Tag Archives: Jesus

Dirt, Chicken, and the Reimagined Rose

The Chickens of Yuba City
The Chickens of Yuba City

I was gifted with a childhood defined by dirt. I recall living in a small white house next to the Yuba City livestock auction. Cattle grazed to the left of our home while peaches ripened across the road, their rootstock drinking deep the irrigation held tight by a patchwork of checks. Further away, fertile clods gave way to varicose earth, hot and unfriendly. Everywhere a chicken – even today. Jackrabbits bounced like kick balls through the foxtail barley and star thistle. Three miles as the crow flies, my grandma’s house hosted a walnut orchard and almonds. The hopeful dirt, wet from pump water faded away into cracked crust and barley stubble. Always one spark away from destruction. A mile further great-grandma’s farm continued the dirt’s earthy work supporting Banty chickens, nervous goats, and watermelon vines. All the way to the Sutter Buttes, field after field of continuous dirt. Some of it chapped and sun-abused, the balance well loved. Every square foot of the dirt farmed by a community of belief, collectively trusting the land would give food if they gave effort to the land. And that’s the way it was. As a young child I only saw dirt. Then I saw the land, and eventually place, a place of significance and meaning – a place that was in me and I was in it.

My wife Andi was recently at Laity Lodge, a magical, oasis-like locale in a canyon on the Frio in Central Texas (overseen by our friend Steven Purcell). The family behind HEB and Central Market set the whole thing in motion years ago. We have visited there often and count the people and place essential to life. This time, Andi and Kathi Riley Smith attended the Food Retreat. Along with Laity staff, they cooked the late Judy Rodgers’ famous recipe for roast chicken. Judy and Kathi came up in the nascent farm-to-table movement with Alice Waters, and both cooked for Alice at Chez Panisse in Berkeley – later working together at Zuni Café in San Francisco where Judy’s chicken came to fame – and where Kathi is a chef once again.

One of the guest speakers at the Food Retreat was Ellen Davis, a biblical scholar from Duke Divinity School. Ellen’s most beloved riff is encouraging an agrarian reading of the Bible, specifically that part of the 66 books of the  Bible Christians share with the Jewish people, the Torah. I heard a podcast where Ellen talked about being a teenager living in Israel. She said the land became so familiar to her that even today she cannot read the Bible or exegete a text without seeing the land in which the story took place. Readers unfamiliar with Ellen Davis may know poet/farmer Wendell Berry. In America at least, he is a clear, sane agrarian voice weaving together God, people, and place in a farmer/artist way. For Berry, the Bible, and certainly the agrarian view of reading it, is “the story of a gift.” What Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, and others like Wes Jackson and Norman Wirzba have in common is a deep respect for the land and the Giver of it. To hear from any of these people is to hear clues to a faithful way forward stewarding all that God has entrusted to the human family, including dirt, land, and place.

Today I opened my email to see a NoiseTrade advertisement for My Brightest Diamond, the recording moniker of artist Shara Worden. I’ve watched Shara from a distance for several years. She is one among a few recording artists of her generation that are truly unique in thought and execution. She has contributed to an artist retreat at Laity Lodge and I’ve met her parents there in years past. Her story is also unique. She moved to Detroit when people were fleeing its troubled decline. She bought an abandoned house. Had a baby. Made some music. According to a Huffington Post interview, Shara moved to Detroit so she “could be a part of the urban gardening movement that is happening in the city.” Shara’s friend, artist Erin Martinez, digs up roses from empty lots where houses were torn down and replants the roses in a garden. That way all is not lost, and what someone once loved and cared for is loved and cared for again – and the dirt holds it all together.

Jesus spoke of a way of rightful being and living with God, people, and place. He gave it a name that the people of the time would understand – the Kingdom of God, and then he turned their notions of kings and kingdoms upside down and inside out. His talk of the Kingdom was not a once for all, clear as a bell theological declaration. It is however a creative means to reorient, even reestablish what it means to be God’s kind of fully human person. That is, a person alive to healthy relationship with God, his people, the land and all that is in it.

