The first time I heard about “lambing percentage,” it came as a surprise to me. Lambing percentage refers to the amount of lambs a shepherd gets each spring, and is calculated by dividing the number of lambs born by the number of ewes that gave birth.
How does one achieve this? Some of it is genetics. Lambs who are twins tend to grow up to have twins. And part of it is nutritional. When sheep get a lot of good food, their bodies tend to say, “Ah, this would be a good year to have two.” I have read that, balancing nutritional and labor expenses, a flock of three hundred and fifty ewes who each have twins is about as profitable as a flock of one thousand ewes that each have a single.
The Good Death
Roger died last Monday night,
and though it sounds strange to say,
he died a good death -
for yes, if death comes to us all,
why can’t it sometimes be “good”?
That is not to say
that there has not been grief
and the ache of deep missing,
the empty rooms
and things packed away
that will never be shared again.
No, it’s not mine to “judge”
what such a death means
for all who mourn,
but only to witness
the goodness I have seen:
For the past three months
since he sat propped in his hospital bed
and was told of his cancer
for which there was no cure,
Roger has been emptying his life in
forgiveness, thank you, love and good-bye.
Remarkable really, to witness his path,
as he summoned family and friends
for the conversations he needed to have,
the regret of words and deeds,
some long since forgotten,
but caught in his soul and needing release.
Privilege, really to walk in and out
of the home of care his family had made -
his recliner by the window,
the feeder outside and
To witness amidst all the fluttering and duty,
patient care and restless nights,
that such a long death requires,
a stilling, deepening, quieting as well -
the sharing of memories, and holding of hands.
For some, there will be no time like this.
So many other deaths we have born and seen
full of other words than “good” -
but of “tragedy” and “heartbreak”,
“longing” and “incompletion”.
The tear and ache of deaths
that have been a wrenching out of life
with no time for kind words
and a parting kiss.
No, we do not often get to choose -
but what if today we did -
and chose here among the living,
with so many deaths before us -
that in all the filling of today
might be an emptying as well
of forgiveness, thank you, love and good-bye.
Roger told us months ago,
“I am ready to die,
and now, I am ready to live.”
Today, as I mourn and remember,
I pause, give thanks,
for a man who showed me the way to do both.
May 11, 2013
Last Saturday was Lamb Day at Sleeping Dog Farm. This is the day when I invite my two flocks to meet. The folks from University Congregational in Seattle make the pilgrimage to Whidbey Island and we spend the day together, holding lambs, sharing food, hiking trails through the woods, and simply enjoying time together. And this year, in the spirit of the United Church of Christ’s campaign, 4/One Earth, we even planted three trees.
Also this year, we set a record. Over seventy folks came to the party. I cannot be more specific than that because people were coming and going all day, and I am not even sure I spoke to every visitor. And the guests were not limited to the Seattle flock. One woman who is a regular reader of this blog came from Sequim so she could see the place she had been reading so much about. What a joy!
When people come to my farm I see it through new eyes. Sometimes I spot things that I should have taken care of, but I have just stopped noticing. One child asked if my farm tractor worked. Of course one of the first things kids spot, after the lambs, is that old tractor out in the field. But I stopped noticing it months ago. “No, it needs to be fixed,” I answered. “Well, let’s fix it now,” he replied. “I know how to fix tractors!” I know if could have found a wrench he would have marched right out there to try. Such optimism.
And some folks see things I haven’t seen at all. One year a child made a map of the woods after he had hiked through, and on the map he placed, to help others find their way, the following landmarks: “Dead bird #1″ and “Dead bird #2.” By the way, those landmarks weren’t there this year. But the people who did prepare the trail found some bones, probably from a deer, and thoughtfully placed them to the side of the trail for some young adventurer to spot. This year, someone found a lamb’s tail in the pasture. I band the tails when the lambs are a few days old, and this one had apparently just fallen off. His parents declined to let him take it home.
