Ever since word went out that this old hippy was about to stand behind a pulpit and presume to speak with any authority about salvation, I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of a few skeptical friends. One local pub-owner predicted I’d have you all speaking in tongues and offered to bring me a few garter snakes from his woodpile to hold in each hand as I delivered my message of hellfire and damnation. But, alas, life has brought me low as it does all of us, and instead I’m here to talk with you about the exigent life.
What is the exigent life? Exigency is what life imposes on us by way of work and hardship to enable us to survive and even thrive in this world.
The many farm families with whom I grew up in Morrisville in the fifties understood exigency even though the word might have been unfamiliar to them.
Living with scarcity and hardship, their days were determined for them less by choice than by the seasons, the weather, their tools, crops, and animals.
Well before dawn and after milking, haying, and watering thirty cows, farm families gathered while eating breakfast and waiting for the school bus in front of the Bakelite Zenith radio to listen to WDEV’s weather report, the crop and animal market reports, and The Trading Post.
A life in which choices are made for us by external forces takes us outside ourselves and diminishes our petty wants and desires to irrelevance when measured against survival. Just as for all growing things, such a life hardens us off to better cope with physical and spiritual challenges and instills in us perspective, humility, empathy, and endurance.
I recently read this wonderful passage from The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer.
To wash and iron a piece of dirty laundry, to clean, scrub, wax the kitchen floor, to cover holes in stocking with a lattice of threads, to make a wearable garment from whole cloth, or to cook something from all sorts of raw ingredients – that was the same process again and again: namely going from a disorderly beginning to a state of clean orderliness or giving form and taste to unformed material. This endlessly repetitive, primitive process of accomplishment was a greater protection against care, anxiety, fear for one’s life than the application of all manner of understanding, reason and religion.
A classic book written in 1985 by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death explains how many of us today have traded entertainment for substance, laying out the steep social and spiritual price we pay for this trade-off. Postman’s premise seems eerily prescient.
Postman’s book also raises for me the question of how we parent today. I’ve known three college presidents in Burlington. All of them have confided that they have on staff a full-time psychologist whose job it is to remove parents from campus after the college year starts. One recently noted that 25% of his incoming class are on some form of prescribed medication to cope with anxiety or depression.
I’m not sure what’s at work here but worry that as parents we’ve become so emotionally dependent on the affection of their children that we’ve lost sight of our purpose, to raise independent, resourceful, and resilient young people to carry our families and communities forward.
As youngsters, my generation was expected to have paying jobs during our teen years. Many of my friends from that time were members of Future Farmers of America or the Grange, Boy Scouts, or 4-H, all of which entailed raising and caring for one’s own animals, learning a craft, and public service.
As our theme today is growth and planting, perhaps a garden metaphor is in order. Think of how we take delicate seedlings from the comfort and warmth of the windowsill and set them out, first in a cold bed and then directly into the soil to fend for themselves, or how birds fledge their young by pushing them out of the nest to flutter to the ground and fend for themselves. The experience of having one’s days prescribed by forces greater than oneself is deeply formative and critical to the development of character and endurance. Do we do better by our garden plants than by our children?
We all know – and many of you sitting here today – have had to make your way through considerable adversity and strife to find the peace we enjoy here together giving thanks in a beautiful church in the heart of our community. This peace does not come from what we’ve accumulated but from our hard work, the challenges we’ve overcome, our families, the grace of friendships, and the gratitude of those who’ve called on us for help.
So, what happens when we’ve reaped the rewards of an exigent life… when the forces of nature exert less demand on us and our family needs are largely met?
How many of us know a friend who, having worked all their life with an eye toward retirement, finally reaches Barcalounger Valhalla, settles down in front of the TV, gets sick, and dies soon thereafter? We’re meant to both work and to play in a balance that continues to develop us physically and spiritually. God envisaged rest but speaks nowhere of retirement. Retirement doesn’t mean the end of work, it only means more choice in the work one does. God intends us to keep on keeping on.
We can choose to continue the exigent life. We can avoid the easier, softer way even in old age. We can still shovel snow, split our wood, handwash our dishes, and hang our clothes by the woodstove. We can walk to the mailbox. We can remind ourselves that our many modern conveniences often come at the expense of others.
Mindful of the gigantic eddies of swirling plastic threatening all ocean life, we can use our cloth grocery bags at Lantman’s. We can pay a bit more and buy our books locally. We can turn off the TV that only makes us lonelier and phone a friend. We can bake a casserole and bring it to an ailing stranger. We can work for social justice. The United Church of Hinesburg calls us all to lead an exigent life of the spirit, enriching ourselves and our community.
Here’s the poem with which I started my latest book, Lila & Theron:
Forage and grow
Haul wood and stone
Use hand tools
Walk without light
Pay rapt attention
Forgive yourself and others
Thank you for doing me the honor of inviting me here today.