Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Live and Let Live or the Golden Rule?

My husband, his mother, and I went for a walk this morning. We followed our usual path—Zack and I walked up the steep hill to his mom’s place and then the three of us headed past my son Jubal’s trailer and up the long driveway and through the gate to the “upper end.”

That’s what we call the land that’s farthest away from the houses, the sheep barn, and the orchard pastures. A dirt road follows another steep rise up through oak woodlands, past the pond that floods the road after winter rains but dries up in the hot days of summer. After passing the pond, the road follows a wide loop that circles the oldest barn on the place, old enough that it has been many years since it was used for anything but storage.

Before we got too far, my son Jubal caught up to us, his dog Odie jumping with excitement, wiggling and barking at the sight of us. Good-natured and tail-wagging friendly, Odie is a young pit bull, sleek, muscular, and extremely energetic. They joined us and were soon in the lead.

These walks are for exercise, but they are also a “check-in” time—we share conversation about our lives and scope out the farthest reaches of the ranch, a distance of a mile from our house, around the loop, and home again. It’s an opportunity to keep an eye on the springs and spring boxes that provide the only water on the place and we can locate fallen trees or broken fence lines. It’s also a time to enjoy the natural beauty that we are privileged to live amid.

On every walk, no matter what the season or weather, the view from the upper end can take my breath away—sometimes hills and valleys barely seen through the foggy mist; sometimes miles and miles of clear skies that reveal Mt. Tamalpais in the far distance.

Occasionally, we stumble upon a bit of excitement. This morning Odie perked up his ears and stiff-legged, jumped into the ditch near a large stack of fence pickets. Jubal pulled him back then whistled low and soft. “Odie,” he said holding Odie’s leash tight, “jumping a rattlesnake isn’t the best idea, bud.”

A small rattlesnake, probably less than 12 inches long, lay curled in the grass. It didn’t coil or try to strike, slow and sluggish from the chill of a damp morning.

Thirty years ago I married into a family that likes and respects all creatures, snakes included, even rattlers. My husband’s family showed me that snakes have their own place in the natural order. Although it took a while, I have come to adopt my husband’s ways—I don’t kill snakes. Our policy is the old adage, “live and let live” or perhaps it’s just a variation on “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” what we Christians call the Golden Rule. Given our call to care for creation, it seems to me that the Golden Rule applies to the other creatures that share the earth.

Every major religious tradition has something similar to the “Golden Rule,” but even when our treatment of other humans is concerned, it’s not easy to live that rule, not in our own lives or out in the larger world. That’s obvious from the newspaper headlines and the words of the latest television pundits. All across the world people are shooting and bombing, killing and maiming each other, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to a whole list of countries in Africa and other places spread around the globe.

We fear what is different, whether it’s a difference of race, tribe, clan, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political party, or at times, even species. When economies tumble, natural disasters come, a frightening disease strikes an entire population, or any of the things that increase the tension and anxiety in people’s lives, the ones we fear become an easy target to blame, an easy enemy to attack.

Love your neighbor as yourself, the Bible says, but what about those who aren’t our neighbors? Those don’t look like us, or don’t talk like us, those who don’t worship the way we do, don’t live the way we live? In the 6th chapter of Luke, Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, and do good to them… be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

Living here on the ranch with its abundance of wild creatures has taught me that humans can learn to live with what is different, even with what we fear. My prayer is that one day, by some miracle of grace, the peoples of the world can find a way to respect, love, and live with each other, whatever our differences may be.

peace & blessings, Country Woman

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Making a Joyful Noise

When I was in grade school, we had singing class each week. I remember lining up and walking down to the gym where we’d sit on the bottom row of the bleachers and sing songs from tattered blue books that had simple line drawings of singing, marching children wearing silly hats and wide smiles. I loved music class, a half hour break in the day. Besides, singing lifted my spirits, leaving me smiling and light-hearted.

For a long time, singing came naturally to me—as we got older, my sister and I enlivened dish washing time by singing the top ten tunes we heard every day on the radio. Three years older, she favored Elvis numbers, “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes,” while I preferred the harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the girl singers who sang of unrequited love, “To know, know, know-o him, is to love, love, love-a him.”

