Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Little Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth,
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

We sing these familiar words of Philip Brooks every Christmas season. At Christmastime we sing of the little town of Bethlehem with its dark streets and yet in our minds we often picture a bustling mid-eastern city of today. That is, after all, what we know of Bethlehem in our modern world. We know it from pictures on television or in the newspaper or magazines as a crowded city of about 20,000 – most of whom are Palestinian. The next largest group is Greek Orthodox. And of course there are Israelis – though many of them are soldiers stationed at checkpoints, sent there to keep the peace between Muslim, Jew and Christian during a time of celebration of the birth of the prince of peace.

The prophet Micah wrote, almost seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph made their trip to there, "But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth."

Herod had cause to be worried. If he knew anything of Scripture (and if he didn’t, you can be sure he had those around him who did), he knew that the prophet Micah had written the words of our Scripture lesson almost seven hundred years earlier. The little town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the great king David, was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah. Seven hundred years of prophecy were about to be completed in the birth of one tiny baby.

For just a few minutes, imagine the little town of Bethlehem as it was as the time of Jesus birth. Use your imagination. Go with me to a time and place that is much, much different than where we live in this 21st century.

First, imagine that it is dark. It is so dark, as you stand on the Judean hillside, that you look up and can see every star shining with an almost blinding brilliance. You behold the great clusters of stars, so numerous you can not begin to count them. The fragrance of the hillside grasses wafts on the air. You feel the ground solid beneath your sandaled feet as you walk along the path leading to town.

The air is crisp, so you pull your cloak tighter around you. You feel the coarseness of the cloth and are ready to be home where it is warm and some food is waiting. The moon is full, so you have plenty of light to see by as you walk. As you come over a small rise along the hills, there is the town of Bethlehem below you. It is dark. And quiet. It buildings, shops and homes alike, sit huddled close together, as though against the coming winter cold. The streets are narrow and people leaning from one shop to another can almost pass goods back and forth across the street. Except it is night. There is no activity. There are hardly any lights showing, even in the houses. Candlemaking is hard work and oil for lamps does not come cheap. What little light there is is often cast by cooking fires that are slowly going out all over town.

You walk along, into town. The stone buildings are close to you as you walk down the streets, towards your home. The street is dusty and it will feel good to get home and take off your heavy cloak and sandals and wash the dust from your body. You brush up against one of the houses. You can feel some warmth of the sun remaining, slowly ebbing away as the night deepens. At last you are home. You are thankful that you have a place to stay tonight. With the census being called, every man is required to return to his hometown and be registered. The city is overflowing with people. The poor innkeeper is going crazy trying to find accommodations for all who need a nights lodging.

As you turn to go into your warm house, you notice someone coming down the street. It is a man and woman. The woman is heavy with child. You wonder why she is traveling in that condition. “I sure hope they’ve got a place to stay,” you think to yourself. “I doubt they’ll have any luck at the inn.”

We don’t usually think of cities or towns as characters in any of God’s dramas, but the fact is that all of creation is involved in God’s evolving history. Jesus himself one time said that if his followers were quiet, the rocks would cry out his praises. And so we find a little town playing a major role in the history of God and his people. The little town of Bethlehem was the birthplace of shepherd king and later the King who was a shepherd.

Perhaps the lesson for us today is to be like Bethlehem. It was a city to whom a promise had been given. It waited for the fulfillment of that promise. It waited seven hundred years. At last, the prophecy came to pass. Maybe that’s what Bethlehem has to teach us this advent season – to trust in God’s good promises and timing enough to wait. For when the time is right, and the promise is fulfilled, in the dark streets of our lives, like those dark streets of Bethlehem, will shine an everlasting Light.
-- Brent

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Wise Men Seeking Wisely

Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar. Those are the names of the mysterious Magi who came to worship the Christ-child. Or are they?

Well, those are the names we’ve given them. But nobody knows what their names really were. In fact, nobody really knows that there were three of them. We suppose that there were three of them because three gifts were given. But, in fact, the Bible doesn’t say how many kings there were – there could have been two or there could have been a whole caravan.

In fact, the Bible doesn’t say a lot of what we take for true about Christmas. It doesn’t say that Mary road a donkey to Bethlehem – yet almost every picture you see of her and Joseph making their way their shows her atop that particular creature. The Bible doesn’t say a hard-hearted innkeeper turned them away, scoffing “There is no room in the inn,” yet we talk abut this heart-hearted man and wonder how he could do such a thing. The Bible doesn’t say what kind of animals crowded around the baby Jesus – or even if there were any animals. Yet, no creche would be complete without a few cows and sheep. The Bible doesn’t record a heavenly choir singing to the shepherds – but that doesn’t stop us from singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and believing it.

