Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best books of 2009

I love making lists. And I love reading. This list includes the books that most impacted me in 2009, in no particular order.

The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright (2005): The sub-title, “Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” helps explain why I love this book. It successfully links three of my favorite things. (Can you picture Julie Andrews singing that last sentence?) This book has encouraged me as a writer to draw water more deeply from my own well and to trust the creative process.

Carta a los Efesios: Comentario para exegesis y traducción by Mariano Ávila Arteaga (2008): It isn’t often that I’d put a Bible commentary in a list of favorite books, but my friend Mariano has done a splendid job of uniting academic integrity with love and worship around Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, all from the perspective of a Latin American theologian. I’ve actually been reading it devotionally.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880): This re-reading of the Russian classic is impacting me, not only with the brilliance of the author’s insights into human nature, but the with book’s similarities to Latin American telenovelas (the continent’s version of soap operas). Talk about dysfunctional families and melodrama—it’s all there and more!

Maud: The Life of L. M. Montgomery by Harry Bruce (1994): The publicity blurb for this book says that it’s for adolescents age 12 and over, but I sometimes find books for young people worth reading. (And it did give me a mental break after Dostoevsky!) At any rate, I love reading biographies and memoirs of writers, and this account of the creator of the Anne of Green Gables books fascinated me. I was especially interested in Montgomery’s struggles overcoming prejudices against women in higher education and as professional writers. Her life is a case study in persistence and discipline.

These Tunes, This Circle (2008) and Searching for a White Crow (2009), both by Quaker poet William Jolliff: Bill and I both read poetry at a gathering during North West Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions in August. I loved his poem, “The Second Million Miles,” about parenting, coming of age, and life transitions. After the reading I asked Bill where I could buy his books, and he graciously gave me the two copies he had brought. I’ve been savoring them ever since.

The River Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1965): The Kenyan novelist paints a discordant picture of life during the early days of white settlement, including a scathing description of the negative effects of Christian mission on the Kikuyu tribe. This was a painful book to read and it certainly underscores the need for a wise contextualization of the gospel among the people groups of the world. Near the end of the novel, the protagonist (who has resisted Christian conversion) reflects: “He knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad. Even his religion was not essentially bad. Some good, some truth shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people. A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight…. A religion that took no count of a people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless.” While painful reading, this is good missiology.

Libro de la passion by José Miguel Ibáñez Langlois (1986): Ibáñez Langlois, a Catholic priest serving in Santiago, Chile, is one of the best Latin American Christian poets, but this work was actually my introduction to him. A gift from one of my doctoral students, a Chilean and a poet himself, the book chronicles the Passion Week of Christ in short narrative poems from the perspective of the different participants. Some of the scenes seem to take place, not in Jerusalem, but in Santiago. I’m impacted by the poet’s own passion, and am made able to enter into the story through the power of his insights and the beauty of the words. This is a gift.

Songs from the Slums by Toyohiko Kagawa (English translation, 1935): Like Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion, this is a book I read once a year. These poems from Kagawa’s years of living among the poor of Kobe move me every time I read them. This year I read the poems alongside a biography of Kagawa written by Cyril Davey in 1960, shortly after Kagawa’s death. Kagawa models for me an integration of academic discipline, poetic sensitivity, a passion for social justice, and a missionary heart.

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher J. H. Wright (2006): In this very scholarly but readable book, Wright traces the theme of the missio Dei, God’s missional purposes in the world, through the whole of Scripture. I found it strongly motivating me to go deeper into Scripture and then be present more authentically in the world.

A series of three books by Northwest novelist Jane Kirkpatrick: A Name of Her Own, Every Fixed Star, and Hold Tight the Thread: Hal and I are reading these aloud in the evenings. Based on historical characters, the narrative traces the intertwined lives of native Indians and the French and American pioneers and trappers who settled the Northwest in the early 19th century. The central protagonist, an Ioway Indian named Marie, gives the books their principal point of view. We see history unfold from Marie’s perspective. Kirkpatrick is a good story teller. She came to Newberg this spring, and we enjoyed hearing about her life and art.

I read many other books this year, including several I’ve already blogged about. I’m thankful that part of the goodness of life includes reading, that I can share in the experiences and glean from the wisdom of people as diverse as Toyohiko Kagawa, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Jane Kirkpatrick.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Light on!

Hal and I spent Christmas with our daughter, son-in-law and three young grandchildren. It was especially fun to share the holiday with Peter, the youngest at 21 months old.

Those who have read my previous blogs ( will remember Peter as the baby who last year was diagnosed with blindness and various other potential developmental disorders. It shocked our whole family, and Hal, I and others covenanted to intercede for Peter, asking God for mercy and healing. I’ve had the sense that my prayer assignment for this child will be a long-term commitment involving persistence and faith.

So far it’s been a journey of hope, despair and changing diagnoses. The last word names his condition as ocular albinism, which is better news than earlier diagnoses. He obviously can see something. He recognizes people by sight as well as sound, reaches for objects, and walks around without bumping into walls and furniture. While probably “legally blind,” he sees more than we had been told he would. How much of this is answered prayer, we don’t know. The not-knowing keeps us humble, while the obvious progress encourages us to keep praying.

