Where Is “Home”? Does It Matter? (the gardening version)

I was asked to lead a discussion about new monasticism in Sunday school class last week, and it was for a class I’d never visited. As they went around the circle to introduce themselves to me, I discovered that many of these folks had been members of our church since before I was  born. I am not exaggerating. Every single member of the class was at least a grandparent twice over, to help you get some perspective on the demographic. There’s irony here, I think, in that I was leading a discussion about new monasticism, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

As I’ve struggled to generate community here in my little town, and I think “generate” is the best verb for it because it has often felt as if I were trying to make something out of nothing, I’ve learned that in the past I have taken for granted a lot of things:

  1. The other two places I lived since leaving “home” were both havens for transient people because of the nature of academic settings.
  2. When you’re all transient, you all have a “home” base to go back to. You tend to leave at the important moments, rather than stay.
  3. Relationships can be generated really quickly in those settings because you’re all without a “home” the majority of the time. And
  4. you don’t have to plant your roots, even as you build community, because you always know you have roots somewhere else.

This, quite frankly, sets up unrealistic expectations. Community beyond “Hey, I like you, let’s be friends” doesn’t happen overnight in the real world. Or in one year. Or two. Or three. Sometimes maybe not even twenty. (See my dad’s comment on my earlier post about this topic.)

It’s like gardening. (One of my friends likes gardening metaphors, so this is for him.) Last fall, my husband built some cold frames for us, and we somewhat idealistically believed we’d have lettuce and spinach through the winter and onions and cabbage in early spring. We didn’t plant them as early as we should have, and the natural world did not cooperate when we got long-lasting frigid temperatures in December. (Even with the sun, the temperatures in our cold frames weren’t getting above freezing.) Then came the snow. And more snow. And more snow.

But this week it got warm. At first, we ignored the cold frames, didn’t even open them, like you’re supposed to during the day so you don’t bake your plants. The lettuce had gotten slimey back in the winter, which I would assume is not very promising, though I’m no green thumb. But then on Wednesday I opened them. It was pretty steamy in there. Thursday was a busy day, and it wasn’t until Friday that I went out to investigate again. I walked over to cold frame #1. Miraculously, the spinach survived. Yeah but, I thought, it’s hardier than lettuce. So I walked over to cold frame #2. Weird. The lettuce didn’t look so bad either. I squatted down to take a closer peek. It was kind of crisp, so I tore off a leaf of it and tasted it, prepared for it to be bitter. It wasn’t. It tasted like baby lettuce.

It won’t be a big harvest, but we’ll get something.

You see, I’m learning a lot about community here, and the main thing I’m learning is that I don’t need to “generate” it. I need to live it. I won’t always see what’s happening under the surface. I don’t know what I’m planting, what winter’s going to be like, and what the leaves might taste like come spring, but that doesn’t mean something’s not growing.

Oh yeah, and deciding a little late in the season to start a garden is not an excuse not to plant at all.

So back to that Sunday school class: these folks had roots, deep roots, roots deeper than my entire life. My entire life.

I’ve only been here three years.

Country Roads and Casseroles

On Sunday we drove out to Port Royal, Kentucky, a well-known little town because of one of its inhabitants, agrarian Wendell Berry. He’s oft-quoted here at Texas Schmexas, and a lot of other places these days, so I’m sure you recognize the name. I promise you, however, that Mr. Berry was not the reason for our drive (though I am pleased to have seen “the long-legged house” with my own eyes).

Port Royal is in Henry County, a little over an hour from here with nary an interstate between us–lots of tobacco, though, hanging in old black barns decorated with colorful quilt squares (and “Mail Pouch Tobacco”) painted on the side, and fuzzy brown cows, and trees getting ready for winter, and a smattering of houses masquerading as towns. In fact, I only remember two or three little “towns” in that whole hour of driving, but one was called “Gratz,” reminding me of beloved central Pennsylvania and warming my heart. We wove our way around the country roads, carefully keeping track of road signs, when there were road signs to be kept track of.

Port Royal, population of 79 in recent years according to Wikipedia, is home to two churches, a post office, a farm/feed/food store (which may or may not be a restaurant), and little else. We were in town for the Baptist church, where friends of our were preaching.

We were greeted as we walked up the steps and were encouraged to join in teasing an older fellow as if we were old friends. He ended up sitting in front of us (or, I’m sure, we sat behind his regular pew and it was coincidental), and from him we learned the history of lots of folks around town–the young pregnant couple who ran an organic farm and farm stand, the former interim preacher who won the “outstanding Henry Countian” award, his grandsons who were in from Florida for hunting season… you name it, we heard it.