Yes, we have dressed up the Bible story – added some things, fleshed it out a little more to our liking, perhaps. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, so long as we know the real story and the real characters.

What the Bible says about Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar (or whatever their names were) is this – that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”

So, who are these Magi, why are they looking at the stars and why do they come to worship?

History tells us that most probably these men were counselors to mid-Eastern kings. Schools of astrology had been established as early as 500 years before the birth of Jesus and by the time these wise men followed the Natal star, this caste of astrologers had spread as far east as India.
These scholars were students of the stars during a time when to be such was to be on the cutting edge of knowledge. Their study of the stars was far different than NASA’s. They weren’t looking for the origins of the universe or speculating upon life other than human. In fact, they believed that there was life beside ours – angels and devils and spirits. They didn’t worry about space aliens.

The reason they studied the stars was as an attempt to go beyond ordinary and obvious understandings of life and achieve deeper, more meaningful discernment of the world and how to live in it. These were highly educated men of high moral principles. They were scientific moralists. And, as the Bible story shows, through Herod’s receiving them at court, they were men worthy of respect.

So these wise men are in their studies in a distant land, watching the sky for signs. And what do they behold? They see the planets and stars telling a story so absolutely incredible, that they felt compelled to take a long journey at great expense to see the One to Whom the whole heavens appeared to be pointing.

And so come the wise men, seeking wisdom and seeking it wisely, in search for the newborn king. They come with gifts -- gold as a sign of royalty, frankincense representing spirituality, and myrrh, an aromatic resin, representing healing power -- and also used, prophetically, perhaps, for embalming purposes.

That’s a nice story, but what’s it got to do with us? A number of things, hopefully. For one, most of us in our country today are more like the Magi than the shepherds, though we find it easier to identify with the shepherds for some reason. We, like the wisemen, are well educated, learned people. We may scoff at that image, but we are. The difference is, besides the obvious cultural ones, that the wise men we hear about this Christmas season employed their knowledge in pointing them to the eternal. They did not separate mind and heart and soul the way we moderns do. Their learning prepared them for the encounter with the child Jesus. They journeyed far, compelled by their discovery, to greet this one who had been born. We would do well to use what we know intellectually in the pursuit of a life rich in the things of the spirit.
For another, they gave gifts. We give gifts in honor of them. We spend small fortunes looking for just the right present for each person we love. They wisemen remind us that we would do well to give such gifts to this newborn King. And the greatest gift we can give does not involve money. For most of us, money is an easy gift to give. Instead we are asked to give of something precious – and in this day and age the most precious thing we seem to have is time. We all complain about our busy-ness and how their are too few hours in a day. If we give the gift of time we give necessarily give our hearts and lives.

Finally, there is one other lesson the Magi have for us. And that is, the coming of the Christ is not a fairy tale, one to be told once or twice a year. It is the story of real, flesh and blood folks just like ourselves, who participated in the eternal, as we are called to do.

That is the challenge these wise men who came seeking wisely offer us some 2000 years later. The wise men each used their learning, followed their hearts and offered them, whether they contained words or wealth, to the new born king. May we, in this Christmas season, seek as wisely as did they. For in seeking this Babe of Bethlehem, we like them, will find the one who is the great lover of our souls. Oh come, let us adore him.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Just Joseph

Nancy's setting up crèches -- that's right, plural! Very unQuakerly, I know, but she does love Christmas and the Nativity story. I was in the basement hanging a door and noticed a figure still sitting on the worktable where she'd set them out prior to taking them upstairs. It was Joseph – the silent partner in the Christmas story. Baby Jesus, rightfully, gets the most press. Next come the other featured players – Mary, the Shepherds and the Magi. But did you know even horrible old Herod gets as much mention as Joseph in the Nativity stories? Joseph is named just 15 times in the entire Bible – once just by the sobriquet “the carpenter.” Joseph? Well, he’s just Joseph.

On one level that’s a pretty dismissive statement. But on another, it’s quite a complement.
It’s dismissive, of course, because, Joseph – though silent – is a central character in this drama. Here’s a man who evidently is in love with a young woman named Mary. They are engaged to be married. As a carpenter, he can provide her with a good, stable life. And then she does the unthinkable – she gets pregnant.

When we think of how people of faith are to respond to life’s difficulties, we often think of Job, that marvelous Old Testament man. “The patience of Job” is a cliché that is common currency in our language. I suggest, for all of Job’s goodness, there is an even better model for us today and that is the one of Joseph.

What happens to Joseph is almost as calamitous as what happens to Job. His life and reputation are about to be ruined by the actions of the young maid to whom he is betrothed. Dishonor is about to come upon him. Mary is obviously pregnant -- thought to be unfaithful.

