Deep Breath of Remember – Barnyard Liturgy (Part 5)

God Communes with Us

In my desire to carry elements of God’s Liturgy out into the barnyard, beyond what we experience together corporately on a Sunday, I want to tread lightly with the element of God Communes with Us.  Taking part in Communion bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, sitting ‘at table with God’ belongs as a corporate feast.  It is made even more special to me as I anticipate and wait for Sunday’s to join in the family celebration of Communion.  However, that said, I also believe there are plenty of ways to participate in the fellowship of Trinity throughout my barnyard excursions.  Whether it be in the milking parlor, or using my imagination in a redemptive way, while abiding in the Dark Forest leaning on my Rock; communion opportunities abound.  As you know, practicing communion as you go about work, rest, or play requires focused attention.  It takes time, can yield beautiful rich fruit, but, if you’re like me, it can feel like waiting; enduring.  Let me tell you a story.

The "Balin' Twine Braid"
The “Balin’ Twine Braid”

Balin’ Twine Braid

What does it mean to wait?  I don’t mean wait for the bus or wait for supper.  I don’t even mean wait until you grow up.  The waiting I wish to show you will take lots of time because it involves lots of time.  As I explore what this means to me, I will try to use stories and pictures to grasp the meaning of the word “wait” used by the Psalmist and others.

The Hebrew language contains several words that get translated “wait” in English, so let me shine the light on the star of this show so as to distinguish it from what our English brain leads us to think when we hear the word wait.  Are you a pictorial learner, like me?  If so, look for the images in the following description taken from the Hebrew word “qavah.”

Twist

Bind together, perhaps by twisting

Stretch

Tension of enduring

Be strong

Strength

Strand of rope

Endure

Remain

Spider’s threads, web

Wait or look eagerly for

Linger for

I’ll begin with this example to show waiting as something you might do all your life, like a relationship, maybe.

“Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.” (Psalms 25:5)

Here’s a story ‘bout when I was a little boy:

“My grandpa was too old, and I was too young

To buck hay bales in the hot July sun,

So we sat by the truck in a puddle of shade,

And he taught me to weave the balin’ twine braid.”

The ‘balin’ twine braid’ was simple.  You take three strands of baling twine, tie a knot in one end and start weaving the strands by crossing the outside one over the middle one, first left over middle, then right over middle, repeat.

What my grandpa imparted to me that day was a useful means for an 8-year old to craft a simple rope to be used as a bridle, a lasso, a lead rope, and other cool farm-boy, cowboy stuff.  But, somewhere along in years, probably mid-20’s, when I first got introduced to this biblical word for wait as a rope bound together by twisting, the lights came on and I latched onto the “balin’ twine braid” as the metaphor for my relationship with “Trinity.”  A relationship that involves a lot of time waiting, a lot of time not so much seeing, but engaging; entwining.  Just as the braiding process involves numerous repeated ‘wraps,’ so does my relationship with a triune God.

Who Does The Choosing?

You may raise your eyebrows and purse your lips, perhaps even bristle when I say God’s liturgy is less something you do and more something done in you.  Done to you.  Let me elaborate.  Early in my Christian experience I picked up the idea that I should proactively seek God.  Hunger and thirst for Him.    Drop my nets and follow Him.  All good things, no doubt.  But somehow like Christ’s disciples, James and John, my efforts got twisted up and became strivings to earn God’s favor.  “Where’s my reward?”  I thus interpreted my circumstances, whether pleasant or horrific, as evidence of my success or failure in my pursuit of an elusive God.  I took upon myself a quest to determine what my sanctification would like.  Discipline, study, service, endeavoring for holiness made up my language, but I found myself trapped in repeated cycles of habit and sin.  The pressure was intense; all up to me and my choices.  But Who really does the choosing?

In God’s liturgy:

God Calls Us

God Cleanses Us

God Consecrates Us

God Communes With Us

God Commissions Us

I still struggle and deeply long for remedy.

Return with me, in your imagination, to the Dark Forest.  In the darkness I found a worn scrap of paper with some poetry written out in song.  I now knew I wasn’t alone in here.  There were others who frequent the proximity of the Rock.  There have been countless more who have lived here and moved on.  The date on the poem was 1759.   The opening lines read:

“Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,

Weak and weary, sick and sore;

Jesus ready stands to save you,

Full of pity, love and power.”[1]

I felt at home in those words, and I felt the pressure of my self-induced, self-help, independent strivings lift with a whoosh.

