Just Another Old Curmudgeon’s Rant

BooksBefore me is a shelf overflowing with books about sustainable, organic, contrary, back-to-the-earth, independent, hobby, traditional, and subsistence farming. Intermingled are also some more theoretical, philosophical, theological, and idealogical books about simplicity, detachment, technology, economics, and other facets of agrarian life. Having come to the brainchild of farming later in life, months after we had already left the city and moved onto a portion of my wife’s family century farm—with no active farmers within shouting distance—I had no option but to turn to books (this was years before the flood of on-line sustainable farming “experts”.)

Over these past twenty-five years of unsuccessfully studying to enter one of God’s most precious professions, or as the Angelic Doctor called it, the husbandman, I’ve come to consolidate these agrarian / farm / back-to-the-earth writers into five general categories:

  1. Purely theoretical or idealogical;
  2. Efforts to influence the entire US government and/or economic system;
  3. Efforts to establish rural agrarian communities;
  4. Advice on how to make enough profit from small farming to live like everyone else;
  5. Efforts to help homesteaders become self-sustainable—sometimes, with an emphasis on becoming profitable, but more often with only a practical emphasis on “living off the fat of the land,” as said by one of my favorite balladeers, David Mallett.

We moved to our rural acreage in the mid-1990s primarily to escape the growing craziness of the city with no thoughts about farming—heck, in my entire life up to that point, I’d never even owned a pair of bib-overalls! From childhood I had barely experienced a day without television, and never imagined getting my food from anywhere except from a grocery store or restaurant. From age 13, if I wasn’t going to some kind of school, I was leaving home to go to some kind of office. When I stayed home to work on the yard, it either had to clearly be my day off, or I felt I was playing hooky.

But then, at age 46, sitting on the porch of our newly constructed cottage-in-the-woods, looking across the valley to the barn that my wife’s grandfather and great-grandfather had constructed one hundred years before, from timber harvested from this land, the question arose as to what that barn was originally for? And why was this land once cleared by hand from wilderness nearly one hundred and sixty years ago?

It was then that I first began reading books of the first category: Why Farm? Why simplicity and detachment? Why back-to-the-land or “escape to the woods”? Why question our culture’s complete surrender to technology? Why consider becoming self-sustainable, even living off the grid? Why desire a return to a focus on God’s creation? I was permanently moved by the more theoretical books by Gene Logsdon (The Contrary Farmer and Living at Nature’s Pace), David Kline (Great Possessions), E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), St. Bonaventure (Journey of the Mind to God), Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), Neal Postman (Technopoly), the Twelve Southerners (I’ll Take My Stand), R.F. Nash (Wilderness and the American Mind), Chesterton and Belloc, and many others. I was greatly moved, but far from ready to farm.

I also read a few books from the second category aimed at changing our entire government and economic system, such as Who own’s America?, but I was never tempted to dip my toe into the murky, green slime of politics—frankly, I didn’t see that either party were united enough to make any satisfactory changes. They were both bastions of bellowing blowhards promising everyone a piece of the American Dream, as they understood it, which was always and only about materialistic prosperity.

I then read some books from the third category about the need for forming cooperative, unitive rural agrarian communities. This sounded appealing. One of my favorites, which actually spanned all five of my categories, was a classic from 1940, by two Catholic priests, Ligutti and Rawe, entitled Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom. My knowledge of history, however, reminded me that, though this utopian ideal had been tried a bazillion times, it has rarely if ever worked, except in Catholic religious communities where everyone is under a strict mutually accepted hierarchical, authoritative structure. A “Benedictine community” with only the rules, without its underlying Catholic foundation and ecclesial, monastic, authoritative structure, is just another Christian sect that, as always happens, will eventually split into eternally splitting peas. (If you don’t believe me, just wait.) And besides, my family and I had sunk our toenails into this property, with no intention of moving away, and with no likeminded cottage farmers within screaming distance (except for Marilyn’s younger sister, Holly, who was running the family apple orchard), so the idea of forming a community was not a reachable goal. Heck, just getting one family to work together, let alone two or more, is close to a miracle.

Then came books from category four which were all about leaving the hell-hole rat-race of the cities, and embracing the rural life, with the promise that, if one does it correctly and diligently, step-by-step as they suggest, one can make just as much money on a small farm as one can from any boring city job! But, frankly, I’ve never been the least bit motivated by the profit margin, especially after my adult Christian conversion. Ever since, for forty-five plus years, after leaving engineering, I’ve been in leadership of some kind of non-profit Christian ministry, and I’ve never thought about doing anything specifically just to make money. So I found trying to view this land as primarily a scheme for making money unmotivating. I certainly don’t consider this wrong in itself. When we first moved out here to the woods, I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to continue supporting my family with the fledgling non-profit Coming home Network, so I explored whether I could develop this property into a working farm, collecting most of the necessary equipment, erecting all new perimeter fences, following Noah’s lead by introducing two of every species of farm animal, raising a few crops, but in the end I never saw a hint that I could ever bring in enough profit to support my family. But really, from the beginning, I always became quickly bored with these profit-focused farm “infomercials”.

But the books that most inspired me, that instilled a true conversion of heart, were the many books, old and new, in category five about sustainable cottage farming. These authors attempted to translate agrarian theology, philosophy, and ideology into active, practical, and doable strategies. I could mention many, but maybe my favorite was John Seymour’s classic The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it. I might also mention a family favorite, Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. (Another great book I’ve got to mention is The Independent Farmstead by our good friends, Shawn and Beth Dougherty. This very practical book spans categories one and five, and the only negative thing about the book is that it hadn’t been published yet when we first began thinking about farming!)

me milkingSo, we caught the bug to at least try small scale farming, and my family jumped into it with all ten feet! Within in a year we were herding ten Suffolk ewes and their lambs; milking a Jersey cow named Kristina, with her calf, Ribeye; turning raw milk into butter and cheese; stealing eggs from our Rhode Island Red chickens; fattening a pig with leftover milk; precariously harvesting honey from a bee hive (I made my boys do this); and tending an 80×20 foot garden. Our largest crop, however, was always quarts upon quarts of wild black raspberries and blackberries.

That was twenty-five years ago. In the interim, Marilyn, our three sons, and I have experimented and dirtied our hands with nearly every aspect of cottage farming, all while I was trying to run a full-time apostolate, traveling every week to EWTN in Alabama, and often speaking somewhere on weekends. Now, however, our boys have followed God’s lead in their lives and moved on, and Marilyn and I, now empty nesters, are both eternally proud of all three.

But now I’ve been asked to look back and pass along some thoughts. Unfortunately, these may come across more as the rants of an old curmudgeon than as a cheerleader for cottage farming. There was a time when I was an outspoken cheerleader, parroting those who believed the only way to save America was to restore the network of small farms that once graced our land from sea to shining sea! But not so much now, and maybe that’s what I need to talk about.

As I reflect back, I need to admit that, of all the things I’ve learned in my nearly twenty-five years out here on this rural land, the most disturbing revelation is how blind I was to how lazy, complacent, and flaccid our technological world has made me—and dare I extrapolate this to “made us.” All the writers I’ve read warned of this—an ancient Greek philosopher even warned that the more we grow dependent upon the written word, the less we’ll be able to remember things. (I can’t seem to recall his name…)

It makes me tremble a bit just to think back upon all that we once did on this cottage farm: to raise and milk dairy cows, and then process the milk into cream, butter, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, farm cheese, etc.; to raise sheep, pigs, bees, beef cattle, goats, chickens, etc., and even a sway-backed old 4H horse named Skippy. When I was younger, I had three boys to order around, in other words, “Hey, boys, we’ve bought into this, we have the livestock, it’s good for us, so let’s do it”—but all along there was still that lamenting, taunting inner voice, “Think about how much easier it has been all your life, from the time you were born, to just jump in a car and go down to the market and buy fresh milk, butter, cheese, cottage cheese, honey, lamb, pork, beef, chicken, and eggs?” It’s not the argument, “think of what else you could be doing?”, because if I hadn’t been out doing farm chores, I’d likely not have been golfing or exercising or reading or doing woodwork or the myriad of other things I thought I’d rather be doing, when I was sweaty to the skin and slogging through knee-high mud. I’d most likely be sleeping in later, or spending more time at the office, even if I had nothing specific to do, or watching old episodes of Andy Griffith—all the things I’ve just naturally grown to do over my past seventy technologically lazy years. These are the things my mental muscles have grown accustomed to doing; these are the grooves that my self has grown accustomed to wallowing in. And now that I’ve got no one to order around, no one to do it for me, and because of my “rheumatism”, it’s just easier to drift back into the life-long normal wallowing mode.

