Iona Musings

Iona Musings

Not I—not anyone else, can travel that road for you.
You must travel it yourself.

~Walt Whitman

A slight wind sweeps over the rocky hill, a cool relief after my quick walk and brief climb. Shoes off, I lean back on the grassy spot I’ve claimed and look around to get my bearings. Wide expanses of blue sea encircle this small island I’ve just arrived on. Green pastures filled with grazing sheep and cows stretch out below me. Occasional white farmhouses dot the landscape. Across the bay, small islands and the rocky coast of Mull are visible. In the distance, I can see the Abbey – outpost of monks and pilgrims, survivor of centuries of harsh coastal weather, and emblem of the holiness that permeates this sacred isle.

I have arrived on Iona—place of pilgrimage, refuge, and prayers. A spot thought to be so holy that only the thinnest of margins separates heaven from earth. The thinnest of thin places. A small western isle where an Irish abbot established a monastic community around 563 CE, and where pilgrims have been traveling ever since.

Our ferry has landed moments before, and I immediately felt drawn to walk to the hill of Dun-I (hill of Iona) – the highest spot on the island. I’ve come as part of a group of pilgrims from across the U.S. and Canada with Shalem Institute, a leading contemplative organization based in Washington DC. We each come for our own reasons, though connection with the holy and with the earth are the themes of our collective journey. Continue Reading..

Another Holy Week

It is Holy Week. The week we recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. His final week with his disciples. His actions in the temple. His perplexing parables. His final meal. His agonizing last hours. The uncertainty of Saturday. The joy of Sunday morning.

It is a week of central significance to anyone claiming to be, or aspiring to be, a disciple of Jesus. One of my favorite weeks as a pastor. Also one of the busiest. Continue Reading..

Like Water Off a Goose’s Back

josephineWe loaded the kids, our mammoth tent, and some food (and beer!) into the van last Thursday and headed off to the hills of North Carolina. We were ready to hit the third annual Wild Goose Festival.

We arrived at Hot Springs, NC to discover puddles, mud and —smiles. Hundreds of people setting up camp, giving directions, prepping stages and venues, setting up craft booths, plucking guitar strings, and more. Despite the deluge of rain the night before, and the forecasted rain (which did come), the Goose would go on.

After setting up camp, the kids discovered some friends they had met at the event last year, and my wife Christy and I headed off to our first event: A Darkwood Brew Unplugged conversation between the Darkwood Brewmaster himself, Eric Elnes, and writer and speaker Frank Schaeffer. The open conversation about the mysteries of faith, and the urgency of getting real about issues that affect our world reminded me that I was in the right place. “Certainty gets in the way of truth,” Frank would say more than once, to my internal amen. “When we’re certain about God, certain about what it means to be spiritual, certain about our theological and doctrinal systems, we close ourselves off from the larger spiritual truths that there are to be gained.”

He would go on to note that we grow by discovery, by being wrong, by re-thinking – and that this is true in nearly every facet of life. Can it be so different when it comes to God? About halfway through the session, Frank shared his own keys to living a meaningful life: “Create beauty, give love, and find peace.” Those gathered under the tent murmured and smiled in agreement. “If you do these three things — and I mean anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation or commitments— if you do these three things, you’ll look back and be content with how you lived your life. If you ignore these things, you’ll regret it.”

Create beauty. Give love. Find peace.

Before the session ended, my two youngest kids were growing restless and were ready for bed. We walked back to the tent as the sky darkened and rain threatened, passing many other festival-goers on the way. I rounded up our two oldest boys, who had been speeding through mud puddles on their bikes, and we all got ready for bed. The rain hit right after we all snuggled in our sleeping bags, which was exactly the time that the main musical act for the evening got started. Our tent was about thirty or forty yards from the main stage, and when Speech from Arrested Development began his show, the speakers were booming and the show was on. My three youngest passed out (thank you, God!) to the hip-hop beat, while my oldest son Henry and I enjoyed the show from the dryness of the tent, mildly envying those jumping up and down in the rain in the front row.

