How to sacrifice one's life

When I want to post something profound on my weblog, it’s tempting to just link to one of the many profound things that Brother Dave Black has written over the years. This morning Dave explained why he and Becky Lynn pursue their Ethiopian ministry, and at the heart of their reason is something profound, a view of the Christian life that I think we all should ponder:

Becky Lynn and I are coming more and more to recognize that we have to give people our lives. Whatever the nature of our ministry—Bible teaching, leadership training, evangelism in the far distant villages—basically what people want and need is our lives. All of us are “priests” and it is our lives that we are to offer to God as spiritual sacrifices in behalf of a needy world (1 Pet. 2:5). Gradually Becky and I have come to realize that people are seeking from us involvement—a meshing of our lives with their lives. Because we are followers of Christ, we announce to the world that we believe Christ is the answer. So we give our lives, first to God, and then to people. We tell the world that we believe God’s ways and God’s teachings are always right and best. We see that our basic calling in life is to be witnesses to God in the ordinary, everyday relationships of life. That is what the Gospel is all about. God calls us to be a people who are willing to care and care deeply, who are willing to love and love unconditionally.

I think this meshes well with the thinking I encountered in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

Bonhoeffer on community
More on Bonhoeffer and community
Practical implications of Bonhoeffer on community

Chicken Pot Pie

Last night we had a pretty special chicken pot pie for supper. What made it special was that it was high in homemade and homegrown content. The crust was made from fresh-ground flour and butter churned from cream we skimmed from our raw milk. The gravy used our cream and butter and milk, as well as chicken broth from our own chicken, the one Chris slaughtered a month or so ago. That chicken also provided the meat. The carrots and peas and onions and celery were store-bought, but that will change soon enough.

As I was eating it, I was reminded that I really like chicken pot pie as a way of judging the quality of a chicken. It’s the same way we ate our first stewing hen from Joel Salatin, and I remember how intense the chicken flavor was, how I could really tell the difference between it and store-bought chicken. Last night’s pie was a similar experience.

And as I was eating it, I was reminded of the chicken pot pies I used to eat when Debbie and I lived in the Boston area just after we had married. We lived in an outlying town named Wilmington, and in the next town over (Reading) we stumbled across a place that sold homemade, bake-at-home pies for $5 apiece. These were 1.5 quart Pyrex dishes brimming with filling, topped with a pastry crust; you could get them with chicken and vegetables, or just chicken. The gravy was rich and creamy, the vegetables were nice big chunks, the chicken came in healthy strips. Just as with our homemade pot pie, it seemed like the ideal way to enjoy some good chicken, since the rest of the flavors don’t compete with it.

I’ve never been particularly excited about eating fish—except for the two years that Debbie and I lived in Boston. On the coast, the fish we would get as a matter of course was as fresh as can be, and suddenly I understood why one might think of fish as something other than bland fuel, something that needs to be wrapped in a tasty fried coating to make it interesting. The seafood dishes I ordered were generally straightforward and unadorned, grilled or broiled, so I could better taste the fish.

Since leaving Boston I lost interest in fish, because eating fresh fish where we lived was an expensive hobby. Except for catfish. During the ten years we lived in Austin, Texas, we ate a lot of meals at the Catfish Parlour, well known for never using frozen fish. And recently on a visit to Arkansas, our friends took us to a tiny place in the middle of nowhere that served us heaping platters of the freshest, tastiest catfish I’ve ever eaten. Someday I will take the time to find out if good, fresh river fish is served anywhere around here.

As with fish, I’ve never been particularly excited about ice cream—except for the two years that Debbie and I lived in Boston. Soon after we moved there I was in the Harvard bookstore, and at the checkout counter I noticed a little guidebook entitled “The 100 Best Ice Cream Parlors in Boston.” That caught my eye, since I was surprised to think that a city would have anything close to 100 ice cream parlors—but in Boston, apparently, the choices were so numerous that someone needed to narrow it down to the 100 best ones. Just as Seattle is a coffee city, Boston is an ice cream city. It is where the premium ice cream shop craze began, the place where they invented the idea of mixing junk into your ice cream on the spot using a chilled marble slab. During a severe snowstorm that shut down Boston for a week, folks got around town on cross-country skis—and one of the few businesses that were open for them were the ice cream shops.

