Friday, January 2, 2015

Seeds of Service: Serving Where You Are Needed

The following is a submission of mine accepted by a project called Seeds of Service.  It is a book that will be a collection of stories from many faith-based volunteers reflecting on the lessons they learned during their time.  It is in limbo at the moment and may never be published but this is what I wrote regarding my time at The Farm:

After graduating from the University Of Notre Dame in 2009, I spent 14 months in Vanceburg, KY working for The Glenmary Farm.  The Farm brings in high school and college aged youths for a week at a time to partake in a service/ retreat/ immersion experience.  I was one of the long term volunteers who work as liaisons between the volunteers and the larger Lewis County community.  We spent time working with a non-profit low income construction company, packing food boxes for a local food pantry, sorting clothes at a local clothing pantry, visiting individuals in a local nursing home and senior center, and visiting with people in a center for the mentally and emotionally compromised.  It was a truly transformative experience that gave me a more clearly defined lens through which to view the world and my interactions with it.  During my time, I kept (sometimes more fastidiously than others) a record of my thoughts and reflections of the weeks in blog form.  I chronicled the significant events that happened during my time and how they related to the overall message of The Farm- that simplicity and service are not relegated to service trips and retreats but can be integral parts of everyday life if you allow it.
I wrote one such entry after a week where we welcomed a group from Louisville, KY to The Farm.  Their time happened to coincide with one of the worst snowstorms to hit Lewis County in the last 25 years and they were snowed in on The Farm for a day and a half.  They grew restless as they saw their opportunity to have an impact on Lewis County seemingly get buried under feet of snow.  .  While the situation was not the most ideal, as I reflected on it I realized that the obstacles presented by the situation had provided the girls with a unique opportunity to grow and embrace The Farm.  I wrote:
   “So the girls struggled with being stuck on the Farm, which I think was a good thing. It's those challenging situations in life that promote growth. This was certainly a challenge for the girls as they tried to temper their enthusiasm for service and channel it toward what they were asked to do. But a funny thing happened; some of them began to really take the message of the Farm to heart and began to be in the moment and savor the opportunity to do service, no matter where they did it. The next day, instead of worrying about whether they would be able to get off the Farm, the girls began to throw themselves into the tasks at hand. […] As the girls embraced focusing on the tasks at hand and really made strides in their awareness of the moment, the weather seemed to reflect their progress. Where the day before they had been clouded by their worries concerning the future, this day they were able to clear that out of their minds and see the value in what they were doing. The weather, having been convinced that the girls were learning, relented and broke and allowed the girls to take their new found appreciation of being present into the wider community. Watching the concordant progress of the girls and the storm was really special and an example to me of the presence of God in the week.”
            This particular episode really throws into relief a couple of the most powerful lessons that The Farm taught me.  There are many charisms, or special ministerial gifts, that The Farm nurtures.  Chief among these are the concepts of being present and serving where you are needed.  Following in the footsteps of Jesus, the Farm looks to invert the most familiar paradigms of modern society.  Whereas the so-called “real world” is continuously obsessed with what comes next and where we are going, The Farm asks us to stay here in this moment and be present to those we encounter.  We ask volunteers to sacrifice cell phones, television, and even make-up in an effort to get them to get rid of those distractions which so often prevent us from truly connecting with others.  Where the “real world” judges the worth of acts based on their scale, The Farm emphasizes that it’s often the small things that we do that have the greatest impact.  During their week, the volunteers see just how meaningful just listening to someone can be and how significant their simple presence can be to those they serve.  We often introduced volunteers to the week by saying that while they had chosen to serve; they could not always choose how they serve.  Many of them, understandably, have designs that they are going to rebuild the county single-handed.  But often, where we think we are needed and where we are actually needed are two very different places.  The whole idea of what is service is turned on its head.  This topsy-turvy world view can be disorienting when one first encounters it and can take some adjustment.  This is exactly what these girls experienced when they came down to The Farm. 