That’s where the compliment side of the phrase “Just Joseph” comes into play. You see, Joseph was “just.” The story tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. As such, he can not marry Mary for to do so would be an admission that he had some hand in this breaking of the law. But Joseph is as compassionate as he is “just.” He’s unwilling to expose Mary to the disgrace of public divorce. He therefore chooses a quieter way of obtaining a divorce, requesting one before two witnesses, as permitted by the law. It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact.

Which brings us back to the dismissive part of “Just Joseph.” When Mary accepts her angelic announcement, we celebrate it as an act of outstanding faith and courage – which it is.
When Joseph (who gets his word from God via a dream angel instead of a direct visitation) opens his will to that of God, we nod and accept it. We don’t marvel at the faith of “just” Joseph, nor count the cost in reputation for this man. He turns his life, as surely as Mary does, over to God. This good and kind man says “yes.”

I think there are two lessons for us today in Joseph’s story. The first is to never be dismissive of anybody. God chooses whom He will to do His work.

The second lesson is that of personal goodness. That was the hallmark of Joseph – “Joseph, being a righteous man” the Bible says. An important thing about his goodness is its inward nature, not its outward show. We are called to goodness and justice – but not so that others can point to us and compliment us. Instead we are called to goodness and justice in order that we might better serve the God who calls us.

Joseph lives the familiar words of the prophet Micah: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Joseph acts justly. He loves mercy. And he walks humbly with his God. There is no outward show of false spirituality. Instead he listens and obeys.

May we be, at this season and throughout all of our lives, like Joseph -- people of soulful action.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mary, Mary, Not Contrary

As we rejoice in this season of miracles, we sometimes lose sight of one of the major miracles of Christmas. I am not talking about the miracle of the Jesus’ birth – though, of course, without that miracle no others would matter. The one I am thinking about is the miracle that the central figures of the Christ event were people just like us. I think it is indeed miraculous that God’s eternal drama is played out primarily by ordinary women and men and boys and girls. It is one more way that God connects us with the timeless story of His reaching out in love to all creation.

Mary's one of those people. She's been getting a lot of attention lately -- in books and movies. Most of the time, when I think of Mary, I think of the halo-ified woman appearing in classical paintings. She, in those portrayals, is a saint who is surely up to this task. She is angelic, pure. She is rarely shown as a real human. Yet, that’s exactly who she was -- a real, flesh and blood, teenaged girl. The thing that makes her unique is that she was chosen by God for a great work

A Rosario Castellanos poem helps me think of Mary in a new way.

Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

“Too small for the destiny she must contain.” Ah, the simple elegant understatement of that sentence. That makes Mary’s teenage-ness real to me. I see her more as a tiny, faithful child of God than a plaster saint.

When I read the Bible, it, too, paints a picture of Mary far different than Fra Angelico or Van Eyck. It does this as much with what it does not say as with what it does. What it says is that God’s messenger Gabriel is sent to visit her and announce that she, among all women on earth, has been chosen to bear the Christ. The angel tells her this is because “you have found favor with God.”

What the story does not say is why Mary has found favor with God. For example, it does not say that she has found favor with God because she attended synagogue faithfully, or studied the scriptures diligently, or served on committees, or counted herself a spiritual person or was seen as such by the religious people around her. It does not say that she was chosen because she stood in the temple and prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like others --robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” It does not say that she was chosen because of any “religious” reason.

The only thing it does say is that she was chosen because she had “found favor with God.”
Her response, after questioning how, physically, this could be, was a simple – or not so simple – yes.

This was no easy “Yes.” This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on unwed mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to. And yet she did.

Her response to this is remarkable, or maybe miraculous. She doesn’t try to talk her way out of it. She doesn’t try to excuse herself because of unworthiness. She simply says “Yes.” Perhaps that’s why she found favor with God – God knew the heart of Mary and knew, above all, that she would do what was asked.

That’s why I think there are lessons for us in both what is said and what is not said.
The lesson in what is said is that God chooses people to do God’s work. Real people for real work. Moses, Miriam, David, Mary and many more. The Bible, indeed the entire course of human history, is a testimony to that fact. When something needs to happen, God chooses men and women, boys and girls, to get it done – be it sack groceries for the hungry or bear the savior of the world.

The lesson in what is not said is that we do not have to be worthy in the sense that we humans often apply that criteria. We are chosen because of who we are and our faithful response, not because we fit creedal criteria.

Mary isn’t chosen because she attends more services, speaks more public places or attends more prayer meetings than anybody else. In fact, there is no record in the Bible of her attending synagogue. The only time it is mentioned that she attended Temple worship was at Jesus’ dedication and later when the boy is 12 and she and Joseph find him in the Temple courtyard discussing theology with the priests. There is no record of her reading scripture.

