A Guy Walks into a Barnyard

It’s 2 A.M. The cloudless, moonless firmament reveals a stellar view of constellations and, appropriately for a cowherd, a little galaxy we call the Milky Way.

My barnyard rhythms kick in. Those rhythms I noticed in a Sunday church service and I am now trying to intentionally weave into my mundane, workaday lifestyle.

Why? First, because we are what we love. Second, because there’s a serious gap between what we say we love and what we really love.[1]

First up, God Calls Us. I stop midway between my trailer and the barn, and gaze skyward until awe sinks in. That’s when I hear, with those ears of my soul, God’s Barnyard Call to Worship.

I hear Him say, “You’re Mine! You’re Mine! You’re Mine!”

Those words are crammed with meaning. My Covenant God[2], who knows me by name[3], thinks things about me too marvelous to absorb fully. Things like, I’m His beloved. I’m part of a royal people[4]. I’m His son.

Pretty deep stuff to ponder for a guy in Muck boots and Wrangler jeans, just stumbling out of bed, carrying a thermos of coffee to, eventually, sharpen my senses. But His words go to work in me. They are shaping something in me no less than my core identity. Carving truth in stone in my deep places. Like all good rhythms, whether encountered in a church service or a barnyard, it takes time and repetition for the shaping to work. I wish it would happen quickly, but transformation, in me, seems almost imperceptible. It usually takes a test or trial to reveal if it’s real.

Like me, I’m guessing you, too, love to recognize God’s Presence. To aid in this, have you considered the weather? The wind? Clouds? Hot? Cold? Storm? Calm?

Because I work outdoors for a portion of my days and nights. I noticed the negative impact weather has on my attitude. God can never seem to get it right. You know the feeling, “Snow, again? Too much, too little rain. The crops will suffer. Dang, the manure is so frozen, it’ll take me hours more to clean the barn. Or, it’s too hot/cold in this milking parlor.”

Farm-folk are notorious for complaining about the weather since it has such direct impact on their livelihood. But somewhere deep down, farm-folk get a grasp of God’s Sovereignty as they bend their trust toward Him.

I can point to a new shape, a new love growing in me, transforming my heart by drawing me towards God. One example involves wind. You and I know that His Spirit is wind, breath, life. His Spirit broods on us, lives in us, moves us, guides us, comforts us. Could my perception of something as common-place as wind become a fresh awareness of the Holy Spirit, the very Presence of God I long for?

Maybe you could try this at home. I discovered another little rhythm to incorporate into my trip to the barn and periodically throughout my work day. A rhythm well-suited to God’s Barnyard Call to Worship. I call it, “Where are You, wind?” I pause to notice. Okay, tonight under a sky crammed with stars, gentle breezes waft from the Southwest. I turn to face it. Then, I adjust my stance a few degrees left, then back right, one part of one degree until I know its direction precisely. I feel it on my beard.

I wanted to sense the Presence of God? There He is!

Take A Deep Breath of Remember: In a brief, sacred moment, on the way to work, I both noticed God’s Presence and hear Him speak intimate words to my soul. 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?

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (Psalms 139:5-7, NIV) 

Prayer: O my Creator, my abiding Holy Spirit, quicken me. Amen.

Photo Credit: The Old Homestead, Currier & Ives

[1] These thoughts provided by James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love-The Spiritual Power of Habit, 2016, BrazosPress

[2] For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15, NIV)

[3] The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:3, NIV)

[4] But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9, NIV)

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

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.

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.”