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.

 

 

I Call Her Blossom

 2 A.M.  Her distress cry pierced the frigid blackness.   My lantern’s faint beams caught her blinking hard, her eyelashes coated with the tiny, compact snow crystals unique to the Montana high country.  The same sparkling snow blanketed her shivering body.  I lifted her into my arms, twirled about, and labored uphill a couple hundred yards toward the shelter with yellow light visible through the windows, promising warmth.  Our breath clouds mixed, immediately froze leaving millions of miniscule gems drifting slowly earthward.  The exertion left me exhausted and gasping for breath, but urgency spurred me on.  I gently laid her on freshly strewn straw.  A noiseless voice in my soul whispered, “I’ll never tire of this wonder.”  A newborn Holstein heifer calf.

The veil over heaven just got a little thinner.

Thus begins a liturgy.  An ancient rhythm repeated for generations of mankind devoted to bearing the image of God,  as ones intent on seeing things on earth flourish.

For this heifer calf to live, to grow, to develop into a fruitful, flourishing milk cow, many little liturgies are required.  Rhythms, routines, schedules intentionally carved out over days, seasons, years.  I will be deliberate in my efforts to see this heifer flourish.  It’ll take nearly three years before she produces her first drop of milk.  I’m all in – born to this task of nurturing, growing and shaping.  I call her Blossom.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:25, KJV)

What rhythms, routines, habits make up your day?

Do you see them shaping you to love something/someone?

Are you able to cause something/someone around you to flourish?

A Deep Breath of Remember – I Know This Brave Woman

She caught me by surprise during a leisurely stroll after picking prunes, Italian Plums, from a tree on my parent’s farmstead.  I’m talking about Blondie.  Her name is Laura.  The not just any girl, tetherball phenom, saddlehorn-clinging, creek-leaping, stay-in-the-saddle survivor who I knew I must marry.  I simply hadn’t got around to asking her yet.  We stopped beside an olden, abandoned farmhouse which showed its unkempt wear.  Yet, covering the entryway stood overgrown, mature lilac bushes, full-blossomed, emitting a spicy, light-honey fragrance.  We held hands and I snuck a lingering kiss.  Gazing into my eyes, she stealthily asked, “Where do think our relationship is headed?”

In the blissful moment I blurted out words I’m not sure I’d pondered very deeply yet.  “I suppose we’ll get married someday.”  She closed her eyelids for a moment.  When they lifted, I saw she’d been transported to a dreamy, oft-pictured walk-down-the-aisle place in her imagination.  Her electric-blue eyes told me, “Okay then, it’s done.”

Several months later, I arrived to witness that walk-down-the-aisle beauty myself.  Some joy-tears shed, a few vows, another kiss, and we strode out of the church in startled laughter to the unscripted spontaneous tune, Happy Trails.

Laura is always a few steps ahead of me in Christian maturity.  I tag along and learn.  Like any married couple we weather storms together.  Like all individuals, we must go through personal deep waters.  Waters that have a strong sense of God’s dealings.  Laura pioneers the way for the both of us, blazing trails that aren’t so happy, scouting out the landscape and the enemies.  I see her get bloodied in the process.  I don’t seem to be much help.  I try to get alongside, but I get angry at the circumstances and the people that hurt her.  At best, I simply hug her and remind her, in the face of trials, “By God’s grace – we do.”

Laura’s got her own Dark Forest.  She found it with help from circumstances involving bosses, children, hurtful church experiences and, not surprisingly, me.  She’d supported me through my euphoric days of pursuing advanced degrees with the hope I’d provide career and financial security.  Instead, I’d bounce from job to job in the world of science and research wherever grant monies were available.  At one point that meant a move from Washington to Montana with our youngest son, leaving 30 years of friendships, a daughter getting married, and a son entering the Air Force in the wake.  I was elated with change and career hopes while tugging her along into drastic change and the unknown.  She was absorbing blow after blow concluding God was out to thwart her happiness.  How could she call Him good?