The poem ended:

“Let not conscience make you linger,

Nor of fitness fondly dream;

All the fitness He requires

Is to feel your need for Him.

This He gives You.

This He gives You.

Listen to the Spirits’ voice.”

I felt it.  I felt my need for Him.  I was jubilant. Is that all?  Now what do I do?  Wrong question.  What I was hearing was God calling me to worship, step one of a gospel-driven liturgy.  The issue now was less what I was supposed to do, and more, ‘watch out’ for what God was going to do in me.  He’s the initiator and finisher of my salvation.  Of my sanctification.  Pressures off.  Remedy is underway.

“Cast your deadly “doing” down,

Down at Jesus’ feet.

Stand in Him, and Him alone;

Gloriously complete.”[2]

Dystocia

Flashback to the milking parlor.  I noticed a cow in early stages of labor.  Not uncommon.  There are about 350 calves born throughout a year on this dairy.  But I noticed as the calf’s feet appeared, they were upside down.  Upside down feet means the calf is coming backwards.  Dystocia.  Urgent; and if unassisted, will likely result in death of the calf by asphyxiation during the process.  Worse, the cow’s life may be threatened being physically unable to expel the calf.

Intervention was required.  I offered assistance and a chance for remedy, though the outcome might be life; might be death.

I thrilled at the mighty inward tug I felt when attempting to attach a chain to the calf’s legs.  He’s alive.  Resistant, but alive.  Game on.  A battle of wills.  I was determined for a live birth remedy.  The calf?  Not so cooperative.  Adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding drama ensued.  Could I dislodge the calf from the grave he clung too?  His strong leg-kicking reminded me of my determination to not parachute into the Dark Forest.

Timing was critical.  The umbilical cord would snap during the process when the calf was half-way extracted, stimulating his first gasp; a gasp that could fill his lungs with placental fluid.  There was also a chance the cow, who was standing, would collapse making the final heave difficult.  She did.

I, Junior Veterinarian, spent my fortitude in the delivery process, then found another ounce of strength to lift the 80-pound calf upside down allowing some of the placental fluid to drain out.  No breathing.  I scrambled to grab a few handfuls of fluid from his mouth and throat, then jabbed a section of bedding straw into his nostrils trying to stimulate an inhale.  The calf’s ribs heaved filling his lungs with oxygen.  His eyes glinted with light and life.

Did the calf do life?  Or, was life done to the calf?

“Rescue us from a life in which the wonder has leaked out.”

Eugene Peterson

God Cleanses Us

More on the Liturgy of Breathing

We take our everyday respiration for granted, mostly.  We shouldn’t.  It’s a beautiful picture of what liturgy looks like.  When asked by my college professor, “What stimulates us to inhale?”  I answered, “Why our need for oxygen, our craving for life, of course.”  I was partly right.  To my amazement, the fuller answer is “the accumulation of chemicals in the bloodstream; chemicals resulting from healthy cellular work like carbon dioxide and hydrogen ions; chemicals that will kill you if not exhaled.”

There’s a nerve center in your brainstem that monitors the blood concentration of those “death” chemicals.  Once they reach a threshold level, you will inhale life-giving oxygen.

The beauty of this liturgical rhythm equates to, ‘death out, life in.’ Repeat.

In a gospel-driven liturgy.  God cleanses us.  He helps us recognize the sin-unto-death accumulating in our blood.  We exhale in repentance.  We inhale and draw in the life-giving assurance found in His promise of forgiveness.  Is there power in the blood?  Yes, most certainly, a flood of power.  Our Father’s forgiveness infuses us with a life-giving power that cost Christ His blood-flooding life.  Delivering, saving, sanctifying, cleansing, and redeeming life.

“There is a fountain filled with blood,

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;

And sinner’s, plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains…”[3]

[1] Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy, Joseph Hart, 1959

[2] It is Finished, James Proctor.

[3] There is a Fountain Filled with Blood, William Cowper, 1771.

