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.

 

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.

 

 

Deep Breath of Remember – Barnyard Liturgy (Part 3)

Core Identity

My heart is an idol factory.  I am blissfully blind to them, for the most part, because idols are usually good things that I bank on to satisfy my deepest needs and hopes.  My idol worship pursues “counterfeit gods” because they promise me safety, peace, and happiness if only I base my life on them. I say in my heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”  Having that kind of relationship to something is best called worship.[1]

I don’t want my identity to be shaped by my worship of counterfeit gods.  By God’s mercy, the core identity that comes from God and God alone is made attractive and possible to me inside the encounter with Him during Liturgy.  His light exposes the destructive disappointment I feel as my counterfeit gods let me down.  He’s a jealous God!  Warning!  Inside God’s Liturgy you can expect bombshells and bloodshed.   He calls us to worship Him.  Him Alone!

That’s easy for me on Sunday.  In Barnyard Liturgy, all hell can break loose.  The Trinity comes “locked and loaded” to shape me; to create the identity I glimpsed on Sunday and said, “I long for that.”  The Trinity comes with fire and a hammer.  When I say God’s Liturgy is something done to you, it’s because we love our counterfeit gods too much to relinquish them without supernatural, gospel-beauty, will-breaking intervention.  God is out to save us to the uttermost.  Save us from our counterfeit gods.  Sometimes that feels like a dance.  Sometimes it feels like a trip to the woodshed.

Sparrows in the Milking Parlor

The milking parlor at the dairy I work at is big enough to allow 16 cows to be milked at a time.  The stanchions are located 8 per side along a 3 foot deep pit.  This arrangement brings me eyeball-to-udder.  Very efficient for the mundane, extremely repetitive actions I must perform to sanitize and clean each teat, attach a milking head, and finally dip with a solution of skin conditioners and iodine.  As the 8 cows on one side are finished, I open an air-gate so they can meander their way back to the loafing shed to eat, rest in a free-stall, or rehydrate at the water trough.  On average, each cow has given 30-40 pounds of milk and will do it all over in 12 hours.  That’s 60-80 pounds of milk a day.  They’re thirsty.  They’re hungry.

The efficiency of being in a pit has its downside.  Milk is not the only thing that comes out of a cow.  I will delicately call this cow pies-a ’plenty.  During a milking shift of 6 hours shuffling 250 cows through the parlor, I get splattered-a ‘plenty.  About a decade ago, I scanned the want ads; “Don’t mind getting dirty?  Come milk cows.”  I’ve always loved cows.  I’m good at getting dirty.

I’ve had a variety of career pursuits and they’ve all involved animals, both wild and domestic, to some degree.  But I never aspired to work at a dairy, in a 3-foot deep pit.  At age 17, I wanted to be a large animal Veterinarian.  Seven years and 3 Veterinary College failed interviews later, the dream died.  Inadequate grades?  Or thwarted by God?  I raised my fist to the heavens.

Next, I hired on as cowboy on a beef ranch for 3 years, then, ironically got hired at the research branch of the Veterinary College I’d been rejected by.  I excelled, climbed academic ladders, won student research awards, and obtained advanced degrees.  The crescendo of a 25-year career led to the apex of a research/teaching position in Montana. Upward mobility.  I had two years to prove myself and secure my own grant funding.  The result, “Don’t mind getting dirty?  Come milk cows.”

Flashback to a week after I answered that ad, it’s 3 A.M.  I’ve milked enough cows in the past hour to get splattered-a ‘plenty.  I’d also been kicked a’ plenty by cows not used to the ‘new guys’ touch.  I was frustrated and keenly aware of another one of God’s thwarting’s.  Downward mobility.  In the pit stood a disappointed, empty, broken, scared, angry man with my fist raised to the heavens.

And then, it happened.  Epiphany!

Turns out, when you’re in a pit, it’s a good thing to look up.  I watched a sparrow, feathers preened out to make him look twice as big as he really was to insulate against the cold, chirp out a bird song that sounded a lot like praise.  Then, he fluttered down to the parlor runway where cows returning from their milking left the gift of cow pies-a’ plenty.  He deftly plucked out a kernel of barley from the muck, ascended back to the rafters, and resumed his praise chirp.  I witnessed a creature deemed worthless, descend into the realities of a wilderness to gather his daily bread, then soar heavenward to offer his provider thanksgiving with praise.  My fist loosened and dropped to my side.  I felt the hot tears of repentance and deep joy trace down my cheeks.

My brain, my heart, my gut, all my deep places were flooded with the revelation of a creature remembered by God.  A creature cared for, loved, accepted and valued by God.  For a moment, I knew that I too was remembered, cared for, loved, accepted and valued by my Creator.  For a moment, I tasted my core identity.

I added my pitiful, squeaky praises to the community of birdsong wafting like incense to heaven.  I was doing worship.  Or rather, Barnyard Liturgy was doing me.

[1] Adapted from Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. 2009.