My Huckleberry Cleanse or What I Learned from a Week of Wild Foraging (Pt. 2)

 

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Tulip heads are cleaned off the plants at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.

As I prepared for a week of eating only wild-foraged foods there was a lot of chatter online about the recent popularity of cleanses, where people go for a period of time only drinking juice, or following some other regimen of limited foods that supposedly cleans out impurities from the body. Much of the conversation in recent weeks has been driven by an article by Judith Shulevitz at the New Republic, "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses, That doesn't mean you should." The more accurate description of the article is visible in the web URL that titles the piece, "The idiotic-cleanse-craze-and-modern-theology-juice-fasts." 

What caught my attention is not just the controversy about the merits of calorie-depriving cleanses, but the strong religious streak to the movement. Shulevitz notes how similar they are to religious fasts and argues that this is really what drives the movement:

...people don’t afflict themselves for their health, or not only for that. I won’t be the first to point out that cleanses look a lot like religious fasts or that people crave the transcendence that comes from self-deprivation. 

According to Shulevitz it's an existential acting out in response to a world envisioned as poisoned. In the laymans terms, the world is full of $#@$ and therefore we are a full of $%@#, and cleanses are a way to clean out the you know what. It's original sin reduced to terms that even a middle schooler could understand and some would argue that the movement has the sophistication of junior high boys when it comes to the digestive system. The books apparently spend a lot of time on the topic of defecation.

Most mainstream doctors and scientists are highly critical of the cleanse movement as Shulevitz notes. As a pastor who sat at the bedside of a dead parishioner who chose homeophathic cleanses and diets to cure her cancer instead of chemotherapy I join with those doctors and scientists in their criticism. It is dangerous and irresponsible to make unproven claims about the health benefits and curative powers of diet and herbal remedies. When I see such assertions arise in the organic/slow food/real food conversation it drives me crazy. 

But I'm more interested in the spiritual/religious aspects of the movement. Should pastors and theologians be just as skeptical of these pseudo-scientific detox regimens as the doctors and scientists? I don't think so.

Shulevitz is right to identify the movement as primarily an expression of spiritual longing and we in the church ought to take note. Just as we have abandoned fasting as a spiritual practice the void has been filled by pseudo-religious movements that take seriously the real connection between body, mind, and spirit. This is the part the cleansers get right and the church, these days, mostly gets wrong.

I just finished a week of eating wild-foraged foods. Here in the Inland Northwest that means I spent a week eating mostly huckleberries, call it my Huckleberry Cleanse. I didn't go into it with visions of dirty toxins in my intestines. It was a personal challenge and I did have in mind the experience of Israel in the wilderness foraging for manna every day for 40 years.

I have to admit I come away from the experience feeling some affinity for the "Cleaners."

It did reset my body and mind and awaken my spirit in new ways. It did clear my body of the high-salt and high-fat diet I gravitate toward. I did lose 10 pounds and here on the morning after I'm not nearly as hungry as I was a week ago before my foraging began. It's easier for me to concentrate and I feel psychologically in a better place. The first coulple days were a hassle but after that there was a strange peace and quiet that settled on me as I experienced freedom from the tyranny of hungers that clutter my mind. In a sense I feel clean.

I've had a similar awakening every time I've fasted. Last year when I followed the dietary regimen of Ramadan, going daylight hours without food or drink, I felt empowered and peaceful. When our family joined with our local Greek Orthodox congregation for their Advent and Lenten fasts last year we experienced spiritual renewal and a strengthening of family and communal bonds. When we followed the Kosher food laws for a month we experienced renewal in our family life. In my experience, intentional fasting has the potential for spiritual growth and renewal.

It's been an important practice for most of the history of God's people in the Bible and in the Christian church, but in the modern west it has fallen victim to the spirit/body divide imposed on the church by the Enlightenment and modernity. (That's my assessment that I'll flesh out more later.) Not even Catholics do fish Fridays anymore and Protestants are mostly left to our own whims when it comes to Lent. We're missing out.

Shulevitz is wrong. "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses," and we should to.

The church in the west would do well to listen to the spiritual longings expressed by those who are turning to colonics and cleanses for help in this crazy fragmented world we live in. They are looking to put the pieces together, body, mind, and spirit. What does the church have to offer them? We have a treasure trove of resources if we dig a little into our history, and it's not based on scatologically obsessed pseudo-science, it's based on the Bible, on the life of Jesus, and on the experience of the early church.

And contrary to the Cleanse movement these practices lead us to embrace the body as good and holy, as sacred space. 

(This post is part of an ongoing inquiry into food practices in the church supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute. Find out more about the Tables of Plenty Project here.)

Wendell Berry, the Inhabit Conference, community gardens, and the kingdom of God

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Inhabit Conference, a collaboration between the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and the Parish Collective, a network of faith leaders equipping churches to live out the gospel in their neighborhoods. It was a wonderful collection of people seeking an alternative imagination for being the church in this modern, commodified, flattened cultural moment. In a fitting convergence of events, Wendell Berry gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday. The Inhabit Conference and National Endowment for the Humanities lecture both expressed a prophetic call to reconnect with a sense of place and a responsibility to people.

The Chronicle in Higher Education had the following report on the Berry lecture:

Mr. Berry's speech was a discussion of affection and its power to bind people to community. It was also a meditation on place and those who "stick" to it—as caretakers and curators. "In affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy," Mr. Berry said.

The opposite of the "sticker"—in the words of Mr. Berry's mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner—is the "boomer," those who "pillage and run."

"That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated," Mr. Berry said. Our relationship to the land and to community is increasingly abstract and distanced.

"By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers....." 

The antidote, Mr. Berry said, is affection, connection, and a broader definition of education—to study and appreciate practical skills like the arts of "land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking."