Deep Breath of Remember – Barnyard Liturgy (Part 3)

Core Identity

My heart is an idol factory.  I am blissfully blind to them, for the most part, because idols are usually good things that I bank on to satisfy my deepest needs and hopes.  My idol worship pursues “counterfeit gods” because they promise me safety, peace, and happiness if only I base my life on them. I say in my heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”  Having that kind of relationship to something is best called worship.[1]

I don’t want my identity to be shaped by my worship of counterfeit gods.  By God’s mercy, the core identity that comes from God and God alone is made attractive and possible to me inside the encounter with Him during Liturgy.  His light exposes the destructive disappointment I feel as my counterfeit gods let me down.  He’s a jealous God!  Warning!  Inside God’s Liturgy you can expect bombshells and bloodshed.   He calls us to worship Him.  Him Alone!

That’s easy for me on Sunday.  In Barnyard Liturgy, all hell can break loose.  The Trinity comes “locked and loaded” to shape me; to create the identity I glimpsed on Sunday and said, “I long for that.”  The Trinity comes with fire and a hammer.  When I say God’s Liturgy is something done to you, it’s because we love our counterfeit gods too much to relinquish them without supernatural, gospel-beauty, will-breaking intervention.  God is out to save us to the uttermost.  Save us from our counterfeit gods.  Sometimes that feels like a dance.  Sometimes it feels like a trip to the woodshed.

Sparrows in the Milking Parlor

The milking parlor at the dairy I work at is big enough to allow 16 cows to be milked at a time.  The stanchions are located 8 per side along a 3 foot deep pit.  This arrangement brings me eyeball-to-udder.  Very efficient for the mundane, extremely repetitive actions I must perform to sanitize and clean each teat, attach a milking head, and finally dip with a solution of skin conditioners and iodine.  As the 8 cows on one side are finished, I open an air-gate so they can meander their way back to the loafing shed to eat, rest in a free-stall, or rehydrate at the water trough.  On average, each cow has given 30-40 pounds of milk and will do it all over in 12 hours.  That’s 60-80 pounds of milk a day.  They’re thirsty.  They’re hungry.

The efficiency of being in a pit has its downside.  Milk is not the only thing that comes out of a cow.  I will delicately call this cow pies-a ’plenty.  During a milking shift of 6 hours shuffling 250 cows through the parlor, I get splattered-a ‘plenty.  About a decade ago, I scanned the want ads; “Don’t mind getting dirty?  Come milk cows.”  I’ve always loved cows.  I’m good at getting dirty.

I’ve had a variety of career pursuits and they’ve all involved animals, both wild and domestic, to some degree.  But I never aspired to work at a dairy, in a 3-foot deep pit.  At age 17, I wanted to be a large animal Veterinarian.  Seven years and 3 Veterinary College failed interviews later, the dream died.  Inadequate grades?  Or thwarted by God?  I raised my fist to the heavens.

Next, I hired on as cowboy on a beef ranch for 3 years, then, ironically got hired at the research branch of the Veterinary College I’d been rejected by.  I excelled, climbed academic ladders, won student research awards, and obtained advanced degrees.  The crescendo of a 25-year career led to the apex of a research/teaching position in Montana. Upward mobility.  I had two years to prove myself and secure my own grant funding.  The result, “Don’t mind getting dirty?  Come milk cows.”

Flashback to a week after I answered that ad, it’s 3 A.M.  I’ve milked enough cows in the past hour to get splattered-a ‘plenty.  I’d also been kicked a’ plenty by cows not used to the ‘new guys’ touch.  I was frustrated and keenly aware of another one of God’s thwarting’s.  Downward mobility.  In the pit stood a disappointed, empty, broken, scared, angry man with my fist raised to the heavens.

And then, it happened.  Epiphany!

Turns out, when you’re in a pit, it’s a good thing to look up.  I watched a sparrow, feathers preened out to make him look twice as big as he really was to insulate against the cold, chirp out a bird song that sounded a lot like praise.  Then, he fluttered down to the parlor runway where cows returning from their milking left the gift of cow pies-a’ plenty.  He deftly plucked out a kernel of barley from the muck, ascended back to the rafters, and resumed his praise chirp.  I witnessed a creature deemed worthless, descend into the realities of a wilderness to gather his daily bread, then soar heavenward to offer his provider thanksgiving with praise.  My fist loosened and dropped to my side.  I felt the hot tears of repentance and deep joy trace down my cheeks.

