Deep Breath of Remember-Barnyard Liturgy (Part 4)

The Good Life in the Black Forest

Crisis at 13,000 feet.  You know the feeling.  Life’s relatively smooth.  You’ve got dreams and your trajectory is upward.  Then, suddenly you’re in free-fall thanks to a little circumstantial shove out the airplane’s door.  You’ve been through these challenging times.  A company downsize.  Divorce papers delivered by the sheriff.  Your 16-year old daughter moves in with the 29-year old tattooed drifter.  The biopsy result is positive.  Maybe you are in one of those challenging circumstances now.

If you’re like me, you pull the parachute rip cord and quickly survey the landscape below.  Upper right quadrant, a verdant meadow with peaceful stream and a flock of sheep ready for shearing.  Lower right quadrant, a wheat field with rolling hills of golden, full heads of grain, ripe-for-harvest, swaying in gentle breezes.  You’re descending slowly, also swaying in mild currents allowing you to recover from the sudden shock of change.  You tell yourself, ‘everything’s going to be alright’ even if you drift into the less desirable left quadrants below.  A deep canyon.  A cactus-filled desert, maybe.

But smack in the middle is the Black Forest.  A small, acre-sized, dense patch of trees and thorns definitely to be avoided.  It’s the place that makes you shudder because it’s unknown and you sense your worst fears reside there.  Don’t go there.  Too much risk, danger, threat to your reputation.  ‘No worries’, you mutter as you tug on the steering toggles and contemplate your options.  A different job.  A new partner.  A grandchild.  Treatments promising remission.

The toggles seem unresponsive.  The ground rushes upward at you.  Your intent and efforts amount to futile kicks and screams.  Nooooo, not there.  Not the Black Forest!

When you awake, you realize the landing was brutal.  You’re bleeding and bruised from the tree limbs and undergrowth thorns.  Your head hurts.  Your butt hurts.  The parachute is in shreds.  Full adrenaline heightens a few senses but panic makes you numb, stunned.  One sense that is lost completely is sight.  It’s dark.  The same felt darkness you learned to fear as a toddler in a crib.  You don’t know what to do.

“Welcome to the good life.”

“But”, you protest, “it doesn’t look like the good life.”

“Deep breath.”

“Good.  Now let me show you around the place.  I’ve been here awhile and there’s Someone I want you to meet.”

“Use your hands to push away the thorns and crawl along beside me.”

“Okay, extend your right hand.  There he is.  He’s called Rock.”

You feel the Rock.  It’s large.  About your same height, and maybe six feet long or so.  Your fingers discern jagged edges.

“Those are good hand holds.”  “Good for clinging to when the waves of panic strike again, and again.”

“Touch here.”  “Those are my favorite gripping edges worn smooth over the years.”  “You’ll create your own, I promise.”  “Clinging, tears and time will serve you well in here.”  “Familiarity creates fondness.”

“Touch your tongue right here.  Taste the water from this morning’s dew.”

“And just over here.  Those seeds that drifted in on evening breezes, that’s your bread.”

“Now, carefully look at this hole in the side of the Rock.  That’s your cup.”

“You can only see it with ‘those other eyes’ you have.  Those eyes He gives you light to see.”

“Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve known!?”

“It will nourish you.  Can you drink of it?”

Listen to what the poet says,

“Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

                Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.”[1]

“It’s a good cup, really.”

“Not that I haven’t felt like the meadow or the wheat field offer better sustenance, it’s just, I’ve tried crawling out of this Black Forest many times.”  “I haven’t found my way out yet, plus, I’m not sure I want to.”  “I tell myself, in my best moments, that I don’t want to leave unless the Rock comes along.”  “So far, he hasn’t budged.”

“It’s that cup that keeps me here.”  “It seems to me, since it’s what the Rock has given me, it’s a good cup.”  “It’s a good life.”

A Picture of “To Cling” Or “Watch Out For That Creek!”

Let me share a word picture illustrating the act of clinging.  Clinging like there’s no tomorrow.  Clinging to something bigger than yourself.

In my early twenties I was insecure and shy.  I had few female relationships and I blame it on the “party-line” phone system ensuring any attempt of asking a girl on a date would be heard (and repeated) by at least 3 housewives and by my Uncle Harold, guaranteed.   To overcome this intimidation I did the manly thing.  I waited for a girl to ask me out.  Any girl.

But this time, it was not just any girl.  I’d made it to the early phase of a dating relationship with a blonde beauty who’d recently whooped me in a game of tether-ball.  Ever encounter a professional tether-ball player?  Turns out, in her youth, she’d work her way to the pole during middle-school recesses and never relinquish the victor’s position until the bell rang.  I hit the ball once.  Kinda gentle like as if you were playing against a girl.  When it reached her side of the pole, she interlocked her fingers making a two-fisted sort of club and launched the ball into orbit above my head.  I just watched the ball twirl into tight loops at the top of the pole.  No use even jumping.

I picked my cowboy hat out of the dust and asked her to join me in the Fall roundup.  She joined me and my family as we sought to fetch the cattle from dry pastures and haul them back home for winter care.  We warmed ourselves on the cold day around the campfire, watching our breath mingle with the steam from cowboy coffee my dad perked over the coals, and listened to tall tales told by Uncle Harold.  He was a great story-teller.  Some parts were true.  At least as true as truth can be stretched.  Some parts may have been gleaned from overheard party-line conversations.