After I turned twelve, I joined her in the choir at the little Baptist Church where I had been baptized that summer. We were the youngest choir members, surrounded by gray-haired ladies whose voices ranged from Mrs. Mallory’s strong alto to tiny Mrs. Adams’ shaky soprano. There really weren’t any “great” singers among us and I’m not sure what we sounded like on those long ago Sundays. I do remember that there were a few times when, there in that shabby little church, allowing my own tentative voice to mingle with theirs brought me a tiny glimpse of what it was like to stand on holy ground.

But I grew up and it wasn’t long after I left the church and that small town in Oregon that singing lost its lustre. It happened one sunny summer day. I was making lunch, my baby daughter in her high chair next to me, giggling and cooing. I was singing “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure and wear flowers in your hair” when I heard my husband’s low growl from the other room, “People who can’t sing really shouldn’t try.”

It was very a long time before I sang again, long after that marriage ended and years after I had married Zack. One evening, coming quietly into a room where I was singing as I worked, he asked me, “Why don’t you ever sing? You have a nice voice.” I didn’t tell him that I felt ashamed and embarrassed because I wasn’t “good enough.”

I just read a book written by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls duo and her father Don Saliers, a renowned church musician. In the introduction to “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live” the authors say: “It has become easy to forget that music deepens and makes more vivid the beauty, the delight, and yes, even the lamentable terrors and sufferings of our world. Music is rooted in the human body and the human soul, and it gives voice to the spirit of human communities. Without songs to sing, life would be diminished.”

“Without songs to sing”—it does not say “without songs to listen to.” Strangely enough, it is only some of the richer, “first world” nations that have forgotten that singing is part of what it means to be human. In many countries, the presumption is that everyone can sing and they do. Certainly there are those who have more naturally melodic voices, those who are trained and educated, but communal singing is as old as human history. Singing as a way to worship and praise the Holy is probably nearly as old.

This year my husband surprised me with a very special Christmas present. He paid the tuition for a four-session singing class taught by Katie Ketchum, the substitute musician at our church several years ago when Kira went to Russia. Katie is also a trained singing teacher. The class was for women, many of whom I discovered had similar experiences.

Waiting for that first class to start I paced and hyperventilated outside the classroom. However, once it began, with Katie’s calm presence, a sense of safety and peace came over me. The fifteen women talked and laughed and there were even a few teary-eyed moments. We shared our stories, Katie taught us exercises to help us loosen up, and we sang a few simple songs.

Last of all we practiced a traditional round together, a bit weak at first, then I heard the voices around me grow stronger and more beautiful by the moment. I closed my eyes and kept singing. Standing in that circle of women, most of whom had been strangers just an hour before, I realized we had crossed over onto holy ground, that place where people open their hearts to each other and share their deepest human connections.

Driving home from the last class of the series, I determined to do my best not to let the voices from the past silence my own voice any longer. I hope you do not let anyone silence yours. Scripture tells us to raise a joyful noise. May it be so.

Blessings from Country Woman


In a book titled “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” by Paul Woodruff, the second paragraph begins with these words: “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death.”

Last week, after reading an article in the Press Democrat, my husband and I drove to a private school not far from Healdsburg to view a sight that I had never imagined. It was a lovely evening, shirtsleeve weather with a slight breeze. Rio Lindo Academy, a Seventh Day Adventist boarding high school, has a lovely campus with brick buildings, wide green lawns, and a sweeping view over acres of vineyards. We parked across from an older structure, its plaster walls dull and cracked, the windows dusty, a building long abandoned except for storage purposes. At one end, there was a large square chimney, the object that drew us to that place.

We were among the first arrivals, but obviously we had come unprepared, arriving empty-handed except for my husband’s camera bag and gear. Several couples had set up lawn chairs and there was a family, dad pushing a stroller with a small passenger and mom carrying a tiny baby. Another couple followed them and quickly spread a blanket and set down pizza boxes, the aroma wafting our direction. Soon more people arrived, couples, others who were alone, more families, and sometimes groups of five or six. The lane was lined for more than a block with people sitting or standing and children running and playing. While there was quiet conversation and the laughter of children, mostly people watched that chimney.

