Can Do: Rural Traditions, Food, and Life Full Circle

(via Robert Stutes)

One of the scariest places of my childhood was my grandma’s basement. It was dark, damp, and prone to flooding. Sometimes water would pool inches deep making half of it completely inaccessible. A musty smell hung in the air, the combination of damp stone, old household chemicals, and the outdated magazines piled high in the corner. It was both alluring and terrifying.

But the basement was also where my Grandma stored her canned goods–rows of jars lined the wooden shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. Beets, pears, green beans, tomatoes, lime pickles, grape juice, blackberry jelly, and applesauce. All waiting patiently in the damp darkness until we’d venture down the nearly vertical steps to retrieve them.

Today, my family’s canned goods sit on shelves in our basement, too; and yet, I have to admit that our basement can’t compete with Grandma’s. Good lighting and a sump pump have stolen all the mystery out of it. And for us, canning is less a necessity and more a choice–a way of life that allows us to tap into our rural roots and live close to the land. For grandma, though, canning was about survival, about preserving summer’s bounty for the dark, scarce days of winter.

I had a chance to reflect on this (and other things) in this piece at Her.meneutics: “When Rural Traditions Get Hipster Cred.”  I also got to reminisce a bit more with John Hall and Kathy Emmons on the John & Kathy Show on 101.5 WORD-FM out of Pittsburgh.  https://soundcloud.com/john-and-kathy/tuesday-october-28-2014  (Our conversation starts at 14:35.)

In many ways, this piece and the subsequent conversation brought me full circle. I grew up about an hour south of Pittsburgh in the Laurel Highlands, which is part of the greater Appalachian region. So it’s funny to me that a piece about canning and rural living would snag me a spot on a radio station out the “big city.” But I suppose that’s the way life often works. You spend years trying to find yourself only to discover that you’ve always known who you were–and for me, that means being a country girl whose canned goods sit on shelves in the basement just like grandma’s did.

Houses on Sand

houses on sand2If you show up at our church at 10:15 Sunday morning, you’ll find me in a small corner room, my knees wedged beneath a two-foot-tall table, surrounded by 4 and 5-year-olds. We’ll probably be in the middle of a Bible story by then; but if you come a little earlier, we might be using a hand play for a verse or singing a song to get the wiggles out. In our class, we know all the old standards: “Young David,” “This is the Day,” “I Will Enter His Gates,” and of course, “The Wise Man Built His House.”

Those of you who grew up in church probably know this last one (and might be already be singing along.) The lyrics are taken from Matthew 7: 24-27:

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

“So build you life on the Lord Jesus Christ and the blessings will come down…”

There’s only one problem with this: it isn’t accurate. This isn’t the message of Matthew 7: 24-27.

Several weeks ago, I read this passage in its broader context and was hit with the unsettling realization that for 30+ years I’d been missing the whole point. I’d understood it as the tension between Jesus and “the world” and that a life of making the right choices would result in blessing. In reality, the parable of the wise and foolish man is about an entirely different tension.

Jesus used the story of the wise and foolish man to conclude His Sermon on the Mount. He had been addressing the crowds assembled on a Galilean hillside, giving them perhaps the most nuanced explanation of kingdom living of His earthly ministry. And like any good preacher, He finishes with an application and illustration. Those who hear His words and do them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock; those who reject them will do so at their own peril.

So what were these “words” that the people had to either accept or reject? What had Jesus just taught them?

Among other things, He’d given them the Beatitudes, teachings on divorce, advice about money, the Golden Rule, and warnings against false teachers. On the surface, these topics seem to be very different, and yet, they are united by one central thread. A thread that runs through the entire message, binding it together in a cohesive whole. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is calling people to a deeper understanding of their faith. He is internalizing the Law, pressing them past the superficiality of just “doing the right things.”

He warns them that their own righteousness will never be enough and will even deceive them. In fact, there are false prophets so deceitful that they trick even themselves, believing that they are doing their righteous acts in Jesus’ name. But far from calling the people to abandon the law, He is calling them to a better, more encompassing faith. A faith that actually changes them from the inside out. And he concludes all this with the warning to build your life on His words and on not “the sand.”

So what is “the sand?” The sand is our righteous works.

It is not the world’s system as we tend to envision it. It is not the danger of power or ambition or the love of money or lust or greed. Jesus is warning against the danger is self-reliance. We must not place our confidence in our ability to exceed the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Because if we do, when the storms come, when the thunder crashes, and the lightning strikes, everything we’ve been building—our families, our homes, our work, even our own sense of self—will collapse into one massive pile of twisted, broken wreckage.

Just look around you. Read the blogs. Hear the stories of men and women who tried for so long and so hard to be “righteous” people. They wore the right clothes, they had the right family structures, they used the right translations, they signed the right pledges, they listened to the right music, they had the right theology, and they went to the right churches.

But when the storms came, all of this “rightness” wasn’t enough.

Several weeks ago, I shared the story of Vyckie Garrison who walked away from a legalistic faith straight into the arms of atheism. Many Christians were confused by her story. They wondered how she made such a dramatic change. Why couldn’t she simply shift to a different, perhaps more moderate understanding of Christianity? Why couldn’t she simply become more “balanced”?