Berry's comments echo much of what I heard at Inhabit. In the midst of the growing wreckage of "boomer" models of church in North America, people shared stories about what it looks like to be a "sticker" church that specializes in affection, connection, and homemaking. As someone who battles mightily with my boomer instincts in leading the church, the conference refreshed my vision for a different, stickier path of leadership.

Part of the gift of the conference was to help me see the blessing of the stories that have unfolded in our community over the last couple of years. (The test of a good church conference is whether you go home feeling envious of God at work in other people's stories or encouraged by God at work in your own stories. Inhabit provided me with the latter.) Many spoke of starting community gardens, so I thought I'd share part of our story here as an example of how community gardens can serve as a living alternative to the "pillage and run" pace of life.

The story of the garden goes back four decades to the start of an iconic neighborhood pumpkin patch on the shores of the Spokane river, located next to a major north-south thoroughfare in the Spokane valley. Generations of children grew up in our vicinity making a seasonal pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch to pick out the perfect pumpkin and pluck it from the vine. Not only that, they got to see the field plowed, the seeds planted, and the plants growing as their family station wagons drove by the site in the spring and summer. It was a community-sustained umbilical to the land and a constant connection to the rhythms of springtime and harvest that have been lost in most communities.

Ten years ago Spokane County set out to widen the Argonne bridge and the pumpkin patch was designated as the lay-down area for all the heavy equipment and machinery required for the year-long construction project. I was told that tractors came and shaved off the two feet of black humus that had accumulated from the years of growing pumpkins in order to level the land. After the construction was completed the land was left as a hard-packed abandoned lot that served as a turnaround area for school buses and a shortcut for people walking through the neighborhood. The land was so hard it took a pick-ax to loosen enough soil for a soil-test. 

Four years ago people in the church and in the neighborhood started a conversation about the potential of recovering the land and the story of the land by turning the site of the old pumpkin patch into a community garden. I had only known that plot of land as an abandoned lot and it was only after these conversations started that I learned its history. The loss of connection to the land is like that, we not only lose the use of the land we lose the stories that at one time gave life to the neighborhood.

We knew we couldn't do it on our own as a church so we reached out to the neighors and other community partners. The paper mill that owns the land agreed to let us use it and they even donated the water and facilitated the donation of lumber and compost through their connections. We enlisted neighbors, the school district, a local group home, scouts, local landscaping businesses as co-conspirators in reclaiming the land. We even had a bunch of guerilla gardeners from the Twitterverse that came to help us get started. We joined together and named it the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

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The garden has become a gathering place for families and neighbors.

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One of our goals with the garden is not only to let people have a plot to use for personal use, we wanted to bring back the pumpkin patch. So along with individual raised beds we have some area for row crops for Second Harvest and a place for pumpkins. Last summer we had a bounty crop of pumpkins and invited children from a local group home to come over and choose a pumpkin. The rule was that they had to pick a pumpkin that they would carry to the car. 

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Some of them pushed the rule about carrying the pumpkin to the limit. 

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Others tried to find the perfect pumpkin. It took this little girl 15 minutes wandering the patch to find just the right one.

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It was a wonderfully redemptive moment to see kids once again walking on this land with anticipation in their eyes and joy in their hearts about finding a pumpkin to call their own.

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I imagine that when these children now drive by the pumpkin patch they remember the fruit of the land, they remember the richness of the soil, they remember the rhythms of the seasons, and the joy of the harvest. To use Berry's words they have a new sense of affection, for a land that sustains them and a community that is committed to a place, which serves as a tangible sign that they are part of a community that is committed to them. 

Along with this I think they have a better sense of God's redeeming work in the world and we in the church who have been involved with the garden have a better sense of this work as well. We better understand that the kingdom of God is not some abstract notion, it's like a community garden -- putting down roots in a place, redeeming abandoned places, and renewing affectionate relationships.

Thanks to those at the Seattle School and the Parish Collective for putting on the Inhabit Conference. It helped remind me of the God who is at work in our neighborhood.

My Take on Ethics of Eating - More grace needed in current food debates

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Last week I was a panelist on an Ethics of Eating event at Sante' restaurant in downtown Spokane and today's edition of the Spokesman Review has an article on what transpired. The in-person event, pictured above, was organized in response to a heated virtual debate on Facebook over the fact that Sante' serves foie gras. You can look on the Sante' Facebook page for a run down of the debate. Local TV news even did a story on it. Here's one of the critical comments posted on Faceboook:

You will never have our business/patronage because I now know you serve foie gras. And we will never recommend your restaurant to local friends or out of town guests. In fact, we will tell them about your inhumane offerings and I'm sure they will decide the same, as our friends are all animal caring people. In your quest to serve haute' cuisine and be a Cosmo restaurant, you have shown us that you have made unethical choices to seek your customers. With many other dining options, our money will be spent elsewhere. Shame on you for putting money above the suffering of ducks and geese.

I personally really enjoyed the event, especially hearing from Jeremy and other leaders in the Spokane sustainable food community. There were not any strident critics in the audience but there were some good questions from vegans about the justification for killing animals when other alternatives are available. I explained that I find those arguments a lot more compelling than I used to, although I am not yet convinced. I appreciated that the audience expressed a genuine desire to learn about food systems and the my fellow panelists responded with a gracious desire to inform and inspire people to learn more. I guess the big surprise was that the in-person event was such a pleasant dialogue compared to the rancor and bitterness of the online lobbing of accusatory grenades. The online ethical debate around food has taken on an almost religious character, with the puritans on one side and hedonists on the other.

This is one of the reasons I have been compelled to explore actual religious traditions around food. I have suspected that the religious-like debate around food systems might actually have something to learn from actual religious food practices. We've spent the last four months following kosher food laws and Orthodox fasting rules. We celebrated the end of the Orthodox Lenten fast last Saturday with the midnight Pascha service at Holy Trinity Orthodox church. 