            Likewise, the experience was valuable to me at the time as it showed me the true joy and peace that comes with accepting the ideas of The Farm.  I could see, firsthand, a living example of the struggle to accept the idea that service doesn’t always involve grandiose gestures or hard physical labor.  The call to service requires a response and not a dictation.  To truly answer the call we have to set our ego aside and be willing to take up the task, regardless of what that entails.  Being able to see this struggle played out over and over again by the groups was a real boon to my perspective during my time at Glenmary.  I could see just how difficult it was for people of all types to be able to let go and accept their role.  The reward was being able to see what happened after they allowed themselves to serve wherever they were needed.  In the case of this particular group, I could see the transformation happen before my eyes as they suddenly abdicated their control and trusted that what they were doing was really service.  In other words, they had found a true purpose.  Once they did that, they could truly live in the moment, no longer burdened by worries about what was to come next.  There was a sense of acceptance and peace that came with this realization.  As a long term volunteer, it was an invaluable lesson.  It was easy to look forward to the next day, the next task, or the next group.  You could easily slip into a mindset where you counted success by the number of food boxes you packed, the amount of firewood you chopped or the insulation you could install.  But seeing the groups struggle and eventually triumph over that mentality gave me the inspiration to do the same.          
Looking back at it now, those lessons of serving where you are needed and being present are the ones I hoped (and needed) to bring back with me after my time at The Farm the most.  As I have incorporated them into my life (albeit slowly) I have found just how powerful they can be and the value they have in the face of today’s hustle and bustle.  Remembering that you serve where you are needed is a much needed lesson in humility.  I spent time in Kentucky building houses, packing food boxes, and repairing fences.  But I also spent time chasing down renegade cows, spreading manure, and bathing dogs.  Each task, as an act of service was as valuable as any other.  I did not always get to choose what job I got to do but was instead a willing worker.  I had to realize that I often do not dictate the terms.  Service does not take place on my time.  I had to take myself out of the equation.  It’s not an easy thing to do, but one that is essential to truly performing service.  Because once I got rid of any sort of ego, all that was left was the concern to do something for others.   
Being able to experience ministry of presence during my time as a volunteer opened up a whole new world when it came to service.  The idea that sitting and talking with someone or playing cards with them or singing to them can be forms of service is really very empowering.  I recall fondly, afternoons at the behavioral health center playing Canasta with the women or helping a client put together a puzzle.  I am also reminded of time spent with nursing home patients, playing Yahtzee or just sitting and listening to them talk about their family and friends.  The small things that we do really do have an impact, something I was blessed to experience everyday on The Farm
Leaving the cocoon of service, however, was a sobering experience.  The Farm was a place where service was a byword and all the distractions of the world were put on hold so we could see the big picture so clearly.  But the world outside was not so forgiving.  I recall going home for Christmas four months into my tenure as a Farm Manager.  For the first few days, I held the tenets of The Farm as best I could.  But try as I might, old habits crept back in and I began to retreat back into the presence-killing technology that was seemingly everywhere.  It was a frustrating experience to say the least.  I had been a full time volunteer for four months, had none of those lessons I thought I had learned sunk in?  My mom said she could see a change but when I pressed her, all she came up with was that I “seemed calmer”.  This was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the kind of sea change I was expecting.  It seemed as if any progress I made at The Farm would inevitably be choked and stunted by the hectic pace of the “real world”.  But during the rest of my time at The Farm and afterward, I formed a new perspective on growth.  As I began to do more Ministry of Presence and saw the real impact that simply being there for someone could have and the power of small things, I began to think about the impact on myself.  If day in and day out I saw the effect that small gestures or acts had on others, it stood to reason that they have a similar effect on me.  So instead of being frustrated and discouraged by the lack of large scale transformation, I could be encouraged by those little things I noticed that were changing about myself.  I had learned the power of small things so I could appreciate the progress that was signaled by small changes.  In the same way, I no longer balked at the task of trying to simply pick up and transplant my entire Farm experience onto my outside life.  To attempt to do so would be futile.  Instead, I worked to incorporate small gestures and changes into my life.  My appreciation of these little things allowed me to reevaluate where I stood and what I could do.
The incredible result of these lessons is an exciting worldview where service is possible at any point and time.  Letting go and realizing that I don’t dictate the terms of service means that I can be ready to serve whenever I am needed.  Being aware of the impact of small acts and the power of presence means that I can take the willingness to serve into every interaction I have with others.  Fr. Larry, who was there during my 13 months, once said that as a priest he felt like he didn’t particularly do much.  He just looked at every day as an opportunity to meet people.  So that’s what he did.  He would go to the supermarket, to the local diner, and to the various churches, hoping to meet someone.  And when he did, he would seize the opportunity to be a living example of Faith to that person.  I can’t help but feel that The Farm showed me that this is exactly what it means to do service on a daily basis.  Every encounter we have with people is an opportunity to do service.  Every conversation turns into a real chance to connect on a deeper level and be present to someone who needs it.  Those opportunities don’t always happen at our convenience but our job isn’t to worry about whether it’s convenient.  Our job is to serve.

