Salvation in a Pigpen (Sam Chamelin)

Salvation in a Pigpen (Sam Chamelin) March 17, 2020

As per the Tuesday usual, I’ve got a treat for you, mostly because I don’t think there’s a better sentence to begin an essay than with the one below. Enjoy this “Listen, Learn and Listen Some More” post from my new friend, Sam Chamelin. Proceeds from today’s post goes toward Bravemaker. 

If it’s possible to find salvation again, I found it in a pig pen.  My evangelist, a young boy who loved pigs more than anything in the world.  And my confirmation, unexpectedly scheduled for a cold early morning in February.

My heart for ministry was really beginning to wane.  I had experienced church trauma, and I was serving in a part time call, trying to find myself again. In my “dark night of the soul,” the only place I felt like myself was on the farm, splitting time between my own vegetable garden and my son’s growing 4-H swine project.  He had inherited my mother’s love of livestock, and after several successful years of showing pigs, he decided it was time to breed his own.  We chose a uniquely personable gilt named Beatrice, prepared her winter home, and readied ourselves for our first litter of piglets.

At the same time, a colleague had just left his call, and I was curious as to what was up.  So I emailed a friend of mine, who subtly suggested that perhaps I would be interested in this opportunity.  I had been serving a small congregation on a part-time salary, and while my family was growing my salary was not.  I spent more time on ZipRecruiter than in my daily prayers, wondering if my contribution to the body of Christ was less a balm, and more a disease.  But here was a new opportunity crawling towards me, and I felt that maybe my ministerial life wasn’t over quite yet.  One night, after the family had gone to bed, I folded a piece of paper in half and started to write down some of the things I would do if I took the call.

After forcing out a few dull sermon series ideas, the ideas simply came flowing one after the other – producing content, addressing systemic issues, contemplative prayer and retreats, regular meetings with congregation members around our family’s table.

It was as if I had forgotten what ministry looked like deep in my soul, only to have glimpsed it in a passing moment.  I wasn’t yet living into this renewed self, but I knew something was growing inside of me.  And when the congregation voted to call me in mid-January, I knew that I would be called to bring this new sense of self to life.

All the while, preparations were being made for the arrival of this new litter.  A special pen was set up, heat lamps purchased, waterers reconfigured, de-icers descended into the watering tubes.  While we built the infrastructure to support this litter, Beatrice herself was developing her own structure, her teats filling with milk, her ligaments loosening to allow safe passage.  As the calendar switched to February, Beatrice’s due date came and went, each passing day finding my son and I looking for any evidence of delivery.  None forthcoming, we decided it was time to induce.  On Saturday morning, we gave a shot of a hormone that would trigger a series of events that would turn Beatrice’s body into the full mother we had hoped she would be.  And I set about completing my sermon for my inaugural Sunday.

About 10:00 PM, I get a text – “She’s pushing pretty hard.”  Arriving at the scene, we find Beatrice in full labor, at peace, and yet overwhelmed by the cascade of changes erupting in her body.  Quietly, carefully, in the quiet of the night, a piglet was born.  We thought we were underway, letting nature taking its course.  Except nature was no friend that night.  One hour passed between piglet 1 and 2, twice as long as a normal delivery.  And another hour passed between piglet 2 and 3.  I said to my son, “We’re gonna have to pull them, and your hands are smaller than mine.”   A wave of panic swept over his face, but eventually the fear of failure overwhelmed his fear of success, and one by one, he helped Beatrice bring 7 piglets into the world.

What began on Feb. 2 concluded on Feb 3.  Looking at my watch, it had turned to Sunday morning, 3:00 AM.  And I was still in the barn with a sermon to preach to a new congregation in a few hours.  I ran home, tried to coax myself into some sleep, was back up at 7:00 AM, reviewed the sermon and communion liturgy with weary eyes, and was in church by 9:00 to greet my new flock.

And I preached.  And I prayed.  And I presided.

And I felt a surge of renewal, as if I had been reborn alongside these new piglets that had been born.

Rev. Sam Chamelin is the pastor of St. Mary’s UCC (Westminster, MD), and the founder of The Keep & Till (thekeepandtill.org), a community centered on agriculture, ecology, and spirituality.  He is passionate about rural churches and what they have to offer the world in a era of climate change.  He also hosts The Food and Faith Podcast (foodandfaithpodcast.podbean.com), an ongoing conversation around food, agriculture, and the spirituality underneath it all.


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