After about a half-hour, someone said, “Look, here they come.” Far above us we saw a few dark shapes against the sky, small birds, fluttering and circling in the air. They came down towards the chimney, circled it and then flew away. Minutes later, another group did the same, followed by another. We waited and during the next half hour, the groups grew larger and finally they began diving closer and disappeared inside the chimney. More and more came, hundreds of tiny birds swooping into the chimney. Finally there were thousands filling the sky, a living tornado of whirring wings, circling and descending out of sight.

One of the school’s staff walked through the crowd and passed out a paper that talked about the school on one side and described the birds on the other. I read that they are Vaux’s Swifts, known in some places as “chimney swifts” for their habit of using chimneys as their resting place, especially on their migration routes. The paper stated that some years there are as many as 20,000 birds that stop by the school campus, with 360 entering the chimney every minute during the most active landings.

Several days passed and Sunday morning came. As we were preparing to walk out of the house and get in the truck for the drive to Guerneville for church, the phone rang. Someone called to tell us the whales were running off Bodega Head, “So close,” she said, “they’re touching each other.”

After street church that afternoon, we made our way to Jenner and turned south towards Bodega. When we arrived we found that the cliffs above the ocean were lined with people, much like those who had gathered to watch the birds. We made our way to the edge and within a moment or two, I cried, “There’s one, Zack,” pointing to a large black shape that rose just above the waves. As long as we stood there, we could see them, their presence heralded by an arching spray of water, then an immense shadow that broke the surface, then disappeared.

Looking at the people gathered there and remembering those waiting so patiently in Healdsburg, I thought about how these small events had pulled each of us away from our regular routines. Dinners postponed, televisions turned off, work set aside, we had come to watch these mysterious, magical occurrences, events beyond our understanding and certainly beyond our control. As the last birds disappeared into that chimney, there was a sound that swept across the crowd, like a breeze ruffling through leaves, a deep sigh of appreciation, perhaps even of awe. On the cliff above the sea, again and again, I heard one person and another call out, “There’s one—I see one!” This world is full of amazing things, all of them part of the gift we have been given, the wondrous gift of being a small part of this intricately beautiful creation. Sometimes all we can do is stand in reverence, filled with an awe that goes beyond words.

blessings from Country Woman

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Weddings Then and Now

When my great-niece Amanda asked if I would preside at her wedding, I had no idea that on a warm, breezy July afternoon I would find myself in an enormous Oregon hayfield waiting for the wedding party’s arrival. In front of me people sat on hay bales, many folks in bright western clothes and cowboy hats of all colors and sizes, felt and straw hats, wide-brimmed and narrow, new and well-worn.

Finally the moment arrived. While country western music rang from the sound system, the mothers and grandmothers were escorted up the aisle, then came the 4-year-old ringbearer escorted by his parents, followed by four young couples. Brocade vests with western shirts and string ties for the guys and bright yellow dresses for the gals were accompanied by well-worn cowboy boots for all. Two small flower girls, flowers and ribbons circling their heads, bright as baby angels, threw rose petals among the hay stubble.

As the bride and her father stepped into the aisle, I asked people to stand. What a lovely bride she was, her simple but elegant white satin dress, long dark hair, and flowing veil. When she lifted her dress a bit to keep it from dragging, once again, I saw cowboy boots scuffed from use. As the music shifted to a softer, sweeter sound, a man sang “my baby girl’s all grown now” and that’s when Amanda looked up at her father and tears appeared on her cheeks. He pulled her a bit closer and kissed her on her forehead.

After he gave the bride’s hand to the young man waiting next to me, the bride’s father stepped back to take his seat next to my niece, fumbling for his handkerchief. The young couple stood there just looking at each other and in that moment, I knew we had once again come to that holy place where love brings us.