What that tells us, solely by the lack of its being mentioned (after all, just because it’s not mentioned doesn’t mean she didn’t read scripture, pray or attend synagogue) is that Mary was chosen not because she was more “spiritual” (at least outwardly) than anybody else at her time.
That is both a promise and a warning. It is a promise because it says to us all that all God requires of us is a willingness to say yes. That’s because willingness to say yes shows a spiritual depth that outweighs all public professions of faith. It gets to the heart of what God wants from his people. “He has showed you, what is good,” writes Micah. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

“This is the one I esteem,” says God, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

That’s a good description of Mary. She trembled at the word that Gabriel brought, but, because of her humble and contrite heart, she found God’s favor – and said yes.

The story is a warning because it reminds us that God didn’t choose a “spiritual” acting person to be the bearer of the good news. Indeed, Mary’s son later issued a scathing indictment of people who acted this way. “Woe to you, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

But if Jesus’ words bother your soul and you find yourself wondering, "Am I like that?” I would maintain that you are more Mary than hypocrite. And that’s exactly what God is looking for. God is looking for men and women, boys and girls, of humble and contrite hearts who desire to walk with God. We, like Mary, may be “too small for the destiny we must contain” – but with God’s loving help, we can, like Mary, be used for great things for God.

We can be contrary. Or we can be Mary. “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Guarding the World at Advent – And Other Times

Though Quakers aren't known for celebrating liturgical seasons, it's hard not to be aware that the season of Advent has begun. Especially since Nancy is playing Christmas music and decorating the farm for the holidays. And Advent angels are everywhere. The latter reminded me of a a short story by Alan Gurganus. Title “It Had Wings,” Gurganus tells the story of a woman pushing eighty, dressed in a robe and slippers, doing the dishes, who finds an angel in her backyard. The angel is lying in the grass and the woman stretches out an arthritic hand to touch it – and that hand is healed. “A practical person,” Gurganus writes, “she quickly cures her other hand. The angel grunts, but sounds pleased.” She continues to touch him and as she does “a thirty eight year pain leaves her,” “liver sports are lightening,” and “all stiffness leaves hear.” “Bolder,” Gurganus relates, “she whispers private woes… those woes seem ended.” She feels limber now, as limber as a twenty year old – but she is frightened. She’s afraid he’s about to take her to heaven. “The house is finally paid off,” she tells the angel. “Not just yet.” And then the angel zooms into heaven. As she heads inside, she notices her slippers and thinks, Got to wash these next week. And then she muses, Can a person who’s just sighted her first angel already be mulling about laundry? Yes, the world is like that.

By suppertime her aches and pains return. Still, there is something new and different about her. Gurganus asks, “Can you guess why this old woman’s chin is lifted? Why does she breathe as if to show exactly how it’s done. Why should both her shoulders, usually quite bent, brace so square just now?”

“She is guarding the world. Only, nobody knows.”

When I read that story at this time of the year, I am reminded of the shepherds of the Christmas story. They were the first to hear the news of the baby savior’s birth. And like the old woman of Gurganus’ story, their lives are changed while they remain the same – one of the paradoxes of faith.

Like the woman in the story, the shepherds weren’t the sort of men whom the general populace expected would receive angelic announcements. God, perhaps as a way of showing that faith is best grounded in real life, sends the heavenly singers to the shepherds – men who consult no books, study the skies for nothing except clues to the weather, and have no social standing.
These men, huddled on the foresty hillsides of Palestine, warm beneath their ramskins, eyes vigilant, on guard against roaming wolves, were of low station. Shepherds of that ime were considered generally untrustworthy (which makes Jesus’ later stories centering around the shepherd’s role in the life of faith all the more remarkable).

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”

The shepherds are amazed – and afraid. Who wouldn’t be? To be witness to an angelic herald is a wonderful thing – but is frightening, too. Perhaps like Gurganus’ old woman, they are awed by their angel, but they’re not quite ready to go up into heaven.

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”

Awestruck, amazed, mystified and more, the shepherds go in search of this babe. After encountering the child in the manger, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the thing they had heard and seen.” The shepherds are not transported into some new place and increased social standing. No, they go back to their sheep and their jobs. Like the old woman who notices her slippers need washing, they return to normalcy.

Except that they are different. I dare say that people seeing them, like people seeing Gurganus’s woman, noticed their chins lifted, their breathing precise and their shoulders braced so square now. And that’s because, for all their return to outward normalcy, they, like her, were “guarding the world. Only, nobody knows.”

Therein, I think, is a lesson for us this Advent season. Not that angels are going to appear on hillsides or in backyards seen through kitchen windows – though they might. No, the lesson is that any of our encounters with the Divine do not necessarily lift us out of the everyday workaday world. We will find ourselves changed, but changed on the inside, not the outside. An encounter with God is not like winning some celestial lottery where riches untold fall upon us, erasing all pain and sorrow and sadness forever.

