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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Stepping Outside the Box

Karen and I started "real" dating 25 years ago this month.

Our first actual date was in August 1980, about two months after graduation from Anderson College. We went to see Fiddler on the Roof presented in a huge tent by the Nettle Creek Players, a now defunct summer stock troupe in Hagerstown, Indiana. We had sputtered with attempts to date when we were in College, but we decided to go the more inconvenient route, waiting until we lived three hours apart.

Karen is a farmer's daughter. That is the source of her personal strength and good nature. When Karen invited me to Indiana to spend a day or two with her, I was excited to finally get to the farm and spend time with her family. She said she had a very special date for us Saturday evening.

I thought we were going to a barn dance.

Nevertheless, "Fiddler" set the tone for the rest of our dating life, engagement, and wedding. (We were married under a 'chupah' - albeit in a Wesleyan Church, but the sentiment was there.)

In the September following "Fiddler", Karen came to Findlay. We decided to keep with the Jewish theme, so we went and bought all the ingredients for a traditional Jewish meal for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year.

While Karen was in Findlay that weekend, we walked a lot. The afternoon of our Rosh Hashanah dinner, my then roommate, Lon, took our picture sitting on the railing of the noble Benevolent Order of Elks Lodge in downtown Findlay. Karen was in a red polo shirt and jeans, with her ever-present Dr. Scholl's wooden soled sandals. I was in a striped polo shirt, brown trousers, and my ever-present black and white saddle oxfords.

The framed photo is still on our picture table in the front room, a happy reminder of what has been 24 happy years of marriage.

I loved those saddle shoes. I had worn various kinds of saddle shoes in high school, which was something of a localized fad. Most common were an off-white toe box with a dark navy blue saddle. I had some of those. I also had a pair with a tan suede toe box and brown leather saddle and another pair of brown leather on brown leather. But my black and whites were my favorites.

I wore them through my Anderson College years, painstakingly keeping the white parts white with that white shoe polish that has a miniature pom-pon at the end of twisted wire attached to the lid. I wore them while Karen and I were dating and engaged. I wore them on my first job, as Junior High Coordinator of Findlay Youth for Christ.

On our honeymoon in June, 1981, I had a harder problem with shoes. I took a whole suitcase just for shoes. I had my favorite running shoes (we both were runners at the time). I had my favorite walking Hush Puppies (we loved taking walks together). I had my burgundy slip-ons, for dressy occasions. I had my woven casual shoes, for comfort. I had my moccasins, for knocking around. And, of course, my saddle oxfords.

The suitcase of shoes was really less about shoes and more about my plaguing inability to make a decision and stick with it. My decision about marrying Karen was not one of those decisions, but indecision tends to be my life pattern.

It's ironic, then, that as I reminisce about my favorite old saddle shoes, I write this article about "Stepping Outside the Box." Ironic because I've made a decision about 'stepping outside the box' that's taken three months for me to work up to telling about. It's not a shocking decision. It's actually quite a simple one.

Keep in mind, I've stepped outside the box many times, often to crawl back in. Ah, yes. There was the time I stepped outside the haircut box and went with shaved sides and long on top. (What was I thinking?) There were the Vegetarian Days (as opposed to the Atkins Diet Days), the Apostolic Christian phase (contrasted with the High Church Anglican pilgrimage), the "Let's Raise Goats" years, the Settlement of Antarctica Plan (in high school), and many more.

But this box I'm stepping out of for good. It's the Shoe Box. No more shoes, unless I have to wear them. None. Nada. No more.

It all started back in July when I was dealing with a monster case of bursitis. Prescription steroids didn't work. Prescription strength Alleve didn't work. Exercises from our doctor didn't work. I had begun walking with a cane and could barely stand for more than a few minutes without my entire leg going dead.

One afternoon, in great pain, I went to my friendly Reflexologist, Nedra. After my treatment, Nedra said, in passing, "You know, going barefooted is like having reflexology all the time."

So I gave it a try. The first day the pain was lessened. The second day, the pain was gone. And it has been gone ever since.

Little by little, I began wearing shoes less and less. In mid-July, I started wearing sandals to work. A week later, I cut the straps off the back of them so I could get out of them fast. A month later I bought a pair of Birkenstock knock-offs, which have become my daily shoes. I put them on when I get to work, and I take them off ASAP after. I wear shoes to Church, but take them off for Sunday School. I don't wear them to Bible Study.