Peter’s development in other areas, especially language, has been a concern. We were worried that at 19 months he hadn’t begun saying any words or responding to signs—doing things like clapping, waving bye-bye, playing peek-a-boo—baby stuff that normally comes with the territory. That plus some obsessive repetitive behaviors prompted the pediatrician to set up an appointment with a specialist in autism. “We don’t need this, too,” I thought.

Two weeks before the appointment, language kicked in. By the day Kristin took Peter to the doctor, he had a vocabulary of some 20 words and was adding to it daily.

The official diagnosis was “pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise diagnosed” (PDDNOS). This sounds horrendous but basically means he’s too young for a more specific diagnosis. The doctor told us he may have a mild form of autism which he could eventually outgrow. I’ll accept that for now and keep praying.

What delights me is that one of Peter’s first words—and probably the most repeated—is “light.” He is drawn to light. He points to windows and lamps, repeating with enthusiasm, “Light! Light! Light!” I was holding him when I first recognized him say a sentence. We were playing off-and-on with the light switch when Peter pointed to the ceiling lamp and said, “Light on.” Yes.

Maybe I’m silly in finding symbolic significance in this, but, hey!, I’ll take my encouragement in whatever form it presents. That IS what I’m praying for—that all the lights turn on in Peter’s mind. I pray for the gifts of sight and language. I pray that all the developmental tasks proceed in the order God intended. And I pray that Peter’s spirit will always respond to the Light.

Light on!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The hope of glory

Last week I drove from Newberg to Springfield in the early hours of the morning. Starting in the pre-dawn darkness, I watched the sky slowly grow light. It was a clear Oregon morning, cold enough for the traffic on I-5 to be slower than usual. I had the radio tuned to my favorite classical station.

At one point, a Beethoven piano piece filled the car. As I drove through the dawning day, the mountains etched against the sunrise, I worshiped. But after a while I unconsciously slipped from worship into a day dream. When I came to, I realized that in my mind, I was playing that piano concerto to an admiring audience. Not only was my music incredibly beautiful, I myself was gorgeous, but humbly unmindful of my great charm. It gets worse. The printed program informed people that, when not giving award-winning concerts, I made my living as a brain surgeon and donated six months of every year to medical missions in Afghanistan.

As I said, “when I came to” I hope I blushed. I don’t remember that part. I don’t often go into these adolescent reveries, but when I discover myself caught up in one, the only remedy is to laugh. That and the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”).

But after an appropriate time of repentance, an insight came to me there in the car. I realized that my day dream reflected a longing for glory and that it was not entirely negative. Glory, not so much in the sense of fame and recognition, but rather deep desire to be an active participant in something significant, excellent, beautiful and—well—glorious. Is not this part of our inherited nature as persons created in the image of God?

The next thought that swam through my mind as I continued driving down the freeway was a phrase from the New Testament—“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Yes. Beethoven, the sunrise colors, the Holy Spirit there in the dawn of the day all whispered and my spirit responded, “Yes! That’s it. It’s Jesus.”

The theme of glory runs through the Christmas story: the star, the angels proclaiming in music that would probably put Beethoven to shame, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to all people.” And at Christmas, it certainly all comes down to Jesus. One of my favorite Christmas passages, John’s description of the incarnation, tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Christ with us. Christ in us. Christ in me—in you—the hope of glory. That’s my Christmas gift this year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When helping hurts

American Christians are generous, no doubt about it. And not only in terms of money. According to recent research (Priest, 2008), over 1.6 million Americans participate yearly in some form of short-term mission, whether as young people from a local church, university/seminary students in a studies abroad program, or professionals wanting to serve overseas for a summer. This is in addition to the many cross-cultural mission ventures that take place within the US. My own faith community, the people called Quakers, is especially generous in this sense.

This practice has a biblical base, given the justice thread that runs throughout Scripture, that emphasizes caring for the poor and marginalized. And no doubt short-term mission has benefited both those on the going/giving end and those who receive. But this generosity has a shadow side.

Last month Hal and I, along with our friend, Fred Gregory, were privileged to lead in the annual Seminar by the Sea, sponsored by Twin Rocks Friends Camp. Our topic seemed a bit daunting, impossible to cover in a weekend: “American Christians—Understanding and Engaging with the World’s New Realities.” We certainly don’t consider ourselves experts, but we do represent three life-times of walking this path. Coming from different perspectives—Hal and I with experience in traditional mission work, Fred with extensive experience in relief and development work through NGOs—we have all come to similar conclusions and grown into similar values.

So we decided to take a narrative approach. We told our stories (or selected pieces), invited the participants to do the same, then facilitated conversation around the issues that surfaced. A good bibliography was part of the process, and many came having read one of the suggested books. Effective—and ineffective—short-term mission experience was one of the themes addressed, since most of those present had participated in an over-seas adventure.

Two books proved especially helpful to this discussion: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (Moody, 2009) and Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! edited by Robert J. Priest (William Carey Library, 2008). Both books face the shadow side of Americans serving abroad (“when helping hurts”), but also offer guidance for effective service among the poor, recognizing that the short-term missions movement is probably here to stay.