I still believe the ideals — I still agree, not only with everything I read in those books, but with everything I had the audacity to write in a book of my own! But now the problem is getting off my hind-end and just doing anything.

In chapter nine of my book, entitled, tongue-in-cheek, Our Economic Future (and Limits Theory), I give seven alternate steps to escaping the chaos of our “modern, industrial, progressivist, politically unstable world”:

  1. Focus on the stable and established;
  2. Reduce the incessant voices;
  3. Reduce financial entanglements;
  4. Practice personal subsidiarity;
  5. Live more simply;
  6. Consider a more self-sufficient life on the land;
  7. Make more time for God.

tv 1958I still believe in every one of these steps, but I’ve basically failed at all of them. Why? At least partially because of my addiction to technology. All my life, from the time my parents bought our first tv, from the time I switched on my first switch, my entire life has been a surrendering to the influence, convenience, simplicity, and speed of technology. And like any other addiction, it’s hard to break free, not just because we’ve become accustomed and dependent, but because in the process we’ve lost the ability to live without them, and our physical and mental muscles have atrophied. And to make matters worse, the communities we live in have become designed around and dependent upon all these technologies. We might try to break free for a time, we might even be successful for a while, but when things get rough, I gravitate back to what I’ve always found easier, quicker, and cheaper—and this is exactly what the oligarchs of digital technology are counting on.

The problem with trying to live a simpler, detached, and sustainable rural life based on technology, however, is that it ultimately is not sustainable at all, because we tie our horse to a wagon up front that we just can’t keep up with. To the extent—to the frightening extent—that we become dependent upon technology, we become enslaved to those who provide the power for this technology, and in this digital age, this enslavement also includes those who provide the platforms for us to continue using that digital technology. And right now we see this clearly as gas prices rise, equipment and supplies become scarce, product quality falls, and the internet has destroyed any possibility of the decentralization its cheerleaders once promised.

Ten years ago I spent thousands of dollars erecting several miles of new high tensile perimeter fence. But this fence requires electric, so for it to work, I’m at the mercy of the local power company. But I not only have to keep paying my electric bill, I have to constantly fight the growth of plants along the fence line. On top of that, I recently found nearly a dozen fence posts that had sheared off at the ground level. The manufacturer used inferior wood to produce these treated posts, which we bought from our local chain farm store—Who really knows where these posts were made and how, from a manufacturer whose primary goal was to make them cheaper with inferior materials, but yet sell them at near-regular prices just to make more profit? And now I have to figure out how to replace the dozen posts if I want to continue raising cattle. And since I have no one to help, I’ll have to either do it myself, at age 70 with two bad rotator cuffs, or pay someone to do it—but I’m not making any profit from my farm to cover or justify this. So I must have a continuous outside income, or continuously dip into savings, just to finance my technologically dependent cottage farm hobby. Or, I can just stay inside and catch up on old episodes of Maine Cabin Masters.

Even as I write this, I almost killed myself trying to swat a lousy fly high up on a wall with a magazine. Ouch! If it’s hard for me to swat a fly, how can I feel confident enough to commit myself any more to caring for livestock? It’s easier to get motivated if you have sons to tell “do it!”, or partners to assist you, or if the cultural situation becomes so bad that we feel compelled to do these things just to survive! But short of this, that old whisper just keeps on a’comin—“Why, when you can buy?”

I hate to admit this, but as long as there’s a tv in my home, hooked up and ready to watch with the push of a remote, I’ll eventually just gravitate to it, like a pig to a trough.

barn and snowSo, as I temporarily switch off the television, to look back over these past twenty-five years on this cottage farm, at all that we’ve tried and accomplished and experienced, and given all that I’ve read and discussed with other homesteaders, here’s a few things I now consider essential when considering shifting one’s life out of the city in an attempt to living more simply on a rural cottage sustainable farm:

1: First, maybe as a preliminary, I need to state clearly that, as negative as I may sound, I have no regrets from these past twenty-five years on this beautiful cottage farm, and look forward to as many more as the good Lord in His mercy might give my wife and me.

2: We must begin with a complete surrender to Jesus Christ. Certainly there are many successful cottage farmers who don’t start here, and may never get here, but whenever I read their accounts, or watch their YouTube instruction videos, I can’t help but sense that something is missing. I’ll not argue this here, but only say it has something to do with grace and humility.

3: We must accept as an underlying assumption that this world and everything in it was created by God. We owe everything to Him, and everything that He created is good. Without this underlying assumption, our well-meaning attempts to do something meaningful with this world can easily become sidetracked by sincere but false gospels.

4: We need to remember that God created Mankind as the pinnacle of Creation, in His image, which means we were created to imitate Him and to care for this world as He does—as He so loved! We have been given responsibility to care for this way-station between this life and our true citizenship in His Kingdom. This means that this Earth and all of its other inhabitants are not more important than or even equal to Mankind, but that we as God’s Stewards have been given responsibility to care for this earth and its creatures—to give it back to Him better than we found it.

5: We must remember that the Catechisms of the Church have always taught that we were created “to know, love, and serve God and to enjoy Him in this world and the next.” This was why He gave us this world and all the technologies that shape our lives—not for us to accumulate power, prestige, position, or possessions, but to help us grow in holiness and to live in love, if we use them responsibly and wisely. (Question: Has the increase and pervasive use of technology in our country, culture, and world over the past two hundred plus years made humanity more holy? More loving? More humble?)

6: We must begin by accepting that we are living now, at this time, in this world, in this culture, and in this particular place because this was God’s will for us—not 100 or 200 years ago, or 50 years in the future—but right now in 2022. We need to accept that this soup is the soup in which God has called us to swim. And regardless what our government or culture believes or mandates, this is the world in which we are to live out our faith. We must remember those first century Christians living out their faith in faithless Rome. Their primary goal was not to change Rome, but to not let Rome change them. This doesn’t mean we must surrender to unjust laws or not work to change them, but until then, we must live out our faith as if tonight we just might have to stand before Him and explain ourselves. We also need to be careful of being guilted into abandoning all technologies in order to return to a supposedly more pristine, simpler time! I can tell you, my boys and I tried cutting down a large walnut tree with a traditional two-man saw! It was fun and exhilarating, at first, but in the end, we were glad we could finish the cut with a chainsaw—and I’m guessing my wife’s great-grandfather and grandfather would have given anything to get their hands on a chainsaw when they cut down all the trees to build our old barn!

7: But given all that I have just said, we still need to listen to what our Lord taught in the Beatitudes as a Staircase of Conversion: about our need to detach ourselves from the things of this world, from sin, and from ourselves; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be as merciful to everyone in our lives as God has been to each of us; to seek purity of heart in everything we do; to be a peacemaker, and to accept whatever suffering might come whenever we try.

8: But everything I’ve said so far must be done with an attitude of gratitude. We must begin by being thankful for the blessings of this world in which God has called us to live.

9: We must be cautious of the whispers that try to encumber and motivate us through false guilt and fear. All of my life, from the crazy days of the Cold War through the end of the last Millennium, and now in the present crisis of this 21st century, I’ve lived under the constant bombardment of voices claiming we’re living “on the eve of destruction.” Many of these voices are what drive people to escape the city, to become “preppers”, living off the grid, and to become self-sustainable farmers, even though this may not be God’s plan for them at all. I have friends, for example, who once left their city jobs and sold everything to escape from the city, but after five years of failing at farming and losing everything, they ended up writing a book to add to my large collection, but this time about mishearing God through the din of false voices. We need to be cautious of the constant drone of apocalyptic voices on the internet. No matter how bad things might get, not everyone is called to farm!

