Call me Tent Peg.

I wander this wilderness with a guy named Ron. Ron’s job is to carry me, hammer me, bury me. Repeat.

Decades ago, a fella named Moz snatched me out of a box of freshly crafted brass buddies, and said, “Ron, I’ve got an important job for you. I want you to carry this tent peg. Can you handle that?”

“Well, sure, I guess,” said Ron.

“Don’t lose it,” Moz emphasized sternly.

“Yeah, of course, I got this,” replied Ron as Moz turned to hand a stunning, glorious lampstand to his cousin, Hiram. A lampstand hammered from a single piece of solid gold and meticulously crafted with six branches, three each extending on each side. Each branch bore a flower-like shape with buds and blossoms.

My journey started off okay. Ron would hammer me into the sand at just the right angle to attach a rope that kept one of many curtains suspended taut. The next day, he’d pry me up and we’d traverse a day’s journey, always led by a strange cloudy pillar, until Ron hammered me in again, up to my neck, maybe in soil, more often in sand.

I can’t understand why he places me in the same spot, third peg up from the Southeast corner.

“Hey Ron, a little variety around here maybe?”

Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months, and months slid into years. Constantly, third peg up from the Southeast corner.

The shine I once bore began to fade. Reality struck me like a strike from Ron’s hammer. I realized the cloudy pillar was leading us in circles!

I’d heard rumors we were going somewhere. Somewhere better. A sort of destiny. The stark reality was taking its toll not only on me, but I could feel its impact on Ron.

Our routine, once buoyant with hope and adventure, decayed into a million mundane moments.

Kindred questions, more like accusations or gripes, took shape in both Ron and me. Why can’t I be a stunning, valuable, honored golden lampstand attended daily with beautiful rhythms of care and attention involving oil, wicks and fire?  Why not an ark holding cherished treasure? Or, why not a Seraphim guarding access to something special in those deep, secret places?

I heard Ron grumble, “Why can’t I be Hiram, carrying the precious lampstand, covered in handspun cloth from camp to camp? Or, why can’t I be a priest? A soldier?”

Ron’s hammerings, day after day, became more severe, more careless. I was slowly, methodically, changing in form; bent shaft, head misshapen.

Then one day, one glorious day, a day of epiphany!

Ron found our spot. Third peg up from the Southeast corner. As he plucked me from his leather satchel and gripped his hammer for the strike, a mysterious shadow enveloped us until we were blinded. All sense of time melted. We beheld things we couldn’t understand or put words to.

A small portion of the cloudy pillar had wafted over us, surrounded us, held us.

I don’t know if we were enveloped by this cloud for seconds or eons, but it was long enough for both Ron and me to remember something.

The piercing heat of the desert sun returned. The outstretched arm of the cloudy pillar retreated.

The routine resumed. The stooping, the hammering, the hooking of the curtain rope all transpired as usual.

But, for a brief moment, before the daily task was complete, Ron gazed at me, and I reflected a tiny glisten back to him.

Take a Deep Breath of Remember:

“Well Mr. Tent Peg,” Ron whispered, “We’ve got a calling. A glorious calling. Today we will hammer down a little piece of heaven on earth.”

Fruitless, Yet Flourishing

I’ve been staring at the tree outside my frosted window; stark, desolate, fruitless. Barren, except for one shriveled, orange-brown leaf that clings stubbornly to the tip of a fractured twig lifted heavenward. No, wait. Today, even that final remnant has loosened its grip during last night’s temperature plunge.

Why do I sense I’m gazing at a self-portrait?

Why can’t I shake this palpable feeling of vulnerability, nakedness, insecurity, loneliness?

Memories of past seasons of verdant, leafy, fruit-laden limbs offering food and shade to passersby give me no succor.

I closed my eyes. And then, with those other eyes we all have, I saw.

I saw Winter’s tree-sap flowing in the deep, hidden places; nutrient-laden waters streaming into and inhabiting every cell of root, trunk, limb and leafless branch. Every fiber brimming with a mysterious source of sustaining life. Every branch-tip lifted upward, pointing skyward, revealing to me a pattern of humble dependency. Unpretentious confidence and hope and knowing that this isn’t the final story.

I looked again and I saw an elderly, frail, bent, white-haired man tipping back his head to draw in a thimble-full of wine. The richest of fare. Surely this gentleman has a story of past accomplishments, but today he silently parsed for me the difference between season-dependent fruitfulness and never-ceasing flourishing.