The potential, and certainly unintentional, damage done through short-term mission has to do with creating dependency and reinforcing the sense of deficiency that most of the world’s poor experience. In part this comes from what Corbett and Fikkert identify as a mistaken view of poverty that limits it to material lack. This in turn encourages ministry in the form of unexamined generosity that does not address root causes and unwittingly reinforces the sense of inadequacy on the part of the receptors.

The authors give their own definition of poverty as “the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” They see poverty alleviation in terms of a ministry of reconciliation, which I find refreshingly holistic and biblical. They describe this ministry of reconciliation as “moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.”

Another part of the equation comes from what Corbett and Fikkert term the “God-complexes of the materially non-poor.” That would be us: generous North-American (or European) Christians who, with good intentions, go as experts, ready to share what we have (money, knowledge, skill, materials, etc.) with those who lack these very things. The “God-complex” is largely unconscious. Corbett and Fikkert give the equation for harm as follows: “material definition of poverty + God/complexes of the materially non/poor + feelings of inferiority of materially poor = harm to both materially poor and non-poor.” This may take a bit of pondering, but it merits our serious consideration.

So, how can North American Christians help and not hurt as they travel abroad in mission? Is there some kind of Hippocratic Oath (where new doctors pledge, in part, to do no harm to their patients) we can adapt for short—or long-term mission activists? Following is a partial list, gleaned from experience, reading, and reflection in community. I invite comment and additions to the list.

--Go in humility. We who go out must recognize that we ourselves are broken people with much to learn. And recognizing that there’s not a whole lot we can accomplish in one or two weeks is only common sense.

--Go as learners. While we may have things to share, we are essentially learners, with much to gain from people in the places we travel to.

--Go appreciatively. Regardless of economic or technological challenges, every culture has its richness. Expect to be surprised and delighted. If possible, prepare by acquiring tools of observation.

--Focus on the assets of the poor, not on their lacks. Or at least begin by considering assets. There’s even a term for this in the literature: “asset-based community development” (ABCD, conveniently).

--Let any ministry be participatory, with the receptors calling the shots. That means the people name their needs and assets, help make any plan of action, and work alongside expatriate Christians. These last two points actually refer to projects that are longer in range.

--Focus more on relationships than on products or efficiency (how much can we accomplish in how short a time). These North American values inevitably clash with local culture.

--Recognize that the greatest beneficiaries of short-term mission adventures are those who go. If we can also bless and encourage the local Christians, that’s good. It’s also possible. But we need to first re-align our attitudes.

This list is partial. I hope it encourages more conversation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Magic Mountain: poetry as personal recollection

William Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” While that may not always be the case, it does point out the usefulness of poetry in remembering, one of the spiritual disciplines. Re-member is the opposite of dis-member, and means to once again bring together the members or parts of an experience. Poetry helps me do this.

Sometimes the poem helps me work through a difficult memory and come to a place of new understanding and peace. Some of these poems are whole enough to publish or share with others. Many are for my eyes and heart alone. Often the poem is just a way to help small but meaningful events from the past surface and become accessible. And so the whole story grows clearer. The following is one such memory.


The last time I rode a roller coaster
I had just turned 50. I’m not sure
what made me get on, but somehow
I found myself belted in, gripping
the arm of my husband of some 25 plus
years, as we started the slow ascent.
Its name, “The Viper,” should have
made me think twice. I thought more
than twice on the way up. “I’m
sorry for everything,” I prayed, eyes
shut tight. “Please save me.” Poised
three seconds at the top, I forgot to breathe.
Breath and prayer became irrelevant
as we plummeted down, then up
and around and down again, trees and
buildings a blur, the death grip
on my loved one’s arm tightening.
But somewhere on that last curve,
seconds before we eased to the station,
I looked at him. He looked at me. We grinned.
The third time around I sang Psalms.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Favorite things (Part 1)

Favorite time of day: Early morning, before dawn.

Favorite food: Whatever Hal cooks (especially if he cleans up afterward).

Favorite movie: Babette´s Feast.

Favorite sound: Water, in all its natural manifestations. While at the beach (as I was last week), the waves pounding the shore draw me. In the mountains, it could be a stream over pebbles. Waterfalls work well, too, especially small ones.

Favorite devotional practice: Community silence and listening, Quaker style.

Favorite blog: “Can You Believe?” by Johan Maurer. It was this blog (and friendship) that pushed me to begin my own. (In other words, it’s all his fault.) And, yes, I can believe.

Favorite flashlight: It’s small, slender and exceedingly purple. It fits into a black sock-like case and goes with me when I travel. I found it in my Christmas stocking two years ago.

Favorite piece of night sky: In the southern hemisphere, in the country of Bolivia, in the village of Samaipata. I stand on a hill with no electricity for miles around, look up and am amazed at the bright thickness of galaxies without number.

Favorite collection: Heart rocks. Ever since my friend, Priscilla, generously let me choose a rock from her collection, I’ve been finding my own heart-shapes on the beach. The basket at home is supposedly for my grandkids, but actually I’m the one who likes to take out the heart rocks, feel their textures, admire their markings and lay them out in patterns on the rug.

