Sunshine & Smiles at “The Farm”

“I really shouldn’t tell you about this but…”  That’s when you know you’re about to get some juicy information. My coworker and I sat at the visitor center desk discussing everything from plants to the weather when I mentioned I was headed down to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch on my pinch of days off in the middle of the week. “Your mother would kill me if she knew I told you this but there’s a place in Southern Tennessee called “The Farm” in Summertown that operated as a commune created by hippies for 10 years.”

I was already sold, but I needed a google search to make sure I wasn’t willingly handing myself over to a a cult. “The Farm” describes itself as “a spiritual community based on the principles of nonviolence and respect for the earth.” In the early 1970s, a charismatic writing teacher named Stephen Gaskin led a caravan of 60 buses across America, eventually purchasing 3 square miles of land. The idea was to divide the money equally between the 300 members and to live in harmony with one another and nature; in 1983 it switched from a commune to a community after financial difficulty.

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Original members of “The Farm”

The website gave me the contact info for residents I could stay with and I got in contact with Josie (name changed), a 75 year old woman who was part of the original caravan and a founding member of “The Farm.” I realized on our first phone call that I had to get over the novelty of her being an actual hippie; I tried not to giggle when she said her dog’s name was Sunrise and as she sang “Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles.This was going to be good.

My mother is very used to phone calls from me at any time of the day when I’ve been inspired by something and need to tell her right at that moment. I explained the conversation with the coworker and the manic 30 minutes of internet searches, as well as my decision to stay with one of the members, to which she sighed and told me, “as long as you are safe.” Too many of our conversations end that way. Though she had her group of bible study ladies praying for me on my last solo trip to Georgia, she assured me I had gone too far this time and was blacklisted off the prayer chain.

She was obviously joking, but she did bring up a good point. I try to filter my life and choices through the gospel, and my excitement had gotten ahead of thinking about whether this was a faith-based decision. At first, I didn’t know what verses to go to – the first inclination was to google “what does Jesus say about hippies?”, but concluded after some verses that curiosity in other ways of thinking was okay as long as I didn’t stray from my personal truth. Plus, I owed it to my Anthropology minor to explore this fascinating little subculture… right? In any case, I was going.

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All loaded up! Solo travelling is one of my favorite things; there is a certain peace that comes with being able to stand and look at a view and recognize it is beautiful without needing someone beside you to confirm that it is.

My first stop was to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch; the drive down is one of those scenic, wind in your hair, sunglasses on, Chuck Berry blasting, “how could life get better than this” type of drives winding through the hills and hollers of Southern Tennessee. “The Coal Miner’s Daughter’s” property was quaint and gorgeous and contained every ounce of the prepackaged Southern Charm that I expected. Loretta has constructed a miniature Western Town, complete with a functional post office.

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Built in 1896, the Hurricane Mills mill and dam primarily functioned to process grain. Loretta and her husband Mooney restored it in 1974.

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The cashier at Loretta’s gift shop told me that, “Loretta finds cats everywhere” and encouraged me to keep one for myself.

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Loretta’s home was a pre-civil war plantation home, complete with slave quarters. It was featured on “Ghost Adventures” in 2010 for being notoriously haunted. She has since moved out and built a new home… directly behind this one.

Knowing that Loretta was home that day, and having met her grandson in passing, I hung around hoping that if I concentrated hard enough, she might come out and thank me for stopping at her house on what might be my last solo trip before the “hippies got me” – as everyone else kept reminding me. She of course didn’t, and I continued my drive to Summertown.

Josie and I were coming into Summertown about the same time so we decided to meet at the gas station so I could follow her into the community. She pulled up in her Honda Civic (!!!) and I felt that obscure moment when you finally match someone’s face with their voice. Her phone conversations had represented her well; she was thin with long, gray hair and a kind face, exactly as I had imagined her.