God and man, at table, are sat down.[1]

Take a Deep Breath of Remember:

Return, Israel, to the Lord your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
“Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
 “I will heal their waywardness
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them.

I will be like the dew to Israel;
he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
he will send down his roots;

his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.

 People will dwell again in his shade;
they will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine—
Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon.

 Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a flourishing juniper;
your fruitfulness comes from me.”

Hosea 14: 1-2, 4-8 (NIV)

[1] From the Hymn, God and Man at Table are Sat Down, Dr. Robert J. Stamps, 1972.

Photo Credit: Ron Silflow

Silent Witness

I’m guessing he was about four years old. He held treasure in a clutched fist held out over the collection plate. He didn’t let go. His father, holding the youngster on his lap, was in no hurry. I, however, held my breath to see if his fingers would unfurl.

Inside those few moments of drama these thoughts raced through my heart. What was clasped in that dimple-knuckled hand? Where did he get whatever riches he possessed? Was it a gift from his dad? Did he earn it by doing chores? Was he reluctant to give it away? Was he simply basking in the sacred, timeless space of something we call worship?

Then came another flash of questions that pierced my heart and reddened my cheeks. What treasure had I brought? What gifts had I received? Did I earn it? Did I deserve it? Would I give it away, give it back? Well, I’m pondering these questions because, actually, I’d brought nothing. I casually took the empty plate and passed it along, still empty.

In slow motion the boy’s fingers opened. Out tumbled a single copper metal coin catching the reflection of the altar’s candlelight as it fell.

Clink!

With one hand his father passed along the plate, while, with the other, he rustled his son’s sandy-blonde hair. The child’s smile mirrored that of his dad. The child’s smile mirrored that of his Father.

Take a Deep Breath of Remember.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4 (NIV).

Photo Credit: Ron Silflow

In a Mood to be Woo’d?

“We should be woo’d and were not made to woo.” 

That’s a line by Helena in William Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II, i, 242).

Helena has been cast into the role of pursuer, with Demetrius as the object of her desire, a reversal of roles which she finds scandalous.

Reading this confronted me with the reality of how I, in my impatience, fail to wait as a bride for my bridegroom. I run headlong into the woods pursuing lesser-loves bent on my demise. Scandalous!

Christ is a love-struck bridegroom. Out to pursue us. Out to woo us, to make us his own.

Why then do we cast ourselves into the unnatural role of pursuer of our own loves? Those “other gods,” those “idols” that promise fulfillment, but leave us ravished.

Deep idols like power, approval, comfort, control that we seek to fulfill through surface idols like money, spouse, children, or sex.

Ever felt ravished by chasing other lovers, torn to pieces like wild beasts? Can you tell the difference between being “lured” and being “wooed?”

I find waiting for Christ’s promised return gut-wrenching and faith-bending. The preparation holds refining and suffering. Long, long-suffering.

So, am I in a mood to be woo’d? Will I wait for what I expect? Will I keep looking for signs that my supreme lover is indeed wooing and pursuing?

Today, I stumbled on a poem I penned 8 years ago. I hope it stirs up courage and patience and alertness in you, like it did afresh for me:

Bridegroom!  Call My Name.

I watch the veil of your glory

Lift and fall over mountain ranges.

Such beauty reveals, yet hides your strength.

Your winds whisper your astonishment at my beauty.

Beauty formed by your handiwork in my deepest places.

Places where you’ve fashioned trust with your words:

“I will never leave you or forsake you.”

To which I respond:

“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”

O when will you return?

Don’t hold back any longer.

Fountain of purity and longing

Spring up in me.

In your trust, I will wait.

Your trust and my hope wrap around each other.

They twist and entwine with each other.

Flocks of geese gather today’s grain

From Autumns’ stubble.

Sentinels posted on corners keep watch.

So I keep watch.

Immersed in daily business I watch.

Watch to guard my heart.

Watch to catch first glimpse of your garments.

How long O Lord, must I wait to see

Your arms stretched toward me?

In darkness, I hear rain softly drip

Downward from leaf to leaf.

Could that be your footsteps?

My longings stretch forth to grasp

The words you’ve left me with.

And I wait.

But I don’t want your words.

I want you.

Bridegroom!  Call my name.

I will appear before you.