God, we have a problem…

In the darkness, she hit a crisis of faith.  It looked and sounded like this:

“I was angry with God.  I was confused and deeply discouraged.  I shook my fist at God.  Not just any fist, but a tetherball champion’s fist.   Is life only about suffering?  Is it only about changing me?  Where is the joy and the love and the blessing?  I thought You were good!  I thought Your burden was supposed to be light!  I’m a parent.  My heart’s desire is to love my children and try to protect them and make their life as pain free as possible.  So why does it seem like You do the opposite?  God, we have a problem.  I’m not happy!

A Sovereign Epiphany

“Ron and I went through a period of church withdrawal and church shopping.  In our exploration we stumbled upon a theological nuance that touched us both deeply.  I say ‘we’ but it mostly involved my husband staying home on Sunday’s sending me out to survey new landscapes.   I heard a pastor teach from Romans on an unfamiliar concept, God’s Sovereignty.  The idea that God’s in control brought a great release to me.  It’s not all up to me to make life work.  What?!  Our perception at the time distilled into a belief that ‘we behave ourselves and perform at a high level of obedience through our choices’ and God will bless us, and of course see to it that we were happy.”

“But I still had to confront the thought – if God is in control – and life wasn’t much fun – what do I do about that?  I’d crossed a threshold where I was being asked to believe that God was good, that He had my best interest at heart.  I didn’t understand it all but the thought began to change me.  I started to find healing in my relationship with God.  I started to taste His peace even when circumstances were hard.  A scripture came alive in me, became so true for me.”

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

“This is where I needed to learn about God’s idea of goodness versus mine.  I began to see how much of my life was focused on me and what would make me happy – according to me!  But God, in His goodness showed me He has a bigger plan.  A statement from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question #1 took shape in me:”

  1. What is the chief end of man?
  2. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

“I love this statement, but it’s taken me awhile to understand.”

“I found myself described in a booklet by Paul Tripp, Suffering, Eternity Makes a Difference, when he said:

“Many people measure God’s goodness by their level of personal happiness and their physical, external, and immediate circumstances.  It is hard for them to imagine that God could be good and not give them their piece of the good life.  God’s main goal – the chief good He offers us – is to deliver us from our bondage to our own evil desires and to make us participants in His divine nature.”

“His focus is eternal and spiritual.  He is changing my heart – how I live and bear fruit.”

Surrender

“I then came across a poem that so beautifully expresses what God is after.”

I stood a mendicant of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, “But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart.
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee.”
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace:
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.[1]

“My prayers changed.  I noticed a subtle shift from constantly pressing Him with my requests to prayers of love and adoration.  A shift from ‘my will be done’ to ‘Thy will be done,’”

“I began to see that God is sooo good.  He knows that I will never be happy or satisfied with the things I was running after.  Things that could never truly satisfy my soul.  So, He was willing to “thwart” me at every turn until I finally gave up and turned my gaze upon the One who could truly satisfy the longings of my heart.  It doesn’t mean my life has been free from hard circumstances, but I’m learning that the more I surrender my life to Him, the more I see how very good God is.  This surrender displaces fear, looking to others to love me and value me, and my demand of good circumstances as proof of God’s love.  My struggles are not over, but His complete love and value are becoming more than enough.”

As I watched my wife navigate her way through her Dark Forest to discover a Rock she calls Sovereign and Good via a process called surrender, our hands kind of bumped up together and she grabbed mine and started tugging me to church again.  Much like I had led her into change, struggle and uncertainty, she now blazed new trails for me to follow close behind leading to safety, companionship, and worship with a community of believers.  We discovered our need to relearn the gospel every week.  We are, together, learning to take a Deep Breath of Remember.

We have this little, usually spontaneous, routine when we go to the movie theater.  It’s our movie liturgy.  We share a bucket of popcorn and stare at the screen and then it happens – our hands kind of accidently bump up together as we grab for the next handful.  We gently release the kernels and simply linger there for a moment, holding buttery hands.  I’m smiling.  I don’t even need to look, I know she’s smiling.  It’s romantic.  It’s magical.  It’s special.  And, it’s divine as we silently rehearse the little vow, “By God’s grace, we do!”