There may be times that we are so in touch with the life of the Spirit that this life seems to fade away. We forget our aches and pains, spiritual and physical. We feel transported into the very presence of God. We feel made new and renewed. We see things with a clarity of thought and heart that we wish we had all the time. And are slightly scared by that feeling. But we do not seem to be able to sustain that experience. Which is not to downplay the experience, but rather acknowledges that we are not quite ready to live in that other world. We are human – flesh and blood and spirit and mind and soul. We are not, not yet anyway, quite ready to live completely in the spiritual realm. Like the shepherds, like the woman in the story, we return to constantly to our everyday lives.

The lesson for us from the shepherds and the old woman is to treasure those things in our hearts. And to live life with chins lifted, breathing to show exactly how it’s done, and shoulders no longer bent, but "braced so square just now.” For we, like all people who have encountered the Divine in this Advent, or any other season, are guarding the world. Whether or not anybody knows.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanks for a Bounty of People

I took our dog for a walk last night. While tramping through the fields and woods I remembered past Thanksgiving holidays when my dad and I would get up early, drive from our city home to his uncle’s farm, and go hunting. Actually, it usually ended up long walks in the woods and fields broken by the occasional shot at a tin can or Coke bottle. Yesterday afternoon was like that – except for the shooting – a companionable walk in the beautiful country.

Of course, what makes the countryside beautiful and rich are the memories it evokes. And inevitably entwined in those memories are people. The people whose woods I walked in. The families whose haylofts I played in. The folks, past and present, who molded my life. I remember Grandpa and Grandma Bill, Uncle Johnny, Uncle Burt, Aunt Orie, cousin Ernie, and on and on. A parade of Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and pastors also march past. As do people from the present. While not much of a farmer myself (I only raise trees and prairie grass), the seasons of my life have been blessed by a rich bounty of people, not crops. And I am richer for them all. They have been the jubilant fields and singing trees of 1 Chronicles 16:7-36, singing “for joy before the LORD, … Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” They planted the seeds of faith in my life and watered them and watched them grow. Some of them have sung the song of harvest home. Some I get to see daily. Regardless, they continue to bless me.

God’s land and God’s people are intricately interwoven. Even those of us who rarely venture outside the city limits are tied to the earth by strong bonds and a bounty of people. And this season is about giving thanks for that bounty to the gracious God who loves us more than we can imagine.

I came across a thanksgiving poem the other day that expresses that thought better than I am able. It’s by Max Coots and says:

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.
For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.
Let us give thanks;
For generous friends...with hearts...and smiles as bright as their blossoms;
For feisty friends, as tart as apples;
For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;
For crotchety friends, sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;
For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;
For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes; And serious friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;
For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;
For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;
And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter. For all these we give thanks.

Let us give thanks, this holiday time, for golden light, good friends no matter their type, and God’s graciousness. May we open our eyes to jubilant fields and singing trees. Soaring clouds, be they white or gray with rain. Winds warm or chilled by the north. People who are made in God’s own image. Let us give thanks and “sing for joy before the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Power of Story

While I usually try to write about the holy ordinary, something extraordinary happened the other night that I wanted to share with folks. Carrie Newcomer, Scott Russell Sanders, Phil Gulley, and I put on an evening titled "Music and Memoirs: Story and Song." A benefit for a local foodbank, it combined Carrie's music with Phil's, Scott's, and my writing. We were hoping for around 200 folks to attend. By "show time" we'd put up an additional 60 chairs and turned about 50 people away. Imagine, 300 people coming to hear 4 Quaker-types share their words and music!

The evening consisted of 2 straight hours of Carrie's singing interwoven through times of Phil, Scott, and me reading. Some pieces were humorous; some serious. All were stories shot through with God's love and grace and a worldview filtered through a Friendly lens. People stayed glued to their seats -- no one, in the crowded room, got up and walked around, headed to the bathroom, or left. For 2 hours! And many lingered after it ended -- at 10:30 pm! They wanted to chat and thank us for sharing. My email has been full of notes asking for information about Quakerism and spirituality -- one came from the guy paid to run the sound and lights for the evening.

