A Sinner Walks into a Church

I love God’s rhythms. Maybe seasonal rhythms, cow, or sparrow rhythms I notice around the Barnyard of Heaven. Or, especially, rhythms I participate in with others at a church service. The rhythms we take part in which shape our loves.

No need to tell me what you really love? Just show me your rhythms.

I can’t pinpoint when I fell in love with the ancient rhythms of a church service beautifully orchestrated by my pastors. It simply grew with repetition. Maybe it was the crescendo I felt moving me in a Gospel reenactment toward the climax – a meal with God.

Maybe it was the discovery that God was working inside the rhythms, top-down, to transform my heart. A worship service wasn’t a place for me to explore creative new ways to express myself to God, though I did. It was more like a dance between lovers where neither partner feels compelled to impress each other. But oh, the intimacy flowing between us!

After hundreds of repetitions, I’m still stunned by the order of the first two elements of the ancient rhythms passed down by our spiritual fathers. First element: God Calls Us. Second element: God Cleanses Us.

What?!

Shouldn’t these elements be reversed? God knows, and I know, that I’m dragging myself into church a sinner, poor and wretched, weak and weary, sick and sore. But that’s okay. I join my fellow worshippers with a greeting of peace, recite together a Psalm, pray, sing a song and hymn of praise.

Then, God cleanses us as we confess our sins corporately and individually, punctuated by a scriptural reminder of God’s promise of forgiveness.

Gone are the days of trying to perform, behave ourselves, or pretend we’re not filthy. He wants us. He wants to hear our praise. But leave the cleansing ‘til later. He’ll get to it. He’ll be the one to do it. He’ll take a basin and towel and wash our dirty hearts. Whoa!

When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Mark 2:17, KJV)

Prayer: My beautiful, dynamic, loving, Triune God. I hear Your call to worship. Your acceptance of me is astounding. You call be by name. I respond to that call with praise. Thank you for cleansing and healing my body and soul. Amen.

Photo Credit: Pharisee and publican

“Big Mama gets a Fitbit.” or “Why So Restless?”

Big Mama’s back on her feet after recovery from milk fever, back in the milking-string.

So, Blossom got her a Fitbit for Mother’s Day.

She, and 250 other members of the “Sisterhood of Tail-Swishers” now sport the orange ultra-model with the chic design for cows who move to their own beat.

I love when my friends post their fitness activities on Facebook. Whether running, walking, biking, skateboarding, picking up milk from the grocery store (wink), or maybe a drop-in to the local Buff-n-Svelte athletic club, the technology-derived data fascinates me. Distance, activity, mph, calories burned. Cool! But my favorite part is the GPS map of the route. Sometimes it’s circuitous. Sometimes it’s not, and I wonder, “How’d you get home?”

Personally, I’m not sure I need a Fitbit yet. Not sure if it syncs with my flip-phone? The data I’d generate would be unimpressive. On the Barnyard of Heaven I travel several miles per day, but at the speed of Holstein. My route, feeding and fetching cows, might catch the GPS satellite’s attention, but when I’m in the milking pit, not so much. Twenty-four feet up, twenty-four feet back, repeat. After 6 hours of that routine, the satellite records a black dot.

Say, do you know your Rest:Restlessness ratio? That’s actually one of the main purposes of Big Mama’s Fitbit. It records how many steps she takes and the number of times she lays down each day. For Big Mama, the stats churned out by a computer flags restlessness. “Hey, cowherd, something’s wrong, go check out Big Mama! Is she resting and chewing her cud, ruminating, meditating on what she just ate? Did she eat?”

The only time restlessness is good is when Big Mama is in heat. If that’s the case, I’ll arrange a little rendezvous between Big Mama and one of the best Holstein bulls on the planet waiting for this moment in a small, plastic straw stored in a semen tank in liquid nitrogen at -3200F.

What about the restlessness you and I experience? Could it be a signal that something’s wrong, lacking, or maybe devoid in the depths of our soul? Is it a craving for something, someone, more desirable than our selfish, individualistic impulses? How do we go about fulfilling that holy longing?

St. Augustine captures the issue:

“… for you have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”[1]

David provides a solution:

Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation;  he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. (Psalms 62:4-5, NIV)

Take A Deep Breath of Remember: I know for me, there’s a constant, often ignored restlessness or boredom roiling in my soul. It’s a two-edged sword. It can lead me to sinful decisions to dull the roar. Or, it can remind me that, though I live in a broken world, God may be wooing me to gaze on His beauty, to be satisfied and at rest, in Him and Him alone.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as I sense the restless urges of a life that feels like wilderness, open my eyes, lift the veil, so I might see Your beauty. Open my ears to hear Your invitation to find my rest in You. Amen.

