I want to suggest that you add something a little different to your bucket list.

Before you die, be sure to attend a farm field day put on by a sustainable farmer.

Field days are usually geared for other farmers, but don’t let that scare you away. Field days are a chance to be immersed in the craft of farming with good, friendly people. You’ll see farming and the land in a new way.

This Tuesday, I made a one-day, eight-hour round trip to attend a field day at Trevor Toland’s River Oak Ranch in Macomb, Illinois that had been organized by The Pasture Project.

Despite the driving and the fact that I got home at 1:30 a.m., it was well worth it.

After some initial comments and presentations, more than 70 of us were carried around on hay wagons to different areas of Trevor Toland’s farm.  He has been converting much of his 380+ acre farm on rolling land to a rotational grazing system for a number of years. At each stop, Trevor explained how he has been managing each section and how the grazing of cattle has been part of that management system.

Rotational grazing is the grazing of large numbers of cattle for short periods of time on small sub-sections of a farm. The cattle are then rotated onto the next small sub-section.

Each grazed subsection then has at least 30 days (and often more) to recover. This mimics what buffalo and other wild ruminants have been doing for millennia. It gives cows what they naturally desire to eat – grass and flowering plants (especially legumes) – and the chance to move around outdoors. Thanks to always being covered with a variety of plants that feed the microbes underground, the soil becomes full of life. That life is made even more rich by the occasional but intense pulses of dung, urine, and even saliva coming from the cattle herd. In addition, the action of their hooves stomps plant matter into direct contact with the soil where insects and microbes can work on it.

Continually adapting exactly how and where the cattle are grazed is a key element to this approach to farming.

Dr. Allen Williams (kneeling and imitating the partial consumption of a grass by a cow) explained how grasses and other pasture plants can persist and thrive when cows are allowed to eat only 50% before being moved to another field. Grasses and other plants that persist with healthy root systems can then feed the soil microbes in the ground while also shading the ground. Healthy microbial life is the key to healthy soils that feed plants and hold water.

Trevor, seen standing in front of the small tractor, is the best of what it means to be Midwestern. He’s direct, thoughtful, humble, and honest about his challenges. I later learned that he played basketball for the University of Iowa and was a principal before becoming a farmer.

The bonus feature of the event and the main reason I drove the many miles was that Dr. Allen Williams was the featured speaker. Before we actually got out into the fields, he presented an overview of rotational grazing using high densities of cattle. While out in the fields, he added insightful commentary at a number of our stops and answered questions..

A self-described “recovering academic,” Allen farms in Mississippi and is a tireless evangelist for rotational grazing across the country. A good introduction to him and rotational grazing is the Soil Carbon Cowboy video.

What’s especially interesting is that Allen is a Christian.

His faith in our Creator God is what motivates him to do what he does.

He speaks with passion, knowledge, and conviction. He helps his audience understand the complexities of how soil and animals interact. He carries himself with both decency and strength.

Dr. Allen Williams explained that it is helpful to maintain wooded sections of a farm. Cattle can be brought to the woods to cool down during hot weather. He noted, too, that you can tell when a pasture has microbes thriving in the ground by the degree to which insects and spiders are thriving above the ground.

As Christians, we should be proud of Allen and other Christians who are advancing Creation-friendly farming method with integrity and energy.

We should also support the kind of life-affirming, God-affirming farming he practices and helps thousands of other farmers implement.

You and your church can do that by buying meat that comes from animals raised the way Trevor Toland does at River Oak Ranch.

If you’re interested in attending a field day on a farm where sustainibility is a key principle, please email me at nathan@libertyprairie.org. I can share some good resources, depending on where you live. I wrote a post earlier about the commitment a whole faith church would make to having the food for its common meals come from sustainable, well-stewarded farms. I also wrote about the care with which whole faith churches need to communicate about farming ethics. Farmers are our neighbors.

There once was a king and a queen who ruled a small kingdom in a beautiful country.

They took great pleasure in their castle and in the art they had made which filled the castle’s rooms. They delighted in the gardens they had planted and the large trees around which they had built the castle. The ravens they had rescued from a nearby mountain when the ravens were young were now tame and flew about the castle and its grounds.

