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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Psalm 17 – Investigating Prayer

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
    listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer—
    it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
    may your eyes see what is right.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

My personal attitude towards prayer

I mentioned in my last post that I’m not great at praying.  It’s part of my spiritual practice I would like to improve.  I imagine it’s a common enough predicament, especially in progressive Christian communities.  Some people are completely comfortable talking to God like an old friend, in their head or out loud.  Others are unembarrassed to publicly call on Jesus in praise or request. My favorite is how casually some people can attribute events to divine acts of intercession, in the middle of regular, secular conversation.

None of those things come naturally to me.  Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who says something like “I was blessed to be born and American,” but mainly because these statements of “blessing” imply that God loves the bless-ee more than the non-bless-ees.  Does God love Americans more than the Syrians?  The Chinese?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps Xe did make certain individuals certain nationalities as part of Xyr divine plan, but I think saying we were lucky enough to be (fill in the blank here) is a more accurate statement, and by no means negates God’s divine will.  But I digress.  We were talking about prayer.

The documented benefits of prayer

For those that like solid facts, there are actually documented benefits of prayer.  And no, not anecdotal stories of “God answering my prayers” (though feel-good stories of that nature abound, too), but scientifically proven benefits.  Engaging in prayer reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, increases dopamine levels, and may even help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death.  (A wonderful overview of the effects of prayer are in this Huffpost article.)

The above-mentioned article says that the jury is still out on the efficacy of praying for other people; that only half the studies on the subject have documented a noticeable improvement in groups that are prayed for vs. those that are not.  But honestly, seeing positive differences in half the studies, is, I think, pretty encouraging.  In this scientific article on prayer and healing, co-authors Andrade and Radhakrisknan make some interesting points (both pro- and con-) regarding the limitations in scientifically studying the effects of remote prayer. For example, the overlap of first names (say, John) in both control and prayed-for groups.

So, if enough people are praying for the same thing, can it make a difference in the world?  A while ago, I would have said no, rather abashedly, because I feel as a Christian it’s something I should believe.  But there was another study, not specifically about prayer but about expectation, that changed my mind.  In this study, researchers were told some rats were incredibly smart while others were incredibly dumb (even though they were all, in fact, pretty average rats).  The expectations of the researchers impacted the performance of the rats: the ones expected to be smarter performed better, and the ones expected to be dumb performed worse.  This was explained through subtle shifts in the way the researchers handled the rats based on their perception of them.  So no, neither prayer or expectation opens the door to some sort of magical telekinesis or mind control, but it does change us.  Perhaps if we pray for healing, we will find more opportunities to heal.  Perhaps if we pray for peace, we will be more peaceful ourselves.  Perhaps if we pray for miracles, our eyes will be opened to the daily miracles happening around us.  And just perhaps, if enough people are united in prayer throughout the world, we will be agents of God’s divine plan of universal reconciliation.

In short, I think prayer should be our first – and last – resort.  Let me explain:  I think prayer should lead our actions, and then when all actions are exhausted, we can return to prayer.  I actually agree with a lot of critics of prayer when they say prayer can lead to inaction and dismissal.  “Thoughts and prayers” has become an empty phrase people mock (and rightfully so) after every new tragedy.  If praying is truly all you can do, then yes, please, pray away!  But if you are praying in a truly open, reflecting, and receptive way, I think that more often than not, you will be moved to seek more ways to participate in whatever challenge that’s gotten you to praying in the first place.

How to start praying

So great, I’ve sold you on the benefits of praying, but where to start?  As mentioned above, I’m no expert, so I’m hoping my advice makes up in authenticity what it lacks in experience.  There are two techniques for easy entry into praying:

  1. Gratitude prayers.  This can be as easy as saying thank you for….anything.  Or nothing at all, just a “thank you” in your head or out loud.  You don’t even have to start with “Dear God,” if you don’t want to.  I often quietly thank God when I’m outside on the daily walks I take with the girls or when I’m working in the garden, because that is when I am most likely to be struck by the beauty or abundance of creation.  I’ve thanked God for mild breezes, warm sunshine, pea shoots, rich compost, and a full rain barrel, among other things.  Also, if you’re in a dark place, gratitude praying can sometimes help you climb out of that hole because it forces you to find something to be grateful for.  A few weeks ago I stormed out of the house, mad as hell.  After walking a while I forced myself to say some thank you’s.  I was first thankful for the bracing cold air coming off the river.  Then I was thankful for an outside space to which I could run, then for the freedom to be able to move about that space….and soon enough there was more to be thankful for than mad about.
  2. Rote prayers.  I don’t know many rote prayers.  Honestly only the last verse of Psalm Four, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Oh, and I guess the Catholic, Anglican, and broader Protestant dinner blessings that all children of said faiths can rattle off by the time they are five.  I turn to the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm Four when I need to recenter, when I’m too distracted or anxious to come up with something original.  But if all you know is “God is great, God is good…” start with that.  It is a blessing, after all, and repeating a blessing over and over again to help calm yourself down can’t be bad, even if it is a bit out of context.

Today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week.  It commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the beginning of his last days.  It was a time in which we see Jesus pray often – with his disciples at the Last Supper, privately the night he was arrested, and even when on the cross.  Jesus makes prayer look natural….but then again, he is Jesus.  Wherever, or however you start praying, just start. You’re not going to sound like Jesus, especially not at first.  But as with any other habits, practice makes perfect.  The important thing to remember is this: that praying (yes, your praying, however imperfect it may be) is making a difference in the world, even if that difference is “only” in yourself.

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