All posts by tunemyheart

Mark Browning lives on 60 wooded acres in the Greater Bates City, Missouri metropolitan area. For over a quarter of a century he has been wed to the lovely Penny with whom he shares four children and four grandchildren. In his spare time, he teaches English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

A Farmer’s Kind of Comfort

My forebears, the generations before my grandparents, were farmers. I’m not entirely certain how successful these people were as farmers, but they listed themselves as such on the census reports. My grandfathers, born on farms, made an exit toward better economic pickings, eventually making their ways to Kansas City where two of their children met and became my parents.

Why did so many people in America, from the late 1800s and into the early decades of the 1900s make that farm-to-city move? Somewhere in the 1870s, the segment of the population working on farms moved below 50% for the first time. By 1940, as the Second World War drew near, that number dropped to 18%. And the reason is fairly clear. With increasing industrialization offering steady jobs and the relative certainty and comfort of urban life, the move seems sensible.

Think about it. If you work in a steel mill, as my maternal grandfather did, you don’t need to worry much about the weather. A drought will not ruin the steel. Blast furnaces, unlike hogs or cows, don’t die, and if one does go off line, it’s not the worker’s problem so much as the company’s. When the potatoes succumbed to a disease on the farm, that typically meant not having potatoes that year. In the city, unless the problem was catastrophic, it meant that you paid more for the spuds at the market.

City dwellers didn’t have to contend with long dirt roads. Coyotes mostly chased roadrunners in cartoons rather than eating the chickens. Water, sewer service, electricity, and phones came to the city far more quickly than to the country. To this day, the broadband Internet availability in rural areas is limited. Who wouldn’t want to move from the farm to the city?

Elijah presumably didn’t want to make that move. After serving as God’s emissary to bring about a terrific drought, Elijah had to make himself scarce lest the officials make him dead. In 1 Kings 17:2-4, he is told to “hide” in the Kerith Ravine to drink from its brook and eat what ravens brought.

As a result of the drought, Elijah had to move to town in 1 Kings 17:9. Couldn’t God have kept some water running in that stream for him? He could have done so, but I don’t think God wanted Elijah to get too comfortable.

Those who remain on the farm, who move from cities back to farms, or who just have a farmer mentality understand that comfort is not something that we should always desire. We might have to tend the animals in sub-zero weather. That’s just the truth.

Moving from our comfort zone is frightening but less so when we trust that God is directing our steps. Successful farmers have a self-reliant streak, but successful Christians couple that with a God-reliant streak. Put those together and a little discomfort is just–well–a little discomfort.

 

An Astronomer’s Kind of Vision

There was a day in the past when people–understandably, I think–believed that the earth stood at the center of the universe. In that cosmology, all of the planets, the sun, and the moon revolved around the earth. The stars inhabited a single sphere that marked the outer edge of the created realm. It was a magnificent model, however flawed.

Today, we see things far larger and far smaller. The development of telescopes and other tools for astronomical research have revealed galaxies upon galaxies, while the discoveries of chemistry and biology have shown us DNA and the staggeringly complex biochemistry necessary to keep our bodies working.

While some use these discoveries to argue for the necessity of a creator, I’d like to go a different direction. Once we assume that a creator exists, the revelations of the very large and the very small demonstrate more and more the greatness of God. If God was amazing when Ptolemy described the model above, how much greater can He be seen to be when we realize the vast complexity of the universe? How much more remarkable will God be shown when we understand still more of His creation?

I see that greatness and I claim to believe it. So why is it that I don’t behave as if I believe?

  • Why would the God who can create over 6,000 of species of toads have any trouble seeing me through life if I take the rather feeble step of tithing on my income?
  • Why would the God who designed and deployed human brains with 100 trillion synapses not be able to move upon one of those brains either to give me words to speak (Luke 12:12) or move upon my listener for persuasion (John 6:44)?
  • Why would the God who gave the Israelites food enough to come out of their nostrils (Numbers 11:19-20) have any trouble feeding a wealthy nation like the United States without us needing to pollute our land and waters so badly?

When Moses, after all he had seen, has his doubts about the ability of God to provide meat, God’s response is quick and forceful: “Is the Lord’s arm weak? Now you will see whether or not what I have promised will happen to you” (Numbers 11:23).

Why do we, who supposedly believe in the limitless power of God, box Him in by living as if we thought Him limited? If God can only do so much in our world, doesn’t it stand to reason that He can only save so much? Or so many? Maybe He can only partially forgive sins.

The God who can keep the cosmos arranged and the electrons orbiting can easily handle anything that I need. That’s the truth. Now I just need to live like I believe it.

Embrace the Pigness of the Pig

This summer, Penny and I visited Polyface Farms, the home base of Joel Salatin, beyond-organic farmer to the stars. Alright, while Salatin might not do much hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers, he has been in a good selection of movies. I’m convinced that there’s a law prohibiting anyone from producing a food- or agriculture-related documentary without inserting at least one snippet of Joel.

After leaving the farm that day, I grieved for part of my drive back into Staunton, Virginia, the city where we were staying. You see, the farm’s shop did not have any t-shirts reading “The marvelous pigness of pigs” in my size. The shopkeeper assured us that they’d be getting those in eventually, but we were heading home before that.

Only on the way home, as we made a fourteen-hour expedition from Staunton to our house, did I realize–thanks to Penny’s handy use of Google and decent cell reception in West Virginia–that my coveted t-shirt actually reflected the title of Joel’s latest book: The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for All God’s Creation.

