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).