Friday, September 05, 2014

"...I'm now brilliantly hydrated..." Poem

Bottled Water

by Kim Dower

I go to the corner liquor store
for a bottle of water, middle
of a hectic day, must get out
of the office, stop making decisions,
quit obsessing does my blue skirt dash
with my hot pink flats; should I get
my mother a caregiver or just put her
in a home, and I pull open the glass
refrigerator door, am confronted
by brands—Arrowhead, Glitter Geyser,
Deer Park, spring, summer, winter water,
and dearly the bosses of bottled water:
Real Water and Smart Water—how different
will they taster If I drink Smart Water
will I raise my IQ but be less authentic?
If I choose Real Water will I no longer
deny the truth, but will I attract confused,
needy people who'll take advantage
of my realness by dumping their problems
on me, and will I be too stupid to help them
sort through their murky dilemmas?
I take no chances, buy them both,
sparkling smart, purified real, drain both bottles,
look around to see is anyone watching?

Both real and smart my insides bubble
with compassion and intelligence
as I walk the streets with a new swagger,
knowing the world is mine.

"Bottled Water" by Kim Dower, from Slice of Moon. © Red Hen Press, 2013. (buy now)

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Keeping Silence in the Church

“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.” (I Corinthians 14:33-34)

I know a woman named Silence
She said her parents did not know her very well
when they named her.
They thought Silence was a beautiful name
for a girl.
She stands up in her pew and speaks her mind:
When a couple in church announces the birth of a girl
Silence says, “I think we should all clap for that.”
When a foreign student speaks about war in Ethiopia
Silence says, “Keep telling us about that, we need to hear.”
When someone complains about the church
needing air conditioning
Silence says, “That’s why I bring my fan.”
I love this woman named Silence
And I think we should definitely
Keep Silence in the church.

"On Keeping Silence in the Church" by Margalea Warner
Source: Daughters of Sarah magazine

Add your thoughts at inward/outward

Saturday, August 09, 2014

When True Simplicity Is Gained, final: Humble Stumble

A Concluding Word … or Few Hundred

Another form of simplicity is less about possession than it is about scheduling. Sometimes we get so busy, even doing God’s work, that the center of our lives are cluttered. What difference does it make if we live in plain house with few possessions and drive plain black Priuses if we do not have simplicity in our soul? The possessions there, more and more committee chairmanships, community activities and so on, that appear altruistic to others, but which in fact we wear as sort of a badge of pride. We must be important – look how busy we are.

So, if we are to begin to live the testimony of simplicity, we must first simplify our own inner and outer lives. We must take time to live in that holy center. We must calm our lives and learn to breathe.

I am not saying it is easy. It is not. I have a terribly difficult time doing it. It is much easier to run, run, run than it is to sit. But when I run, run, run I find my whole life coming unbalanced – family time, work productivity, emotions, physical health. It is when I take time to pray and wait that I find my rhythms, inner and outer, begin to slow and becoming more soothing than rock and roll ragged.

So that’s where we must begin – inside. Take time to be holy – and a holy simplicity will follow. And with that simplicity will come a joy that is most remarkable. We know, in our innermost lives, that things do not bring happiness. But we are a bit slower to learn the lesson that activity, even religious activity, does not bring happiness either. What brings joy into our life is when we give up, abandon ourselves to God and allow the Spirit to simplify our lives and direct our actions.

That means we must surrender self. That’s not easy. I would much rather be in control, or fool myself into thinking that I am, of my life than to turn it over to anyone else – even God. That’s one reason I hate flying. I have to sit there and let someone else control my destiny. I don’t trust the pilot. The larger question is do I trust God? Do I trust enough to let go – even when I feel that if I do then life will go careening out of control and I may crash upon its rocks? If I am honest, often times the question is no. And that there is fulfillment, however spiritually unhealthy, in all the activity I work so hard to keep up. The question Van Morrison asks “when will I ever learn to live in God” remains mine and is at the heart of living the testimony of simplicity.