Favorite grandchild: Impossible to choose. Each one is my favorite. Bree, Reilly, Aren, Paige, Gwen, Peter and Alandra, just like those galaxies, you light up my life. I gladly pass on to you all I call mine—my books, my sea-shells, my memories, my place in line.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The mending moon and the sea lion

Broken and broken
again on the sea, the moon
so easily mends.
(old Japanese haiku)

Hal and I have been at Twin Rocks Friends Camp since Friday afternoon. During the weekend, we joined with Fred Gregory in leading the annual Seminar by the Sea on the topic, “US Christians: Understanding and Engaging the World’s New Realities.” We basically told parts of our own cross-cultural stories, encouraged participants to do the same, and, with the help of a challenging bibliography, attempted to come up with helpful principles and attitudes. Lively participation contributed to a good weekend. I’m satisfied, and relieved it’s over.

Now Hal and I are giving ourselves the gift of a week in the Captain’s Cabin, overlooking the ocean.

Yesterday morning I woke up well before dawn and peeked through the blinds to see if the ocean was visible in the dark. What I saw was not dark at all—a full moon, reflected back in the water. I woke Hal up, thinking that even at 5:00 on the first morning of our four-day vacation, he’d be delighted at the idea of a moonlit stroll on the beach. In fact, he was. We quickly layered on warm clothes and made our way outside and down the path.

Dawn was still hours away, but moonlight flooded the wide beach. We were at low tide and the feeling of spaciousness invited us to walk far. As we wandered, the path of light on the water moved with us. One early morning jogger passed us, but other than that we were alone with all the splendor to ourselves.

As we walked the eastern horizon slowly changed from black to grey, and the moon sunk lower in the west. Some time still before dawn we noticed a Black Thing about 30feet away from us on the sand. The unusual shape caught our attention; it didn’t look like sea weed or drift wood. Perhaps it was a wounded animal. Then it swayed and began moving in clumsy jerks toward the ocean. We just stood still and watched, soon recognizing it as a sea lion. It must have swum in with the night’s high tide and then, for some reason, been stranded.

We watched, fascinated, as it lifted its head and ambled forward, stopped, looked around, rolled in the sand awhile, got up and did it all over again. It obviously was drawn to the water, but at the same time it seemed hesitant, as though it were looking back with longing at the land. Following its backward glance, we saw another Black Thing up near the cliffs. A wounded cub or companion? My imagination went to work. Maybe the sea lion itself was wounded?

Over the course of the next 15 minutes we saw it cross about 150 feet of beach and at last enter the ocean. I felt a tremendous relief. And also a curiosity. We decided to investigate the other Black Thing and slowly approached it. If it were a wounded beast, what should we do? Attempting a rescue could result in getting bitten (do sea lions bite?) or in scaring the animal to death before we could drag it to the sea. We discussed this in whispers as we moved closer.

The moon, now covered by mist, didn’t help us, and it wasn’t until we were just two feet away that we realized the wounded beast was a tree stump. So much for the mysterious Black Thing. But in the growing light we studied the markings in the sand, saw where the sea lion had lain, saw where he apparently had thrashed around, and were able to follow his trek back to the ocean. We found no tracks leading inland; these had been erased by the outgoing tides. We also found dog tracks surrounded the area which adds fuel to imagination.

By this time the moon was completely covered by low-lying clouds, and although the sun had not yet crested the mountains in the east, it was clearly dawn, time to go home. Our feet were cold, but our hearts, warm.

What a gift. What a wonderful way to begin a retreat. It leaves me wondering, what next?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A strange clarity

Last Sunday we broke the pattern in morning worship. Midway through the service, half the congregation left to walk the neighborhood, collecting food for a community pantry.

Those of us who stayed behind listened as three of our members spoke of local needs. Jon talked from his perspective as coordinator of Love Inc, a network of churches that provides various resources to meet human need. Karen, a high school principal, spoke on the needs of young people and how these reflect the conditions of families in our area. We especially considered the situation of undocumented Hispanics. Finally, Edith shared from her experience as a Native American. All of this comes from our desire as a congregation to make a difference in our community.

I noted one moment of incongruity in the service. In opening worship we sang an old hymn that I’ve always loved, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” But part of this hymn struck me as awkward, perhaps because it reflects awkward theology. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus,” we sang. “Look full in his wonderful face” (so far so good, but here comes the ify part), “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

The “strange dimness” bothered me, and I could not sing that line. I understand the background, the thought of being “in but not of the world.” Kingdom values do demand a certain separation from the values and norms of the surrounding social context. And I know there are mystical moments of worship when everything—but the face of Jesus—fades away. But these are moments, not a life style.

Our purpose that morning was to see, understand and be moved by the needs in our community. This does not imply an either/or choice—choosing to see either Jesus or the neighborhood. Shouldn’t a sincere adoration and love for God lead to a love of neighbor? Shouldn’t worship flow out into mission?

I wanted to re-write this otherwise lovely old song. As we “look full in his wonderful face, the things (people) of earth will grow strangely clear, in the light of his glory and grace.”

