Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Celtic invocation

Hal and I have been using the Celtic Daily Prayer book this past year.  The invocation at the beginning of the book is a powerful and beautiful prayer.  I pass it on to you.


Most powerful Holy Spirit,
   come down
      upon us
and subdue us.

From heaven
   where the ordinary
      is made glorious
   and glory seems
but ordinary,

bathe us
   with the brilliance
   of Your light
like dew.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

From Bolivian mud

Lord God Almighty, Powerful King,
   Maker and Mover of mountains
   and universes,
we're stuck in a river.
We've been here for over an hour
   and what I want to know is--
   why don't you get us out?
Sure, the scenery is great,
   but I'll bet it's just as pretty
   'round the bend.
Those mountains--
   you raised them up from nothing
   with a mere creative word.
Why are you mute now?
Speak, Lord, and resurrect this hunk
   of steel, fiber glass and rubber
   from its muddy grave.
Move, miracle worker, feeder of 5000,
   elemental wine maker, curer,
I know you can do it.
After all, I'm here on your business.

But here I sit.

Could it be
   you're trying to tell me something,
   something I can only hear
   from this river bed?

Could it be
   you have your reasons and lessons
   and character sessions
   better learned mid-stream
   than mid-church service?
OK, Lord,
   I give in.

Pardon my griping
   and teach me
   what I need to know.
In all of this
   I'm still your
   wet but
   willing servant.

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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quaker business and the silence of God

After years of sitting through Quaker business meetings Latin American style, I am currently experiencing the practices, policies and quirks of doing things in the older traditional Quaker way, US style (and, presumably, European as well). For the most part, I’m drawn to what I see—the focus on waiting on God and seeking God’s will, on genuinely listening to each other, even all the language and formalities that at times seem so, well, old-fashioned. And the time all this can take. There’s a sweet seriousness about it that I sense pleases God.

But it doesn’t always work as smoothly as it’s supposed to.

I’m currently an elder in my congregation. A year ago in the midst of a budget crunch, the congregation gave the elders the task of coming up with some creative alternatives for the configuration of our pastoral team. This deepened into a visioning process that involved the whole congregation asking such questions as who are we and why has God placed us in this particular place at this specific time. The focus on the calling, as well as on the needs of the church, was to guide us elders to a proposal for our pastoral team.

So we have been meeting regularly for over a year now, usually with our three pastors, occasionally without them. Without going into the particulars that have made this into such a complex task, let me just say that it’s proved to be daunting. When we finally presented a proposal to the October business meeting, I was tempted to jokingly label it “Revision #467.” And now we see that our church body is finding it just as frustrating. After three business meetings (and more revisions) it seems like we are making little headway to a contented “sense of the meeting,” other than “this is really hard.”

I believe that God speaks to his people, that he reveals his will. And I know that this sometimes takes time, especially as we emphasize the community nature of discernment. During the year I’ve occasionally taken God to task, saying, “OK. So what is it? Tell us. Show us your plan. It’s time.” But for some reason, God is not speaking clearly to us, at least in terms of a plan for the pastoral team configuration. This has not been easy for the congregation, the elders, and, particularly, for the three dear people that have served us well as our released pastors. So, why the silence on God’s part?

But even in the middle of all this, I’ve sensed the presence of God. While silent, God has not been absent. A few months into the process I began to wonder if God might be telling us that the particulars of the plan were not as important as the process, that he wanted us to use our minds, to listen well, to treat each other kindly, and to take the time necessary.

Then one night I had a dream. (Let me say here that my life among Latin American Friends has helped me be open to dreams as one of the ways God speaks to us. If the dream is of a certain quality and if it stays with me in detail after I wake up, I pay attention.) In the dream I entered the sanctuary at the end of a Sunday morning worship service. People remained in the room, some seated, some standing in small groups, quietly talking or just holding the silence together. No one seemed in a hurry to leave. I asked a friend what was going on, and he replied that the Spirit of God had been so present to the body that they all wanted to stay awhile and bask in the love and warmth. Our pastors were part of the congregation; it was not evident which one had been leading the meeting.

I sense that the Spirit wants to bless us, move among us, and use us in greater measure. And I sense that this does not depend on the configuration of the pastoral team, as important as that is. When I shared this in the business meeting, there was agreement and encouragement. I sense consensus in that basic Quaker (and Christian) value—that there is One, Christ Jesus, who can meet our need, that Jesus is among us to be our pastor and teacher, that he wants us to deepen in this reality. And I sense consensus that we are a community, the people of God in this place, and that it matters that we continue to listen to each other, to treat each other kindly, and to take the time to work out whatever plan we come up with. We may never agree on all the details, and that may not be so important. We may all have to give and take some, to practice mutual submission, to lay down personal preferences. Uniformity on details is not what Quaker practice is all about. At least not always.

It probably won’t happen in this situation. I certainly wish for a speedy end to this continuing saga. On a certain level I would still like for God to just give us The Plan. Maybe another dream, with the actual blueprint? But no. That’s not going to happen. In some mysterious way, what is really happening among us is probably deeper and better than we could imagine.

Yesterday as I was praying (pleading, actually), three metaphors came to mind, coming from three poems that have ministered to me many times. I won’t quote the poems here (maybe in another blog), but the metaphors alone are apt. One is Arthur Robert’s poem, “Our Winter Is a Foggy Drive.” Another is William Stafford’s “Travelling through the Dark.” And finally, a poem I wrote about being stuck in a river, entitled “From Bolivian Mud.” They all speak of slowly working (or driving) our way through difficult circumstances where the silence of God is the loudest sound around.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, your people. Show us the way. Amen

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Praying through chaos

Prayer is the most important thing I/we do. It is also the thing I feel least skillful at doing. These reflections are in part a response to Johan Maurer’s recent blogs on the topic (“Experimenting with prayer” and “More on prayer”). I write as a fellow-struggler in prayer, not an expert (such a nasty little word!), and I invite others to share their insights and struggles, because this is so important.

I write at a time in which I find myself in the middle of more crisis situations that is reasonable for one person to bear. And so I find myself throughout the day praying the Jesus Prayer in its briefest form, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy!” (Mercy on me, on whomever I am praying for at the moment, on different situations, and so on.)

Last Sunday (a week ago now) in unprogrammed worship, I got some insight on how to expand this cry to God. The centering Scripture for our worship was Psalm 136, that ancient liturgical prayer with its repeated refrain, “His mercies never cease.” So all this past week, to my cries for mercy I have added the affirmations of the psalmist. And, while I still sense the weight of the burdens I bear, a small and hopeful lightness has come into my prayers.

As I pray over impossible situations, I often find myself meditating on that mysterious image of creation in the first few verses of Genesis—the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos and darkness, waiting for God to say, “Let there be light.” I ask for the same Spirit to lovingly hover over whatever chaos I am holding up to him. I imagine the Spirit hovering over specific people and situations. I ask him to hover over Pakistan and Afghanistan. I ask him to hover over me.

Most of all, I pray the Lord’s Prayer, understanding that at its heart is the cry for the kingdom of God to be made manifest in the specific circumstances of life. It is asking that the future fullness of the kingdom come into the chaos and confusion of this present moment. I barely understand what I am doing as I sit in my chair praying this way. It’s audacious, almost arrogant. I’m sometimes asking for impossible miracles. And I just sit there, wearing ordinary clothes, sipping coffee, petting my cat and praying these extravagant prayers. What right do I have? Shouldn’t I at least be wearing a crash helmet? Shouldn’t I be more afraid?

Yes, probably.

I’m hesitant to write and post this. I have not been an exemplary pray-er. These past few weeks I have staggered through my prayers, sometimes sensing mostly desperation. The cry for mercy has been constant, especially when I don’t know what else to say to God.

Oh yes, there’s that other biblical prayer, straight from the mouths of the often befuddled disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Yes, Lord, please do that. Amen.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Spirituality and small children

For the past month I have not written regularly in this blog. Nor have I faithfully followed my usual spiritual disciplines. Prayer and silence have been scarce. And it all has to do with the intimate increase of children in my life.

My grandmotherly “duties” have clicked in big time. Of the past 30 days, I have spent 23 of them as a live-in grandma. While this is a privilege I relish, it also takes its toll. I do this alongside my work of being associate director and professor in a semi-virtual graduate school of theology for Latin Americans.