I plan on writing extensively about what we have been learning but there is one aspect of the Pascha service that I found especially helpful for current debates around food. In the Orthodox church the fasting rules for Lent are very strict. On most days there is no meat, no dairy, no oil, no fish, no eggs, and no alcohol. On days where there is an evening celebration of the eucharist the strict rule is that you abstain from all food and drink until receiving the communion elements at the evening service. We followed these rules closely but there is a wide range of observance in the Orthodox church, with many loosely observing the rules and many not observing them at all. One of the ethical questions around these food rules in the Orthodox church is how to deal with the diversity of practice given an ethical ideal. This is the same question that faces locavores, slow-food advocates, vegan evangelists and the rest. 

At the Pascha service I learned how they deal with this diversity of practice as they prepare to gather around tables and celebrate the Paschal feast. Their approach is summed up in their reading of the famous sermon from St. John Crysostom which opens with these words:

If any be a devout lover of God,
  let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
  let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
  let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
  let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
  let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
  let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
  let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
  let him not be afraid because he comes so late.

For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
  in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.

When it comes to sharing in the abundant feast of lamb that follows the Paschal service they make no distinction between those who come first and those who come last, those who fasted strictly and those who didn't fast at all. (See Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard for the theological background to this.) My orthodox friends model this approach throughout Lent by not talking openly about their individual fasting practices so as to avoid pride and the divisions that it cultivates. In the midst of the most strict food rules I've ever encountered they somehow manage to offer grace instead of judgment. 

The fullness of the gospel expressed in the invitation to the table at the Paschal service can't be reduced to a simple lesson, but it does offer a provocative vision of what it looks like for a community to gather around food practices, which might be helpful for food activists filled with religious zeal for their cause:

Instead of identifying all the people (or chefs) that they'll never share a meal with, how about a grace-filled invitation to gather around the feast table, seeking community and relationships, knowing that these relationships are the foundation for more ethical practice.

Instead of exalting the puritans and hurling accusations at the unfaithful, how about an acknowledgement that we are all sinners caught up in a fallen food system. 

Instead of prideful proclamations of approved practices, how about a humble stance that lifts up ideals but avoids creating a culinary class system. 

I'm glad for the face-to-face gathering at Sante' last week. It felt like a generous invitation to gather around the table in the diversity of our practices to learn and grow together. I look forward to more such conversations.

Thoughts for a New Year - Make Time, Defy Expectations, Consider Limits

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I stumbled across a few articles this week that offer some helpful thoughts on the New Year.

Anne Lamott offers some good advice at Sunset Magazine where she implores us to find time for creative expression. Lamott is one of my writing inspirations. I just love her playfully profound "voice" in the written word. She sums up her writing advice, which is good advice for most things worth doing in life:

I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.

Lamott's book Bird by Bird was the inspiration for me to make more time for creative expression through writing which, in part, led to the adventure of writing a book. 

She says the key is to make time:

This is what I say: First of all, no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor. Otherwise, you are mostly going to learn more than you need to know about where the local fires are, and how rainy it has been: so rainy! That is half an hour, a few days a week, I tell my students. You could commit to writing one page a night, which, over a year, is most of a book.

If they have to get up early for work and can’t stay up late, I ask them if they are willing NOT to do one thing every day, that otherwise they were going to try and cram into their schedule.

Another interesting article is from a palliative care nurse reflecting on the most common regrets expressed by people who are at the end of their lives.

Number 1 on her list is that people said, "I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." She writes:

This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. 

It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.

The last article I'll reference is one I wrote a couple months back on Steve Jobs' advice to not settle for anything less than doing what you love. It serves as a counterbalance to the advice above that is wonderful, but can degenerate into narcissism and shallow selfishness. This post was one of the most read and most shared from this blog during the last year. I wrote at the time:

The passing of Steve Jobs last week combined with the amazing current success of Apple has created a firestorm or adoration and accolades that I have been as much a part of as anyone.

I was especially moved by Steve Jobs' often referenced 2005 commencement address at Stanford in which he lays out a vision for passionately pursuing what you love in life. He says:

You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

He concludes the address by saying:

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

After a week of adoring Steve Jobs and his advice to make the most of life, my attention today has turned to the Apple supply chain and the thousands of primarily Chinese low-income workers who have literally built the Apple empire. I'm struck this morning by the meaninglessness of Jobs' advice to the majority of the people who have worked to build Apple products all these years. If Jobs had delivered his Stanford commencement address to the morning work shift at one of Apple's factories in Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, or Czech Republic, how would they have responded? What kind of sense would it make in their lives to hear the admonition to not "settle." I have a hunch that the advice to "stay hungry" would confuse these workers who are all too familiar with a very different kind of hunger than the metaphorical variety Jobs was promoting....

I still appreciate the amazing design and efficiency of my apple products this morning, but I'm restless to find out more about their journey to my desk in Spokane, Washington. I'm reminded that I can't just enjoy this technology as an end-product, but there is a story that accompanies these items that is important to know about and that impacts the way I experience them. There are dozens of other hands that touched this computer in a far off place and that truth brings with it some accountability to those workers.

And I find this morning that I have a growing skepticism of Jobs' advice. None of us are superman or superwoman. We all "settle" in a thousand different ways in life. We all come up against limits -- even Steve Jobs, which he speaks to in his commencement address:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 

That's advice that stands up better to scrutiny. It might even resonate on the Foxconn factory floor. Life is fleshed out not so much in the often narcissistic pursuit of what we love, but more so in our grappling with human limits.

I had better stop here because my preacher's voice is about to kick in with a message about how we are all like grass, but the word of the Lord endures forever. I generally try to save my sermons for Sunday mornings. :)

Photo: Saw these birds along the Centennial Trail in Spokane. Finches?