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Before we got to her house, I had to register with the visitor center. I was excited that Josie and the employee there were eager to tell me the history of the commune. Josie gasped when she saw an old National Geographic laying on a table. “That’s me!”, she said pointing to the woman behind the plow, “I’m famous!”

We drove through the winding dirt roads of The Farm, and I felt as if my adventures had peaked as we drove by old Volkswagen buses and she waved at long-haired folks walking by. I searched for signs of radical thinking and general grooviness in the landscape, but the fields and horses only indicated that people who took care of the land lived there. Her house was tucked in a corner of the woods, and deer bounded away when we pulled up.

Josie gave me a welcoming hug and eagerly showed me around her home. The house reminded me of the cardboard box design in the beginning of “Bear and the Big Blue House” – a hodge podge of rectangles sat chaotically on top of each other. Inherent in its design was its sustainability and low impact on the environment, but the only indication from the outside was it’s green color. As she showed me the interior, I noticed a familiar pieced-together narrative. “James from down the street helped me with this part of the house.”

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The house was one of the first buildings at The Farm. It was originally the bathhouse. Josie told me that at one time, 50 people lived in there. I asked if it felt lonely now that it was just her in there. “No, not at all. I have lots of friends”, she said.

She settled me into my room and I soon helped her unload her car with groceries. Josie has a warm and inviting personality; she makes you feel like an old friend. We struggled to find dinner between my three-year old palate and her vegetarianism, but settled on black bean burgers. We clinked our wine glasses together with a cheer to “mother earth, our children, and our children’s children” and slipped into a long conversation about forgiveness, shakras, and spirituality.

I came to respect Josie greatly during our conversation. She is the type of person who wrings every ounce of excitement and joy out of life – “oh I once lived in Arizona! I studied spiritual shamanism and slept on the roof every night”, she casually mentioned. When I brought up backpacking, she told me about how she had lived in Italy for 10 months while her husband tried to start a nightclub. She also told me about the interconnectedness of the community – “if one of us needs help, we just do it.”

Eventually, Josie needed to slip away to study her Spanish – she is learning a new language at 75! – so we both quietly retreated to our rooms, with me still basking in the warmth of the conversation full of love and tolerance for beliefs. I fell asleep with the window open, listening to the sounds of the forest.

Waking up at Josie’s house was beautiful; we discussed how we both felt mornings were an indication of the rest of the day. Josie urged me to sit out in her closed-in porch to read while she made me a cup of coffee. I enjoyed “The Way of Tea and Justice” by Becca Stevens which details her creation of a cafe to fight human trafficking while she made me eggs with pesto – “just try it!” – and I was becomingly increasingly aware of her ability to get me to do things outside my comfort zone.

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“Paradise is within reach when we surrender to love without judgment and service to others. We surrender to love and service not so we can get to paradise but in gratitude for the truth that we are already there. We are walking with Jesus down a road, heading to Jerusalem, and it may never get better than this moment.” – The Way of Tea and Justice

We set out for a morning hike and it wasn’t until I asked if she often hiked alone that she reminded me the dangers of doing that at her age. We had spent the morning bouncing so much dry humor off each other I had forgotten she was 5 years from turning 80. Josie trudged up and down hills she “had hiked for 30 years now” and recounted the history of the land. I tried to gently steer the conversation to why she felt the design of the commune ultimately failed.

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The Farm had created this watering hole. I asked if she swam there in the summer. “Oh yes!!”

“We just didn’t have money, I don’t know. We did it for a while and no one abused the system, and we were very thrifty. We bought things at the dollar store, but some of the basic necessities… we just couldn’t afford. We were living in tents and didn’t have shoes for the kids. So, we changed it to a community. We still take care of each other, though. I just happen to pay people for their work when they help now.”

Though we lacked a common religion between us, Josie’s enthusiasm for serving others and forgiveness was deeply moving. She described an altercation with a family member and how she had used her training in nonviolent communication to deescalate the situation. ( I later overheard the family member call and apologize for their actions, which Josie gracefully accepted.)

