Thursday, November 15, 2012

Newness of Life

As of this September, I'm carrying a column in Purpose Magazine - sort of a Mennonite Guidepost -the kind of thing you'd find on the coffee table or in the bathroom of a nice Mennonite home. You can check it out at if you're interested.

The good folks at Purpose said I could post articles here once they were out in print. This one was under the theme of "redemption":

Newness of Life

I've been to visit the Orthodox Mennonites a few times now. They fascinate and compel me, these "plain folk."

The barn-raising I came out for still stands as the deepest sense of "we" that this recovering member of a "me" generation has yet to encounter. It had all the team spirit, the physical strain, the risk of injury, the strategy, and the bravery of a major sports event--that last unitive sacrament of my culture--without any of the aggression; we were profoundly together, without being against anyone else.

 On each visit, their minister takes pains to explain to me that the point of using horse and buggy or hand tools or wearing plain clothes is not those disciplines in themselves, but to "walk in newness of life." Funny, that this fellow with the big salt-and-pepper beard, the quaint Germanic accent, the house, clothes and mannerisms of yesteryear should commend his way of life to me as a way of pursuing "newness."

In my culture, there are endless products and services aimed at selling me that elusive sense of newness, of being reborn: the home renovation, the makeover, the Go Away to Discover Myself trip--all ways of achieving "the new you." In my case, I got suckered trying to reinvent myself by spending thousands of dollars on a triple set of caps and gowns, if you know what I mean.

But what is it that truly frees us to walk in newness of life? The Orthodox Mennonites have decided that beyond sharing ideas and words, Christ-followers need to share life. They fear that the individualized Christian is like the seed sown among the thorns: "The cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing." I fear I have little evidence to counter them.

When I get back in the car and drive away from the horse and buggy folk, I'm left asking myself: How do the technologies I use (or don't), or the standards I aspire to (or disregard), facilitate my walking in newness of life? How do they build up or weaken the "beloved community?" What bodily work is spiritually healing? And perhaps most importantly, am I asking these questions and choosing my disciplines alone, or with soul friends?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Unequal Yokes

Well, the garlic is planted, the pigs are in the freezer and the tomato cages are finally pulled and stacked aside (Thank you, Jenn!). Darkness is falls fast these days; the land is falling asleep. Action gives way to reflection. At last.

I don't know if anyone out there has missed my writing. I have. The process, I mean. It's a more careful way to think.

So, as promised, about the oxen:

At my last oxen-related post, I had one sweetie-pie of a calf named Oscar. By now I have a team of two junior oxen, selected out of a group of four candidate bull calves we tried out this summer. They take a yoke, stop and go and turn when I ask, and pull around a small load on a little sled. They are calm and friendly and really do seem to try their best for me.

It's still mostly fun and games. But the working relationship is real, and every time we do a drill, I'm a little closer to really counting on my boys, Oscar and Ben. I can already see them being a big help hauling firewood out of the bush this winter .

I have to say I'm surprised how natural it has felt to start working with the team. This is a confession as much as it is a boast. This summer I learned that I really do like to be the boss. The word boss, as I have learned, shares its roots with the verb "to beat" originally referring to the one who has the right to give subordinates a beating.

As a stay-at-home Dad of two precocious girls who have learned well to question authority, I have moments when I am wistful for a Father Knows Best household. It would be a lot easier. As a Jesus-disciple, I try to be a servant rather than an overlord in my family and my politics. My efforts are consistently clumsy and at odds with my dominant instincts. But Oscar and Ben don't understand servant-leadership, so with them I am unequivocally the Boss. With animals that will grow to be 2400lbs each, I have to demand absolute respect for my authority. And this is the interesting thing. Although I have been culturally conditioned not to, I found that I knew exactly how to be that kind of guy. What's more, I like being that guy.

I reflected often this summer on the stories of corporal discipline I remember hearing from my mother. She knew her father as a man of great tenderness and love, but she also feared his big hands. There were lines that were not to be crossed, and a price she would pay with her heiny if she did.

That's how I was with my boys. I bottle-fed them, I led them by green pastures, I rubbed and scratched and spoke affectionately to them, but when they didn't listen to commands, I hit them with a stick. Sometimes hard. Sometimes in the face. Just enough to let them know that my commands were non-negotiable, and then when they obeyed, back to the soothing and the petting and the praising. James Dobson would have loved it.

And they got it. The commands were simple and consistent, and introduced with physical cues easily intuited by non-verbal creatures (follow but do not pass your dominant animal; move away from taps and prods; stop if there's a stick in front of your face). And they didn't hold the beatings against me. I remember how grateful I felt when they didn't pull away from my affections after the first time I really had to let them have it. But then I shouldn't have been surprised. I only have to look at Helen and Reba, our two beef cows. Helen used to ram her huge head mercilessly into Reba's side in disputes over prime hay, then later the two would be lavishly licking one another's fur. Today, Reba is dominant and uses her horns to keep everyone else in the herd in line.

Dominance relationships established and maintained through force are the most natural thing in the world. And unlike Christian mutually submitting relationships, I know instinctively how they work. I know intuitively, genetically, how fathers kept families together with a firm hand. I know how kings held kingdoms. I know how masters kept slaves. And I know how a Father, a King or a Master could be at the same time potent and benevolent. It's a queasy thought for a liberal.

The irony is that I have become a "boss" on a quest for a humbler, more peacable way to live on the earth. I'm reading a book right now called The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk. Nikiforuk deploys a powerful metaphor: the oil economy is as morally problematic for us today the slave economy was for our ancestors, and calls for a new global Abolition Movement. He's spot on.  There are plunderous wars, ruinous pollution and corrupting politics all down the supply line of my oil addiction. I want to work with oxen because I desperately want to kick my oil dealer out of my food system, at least.

So have I just traded in one level of violence for another? Me beating animals with sticks instead of US troops kicking in Iraqi doors for my energy requirements?

Well, I don't know. I really do love my boys. There may be army chaplains out there who are counselling Christian soldiers through some convoluted this-is-how-we-love-our-enemy psychology, but I'd be ready to argue that such love is perversely disengenuous, while what I feel for my oxen is not. It is love of an older order. Spare the rod and spoil the ox, as it were. Is there is a place for such relationships even on the road to new order peaceable kingdom relations, where we learn, as the Bible says, to "break every yoke"? Strangely, I think so.