Lord, give us your perspective. Enable us to see you more clearly, love you better and, in the light of this vision, see the world around us through your eyes. Amen. Yes.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's their turn: Andean Quakers writing

I lifted my head during a lull in the conversation and looked around the room. Our group had been interacting with Hilarión on an article he had written about his experiences as a Quaker in the Bolivian military. I noticed that the exchanges in other groups were just as lively. A circle of four men, conveniently seated in the patch of afternoon sun streaming in through the window, was debating. Another group listened to María reading aloud from her manuscript, the first article she had ever written. I liked what I saw.

This was the first afternoon of a writers workshop, held in Juli, Peru, September 10-13, sponsored by the Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas. The 27 participants represented the various Friends yearly meetings in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. This was the third workshop in the series that Hal and I had been invited to lead, the first two taking place in 2006 and 2007. The previous workshops, at the request of local Friends, had focused on the preparation of didactic materials for adults and had resulted in booklets (or plans for books) covering such topics as reconciliation in the family, the local congregation in response to its social context, and practical holiness.

But this time I wanted to do something different and proposed that we focus on narrative writing. I’ve long had a concern that we be writing down and collecting the stories of Andean Quakers, both on the personal and communal levels. The sponsors and the workshop participants responded positively, sharing the same concern.

Narrative writing fits the Aymara context; cultural communication styles are traditionally oral and narrative. In rural communities the grandparents pass on values to the children through the animal fables, which, by the way, are hilarious. Education and urbanization are changing the picture, mirroring what is happening to traditional cultures all over the world, but the importance of stories remains.

We gave the workshop twice, in Juli for the highland Friends, and on a series of Saturdays in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for Friends in the tropical lowlands, also in the month of September. Some 17 women and men participated in the Santa Cruz workshops.

We began by talking with the participants about narrative, its nature, its universal appeal, and its specific cultural importance. Why do we need to remember and pass on our stories? How do we express them in a compelling way? In a culturally appropriate way? How do we help each other to do this?

We also included a focus on Quaker values and some of the fascinating history of Quakers and literature. We noted that while most of Quaker writings have come from the global North and West, we can take inspiration from this history and step up now to take our turn. It’s time to hear from Friends in Africa, Asia, and, of course, Latin America.

But the heart of the workshops is always just doing the stuff. People were to come with a preliminary manuscript, a story from their own experience of an encounter with Jesus. About half the participants had the assignment ready, a good result actually. The others had to catch up during the workshop. With some orientation from us on principles of good writing (and re-writing!) and on the writing process, we divided into small working groups to read manuscripts and learn to do peer review. As I sat in on the groups, I was pleased by the observations different people were making, and the way the writers were learning to receive both praise and constructive criticism. That is never easy to learn!

The fact that the workshops are backed up by a specific project provided further motivation. We hope to publish selected stories in a book, or perhaps a series of books, tentatively entitled, Fire from the South: The Faith and Life of Latin American Friends. We want to include narratives from Central America, Mexico, and Hispanics in North America. The primary purposes are internal: a book in Spanish to help unite Latin American Friends, help them identify their particular characteristics and callings as part of the larger Quaker and Christian movement, and, of course, to pass the stories on to the next generations. The secondary purposes are for English-speaking Quakers. Participants in the workshops are encouraging us to look beyond a Quaker readership for the book, further expanding the purposes. (This is interesting to me in light of a recent series of articles on Quaker writings by Johan,Aug. 13, Aug. 20, Sept. 3, 2009.)

While final drafts are due the first of November, the preliminary manuscripts I brought home encourage me. Elisabeth and Ana have together written the story of their father, the pioneer of the Friends movement in the lowlands. We especially need the stories of older Friends who were involved in the beginnings of churches and even yearly meetings; many of them have died (such as the Friend in this story) and others don’t have enough formal education to write. But their children and grandchildren do. Two other articles deal with the early Quaker movement in the highlands, and how migration to Santa Cruz fueled the beginnings of the lowland church. Julio writes about how his profession as an entomologist is helping him live out his concern for protecting the environment. Gaby tells her story of encounter with Jesus in a context of animism and hostility to Christianity. Esteban writes of his calling to ministry and later to missionary service in another country. Abraham tells the story of his congregation’s response to situations of family abuse in the surrounding community.

All of these stories give insight into the faith and life of Andean Quakers. It is my prayer that they will enrich and encourage all who read them, both in and beyond the Quaker community. It’s time to let their voice be heard.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Celebrating with the archangels

We’ve changed planets again. The alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. yesterday, and since then we said goodbye to our Bolivian family; entered the weird transitory culture of jet planes, customs agents, increasingly invasive security checks and international airports; and landed this morning—after a 30 hour odyssey—on the planet called Oregon. It’s good to be home. The rain outside our window strums a good green melody.

It’s also my birthday, and I can think of no better way to celebrate than by just being home again. But Hal is taking me out to dinner this evening, and we will celebrate together. And it won’t be just us. I always celebrate my birthday with the archangels.