Our two hour hike took us through meadows and across creeks, which Josie often paused at to listen to the sound of rushing water. We talked about family and healthy eating and relationships, but our newfound friendship had reached a comfortableness where silences were relaxed and easy.

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Josie found these persimmons as we were walking and we stopped to collect them so she could make them into a jam.

We emerged from the woods back into The Farm; I was excited to see the funkadelic architecture of the local neighborhood at a walking pace. Compost piles, vegetable gardens, and greenhouses were as plentiful as the amount of paintings in Josie’s home. We passed by different structures as she described each one – “that’s where we make our tofu!” – and I wondered what style my architecture professor would classify these hippie-chic buildings into.

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Ancient artifact!

Josie excitedly asked me to stay for lunch and I helped her prepare one last meal together of homemade hummus (!!!) and banana smoothies. She said over and over again how much she wished I would have been able to stay longer and, just like the meal before, she stated her gratitude before eating. “Thank you for bringing sunshine and smiles into my home”, she told me as I wished for the 100th time to be born in the 1960s.

I left shortly after, but not before a hug and an offer from Josie to return and to stay for free (as long as I helped with some housework, of course.) I wished her a good day and thanked her for her warm hospitality as she was about to leave to go do yoga with a friend. We parted ways and decided that I would be back down there, or she would come up to visit me soon.

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The loft room she would like me to help with to become her art studio.

Josie and I are products of different generations, but there is a lot to be learned from someone who has spent their time with seemingly so little and still exudes happiness and light. (She once told me about how they lived on beans alone and she was grateful for it because it made her more compassionate to 3rd world countries.)

In a lot of ways, The Farm is an example of what christian community should look like. Working together to build each other up and with the intent to serve only to serve are concepts I definitely struggle with on a daily basis, and yet, here is a community doing it full-time and living in gratitude.

I can only hope that I am still doing yoga and hiking when I am 75!

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“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2

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Lesson From a Dog

My family and I share a sort of inside joke about the amount of lost dogs that I find on the road. So, when a rogue beagle darted in front of my car on my way into my tiny Tennessee town, I thought “here we go again.” With this being the fifth dog within a year’s time to pick my vehicle to determine its fate, I was confident in my dog-catching abilities and quickly pulled over to try to get the beagle into my car and away from danger.

It was immediately clear that this dog was not going to come to me without incentive, so I tore off the crust of my Subway pizza and threw bits until the dog, uncleverly and temporarily named “Puppy”, got close enough that I thought I could grab him and take him to a shelter to check for a chip… It was not that easy.

Puppy was suspicious; though I was giving him food, he did not trust me and it was apparent in his posture. He tentatively and nervously grabbed food from my hand, but the sounds of car doors and unsympathetic vehicles flying by made him jump and back away. I sat there next to him, so close, but not able to grab him, and not able to make him do anything. I stared into his eyes trying to recall some Caesar Milan knowledge and willing myself to develop a latent ability to talk to animals, but soon enough, I was out of pizza and no closer to getting Puppy into my car than I had been when I started.

Talking to my mom on the phone later, I explained the discouraging situation and how I had sat in a parking lot for half an hour in the rain, wasting a pizza on a dog while a group of bikers watched. It made no sense to me. “If only the dog had trusted me, it wouldn’t be still on that highway,” I told her. “You can’t save them all,” she said. My mind needed to assign a deeper meaning to have closure to the dog incident.

In so many ways, I am just like the dog. It didn’t understand that my plan was better than his; he didn’t want to give up his freedom of running all over the highway. Sure, the ride might have been scary and he would have probably had people poke and prod him at the animal hospital, but in the end, it would have been much better than his little joy ride.