John Muir - Paying Attention to Nature as a Spiritual Discipline

image from kpbs.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com John Muir's writing and approach to life have had a big influence on the way I see the world. Muir is the iconic naturalist who helped pioneer the concept of national parks, founded the Sierra Club, and shaped the early contours of America's appreciation for pristine wilderness areas.

I recently read his classic journal/book titled, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. The backstory is that the young Muir was injured while working in a wagon wheel factory, almost losing his vision. His eyesight returned and left him with a new resolve to live a life true to his passion for nature and plants. His thousand-mile walk from Indianapolis to the Gulf Coast of Florida in 1867 was his maiden voyage on this new alternative path. He didn't plot out his course other than to take "wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find." The book is a fascinating window into the wilds of post-Civil War America.

Muir encounters all kinds of interesting characters on his journey including roving Appalachian gangs, displaced slaves, and desperate robbers, but my favorite interactions are his encounters with the respectable and reasonable folk. His commitment to wander the woods taking plant samples and rejoicing in the glory of wild places is most confusing to the people who are oriented in the economy and industry of the day.

Here is Muir's description of one such encounter with a blacksmith in the woods of North Carolina who was willing to take him in for dinner and a provide a place to sleep for the night. When Muir explained his adventure the man was baffled:

Looking across the table at me, he said, “Young man, what are you doing down here?” I replied that I was looking at plants.“Plants? What kind of plants?” I said, “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns, — almost everything that grows is interesting to me.”    

“Well, young man,” he queried, “you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?” “No,” I said, “I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.” “You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls. “Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worth while for any strong-minded man."’

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms. He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country became quiet and orderly once more.

I replied that I had no fear, that I had but very little to lose, and that nobody was likely to think it worth while to rob me; that, anyhow, I always had good luck. In the morning he repeated the warning and entreated me to turn back, which never for a moment interfered with my resolution to pursue my glorious walk.

John Muir (2010-03-28). A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (American Classics) (pp. 10-11)

This conversation happened almost 150 years ago in a world without cars, airplanes, and limited electricity, but the assumptions and social pressures that underly it are just as relevant today. The blacksmith describes a world where "picking up blossoms" and dedicating yourself to what you find "interesting" doesn't have a place "in any kind of times." He can't imagine anyone paying attention to nature and plants unless they are working for the government or some private money-making venture. Besides all that, he considers it foolhardy to take the road less traveled where unknown dangers awaited. He even hints at an economy that needs all hands on deck to make it grow and thrive.

In response, Muir refers to Jesus' command to consider the lilies, a scripture passage that we drew on for inspiritation as we planned our Year of Plenty experiment. He makes the case for a life of paying attention to nature as a discipline, something worthwhile for its own sake. His brush with blindness had filled him with a passion to open his eyes, literally and figuratively, to the wonder of Creation at every possible turn.

The longer I am a pastor (and a person), the more I am aware of this need to nurture simple and subversive disciplines of paying attention in a world that says there is no room for considering such unproductive endeavors. I am reminded of Muir's words of advice to his friend Samuel Hall Young, a Presbyterian pastor who was preparing to serve at a mission outpost in the Kondike region of northern Canada during the Klondike gold rush days. Hall tells the story in his book, Alaska Days With John Muir:

"You are going on a strange journey this time, my friend," he admonished me. "I don't envy you. You'll have a hard time keeping your heart light and simple in the midst of this crowd of madmen. Instead of the music of the wind among the spruce-tops and the tinkling of the waterfalls, your ears will be filled with the oaths and groans of these poor, deluded, self-burdened men. Keep close to Nature's heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God's pure air. It will help you in your efforts to bring to these men something better than gold. Don't lose your freedom and your love of the Earth as God made it." Young, Samuel Hall, 1847-1927. Alaska days with John Muir (Kindle Locations 1667-1674). New York [etc.] Fleming H. Revell Company. 

For a previous post on the topic of paying attention go here. 

FYI - almost all of Muir's writings are available for free download as pdf or Kindle versions here.

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible - Paying Attention to the Land

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I'm reading Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis. In the book she argues that agrarian perspectives offer a helpful lens through which to understand the Bible, especially the Old Testament. She writes; "agrarianism is the way of thinking predominant among the biblical writers, who very often do not represent the interests of the powerful." (page 1)

I plan on writing several posts on the book but I wanted to highlight the theme that struck me from the first couple of chapters. In the foreword Wendell Berry lifts up the importance of local engagement in agrarian thought. He writes:

...this is one of the indispensable gifts of her book - she sees the similarity between this modern corporate colonialism and that of the ancient empires. She sees as well, and even more indispensably, the necessity and possibility of local resistance by means of local religion, local knowledge, and local language.

An agrarian reading of the Bible thus forces the de-specialization of one's thoughts about agriculture. With equal force it de-specializes one's thoughts about religion. It does this simply by seeing that the Bible is not a book only about "spirituality" or getting to Heaven, but is also a practical book about the good use of land and creatures as a religious practice, and about the abuse of land and creatures as a kind of blasphemy. (page x)

Davis picks up on this theme of local engagement and de-specialization in the opening chapter and argues that it's important for a Biblical scholar like herself venture beyond her specialty to explore agrarian perspectives that, it turns out, are helpful in understanding the Bible. It's a move away from de-contextualized specialization to locally-informed, locally adapted practices and thought.

