Sometimes an experience takes a long time to process and the deeper meaning of it doesn’t come out right away. It’s like a seed is planted – and slowly grows, only bearing fruit at a later time. My time at the Duke Summer Institute was one of those experiences.
Hosted by the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, this week long institute was centered on the theme of ‘The Ministry of Reconciliation in a Divided World‘ where many facets of peacebuilding, peacemaking and the Christian vision for reconciliation were explored. But the seminar I went to participate in was a bit different than all the others because it dealt with being reconciled to GOD’s Creation while all the others dealt with human relationships. In fact, while most attendants of the Summer Institute were coming from the context of church leadership, activism, or non-profit work, I was one of only a few who were coming from a context of being rooted in some land-based lifestyle or ministry. I felt like a fish out of water – not for just being an agrarian of sorts but also because I am coming from a charismatic, non-institutional background.
Yet, while I was out of my comfort zone, I also experienced the beauty and breadth of the many streams within the Church. With leaders from all over the United States, Canada, Asia, Africa and many other countries – it was a global experience. There were speakers from many different contexts -like John Perkins, Sarah Jobe, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Edgardo Colon Emeric, Chris Rice (
director former director of the Center for Reconciliation), Cheryl Sanders, and many others. It was also a great joy to share fellowship and a hotel room with my new friend Jean de Dieu from Burundi, Africa. I had many conversations – too many to mention- with many brilliant Christians from all corners of the Body of Christ. We prayed and sang in many different languages. We lamented together over the brokenness of the Church and our world and looked towards hope and the possibility for GOD’s New Creation breaking in to our present circumstances. I came away with my heart enlarged.
Throughout my time there I attended the seminar ‘Making Peace with the Land‘ (which is also a book) which was taught by two brilliant Christian agrarians – Norman Wirzba and Fred Bahnson. We talked about how idolatry leads us towards severing our relationship with GOD and His Creation and how we have adopted a way of life that thoughtlessly exploits the “natural world” as a resource for our every whim. In contrast to this careless, self-absorbed lifestyle we can choose to live as members of GOD’s vibrant community we call Creation – in which GOD invites us to humbly join Him in causing this world to abundantly flourish. We talked about how this world is “GOD’s love made material, made tangible, made delectable”. It is a manifestation of His hospitality and love towards us. When you bite into a juicy peach you are tasting GOD’s love and delight in you and in the world He has made. What a contrast to our common Christian attitude that often despises and disregards both our bodies and the earth – both gifts of GOD.
As a part of our seminar we read alot of incredible poetry related to Creation from such writers and poets as Wendell Berry, E.B. White, and many others including from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours translated from the German. We were given the assignment of making a presentation to the class at the end of the week – describing in summary how we would transmit to others what we learned about being reconciled to GOD’s Creation. So I decided I would write a poem – as an epic, spiritual blueprint of sorts. More about that in a minute.
We were given one day as a retreat instead of attending our seminars and during this day I found my way to the Duke Chapel – which, as Wendell Berry calls it, is “aspiring to be a cathedral”. It may not technically be so but as far as I’m concerned it is a cathedral. And as I sat there I was saddened by our attempts to craft a Christian faith that is rooted in a “temple spirituality” when Scripture says “…The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands…” (Acts 17:24). It was beautiful…but cold and empty and instead of sensing GOD there – I sensed a profound sense of religious tradition. I do not say this to diminish Duke or their chapel but I speak as someone who is poetically and maybe prophetically experiencing it as something incomplete – though maybe our high church traditions are an honest attempt at sacredness and connection with GOD.
I left the dark, coolness of the chapel, that aspiring cathedral, and walked out into the bright, hot afternoon sun. I struggled with the directions I had been given but eventually found my way to the Duke Gardens, a 55 acre expanse of natural beauty -which was, on foot, only several minutes away. My walk from the man-made stone of the cathedral-like Chapel – to the Edenic wonder of the Gardens was like a pilgrimage. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, drawn along by every new flower and plant and tree and bird. I was looking for where we had started the week in the Doris Duke Center. But instead of finding it – I got lost in the garden. I felt like Adam and Eve unable to return to that place of beginning. I sat down in the garden on a rock to rest and write. Not long after, the Chapel bells rang in the distance – calling me back to another sanctuary in the Divinity School building for our evening worship service. I hurried back through the gardens, back through the campus and past the aspiring cathedral. I walked in late to the service and one of my fellow classmates anointed me with oil. I had just missed a time of mutual anointing.