There have been many wonderful benefits to me in going barefooted these last few months that go beyond the bursitis problem.

First of all, being barefooted has gotten me walking for my health again. Originally, I wanted to "toughen" my soles. But as time has progressed, I rediscovered the benefits of walking. I now walk 2-4 miles a day barefooted over all sorts of surfaces - mostly concrete and asphalt, but also grass, gravel, dirt, and mulch. And acorns, pine cones, walnuts and buckeyes. The walking has helped me trim a few pounds (much needed), but also walking barefooted has created more sensitivity to the world around me outdoors.

Secondly, barefooted walking has strengthened my feet and legs. Karen has long maintained that I have 'prissy' feet. No more! I don't have ogre feet now, but I do have strong feet.

Third, this minor change of lifestyle has emboldened my creative thinking. I started The Country Parson blog to channel some of this creative energy. I've started working on a book that has long lain dormant in my mind and in the computer. I'm feeling sharper at work and more attuned at home.

Fourthly, barefooting has been a great conversation starter. I love talking to people. I love to hear their story. A room full of people engaged in pleasant conversation is music to my ears. It's amazing to me how a simple thing like going barefooted has gotten people talking.

Finally, I just think it's fun. Cheap, easy, a little bit ornery, fun. It's something I like doing and I like doing it for me. There's not a lot in this life I do for myself (which is both good and bad), and barefooting is something I'm doing that's not hurting anyone else and it's helping me tremendously. And in an unexplainable way, I just think it's fun.

Thing is, I am just as comfortable barefooted as I ever was in those favorite old saddle shoes. If not moreso. As much as I loved those black and whites, I'm finding that I love my own natural feet better.

(I don't know what ever became of those saddle shoes. I suspect they were part of a post-nuptial wardrobe correction, but I couldn't say for certain.)

So there. The Country Parson has stepped out of the shoe box.I just hope I haven't stepped back in by the time you read this! ;-)

Monday, September 19, 2005

For Dog and Country

Rufus was the unfortunate dog who belonged to the Daniels children somewhere in the mid-1970's. A short, black, and malodorous canine, Rufus spent most of his unhappy life with the Daniels penned around the garage, barking at friend and foe, eating cheap dog food and wondering why no one paid any attention to him.

Those were years of intense stress in our family. Mom was adjusting to life as the single parent of the four children she bore in less than five years. Emotions, when we expressed them, were usually negative and/or hostile. But mostly we didn't express them. There is a certain comfort in repressing one's feelings.

I don't mean that we were intentionally mean to Rufus. We had plenty of time for kickball and to go to Scout meetings. But we were little prepared for the time a good dog requires for nurture and personal growth. Who has time to love a dog when one is having a hard time loving one's self?

It is little wonder that when the gate was left open one morning Rufus ran hard and fast and as far as he could, never to be heard from again.

So, in 1997, when Buddy came to live with our family, my first thoughts were of Rufus. I was apprehensive, remembering Rufus' unfortunate circumstances. Buddy was everything Rufus had been at the first - cute, cuddly, happy. We have no penned in yard in Roann (and I would be hard pressed to build one), so Buddy would be safe on that score.

As Buddy grew, he fast became a family dog. Slowly, over 8 years, he became my dog. When Buddy needs a bath, he's mine. When Buddy needs a walk, he's mine. When Buddy needs to go out to 'read the mail,' he's mine. When Buddy needs a table scrap, he comes to my chair.

Buddy has become a close confidant and friend as well. There are few professions lonelier than the pastorate. Pastors know things about people that we can't tell anyone - even our wives. Pastors learn things about people from others that we can't share with others. We are the dead end on the gossip train. Pastors rarely have someone to understand their own issues and pains. We are supposed to be the strong ones at funerals, the comforting ones in the nursing homes, the healthy ones while anointing the sick, and the holy ones when administering the Church's sacred rites.

Enter Buddy. Like me, he is middle-aged (in dog years). Like me, he's pretty much content in his routine, happy with his family, satisfied with his home, and not in as good shape as he used to be. Buddy enjoys an evening walk, a good back scratch, and minding his own business. He occasionally barks inappropriately. Once in a while, he likes going out on a leash-free toot, just to see what's up in someplace new.

