Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Few Words From...John Lewis-Stempel

"In harrowing half an acre Willow and I walk five miles.  No one except kings and clergy was fat in the time of the horse.  A man ploughing one single acre could expect to walk as much as ten miles.

The high-tone jingle of the harness, the clinking of the harrow when it hits a stone, the working-oneness of man and beast, the breath of horse in the coldening afternoon air, the proud lift of hoof out of soil, the distant cawing of the rooks - these are things English and lost.

I am happy harrowing, an emotional state which may, according to scientists at the University of  Bristol, be enhanced by the soil itself.  A specific soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccue, activates a set of serotonin-releasing neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus of the brain, the same one targeted by Prozac.  You can get an effective dose of Mycobacterium vaccue by walking in the wild or gardening.

Or walking over a ploughed field."

- The Running Hare

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Decline And Fall Of The American Church

Sitting in service on Sunday, it occurred to me that there are really only four kinds of churches in America:

1)  The Liberal Church:  This is a church which has abandoned all sense of historic Orthodox Christianity except for the saying that "Christ is Love". 

2)  The Traditional Church:  Include Mainline denominations which have not fallen into category 1 here, but also the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, which have strong historical or cultural components.

3)  The Modern Church:  This is the church which may be traditional in some sense of the word, but is actively seeking out the modern individual (say age groups from 20 to 40).  In all likelihood, they come across as more "hip".

4)  The Conservative Church: I would include non-denominationals which have orthodox understandings, such as John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, or Steven Lawson.

Of these churches, the first category - The Liberal Church - is just about useless as a means of transmission of classic Orthodox Christianity.  The Traditional Church can still do this, but is often saddled with the problem of not connecting with the next generation required to sustain it. 

My big concern is category 3 - The Modern Church.  In some ways it has the greatest potential in that they have mastered the art of connecting with the 20-40 year olds in a way that gets them involved.  My concern - one which I do not have full clarification on - is how they are doing in terms of transmitting classic Orthodox Christianity.

I can only use the sermons I currently hear as an example.

What I do hear is a minimum on the nature of sin and the need for repentance.  What I do hear is a sense that we need forgiveness (but never clearly what we need to be forgiven from).  What I do hear is a great deal of current social mores about how our society has failed certain groups and that while we as a church are about holiness and justice, we talk a lot more about justice than holiness.  What I do hear is a great many words that the current social culture would find itself very comfortable with but very little discussion that the current social culture is challenged by.

Now, there is a lot of good thoughts in the sermons, and a great deal about the love of God and His purpose.  And one of the greatest things that is being communicated is apologetics for an age where "just believing" is not enough.  But what concerns me is what has always concerned me about any church which seeks to become socially relevant:  at some point the church has to choose either relevance with the mainstream (in which case more often than not it becomes The Liberal Church) or keeps with the traditional orthodox faith, in which I suspect it would rapidly find itself to be in The Conservative Church with a rapidly diminishing population base.

The great days of challenge (at least for Christians in the US) are still ahead of us - social trends, frankly, are not in our favor and most (if not all) historic and orthodox Christian beliefs are either laterally or directly opposed to how culture (and in many ways, government) are trending.  In situations like these (study the effects of Communism on churches after the initial societal conversion), Liberal and Modern churches are almost always wiped out (because who wants to die or be impacted adversely for a belief that is not a core belief?).  Mainline churches perhaps survive due to historical context.  The Conservative churches are always battered, destroyed - and then go underground and flourish.

My concern is that the Modern Church - the church currently most growth oriented and most reaching - has tied itself to the wrong platform.  My concern is that it is making people feel good and relevant about themselves and God without teaching them about all the expectations of God - not just justice, but personal holiness and right and wrong as defined by the Bible.

Those things are costly.  Simply believing what culture and society already teach you to believe is not costly at all.

"Wide is the gate and easy is the path to destruction" - yet we only ever want to describe that in terms of the unbelieving or the mis-believing.  Scarcely do we ever actually measure ourselves against that standard.

Look for the American church as we have known it to disappear.  Also, look for God to do some of His greatest work ever through those who truly base their lives on His word and understand the whole counsel of God - that His holiness is just as important as His justice and that without a forgiveness of sins, not just a general feeling being forgiven from our bad habits and bad practices, true conversion is not possible.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland

I do not write about or recommend books very often (although frankly, with the amount of reading I do, I probably should do so more often).  That said, I commend to your attention The Running Hare:  The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel.

The book, in short, is the record of an experiment by Mr. Lewis-Stempel - a farmer and writer - to restore a 4 acre section of farmland in Herefordshire, England to wildflowers.  For a single year.  Then he has to return it to sod. The book becomes an experiment in measuring his field of wheat raised in a traditional way (versus "The Chemical Brothers" who farm next to his field) to attract birds and, ultimately, hares back to the field.

Mr. Lewis-Stempel is the kind of nature and agricultural writer I enjoy, the poetic and slightly aggravated sort in the vein of Gene Logsdon and Joel Salatin whom I love (but less so of Masanobu Fukuoka and David Masumoto and Wendell Berry) who are good writers and lyrical and yet are angry about the state of agriculture and how industry and government have encouraged bad practices as only someone who loves the land can be.

The book follows the course of a year, from January to December and chronicles the ploughing, harrowing, planting, growing, and sheaving of the wheat.  It also chronicles the return of wild birds and the hares (and foxes) to the fields.  It is also a delightful wander through history:  Lewis-Stempel is as prone to go to rabbit trails as I, and so we take trips down the ancient ploughboys' songs (the entire words to John Barleycorn are present), English countryside church carvings, names of wild birds (and their precipitous decline in England), names of hares (never good - hares were not popular in Old England), and endangered and distinct English flora (that many would call weeds).

