Dear Friends in Christ,
“We’re going to bounce back. This isn’t the first drought the farmers in our area have gone through and it won’t be the last.” This quote comes from Jill and Tyler, farmers in the Chester area, who appeared in a video called “Bone Dry: Farming across Montana in 2021.” This video was produced by the Montana Wheat & Barley Committee, Montana Pulse Crops Committee, and Agristudios in an effort to lift up and celebrate the resilience of Montana farmers throughout the state.
I had a chance to watch this video before Christmas and was inspired by the stories of resilience I heard as well as the stories I’ve heard from some of our Lutheran ranchers and farmers across the synod. The year 2021 was an especially difficult year for our ranchers and farmers, many of whom faced wild-fires and intense heat and drought, unjust market conditions and socio-economic upheaval, grasshoppers and hay shortages. Making a decent living in agriculture always presents yearly uncertainties particularly for the smaller producers of the crops and meat we count on to be on our tables every day at reasonable prices, and this year was harder than many. I know that many of you in your homes and congregations have suffered the consequences of this difficult year in ag.
And yet this video, which begins in the winter as farmers start to plan their planting process and carries us through the drought into the wild fire season, describes the courage and resiliency of the MT/NWY food producers who even in the midst of so many challenges, get up with the sun every morning, go out to the fields, barns or pastures and keep pushing through the hard times, moving forward in their vocation to participate with God in providing the food we eat.
What does this resilience look like in word and practice? In many of these farmers and ranchers I heard a calling, a deep sense of purpose to not only feed the world but to care for the land in the process. One farmer in the video described it as an “itch” he gets every December to get back out there into the fields. I’ve seen this “itch” in members of my own family and the congregations I served who would get up at 2:30 a.m. in -20 temps to help a cow birth her calf and then carry that calf into their homes to nurse it into survival. I would hear it in the words “we have hope for next year” expressed regardless of how the previous year went. And I would hear it in the promise that “we’re resilient, we’re adapting…and we’re in it for the long haul.”
I also have experienced farmers/ranchers resilience in the reframing of the struggle towards discovering something positive to focus on. For example, in the video, Jill and Tyler respond to the heat and drought that stunted their crops into very low yield product by stating, “We’ve got some product here, so that’s exciting; and we’re going to just keep working as hard as we can to get what we can off of it and continue to plan for next year.” Despite the frustration of putting the crop in the ground and having it “crushed in one month,” they still found the value in all that work for the future. “At least we have cover over our ground and at least we have something (nutrients) we’ll put back into the soil,” Jill said. And Tyler added, “Every drought brings its opportunity” such as market prices rebounding for next year, new contracts for the 2022 crop and the hope that Mother Nature will bring something different next year. (See minutes 14:30-18:45 for Jill and Tyler’s interview.)
I also see resilience in the adaptability of the ranchers and farmers, as they learn, grow, and innovate with healthier ways of doing their jobs. But finally I see this resilience in the willingness to help and care for one another in the midst of hardship, not just sitting with each other in the struggle but carrying each other through as much as they are able, even if its offering just one more day of water or a week of hay to feed the horses. (See “Hay It Forward”)
I know that at some point even the most resilient farmer/rancher can lose hope and fall into despair. Just this week I saw a news story indicating that farmers and ranchers have the highest suicide rates of all occupations. And I’m guessing that there isn’t an agriculture-based community in Montana or N. Wyoming who hasn’t experienced the painful loss of one of its members to suicide. There are many reasons for these tragic circumstances, including minimal mental health care availability, the need to measure up to the rugged individualistic “I can do it alone” stereotype, and social stigma around the need to ask for help particularly when it comes to our emotional or mental health.
But the truth is that none of us are alone; we all need each other. Not only is God with us, strengthening us and shining the light of hope into our dark places, but also we who follow Christ are called to be God’s resilient, enduring people of faith who carry love, help, justice to those in need. It’s okay -- normal really -- to need help sometimes and it’s an act of courage and resilience to ask for that help when we need it. And for those of us who hear that cry, it’s a calling, Christ’s calling, to provide such help.
