“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives…but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else.” Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter
After our Colorado trip and two days back in the office in Oklahoma City, we’re here in Illinois wrapping up the last of our vacation days. Altogether, it’s been a good and much-needed break from the past 18 months of school merging and managing, and I’m (almost) ready to jump back into things in earnest next week.
In the meantime, I’m making the most of our last few days here in Pike County where I – along with four previous generations of Dunhams – grew up on our centennial farm. Our girls love being here and connecting with their four Pike County cousins (I have two younger sisters who each have two kids of their own), Megan graciously tolerates the latest tales of townsfolk she has never met, and even our dog, Peaches, seems to have an affinity for the rural life (in particular the John Deere Gator rides, as shown above).
I love the farm. For as long as I can remember, it has meant much to me as a place, an anchor, a stopping-off point, a means of provision, a muse of creativity, a home…the list is endless. The stability of associating myself with a particular 600 acres of God’s green Earth is rare in today’s transient world and has always mesmerized me in its value, both felt and perceived. Even when I didn’t want to be here, or thought there was no future in it for me here, I’ve always loved the farm…and I always will.
But then I ask myself, do I love the farm or do I love the idea of the farm? The answer to both questions is “yes,” which transforms the inquiry into one of degrees (i.e. which one do I love more?). That’s when things get confusing.
There was a time – when, for instance, I would plow the living room for hours on end as a five-year-old – that my family may have expected me to remain on or eventually return to the farm. At some point, though – exactly when, I don’t know – they let go of that expectation most likely because I did. I remember being 16 and chomping at the bit to leave for college, to graduate and move to The Loop in downtown Chicago (to do what, I had no idea), and never look back. The desire did not spring from some dislike for the rural as much as a fascination for the urban; after all, as the post-WWI song goes, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”
I can’t say I ever felt direct pressure to “be about” the farm; chores (what little of them I had) never came before studies or school events, and farming was never cause for missing a game or performance or church as long as Saturday mornings were kept open for hog work. If anything, there were times in my early teens when I probably felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more to help out in the fields or on the bigger equipment in a more significant way, but God had his reasons, and my parents – perhaps seeing the writing on the wall before I did – acquiesced to those by supporting (and at times, directing) me in other endeavors.
As I’ve grown older, I confess that my pride in telling others of our family’s fifth-generation farm quickly erodes even before the end of the sentence when, inevitably, I know the next question that’s coming: “So what’s going to happen to the farm?” Many times I have felt guilty at being the only son or (though I would not trade any of my daughters for all the farms in the world) that my Y chromosomes couldn’t figure things out enough to produce a male heir to carry on the Dunham name and take to farming more than I did. Neither feeling is fair, but guilt (in particular the self-inflicted kind) does not play by the rules.
As much as the thought of returning to Pike County can be nostalgically attractive, I’ve yet to figure out how to make it happen practically; it would seem I have very little of what it takes to “make it” in the country. While the urbanite wrongly assumes that those living outside city limits are somehow “less than” because they haven’t made it to the city, he would never survive in rural America, which is why he doesn’t try beyond buying some miniscule weekend/vacation acreage upon which his existence does not depend.
I think of Thomas Jefferson’s words concerning agriculture and those who practice it:
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
Jefferson’s sentiment describes my father and my grandfather; it does not, however, describe me, a truth that at times grieves my heart and disturbs my thoughts. There is no solution or salve for this affliction, save only the choice to still care and the decision to still visit, both of which seem trite compared to the calling and effort of my forebears to sustain this land over the past 100+ years so that I might still engage with it now.
As predominant a sculptor as any in my life, the farm – as a tool in the sovereign hands of God – seems to have shaped me for something other than itself. It’s no secret that I’m eternally grateful for this, but it is also a reality that saddens me some nevertheless.
“But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?'” Acts 19:15
This verse (along with the passage from which it comes) has run through my head about a hundred times in the past week. Believe it or not, we’ve been on vacation, but my insecurities are no respecter of calendar dates, locations, or accommodations. I’m never surprised (though never ready) when feelings of unworthiness and personal contempt raise their ugly heads and say hello.
Without boring you with too many details (ask my wife: vacationing with me is about as exciting as watching paint dry), I started off our trip alone, flying to North Carolina to cover for Michael Card, who was teaching an intensive Bible seminar at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville. It’s unfortunate that many folks my age (43) and younger don’t have a knowledge of or appreciation for Mike’s music, writing, and teaching, but the older (50 and above) folks know a good thing when they find it; many of them follow Mike across the country for his concerts or Biblical Imagination conferences or even around the world (he had just gotten back from a tour in Ireland in May and takes a group to Israel every year in January).