The more I read Berry and understand agrarian perspectives, the more I see how a primary impulse of the movement is to re-integrate human thought and action that has been partitioned by the modern industrial project. For those of us who have been specialized away from land and agriculture we are invited to re-engage, to venture out as amateurs. Davis writes:

For me as a biblical scholar, engaging questions of contemporary social analysis means consciously working as an amateur, going outside my area of professional expertise for the sake of love. Augustine's famous interpretive principle of caritas may provide a theological warrant for such a move: reading the biblical text in a way that conduces to knowledge and love of God and neighbor is the touchstone for accurate interpretation.'

In our present intellectual environment, Wendell Berry advocates amateurism as a corrective to the tendency toward overspecialization and abstraction that afflicts all disciplines. He suggests widening the context of all intellectual work and of teaching - perhaps to the width of the local landscape....

To bring local landscapes within what Wes Jackson calls "the boundary of consideration," professional people of all sorts will have to feel the emotions and take the risks of amateurism. They will have to get out of their "fields," so to speak, and into the watershed, the ecosystem, and the community; and they will have to be actuated by affection. (pp. 3-4).

For Berry and other agrarians the starting place for this kind of integrative work is simply paying attention to one's "local landscape," and while I'm no farmer or soil scientist, I CAN open my eyes and pay attention to the land and agriculture that surrounds me. I can go to Steptoe Butte, like I did last night (see picture), and take some photos. And I can dwell on the abundance of our region and also wonder with concern about how this land came to be understood as "industrial." And I can reflect on the ways this land shapes my faith and practice, and how my faith compels me to advocate for its care.

Top Ten Posts of 2010 at Year of Plenty

According to Google Analytics these were the most popular blog posts on Year of Plenty in 2010.

1. Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy - What's So Controversial About That?

This post created quite a stir. It got picked up by the president of Dairy Management Corp. and was emailed to all of his contacts. The folks at Domino's Pizza linked it all over the internet. James McWilliams at the Atlantic Monthly credited Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder with being the first to grasp the way this story was being misreported, but I think I was the first one on the story. My first official big scoop.

2. World Comparison: Fresh vs. Processed Food Consumption

Google placed this high on their search criteria, so it has received a steady flow of clickers all year and also got picked up in some online communities.

3. How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

This was my follow up to the Newflash post about Dairy Management.

4. Roast House Coffee Newest Roaster on the Spokane Scene

This year I actually started doing some in-the-field reporting, visiting local businesses and writing up short narratives. Roast House was one of the first.

5. What Would You Do If You Had One Year to Live?

This was my first and only blog post to get "Dished," meaning Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish linked to it as one of his "Quotes of the Day". 

6. Wendell Berry: Gardening as Health Regimen and Holy Sacrament

This post got picked up a couple different places on the web.

7. American Farm Bureau President Declares War on "self-appointed and self promoting food experts" 

Unlike the post on Dairy Management where large ag interests were eager to see my blog as an asset, this post led to quite a push back from folks at the AFB and the conventional farming community. The AFB PR took issue with my characterization that the AFB president had declared war on consumers concerned with large ag. practices. 

8. Why You Shouldn't Rototill Your Garden

I did a whole series of gardening posts last Spring and this was the most popular of the bunch. Other popular gardening posts include; How to Turn Your Lawn Into a Vegetable Garden, Planning Your Garden Plot (Companion Planning, Rotation, and Location)How to Make Your Own Professional Seed Starting Soil Mix, Tips for Planting the Garden

9. How to Get Started Raising Chickens in Your Backyard: Choosing You Chickens

This was part of a series of posts on raising backyard chickens. The other posts included one on building and designing a chicken coop and another on convincing your spouse it's a good idea.

10. Year of Plenty | The Book

I'm told the book goes to print on January 15 and will be released on March 1, 2011.

Thanks for everyone who has contributed and commented on the blog in the last year. If you want to follow along in 2011 you can sign up for the RSS Feed here, you can follow the blog on Twitter here, or click the Like button below to follow on Facebook.

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Wendell Berry, Thanksgiving, and the Pleasures of Eating

Noel Garden

Some helpful words for a Thanksgiving feast from Wendell Berry:

People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know the garden is healthy will remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating....The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak....A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.

Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.

When we gather around the table tomorrow I'll take great pleasure in the thought of our turkey frolicking at Rocky Ridge Ranch and in the mystery of our multi-hued potatoes that were miraculously birthed from the soil in our backyard.

(Note: One of the hopes for my upcoming book is that it will introduce the writing and thought of Wendell Berry to a new audience. If there were a sub-subtitle for the book it would be, "What Happens When Wendell Berry Meets the Suburbs")

From Black Friday to Buy Nothing Day - Subverting the Consumer Culture

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Friday, November 26 will be celebrated by most as a way to get the Christmas shopping season kicked-off. A lesser known way to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving is to pay homage to Buy Nothing Day. It's not that complicated. It just means buying nothing as a way to say "No" to our crazy consumer culture. There is a Christian movement that has some affinity with BND called the Advent Consipiracy where the invitation is to give "presence" instead of presents.

It was almost three years ago at the end of 2007 that we devised our own little conspiracy to subvert the status quo and explore more life-giving patterns of consumption. That plan turned into a year of consuming everything local, used, homegrown, or homemade. At the time we felt so stuck that it was hard to see that there are different ways of going at these rhythms of life. But after only a couple of months we realized that what we had thought was our fated destiny was actually a choice, and that our consumer ways need not be inevitable. At the time I said:

One lesson we're learning is that our previous patterns of consumption seemed so unchangeable. It was just the way the world was. Everybody did it that way. It was hard to imagine that there were other ways of doing things. We're learning as a family that all habits, patterns, and practices of consumption are changeable. It might take 5 months to feel comfortable with them, but nothing need be inevitable or set in stone.

Here's and excerpt from one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems to give inspiration for your own experiments and ways of living that don't compute with the status quo.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Libertation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns....