As I reflect, I realize what a profound gift The Farm gave me.  It showed me that service can be performed anywhere and at any time.  It is an incredibly liberating thought.  Service transcends physical ability, location, mental capacity, or occupation.  Someone working a 9 to 5 job in an office has the same capacity to do service as someone doing volunteer work in some country abroad.  I have been given the gift of having my eyes opened to a new sense of the world, where opportunities to serve are limited only by the number of people I meet.         

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Peace Came And Stayed Track 3: I'll Fly Away by Allison Krause/ Gillian Welch

I am reflecting on The Glenmary Farm through the lens of a playlist of songs that have a strong connection to my time there.  The playlist is called Peace Came And Stayed and can be found in its entirety on Spotify:

3) I'll Fly Away - Allison Krauss/ Gillian Welch off O Brother Where Art Thou (Soundtrack)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Peace Came And Stayed Track 2: Furr by Blitzen Trapper

I am reflecting on The Glenmary Farm through the lens of a playlist of songs that have a strong connection to my time there.  The playlist is called Peace Came And Stayed and can be found in its entirety on Spotify:

2) Furr- Blitzen Trapper off Furr

So if you're gonna' get made,
Don't be afraid of what you've learned

I think I may have played this one a few times during reflection.  Aside from being a great song, I'd like to think it's a nice parallel to the journey that volunteers going to The Farm often take.  The song chronicles the story of a man who is lured into the woods by the sound of Angels and slowly becomes fused with the woodlands around him.  His skin turns to fur and he becomes almost wild.  But he is eventually brought out of his reverie and his forest home.  His fur once again turns to skin and he enters into this world he no longer knows, still dreaming of running through the forest again.

I think there is something a little primal about the Farm experience.  The charism of Simplicity that's so pervasive is literally a stripping away of all the worldly trappings and distractions to get to the heart of the human experience.  Some of my favorite experiences at The Farm revolve around God's Time Room.  Some simple couches, a couple chairs, and a bevy of board games were all that comprised that place, but there was something a little magical about the way that room encouraged true human connection.  The absence of clocks and the need or even the knowledge of having somewhere to be was, at first, a disorienting experience.  The Farm throws into stark relief just how beholden we are to our schedules.  We start counting our experience in minutes that only gain meaning because they signal when we should move on to whatever it is we are doing next- ery Prufrockian.  Given the chance to hang out with friends, we so often (intentionally or not) choose to keep intact the roadblocks that prevent a truly deep and meaningful connection.  Whether it's our choice of venue (crowded bar), our choice of activity (playing video games, seeing a movie) or just that fact that we all-too-often give into the temptation of having a small computer in our front pocket, its often hard to focus on the people around us.