Being two overweight middle-aged males, Buddy and I take long walks to try and stave off the on-set of aging. I am able to share some of my confidences with Buddy. Buddy has heard about parish problems and has kept his opinion to himself. When I have a personal dilemma, Buddy offers no opinion. He just listens. When I am talking on and on about a situation I can't figure out, Buddy often brings me back to reality with a lunge at a stray cat or a quick jump at a squirrel.

The dog Rufus was around in the time of my life when adolescent confusion and family upheaveal led to neglect and emotional distance of both boy and dog. And though Rufus and I had much in common, we had no relationship.

The dog Buddy is around when life is going well. I have a wonderful family, I have plenty to eat, a great house, and the funnest job in the world. And so does Buddy. We have much in common, with the bonus of having a good relationship, too.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Rufus. I hope somehow, somewhere, he found a family who'd love him and let him know that life is best when it's shared with a good friend.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Divine Sovereignty and the Chicken Doodle

When Roger's red hen awakened this morning, she little realized the celebrity that awaited her later in the day. As the rising sun filtered through the dusty henhouse windows, the morning rumble of squawks and squeaks was beginning, as if hundreds of hens were wondering where the coffee was and which outfit was going to be worn today. A scratch here and a scratch there, a little meal here, a bug there, a few minutes to roost.

An ordinary day in the life of a red hen.

In nearby Roann, the sun was rising on the last day of the town festival. The dry grass was weary from four days of traffic. The kiddie rides lay still, resting from a late night of Tilt-A-Whirling, Scrambling, and miniature railroading. At the covered bridge, a few stalwart Christians were setting up a makeshift platform and microphones for the approaching community-wide worship service on the banks of the mighty Eel River as the rest of the town struggled out of bed. A scratch here and a scratch there, a little breakfast here, a cup of coffee there, a few minutes to wake up.

A quiet morning in the life of Roann, Indiana.

Both chicken and man witnessed the day as it progressed. The sun rose on both. The heat made both thirsty and both had plenty of water to drink. The bounty of rich farmland provided both more sustenance that either needed. In the crowded henhouse, hens preened and strutted, checking each other out, and, as chickens do ab ovo, cared little about anything else but the moment at hand. On the crowded festival streets, teens preened and strutted and neighbors checked each other out, and, as humans do ab utero, cared little about anything else but the moment at hand.

The moment for both man and beast changed when, shortly after 4 p.m., Roger stepped into the henhouse and grabbed the red hen. With the bird's head nestled in the crook of his elbow, Roger drove to town.

Upon their arrival in the center of the town, Roger and his companion made their way to the crowd that had gathered around the large wooden frame that lay at the heart of the festival. The frame gave shape to a cage of chicken wire. The floor of this giant box was a checker board of numbers, 1 to 500. The imminent action in the cage would be this hen's moment of glory.

Most of the by-standers were those who had paid a dollar to the Northfield High School Junior Class for a number corresponding to those on the cage floor. Curious children wriggled with delight, knowing what was to happen. Old farmers made comments about the hen's breed and coloration. Girls in the junior class stood appalled to think of the event about to happen.

At 4:30, the climax of the Roann Covered Bridge Festival reached its zenith. Roger dutifully brought the chicken to her cage. Faithful friend Donna lifted the lid. The crowd was agog as the red hen stepped into the limelight. The lid shut as the anticipation mounted. Whose number would . . .

. . .and it was over as soon as it started.

"Dang," said a man in soiled Carhartt coveralls. "Never seen a chicken doodle quite so fast."

"What'd you feed that thang, Roger?" yelled a woman from the back of the crowd. "Ex-Lax?!" She and those around her cackled with knowing laughter.

Faithful friend Donna barely had time to react. Paper towel in hand, she wiped the "doodle" from the board.

"Most of it's on 386!" Another assistant feverishly combed through the numbers in her stack. "Wally Cripe. Our winner is Wally Cripe!" Wally had apparently taken advantage of the "need not be present to win" clause, and wasn't present. So, in less than two minutes, the crowd disbursed. The hen was left alone in her cage.