Speech performing in the rain - photo courtesy Geoff Maddock
Speech performing in the rain – photo courtesy Geoff Maddock

The show reached a fever pitch when he performed Arrested Development’s most well-known song, Tennessee:

Lord I’ve really been real stressed

Down and out, losin ground

Although I am black and proud

Problems got me pessimistic

Brothers and sisters keep messin up

Why does it have to be so damn tuff?

I don’t know where I can go

To let these ghosts out of my skull

My grandmas past, my brothers gone

I never at once felt so alone

I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel

Not just my spare tire (home)

But Lord I ask you (home)

To be my guiding force and truth (home)

For some strange reason it had to be (home)

He guided me to Tennessee (home)

Take me to another place

Take me to another land

Make me forget all that hurts me

Let me understand your plan 

The themes of this song and another hit, Mr. Wendal, about a homeless man, touched many of us as we saw the spiritual side of Speech, who would articulate more of his spiritual background and inspiration in an interview with Krista Tippett the next day.

Even as I went to bed early that night, the days to follow would include catching up with a number of friends, making plenty of new ones, and attending sessions on non-violence, the environment, racism, the arts, and much more. I’d get to hug and embrace former friends and congregants of the church I led for nearly seven years in Michigan.

We’d delight in the poetry (and grilling!) of Mike Stavlund, Michael Toy, and Troy Bronsink, I’d share with contemplative-minded folks the resources of the Shalem Institute, reconnect with Mark and Lisa Scandrette (who are as delightful as ever!), have a beer with Frank Schaeffer and Richard Cizik, a conversation with Brian McLaren in the rain, a walk in the sunshine with Phyllis Tickle, and—a definite highlight—I’d get to meet Krista Tippett and share just how much her show Speaking of Faith and now onBeing have meant to my own journey. Perhaps best of all would be seeing the smiles on my kids’ faces each day as they ran, biked, splashed, played and laughed, even—or perhaps especially—when covered in mud and rain.


Late nights would follow as I would run into Rich McCullen, Tripp Fuller, and Trey Pearson of Everyday Sunday late Friday night – and we’d laugh about music, sermons, and having one too many beers (in theory). Saturday night seemed to never end after the delightful experience of the Indigo Girls performing up close (this deserves a whole ‘nother post!), deep conversation (and a few hymns) over beers later with fellow pub theologians Kirk Berlenbach and Michael Camp, and I would even manage to sell a few copies of my book Pub Theology at the beer pavilion (somehow easier to sell the later the night went).

On this first early night, however, as I fell asleep to the sounds of Speech lighting up the crowd and filling up the night with his rhythm and rhymes, all this was yet to come—nearly two thousand of us gathered in the Carolina hills—ready to create beauty, find love, and give peace.

Now I see the importance of history

Why people be in the mess that they be

Many journeys to freedom made in vain

By brothers on the corner playin ghetto games

I ask you Lord why you enlightened me

Without the enlightenment of all my folks

He said cuz I set myself on a quest for truth

And he was there to quench my thirst

But I am still thirsty…

The rain continued to land softly on the tent, rolling off the rainfly like so much water off a goose’s back.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation’s capital, and is the author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.  He insists that good things happen when we sit around the table together and talk about things that matter. 

A Philly Priest Visits Pub Theology DC

kirkb2Guest post by Fr. Kirk Berlenbach, rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. He has been facilitating the parish beer club (The Franklin Club) since 2007. Originally posted at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar.

WASHINGTON DC – One of the great things about the internet is that, no matter how obscure your interest or hobby, the net allows you the chance to seek out and connect with other people who are just as off kilter.  When I began to take this whole faith and beer thing more seriously one of the first things I tried to do was see who else out there might be doing it too.  I was pleased to find I was not alone in the universe.  I came across and have since corresponded with a couple of kindred souls.

Among them are guys like Michael Camp, author of Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, which is next up on my reading list.  Another book on the subject is Diary of a Part Time Monk by J. Wilson which I just finished reading.  I referenced J’s quest to emulate the monks of old in this post.  In short, he attempted to follow the Lenten discipline of monks who fasted existing only on their dopplebock.  The book is his account of this remarkable experience.

Then there is Bryan Berghoef.  When I finished reading his book, Pub Theology, I knew we had to at least correspond.  We hit it off and found we had a lot in common, not just in terms of our love of beer but also in terms of our approach to ministry and the Church’s need to find new ways to connect with the ever increasing “spiritual but not religious” population.  We discussed the idea of a visit but never got around to making specific plans.