Let me explain. Several years ago, as I was reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, I discovered that my birthday falls on the Feast of the Archangels, according to the liturgical calendar. We Quakers don’t usually pay much attention to the liturgical calendar, but I, for one, delight in this particular date. I don’t at all mind sharing it with Michael, Rafael and Gabriel. Somehow our fellowship is wide enough to include all my various worlds. It brings them together, and that is good.

(The Feast of the Archangels)

Every year on September 29
they gather.
Raphael brings the drinks,
while Michael and Gabriel
raid the pantry for caviar and taco chips.
They congregate in the fireside room,
spread the food on the table,
pull out the Parcheesi board,
and take off their shoes.
Then they sing.
They start with the old songs
--Psalm 100, the Magnificat,
“Behold, I bring good tidings”
(a favorite after all these years)—
work their way through Gregorian chants
and Martin Luther to New World
Yankee Doodle, Southern gospel,
and somewhere in the process
they sing Happy Birthday to me.
With voices like wolves,
strange, far, and wholly holy,
the archangels celebrate.
“Don’t be afraid,” they tell me.
Planets realign.
The juice of the sun flows free.

(From The Secret Colors of God, 2005, The Barclay Press)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Andean Travelogue

Since leaving Costa Rica on August 15, we’ve been on assignment in Bolivia and Peru, where we spent so much of our lives. We’ve been serving as consultants at the Bolivian Evangelical University, for the masters in mission program. And we’ve been leading a series of writers’ workshops for Bolivian and Peruvian Friends. These workshops have been sponsored by the Friends Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, and focus on narrative writing. We’re encouraging Andean Friends to remember and write down the stories that give insight into their faith and life, both on the personal and communal levels.

In the above photo of the Santa Cruz workshop, Esteban Ajnota and Vicky de Carrillo learn how to do peer evaluation of their articles.

After a few weeks in Santa Cruz, we flew to La Paz, partly to give ourselves a few days to adapt to the high altitude before the writers workshop in Peru, and partly to again be with the Friends community in this city where we raised our kids and lived for 18 years. The above photo, taken across the street from our hostel, captures some of the lively confusion of this city.

The building project above is the reconstruction of the New Jerusalem Friends Church on Max Paredes Street, a project that has involved the entire congregation of some 400 people, and seems like a miracle in the making.

But more than scenery or buildings, we came to see people. Margarita Mamani (above) and I have known each other since 1972, when Hal and I first began living in La Paz. Of course thirty-seven years ago, we were both younger, but Margarita’s smile has not aged a bit. She belongs to a group of women in the New Jerusalem Friends Church who have been meeting together to pray for probably twenty years now. They are praying the church through this building project. And they consistently pray for missions. Margarita and the others knew our son David since he was one-year-old. They are thrilled that he and his family are Friends missionaries in Rwanda. In fact they consider him their Bolivian missionary to Africa, and they pray for David, Debby and their kids every week.

From La Paz we rode across the altiplano (above, photo taken from the bus)…

…across the Straits of Tiquina of beautiful Lake Titicaca, over the international border…

…and to the Peruvian town of Juli, on the lake, home of the first Friends church in Peru almost 50 years ago.

Twenty-five Friends from the highlands of Peru and Bolivia met for the writers’ workshop. We gathered for three days in the Friends high school “Jorge Fox” in Juli.

Enthusiasm and level of participation were high, with both orientation by us and lots of group work. Aymaras learn communally, and, actually, so do I.

Participants in the workshop were men and women of all ages, but the oldest budding writer was Teodoro Alanguía from the Peruvian Friends Church. If I had to choose from a collection of “favorite faces,” Teodoro’s would be high on my list. But more than his face, his spirit blessed us.

We’re back in Santa Cruz, Bolivia now, and tomorrow is the last session of the Friends writers’ workshop in this city. Participants are to bring the first revision of their article. As one of the results of these workshops, we hope to come up with a book of stories of people and congregations that will give insight into the faith and life of this branch of the Friends Church. These Andean Quakers have much to contribute to the rest of the worldwide community of Friends, and they have a unique contribution to make within their own social context. I feel privileged to have been a part of their lives.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

An Ecumenical Quaker Draws the Line

Can’t say I’m not open.
I meditate with Mennonites,
chant with Catholics,
and belt out Baptist blues with the best of them.
I danced at my daughter’s wedding to a Nazarene,
and once I even rolled the aisle with a Pentecostal.
But with funerals I reach my limit.
When my time comes
I will insist on my own homespun,
tried and true Quaker version.
I just wouldn’t feel dead
without it.

(From The Secret Colors of God: Poems by Nancy Thomas, 2005, The Barclay Press)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hospitality: The Virtue of Paying Attention

After two weeks in Costa Rica, we are now in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, staying in the home of Friends pastors, David and Arminda Tintaya. As was the case in San Jose, we have been enveloped in a cape of hospitality. We arrived here at midnight, but no matter. Before retiring to our rooms, we had tea with the Tintayas, taking time to catch up since our last visit. And in the few days we’ve been here, we have been hosted and celebrated every day. Each meeting is accompanied by tea and pastries, by laughter and conversation. The focus is on the event and the relationships, not on the schedule. It feels good to be back.