Just before the “greet your neighbor” portion of the service, the gentleman at the pulpit announced that “we want to especially welcome our visitors here today,” and looked right at us. (I know we literally “stick out” in normal circumstances, due to our massive heights, but still, it made me chuckle to be called out from the pulpit.) This was a classic country church experience, though with a larger choir than expected, and I’m not sure what else to say.

Glimpses into other people’s otherwise normal communities, especially churches, can do a lot of good for one’s soul–it can help you realize what you appreciate about your own community. Or, let’s rephrase that: it can help me realize what I appreciate about my own community. I don’t often appreciate it, truth be told, even as I sit in front of my computer on a (somewhat) regular basis and write about it.

After church, we were welcomed into the home of a beautiful Henry County couple with an amazing view out over the trees. We ate lunch and we talked–about church, about people, about Henry County, our families, recipes, books, and, of course, Mr. Berry, who lived just over the hill and had known these folks since elementary school. We ate way too much casserole, stewed apples, bread, salad, broccoli, and oh-my-goodness pecan pie. And they tried to make us eat more. I wasn’t sure I could move. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry nine hours later as I was getting ready for bed (and not eating a bowl of cereal right before bed is not like me).

It was a good day with good folks in a good place.

Yes, you know it’s coming: it was community.

Cow Bell Alleluias & What We Do on Easter

Our opening song at church this morning was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” which won’t surprise any of you raised in low church traditions like mine, considering it was, ahem, Easter.

But about halfway through the first verse, I found myself unable to sing. This is something that rarely happens to me.

In fact, I’d already paraded around the house singing it a dozen time at that point, and even called my parents bright and early to sing it as an Easter greeting to them, waiting for the sung “Ah-a-a-a-leh-eh-luu-yah” response I knew I’d receive. (I get it honestly, what can I say?)

So it’s not like I’m not familiar with the song.

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What Ash Wednesday Is

Most Ash Wednesdays don’t begin with eating peach pie at 3 o’clock in the morning, but this year’s did.

Well, it actually began an hour and a half before that, uncomfortably lying in bed, back pain and pregnancy insomnia keeping me awake. I gave in to my misery and finally got out of bed at 3, ate some Fat Tuesday pie to begin the Great Fast of the Christian liturgical year, and eventually fell asleep on the couch at some point before 5, when the timer light in our living room kicks on automatically. It didn’t feel much like Ash Wednesday.

Later this morning, I ran a friend around town on some errands. She doesn’t have a car and the office where she pays her rent is a few miles from her apartment. It’s cold. The snow and ice haven’t melted. Our car door is really big and heavy, and it’s a chore for a shorter person to pull it closed once she’s inside. We grabbed her breakfast at the DQ drive-through.

Even later this morning, I found out my neighbor was cleaning her house to get it ready for a showing tonight, so I took the remaining pie over to her house, and we split it. Generous portions. The best kind. It still didn’t feel like Ash Wednesday. The Beanster toddled around after my neighbor’s infinitely patient dog.

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Pregnancy, Advent, & All That Dang Waiting

Here’s my contribution to our church’s annual Advent devotional (this year available in blog form). The theme for the first week of Advent is “Hope for Those Who Wait.”


They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.


Heading into Advent in 2011, I was sixteen or seventeen weeks pregnant, and the decision on everyone’s mind, it seemed, was whether or not we would decide to find out if our firstborn was to be a boy or a girl. Jonathan wouldn’t weigh in on the decision at all, so it was up to me. Did I want to know, or didn’t I? Were there good reasons to wait, or was the ability to plan and manage and organize for a few months before the birth necessary for my sanity? And perhaps most importantly, did I like yellows and greens better than pinks and blues? These were the questions on my scatterbrained mind.

advent pregnancyI wasn’t thinking much about the baby Jesus.

Then came the ultrasound appointment during the third week of Advent, and call me crazy, but I woke up that morning with a revelation: pregnancy is Advent.

Both are seasons of preparation and expectation and waiting.

As we wait in both, we think we know of the joys to come—new life, sweet baby gurgles, heart-soaring happiness…the birth of Christ. And we think we know of the pains to come—labor and delivery, lack of sleep, emotional chaos…the crucifixion.

But for a few weeks, be it four or forty neverending long ones, we wait and we hope, and we wait and we prepare, and we wait and we wait and we wait.