She couldn’t become more balanced because all the leveling in the world couldn’t change that her life had been built on the sand.

This is also why those who have grown up in other forms of legalism often walk away from “the faith.” This is why there are so many walking wounded among us. And this is why even those of us who think we’re building our lives on Jesus must be humble. Because the minute we look down on those who didn’t rely on Him, we reveal that our own hearts aren’t relying on Him either. We are putting our confidence in our own ability to be “wise” enough to embrace Him.

I understand why rules and roles and theological paradigms are so appealing. In an uncertain world, they give us safety. A checklist can tell me exactly who I’m supposed to be and where I fit in all this chaos and confusion. And for a time, it will make me feel stable and give me a sense of order. But when the storms come–and they will—the bottom will quite literally fall out because my “house” was really only ever resting on itself.

Instead, Jesus is calling us to something better. He’s calling us to be wise men and women, who know that we will never be enough in ourselves. He’s calling us to humility and the security that even if we aren’t, He is. And ultimately, He’s calling us to Himself.

4 Reasons to Blog (and 4 Reasons NOT to Blog)

This post is part of a recurring series about blogging and the art of writing. Check out more here.

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Back in August, a friend on Twitter posted the following question:

screen shot why blog

Several folks offered good advice, but the question made me think about why I started blogging and what I’ve learned in the process. Here’s a more extended answer to Abi’s question:

I started blogging in July 2011. At the time, my husband and I were in a period of underemployment, using food stamps, and living in a 950 sq. ft. apartment with three young children. Not exactly the most prodigious setting to launch a writing career. Looking back, I realize that God used this time to provide direction for me. Because of financial constraints, I needed a marketable skill; this meant either returning to school for a technical degree or pursing writing. So I made a deal with God: I would commit 2 years to learning the industry and developing my skills if He would confirm that this was His leading in my life. Since then, He has. But it started with small steps of faith like setting up a blog and pushing “publish.” In fact, the process of blogging was invaluable because it gave me:

1.Accountability: Writers are notoriously unstructured and unscheduled. For all the books that people have inside of them, only a fraction of them actually make it out. (What is this “deadline” that you speak of?) I knew that if left to myself I would have a very difficult time actually pursuing writing. I would think a lot about it. I may even write up responses to other pieces. But without structure, I’d never really progress. A blog provided both an audience and accountability.

2. An Opportunity to Create an Online Portfolio: If you have a blog, publishers and editors can easily read through your work to determine if you are a good fit for their publications.  It also shows them that you are a self-starter. Writing isn’t simply a pipe-dream for you; you are committed and have already invested time and effort to pursuing it. At the same time, using a blog as an online portfolio means that you’ll need to privilege quality over quantity. Not every post must be stellar, but you must remember that people will actually read your writing.

3. Practice: Blogging allowed me to explore ideas and become a better writer. When I look back at my first posts, I don’t exactly shudder, but I do have a healthy appreciation for what three years of consistent writing has done. Every post forced me to think better and to communicate more clearly. Especially when I wrote on more controversial topics. The bigger the issue, the more carefully I had to choose just the exact word or make sure I truly understood the issues at stake.

4. To Fill a Gap: Another reason I blog is because I want to promote ideas that have been neglected in the broader conversation. You only need to spend a few minutes on Sometimes A Light to know that I’m passionate about women finding their identity in God’s identity. Some of this passion comes from personal experience, but most of it comes from listening to the prevailing conversations and realizing that we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. Having a blog allows me to spread a truth that transforms how we speak about womanhood, discipleship, and service in the Kingdom.

At the same time… Blogging has also taught me that there are as many reasons why you SHOULDN’T blog. Among them are:

1. Insecurity: If you blog because you need to be heard, stop. Right. Now. Too many of us—writers, pastors, and counselors included—minister out of our own neediness. We need to be respected. We need to be affirmed. We need to feel like we are good people. And we use other people’s needs to solve our own. It’s true that using your gifting will bring a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but our gifts were never intended to fill a void that only Christ can. In fact, if you do this, you won’t be a very good writer. Or a very good person. But when Jesus fills your emptiness, you’ll find that you’re free to serve and to serve well.

2. Escapism: In many ways, blogging is an easy form of “ministry.” As messy as the internet can be, online relationships are a whole lot more manageable than those in real life. If someone annoys me, I can simply unfriend him. If someone sends me a nasty email, I can simply block her. And if someone praises me, I can return to that comment whenever I need to re-affirm my own sense of importance.  Relationships in real life are a whole lot messier and a whole lot more demanding. I do not get to choose the issues that I want to address; I do not get to control the problems that come my way. I do not get to rely on praise to maintain my emotional stability. Loving a person I see day in and day out is always harder than loving someone I do not. But these “in real life” relationships are precisely how God intends to make us like Himself.

3. Anger: Do not blog to work through your past. This is what a diary or the counselor’s office is for. Certainly, our past hurts lend us insight and the ability to write more deeply about certain issues. But don’t foist your angst on your readers unless you also give them the solution. Do not infect them with your anger and discouragement unless you also offer them the freedom and joy that is found in Christ.