Then, a few months ago I got the bright idea to do an event on the whole “beer-faith connection” as part of this year’s Philly Beer Week.  (more on this in next week’s post).  Anyway, when I was thinking through other clergy who could work with me on this event, Bryan was on the short list.  I contacted him and he was very excited at the possibility.  But I thought it was important to meet the man I was going to work with.  Moreover, I wanted to see an example of one of his “Pub Theology” sessions up close and personal.

So last week I took the train down to DC.  Bryan met me at the station and we headed off to the pub where that night’s conversation would take place.  The whole concept of Pub Theology is “Beer, Conversation, God.”  The gathering is open to anyone who wishes to attend and the topics are sent out a few days ahead of time.  On the heels of the massive Oklahoma tornado the topic included God’s role in natural disasters, as well as more abstract topics like, “Was there a time before time?” and “Scientists say dark matter is inferred, not seen.  Can you call that faith?”

We talked over burgers and beers and then made our way to the back part of the bar to wait and see who would show up.   Over time the group grew to a very respectable 15 people.  Many were members of Bryan’s new church planting project, Roots DC.   Others were visitors and one was a local clergy colleague.  People’s perspectives varied,  greatly (and thanks to the presence of a young woman from South Sudan, also went beyond just an American lens) and at least one person was by openly an atheist.

As the conversation progressed and folks ordered their 2nd or third beer, people definitely became more vocal.   Yet a no time was there a hint of disrespect or even frustration.

What Bryan has built here is no small accomplishment.  To create an environment where people, many of whom are strangers, can speak openly and honestly about the deeper issues of life is quite extraordinary.  As I have reflected on this I began to see the genius of Bryan’s concept.  While such a group could take place over coffee or in a park, the setting of the bar is really critical to its success.

Where else but in a bar can friends, acquaintances and strangers all engage impassioned debate yet still remain not just civil but even jovial?   Now it is true that often times those debates are about how the manager is mishandling the bullpen and not dark matter.  But there are many times I have heard focused discussion about politics, God and the meaning of life coming from the other end of the bar or the next table.

It seems to me that if the bar is indeed the new Forum, then Bryan has indeed hit upon a valuable insight into how the Church can connect with the world outside its walls.  The key lies first in a willingness to go out to where the people are rather than insisting that they come to us.  But just as important is the setting.  In order to get people talking about what they really believe about God and what  truly matters in life, then you can’t do much better than your local pub.  And, at least in my opinion, the best way to start any meaningful conversation is over a good pint.

So here’s to Bryan and Pub Theology and the rediscovery of a great way to talk about God and all things that matter most.

You can read Kirk’s latest thoughts at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar: Beer, Music, and a Thirst for God, or find him enjoying a craft beer somewhere in Philadelphia.

Way out West

While out West I had the chance to get the word out a bit about my new book.  I put up a few flyers, sometimes without asking…

Here is a sampling of some of the places you might see a Pub Theology flyer:

Communal posting board at Port Reyes Station, CA across from Station House Coffee
At Mountain High Pizza in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo snapped by a friend’s mom who was there on vacation three weeks later.
California bookstore along Highway 1
Posting board outside of San Francisco
The Bookcase in Durango, CO is excited about Pub Theology!
Grains & Goods in Monte Vista, Colorado
Two Chicks and a Hippie Coffee Shop in Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Other places out West you may see a poster or a book:

Magpie News and Coffee, Durango, CO
Durango Bagel Company
Maria’s Bookshop, Durango, CO
Elysian Brewing Co, Seattle
Valley Bookstore, Jackson Hole, WY
Grand Tetons National Park, WY
Tumbleweed Book Store & Cafe, Gardiner, MT (just north of Yellowstone)
Some random coffee shop in the middle of Washington State
Espresso Coffee Stop, Capital Reef National Park, Utah
Moab Brewery, Moab, UT (claims to be Utah’s only microbrewery – turns out, not so.)
Pagosa Brewing Company, Pagosa Springs, CO
A truckstop in the middle of Kansas
Windows Booksellers, Eugene, OR

If you see a flyer or come across the book – snap a photo and let me know, we’d love to share it!