How many times do I do the same thing to God? I get close enough to get a little bit of bread and then I get right out of there – before it gets scary, but also before I can let God embrace me or have the control in my life. I take bits and pieces of God like a pill to make me feel better and then leave for the highway that leads only to sadness and discontent; but, when I hear a coyote howl, I come running back, realizing I can’t do it on my own. I often wish God would place a leash on me, but free will means that I choose how close I am to Him.

Or, how many times do I look at those out reached hands and think “no, you’re wrong. You really don’t want me. You don’t understand how unclean I am.” An internal mantra of “not good enough, not good enough, not good enough” discredits the Agape love God has for me. My view of myself and my actions have nothing to do with his view of me anyway; he only sees Jesus. A friend used to lovingly remind me, “Mags, Jesus didn’t die for you to feel that way.” But sometimes, (daily), I choose to stay on the highway because I think I deserve it.

In John chapter 8, a woman is caught in the act of adultery and the Pharisees are ready to kill her by stoning when Jesus steps in and reminds them that no one is without sin and that they have no right to stone her. One of my favorite pastors said, “Even Jesus’ very posture was grace,” because, in that moment, he was on the ground next to her when he told her that she was not condemned.

My affection for the dog was so conditional. I pulled over because I thought it was cute, but really, my attempt to save it had a time limit and I just liked the feeling that comes with saving something. Had that dog been barking or trying to bite, I would have quickly said “forget this,” and left. But not Jesus. I do that to Him every. single. day. yet He refuses to leave, and is still sitting on the ground with me, begging me with open arms to come to Him.

I am always going to mess up. I will always have sin in me. I will assert my opinion where it’s probably not needed, or flaunt some major Pharisee righteousness, but the control I have is to forgive myself like Christ forgives me and to repent of that sin. As my friend said, Christ did not die for me to wrap myself in condemnation or to not trust His plan. Grace dares us to tell ourselves “beautiful,” “loved,” “worthy.” God is not sitting on a cloud looking down and scowling; rather, He is in the dirt with arms outreached.

(However, if God is using fast food to coax me, I think His food of choice would be Chick-Fil-A.)

 

Slipped Through the Cracks

To be completely honest, I’m a little nervous to post this, but I believe it is truth. This is not to say this is completely true of every church kid or church; I have been to and go to a church where people are authentic with their kids about Jesus-  it is just from my own experience.

 

Back in January, I got the spontaneous opportunity to take three 13 year olds- my Little Sister, my niece, and my niece’s friend- to a Christian concert in St. Louis called “Winter Jam.” We packed some snacks, sang goofy songs on the way over, and soon enough, we walked into an arena of thousands of youth group kids, parents, and teens.

The energy in the room was tangible as artists like Lauren Daigle, Red, and Matthew West performed one after another and we all sang along with the lyrics on the screen. As we listened to testimonies of people overcoming very adult issues like drug addiction, I wondered what the girls were thinking about all this. Those testimonies are miracles and obvious works of God – but I remember being their age and not being able to relate at all. Those stories felt so distant from my daily life of school, band, and boys. If someone had gotten up on stage and said “Do you ever feel like you just don’t fit in?”, 13-year-old Maggie would have listened.

So many kids go to youth group because it’s a thing to do – not because they love God, but because that’s just what you do when you grow up in church. I know because I was one. I went through the motions of church and no one knew any different. After high school, I sat my parents down and explained how I did not believe in God. Thanks to a patient father and a fervently prayerful mother, I came back to God, but still, so many kids like me are slipping through the cracks, for a few reasons:

Assuming they already know Jesus

Growing up in the church, you’ve heard it all. You know the bible stories, you know why everybody has a water buffalo (points if you feel me on that one), and you know exactly where those four single drum beats are in “10,000 reasons.” John 3:16 was not something that hit you emotionally, but a phrase splashed on a colorful poster in the nursery.

When it came time for 7th and 8th grade, we had a 2-year long class in order to be confirmed into the church. Every week, five of us sat in a room and talked about pretty heavy doctrine and church history. No one actually wanted to be there and I just remember the pastor being mad at me when I hadn’t memorized the bible verses of the week.