Let tears of anticipation and joy

Well up and burst from your eyes

As you behold the bride you’ve made.

Made to take your breath away with a gaze.

My longings for you come between me

And all the feasts of the earth.

How much longer until I hear:

“Arise, come with me my darling,

My beautiful one, come with me.”

~Ron Silflow~

 

Good Shepherd, MAKE me Lie Down. “I’m an Atta-Boy Addict.”

Only the presence of the Good Shepherd can meet the Four Requirements to MAKE a Sheep Lie Down. Here’s number two:

Because of their social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.

Listen to Timothy Keller:

“When idolatry is mapped onto the future – when our idols are threatened – it leads to paralyzing fear and anxiety. When it is mapped onto the past – when we fail our idols – it leads to irremediable guilt. When idolatry is mapped onto the present life – when our idols are blocked or removed by circumstances – it roils us with anger and despair.”[1]

I’m an atta-boy addict. I demand it from those close to me, early and often. Withhold it and a button gets pushed. “Do you like the faithful service and support I provide around here? Haven’t heard a thank-you lately. Did you not notice?” Now, add in the slightest hint of suggestion or correction, and you just pressed the red nuke button. I escalate into full blown entitled demands. “Why are you so good at catching me do it wrong? A little thanks would go a long way. How about some encouragement? Am I on the inside of this team? I sure feel like the bumbling idiot. Oh, I am so inadequate.”

A cow swats me with a well-aimed tail, knocking my glasses off. I can’t find them. I can’t see. I want to punch something. An unexpected, skillful hind leg kick somehow crushes my forearm between bone and steel. I do punch something. Out fly previously suppressed profanities. Dross arising!

Sometimes, by God’s grace, I hear myself articulating my idea of the good life that’s been denied; partly directed toward those close to me, partly at God. It’s an awareness, a subtle inward shift in my soul. Hot anger shifts to piercing conviction. I feel my need for remedy more than my demand for approval. I own the dross and confess my sin.

Prayer: Father, I want applause, approval, and praise from others. But that enslaves me. At night I toss in bed at snubs, at being ignored. Criticism feels like death. Help me live out of the joy and stability of knowing that I am your child and heir and that in Christ you delight in me. Amen.[2]

Photo Credit: Bighorn Sheep, Cunningham Outdoors, LLC

[1] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, pg. 149.

[2] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus, pg. 227.

Good Shepherd, MAKE me Lie Down. I’m Afraid.

“In the course of time I came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field.” (Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23)

Only the presence of a Good Shepherd can meet the Four Requirements to MAKE a Sheep Lie Down. Here’s number one:

Owing to their timidity, sheep refuse to lie down unless they are free from all fear.

Phillip Keller shares stories of stampeding sheep fearing legitimate threats such as cougars, bears, stray dogs and coyotes. But, in other instances, all it took was a jackrabbit suddenly bounding from behind a bush, or a Pekingese dog jumping out from a car door to cause a whole herd to bolt in blind fear.

On the dairy, I have my own stories of nighttime encounters with cougars and bears passing nearby that send a herd of resting, ruminating cows into full stampede into the cowshed. I find it fascinating that my co-worker, Bill, can “smell” a bear. I can’t discern the threat so specifically, though my lantern sometimes catches the flash of eyes in the dark. Bill’s always right. The next morning, tracks or scat confirm his olfactory bear sniffing skills. Equally upsetting to cows is the arrival of the professional hoof-trimmer setting up his equipment to perform bovine pedicures.

It’s no surprise you and I have fears too. Both legitimate fears and silly anxieties that prevent us from lying down, prevent us from finding rest. Life brings uncertainties. Life delivers realities of harsh, painful circumstances, replete with suffering and loss. We formulate strategies of bolting or tactics of retreat.

Let’s take A Deep Breath of Remember as we hear Phillip Keller:

“Then, in the midst of our misfortunes, there suddenly comes the awareness that He, the Christ, the Good Shepherd is there. It makes all the difference.”

Or how about these words from the shepherd lad, David, protector of the flock, killer of both lion and bear:

Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. (Psalm 62:5, NIV)

He makes me lie down… (Psalm 23:2, NIV)

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8, NIV)

Prayer: Thank you Holy Spirit as you come quietly to reassure us that Christ Himself, our Good Shepherd is aware of our dilemma and deeply involved with us. Amen.

Photo Credit: Lambs at Rest, courtesy of the National Trust – East of England.