[1] The Thorn, Martha Snell Nicholson.  From A Steadfast Heart, Elyse Fitzpatrick.

Liturgy and the “Good Life”

Ok, So What’s Liturgy?

Liturgy sounds churchy and religious, doesn’t it?  Something practiced on a Sunday morning in a few churches that haven’t figured out how, or better yet, chosen not to let go of ancient outdated practices, customs, and traditions.

Well, yes, it’s that.  But it’s so much more.  We are all immersed in liturgies; those practices, habits, rhythms, routines, schedules that make up our daily life. Everybody has liturgies.  Expand your attention beyond a church service and notice how you move through a day and you will perhaps get a glimpse of your liturgy.

Eugene Peterson refers to the Eucharist, for example, as a ritual.  “Jesus’ most honored command produced a ritual – an ordered arrangement of actions and words the Christians reproduce wherever and whenever they want to ‘remember’ and ‘proclaim’ salvation.  There is more going on than I am aware of or can be responsible for.  Reality is larger than me.  A ritual puts me into the larger reality without requiring that I understand it or even ‘feel’ it at the moment.  It keeps us in touch with and preserves mystery.  For reality is not only larger than me and my immediate circumstances, it is also beyond my understanding.  Rituals preserve that mystery, protect certain essential aspects of reality from being reduced to the dimensions of my interest or intelligence or awareness.”[1]

So why is it so big a deal?  Because our liturgies shape us, often subconsciously, into who we are.  They reveal what we love, what we long for, crave for, as our ultimate objective.  Some version of what we call good life.  This immersion in liturgical practices extends far beyond the order of worship in a church service.  Becoming aware of that may enable you to take stock both of desirable liturgies and those liturgies that compete for your loves.  Our liturgies work on us at the level of the heart, the gut.  Your liturgies are determined by a master.  “Show me your schedule, I’ll show you your liturgy.  Show me your liturgy and I will show you your master.”[2]

A Story About the Good Life

Ever been passionately pursued?  Ever come stumbling toward home tarnished from the pigsty, staring at the dust rising from your bare plodding feet, rehearsing your excuses?  Your best hope is to be counted among the hired hands.  Then you glance up and see him.  Without need for dignity, he comes running toward you, both hands clutching his robe so he can sprint.  It’s your Father.  He’s been waiting for you.  He throws his arms around you and lifts you off your feet.  He kisses you and orders his robe to cover you.  Cover you from your nakedness, poverty and rags.  He means to do you good.

That’s an example of a story I can place myself into, allowing the images, the sensory stimulations to move me, bend me shape me toward a relationship I crave.

As human creatures, we are more than what we know, think or believe.  Yes, we have intellect and rationality, but we are more than ‘brains on a stick.’  We are what we love.  My loves are directed toward my version of the good life; how I define human flourishing; and are shaped and bent and formed in me by my little liturgies.

St. Augustine gives a glimpse of the good life that can be found only in God and is initiated by God:

“You have prompted him, that he should delight to praise you, for you have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”[3]

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, pg. 205, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005.

[2] Pastor Jeff Hamling, From a sermon, “What is Your Liturgy?”

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

A Deep Breath of Remember – The Poser

All in a Day’s Work

I’m a poser.  I try to manipulate the image you have of me.  I want you to like me, accept me, admire me, compliment me and be taught by me.  I’m the tough cowboy.  You’re not.  Therefore I am superior.  Sucks to be you.

 “Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ.  These toxic views of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular.  Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.”

Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods

There, I am blind to what I just wrote.  But I just made you my idol.  I now depend on you to flatter me or I will feel deprived.  I will feel a deep emptiness.  If you don’t come through for me, I will redouble my efforts to remedy the ache.