I think that we as Christians can learn a lot about resilience and hope and loving the neighbor from the farmers and ranchers who somehow find it within themselves to “come through it every year” and “hope for things to be better next year.” There is a reason Jesus used agricultural illustrations regularly to describe the kingdom of God. But I also think we can learn from those who have reached that place of despair and somehow, perhaps through a friend or pastor or another’s kind deed, find that spark of life within themselves to seek help. For that is all of us sometimes.
And if that is you right now, please reach out for support to a doctor, pastor, family member, friend, or hotline. For God loves you and wants you to be in the life God has created, Christ has saved and the Spirit has inspired for the long haul.
May God bless you all with Christ’s resilience!
“All Earth is Hopeful.” Or so says the Advent hymn. (ELW #266) But is it? Somedays it doesn’t feel like any of the earth is hopeful much less all of it.
Advent is a church season that focuses on Hope and Preparation for the arrival of God’s anointed one. Not just for Christ’s first coming in the stable long ago but for the next and hopefully last coming of the Savior of all the Earth. But how can we prepare if we don’t have hope?
Hope is hard, especially these days. We’re constantly bombarded with stories and bad news of death, destruction and despair. Misinformation and outright lies abound. Trust in anyone or anything, including the God of Jesus Christ, is eroding to be replaced with worldly chaos, fear, idolatry, and shame-filled attacks on anyone who is or thinks differently.
It doesn’t end there. Omicron has arrived to take delta’s place as the new Covid threat which is just leading to more uncertainty and “breaking news” media panic. People are driving cars into Christmas parades and other people are shooting one another, including once again at another school. Violence of words and weapons seems the standard solution of the day for far too many people across our nation and our world. Smash and grab stealing is the new entertainment of choice. And the climate is unpredictable and seems uncooperative to our comfy ways of living that we are unwilling to change.
How do we find hope in the midst of so much trauma, suffering and death? We know we can’t go back to some pseudo-mythical time of glory which never existed. But how do we go forward or prepare for anything if we’re stuck in despair?
And yet we – as people of faith in Jesus Christ; as followers of Christ on his way – we are called to Hope. More than that, we are gifted with Hope. Hope is a freely given blessing of the Holy Spirit like faith (trust) and love when open ourselves up to it.
In the gospel lesson from Luke last Sunday, Jesus announced, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Lk 21:28) Don’t cower in terror. Don’t wallow in the pain. Don’t turn and run. No, stand up and face forward. Because what you’ve been hoping for is coming. The new life you’ve be re-deemed with is near. In the midst of all the struggles and traumas and suffering of the human experience, the Savior comes at last. Hope wins again!
But what does this Hope look like as we stand up and face the seemingly hopeless world? It’s not blind optimism or wishful thinking. Hope recognizes reality and sees the pain of the world. Hope grieves the death and laments the losses. Hope acknowledges the suffering of the Earth and all that lives upon it. Hope experiences anger and anxiety and even fear. Hope sees the truth of what is and does not pretend it is something it is not.
But hope stands and faces forward anyway. Hope does not wallow in suffering or let it rule our lives, our choices, our trust in the God of Jesus Christ. Hope refuses to be overwhelmed by fear, despair or rage at a seemingly hopeless world. Hope, though constantly victimized, is resilient and does not allow the status of “victim” to become its identity. Hope never turns to violence, cynicism, bitterness or so many other gods of this world as the solution to its problems.
Hope stands up and faces the earth. Hope sees the light at the end of the tunnel even without eyes. Hope says to suffering and violence and death, “You will not win! Jesus says so!” Hope through faith clings to the resurrection even while hanging on the cross or weeping beneath it. Hope keeps its eyes open and constantly seeks God’s new life in this world and the next. Hope lives in the glimpses and instances of salvation that are always around us when we’re willing to see. No matter what, Hope clings to God’s possibilities and searches for God’s opportunities.
