Last month I spent the better part of a day at Prairie Oaks Institute, a working farm and retreat center in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. While exploring the 110-year-old farm, I began noticing connections between where I was and the community that I serve. Both farms and churches have existed for millennia, yet both must also adapt vigorously to the 21st century. Reflecting since that day, I’ve noticed at least three common characteristics between farming and faith communities (at least those of the mainline Protestant persuasion).
As I listened to the news this morning, I noticed a common theme running through several of the stories: fear. The Greek parliament will vote this evening on whether or not to adopt new terms for a financial bailout. Nobody likes the deal, but they’re driven by fear of what the future might hold otherwise (and the reality of terrible conditions currently). The International Monetary Fund is fearful that the Greek bailout won’t be enough, and they’re afraid that without a more dramatic rescue plan from Europe involving a much longer repayment period, Greece will never be able to get out from under its current debt burden. Other news includes the announcement of a deal between six world powers and Iran to curb Iran’s nuclear activities and lift international sanctions. President Obama now has sixty days to convince a skeptical Congress to approve the deal or at least take no action. Politicians across the spectrum fear that an unchecked Iran will use this as an opportunity for further aggressive expansion. Leaders in Israel, including most especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, live in existential fear that Iran will succeed in its stated goal of wiping Israel off the map. Fear drives much of the discourse between nations today, and it causes elected leaders to act with suspicion toward one another. Fearful mistrust colors their actions, and so they hedge bets, make half-hearted promises that have clear escape clauses, and protect their own survival above all else.
The language of ancient Greece has a term called martyr. In its original context two thousand years ago, it meant “witness” or “testimony.” To be a martyr was to offer a witness of one’s most sacred values. In the ancient Mediterranean after the time of Christ, the term was used to describe early Christians who would testify to the power of God through Christ in their lives. But because early Christianity was an unpopular and minority faith, the message of Christ was not usually received with ease. Early Christians were persecuted and killed for their beliefs. It was then that martyr took on a second meaning, that of our English word “martyr”: someone who dies or sacrifices of oneself for that which one believes in.
Psalm 65:9-13 sums up my morning.
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
After breakfast I took off for my favorite Saturday morning hangout. Last night’s rains left the road damp under my tires. Clouds and moisture gathered around, making the greens greener and the air healthier. For long stretches on the road, the only sound was my occasional brake squeal. Pedaling came easy, and there was time for reflection. The trees were damp with moisture, and in the breeze they might have been clapping hands.
Famously, Jesus is quoted as saying that human beings cannot serve both God and mammon, or wealth. We are not to favor our bank accounts at the expense of God. Jesus’ instructions are generally understood to imply that wealth and faithful living stand in opposition to one another. Either material gain is the ultimate determiner of our actions, or worship of God. One cannot serve both masters.
The New York Times this morning has an interesting article that might suggest otherwise. Universal Music has contracted with Catholic monks in Austria to sell recordings of their chant, and it’s making big money for both the record company and for the monks. These devotional chants have formed the essence of daily worship in the monastic community for perhaps the last seven hundred years. Now they have been recorded and are selling in the top ten albums in Europe, set to debut here in the States next week. According to the article, the success of the chants is part of a massive fascination in secular society with the “otherworldly” monastic lifestyle. The monks see it as a chance for the peace of God to be shared most broadly through music, and the millions that they make on the scene will help with the bills and attract new members to the community.