[1] St. Augustine, Confessions, pg. 3, 2007, Published by Barnes and Noble Books.

Photo Credit: S.A.E. Afikim AfiAct Pedometer Plus

 

“Back from the Brink” or “Big Mama meets Marshawn Lynch”

Things got messy.

Big Mama, near death from a condition called milk fever, needs a strong dose of calcium delivered straight to the jugular vein. She’s sprawled out on her side but needs to be on her sternum, no easy feat. Even the pigeon’s, roosting in the barn rafters, silenced their cooing.

I sat in the near-frozen slurry of muck beside her with my back against hers, my feet in a tucked position ready to give a heave to set her upright. Her warmth radiated through my layers of coats and shirts to give a momentary respite to my shivering. Screwing up my courage for the task, I launched backward with every muscle, bone and sinew of my frame against her 1200-pound slumped mass.

My legs churned. Picture a combination of Marshawn Lynch leg-strength and Road Runner leg-speed. In reverse. My raucous grunts and Big Mama’s mournful moans echoed through the cavernous cowshed.

It worked.

Big Mama was now in position for remedy. The pigeon’s resumed their soft cry.

I pulled the remedy, a bottle with calcium and other minerals dissolved in liquid, from the bucket of warm water I’d brought along. It served as an incubator and took the chill off the tonic. Next, I plunged a large IV needle into Big Mama’s jugular vein protruding, like a garden hose, along the furrow running between the muscles in her neck. The solution slowly dripped through rubber tubing to replenish the calcium devoid in her bloodstream and craved by her brain.

Thirty minutes after I removed the IV needle, Big Mama stood!

She cast a glance my way wondering, “Why all the fuss?”

Back from the brink, she spun to get a mouthful of silage hay from the feed bunk, eyed an obstacle, then,

Big Mama kicked the bucket!

She did it with an attitude of, “Where, O death, is your sting!?”

I retrieved the dented pail, felt God’s profound pleasure, and turned my attention to other duties, including a clean pair of Wrangler’s.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember. Is the barnyard crammed with heaven? Can I see Christ in this story? Is there a gospel parallel hidden in the events of my ordinary life?

Ponder with me:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4, NIV)

Prayer: Glorious Heavenly Father, I am but dust and will return to dust. But, that’s not the end of the story. Just as You raised Your son Jesus from the dead, You deliver me from the brink of eternal death. You raise me, too, from death to a new and glorious eternal life with You. Thank you for revealing this glimpse of Your glory as I participate in caring for Your creation. It comforts me as I tread this broken world waiting for the return of my King. Amen.

Photo: Ron Silflow, Hyalite Canyon near Bozeman, MT

Big Mama Asks, “Who’ll Get in the Muck with Me?”

Twenty-four hours after birthing Blossom in a snowdrift, Big Mama’s clamoring for her life.

Diagnosis? Milk fever.

Prognosis? Without intervention? Death.

Location? Muck.

Even at the Barnyard of Heaven, life’s messy. Big Mama collapsed from milk fever, slid a few yards in the muck, and bloodied herself in a futile effort to regain footing. Her bloodstream, her brain, devoid of calcium needed for nerve and muscle function, left her helpless, half dead.

I pictured the man Jesus described in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) attacked by robbers, stripped naked, beaten and left half dead. Big Mama needed a neighbor.

You know the story, but indulge me with the liberty to modernize it. I imagined a priest passing by on his way to Jericho to teach a leadership seminar. “Sorry about the muck you’re in, good sir, but I’m running late and can’t afford to soil my suit. Looks like you could benefit from the principles I’m teaching. Stop by if you can, I’m in town all week.”

Next came a Levite noting the man’s struggle to breathe. “Looks like it’s time to give up those cigarettes, my friend. Stop by and see me for a helpful 5-step program I’m presenting at the synagogue. I’m in town all week.”

Finally, a Samaritan saw the urgency of the stranger’s situation, had pity on him, and got down in the muck with him.