And always my visitors open my eyes again to the beauty all around me. One of the folks who came early to help get things ready said, when I told her how hesitant I was to ask for help, “Don’t ever worry about that. It’s like you are asking for help with paradise.”
After everyone had left, I heard peeping coming from the incubator sitting on the washing machine. Twenty one days earlier I had put in six eggs in there, hoping, that kids could watch a baby chick hatch. I looked into the incubator to see a brand new chick, with egg shell pieces scattered all around her. She had arrived about two hours too late to be witnessed by anyone but me. I took her out and put her under the heat lamp. She is the only chick who hatched out of those six eggs I had tended for three weeks. But she is doing well, and growing, and just one more symbol of the abundance of life all around me.
So today’s post is mostly a thank you to all who helped prepare this farm for the visit, for those who came, and for those experienced Lamb Day through the stories and pictures others brought home. I am grateful for all the wonder I experience whenever my two flocks meet.
“I was part way through my lecture when I realized that I didn’t believe what I was saying. I was talking about what it means to be a human being, a person made in the image of God, but in ways that didn’t include my son. That moment changed my life and work.”
Tom Reynolds is a professor of theology at Emmanuel College in the Toronto School of Theology, and his son, Chris, is autistic. Tom’s search to re-imagine what it means to be “human” and “made in the image of God” led to the writing of his book, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality.
Last weekend, Tom was with us for our Lecture Series and challenged us to re-imagine that we “image” God not through being productive, efficient, rational people with seamless beautiful bodies, but rather in a way of being together.
“In our mutuality and our vulnerability, in that togetherness, we image God.”
As I looked around the room on Saturday I witnessed an amazing image of God – a community that showed the many different ways we are bodies in the world, in a diversity of ability and disability.
We heard a lot of stories – of pain, exclusion, deep hurt. Everyday, ongoing struggles of individuals and families to find access to care and services. The longing to be met, heard, loved and understood in the different experiences of what it means to be a “human being”.
Leaders in my generation led the hard work for “inclusion” and equal rights over the past decades. We helped extend access to voting rights, marriage, schools, housing, employment, and religious institutions to those of us who have been seen in one way or another as “different” or “disabled”.
Having experienced deep exclusion from many of the institutions that frame our lives, we saw gaps and worked long and hard to fix the problems we saw through policy and institutional changes that would lead to a wider and deeper inclusion.
And while this work for institutional and policy change needs to continue, Reynolds made me recognize that our work today and the work of this generation is different.
For the work for “inclusion” only takes us so far. As Reynolds pointed out, “inclusion” can sometimes be an invitation for others to come in and “fit in” with the rest of the group and follow their norms and lead.
“Are we willing to let our coming together in all of our distinct ways of being “bodies” in the world change us as individuals and as communities?”
I have learned well how to change things. My generation’s gifts of seeing what is broken and seeking to “fix” problems runs deep in me. I hear pain, I want to provide relief. I hear sadness and I want to take it away. I hear stories of exclusion, and I want to make changes so others can be included.
But last weekend I realized something: sometimes my own interpretation of what is “broken” and running to “fix” it and “include” others can just be another way to make others “fit” into my own way of being in the world and understanding of how the world “should” work.
For us to continue to grow and deepen as communities of care, a different kind of “change” is required than “fix-it” energy. It means risking the unsettledness, the challenge, the dis-ease of being changed by the community that has gathered.
Sitting in the uncertainty, unknown and truth of what is before us and within us as a gathered community and wondering how we might be a community of care more fully together. Running to “fix things” can sometimes get in the way of the deep transformation of how we are together that may be needed.
So what if today, before running to do anything, fix anything, what if we first made room to hear each others stories? The stories of the different ways we are “bodies” in the world and what helps us be in community.
Hearing each other with the commitment that at this time ours is not to “fix” or “solve” but to sit and hear each other, to hold together the discomfort of challenging stories and hard experiences. To risk really being-with each other instead of running to take care of each other. For as I was reminded of last weekend, truly the best way we know we are cared for is when others risk first just being-with us in our pain and hope.