I’m recognizing again that hospitality is part of the spirituality of Latin America. Meeting together around a meal, taking the time to nurture relationships, acknowledging the other—these are values that are core to the very identity of people on this continent.

While in Costa Rica, much of my time and energy was given to the class I taught on “Culture, Spirituality and Mission.” I’ve had a love/hate relationship with teaching all my life, partly due to my own introversion. I guess I’m sort of like the little girl in the nursery rhyme who, “when she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.” (I even have the same curly hair!) I seem to have either very good or horrid teaching experiences.

This time in San Jose, thanks be to God (and to my praying partners), the class was very good, and I’ve gained new insight. I’m seeing a relationship between hospitality and teaching. The teacher is, in a sense, a host who, like a chef, prepares food that both nurtures and delights. And there is joy in the serving, especially when the host/teacher serves something she herself loves. I’m reminded of Quaker educator Parker Palmer’s model of both teacher and students gathered in a circle around a great theme. In this model the teacher is a learner along with her students, sharing her love of the subject and facilitating as the group learns to gaze at the mystery, “the secret that sits in the center.” This sharing and facilitating are basically acts of hospitality, part of the spirituality of teaching.

I think also of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and his participatory model of education where students are respected for what they bring to the class and encouraged to be active participants in the “construction of knowledge.” This makes the teaching/learning situation one of mutual hospitality, and this dynamic facilitates discovery, application and, hopefully, transformation.

On the airplane between San Jose and Santa Cruz (Saint Joseph and Holy Cross), I was reading a book of essays by Ricardo Barbosa (Conversas no caminho,2008), perhaps the key writer of contemporary Protestant spirituality in Brazil. In an essay simply titled, “Attention,” he makes the statement that “Hospitality is the virtue of paying attention to others. It is the way in which we gather in, listen, touch and create the necessary space for the other to feel loved, protected and accepted.” This is more than serving good food or a stimulating lesson. This integrates hospitality and spirituality and becomes ministry that transforms. Lessons from Latin America.

This is rich food, indeed.

PRODOLA students and teachers, San Jose, August 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009

Costa Rican Travelogue

One of the best things about our current ministry in PRODOLA ( is getting to know other places and people. This is our third trip to San Jose, and we’ve been here over a week now. Hal team-taught the course on research design last weekend, and I gave my intensive seminar on “Culture, Spirituality and Mission” last week.

This is a beautiful place.

We are housed at the Nazarene Theological Seminary of the Americas (SENDAS) in the center of San Jose.

We live here, have our meals, and hold our classes and other meetings on the large campus.

The bird-of-paradise plant outside our room….

This strange fruit is called mamón chino, but we’ve dubbed it porcupine fruit. The meat is slimy to the touch but has a mild, sweet taste. (This is especially for my grandson, Reilly, who at six years old doesn’t like weird food. What a challenge this would be!)

San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, city of 1,350,000 people….

Students and faculty took Saturday off to go to the Pacific coast. As in Oregon, the mountains come down to the shore, but the trees here are tropical…

with monkeys playing in the branches…

and pelicans instead of sea gulls swooping overhead. What a beautiful world.

We have another week here in San José before we head down to Bolivia. This week I get to interview students and write their stories, one of the favorite parts of my job. Thanks be to God. Mil gracias.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Quote: Robert Frost

The Secret

We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle and knows.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ignatius of Loyola and George Fox: Companions on the Way

Two days ago we flew from Portland, Oregon to San José, Costa Rica, getting up at 4:30 am and at 9:00 pm finally checking into our room here on the campus of the Nazarene Theological Seminary. On the plane I read the autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola and was both surprised and delighted. Something that especially struck me was the parallel experiences of Ignatius and George Fox, founder of the Quaker faith community some 100 years later.

Ignatius was born into a well-to-do family in northern Spain at the end of the 15th century. At one point in his young adulthood, he found himself in a time of great spiritual restlessness. He records this prayer in his journal: “Help me, Lord, for I find no remedy among men, nor in any creature. No task would be too irksome for me if I thought I could get help. Lord, show me where I may get it, and even if I have to follow after a little puppy to get the remedy I need, I will do it.”

The translator’s footnote explains that “During his months in Manresa, Ignatius sought spiritual guidance from many individuals but found none to offer him what he needed. Having gone through months of darkness of soul, he finally learned that his teacher in all this was our Lord Himself” (J. N. Tylenda). I wrote “George Fox” in the margin of the book.

The experience of finding Jesus as his teacher and guide changed his life, and soon he had gathered a following as he went from place to place, preaching and teaching. Among the responses Ignatius made to the excesses of his social context were a refusal to take off his hat or give deference to people of the upper classes and his insistence on using the familiar “tú” (thou) instead of the formal “usted” (you) with all people, regardless of social rank. Another “George Fox” scrawl in the margin.

Of course, the two stories differ in many details, but I can´t help but reflect that when the Spirit of God touches a hungry seeker, the things that divide us—race, history, culture, time—take second place to the common experience of becoming the people of God.

