Monday, August 3, 2009

Back in the early 1970s, my family and I lived in a rural community in the mountains of Oregon. Called Scotts Mills, the little town had fewer than 50 houses, but it did have a small grocery store, a one-room Quaker Church with a bell that tolled every Sunday morning, a grange hall, and a kindergarten-through eighth grade school.

The town had been invaded, at least that’s what some of the old timers claimed. The back-to-the-land movement had brought young families seeking out that perfect place, that pastoral Eden, where they could settle down, live the “good life,” and raise their children. I guess I was part of that movement, though I had wanted to be a farmer as long as I could remember. One of the best presents I’d ever been given was the miniature farm set that waited under the tree one Christmas morning. I must have been six or seven and by the time I outgrew it, long after I was the age for it, and finally agreed to pass it on to my younger sister, the tractor was missing a wheel, the metal barn had its share of dents and scratches, and the paint was nearly gone from the miniature horses and cows.

Although we had come to Scotts Mills to live in the back of the old hotel and run a gift shop, I was determined that this was my chance—my chance to be a farmer. Soon I discovered the wonders of the Tuesday auction barn. My first time there, I brought home a 3-day old blind goat kid and a tiny speckled pup.

These proved to be less than wise purchases. I cured the goat’s blindness with boric acid baths, but he quickly learned how to open the back door, jump on the kitchen counters, and devour whatever he found there, including my four-year-old son’s birthday cake. As for the pup, despite the old blankets I put in the woodshed, when night fell, he began to cry. Yip-yip-yip would continue until his voice grew hoarse or until a neighbor came banging on the door and we’d have to bring the puppy in, which was what he had in mind in the first place. Needless to say, our new family members found their way back to the auction. I can only say I hope they found happy homes with owners who had more patience than I.

You’d think I would have learned my lesson, but several months later, my lifelong dream came walking into the auction ring—or I should say limping—an elegant dark bay mare who had made a good run at the rodeo circuit, but was past her prime and had never healed from her last fall.

She was a beauty, but her right rear hock just above the hoof was swollen twice the size of the others and the bidding stayed low. I tried to sit on my hands—we certainly had no money, not to mention a place, for a horse. Then a woman I’d just met leaned over and whispered, “I’ll loan you the money and you can pay me back at $20 a month.” My hand shot up and in seconds the auctioneer said, “Sold to the little lady over there.” I was the proud possessor of a broken-down horse I named “Baby Mare” and I was $175 in debt—not to mention wondering where I would keep her.

Well, that problem was solved much more easily than I had thought. There was an elderly couple who farmed just up the road west of town about a mile and a half. They raised a few beef cattle, grew their own hay, and had an enormous garden and huge berry patch. Jim and Hannah Atchison were probably in their eighties, but shared the belief that if you slowed down, you began to die, so their lives were as busy as ever. Mr. Atchison was at the auction that day and he found me at the horse pen where I stood staring through the rails, stunned at what I had done.

“If you want, I’ll haul that little mare to my place—she can pasture with the cattle if you’ll help me put up my hay next week.” I wasn’t a churchgoer at the time, but it felt like an answer to prayer.

That next week I showed up early Monday morning. The old man had already cut and baled the alfalfa, the bales lined up in neat rows up and down the field. There were others there to work, three men about my age, mid-twenties, two with long hair tied back with bandanas, and the third an African American with an enormous afro. When they found I couldn’t lift the bales more than a few inches off the ground, much less throw them on the back of the old flatbed truck, I was assigned to drive. All that morning, I sat in the old cab, moving slowly through the field, grinding the cranky gearshift, and feeling like at long last I was a farmer.

Around noon, Hannah Atchison called us in to eat. They had set up a sheet of plywood on sawhorses under a large oak tree and there were platters and bowls nearly covering it. We each found a chair and began to pass the food around—steaming corn-on-the cob, thick sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper and vinegar, roast beef that cut with a fork, tiny new potatoes fried crisp, and bread like no bread I’d ever tasted, a large round loaf, dark and crusty and covered with seeds. The bread sat on a plate in front of Jim Atchison and just as one of the guys lifted his fork to his mouth, Mr. Atchison said, “I’d like you all to join me in a prayer.”

We looked at each other, put down our forks, folded our hands and bowed our heads, as the old man’s raspy voice began, “Gracious and merciful God—we come to you this morning with grateful hearts. We thank you for the works of your hands, the water, earth and sky; we thank you for these young people who bless us with their presence at our table; we thank you for this food, this bread that will nourish and sustain our bodies. Most of all, this day and always, we give thanks for the true bread, the gift of your Son, the one who strengthens us for the journey. In his name we pray. Amen

More than thirty years have passed and I still remember the dappled sunlight through the leaves, the smell and heft of the bread, and Mr. Atchison’s words, whose meaning eluded me that day, and for a long time after. “…the true bread, the gift of your Son, the one who strengthens us for the journey.”

“Give us this day our daily bread” we pray, and bread is indeed, the staff of life, the stuff of life. Toast and pancakes, wholewheat loaves and egg-rich bagels, garlic-smeared slices and flatbread split and stuffed with good things. But the reality also is, for many in this world, plain, ordinary bread may be all that stands between them and hunger.