Four Requirements to MAKE a Sheep Lie Down

I tend cattle. Therefore, I have a mandate from God to care for His creation and see to it they flourish. I fancy the word cowherd as my job description because it connects me to the rich heritage of scriptural metaphor for shepherd. Sure, there are subtle differences between sheep and cow behavior. But, the similarities abound. I think they’re worth shouting about.

On the Barnyard of Heaven, I get a close-up, personal perspective on the relationship between a cow and a cowherd, hence a sheep and a shepherd. I hope my stories help you connect the dots and lead you to ah-ha moments in your relationship to our Good Shepherd.

Psalm 23:2 says, “He MAKES me lie down in green pastures.”

This ain’t easy. Phillip Keller highlights this in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23:

“The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:

  1. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear.
  2. Because of their social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.
  3. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.
  4. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.

The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the sheepman himself who can provide release from these anxieties…It is actually he who makes it possible for them to lie down, to rest, to relax, to be content and quiet and flourishing.

A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well.”

“And the same is true of people.”

This framework sets me up to explore how my Good Shepherd pours Himself into the task of providing for me, to end that I can lack nothing. His mandate is to cause you and me to flourish. To MAKE us lie down.

It cost him his life.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember: I invite you to join me on a discovery tour into the four requirements needed to MAKE a sheep lie down. Check back for future blogs on this series.

Prayer: O Good Shepherd of our souls, put us at ease as nothing or no one else can do. Amen.

Photo Credit: Herdsman with Cows, in the Distance, a Village, Johann Friedrich Voltz, 19th century

 

Feeling Frazzled? Frenzied? Stick This in the Back Pocket of Your Wrangler’s.

My grandpa was too old, and I was too young

To buck hay bales in the hot July sun,

So we sat by the truck in a puddle of shade,

And he taught me to weave the balin’ twine braid.

Welcome to my front porch. Campfire coffee’s perking over coals. Prop your feet up and join me gazing at the two hawks soaring in a cloudless, powder blue sky, circling in sync over the freshly planted Spring barley field. They’re in no particular hurry. Neither are we. If Eugene Peterson was with us, he’d say:

“Rescue us from a life in which the wonder has leaked out.”

We both take a Deep Breath of Remember, then swap stories ‘bout things that help us grow in our relationship with the Triune God we both love and serve. Here’s mine:

The balin’ twine braid is simple. You take three strands of baling twine, tie a knot in one end and start weaving the strands by crossing the outside one over the middle one, first left over middle, then right over middle, repeat.

Girls grasp this early as they braid their hair for beauty and practicality. For me, growing up without sisters, it took some training. But by age 12, with this simple routine passed down by my Grandpa Fred, I was creating lassoes, climbing ropes, bridles and halters for my horse, and a myriad of other cool farm-boy stuff.

It’s my go-to activity for remembering. Remembering is the crux of my faith. Ever notice how prominent remembering is on the pages of scripture? David rehearses the wonders and acts of God on behalf of His people repeatedly. So does Jesus. How marvelous it is that God remembers His covenant with us and acts accordingly to save, protect, and lead us through the trials and joys of life as He ushers in His kingdom!

There’s something intimate about remembering. Remembering slows us down. Weaving the balin’ twine braid creates a rhythm that breaks through the seductive pull of frenetic, heart-numbing activity.

We both take a few minutes to braid a foot-long strand of rope and tuck it in our back pocket.

Later, we pull out the intertwined rope, fondly notice wrap by wrap, and practice the healing rhythm called remember. Remember where we really need to go for affirmation. We see our Father wrapping Himself around us, calling us His own, telling us He loves us. We see Jesus wrapping Himself around us, smiling, pouring grace into our wounds like balm. We notice the Holy Spirit delighting in us, talking with us, listening to us, understanding us, and never leaving.

There’s another place to encounter this beautiful rhythm. At the end of each church service, our pastor sends us out with a benediction. We, the congregation, extend our hands to receive a blessing from God. It’s the final movement of God’s liturgy. God Commissions Us.

The benediction varies, but here’s an example:

“May the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.”

A good thing to tuck into your back pocket. Maybe your purse. Or, better yet, your heart.

Photo by Ron Silflow
Here’s another perspective on the Balin’ Twine Braid.

 

She’s In Deep Muck. I Call Her Buttercup.

