Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Christmas God-freck

We just returned from spending the Christmas holidays with our daughter and family. We were delighted to discover that the two oldest grandkids are into homemade gifts. Six-year-old Paige made us a book, and I now want to share it, part of my vocation of encouraging young writers.

Christmas is the best holiday ever
(by Paige Gault)

I like Christmas a lot not decause of the prestents decause of God
I also like things like elfs maby I mostle like snowdall the Elf I like him a lot
I mit also like Santa and reinder bat I mostle like GOD!
I am a God freck a Big Woon!
I like the manger set a lot,
bet I do like presits a lot too!

Merry Christmas and happy new years

Happy holydays to you, too. From another God-freck (a Big Woon).

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mary's song

by Luci Shaw

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest...
you who have had so far
to come.) Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.

His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by dove's voices, the whisper of straw,
he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breathe, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
all years.
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas program

(North Valley Friends Church, 1979)

Bales of real hay
clump around
the false manger.
The choir files in,
an unheavenly host,
to predestined slots on stage.
I spot David,
my almost angelic son;
Our eyes connect;
he grins.
Joseph and Mary arrive.
The mini-Madonna clutches the Babe;
his plastic head sticks out, unsupported,
and does not fall.
"Tough kid," I think.
Pajama-clad animals
mill around the manger.
My small daughter, a miscast lamb,
flops her ears
and bleats to the music, all mischief.
For the next twenty minutes
I strain on the edge of the pew
as bathrobed wise men
and mock shepherds
march in and mumble their lines.
The third wise man sneezes,
Gabriel giggles,
and I suppress my own mirth
when suddenly
I see the Christ,
perceive the glory,
and adore.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Quaker response to Christmas

We Quakers are in a good position to respond to the Christmas season. With our dual nature of being both Friends of Jesus and those who quake in the presence of the living God, at our best we bring together both the imminence and transcendence of God. Thomas Kelly described the early Quakers as being “ablaze with the message of the greatness and the nearness of God.” 

Christmas demands we bring together the nearness and greatness of God. God sent Jesus in an intimate, down-to-earth form—as a helpless baby, needing to be held, changed, fed. That’s the imminence part, God’s nearness to the human condition.

The angels and shepherds got the transcendence part right. I love the King James description of the shepherds being “sore afraid,” uniting pain with terror. More than a helpless baby, this child was the Lord of lords and King of kings in unlikely disguise. Something for the heavenly hosts to shout “Hallelujah!” about.

Sunday in programmed worship, Cherice Bock, our message-bearer, quoted G. K. Chesteron: “Man is bored to death listening over and over to a story he has never heard.”  As we listen again to the Christmas story, which we have all heard over and over, I invite you to join me in opening the “eyes of our hearts,” and seeing afresh in the baby, Emmanuel, God with us. Then let us, in the words of the old hymn, become “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stripes on the beach

November was a red-letter month in that I saw the publication of two books.  Two!  And one of them is a real book.

The real book is called La iglesia latinoamericana: su vida y su mission (The Latin American Church: Her Life and Mission). I coordinated the three person editorial team (with Alberto Roldán and Chuck Van Engen) of this book of essays from 11 Latin American scholars. It’s published by Certeza, a Protestant publishing house in Buenos Aires.  It’s been a long and arduous process, but I’m pleased with the result.  The book is academic and in Spanish; if these are not barriers, please look it over!  (I may blog later on some of the essays, including my own.)

The other book, which is even more “real” (in the velveteen rabbit sense) is published through Bapa Creations Unlimited.  You’ve probably not heard of it. It’s my very own (and very unofficial) publishing house.  “Bapa” was Alandra’s word for Grandma a few years back. I publish these books around Christmas time, usually in runs of three (one goes to Rwanda, one to Springfield, and one stays home with me).

This latest creation couldn’t be farther from the volume published by Certeza. Rather than academic in level, its destined readership is a three-year-old autistic boy named Peter. The English is pretty straight forward.

One of Peter’s fixations is stripes. He sees them everywhere. A few weeks back when Hal and I were at the coast, I took a walk one day and, like Peter, I saw stripes everywhere. So I took out my camera, and a new book was born.  Following are various scenes from Stripes on the Beach.
 I went to the beach
and what did I find?
Stripes, stripes, stripes
of every kind.
Wavy stripes in the sand
Ocean stripes
(otherwise known as waves)
swimming to the shore
Sea grass stripes
Shadow stripes
Drift wood stripes
Sky stripes
(otherwise known as clouds)
moving in the wind
Sea shell stripes
Long legged shadow stripes
Bird legs stripes
Wooden bridge stripes
Fuzzy hat stripes
Crooked tree trunk stripes
Stripes in the grass
Stripes in a fence
Venetian blind stripes
And last of all, here am I!
I've pudding on my face
and stripes on my clothes
and it's just about time to close
this book.
Bye bye, stripes! Bye bye, beach!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Prayer of the selfish child

by Shel Silverstein

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break
So none of the other kids can use 'em....

(From A Light in the Attic)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Three women, three stories

I recently read four non-fiction books chronicling the stories of three women.  The life circumstances of these women couldn’t have been more different, but their reflections point to the universals of human experience.  I’m fascinated by the shared aspects of their lives, the ways they differ, and the power of story to reveal truth.

Two of the books are the memoirs of Iranian writer Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) and Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter (2008). The third book is Hilary Spurling’s biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth (2010). And the fourth book is by theologian Roberta C. Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (1995).

All three stories reveal the power of place (cultural and historical context) to form lives. Pearl Buck grew up as a missionary kid in China and spent a good deal of her adult life there as well. And while she herself felt more Chinese than American, being a “foreign devil” during the Boxer Rebellion and the violent conflict between Chiang Kaishek’s nationalism and Mao Zedong’s communist revolution marked her life. Azar Nafisi was raised in the Muslim context of the Shah’s Iran and lived through the radical changes, especially for women, brought by the Islamic Revolution under the Ayatollah Khomeini. Roberta Bondi spent much of her childhood in the shadow of the Christian fundamentalism of rural Kentucky and later, as a young scholar, under the contrasting influence of a rational male-oriented seminary education. All these contexts, in different ways, devalued women, setting up similar struggles for all three.

All three women found solace and hope through the power of literature and language. As a girl, Pearl Buck learned Chinese and soaked up the legends and mythology of her people. As an adult her stories of the Chinese people earned her both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel award. Azar Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, chronicles her clandestine reading group and how reflecting on the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen (all forbidden Western authors) helped her and her students find their way through the difficult days of the revolution. Roberta Bondi also writes of the books that helped bring balance and hope to her early years, but it was language itself, in particular the Hebrew language, that gave her a sudden epiphany, “a sense of cosmic goodness and joy in all created things I had never encountered before.”

All three women experienced the power of family to harm, as well as to heal, and a good deal of their personal development had to do with coming to terms with the damage. Buck and Bondi faced the trauma of harsh fathers, while Nafisi wrestled all her life in a difficult relationship with her tyrannical, emotionally unbalanced mother. In some senses, all these relationships with parents were abusive and all the women suffered the trauma of abandonment. In addition, all three entered into unfortunate first marriages and resulting divorces.

And all three women eventually find healing through understanding and forgiving their offending parent, all forming new relationships before the death of the parent.

Azar Nafisi does not write about any kind of relationship to God or the Muslim faith. Both Buck and Bondi were raised in Christian homes. Pearl Buck eventually rejected the Christianity of her parents and did not find a replacement. In contrast, Bondi outgrew the rigid fundamentalism that formed the backdrop of her childhood and slowly moved into a rich and deep Christian spirituality with a God of grace.

Pearl Buck died in 1972. Azar Nafisi lives in the United States, teaches college literature and directs the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Roberta Bondi is Professor of Church History at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Of the three, the story that impacted me the most was Roberta Bondi’s, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Thing on the Beach

A sunny autumn day on an Oregon beach always amazes and delights me.

The other day as Hal and I ambled along on the sands, we saw something else that began to amaze us as we approached it. From a distance it appeared to be some kind of  huge driftwood configuration, but it only grew stranger in appearance as we drew near. We named it The Thing on the Beach. 
 We decided it must be a log with three people sitting on it, having a chat.  Yes.  “I’m sure they’re moving,” Hal said. The knobs on the log did seem to be slightly swaying in the breeze.  But the closer we came, the less they moved.
Finally we closed in.  No people, but rather an upside-down complex root system that further stimulated our imaginations. The Thing on the Beach became the Congress of Beasts.
The snooty llama was obviously trying to assert her leadership.
The giant bull frog grumpily complied.
The long-necked fox let his point of view be known.
The earless camel joined the debate….
…as did the sleepy walrus….
…and the pig.
No consensus was reached on any of the items discussed, but at least they were all facing the same direction. I suppose that in itself is amazing in any kind of congress.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The good death

I just found out that Al Lehman died on Monday. It’s been a long journey, this death.

Al and Lois have been part of North Valley Friends since before its founding.  I remember when Hal and I were newly married and began attending Springbrook Friends, one of the meetings that merged to form North Valley. Al was teacher of the adult Sunday school class. Newly graduated from college, as well as newly married, I was a bit of a rebel at the time, highly critical of anything to do with church. But I loved that class. More to the point, I loved Al and his gentle way of opening the Scriptures and of encouraging us to engage with them and with each other.

In the following years, each time Hal and I would return from Bolivia for our furlough year in Oregon, Al and Lois were a stabilizing factor for us in the church. They were like parents in the faith and never seemed to change, were always part of the life and health of the community we came home to.

I was with the elders visiting Al and Lois in their home on Sunday afternoon. Al never woke up during that time, and his labored breathing formed a sort of background music to our visit. We sat with Lois and Bev, sang some old hymns, with Hal’s harmonica accompaniment—songs like “Blessed Assurance,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder.” We then all talked about what Al had meant to us, and the strong testimony of a consistent, faithful, gentle life unfolded.

Lois shared that the day before God had given her an unexpected gift. Al woke up and was conscious for about an hour. During that time they again expressed their love to each other. Lois was smiling as she told us, “I didn’t think I get another chance to tell him I loved him.” Bev shared about how her father never wanted his last months to be like this, did not want to be so dependent on family for every need, but that as his condition gradually worsened, he just seemed to accept that this was how it was to be. He walked gently and submissively through the whole experience.

We prayed for Al and the family, sat around for a short while longer and left, not realizing this was his last day with us.

I’m remembering reading about the spiritual discipline of the “good death,” a practice in years gone by, not spoken of much anymore. For the life of me (interesting phrase), I can’t find the source of my reading. I’ve googled it and find thousands of references to a “good death,” all contemporary. Today the phrase pertains more to the medical profession than to Christianity, and is linked with practices such as hospice care. It basically means a death with as little physical and spiritual pain as possible. That’s good. Al and the family benefitted from hospice care during the last several months.

But the “good death” as a spiritual discipline has another sense entirely. Rather than something the dying person receives at the hand of others, it is a gift that person gives to others. It refers to letting one’s death be as full of Jesus and of the fruits of the Spirit as one’s life was. It means letting the way the person handles death become a ministry in itself, a blessing to the community. It results in a deep joy that mingles with sorrow as the person finally slips over the edge and into Life.

Of course, for that to even be possible, a person would have to have lived a consistently Spirit-filled life.  Over a long period of time.  Al Lehman was such a person, and while we will all miss him, I smile as I imagine him now in the presence of the One he loved. And I thank him for giving us the gift of a good death.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How it sometimes happens that i am reduced to writing

It starts in the middle of the night
--the witching hour
--the pull of the moon
i slip from sleep
drawn to the lip of chasm
bend in & begin to
spin down & down
i grow small small
as the cone of the vortex
whirls the colors & sounds
& senses of all i’ve ever known
fast fast so fast i forget my name
around & around the dark
shines twirling tumbling me
sucks out my words
my words my very
life until
it slows slows
& stops i
never know how or when
but the vortex vanishes
& i uncurl in the gentled night
hold in my hand
a small pile of words
a singular piece of

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Secret sunshine

I watched a very disturbing movie last week, and it continues to prod me. I love foreign films, in part because of insights gained from looking at life from other cultural perspectives. This one was from South Korea, a prize winner in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, so I ordered it.

Entitled Secret Sunshine, the film tells the story of a widow who, along with her young son, decides to honor her late husband by moving to his home town, a small city actually. (The translation of the town’s name is “Secret Sunshine.”) Shin-ae begins to make a few friends, finds a job and puts her son in the local grade school, but nothing comes easily. As she explores her new environment, in the background of several scenes Christian groups are singing choruses and testifying in the streets. The local pharmacist tells her earnestly that she needs God and invites her to church, an invitation Shin-ae shyly turns down.  But Christianity keeps poking its head around the corners of the film and I wonder, is this the “secret sunshine”?

Tragedy strikes and Shin-ae’s son is kidnapped, then brutally murdered.  The perpetrator is apprehended and turns out to be the school-van driver.  Shin-ae, overwhelmed by grief, finds herself one evening in a healing service of the very church to which her pharmacist had invited her. She breaks down in the service and people gather to lay hands on her and pray. The next scene shows her at peace, giving her testimony in a small group.  A Christian now, with a new “family,” she is learning to sing the songs, read the Scriptures, and submit to a theology that encourages her to accept her son’s brutal death as somehow “God’s will.”

It all breaks down when she goes to the prison, accompanied by church members, to tell the murderer that she forgives him. The criminal smiles tenderly at her from behind bars, informs her that he, too, has become a Christian, that God has completely forgiven him and he is at peace and praying for her.

Too much. She walks out of the prison in stunned silence, accompanied by the “hallelujahs” of the brethren, then collapses in the parking lot. The remainder of the film portrays her rejection of Christianity, psychotic breakdown, hospitalization, and subdued return home. Heavy stuff.

One of the most difficult aspects of the film for me was the portrayal of Christianity. It was fairly honest, not exaggerated.  I recognized the music, the forms, the types of relationships because I have heard and seen them all—throughout Latin American and in the United States, representing mainly the neo-charismatic movement, but corresponding to some denominational groups as well. I recognized all the songs, which included contemporary worship music, Bill Gaither (“Because He Lives”), traditional hymns (“Blessed Assurance”) and one song I couldn’t recognize which might actually have been Korean. The Christians were good people, wanting to be helpful.

But the overall impression was of a church that was not Korean in form or content, that was offering superficial answers to the deep struggles of life.

I know something of the large evangelical church in Korea through my Korean friends (including some of my students), through reading the history of the church in that country, and through reading some of her theologians.  I know that something good and real concerning the Kingdom of God is taking place in Korea.

But the questions the film poses need to be listened to deeply, not just in the context of Korea, but around the world where the church has taken root and sprung up in diverse cultural contexts.  Why, in so many of these places, do the forms and even the content of the gospel seem so similar to what we see in church movements around us? Where are the unique contributions that different cultural expressions of Christianity could offer the whole church?  Where is the profound grappling of gospel and culture producing a theology that touches the deep hurting places in life today?

Monday, October 3, 2011


It comes when least expected.
In the middle of the night
I awaken, dream pictures
drifting away,
and on the edge of consciousness,
"Follow me."
At my computer
pondering how to respond
to a difficult message,
the reminder,
"Follow me."
Walking to the post office,
head down, worrying
this task or the other,
a gentle nudge,
"Follow me."
At the moment of temptation
to irritation--the inappropriate
remark, the socially inept
gesture--he whispers,
"Follow me."
It's there at the unanticipated
turn, the interruption,
the sudden darkness.
Throughout the day
and into the night,
alone or in a crowd,
when I'm thinking about him
and when I'm not,
the offered hand,
the quiet word, "Come.
Follow me."

Ready or not, Lord,
here I come.

(From Mark 1 & 2)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shakespeare in prison

“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)

Saturday night we enjoyed a rare privilege. We watched a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. That alone would have been great fun, but it was the the venue of the event that added adventure and heightened awareness. We were at a medium-security state prison in northern Oregon, and inmates preformed the play. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
A close friend of ours, let’s call him Dave, is a prisoner there.  We keep in regular telephone contact, and have been able to visit about once a year. He continues to bless and encourage us with the realities of repentance and transformation. But he remains a prisoner. And we remain close friends, doing all we can to make the encouragement mutual.
As a participant in the production, Dave had secured our tickets and urged us to attend.
We arrived in the early afternoon, in time to take advantage of visiting hours before the evening performance. Two other friends had joined us, and we sat with Dave around a small table, in a room full of other such small groups of inmates and guests. Guards stood around the walls. Dave was in high spirits and our conversation lively. We ended in prayer and left to check into our motel, grab a bite to eat, and return in time for another lengthy check in process.
I didn’t know what to expect. This would clearly be an amateur performance, with minimum staging and props. I had seen Twelfth Night years ago, along with members of the high school freshman English class I was teaching at the time. To refresh my memory I consulted Wikipedia’s synopsis of the play. But I was basically here to support Dave, not to experience great drama.
We conversed with our friends in the hushed tones the prison atmosphere inspires as we again went through the identity check, got stamped, found our group, and were ushered through the series of locked rooms and corridors that finally ended up in the multi-purpose room. But as we arrived this time, I immediately noted a change in the atmosphere. Instead of being separated and strictly guarded, the inmates, in their colorful Elizabethan costumes, mingled with the crowd. People were laughing and talking. Dave was playing medieval music on a synthesizer up front.
At exactly 6:00, we found our seats and the play began. Time passed more quickly than I would have imagined as we laughed and applauded for two hours. I loved watching men take the role of the women in the play, just as it was done in Shakespeare’s time. The role of Viola was especially funny as a man played the part of a woman pretending to be a man. He gave a convincing portrayal. This was real theater.  It was really Shakespeare in one of best live performances I have seen. I was frankly surprised.
But it was what happened afterward that made the evening so unforgettable. The play ended, and we were invited to have refreshments and mingle with the cast.  They were all beaming, buoyed up not only by our response but by knowing they had actually pulled it off. After refreshments, we gathered again, took our seats, with the cast sitting in front (much like a Quaker facing bench!) and talked together.
Cast members came from varying backgrounds, some with minimal education, only a few having read Shakespeare before, and most with no theater experience. The genesis of the project came from the director of the play, Johnny Stallings, a professional in theater who volunteers his time in the prison. A few years ago Stallings began visiting the prison once a week just to facilitate conversation among a group of inmates who wanted talk about life and death, family, freedom, and so on.  For three hours a week these men forgot they were prisoners.
At one point one of the prisoners suggested they read a Shakespearean play together, and Stallings was more than glad to facilitate. This was a first for most of them, but with help they came to appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare. Then someone suggested they perform a play, an audacious idea, and one that took time to run through the system and secure the necessary permissions.
But it happened, and three years ago the prison troupe preformed Hamlet. Last year, it was A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. A change in this year’s performance was the addition of costumes, on loan from the Portland Opera.  The troupe gives three performances for the public, on an invitation only basis, mostly to friends and family members. They perform at other times for fellow inmates.
As the cast members spoke, it became clear that the process itself was transformative. The challenge of moving beyond themselves, of doing something new and totally out of their experience, of entering the world of great literature, and succeeding, well, who wouldn’t be changed?  One of the cast members said that the opportunity to make us laugh, to give us such a good gift made it worthwhile. Another testified that the surprise of knowing he could come to understand and like Shakespeare, let alone perform a play, has changed how he sees himself. Just seeing all of them beam with pride and pleasure as we again broke into applause brought tears.
And I realized these men were not the only ones to forget they were prisoners.
In my past visits to the prison, to this very room, while I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dave, I had been reacting with suspicion to the others in the room. The whole experience of the careful check in process, the multitude of locked doors and guards, the prison garb itself had combined to make me afraid. It was through the lens of fear that I had been viewing the other men in the room, wondering what they had done, not daring to look directly at any of them. Another word for it would be prejudice. And I had not even recognized it.
Before Saturday night. What happened to me through the performance, through the time of visiting with the cast and then through hearing their stories was a transformational experience of my own. I saw men of talent and courage, men capable of great feats of memorization and performance, people with something to say and something to give, people I would like to have as friends. People worthy of respect. People.
I thank God for an experience that went beyond entertainment. I thank God for people like Johnny Stallings who continues to drive the three hours from Portland to the prison once a week. I thank God for hope in dark places. I thank God for Shakespeare in prison.
And I’m thankful that God can change even me.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Continuing the conversation: an exercise in paying attention

At North Valley Friends Church, we are beginning a year long sermon series on discipleship, focusing on the book of Mark. Concurrently, a new Wednesday evening class for adults, called “Continuing the Conversation,” is starting up. The intent of the class is to instill in us the disciplines and dispositions to become better at listening and discerning what God is saying as we gather for worship on Sunday morning.

As I prepared for last Sunday’s time of worship, I found helpful the instructions that the class facilitator sent to us.  The process he suggested to us is as follows: 

1.      Participate in worship service, take notes.
2.      Later in the day on Sunday, spend a few minutes reflecting on the meaning of the service and pray for guidance in application.
3.      Between Sunday and Wednesday, write a brief reflection paper.  Use the following prompts as a guide.
a.       What were key themes that were present in the service?
b.      Do you sense a continuous flow during the meeting,
c.       How did you feel and what were you thinking during the time?
d.      What confusion or lack of clarity did you take away from the service?
e.       What are you prompted to do as a result of the sermon?
f.       What passages of scripture come to mind, what can you read to extend the learning about this service?
4.      Engage others in conversation on Wednesday night.  Make commitment for continued reflection and application.  Explore scripture passages and other related readings
5.      Write one more follow-up prior to next Sunday’s service ( a brief journal entry or two).
6.      Notice, reflect, pray and report.

My reflections from Sunday morning
I went to church primed and ready to receive. I prayed that God would help me not be so focused on this process and on how I would respond on Wednesday evening that I would neglect to worship.

It helps that I attend the early unprogrammed meeting, which becomes not only a preparation for programmed worship, but a worship experience in itself. The gathering word came from a quote by Carolyn Stephens about God who communicates: “The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits he has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of his own life; that he never leaves himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; and that in order clearly to hear the divine voice thus speaking to us we need to be still….”

Several people spoke into the silence, one about an atheistic scientist who found Christ through research on the human genome project, the other a personal story about seeing a deer in a small forest in the middle of Newberg. I felt awe and gratitude before the fact that God communicates with us in so many ways.

So many aspects of programmed worship spoke to me. The words of the songs became prayer: “Knowing you, Jesus, there is no greater thing;” “Oh draw me, Lord, and I’ll run after you;” “We have decided to follow Jesus.” During the baby dedication, I had the strong sense of the community vowing to follow Jesus in the care and discipleship of our children. I felt his pleasure and was moved by the seriousness of this commitment.

Lynn preached on several passages from Mark 1 and 2, and the parts that stood out to me concerned Jesus’ calling of the disciples. “Follow me.” Here are some of the points I noted down about the call to follow and our response:
--Jesus calls his disciples into a community of followers.
--We don’t necessarily get to choose our companions on this journey.
--Jesus initiates the call.
--He calls ordinary people.
--Worse (or better) than that, he calls sinners, traitors and sick/wounded people.
--The call to follow in the Jesus way is integral, involving all of our life.
--The decision to follow is made over and over again.

And mixed in with these formal elements of worship were the greetings, conversations, warm connections with my fellow followers. This, too, is worship.

Now, several days later, what is lingering and growing is the voice of Jesus throughout the day, inviting: “Follow me.”  On Monday, as I communicated with the students in my online class, as I interacted by email and phone with other members of the administrative team, as I prepared for the writers group and, later that evening, led a meeting of the elders and pastors, this invitation accompanied me. I had a very real sense of following Jesus in each endeavor.

This continues and has become a profound and deeply encouraging experience. I know what Jesus is saying to me through the Sunday worship. Now I broaden the question: What is he saying to us as a community?

Monday, September 19, 2011

A mouse ate my poem

and I'm really mad.
It had been months since the words flowed
from brain to hand to page and I was anguished,
wondering if my muse was on extended coffee break
or if this was a clear-cut case of abandonment.
But then, last night as I was brushing my teeth,
it came to me, pure and full-blown, the perfect poem.
So I rushed from the bathroom to my desk,
grabbed paper and pen, put it all down,
then basked for a moment in creative relief.
I left it there on the edge where I'd be sure
to see it first thing in the morning.

It's morning now, but all I find are nibbled margins,
a few Sanskrit footprints in the dust,
and down on the carpet,
barely visible, one small grey poop of a metaphor.

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

Friday, September 9, 2011

My lips are sealed

Right now Hal and I are in Springfield, Oregon at our daughter’s home, helping out with the grandkids. We are giving Kristin time to do her online courses, while we care for three-year-old Peter. Peter is legally blind and autistic. Other than that, he is a bright, beautiful, active toddler. And life is an adventure.

Among the many things we’re learning about autism are the unique ways people with this condition process language. They think in pictures and take things very literally. They have trouble with metaphors and imagery.

The other morning I was getting Peter up and I said something that irritated him. He ordered me to “No Grandma talk!”

I responded with, “You don’t want me to say that? All right. My lips are sealed.”

He immediately sat up in bed, dug his stuffed seal out of the covers, found its mouth and said, “Seal’s got lips. Seal’s got lips.” (Repetition is another characteristic, usually more than twice.)

I laughed and tried to explain what I meant. We then got him dressed and headed down the hall to breakfast. Entirely out of context, he said, “Peter’s lips are sealed,” then changed it to a question, “Are Peter’s lips sealed?”

We enjoyed his remark so much that he has adopted this phrase and at various times throughout the day, always out of context, he will inform us that “My lips are sealed.” The new bed time ritual involves picking up his seal and making some comment on his lips, after which he’s free to go to sleep.

Life is indeed an adventure, and young Peter is teaching us much. He certainly keeps me on my toes. (Now how would he picture that phrase? Grandma in a tutu, doing pirouettes?)

Though his lips may be sealed, Peter can still grin.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I collect, therefore I am

Several centuries ago, René Descarte wrote, “I think, therefore I am” (1637), thus laying one of the foundational stones of Western philosophy. Modern thinkers challenge Descartes’ affirmation, in search of a more holistic image of human existence. But approaches to the essence of humanness abound. The Latin American equivalent might be, “I relate, therefore I am.” Some would say that the North American version is, “I consume, therefore I am,” or, for the workaholics among us, “I produce, therefore I am.”

Recently I spent a delightful afternoon with a friend. Gary talked about his writing projects and among them was a reflection on his collections. The idea originally came from an exercise in self-reflection, pondering what the things we collect say about who we are. I found his article fascinating and insightful and decided to do the same exercise myself.

I’ve been a collector all my life. Much of this stuff I no longer own. My stamp collection became too expensive and demanding, so I finally just gave it away. I outgrew the dolls and comic books. But I still collect. And while I don’t really believe my collections define my existence, it’s still an insightful exercise.

I collect heart rocks. Why? Because they’re small, pretty and very inexpensive. And because I love the way they feel in my hands and the way they sound when I tumble them together. And because it’s a bit of a challenge to find them. Whenever I go to the beach I manage to bring home one or two. When a visitor to my home admires my heart rocks (and not everyone even notices them), I invite her to take one home. For keeps, as my grandkids would put it.

I have a wooden bird collection. These come from Bolivia and show both the beauty of Bolivia’s tropical woods and the skills of her craftsmen. My wooden goose accompanies me every day as I work at my computer, reminds me of where I’m from and what I love.

My wooden puzzle collection speaks mainly to my role as a grandmother. The grandkids love these animal puzzles and, although they’re harder than they look to put together, the kids have become quite good at it. These come from Costa Rica, a place I visit frequently as a teacher and have come to love. They represent the colors, creativity, and natural beauty of this place.

Hal and I both collect books and some of our rooms look rather like libraries. We have several categories of books, and my favorite collection, that includes movies as well as books, has to do with stories about cultural values, communication styles, and intercultural relationships. I especially like books and movies produced by the culture they represent. Favorite authors include (among many others) Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan), Ynag Erche Namu (southern China), Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt), Isabel Allende (Chile), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua), Sandra Cisneros (Hispanic American), Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan (Chinese American), Jung Chang (China) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian American). The movies include my favorite, Babette’s Feast (Denmark), The Necessities of Life (Inuit culture), Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Taiwan), and Departures (Japan). There are many more, but you get the idea. This reflects my life as a poet, writer and participant/observer, having lived most of my adult years outside the US.

I collect words. I collect them as favorite poems, some committed to memory. I collect funny (always insightful) things my kids and grandkids have said. I remember interesting conversations (some overheard) and billboards along the highways. I store in my mind words that sound beautiful, funny or interesting, as separate entities or in phrases. I use them when appropriate. Hal and I read good books out loud to each other, partly because we like the sound of the words. When we were reading Jacob Have I Loved (yes, a book for young people), we came across the word lugubrious, and just stopped to admire it, guessing its meaning from the context (and later looking it up). I then wrote this poem in honor of the word:


needs a poem of its own.

Consider the slime and the slink of it,

the slightly sinister wink of its eye

as it peeks from behind potted plants at wakes,

lingers at the altars of Protestant revivals,

or sobs with soap opera heroines.

An irreverent Uriah Heapish word,

a marbles-in-the-mouth sound,

it offers no apologies

for its lumpish singularity.

Some suggestions for everyday use:

--"This piano is lugubriously out of tune."

--"He shed a lugubrious tear

as she passed him the marmalade."

--"This morning at exactly 5:37,

a lugubrious lummox was sighted

at the corner of 11th and Lucerne

in downtown LA. We have investigators

on the scene and will interrupt our broadcast

to bring up-to-date coverage

on this fast-breaking story."

--"Not tonight, dear. I'm feeling lugubrious."

What are some of your collections? What do they reveal about you?