Life’s Fallow Seasons

fallow fieldFor most of us Ember Days go unnoticed.  With the exception of seminarians writing letters to bishops telling them of their progress, Ember Days have all but disappeared in the life of the Church.  Even in farming communities living closer to the earth and to the cycles of seed-time, vintage and harvest there is precious little attention given to Ember days.  Such is our loss; for knowledge of the seasons has much to teach us and not just for lessons about the soil.  Last week on September 18th, 20th, and 21st the Church’s calendar rubrics noted what used to be the “vintage” Ember days—that is the season of the grape harvest.  As a native Californian I remember it well—the grape harvest that is not the Ember days.

What brought this to mind was our latest diocesan Clergy Day.  Not that we in the Diocese of South Carolina are in what I would call a “vintage season”—though certainly some may feel this past year they have been like grapes in the wine press troddened and squeezed.  No, as I looked out on the assembled brothers and sisters,  rather than seeing brethren in the vintage month, what came to mind was that more than a few had passed through or perhaps were still in a fallow season.

Seed-time, vintage, harvest and winter (the fallow days) are seasons the farmer knows well.  When I was in college I spent summers and even one fall working in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley—driving down rows of cotton with a tractor tilling the ground or spraying pesticides in June and July, and later harvesting with a cotton-picker in October and November.  Different yet, were August days in a dug potato or sugar beet field with a D-8 tracklayer pulling a land-plane to level the field or a ripper to break up the hard-pan.  Before the days when most tractors or tracklayers had air conditioned cabs it was hot and dusty work in mid-summer.  The latter was to prepare the land for a fallow season (even if it was brief): giving to the earth the plow and harrow but not the seed.

The fallow season is what I see during the winter months in South Carolina as I drive along rural roads in December and January on parish visitations. Fields plowed and harrowed and left unsown as the cold rain and darker days fall upon the earth.  The land left idle for a season.  But just last Monday I saw up near Barnwell harvested cornfields with stalks sheered 12 inches off the ground and left waiting for another season.  It is all rather Biblical, for Shabbat was a solemn rest for the land: a Sabbath to the Lord when human hand was not to till or work the soil; the earth was to be saved from the hardness of man’s exhausting labor; a reminder that the earth was not just for tilling—it was holy.

There is, spiritually speaking, fallow seasons for the soul which of course can come at any time of year.  Two of the plowshares God uses in this season are sorrow and loss.  With these furrowing blades God harrows the soul.  Elijah knew such a season by the brook Cherith.  (I Kings 17:1 ff)  Such seasons may bring days of isolation.  It is part of God’s formative and maturing work in our lives.  Frankly, it is important to know one doesn’t have to be in a lonely place to experience God’s isolating grace.  This summer has been for me an Ember season that was all out of rhythm with the months of the year.  I have been more in the season of winter, the days of December (without Christmas); not a winter of discontent, but a fallow season; and not by choice nor for rest.  Plowed and harrowed and left unsown, finding it difficult to write anything, I took comfort and encouragement in the psalmist’s words:  “The plowmen plowed upon my back and made their furrows long.”  (Ps 129:3)

A fallow season is one of the ways God leads us to or forces upon us a reflective evaluation of our lives and our work in order to prepare us for what is next.  This may happen several times in a Christian’s life.  God therein leads us to a deeper trust and dependence upon him and upon his Word and Spirit.  And perhaps more gracious still it may yield a deeper relationship and intimacy with Christ.  St. Paul knew such harrowing of soul and from within such a season wrote these words:  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort [encouragement], who comforts [encourages] us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort [encourage] those who are in any affliction with the comfort [encouragement] with which we ourselves are comforted [encouraged] by God.”  (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)  Take your pick which translation you prefer—comfort or encouragement—for there are solid arguments for each and a need perhaps for both.

