Psalm 65 – A Blackberry Sea

You care for the land and water it;
    you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
    to provide the people with grain,
    for so you have ordained it.
10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
    you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
11 You crown the year with your bounty,
    and your carts overflow with abundance.
12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
    the hills are clothed with gladness.
13 The meadows are covered with flocks
    and the valleys are mantled with grain;
    they shout for joy and sing.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here)

This past spring, I was walking through the farm with the girls, meandering and exploring. We walked behind the fence-line of field four, a part of the property that had been timbered a few years ago. The undulations of the land were completely festooned in sprays of blackberry flowers. It was a sea of white and green. Since then, I have been eagerly watching roadside berries grow and turn dark, knowing that the same thing was happening in my secret blackberry sea. Last weekend, we went to pick some and were not disappointed.

I was overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of the land, a land that had been used for its resources and left as a ravaged wound. When we arrived here a few years ago, what is now a blackberry sea was a hot, depressing place: raw dirt, old stumps, and piles of brush baking and bleaching in the sun, with nothing to break the heat and wind but the occasional scraggly clump of weeds. Now, in addition to the blackberry, there is wild grapevine, shiso, and milky oats. On the perimeter, there are young paw paw trees already producing, and what I have a suspicion are persimmons too young to produce fruit yet, but full of promise for future years. I felt like I was in Eden.

God is so generous, Xe gives us solutions to problems of our own making. My blackberry sea is but one example. The other one that had me marveling anew this week was the fact that oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are inadvertently growing huge reefs of those wonderful water filterers – oysters – on their charged, underwater metal equipment. And I think I’ve shared before that trees sequester carbon (up to forty-eight pounds per mature tree), provide oxygen, and literally seed clouds – yes, more trees equals more rain.

I do not think this means we get a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to caring for our wonderful island planet. Nor do I think that “letting nature be” is necessarily the best approach. Certainly, there are some areas of the wild that need to stay just that: completely wild. But if you remember, our original role in the Garden of Eden was gardener, so Biblically, you could argue that is humankind’s original and preferred vocation. There is constantly unfolding research about the Americas that show pre-Colombian populations were those edenic gardeners: tending the lands on a broad scale to make God’s fertile gift even more abundant. Early explorers were astounded by the park-like settings of eastern forests (which still had bison roaming through them) and the overwhelming number of fish in the Hudson river. 1491 and Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America are both excellent books if you are interested in learning more about how humans have actually, at least at some point in time, been beneficial to the earth.

What our role in caring for the Earth should be is something I’m sure I’ll revisit in greater detail in future posts, since that is what our farm is all about (and my husband, Chris, writes about it with more knowledge and eloquence than I, here). Today, though, I just want to celebrate the amazing abundance that is earth, from the cancer-fighting properties of ancient algae to the oxygen-producing capabilities of the Amazon Rainforest, and everything in between.

I thank God for the shade of the oak trees, the sweetness of a strawberry, and the puffs of dandelion seeds that delight my girls. (If there was ever proof that God loves play I think the answer lies in the irresistibility of a dandelion head to a small child.) I thank God for volunteer squash in the old pig paddock, the ever-forgiving and ever-cheerful zinnia blossoms, and the meteoric growth of my ten foot high corn. I thank God for the surprise stand of persimmons at the end of the driveway, quietly growing for a decade from seeds thrown there by my father-in-law many years past and just fruiting now. I thank God for the lush grass in the well of my front yard – a marsh in the winter but perfectly evergreen and inviting in the summer, where my girls run and roll and play with the dogs. I thank God for wildflowers. I thank God for gentle, rolling hills. I thank God for cool rivers and warm summers. I thank God for my blackberry sea.

Psalm 22 – COVID and the Coming School Year

11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
    strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
    open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
    it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
    you lay me in the dust of death. (Read the rest of the chapter, here)

The coming school year

Indulge me, if you will, in a moment of self pity. I got word from our school-board the other day that we as parents have two choices: Half-time instruction in-school, with children alternating weeks they are in-classroom and receiving at-home instruction, or opting for full-time at-home instruction. I am extremely concerned about the recent COVID spikes in states that attempted re-openings, and am scared to death of what schools across the nation opening in a few weeks is going to do to these numbers, so I opted for the latter.