Jesus tells us in that we are not to worry – about what we drink, eat, look like or wear. In listing those things he cuts directly to the chase and points out the things that consume us. We worry to much about the inconsequential. He’s not talking here to the starving children or displaced homeless ones. He’s talking to us good religious people. Jesus says if we seek first his kingdom, that is, surrender our ideas of what we are to be about to the larger ideas that God has in store for us, then all the important things will be ours as a matter of course. When we learn to simplify our lives by surrendering to God, then we find we have all we need even when it is not all we want. Simplicity of direction, that of following as closely as possible, to our savior and leader, brings with it a beauty to life we will find hard to imagine.

“It is easy to let ourselves slip into action for action’s sake,” says Henry van Etten. “Without noticing it, we unconsciously seek to enlarge our sphere of activity ... unconsciously neglecting day after day to restore our spiritual strength, we find ourselves eventually at the bottom of a dry well, with nothing but our wretched little human powers. Yet we had begun our work ... with the highest motives, we even had the intimate sense of response to the divine call; yes, it was with a following wind that we launched out, God filling the sails, and Christ at the helm.”

“Even so, bit by bit, we have transformed what was a divinely appointed task into work on a merely human level, with all its shortcomings. And why did things end up like that? Because we neglected our inner life, because we were taken up with action, because we were too tired to pray, too tired to take part in meetings for worship, too tired to refresh our spiritual strength by reading ... We must be able to stop in the midst of our urgent task for something even more urgent; prayer, self-composure, meditation in silence, worship.”

The practice of simplicity must begin with an ordered inner life. Live is not to be poor and bare, destitute of joy and beauty. There is much to celebrate and welcome into our lives. But when we learn to live ordered lives from the Divine Center, the superfluous details vanish and we will experience a simplicity that makes for beauty.

The Shakers sang “Tis a gift to be simple, Tis a gift to be free.” May we ask God today for the gift of inner simplicity that makes for freedom and beauty.

Friday, August 08, 2014

When True Simplicity Is Gained, part 5: Humble Stumble

The Seeds of War

“May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not.”

That’s another thing that John Woolman said. I mean, gimme a break, John. Between him and Jesus I get a lot of challenges to my bad behavior. Woolman wrote this in his “A Plea for the Poor.” Didn’t Jesus already make a plea or two for the poor? (Of course, he also said we’d always have poor with us, in a way that seems a little dismissive.) But, Woolman, really, how could the seeds of war find food in the things I own – my clothes, my furniture, my cell phone? My cell phone?! You’re kiddin’ me!

Nope. Turns out the seeds of war are in there, indeed. Yeah, I knew my iPhone was made in China – probably under conditions that Woolman (or even my ownbadself) would not approve. But there’s something in my phone (and your phone and every other electronic device you use). It’s called coltan.

Never heard of it, eh? Neither had I, until recently. Coltan is short for columbite–tantalite and is used in tantalum capacitor which allow our phones and other gadgets to get smaller and smaller. Coltan is mined in primitive, often slave-like, conditions, which is bad enough for those mining it. What’s worse is that in some of the places it’s mined are beset by by murder, rape, violence and abuse on an unimaginable scale in civil wars conducted in no small part by warlords who want to corner the market and make tons of money. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, aid groups estimate that over 5 million people have died since 1998, mostly from disease and malnutrition.

It is estimated that the DRC has 64% or more of the world’s supply of coltan – so the rapes, killings, enslavement are not going to get any better. All because I want a lighter, faster, smaller telephone/camera/gaming device/status checker gadget to carry around. One I didn’t even know I needed a few years ago.

Hmmm, I wonder what other seeds I’m unknowingly nourishing?

Now I didn’t tell you about coltan to guilt you into getting rid of your cellphone. Any more than I will get rid of mine. But I’m not going to try to justify having it because of all the work I do on it. Instead, it’s just to point out the wisdom of Woolman’s advice to look at what we own and see if it comes by ill-gotten means – even if we paid full retail.

How can we sow seeds of peace, instead of war, through what we buy. Some ways are obvious – purchasing fair trade goods is one way. Fair trade is a movement toward urging consumers to purchase goods produced by organizations and companies who help workers achieve a more balanced and fair lifestyle based on wages paid for goods made. It is also about sustainability. Fair trade sellers pay higher prices to exporters and produces (primarily in developing countries) for all sorts of things – foods, clothing, crafts, and so on.