When I took a bread-making class, I noticed that the instructor handled the dough with respect; she kneaded it with care—she even told us, “Don’t be rough with it—you’ve got to develop a feel for it.” Bread is precious, more precious than many of us in the richest part of the world realize—for some it is all they have to eat; a piece of bread is what stops the cries of children when their stomachs grow empty.

There is another kind of hunger, isn’t there, a hunger that we all know, rich and poor alike, a hunger that will not be satisfied—not with bread, not with a feast like the one we ate that day at the Atchinsons’. It’s a hunger of the heart—a hunger for love, for sharing, for grace, a hunger for a life that has meaning. The recipe for true bread, the things Jesus offers us—not flour and honey, oil and water—but love, sharing, grace, family and good work.

My horse stayed at the Atchisons’ for the next several years. Mr. Atchinson showed me how to make a poultice for Baby Mare’s leg. The swelling never disappeared, but the limp did and she was faster than ever. Hannah taught me how to can peaches and she told stories to my children. We joined them for picnics and swimming in the creek that pooled cool and deep in the woods behind their house.

More than thirty years have passed since an old man and woman invited four strangers to share their table, their home, and their lives. They asked us to break bread with them, to be in fellowship with them, and by their words and their lives proclaimed “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

May every meal be a reminder that it is the true bread that sustains us, the true bread that strengthens us for the journey, the true bread that heals us and calls us to invite others to the feast where there is always more than enough for all.

Peace and blessings, Country Woman

Saturday, August 1, 2009

After church one Sunday when my husband and I still lived in Kansas, he and I took one of those "Sunday drives.". Not far from the small town where we lived, I looked up to see a vehicle approaching, Even at that distance, I could tell it was an Amish horse and buggy, the narrow silhouette bobbing up and down against the horizon. When we got close, we slowed down, not wanting to spook the horse, a small, elegant black mare, wet with sweat, legs moving at a smooth trot.

A young couple sat in the open buggy, the man straight and stiff, his suit buttoned to the neck, his flat black hat square on his head, reins held easily in his hands. The young woman wore a black bonnet, her cheeks flushed in the heat, her white collar bright in the clear light, her eyes squinted against the sun. As they passed by, I was surprised to see the woman had her dark blue skirt pulled up just below her knees, her bare feet and legs catching the slightest breeze on a sweltering July day.

I am not a hot weather person. I’m glad that today’s cars have air-conditioning, though I do worry about things like pollution and the ozone. In fact, several years ago, when we were looking for a car, our biggest concerns, after cost, easy maintenance, and high gas mileage, were a decent radio/tape player and dependable air conditioning—not hard to tell where our priorities are.

Sometimes I think about that young couple, how they were living out the teachings of their faith, as uncomfortable as they might have been in dark suit and hat, long sleeves and bonnet, and the buggy that carried them slowly through the hot air of a summer afternoon.

Prof. Marion Bontrager, of Hesston College in Newton, Kansas, tells that the Old Order Amish are one of the fastest growing churches in the United States. Once I attended a lecture by Prof. Bontrager. He discussed whether the Amish will survive the technological/ information age. He said that they’re growing because they have large families and a high percentage of their young people stay within the church.

Not surprisingly, there are very few converts, though a limited number marry into the faith. “Amish ways are too hard for most people,” said Bontrager. “Lots of people recognize the depth of the Amish faith and the goodness of their values, many yearn for their simplicity—but they just aren’t willing to change their lifestyles that drastically.”

Not willing to change their lifestyles… There's a paraphrased translation of the New Testament called “The Message” by Eugene H. Peterson. He speaks plainly and often bluntly—there isn’t a lot of ambiguity in his words. In 1 John, beginning with the fifteenth verse of the second chapter, Peterson translates the text this way: “Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him.”

How much do I love the world’s ways? How much do I love the world’s goods? What would I be willing to give up? My comfortable air-conditioned car? The beautiful mountain ranch where I am privileged to live? The security of medical insurance?

Of course, those things haven’t been demanded of me, at least not yet. But what of those smaller things, those minor choices? New shoes I don’t need, a subscription for a magazine that I could read at the library, that second helping at first Sunday potluck.

Then there are other, subtler ways the world pulls us away from what we know is good and true. Someone I know and like tells me a joke that demeans African-Americans, homosexuals, or Jews. Do I remain silent, acting as if I never heard? Do I speak up, risking the person’s embarrassment and anger?

And if I can’t pass the small tests, what would I do when faced with the big ones? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor executed by the Nazis only months before World War II ended, gave his life for his faith. Could I?

I wish I had all the answers, but for now it is the questions that plague me. Does the way I live demonstrate my faith? Does the way I live tell people something about the one I claim to follow? Does the way I live bring love into people’s lives? Or does the way I live isolate me and others from what is holy, crowding the Holy One out of our lives?

Those questions are ones which we must each answer for ourselves—the couple in the buggy on warm afternoon in Kansas, you, me—even Billy Graham, the Pope, the President. And when we fall short of perfection—and we will—we can be grateful for the gift of God’s amazing grace which has the power to accomplish miracles and transform ordinary folks into holy people of God.

In the meantime, whenever I remember my former Amish neighbors, my heart lifts a bit at the thought of my brothers and sisters who wear the signs of their faith for all to see, gentle reminders that we are to be in the world, but not of it.

Blessings and peace, Country Woman