Transition: DC

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.
~Thomas Paine

My wife and I are facing the daunting task of moving the family to Washington D.C. for the uncertain project of starting a new ministry.

Some needed caffeine on the train

I took the train out here a week ago with the goal of finding somewhere to live.  We are blessed to have friends who live in the beltway just outside of the city, so I had somewhere to sleep while looking at housing options. They have a wonderful home, a great dog, and more importantly, are wonderful people. And as a bonus: they appreciate good beer.

This has allowed me to not feel too far away from home, as we’ve had great conversation with wonderful people, and inevitably a good brew in hand.

From hanging out with environmental types to non-profit leaders to lawyers to bar tenders, interns, and others, it’s been fun to get a taste of life in the District.  It is good to know that there are a bunch of great pubs and gathering places, and that they are filled with people who are seeking conversation and community.  I think I’ll survive.

One place we hit was The Big Board, which has an ongoing screen that tallies whatever beer is the most popular on a given night.  The more popular the beer is that night, the lower the price for a pint is.  So it was fun to see what was on the board, and how things were shaking out.  I believe it was an Allaghash White at the top of the board, with the usual top contender, New Belgium’s Ranger IPA (Ft Collins, CO) a bit lower down.  I tried a local brew: Chocolate City Brewery’s Nitro Copper.

To new friends!

We also hit a German Biergarten, which had a delightful patio straight out of Munich.

Another spot that served delicious Belgium brews was Granville Moore’s, a dingy, hole-in-the-wallish place (but a great vibe) on H Street with a limited menu of mussels and frites but a first-rate beer selection.  I tried some heavy-hitters: The Allaghash Curieux and the Gaverhopke Extra.  Also tasted a Gueuze Tilquin and my host’s favorite: the Oude Gueuze by Hansenns from Dworp, Belgium.  There we had delightful conversation with the pastor of a local historic Lutheran congregation, and we enjoyed talking about ministry, transition, and life in the city.

Last night we had a ‘farm night’ in the neighborhood I’m staying in, in which various friends from the neighborhood and across the city gathered to eat food they’ve prepared, from ingredients either grown locally or purchased at a local farmer’s market.  There were even some venison steaks from Michigan involved!  Delightful conversation happened around the dining room table and in the wooded yard, and it was great to learn about what people here care about and are doing with their lives.

Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so as though we were making the first step toward disaster.

~William Bridges

Small kitchens are very common!

I’ve also spent most of my days getting to know the subway system (the Metro), walking neighborhoods, viewing houses and apartments for rent, and wondering how it’s all going to work out!

I’ve visited the NW, NE, SE, and SW parts of the city, and bits of Maryland and Virginia.  The common theme, even in the more depressed areas is: it’s expensive!  I really don’t know how anyone affords to live here.  I think often it is a matter of finding housemates who can help share the cost.  In any case, the city is an exciting place where a lot is happening, and many people from many different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses all live and work together.  We have sensed a calling to create a new faith community within this bustling, dynamic, and broken place.

To keep me busy (and help pay the bills), I’ve also applied for some writing/editing jobs, as well as a teaching position at Marymount University, to be an adjunct in Religious Studies.

I’ve ridden the Metro, driven through rush hour, walked long blocks and various alleys, visited tiny 2 BR apartments that were labeled “4 BR”, and found some genuinely workable options.  The challenge in all of it is that we are still in the process of fundraising (one-third of the way there!) and seeking out additional work options—so things are somewhat “to be determined,” which means we’re not quite ready to sign a lease that is going to run about triple what rental costs were in Traverse City.

When I think about my week, it runs from exhausting (lots of walking on pavement in late August heat) to exhilarating (meeting people from all walks of life and seeing the possibilities for a new faith community), and from frightening (why are we doing this again?) to fascinating (the diversity of people, places, and experiences here are endless).

Help us get to DC!

If you’d like to learn more about our ministry – visit Roots DC’s website.  To help us make the move and afford to live here, we are inviting people to partner with us – if you’d like to be a financial supporter, simply click the ‘donate’ button to make a tax-deductible gift!  (We’re looking for about 65 more people to join us who are willing to give $100/month, or $25/week). We also appreciate prayers for our family in this somewhat stressful time of transition.