Now, those previously mentioned places, and activities, and even the cell phones aren't inherently evil.  But it can be a struggle to remained actively engaged among all the activity of our lives.  So even during times where we may want to connect with others, we can be our own worst enemy.

But  at The Farm, given the chance to live with those we are serving and serving with, this beautiful, collective slow-down happens.  Without that pressure of where to be next, we start appreciating where we ARE, and that's where the transformation begins.  Now every moment, every interaction, becomes infused with presence.  Where you would be side-glanced to all hell if you suggested a night of playing Canasta to your friends, here it becomes a wonderful opportunity to laugh, share, and connect.  And through this, every moment becomes one of service.  There is not distinction between construction work where you put up insulation in the Kentucky heat and the UNO game you share at the end of the day.  The skin turns to fur and you begin to feel a little more of the moment, than merely experiencing it.

Unfortunately, for all of us, that can only be temporary.  Something has to interrupt our reverie, bringing us out of the wilderness.  Now we are ushered into this world we do not know but our time in the woods was real.  We've been in this world of deep connection and presence that clashes mightily with the fast paced reality of life beyond the Farm.  It's a jarring experience, and an unpleasant one to return to a life that now feels harsh and confused, like trying to speak a foreign language.  And so I think a lot of us end up dreaming of running careless through the snow.  But I think the last line of the song is one to remember.  So if you're gonna get made/ Don't be afraid of what you learned.  The lessons of the Farm are meant to be taken out of the physical place.  It may be difficult to carry them out, but we can't shy away from the gifts bestowed upon us there.  We're called to take a little of that wild back with us.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Peace Came And Stayed Track 1: Wildflowers by Tom Petty

Music has always been a source of comfort for me and an outlet of expression when I often don't have one.  Now, I should clarify by saying that I cannot actually PLAY music.  That takes actual hard work and effort.  But I CAN listen the heck out of music.  I like to think I have a decent ear for it and can sometimes strike the right mood or convey the right sentiment cribbing the hard work and self expression of those much more talented than I.

As Rob Gordon, in one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, says, "You're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel.  This is a delicate thing".  While my current emotions and thoughts about The Farm's imminent closure are varied and vacillate, I thought it best to try and direct my thoughts and reflections through the making of a mixtape of sorts.  I'm going to go through each track one by one on the blog but if you want to listen to the whole list, it is on Spotify:

1) Wildflowers- Tom Petty off Wildflowers

Far away from your trouble and worry,
You belong somewhere you feel free

Those volunteers that came down to The Farm during my time will likely recognize this one.  It was played as the entrance song as groups entered the chapel on the first night of reflection and so I think it's only appropriate that it starts this playlist.  It was Jamie's suggestion during our first planning session.  I don't know if Colleen had ever heard the song before, but I had not, only being familiar with Petty's more anthemic offerings.  But much like the rest of our year would unfold, the three of us came to a quick agreement (perhaps relieved to have made a choice so quickly).  McNicholas seemed pretty receptive to it.  Looking back, I have to laugh because I don't think we could have picked a better match of song for chaperones than this one with Hutch and Sara.  The next time during our planning meeting it seemed so natural once again to use the song...and a tradition of sorts was born.

It's a little weird to think of this titular song on a divorce  album as the welcome song to The Farm but I guess context makes all the difference.  Everything about this song reminds me about the peace of The Farm.  The folky guitars and the jangling of the piano keys meander their way about, and I can almost hear the crickets singing us up to the chapel.  And the central sentiment of this retreat to a very natural and peaceful freedom is just so perfect for what The Farm represents.  It's this incredible oasis of peace in a hectic world.  Turning down Lower Kinney Road did at times seem a little like time travel.  It's like you were going back to a time where human connection and interaction were paramount and things like busy schedules and glowing screens only got in the way.  It's pretty incredible what would happen during those weeks when we removed those self-imposed shackles.  No longer worried about what was to come, we became enamoured with what was happening at that moment.  It afforded us the opportunity to truly and deeply connect with those we encountered and made it so that people we knew for a week became fast friends.  This incredible Presence is something I cherish and something I strive toward (often unsuccessfully) as often as I can.  I think that for me, the idea and image of Wildflowers is forever linked to those intense and energizing feelings of true connection.  

