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.