Monday, December 30, 2013

Yearly meetings and useless debates


In my archival research for the Bolivian Friends history project, I constantly sift through the rhetorical styles of years gone by. Some of it strikes me as funny. For example, in one of the annual minutes of California Yearly Meeting during the 1920s, the introduction to the document contains the recording clerk’s surprise and delight that in all the sessions that year, “there was no useless debate on boring topics.”
Imagine that, if you can. And consider it as a negative ideal to set before us as we gather in our own yearly meetings. Of course, it is possible that those 1920 Quakers experienced useless debate on several fascinating and pertinent topics. Or, even more probable, that they debated quite fruitfully on numerous mundane items of business.
I chuckle at this reminder of our humanity. The Quaker ideal of gathering to listen to God as a community committed to following the voice of Jesus is right on. It’s one of the aspects of our identity I love the most. It’s a vision we need to continually hold before us and ask the Spirit’s help to live into. But because we happen to be human, sometimes in our gathered meetings we uselessly debate boring topics.
This January Hal and I have been invited to speak in the evening sessions of the Bolivian Yearly Meeting, January 9-12, in La Paz. We board the plane tomorrow. Hal will preach on one of his favorite topics, the tension between Gospel and culture as experienced in the Aymara context. I get to preach on the biblical foundations of our history project. We are now in the process of waiting on the Lord, praying and preparing around those topics.
With the Spirit’s help, may the results be neither useless nor boring.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best books of 2013



I love lists. Here, again, are my favorite books for the year just ending. I read a lot, so choosing which books most impacted, encouraged, motivated or delighted me is an exercise I enjoy. (I’d love to hear about your favorite books, too.) These are not books necessarily published in 2013 (although several of them were). They are books I read during the year.

Non-Fiction
--Minding the Light: Our Collective Journal, West Hills Friends Church (2013): This collection of stories makes me want to do the same thing at North Valley Friends.
--Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012): A beautiful/horrible narrative view of poverty in India. Hard to read, but worthwhile.
--The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister (2008):­ These short devotional chapters by one of my favorite nuns almost makes me want to grow old.
­­--Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life by Lauren Winner (2002): I love good memoirs, and this story of Winner’s conversion from Judaism to Jesus is a winner. I also read her more recent Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (2012).
--A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” by Rachel Held Evans (2012): This was a favorite. Evans does a great job of poking fun of legalism while at the same time showing the values behind the ancient rules and regulations.
--The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling (2007): I love the way the authors bring together the often separated areas of spirituality, evangelism, and work for social justice. Very holistic and healthy.

Fiction and Poetry
--The Whalesong Trilogy (1981-1994) by Robert Siegel:  Adventure combines with the beauty of language. I love it when a poet writes novels.
--The Waters under the Earth by Robert Siegal (2005): Seigel has been my discovery of the year, both his fiction and his poetry. In this collection of poems, “Turtles” alone is worth the price of the book.
--Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): A novel of cross-cultural conflict and adjustment (or maladjustment) as the protagonist moves from Nigeria to the USA, and then attempts, after many years, to go home again.
--And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (2013): This Afghani author again delivers a story set in a complexity of cultures and shows how families navigate (or fail to navigate) those complexities.
--The Book of Dead Birds  by Gayle Brandeis (2003): A dark/light book that weaves intercultural and environmental issues, while telling an unusual mother/daughter story.
--Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (1990): This fantasy disappointed me, but I mention it because I love the metaphor of the “Ocean of the Stream of Stories,” with the plot of the stories going wrong and the quest to heal them by going to the source. I also like that at the end, “Peace broke out.”
--The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari (2012): More intercultural stuff, with a great story that affirms the creativity and courage of women.
--The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990): A series of short stories, based on the reality of the author’s time in Vietnam. Very moving and insightful.