There's another important aspect to the song and that's the feeling of belonging.  It's the confirmation that you, yes YOU, belong in this place.  You deserve to be among the beauty, the quiet, and the peace.  I think in a society built on schedules and achievement, we becomes so hard on ourselves.  Shortcomings become condemnation rather than constructive learning experiences and we work so hard to scrub out any sign of them.  I think there is certainly value in learning and growing and moving onward and upward but I think we're so anxious to get past those moments that we often don't fully heal and don't fully forgive ourselves for them.  But this song speaks to the idea that we do indeed deserve to be happy and at peace and we have a place we can do so.

I think The Farm functions as that place for many.  It's a place to belong, regardless of who you may think you are or what you may think you deserve, The Farm, with its commitment to valuing connections with each person it encounters, affirms again and again that you belong in this place.  I experienced it myself and saw it happen to countless other volunteers.  The Farm is a pretty foreign concept to most.  The rural setting, the pace of life, and the sometimes head scratching rules are unfamiliar on their face.  But somehow you get this sense of rightness when you're there.  I can still remember driving back from Construction when I was a volunteer in college, trying to decide what I was doing post graduation.  And the more I thought about it, the more I could picture myself there, at The Farm.  I found a place I belonged.

To this day, this song still has a centering quality for me.  It's a reminder of days spent laughing, working, sharing, and being with others in the most intense way possible.  It's a call to always be present, to always have fun, and to always love.  It was such a blessing to be able to live in that for 14 months, 14 months where I got to be far away from trouble and worry and somewhere I felt free.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Morning at Wild Woman's

Long term volunteers at The Glenmary Farm are actually Americorps volunteers, which means we are entitled to an Americorps scholarship reward at the end of our time.  As part of the Americorps requirements, we had to submit what they called a "Great Story".  It is essentially an open reflection on an aspect of our time as an Americorps member that affected us or encapsulated our experience.  I chose to focus on an experience that sticks with many volunteers- their visit with Wild Woman.

A Morning at Wild Woman’s

“This is old Weasel Evans.  He used to be down at the Fly Branch, where we used to go for country music.  One day he asked me to dance so I picked him up, twirled him around, set him back down, and told him that’s the best I could do.  The Colonel’s wife told him ‘You need to find yourself a woman like that’ but he said “Oh no, she’s too wild for me!  She’d throw me through a barn door.’  And that’s how I became the Wild Woman of Trace Creek.”

Thus begins a morning with Edith “Wild Woman” Smith.  What ensues is the epitome of hospitality and love.  She has had a relationship with the Glenmary Farm since 1989/1990 and has welcomed over 11,000 first time visitors into her home (and quite a few return guests).  Each of those 11,000 experiences a morning filled with jokes, advice, pictures, cow feeding, laughter, and love. 

The day begins with the opportunity to feed her cows.  She keeps 5 or so cows on hand at a time specifically for volunteers.  The cows quickly make their way over once they see the hay being brought out and begin to crowd the fence, jockeying for position as the volunteers tear off pieces of the thistle to dangle in front of them.  Only the most courageous of volunteers dare to feed them with their mouths, chancing an encounter with the long, leathery tongues of the bovines. 