While my ego is stroked by such affirmation of our gift, that's not why I'm writing about this event. Why I'm writing is this evening reminded of the winsome power of spiritual stories offered with no objective other than sharing the Light which we've been given. We weren't trying to convert anybody. We weren't testing dogma or orthodoxy. Instead, we offered stories that spoke to life and our making our way through it with eyes Spirit-opened -- and people responded. There's a lesson here for us, I think. Perhaps we should worry a bit less about being right and worry more about being lovingly open and sharing our stories of faith (and doubt). 260+ people on a dark, fall Friday night found that an event they were willing to pay to attend. What would our "free" Firstday morning services be like if they were that open, honest, and filled with stories of faith from each of us?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Warm Hands On Me When I Pray

“A table full of food and with people all around,
Quiet when my mom prays.
The Thanksgiving food and mom’s perfume.
The warm hands on me when we pray.
We will always give thanks at Thanksgiving.”

I came across this poem the other day. It was written by fourth grader named Chantel from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Her poem was posted, along with some by her fellow students, as a class project. Her poem reminded me that I often forget to live with a spirit of Thanksgiving for the simple things of life -- things like “a table full of food” and “warm hands on me when we pray.”

Perhaps being thankful for such things is the main challenge facing all of us living in our super-heated, consumer-oriented society. Our focus seems to be on acquiring SUV’s and RV’s, large screen TV’s or any number of other things advertisers tell us we need in order to be happy. That makes it difficult to be thankful for small things that make life dear.

Most of us will spend the upcoming Thanksgiving Day basking in the glow of family love. Even those who have passed on, whether at the end of a full life or cut off too soon, are wrapped safe in our hearts. We rejoice in the memories of good times and know that those who truly love can never be truly separated.

Many of us are snug in warm homes. Our tables abound with food. We may not be able to reach right into our pantry for a certain snack item we’re hankering for, but few of us suffer from Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard syndrome.

Most of all, we should remember that the One who loves and cares for us more than we know is always watching over us. There may be times when we wonder where God is – those times we are hurting or distressed. But the fact is, God is there, beside us, behind us, before us, even when we do not sense that presence. Perhaps that presence goes unnoticed because it comes wrapped in such a simple, human thing as “warm hands on me when we pray.”


Monday, November 13, 2006

Soft Sunlight and the Soul

This is the time of year I love living in the Midwest, more than summer, spring, or winter, each with its own charm. But fall has a particular beauty. The landscape is alive with wonderful color.

The sunlight is softer, this time of year, which of course brings a chill to the air (well, most of the time. This week has been an exception). And this softer light is golden, transforming the ordinary into extraordinary, helping me see the richness of life around me.

That’s why I love driving around Indiana at this time of year. I drive and watch the light play across the countryside – field stubble casting shadows along the dirt, bare black tree limbs silhouetted against a royal blue sky, clouds puffy and white floating serenely along. I smell the scents of farm and field.

I feel a sense of connectedness with the land and that sense grows stronger every year. I love it. And more than that, this time of year helps me remember that I am connected to God’s good earth all the time – from witnessing its visual beauty to partaking of its sustenance with every mouthful of food I eat.

-- Brent

Monday, November 06, 2006

Flying and Walking in the Way

Flying out of Indianapolis the other day, the flight path, because of weather and wind, took us almost over our house. Forgetting how scared I was for a minute (I do hate to fly!!!), I looked out and down and picked out our long gravel drive, the field of drying wildflowers and prairie grass, the woods, and our house. I watched for the few moments they stayed in view and then sat back in my seat. “I was looking for my house,” I told my seatmate. “Spot it?” he asked. “Sure did.” I smiled inside. I thought how blessed I was. Way, so far, has opened in beautiful ways. I’m fortunate to be a father, grandfather, husband, boss, writer, and tree and prairie grass farmer.

The way opening for me has been a gift from God. It has not come through dint of personal achievement. It didn’t come as the result of my schooling, techniques, talents, or my amazing intellect. Certainly all of those things played into how way opened and indeed were parts of way opening.

Way opening has also brought responsibilities. As Patricia Loring says, “Like other gifts of God, its origin is mysterious and gratuitous. It is given for the building of the community and of relationship with God rather than for self-fulfillment or self-aggrandizement." God has opened the way for me to be a father, grandfather, husband, boss, writer, and tree and prairie grass farmer for a reason. I have a responsibility to live up to the way. “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way, walk in it,"” (Isaiah 30:21).

Monday, October 23, 2006


People have a hard time finding our home. For one, it sits 1,500 feet off the road and is nestled back in a woods. For another our road goes by two names since we live on a road that divides two counties. One county calls the road one thing; the other another. And the house numbering system is different, too.

It’s very confusing.

So I designed a sign to place out by our driveway that says “Welcome to Ploughshares Farm.” Now visitors just have to know to look for the sign.

Which is how it is with seeing how way opens – learning to look for the signs. George Fox said, “Take heed of the promptings of Truth and Love, for those are the leadings of God.”