Another way is to buy local. Chances are the stuff you buy at the local farmers’ market downtown (or the farmstand out in the country) is relatively war-seed free. Investing in socially responsible funds, for those of us who are doing 401’s etc is another way to avoids those seeds ... and the resulting sprouts.

Now I’ve got to go … my iPhone’s ringing.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

When True Simplicity is Gained, part 4: Humble Stumble

Tools of Universal Love

So here I am and I find myself with all this land and stuff. Besides use it and enjoy it (well, some of it. Books and music never grow old. A high speed mower quits being fun after the third mowing of the season!)? Well, 18th century Quaker John Woolman says the business of our lives is to “Turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love.”

Woolman, unlike me, was a good Quaker. He worked valiantly and humbly against slave holding. He began wearing undyed plain clothes – the dye being produced by slave labor. He was a ray of white in a sea of Quaker black and grey – and was thought odd of it. He worked only half-time so that he could travel in ministry and witness. He lived his faith and his actions matched his words. Even if he was considered a bit of an odd duck in the Friendly pond at the time.

His words, when I first encountered them as young man, didn’t have much impact I admit. I thought they would make a good – if long -- bumper sticker. But how can that be practical? To turn all that we own into a channel of universal love? I can turn some things that I own into specific love – I give books to my friends not expecting their return. I loan my pick-up truck to people who need to haul things. We open our house to visiting travelers. I…

Oh wait. That’s one way it’s done! By holding on loosely to the things we have. Realizing that they are things – not possessions.

This is a hard lesson for me. I mean, I’ll loan the truck. It’s just a truck – albeit pretty new and low mileage. But it’s insured. It gets crashed, it gets fixed. The 1955 MG – hmmm, I have to think more about that. I often think of it as more than just a car – it’s family history. The fellow I was named for, Brent Stephens, bought it new in 1955. I rode in it as a little kid. After he parked it and didn’t drive it for years, my dad, John, whom I’m also named for convinced Brent to sell it to him in the late 60s. So I drove as a teenager and young college student. We have family pictures of all of us kids in it. And our kids in it. And friends in it. Then my dad gave it to me. Now I have pictures of my grandkids in it. And friends in it. And it being driven in all kinds of cool places. So this antique car with under 30,000 miles on it to this day, has a lot of meaning. Can I loan it as freely?

I’m getting there. And it’s not always easy for me. It’s easier if, as I said, I focus on a particular love. Would I give a book to Laura? Music to Eric? A place to stay to Rick and Jo? Sure thing. Would I give money to a panhandler in Philly? Hmmmm. Would I give my wallet – willingly – to someone robbing me? Universal Love – God’s Love – is harder, especially toward one whom I don’t love, don’t know, consider my enemy, or considers me the enemy.

And yet, Woolman makes no distinctions like that. Indeed, when we read the entire section from which the quote above was taken, we see that it echoes Jesus’ radical commandments to love without reservation and hesitation.

Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all His creatures; His tender mercies are over all His works, and so far as true love influences our minds, so far we become interested in His workmanship, and feel a desire to make use of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted, and to increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable, so that to turn all we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.

“So far as true love influences our minds” we will, at every opportunity, “feel a desire to lessen the distresses of the afflicted.” Well, I’m working on that.

And yes, you may borrow my pick-em-up truck. I still have to think about the MG.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

When True Simplicity Is Gained: part 3: Humble Stumble


I am shocked to be living on a fifty-acre farm in Indiana. I planned in living in a condominium downtown in some big city. Specifically in Indianapolis. Specifically about fourteen years ago. But for the past eleven years I’ve been living in a house nestled back against the woods overlooking the West Branch of White Lick Creek.

This is not a piece of land I’d scraped and saved for. Nope. My wife Nancy’s a farm girl and this land was part of her family’s farm one day. It came to us a part of her inheritance, albeit a bit before her father’s passing. And it has taught me more than a few lessons in simplicity.

The first was in what kind of house to build. What could we do in building that expressed our Quaker faith? Like I said earlier, the Quaker understandings of peace, simplicity, care for the earth, and all the others are all part of the Gospel as we understand it and are interrelated. We lived into that in new ways as we were faced with how and what to build.