For two years now, I have been giving our daughter and her family one week out of every month. Kristin lives in a town two hours from us, so this means I pack my bags and move into Paige’s room. Kristin’s kids are 2, 5, and 8 years old, and they seem to be excited to see me each time I come. Spending time with them releases some of the pressure on Kristin and allows her to advance in her online courses. She is working on a graduate degree in special education, focusing on children with visual disabilities. (Her two boys are visually impaired.)

This is a special year for us in that our son David and his family are home on missionary furlough from Rwanda. They are living right here in our town. Their four kids are 8, 12, 14, and 15 years old. When David and Debby travel to report to their supporting churches, we stay with the kids. Since we don’t see them that often, we gobble up this opportunity to be a part of their lives.

Right before my last trip to be with Kristin’s family, I asked the small group I meet with to pray specifically that I would be able to find some kind of routine of spiritual disciplines appropriate for my time there. But somewhere in the middle of the week, I noticed that it just wasn’t happening. As I was considering this, a thought came to me and I recognized it as the voice of Jesus. He said, “Nancy, what you are giving to your children and grandchildren is a spiritual practice of devotion. I accept it as worship to me.” I felt immediate relief and joy.

I’m back home now, for a week, and I do enjoy the freedom to manage my time and have adult conversations. That’s one of the privileges of this stage of life. One of the challenges is the temptation to look back and wonder, “Did we make a solid contribution? Did it matter that we lived and worked in these particular ways?” Probably, yes, it did matter. I’m slowly learning to leave the results of my life in God’s hands and just rest in his presence.

But Hal and I agree that, however our life’s work will be judged or evaluated, the time we’re investing right now in the lives of our grandchildren is one thing, at least, that we’re getting right.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The unbearable lightness vs. the weight of glory

I recently read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, partly because some fellow poets recommended it and partly because I love the title and was curious to find out what it meant. Written by Czech writer Milan Kundera in 1982, the novel takes place against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and follows the lives of a man and the two women in his life. I found it to be a dark little book, depressing to read. I almost didn’t finish it, but I always seem to chug through until the end, hoping for some redeeming value. The “lightness of being” refers to the insubstantiality of life without ultimate purpose and of relationships without commitment. And this lightness is, indeed, unbearable.

As I was reading and reflecting, a contrasting phrase from the title of one of C. S. Lewis’ essays came to mind: “the weight of glory.” Of course, this comes originally from the apostle Paul who wrote to encourage the believers in Corinth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all [“an eternal weight of glory” in other translations]. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Milan Kundera does speak truth, and I’m glad I finished the book. It’s just that he doesn’t know that the story has an alternate ending. I’m again impressed with the significance, the weight, of the gospel.

Another book I almost put down and then didn’t is Mary Karr’s Lit (2009). I checked it out of the library because I love memoirs by writers, especially poets. But again I found myself inside a very dark book. Slugging through the abusive childhood memories, the disastrous adolescent choices, the marriage that had “Danger!” stamped all over it from the beginning, I was tempted to just put it down. I happened to mention this to a friend at church, another lover of good literature, and she strongly encouraged me to keep reading. I did and was thoroughly surprised to find Karr’s tale turn into a conversion story, much in the same spirit as Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. The unbearable lightness exchanged for the weight of glory.

Since this is turning into a review of recent books read, let me mention the three I’m in the middle of now. (Two are non-fiction and one is a novel. I can only read one novel at a time.) Hal and I are reading together Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools (2009), and find ourselves moved and encouraged by this man’s labor of love in setting up schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the early mornings I am slowly reading through Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection (2010), the fifth book in his series on spiritual theology. Peterson’s book is a commentary on Ephesians, a spiritual reflection on the Reality of the church (as opposed to the reality of the church, what we see and struggle with on a human level) and how to live in the light of this Reality. And I’m just beginning the novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1995), partly to accompany my granddaughter who is reading it for her high school Latin American literature class, and partly because I’ve enjoyed other books by Julia Alvarez.

What would I do without good books? I’d enjoy hearing what you’re reading.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who? Me?

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters” (James 3:1)

You got that one right.
I shiver at the thought of the men in my class—
leaders all of them, people
of prestige in their own circles.
The literature tells me I’m
not a teacher anyway. I’m
a facilitator, a guide, a fellow
learner, an along-side worker
in the construction of knowledge.
That’s almost as ugly
as being called expert. The term
that fits me best is simply imposter.
Lord, have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

High position

“The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position” (James 1:9).

in danger of foreclosure,
dependant on hand-me-downs
and the government’s forced charity—
only a sliver of hope
keeps despair at bay.
The Sunday morning
pastoral prayer includes
me, along with the flood
in Pakistan, Mrs. Murphy’s
cancer and the missionaries
in Rwanda. Have mercy, Lord.
This high position I hold
is windy and cold.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On birth, life, hair-snakes and death

September 29 (Feast Day for the archangels and me)

Today I celebrate 65 years of life. I used to think that was old. I know better now. I have a great job that lets me contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom on earth. I still enjoy being married to my best friend, plus I have warm relationships with my grown children and their children. I experience the reality Paul wrote about when he stated that “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2. Cor. 4:16). Actually, at this point in time I have only hints of the outward-wasting-away part. I still ride my bike. And more importantly, I still write poetry.

Yet some things are different. Mainly, I now go to more funerals. And it’s not just the funerals of “old people.” Now I face the deaths of people who were my mentors and friends. This year has been especially heavy.

I just learned of the passing of Roscoe Knight. Roscoe and Tina have been mentors and close friends to Hal and me for almost 40 years. Pioneer Quaker missionaries to Bolivia, they first went to the field in 1945, the year I was born. They were there in the early years of our missionary service, our co-workers, mentors and encouragers. They knew David and Kristin as babies, kids and young people. In fact their participation in the lives of all the missionary kids characterized their friendship. Roscoe loved the kids.  (Photo is of Kristin and Roscoe in 1978.)

Two nights ago our son David couldn’t sleep, thinking about “Uncle Roscoe.” He got and wrote down his thoughts. They included this story of one of Roscoe’s many jokes:

On holidays when the extended Friends missionary family would get together we kids loved gathering around Roscoe to hear his stories and jokes. On one holiday, the adults were scattered around the room in groups talking about their important stuff. We kids were with Roscoe. He had been talking with us for a while when he told us that he could make a human hair turn into a snake by magic.

We said, “Nah, you’re lying, that’s impossible.”

Roscoe said, “No, I mean it; it really is possible. But snakes are dangerous. No, we better not try here. A poisonous snake and all these little kids. It just wouldn’t be safe.”

We said, “Oh, please show us!”

Roscoe said “Are you sure you want me to try?”

“Yes! Yes!”

“OK, but we’ve got to be careful. I’ll need a hair and a glass of water.” Some of us offered our hairs, but he refused most of them. They were either too short, or had some other sort of problem. As best I can recall he chose one of Sara Stansell’s hairs because it was long enough and he felt it would make a good snake.

He poured the water in a nice thick puddle on a table. “Now look very carefully, but be patient. It takes a minute or two to start growing into a snake.” Then he carefully took the hair and laid it on the water. “I think I saw it move a little.”

We said, “Nah, you’re just joking, it’s still just a hair.”

Roscoe said, “You’re too far away to see. Get closer, so you can see him grow. There, see his tail moving?”

We all leaned in closer. And you know, it did seem to be moving a little. And it was true that Roscoe knew his snakes. We studied that hair closely.

Suddenly Roscoe yelled, “Watch out!” and slapped the table real hard!

We all came up stunned, sputtering and dripping wet. “Why did you do that!!?”

Roscoe, just as surprised as all the rest of us said, “Well, I had to kill it before it got too big and dangerous.”

Typical Roscoe Knight. I remember that joke, too, as well as my own wet face. And I remember all the attention Roscoe paid to the kids, letting them know they were valuable people in their own right.

David ended his reflections with these words: “I want to run my race like Roscoe ran his, with a deep faith in Christ, with a joy and zest for life, with a gift to make others feel valuable, and with a passion to see the Good News of Jesus free people still trapped in darkness.”

