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!