I’ve seen a couple of good possibilities for a home for the family, but it looks like we need to get some more funding in place before we can sign a lease.  We’ll get out here soon, and even sooner with your help!

So here’s to new beginnings, life changes, good conversations, and, of course, good beer!

Pairings and Places

Photos are coming in from readers of the book and the beer they are enjoying while reading.

What about you?  Reading the book?  Enjoying a favorite brew?  Tell us about it below, or ‘like’ my author page on Facebook and upload your pic!

With a New Holland Dragon’s Milk in Chicago

With an Abita Jockamo IPA in Mobile, Alabama

With Bell’s Oberon at Big Star Lake, Michigan

With an Allagash Tripel Ale near Chicago.

With a Troegs Nugget Nectar in Pittsburgh

With a Perseus Porter at Elysian’s Capitol Hill Pub on Pike Street in Seattle

What about you?  Share your favorite pairing!  Let us know where you are reading the book, and what you are washing it down with.

Pub Theology Topics, July 5 2012

The book, the beer, the sheet

On a busy night in Traverse City, fresh off the Fourth of July and on the eve of the Cherry Festival, a few of us found our way to a pub for some reasonable conversation.  It was good to be back at Pub Theology tonight after a couple week hiatus.  The Saugatuck IPA was a welcome addition to the menu, and we had a good evening of discussion.

The topics:

1.    If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one item, what would it be?

2.    Are all spiritual experiences legitimate?

3.    What is happiness?

4.    “The very meaningfulness of rational discourse depends on God, as everything depends on God.”

5.    If our world belongs to God, is the idea of private property a contradiction of this?

6.    Man exists in a state of distance from the world that he nonetheless remains in the midst of.
Can the distance be overcome?

7. What really matters?

We shared some experiences and perspectives, some sips and some tips.

Great stuff.

We also celebrated the arrival of Pub Theology, the book!  You can buy your copy locally at Brew, and soon at Horizon Books – both downtown.  You can join us at the Book Launch next week Thursday, July 12 at Brew, from 6-8pm, preceding our normal Pub Theology conversation.

In the meantime, share your thoughts on the above topics!

Wild Goose Recap!

So, the family loaded in the van last week and headed for the hills (literally!) of North Carolina to attend the Wild Goose Festival.

What is the Wild Goose Festival?  New friend Milton described it this way:

“The festival [titled after a metaphor for Celtic Christianity] is self-described as one of spirituality, justice, music, and art. People came and camped in the woods and sang and talked and ate and looked for ways to connect. To me it felt like a cross between Woodstock and church youth camp. When I looked out over the field of participants, in most any direction I saw people who didn’t look like “church folks” who were lost in wonder, love, and grace. For these four days, they got to feel understood. “Normal.” None of us was asked to do more than be ourselves and welcome one another.

And it was good.”

Someone else called it: “A Sacred and Safe Space.”  I agree.  We arrived in Shakori Hills with a loaded up van, drove down a dusty road under a home-made banner with a  painted bird figure and the lettering for ‘Wild Goose’.

The welcome booth was a wooden shack with scenes from Where the Wild Things Are painted on it.

We set up our tent right in the center of activity – between a smaller tent venue labeled ‘Return’, and the main stage for the festival.  The theme of the festival was “Exile and Return”, so speaking/music event venues were named accordingly:  Shadow, Exile, Return, and so on.

We didn’t know what to expect, other than that we loved the concept, and were excited about some of the speakers and musicians slated to be there.

Let me tell you, this was a festival!

From the first talk we attended on Thursday afternoon — Tom Sine on co-living, intentional communities, and sustainability: “It is essential that we help people reimagine new ways to live. We need to discover creative, celebrative, simple ways of life that are more imaginative than the American Dream and cost less money.  And we need to do it together, in community” — to the final song by Gungor, “God makes beautiful things, he makes beautiful things out of dust.  God makes beautiful things, he makes beautiful things out of us,” we had an incredible time.  It was a time to imagine again what God longs for us and our world.

We met people from Pittsburgh, San Francisco, New York, Texas, Atlanta, Illinois, DC, and all over the country who are hungry for a new form of faith.