River Scene with Castle (by Gilbert Munger)

The king took special pride in his master servants. He had chosen them from many walks of life, and he trained them carefully to manage the activities of the castle and the kingdom. He patiently educated them, taught them, and encouraged their creativity.

“I cherish all that I have, my dear servants, but you are my greatest joy,” he told them.

One day he gathered his servants together. He told them that he and the queen needed to leave them for some time. While he was gone, they were to be in charge of his castle.

“I trust you to rule as you have seen us rule,” he told them.

Several years later, when the servants had begun to doubt whether the king and queen would ever return, they were awakened on a bright cold blue morning by trumpets and soldiers they recognized to be of the king and queen’s personal guard.

“You are to appear immediately at the front gate,” the soldiers said.

The servants hurried to an assembly of nobles and guards surrounding the king and queen who sat on thrones the servants had not seem before. The servants noticed the king and queen did not seem to have aged and in some ways looked even more vigourous and wise than ever. The servants also noticed that the muscles of the king’s jaw were tight and his expression stern. Tears ran down the cheeks of the queen.

“What have you done while we were gone?” the king demanded.

“We have built new mansions for ourselves,” they said, “and created new tools that make our lives easier and new toys that give us pleasure.”

“And what about our castle?”

The servants looked around and saw what they had done. To make their own mansions and machines, they had neglected the castle. In fact, they had dismantled much of it and used the salvaged materials for their own mansions. What remained of it was turning to rubble. The trees of the grounds had been felled for lumber. The gardens uprooted. The servants had sold off the art they could get good prices for and used other pieces of art for sport. At least one piece, they had noticed, had gone missing early on.

The servants were silent in shame and fear.

Except for one.

He met the lord’s gaze directly as he spoke.

“We knew you would come again, great king, and make everything new. So we used the power you gave us for our pleasure. We are, you said, what you are most proud of. You can fix all this, can you not?”

The king did not acknowledge this statement but asked the assertive servant, “And where are our ravens? I do not hear their cries. They did not come to us when we called for them.”

“They were very messy, very noisy, and had minds of their own,” the servant said. “Nor were they good to eat. Keeping them alive and happy  was too much for us. We used our time and the resources we had for more important things. Instead, we have made mechanical pets that are much more orderly and much more useful. Would you like to see –“

“NO!”

The king roared in pain and fury. He ordered for his soldiers to take the servants to the borders of the kingdom and to never let the servants return.

The servants, with the exception of the proud and assertive one, were shocked and dismayed. They pleaded with the king to be allowed to stay. They promised to do better. They promised to fix everything.

The king said, “The castle was ours and yet you destroyed it for your own satisfaction. The art was ours, and it is no more. We treasured the beauty of the garden and the food that was harvested from it. The ravens were birds we took great pleasure in, and they will not give us company again. It is clear that your hearts have not not been shaped by what I taught you and showed you. You will never be happy with me nor will I be happy with you. What is best for you and the queen and I is for you to be gone forever.”

The assertive servant stepped forward with his head held high and did not bow. He looked his king in the eye

“My king,” he started, and it seemed to some that he put particular emphasis on the first of those two words. “You gave us your kingdom and told us we were your greatest pride and joy. You chose us and gave us power. You created. We have created. You cannot do this to us. If what we did was wrong, it was your fault.”

The king’s eyes narrowed. He stood, and the fearful power in him seemed to fill the air.

“Your words and your actions have shown who you really are,” said the king. “You knew in your heart the pleasure we took in everything in the castle. It was ours. You were our servants. Yet you diminished and destroyed it. Did you not see that we took pleasure in seeing the castle, the people, and the kingdom prosper? Did you not see how we ruled?”

“And you are the worst of all,” the king said to the assertive servant. “With intelligence enslaved by your twisted heart, you have twisted my words and my intentions. A child would know in an instant that what you have done is wrong.”

The king commanded that the assertive servant be led off in chains to the prison.

At that moment a large black bird suddenly flew toward the thrones and came to perch on the queen’s shoulder.

“Night!” the queen exclaimed in surprise and delight.

“Where did our raven come from?” demanded the king.

A guard pointed to a poor man standing on the outer circle of the assembly next to a battered cart.

“Come forward,” the king commanded.

The poor man came into the king’s presence and knelt deeply before him. He brought the large cart with him.

“Where did you get my raven?”