Promptings of truth and love are subtle. They are inward, often beginning with a motion of caring. They are often more a nudge than a shove. They are a lot like the subtle look of slightly tramped down grass that shows where a path begins. They are a sense that something is happening spiritually to which we need to be paying attention. Promptings are often persistent, too, and require a period of waiting.

We may want to rush ahead. But if we do, we’ll often miss signs along the way. George Fox said, “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes… That is it which moulds up into patience, … into stillness, … into quietness, up to God, with his power.”

Signs along the way are all around us, once we learn to see them.

-- Brent

Thursday, October 19, 2006

For the Beauty of the Earth

"I wake each morning torn between the desire to improve the world and the desire to enjoy it. It makes it hard to plan the day." So wrote E.B. White. And while I'm no White, especially in my writing, I do resonate with what he says. Most of the time, for me, at least, improving and enjoying the world seem to be separate endeavors.

But last Sunday afternoon was different. After Meeting for Worship and a quick lunch, Nancy and I made our way down to the field below our house. We'd contracted with a local forester to plan 1,500 tree seedlings in neatly ordered and space rows there in May. In June we went away for almost three weeks. When we returned the iron weed and other flora had covered the field. The trees, between one and three feet tall, and the rows had disappeared underneath a canopy of green.

Then came last week's frost and freeze. Down to the field we went. Starting at one end of where we thought a row was, we tramped down weedstalks. And found an oak tree. Three and a half feet high. Two of my paces (and three of Nancy's) farther along and there was another tree. And another. And another. For three hours we tagged them with strands of fabric softener sheets (the deer don't like them and so leave the trees alone). I bushhogged between the rows. By days end we had uncovered one-fourth of the previously weed buried oaks, pawpaws, and hickories.

Sore, even after showers and Advil, it was a day of improving and enjoying the world and seeing God. Well, "at least as much," as Barbara Brown Taylor says in Leaving Church referring to acreage, timber, and soil as parts of God's visible body, "as I am able to see."

-- Brent

Spirituality in American Life

We hear lots of talk these days about religion in American life. Especially as the mid-term elections approach and all sides look for ways to stake a claim on religious voters. But we don't hear as much about spirituality in American life. Which is too bad, since those of us who are trying to be spiritually sensitive seem to be becoming more aware of how thin the line is between our daily lives and the sacred.

If you're intrested in the topic of spirituality in the US today, I urge you to take a look at the new website Spirit Scholars. http://www.spiritscholars.com/ It features the work of award winning Detroit Free Press religion writer David Crumm and is an illuminating and helpful site filled with all sorts of good things. I especially enjoy the mini-book reviews (disclaimer: and have to admit that David has been kind to my books). I've bookmarked it as one of my favorites -- and hope you will, too.


Of Bag Boys and Kierkegaard

The first Friend George Fox said we should, “…walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” I thought about that today as I talked to the bag boy at the grocery next to my office. Actually, the bag boy is no boy – I’d guess him to be about my age. He has some sort of problems, but is a fascinating guy. He reads philosophy and mathematics and always wants to talk religion and politics with me when I come through his line. Which I do almost daily. He’s come to be one of the ordinary treasures in my life. It’s one of the ways in which I’m growing.

It’s always been easy for me to God in others in the abstract. It was a little harder to do in the reality of day to day life. Linus Van Pelt, the famous blanket dragging philosopher of “Peanuts” fame once declared to his sister Lucy that he was going to help the world. She pointed out how he had a difficult time with people. To which he exclaimed, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”

I can love every homeless child, every neighbor, every criminal, every fellow worker, even every television preacher and used car salesman in the abstract. It’s when they are up close and personal that I have a problem. I have that problem because I’m still learning to see the light of God shining in and through them. It’s not that it’s not shining there – it’s just that I haven’t looked at them through the eyes of God’s love.

Learning to see the Light of Christ in others helps me see the possibilities and challenges with which God imbues my life and others lives. When I learn to see by God’s light, I find that our oddities, our grittiness, and the occasions when we hurt or are hurt, can lead us to a deeper knowledge of each other. And I give thanks for philosophical bag boys.

-- Brent

Pilgrims -- Or Tourists?

“The true knowledge of the way, with the walking in the way, is reserved for God’s child, for God’s traveller.” So said early Quaker writer Isaac Penington. Penington's quotation came to mind while I've been reading Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. Nancy and I (with our daughter Lisa and son-in-law Mark) just came back from visiting many of the places Philbrick mentions when we toured New England this autumn, so his book holds more than historical interest to me. As does the concept of being a a pilgrim.

Being a pilgrim is a concept that often gets lost in today’s tourist-y world. A few years ago, some folks from the church where I was pastor let me lead them on a tour of historic Quaker sites. On the first evening of our trip, the group ate together in a restaurant. The waitress tried to figure out our relationship – club, family, etc. When I tried to explain what we were doing, she said “Oh, like a pilgrimage.” I squirmed a bit to hear it put that way, but in a way, she was right. We had a greater purpose than just sight-seeing. We were learning about the roots of our faith and why we were the type of Quakers we were.