It is great to memorize scripture – and now that is something I do because I love God and want to know his character better – but at the time, we didn’t understand why we had to do it. Having to obey God’s commands felt like having to listen to a third parent I did not ask for or want.

In fact, that’s the problem. Obeying God is something we do after we accept Jesus because, like a spouse, we truly love them and want to please them. The fact that I had no desire to go to a weekly bible study was simply a symptom of the larger issue that I did not love God. I could tell you what food John the Baptist ate in the wild, but none of that had any impact on my heart or the way I lived my life.

Leaving no room for doubt

At the same time that I was being told that God created the heavens and the earth, I was learning  at school that the earth was 4.5 billion years old (apparently I lost that knowledge, though, as I just had to google it.) And to nerdy little Maggie, whose hobby was reading her science encyclopedia on the bus to and from school, science trumped what I heard on Sundays. (You’re probably judging me. This is a no judgement zone.)

It tends to be accepted that if we teach our kids that Jesus loves them, and they repeat it back, they truly believe it. No one ever asked me if I had any doubts- and even if I wanted to express them, I don’t know who I would have felt comfortable sharing them with. (This is not to knock my parents, who probably would’ve received my doubts well and listened intently; it was just so much easier to be praised for giving “Jesus” as the answer in Sunday school rather than asking why Jesus dying on the cross should matter to me.)

I remember once in high school that someone my age talked in front of the church and in part of the message they mentioned how they had doubts about God – and I remember thinking “yes! Finally something real. Finally something I can relate to.” No one ever talked about doubting the existence of God – and I didn’t want to be the black sheep.

Kids are still learning, but they are forming their own opinions and perceptions of the world and when you get down to it, I did not believe that there was a celestial being that cared for me deeply and intimately. I knew how to play the part, though. And that’s the problem.

The bottom line

If we raise kids in a Christian culture but do not actually address the heart problem of whether they really know Christ and are changed by what He did for them (and listen to their opinions!), we are raising up people who are going to leave the church and never look back. Once it’s said and done, if you don’t know the love of Christ, His laws are not going to hold you there.

Those children are looking at us. They are looking at the way we live our lives. And the girls I brought to the concert were definitely watching the way I was reacting to the music. (Yes, Autumn, if you’re reading this, I saw you staring. Love you though.) The most important thing is that we live genuinely and authentically for Jesus – doubts and mess and all.

Dear Anxious Person

Dear Anxious Person,

I’m sure you’ve noticed it – tons of articles flooding your newsfeed: “15 Images that Socially Anxious People Will Relate To”, “What it Feels Like to Have Anxiety”, etc. This is such a great thing! Mental health is a very important topic and it is finally getting the attention that it deserves! However, I have not seen nearly enough mention of the one thing that gave my soul peace.

Anxiety is pretty depressing. I’m not talking about the “I’m about to give a speech so I feel nervous” anxious that people describe, I’m talking about the “why is my heart pounding like I ran a marathon in the middle of class on a Tuesday?” type of anxious. It makes you feel weak and is a definite hit on self-confidence. It’s hard to talk about, but even harder to live with.

Take it from me – I have been through the ringer with anxiety. I was desperate to try anything to get rid of it – meditation, natural remedies from health food stores, prescription drugs, but none of them ever gave me a quiet mind. (And don’t get me wrong, I work in a pharmacy; prescription drugs can be a wonderful, wonderful thing for many people. But for me, they didn’t do the trick.) What I thought through all this was that I could control my life and make myself happy; it was only when I gave it all up to God that I found peace.