I never became quite as devoted to ice cream as I was to fish, but I ate a fair amount of it, and almost always my flavor of choice was either vanilla or sweet cream, the better to appreciate the quality of the ice cream itself. And since I’m the one who does the grocery shopping these days, the rest of the family has to resort to toppings to gussy up the Breyer’s Natural Vanilla ice cream I almost always bring home now.

My apologies if you were expecting a punchline. These are just some thoughts that were spurred by a particularly tasty chicken pot pie.


Off and on over the years we’ve purchased bulk quantities of meat. Mostly we would get inspired to find someone else who wanted to split a cow, or someone would ask us to do the same, and then we’d be eating hearty amounts of beef for the next six months or so. And once a friend showed up at the door, eager to sell a large part of the pork they ended up with after slaughtering their hog. Fortunately by that time we owned a freezer plus two large refrigerator-freezers, so we were able to find a place for it.

Now we’re taking our animals whole. Last month Al Ellis mentioned that he was about to buy a hog to have butchered from a nearby Mennonite farmer, and asked if I wanted one too. You bet, I said. So that ended up being about 250 pounds of meat to put in the freezer. We also asked Al to start fattening up one of his beef cows for us, which he did. That cow went to the slaughterhouse last week, and a few days ago we had to find room for another 450 pounds of meat. We did.

Since we’ll be raising our own chickens this summer, I can’t imagine we’ll be needing to buy any more meat for at least a year. With processing included, the pork cost us about $1 per pound. Beef prices are apparently a bit higher than usual right now, but even so we paid about $1.50 per pound for that beef, less than I usually pay for ground beef at the grocery store. I was thinking about that Monday, while I was grilling a small mountain of T-Bone steaks.

Spring planting

We’re doing our best to stay on track with the garden while still keeping up with all the other jobs that need doing around here. Last week we picked up another trailer load of manure from the Ellises—I’m guessing these loads run around 1.5 tons each—then Chris and Matthew and I spread it on another 20’x50 ‘ section of the garden patch. (Click on the “Continue reading” link at the end of this post to see some photos.) The next day the good weather was still holding, so Chris tilled the patch while Maggie and Matthew and I collected the rocks that were turned up.

On Monday Jerome came over to help us with our first planting. Remember that we had tilled a 20×50 section for the potatoles, then laid a six-inch layer of leaves over top of it, in preparation for the potatoes. Jerome had brought a bucketful of seed potatoes, cut into egg-sized pieces; we placed about 150 pieces onto maybe 1/5 of the potato patch, then proceeded to cover them up with mulch piled about two feet deep. Jerome also brought a couple of truckloads of his favorite mulch, sorghum pumice, the stuff that is left over after sorghum cane has had all its juice squeezed out of it; he gets it by the trailerload from a Mennonite sorghum mill near his house.

Then we planted peas in the newly prepared patch, making seven 20′ raised beds about 3.5′ wide, with 1′ trenches between the beds. Jerome had started the peas in his greenhouse, and so into each bed we transplanted about sixteen pots, each containing four plants.

All this was taking place during the heaviest snowstorm of the season, which had just started as Jerome arrived. In fact, we were glad it was snow instead of rain, since we stayed relatively dry—in fact, we stood around and talked for awhile after finishing, before finally heading up to the house for lunch.

The weather has since turned colder, with lows below 20 degrees, but that didn’t seem to concern Jerome. We’ve checked on the peas since, and the cold nights don’t seem to be bothering them.

Sweet Hollow Farm

Our friend and fellow Christian agrarian weblogger Cheri Shelnutt has just announced the Sweet Hollow Farm website. Not only is it a good looking site, we can vouch for the quality of her products, having tried her teas and soaps and consulted her perpetual gardening calendar. Go ahead and buy something; you won’t be disappointed.

Spring heating

Now begins that interim period when it’s generally too warm to want a fire burning—but, then again, there are times …. For the next several days the temperature isn’t predicted to drop below 50 degrees, which means the house will stay in the mid-60s during the night without a fire. First thing in the morning, of course, we’d like a bit of fire to take the chill off, but it often takes me a couple of hours to get a cold stove burning properly, by which time the chill is off anyway.