Let me be clear, I think the school board made the best decision they could: no one is going to be happy with any decision they make, but this is probably the closest they’ll get to “getting it right” in an impossible situation. I also am deeply grateful to the teachers who are essentially going to have to come up with two lesson plans – one for in-school and one for remote teaching. But essentially, I just signed on to a full year of being little M’s teacher and therapist, in addition to her mother and advocate. I have never been someone who wanted to homeschool. It has never been remotely tempting. Yet here I am, doing it. I’ll be working with her teachers, but she’s a special-needs kindergartner, so let’s be honest here: self-directed study is not going to happen. I’m staring a new full-time job in the face come August 10.

Yes, I’m grateful I have the option to do this with and for my child. Yes, I will relish the time we get to spend together. Yes, I love being a part of her progress as she learns and grows. I am grateful. I really am. But I’m also so very tired. I’m tired of limiting her opportunities for social development because of a global pandemic. I’m tired of being afraid to go to the river with the girls too late in the day because there will be too many people there. I’m saddened that my youngest is now afraid of people walking by us when we walk the dogs, because I’ve tried to explain we need to be friends from afar for now. I hate having to explain to my girls for the millionth time that we can’t do a car-ride to their grandmas and grandpas, who they haven’t seen, outside of Facetime, in months. But more than anything I’m so, so worried about how many families might lose children come fall, reopening schools, and COVID spikes. So even though I’m tired, we will stay home: for our health and theirs.

The Psalm

Psalm 22 is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are the words Jesus cries out on the cross. Other parts allude to Jesus as well: “a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet” (v. 16), “they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (v. 18). It is a lament, an anguished cry of a psalm, which is why I chose it for this week’s reading. “Why, Lord?” it asks. Also, “where are you, Lord?” Those two questions have been my heart’s cries for weeks now. I am sad, I am tired, my efforts feel futile.

Yet here I am, “declaring your name to my brothers,” as v. 22 puts it. Even as tired as I am, I cannot resist the gravity of God’s pull. I saw something on Instagram today that said “God is the God of your valleys as well as your mountains.” It’s comforting, in a small way, to know that God loves us even when we aren’t feeling our best selves, perhaps even when we are feeling a little sorry for ourselves, or shaky in our beliefs. And for that, I will continue to sing Xyr praises even while asking “why?” and “where?”

I find it comforting, too, that this psalm has already been fulfilled, not only through Jesus, but through the declaration at the very end: “Posterity will serve Xyr, future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim Xyr righteousness, to a people yet unborn — for Xe has done it.” It is estimated that the final compilation of the psalms was in the third century B.C., which means many of these psalms had been sung for a long time before. Millennia of generations have sung these psalms, and the goodness of God has carried us here, in that tide. It may not always seem good, but something about that longevity gives me hope, and gives me perspective. My tired is real, but it is temporary. Even if it lasts the rest of my life (and I hope it doesn’t, and I don’t believe God wants that for any of Xyr children), it is still temporary. I may wallow around in my valley of self pity for a bit, but God is there with me. And when I’m ready to climb back to the mountaintop, God will walk with me then, too.

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Ecclesiastes 07 – Divinity Beyond the Gender Binary

26 I find more bitter than death
    the woman who is a snare,
whose heart is a trap
    and whose hands are chains.
The man who pleases God will escape her,
    but the sinner she will ensnare.

27 “Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered:

“Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—
28     while I was still searching
    but not finding—
I found one upright man among a thousand,
    but not one upright woman among them all.
29 This only have I found:
    God created mankind upright,
    but they have gone in search of many schemes.”
(Read the rest of the chapter, here)

Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes

Sounds pretty condemning. One good man in a thousand is bad enough, but not a single good woman? Come on. It reeks of sexism, right? But…maybe not.

This post is basically a thought-train brought on by a very interesting article I came across in my background research entitled “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes” (by Dominic Rudman, published in 1997 by The Journal Of Biblical Literature, available on JSTOR). Rudman argues that the “woman” discussed in vv. 7:26-29 is morally neutral, and actually an agent of God who is there to punish the wicked. Citing language patterns in and out of Ecclesiastes, Rudman describes this feminine-divine-agent “More a huntress of the masses than a temptress of the individual.” Rudman also points out that no horrible fate is awaiting the woman of 7:26 as is the whores and adultresses in other passages outside Ecclesiastes, which helps to emphasize her moral neutrality – or possibly even her moral superiority. This quote sums up the whole idea of woman as divine agent, as Rudman chooses to present her, quite nicely: “In a sense, Qoheleth’s [the author of Ecclesiastes, see Chapter One] world view is one in which Eve has ganged up with God against Adam. In short, there is no way for man to fully know a woman without falling into her divine trap, so therefore Qoheleth can never find the full ‘sum’ of knowledge.”