Once inside her home, volunteers read a series of jokes and funny articles collected by Wild Woman over the years.  They are a gathering of what we might recognize as those annoying spam mail chain letters that our older relatives insist on clogging our inboxes with to our chagrin.  Our gut reaction is to banish things like these to our trash bin.  But the beauty of a morning at Wild Woman’s is the ability to transform the commonplace or mundane into a communal experience filled with joy.  Of course, it is Wild Woman herself who helps the transformation through her presence and attitude.  She sits in a chair as the volunteers read off her stories and jokes and laughs right alongside them.  Her anticipatory giggles before an especially funny line or her outright guffawing at a volunteer’s reaction punctuate the proceedings. 

At first, it can be difficult for volunteers to understand why we bring them to visit Wild Woman.  They question where this falls in the spectrum of service and wonder whether, despite the fact that she is a wonderful person, time might be better spent out building houses for people.  To be fair, it can be difficult to grasp the abstract concept of ministry of presence for some and while it is fundamental to the work that the Farm does, it is often the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for volunteers.  Giving of one’s self, and the vulnerability that comes with that means that a strong connection can be formed with those we serve.  She teaches this through her own example and, in a magnanimous gesture, allows those who visit to do the same for her.  The idea that service can be done as much in the living room of a 90 year old woman as it can be at a construction site is an invaluable one.  She imparts the critical lesson that service is attitude as much as it is action on every volunteer she meets.  She sees every person as an opportunity to encounter, to reach out and touch a life and hopefully be affected in return.  This is a true gospel of Love, where her heart is always open to the heart of those she meets and the world is always seen through those Love-tinted glasses.  She is a paradigm for service and so she becomes the perfect frame for the volunteers’ week of service at The Farm, which is reason enough to visit her. 

It’s amazing to think that she has heard the same jokes hundreds and hundreds of times before because she is always so enthusiastic.  Every time seems like the first time she has heard them because she takes so much joy in the joy of others.  The enjoyment of the volunteers in turn becomes her own.  And that is the wonderful life-giving cycle of a morning at Wild Woman’s.  She and the volunteers engage in this dance of reciprocating joy.  The volunteers get so much from sitting and talking with her and she gets so much energy from talking with the volunteers.  Maybe that’s why some volunteers have a hard time associating that morning with service.  It all comes so easily and is a source of such joy that it doesn’t feel like service at all.  At the end of it, both sides have cups that runneth over.  She often says “Half of the time I’ve got patches on my britches, but who can say they have the opportunity to meet people as beautiful and as wonderful as all of you?”  I and the other 11,000 volunteers can certainly say the same about our time with her.

She became something of a grandmother figure during my time at The Farm.  She sees the Farm as a part of her family and takes the Farm Managers under her wing.  She would call to warn us of any bad weather headed our way or any particularly good deals at the local grocery stores.  Being in a rural setting far from home, it was reassuring to know someone was always looking out for you.  She invited us over countless of times to watch the reality show du jour- whether it was Survivor, Big Brother, or Amazing Race- always followed by marveling at the various concoctions on The Food Network.  But the moments I enjoyed the most were those spent on her porch just “shootin’ the bull” as she would say.  It was in these moments I could really focus and absorb the tremendous gift that she represents.  The love in her eyes and heart radiated out from her as she told us about her childhood or past Farm groups, weaving us into the beautiful tapestry that is her extraordinary life.  Those moments resonate with me as I look back on my year of Americorps service because they represent the essence of service.  It is the extension of heart and hand to a stranger until they become family. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

John Norman: Welcome To The Farm!!

Back in the 80s, a man by the name of John Norman started taking groups of students from McNicholas High School in Cincinnati, OH to the Farm.  He became enamoured with the place, as many do, and continued to take groups to experience its Simplicity and Service.  When Colleen and I arrived, our first group was from McNic.  John Norman was no longer taking groups himself but had passed that duty on to others.  But as a way of connection and benediction for the new group of McNic students, he wrote a missive.  Part poem, part welcoming, part prayer it was an incredible piece of writing that perfectly summed up and framed the Farm experience.  It spoke to the atmosphere, discoveries, and lessons that lay in that piece of land and during that week of service.