I wonder who we might realize we are…
I wonder what call we might hear to become a fuller expression of God’s image in the human community, rich in diversity, and yes, better and truer because of it…
I wonder what might happen if we risked the conversation, and opened ourselves to being challenged and changed….
The artwork in this blog was done by 4th graders at Bertschi school. Their project, a partnership with Disability Rights Washington, “Portrait of a Whole Person: Paintings and Biographies” is on exhibit at the Montlake Library through May 17. I hope you can go see it.
For more information about this project, please contact Disability Rights Washington at 206-324-1521 ext. 206. The full online gallery of the show is available at http://disabilityrightsgalaxy.com/tag/portrait-of-the-whole-person-project/.
The portraits of the persons with disabilities included are: Marlee Matlin, David Beckham, Chuck Close, Tom Cruise, Jean Driscoll, D. Elaine Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Harold Russell, Stephen Hawking, Michael J. Fox, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lauren Potter, and Christy Brown.
It is about 200 feet from the door of my barn to the gate of my pasture. Every morning I walk that distance several times as I set grain and hay in the feeder. Then I open the barn door, and watch my sheep run out, each one hurrying to be the first to breakfast.
The sheep know this routine by heart. By the time I have everything ready, they are usually banging on the door in their eagerness to get out. But in the spring, when there are lambs in the barn, the new ones have to learn for themselves. Once they are safely born and bonded to their moms, helping the lambs get comfortable with “the journey” is one of my trickiest shepherding tasks.
After all, there is nothing compelling them out the door. Everything they need is right there with them, whenever they wake up. By the time things are ready for the adults, the babies have already had their breakfast and are probably curling up for a nap.
When lambs are born, they spend their first few days with their mothers in small pens in the barn. For some reason that is beyond me, these pens are called “lambing jugs.” Once the lambs and ewes have gotten through those first critical days of bonding, though, they rejoin the flock, and become a part of the breakfast run.
Except that almost always, the first time the door to the barn is flung open for the lambs, they just come to the door sill and stop. Usually their mothers stop there too, resisting breakfast’s call because of the stronger instinct to stay with their lambs. Occasionally the moms will lead their babies out. But usually everyone just stands there.
That is when I, as a shepherd, step in. What I do is catch the lambs and carry them to the field, with their moms following right behind, calling out to them. It is either a kind of panic or reassurance, I am never quite sure.
When the lambs get a little bigger, they begin to join the running sheep as they leave the barn. But since they don’t know where they are running to, they often stop short of the fenced pasture and hang in limbo half way from barn to field. If I leave the gate open too long, waiting for them to figure out where they’re going, the older sheep gobble their grain (what I call “sheep candy,”), begin to look back at the open gate. I can see them thinking (correctly, in the spring) that the grass is much greener out there. Then I have morning chaos, with some sheep in the pasture and other sheep running up to the green upper field, and lambs everywhere in between.
But if I close the gate too soon, the lambs can’t get in, and then I am chasing lambs on one side of the fence while their mothers run back and forth hollering on the other side. Three day old lambs are relatively easy to catch, but one week old lambs are not. Sometimes I have no choice but to open the gate again, let the whole flock out, and start over with grain, hoping the candy will be more tempting than the greenery.
A few days ago, when I posted a picture on Face Book of one of the lambs stopped at the barn door on her first day out, I got quite a few responses. Many of them were in the category of “I feel like that lamb some days.”
Well, a preacher can’t help herself when a metaphor like that comes along, so I started thinking of my own journeys, and the journeys I have witnessed in others. Because it is true that sometimes I find myself just standing at the threshold, unsure of where to go. Some times I rush out with everyone, and then get lost along the way. And sometimes, with the help of a companion, or even a good shepherd, I make it all the way.