4. Marketing: In the last several years, the blogosphere has been dominated by “building platform” and ‘gathering your tribe.” Writers use social media and marketing tools to promote their voice and their message. I get this. I really do. If God has given you the gift of writing, you need to make certain that your message is heard. Don’t hide your light under a bushel, etc. But for too many bloggers, building tribe has become an end in itself. We start to prioritize platform or amassing a readership over serving our readers well. And in the end, everyone suffers: readers, writer, and message. Remember: If you are gifted to write, you serve your readers best when you do just that: Write.

In the end, Abi did end up starting a blog with this lovely first post: A Handful of Broken Treasure. Also, if you’ve been blogging for a bit and feel the weight of staying consistent, you might enjoy this group post about why some blogs tend to “go cold.” It’s written specifically to women bloggers but the concepts transcend gender.

What’s In a Name

One of the first rules of Appalachia is never mess with a drunken redneck.

I was reminded of this just a few days ago. It was Sunday evening around 6:30 and my husband and I had decided to take our kids up to the playground of their elementary school. Normally, we’d be at prayer meeting at this time, but today was Homecoming Sunday. We’d already spent the majority of the day at church, enjoying worship, dinner on the grounds, and homegrown music. Everyone needed the evening to decompress, and the playground and walking track sounded perfect.

As we stepped out the door to get in our van, we noticed a rusty, white Ford Explorer parked on the edge of our property. A solidly-built man in his mid-to-late forties was walking around one of our trees and seemed to be sizing it up. He was wearing cargo shorts, a dirty cut-off t-shirt, and somehow managed to have a long, straggly ponytail and a shaved head simultaneously. He was accompanied by a younger man, a copy of himself, minus the ponytail.

But I need to back up a bit.

Our property is a fairly-level piece of ground which is rare around here; in exchange, we have very few trees. Thankfully, it butts up against a piece of wooded land and extends about five feet into it—just enough for us to have a handful of trees to call our own. The first winter we lived here, one of those trees came down in an early snow storm. The leaves were still on the branches, so as the snow fell, it collected on them. This extra weight combined with the saturated ground eventually brought it crashing down. Assuming it was dead, my husband planned to cut it up for firewood after it had dried.

But that spring, it budded. Despite lying prone, the roots were somehow still intact and able to nourish it. Our kids quickly commandeered it as a clubhouse/fort/pirate ship and spent hours scampering up and down it branches like little squirrels. They’d take blankets and sheets, drape them over the limbs, and make tents. When their friends came over, the first place they’d take them was “The Tree.” And every spring, it would bud; every summer, it would leaf, and every autumn, it would turn a brilliant yellow. All while lying horizontal.

So last Sunday, as we were leaving for the playground, we were surprised to see these men walking around “The Tree.” My husband headed over to see what was going on and was immediately greeted with,

“Hey, I’m gonna cut this up for firewood.”

“Oh?” my husband replied, still trying to make sense of what was happening.

“Yeah, my boy and me are gonna cut it up.”  The words floated from his lips on a stream of alcoholic vapor.

By this time I’d walked over, having told the kids to stay in the fenced area of our yard.

“Yeah,” the older man continued, “I live in the trailer on the other side of the woods and this here tree is on my property.”

I remembered this trailer. “The one with the columns at the end of the long driveway?” I ventured.

“That’s them. They got eagles on top.”  He slurred, “My boy here lives just below me.” His boy stood beside him, silent and grinning.

“So anyways, I’m gonna get my chainsaw and we’re gonna cut up this tree.”

Cautiously, my husband said, “Well, it’s not dead, and I’m not sure it’s your tree anyway. Look at the property line….”

“It is mine.” he interjected, obviously becoming agitated. “There’s the stake.” He pointed to a stake that was clearly five feet into the woods, well past the base of our fallen tree. I suppose he could have been seeing double at this point, and truly did see another stake in front of the tree, but regardless, things were not progressing well.

My husband glanced over at me, and then did one of the most courageous things he could have done. In one seamless motion, he extended his hand and said, “Hey, I don’t think I introduced myself. My name is Nathan. What’s yours?”

And in this moment, he put a human face on a problem. Suddenly we weren’t simply neighbors in a dispute over a property line; we were people with names and stories.

One of the wisest things I’ve ever learned is to try  to see people for who they are—as unique image bearers of our glorious God.

We are not functions and roles.

We are not problems to be solved.

We are not objects.

We are full and multi-dimensional and complex. And often, summoning up the courage to walk right up to some one and introduce yourself is the first step in knowing them for who they are. The first step in knowing them imago Dei.

In the end, we didn’t resolve anything about the tree. But by extending his hand and asking our neighbor’s name, my husband diffused a situation that could have escalated in a hundred wrong directions. He was able to exchange phone numbers, and eventually he’ll follow up with our new friend. If the firecrackers that went off at 3:30 Tuesday morning are any indication, we’re probably going to get to know each other very well in the near future.