It is an old joke in our household. We grew up close to the farm, where our food came from. We raised the cows we would eat -- and the pigs and chickens. Some were butchered by our hands (I still have vivid memories of my mother wacking the heads off chickens with a machete and my grandmother holding them over an alcohol flame to singe off the feathers that remained after plucking). Others were done by friends who owned the locker plant in town. Vegetables by the carton showed up on our doorstep all summer long and well into the fall. We lived close to the soil.
Our lives revolved around the seasons of planting and harvest, around the cycles of the moon, and the weather was a constant subject of conversation. Our lives depended upon these things and it was not simply casual talk but the earnest words of a people for whom life was out of their control and dependent upon the good graces of the Lord (or, if you were not a believer, Mother Nature). In either case you did not live the illusion that you were in charge. Your life depended upon the changes and chances of so many things beyond your control. Yet you learned to live without great anxiety and almost in sync with it all.
Maybe you did not grow up that way. My wife's family did not. Meat came wrapped in plastic and sitting in foam trays from the supermarket and likewise the produce was bought in a store. It is not better or worse but different. Yet they were not far from the soil because the town was small and her dad did business with farmers and those who raised cattle, hogs, and chickens. At one point in time, we were all much closer to the soil.
Things are not what they were. We are now people who eat what we did not farm and we consume food we have no idea where it came from. It could have begun its life half a world away and we would not know it. Fruit from Chile and produce from Mexico. It is all in plastic. We wear clothing not made by hands but marked with tags listing their countries of origin as VietNam or China and the fabric woven by strangers distant from us. Our meat is often pre-cooked and our meals prepared and frozen ready for microwave. We live even more distant from the soil than our forefathers could ever imagine. But we seldom notice this distance.
Our lives have no seasons since the climate in our cars, offices, and homes is created by us, tuned right down to the specific degree of temperature and level of humidity where we feel most comfortable. Seasons are gauged not by the times or the rhythm of planting or harvest or even the cycles of the moon but by holidays and shopping. We do not even shop during business hours but can order online at any time of the day or night and Fedex will now deliver it 7 days a week right to our door. We do not visit restaurants but order food to be brought to us by strangers. We do not even go to the grocery store to hold the fruit in our hands or look at the color of the lettuce. It is put into carts, packed, and delivered to us by strangers. It is the world of bag-o-salad on steroids.
I wonder if this does not contribute to our loneliness, to the distance we feel from people, to the longing so many have for human touch, and for communication that looks into real eyes before speaking and hearing the tone in the voice before answering. Our lives are thinner as a result of all of this distance and filled with the comfortable lie that we are in charge, we are in control, and that everything revolves around us. We no longer produce much. Factory floors are filled with robots and not legions of people tightening screws or putting pieces together on their way to completion. The economists call it a “service economy” but we are served by strangers with things that come from places foreign to us. I don't think it is all healthy and I wonder if it is not part of what is robbing us of our happiness.
Children happen when we want them or never because we don't want them. Pain is answered by pills. Moods are controlled by medicines. It is not simply that we are distant from the earth, we are also distant from our selves. We live in the world of our making, where we are masters of our own destinies, where we shape things according to our preferences, where need no one (not a personal relationship anyway, just people to do our shopping and deliver what we want to our doors). All of this ability to master, control and manipulate life has also left us distant from God.
We do not judge the day by sunrise or sunset, since we all have light switches on the wall to make bright our darkness and blinds on the windows to darken what is bright. Matins and Vespers are anachronisms to us. Like ember days or, for that matter, the whole church calendar. In the end, we resist the idea that we must conform our lives or wants or anything to somebody else, much less to God. We marry only those who will allow us to be individuals and we do only what we want to do because work is supposed to make us happy. But we are not. We are lonely and sad and we live in the prison of our desires.
It is to this that Jesus speaks of freedom, of new life through His death and resurrection, and of hope that does not depend upon circumstances going our way. We may not be able to get closer to the soil but we can get closer to the rhythms and cycles of life from God and lived to Him and for Him. It is called life in the Church, around the Word and Table of the Lord, as a people called by Him and named as His own who venture forth from our isolation in the marvelous light of His presence and peace. The Church does not need you, my friends, but you need the Church. That is the lesson we must relearn week after week after week. It may not quite be reasonable or rational but it is real, the only reality that was before us and will be after us. God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, that we may live not for ourselves but for Him.