Thursday, January 29, 2015

Room with(out) a view

We’ve been in La Paz a month now, researching the yearly meeting archives, interviewing people—especially the old ones, discussing our findings with our team, and writing. There is the occasional exciting discovery, another clue to help us unlock the mystery of God’s working and the church’s responding. Or not responding. There’s the joy of being with these people our lives have intertwined with for so many years. Yes, there’s all this.
But, for the most part, the work is tedious. Stacks of old minutes and letters to go through. Days when we work alone and make no enlightening discoveries. Rainy days. Days without poetry.
Part of the struggle is the place we live in. This place is also part of our joy, and something to thank God for.  But some days I have to remind myself to be thankful.
The INELA (Bolivian Friends Church) has provided us with a small room on the property that also houses yearly meeting headquarters, the large urban Friends Church, and the Friends grade and high schools. Our place includes a small private bathroom, a tiny kitchen unit, a place to sleep and a table to use for meals and study. It meets most of our basic human needs and is close to the history project office. We pay a minimal rent to the yearly meeting and this is, indeed, a help to them, as well as a way to economize for us. There is much to be thankful for.
But one of my “requirements” for anyplace I live in is a room with a view. And a way for sunlight to enter, at least part of the day. At home in Newberg, our little condo is blessed by a large maple tree that fills the bedroom and office windows with green beauty, and fleshes out the changes of the seasons. From the other rooms I look over rooftops to distant trees and hills. It’s not spectacular but it’s enough.
Here in La Paz, our little room is tucked between and under other buildings. The one large window looks out to the brick wall five feet away. Not one ray of sun dares enter. Ever.
We originally called our home, “The Cave,” but we’ve changed the name to “The Hobbit Hole,” in an effort to keep positive. People here refer to it as “The Refrigerator.” The floors and walls of cement seem to radiate the cold of this high Andean climate.
“But,” I tell myself, “I have a clean private bathroom.” Would I trade that for a view? Probably not.
The electric space heater is gradually making it less of a refrigerator. In fact, people stepping in now notice right off how cozy it feels. A few scattered rugs make their contribution. We purchased a good bed, so we sleep well. And some kind person anonymously gave an offering designated for the purchase of a small literal refrigerator (without even knowing the nickname given to this space). All this increases our ability to live in some comfort and that helps us get our work done.
But still—the view? My need for beauty and light?
One thing I’ve done to try and supply a view is cover the walls with photographs of the Pacific Northwest. Actually, these are old calendar pictures. I can’t throw away any beautiful picture, so I dug through my collection before we traveled and brought with me about 20 views of ocean, forest, stream, waterfall, flowers and two pesky raccoons precariously hanging from a branch. These now adorn the wooden partition that separates the sleeping and working areas of our room. My friend Catherine hand-lettered some words from Scripture, and these also encourage us.
The books I’ve loaded on my Kindle include a selection of poetry—a volume each of Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. These always open windows and let in strange and lovely views.
My key strategy is spiritual. I’m asking God’s help to let this be a season when I behold him in his beauty, regardless of my surroundings. He is Light and beauty and goodness, all the view I need.
To live in this Reality is my ideal and my deep desire. And I have now the perfect opportunity to experience this.
I wish I could say that it’s actually happening, that my spirit is soaring in all the spiritual beauty and light available in Jesus.
However, I’m very human, and yesterday, for example, cabin fever was raging. I felt restless and homesick, wanting to be in my own room, looking through the lovely bones of my maple tree to the houses across the street. I even counted the days until we can fly back to Oregon.
But this morning I woke up, renewed in hope and thanking Jesus for his gracious presence in my life and my present circumstances, including this Hobbit Hole. So day by day, I walk forward.
I think it’s actually getting lighter in here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wendell Berry on "How To Be a Poet"

How To Be a Poet (to remind myself)
by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Bolivia Yearly Meeting (INELA) highlights

