do I really wish to disturb my neighbor’s peace with my power blower? Do I want to pollute the air and water of all my neighbors downstream and downwind? I don’t. Neither do I wish to bring harm to God’s creatures downwind and downstream either.

“Working it and keeping it” could well include providing a place of beauty and haven and rest for needy and wounded souls battered by the difficulties of this life. Even though beaten and battered ourselves, we can extend hospitality to others by giving them a place to rest and to refresh. The smallest yard can be this kind of place, even a porch garden.

I remember many times in my life when I have been struck at how an extremely small and humble home and yard can be made into a haven of beauty. This can happen amidst urban blight, in a small abode tucked next to a freeway, or in a poor rural cottage. Living well in this way is not restricted to the rich or to those with lots of money to spend on their properties. Within humble means we can bring beauty out of ugliness, working and keeping the little spot in which God has placed us.

Obsessively Green Gardening

I was driving out of my neighborhood this morning and passed a crew working on a yard, doing the typical maintenance stuff with power mowers, power blowers, power edgers, etc. Their van was parked on the street, its name written boldly across the side. I would not have paid the van any attention except that that I saw the word “Green” in the name. I think the van itself was green. Granted, the crew was cutting green grass, and their van was colored green, but I see anything else about the operation that was “green.”

Which got me thinking again…What would uber-green (as in hyper green – better yet, let’s call it "obsessively green"), what would obsessively green gardening look like, especially in the urban/suburban/exurban setting?

Suburban gardening and yard maintenance is noteworthy for its pollution and toxicity. Almost all power equipment pollutes the air much more even than do cars. Then there is the noise – oh my has suburbia become a NOISY place to live. Power blowers are the worst, but power mowers and weed whackers certainly add to the noise pollution.

Water pours off roofs, driveways, and lawns carrying with it all sorts of nasty stuff – grease, oil, tire and asphalt residue from the driveway and roof; animal waste, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers from the lawn. The runoff goes right into our streams and rivers and lakes. This polluted runoff not only contributes to increased costs for water treatment downstream, but dramatically impacts the ecology of streams and rivers, effecting amphibians and fish and other aquatic animals, and the animals that feed upon them. The horrible state of Jordan Lake is a prime example of one end result of all this.

Are we really comfortable with the trace elements of these toxic chemicals in our water supply? There is no treatment that gets rid of it all.

We grow grasses and plants and trees that are not native to our area and not adapted to the particulars of our climate and soil, so we coddle them with excessive amounts of water, or douse them with fungicides when the clay soil is too moist. We use expensive treated water to keep these water-sucking non-native plants alive, water that could and should be preserved for other needs. We could reduce demand for treated water by catching roof runoff in rain barrels, or even (for those who can do so), catch roof and general runoff with cisterns. Large properties can have beautiful rain gardens where much of this water is allowed time to seep more slowly into the ground water supply, and at the same time provide habitat, food, and shelter for birds and small reptiles and mammals.

Most of us love it when birds and other wildlife show up in our yards and gardens. I think everyone loves bluebirds, watching them perched on a tree limb gazing downward, diving to the ground to snatch up a bug, and returning to their perch. And what child does not love robins! I watched a robin a few weeks ago put about ten worms in his mouth before returning to a nest. Robins also eat insects, the kind that live in a biologically healthy lawn.

Bluebirds need to eat insects in order to survive. We love bluebirds, yet we succumb to pesticide ads that promise to “kill everything” in our yards, a promise which I suspect is pretty truthful as advertising goes. In the “perfect lawn” as advertised on TV there are no bugs, few worms, and no weeds - just grass, the whole lawn looking and being little different than AstroTurf. It is a single crop farm, the crop being grass, with everything else dead.

The herbicides that kill the broadleaf “weeds” that interrupt the perfection of our lawns also seep into the soil to be ingested by worms which robins then feeds to their chicks. The leaf eating insects that manage to survive the initial dousing ingest huge amounts of this poison as they feed upon the grasses and other remaining plants (if there are any), which said bluebird takes into its body with each bug he eats.

On Memorial Day weekend I saw a lady out mowing her lawn with a manual rotary mower. The mowed lawn looked quite fine. No air pollution there! There have long existed manual edgers. There are even manual blowers – OK, not really, but I was thinking of rakes and brooms. I've yet to find an emissions free tiller other than a shovel and hoe, but we need tillers in this crazy red subsoil we work with in Greensboro. Is there a powerful enough electric tiller out there?

Though they are not pollution free (the electricity comes from a power plant somewhere) there are very good electric versions of most of these same tools.

So these are some of the things I think of when I think of obsessively green gardening. Maybe you have some ideas as well.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Picture - Summers Past: Bill in Pecan Orchard

Bill Marshall in a pecan orchard near Due West SC. This was taken on the great SC bike tour of 1976 - Clemson to Ninety Six to Columbia to Charleston to Beaufort to Hilton Head to Savannah and back to Columbia - just four guys and their bikes (well fed and clothes washed each night by friends!)

An Act of Kindness I Appreciate

I know it may seem terribly self serving for me to post this link - but....I was very moved by this kindness towards me, and I just wanted to say "out loud" that I appreciate it very much. Thank you Joe.

Atheist Commentary on Being Proselytized

I may be the last person on the planet who has not seen this video, but it is really excellent. It is an atheist comedian's take on being proselytized by a Christian. I really recommend as worthy of a look for Christians and non Christians alike. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Picture: Me and Heather at Josh Ritter Show

It was a great night. Josh ritter does an amazing concert. I am wearing my "concert shirt." My little Heather is all grown up, and great fun to hang out with!