During fallow seasons it is good to remember that such days or months prepare us for seedtime, whether for the soil or in our life.  In fact the agricultural practice of sowing seed soon became for the Biblical writers a metaphor for the spiritual life.  Hosea used it figuratively of God sowing Israel in the Promised Land; Jeremiah to describe God making Israel fruitful; later Jewish writers to compare “God sowing virtues in soul;” and Jesus employed it for the Kingdom.  Such a season needs to be seen as the doorway for tomorrow.  We realize in such times that to wait, to sacrifice or merely to ploddingly do one’s duty may be all that one can do.  But in God’s grace it is enough. The days will slowly lengthen, the sun’s angle will lean longer light upon the earth, the door will open, and the Sower will go out.    It may be hard to remember when the days are dark and a cold rain falls that it is a part of his design; yet it is a preparation for the soul that will again sing joyously:

“Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;
love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain.
He that for three days in the grave had lain,
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”

Hymn 204 (1982 Hymnal)

Posted in Christian Life | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Midge-buzzings, Musterings, and Musings: An Introduction

Field of midgesThe novelist, essayist, and poet, Wendell Berry said he once knew a barber who refused to give a discount to balding men because his artistry was not in cutting off hair but rather in knowing when to stop. Likewise, I pray there is some artistry or at least craftiness in knowing when to begin. After much coaxing from several members of our diocesan staff I have finally committed to sitting down before this computer to write a blog. In doing so I’ve been told I need to give the blog a name. So here it is: I christen thee, Midge-buzzings, Musterings, and Musings—a name which clearly merits a brief explanation, not merely for the obscurities embedded therein, but because of what such a name suggests about the content.

Since eventually, as our Lord repeatedly taught, the last will be first, I shall begin there. That is with Musings. This of course, is a rather obvious category implying— “ponderings, reflections and meditations”—thus I shall at times share with my readers thoughts and ideas far less formal than a bishop’s address, pastoral letter, or diocesan communication which would ordinarily find no opportunity for broader communication about things I find interesting. A window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a book I’m reading, a hike I’ve taken or an entry from my personal journal.

Musterings, I confess is a word I’ve tortured into being. Muster is a verb meaning “to assemble, as troops; to gather together, as, to muster all one’s resources.” Muster is also a noun—“an assembly of troops, for review or active service.” Thus, “musterings” as I’ve coined the word here means an assembling or marshalling of words for a purpose, as when Winston Churchill during the Second World War mustered the English language and sent it into battle. His speeches might well be referred to as musterings, invaluable as they were for the Battle of Britain. So in less significant and surely less eloquent ways, I hope the musterings on this blog will occasionally inspire or call God’s people to action for Christ’s Kingdom, or to engage some challenge we face in the church or the culture.

Then, there are those writings best filed under the rubric of Midge-buzzings. I first came across this word in the title of a book by Ann Williams, a nature writer from the San Joaquin Valley in California, that place where I was born and raised, and can never leave no matter where I go. Ann says she got the word midgebuzzing from a curious exchange in Felix Salten’s novel, Bambi (1929).

“How long has that old beetle been living?” some very small midges asked? “He has outlived his whole family. He’s as old as the hills, as old as the hills. He’s seen more and been through more in this world than we can even imagine.” Bambi walked on. “Midge buzzings,” he thought, “midge buzzing.”

Clearly the buzzing of midges can be rather irritating and may at times even presage a not as yet felt sting or bite. Nevertheless, I’ve learned on more than one occasion while hiking or canoeing that such irritations can also awaken one from reveries and day dreams that may cause you to miss your trail junction or overlook some cairn or tributary without which you might soon be lost or worse. Nobody much likes the buzzing of no-see-ums, black gnats, mosquitoes, or deer flies but they are as much a part of life for every lover of nature and hiker of trails as trials are for every Christian, as indeed, The Letter of James tells us — going even so far as to admonish us to count it all as joy. So there may well be times I will write something here that you find as irritating and distracting as the buzzing of a horse-fly and with just as much bite and sting. Swat at if you must, dismiss it you may, but such midge-buzzing might keep you from missing a fork in life’s trail or a false channel or oxbow in the black water rivers of the culture that could get you lost for hours or even days and to recover from which may take a lifetime.

Frankly, I might just have some long overdue fun with this….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments