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.