I’m not going to lie: As a woman, I enjoy this idea of being a divine agent of God, of maybe even being something a little “better than” man. That last quote in particular begs the question: If God is unknowable to man because of man’s inherent maleness, and inability to know woman, does that mean that woman has a fuller knowledge of God? One could argue that those with wombs would have a more intimate knowledge of creating life, which might be an argument for women being closer to God. While pro-feminist on the surface, that argument has a big problem to it, because it ties one’s inherent womanhood to her ability to reproduce – something that many women cannot do. Thus it ends up more like a patriarchal understanding of a “woman’s role in society” than a pro-female-divinity argument.

Alternatively, perhaps the unknowingness works both ways: woman cannot know the full “sum” of God just as man can’t, because she can’t fully “know” man. But this brings up another problem.

The problem of the Gender Binary

To muddy the waters even further, the above meditation presupposes a gender binary: that there is “man” and there is “woman” and each is unknowable to the other. More and more we are finding that the gender binary is simply a social construct. Of course there are people are are biologically intersex, but there are others who identify as asexual, trans, demi-girl, femme, butch, and a whole bunch of other perfectly valid qualifiers that don’t fit into a gender binary.

So, would a non-gender-binary person, somebody who identifies with both “man” and “woman” be the only ones who can fully know the “sum” of God’s wisdom that Qohelet seeks? I haven’t found any Biblical evidence to back that up, but I also haven’t come across any Biblical evidence that specifically denies that idea. In a broader historical sense a special non-binary divinity seems possible. I must admit I haven’t researched it much myself, but I’ve heard anecdotally that “two-spirit” people were often looked to as spiritual leaders in Native culture, and I’ve also come across some mention of Wiccan views on nonbinary people as closer to the divine. Certainly there are a slew of hermaphroditic gods throughout history. So who knows, perhaps collectively we’ve been tapping into this truth for some times now.

Staying true to the message of Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 7:23-29 remains a confusing passage, to be sure. Generally, Qohelet is gentle with his readers. Widespread condemnation of a whole group seems unusual for him – he even has sympathy for fools and foolish behavior throughout the book, a book which is entirely devoted to wisdom, the opposite of foolishness. In truth, Qohelet has very little to say about (and nothing to say to) women. But what he does say about them is largely positive: in 9:9 he urges his listener to “enjoy life with your wife, whom you love,” and in chapter two he counts female slaves, female singers, and possibly a harem (the word is vague and the “harem” translation is by no means agreed upon) among the things that bring him pleasure. Whether or not you subscribe to Rudman’s idea of woman as divine agent, I don’t read vv. 7:23-29 as a knock to women, and it all lies in the last verse.

“This only I have found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” Gender discussions aside, I actually find this last line of the chapter to be the most fascinating. Basically it’s another admonishment to pay attention to God, do your work well, and let the rest be, because if you don’t, it might interfere with your God-given right (and responsibility) to be happy. So yes, Qohelet only found one good man (and no good woman) out of a thousand. Statistically speaking this makes sense: he probably knew a lot more men. But he also gives us the reason why so few “good people are found, regardless of gender: humankind chases after too many “schemes.”

We chase the things that bring temporary pleasure, but not deep and lasting joy. I don’t want to harp on how anyone spends their money or free time, but a lot of the screens, booze, food, drugs, and material posessions – aka the schemes – that we chase are simply bandaids over our deeper longings. I think that’s why so many people have such a yearning to get back to the land in the form of farming or hiking or homesteading: because it is a connection to something deeper and true. I think it’s why so many people like dogs: they have a joy that is simple and true and not reliant upon social standing or a new car. We want that deep, abiding, and elusive joy and connection.

If we are to do what is best for our short days under the sun, we all need to focus on what is important. That may differ a bit from person to person, but if we follow Qohelet’s lead, it centers on fulfilling work, fellowship, and seizing happiness when we can find it. Who knows what, exactly, Qohelet was talking about when he was talking about that woman, but the message of Ecclesiastes doesn’t change: whether we are man or woman or somewhere in between or not at all, we all need to be agents of joy in the lives of others while finding joy in our own.

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