We heard Phyllis Tickle review the history of the church from Constantine and the fateful Edict of Milan to today, and the impact of the birth control pill on the future of the faith.  She noted that it is time to “return to the tent” — in other words, the place of the family and the home, where the stories of faith are told, shared, and lived out before the children and the next generation.  We heard Jim Wallis remind us that in the Capital power is the means and power is the ends, but that God’s way is powerlessness.  We heard Brian McLaren encourage us to engage those of other faiths while holding to our own with integrity (Pub Theology, anyone?).  We heard Dave Andrews, a community organizer from Australia encourage us to seek centered-set communities rather than closed-set communities.  He noted: “When we don’t trust the Spirit’s presence and leading, we create [unwittingly] all kinds of programs and plans and so on that actually become manipulative and oppressive.”  He reminded us that wherever we are going to serve and work we have to remember that God is already there — in that people we meet already are imbued with the image of God, and the Spirit is there ahead of us.  He also reminded that it is not so much we who bring Jesus, but that in fact, as we serve, we find that we are serving Jesus himself.

We heard great music from local artists as well as Over the Rhine, David Crowder, Gungor, Vince Anderson — Joey and the boys danced and played as the music filtered over us.

We wandered around and got to chat with Pete Rollins, Mark Scandrette, Phyllis Tickle, Lisa Sharon-Harper from Sojourners.  Had coffee with Brian McLaren and we mused together about our new adventure in Washington DC.  It really was as Frank Schaeffer noted in his own recap, Wild Goose Our Answer to Hate, in the Huffington Post:

“The names of the speakers  added up to a “draw” along with the big name musical performers. But the heart of the festival wasn’t in the events but in the conversations.

For me the highlight of the festival was the fact that there was no wall of separation between us speakers and performers and everyone there. I spent 4 days talking with lots of people from all over America and other places too, about ideas but also about very personal subjects. I met Ramona who was the cook at the Indian food stand and found she is ill and has no health insurance and I was able to connect her with a friend who knew a friend at the WG fest locally to help her get the full checkup she needs. I could do that because the festival was full of the sort of people who help, love and care so for once there was someone to call.”

The list of great things we experienced is hard for me to completely recall, there were so many things:

» Watched the first public reading of Pete Rollins’ new play before it shows in New York.

Drinking beer and discussing theology » Wild Goose Beer Tent

» Met a guy named Michael Camp, who just wrote a book about how his own faith and life was shaped by conversations at the pub: Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith.  He was interested to hear about my own book on Pub Theology.

» Talked with Milton, a local UCC pastor who is teaching people about the importance of meal and eating together, and how all breaking of bread in some way embodies and reflects the meal we gather around as sacrament.

» Celebrated with friend Phil Snider, fellow Wipf and Stock author, over the publishing of our new books.  By the way, check his out: Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics.

» Reconnected with friends met at the Church Planters Academy in Minneapolis: Mike Stavlund, Steve Knight, Susan Phillips, Victoria from Solomon’s Porch, and Rich McCullen, among others.

Was it all perfect?  No.  It was hot!  There were ticks.  There were a couple of long nights getting the kids to bed.  Some sessions didn’t connect like I had hoped.  But in all, it did not disappoint.

Those concerns were minor as we heartily sang hymns while sipping pints of local microbrew during a “Beer and Hymns” session, voices rising with verve (out of tune) with the accompaniment of a tattooed keyboardist.

I met Sean, the owner of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, NC, after a session entitled: “The Theology of Beer,” which noted the importance of creation, place and celebration in a community, and how a good brewery can be at the heart of community life.  I shared our own experiences at Right Brain and he thought that was pretty cool.

The kids attended sessions where they made play-doh, created crafts, played games, and learned fun new songs: “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor—and I don’t like it very much!”

We fell asleep each night, with our tent a stone’s throw from the main stage, to late night concerts and the sounds of celebration and conversation, music and singing.

In all, it was a total blast, and we imagined—as we joined the parade the final day, singing with faces painted, “When the Saints Go Marching In”—that when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we’ve already had a taste.

Of Paths and Prairies, Gods and Tears

Video created by my new Minnesota friends Tory and Rachel.  Reading is an excerpt of Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill.”