“Your highness, I heard what your servants were doing so I snuck into the castle to try to save your ravens. I was only able to save this one. He was nearly dead. I am sorry I could not save more. But I did save one other thing.”

He pulled away old blankets and hides that covered something large in his cart. It was their favorite piece of art. It was a painting they had made that depicted their kingdom and all of its life and its beautiful country.

The king and queen arose quickly from their thrones and went to examine the painting and talked excitedly again of the days when they had painted it together and of their favorite parts of their kingdom. They laughed and tears again ran down the queen’s cheeks.

“How were you able to save this?” asked the king.

“My friends and I snuck in again one night, and when I heard of your art being sold. I knew that this was your favorite. After that I was unable to save more. Please forgive me, my lord. Your…your castle had been so beautiful.”

It was the poor man’s turn to shed tears.

To the great surprise of the assembly, the king and queen embraced the poor man.

When the king and queen could finally speak, the queen asked, “How can we thank you? What can we give you? You have done so much for us.”

“Let me have a simple room with simple meals. Let me help rebuild your castle and the country of your kingdom. I do not know very much. I am no longer as strong as I once was. But I love your goodness and what you have done for us. Nothing would gladden my heart more than to see your castle restored.”

“That is all?” the queen asked.

The poor man hesitated and then spoke, “Your highness, if my friends could sometimes join me for good food and tasty ale, my heart might have a bit more gladness.”

The king, the queen, and the assembly laughed.

“Your wish is granted.”

The king, the queen, and the poor man spent many good years together restoring the castle and its grounds. New art was made. Young trees were planted to take the place of those that had been felled. In time, the restored garden again produced fruit, herbs, and vegetables. The poor man and his friends and family lived in one of the mansions built by the servants.

Of the king and the queen and the poor man It was hard to tell who was happier. It was hard to tell, too, what gave all of them the most pleasure – renewing the castle and the country or being together while doing so.

Five or six years ago, I planted two New Jersey Tea shrubs in two separate areas of our yard devoted to indigenous prairie, savanna, and woodland plants. By adding New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) I hoped to add even more diversity to the plantings we already had.

New Jersey Tea isn’t one of the more well recognized native plants of the Midwest today. Early settlers knew it, however, and knew that its leaves could be used for making tea. This tea was particulary popular during the Revolutionary War as an alternative to those teas being imported into the colonies.

The challenge in using this relatively low-growing shrub in the home landscape is that rabbits love to eat it. “Love” is an understatement. One of the two disappeared within a year of being planted and was never seen again, presumably lost to the horde of hares in our neighborhood.

After a year in which it had bloomed, the remaining New Jersey Tea appeared to have met the same fate as the first as I couldn’t find it the following spring. When it reappeared last year in the midst of the other native flowers and grasses, I protected it with wire mesh fencing. But when I couldn’t find it this spring in a cursory look, I came to the conclusion that, despite my efforts, it had not survived. The temptation to devise elaborate and deadly schemes for dealing once and for all with the rabbits of the area was very strong.

But lo and behold, this past weekend as I did some weeding in the area I noticed unusual flowers and decided to look closer. Sure enough – the New Jersey Tea was blooming modestly as you can see in the photo below. (Lest you think I was completely daft in not being able to see such an obvious plant before, I should mention that I took this photo very close up. The leaves and blooms are actually fairly small and unobtrusive.)

The resilient New Jersey Tea shrub in our garden just after a rain.

Have you considered replacing portions of the lawn of your yard or your church’s land with indigenous plants? There are many options in how you do so, from creating carefully designed beds to more natural sections of habitat.

It’s worth the effort. Doing so honors our Creator God. It is a life-affirming action that says something authentically and counterculturally Christian about your values and your church’s values.

Having native plants around your home and church also offer the chance to observe the varied and complex relationships between different elements of Creation. New Jersey Tea, for example, is not just a delectable source of sustenance for rabbits. It fixes life-giving nitrogen in the soil, and its small, white, fragrant flowers are of value to butterflies and a variety of other small pollinators. And where you have small creatures you tend to have the occasional larger creature that feeds on them. In this case, the “larger” creature is the hummingbird.

Yes, those tiny and graceful ornithological wonders we typically see sipping on the nectar of flowers and the sweetened water of feeders are also completely ready to scarf up protein packages in the form of tiny bees, wasps, flies, and beetles.