10: We need to recognize that God did not leave us alone in this world to figure everything out on our lonesome, nor did he just leave us a Bible as some kind of self-guided handbook, or a myriad of self-help books or websites to chose from. Rather, He gave us a Church, with Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and, yes, with rules and regulations (fence lines), all gifts to us from God, not just because He loves us, but because of our sinfulness—especially to help us combat the slowly escalating addictive influence of technology.

11: But it’s also important to recognize that unfortunately over the centuries, many in the Church have unhesitatingly bought into and surrendered to the addiction to technology. Over the centuries, God has used reformer saints, and religious groups, and even non-Catholic Christian communities, like the Amish, to remind us of how radical the Gospel truly is. Jesus said, “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). What does this mean?! What kind of sacrifice does this require of us? On our own, or under the pressure of our surrounding community, we can interpret this in many ways, or even convince ourselves to ignore this as something intended only for a few. This is why we are called, not to imitate someone just because he might be an ordained religious leader, but to imitate him to extent that he is obedient to the Church and in imitation of Christ. This is precisely what St. Paul said: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

M & M & pitchfork12: Finally, if you can, do it. Jump into cottage farming with all ten feet, but not because you have to or because you ought to, but because you’ve been given by God this great privilege—this great gift—to do and experience something which millions of others wish they could. Whenever you walk out onto your land, follow St. Bonaventure’s advice and look for the vestiges of God in everything you see, with an underlying attitude of gratitude, always expressing a prayer of thanksgiving, and with your eyes and hands and heart, offering up a sacrifice of praise.

The Beatitudes: A Staircase of Conversion

Dear friends, thought I’d let you know what I had the privilege of doing this past weekend: my son, Fr. Peter, had invited me to give a talk for their Lenten Mission at St. Michael Parish in Findlay, Ohio, where he serves as Parochial Vicar. Here’s a link to the talk. The speaker was a bit long winded, but hope you enjoy.

Salvation Is Nearer Than You Think

Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11)

road and barnSeveral years ago, I was on a long drive across Ohio in my pickup truck, listening to one of my favorite old radio programs on satellite radio, Lights Out. As usual, the program began with the announcer saying, very slowly, in a droll monotone, “It … is … later … than … you … think.” [1]This is an edited version of chapter fifteen from my book, Life From Our Land. It seemed like such an obvious example of Red Zone Thinking, I felt it was worth sharing again.

This vaguely reminded me of a Scripture text. At a stop sign, with no traffic in any direction as far as the eye could see, I reached over to my Bible and, using the concordance, found the text in Romans:

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (13:11).

Translated into the slogan of that old radio show, this becomes:

Salvation … is … nearer … than … you … think!

If for each one of us salvation is nearer than we think — if, say, we were told we only had five years to live, or maybe only a year, or a month, a week, or what if “the Master came home tonight,” and we found ourselves standing before God — then what is it, when all of our lives are laid before us and before Him, that is most important? What is it that will make any eternal difference from this life into the next?

As I kept driving across Ohio in that pick-up truck, enjoying the beauty of the endless rolling farmland on both sides of the road, corn easily up to my truck’s roof, all expressions of the endless efforts of farmers, farmhands, and their families, I reflected on that verse from Romans, and an analogy came to mind, one I call the “Parable of the Game.”

Parable of the Game
BoardgameImagine that a highly respected, wealthy neighbor invited you to spend an evening at his mansion playing a board game, and you accepted. All evening, the game proceeds as usually played, and you and your opponents experience the usual wax and wane of material success. Drinks and snacks are passed and shared. At times, the game becomes quite heated as players bicker and barter for progress, position, and power. In the end, you are quite successful, but when your host declares the evening over, all the board money and game pieces are put away in the box, and you and the other players leave and return to your separate lives.

To what extent do the successes and failures that you attained in playing the game affect the rest of your life?

If we made millions of board game money and acquired acres of board game property, thereby gaining great board game influence, power, and prestige, or, on the other hand, if we lost everything and spent most of the game in Jail, what difference does any of this make to the real lives we lead once we’ve put all the game pieces back in the box, closed it up, and placed it back up on the shelf?

At first thought, “nothing.” Nothing we accomplish or accumulate in the playing of a board game — successes or failures, gains or losses —  carries over into real life outside the box.

Yet, this is not exactly true. It seems to me that there are at least seven things that do carry over to real life:

1. How we treated those we played with. If we acted like jerks, cheated, lied, and generally, in our self-centeredness, stepped on everyone else in the game, we may find that none of them will want to speak to us again. They may never see us the same way, and the host will certainly not invite us back.

2. How our actions indirectly affected those we played with. There is something in gaming called a “zero sum gain”: if we are winning, someone else has to be losing; if we are gaining stuff, someone else is losing stuff. If in the playing, we were driven by the goal of accumulation and power, with no concern for how our actions were affecting the others around us, again, we may find that we have lost friends, gained a less-than-shining reputation, and nixed any future invitations to the Mansion.

3. How we ourselves changed from what we learned about ourselves in the playing. In the process, did we discover any flaws in our character, and then did we try to change? Were we any different when the game was over, or just the same?

4. How we treated the game area. Was there a ring of trash around our playing area? Potato chip crumbs, popcorn kernels, spilled beer, crumpled and torn board game money, chocolate on the tablecloth, mud on the carpet? If so, none of those friends, let alone the host, may ever invite us to their homes.

5. How we enjoyed the playing of the game. Were we always angry, complaining, bitter, discontent, depressed, or did we seek the joy in the very experience of having been invited and having the opportunity to enjoy the time with friends, even if we spent the entire game in Jail?

6. How others remember how we played the game. This is the issue of legacy. When the group gathers in the future, how do they remember how we played? Did we leave an example to follow, maybe a better way than has ever been played, or did we leave an example that everyone swore to avoid?

7. How grateful we were to the host. Did we storm out without a word to the host, or were we thankful for the privilege of the invitation?

A Parable of Life
M & grandkidsThis “Parable of the Game” is a parable of life. In the Parable, “playing the game” represents life in this world, and the “real life outside the game” represents our eventual life in the kingdom of God.

Once the game of this life is put away in the box, what remains and affects our life in the kingdom?

Our Lord proclaimed to His Apostles that, if we are in Him, we are no longer “of the world, even as [He was] not of the world” (Jn 17:14). Anyone in Christ has become a citizen of the kingdom, “with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19), and is called by Christ to become detached from the things of this world. Thomas à Kempis wrote:

Here you have no abiding city, and wherever you may be, you are a stranger and pilgrim; you will never enjoy peace until you become inwardly united to Christ. What do you seek here, since this world is not your resting place? Your true home is in Heaven; therefore remember that all the things of this world are transitory. All things are passing, and yourself with them. See that you do not cling to them, lest you become entangled and perish with them.[2]Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 68.

This was built upon the words of our Lord: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25); “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). These seem like harsh words, but they warn us not to become inordinately attached to this world.

If this is the danger, then it might seem to have been better if Jesus had immediately taken His followers home with Him. But that was not God’s plan. These new citizens of the kingdom had an important job to do: to be messengers in this world (Jn 17:11–18), or as St. Paul described, “ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:17–21), to help others, those lost in this world and attached to it, to discover their need to become citizens of the kingdom, through faith in Jesus Christ and Baptism into membership in His Mystical Body, the Church.

What does it mean practically, though, that we are children of God, citizens of the kingdom, and not citizens of this world, of this “box,” this “game”? Did Jesus leave us in this world to become successful and powerful? To accumulate riches and property, so that we can spend what time we’ve been given here in comfort, luxury, and easy living? To eat, drink, and be merry, because when life is done, we leave it all behind us anyway?