“Hope comes in the act of taking the next step,” Karl Barth once said. How is about moving forward into God’s future. Hope takes one step forward, then another, then another even in the midst of the most traumatic of times. Hope owns the truth of the past and learns from it. But hope does not let the past, its blessings or its sins, control the future. Hope exists in and for the present, welcoming God’s future that has become incarnate, each moment taking another step towards that future no matter how small. For that Hope, whose name is Jesus, the Christ, has chosen to dwell with us in our suffering while always leading us toward the light at the end of the tunnel, inviting us into Love, Joy, Peace, Kindness, and yes, more Hope.
Hope is the Spirit’s gift to us…when we open ourselves up to Christ. It’s in Hope and only in this Hope that we prepare for “God with us” to arrive, knowing through a faith saturated with the promise of God’s good news in Jesus that our Hope will never be in vain.
May your hearts and minds be blessed with the fullness of Hope this Advent season!
 As quoted in Katherine Keller, On the Mystery, 2008.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Over the past several weeks, as part of the Montana/N.Wy Synod’s work seeking racial justice through our emerging task force, I participated in a five-session training presented by Common Good Missoula entitled “Wrestling with the Truth of Colonization.” During this time, I listened, learned, wrestled and was challenged to see, hear, and live into new ways of being in relationship with my Indigenous neighbors. And although it was not often a “feel-good” experience for me, the time I spent learning, listening, wrestling and being challenged was worth every second and I am grateful for the possibility of entering into new relationships.
Something I had to wrestle with during these weeks were my own assumptions…about historical practices, about contemporary realities, about Indigenous people’s experiences as well as the experiences of my colleagues with whom I was learning. For example, one way I was challenged involved my assumptions that due to the traumas they’ve experienced for so long, Indigenous people are simply and only victims who only want to be treated that way by overly protective allies. I heard a different story that proved my assumptions wrong.
I heard that my Indigenous neighbors want to be treated as human beings with personhood, dignity, and worth, as well as persons with their own ideas and plans for their healing and recovery. I heard that what they don’t want is to be pathologized, patronized, and permanently victimized. I heard that while the trauma, suffering, and the other consequences of oppression are very real for them and while truth-telling heard with my honest and open ears and wrestled with in my heart is crucial, what is ultimately hoped for -- eventually, after the hard work of repentance (change of mind, heart, spirit and action) is well underway -- is to work as partners to move forward in building healing relationships together with one another and with the land.
Now, I had heard all this before and had accepted it in my head. But this time it stuck in my heart and spirit and forced me to ask myself how I will choose to behave differently, beyond my assumptions, toward and with the many Indigenous people who are seeking healing and wholeness for themselves.
As I wrestled with my assumptions, I was reminded of three important truths:
1. You only know what you know.
2. You don’t know what you don’t know.
3. You all too often don’t know what you think you know.
These truths point to a spirit of listening and learning from multiple voices that often seems to be missing in our culture consumed with assumptions. If we’re honest with ourselves, we see that we invest a lot of time in assuming we know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We assume facts not in evidence and evidence that is not fact. We assume we know what other people are thinking, feeling, intending, or experiencing, either choosing to lay blame on them or claiming their thoughts, motives, or feelings on their behalf without asking them. We also assume that because one person from one group feels or experiences something in a particular way, others we put in that group experience life the same way. (Stereotyping.)
And we make these assumptions of all sorts of people – friends, family, neighbors, strangers, political leaders, celebrities, pastors, lay people, bishops, victims, oppressors, identity groups and those we’ve declared enemies. Anybody, (including ourselves) can be imprisoned by our assumptions, trapped by our unwillingness to listen and learn. I know I have been guilty of this and for that I am sorry.
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:15-16)
The training I attended in the past weeks has reminded me once again how important it is for me to not only speak the truth, but to do so in love and with respect. And even more importantly, perhaps, to listen with love and respect, opening my mind, heart, and spirit to learn what another is actually saying, meaning, wanting or doing rather assuming I already know. Hopefully, in Christ, others will speak and listen to me in the same way, with respect and love, so that together we may grow up into Christ and build up the body of Christ rather than tear it down by our assumptions.
May God bless and keep you in love and truth this week!
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod