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.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
"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."
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”