No, for as Our Lord said in His Sermon on the Mount:

For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:30–34)

When our time in this world is over, when all we have accomplished and accumulated in this life is put away in “the box,” then what? St. Paul warned that, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10). The same warning was given in the Apocalypse:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. . . . And if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12, 15 [emphasis added])

Our Lord explained this even more clearly in a parable:

“Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:15–21)

Parable of the Game Revisited
sun riseWhen all is done, and we stand before God, when the Book of Life is opened, when the fruit of our lives is examined, what will be important? I believe, given that “salvation … is … nearer … than … you … think,” that it is crucial that we consider the importance of those same seven things, but in a slightly different order:

1. How we loved God. This is summarized in what is called the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). How grateful are we to the Host, to the Father through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, for all that He has given us, which means everything, every opportunity to know, love, and serve Him?

As an Evangelical minister, I would have expressed it this way: “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” Maybe surprisingly, this is precisely how Pope Emeritus Benedict put it: “And this, dear brothers and sisters, is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus; it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship, his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love and follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!”[3]Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Oct. 21, 2009; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20091021_en.html.

As Pope Francis also said, “True wealth is love of God, shared with others … Who experiences this does not fear death, and receives peace of heart.”[4]Pope Francis, Angelus message, Aug. 4, 2013; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Pope-calls-on-young-people-to-counter-daily-vanity-of-consumer-society-28655.html.

This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. For example, after St. James reminds us that as “the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes … [s]o will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits,” he then affirms: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:11–12).

A chapter later, St. James makes it even more clear, saying all of this in but one simple sentence: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas 2:5).

kids ans pond2. How we loved. This is what is called the second Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and our Lord added, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:31). When all the great industrialists, bankers, inventors, and investors die, what will ultimately matter will not be all the great things they made, accumulated, and accomplished, for all that will stay in the box. Rather, what will matter is how they loved their wives, children, families, friends, and neighbors, as well as the people they worked with. As a Kempis wrote: “Without love, the outward work is of no value; but whatever is done out of love, be it never so little, is wholly fruitful. For God regards the greatness of the love that prompts a man, rather than the greatness of his achievement.”[5]Kempis, Imitation of Christ, p. 43.

This, too, will be the measure of our lives. As St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Men lose all the material things they leave behind them in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve.”[6]St. Francis, from a letter written to all the faithful, in Opuscula, edit. (Quaracchi, 1949), pp. 87–94, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, Office of Readings for Oct. 4, Feast of St. … Continue reading

3. How we indirectly loved. How does the way we spend our money, invest our time, and apply our talents affect other people in this world, people we don’t even know? If our ambition for power, position, prosperity, and wealth caused us to step on even one person, I believe that when the books are opened in the end, and everything we have done in this life is examined, that person will be there in the judgment, pointing, as Nathan did to David, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7).

How many people around the world, whom we will never know personally, have been affected by how we have spent our money, by what we have said, or by what we have done in this life? Or maybe what we haven’t done?

4. How we grew in grace. What have we learned about ourselves, if we were listening, and how have we responded? Changed? Or has our life been one continual disclaimer that we are without faults (cf. 1 Jn 1:8) or that it was “always someone else’s fault”? As St. Paul warned, “Put to death what is earthly in you …” (Col 3:5f.).

panarama5. How we cared for what we were given. When St. James warned that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Jas 4:4), he did not mean a Gnostic rejection of this world, but a rejection of sinful attachments. This world was created good, and our temporary life in this world is a good that we have received as a gift from above (Jas 1:17). Everything we have been given is good, including technology. Mankind has created nothing; we have only discovered how to use the gifts, treasures, knowledge, techniques, and abilities placed in creation for our use. The question will be, how did we use, take care of, share, invest, and improve what we were given? When we take care of creation, we live out the divine life we have been given, and share with God in His creative activity in this world.

Pope Francis said in one of his general audiences, “Cultivating and caring for creation is an instruction of God which he gave not only at the beginning of history, but has also given to each one of us; it is part of his plan; it means making the world increase with responsibility, transforming it so that it may be a garden, an inhabitable place for us all.”[7]Pope Francis, General Audience, June 5, 2013; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/audiences/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130605_udienza-generale_en.html.

In the parable of the talents, the departing King gave his servants “talents” (or maybe more accurately “resources”) according to their abilities. At the end of the parable is a strange statement: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt 25:29). Does this seem fair? To the wealthy and gifted more is given, but to the poor and less gifted even what they have is taken away?

There are various explanations, but I prefer this: God has given to us everything we have, but everything also brings with it more responsibilities, often far more than we ever expect! If we want a lot of stuff, then we are free to go for it, but are we able and ready to accept and manage all the responsibilities that come with ownership? Buy a house, buy a hobby! Buy a farm, and you’ll never have a moment when your work is done!! Want to be the President of the United States, or the richest man in world—go for it! With either of these, we can accomplish much good, but can we handle it? Can we handle the temptations, the attachments, the responsibilities, the pressures? St Francis, once a rich young man, recognized that he could not handle the responsibilities of anything, so he gave it all away! The truth is that even the little we have, in the end, will be taken away and left in the box.

6. How content we were. Jesus told His followers to “abide in my love … [so] that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:10, 11). When our lives are over and we look back, will we see that our lives were full of the joy of Christ, or of anxiety, bitterness, and regret? Did we seek to imitate St. Paul who, though in chains, claimed, “Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil 4:11)?

7. How our lives inspired others. Imagine having your name for all time in the New Testament as one who was so “in love with this present world” that you deserted St. Paul (cf. 2 Tim 4:10). When our children, grandchildren, and those who knew our deeds and words remember us, will how we lived these seven things be a legacy worth imitating?

But Isn’t This Just Work’s Righteousness?
As my truck left the sparse farmlands and entered the busy suburbs of my destination, several countering questions came to mind:

Some might complain, “But isn’t this just works righteousness? And besides, what does it truly mean to love?” To avoid confusion and disagreement is the reason why, when good players gather to play a board game, they don’t make up the rules as they go along, but look first at the instructions inside the lid of the box. And that is why Christ gave us, not only His Word, the Scriptures, or Sacred Tradition, but His Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), guided by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13).

As to the relationship between works and righteousness, faith and love, the “instructions inside the lid of the box” state that “faith apart from works is dead” (Jam 2:26), or as a joint Lutheran-Catholic statement put it: “We confess together that good works — a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love — follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. . . . Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.”[8]Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification  (1999),  no. 37.

This is quite profound and important. Certainly, throughout the history of Christendom, millions of sincere believers, regardless of their particular theologies, have been moved by the words of Scripture and the model of Christ to live out their faith in love. But the danger of some of these theologies has been to draw believers off into imbalanced and incomplete priorities: for example, an over-emphasis upon faith alone can detract from the necessity of holiness, sacrifice, suffering, and selfless love.

On the other hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns that Catholics safely home in the Church can still miss the mark: “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved” (no. 837). Essentially and succinctly, as put by Thomas Howard:

There is only one agenda for all of us Christians, namely, our growing into conformity to Jesus Christ, that is to say, our being made perfect in Charity. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and at that tribunal there is not one test for Protestants and another for Catholics. All of us have arrived there by grace, and all of us are “washed in the blood of the Lamb”, and all of us are to have been configured to Christ.[9]Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p.147.

To a very significant extent, all sin is a failure to love; all divisions and schisms are a failure of charity; and all abuse and misuse of God’s Creation is a failure to love Him.

From the earliest days of the Church, men and women have tried to augment, qualify, simplify, and, if nothing else works, replace the central message of the Gospel. In response to Galatian believers, who had been lured away by just such a “different gospel,” St. Paul wrote: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (Gal 3:1) Since it is highly unlikely that any of the Galatians had been present in Jerusalem at the crucifixion, then what was St. Paul referring to except that which has been displayed in the front of Church sanctuaries throughout Christendom ever since: the purest example of charity “publicly portrayed”  — a crucifix.