In his interesting book on the collapse of community and the rise of the service industry, The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits, John McKnight begins with a story of a different collapse.  The following is an excerpt:

The story begins as the European pioneers crossed the Alleghenies and started to settle the Midwest.  The land they found was covered with forests.  With great effort they pulled up the trees, pulled up the stumps, and planted their crops in the rich, loamy soil.

When they finally reached the western edge of the place we now call Indiana, the forest stopped and ahead lay a thousand miles of the great grass prairie.  The Europeans were puzzled by this new environment.  Some even called it the Great Desert.  It seemed untillable.

The settlers found that the prairie sod could not be cut with their cast-iron plows, and that the wet earth stuck to their plowshares.  Even a team of the best oxen bogged down after a few yards of tugging.  The iron plow was a useless tool to farm the prairie soil.  The pioneers were stymied for nearly two decades.  Their western march was halted and they filled in the eastern regions of the Midwest.

In 1837, a blacksmith in the town of Grand Detour, Illinois, invented a new tool.  His name was John Deere, and the tool was a plow made of steel.  It was sharp enough to cut through matted grasses and smooth enough to cast off the mud.  It was a simple tool, the “sodbuster,” that opened the great prairies to agricultural development.

Sauk County, Wisconsin is named after the Sauk Indians.  In 1673, Father Marquette was the first European to lay eyes upon their land.  He found a village laid out in regular patterns on a plain beside the Wisconsin River.  He called the place Prairie du Sac.  The village was surrounded by fields that had provided maize, beans, and squash for the Sauk people for generations reaching back into unrecorded time.

When the European settlers arrived at the Sauk Prairie in 1837, the government forced the native Sauk people west of the Mississippi River.  The settlers came with John Deere’s new invention and used the tool to open the area to a new kind of agriculture.  They ignored the traditional ways of the Sauk Indians and used their sodbusting tool for planting wheat.

Initially, the soil was generous and the farmers thrived.  However, each year the soil lost more of its nurturing power.  It was only thirty years after the Europeans arrived with their new technology that the land was depleted.  Wheat farming became uneconomical and tens of thousands of farmers left Wisconsin seeking new land with sod to bust.

It took the Europeans and their new technology just one generation to make their homeland into a desert.  The Sauk Indians, who knew how to sustain themselves on the Sauk Prairie, were banished to another kind of desert called a reservation.  And even they forgot about the techniques and tools that had sustained them on the prairie for generations.

And that is how it was that three deserts were created: Wisconsin, the reservation, and the memories of a people.

A century and a half later, the land of the Sauks is now populated by the children of a second wave of European farmers who learned to replenish the soil through the regenerative powers of dairying, ground-cover crops, and animal manures.  These third- and fourth-generation farmers and townspeople do not realize, however, that a new settler is coming soon with an invention as powerful as John Deere’s plow.

The new technology is called “bereavement counseling.”  It is a tool forged at the great state university, an innovative technique to meet the needs of those experiencing the death of a loved one, a tool that can “process” the grief of the people who now live on the Prairie of the Sauk.

As one can imagine the final days of the village of the Sauk Indians before the arrival of the settlers with John Deere’s plow, one can also imagine these final days before the arrival of the first bereavement counselor at Prairie du Sac.  In these final days, the farmers and the townspeople mourn the death of a mother, brother, son, or friend.  The bereaved are joined by neighbors and kin.  They meet grief together in lamentation, prayer, and song.  They call upon the words of the clergy and surround themselves with community.

It is in these ways that they grieve and then go on with life.  Through their mourning they are assured of the bonds between them and renewed in the knowledge that this death is a part of the past and the future of the people on the Prairie of the Sauk.  Their grief is common property, an anguish from which the community draws strength and which gives it the courage to move ahead.

Into this prairie community the bereavement counselor arrives with the new grief technology.  The counselor calls the intervention a service and assures the prairie folk of its effectiveness and superiority by invoking the name of the great university while displaying a diploma and license.

At first, we can imagine that the local people will be puzzled by the bereavement counselor’s claims.  However, the counselor will tell a few of them that the new technique is merely to assist the bereaved’s community at the time of death.  To some other prairie folk who are isolated or forgotten, the counselor will offer help in grief processing.  These lonely souls will accept the intervention, mistaking the counselor for a friend.

