As I sit here at the Asbury University Equine Program barn this morning, I can see Harold mowing hay way over in the far field. He says it’s his favorite thing to do even though the college powers that be would rather him spend his time in more administrative ways. That’s a common theme with pastors, too. You have no idea how many of them love to cut the grass. In a life full of unresolved stress, tension and grief, when you look back over a freshly cut lawn, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.
It’s still early enough that the mist is still hanging heavy over the river. The palisades are still covered with trees and green leaves so the path of the river isn’t as easy to see as it is in other seasons. Somehow the mist gets caught in the valley formed by the river and you can see its bending and twisting all the way to the horizon, where it bends and twists on itself and finally moves away behind a hillside.
Atlas, the big German Shepherd-Husky mix, just came and settled down at my feet with a sigh. I would guess that all he has to complain about is that the cats ate all their breakfast before he could finish it off for them. Across the pastures, the horses are all moving slowly toward the gates. It’s breakfast time for them, too.
It seems idyllic here. This farm cared for with love and respect, these horses and college students made sacred in their ordinary lives, even the land itself seems to be tilted upward along the edges, cupped in the palm of God’s hand. And yet, outside the boundaries of these stone walls, gravel roads and painted fences, the world moves quickly on. Politics, economics, cultural tension, financial woes, poverty, war and disease are having their field day, too. Just because we can’t hear the clamor from here doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
So how do we live in this world as ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas and Willimon), as if ‘this world is not my home/ I’m just a-passing through,’ like the old song says? Or as Jesus prays in John 17:14-15, how do we live in this world and not be of it? How are we to be transformed (Romans 12:1-2) into people who are conformed to Christ instead of shaped by hurt, grief and woundedness?
There are three options. One, pull the farm gate shut permanently, lock ourselves in and ignore everything else. Two, go to the other extreme, lock the farm gate shut permanently but with us on the other side of it, living our lives as if this sanctuary didn’t exist or never existed. There has to be a third way, just as there is a third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. It is in considering the Holy Spirit, the real-time action of God at work in the world, that we can come to terms with the delicate balance between embrace and exclusion (Volf).
The key, I think is to understand that life is a both/and proposition, not an either/or choice. We have to learn to hold things lightly and to accept what we’re given. What’s happening around me right now is a great example. It’s a beautiful, cool, September morning in the rolling hills of Kentucky bluegrass country. The sky is that cloudless Kentucky blue, clear and clean. The day gets started slowly around here so there is time to water the roses and write in my journal in the stillness of birdsong and the quiet that comes ‘dripping slow.’ But about 15 minutes ago, as I contemplated the mist on the river, someone decided to use the tractor for some chore around the other side of the barn from where I’m sitting. It’s loud, intrusive and well, irritating.
Yet, just as I write this, David, the farm manager comes around the other side of the barn on the tractor and I realize he is dragging the arena surfaces for today, so they’ll be flat, even and ready for all the folks that will come here to ride and experience a little of God’s creation. That’s what we’re here for – to connect God the Creator with his creation – human, equine, canine or feline. There are certain things that have to be done at certain times. Learning to accept those divine rhythms is a discipline that serves us well in places where we don’t have any control over the brokenness and just plain evil that exists in the world around us. That’s the point of spiritual formation or spiritual discipline. It’s not to make us miserable at God’s random whim. Through creation and creatures, God gently teaches us that He is God and we are not. That there is a rhythm, a hierarchy and a pattern, if we’ll sit still long enough to listen and begin to understand.
That hierarchical structure doesn’t take away from the experience of peace. It’s not an excuse for us to lord our human power over each other or the rest of creation in violent, degrading ways. In the time it’s taken me to finish these paragraphs, David has finished with the tractor and all is quiet again. I could have packed up my stuff and gone away when the tractor started up. By waiting (never an easy task), the sense of serenity has been restored. Someone else knew what had to be done (prepping the arenas) and i didn’t stomp off mad about something I couldn’t control.
So what are the lessons from this morning’s meditation?
- God is God and I am not. (thank heavens)
- Hold experiences and people lightly. As my grandmother Barkley would say: this too shall pass.
- Being controlled by strong emotions and indulging our feelings, positive or negative, means that we make quick, rash decisions that leave us hungover and ill-prepared for the next right thing.
The mist has burned away now. The landscape has taken on its daytime look; horses are being led or ridden in for a day’s work; arenas are prepped and ready, planting beds watered, barns and classrooms swept and straightened. Physical and facility preparations have been made. So too must we prepare our hearts and spirits by asking for grace, expecting God to show up and saying thanks when we reflect on the gifts we have been given – gifts of patience, understanding, grace and freedom.