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When Conviction Intrudes on My Plans

I am a convert to the Catholic Church.

One of the things that first attracted me was the Church’s universality, both historical and geographical. I take the Church’s unbroken presence since the apostolic age and its world-wide ministry both to be strong evidences for its claim to be guided and protected by the Holy Spirit. I love the way that the Church has “baptized” cultures, using existing customs to present the Gospel in familiar ways to new peoples, and the way that it has fostered and protected real diversity of worship from country to country. We have surrounded our children with images of Christ from many different countries and times, showing them how much richer our understanding of Our Lord is because of the diversity of presentations.

But I recently learned that my love for the universality 
of our Church ends when it impinges on my Sunday plans.

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God as Community and Why I Pray Trinitarian Prayers

One of the things I love about the liturgical calendar is the way it forces you to pay attention to things you can otherwise skim over. For example, Sunday was Trinity Sunday. It always falls the week after Pentecost (the Sunday we set aside to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit–see Acts 2).

The thing about the Trinity is that you can’t just flip through the pages of Scripture to understand it. (It? Them?)

Even from the beginning of the church, things got a bit complicated as believers grappled with how the God of Abraham and Sarah could be Jesus and yet also call Jesus the “son with whom I am well pleased”; how Jesus could also be the Comforter promised by Jesus to come at a later time. How can Jesus be the son of God if he is God? I mean, really, let’s just ‘fess up: it’s rather confusing. And so somewhere along the way, the church decided that the week after we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, which is always fifty days after Easter (ahem, Pentecost), we better take a Sunday and step back and appreciate the mystery that is our God who comes to us as a community.

I mean, wow.

God as community.

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Praying with the Generations

I go to a Baptist church, and while we are more liturgical than the average Baptist church, we’re still pretty Baptist. We don’t, for example, say the Lord’s Prayer every week.

But sometimes we do, and we did on Sunday.

I like reciting prayers and creeds and Scripture passages, for the same reason I like to sing old songs.

I like to feel the weight of generations past hovering around us. I like to think about the great cloud of witnesses joining along, reminding us of our place in a long line of faithful folks struggling to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world. I like to breath the it-is-well-with-my-souls, the Jesus-Christ-his-only-son-our-Lords, the give-us-this-day-our-daily-breads deeply, absorbing those patterns of speech and the poetry of my tradition so far down into my subconscious that, as happened with my grandmother who suffered from Alzheimers, those words will remain even if other pieces of my life fall away.

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This could be your town.

Imagine with me a small town in the middle of America.

A cursory glance through this small town’s phone book reveals over 25 churches: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopalian, nondenominational, big churches, small churches, this town’s got it covered. Imagine, too, that this town is home to a small, Christian liberal arts college. In fact, it would be safe to imagine that thousands of self-professing Christians call this town home. They probably don’t agree on a lot of things, but imagine–just for a moment–that they agree on one thing: they believe Jesus when he said that loving your neighbor as yourself is one of the greatest commandments, second only to loving the Lord your God with your whole heart.

If you can, imagine that this town has a quaint Main Street, complete with coffee shops, boutiques, antique stores, maybe even a high-end children’s clothing store. It’s such a lovely little town, this imaginary place, that someone could live here for years and have no idea of its seedy underbelly. Of the debilitating poverty that keeps bellies empty, food far from the tables where it is needed, and children home from school. Of the crippling effects of job loss, home foreclosures, and health insurance expenses. Someone might think that homelessness doesn’t happen here because it doesn’t manifest itself in folks standing on the corner holding cardboard signs. But imagine with me that it does happen here, that it tends to look more like people sharing homes, couch-surfing, multi-generational living, and yes, some people sleeping outside, in the park, under the underpasses, hidden from Main Street. Yes, it does happen here, in myriad forms. A lot.

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A Sabbath Meditation for Election Week

Jesus is forming a new kind of people, a different kind of party, whose peculiar politics are embodied in who we are. The church is a people called out of the world to embody a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms. We are not simply asking the government to be what God has commissioned the church to be. After all, even the best government can’t legislate love. We can build hundreds of units of affordable housing (a good thing by the way) and people still might not have homes. We can provide universal health care and keep folks breathing longer (another nice move), but people can be breathing and still not truly be alive. We can create laws to enforce good behavior, but no law has ever changed a human heart or reconciled a broken relationship. The church is not simply suggesting political alternatives. The church is embodying one.


-Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, p. 228