In general we’re pleased with how well the stove managed to heat the house this winter. I think once we get the attic properly insulated we’ll be quite content. And we had a bit of good news recently. After reading about Mountain Fire Keeper’s recent chimney fire, we thought it would be prudent to have our own chimney cleaned. The fellow who installed the stove came out last week to clean it, and found no creosote at all—and that’s after nearly four months of steady use, with lots of low fires burning overnight. From what I read, this means that the chimney stays hot enough to keep the smoke from condensing into creosote before it escapes into the air. This is a relief to us, not just because of safety but because a chimney cleaning is expensive enough that we’d rather not have it done more than once a season.

An afternoon in the garden

Nearly everything we do in the garden these days is a first-time thing, and so we don’t have the pressures of habit or past experience to help keep things on schedule. Which means that gardening tasks can easily get crowded out by other jobs whose routines are well-established, such as those demanded by the bookstore. So we try to keep an extra-close eye on our garden plans so that important tasks aren’t neglected.

Yesterday was like most others around here; there were more jobs calling for attention than there was attention to go around. But one that had been on our mind for awhile now is getting the garden tilled. We had found time to spread the lime, and managed to till the carrot patch, but then there was a good bit of rain and we had to wait for the ground to dry a bit. Yesterday the ground was still a bit damp, but since there was a multi-day stretch of rain in the forecast we knew we had to make tilling top priority.

Around 1:30pm Chris and I went out and spread the trailer load of composted manure that had been given to us by the Ellises. It took us about ninety minutes, and the compost covered about 1/12th of the garden area. That will be where the potatoes go. We went back up to the house, gathered the family, and came back with the tiller and a bunch of plastic buckets. For forty-five minutes we worked the potato patch—Chris would make two passes over each strip with the tiller, walking beside the tillier on the second pass so as to not walk on the tilled ground, while the rest of the family followed behind collecting any stones he turned up that were about egg-sized or larger. When that was done we still had time left, so we decided to also till the sweet potato patch, which like the adjoining carrot patch did not need to be composted. Once that was done, there was no further tilling possible, because the rest of the garden needs compost spread first, compost we don’t yet have.

Things I liked about that afternoon in the garden: (1) We set our work priorities based on weather conditions. (2) We worked until everything we could do was done. (3) We worked as a family.

Since I’ve had at least one gentle rebuke for not posting enough photos of our ongoing work, I’ve included some recent ones for folks who might want to see them.

We get our agricultural lime from Casey Stone, a quarry about an hour’s drive from the house. Each time we go to fetch some, they’ll weigh the empty pickup, then send us up to wait outside the mouth of the mine. A very large tractor will then go inside, get a scoop of lime, then come out and start pouring it into the pickup bed until we wave him off.

The tedious part, of course, is getting the lime from the back of the pickup onto the surface of the garden. If the ground has been tilled, we will avoid driving on it by circling the area with the pickup and carrying shovelfuls of lime to the spot where it will be spread. But on one trip we were applying lime to a section that hadn’t been tilled, so we just drove the pickup over the ground; Chris would shovel lime directly out of the pickup bed, then I would move the truck a few feet forward.

Our friend and mentor Jerome insists on lots of mulch for the potato patch. One good source of mulch is last fall’s leaves, so for a couple of weeks the boys have been raking and toting large piles of leaves down to the garden. They pile them onto a large plastic tarp, then drag the tarp. If the pile is particularly large and heavy, I’ll help out with the dragging. It works surprisingly well.

Here’s the crew as they tilled the ground and collected stones. We’re very glad that we bought our BCS walk-behind tractor; it seems to be just about the right size for the jobs we need to do around here, and it is pleasantly well engineered. The dirt in the foregound has been tilled; the darker dirt behind has a decent layer of compost spread on the top. On the right side of the picture you can see part of the large pile of leaves that Chris and Matthew have spent weeks collecting; these will be spread on the potato patch.

Maggie and Matthew collecting rocks. Behind Maggie you can see the trailer lent to us by the Ellises, which a couple of hours before was piled high with the composted manure they gave us.

Elizabeth is helping out.

Jerry is also helping out.

Benjamin is content to supervise.

Second round of Plain Talk recordings

The next round of Plain Talk recordings will be available for purchase sometime later this week, once we get them duplicated and assembled. But the item description pages are now up, and each one of them has two sound clips from the recording that you can download. See the Plain Talk page for more details.