A shudder jolted through my chest. My pupils shrank. Heartbeat raced. “What was that?!”

A black mass surged up through the crusty layer of the pond-sized manure lagoon, then disappeared. I stared in disbelief. I waited. Nothing.

The manure lagoon is the collection reservoir for a year’s worth of barn cleaning. An old tractor tire fashioned into a plow and mounted on a skid-steer enables me to push manure, daily, from the alleyways of the elevated cow-shed to the lagoon 100-feet below.

Muck, manure is a valuable, recyclable commodity for a dairy farm. In the Fall, the liquefied compost is pumped through pipelines and injected into the soil of the surrounding fields, capturing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fertilizer for this sustainable agricultural practice.

Minutes later, after fumbling for my phone to alert my boss to the urgent situation, three more desperate lurches of panic confirmed that it was a 700-pound yearling Holstein heifer struggling for the embankment, thirty feet away.

She’s in deep muck. I call her Buttercup. The effort exhausted her. She sank.

Lush green pasture surrounds the lagoon during early spring days like this one. Buttercup should have been laying in the deep green grass, barely visible, chewing her cud. Instead, she waits, submerged, except for her air gulping muzzle, in a horrible pit, fatigued and hypothermic, needing rescue.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember. Do you, like me, feel a shockwave go through your chest, your gut, when you realize it’s not just Buttercup that gets herself into a horrible pit? Listen to the words of the Psalmist who understood our condition:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3, KJV)

My boss and his son liberated Buttercup. It’s a gospel-like story. A father sent his son out to the end of the appendage of the arm of a backhoe extended out over the lagoon, to place a halter on Buttercup and pluck her to the safety of solid ground. She shall flourish.

So, too, shall we. Once again, God’s top-down rhythm, drawing us to daily repentance, breaks into the Barnyard of Heaven. God Cleanses Us.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, so many times you have brought me out of a horrible pit. Thank you for sending Your Son, Jesus, to rescue me, save me repeatedly, and set my feet on a rock. I sing a new song to You. I sing my praises to my Savior. Amen.

Photo Credit: Mire and Clay

 

A Sinner Walks into a Pit – Eyeball to Udder

In a brief sacred moment, on the 100-yard commute to work, I both notice God’s Presence and hear Him speak intimate words to my soul. The first element of my Barnyard Rhythms, God Calls Us, is well underway. Such a beautiful rhythm, mirroring a church service, to launch into my labors. I step down into the milking-parlor pit.

What could possibly go wrong?

Eyeball to udder. I spend six early morning hours of my work day in a 3-foot deep pit. It’s efficient, but mundane. At this level, I can sanitize teats, wipe them dry, hook up milking machines and finally, dip each teat in skin softeners containing protective anti-bacterial iodine.

The pit is half sacred place, half crucible.

It’s where I’m at my best. It’s where I pray, read Psalms out loud, add my feeble praises to the birdsong of the sparrow choir, and care for God’s creatures. I notice and absorb beautiful rhythms of creation, secretly expressed during the night hours, vigorously glorifying God and flourishing. Inviting me to join in. Inviting me to make drudgery divine.

It’s also where I’m at my worst.

In the pit, I am vulnerable. It’s frigid in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Newly freshened heifers, entering the milking-string for the first time, kick, scrape and bruise my hands and arms. A few savvy cows knock off my glasses with an accurate, intentional tail swat. Throughout the milking shift, I get splattered a ’plenty by cow pies a ‘plenty.

The crucible heats up. God begins to shape me. He reveals my idols, my counterfeit gods I look to instead of Him. Soul-sifting thoughts drip like venom from my wretched sinner’s heart. I nurse relational wounds, flash with anger at blocked goals, simmer with envy, resentment, inadequacy, arrogance, folly.

Time for the second element of my Barnyard Rhythms-God Cleanses Us. I desperately need remedy. I urgently need repentance, forgiveness. The good, daily kind of repentance where I acknowledge the dross that’s risen to the surface. I pull the church bulletin from my hip pocket and rehearse the scriptures from Sunday’s Prayer of Confession:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
(Psalm 51:1-3, 10-12, NIV)

God breaks into the Barnyard of Heaven as I hear His Promise of Forgiveness:

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28, NIV)

Prayer: Dear Father, my self-efforts nor self-righteous works can’t cleanse me. But You can and do. Thank you for redeeming me and keeping me coming back for You. Amen.