Saturday, July 30, 2011

Three streams and a place of peace

At this moment I find myself at the confluence of three streams, and the waters toss and tumble as they meet and widen into a river. The Yearly Meeting of Northwest Friends has just ended on a high note with the confirmation of Becky Ankeny (Hal’s cousin) as the new superintendent. An excellent choice. Hal and I presented two workshops, met with the mission board and spoke at the women’s and men’s banquets. God was gracious and once again these two introverted servants made it through their public responsibilities alive and well.

At the same time, we are in the midst of helping our children and their children prepare for their return to Rwanda. So, concurrent with yearly meeting, it’s been a week of sorting, cleaning, packing, running errands, and much prayer for peace and grace. An undercurrent of grief runs through it all. Four years of separation is a long time.

The third stream that chatters and bubbles in the background is preparation for my trip to Costa Rica on Monday and four intense days of curriculum revision for PRODOLA.

Part of my spiritual discipline recently, and a way to keep my spirit centered in grace and peace, is memorization (in some cases, re-memorization) of favorite poems. I’ve printed each poem on a 6 x 4 card and play with it as we take our early morning walk (another spiritual discipline). This one by Wendell Berry keeps me centered in grace, even when I can’t get out into the nature he writes about. It helps the streams inside me gather into a place of still water.

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

 When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
or grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I see you

Recently I discovered a short poem by W.S. Merwin called “Sight.” I’ve been memorizing it on my morning walks. It goes like this:


a single cell
found that it was full of light
and for the first time there was seeing

I was a bird
I could see where the stars had turned
and I set out on my journey

in the head of a mountain goat
I could see across a valley
under the shining trees something moving

in the green sea
I saw two sides of the water
and swam between them

look at you
in the first light of the morning
for as long as I can

The last stanza, “I look at you in the first light of the morning for as long as I can,” touches an inner chord. I now find myself repeating it in my early morning prayers, accompanied by a stab of joy I can’t explain.

About the same time, a Brazilian friend sent me a YouTube song in Portuguese, saying it reminded him of me. Since it’s a beautiful song, that makes me feel really good. The chorus repeats variations on the phrase, “I can’t stop looking at you.” Again, I have been singing this phrase as prayer to Jesus throughout the day. (Go to the link at the end of this blog.)

Last week Hal and I watched the movie, “Avatar.” I had wanted to see this film for a long time and, while our TV set doesn’t do 3D, I was not disappointed. I loved the geography and culture depicted on the moon Pandora, as well as the story of supposed enemies becoming friends. I was a bit discouraged when what at first appeared to be an anti-war message turned out to illustrate a just-war position.

But all that aside, I was especially taken by the way “people” on Pandora express love. Instead of “I love you,” they say to each other, “I see you.” Of course that phrase means more than, “I acknowledge your physical presence.”

Now and again, throughout the day, when I breathe the prayer, “I see you” to Jesus, I sense him whispering back to me, “I see you.” This exchange of love expresses both present reality and longing for more.

All three phrases say the same thing, and all three come from secular culture as expressions of human (or Pandoran) love. Yet they have turned into prayer for me.

I love it when this kind of convergence happens. It affirms the Spirit’s leading.

I am currently reading Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr (another convergence), and he makes the point that “true seeing is the heart of spirituality today.” “Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence.”

I feel the Spirit lifting me to a new plane of prayer, where instead of words, I simply gaze. Sometimes the Presence is so close, sight fades. Other times, like the mountain goat, I look across a valley and see “under the shining trees something moving.”

I stand still and watch.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wimpy, Grandpa Clyde and our African heritage

This last weekend 34 members of the (much larger) extended Thomas clan gathered at my daughter Kristin’s home. Four generations were represented, the oldest being Hal’s parents, now in their 90s. Each family unit set up its tent on the lawn and was in charge of one meal. The outdoor porta-potty helped with other logistical matters.

We had invited Larry and Dee Choate to be with us for the weekend, to tell us stories about our African heritage. Larry grew up in Burundi during the colonial era; his parents, Ralph and Esther Chilson Choate, were Friends missionaries. Esther’s parents, Arthur and Edna Chilson founded the Quaker work in Kenya and Burundi back in the early 1900s. So Larry, a Quaker MK (ie, “missionary kid”) intimately knew Hal’s grandparents, Clyde and Mary Thomas, and his uncle and aunt, George and Dorothy Thomas, also Friends missionaries in Burundi. We simply wanted him to share his memories.

And he did. On Saturday afternoon we gathered the clan in Jon and Kristin’s spacious living room and listened for several hours as Larry told stories. But let me back up a little. Grandpa and Grandma Thomas (great-great grandparents to the youngest among us) raised their five kids here in Oregon, waiting until the kids were all married and more or less settled before beginning their missionary career in Africa, thus fulfilling a life time dream. Hal remembers them well and also remembers his sense of the unfairness of it all—his grandpa and grandma leaving him. He must have been around four years old, but the feelings were strong.

Hal’s loss was Larry’s gain. With his own parents totally involved in their mission work, Larry needed live-in grandparents, and Grandpa Clyde and Grandma Mary carried it off with flare, met his need for attention and hands-on love, as well as the occasional disciplinary thump on the back of the head. Grandma Mary (Aunt Mary to the MKs) taught in the compound grade school, while Grandpa Clyde worked in carpentry and construction projects, always taking time to train his young disciples, which included Larry.

The Wimpy stories were among our favorites. Grandpa Clyde bought (“adopted” would be a more accurate term) a chimpanzee on a trip to the Congo, brought it home and raised it. Larry reports that Wimpy was more like a son than a pet, showing very human characteristics. He was affectionate, intelligent, and extremely mischievous. His room was the top of a tree in the yard, and he always stuck his head in a gunny sack (his “blankie”) when he went to sleep or after he had broken some rule and knew he was in deep trouble. Grandpa disciplined him regularly, and Wimpy always responded with great relief.

Wimpy would occasionally hide along the path outside the compound and jump out to scare people. In a better mood, he would simply approach all passersby, his hand stretched out for a shake. Those who knew him would give him a hand; others just got spooked and hurried down the path, much to Wimpy’s amusement. Larry reported that Wimpy loved to ride on the back of Larry’s motorcycle, his head out to catch the wind. When Larry would turn to glance at him, he always saw Wimpy’s big monkey lips flapping in the wind. It inevitably made him laugh.

What Larry remembers most about Grandpa Clyde was his joy. Grandpa smiled with his whole face, eyes sparkling. And he smiled often. He also remembers his long sermons, delivered at high velocity, but full of biblical truth and wisdom. He remembers Grandma Mary mothering him, understanding his particular pain as an MK.

Larry’s memories of Uncle George and Aunt Dorothy are also strong. He reported that George loved to hunt and was skillful, keeping the missionary community supplied with good meat. But at one point, George sensed God speaking to him, telling him that He had not sent him to Africa to hunt, but to be a missionary. George felt God asking him to give up hunting, and Larry remembers well the disappointment of the missionary community on hearing this. Thus followed four years without good meat (from the viewpoint of the other staff), at which time George sensed God lifting the hunting ban, and he began again to hunt game, although with more moderation. What impressed Larry as a young boy were Uncle George’s integrity and obedience, an example he’s never forgotten.

We ended our story-telling session (although it continued informally the rest of the weekend) by praying for Larry and Dee, then asking them to pray for us. We have a strengthened sense of our identity as a family, and a realization of how important these stories are. We also realize that this clan has gathered in many non-Thomas born “outsiders,” such as myself, people who have married into the family, and that we all bring our own stories. These, in turn, become part of the overall family narrative. In future gatherings, we want to give time to listening to more of these stories.

We’re a people on a journey, following our Lord, knowing that what we all contribute makes the whole story more interesting, more complex, more beautiful. It’s been good to listen to some of the African segments of our story. Where is this all taking us? I can’t wait for the next chapter.

Sleeping facilities

 Hal and his parents lead the singing

 Larry Choate telling stories
This is great stuff.

Different generations join in.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Simplicity of heart

As anyone who has attempted to de-clutter their life knows, simplicity can be complicated. It involves tackling not only the accumulation of stuff—those bins of college syllabi, old magazines, childhood treasures—but extra tasks we’ve taken on, organizations we’ve joined, the demands other people make on us, and all the clutter in our minds.

Recently as I was walking the labyrinth our Friends meeting has constructed in an adjacent field, I found myself repeating a simple prayer: “You are my life. You are my life.” It was as though God was reeling me in, bringing me back to the basic simplicity of soul from which all else flows. I found myself asking, with the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire beside you” (Psalm 73).

I felt God reminding me that simplicity begins in the heart. It flows from a life oriented to the source of all life, from the deep knowledge that in God alone we “live and move and have our being.” That’s basic to Christianity, yet somehow I keep forgetting.

As I walked that trail, I began to affirm, “Above all relationships and roles—spouse, parent, grandparent, friend, minister—you are my life. Above all I possess or hold on to for security—my home, my books, my insurance policies, my investments—you are my life. Above all the intangibles I cling to—my health, my education, my achievements, my talents, my rights, my dreams—above all this, you are my life.” And I found myself praying, “Oh Lord, let it be. Change my heart. Keep reeling me into yourself.”

I am sensing that only when I live from the center of a life oriented to God can I move out freely into the world as God’s agent of reconciliation and peace.

When will I start remembering this so much that I live by it? When will this attitude become a holy habit?

Prayer: “Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace” (John Greenleaf Whittier).