CrucifixWhen Christians denigrate the crucifix because they think it denies the resurrection of Christ, they sadly are missing the point, for a crucifix would be meaningless except for the presumption of the resurrection. And when modern Catholics replace the suffering Christ with a resurrected Christ, they, too, can be missing the point. Certainly St. Paul believed in the resurrection when he said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

The reason, however, for the constant insistence of the public portrayal of the crucifix is not just to remind us of the self-emulation of Christ on the cross, but to confront us with the true meaning of love. Faith in Christ means looking upon the “publicly portrayed” image of His sacrifice, and being willing to do the same for Him. This is precisely how Jesus defined what it means to be His follower: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12–13). Elsewhere in Galatians, St. Paul would confess what this radical love means for him:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. … But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (2:20; 6:14)

Faith in Christ means loving in the same way He loved us. That hits particularly at home, for this is how St. Paul defined how I, as a husband and father, am to love: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).

It Is Full Time To Wake Up
As I pulled into my destination, I reconsidered that opening verse from Romans: “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11).

And then I thought of another verse that reminded me that it was high time to quit procrastinating and start acting!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)

These “witnesses” are not just the heavenly hosts, angels, martyrs, and saints, who are watching and cheering us on, but our spouses, children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, co-workers, even the viewers, hearers, and readers of our high-sounding words(!) — all of these are waiting to see whether we live out faithfully all of the things we ought, or as St. John said in those letters to those churches, whether we “conquer.”

May God grant us the grace and mercy to (1) know, love, and serve Him, (2) love one another, (3) consider how our actions, our lifestyles affect people we will never know, (4) grow in holiness, (5) respect responsibly the things we have been given, (6) be content with, yet detached from, a minimum of things, and (7) leave behind a model for our children and grandchildren to follow, in Christ, amen.


1 This is an edited version of chapter fifteen from my book, Life From Our Land. It seemed like such an obvious example of Red Zone Thinking, I felt it was worth sharing again.
2 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 68.
3 Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Oct. 21, 2009; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20091021_en.html.
4 Pope Francis, Angelus message, Aug. 4, 2013; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Pope-calls-on-young-people-to-counter-daily-vanity-of-consumer-society-28655.html.
5 Kempis, Imitation of Christ, p. 43.
6 St. Francis, from a letter written to all the faithful, in Opuscula, edit. (Quaracchi, 1949), pp. 87–94, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, Office of Readings for Oct. 4, Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
7 Pope Francis, General Audience, June 5, 2013; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/audiences/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130605_udienza-generale_en.html.
8 Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification  (1999),  no. 37.
9 Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p.147.

An old Farmer’s Rant

BB & fireA friend of mine, an aging wanted-to-be farmer, recently shared with me a piece of his own Red Zone Thinking. We were relaxing in front of the fire in our hearthstone wood stove, and this is the gist of what he shared.

“You know, there was a time when my contentment was being shattered by bitterness. From scratch I had developed our farm for the future of our family. It was for our children to experience a better life, and hopefully for their children, too, for all of us to work together on this property, being good stewards of God’s land, out of the clutches of this crazy materialistic world! But then all my children moved away to live in the city, of all places. Now my wife and I are retired empty-nesters out here on this acreage, but I can’t do the farm work by myself anymore because of my health. So the farm is going to sit idle. After my children graduated college and got married, rather than coming back here to live near us on a part of this land, to eventually make the farm their own, they all moved away, and too far away to be of any help. There have been days that I felt like it was all just a waste.”

He then paused for a sip of coffee, and after a long quiet stare into the fire, he continued:

“But then I remembered. I had done the very same thing to my parents, especially to my father. After college, I got married, and instead of moving up closer to them, my wife and I moved farther away. And I ended up doing something he never dreamed I’d do—he never wanted me to do—we built a house on a portion of my wife’s family rural property, and of all things we tried to develop it into a self-sustaining farm! Like my father, I had no experience in farming whatsoever, but we gave it a shot, in many ways so that our boys could experience the rural farm life. But now I look back and think I understand the sadness I often saw in my father’s eyes whenever we and our kids would make the occasional trips up to visit with them. I guess I’ve learned how, in an ironic sense of God’s humor, I’ve been “hoisted with my own petard.”

“Our decisions were never a rejection of my parents or even their wisdom. I just thought we were trying to follow God’s will, and busy trying to do the best we could with everything we had on our plates. We were given an opportunity to live on this rural land, and we thought it would be a great place to raise our kids, and it was.”

He took another long sip and meditative gaze into the fire.

“Contentment for me involves apologizing in prayer to my departed parents for any heartaches my obtuseness may have caused them, and it likewise involves letting go of any bitterness the devil might tempt me to feel toward my children. We were blessed to have lived together on this land, and I pray that they learn to be content where they believe—where I believe—God has now called them to live. And I pray God continues to give my wife and I the grace to learn to grow in contentment on this fine rural land that He has given us for our retirement.”

In my own Red Zone thinking, as I consider what Marilyn and I need to do out here as empty-nesters on our forty-acres in the years ahead, there are some things I have come to learn. Just because we live out here on this rural property, or because we established this farm for our boys and brought them up on this land, does not therefore automatically mean that God has called any of us to be farmers. There are myriads of publications and web-blogs exhorting people to return to the farm, to save our country by re-establishing traditional American small farm culture, and to avoid the coming Tribulation by becoming self-sufficient and off-the-grid—and I can’t deny that there were times I at least tried to preach and live this separatist agrarian gospel, and I whole-heartedly agree there is great value and hope in it.

Our 3 sonsBut now I see that we must not douse ourselves or especially our children with false guilt over their supposed responsibility to take over this farm [or might I add, any family business]. We may have done all this for them, which is truly generous and charitable and humble, but we need to remember that they need to be free to discern whether or not this is what God is calling them to do. It may be that God called us to live and to bring our sons up on the farm, in a rural enclave where they could receive the blessings of a more traditional, rural education and culture less tainted by the craziness, wokeness, and apostasy of the surrounding culture—but not necessarily so they themselves would remain in this rural safe stronghold, but so that they would be better prepared to go forth and live and preach the gospel in the midst of a lost world.

I see that this has happened with our three sons. Actually in spite of my many, many short-comings, and my wife’s and my less-than-perfect attempts at parenting, all three of our sons look back and (at least) say they loved growing up out here on our rural “cottage farm,” which, though together we tried to develop it into a self-sustaining, even profitable farm, barely qualifies even as a “hobby farm”. But it was increasingly obvious all along that continuing on the farm, even taking it over after I had entered into the Red Zone, was not where their hearts were leading them.

JM & catOur oldest son, JonMarc, was eleven when we moved from the city to our new house out in the country. At first, we weren’t thinking of transforming our retreat in the woods away from the city into a working farm. But very quickly we decided that this was why God had called us out here. From the beginning, JonMarc was involved with every improvement and edition to our “farmness”. He helped me build our large chicken condominium (with all hand, non-electric tools, mind you); he learned with me how to raise chickens, sheep, dairy cows, and pigs; and he was my main partner in sharing the responsibilities of daily milking and most everything else on the farm.

But he also had many other interests. He and his brothers were homeschooled, which gave them plenty of time to absorb and enjoy the gift of this rural respite. JonMarc, though, was also hungry for outside activities, at our parish, with other Christian farming families, in athletics at the local community and high school, and especially in community theatre.

It never crossed my mind to press him into taking over the farm because I never sensed this was what he was called to do. He first attended the Pontifical College Josephinum to discern priesthood, but after just one semester he discerned this was not where God was calling him. He knew he was called to be a father. He transferred to several other schools to major in philosophy, and while he was at a secular JM & Tstate university, he became active in the on-campus Catholic outreach. There he met his future wife, Teresa, who was serving as a missionary with that outreach. Eventually they got married, are about to give us our sixth grandchild, and both remain active in serving our Lord and His Church. JonMarc runs the CHNetwork for me as its Executive Director and both he and Teresa are very involved in diocesan, parish, and local ministries. They also use the media for outreach to other couples and are becoming active in leading Catholic pilgrimages.