Being a pilgrim is a good thing. To be pilgrims means that we are people who are spending our lives going someplace – in our case, going to God. Deep down, in our souls, we realize that this world (as the old hymn says) is not our home, we are “just a’passin’ through.” We are a traveling people. It is up to us whether we will be tourists or pilgrims.


A Private History of Awe

“On a spring day in 1950, when I was big enough to run about on my own two legs yet still small enough to ride in my father’s arms, he carried me onto the porch of a farmhouse in Tennessee and held me against his chest, humming, while thunder roared and lightning flared and rain sizzled around us.” So begins Scott Russell Sanders latest book of spiritual essays, A Private History of Awe. Sanders has crafted another insightful, wonderfully constructed work sure to challenge and inspire every reader.

The opening story marked the beginning of Sanders’ life of spiritual searching. His book reveals the breadth of this search from his childhood to today through many of the common experiences of life – school, marriage, parenthood, caring for parents, and much more. He writes of preachers and teachers, the Bible and Walden, friends and Friends, and much more, all of which ultimately inform his quest for that which many of us call God. Sanders is not content use one name for what he calls "prime reality" that cannot be described (“every such name … is only a finger pointing”) and yet "shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath." But he does believe that each of us, if we learn to pay attention in love, can encounter in our own ways this “prime reality.”

This is no book of one dramatic epiphany coming at one major life crisis. Instead, it a story of way opening. Sanders tells the stuff of his rather ordinary life in an engaging, hospitable style that invites the reader to consider the lessons their ordinary lives present and to see how way opens for them. A Private History of Awe is a book to read and read again.

-- Brent

Paying Attention in Love

Last fall, a good friend and I were driving across Indiana when she looked out the window and asked, “What are you seeing?” On another, earlier trip she’d asked that question while we were deep in conversation about landscape and light. I’d waxed eloquent about the qualities of light that lit fields filled with corn stubble and soft contours of Midwestern rolling ground. Eloquently enough, at least, that she seemed to enjoy the conversation and my view on things she didn’t seem to see with her hillier, woodier New England eyes.

That day her question stopped me cold. I looked around. I saw a not too unusual cloudy Indiana day in the middle of harvest. Some fields were picked. Some were not. I began to explain how to tell the difference between corn and bean fields, combine corn heads and bean heads, and … I knew I was stalling. I wasn’t seeing anything much different from what she saw.

I wondered why I couldn’t see like she expected me to. Then it hit me. I wasn’t paying attention in love to the landscape. Instead, I was paying attention to my friend and our conversation about books and writers.

Paying attention in love is concept I learned from the writings of Belden Lane, a humanities professor in the theology department at Saint Louis University. That’s when I came across this: “One begins to suspect that the contemplation of any ordinary thing, made extraordinary by attention and love, can become an occasion for glimpsing the profound. …Where can I not encounter the holy, has been the question of spiritual writers in every tradition and every age. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” asked the psalmist (139:7). Once our attention is brought to focus on the masked extraordinariness of things, we are hard put in to discern the allegedly profane.”

By my friend’s asking her the question, and me thinking about it, I soon began listening to our conversation and looking at the world beyond my friend’s face. The landscape whizzed by, but I saw it slower than the 65 mph we were going. I found myself paying attention at a different level with everything going on around me. The outer and inner lights seemed brighter. All thanks to my friend’s question.

-- Brent

Holy Ordinary

Quakers believe that faith and daily living are married. We need to learn to see God is present in the normal stuff of life -- work, family, pets, home, our communities of faith. As English Friend William Littleboy wrote:
God is above all the God of the normal. In the common facts and circumstances of life, He draws near to us, quietly. He teaches us in the routine of life’s trifles, gently, and unnoticed His guidance comes to us through the channels of ‘reason [and] judgment’… we have been taught by Him when we least suspected it; we have been guided … though the guiding hand rested upon us so lightly that we were unaware of its touch.

Carrie Newcomer (www.carrienewcomer.com) expresses this in her song “Holy as a Day is Spent:” -- "Holy is the dish and drain/The soap and sink, and the cup and plate" she begins, and ends with "Holy is the place I stand/To give whatever small good I can/And the empty page, and the open book/Redemption everywhere I look."

Newcomer’s song reflects the Quaker belief that God is the God of the daily – and the daily reveals the deity. It leads us into a new way of seeing – a way of seeing the invisible hand of God in all that we have been blessed with. Rufus Jones said, “We find Him when we enjoy beauty.”

-- Brent