I took this experience going from the Chapel to the Garden and back, as the metaphorical backdrop for the poem I would present on the last day of the seminar. The next night I returned to my hotel room after another busy day and sat on the floor to begin writing my poem. Line after line failed to take shape and I reclined on the floor continuing to write the beginnings of frustrated verse. I laid down and attempted to write until soon I had shut my eyes. I fell asleep on the floor among my papers and pen and awoke around 1:30 in the morning – and dragged myself into my bed. I woke up around 4:30 but went back to sleep – waking for the day a little before six. In that in-between place the first line came to me from when I went to sleep – “I fell asleep, dreaming, on hardened ground” and I knew that I would write my own ‘riff’ on Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer poems.
In this poem – the cathedral represents a disembodied, institutional model of Christian faith that has as it’s goal an end state of material obliteration and pure spirit. This kind of Christian spirituality places us in a world we cannot delight in nor be responsible in. It’s goal is merely right belief, but not right action. It is hyper-personalized with no implications beyond the inner life of the soul. It is a “form of godliness yet denies it’s power” as Scripture says. It’s goal is escaping to the heavenly realm, not the marriage of the heavenly and the earthly realm. It cannot pray to GOD “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. Right now I am not going to contrast a Biblical theology with this kind of incomplete faith but as time goes on we hope Sustainable Traditions can serve as a witness to this call towards a ‘whole-life’ faith.
Also, in this poem, the Mad Farmer represents a new kind of leader within the Church – one who is walking out an embodied pursuit of Jesus and His Kingdom. This leader also foreshadows Jesus our Messiah as prophetic disruptor who leads us towards repentance and abundant life as He lays down His life for us- His friends. He is leading “the exiles” who are “neither here nor there” – longing for the heavenly state as people of faith, yet not ever embodying their faith. Their journey is one of collectively leaving a religious life that is focused on ‘dead works’ and journeying towards a holistic faith – a faith where GOD is both Redeemer and Creator but also One who is creating a New Creation. Eden represents the restoration of all things- and our return to full fellowship with GOD – it is the full manifestation of GOD’s kingdom on the earth which Scripture speaks of taking place after a time of reckoning- it represents the New Earth. In the poem rest and sabbath are central concepts. Jews personify Shabbat/the Sabbath as a queen and in the poem the Mad Farmer leads them into Eden and the presence of the Queen Bee who is the Sabbath Rest of GOD – the ceasing of our works. The hive represents the restored Church – as a community foretasting the New Creation. It represents a return to a shared life of faith and fruitfulness.
You can download the poem here or view it as a PDF below the text.
A Vision For The Exiles
by Jason Fowler (6/2/12)
I fell asleep, dreaming, on hardened ground
And in my dreaming I beheld a man
The Mad Farmer who bore witness to
The bird who sings before the dawn
-awakened to a day to come.
I looked in my night visions and saw
A great cathedral filled with spirits of the dead
Neither here nor there, exiles lost in restless sleep
Longing, waiting, fading in that dusk
Unable to fully find form.
I beheld the cathedral as a mighty beast
Built and not made, as a thing carved of stone
It’s voice the pipes of a mighty roar
And the spirits, in shame, hung their heads in prayer.
I saw the Mad Farmer looking wilder and wilder
Like the dew of morning that watered the earth before rain
The joys of Eden swelling in his being
He stood beneath stained windows of glass.
These windows were shining like the neon lights of a city
And behold the Mad Farmer began to raise his song
-like that first witness before the new dawn
Behold all those neon stories shattered.
The souls of the damned and undamned came
In sadness, in anger, in retribution flamed
They bowed down, chaff, before the greater fire
Like reeds to the wind, an unceasing breath
Bringing their hearts to the altar of his feet
-he gave them names.
Suddenly, a great clattering came
Like the sound of battle
They became bone on bone
And they began to take on flesh
Singing the same Ezekial song
-and the beast, undone, spit them out on Eden’s edge.
Before them an angel stood
A flaming sword held high in the air
And covered in eternal blood
The farmer and the angel wrestled there.
The farmer and the angel guard
wrestled till dawn on the stony soil
While the exiles watched on in wonder
Behold in time the farmer’s heart was wrenched
and wrestling no more – he began to rest
-and the exiles passed under.
Passing under the body of the resting farmer
Like a summer trellis of beans prolific and green
The throng streamed into that garden
Like the Exodus of Israel or a swarm of bees
-and behold a hive appeared in the center.
Before them I saw a glorious Queen at it’s door
Clothed in creation’s sacred light – and the Farmer bowed low.
She called him forth and commanded him to come
And he brought his throng to the Queen’s tender side
And they entered transformed swarming into that hive
-singing, like humming that original song.
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