But wait.  How can I despise the way I’m wired?  Being a cowboy means I care for God’s creation.   Care deeply.  I get to see things in the raw and rarified light of life and death.  The instincts of a newborn calf, say, like the one born last night in the twenty-below-zero snowstorm.  Our clouds of breath mixed as I struggled to pack her the 100-yards to a safe, semi-warm bed of straw.  She fought it, but I was determined to shepherd this newborn out of danger.  When I joined her back up with her mother and witnessed the everyday miracle of a calf stand, though wobbly, and find the ‘faucet’ for nursing, I was dripping with melting snow, sweat, and care.  I was born to this divine task.

There, I can tell that story without any sense of superiority or condescension.  I can simply be grateful for the chance to participate in caring for and tending to God’s handiwork in a way that lets us be in awe of Him together.

All our idols have an element of goodness in them.  But like tares sown in a field of wheat, we get things twisted and tainted.  Our core motives sometimes reveal themselves and hopefully, by God’s grace alone, separate like dross rising for the skimming.

Timothy Keller puts it like this:

“Idolatry distorts our feelings.  Just as idols are good things turned into ultimate things, so the desire they generate become paralyzing and overwhelming.  Idols generate false beliefs such as ‘ if I cannot achieve X, then my life won’t be valid’ or ‘ since I have lost or failed Y, now I can never be happy or forgiven again.’  These false beliefs magnify ordinary disappointments and failures into life-shattering experiences.”[1]

My patterns for posing started early.  Age 17.  I sat down in the rickety theater seats of the local livestock auction barn and waited.  I’d been commissioned by my dad to learn the techniques used to introduce rapid genetic improvement into a cattle herd.  Artificial insemination.  The cows used for practice roamed the center stage auction floor while our instructor set up his presentation slides.  Cowboy after cowboy wandered in and sat down.  None younger than 50-years old.  Just as I anticipated, one by one, they pulled a can of Copenhagen from their jeans, tapped it twice, opened the lid and pinched a two-fingered wad of tobacco for their lower lip.

Not to be out done, I casually hauled a plug of chewing tobacco called Day’s Work from my shirt pocket and carved off a sizeable slice with my jackknife.  Inserting it in my cheek, I bent to the side and squirted out my first spit on the boot-worn wooden floor.  A sort of euphoria washed over me.  Junior-cowboy-prodigy.

days-work-chew

Wisely, I thought, I’d chosen tobacco I could spit because my experiments with Copenhagen, that generates less spittle, had failed.  I listened to words and phrases I was unaccustomed to in everyday vocabulary like heat-detection, semen, liquid nitrogen, cervix, and ovulation float in the air from the soothing drawl of our instructor.  When he’d glance my way, I’d nod my head, topped by my work-worn, dusty cowboy hat, lean over and spit.

The puddle by my boots grew in diameter and I felt slightly embarrassed.  Previous chewing episodes took place on horseback or on a tractor where spit was absorbed by dirt.  So, to avoid getting caught in a scam, I simply spat less often.  That is, until about 20 minutes into our training.  Right when the slides of some of the greatest Beef and Dairy bulls on the globe were projected on the screen, my world reeled.  Light-headed.  Nauseous.  Muttering ‘excuse-me’s,’ I began the long journey, dizzily stumbling along the row of many legs with boots propped up on seats in front of them, on the way to the Men’s Room.  Mask off.  Facade crumpled.  Poser exposed.

I think I eventually completed that day’s session, but it is a blur.  What is vivid, however, is the ingrained image of that plug of Day’s Work splashing into the Clearwater River on my way home along the road winding along its banks.  How I tossed it two-thirds of the way across that broad river is uncertain.  Stomach cramps didn’t help, but the distance that plug was launched accurately related to the distance my idol of projected image had fallen.  It closed the chapter on my chewing-tobacco forays.  If only my dogged determination to be done with posing came so easily.  That takes liturgy.  I won’t do it with self-help, self-determination, or self-will.  I can’t do it.  But by God’s grace, it will be done in me.  It will take practice.  It will take crucibles.  It will take communion cups.