My brain, my heart, my gut, all my deep places were flooded with the revelation of a creature remembered by God.  A creature cared for, loved, accepted and valued by God.  For a moment, I knew that I too was remembered, cared for, loved, accepted and valued by my Creator.  For a moment, I tasted my core identity.

I added my pitiful, squeaky praises to the community of birdsong wafting like incense to heaven.  I was doing worship.  Or rather, Barnyard Liturgy was doing me.

[1] Adapted from Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. 2009.

Deep Breath of Remember – Barnyard Liturgy (Part 2)

Through gospel-driven liturgy, our worship can calibrate our hearts.  Information won’t do that.  Christian worship is designed to bend our hearts back toward God.  We can’t think our way out of wrong desires.  Rather than being an expressive endeavor, God calling us to worship invites us into a space where He gets ahold of us and re-shapes our fundamental loves.  Historic Christian worship invites us into the gospel story anew.  We gather around the Word and the Table to re-inhabit the gospel which converts our imagination in ways we may not be aware of.  This spiritual transformation is our sanctification.

We’re image-bearers called to tend God’s flourishing world, much like from the story in Genesis 1.  Our liturgies within our work environments shape us.  They impart a vision of how we define the “good life.”  There are many rival liturgies trying to capture us with a picture of what we want to live toward.  We need new liturgies, new habits, new routines and rhythms to bridge the gap between what we think of as our “good life” and what we actually do.[1] http://trinitybozeman.org/sundays/sermons/?sermon_id=203

My work environment happens to be labor on a dairy.  As my love for God’s liturgy practiced on Sunday’s grows, and as I discover my qualification for responding to His call to worship is to feel my need for Him, I find that I profoundly feel that need the other days of the week.  So, welcome to my version of Barnyard Liturgy.   Like you, my work is partly satisfying, permeated with unexpected joys, and mostly a crucible for the shaping of my identity.  I share my stories with the hope that you will grow in awareness of your liturgies practiced in a cubicle, tending the kids, selling real estate, caring for the elderly, teaching at the University.  My hope is that we will grow toward having our identity shaped in God and God alone.

[1] These thoughts provided by James K. A. Smith, Christ and Culture Lectures, “You Are What You Love.”

Deep Breath of Remember (Part 1)

“Pssst, Hey you.”

Halfway to the milking parlor for a 2 AM shift, I stop and gaze up.  Constellations dazzle.

“Hey you, wanna worship?”

“Uh, it’s 2 AM.”

“I know, just checking if you want to worship.”

“Well, I guess so.  Hadn’t really thought about it, but I’m not exactly decked out in my Sunday best.”

“That’s OK.”

“Uh, alright, but it’s not just the muck on my boots and Wranglers, if you’re who I think you are, you know there’s a muck-filled heart in my chest right now.  Kinda disqualifies me, don’t you think?”

“Nope.  That’s what I’m looking for.”

“I gotta hunch I’m hearing the one that spoke that Milky Way over there into being.  Pretty compelling.  But, between you and me, I’m just a messed up, can’t stop sinning cow milker.”

“True, and your reputation as such extends beyond just me and you.”

“Gulp.”

“Take a deep breath.”

I inhale slowly and deeply.  My lungs fill with the biting cold, crisp and invigorating, high elevation Montana, winter night air.

“Now.  Remember!”

“OK, yes go ahead and exhale, but I want you to Remember.”

Unsure of what I was to remember, I waited inside of that brief, peaceful, blissful moment after exhale in which the compulsion to inhale hasn’t kicked in yet.  Something beautiful was going on.  Some sort of gentle movement, a barely perceivable shift, down so deep in my soul it seemed strange.

Gasp!  The urgent need for another breath kicked in.  I didn’t even know I needed it, but it happened with a jolt.  Turns out, I needed it.

I noticed for a short moment a beautiful rhythm.  Inhale life.  Exhale death.  Repeat.  I stumbled on to the liturgy of breathing.  Something initiated from beyond my choosing that is both mysterious and mundane.  Both stimulating and routine.  Whether conscious of it or not, a good thing to get invited into.

Welcome to the dairy.  Hope you like to hear stories.  Stories of Barnyard Liturgy.

Liturgy, like breathing, is less something you do than it is something done to you.  It’s God’s liturgy.  It’s gospel-driven.  He invites.  GOD CALLS US TO WORSHIP.   “Pssst, Hey you.”