Well said, David. Well done, Roscoe. I celebrate your life today, even as I celebrate my own. As I imagine sharing my birthday with the archangels, I realize there’s now one more person at the party. I’m thankful for you and your life.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pure joy

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

It starts out low and slowly builds,
a groundswell of holy laughter.
It mushrooms from forest
floors. Out of the darkness a thread
of light floats, begins to weave.
--Oui, sí, ya, jisa jisa jisa.--
From around the world, people
are saying Yes! They get it.
In hospital rooms, at the scene
of the crime, from refugee camps,
even at grave sites it comes—
the improbable chuckle,
the inappropriate snort, a giggle
in the night. Dag Hammarkskjold
once wrote, --For all that has been,
thanks. For all that will be, yes.--
It’s not faith but mirth
that moves these mountains.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Thomases have landed!

Missionaries coming home on furlough sometimes feel like they’ve landed on a new planet. David and Debby Thomas, with Breanna (15), Aren (14), Gwen (11) and Alandra (8) stepped off their space ship from Rwanda just a few weeks ago, so their impressions and observations are still fresh. Let’s let them speak for themselves.

Question: What, so far, has been strange, negative or scary about being back in the USA?

Alandra: The food. Not enough beans and rice.

Gwen: There aren’t very many people walking around outside. And there aren’t enough black people.

Aren: Too many new people. And lots of white people; they’re everywhere! But the scariest thing is going to a new school. Also lots of little things are strange. Like in restaurants, there are these big machines where you have to press on handles to get drinks and not knowing how to do it.

Breanna: The food hasn’t been amazing. And people are all in such a hurry.

Debby: We’re still in the honeymoon stage where everything is wonderful. Ask me this question in a few months.

David: I agree with Debby. It’s hard to think of negative things to say about being here. Let’s see. I guess I could mention being bothered by how much stuff people throw away. And that so much is automatic, and, well, you just can’t roll-start a car in automatic! But these are little things.

Q: What do you really like about being back in the USA?

Alandra: The food. And, while meeting new people is sort of fun, I really like seeing friends that we knew before.

Gwen: The food, stuff like pizza, bread and all the meat we can eat.

Aren: Being with relatives again—that’s the best part. Like Uncle Clyde. And seeing Mark’s sword-making stuff.

Breanna: The orderliness of life. I love the traffic here. And the phones. I love American fruit.

Debby: Life here seems so easy and breezy, like the driving and the availability of food. Everything works like it should, all the time: the electricity, the water, the Internet. Appointments happen on time. And people are so kind—in the stores, at the market, in the schools. The attitude of service is incredible.

David: I’ve noticed that people in Oregon seem to be exercising more, and there’s more emphasis on healthy organic foods. The other thing that stands out is politeness in traffic. During our first week here, my car broke down on a mountain pass and not only did someone stop to help me with his jumper cables, he ended up by giving me the cables, telling me to pass them on to the next person who needed help! Cars actually stop for people in crosswalks, and if someone wants to change lanes, other drivers give him space. Amazing!

Q: What are your hopes and expectations this year for the various ministries you left behind in Rwanda? (And how can we be praying?)

David: Our process of leaving went well, with good people in places of leadership in both the mission and the Rwandan Friends Church. We’re already getting good reports. We feel at peace about being gone for a year.

Debby: I agree. I think the Discipleship for Development program is not just going to hang on, it’s going to move ahead. As for the moringa tree business, I’m hoping and expecting it to make progress both in the government approval process and in actual sales. We need to find more investors in order to move to the next stage in the business, and that would be a good thing to pray for.

Q: What are your hopes and expectations for this year in the US? (And how can we be praying?)

Alandra: To make lots of friends

Gwen: For my dyslexia program to work and help me become a fluent reader. Oh, yes, and I want to make some good friends.

Aren: For me and Dad to go on a canoe trip on the Willamette River. Also I want to go snow-boarding.

Breanna: Good friends. I want to have found something here that makes me sad to leave.

Debby: I want to re-connect with the culture here, to understand the issues people our age face, what they’re thinking about, what their values are. I want for friendships to deepen. I’m also hoping for a good school year for the kids, that they can enjoy friendships and form positive connections to this culture. On a practical level, we need to raise our level of financial support so that we can return to Rwanda in a year. But the priority for this year is REST and rejuvenation.

David: I hope for excellent discussions with our Evangelical Friends Mission board on a transition strategy for the next five to ten years in Rwanda. I hope we can discern God’s leading for EFM’s future role in Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. I’m also looking forward to developing friendships this year. But I agree with Debby that our priority for the year is rest. We’ve had an active and fruitful four years of ministry in Rwanda, and now we hear Jesus saying to us, just as he spoke to his disciples, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). I want to learn how to move more deeply in the rhythms of grace, to come to the place where my ministry flows from grace.

Interviewer: Nancy Thomas (mom--to David, grandma, and veteran space traveler)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The goose head

I learned about a very strange incident this last week. If you’re queasy, don’t read on.

Two friends came to visit us on Thursday. We’ve known Louise for over 40 years, and we just met Elaine. Louise and Elaine are in their mid-70s, and they’re taking a three-week road trip from Washington State to Southern California. We were the second stop on their tour.

Our son David dropped in while they were with us. (Louise has known him since he was a baby.) We enjoyed looking at the photos, remembering times gone by, and especially honoring Alan, Louise’s late husband.

At the end of the day, we walked them to Elaine’s car where David noticed something strange lodged under the hood. He pointed it out to Elaine, and she immediately exclaimed, “Oh no! The goose head! I had forgotten all about it!”

“The what?” we asked.

“The goose head,” she repeated, and she told us this story. Just a week ago she had been driving down a country road when a wild goose flew into the front of her vehicle. A head-on collision. Elaine stopped the car, and ran out to see what had happened. The goose had been killed, and she found his body hanging down the front of the car, its head lodged in the hood. She tried to open the hood, but it was stuck fast.

Not able to work the goose loose, in desperation she gave one mighty yank, and the goose separated from his head. She quickly threw the body into a roadside ditch, got back in the car and drove on.

And, here’s the surprising part, she forgot all about it. (If I had a goose head stuck under my hood, I’d be thinking about it. A lot.)

So here we were, standing in the driveway, with our friends and their problem. David got some paper towels and began prying open the hood, coaxing the head, until it finally slipped out into his hand. It was, indeed, a goose head. Small, well-formed, complete, beak and all. It looked surprised, but that may well be my imagination. David disposed of the head, washed his hands, and we sent our friends on their way.

I still can’t fathom how the head kept its form. Or how it even managed to get into the hood of the car. Or what the goose was doing flying so low. It’s all so very strange.

When I started thinking back on this incident and writing this blog, I was focused on the strangeness and humor of the situation. But the more I ponder, the less funny it seems. I mentioned that the goose head was complete. I didn’t say that it was beautiful. But it was. Except for the fact that the life was gone.

I’m thinking about the conflict between nature and technology, remembering the title of a book I read for a literature survey class, The Machine in the Garden. So often the machine wins. This time it did.

No, I’m not going to let myself get overly sentimental about the death of this one goose, but I do feel sad. And I think the sadness is appropriate. As I understand Scripture, part of our being made in the image of God includes the assignment God gave us to be stewards over the creation, to love the earth, to care for the animals, to live responsibly. Terms like “road kill” are inherently offensive, yet they reflect a certain reality. “Road kill” is inevitable.

Why am I writing this? Is there a moral to this story, some point I can make about life or faith or something? I haven’t worked that out yet. I’m writing partly because the incident fascinates me and I’m still thinking about it. But I do sense a personal recommitment to doing whatever I can to care for creation and all its creatures, to respect and celebrate life. That includes the lives of my friends, Louise and Elaine. It includes remembering and missing Alan who is now with the Lord. It even includes feeling sad for the goose.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

From the belly of the earth

The situation of the 33 miners trapped now for a month 700 meters beneath the Chilean desert has captured the hearts of people around the world. I am drawn to pray for these miners partly because of my own background and the stories I grew up with.

My father was born into a coal mining family in Pennsylvania. The little town of Dirth existed for the mine, and with the depletion of the coal many years ago, the town itself disappeared. My dad was the youngest son in a family of 13 kids. Grandpa was the mine foreman, and my dad’s older brothers worked the mines. Later in life, two of my uncles died from black lung disease. Dad and his older sister Olive were the only kids out of the 13 to leave the community in order to get a college education.

But while he may have left the mines, the mines did not leave my father, and we, his children, grew up on the stories of the dangers the miners routinely faced, the accidents, the cave-ins, the diseases. These still haunt my dreams. My years of living in Bolivia contributed to this frightening connection; much of the history and current agony of this country was forged in her mines.

