Saturday, September 18, 2021

Not Burdensome


I’m going through a period of grief that is common to many. Two of my grandchildren are leaving home on long term missions across the sea. They go into precarious situations which, while it makes us nervous, only makes them excited. We’ve been warned against mentioning over the Internet their names or the countries they’re going to. One will be gone three years, the other two.

We’ve enjoyed having them close during their university years, sharing meals and conversations, doing art projects together, and then seeing them graduate. We’ve watched them turn into young adults, responsible people, ready to follow their dreams. But why do they have to follow them so far away?

This is a common grief. Children grow up and leave home. Parents, at least some of them, grieve as they let them go. We did this to our parents. But being common doesn’t make the sadness any less real.

As I’ve been writing poetry through the Bible, I thought about my grandkids this week. I was working my way through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John and I came across this passage: “This is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Here’s the poem:

 

Not Burdensome

Weightless, in fact.
Under the yoke of God,
there by our choice,
we float on his will
toward a destination
of his choosing.

-Give away all you own. Feed the poor.
   Ok.
-Leave your father and mother and come.
Follow me to the ends of the earth.
   I’m on the way.
-Set your grandchildren free to grab hold
of the dreams I put in their hearts. Let go.
   Yes, Lord.
-Give up your life for mine.
   Here. Take it.

Not burdensome.
Not burdensome at all.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Petting the Lion



Fear perched on my heart like a dirty crow. An unwelcome guest, he disturbed my thoughts with his cawing: “You’re not good enough. You’ll stumble. And they’ll all be listening.”

It was early morning and I was curled up in the easy chair, attempting to pray. I had been invited to give the public prayer later that day in the chapel service of the interdenominational seminary I was attending. I’d ministered in public many times before. Then why was I so nervous?

Maybe it was the occasion—the last all-seminary chapel of the year. Maybe it was the people. My favorite theology professor would be preaching, and the president, the dean, and many others would be there. Maybe it was the place. Wednesday chapels were always held in the large church down the street—a far cry from the simple Quaker places of worship I was used to. Normally, I loved being in that sanctuary, looking up at the arched wooden beams and imagining myself a minnow in the belly of the whale, a mouse in the ark, or a servant girl peeking from behind a pillar in the courts of Camelot. But, did I want to sit up front with the royalty and speak words out into the cavern of that hall? No, I did not.

Recognizing that my imagination was going into overdrive, I stilled my heart and asked the Lord for perspective. Then I simply waited in the silence.

As I sat there, several things came clear. I began to see what I feared. And I began to see what I didn’t fear.

What I did not, and do not, fear is—coming before the Lord God Almighty, addressing in person the King of kings and Lord of lords, speaking boldly to the Creator of the universe, petting the Lion of Judah.  I do this all the time. And I’m not afraid. Amazing.

I saw that what I did fear was no more than saying a prayer out loud in that particular place, on that fairly minor occasion, in front of a relatively small group of people.

I had the whole thing twisted around. Those people, be they professors or students, are like me. We all struggle with not getting enough sleep, tend to be petty when provoked, stub our toes, harbor our secret insecurities, and long for intimacy. We’re all people. But him—he’s the King.

If I had any sense, I’d fear the right things. I’d enter his presence wearing a bullet proof vest and a crash helmet. I’d whisper my prayer. I’d tremble.

The fear of the Lord runs like a dark thread throughout the Scriptures. It’s a theme that has sometimes confused me, and I’ve let it be explained away as reverence or great respect. But the Psalms, the Prophets, and the frightening narratives of the Old Testament beat out the rhythms of the awesome power of the Almighty and call the faithful to respond with appropriate fear. And while reverence and respect are undoubtedly part of our response, sometimes fear is called for. Real fear. Gut-wrenching terror.

Those shepherds on the Judean hillside were “sore afraid” at the angels’ appearance. The wandering Israelites trembled before the smoking mountain. Saul on the Damascus road fell to his face.