I’m a cowherd. I tag along behind cows I don’t own. I take care of their needs. I know Big Mama needs a strong dose of calcium delivered straight to the jugular vein. But, she’s sprawled out on her side. I first need to reposition her on her sternum, no easy feat. So, I got down in the muck beside her.

Why? Because numerous times, I’ve been the half-dead man in the muck. I’ve had friends, family, pastoral caregivers, even strangers have mercy on me, get down in the muck with me. They prop me up, attend to my thirst, bandage me up and care for me.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember. I hope you’ve experienced this neighborly care, too. I hope you’ve gotten down in the muck with the broken ones in your life.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, lover of my soul. Thank you for having mercy on me, for pitying my broken, wretched condition, and for joining me in the muck to quench my soul thirst. I gaze on your thorn-crowned head, your body pierced with nails and spear, beaten, abandoned to die. You died for me. And I live. Amen.

Photo credit: The Good Samaritan, Daniel Borup, Sculptor

Big Mama Staggers, Collapses

I could see it in her eyes. No glint. Her ears drooped. No perk.

Big Mama staggered a few steps, muscles twitching, brain reeling, struggling to make sense of it and then, stumbling forward, collapsed. “What’s happening!?” Yesterday’s furious dash through cattle loafing-shed alleyways pursuing me and her newborn calf Blossom, dissolved into a life-threatening tragedy. The fight to regain control, to stand and defend her young, to simply be a fruitful milk cow now seemed futile.

Twenty-four hours after birthing Blossom in a snowdrift, Big Mama’s clamoring for her life.

Diagnosis? Milk fever.

Prognosis? Without intervention? Death.

We’ve all had tragedy strike abruptly. Acute pain. Debilitating emotional, physical or relational pain. Perhaps even worse, chronic pain.

You said, ‘Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ (Jeremiah 45:3, NIV)

Our questions, our accusations, roll out from deep places in our soul, like those expressed by our spiritual forefathers:

“What’s wrong with me, God?”

“What’s wrong with you, God?

“What’s wrong with your people, God?”

 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
(Psalms 88:3-5, NIV)

Then comes that sacred moment, that Deep Breath of Remember. Smack in the middle of our asking, “Why won’t you fix me, God?” comes that reply, “I have suffered for you, died for you, your sins are forgiven.”

“What!?” In that instant, we recognize that beneath the severity of our pain or unbearable circumstances lies a worse condition. Our sin. Our daily sin.

Our eyes lift to Jesus. We make the great exchange. We join Him in a daily rhythm of repentance. We roll our sins onto our only remedy, pierced with nails. We listen to His promise of forgiveness. We hear Him call our name, Beloved. We discover it’s our suffering and our sin that brings us back to Him, reminds us of our constant need for Him, the One who suffers with us. 

I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Psalm 27:13 (KJV)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:6 (NIV)

Prayer: Jesus my savior, I lovingly gaze on You. O suffering servant, look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. Amen.

Photo Credit: http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/163/19.cover-expansion

Asaph and Miriam Got Rhythm

Sparrows look alike. I can distinguish male from female due to distinctive markings, but not individuals amongst dozens lining the rafters of a milking parlor.

There are two exceptions. Sparrows are creatures of habit. In this case, the habit is the location where they roost inside the parlor structure. Stretching across the milking parlor pit, about six inches below the ceiling, is a small cable along which slides a tarp used to keep warmth from escaping between twice-daily milking shifts. Slide the tarp open. Wait patiently with occasional glances over the next 20 minutes. There he is. Asaph.

I don’t know where he’s been, but he always shows up, day or night.

If there’s milking going on, Asaph shows. Doesn’t matter who’s milking that shift, he shows. Asaph’s got rhythm.

I call him Asaph because, during a six-hour milking shift, he chirps out birdsong praise that pierces heaven. Yes, I know. Sparrows are worthless (except in the eyes of God). But to me, sparrows are sacred precisely because, to most, they go unnoticed. Yet they splendidly declare the glory of God as individual’s part of something grander like a choir or a symphony. I could think of no one besides David, a name too common for this occasion, more skilled in uttering praise than David’s co-psalter, Asaph.

I started my own little rhythm, a little liturgy. I catch a shadowy movement out of the corner of my eye. Asaph silently glides past to ascend to his roosting/praising perch. I grab the tattered, iodine-stained church bulletin from Sunday’s service out of my back pocket, greet Asaph a good and fine morning, and ask him to join me in reading the Psalm printed in the God Calls Us section. Asaph always nods approvingly, rearranges a few feathers on the black napkin which garbs his upper chest, and interprets my English phrases into bird-praise.