Right now I am riveted to the continuing drama of the Chilean miners. It’s what I think about when I wake up in the middle of the night. I join my prayers to those of many others for the success (and speed!) of the rescue operations and for the Spirit of God to enable these men to find healthy ways to cope while they wait and hope.

The fact of their very survival to this point seems miraculous, and that is certainly how the people of Chile are taking it. Newspaper articles and reports from my friends in Chile detail the universal sense of euphoria upon discovering that the miners were still alive. It seems that the streets erupted into one gigantic party!

One of my friends, Luis Cruz Villalobos, is a Presbyterian pastor and clinical psychologist in Santiago. He is also a poet, composer, troubadour and encourager of Christians involved in the arts. Luis is a PRODOLA student, doing his doctoral research in theology and psychology, looking at the intersection between faith and resiliency when people face crisis situations. His field study is with survivors of the February 2010 earthquake in Chile.

Naturally, the drama of the trapped miners affects Luis deeply. In a recent article posted on his web site, Luis reflects on five attitudes that contribute to the resiliency of these 33 miners. He identifies these attitudes as gratitude, humor, hope, solidarity, and faith. He points out the numerous expressions of gratitude in the messages the miners have managed to send up and sees the disposition to gratefulness as a fundamental spiritual resource in times of crisis. And humor, even there, in the belly of the earth where the situation is certainly no laughing matter, even there the ability of the miners to refuse to see themselves as victims, to acknowledge their human fragility and to deal gently with one another as they wait and hope, this is life-giving. Concerning solidarity, Luis notes that among the first questions the miners had once communication was established was whether or not their fellow miners had escaped.

A portion of Scripture that helps me as I pray for the Chilean miners comes from Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the Lord….

Yet I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
O my God, do not delay.

Amen. So be it.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Stuff is one of my favorite words. I like the round plump way it feels in my mouth. I like the way it starts with a hiss, slowly snaking its way toward the light, only to come to an abrupt halt (we call it an alveolar stop in linguistics, in case you wanted to know), then ending in a slow flat leak of carbon dioxide (a labio-dental fricative). There’s a lot going on in your mouth when you say the “simple” word stuff.

But more than the sound and feel of the word, I like what it means and, more importantly, how it means it.

As with many words that appear simple, time spent in the Oxford English Dictionary quickly dispels that illusion. The noun stuff can mean a variety of things from supplies and possessions to textiles suitable for clothing, and even academic matter, as in “This teacher really knows her stuff.” It can mean something lofty, a fundamental substance, such as “the stuff of greatness.” Or it can be as specialized as the spin on a fast flying baseball (a new one to me). And, of course, we also have many verb meanings, derivatives (some very edible), and even a few expletives (among which, “O stuff and bother!” is the safest for Quakers to use).

There’s a lot of “what” to the word stuff, but the “how” is perhaps more significant. Stuff, in short, is not a reverent word. It is not likely to ever be incorporated into a liturgical prayer, carved onto a memorial plaque, or sung at a wedding. It struts down the halls with a casual, cocky air. Look closely and you’ll see a twinkle in its eye. It’s crossing its fingers behind its back.

Let’s consider stuff in the sense of personal property or possessions. “Hands off! This is my stuff.”

It’s precisely because of the irreverent casual feel of this word that I like to apply it to my possessions. In my heart of hearts, I find myself attached to my stuff in a most unholy way. When someone threatens to take what belongs to me, my emotions flare up. I can become very distressed at breaking some valued pot. Little kids running through my house unnerve me.

Labeling my things as stuff helps me put them in perspective. I desire to become less and less possessed by my possessions, freer to value what’s really valuable (like little kids).

As missionaries in Bolivia, we had to store our stuff in big barrels every time we came back to the States on furlough. These barrels had to be properly labeled in case something happened to us and the remaining mission staff had to sort, send, or sell our possessions. One time, in a fit of whimsy, I labeled our barrels “General Stuff,” “Specific Stuff,” “Favorite Stuff,” and “Stuff I could get along without if I had to but would prefer to keep if it’s all the same to whoever is reading this label.” (That one took five labels.) Fortunately, nothing happened to us.

I have this recurring Walter-Mitty-like daydream where my house and all my possessions burn down, but we escape unharmed. I remain calm and spiritual throughout the ordeal. When someone, dripping with pity, says to me, “I hear you were wiped out by the fire,” I reply, “Oh no, I’m still here, as good as ever. Just my stuff burned up.”

In my saner moments I laugh at that daydream. I know that a real fire would devastate me, that I would lose not only my “General Stuff,” but also my family photos, the teddy bear my daughter bought me, my great grandmother’s wedding dress, the stories the kids wrote when they were little, and other things I deeply value. I would need help in dealing with loss. This is reality.

John Woolman inspires me to put my possessions in perspective. I am especially drawn to the story in his journal about his growing retail business and his struggle with the “stuff and bother” of material success. He finally concludes that “Truth required me to live more free from outward cumbers,” and he simplifies his business so that he can give himself to traveling and encouraging his brothers and sisters in the Quaker family. Cumbers is another good word for stuff.

Jesus reminds us that God knows our need of adequate shelter, clothing, and food. Our Father is generous. We are to seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and he will supply all the stuff we really need (Matthew 6:33, Thomas version).

I need to be frequently reminded of this. I’m still far from John Woolman’s courageous act of throwing it all off. I’m still cumbered by more stuff than I need. But the desire for freedom and simplicity is growing. I pray God will help me to hold my possessions more lightly, and to know that, no matter how pretty, bright, or enticing, when all is said and done—it’s just stuff.

(This article originally appeared in the Evangelical Friend in March of 1992. I reprinted it here because I needed to remember it.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Two love poems

Today is our 42nd anniversary.

When Hal and I were first engaged, we came up with this wonderfully romantic plan. Every anniversary we would gift each other a poem. An original love poem. I still love this plan.  But...

He owes me 41 poems.

Which, actually, makes me smile. Here is one I wrote for him around about our 4th anniversary:


When I say
thus and such
and you respond with
such and that
I almost begin to realize
that you didn't at all understand
my this and there
thinking it instead to be
and then I correcting spout
how as what
but you come back with
why and wherefore
and I meaning to point out
because furthermore and

Oh, forget it!
Come kiss me.

I think humor has been one of the glues that has held our relationship together.  When our son David was a wise 14 year old, he told me that my God-given mission in life was to make Dad laugh. (Hal can be rather serious and intense.)

As I was meditating in the early hours of this morning, thanking God for Hal and our marriage, I thought of the poem I will give him today, written by Wendell Berry. (I might also be able to come up with an original contribution before the midnight deadline. Or I might not.)

by Wendell Berry

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once more I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

Thanks be to God for love that endures.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don't touch the gringos!

We arrived back in Oregon just a few days ago, and yesterday we welcomed our son David and his family, just home from Rwanda where they serve with Evangelical Friends Mission. A whole lot of hugging went on at the airport! These last two days I have been walking around wearing this huge smile that just won’t go away, knowing that for a year at least I’ll have my family all around me.

Speaking of hugging, I want to reflect on a conversation I had our last day in Costa Rica. We were saying our goodbyes to students and colleagues, knowing that we probably would not be seeing some of them again, especially the students of the 2009 cohort group. At one point Angela Durigan, a Brazilian Nazarene pastor, put her hand on my face and just looked at me. It was a beautifully affectionate gesture. And then she said, “I hope this doesn’t offend you. I know we’re not supposed to touch North Americans.”

Now that took me aback! Angela quickly added, “I know that’s not true of you.” I’m glad she recognized that. After a life time of service in Latin America, many of our natural preferences and reactions are more Latin than gringo. But in the conversation that ensued, she told me that part of the training Brazilian Christians receive for cross-cultural ministry is the warning to give North Americans plenty of space and not to touch them more than is absolutely necessary. Discrete formal handshakes are fine, but keep those Latin American abrazos for Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking colleagues.

I hate stereo-types. And while most cultural stereo-types are partially based in fact (North American Caucasian culture does indeed emphasize personal space), it’s the unthinking application of the stereo-type to all persons that causes damage. Actually, there are more personal differences within a given culture than there are personality or preference differences between cultures.

I think of other stereo-types I’ve struggled with. Are all Quakers naturally quiet and peace-loving by nature? (Thank God for the feisty prophets among us. Even extroverts can live out the peace testimony.) And what comes to mind with the label “missionary”? I’ve wrestled with that stereo-type all my life.