I think of our own heritage. The name Quaker was thrown in contempt at our ancestors because they literally trembled in the presence of the Lord.

I think of Lucy, in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, feeling the thrill of fear on first learning of the Lion and asking, “Is he safe?”

Mrs. Beaver answers, “…if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then his isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

The Lord is a God both dangerous and good, and that’s a difficult combination to come to terms with. The same Psalms and prophets that spell out the terror of the Lord also show his tenderness. The Lion is the Lamb. And our shepherd.

We Quakers have another name—Friends. Friends of God, those who love and are loved by God, intimate companions. Both names are appropriate.

My background has emphasized the lovingkindness of God, and I’ve enjoyed friendship with the Lord, probably taken it for granted. I sense mercy and gentleness. That’s all good.

But my early morning meditation on the day of the prayer pointed out a certain lack. My vision of God needs to be stretched. In addition to the grace of intimacy, I long for the wisdom of holy fear.

Chapel came and went. When my time came, I got up, approached the microphone, and prayed. God enabled me to pray to him and not to the people, to pray on behalf of the people with some sense of Who I was addressing. I’m asking God to increase that sensitivity.

Let’s remember our names. Let’s claim our heritage. We are God’s Friends. Let’s also be Quakers.


[First published in Quaker Life, March 1995]

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Morning at the library

 

I went to the city library
yesterday and engaged in my favorite sport,
browsing. Without saying a word out loud,
I walked the aisles and spoke
with many invisible friends.
After making my choices,
I went downstairs to the check-out
counter only to discover
that technology had made it possible
for me to check out my books
on a machine, without need
of standing in a line or dealing
with the library staff.
In the name of efficiency,
I need never again
look a human in the face,
hear a human voice, or waste my time
in idle chit-chat at a library counter.
The machine takes care of all that
in record time.
I left carrying only my books
and my imaginary conversations
with dead authors.
It’s called progress.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Anomalous Women


Several years back I was studying Greek. One day as I was memorizing the declension of a particularly pesky verb, I consulted my Greek textbook. This book took academic language to excessive limits, but if I managed to wade through the lingo, it was usually helpful. Concerning this verb, I would have said simply that it was irregular. But my text informed me that the verb was “an anomalous transcender of grammatical regularities.”

That made me laugh. But then I realized that it also described me!

Yesterday I discovered another anomaly, this time in the Bible. I was beginning the book of 1 Chronicles, part of the history of Israel. I was skimming the first nine chapters, which contain pure genealogy, not the most interesting reading. As is typical of a patriarchal society, the lists are primarily of men and their sons. Occasionally a woman is mentioned, usually identifying her as some man’s wife, concubine, sister, or daughter. Sometimes the listing notes her contribution, usually as bearing some man’s sons, all of whom are named. (I assume these women occasionally gave birth to baby girls, for the propagation of the race.)

1 Chronicles 7 includes the male descendants of one Ephraim. The section mentions that he “made love to his wife,” an unusual statement about an unnamed woman. But then, tucked in the middle of these paragraphs, comes this verse: “His [Ephraim’s] daughter was Sheerah, who built Lower and Upper Beth Horon as well as Uzzen Sheerah” (vs. 24).

A builder of three towns. Clearly an anomaly. Apparently Sheerah was nobody’s wife and nobody’s mother. So she went out and built towns, and named one after herself! Nothing else is said about her. The list of male descendants continues unabated.

When I was a child I knew someone else like Sheerah. I collected comic books and had the largest collection on the block. Every time I got my allowance, I would go to the used book store and buy more at two for a nickel. I loved the action hero comics—Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Tarzan, and even Mighty Mouse. I did notice that they were all male.


Until a new series came out, featuring Sheena Queen‘a the Jungle! Just like Tarzan, Sheena could swing through the trees on vines, befriend ferocious beasts, defeat injustice, and fight for animal rights. She was a wonder and a marvel. And a woman!

The name Sheena even sounds like Sheerah. Sheena, of course, wasn’t in the Bible. If she had been, I suppose her name would be Sheena Queen‘a the Wadies.

The discovery of Sheerah made my day. She was clearly an anomalous transcender of cultural regularities.

I hope I am too.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Language of Poetry

 

At an intercultural poetry reading, a man from the audience challenged me: “Aren’t you frustrated at having to write your poetry in English?” he asked. “Such a harsh, irregular language. Spanish, on the other hand is lyrical, sensual, musical, and more logical than English. And the sounds match the letters.”

He had a point, but he had missed several others. I sensed his question was more than rhetorical so I responded as kindly yet as honestly as I could:

“I’ve listened to you and others for whom English is a second language, and you’re right. The language is unsuited to poetry. The English taught in countries around the world focuses on business, industry, academics, or medicine. Most of those studying want to migrate to the US or England for further education. Or to make money. That English, however, doesn’t make poems.

“You’re also right about the irregularities of English, a great frustration to many learners. Coming from so many cultural roots, borrowing from such a multitude of languages, it does seem like a mongrel tongue.

“That’s one of the reasons I love it. Those who live the English language at a deep level, experience its twists, contradictions, impossible puzzles, and incredible variety as a delight, a playground of words with possible poems filling the silences between the words.

“Poetry in Spanish, Arabic, or Japanese is often beautiful, lyrical, following the logic of its language. It’s like walking in a sunlit garden. The splendor of the flowers, laid out in orderly beds, overwhelms. The paths curve and meander in expected, or unexpected, ways. If one gets lost, it’s likely because of the beauty, not the lack of order. The paths eventually lead home. There are poems for the picking.

“Writing poems in English is taking a hike in the wilderness. I may begin on a trail, but it soon peters out among the scrub brush and high altitude keswara trees. The upward climb challenges my strength and energy. Deep chasms surprise the unwary. Danger lurks. But condors and eagles soar overhead, and tiny alpine flowers peak out in more varieties than I knew existed. As I approach the glacier, poems are hiding everywhere.” 

Which language is better for poetry? is probably the wrong question. Each mother tongue carries its own music. For a full-blown symphony of poetry, we need them all.

Friday, July 23, 2021

The Mature Poet Takes a Walk in the Woods

 “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (T.S. Eliot)

Whose woods these are
I think I know


but I’m not altogether certain
and will therefore
try to be discreet.

It’s getting harder to see the path
with all this fog coming in on little cat feet,
but, after all, we learn by going
where we have to go.

And, it has to be said,
these woods are lovely,
dark and deep
and I do so love hiking.
I’m sure I’ll come out of them
in due time and go gently
home into that good night.


[Quiz: Can you identify the four poets I stole from, one twice?]

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Old Regrets

I never went steady in high school,
even though I prayed and asked God
to let some boy like me that much.
I never wore a ring around my neck.
Seventeen magazine showed me
which clothes to buy, which shade
of lipstick would be the most alluring
with my skin tones,
told me how to fix my hair
and gave me tips to make the boys notice me.
Either I didn’t do it right
or the advice was sub-par.
In the movies Sandra Dee
and Annette Funicello went to proms,
wore bikinis at the beach
and always sported a ring around their neck.
I never did any of that.
Last week I decided to make up
for my loss. I took off my wedding ring,
put it on a long silver chain,
and slipped it over my head.
Hal looked at me, asked, “What
are you doing that for?” And laughed.
I laughed, too, put the ring back
where it belonged and marveled
that somehow my life had turned out good
anyway.


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Confessions of an Ex-Elder

 

In the early days
before the great divorce,
we used the dreadful language
of compliance. We, the elders, met
in our councils and carefully
considered doctrinal crimes
and excesses of inclusion.
It was a grim endeavor.
I shuddered under the weight
of words. Faith and Practice
seemed a stern Quaker bible,
precise and unforgiving.
But we did our job, pinned
our specimens to the board,
examined under magnification.
When deemed appropriate,
we issued judgment—
out of compliance—
and excommunicated whole
congregations.
Since those days
I find myself in isolation,
not wanting to enter a church.
Secretly—or not—
I am out of compliance
with all of it.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

A Quaker Learns to Swear

 

You need to learn to swear, he told me.
A Quaker like you, so controlled
--it's not healthy.

I wondered if he might be right.
I did feel choked up at times
by the undone dishes and frayed edges,
not to mention the major injustices of life.

Leaning into memory, I brought up
words from TV and novels, phrases
my grandfather had used when provoked.
I rehearsed them mentally,
avoiding the mirror.

A few weeks later,
something he said (I can't remember what),
--a twist of sarcasm,  a patronizing hint--
and a voice whispered, Now.
I looked straight at him
and with a keen and measured ferocity said,
I just don't give a hell.

In the following silence, I realized
I hadn't quite brought it off.
Finally he said, If you're going to swear,
at least do it right.

Warning:
  I'm practicing.
Next time I'll get it.
Mountains will quake.


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Pardon Me, Sam Hill

 

For years I’ve been exclaiming, “What in the Sam Hill….?” I’m sure it’s an unconscious minced oath, keeping me from another phrase using the word “hell,” which I know I should not yell.

Recently I listened to myself and began wondering whose name I was taking in vain. I knew Mr. Hill was a character out of the history of the Northwest and that his museum overlooks the Columbia River on the Washington side. Considering all I have been saying about him, I was glad he was dead.

With so many academic resources at my fingertips, I went straight to Wikipedia. I was richly rewarded. Apparently, the oath has nothing to do with the historical character. One theory has it that the phrase appeared in the early 1830s and combines the term Solomon (the “Sam” part”) with the word hell (or “Hill”). Go figure. The early dating leads to the possibility that Sam Hill’s mother could have perversely named her son after the saying.

In my case, whenever I use the term, I am referring to a person, and it isn’t Solomon. So next I went to the entry for Samuel Hill himself, and right off the bat I learn he was born into a Quaker family from North Carolina. Somehow that makes my desecration of his name even more offensive. Haverford and Harvard educated Sam in math, science, literature, logic, and politics.

He moved to the Northwest and became a first-class entrepreneur. His diverse enterprises included railroads, electricity, coal, iron, telephones, and, especially road construction. This latter was his passion and he is famous for building the first paved road in the Northwest, near his own property in Washington and at his own expense. One of the bridges that spans the Colombia River, connecting Oregon and Washington, is named the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge.

World travel was another passion and Sam formed friendships around the globe, counting the likes of King Albert of Belgium and Queen Marie of Romania among his pals.

Sam Hill seemed tireless in his many projects, but he was not successful at all he attempted. In 1907 he bought a large plot of land in Washington, overlooking the Columbia River, named it Maryhill after his wife and daughter, and attempted to begin a Quaker farming community. This never happened, partly because he was apparently the only Quaker around that part of the country. But he did manage to set up a successful golf course and restaurant near the border with Canada. The restaurant flourished during the years of the Prohibition, being located slightly over the border on the Canadian side.

Another of his famous constructions is a replica of Stonehenge set up on the Maryhill property. He dedicated it to those men lost in World War I, a rather large Quaker gesture to the peace testimony. He contributed other museums and a Peace Arch.

Sam Hill was not an easy man to get along with. He married Mary Hill, daughter of his early boss and railroad magnate James Hill.  (In later years his wife referred to herself as Mary Hill Hill.) Sam took Mary to settle in Seattle, but after a few years Mary decided that she did not take to the Northwest, so she and the two kids moved back to Minneapolis. (One suspects that Mary did not take to Sam Hill, and that was really why she moved.) They lived forever after in the two separate cities, although Sam visited Mary at least twice a year. He visited other women, too, but he recognized his illegitimate children, setting up a trust fund for each one. (Perhaps this was his Quaker background kicking in.)

His biographer offers the opinion that Sam Hill suffered from manic-depressive disorder, as well as paranoia, thus partially accounting for his unusual life.