This next week in my class on “Culture, Spirituality and Mission” here in Costa Rica, one thing we will consider is the relevance of the Spanish mystics for contemporary Protestant Latin Americans. We will especially look at Ignatius, at Teresa of Avila with her raptures and meticulous metaphors of prayer, and at that strange dark man, John of the Cross. Will the experiences and insights of these singular saints of old bridge the gaps of time and culture? It will be fun finding out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quote: Kathleen Norris

From Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (2008, Riverhead Books):

“Even as I discovered my vocation as a writer, I had to struggle to maintain the boring work habits necessary for nourishing it” (41).

“The concept of sin does not exist so that people who may need therapy more than theology can be convinced that they are evil and beyond hope. It is meant to encourage people to believe that they are made in the image of God and to act accordingly. Hope is at the heart of…the ever present possibility of transformation” (114).

“When the Dalai Lama was asked for advice about how people could improve their spiritual lives, he laughed and said that it was obvious: Eat less, don’t stay up so late, and sleep more” (193-194).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Faith Statements

Several years ago on a personal retreat, I decided to name the five values that I want to characterize me during the last 20 years of my life. Five is an arbitrary number (why not six? or nine?), but I found the task of limiting the field helpful. After several days, I had narrowed my basic life values down to gratitude, wisdom, compassion, poetry and humor.

(Actually, “20 years” is another arbitrary number. I may need a lot more time to grow into these values, and I may have a lot less. I’m content not knowing that detail.)

Simply naming my basic values has encouraged me, as I pray them, envision my growth, and thank God for helping me become the person he created me to be. Recently I wrote a poem called “Faith Statements,” and the title is important. This poem is not self-description, despite all the “I am” affirmations. It’s a prayer of becoming.


I am one who thinks “Thank you”
before, “Oh no!,” “Why me?”
“Why bother?” or “Ouch.”
“Yes” is always on the tip of my brain.
In the rain, the dark, with ants on the sink,
beside you as you sleep, my secret
inward smile. There.

I am one who really does get better
with age. All those years and tears
matter, season the stew of now,
make people want to taste, touch,
see, feel, hear, grow.

I am one who feels the pain/joy/fear/hope
of another, from the inside out.
When I give you a cup of cold water,
it’s love that compels. It’s love
that flows through my veins,
and love that moves me out the door.
Leads me to you.

I am one with eyes that see, ears
that hear. I am attentive to
the small voices the leaves make.
I see the hidden
footprints all around me. I
can show up to the page
because I show up to life.

I am one who laughs a lot,
even at inappropriate times.
Not always out loud.
I can’t tell jokes, but I discover
them everywhere. Give me
a second look and you’ll see.
I’m laughing at you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Quote: G. K. Chesterton

"Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening 'Do it again' to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them." (From Orthodoxy)

Friday, July 17, 2009

To blog or not to blog: taking the plunge

“Blog” is such a funny word. Perhaps it’s the rhyme with “frog” and “bog” that makes me think of something fat and green, with bulgy eyes. Blog, as a verb, should mean to paddle forward at a slow pace, as though through yellow muck.

But of course that’s not at all how we use the word today (although parts of the image may match). And here I am, with my own blogspot—a sort of literary lily pad, ready to take the plunge.

To blog or not to blog—that has been the question for several years now. I’ve been reluctant. A writer all my life, I remember my first poem, at seven-years-old. I was sitting on the porch with a tablet and a pencil, copying my dad, doing what he spent so many hours doing, seeing if I could do it too. Writing.

Actually I was playing with words, enjoying their sounds, mixing and matching them, and then putting them down on paper. The result was a poem in which I go around murdering people in rhythm and rhyme. In spite of its strange content, it was not a morbid poem and did not frighten my parents, who praised my efforts. (The content came from the fact that the only word I could find to rhyme with my last name, Forsythe, was knife—and the poem ran off on its own volition, clutching that dangerous knife and dragging me along with it. At that time in my creative development, form obviously dominated meaning.)

That was the last murder poem I ever wrote, but it was certainly not the last poem. My adventure as a writer had begun and was greatly encouraged the following year by Mrs. King, my third grade teacher. The story has continued down through the years, taking me into a world of cross-cultural stories, publication, research and the privilege of encouraging writers in other countries. I’m now a young woman in her early 60s, still excited to be alive, still learning new stuff. And still writing it all down.

So—why blog? I’m a little nervous about sending this out into the void. I have a lot of questions about the value of blogging and about my own motivations. How is this to be like my personal journal (definitely not for publication) and how like a collection of articles? Can I consistently have something of substance to say, and can I consistently say it well? I don’t know.

The discipline required to do this and to do it well is one drawing reason. I need to grow in discipline. But I want to see that discipline as a channel for grace—not another burden to add to the pack.

Another reason to blog is the chance of finding conversation partners, people with the same passions and interests (or not), who will comment, encourage, challenge—in short, talk with me.

Another reason is the chance this gives us to keep in touch with family and friends when we are traveling and teaching in other countries. The “we” here is important, and I’m hoping both Hal and I will use this blogspot. I will probably write more frequently, but I love it when Hal writes.

Anyway, here goes….from the lily pad, into the lake. Plop.