I think of the stereo-types we currently face, particularly that of “undocumented Hispanic immigrant.” May God help me—us—step beyond the stereo-types to see people that he created and gifted and called to lives of service. May he enable us to cross the cultural barriers and form friendships with those of different backgrounds.

I thank God for Angela and her expressive ways. All those goodbye hugs—as well as the daily greeting hugs—still warm me in memory. And I’m glad for friends who hold warnings such as “Don’t touch the gringos!” with a grain of salt.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Joseph, Teresa, Paulo and me

For the last week I have been here in San José (Saint Joseph), Costa Rica, teaching the class “Culture, Spirituality and Mission.” This is part of PRODOLA, the Latin American doctoral program in theology. It was a different experience as I had only one student in my class, the others having dropped out for various reasons. Paulo Oliveira is a Brazilian translator, a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators. For 17 years Paulo and his wife Quezia have been working with the Tembe tribe of Brazil, living in a village, learning the language, “reducing” it to writing, and beginning the translation of the Bible. Early in the week, Paulo gave me a copy of the book of Luke in the Tembe language, hot off the press, and during the course of the week, he got word that the whole New Testament had just been delivered. The celebration and distribution wait for his return to Brazil. This represents a significant milestone.

Paulo and his family now live in Brasilia, in part due to the availability of resources for his son who has learning disabilities. His new role in Wycliffe is as a trainer of other translators, especially in the areas of anthropology and missiology.

We had a good week. The “class” was more like personal tutoring, and we talked our way through the material, applying everything to Paulo’s ministry situation and research project. We both learned a lot.

One of the themes we explored was the great Spanish mystics of the 16th century (Ignacio Loyola, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), their influence on Latin American Christianity, and what they might have to say to contemporary evangelicals on the continent. This is potentially controversial, given the anti-Catholic stance of much of Latin American Protestantism, but students at a doctoral level usually have an open mind and a willingness to explore.

The mystics always surprise me. I’m especially drawn to Teresa, with her fertile imagination (her images of spirituality are literally wonderful—full of wonder), her deep sense of intimacy with God, her encouragement to grow, and a humility that pops out here and there, in the midst of her incredible experiences (some of which scare me more than they attract me).

Teresa wrote her autobiography and her books on prayer out of obedience. Her superiors in the Catholic Church wanted her to put in writing her experiences and her teachings on prayer, for the benefit of other monks and nuns. Reluctantly, she put pen to paper. One of my favorite quotes comes from the introduction to one of her books, written by a friend and admirer. P. Gracian quotes Teresa as saying, “Why do they want me to write things?... Let learned men, who have studied, do the writing; I am a stupid creature and don’t know what I am saying. There are more than enough books written on prayer already. For the love of God, let me get on with my spinning and go to choir and do my religious duties like the other sisters. I am not meant for writing; I have neither the health nor the wits for it.”

I find that refreshingly funny, coming as it does from one who is now considered one of the greatest authorities on contemplative prayer. Apparently even Teresa struggled with the man/woman thing, feeling at times inferior, wanting to just be left alone. She might have been a good candidate for the Quaker movement, if only she had been born a century later, in a different country.

As a writer/teacher/pastor, I am sometimes tempted to say, “Enough! Let learned men do it! Let me get on with my spinning, etc…” (Actually, I don’t spin.) This is in part due to having a quiet personality. And, as in Teresa’s case, there have been many who have encouraged me to get over my reluctance and make my contribution. I’m grateful.

I’m grateful for the example of Teresa of Avila, and for those who insisted she write. I’m grateful for the chance to know people like Paulo Oliveira, to understand his life of joyful sacrifice, and the contribution he is making to the extension of God’s kingdom in Brazil. I’m grateful to be here this beautiful city named after Saint Joseph.

And now, back to my spinning….

                                                                    Some images

PRODOLA at worship; Paulo is wearing the bright stripes.

The 2009 cohort group in a seminar on research design.

Hal in animated conversation with Luis Cruz of Chile.

Costa Rican folklore dance

Costa Rican coffee!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Another day, another planet

July 29, 2010

I’m writing this seated in a plane, getting ready to take off from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. We will touch down this evening in San José, Costa Rica. Once again, I’m changing planets.

We left Oregon early this morning, in the middle of Northwest Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions. Today is the final day. It’s been a good week, and I’ve felt gratitude for my Quaker heritage—participating in worship (sometimes with song, often in silence), listening to representatives gently work their way through business, taking (and presenting) workshops, sharing many conversations around meals. I’ve been with family, and I’ve loved it.

One small bright moment for me came at the close of one of the afternoon workshops. This was an open-mic poetry reading, with ten participants. We sat in a circle, read original poetry, shared observations and encouraged one another. At the end, a woman from Klamath Falls confessed that my poetry collection (The Secret Colors of God) is the only book she has ever stolen. I found that both wonderful and funny. (Actually, her “crime” was liking it so much she just didn’t return it to the church library. She has since repented, returned the book, and now has her own legitimate copy.)

The pilot is now apologizing for the delay and announcing that any minute we will be taking off, that the “little hole” in the fuselage has been repaired. (I’m not sure I’m glad he told us that.) I’m preparing my spirit to enter a new world. For the next two weeks we will be immersed in a Latin American milieu of theology, academic study, and warm fellowship of another kind. Our seminar times will be intense and our worship together will be loud, vibrant, and active. The only silence will probably be what I introduce the morning I bring the devotional. These are not Quakers. And Latin America is not the Pacific Northwest. But this is a world I also love.

In spite of the differences, strong threads connect my several worlds. We are all broken people in process of being transformed by the Spirit of God. And we are all followers of Jesus, seeking to make a difference in our world.

The little safety movie is now running on the plane’s TV screens, first in English, and then in Spanish. Hal and I have emergency-door seats this time, right over the wing, so I’ve reviewed the instructions on removing the door so people can escape. I trust I will not be put to the test.

I also trust in God’s accompanying presence on this journey and on his lovingly bringing together the various worlds of my life. Jesus is Lord.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The tale of a dollhouse

It all started 30 years ago when we lived in Bolivia (a great place to raise kids). For Christmas one year we decided to make a dollhouse for Kristin. Hal designed a three-story-plus-attic house, then build it out of wood over a period of several months, using a friend’s shop. We painted it in vibrant primary colors—reds, blues and yellows—partly to match our daughter’s personality.

Kristin was thoroughly surprised and delighted. We furnished it together with stuff from the local miniature fair (“Alasitas”) and with handmade items such as the tuna can coffee table and the matchbox dresser. It brought years of fun and creativity, and when we left Bolivia, Kristin, sixteen-years-old, hated to have to sell it.

Ten years ago on a December visit to our son and his family in Rwanda, David said, “Dad, could you build Breanna a dollhouse for Christmas? Just like Kristin’s?” We agreed, and Hal set to work in David’s garage. We had three weeks to do the job and no place to hide. Breanna, five, and Aren, four, were fascinated, and Hal found ways to let them help him, always evading their questions as to what this interesting thing was supposed to become. We did the final assembly and painting Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed. I’m still amazed that we managed to surprise Breanna on Christmas morning. All three of David’s daughters have enjoyed that dollhouse.

Yesterday we celebrated Paige’s fifth birthday with—what else?—a dollhouse. A year ago Kristin had said, “Dad, it’s our turn. Could you please build Paige a dollhouse? Just like mine?”

For the past several months, we’ve dedicated Saturday afternoons to the project. Hal used wood from the baseboards that were taken from his Grandpa Weesner’s house when it was remodeled to become a George Fox University dorm. (Grandpa Weesner would be Paige’s great-great-grandfather.) The last two weeks, the birthday deadline pushed us to spend more time in the garage. But it’s been a joy—a relief to Hal from the academic intensity of his job, fun for me as I’ve sanded and painted, imagining Paige’s delight and praying for her.

I think this one is Hal’s magnum opus. It’s beautiful. (See the following photos.) The night before the birthday Hal stayed up until 3:30 doing the final assembly and touch-up painting. The morning of the birthday we ran into a snafu as we discovered the thing would not fit into our car. (We had been imagining it fitting, but somehow neglected to take measurements. Go figure.) We live 1 ½ hours from Jon and Kristin’s home, so we had to scramble to borrow a van, but we made it a good hour before the party (missing lunch, however).