Stop wondering why

So much of my time has been wasted asking God why I feel the way that I do and doubting my faith when I prayed for peace and didn’t immediately receive it in that moment. But God tells us, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (1 John 13:7). Anxiety is  chaotic and depressing and it is so hard to imagine that such a dark thing could become beautiful. I’ve realized through my anxiety that I am now able to recognize it others and try to make them feel comfortable – for God makes His power perfect in our weaknesses, even if we didn’t understand it on that one extra-anxious day. This feeling will pass, but don’t treat God like a genie to pray to when you are feeling nervous.

God loves you NOW

Anxiety often keeps you from appreciating the beauty around you; on what should have been an amazing day, the thoughts in your head keep from enjoying the present. It’s so tempting to look forward – planning your pinterest wedding, anticipating graduation from that dang school you can’t wait to leave, etc. – what if I told you that you will probably have anxiety then too? The day you get married is going to be a beautiful and wonderful thing, but the same God that will love you on that day loves you just as fiercely NOW. At this moment. In your anxiety. It is possible to be married, with a great job, and still be anxious – those things won’t heal it – only the ultimate healer and creator of the universe can give you peace.

Get to know Him – and who He is not

Anxiety often tells you that you are not worthy of others- their time or attention, so how could GOD love you? Assuming that he cannot love you through nervousness doubts His grace. It is also easy to confuse your thoughts of who God is – he is NOT your anxiety. “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Stay disciplined to preach to yourself daily who He is and what He has done for you. Don’t listen to the voices in your head, but listen to God because who you listen to becomes your truth. There are so many times in the bible that God commands us to not be afraid; just google search the word “fear” or “anxiety” with “bible” and you’ll have an arsenal of verses to help you deal with the feeling.

Push through your comfort zone

Humans are creatures of habit, and anxiety creates a lot of habit. Once you find a comfortable groove, it is often difficult to leave. But that isn’t how faith is made! Surrounding yourself with believers is a beautiful thing and you’ll find compassionate people who are great to push you towards Christ, but do not put your faith in them because even the best will let you down – they are not God. Instead, rely on God and His perfectness to take baby-steps, whether it is praying out loud, joining a small group, etc. Pray for boldness.

Know it will get better

On my most anxious days, I felt like it was never going to end. But God doesn’t intend for you to feel that way! He wants so, so desperately for you to be happy. He didn’t give me anxiety; that comes from my own doubt and sin, because the bible says “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). And it will get better! My favorite verse reads: “So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while” (1 Peter 1:6-9). JOY. You have “inexpressible, glorious joy” coming to you, even on your darkest day.

Remember who God is – and who that makes you

One of the most important things I’ve learned about dealing with anxiety was a tip my pastor mentioned in a class. (It’s actually a chart, but let’s see if I can explain it here. It’s also WONDERFUL for any emotion you’re feeling that isn’t of God, so fill in the blank). I feel __________ because ____________, but God _______________, therefore ___________. So an example for an anxious moment might read “I feel anxious, because I’m late for an appointment but I lost my debit card and my gas light is on, but God is the one who has control of this situation, therefore I can have peace knowing He has control.  (Let’s just pretend like that scenario about the gas light was not true okay?) That “BUT GOD” part is so important. I may feel _____ BUT GOD is perfect/ in control/ all powerful   and knowing that fully is incredibly freeing.  I’ve noticed that my anxiety hangs on how much I believe the Gospel that day, and the days where I am enveloped in what Christ did for me have been the most carefree days this anxious person has experienced.

Persevere

It is so easy to turn on your favorite TV show and retreat into a blanket fort when you feel anxious – but ignoring why you are feeling that way is ignoring a heart issue – and what you are not believing about God in that moment. This is a note to myself, mostly: open up your bible! The bible calls us to “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Psalms is basically poetry anyway; words like that are like a honeycomb: sweet to the soul. A friend once encouraged me to “fight the good fight” – because Christianity is just that: a fight, but with God’s amazing grace, you are going to win. You anxiety is no match for the Creator. He has already won the battle.

So, Anxious Person, let’s rename you by what REALLY defines you: Child of God. You are more precious than rubies in His eyes. You are so, so loved.