A few years before we’d fallen in love with our friends’ post and beam house. Phil and Esther had built one of the first Yankee Barn Homes in Indiana. When we found out that the home used timbers reclaimed from old factories and the like, was super-insulated and energy efficient, we were sold. We designed a place that was open for hosting groups, with guest rooms for travelers, that used geo-thermal heating and cooling, and which could accommodate us as we aged – wide doorways through which a wheelchair would fit and a one level floor plan for us (other levels for grandkids, guests, care-givers, etc.)

It was not inexpensive. Which was hard for me – for as bad as I am, I do think about such things. And yet, given my income at the time, our levels of giving, and so forth, it was the right thing to do. Our footprint on the ecology was going to be lower than a traditional, though less expensive to build, stick-built home.

Besides, I told myself, a house like this sitting on fifty acres would be a gold mine when we decided to sell it. It’s on one of the last undeveloped sections of our county. Richness, here we come.

Then something weird happened to me. I was asked to serve on the storm water commission for our county. At the same time I began to see erosion along the banks of our little creek which was becoming a big creek. And then beginning to flood. I started seeing the occasional deer and raccoon and beaver.

My dreams of big money from some land developer began to fade.


Instead, I found myself pondering big questions. I don’t like big questions. I like small, simple ones – what do you want for dinner, does this tie go with this shirt, Mary Ann or Ginger?

Now, I found myself in a house based on my badly lived out Quaker values. We’d called it Ploughshares Farm because we wanted it to be a place of peace. And, with the idea of simplicity and care for the earth, I began pondering what it meant for me to “own” this land. As if land could ever be owned by a human being.

I’ve always hated Stewardship Sunday at church. It always meant someone was going to try to guilt me into giving more than I wanted to. Though the usual disclaimer was always given about how stewardship was about more than money (“it’s about your time and talents, too”) it was really about money. And then I heard someone say that stewardship meant “activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.”

Protecting. Being Responsible. We had been given this land. And the house (yes, we had paid for the house, but it felt like a gift). A shopping center or grocery store or even a gravel pit didn’t seem like either protecting or being responsible. It certainly didn’t feel like living up to a notion of a simple lifestyle. The more I pondered, the more I watched the hundred dollar bills take wing like redwing blackbirds in the field I was contemplating.

So we contacted various agencies and drew up some plans. We began planting fruit and nut bushes and trees for wildlife. We put in 10 acres of tall grass prairie. We planted thousands of Indiana hardwoods. I learned to drive a tractor, operate chain saws, split wood, make trails, and a whole buncha stuff that still surprises me. And the biggest surprise is that I’ve become – if not one with – part of the land and it’s part of me. This is home. And, other than the houses I grew up in, is the place where I’ve lived the longest.

Tending this land feels like a spiritual calling. Albeit I could really do without the mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks and poison ivy.

We’ve paid down our debt. I’ve moved to a less demanding (and less paying!) job. I have more time to work the land when it needs worked. I have more time to write when the land is resting. We’re living more frugally, in spite of all the equipment it takes to run the place. We bought much of it used. And loan it to neighbors and family. We welcome lots of travelers (especially those traveling in ministry) to the farm. And a worship group has been meeting here on Sunday evenings for almost ten years now.

It’s been complex learning to live simply. And the above is what it means for us. It may mean something completely different to you – and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, there’s 30 acres for sale right next door!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

When True Simplicity Is Gained: part 2: Humble Stumble

Quaker?  Like the Amish, right?

Some people find out that I’m a Quaker and begin looking around for my horse and buggy.  Why people think we’re Amish is beyond me.  Well, not really, if all they know about us is the guy on the oats box.  And if you look at him at all he’s not dressed anything like the Amish – way too stylin’ for them.

Now two hundred years ago, the Quakers did sorta dress like the Amish.  And they did use horses and buggies.  But then so did everyone else, as Henry Ford still hadn’t come up with the Model T (which only came in the Quakers’ favorite color – black!).  We also didn’t use electricity – like the Amish.  But that’s only because Thomas Edison hadn’t figured out how to get into people’s houses so we could stop watching television by candlelight.  Quakers, unlike the Amish, have kept up with the times.  Unlike them and their living totally off the grid as a testimony to God and as a spiritual discipline of simplicity, we have moved into the 20th century.  Some of us have even moved into the 21st.  And we’ve brought our testimony of simplicity with us.