We mounted our horses, gave out the traditional cattle call, “Come Bos!” and discovered there was little work to do but open the corral gate and watch eager cattle stream in.

It was over too quick.  So, the pony-tailed gorgeous blonde and I went for a leisurely ride to absorb the scenery of the North Idaho mountains and meadows.  Here I was, in my cowboy shyness, swapping stories with not just any girl while we meandered on gentle horses back towards the corrals.  I’m thinking, “Gosh, if she enjoys this, perhaps I’ll step up into cowboy confidence and ask her out again someday.  Don’t blow this one, buddy.”

“Hey, wanna gallop these ol’ cayuses?”  I asked, glancing at the corrals down over a few hillsides about a mile away.

She said, “Sure.”  It may have been the last word she ever uttered if she’d been just any girl.

I’d expected the horses to hit a gentle loping stride as we nudged them with our heels.  Instead, the horse interpretation for seeing corrals in the distance equates to, “Whaaa Hoooo!  Let’s fly!  Last one to the corral’s an ol’nag!”

In a flash, our horses were tearing down a steep hillside like an avalanche.  Blondie’s ponytail bobbed and fluttered, marking each hurtling stride.  From a few paces behind her, too far behind to rescue her, I shuddered as the sudden startle caused her feet to come out of the stirrups.  Worse, she dropped the reins.

My memory now shifts into slow motion.  The next moments unfold frame by frame as if dreamed.  It wasn’t a dream.  With panic in my voice I screamed, “Watch out for that Creek!”  The Creek was about 6 feet across by 3 feet deep.  It held no water this time of year, but any horseman knows the paralyzing dilemma it presented.  The mad dashing steeds allowed themselves two options.  Maintain full blinding speed and leap to clear the obstacle.  Or, apply horse brakes, sliding to the edge of the Creek in rapid deceleration effectively launching any saddle occupant without their feet in the stirrups like a catapult.

Meanwhile, facing the inevitable onrushing catastrophe, I thought, “Either way the horse chooses, Blondie’s dead.”  “I killed her and she wasn’t just any girl.”  I imagined sitting in the dirt holding her head on my lap, stroking her hair to comfort her toward her last breath.

But Blondie assessed her predicament and notice the saddle horn.  Two tether-ball-honed hands interlocked their fingers around that stout piece of leather-covered metal, and clung.  Clung for dear life.  That’s the picture I want you to put in your mind.  What brash option did the horse choose?  The “don’t-slow-down and leap” option.  Up. Up as if it were a cow jumping over the moon.  As the horse descended toward earth, I could see the sunset twixt the saddle and Blondie’s jeans.  But oh she did cling.  The landing was rough, but she stayed in the saddle.  She clung.  There will be a tomorrow.

In a most welcome moment of relief, I absorbed the glorious outcome and made note of a deep inner voice whispering, “She stayed in the saddle.  I’ve got to marry that girl.”  She gave me a picture of clinging that’s lasted 35 years.  She also gave me a ring that’s now the same age.

Projected Image vs. Core Image

My Dad was a cowboy stud.  He would have been selected as the Marlboro Man if he wasn’t isolated on a rural Idaho cattle ranch/wheat farm 10 miles from the hometown of 289 city folks.  Dad was so bow-legged, he made bow-legged men look like their legs came out of the same socket.  He had no lazy-boy recliner.  To ease his aching back muscles after a hard day’s labor he’d climb in his saddle and ride off the pain.  He dressed like a cowboy should, not with duds bought from the catalogs catering to pretenders, but with whatever was available at the local feed/implement/clothing store.  I had nearly identical boots, jeans, straw hat and snap-up shirt.  I have a memory of him tying me into the saddle, when I was four-years old, with the straps you’d use to tie your raincoat or woolen blanket to, so I wouldn’t fall off.  We’d ride a circuit of 10 miles to visit neighbors and in between stops he’d sing “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.”  I was awed by the way he could roll a cigarette holding a bag of tobacco in his teeth, reins in one hand, cigarette paper in the other.

The clinching event occurred a few years later when I was probably nine.  I no longer needed to be tied into the saddle.  I’d become a decent horseman.  We had ridden the pasture to gather some cattle to take to the sale barn located 30 miles away.  On the way, we passed through our hometown in the cattle truck and he stopped so we could get a burger at the local café.  As we walked through the door I realized neither of had taken our spurs off.  That thought puffed out my chest.  I noticed some of my classmates who didn’t live and work on farms and, therefore, swam most summer days, goofing off in the cafe, playing pinball, dressed in their swim trunks and wearing flip flops.  I stepped in a way that exaggerated the bend of my ankles so my heels struck the floor hard, making the spurs jingle as we strode to our booth.  I noticed their envious glances from the corner of my eye.  I remember the wave of superiority wash over me.  Junior-cowboy-stud.

So many of my stories center on this cowboy theme.  I enjoy telling them because I enjoy giving you the perception that I’m a tough cowboy capable of handling any challenge.  I can’t help it.  My experiences have shaped me.  They’re part of my identity and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But it can only remain a good thing if I guard against “I’m a tough cowboy” becoming a pose.  If I can guard against it becoming my core identity.

[1] George Herbert, The Agony, lines 17, 18.

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.