I’m looking forward to the day when my family and I will see a hummingbird doing just that. If only the hummingbirds could do something about the rabbits…

 

To see better photos of more mature New Jersey Tea shrubs and to learn more about this beautiful plant, especially the many pollinators that draw sustenance from it, check this useful website out.

I’m sharing below the content of an email I sent yesterday to the pastor of the church we often attend. This past Sunday he used the book of Jonah as the basis for a sermon urging us to move away from self-righteousness. It was a good sermon, but, as you’ll see below, I call attention to the fact that he omitted an important element of the story.

Looking back on what I wrote 24 hours later I recognize that I did get a bit preachy and ended up writing with more than a little ostentation. Nevertheless, I hope the pastor will look past those flaws and be open to the ideas I shared with him. I hope, too, he will reach out for further conversation.

I am also a realistic person. I realize that centuries of Christian theology and interpretation have a momentum all their own. I may have just taken the first steps towards being seen as a “special interest” Christian with his own personal agenda or even as a person who has left the tracks of orthodox Christian faith. We’ll see.

Dear Pastor M—:

Thanks for your sermon this past Sunday.

I appreciate how this series and the several before this have focused on practical topics in the Christian life. The church I was taken to as a child focused almost exclusively on abstract theological doctrines. Not surprisingly, if I’m not careful, I can easily fall back into associating church with esoteric matters and more than a little boredom. So I appreciate the fact that you and other speakers have been candidly tackling topics where the Christian faith intersects with life.

There are two other reasons I write.

The first is that I noticed in your sermon on self-righteousness that you omitted a small but significant dimension of Jonah’s interaction with God and Ninevah. Specifically, you omitted the animals of Ninevah.

When, to Jonah’s dismay, the king of Ninevah hears of Jonah’s judgment on the city and that at least some of the Ninevites were repenting, he uses his authority to make the repentance city-wide. His proclamation calls for the people and animals to neither eat nor drink. It also calls for the people and animals to be covered in sackcloth.

And in the final verses of the book, God speaks wisdom to Jonah who, as you suggested, is the iconic religious jerk. God leaves Jonah (and us) with a rhetorical question: shouldn’t God care about a city which has over 120,000 human residents and also many animals?

The fates of the people and animals of Ninevah are, in other words, intertwined, and God has compassion for them all.

Interestingly enough, in the many images you can find online of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, it is hard to find any that also pay attention to the animals of Ninevah. This image by Caspar Luiken is an exception, although you have to look a bit carefully to find the livestock. Follow Jonah’s outstretched right hand. 

I wish you would have called out the animal elements of the story even briefly.

One of the greatest examples of Christian self-righteousness is our belief that because we have been given dominion over God’s earth that the living things around us are of negligible value and are here only for our pleasure and utility. This, in turn, has led us to rule like tyrants over the earth as a whole and over the patches of Creation that we each have impact on as individuals.

This is not the kind of ruling that God models for us nor that God expects of us. Good rulers care about the health and wellbeing of those they have responsibility for. Good shepherds are examples of what good ruling is all about. And, as Jesus noted, good shepherds are even willing to lay down their lives for their sheep.

That Christians have been some of the most self-righteous in justifying humanity’s violence against God’s earth has communicated something falsely repugnant about the Christian faith. Ironically, a good number of non-Christians I know have an intuitive sense that this is an amazing world and that how a person treats the world reflects the state of that person’s heart. Perhaps they are the modern Ninevites? Perhaps we are the modern Jonahs in this regard?

And here’s the second reason I write. I’d like to encourage our church to make a concerted effort to be more mindful of God’s earth in what is preached, what is taught, and what is lived out as one element of a whole Christian life. How about starting with a sermon series on that topic?

As you can probably tell, this topic is close to my heart. If I can be of any service in that regard, I’d be eager to help.

I’d be happy to share, for example, how many of the most pioneering and influential sustainable livestock grazers in our country today are Christian. This is a story worth telling. By living out their faith in how they farm, they are making the world better and also offering powerful testimony to what being a Christian is all about.

Thanks very much for your unique gifts as a pastor and teacher and your commitment throughout your life to the Church.