Quakers have been practicing simplicity almost since we began.  Sometimes we’ve done it very well.  Sometimes, not so.  Early Quakers spoke and dressed plain.  For them, plain language meant calling the days of the week by numbers instead of their common names – First day for Sunday, for example – as a way to avoid pagan influences (Thor for Thursday!).  They did that with months, too, since they had incorrect names (December was no longer the 10th month).  And they wore simple clothes in basic colors as a witness against the fancy dress and classism of their day.

The not so well came in when they allowed these things to become a badge of distinction – setting themselves apart in a way that drew attention to themselves not as classless people of God but as a non-humble people.  Which is just another example of why there is not just one way of being simple.
One of gifts that even a bad Quaker like me appreciates about the Friendly way is that is always evolving and asking current questions about what it means to be a person of faith.  And the issue of simplicity in a modern, consumerist society is one of the things that keeps us growing.  And one thing we’ve discovered is that that we have to continually wrestle with what does it mean to live simply?

And what it means for me is not what it’ll necessarily mean for you.  Our faith is not a one size fits all faith.  At least in how we live it out.  We are all unique – and created by God to be so.  Which means, when Paul says we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, I think he should have added something such as “and likewise about living it out!”  We need to work out what it means to live simply.

And, despite all the land and stuff I have, even at my worst I’m doing better than I used to.

One reason I say that is that it’s in no small part a matter of attitude.  Why do we have stuff?  I admit that have often acquired because I could and I wanted to.  I didn’t grow up the richest kid on the block – or even the third richest.  So when I had my first allowances and then summer jobs I bought stuff I wanted (much to the dismay of my dad who wanted me to buy stuff I needed, like shoes, jeans, etc).  I acquired because I could.

While that still occasionally occurs, usually I’m buying now because it’s something I need or makes a statement about my values.  The first is the easiest to understand, I suppose.  It takes a lot of stuff to live simply on fifty acres.  That expanse of land does not take care of itself.

The second is harder to understand perhaps.  After all, rarely do we think about how what we own says something about what we believe.

The fact of my changing in this regard came on a trip to Texas a few years ago.  My sister Kathleen and her husband Paul lived there then. I stayed with them when I was an a speaking tour related to one of my books.   A book in which I talked some about Quaker simplicity.  I flew in and needed to borrow one of their cars to get to the speaking gig at the Catholic Campus Ministry center at Southern Methodist University.  My choice was between their Mercedes and their BMW.  This presented me with a bit of dilemma.  Here’s why --

I love cars.  I admit it.  Especially foreign cars.  Especially British or European cars.  I’ve owned a couple (the MG I still have, an Austin-Healey Sprite in my early 20s, various Volkswagens, and … well, too many cars to mention).  I dreamt of owning a Jaguar saloon (sounds better than a 4-door sedan, doesn’t it?) with wood dash, leather seats, and pop-up picnic tables affixed to the back of the front seats.  I would have made do with a Mercedes or BMW, but a big Jag was my dream car as young man.  Once I had it made financially, one was going to be in my garage.

Now I’m gonna say right here, that I still love Jags, even if they’ve lost a bit of their mystique for me.  But I couldn’t own one anymore – even though I could afford at least a used one.  The reason is the way the Quaker way of urging us to live simply in the name of Jesus just won’t let me.  I would be concerned, if I owned one, what people would think of me.  And in a good way.

I mean, I’ve already admitted to being a bad Friend.  I wouldn’t want to confirm that in the eyes of others.  A Jaguar, to me, says wealth, class, and elegance.  There is nothing wrong with any of those, per se.  I was delighted that Kathleen and Paul could enjoy such fine automobiles.  But for me to own one would play into my own weaknesses regarding those things – especially wealth and class (and the classism and privilege that they can engender and/or maintain).  The weird thing is I don’t really feel deprived by not driving a Jag.  The Buick I have now is better built, better engineered, has more bells and whistles than the first Jaguar 420 I contemplated buying in 1971.  It doesn’t have those picnic tables, though!

And so I felt really awkward about driving either of those cars – what would it say about Quakers and our values (including simplicity) to have their guest speaker arrive driving a Beemer or a Benz?
I chose the Benz.

And enjoyed it immensely.

It was black.  Simply Quakerly.