When you bring up a son in the ways of the Lord, you eventually have to let him go to be what the Lord wants him to be.

Peter & BullOur second son, Peter, also says he loved growing up on the farm. He was seven when we moved here. He was always there beside his older brother trying to give a hand on everything we did. He was active in 4H raising bees, he helped with all the other farm work, and I especially remember him helping me deliver and care for Suffolk lambs and Jersey calves. And he too was involved in all the same off-farm activities as his older brother—church, sports, and theatre—and he too did not give obvious signs that God was calling him to remain on this farm.

He attended a Catholic university where he came of age and matured greatly. Like his brother, he majored in philosophy, and was particularly active in music. Upon graduation, he became the music Fr Peterdirector at the very Newman Center where JonMarc and Teresa had met and used to serve. But then he surprised us all with the news that he believed God was calling him to become a priest. The diocese of Toledo affirmed this call, sent him to six years of study at Saint Meinrad Benedictine Seminary, and now he is an ordained Catholic priest, serving the Lord as a parochial vicar.

When you bring up a son in the ways of the Lord, you eventually have to let him go to be what the Lord wants him to be.

Richard on horseOur youngest son, Richard, was a different challenge than our other two boys. He was three when we moved to the farm, and he landed running! He was always there beside his brothers trying to help, but more often than not, he saw everything we did as an invitation for fun. While his brothers and I milked the cow, he was riding one of the sheep around the crowded barn. When his mother went out to gather eggs, he was there with a switch to chaise them.

But in time we discovered that Richard had unexpected disabilities that made it obvious that farm work was not where he was being called. And besides, work today on a small farm requires a person to be a bit of an introvert, for the work demands that you spend most of your time alone out somewhere on the back R & Kacres fixing fallen fences, clearing clogged culverts, or chasing chambering chickens. Richard was always an extrovert and needed people. He had followed his brothers in all their outside activists, especially in community theatre. But in the end, his disabilities have made finding his vocation difficult. Probably the biggest blessing in his life has been meeting his future wife, Katie. They are now recently married and both trying to discern their place in life, and though they may move into my wife’s mother’s vacant house near us here on this property, it is still unlikely that his particular abilities will allow him to consider “taking over the farm” after I truly enter the Red Zone and “retire.”

When you bring up a son in the ways of the Lord, you eventually have to let him go to be what the Lord wants him to be.

JM, P & R

Now Marilyn and I are empty nesters out here on our forty-acres. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we’ve freed ourselves, at least for the winter, from responsibilities for any livestock—and during the recent frigid snow and ice storm, I’m SO glad I didn’t have to wander out precariously onto our hills to drag hay to starving cattle or to punch holes into frozen stock tanks! Now, our main responsibilities on this cottage farm involve stoking our wood stove, herding seven chickens and seven cats, while M & Mplanning for whatever we might be able to handle in the coming year. We might bring in some feeder calves, we might add two piglets, we might add some ducks, we might erect a make-shift greenhouse from a pile of old sliding doors, we might cut lots of paths through our woods for the grandkids to enjoy, we might add a pond, and we might even expand our garden. Or, we might do nothing at all.

Truth is, contrary to what the books and web-blogs have tried to convince me, I’ve never really felt God has called me to focus all my gifts on this rural property as a farmer. Ever since I was twelve, I’ve either been a student or working some job. For the past 45-years I’ve been involved in some kind of Christian ministry. The past 29+ years I’ve led the Coming Home Network, and for nearly 25-years I’ve hosted the Journey Home television and radio program on EWTN. This has involved leadership, writing, speaking, traveling, and even spending some long hours with a few bishops and priests! And all this while my family and I were trying to make a go at it out here on these forty acres—well, actually far more often with Marilyn trying to herd the boys to hold down the fort and keep up with my usually failing farming experiments.

view from hillThe truth is I consider it one of the greatest gifts God has given me to have the privilege to live out here on this rural acreage in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Every day I’m grateful for this, especially as I watch the free-roaming birds, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other native residents who have allowed us to share some space on this their property.

But especially now, as I’m more cognizant of entering the Red Zone, I think back on all we’ve done here, together, and am now finally letting myself be free of the false guilt I’ve put upon myself to be something I really have never been—a farmer. I have grown to have the highest respect for farmers. As Thomas Aquinas himself admitted, they are truly gifted men and women, at the top of human society, and worthy of our praise! And frankly, I am not worthy to be called one. I’ve tried, and by God’s grace and mercy, we’ve actually accomplished quite a bit on this land—though I’d never for a second think I ought to start a Youtube Channel telling anyone how they ought to farm! Ridiculous!

fire in stoveSome of  you might have guessed, but I lied to you earlier. I have no old farmer friend who was ranting in front of my hearth fire—that was me. I had indeed once succumb to the temptation of bitterness, but by His mercy, I have come to appreciate what I have shared with you in this post. I’ve grown to see that God had called Marilyn and I out to this rural property not to become farmers, but for the opportunity to discover, through farming, together with our sons, what the gospel of Jesus Christ is really all about. It’s certainly about faith, the sacraments, the Church, and all that, of course. But it’s mostly about love and humility, forgiveness and humility, detachment, simplicity, sacrifice, and humility, courage and others-centeredness, and did I mention, humility?

When you discover by grace the Lord Jesus and try to live according to His ways, you eventually have to let go so that you can become what the Lord wants you to be.

Contentment Learned

by the woodstoveOne of the most crucially important, yet dagnabedly elusive, aspects of Red Zone Thinking is CONTENTMENT. When we’ve arrived in the “red zone” of life, or are planning ahead for it, we want to be content. We don’t want to spend our time looking back with regret, or being anxious about tomorrow, wringing our hands over all the unknowns that keep poking their ugly heads up into our path. We want to wake up in the morning, and, at least after our first or second cup of coffee, look forward with optimistic joy to the day ahead!

Which is why I believe St. Paul wrote most of his Epistles through the lens of Red Zone Thinking. He may not have used this terminology, but constantly in all his letters he exhorts his readers to follow our Savior as if they might meet Him soon. For example, these words to the Christians in Rome have the clear ring of Red Zone Thinking:

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:11-13, emphasis mine).

Red Zone Thinking means not letting these words of Scripture pass by without pausing and thinking, “Wait—he’s talking to me! Right now, not some day way in the future. How should my life, starting now, by grace, be different, before it’s too late?”

And he also spoke of contentment. When Paul wrote his letter to his Christian friends at Philippi, he happened to be imprisoned and in chains for the preaching of the Gospel. After many positive words of encouragement, he wrote:

“Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13, emphasis mine).

What seems important to point out is that Paul doesn’t merely say, “I am content in whatever state I am”, but rather, “I have learned to be content.”

In other places, he commands his readers to choose to be content:

“…if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8)

“Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5a).

And in another place, Paul emphasizes that this contentment, which he exhorts others to choose, is something he himself has chosen:

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Contentment is an attitude we choose, but in his Red Zone Thinking, Paul recognizes that it is a virtue he had to learn, by grace, as his heart learned to see the struggles of his life through the lens of the Cross of Christ, for he clearly admits, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” He even learned to accept the sufferings he received from living the Gospel as the means by which he could “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24).

And it seems to me that learning contentment in the Red Zone requires reflecting back upon our mistakes. I can’t help but picture Paul, as he sat in his cell, encumbered by chains writing this letter, pausing to remember an event that had happened years before when he first brought the gospel to these very Philippian Christians—an event which, with hindsight, he might have handled differently. His companion Luke had recorded it in his second letter, so he can’t escape public knowledge of his brash act of discontentment.

Paul and Silas, and apparently their new companion Luke, were on their second missionary journey, immediately after the Jerusalem council. They had arrived in Philippi, and on the sabbath, as Paul and His companions were heading toward the synagogue, this is what happened:

“As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she did for many days.

“But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, ‘I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

“But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, ‘These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.’

“The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:16-24).