My two favorite books this years, always a hard decision (and apt to be changed), were Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood (non-fiction) and Timeri Murari’s The Taliban Cricket Club (fiction).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Field research—in the stable


Concurrent with advent and our Christmas preparations, we are also preparing for our next trip to Bolivia in just under two weeks. While there we will gather our Bolivian research team for a two-day seminar on methodology, all part of the project to investigate and write the history of the Bolivian Friends Church.
I get to bring some of the devotionals for that seminar and I’m actively looking for significant biblical passages and examples. One dropped into my lap Sunday morning as Andy Henry preached from the Luke 2 story of the shepherds at the manger. While this wasn’t exactly Andy’s focus, I suddenly saw the shepherds in a new light—that of active investigators.
The insight is new, but the passage is familiar:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Do you see it?
--The shepherds didn’t start their investigation from scratch. They had a word from the Lord, via the angels who gave them some key clues as to what this was all about. They had a commission to check it out. God provided the foundation and starting point for their research. This was their living oral “literature review.”
--“They hurried” off.” This was clearly a research team, the subject being too big for one witness alone.
--“They hurried off.” They went. They became involved. They got up off their haunches and did something. They actively sought the reality of the angels’ proclamation.
--They went to the manger, the actual place where the event was taking place. Geography and context are important to research.
--They saw him for themselves. They sought the sign and witnessed its reality in person. Although they left their literal fields for the manger, is not this field research in the deepest sense of the term?
--They responded to what they saw and the interpretation of the event the angels provided. They “spread the word.” They published their history so that others could share in the amazement and know the transforming truth. (This is the unwritten part of the story that comes next.)
I pray that this perspective might encourage and enliven those of us involved in this huge research project set in the Bolivian Andes. It’s a place where modern day shepherds watch over their llamas and sheep. And where, I suspect, angels still serenade them.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Quaker labyrinth?

A few years ago, North Valley Friends Church constructed a labyrinth on its property, part of the Peace Trail project. It’s located in a field, bordered by an oak grove, with a view of the Chehalem Mountains. It’s become a well-used venue for meditation walks.
In some senses a labyrinth seems antithetical to Quakerism, with its formal path to the center and its high symbolism of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (The drawing is of the Chartres Cathedral in France, about 1750.) It makes me think of Anglican or Catholic spirituality, or, more lately, of New Age practices. But here sits a classical labyrinth on Quaker ground. And I’m one Quaker who uses it regularly.
As I draw on the Quaker conviction of the light of Christ in every person or culture, the adaptation and use of other spiritualities, when appropriate, seems entirely a Quaker thing to do. It certainly fits in with another conviction, that Christ is here among us and speaks to us in the gathered meeting and through any medium the Spirit chooses.
What I love about the practice of walking the labyrinth is that it engages my whole person. The physicality of walking, the sensuality of the beautiful setting, the spiritual focus on drawing near to God, these all combine to help me worship and pray.
Last Saturday the Spirit spoke to me as I waited in the center of the labyrinth. The background of the message is the struggle I’ve faced throughout my life with feelings of being on the outside, of not belonging. These last few years especially, as I find myself on the threshold of that dark forest called Growing Old, it sometimes feels like I’m losing the connections that tell me who I am and to whom I belong.
I’ve always pictured circles of belonging, and I’ve known that the borders are porous. Communities change, people come and go, kids grow up and get married, and the circles change. The changes can be painful, but the pattern is beautiful if Jesus is the artist.
I continually remind myself that Jesus is the center of my life. The most basic circle shifts and pulsates to the rhythms of our Lord as He sings the ongoing creation song.
I continually remind myself because I so easily forget. My losses scream so loudly I often can’t hear the real song. I actually imagine myself in the middle, unable to hold it together, wondering where they’ve gone—my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my country, my idealism, my dreams.
On Saturday Jesus gave me a new picture of the reality of belonging in his kingdom. It’s a picture of circles, but with a different configuration.
Not unsurprisingly, it came to me as I walked the labyrinth at North Valley. It was a beautiful cold November morning, with mist lying on the surrounding hills. Most of the leaves of the oaks have fallen, and I could see long distances through the grove.
As I slowly walked around toward the center, I felt Jesus drawing me, and I responded simply, “I come. I come. O, my Lord, I come.”
When I reached the center, I entered one of the smaller circles, the one that lets me face the hills. I stood in an attitude of being with Jesus and waiting for his voice. And as I waited he spoke to me from the visual of the inner labyrinth. I saw that the center of the inner circle is Jesus. The six smaller circles that surround the center are other places of belonging, with different centers. My basic human circle of belonging is simply Hal and me. I saw my children and their families in the other smaller circles. The extended Thomas family occupied a circle, as did my North Valley Friends community. All these smaller circles are open to the central circle. I am free to enter the other circles, and others are free to enter ours. But all the going and coming is through the Center. It’s through Jesus that we belong to one another. And all the circles find their ultimate Center in Jesus.
My vision changed and the smaller circles put on rainbow colors and began to dance around the Center. While the Center held steady and bright, the other patterns shifted, like a living abstract painting, orderly and wild all at once.
Sometimes I find myself alone with Jesus in the Center. His embrace tells me I belong to him. I’m at home in the deepest sense possible.
Other times I find myself sharing the Center with another person as our relationship is mediated and deepened by Jesus.
And other times I sense the whole body of Christ, the church, gathered in the Center as we worship the One who holds it all together.