When love lasts even when life brings us to the waning days of our lives, that is a gift beyond measure. The morning before the wedding, my husband Zack and I went to breakfast in a local cafĂ©. The place was packed and we took the last available table. Next to me an elderly man sat alone, although there was a half-finished breakfast resting across from him. His chair was only inches from mine and I asked if I was crowding him. “Oh, no,” he said, “I’m just waiting for my wife—she’s in the ladies’ room .”

He went on to tell me that they had come to the coast to escape the 100 plus temperatures where they lived in Grants Pass. “I just can’t take the heat any more,” he said. “Besides, we wanted a special weekend—they’re gonna take my leg off Monday and it’ll be a while before we get out again. I feel real bad, though – she wanted to go to her niece’s wedding in Los Angeles this weekend and I just wasn’t up to it.” He shook his head and said, “Yep, I feel real bad—she really wanted to go.”

When his wife returned, the man struggled to get up. I stood and put my hand under his elbow and then I saw the crutch, one of those metal ones with a cuff for your arm. I handed it to him and he limped towards the restrooms.

His wife was a small woman looking some years younger than her husband. A bright red baseball cap sat loosely on her head, thick dark hair springing out from it. She smiled a bit and said “He’s such a talker, isn’t he?” She adjusted the hat, then said, “I can hardly stand this wind—it nearly blew my hair off,” and she laughed. “I’ve been in chemo for a while,” touching the wig.

She looked back where her husband was making his slow way through the crowded room, shook her head, smiled and said, “We’re lucky to have each other. He takes care of me and I take care of him.”

Zack took my hand as we watched them totter off to their car.

Of course, none of us knows what the future holds, what joys or sorrows will find us in the years to come, young couples just starting out or that elderly couple who were young once, too. But what I prayed for Amanda and Nate, what I pray for the couple from Grants Pass and for everyone is that each of us will find that partner who will help us become the people we were meant to be, who will encourage us to follow our dreams, who will stand by us through the hard times, and celebrate with us when life is good; that love will hold through whatever comes, that each of us includes God in our lives and always keeps open to the possibility of grace.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Do Not Go Gently

I wrote this during Lent — when I reread it today, I just felt like there was someone out there who needed to read it, too.

During the eight years I served a small country church in Kansas, I did a lot of funerals. During one six-month period, there were seventeen.

Each funeral was different—once I presided with a priest at the local Catholic Church. That funeral had the rich smell of incense, the sweetness of bells, the familiar words of Mass. My first service at the local mortuary chapel had favorite old hymns and bouquets of wheat and sunflowers, the deceased with the look of a dedicated farmer even there in that place. A service for an elderly man I’d never met had the delightful gift of a piano concerto from a teenaged grandson, his fingers rippling across the keys, and once three young girls said goodbye to their grandma with sweet high voices singing “Jesus loves you, this I know.”

But those solemn services were alike, too—music, stories, an unexpected and painful kind of joy, the kind that comes from sharing treasured memories that will live on as long as there is one person to tell them. And of course, sadness, deep sadness that closes the throat and brings tears long after you think you have no more tears to cry.

And, the hard thing is, life does go on—even in the midst of planning a service, choosing a casket, of writing thank you notes, life goes on. A little girl’s voice calls you away from your tasks, “Grandma, Grandma…” and you go, knowing that this too is a precious and holy moment that will quickly pass and be gone.

Or you force yourself to fix breakfast, breakfast for one, and sitting at the table, your toast growing cold, you sip dark coffee. Suddenly there’s a bird on the windowsill hopping brightly back and forth, peering at you with a shiny dark eye. You step outside to get the paper. The air is fresh and cold and the old dog comes to lean against you, hoping you might stop to rub his ears while he groans with pleasure.

The days pass pretty much like always and that is the way of things, the way of life. I think of the people, the families I spent so much time with in those days. I held them in my heart and in my prayers as they went through these first months. Know, too, that God holds you, each of you who has lost someone, whether recently, or years past, because though it becomes easier, there is always that sad, sore spot in your heart that never quite goes away. I know that spot well. Sometimes it’s strangely comforting when I feel it, remembering dear ones who at that moment are as clear in my memory as if I’d seen them only yesterday.