I mentioned there were two exceptions to my sparrow ID limits. After a month of noticing Asaph’s methodical visits to the cable perch, I spotted a female companion joining him. Sparks sizzled between them. I feared this new acquaintance might whisk Asaph away to her perch in another part of the barn, but Asaph remained resolute. His little rhythm of “showing up” was undeterred.

Joining him, with grace and devotion, was this new little tweeter I call Miriam.

Moses’s sister Miriam, you recall, led the women in song and praise with tambourines as the sea closed over Pharaoh’s chariots. Now Miriam, arrayed in a traditional feathered gown, sings forth praises in the same tradition.

Beneath the cable perch is a silver-dollar-sized hole in a rusted tin structure enclosing pipes near the ceiling. Voilà, the perfect entrance for a nest. For over 2 years, during “special sparrow seasons” in both Spring and Fall, I’ve watched Miriam and Asaph’s relationship blossom. Asaph and Miriam got rhythm.

Their procreation instincts make this cowboy blush.

Next, their duel-effort nest construction begins. They masterfully weave wheat straw, abundant in a barn, tiny twigs, and curiously, shreds of royal blue baling-twine strands into a shell. Finally comes the lining of soft, fluffy down plucked from deep places hidden beneath shielding feathers.

Miriam disappears for 12 days to incubate the 4 eggs stashed in the hidden refuge. Sometimes, I see her quickly pop out of the nesting hole and wing-bump Asaph, her tag-team partner. Asaph wriggles his way into the hole to warm the eggs while Miriam quenches her thirst. Once the small, dull-white and brown, mottled eggs hatch, the two of them begin a steady convoy of worm delivery to the triangular beaks eagerly protruding from the hole in the tin.

Let the flourishing begin!

Take a Deep Breath of Remember: We need a rhythm inventory. What rhythms, what habits of remembering can we weave into our schedule to enable us to glorify God and enjoy Him forever? Our rhythms reveal our loves. They shape us. Sometimes unknowingly. Are there rival habits or rhythms competing for our supreme love?

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17, NIV)

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I feel the strong pull toward loves that promise fulfillment but leave me empty. Forgive my wayward heart. Turn me toward You, my supreme love. By your grace, become so beautiful to me that my highest desires burn for You. Amen.

 

 

Blossom Gets Colostrum

2:30 A.M. Calving Stall. Nonchalantly I squat beside Big Mama, push my forehead into her warm flank to offer reassurance, dodge a few tail swats, and fend off a hind-leg kick, then squeeze a two-liter bottleful of colostrum from a tight udder.

Blossom needs her first critical nourishment present in that first-milk from a freshened cow. Amazing design comes in play during her first 48 hours. During that period the cells of a calf’s gut, typically held together in tight junctions, are loose enough to allow large proteins to squeeze between them and enter the bloodstream.  Colostrum is loaded with just such large protein molecules – antibodies – crafted to protect Blossom from microbes she will encounter until she can produce her own. Germs that can put a quick end to any hope for her flourishing. Blossom’s gut is vulnerable. Colostrum-antibodies are like military Special Forces stealthily patrolling her bloodstream for invaders. They also act as gatekeepers, little TSA agents that coat the cells of her gut to arrest bad-guy’s germs bearing guns, knives and bombs.

I cap the bottle with a big red nursing nipple. Awestruck, I watch Blossom orchestrate her tongue and jaw perfectly to draw in the rich liquid nutrients.

Let the flourishing begin.

I’m lost in wonder. But the wonder stirs up a longing. I wish I had someone that would patrol my deep places and rescue me. Save me. Keep on saving me.

Take A Deep Breath of Remember:

(Hebrew 7:25, KJV) Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

 There He is. My advocate. My resurrected, ascended-to-heaven Jesus pleading for my salvation, having begun, to keep working in me through eternity.

Prayer: Jesus, lover of our souls, fill our veins with Your ever-saving presence. Amen.

Author’s aside:

Some of you are asking yourself if I used the KJV to preserve the word “uttermost” because it sounds like udder-most. Why yes, of course.

Also, I hadn’t traveled by air for 10+ years until two weeks ago. Had to de-board the plane for a second TSA screening before leaving Bozeman airport when a man remembered his loaded gun in his wheelchair. But, hey, I live in Montana.