I see in the land of my youth, the farm-to-table movement, Laity Lodge, Judy Rodger’s roasted chicken, Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project, Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Norman Wirzba, the greening of Detroit, Shara Worden and her friend’s reimagined roses – the story of a gift, for our time. And for this man, all good reasons to say thank you to God through Christ Jesus.

Ending The Decade of Quiet

I have spent a decade or more mostly keeping quiet about what people call spiritual things. And by spiritual things, they usually mean metaphysics, ontology, cosmology, epistemology, and theology – whether or not they name these. For me, my whole concept of spiritual things is rooted in that storied and ubiquitous, historical person Jesus. I believe he is who he says he is. If you understand what I mean by this, then you know it’s an extraordinary thing to say and believe about reality. Nevertheless, I do believe and trust I have good reason for it.

Out of belief comes life and all its attending stories. I have, over the last ten years deliberately chosen to keep some of these stories quieter and private. Other than a few interviews and the occasional post at arthouseamerica.com/blog, I’ve required of myself what I’ve so often hoped for from others – a little reserve, maybe even silence. And so, on the topics of God, People, and Place, interdependent topics I’m very passionate about, I had gone mostly quiet.

For a time, quiet was my protest. I think I was fatigued and embarrassed by the reality that the majority of people who write or speak in public (using language and terminology associated with Jesus and the phenomenon known as Christianity) are not the spokespeople the world would actually benefit hearing from. And I’m certainly not putting forth the idea that I am.

I can think of many people I know and love that I wish friends and neighbors could hear from though – could spend even ten minutes with. The trajectory of my life has brought me in contact with people of remarkable artistic, philosophical, and theological vision. I want everyone to know them! But few of them are mainstreamed. And most who are vocal, using explicit language in winsome, thoughtful ways are often speaking and writing only to those who are already committed to the conversation. As much as we like to view the Internet as the public square, not only is that a utopian notion, but truly naïve at this point. The Web is a web – less an information superhighway and more the streets of New York City – where you could live your whole life and miss that the best information about the most important things is found at the corner of Bank Street and Waverly Place. To maximize NYC you need a friend, a curator, a recommendation, a tip. Getting at God, People and Place in a coherent, believable way, may require the same.

It’s heartbreaking how divisive people can be when it comes to their opinions about God. There’s nothing so destructive as when the conversation is reduced to: You’re an idiot if you believe – you’re an idiot if you don’t. Like the late John Coltrane and Johnny Cash, and contemporaries Bono and Dylan, the great American songwriter Paul Simon keeps bringing his spiritual search into the public square. A few years ago, Paul got a tip to meet with one of the people I do trust to speak out loud, the late John Stott. Here’s a transparent, honest interview Paul did that recounts his meeting with Mr. Stott. In my opinion, this is how you talk about your spiritual life and quest in public without coming off as a lightweight, a bully, or a know it all. This is human, artistic process in full view where every sphere of life and curiosity finds it’s way into your art. The art informs the world but turns back to you, continuing to inform you, bring you pleasure, and inspiring your eyes to see and your ears to hear.

Because of the public behavior and language of people professing to be Christian, many authentic, clear-spoken people have quietly ceased having public conversation related to Jesus and his narrative. This is unfortunate. Understandable, but not sustainable. People and place need devoted voices expressing the third way between the noise of the religious far right and the silence of the privately embarrassed, disillusioned follower of Jesus. It’s neither generous or inclusive when voices are silenced or shamed into silence.

So, I’m going to take another shot at being a public person who holds to ideas about the existence of God, the mission, glory and shame of humanity, and the earth as a remarkable place. This blog will be where I express those ideas and tell my stories. Will you join me in fleshing out what a new, humble explicitness might look like?

Peace to you. Here we go.