At any rate, I now repent for having taken in vain the name of this interesting and somewhat Quaker person. If I ever get the chance to visit the museum at Maryhill, I will whisper an apology to his image.

In the meantime, and in the interest of gender equality, I will adopt his wife’s interesting name. I can just imagine myself saying to a grandson, “Just what in the Mary Hill Hill do you think you’re doing?!”

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Just Asking: Some Poems from Ephesians

Subject to Editing
Ephesians 2:10

There is no such thing
as good writing,
the gurus tell us,
only good re-writing.
Apparently that even applies
to God. I may be his poem
but he’s not finished.
Here and there in the manuscript
I come across phrases like delete,
stet, find a better word, needs
development,
even an occasional
yes! The continual polishing
hurts but I believe
I’m beginning
to shine.

 

Just Asking
Ephesians 4

Was it optimistic naivety
when Paul told the children of God
to make every effort
to keep the unity of the Spirit
in the bond of peace?

Church history suggests that.
More than geography
and the accidents of birth
have divided the body
of Christ. While Jesus
wisely responded with silence
to Pilate’s question,
What is truth?,
the church has squabbled,
spit, and splintered its multitudinous
answers down through
the centuries. Even we Quakers
in the northwest corner
of a country once known
for its open arms
have sacrificed our reputation
as people of peace
and made every effort
to propound our separate versions
of gospel truth. Now, victims all
of the resulting divorce,
we seek revival and hope
to once again walk
worthy of our calling.
Lord, have mercy on us all.

 

Please, Lord, An Answer
Ephesians 6:5-9                                                                                                                      

How does Black Lives Matter
read Ephesians 6?
Paul’s words of submission,
respect and fear
with sincerity of heart,
obey obey obey,
leave no room for protest,
give integrity of personhood
no place to stand.
To acquiesce with a smile,
to say, It’s Ok to be less
than human in your eyes
‘cause I know God loves me
and is preparing a place for me,
is somehow not enough.
Unless there is justice for my here-and-now
neighbor
hood, how could such a heaven
ever be home?

Friday, March 5, 2021

A Poetic Walk through the Scriptures

At the beginning of the year, I committed to the spiritual discipline of waiting in silence each morning until a poem came to me, asking to be written. (This is not some weird automatic writing, rather openness to the Spirit to capture the idea, with a willingness to later do the hard work of crafting.) Some of these poems are in the form of personal prayers and they will stay safely hidden in my journal. Others are worthy of bringing out into the air.

I am coupling this with a practice of reading the Scriptures, focusing on one book at a time, alternating between the Old and New Testaments. I sit with the book for as long as it takes to begin to understand on a deeper level what God is saying through this portion. Much of my poetry of late comes from meditation on these Scriptures. Some of the poems are interpretative. Others are reflections from my experience, bouncing off a phrase. Some are simply wondering and questions.

I just spent a couple of weeks in Joshua, always a challenging book for Quakers. (I’m now beginning the book of Romans. Gulp.) Here are just a few of the Joshua poems.


Shittim
Joshua 2:1

I remember an adolescent Bible study
when my turn came and the portion
I was to read included
the town of Shittim. I stopped short
of the word. I couldn't read it out loud.
The other kids giggled. The leader,
a no-nonsense grown-up, made me
continue and I somehow mumbled
my way forward. Later I learned
that Shittim meant acacia, that the city
was probably near an acacia grove.
A tall acacia tree stood in the front
yard of the house where we lived
and I used to climb it. My secret place
was hidden in the upper branches.
I loved that tree, that acacia tree,
without even knowing its name.

No Survivors
Joshua 10:40 

In terrible obedience
Joshua subdued the land
      hill country
      the Negev
      western foothills
      mountain slopes,
together with their kings.
The target, by holy command—
any being that breathed.
No beast, no baby escaped
the brutal blitz.
A challenge, yes, but
not too hard for a band
of soldiers seasoned to kill,
not nearly as hard
as God’s latter command
to warriors of a new regime—
love your enemies.