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Future Shame: Future Generations Will Condemn Industrial Meat and Abuse of Environment

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, wrote a provocative Washington Post op-ed over the weekend titled, What Will Future Generations Condemn Us For? that has reverbererated around the internet. In the article he speculates that there are always things current generations are engaged in that future generations will condemn without reservation. He speculates on what current pracices will be the shame of future generations and I was intrigued to see that two of his four prospects are hot topics on this blog; the industrial system of meat production and the wreckless abuse of the environment.

Regarding industrial meat he says;

People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.

Of the more than 90 million cattle in our country, at least 10 million at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture.

Regarding the environment he says;

It's not as though we're unaware of what we're doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions -- the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won't be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.

How Long Does it Take to Change Consumer Habits?

Calendar_2I'm slammed this week with deadlines so I have little time to post. I've been looking over some of the old posts during the year of our consumption experiment and this one from five months in grabbed my attention. The original post with comments is available here.

This week as we sat down to dinner; me comfortably snug in my Value Village Shoes and sweaty from the bike ride home from work, Nancy fashionably dressed in her second hand dress, the girls fresh from a joyful jaunt in the garden maze, all of us eager to dig into some local asparagus, field greens, homemade bread, home churned butter, and meatloaf made from deer meat provided by a hunting friend. About half way through the meal, it dawned on me that I hadn't given any of these things a second thought. All of these practices were normal. We've gone from wondering if it was even possible to follow these rules, to having them be a new, no big deal, normal (at least for one night).

I've read different things about how long it takes to change habits. Anywhere from 21 days to three months. Our experience around consumption is that it takes one day to change habits but it takes almost five months for these new patterns to feel somewhat normal. I guess it also depends on the nature of the changes we seek and how ingrained they are.

We've also learned that it doesn't take a long time of preparation to make the changes. We formulated our rules for consumption on December 27, implemented them on January 1, and have been on a steep but fun learning curve ever since. We allowed ourselves a lot of freedom to fail, and were very open to the possibility that we wouldn't make it. I guess we're still open to that possibility, but with the summer veggies on the way, it feels like we've got some good wind in our sails at this point.

One lesson we're learning is that our previous patterns of consumption seemed so unchangeable. It was just the way the world was. Everybody did it that way. It was hard to imagine that there were other ways of doing things. We're learning as a family that all habits, patterns, and practices of consumption are changeable. It might take 5 months to feel comfortable with them, but nothing need be inevitable or set in stone.

God in the Garden

 Pumpkin patch

Picture: Dan Hansen helps put in irrigation at the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden.

Here's a promo for the NPR "God in the Garden" radio program that I was interviewed for a couple weeks ago. It will play on Boise NPR tomorrow 91.5 and then probably trickle out to other northwest NPR affiliates. If you're interested I suppose you can email your local NPR affiliate and request that they broadcast it.

GodinGardenPromo(2)

I am discovering in my work with the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden that "Community" is the word of emphasis. It feels less like an experiment in cultivating plants than it does an experiment in forming a community of friends and neighbors. We show up as strangers and after a couple hours of putting together irrigation equipment we leave as friends.

The Pumpkin Patch isn't a "church garden" or a "faith-based garden" like some of those described in the radio program. It's a community garden with a church as partner, working alongside others toward a renewed future for our neighborhood.

That being said I do see these things through my lens of faith. Here's a quote from Wendell Berry's essay, "Health is Membership," that echoes some of my thoughts about the "community" in "community gardens."

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.

I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist Sr Albert Howard who said, in The Soil and Health, that 'the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man [is] one great subject.'

...I believe that the community - in the fullest sense; a place and all its creatures - is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.

Community gardens are about seeds and soil and harvest, but they are also about wholeness and health and yes, even love. They take us isolated individuals and place us in a more proper context of cooperation and sharing. I look forward to seeing how things develop through the summer. (I'm learning that these gardens also reflect some of the unhealth of our community. We're not even up and running yet but the vandals and hooligans have already made their presence known.)

I'll post a link to the whole show once it's posted and post some updates on the progress of the garden throughout the summer.

Invest In New Experiences Not New Gadgets For Happiness Says Cornell Study

A study by psychologists at Cornell offers great wisdom for those of us caught up in hopes of the new and next "thing" to buy. Stephen Messenger at Treehugger describes the study;

It turns out, in this age of consumerism and gadgetry, that all this stuff we buy isn't really making us any happier--in fact, it's kind of bumming us out. According to the latest research, the key to finding happiness is something far more accessible than what product advertisements would like you to believe--simply enough, it's in having new experiences. Whether it be in traveling to new places, taking a hike with some friends, or even participating in some green activism, investing in experiences delivers more bang for your buck than consumer products--which is good news considering that so much of the stuff we buy ends up as waste...

According to the study, experiences are so effective at making us happybecause we truly 'own' them in that they become integrated into our characters and help shape our personalities. Material goods, on the other hand, can really only be 'possessed' and rarely become a part of us in any meaningful way. Also, things we buy are subject to material degradation and devaluation, not to mention a gradual lessening in our appreciation for them. In contrast, experiences are transformed into memories, and even bad ones can be appreciated later on down the line.

Our experience going to Thailand two years ago comes to mind as a great example of this in our lives So instead of lusting after the IPad, start planning the next adventure.

Wendell Berry: Nothing Could Be More Absurd - Despise the Body and Yearn For Its Resurrection

It's a busy week of preparations for me with Good Friday and Easter services. It's the season in the church where we turn our attention to the resurrection of Jesus. These comments from Wendell Berry resonate with me as I reflect on the significance of this season and they also intersect with my journey on this blog. 

At some point we began to assume that the life of the body would be the business of grocers and medical doctors, who need take no interest in the spirit, whereas the life of the spirit would be the business of the churches, which would have at best only a negative interest in the body. In the same way we began to see nothing wrong with putting the body - most often somebody else's body, but frequently our own - to a task that insulted the mind and demeaned the spirit...