All because Paul got annoyed. I can just see Silas, as they sat side-by-side in the stocks, saying, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” With hindsight, Paul might have wondered if there wasn’t maybe a better way he could have handled that. I mean, as crazy as she might have been, still, she was accurately promoting their cause: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And, yes, freeing the girl of that demon was a praiseworthy thing, but maybe with a little more patience (i.e., counting to ten first), he might have avoided their being seized, dragged, convicted, attacked, stripped, beat with rods, thrown into prison, and stuck in the stocks.

Of course, Paul could claim that the “rest of the story” justifies his actions and their sufferings! For, as St. Luke continues, the benefits that God brought out of this “nice mess” began through their decision to choose contentment:

“But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.

“But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’

“And [the jailer] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, ‘Men, what must I do to be saved?’

“And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house.

“And [the jailer] took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:25-34).

As Paul reminisced, he may have seen how giving into discontentment had gotten them into a “nice mess”, whereas an act of grateful, worshipful contentment had opened the floodgates of God’s grace and mercy.

Seems to me that Red Zone Thinking involves learning to be content by looking back and learning from our failures as well as our victories in Christ.

St. Paul admitted that contentment is something we learn, but this learning requires that we choose to move forward toward contentment even when we don’t feel it—for the feeling of contentment is something we leave to God. Earlier in Philippians 4:6-8, Paul describes a process that maybe he had found helpful for choosing, growing, and learning contentment:

(1) “Have no anxiety about anything” [The first step involves recognizing, identifying, and owning any feelings of resentment we might have harbored about anything! This must be rejected or it will grow into bitterness and discontent];

(2) “but in everything by prayer and supplication … let your requests be made known to God” [The most important response to any anxiety is turning to our loving God, asking for His forgiveness, wisdom, grace, and mercy];

(3) “… with thanksgiving” [Choosing to be thankful is not just the most important attitude for growing in contentment, but for growing in every aspect of the Christian life—we must remember and recognize that every single thing we have in our lives come from Him and we must receive it all with gratitude!];

(4) “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” [Here is the feeling of contentment that is not something we can make happen but is rather a gift from Him that can help keep us in Him]; and

(5) “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [We need to replace anything in our minds that might draw us towards bitterness and discontentment with things that draw us closer to God.]

As I think about this, with beverage of choice in hand before the warmth of our hearth, I need to end this post with the same disclaimer that St. Paul himself used earlier in his letter:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12).

Lord, help us all to learn to grow in contentment.

God’s Gift of Creation

Hereford BorthersA couple years ago, my good friend and coworker, Bill Bateson, accompanied me out to my cottage farm where I video taped a short reflection on God’s Gift of Creation. In this short video, with Bill & his camera on one side, my (former) two beautiful polled Herefords chewing the grass in the background, and my overgrown pasture all around us, I reflect, from Scripture and St. Bonaventure, on the importance of looking for the vestiges of God “in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Hopefully, our search for the evidence of God in His Creation should fill us with gratitude. I posted this on my previous blog, but I wanted to re-post it for your thoughts. (If you are interested in more of my thoughts along this line, you might check out my book, Life From Our Land.)

Love through the lens of RZT

Me in ChapelLet me begin by downplaying a bit my emphasis on Red Zone Thinking. Sometimes when people get too self-congratulatory about the creativity of a metaphor, they forget the point of it altogether. And the point here is not about forcing this football metaphor around everything, or about trying to force everything into it; in fact, it’s not about the football “red zone” at all. It’s about a radical change of thinking, that can’t be forced upon anyone, or even upon ourselves. It’s actually a bit indescribable, unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. We can talk about it—we can stress with wild hand gesticulations the absolute necessity of it—but unless grace awakens our mind and heart to it, it will remain elusive. I suppose this is why, as important as it is, far too many of us never take it seriously enough to re-examine and re-shape our lives as we should.

Let me also say here that once one has received this gift of grace—of having one’s heart and mind opened to the urgent seriousness of abiding in Christ—this does not guarantee that one will actually change for the better. Over the years, having interviewed hundreds of converts to Christ and His Church, I’ve also heard hundreds talk about having experienced a grace-filled change of heart, an awakening to Christ and His mercy, only to, after the passing of weeks, months, or years, drift back and away from Christ, maybe even further away than before.

This is why it’s important to recognize that one of the most mysterious aspects of God’s work in our lives is that, with all that He might do by grace to awaken us, to bless us, to open or close doors, to rescue us from the deep holes we’ve dug for ourselves, or to slam us up the side of the head with a 2×4 to get our attention, still, He always, to the very end of our lives, leaves us free to respond. He will never force anyone to turn from sin and self-centeredness, to follow Him.

I can hear someone complaining, “But that’s not fair! Why does God give this grace to some and not to others? How can anyone be held culpable if they weren’t given the grace?”

Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.” Truth is, if you are asking for the assistance of God’s grace, this is proof you’ve already received it. You wouldn’t want God if His grace hadn’t already drawn you to Him. And since none of us has the ability to know what any other person is thinking, we can never know to what extent another person has or has not received grace, and, therefore, whether or not he has or has not rejected it. This is not our worry—our job is only to show and tell, and to love.

But I’ve rambled. Red Zone Thinking refers to an awakening we need to experience to start taking the Word of Christ more seriously (dare I add, before it’s too late)—it’s essentially that spiritual “round tuit” for which so many of us have been waiting.

For example, I had a RZT moment this past Sunday. The second reading in Mass was St. Paul’s very familiar “love chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13. We’ve all heard this a bazillion times, not just several times a year from the pulpit but at nearly every wedding. As a result, most of us only hear these words as descriptive of what love ought to be within marriage, and rightly so, but this was not the context within which St. Paul was speaking. He was writing to a Church that was broken and divided over scandals, petty jealousies, rivalries, and other shameful ways that the leaders and people had failed to freely followed the gift of grace. In this passage about love, St. Paul was cutting through all the clutter and drawing them back to the one primary thing for which they will one day be held culpable before God.

They had been bickering and one-upping each other over who had the greatest gifts, so Paul said, “You earnestly desire the ‘higher gifts’, but I’ll show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31, my translation).

He then boldly chastised them for their blindness: It does not matter if a leader is a pillar of prayerful devotion, or wise foresight, or bold faith, or selfless philanthropy, or even selfless courage, if they have not love, it’s all nothing—they are nothing, and all their efforts and showing off gain nothing.(cf, 13:1-3)

So what is love? We’ve all heard rightly that the love spoken of here is not something driven by emotion or passion, as our digital world proclaims 24/7, but a love that we freely and willfully choose, regardless of what our emotions are saying. It’s something we do, not something we feel. It’s actually an active response to something we’ve already been given: God’s merciful, undeserved love—”We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

So the lens of RZT demands us to hear what St. Paul is saying, maybe in a way we’ve never heard before—when we really weren’t listening, or when instead we were thinking how some other person needed to hear this!

No: this is about you and me. Ask yourself now, if the litany below was the checklist that God was using tonight, to evaluate our lives, based on our immediate relationships, how might you or I stack up?

Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love is not jealous.
Love is not boastful.
Love is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love is not irritable or resentful.
Love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things.
Love believes all things.
Love hopes all things.
Love endures all things.
Love never ends.
As for prayerful devotion, wise foresight, bold faith, selfless philanthropy, or even selfless courage, they will all pass away. (cf, 1 Cor 13:4-8)

Yes, the three Theological virtues that need to grow in our lives—that should have been growing in our lives all these past years and decades!—are faith, hope, and love: faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and only savior; hope that by His grace and forgiveness we will spend eternity with him; and complete selfless love of God and neighbor. But through all this, still, the one greatest thing that too many of us lack, the one thing that will mean anything in the end, is love. (cf. 1 For 13)

And this is precisely what the Second Vatican Council Fathers proclaimed in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Consider seriously this important exhortation:

He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” (LG 14; CCC 837; emphasis mine)

It’s not so important how I’ve failed to love in the past, Lord forgive me, or how I might love in the future, Lord willing, but how I begin loving in these ways right now, my spouse, my children, my grandchildren, my neighbors, my coworkers, every person that God has put into my life so that they might experience His love through me.