In fact, we felt it was so perfect a welcome, that Jamie, Colleen and myself would read it to every subsequent group that came to The Farm during my time there.  The Farm operates under the assumptions of the Archbishop Romero prayer, where service happens where it is needed and our part to play may be a small patch in a larger tapestry.  We liked the idea of a past Farm group reaching out and welcoming the current one, much like how their week of work laid the groundwork for the current one's.

For the 3 of us, I think it had a very centering effect.  No matter what was going on or how many groups we had in a row, hearing John Norman always snapped us back into Presence and keyed us into the wonderful gifts of The Farm.  I know that as I spent more time on The Farm, it took on new meaning and I would latch onto different stanzas at different times.  It was sort of this living and breathing guide through my year and I often find myself thinking about it as a way to center myself even now.  

So with out further ado, here is John Norman's welcome (affectionately known as JNorm):

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ: Welcome to the Farm!!!

Open your eyes and see the beautiful expansive sky, blue by day and speckled with diamonds by night.

Open your eyes and see the dawn mist over the hills and the countless spiders’ webs.

Open your ears and hear the birds singing in the valley and the water rolling over the stones in the creek.

Open your ears and hear the chorus of insects singing their nightly hymn as well as the dogs howling in the distance.

Open your heart to the presence of the Divine who loves you in the midst of this valley. 
Take off your shoes for this is holy ground.

Open your eyes and see the heart of each person here…see them truly for the first time.

Open your eyes and see that each person, however different from you, is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Open your ears and listen carefully to each one you encounter for their story needs you in order to be shared.

Open your ears and you just might discover wisdom for your journey.

Open your heart to the presence of the Divine, who loves you in the midst of these people. 
Take off your shoes for this is holy ground.

Open your eyes and you might see yourself in a new might discover the real you that has been lost from view.

Open your eyes and your eyes and in the midst of the laughter, the work, the play, the service, the conversation, you might find the authentic you...

Open your ears and listen and you might hear a stirring in your heart... that the simplicity of The Farm... the simplicity of life in these hills is a part of you... a part worth keeping.

Open your heart to the presence of the Divine, who loves you in the midst of quiet simplicity. 
Take off your shoes for this is holy ground.

Open your eyes for the Divine Creator is present, permeating this time... this place.

Open your eyes for the Living Christ is present in the one sitting beside you... working beside you... laughing beside you.

Open your ears and LISTEN, the Eternal One who has shared life with you is speaking to you this week... yes, to you!!!

Open yourself to Immanuel... "God with Us" and you might see the "face of God."
Take off your shoes for this is holy ground!!!!

Peace be with you,   
Your brother in Christ,

John Norman

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Loras College: What the Hell is a Duhawk Anyway?

Right before Easter 2010, we welcomed Loras College, a small school in Dubuque, Iowa, to The Farm. This was a week that would definitely be one of those roll with the punches type of weeks and actually was the harbinger of just how much we would have to roll with the punches in the coming months.

Thankfully this group was full of volunteers who were certainly willing to be flexible. Their good humor and easy going attitude definitely made what could have been a really difficult week one that was focused on service and supporting each other.

Their student leader, Cassie, had been to the Farm the year before, and I think that experience was a real help to her and provided a strong base for her leadership. This might seem like a pretty obvious statement by me. You might think that "Of course being familiar with the Farm would be a strength". And while that seems pretty logical, it's not always the case. One of the key charisms of The Farm is the concept of God's Time and living in the present. Our time, with its agendas, plans and schedules to keep often gets us locked into a mindset where the ticks on a clock become more precious than the people we meet. We get more excited about finding a new way to increase efficiency than we do about the opportunity to connect with someone. The Farm, with is emphasis on being present, really challenges us to remove ourselves from this trap. Being present means just that, living in the here and now. However, for those that return to the Farm, they can just as easily fall into the trap of living in the past. I think it's safe to assume that those who return to the Farm had a decent experience the time before that. When they return, things aren't brand new anymore. They have expectations, the burden of the past. Some come back with the unconscious hope to recreate their prior experience. So while they may be able to give in to the Farm's call to keep their eyes from straying toward the horizon, they ironically struggle to keep both feet planted firmly in the present, dragging their one foot behind them to tyr and anchor themselves in the past. But Cassie did a great job in allowing the week to take her where it would and not attempting to try and steer it in a direction she thought it should go based on what she had come to know the year before.