This time, Lord,
you go too far.  


Old Testament War Revisited

As a sophomore
our daughter made the coveted
cheerleading squad.
Some of the chants underscored
the brutality of high school sports.
One afternoon, I watched
as the girls waved their pom-poms,
danced, leaped, and led
the crowd in
      Kill kill
      Hate hate
      Murder murder
      Mutilate
      Go, Team!
I was glad when the school
year ended.




Saturday, February 13, 2021

Stafford and Thomas on Aesthetics, Joy, and Snow



At the Aesthetics Meeting

We invented shape after shape,
color moving to and fro;
then outside where the plain world lives
it began to snow.

--William Stafford


On the Discipline of Joy

1
All right! I say to myself.
I’ll just do it.
So I clench my teeth
 and try to laugh,
 the operative word here
 being try.


2
stove won't light
dog won’t bite
ghost won’t fright
knot’s not tight
words are trite
            might
 as well laugh

3
if you think this is funny
you’ve got another thing coming
and it just might be Jesus

4
I sat in the morning grim
determined not to laugh
when I looked out the window
and it started to snow.

5
the joy of little children
can so easily go awry
the sternness of Big People
is needed to keep control

6
Be like little children
Jesus said
besides, who can stay stern
when it’s snowing

7
new definition of sin:
staying stern in the snow

­--Nancy Thomas



Friday, February 5, 2021

The Three Bald Monks


 









The Three Bald Monks

in the window
have journeyed from Uruguay
to daily direct my devotions.
Sebastian the beggar
      with shaggy brows
      and irresistible stare
      implores my generosity.
Alfonso the chanter
      whistles the Psalms while
Thaddeus kisses the cross
      in semi-swoon.
They remind me
      to take up my given cross
      abide in the word
      shelter under the mercy
      wear sturdy shoes
      and never worry
      about wardrobe
      or weight.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Creative Obedience

 

Late last December, I was listening to a devotional app (Lectio 365), and the speaker for the day encouraged me to spend time listening to God for a phrase to carry with me into the new year. He also suggested I find an accompanying Scripture verse and choose a new spiritual discipline. Sometimes exercises like this are helpful. Sometimes they’re not. But I felt moved to try it.

The verse that immediately came to mind was an old favorite from the Psalms: “My heart is stirred by a noble theme. I recite my poems for the king. My tongue is the pen of a skillful writer” (Psalm 45:1). The phrase that presented itself was “Creative Obedience.” That got me excited.

The new discipline to practice came from an unusual source: the poet William Stafford. It has special significance for me because of my personal contact with Stafford. In the early 90s, just a year before Stafford’s death, he invited Hal and me to his home (a story in itself). We spent a whole morning with him, reading our poems to each other and talking about life and art. I asked him to tell us about his own creative disciplines. William Stafford told us he got up every morning at 4:00, made coffee (that part is important!), then sat in silence until a poem came to him. It must be true; he was prolific!

I’ve been mulling that over ever since, wondering if I could possibly do something like that.

Well, I’m going to find out. I took it on as my new discipline for the year (except for the 4:00 a.m. part but including the coffee).

I hesitated to blog this because it kinda makes me accountable. I might just end up embarrassed. But then again, maybe no one will notice. Maybe it only matters to me and (maybe) to God.

At any rate, so far so good for the month of January. I’m having fun. I actually like some of the poems. Others will stay safely in my journal. No pressure. Creative obedience.

Here’s one of my daily offerings, written after reflecting on my reading from the book of Exodus.

 

Magic and Miracles

 

Moses’ staff

like Gandalff’s

looked common enough

but the power that flowed

through it

hissed with venom

summoned blood from the river

heaped waves into walls

brought water from a rock

and defeated an army.

 

God also asks me

What do you have in your hand?

No shepherd

all I have is this pen.

It has yet to turn into a snake

or fill the bathtub with blood.

Where are the miracles?

Maybe this year?