Last Sunday I bowed my head and closed my eyes as my colleague Peter led the Pastoral Prayer. I was joining my prayers to his and the congregation’s as we held church members, family and friends, and the wider world in our hearts. He finished his prayer with words of gratitude: for knowing that we are all beloved children of God; for the beauty of this season of new life; and for the wonder of spring lambs .
“Yes,” I thought, as I considered the two lambs that had been born in my barn that very morning.
“And,” he ended, “thank you God for puppies.”
At that point I opened my eyes and smiled. Amen!
Peter was ending his prayer with a reference to a very specific joy I had shared with him earlier that morning. After a long search, and much longing and hoping, I had finally purchased a new puppy.
My colleagues and others in the congregation have endured this search with me. I have been talking to anyone who will listen. showing them different pictures of pups I considered and then decided against, as my restless quest continued. Until finally I found myself at the website of the International Sheep Dog Society and their lists of breeders. And from there, I found my way to a litter of pups in Yorkshire. These pups are the great grandchildren of Becca, the Welsh-bred dog from Ireland I saw win the World Championship Sheepdog Trial in Lowther, England two years ago. And one of those pups, a little girl, seemed to be just the one I had been looking for. In her picture, it even looked like there was a comma on her forehead, as if to remind me that “dog is still speaking.”
Could I really have the courage to ask for her?
After all, I am just a part-time shepherd from Washington State. This pup not only was related to the dog I so deeply admired from two years ago, she also had names in her pedigree that I recognized from when I first got interested in border collies two decades ago: Bobby Daziel’s Wisp, John Templeton’s Ben, and even some dogs from the great Welsh handler Aled Owen. And, in my opinion, she was the pick of the litter.
All of which brings me back to Peter’s prayer on Sunday. During this last month, as I have been searching for a pup, I have also been enjoying the class on prayer that was organized by the Capital Campaign Prayer Team, and led by our new member Cassie Emanuel. The Prayer Team chairs, Arlene Strong and Carol Fleagel, thought if they were going to ask people to pray during this campaign, they ought to give folks some tools. And Cassie, a retired UCC pastor and an excellent teacher, agreed to lead the class. So we have been exploring what it means to pray, and how we might go about it.
But, of course, talking about prayer is complicated by the fact that prayer is so hard to define or describe. Mostly, I can say what prayer is not. It isn’t a way of getting just what we want, as if God were a cosmic vending machine into which I can put just the right currency and get my chosen item. Nor do I think prayer is nothing more than an empty verbalization of our longings into an eternal void.
In general, I think of prayer as a kind of centering, and a kind of opening. In prayer, I center myself into a deep sense of the Sacred that is at the heart of everything I know, and yet beyond all that I know. Then, however I can, I open myself to any awarenesses that come from that centering.
And, in the midst of it all, I hold on to my prayer motto: “Always ask.” That motto is actually a quote from an old t.v. show that had nothing to do with prayer. But for me, it has become an affirmation of the mystery that I think is at the heart of prayer; a mystery that makes a definition of prayer so hard to articulate. When I begin my prayers, I “always ask,” not expecting that I will get what I ask for, but knowing that if I don’t start with my own sense of need and desire, I will probably not be able to get beyond that to any kind of centering or opening. So I always ask, and then God and I smile at each other, and then the prayer goes on.
Writer Anne Lamott used to say that the two most useful prayers she knew were “Help me, help me, help me,” and Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She has since added a third prayer, a prayer of amazement, and has put her prayer observations into a very nice little book titled, appropriately, Help, Thanks, Wow. I find her formula extremely helpful in my own prayer life, and use her words right along my own “Always ask.”
Which now brings me back to the puppy. I didn’t exactly pray to get this puppy. If God is going to grant that kind of individualized prayer request, I would prefer to pray for world peace (and, by the way, I do.) But I did turn my prayer motto into a plan of action for my immediate puppy situation. I wrote the breeder and asked for the exact pup I wanted. And after several emails back and forth across the Atlantic, through time zones of eight hours difference, and cultural differences beyond my understanding, the breeder said, “Yes.” I will pick up the as-yet unnamed pup next month on my way home from Iona, where I am going with folks from my congregation.
