Archives For May 2015

Earlier this month, I saw a performance of the one-person play Map of My Kingdom at the meeting of a farmers group in downtown Chicago.The play was commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa and written by Iowa’s Poet Laureate, Mary Swander. In the play, the words and remembrances of Angela Martin, a woman who uses her legal and mediating skills to helping farm families transition their farmland from one generation to the next, immerse the viewer in the complexity and emotional intensity of those transitions. There are many references in the play to Shakespeare’s King Lear. In that story, of course, King Lear makes cavalier and egotistical decisions about how he will divide his kingdom among his daughters so he can enjoy a care-free retirement. This goes tragically wrong. Mary Swander’s play reveals to us how human frailties and legal complexities can cause generational transitions to likewise end tragically for farmland-owning families today.


Yet, the play ends on a cautiously positive, understatedly hopeful note. Because that note comes from a story that relates to the themes of this blog so directly, I asked Mary if I could run that final story segment here. She generously agreed.  

In the segment you’ll find below, Angela tells the story of how a husband and wife (Marilyn and Gerry) were inspired to do the hard work of carefully transitioning their family’s land to the next generation because they came to realize that being committed stewards of the land was something their Christian faith called them to do. 


(ANGELA opens up the LAST BOX.)

But sometimes when it starts to fall apart, a family finds its way. Sometimes I help . . . I am learning to help more and more.

I had known Marilyn and Gerry for a long time. They had a large farm—really thriving. They survived the Farm Crisis, grew responsibly—real respected members of the community. I was surprised when they walked into my office—for a year Gerry worked closely with his lawyer, accountant, and a consultant to make a plan for his land—for after he and Marilyn stopped farming or…well if something happened. Gerry reached this place where he and Marilyn had digested everything that the consultant and lawyer and accountant suggested. Then they set up a meeting with me.

Gerry and Marilyn had everything in order—the books, the abstracts—they had asked tough questions and were working those out together. They worked on a mission statement, a plan for the farm and got their kids and family on board. It had seemed easy.

I didn’t know how hard it had been for them, how hard they had worked to make it seem easy, until Marilyn came into my office a few weeks after Gerry’s passing to put that plan we had made together into motion.

She sat down, exhausted from the funeral and those lonely, weeks after—all that work tying up loose ends, all that work that nobody ever sees, all that work that leaves little time for doing, let alone feeling anything else.

Marilyn came in. I put on the coffee and we just sat. And then she told me a story.

(ANGELA takes on MARILYN, grabbing mug from the box, and sits. She takes a big breath, and exhales quietly. A beat.)

I went to see the pope once.

(A beat.)

Never thought that would be something I’d want to do. Not Catholic, you know. But the Pope was traveling across the states, visiting churches, you know…blessing people…and I got the idea that I was going. This is what I was going to do—see the pope.

Gerry…he was busy, not interested, but said “go on”…you know, knock myself out. With the pope.

That’s funny.

(A beat.)

So I drove into the city—people everywhere—he drove up in that…that Pope-mobile…and you just start waving, you know—can’t help it. He’s there in his little . . .aquarium. . .and you raise your arm up in the air and he’s waving and I felt he was saying “Hi” right to me and I just start hollering, waving, whistling. I mean, I never got to see the Beatles or Elvis, so I guess I got it all out of my system with that pope.

And we settle in to listen to him—sitting on these hard bleachers to…you know…hear the pope.

And Gerry was at home on the farm choring, doing the milking in the barn. I guess he turned on the radio and they were broadcasting the pope…so I was sitting in the bleachers and Gerry was milking, but we are both listening to what this guy had to say. And what is some guy from Rome, you know, with the fancy robe gonna have for us—me on the bleachers, Gerry on the farm? I mean, really?

And the pope started to talk and I was looking around at all these people and Gerry must have been milking, not really listening much and then suddenly we heard the pope talking about the need to be stewards of the land and how we are called to leave the Earth, the soil in better condition than we found it. . . “The land is yours to preserve from generation to generation.”

That hit me. And it hit Gerry.

I started to cry. Right there, the pope talking and tears running down my face.

I got home that night and Gerry was sitting at the table. No, “How was it?” or anything just sitting there—hands folded, thinking.

“Gerry?” I said and he reached over and took my hands…

(MARILYN reaches out, thinking about the moment. A beat.)

Gerry told me he had listened on the radio and almost fell on the barn floor when the pope talked about the land. Gerry started to think about our kids and what we were leaving them. And how we were leaving the farm to them.

And I said, “Me, too.” The pope’s speech did the same thing to me. And we sat there a bit . . .thinking . . .and then we got up, cooked dinner and.. . Well, that was it . . . So we just decided we wanted to figure out what we would do next.

(ANGELA takes off MARILYN, puts mug away, stands.)

And they did.

They found a way to communicate to their kids what they valued and hoped for the land going forward. Everybody signed off on the plan—no surprises. One son was going to stay on, farm the land while renting from his siblings. Gerry had him build another house down the road, far enough away so that he couldn’t see Gerry and Marilyn’s farmstead. Gerry figured that would keep him from trying to meddle in how his son was starting to farm and keep his son from trying to fix what he thought Gerry was doing wrong.

And that wasn’t really the fix you know—it just got the issue out in the open, got them talking about it, Gerry and his son, and they figured it out as they went right up until Gerry passed. It wasn’t easy, but I learned that day how hard they had worked, how much honesty or courage it took to make it look like it was.


mary-swander photo

I again offer my thanks to Mary Swander (in the photograph above) for allowing the excerpt to be  reprinted here. If you know of a group who might find this one-act, one-person play meaningful, please contact her to discuss arrangements. It’s a play worth sharing, especially in rural areas.