After my time in the center, I slowly walked the path back out, aware that Jesus was walking with me and that we were on a mission, a mission to find those who are still outside. We are on a mission of invitation. There is a belonging place. There is Someone in the Center. There is family.
And the doors are open.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Confronting the abominable scowl



Last week Hal and I enjoyed prowling around in the archives of Southwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, hot on the trail of the puzzle pieces as we research the history of the Bolivian Friends Church. One of the occupational hazards of archival research is the temptation to scamper off on any of the fascinating rabbit trails that frequently pop up. Because of the limited time we had, we managed to resist many of these tempting trails. But not all of them.
The rabbit trail I’m about to lead you down appeared in the lower right hand corner of page 8 of the magazine Christian Workman, from “first month” 1905. (The Christian Workman was the early printed voice of California Yearly Meeting.) It’s a short trail, essentially a list of the characteristics of an effective “junior worker.” A“junior worker” might be what we would today call a youth pastor.
Some of these characteristics, while timeless, reflect a different age. The junior worker...
--Is gentle.
--Cultivates simplicity.
--Speaks a kind word often.
--Lays stress on small duties.
(Perhaps we would describe youth pastors today in more dynamic terms?)
Some of the characteristics definitely root in the early 20th century:
--Uses blackboard.  (A what?)
--Wears junior badge. (This congers up memories of my brownie button, which I wore with pride. But I somehow can’t picture a youth-pastor-badge, or anyone today wearing such a thing.)
My favorite characteristic from the list stands out in its quaintness. I learned that an effective junior worker…
--Thinks scowling abominable.
Abominable. That’s a strong word. In other words, the junior worker is not only someone who scowls at a scowl, he or she wholeheartedly opposes it.
I’ve been chewing on the term awhile, and I’m sensing more and more its appropriateness. However quaint the expression, the common sense therein applies as much to us as it did to those 1905 junior leaders.
Scowling people are still, if not totally abominable, at least irritating.
I offer my own grandkids as an example. Normally these young people are adorable, but on that rare occasion when one of them wakes up grumpy, “abominable” may not be too wild a term to use.
Please observe these photos of the grandkids scowling abominably. You’ll quickly discern that they are posing for instructional purposes. These are not their normal expressions. But I wanted to illustrate what a scowl looks like, and rather than the blackboard, I’m using digital photography, this being 2013.
Of course, the really abominable scowl is the inward one. I must confess that I sometimes bear one, carefully disguising its outward manifestation if other people are present. I have days when a black cloud hangs over my spirit and I can see no good in the world around me, including the people who inhabit it. Abominable is exactly the right word in this case. Some would call it sin (a word that fits better in a document from 1905, but applies today).
The antidote is thankfulness, I think. On dark days, deliberate thankfulness is an offering we make to God. An unnatural offering, but a real one. An old hymn tells us to “count your many blessings, count them one by one.” 
It’s hard to do that and scowl at the same time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