Before reaching home, I had ordered a copy of the tome. Penny followed suit, requesting it from our library. We’ve been reading through it over the past several weeks.

After writing and speaking for decades as a voice for sustainable agriculture and clean foods, Salatin with this book has “come out” as a Christian. Honestly, I don’t think many people who had encountered him were terribly surprised, but in that book’s pages, he lays out the theological underpinnings for his agricultural practices.

Although I plan to take up some, if not all, of the individual chapters in days to come, I thought it would make sense to consider my own “pigness” or the pigness of my students. Do you have “theological underpinnings” for your profession? I ask, because I’m not entirely sure that I have them for my primary work as a college English teacher. Certainly I have not worked out that theology and its implications on day-to-day, semester-to-semester life as thoroughly as Salatin has in this book.

So your homework assignment, as you wait for the book to arrive, is to consider what it means to be a Christian car mechanic, HVAC technician, lawyer, financial planner, gym employee, banker, or whatever it is that you do with your time. Whether you enjoy the pigness of some bacon at the same time is entirely your own affair.

 

A Leper’s Kind of Risk

I have to admit that when my pastor used the lepers from 2 Kings 7:3-4 as examples of those who didn’t lose out on opportunities from playing it safe, I found myself skeptical. These guys were living just outside the city gate of Samaria, unable to go inside because of their illness and unable to leave because a Syrian army had the city throttled in a tight siege. Rather than slowly succumbing to the siege, they elected to try their luck with the enemy camp. “If they kill us, then we were going to die anyway,” they essentially say as they make their way to the Syrian camp.

These guys really weren’t taking a risk, were they? I’m sure they had been depending on gifts of food from the people inside the city. With the siege in full force, nobody inside would be sharing food with them now. They were most likely starving a little more quickly than the people inside. So what did they have to lose by heading to the enemy camp? That was my thought as I listened to the pastor’s sermon and checked my memory for some better examples of those who truly risked themselves rather than playing it safe.

Matthew left a lucrative tax-collecting franchise to follow Jesus. So did Zacchaeus. Peter, Andrew, James, and John all left the family fishing business to traipse about the Galilee with a homeless guy. And Paul was on the fast track to Pharisee superstar status when he ditched it all to follow Jesus. All of these seemed like better examples than those lepers.

As admirable as the risk-taking of the disciples mentioned above proves, as bold as the steps taken by Abraham and Noah and Daniel appear, there’s something to be said for the action of the lepers. Those guys recognized that they had nothing. They not only had nothing but they had nothing to lose. Unlike most people, these men saw reality. They were as good as dead already.

Look at Thomas in John 11:16: “Let’s go so we may die with Him.” It seemed foolish to the disciples to head back to the environs of Jerusalem where the powers wanted to kill Jesus. Still, Thomas couldn’t do anything but follow. He seemed to have understood on that day that if following Jesus was a risk, then it was a risk too good not to take.

Like most people, I like safety. I keep good insurance on my house and car. I’ve saved money for emergencies and for retirement. Somehow I don’t think these are moves that God would mark off as foolish, but I also hope that when the opportunity to take a risk comes along, I won’t be encumbered by my safety and security. Instead, I’d like to think that I would behave like these men with rotting flesh, stepping out with nothing to lose. Because in reality, I have nothing of value to lose.

A Fisherman’s Kind of Trust

I know that I’m supposed to trust God and all, but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I find myself resisting that trust and depending on my own juice. Peter was bad about that sort of thing, which makes the story at the end of Matthew 17 so intriguing. After a discussion of paying taxes, Jesus sends Peter out to catch a fish, find a coin, and thereby pay the tax for the two of them:

“But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for me and you.” –Matthew 17:27

That’s the last verse in the chapter. Notice that the Bible does not say that Peter obeyed Jesus and grabbed his fishing pole. It doesn’t say that he stopped by the bait store, and it certainly does not say that he caught a fish and found a coin in its mouth. I’ve heard this story reported numerous times as if that’s precisely how the Bible indicates it went down, but in reality, this account concludes with Jesus’ instruction.

Did Peter go fishing? Did he catch anything? Was there a coin in the fish’s mouth? We can assume that if this thing did not work out to be a miracle then it wouldn’t have found its way into the pages of scripture. What would be the point?

It’s odd that Jesus sent Peter out to fish with hook and line. Nowhere else in the Bible, despite all the fishing that goes on, is there a reference to fishing with a hook. These people fished with nets. Peter, a professional, would have been excused for saying, “Lord, I think I’ll have better luck fishing my way.” Presumably he didn’t say that. Presumably he took a hook and caught a fish and drew a coin from its mouth.

Fishing is almost always a work of faith. We throw a lure into the water once, twice, a dozen times, and we hope that some creature, unseen in the murky waters, will respond and strike. Sometimes that faith is rewarded and sometimes it is not.

God provides for us when we walk in faith and obedience. He isn’t impressed when we lean on our own strength, our own understanding. He wants us to demonstrate the faith of a fisherman, following his lead no matter how implausible success might seem.

Did Peter catch a fish with a coin in its mouth? That I can’t answer, but I am certain that if he put a line in the water that day, then such a fish was waiting for him. What is the step of faith that God wants me to take today? It surely won’t be as difficult to believe as Peter’s.