Mike’s “fans” tend to have more gray hair, available time, and discretionary funds than most, all of which equate to big expectations when they’re shelling out $429 a pop at one of the premier conference centers in the country to hear arguably one of the best Bible teachers in the world. The topic for last week was the Gospel of John, for which Mike has just finished a new book and album (pre-order yours here). The good news was he was able to teach Monday-Thursday; the other news was, due to a mistaken double-booking, he was going to have to leave late Thursday night and needed a pinch-hitter to wrap up the week.
As Mike and I have done conferences together off-and-on for 12 years now, he asked me if I would fill in for him. Without really considering the dynamics, I said I would. I flew out Wednesday night, sat in on three sessions on Thursday, and then Mike and I executed a brief baton pass toward the end of the Thursday evening meeting. It went well, but I still had two sessions by myself on Friday morning and 120 folks who, without intending to be evil, had to be asking the demon’s question with a twist:
“Jesus I know, and Michael Card I recognize, but who are you?”
Fast-forward to Sunday morning. After leaving The Cove Friday afternoon and flying to Denver that evening, I met up with Megan and our two youngest daughters and drove to the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park to pick up our two oldest daughters who had just finished RYM Camp with our City Presbyterian Pyretics group (major props to youth director Jarod Mason and intern Laura Parsons for coordinating and chaperoning). From there, we drove to Colorado Springs and up to Eagle Lake Camps, where Megan and I met and invested ten years (1992-2001) of our lives, and where I was to speak at staff chapel on Sunday morning. (As their two older sisters had three years previously, our two younger daughters were also set to attend camp this week.)
As you might imagine, the crowd was much younger than at The Cove; instead of 120 senior citizens, I was looking down the barrel of 120 wild-eyed high school- and college-aged students who will spend the rest of the summer caring for over 2,700 kids from all over the country. The energy was overwhelming, as was my self-doubt. I had worked weeks in advance on my message, but now that I was onsite, I wondered if it would actually connect; most of these kids would have been in diapers (if they were even born) when I was at Eagle Lake in my twenties, and it’s never pretty when an older speaker attempts to play hipster (which I didn’t) to reach a younger audience.
While many of the staff had apparently heard of me (it’s not hard to be a camp celebrity just by virtue of having lasted ten years at one), I couldn’t help but imagine them saying to themselves:
“Jesus I know, and some counselor I heard a story or two about from twenty years ago I recognize, but who are you?”
Who are you? Luke records that the evil spirit asked the question not of Christian believers but of “itinerant Jewish exorcists” who “undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits” (Acts 19:13). In other words, these “seven sons of Sceva” (great ska band name!) were trying to coast on the coattails of Jesus and Paul, but the evil spirit would not be fooled. The result wasn’t pretty: “The man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:16).
The story is a reminder as well as a warning. Whether speaking to a weekend conference or camp audience or to our family and friends on a daily basis, are we doing so as followers of Christ or as Christian posers? Are we ministering out of the overflow of our relationship with Jesus, or are we name-dropping the Savior and his apologists in hopes that – somehow – His power will transfer anyway? As the passage records, there are few more dangerous sins than the sin of presumption.
The question of “Who are you?” is as pointed an accusation Satan and his agents of evil can throw at us, as there is no more powerful attack than one that attacks our person. But this is when we remind Satan (and ourselves) of who the Lord says we are. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:9-10 are helpful:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
In case you were wondering, the two sessions at The Cove went better than I hoped (there’s no more honest compliment than conferees confessing afterward that, yes, they had been disappointed you weren’t the original speaker, but they saw God’s hand in it and were glad and grateful after all). The talk at Eagle Lake seemed to hit home (there’s no more humbling thanks than when semi-awkward 19-year-olds try almost too hard to convince you that your message was exactly what they needed that morning). Whew.
The good news of the Gospel is that, while feelings of insecurities may be frequent and no fun, they can keep our poser potential in check if we confess them to Jesus so He can remind us who – and Whose! – we are. To do otherwise – to “fake it ’til we make it” despite our insecurities – will leave us naked, wounded, and in a vulnerable state that we will only want to hide from others and from God.