Sincerely,

Nathan Aaberg

 

For a long time I’ve been struck by the parallels between a whole grain of wheat and a whole Christian faith-life. Rather than wait until I had perfectly worked out the parallels (which might not ever happen), I’ve decided to share my imperfect thinking at this point.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Harvard University

Consider these three features of a whole grain:

A whole grain of wheat is a complex, multifaceted thing with three different and indispensable elements – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

The Christian faith-life is also complex, multifaceted, and made up of different elements.

It is about a fervent trust in Jesus that opens us to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with God as we live out our lives. It is about loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind. It is about gathering together with others to be part of the Church. It is built in large part on 66 books of the Bible and the diverse wisdom and insights they contain. It is a way of thinking and perceiving the world that is somehow consistent with books as diverse as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, John, Romans, and Revelation. It is submitting ourselves to God and living lives of creative action.

It is about God, people, and the rest of Creation.

The total package of a whole grain of wheat is incredibly good for us.

There are over 100 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as fiber in a whole grain of wheat. And this total package is quite good for us. Phytonutrients, which include antioxidants, are particularly unsung heroes. They are the suite of natural chemicals that plants make as a flexible defense system to fend off germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. They help the human body as well, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, bran and germ typically represent only 15-17% of a grain’s total weight but hold 75% of all of a grain’s total phytonutrients. Bran and germ also hold 100% of a grain’s fiber, which is essential for good health.

The total package of the whole Christian faith-life is also incredibly life transforming and enriching: I hope you’ve had contact with Christians, in person or through books and movies, who were different people because of their faith that expressed itself naturally in the lives they led. William Wilberforce is a great example. As are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Brand, George Washington Carver, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.

The challenges involved in using the whole grain at a large scale and the sweetness of the endosperm have long tempted people to engineer simpler and more selective ways of using elements of the whole grain. 

The complexity of whole grain wheat make it hard to use in an automated, simplified way. As soon as the bran is broken, it releases fat which causes spoilage to happen quickly. It also takes considerable art to make a tasty bread out of whole wheat. What’s more, human cultures have tended to desire the pure whiteness of refined grains as well for aesthetic reasons.

So humanity has long tried to simplify the use of whole grains by using only one part – the endosperm. With the advent of the rolling mill, we had a way to do this more perfectly then ever before. The pinnacle of this development was white bread. It didn’t spoil and tasted light and sweet.

But the simplifcation deprived bread of the most important nutritional benefits (check out this useful graphic that shows what is lost). What’s more, foods using refined grains (with the bran and germ removed) tend to raise blood sugar levels far more quickly and at higher levels than whole grains. All kinds of health problems emerged as a result. Ironically, we now add nutrition back into bread that was lost in the milling process, but the net result is still not the same.

Too often we’ve reshaped the Christian faith into the religious equivalent of white bread.

We’ve refined out the complexity and mystery and life-changing purpose to which God calls us. The sweet kernel we’ve tended to hold onto is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which promises us access to life after death. Salvation, when simplified, becomes the stamping of our after-life passport for guaranteed entry into the good country of heaven rather than the bad country of hell.

We remove mystery. Nor do we expect to have our lives nor the lives of our fellow believers to be transformed over time in this life. We don’t dive deep into the Bible and its wisdom and its challenges. We ignore God’s earth and make the faith just about people and God.

In the end, I wonder if a white bread faith may be what we think we want. Maybe we don’t want our lives transformed by being a disciple of Jesus if that will cause us discomfort or awaken us to how broken the world really is and the mending we are called to engage in. Maybe we don’t want to question the assumptions of the culture and economy around us.

And maybe this lack of wholeness, mystery, and challenge is what makes efforts to share God with others unsuccessful.

I started out writing this blog with a focus on how Christian faith and life has largely ignored Creation in its theology, church culture, and ethics. I believe this has dishonored God and harmed our neighbors.

I now see things even more more broadly.

The lack of attention to how we treat God’s earth is not a single thing that Christians  have somehow generally forgot about over the centuries. It is a symptom of a larger tendency to artifically simplify, sweeten, and hollow out what the Christian faith is all about.

God offers us a whole grain faith-life. Will we seek it out and live it?

 

Note: This Scientific American article about the problems with food labeled as containing whole wheat is a good read that will make you think about what exactly “whole wheat” claims mean in processed foods.