Yesterday (Sunday) we concluded the annual marathon of meetings, reports and worship known as Yearly Meeting. For four days, 250 leaders and representatives of the different districts and congregations met together to hear reports, consider projects, and reflect on the challenges facing the church. Hal and I represented Northwest Yearly Meeting as visitors and participants. In many ways, it felt like coming home. Here are some highlights:
--The good leadership of President Timoteo Choque: He began the sessions with a meditation from Phil. 4:8 as a positive approach to the issues the church is facing. He asked people to make their contributions to the sessions positive, even when giving criticism. And throughout the meetings he brought people back to this concept. He is trying to deal with the Aymara cultural tendency to level leaders and focus on the dark side. It’s an uphill battle, but I see growth and transformation.
INELA President (superintendent) Timoteo Choque
--Administrative growth: I appreciated the forms that have been developed for debate and participation. Business was carried out in an orderly manner, and the level of participation was high. People showed respect for each other. All this was not without its humorous side. In an attempt to promote being on time, late-comers were locked out of sessions until roll was taken, then made to come to the front and collectively “pay a fine,” usually in terms of reciting a Bible verse. On the afternoon of the highest level of tardiness, the group sang “Many sons has Father Abraham,” complete with motions. It was hilarious.
 The latecomers "pay" their fine.
--The complexity of the issues facing the INELA, many of which come from the pressures of the government to rein in religious expression, and the extreme insistence on detailed rules and regulations: It feels like the church is walking a tightrope in this time and place.
--The sacrificial work of the women’s organization (UFINELA): After their report of trips and offerings during 2014, mostly in pro-mission outreach work, the assembly applauded. This expression of appreciation encouraged me almost as much as the report itself. Expressing appreciation is not necessarily an Aymara trait. But it is a Christian trait.

 New UFINELA president Basilia de Mamani (above) together with the officers for 2015
--The creation of a new volunteer relief and social action group, El Buen Amigo: This group, composed mostly of young adults, has been several years in its formation. This last year they organized relief work for the lowland church communities that experienced flooding. They also conducted medical clinics in several villages. During yearly meeting they introduced a new project of help to older members of the community. In introducing the project they called up three representative “old men,” one of which was Hal. Admittedly, he had one of the whitest heads of hair present.
--The sense of the Spirit moving the church to a greater breadth and depth of mission outreach: This was especially manifested on Saturday as we heard reports of the three new works in different areas of Bolivia and of the new congregation in Buenos Aires. We were encouraged to expand our vision as two young Bolivian Quakers shared their calls to go to India and China, respectively. The session ended in tears and prayer, and a sense of excitement, wondering where God will be taking us in the next few years.
--The concluding worship service on Sunday morning lasted six hours, but the time went by quickly. In between worship in music, times of prayer and a message from President Timoteo Choque, we called forth the different leadership groups (yearly meeting, departmental and district officers, women’s and youth organization leaders, the history commission, and pastors) for presentation and prayers of consecration. It was especially moving to see how the breadth of our leadership base. The Quaker value of horizontal leadership, a focus on the priesthood of believers, was plain to see.

                      Consecration of pastors on Sunday morning

I feel strengthened and encouraged once again, acknowledging that the Friends Church in Bolivia belongs to Jesus.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Abounding love and the history project

It’s Sunday morning, and I’ve just returned from the early service of the New Jerusalem Friends Church in La Paz. This service, running from 7:00 to 10:00 a.m., is in the Aymara language, while the later service switches to Spanish. The large meeting room gradually filled up with around 200 people. It was wonderful to once again worship God in that most lovely of languages. Later today we have our first meeting of the committee dedicated to researching and writing the history of the Bolivian Friends Church (INELA). I’m prepared with the traditional box of chocolates.
About a week ago, as I was reading through the book of Philippians, I sensed a new focus for this history project. What I first understood to be a challenge to me personally, I now see as an encouragement for our whole team. It comes from Paul’s prayer for the Philippian believers. Paul writes, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (1:9-11).
The heart of this prayer is the phrase, “that your love may abound,” and I’m reminded that love needs to be the motivation behind this huge project. First, love for God: I’m reminded of the sense of call to this task that I responded to, and that obedience to God springs from love. We follow the Lord because we love him. Second, love for the church: Our investigation is revealing all sorts of information, not all of it positive. While the church belongs ultimately to God, for some reason God chooses to use human beings in her formation. And human beings, all of us, are full of flaws. It’s easy to criticize the church, and since a negative outlook is typical of the Aymara mindset, criticism often floats to the surface in our conversations. We wonder, how can we write about this or that?
Here’s where I find God’s word to us so important. We are called to love God and to love God’s church, with all her imperfections and flaws. We are to be amazed at how grace and mercy triumph over judgment, again and again. This is an immensely helpful perspective at this point in our project. We need to deal with the mistakes and problems that are part of our history, but from the perspective of faith, hope and love.
The verse continues: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” How appropriate for a history project! Knowledge can refer to the fruits of investigation, to the facts we’re trying to uncover, to the truths that we’re trying to get right, to the discoveries we hope to make. Depth of insight refers to the interpretation we as a community of investigators and writers give to those facts. Apparently, love will abound in knowledge and wise interpretation.
I’m encouraged and grateful. These next two months will be full of hard work and good times of fellowship with our team. With love to fuel us and the Spirit to fill us, it will be possible.