Divided against each other, body and soul drive each other to extremes of misapprehension and folly. Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurrection. In reaction to this supposedly religious attitude, we get, not reverance or respect for the body, but another kind of contempt: the desire to comfort and indulge the body with equal disregard for its health. The "dialogue of body and soul" in our time is being carried on between those who despise the body for the sake of its resurrection and those, diseased by bodily extravagance and lack of exercise, who nevertheless desire longevity above all things. These think that they oppose each other, and yet they could not exist apart. They are locked in a conflict that is really their collaboration in the destruction of soul and body both.

Become a Writer 750 Words at a Time With New Online App

Yellowflowerweb 

Picture: Fritillaria pudica (yellow bell, yellow fritillary) taken two weeks ago in Spokane Valley.

I'm in a season of doing some long form writing, working on a writing project with a publisher. I've been drawn to the idea of being a writer since I was young but translating that into the reality of actual disciplined writing has been a challenge through the years. The blog does help provide a kind of discipline. Part of my life routine is to get at least one post up every day. The best thing about the blog is that when I hit "Publish" it's out there, which tends to really focus my attention (typos etc. not withstanding). But there is another kind of writing that takes a longer view, with time for revisiting and editing and boiling down.

There is a new online App called 750 Words that has the simple premise of providing a venue to get in 750 words of writing every day. Here's how it's described on the site.

I've long been inspired by an idea I first learned about in The Artist's Waycalled morning pages. Morning pages are three pages of writing done every day, typically encouraged to be in "long hand", typically done in the morning, that can be about anything and everything that comes into your head. It's about getting it all out of your head, and is not supposed to be edited or censored in any way. The idea is that if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day, that it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day. Unlike many of the other exercises in that book, I found that this one actually worked and was really really useful.

I've used the exercise as a great way to think out loud without having to worry about half-formed ideas, random tangents, private stuff, and all the other things in our heads that we often filter out before ever voicing them or writing about them. It's a daily brain dump. Over time, I've found that it's also very helpful as a tool to get thoughts going that have become stuck, or to help get to the bottom of a rotten mood.

750 Words is the online, future-ified, fun-ified translation of this exercise.

Your writing on the site is private to you, so it's not a blog. It's more personal, intended for personal nurture and development. The site will track how many words you've written and has a point system for your progress. I'm not using the site but I am running with the concept of 750 words or three pages a day.

The other best advice in writing that I've heard, and something that I will keep dear to my heart as I tackle my three pages a day, is Anne Lamott's motto; "sh%$#ty first drafts."

Wendell Berry: A Cows Contentment Flavors the Steak

Cows2web
Berry's comments from the Art of the Commonplace, are helpful in describing the benefits of growing your own vegetables and knowing the origins of the meat we eat.

The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and known that the garden is healthy will remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating. The knowledge of good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater.

The same goes for eating meat. The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak. Some, I know, will think this bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life. On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude. A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.

I hear people getting into debates about whether organic vegetables are, from the perspective of chemistry, more nutritious. Others debate the financial advantage of growing your own vegetables. Some take a pragmatic view of the politics and say things like, "the corporate agriculture industry would like nothing better than to see us spend all of our free time in our gardens and not in political dissent." And of course we love to debate the mathematics of carbon footprints.

While these perspectives are all important and need to be debated and discussed, none are quite as compelling to me as the one Berry makes in the quote above. Instead of breaking things down to their component parts, which is what our scientific approaches do, Berry is putting the food we eat in context, using words like beauty, memory and contentment. He says that simply knowing the source and conditions of the land and animals that provide our food makes the food taste better (and I would add, in many cases worse.) I can't prove it with a scientific study but I know it to be true from my experience.

What Would You Do If You Had One Year to Live? - A Sunday Reflection

Pastelsweb
I have the morning off from my usual worship leading responsibilities. I'm grateful for the breather. I presided yesterday over a beautiful but draining memorial service for a 45 year old member of the church I pastor. It's put me in a bit of a reflective mood and in honor of her I want to offer some thoughts.

I do around 20 memorial services a year. I've done as many as three in one week. In 12 years of being a pastor I have grown accustomed to the awkward rhythms of walking through the days and weeks that follow someone's death. I've learned that when you die no one is going to talk about how successful you were or how much money you made. They will talk about your passions, and the volume of your laugh and the things thatbrought you joy. They will mostly talk about the generosity of your love, or struggle with the lack thereof. They will rejoice in the miracle of reconciled relationships and/or carry a wound of unresolved resentments. 

This most recent memorial service stands out as unique in my experience. My friend was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor only to have the cancer inexplicably disappear. For almost a year she lived in the grace moment of a miracle and she lived it so well. She served and loved and seized life in the most wonderful ways. Her gift to me is the way she has got me thinking about how I would live my life if I only had one year to live. What would I do if I was given the miracle of another year? And I guess that's the way it is, isn't it. We've all been given the miracle of another year, probably more but then again, maybe not. We all live in that grace moment of a miracle every day, more often than not, unaware.

This is not altogether unrelated to our Year of Plenty experience. Part of the gift of our year of constraints is the way it led us to live with more passion and awareness of the miracle of everyday. Theologians call these constraints "askesis" from which we get the work asceticism. While this word has mostly negative connotations in our contemporary life it's a word worth recovering and redeeming. I like the way Eugene Peterson describes it in his book "Under the Unpredictable Plant."