Perhaps it’s the season that has me thinking of death and loss. In these weeks as I ride over West Side Road to the church, there are enormous oak trees that stand stark and leafless against the sky. The vineyards are bare, the workers hunched in the cold as they prune back the vines. As I write, the temperature has dropped and heavy, slushy flakes fall outside the window.

But sitting in the recliner this morning drinking my coffee and finishing the Sunday paper, something caught my eye—rosy buds on bare limbs, dark and velvet soft, the flowering quince outside the front window. My first thought was that it was too soon, that they will only perish in the next hard rain that is sure to come. But still I am cheered by the thought of them there, waiting to burst forth into bloom, waiting to announce that winter has once again moved on, that the cycle goes on, life goes on.

Lent is almost upon us, the season that seems harsh and spare, the time when we are called to look within, called to question what is going on in our minds and hearts, what is going on in our life of faith. We prepare for Easter by preparing for death, for loss. Then I think about Jesus’ teachings and I wonder. Is that what he taught? It seems to me that until the end, Jesus lived life to the fullest. What did he do the night before he died, the night scholars say he knew well that the cross was waiting? He ate dinner with his friends, he drank wine and told stories, he called them together to say one last time, “I love you… I love you.” And even Judas sat at that table.

I think of the Dylan Thomas poem, the words,

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

We don’t get a guarantee of time—a year, twenty, four score and ten—all we get is the opportunity to live life to the fullest as long as we can, until the very last moment, the very last breath. When we hold back, when we refuse to give our best, that’s the sin, the shame.

Winter and Lent—time to slow down a bit, time to think of what’s going on, what’s coming, where life’s going; time to look forward to the change spring will surely bring. I pray that whatever the season, whatever the circumstances, we each find it within us to refuse to live halfway, to refuse to live anxiously, tentatively stepping through our days. No, it is far better to rage…to rage against the dying of the light wherever we are… sometimes that’s all that keeps the darkness away.

Blessings to you and may your days be filled with grace, Pam

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Self-Help, Helping Others

I’m always picking up self-help books, everything from “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church” to “The Smash Fat Diet.” I have this fantasy that if you buy the book, your life will magically change for the better. Perhaps that’s why self-help books are such a popular genre—people have a tendency to suffer from what the psychologists call “Magical Thinking.” If we think it, it will come true.

Self-help books are supposed to change our lives. Sometimes they may do that, at least I hope so. As for mine, they mostly gather dust on the shelf.

Novels can also be self-help books; at least they have the power to change our lives if we let their stories transform our hearts. A seminary friend of mine has told me that reading the novel “The Poisonwood Bible” certainly changed her.

Written by Barbara Kingsolver, one of the most gifted writers of our time, “The Poisonwood Bible” is the story of Nathan Price, a driven and troubled man. In 1959 Price drags his wife and four daughters to Africa so he can follow his call to spread the Word of God to the “heathens.”

It’s a powerful tale that I’ve read twice and also listened to as an audio version. In a time of great upheaval in Africa, the Price family travels from their home in Georgia to a tiny isolated village in the Belgian Congo. There, Papa Price preaches sin, hellfire and damnation to people who are desperately poor, people who may very well be the very least of “the least of these.”

After reading the tragedies that befell the Prices and the people they lived among, including an attack of army ants, drought, starvation, and a war for independence, my friend Wilma began a juice fast that lasted the entire season of Lent. She said that Kingsolver’s powerful words reminded her that for many people in the world, life is a struggle just to survive.

“In the face of that kind of suffering,” she said, “the way we live is obscene. Knowing that I spend more money each month on pet food than many families spend for their entire month’s meals made me ashamed.”

I haven’t seen Wilma since that conversation several years ago so I don’t know where her journey has taken her. I do know this—I continue to struggle with trying to live more simply, to consume less, to live lightly on the earth.

