A Small Thing

I sat on the ground having just been run over by an an escaping pig. Brushing its hoof prints from my shirt, I pulled out my phone and Googled, “Loading pigs.” Surprisingly, the search retrieved several videos, but my favorite featured an old, wrinkled farmer from North Dakota who pronounced with a twinkle in his eye, “So . . . you tried to load pigs and that didn’t work, or you wouldn’t be watching my video . . .” I had to laugh. I watched the video, took his advice, and loaded my reluctant pigs into the waiting stock trailer. That’s when I started calling myself a YouTube farmer.  

As I have written before, I did not grow up on a farm and had little farm experience before buying Egret Isle Farm. I am still climbing the learning curve every day and the process always brings me back to the poem by Thomas Merton that has lent its name to the Serene Disciple Project. The full text of the poem is available here, but the first stanza merits reprinting:

When in the soul of the serene disciple

With no more Fathers to imitate

Poverty is a success,

It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:

He has not even a house.

I have written elsewhere about the serenity of the serene disciple beginning with an end of imitation and the success of poverty, but those two preconditions serve to bring about the next phrase: “It is a small thing to say the roof is gone: / He has not even a house.”  These lines represent a powerful freedom that few people experience: the freedom from defensiveness or self-protectiveness. I think that the house in this poem represents the things we build, typically in the first half of life, meant to prove our worth. We build careers, start businesses and adventures–works meant to prove to ourselves and others that our lives do actually mean something, that we have purpose.  But, eventually, and almost inevitably, these houses come crashing down. There are few who avoid such falls at some point in life. Some react to the collapse of an ego-defining house by getting up and trying again and again to finally prove their worth. Some retreat and look for a place to pin the blame for their failure to “make something of themselves.” But neither of these responses is the serene disciple’s path.

Jesus modeled a very different way of life. He said that the one who willingly laid down his life would find it–that the way up is down, that one must fall upward. The Apostle Paul listed his moments of greatest weakness and vulnerability as his credentials for ministry and called himself the “chief among sinners.” Merton echoes this essential Christian trait in our poem.  When we have fallen, when the house intended to prove our value has crashed down and we discover that we are still loved and that our real value comes from the truth that we are accepted and forgiven by God, when how we view ourselves finally and through devastating failure comes to match how we are viewed by God, then it really can be a small thing when someone points out our flaws and deficiencies. I can say with a chuckle, “My roof is gone? Friend! The whole house blew away!” In this way, the serene disciple is guarded from the shame of making mistakes and is free to experiment without fear of getting it wrong. What if I put all my energy into the Serene Disciple Project and Egret Isle Farm and it fails? Then it fails, but my value in the eyes of God remains unchanged. And I stand, peaceful, in the ruins of the attempt and look with eager anticipation toward the future.  

I love the quote by Winston Churchill, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” That pretty well describes Egret Isle Farm! So, in our desire to model the life of the serene disciple, we try things here on the farm and in life. We start things without knowing how they will turn out. We take risks because what can be risked is only temporary anyway. We try, fail, and try again. Failures, mistakes, false starts, and misunderstandings all eventually lead to wins and successes and are, in fact, essential to success. But, when success comes, we also don’t make it a testament to our value.

Next week we will take up the next two lines: “Stars as well as friends are angry with the noble ruin / Saints depart in several directions.”