The chicken's moment of glory came and went in simply doing what chickens do. In this case it was doodling. One supposes that she had no idea of the value she would have to Wally Cripe, earning him $100 merely by surrendering the remains of the previous morning's breakfast. It's hard to imagine that Roger could have slipped a little extra meal to her for looking for, and then targeting Number 386.

No, Roger's red hen was simply doing as God intended for her to do. Eat. Sleep. Doodle.

This is where the difference between chickens and mankind becomes most clear. Unlike chickens, most of us are discontent with the life God intends for us. We create situations out of our discontent that often lead to further discontent. In anticipation of changing the course of our discontent, we end up like the 499 people who lost a buck or two in the chicken doodle contest, rather than like Wally, who got the prize.

God gives life to every human being, days full of sunshine and provision, rain and shelter. We're made to eat and sleep, to love God and each other. This is our Sovereign's purpose for us.

May we, like Roger's red hen, find our contentment in life simply doing what God intends for us to do.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Farm Bureau Devotions

Tonight I am giving devotions for the annual meeting of the Wabash County Farm Bureau. I thought I'd share my thoughts with you.
Your friend,

He that tilleth his land shall have plenty of bread: but he that followeth after vain persons shall have poverty enough. (Proverbs 28:19)

Good Evening,
I am a city-boy who married a farmer’s daughter. My late father-in-law, Chester Clark, came to Indiana in the early 1940’s to work in the Chrysler at NewCastle and to make his living on the land. Chester had suffered a farm accident as a teen-ager while using a sickle to cut grain that left his left leg permanently straight. Through his high school years and a year of business college, he honed his farming skills in spite of his leg. His only regret with that leg was that it disqualified him from serving his country in World War II – but not for a lack of trying to enlist!

The reason I’m telling you about Chester is because I am a city boy who married his daughter. I was born and baptized in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in Findlay, Ohio. When I was a kid, I had a paper route of 175 papers in three city blocks, including three apartment buildings. I graduated in the class of 1976 with 700 other classmates. To me, bread came pre-wrapped, bacon came pre-sliced, and hamburgs were what my Dad put on the grill during the summer months.

Then I married into a farm family. When Chester retired from the Chrysler, he could devote his entire time to farming. I began to watch the cycle of farm events that Proverbs 28:19 talks about . . . “he that tilleth his land shall have plenty of bread.” Plotting and planning, bargaining with the elevator and watching the market –all this was a part of farming I never realized. Each spring Chester would plow up a huge plot near the house for my mother-in-law’s garden. Summers were filled with Chester in the field and Angie in the garden, getting ready “plenty of bread.”

For years, my in-laws’ basement was lined with rows of Ball jars filled with beans, tomatoes, corn, and other fruits of the garden. The freezer was full of meat they raised themselves (graduates of the 4-H Fair, if you will). They truly embodied the spirit of King Solomon’s wisdom.

In tilling the land, Chester gained more than just “plenty of bread.” He learned that keeping close to the earth keeps a man humble before God. His experience was that we come into the world with nothing and we are dependent on God for the very basics of life . . . the fruits of the earth for sustenance, the animals of Creation for assistance, and the God-given power of sun and rain to nurture and develop the crop. He could tell what kind of weather we’d be having by the patterns of the heavens, long before the weather channel sent up satellites. He also knew that all the herbicide and fertilizer, disking and cultivating, crop rotation and no-till don’t bring a harvest – that’s what God does.

The contrast of Chester and Angie’s life and the life of those who would follow “after vain persons” is obvious enough. Another Bible version describes “vain persons” as those who “chase fantasies.” We live in a world of get-rich-quick schemes and “ten steps to solve your problem.” We are tricked into thinking that everything can be solved within an hour of television, whether we want to be a rock star, solve a crime, or lose those love handles. We want a quick one-day workshop to put our lives in order so we can continue chasing fantasies the rest of the year.

My exposure to farm life through my wife’s family hasn’t taken the “city” out of the “boy.” I can’t drive a tractor or combine wheat. I hardly know a heifer from a steer. I rely on the Internet for the weather and I would starve to death if my diet depended on what I can grow. The “land” I till is the souls of the people of my parish.But the lessons Chester taught me through his farm have given me “plenty of bread” as well.

Keep humble before God.

Depend on God for the basics of life.

Trust in the patterns of Heaven rather than the ways of the world.

Let God bring the harvest.

May God bless you and your work now and in the year ahead.