For those who are penniless, the counselor will approach the County Board and advocate the “right to treatment” for these unfortunate souls.  This right will be guaranteed by the Board’s decision to reimburse those too poor to pay for counseling services.

There will be others, schooled to believe in the innovative new tools certified by universities and medical centers, who will seek out the bereavement counselor by force of habit.  And one of these people will tell a bereaved neighbor who is unschooled that unless his grief is processed by a counselor, he will probably have major psychological problems later in life.

Finally, one day the aged father of a local woman will die.  And the next-door neighbor will not drop by because he doesn’t want to interrupt the bereavement counselor.  The woman’s kin will stay home because they will have learned that only the bereavement counselor knows how to process grief in the proper way.  The local clergy will seek technical assistance from the bereavement counselor to learn the correct form of service to deal with guilt and grief.  And the grieving daughter will know that it is the bereavement counselor who really cares for her, because only the bereavement counselor appears when death visits this family on the Prairie of the Sauk.

It will be only one generation between the time the bereavement counselor arrives and the disappearance of the community of mourners.  The counselor’s new tool will cut through the social fabric, throwing aside kinship, care, neighborly obligations, and community ways of coming together and going on.  Like John Deere’s plow, the tools of bereavement counseling will create a desert where a community once flourished.

And finally, even the bereavement counselor will see the impossibility of restoring hope in clients once they are genuinely alone, with nothing but a service for a consolation.  In the inevitable failure of the service, the bereavement counselor will find the desert even in herself.

The professional co-optation of community efforts to invent appropriate techniques for citizens to care in the community has been pervasive.  We need to identify the characteristics of those social forms that are resistant to colonization by service technologies while enabling communities to cultivate care.  These authentic social forms are characterized by three basic dimensions:  They tend to be uncommodified, unmanaged, and uncurricularized.

The tools of the bereavement counselor have made grief into a commodity rather than an opportunity for community.  Service technologies convert conditions into commodities, and care into service.  [note: this is only one example of a professionalized service industry, and McKnight goes into others in more detail]

How will we learn again to cultivate community?  E. F. Schumacher concluded that “the guidance we need. . . can still be found in the traditional wisdom.”  Therefore we can return to those who understand how to allow the Sauk Prairie to bloom and sustain a people.

One of their leaders, a chief of the Sauk, was named Blackhawk.  After his people were exiled to the land west of the Mississippi and their resistance movement was broken at the Battle of Bad Axe, Blackhawk said of the prairie:

There, we always had plenty; our children never cried from hunger, neither were our people in want.  The rapids of our river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish and the land, being very fertile, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash.  Here our village stood for more than a hundred years.  Our village was healthy and there was no place in the country possessing such advantages, nor hunting grounds better than ours.  If a prophet had come to our village in those days and told us that the things were to take place which have since come to pass, none of our people would have believed the prophecy.

But the settlers came with their new tools and the prophecy was fulfilled.  One of Blackhawk’s Wintu sisters described the result:

The white people never cared for land or deer or bear.  When we kill meat, we eat it all.  When we dig roots, we make little holes.  When we build houses, we make little holes.  When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things.  We shake down acorns and pinenuts.  We don’t chop down trees.  We only use dead weed.  But the whites plow up the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything.
The tree says, “Don’t.  I am sore.  Don’t hurt me!”  But they chop it down and cut it up.
The spirit of the land hates them.  They blast out trees and stir it up to its depths.  They saw up the trees.  That hurts them. . .  They blast rocks and scatter them on the ground.  The rock says, “Don’t.  You are hurting me!”  But the while people pay no attention.  When [we] use rocks, we take only little round ones for cooking. . . .
How can the spirit of the earth like the white man?  Everywhere they have touched the earth, it is sore.

Blackhawk and his Wintu sister tell us that the land has a Spirit.  Their community on the prairie, their ecology, was a people guided by that Spirit.

When John Deere’s people came to the Sauk Prairie, they exorcised the Prairie Spirit in the name of a new god, Technology.  Because it was a god of their making, they believed they were gods.

And they made a desert.

There are incredible possibilities if we are willing to fail to be gods.