The book is a pleasure as well because Lewis-Stempel is a good writer:  descriptive, engaging, with a slight sarcastic edge which applies equally to others and himself:

"What jobs require the social skills of a Simeon Stylites, he who sat on a pillar for thirty years?  Alone?

Oh, I know.  Farming.

Oh, I know.  Writing.  Consequently, you are reading this book."

But the book is often wistful.  And sad.  Ultimately it is a lament for a type of agriculture and the natural world which it created which is rapidly disappearing (the statistics on the drop in bird and flora populations tied to farming is shocking.  And frightening.).  And Lewis-Stempel ultimately acknowledges this.  Sadly, there is no sense from him as there is from Logsdon and Salatin that this is a trend that can be reversed or is being reversed as others reject the modern lifestyle and agricultural way of things and go "back to the land".  In that sense the book is not a uplifting song as much as a dirge.

But I think it could be.  If people got into their mind the true impact of losing traditional farming and agriculture - not just the rich history and social involvement and soil loss but the impact to the wildlife and plants that have become symbiotic with it - it might be a way to draw others into the fight that would otherwise not be engaged.

Regardless of the greater impacts, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If for no other reason that ultimately, there is a bit of hope at the end.  The hares return.  And they stay. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

On Plastics

Besides being an exceptionally clean country (Really.  The streets and landscape are amazing), Japan separates items into recyclables and "combustibles".  Which got me to thinking about recycling and waste in general.

Right now in my own house, we are living through the banning of plastic straws because they hurt sea turtles.  Fair enough; things find themselves to the sea when they should not.  But then I saw an article about two sperm whales being found dead filled with car parts and plastics.

Which then got me to thinking:  why do we not just ban plastics altogether?

I mean, if these things are as horrible as we are led to believe, why go halfway?  Why not just completely ban them altogether?  We admit that they are a danger:  hard to deal with, get away from us, potential adding undesirable elements to our food.  If these things are really that dangerous, why do we not simply get rid of them altogether?

I know, I know.  They are useful and so much is used by them and let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Bur really, is that not the problem to start out with?  We pretend that things are not as bad as they are because we find them "useful", so we try to make compromises?

Mind you, completely eliminating plastics will be a tad inconvenient.  No more plastic water bottles available at gas stations for long trips.  No more car parts (back to faux leather and metal?).  No more 1001 things that make our lives more easier and more productive (including, maybe, this computer?  What is its casing made out of?).  And all those that manufacture such things?  Out of jobs for sure, not entirely clear on what they will do for income.  Maybe make more aluminum cans?

This is all a bit tongue in cheek of course, but my underlying thought is rather serious:  we say things are bad but we (the global "we", probably not most of my readers)  try to somehow thread the needle by finding a small thing to do (straws) while avoiding the larger issue (plastics in general), which is far more pervasive.

Not getting a plastic straw is inconvenient.  Not having a IV bag when you need surgery is a bit more concerning.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Back From Training 2019

I am safely returned from 2019 Iai Training!

Overall it went very well.  Other than an initial hiccup (our flight from where we live to the international leg was canceled, which was disconcerting - but we got re-routed through a second airport and got there fine) our travels were incredibly easy (Google Maps has come a long way, letting you know which train and which stop to get off on.  Pretty amazing).

Training itself was the same as last year - challenging but certainly with a purpose (although I did not always see it).  It was good to see our Headmaster again as well as the international students from across six continents.  I saw some old friends and made some new ones.  We trained for 4.3 days, then had an afternoon in Tokyo, getting to hit a sword store and some souvenir shops.

So, sticking to the "Rule of Five", what were the thoughts or outcomes from this trip?

1)  I came home with a great sense of serenity. I cannot fully tell you why it is there or where it came from.  Or even really what it means - other than perhaps, for the first time in a while, I have a great deal of clarity, at least about continuing and deepening my iaijutsu training and work.  It is a path that I am meant to be on.  The shugyo musha (Warrior's Pilgrimage) is the path for me.

2)  I was deeply struck by the lack of obesity that one sees in Japan.  It is the exception, not the rule.  What I found for myself was I was quite alright just eating three meals with no snacks - if I was able to do this while I was training, I should be able to do this while I live my normal life.

3)  Completely dis-engaging from the media and current events is a great blessing.  At one point a fellow iaidoka tried to engage me in a conversation about current events.  I made the comment that I found that I could completely cut that off while I was training.  He responded that he tried, but he could not.  I do not regret my decision to disengage.

4)  My focus continues to narrow, and I am okay with that.  I probably have about 30% to 40% shedding of things left until I reach a place where I am truly living with what I need and focusing on what is truly valuable to me.

5)  I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to turn off the need to update myself on work while I was gone.  The thought never crossed my mind once.

It was a good trip.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Blessing Prayer

Be the eye of God dwelling with you,
The foot of Christ in guidance with you,
The shower of the Spirit pouring on you,
Richly and generously.
God's peace to you,
Jesus' peace to you,
Spirit's peace to you
And to your children,
Oh to you and your children,
Each day and night
Of your portion in the world.

The compassing of the King of life be yours,
The compassing of loving Christ be yours,
The compassing of Holy Spirit be yours 
Unto the crown of life eternal
  Unto the crown of life eternal.

The guarding of the God of life be on you,
The guarding of loving Christ be on you,
The guarding of Holy Spirit be on you
Every night of your lives,       
To aid and enfold you
Each day and night of your lives.

- Carmina Gadelica (Alexander Carmichael) from Celtic Devotions (Calvin Miller)