There was also a volunteer who had a relatively prominent stutter. But instead of letting that limit his enjoyment or his participation during reflection, he used it as a point of connection. He would crack jokes about it, using it as a "threat" whenever there was a pregnant pause after we asked for volunteers to lead prayer. He never shortened reflections or minced words on account of his stutter. I thought that there was a important lesson and poignancy in that. First of all, it really showed that it doesn't matter the way in which a thought is conveyed that makes it particularly profound; the message itself is what matters. There are plenty of reflections that I've heard that are simple, yet powerful and plenty that get so twisted up in their fancy verbage that it's hard to discern the point. I suppose it's the embodiment of the Shakespearean mantra: "brevity is the soul of wit". Secondly, I think his reflections were a great lesson to us in patience and its rewards. I'll be honest, there were times where I would be siting in reflections, hoping they would wrap up in a timely manner so I could squeeze more precious moments of sleep out of the night (Farm Managers often struggle with the lessons of The Farm as much as volunteers do, despite the appearance that we are CharismBots).

So listening to a reflection that was slowed by a series of stutters wasn't necessarily easy. Many times when he was stuck on a particular word or phrase I would have to resist the urge to finish it for him, partly out of frustration and partly out of a desire to help. Instead of focusing on what he was saying, I was too wrapped up in what I thought about how he was saying it. Once I was able to let go of that, I could actually begin to internalize the message he was trying to convey. It was the prefect lesson in patience and what happens when you employ it.

Likely the thing that stands out the most about this week is what happened with the chaperone. After we gave the normal tour of The Farm and were finishing dinner, their chaperone came into the kitchen asking if he could talk to us. He told us, on the verge of tears, that there had been a family emergency right before he left for The Farm and he was hoping we would understand if he needed to use the phone a little more than normally was allowed (there's only one line for the Farm so we tend to limit its use). We told him that, of course we understood. We also informed him that if he wanted to, we could drive him to an airport so he could get home. He seemed really relieved about it and said that he would see how the situation progressed and make a decision from there. As it turned out, he needed to return home the next day. I volunteered to take him to the Columbus airport. While I was bummed about having to miss a day at the Farm, I felt fortunate to get this opportunity to connect with the chaperone. I learned that he worked in the maintenance department, which I thought was interesting. Most of the time, the chaperones are teachers, professors, or parents of students on the the trip. I asked him how he came to be connected to the trip. He told me that it was just a decision he came to while walking by the sign up table the students had set up. Service trips were something he tried to do as often as he could. He said he liked how they humbled him and how they were generally good for his soul. He started opening up and telling me about how the family emergency had literally happened just hours before the group was scheduled to leave. Instead of delaying their departure or trying to find a replacement, he made sure everything was as stable as he could leave it and trusted that it would work out. He said that he felt a responsibility to the group and that he realized that he couldn't deprive them of this opportunity. It was a great conversation and one of those moments I loved the most about being at The Farm. It was an example of a pure, profound example of service and sacrifice from an unexpected source. Here was this man who didn't necessarily have the most lucrative job in the world sacrificing to benefit a group of people he had met with only a few times before this (the volunteers) and a group of people he had never met before (the people of Lewis County). It really showed to me that the capacity for service isn't limited by status or occupation but by the capacity to love and share with others.