[1] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, pg. 148.

Deep Breath of Remember – Barnyard Liturgy (Part 2)

Through gospel-driven liturgy, our worship can calibrate our hearts.  Information won’t do that.  Christian worship is designed to bend our hearts back toward God.  We can’t think our way out of wrong desires.  Rather than being an expressive endeavor, God calling us to worship invites us into a space where He gets ahold of us and re-shapes our fundamental loves.  Historic Christian worship invites us into the gospel story anew.  We gather around the Word and the Table to re-inhabit the gospel which converts our imagination in ways we may not be aware of.  This spiritual transformation is our sanctification.

We’re image-bearers called to tend God’s flourishing world, much like from the story in Genesis 1.  Our liturgies within our work environments shape us.  They impart a vision of how we define the “good life.”  There are many rival liturgies trying to capture us with a picture of what we want to live toward.  We need new liturgies, new habits, new routines and rhythms to bridge the gap between what we think of as our “good life” and what we actually do.[1] http://trinitybozeman.org/sundays/sermons/?sermon_id=203

My work environment happens to be labor on a dairy.  As my love for God’s liturgy practiced on Sunday’s grows, and as I discover my qualification for responding to His call to worship is to feel my need for Him, I find that I profoundly feel that need the other days of the week.  So, welcome to my version of Barnyard Liturgy.   Like you, my work is partly satisfying, permeated with unexpected joys, and mostly a crucible for the shaping of my identity.  I share my stories with the hope that you will grow in awareness of your liturgies practiced in a cubicle, tending the kids, selling real estate, caring for the elderly, teaching at the University.  My hope is that we will grow toward having our identity shaped in God and God alone.

[1] These thoughts provided by James K. A. Smith, Christ and Culture Lectures, “You Are What You Love.”

Deep Breath of Remember (Part 1)

“Pssst, Hey you.”

Halfway to the milking parlor for a 2 AM shift, I stop and gaze up.  Constellations dazzle.

“Hey you, wanna worship?”

“Uh, it’s 2 AM.”

“I know, just checking if you want to worship.”

“Well, I guess so.  Hadn’t really thought about it, but I’m not exactly decked out in my Sunday best.”

“That’s OK.”

“Uh, alright, but it’s not just the muck on my boots and Wranglers, if you’re who I think you are, you know there’s a muck-filled heart in my chest right now.  Kinda disqualifies me, don’t you think?”

“Nope.  That’s what I’m looking for.”

“I gotta hunch I’m hearing the one that spoke that Milky Way over there into being.  Pretty compelling.  But, between you and me, I’m just a messed up, can’t stop sinning cow milker.”

“True, and your reputation as such extends beyond just me and you.”

“Gulp.”

“Take a deep breath.”

I inhale slowly and deeply.  My lungs fill with the biting cold, crisp and invigorating, high elevation Montana, winter night air.

“Now.  Remember!”

“OK, yes go ahead and exhale, but I want you to Remember.”

Unsure of what I was to remember, I waited inside of that brief, peaceful, blissful moment after exhale in which the compulsion to inhale hasn’t kicked in yet.  Something beautiful was going on.  Some sort of gentle movement, a barely perceivable shift, down so deep in my soul it seemed strange.

Gasp!  The urgent need for another breath kicked in.  I didn’t even know I needed it, but it happened with a jolt.  Turns out, I needed it.

I noticed for a short moment a beautiful rhythm.  Inhale life.  Exhale death.  Repeat.  I stumbled on to the liturgy of breathing.  Something initiated from beyond my choosing that is both mysterious and mundane.  Both stimulating and routine.  Whether conscious of it or not, a good thing to get invited into.

Welcome to the dairy.  Hope you like to hear stories.  Stories of Barnyard Liturgy.

Liturgy, like breathing, is less something you do than it is something done to you.  It’s God’s liturgy.  It’s gospel-driven.  He invites.  GOD CALLS US TO WORSHIP.   “Pssst, Hey you.”