That was yesterday. Different extended family members had volunteered to furnish different rooms. (Kristin is organized!) Paige opened her first gift, a set of bathroom furniture. She lifted up the little wooden potty, looked quizzically at her mom and said, “This wasn’t on my list.” The following packages revealed more furniture, and finally she opened the box with the wooden family—parents, three kids, grandparents, just like her family. But she still didn’t get it. We then told her to go to her room for her final present. The dollhouse was waiting for her. It was great to see her look of surprise and the dawning understanding as all the parts and pieces came together in her mind. The rest of the afternoon we all arranged and rearranged furniture, built what was missing from Legos, and played.

We feel satisfaction at the completion of a big project, a job well done, a gift that will continue to bless our granddaughter, and add another chapter to our family story. Maybe someday Paige’s daughter will play with a dollhouse built with wood from her great-great-great-grandpa’s house!

Alandra and Gwen with the Rwandan dollhouse.

Beginning work on Paige's dollhouse

A labor of love

Ready to deliver

Paige Rebecca Gault at 5

Life is good.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Not safe

“Come near to God and God will come near to you” (James 4:8)

After years of growing up in this house,
after all the warnings and hand slappings
--I am well trained, I am cautious—
why are you now telling me
to place my hand
on the glowing burner?

I’m no astronaut.
I barely made it through high school
physics. And you ask me
--without the suit, no oxygen tanks,
not even a rocket—to take a stroll
through the galaxies?

The Creator of volcanoes, black
holes, caterpillars and the beans
that morphed into this cup of coffee
has invited me over for a chat?
How do I get ready? What will
I wear? And whatever—in heaven
or on earth—will we talk about?

How does immaterial immensity
--or whatever God is—draw near
to an infinitesimal speck—that would
be me—without destroying it?
Where is the place big enough
for the meeting? Will it be an open field,
a mountain peak or a mansion?
How do I get there? A little girl again,
I dare to mumble my questions.

If I manage to find the place,
do I just ring the doorbell?
Will I be able to reach it?
Will a servant answer? Or God
himself? Do we shake hands?
What if he hasn’t any?
How will I know it’s really him?

Definitely not safe. An invitation
to play with fire, to enter
the ocean and swim with sharks,
to draw near to unbearable light.
Not safe. Not safe at all.

(From a collection currently in process, "At the Speed of Love: Some unorthodox commentaries on the book of James," 2010)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

At Quaker meeting: Waiting for silence

A poem by William Jolliff

Outside waits a day with four mountains:
Jefferson, Adams, St. Helens and Hood
are stretching their shoulders to the sky
like schoolboys hoping to be chosen first.

The light that sways through the window
of the meetinghouse falls like a warm kiss,
then bends to bless the pews and timbers.
I knew the man who crafted that altar—

I read his books. He cut the black walnut
on his farm and stacked the rough-sawn
boards to wait for the right purpose—this—
then mourned his sin in steel wool and tung oil.

And the young man speaking doesn’t have
Ezekiel’s hair only; he has a prophet’s tongue,
too, and a pure heart, nearly as I can tell.
So I’ve more to be forgiven as I turn

each muscle of hope toward what is still
to come, when the brilliance of good words
slows into nothing, and we settle at last
to the silence that calls us back, even from music

that draws us to the center, the sacred pit
of God’s belly, even on a four-mountain day.

(Bill Jolliff is a professor of literature and writing at George Fox University. He attends the North Valley Friends unprogrammed meeting for worship, where Hal and I also attend. This poem is from his book, Searching for a White Crow, 2009, Pudding House Publications——and is posted here with the author’s permission.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

“Something better than revival”

A few weeks ago I was browsing the June edition of Christianity Today when a photo grabbed my attention. “Hey!” I almost said out loud, “I know those people!” My friends Norberto and Carmen Saracco stood out in a photo of pastors in Buenos Aires, and the article, “Something Better than Revival,” by CT news editor Jeremy Weber, told the story of the Council of Pastors in Argentina’s capital city.

The article also mentions church historian, Pablo Deiros. Norberto and Pablo are teaching colleagues of ours on the academic council of PRODOLA, a Latin American graduate program in theology. Norberto had shared about the unity movement of churches in Buenos Aires, so the information was not new, but I gained a new sense of the scope and the significance of what CT is calling “perhaps the most remarkable experiment in citywide church unity today.” The story is fascinating, and I encourage you to read the article for yourselves.

It’s interesting to note how the movement has evolved from friendships between pastors across denominational lines, to friendships between churches, and now to united missional efforts in the center of Buenos Aires. One of their latest endeavors was the joint sending of a missionary couple to North Africa, a model that gives hope for carrying out the Great Commission in spite of the economic realities of Latin America.

This kind of unity has not been easy to achieve, especially given some of the differences between the more liberal mainline churches and the evangelical churches. Pastors have adopted certain basic theological elements and agreed to differ on the rest. It seems to be working. One of the founders, Juan Pablo Bongarrá, says, “Today the mainline churches are helping the evangelical churches do social work, and the evangelical churches are helping the mainline churches do evangelism work.” The article goes on to state that “Christians now enjoy greater leverage in the public square because they can present a united front when confronting the government.”

Something the article does not mention is the unity movement in Argentina between Protestants and Catholics, especially those that identify with the charismatic/Pentecostal emphasis. Norberto is also a leader in this movement.

I think of my own faith community, that of the Quakers, with all our divisions and differences. I’m encouraged by the convergent Friends movement, but I wish we as Friends could also make more intentional moves toward the greater unity of the whole body of Christ. Perhaps this is something better carried out locally than globally.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Meditation on Mark 4:35-41

I must have been seven years old
the first time I heard the story
of Jesus calming the storm.

Being young and credulous,
I accepted it simply. The fishermen’s
amazement came to me

later in life. I, too, learned to question,
“Who then is this that even
the wind and the sea obey him?”

I also learned to question why
doesn’t he do it now. I watch
on TV the oil creep up the shore

of south Florida and I wonder
what the word of authority
would command and through

which channel the command
would flow. I guess I’m asking
how to pray to the One who is the same

yesterday today and forever. With what
words and to whom should I ask him to direct
them? To the ooze floating on the surface,

“Peace! Be dissolved!”?
To the breach on the ocean floor,
“Peace! Be closed!”?

Oh, Lord of the wind and the sea,
of the minerals and the gasses, of the fish,
the pelicans and the marshlands, say something

now. I strain to hear your voice
as the stench of our sin and the silence
of your people begin to overwhelm.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Beyond sacrament

The comments on last week’s blog lead me to the university library next door and one of my favorite books, The Oxford English Dictionary. The article on “sacrament” gave three root meanings of this word that has wiggled its way through Latin and French into the English language: 1) oath; 2) something holy, dedicated, set apart; and 3) mystery (this latter being the 3rd century translation of the Greek mysterium, mirrored in the Eastern Orthodox view of the sacraments). In reference to ecclesiology across denominations, the word has become “the common name for certain solemn ceremonies of the Christian church…belonging to the institutions of the Christian church.”

I even found a reference to the controversy between the words “sacrament” and “ordinance”: “By some of the English Puritans and Nonconformists, the word was avoided as being associated with opinions regarded by them as superstitious; the usual term applied by them to baptism and the Lord’s Supper was ordinance.”

The OED gives the wider connotation of the word as “something likened to the recognized sacraments, as having a sacred character or function; a sacred seal set upon some part of a man’s life”, “a sign of grace.” As an example of usage (I love how the OED does this!) the Book of Common Prayer is cited (1604):

“Q: What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
“A: I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us.”

In the same vein, the OED cites W.R. Inge (1899): “To the true mystic, life itself is a sacrament,” along with a reference to a 1921 English translation of De Caussades’ classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence and its concept “the sacrament of the present moment.” We Quakers would add a reference to Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion and our testimony to the sacramentality of life.

But as meaningful as these definitions are, they still don’t address the issue of Christ’s command to “do this in remembrance of me,” as pointed out by my conversation partners last week. While embracing the Quaker perspective, I struggle with this aspect. And I love it when I visit other faith communities and can participate in the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, afterwards I always think how nice it would have been to have followed up the experience with some gathered silence.

It’s usually in the waiting, receptive stillness that I best hear the voice of Jesus. That’s where communion with the crucified and risen Lord happens. And that’s what this is really all about.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A monk speaks out on Friends and the sacraments

I recently read an excellent essay entitled, “The Essentials of Orthodox Spirituality,” by an anonymous author who simply calls himself “a monk of the Eastern church.” This reading is in part preparation for a course on Christian spirituality that I teach, and in part from a genuine interest in the subject.