Watching the play also reminded me of the power of story and art. It also reminded me that how we treat the land reflects, as do our choices in many other realms of our lives, the real values we live by. 

My wife and I recently attended an eye-opening, two-day workshop for parents of adopted and foster children.

Many of the parents who attended the workshop are struggling as they try to deal with challenging, difficult behaviors from their children whose brains have been wired differently becuase of the trauma they experienced in utero and in the first years of thier lives. Many of the parents have been wounded emotionally. Some have even been physically harmed by their children. At the very same time, they face criticism of their parenting from their own families and from the community around them who simply don’t understand.

With therapeutic parenting, some of these children’s brains can be rewired so they have a chance for a more normal life. Not every child, however, can be healed completely from their trauma no matter what the parents do.  Some will always be off kilter in their emotional and cognitive development. The trauma of the broken world persists. And that, in turn, can bring its own trauma to the families who, out of compassion and love, take those children in.

At a breakfast we had with two other couples at the workshop, I asked a question about church, God, and their adoption experiences. The floodgates opened. The other couples poured out their struggles with their faith and with their churches since they had adopted. Neither couple now attends a church. Yet they miss it dearly.

While each couple had particular reasons why they had retreated from their church community, there was one common factor – their adoption journey had led them to have doubts about God.

One of the parents said something to the effect of, “Adoption has dropped me into the sewer of the world. I can’t believe a god in control of the world would allow things to happen that happened to my children.”

By “sewer of the world”, I believe that the parent meant the broken places of the world where there is violence, in utero exposure to drugs and alcohol, sexual abuse, profound neglect, and soul-crushing poverty in one big sordid stew.

Many of us want to avoid even catching a whiff of that stew. Many Christians have an instinctive urge to jump in and rescue God from the somber, raw direction of this conversation.

It’s the same instinct that leads us to say to a friend who is mourning the loss of a loved one, “God took him/her to a better place.” That tone-deaf assertion that God is in control of everything and that all can be seen with rose-colored glasses represents an unwillingness to be vulnerably open to the grief and despair of this world.

If I could have that breakfast conversation over again, I would encourage them to read the whole Bible carefully. In the Bible, you see a more nuanced pattern of God’s sovereignty over the world than is typically assumed. People in the Bible regularly make awful choices. There is no sense that God caused them to do so, and in the Bible we see God angered and frustrated by what they do. In Jesus, we see God profoundly sympathetic to the poor and suffering and sick. There is never any suggestion that God had anything to do with their original condition or willed it to be so.

Nor is there any sustained assertion in the Bible that all suffering leads to good in this world. Sometimes it is just suffering.

In Jesus, we also see God experiencing the sewer of the world. Jesus suffers in almost every conceivable way as he fulfills his mission. If Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus, then part of that discipleship clearly is to work to bring light to where it is most dark. That was the mission of Jesus. And Jesus was no Pollyana. He called things the way they were. There was an edge about him. He frequently expressed anger and sorrow. Jesus wept.

In short, a profound awareness of the brokenness of humanity and the world is completely in tune with the Bible and is as essential a component of a whole faith as is the conviction that God will eventually make all things right.

A recent blog post by Peter Harris, author of Under the Bright Wings and co-founder of the international Christian organization A Rocha, reminds us that the sewer of the world is not limited to human suffering.

In his post, he shares an experience of visiting the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. He is delighted to see his new grandson there, but he is also painfully aware of the wounded nature of the landscape he sees because he is aware of what the island used to hold.

… St Helena is a sobering place to ecological eyes, because it serves as a metaphor for much that is now happening so fast to habitats and species around the world. In the early 17th century the Portuguese landed goats and in just a hundred years they had reduced huge areas of its lush landscape to bare rock. For millennia St Helena had been home to hundreds of unique species, but most are now gone.

There are a million St. Helenas around the world. They are tangible evidence of what has been lost, of the profound misuse of the gift of freedom given to humanity.

People who care about God’s earth, whether they be believers or not, lament what has been lost and work to defend what is left. But our culture has often recoiled from them. This is in part because we are too often unwilling to be present and open to the impact of our brokenness. It’s too painful.

Aldo Leopold captured this when he wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”

I believe a whole Christian faith must include sensitivity to all the forms of brokenness in the world.

That sensitivity to brokenness needs to be part of our consciousness, part of how we communicate the faith, part of where we are willing to go emotionally even as we have hope for what will come. This is because we know how much goodness was put into the world, how good things could and should be.

That sensitivity is not about being passively morose.

Instead, that vulnerability should arouse in us an implacable will to heal hurts, restore what can be restored of the abundant good God originally endowed people and creation with, and do all we can to prevent further pain and suffering.

That’s why quickly passing over the sewer of the world on the bridge of assertions that God is in control is such a problem. That simplistic, one-note approach to the Christian faith allows us to rationalize our retreat back to the comfortable Shire of our lives.

Our faith in life beyond death and our hope that all things work together for good for those who love God is actually, I believe, the rope we are equipped with to descend into the sewer with light. No one should be alone in a world of wounds. Christians should be there with them.

Above all, I believe that God ultimately desires us not to wait for all things to be put right but to be God’s hands and feet in doing our best to put them right now. No matter what the odds.

The two couples we spoke with are doing exactly that. They are doing their very best to restore a broken world in a way that will always test them and that will likely always mean a less than ideal world for them. It is profoundly sad that they feel abandoned by their faith communities and unsure of what to make of God even as they act the way Christians should.

And we could all learn something from them about what can happen when we do what we can to heal the wounds of the world.

Later in the workshop one of the fathers from that breakfast said something surprising and profound about his family’s adoption experience. He said, and I paraphrase, “Looking back, I wouldn’t do anything different even if I had the chance. I see the world differently. My wife and I have been changed in ways that couldn’t have happened any other way.”