History of the Bolivian Friends: finding the puzzle pieces



I love puzzles. I am currently beginning the largest and most complicated puzzle of my life. This one will take longer than usual, and I will need a lot of help in putting it together.
In January of this year, both the Northwest Yearly Meeting Board of Global Outreach and the Bolivian Evangelical Friends Church (INELA) officially approved a five-year project to research and write the history of the INELA. As this yearly meeting approaches its centennial celebration (2024), people are concerned to pass on the details of its birth, development and growth as a heritage to the next generations.
We traveled twice to Bolivia this year to organize the Bolivian research team, set up an office, and begin the work. We want the work to reflect both insider (Bolivian Quakers) and outsider (us and the NWYM mission archives) perspectives, with three resulting products: a book in Spanish for Bolivian Quakers, a book in English for NWYM and other English-speaking Quakers, and a documentary film in Spanish, with English sub-titles. The two books will not be translations but two separate books for the two separate audiences, although we will share the research.
Currently Hal and I are in Southern California, scrounging around in the archives of Azusa Pacific University and the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. We’re following the trails of a few names that exist almost as myth in the very beginning of Friends in Bolivia: William Abel and Juan Ayllon. We’re trying to sift fact from fiction. To get back to my puzzle metaphor, we’re trying to find the missing pieces.
Without going into a lot of detail here, two discoveries are especially exciting because they connect us personally to the story. They both concern William Abel, the Native American Quaker that began it all. I learned that he left the Mesa Grande reservation in Southern California shortly after his parents died, and he moved to the town of Ramona. He reluctantly attended revival services at the Ramona Friends Church in 1897. California Yearly Meeting superintendent of evangelism, Levi Gregory, was preaching, and on the second night, William Abel made a decision to join his destiny to the cause of Jesus Christ. He became a Christian.
This links to me in that I grew up in Ramona and also became a Christian in the Ramona Friends Church, at a much later date, of course. This church, always small, no longer exists.
Two years later Levi Gregory was involved, along with several other Quakers, in founding the Training School for Christian Workers in Southern California, the institution that gradually evolved into Azusa Pacific University. Gregory apparently used his influence on his young convert, and William became the first person to enroll in the school in 1900.
William Abel’s story takes several twists and turns. He spent under two years at the school and left in 1902 as a missionary to the Philippines where he spent the next 11 years. Sensing the need for more training, he returned to the school and finally graduated in 1916. After that he left as a missionary to Bolivia, and the history of Friends in Bolivia begins.
But the personal link to Hal is that graduating class of 1916. We have obtained a graduation photo of the Training School for Christian Workers, 1916. Of the eight graduates, William Abel is the man in the middle of the last row. And on the first row, the pretty young woman second from the left, identified as Mary Kellogg, just happens to be Hal’s grandmother.
What a delightful discovery. We knew that Grandma and Grandpa Clyde Thomas attended the training school, but we had no idea they were classmates of William Abel. (Grandpa and Grandma Thomas moved to Oregon after their marriage, raised their five kids, the oldest being Hal’s dad Bill Thomas, and then went to Burundi as Friends missionaries. But that’s another story.)
Later this morning we’ll drive our rented car to the headquarters of Evangelical Friends Southwest where we’ve graciously been given access to the archives. I’m hoping to find something about the revival meetings in Ramona, maybe a story about William Abel’s background, and so on. We have many questions.
Fortunately, I really do love a good puzzle. It's fortunate because I’ll be spending a lot of time on this one—not just the beginnings of the work, but its development on the high plains of Bolivia and its growth down into the tropical valleys and into what is today a thriving community of Christian Quakers. I imagine the completed picture will be multicolored, with all shades of light and dark. I imagine it will be complex and beautiful.
In the meantime, we’re having fun finding the pieces.