I found the monk’s section on the sacraments especially enlightening. The subtitle is “The Holy Mysteries,” and the monk contrasts the Orthodox emphasis on the mystery of these means of grace with the Catholic familiarity and openness in regards to the sacraments.

But it was the monk’s comment on Quakers that most surprised and delighted me. Let me quote:

“There is ‘one greater than the Temple' (Matt. 12:6), and greater than the Holy Mysteries. The scholastic axiom ‘Deus non alligator sacramentis’—‘God is not bound to the sacraments’—may have a Western origin, but expresses quite well the Eastern mind. What Orthodox would dare to assert that the members of the Society of Friends are deprived of the graces that the sacraments represent? The angel went down at regular times into the pool, and whosoever stepped in first after the troubling of the waters was made whole; but our Lord directly healed the paralytic who could not step in (John 5). This does not mean that a man could disregard, or slight, or despise, the channels of grace offered by the Church without endangering his soul. It means that no externals, however useful, are necessary to God, in the absolute sense of this word, and that there is no institution, however sacred, which God cannot dispense with” (in Exploring Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Reader, edited by Kenneth J. Collins, Baker, 2000, p. 115).

I feel affirmed in my own faith and renewed in the conviction that one of the callings of Friends is to give witness to the truth of the spiritual reality of the sacraments and God’s ultimate independence of any external means.

Monday, May 31, 2010

On reading the Bible aloud

A description from Alan Patton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country (1942)

“Msimangu opened the book, and read to them first from the book. And Kumalo had not known that his friend had such a voice. For the voice was of gold, and the voice had love for the words it was reading. The voice shook and beat and trembled, not as the voice of an old man shakes and beats and trembles, nor as a leaf shakes and beats and trembles, but as a deep bell when it is struck. For it was not only a voice of gold, but it was the voice of a man whose heart was golden, reading from a book of golden words. And the people were silent, and Kumalo was silent, for when are three such things found in one place together?”

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Something strange happened to me recently in the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. It was one of those little incidents that is no big deal, really, but that goes on tickling the brain for weeks afterward. My brain has now been tickled to the point that I need to write.

Hal and I were on our way to a Miami meeting of the academic council of the program we work with. We had a two hour layover in Dallas right at lunch time. Although I try to eat healthy food, even on trips, I occasionally I get the urge for a hamburger, fries, and coke. (This is a confession.) I knew of a place in the airport that serves gourmet hamburgers and I managed to talk Hal into it.

We found a table in the crowded mall and slowly ate our burgers, thoroughly enjoying this slightly sinful luxury. We were not too aware of the people around us, but as we got up to leave the restaurant, a young couple at a nearby table stopped us, and said, “You guys are so cute! How long have you been together?”

I managed to mumble, “Oh, about 43 years,” and Hal added, “We really like each other.” “We can tell,” the woman said, and we moved on.

But I was stunned and not altogether pleased. It seemed like something one said to wrinkled people with white hair who hobble down the street holding hands. And who are, indeed, cute. I know I’m growing older, but I don’t think I’m ready for cute.

There was a time, of course, when cute mattered. I was a serious adolescent, a student, a reader of Great Literature, a poet, and so on. But in my heart of hearts I longed to be a cheer leader, go steady, and be considered cute.

Thanks be to God, I outgrew it. As an adult cute ceased to occupy a place on my list of values (except for the time when, as a young mother, I was relieved that my babies were cute). I haven’t worried about cute in years, and I certainly don’t want to now.

I guess this is really about growing older and accepting this season in life. I’m not sure how I’m doing with this. I need to admit that as soon as I got home from Miami, I bought some hair color, part of my anti-cute remedy. But this, of course, doesn’t solve anything. I think I just need to confess my dis-ease (what I’m doing here), laugh about it, and focus on what matters. So, what matters? How about—“To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”?

Sort of makes cute seem irrelevant.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The grandchildren speak


I was sitting in the easy chair a few evenings ago
when Paige, pajamed, brushed, and smelling of toothpaste,
came over, placed her hands on my knees, put her face
up into mine, and purred, "I won't ever kill
you, 'cause you're my favorite grandma."
Thank God. One less thing to worry about.


Saturday. Bad day right from the start.
"No! I don't want to get up!"
"No! I don't want to stay in bed!"
"Cheerios? Yuck!
“Mom! Make Paige give that to me! It’s my robot!”
A general no to everything.
And then it happened. A gigantic wet sneeze
left him as surprised as the rest of us.
A brief pause, and tears began rolling down his face.
Kristin, Good Mother, reached out.
“Reilly, what’s wrong?” “When I sneeze,”
he wailed, “my cheeks get cold
and I don’t know how to get them warm again.”
Kristin’s laugh didn’t help.
It’s hard to be six.


You didn’t talk at all for a long time,
and it warms me that one of your first words
was light, and your first sentence, light on, as you pointed
to the correct spot on the ceiling or toward the window.
Light has always drawn you, even at four months
when the experts pronounced you blind, told us
there was no cure, and we gathered our courage,
began checking out books on Braille.
But now at two you navigate the shores and shoals
of this house with more than your inner compass. You reach
for favorite toys, recognize people before they speak,
and point to pictures in books saying,
“Doggy! Doggy! Woof!” You’ve been promoted to
visually impaired, but we hold the label lightly.
Clearly the lights are on. Sail forth, young Peter.
Show us the way.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Disembodied Quakers?

Quaker historian Tom Hamm, in the opening session of the QUIP (Quakers United in Publishing) gathering in Indiana last month, suggested that the contemporary outpouring of Quakers on the internet was the 21st century equivalent of the original 17th century “publishers of truth.” Later in the conference Brent Bill reminded us that in the first 50 years of the Quaker movement, over 640 writers put out more than 3000 pamphlets, tracts and books. Today some of our most lively exchanges are on the internet. A good deal of the QUIP conference was devoted to the phenomenon of Quaker blogging. And here I am, trying to join the conversation.

I have my doubts. The university I work for is going online, and I am trying to prepare my course in this new (to me) modality. The teacher in online-course-design is telling us that once we experience this wonder, we will never again want to have a traditional class with people physically present in a room. I think he’s wrong. The almost magical claims about what virtual reality can offer scare me and make me a doubter.

Before the QUIP conference, I received emails from people I didn’t know, and my mind automatically supplied images to match the words. Of course being there in person made all the images disappear. In each case the reality of the person was better than what I had imagined.

I’m reminding myself that face to face encounter doesn’t necessarily guarantee knowing another person. And a lively mental exchange is possible on the internet. Sometimes the virtual exchange is better, for example, in the case of quiet people like me. In a group I don’t always speak up, but online or on the page, I have a voice. I can enter the conversation. I’m reminding myself that all writing is a medium, and part of the challenge of the good writer is to embody what she writes—root it in time and place and the real world. Language itself is a medium.

But still there’s something so good and so concrete about being physically present to another person. Add the smell of fresh bread, the timbre of voice tones (that skype can’t quite replicate), the gestures and expressions that can say more than words, throw in a hug or two, and something real happens.

I’m theologizing now, drawn to the story of the incarnation. God felt the need to become embodied in order to extend salvation to the human race. “He became flesh and dwelled among us and we beheld……” Jesus was a flesh and blood person who got tired, suffered hunger, knew pain, as well as the joys of friendship and family.

But then my back-and-forth mind asks, “What about today?” Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh. We believe he is here among us, speaking to us, leading us, protecting us. I see the Quaker painting, “The Presence in the Midst.” So, does that mean our relationship with Jesus is now virtual?

Again my mind rebels at the label. The term virtual makes relationship seem somehow mechanical, less than wholesome. It makes me wonder about the nature of virtual reality, its strengths and its dangers.

No, our relationship with the living Word is not virtual. As I sit in his presence, he is as real to me as the air I breathe, and our communion is warm and friendly. Sometimes it’s frightening, and I realize how little I really know him. There are times when I can’t emotionally sense his presence at all. But I know that he is there, beyond feeling, thought or word. And not as some virtual reality. As Reality.

It’s significant that the Scriptures speak of the afterlife in terms of a new earth and new heavens. We will have new bodies. I don’t understand this and can barely even imagine it, but a blessed and glorious materiality awaits us. And, with material eyes, we will see the one we are now coming to know.