“We are familiar with the frequently beneficial consequences of involuntary askesis. How many times have we heard as we have visited a parishioner in the days following a heart attack, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me – I’ll never be the same again. It woke me up to the reality of my life, to God, to what is important.” Suddenly instead of mindlessly and compulsively pursuing an abstraction – success, or money, or happiness – the person is reduced to what is actually there, to the immediately personal – family, geography, body – and begins to live freshly in love and appreciation. The change is a direct consequence of a forced realization of human limits. Pulled out of the fantasy of a god condition and confined to the reality of the human condition, the person is surprised to be living not a diminished life but a deepened life, not a crippled life but a zestful life.”

These comments about unintentional askesis remind me of Andrew Sullivan’s interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates wherein he shares about how HIV has changed his life. He said of contracting the disease.

My own sense is that it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened to me in my life…It certainly helped me realize that careerism is idiotic. I had worked really hard and gotten to this place and then “Boom!” In one day I was told, ‘You’re going to die, you can’t stay in America and you’ll probably have to quit your job…’

Andrew then said with a little glisten of a tear in his eye and a wistful voice;

At that point you either go into denial and carry on as if it isn’t happening, or you absorb it and have a life changing moment. I mean who cares, I could be dead…And then also the knowledge that God can strip you of everything, and what do you have left -- it’s a very useful moment in one’s life to realize, what do I have if this is all taken away? What’s left? What am I really living for? What are my values?...It strips away a lot of stuff – if you let it. It’s a place I came to die that taught me in a strange kind of way how to live. And I think that means letting go of a lot of stuff most of us are afraid to let go of.”

Peterson goes from talking about this unintentional askesis to talk about intentional askesis. He says,

Askesis is voluntary disaster…Why wait? Why wait for an accident, an illness, a failure? Why not take deliberate steps now to rid myself of the illusions of being a god, study the limits of my mortality, and sink myself into the quite marvelous but sin-obscured realities of creation and salvation?

In many ways our Year of Plenty was a voluntary disaster. It was a year of wonderful constraints. "Why not?" is a question we grew very familiar with and it's a question my friend has reminded me to keep front and center. Why wait? Why not? What would you do if you had the miracle of another year to live? These are the questions I'm reflecting on today.

While I didn't get a chance to preach in the pulpit this morning I sort of stumbled into giving a sermon here on the blog. Oh well.

Grace and peace to you in the midst of these questions.

Why it's hard for Americans to seek the common good

We've learned on our journey that issues of food and consumption are caught up in webs of meaning and relationships. We've recognized in ourselves and others a desire for more connection in community and more intentional shared commitments, but we've also recognized the powerful forces at work thwarting our ability to connect and share commitments. There's a new study out that explains part of what we are dealing with as North Americans.

The study compares the way Japanese and Americans perceive the emotions of others in a set of pictures, and tracks the eye motions of each.

Face

When asked to interpret the emotion of the personin the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.

Dr. Masuda is quick to point out that Americans and Japanese are physiologically the same. The difference in eye movement is tied to the roots of our respective cultures. When trying to explain the natural world, the Ancient Greeks – the founders of Western civilization – tended to focus on central objects and sought to explain their rules of behavior. Funnily enough, Aristotle thought a rock had the property of “gravity.” It didn’t occur to him that a system was working its powers on the rock. The Chinese on the other hand took a more holistic approach. They believed that everything occurred within a context, or a field of forces, and thus they unraveled the relationship between the moon and the tides.

I think having an awareness of these issues is important for us to sort through as we seek the common good of our communities. We have great strengths to draw on in our western ways of seeing things but with that also come some challenges.

I was talking to a friend last week who spoke with great respect about the Hutterites who live a very different kind of life among us. They live in North America but their commitment to community is the priority. My friend and I agreed that we'd probably never go as far as the Hutterites but it's worth experimenting with shared commitments. It looks like we're going to go in with a bunch of folks to raise some pigs this summer as one of those experiments.

Millwood Farmers' Market and Year of Plenty in the New York Times Today

The Millwood Farmers' Market and the church I pastor are included in a New York Times article today, Pastors in the Northwest Find Focus in 'Green.' My favorite part of the article is that it starts, "MILLWOOD, Wash. - " It's great to see the little city of Millwood in the national press. The blog get's a minor mention.

The article is about a variety of mainline churches that are engaging environmental issues. The implicit subtext of the article is shaped around the question of whether or not this interest in caring for creation leads to, or could potentially lead to, growth in mainline churches that have declined so rapidly in the last 50 years.

For my recent reflections on how I see the intersections of faith, church and issues of the environment go here. Here's the short version from that post.

And so my work with local food, our year longexperiment, tearing out the lawn, raising chickens, etc. is, at least in part, an experiment in re-weaving faith and soil, food and spirit, earthy reality and divine truth, backyard and baptismal font.

It also relates to my experience as a pastor. I'm thinking of a friend who no longer attends church because she says she experiences God in nature. I'm thinking of the growing crowds of people who say they are spiritual but not religious. I see this as more a rejection of the false divide of the "holy and the world" than it is a rejection of God. And in some ways the church has itself to blame for this exodus. The church signed a long-term endorsement deal with modernity that looked like the deal of the century for awhile but has taken a tragic turn where people feel like they have to choose between nature and sanctuary, spirituality and a community of faith. As a pastor I am experimenting with what it looks like to lead a church that rejects this false divide and witnesses to a holistic faith. So I do the normal stuff like preach and visit the hospital and write newsletter articles, but I also manage a farmers' market and help distribute food with Second Harvest and work to establish community gardens in West Valley, and write a blog about local food.

And let me be as clear as I can, my interest in food and consumption is not some bait and switch effort to slip Jesus into people's lives, as if local food were some carrot on a stick to lead people along into the holy. The whole point is that I am learning to pay attention to real carrots, preferably local and organic, and see them as in some way holy. If I am seeking to convert people here it is a conversion to a whole life where truth and holiness are wedded to earthiness. At least that's the ongoing conversion I'm seeking in my own life.