This is Red Zone Thinking.

A Farewell to Bovines

Farewell to BovinesAs some of you know, my family and I have tried to make a go of it out here on this muddy, mostly wooded portion of Marilyn’s family Century farm. Our 40-acres consist of a valley on top of what has been called “the Highlands” since the earliest maps of our county—thus, “Highlands Valley Cottage Farm”. We added the quaint term, “cottage”, because we daren’t imply for even a second that our efforts have had any semblance to a farm! 

To take a step back further, as some of you know, I came to this with no experience whatsoever in farming or even gardening! I spent forty-five years land-locked in cities before we escaped to this isolated valley in the Appalachian foothills. Just as I disclaimed in my book, this website will NOT consist of blogs or videos on “how to farm”. I might share how we happened to try something, or more often how I worked myself out of a hole I had dug for myself! But I wouldn’t presume for a second to have the wisdom or knowledge to tell anyone about how to do anything on a farm! Rather, we’re mostly just sharing with friends—fellow “cottage farmers”—what we’ve been up to, and maybe asking advice on how to manage the latest crisis.

In trying to learn how to farm, we’ve accumulated quite a library of books and weblinks about traditional, organic, sustainable, subsistence, small, or cottage farming—even some books claiming one can actually make a profit from farming! Overflowing with great ideas, these books have successfully inspired many young couples, with growing families and manure-spreader loads of energy and enthusiasm, to consider giving life on a small farm a shot! Some of these pilgrims land running, maybe not certain what they’ll need to do in the months and years ahead, but ready to take on whatever comes! All power to ‘em! And now, whenever I pick up one of those books, I sometimes find my own latent enthusiasm being rekindled, thinking, “Gal dern’it, I think I can still do that!”—forgetting that I’m not 45 anymore, but a few weeks shy of 70.

The problem is that, with the plethora of these enthusiastic go-getter books, there’s a corresponding absence of books about what to do with a small farm once the kids have all moved away, leaving you alone to do all the outside “farming” chores, while you’re reaching retirement age, with the strength and stamina of an old coot. 

This is a little of what this weblog is about: What do my wife and I do with these 40-acres, as we consider “retirement” with no particular need to make money from this land? It’s certainly not that we’re wealthy, but rather I’ve never been able to make enough money from this farm anyway to make the effort worth it. Oh, sure, there’s all the idealisms about how beautiful, enriching, and invigorating it all is just to be outside, out in nature, out with the critters, doing farm work! Well, that’s all well and good, except when it’s 6 degrees below zero, as it was this morning, with 8-inches of drifting snow, the cattle are up in the hills far away in the back pasture, their water trough is frozen, and they’ve eaten the last of the hay, so that, even though my joints are killing me, I’ve got to walk through the snow down and up a hill to the barn to get the tractor to haul another round bale, but the tractor’s frozen, so I have to plug it in for an hour, and, oh, I’m out of round bales, so I have to first thaw out and then drive my frozen truck and trailer 10 miles on icy back roads to the nearest farmer who can sell me a round bale, and then haul it back, unload it, and then once the tractor’s thawed, use the 3-point-spike to precariously lift and haul the round bale up the snowy slope to the cattle, and quickly drop the bale, jump off the tractor, and unravel the bale-mesh before the bull decides, as he normally does, to attack the round bale to show it who’s boss! All of this by myself, and long before my morning coffee has even had a chance to awaken some sense of hopefulness to this new day!

herfordsWhich is why it finally became obvious that it was time to bid A Farewell to Bovines. I truly love cows (regardless of what the environmentalist wackos claim their flatulence does to the ozone layer). Off and on for 20+ years, I’ve rotationally grazed dairy and beef cattle, always just a few at a time. Our hilly, mostly clay and partially wooded property lends itself to pretty much nothing else. Periodically surrendering to the guilt of needing to do something useful and productive with this land, I’ve adopted a system of semi-mob grazing, using polytape and step-in posts, that is supposedly good for improving the land as well as keeping the cattle on grass almost year round. Problem is, this is almost as labor intensive as keeping a dairy cow, since semi-mob rotational grazing requires moving the cattle into a new polytape contained paddock every 12-hours, 24/7/365. 

But without additional help, especially with no one to fill in for me when we’re gone, it became increasing apparent that it was time to “retire” from cattle farming.

We presently had a poled Hereford family: a gentle, 1500+ pound 5-year-old bull named Curley, a 3-year-old “freshened” heifer, and a 11-month old bull calf. After considering many options over many months, we narrowed all the options down to one: butcher the bull ourselves on the property, and then give the heifer and calf away to our oldest son, who, in partnership with a young farm family, could raise beef for their two growing families.

You might be wondering, “Wait, did you say butcher the bull yourself? On your own property? Why, in God’s Name, would you do that?!!” Well, for lots of reasons, but mostly because, due to the way our culture has responded to the Covid pandemic, all the butcher shops within driving distance are booked into next year! So, I took a butchering class, and with some friends with butchering experience, we butchered Curly right where we dropped him.

I won’t go through all the details of our day-long endeavor—which included my able friends doing most of the work, and my chasing, for over a mile across snowy hills, the escaped heifer—but in the end, mostly because of the mercy of God and the skills of everyone else except me, Curley the bull is now hanging in two coolers aging for two weeks, and the heifer and calf have a new home.

barn in winter 2This morning I woke up as usual at 4 AM; Marilyn was back asleep after a restless night. It was -6 degrees outside and mostly cloudy. I made coffee, which is hard when you really need coffee before you can make coffee! I fed our herd of cats, brought an armload of wood upstairs, rekindled the fire in our Hearthstone stove, and then quickly checked my eNews app to make sure our country was still here! With coffee in hand, before going up to do Morning Prayer, I paused by the fire, glancing out the window, across the snow covered valley, over to our now empty 100-year-old barn, and, with a toast of my cup, said to our generous Creator: “Lord, I’m grateful that those 1000 cattle You own are now safely on someone else’s hills.”

St. Francis de Sales & Red Zone Thinking

Francis de salesYesterday was the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. He was particularly known for emphasizing that, though each Christian is to seek holiness, we each need to approach this differently due to our individual vocations. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, quoted in the morning’s Office of Readings, he wrote: “devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient: for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.”

But even given these differences, his writings suggest that he would certainly agree that what we are calling Red Zone Thinking would, nevertheless, apply across that board. In one of his lesser known works, The Directory, he wrote, in his discussion of Praying Throughout the Day:

“Upon the stroke of the hour lament that many hours of your life have been uselessly spent. You ought to call to mind: that you must give an account of this present hour and every minute of your life, that you are approaching eternity, that hours seem like ages to the souls in hell, that your own death is swiftly approaching, that your last hour may soon be at hand. After these reflections, say a fervent prayer that God may be merciful to you at that last hour. There is absolutely no doubt that this will be the case if you have been very faithful to this way of acting. Practice it at all times and on all occasions.”

I’m guessing that the majority of us “moderns”—even the more religious among us—might think it absurd to think that God will hold us accountable for “every minute” of our lives. But maybe this is more indicative of how flippantly most of us take “every minute” of our lives, and how mindlessly we recite the words of the Confiteor at every Mass: “I confess to almighty God … that I have greatly sinned, in my THOUGHTS and in my WORDS, in WHAT I HAVE DONE and in WHAT I HAVE FAILED TO DO…”.

Red Zone Thinking involves taking all this a bit more urgently:

“Okay, Lord, up until now, I haven’t taken any of this very seriously. But starting now, with the mercy of Your forgiveness, and the help of Your grace—recognizing that my “last hour may soon be at hand”—let me be more cognizant of my thoughts, words, and actions, always remembering that You stand beside me, not just in judgement, but to help me walk, and talk, and think in ways that are more pleasing to You, and more helpful to every person You’ve placed in my life! In the time You’ve given me, may everyone I meet see and hear You in me.”