And so I continue to wait quietly, daily in his presence. And I will continue to explore this new medium, interacting with friends and Friends (and maybe even an enemy or two) over the internet. As I do, I will try to remember that behind the words that float out from cyberspace, there are people with bodies and feelings, with relationships, stories to be told, and destinies to fulfill. In doing so, maybe I can make even blogging a sacramental act.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Quaker writers: a people to be gathered and sent

I spent last week participating in the annual meetings of Quakers United in Publishing (QUIP), concurrent with a writers’ conference. This was my first experience with this group. I had been invited to present a workshop on “Poetry as Ministry.”

QUIP is a networking organization of publishers, yearly meetings and writers from all branches of Quakerism. They come mostly from unprogrammed liberal Friends, but include evangelicals (like me) and conservative Friends. (Pardon the labels. They’re not always helpful but hard to avoid.) This mix of different Quakers is one thing that draws me to this type of gathering. I was not disappointed.

The meetings took place on the lovely campus of the Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana (another first for me) and went from Wednesday evening to Sunday noon. The very full schedule included evening plenary sessions on fascinating topics, 10 different workshops to choose from, interest groups, QUIP business sessions, with times of unprogrammed worship binding it all together. This was all about words—the many ways and challenges of writing and publishing words—yet it was the interweaving silence that enriched our words and allowed meaning to deepen.

Some of the highlights for me include…

…the high level of participation by young people. About one third of the participants were young women and men in their 20s and 30s. Their contributions were encouraged and valued. This was partly due to the presentation of the book, Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices, a two year QUIP project (see photo). The enthusiasm, vitality and honest searching of these Friends energized the whole conference.

…the desire of those involved in QUIP to encourage new voices. I thought frequently of the Andean Friends among whom I’ve spent most of my life, and of developing writers in Africa and Asia. Yes. It’s their turn, and they have much to teach the rest of us.

…new friends and networks. I loved hiking down to the waterfall with Dody Waring, listening to the fascinating experiences of this New England Quaker lady in her eighties. We exchanged books, and I read Dody’s memoirs, Sacred Trust: A Quaker Family since 1816, on the plane home. I loved spending time with Bolivian Friend Emma Condori. It was a relief to both of us to be able to speak Spanish. I listened as she processed her experiences living in this culture. I interacted with other poets and bloggers and trust the relationships will be ongoing. This refreshes and encourages me more than anything else.

…the voice of Jesus and the rising of his Spirit among us—in the times of silence, in the hum of conversation at the dinner table, in the careful crafting of business minutes, in the tears and hugs as people left on Sunday afternoon.

There are differences between the branches of Quakerism, some hard issues the swim beneath the surface in any gathering. We need wisdom as we name and face these. But deeper than the tensions, I sense a new hope that God is still gathering a people, pouring out the Spirit, and sending us forth to publish truth.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

George Fox, Margaret Fell and purple prose

Hal and I enjoy reading aloud to each other at night. It’s usually a novel, a biography, or some exciting person’s memoirs. (In other words, nothing academic. This is reading for pleasure.) Recently we tackled Jan de Hartog’s classic novel of the beginnings of Quakerism, The Peaceable Kingdom, along with the sequel, The Holy Experiment. I had read these years ago and, while vague on the details, remembered this as exciting reading. Hal had not read the books, so I checked the combined volume out of the local library, and we got started.

Any more Hal does the reading, and I’m often asleep before the second page (and have to catch up the next day on my own). The morning after the first chapter, he commented to me, “Nancy, this isn’t the George Fox I know from his journal. The book is highly over-written.” I hadn’t recollected any of that, perhaps having been an uncritical reader in my youth. When I asked him if he wanted to continue, he said he wanted to see where the book went.

It is, indeed, exciting reading, so much so that I managed to stay awake for the following chapters. But I saw Hal’s point about the book being over-written, almost, at times, seeming like tabloid purple prose or a Harlequin romance. Frequently, we both burst out laughing. These portraits certainly did not fit the images we had of our Quaker ancestors, the heroes of the faith. Permit me some examples:

“Henrietta Best [neighbor and friend of Margaret Fell] did not know what prompted her to go and see Margaret Fell again, but the moment the thought struck her, she decided to act upon it. She did not stop to consider that more than a month had gone since Fox’s departure; all she thought about was how she herself would feel at the realization that the man she loved had gone forever. There was no doubt in her mind that Margaret Fell had fallen in love with him; a woman could fool herself about her relationship with a man only as long as he was around. The moment he had left, she would drop all pretense, and no wonder; at that moment her heart would break and the awful, awful sickness begin; the agony, the hopeless yearning with every fiber of her body, every nerve, for his presence, his touch; her every waking thought, her every dream would be centered on him in unbearable, self-inflicted torture. It was the most harrowing torment to which women were prone, and it made no difference how old they were, how wise, how rich, how well schooled in the control of their emotions. To see a woman in that anguish made every other woman want to sneak away and leave her to lick her own wounds, know that for this torment there was no solace, no cure. The only remedy was time.” (Book 1, Ch. 7)

Here’s another brief description of a ride through a dark forest, one of the passages that had us whooping in laughter (not an exaggeration): “As he rode on through Kendal forest, the increasing wind hissed and foamed in the shedding trees, sending whirling at him from the ghostly woods diapers, infant’s colic, whooping cough, vomit on the carpet, snot on his chair, bat ears, inward squint, buck teeth, midnight screams, porridge flung across the room, piercing whistles.” (Book 1, Ch. 7) And so on. This is probably enough to make my point.

But on we read, captivated by the dramatic story. I had to travel while we were still somewhere in the middle of the book, and Hal actually finished it on his own. He felt the book improved, in terms of its literary value, in the second half, the story of the early Quaker movement in America. He observed that De Hartog is an artist who uses primary colors and paints in broad strokes. An apt description.

Here are some observations: The book is a novel. While based on history, the author makes no pretense that this is non-fiction. He freely uses his imagination to depict the inner emotional states of the characters, and fills in the gaps with his own interpretations. This is all appropriate to the genre.

But, while being a novel, the author, a Quaker himself, did his research. We were glad to find a section of historical notes at the end of the first book, and learned some fascinating details.

Having said that, I must admit that this interpretation of the main characters of early Quaker history did not jive with our own readings of Fox’s Journal and other writings, along with the letters of Margaret Fell. They seemed like totally different people. I guess it hinges on the word “interpretation.” And it points out some of the differences in Quakerism today, with all the perspectives ranging from liberal to evangelical to conservative, although in possession of the same early documents.

And here De Hartog, in his historical notes, makes some interesting observations. He writes that Fell lived eleven years after the death of Fox and that during that time she edited Fox’s journal for publication (with the participation of a committee of London Friends). De Hartog notes that in this process, “All miracles and supernatural occurrences were deleted….From its pages emerged not the man George Fox had been, but the one Margaret Fell decided he should have been.”

De Hartog goes on to state that, “During [Fox’s’] lifetime she and he had battled for supremacy in the Society of Friends, each trying to impose a different concept of love on the movement as its guiding star. Only after his death did sly old Maggie, mischievous saint, finally have her way; henceforth the accent in the spiritual life of Quakers would be on service rather than salvation, tenderness rather than righteousness, and on infinite patience with the foibles of others as well as one’s own….It was a concept that would lead to great things: the first prison reform, the first humane treatment of the insane, the first school among the Indians, the first abolition of slavery….”

This is a fascinating interpretation: George Fox the evangelical and Margaret Fell the liberal. I’m dubious as to this take on subsequent Quaker history. And one look around the world shows a vibrant Quaker movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical preaching is backed up by a commitment to works of justice and mercy in the context of the poor.

As an evangelical Friend, I especially note the absence of a key character of early Quakerism in The Peaceable Kingdom. I’m referring to Jesus. Although the novel mentions “the light within,” “the rising of God within” and so forth, Jesus is not prominent. But He fills George Fox’s Journal and defines “the light within.”

On the positive side (and so much of this novel is positive), these portraits clearly depict Fox, Fell and other early Friends as real people. This is not hagiography. Since we have the tendency to glorify our Quaker heroes, I find this down-to-earth view, however accurate or not, healthy. Some of it just could be true.

I got a notice from the library this morning that the book is due in a few days. Since I have already renewed it once, I need to turn it back, not having finished it myself. In a week or two I just may check it out again and read all the way to the end. That in itself says something, doesn’t it?