I think my colleagues are grateful that the puppy decision has now been made, and my conversation can move on to other things. So when Peter prayed for puppies last Sunday, I think what he was saying was, “Thanks.”
To which I reply, “ Wow.”
Sometimes the present can free us from the shackles of the past and help us build the future, but it is also true that sometimes the past can free us from the shackles of the present and help us build a future. (Frederick Turner)
Last month, our church launched a new spiritual community called “Simple Path”, an experiential community of love and justice for those who might never walk into a church for a 10 a.m. worship service. In other words, a new way to be “church” freed from some of the baggage about what “church” has meant for some of us, but for those hungering for meaningful community, spirituality, and the gifts of what a life of faith can bring.
But instead of celebrating the church’s future at the Simple Path gathering, I went to a place of memory, and attended Lloyd Averill’s 90th birthday celebration. Some might know that Lloyd was on the search committee that called Dave Shull, Don Mackenzie and me to University Church some 19 years ago. Others might recall his sermons that bring words like “erudite” to mind – long and poetic meditations on deep theological matters. Some might have read his books. Others might have attended a class he taught as our theologian-in-residence for many years.
But everyone who worships with us will know Lloyd through the words that he and others crafted for our church covenant that we recite each Sunday. Lloyd also wrote the words of our communion liturgy based on the gospel story of the Risen Christ meeting two of Jesus’ disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Today, Lloyd is living with an advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease. He’s in a wheelchair, smiles when he recognizes someone he knows, but can’t use his quick wit and mind in the way he has counted on. But on Sunday afternoon, he was reminded, we were reminded, not only of who Lloyd was for us but is for us today. My only adequate response was the tears in my eyes, and a heart full of thanks for the connections we have shared these many years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, and memory lately. Last month, I attended a friend’s wedding in Ithaca, New York and on Sunday morning worshiped at First Congregational Church, the first church I served after graduating from divinity school some twenty-six years ago. It was the first time in twenty-four years that I had walked through the doors of that church on a Sunday morning.
I realized that part of why I needed to make this trip to my past, was to stand at the time for prayers and concerns, and thank this congregation for all they had taught me about ministry, and their graciousness to me, as a very young man. I was reminded in this visit to my past, again about what really matters – the love and connections, the relationships, we share.
Sometimes, there are a lot of things that keep me from that awareness. For all of us, our pasts, our memories, are a mixed bag. I can easily weave stories to tell myself and others about the hurt or disappointment I have experienced in the past that can quickly become my present identity.
Recently, I’ve been challenged by Miroslav Volf’s book, The End of Memory. Volf wrestles with how to remember “rightly” in a world where we have been hurt, and for some, like him, violently. Volf notes, letting go of memories of wrongs strikes us as “immoral, unhealthy, dangerous – to top it off, impossible.” (Volf, 143)
But in my visits to the “past”, I have realized that I have a better story to tell than of clinging to any hurts I have experienced and defining my life around them. It is the story of the Love that lasts. It’s true, as Volf writes that,
“One should never demand of those who have suffered wrong that they “forget” and move on. This impossible advice would also be the wrong advice. The “forgetting” of wrongs must happen as a consequence of the gift of a new “world”. (Volf, 146)
It’s the new world Isaiah sings of,
“For I am about to create new heavens and new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. (Isaiah 6517)
It’s the new world that I glimpsed again, in the tears in my eyes at a birthday celebration and a visit to a congregation – a reminder of what I want to remember more than anything: that we are being taken by Love out of ourselves and placed into Love’s own pure Goodness. (Volf, p. 175)
Yes, sometimes like these past weeks, I know that it is true – I feel it and experience it. And today, I want to trust in it again: to give myself to the Love that finally is all that lasts.