It’s tempting to give up, to just forget about it. But then I hear a story like Emily, Babe Lambert’s great-granddaughter, told in her letter from Africa—how the children she met there have so little and are so grateful for the smallest gifts.

Or I remember my time in Kentucky when a woman who lived in absolute poverty and squalor asked if I would sing with her. Her voice rang out loud and clear, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” When I left her tiny cabin, she called out, “Honey, remember, Jesus will see you through the hard times.”

Like the disciples, we decide to follow Jesus—this charismatic teacher, preacher, savior who came to show us The Way—the way to live, the way to love. But we forget that decisions always have consequences. “The Way” isn’t as easy as throwing down our fishing nets, packing our bags, and hitting the road. I fail and fail again and I, too, feel ashamed. So I vow to try one more time and ask the Holy One to forgive me. I also try to remember that Jesus will always see me through the hard times.

Blessings, Country Woman

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Parable of the Chicken

Several years ago we acquired four chickens—a motley crew, there was one small red hen with very strange ways, a large red hen that reminded me of a church lady I once knew, plus two black and white hens that we promptly named Pepper and Salt.

For over three years our small flock seemed content. A few months ago, that all changed. First Miss Wacko, who often refused to come in at night, disappeared. Not long after surviving an attack by a red-tailed hawk, Big Red gave up the ghost.

In the days that followed Salt and Pepper seemed contented enough to have the coop to themselves and wander the confines of the pasture, escaping occasionally to make a break for the barn or the orchard. I must confess that Salt’s demise rests on our shoulders. One Saturday evening we drove to Guerneville to dance to the rockin’ rhythms of Michael Adams’ band, The Fargo Bros. By the time we got home, we were so tired, we forgot that we had not closed the small back door to the chicken house. The next morning, Pepper sat alone on the perch except for a pile of feathers in the corner.

Each morning we let Pepper out. She wandered alone, pecking here and there, a small black and white figure against the sea of green. Who knows if chickens get lonely, but they are flock animals after all—they naturally form communities. So we asked around until we found a farmer north of Ukiah who had young hens for sale.

We were so pleased to bring home a dozen new companions for Pepper—four white hens, tall but slender birds, three red hens much like Big Red, and five Araucanas, large birds feathered in rust, brown, and black in gorgeous patterns.

However, chicken psychology is obviously not our forte. Much to our surprise and dismay, Pepper rejected all attempts to introduce her to this new family. As soon as we began unloading the newcomers, Pepper set up a terrible squawk. As each chicken was set on the floor, her insulted and angry screeching grew louder. When I let her go, she immediately rose up like an avenging angel, striking out with her heavy talons at any chicken that dared approach her.

It has been five days now and each time we let Pepper out of her cage, there is a violent but short-lived struggle. Amid a great flapping of wings and flying dust, I manage to snatch her up and put her back in the large pet carrier that has become her refuge.

How strange that even chickens reject strangers, even their own kind, just because there’s something about them that’s just a little different—the wrong color, the wrong size, the wrong smell, the wrong behavior. This is especially intriguing to me in the midst of the ongoing battles over health care reform and immigration.

Don’t people realize how they sound? Underneath all the rhetoric, their words are pretty clear. “I take care of me and my own—you can darn well do the same.” Or “This is my place—you look different, you talk different, you even dress different and you’re not welcome here.”

Like dogs fighting over a few scraps or a none too smart chicken that doesn’t realize that a new flock might just be a blessing. Amid a great flapping of lips and a cloud of innuendo and insults, our leaders have refused to see that we’re all in this together, that we need each other. Many of them seem to have lost their way and sometimes they fool the very people who put them in office into following after them.

Worst of all, lots of people on both sides claim to be Christians. Maybe they read a different Bible than I do. The one I read says over and over that our differences don’t matter. It says we’re all part of the same family, brothers and sisters, children of the King. The Scriptures that I read say that everyone is our neighbor, even those we fear or despise. Again and again Jesus speaks of love and forgiveness and grace.

A chicken can’t read, but human beings have no excuse. No excuse at all.

Peace and blessings, Country Woman