Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Work of Christmas Begins

Yes, we found the child just as we had been told. I wondered then, as I do now sometimes, why this one who was to be a Savior, our Messiah, would be born in a lowly stable, laid in a feeding trough, and surrounded by animals? But as I looked at that child that night, and he looked at me, I knew in my heart the truth of the angel’s words. Truly this was Christ the Lord.

After awhile, we left them alone and made our way back to the hillside and our sheep. We all praised God for this great thing which had been made known to us, yet I found my heart strangely troubled at the same time. If indeed this was Christ the Lord, what did this mean for me? And why was I, not Herod or Caesar, called to the manger-side? What was it that I heard in my heart? What calling was there?

On the Sabbath next, I made my way to the synagogue with my family, as usual. I had told my wife and children of this miraculous event and they wondered with me of its meaning with each telling and retelling. The rabbi stood and took the scroll and read the day’s lesson, intoning the prophet Isaiah’s words slowly and solemnly, “The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples, That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord GOD has opened My ear; And I was not disobedient, Nor did I turn back.” Then, reverently, he recovered the scroll, placed it back on the altar and turned to the congregation. “There is one,” he said to us, “even among us now, who has been witness to great things. Who has been awakened by morning and whose ear has been opened. He has been given the tongue of disciples so that he might sustain the weary one with a word. May he not turn back.” Then he looked at me and sat down. My heart burned within me, remembering that magical night and now the words of the prophet and the rabbi.

My wife clutched my arm as we left synagogue that morning. My mind was a jumble. I was just a simple shepherd. A working man. I was not learned like the rabbi. I had not been trained as a healer or counselor. I was just a man. How could I be called to be a disciple?

I made my way back to the mountainside the next evening, tending the flock, my thoughts awhirl. One of the lambs wandered off. We all grumbled about who would have to traipse along the mountainside in the dark, seeking this one who was lost. “I’ll go,” I said, grateful for some time to be alone and think, though thinking had been all I’d been up to ever since the Angel night.

I walked along the mountain trails that night, listening both for the sound of the lost lamb and God. I heard them both, at last, about the same time. As I reached down to pick up the scratched and bleeding lamb, bleating from pain, caught in brambles, God spoke. “You have seen the angels. You have seen the babe. You have beheld the light. Your witness did not end that night. It only began. You are my disciple. You are to sustain the weary with both words and deeds. You are to seek them out, just has you have this lamb.”

“Then I will leave my flock, Lord,” I asked. “I will abandon this trade and go and study and learn so that I might speak and act with the eloquence your disciples should display.”

“No,” came the thundering silence. “No. You are a disciple. You are a shepherd. You are called to both.”

Then His voice grew silent. I was left alone with my thoughts and the pitiful bleating of the wounded sheep in my arms.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Joseph -- Silent and Still: An Advent Meditation

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. Even horrible old Herod gets as much mention as Joseph. He is named just 10 times in the Nativity stories (half as many times as Mary) – often as a minor character. In only one portion of Scripture is he the main character.

Imagination, that most human of traits, tries to fill in the blanks. Often it does just do just that. W.H. Auden’s does in today’s poem, where he places Joseph in contemporary society. Auden was born in York, England and educated at Oxford. T.S. Eliot helped him launch his literary career, which began in 1928, the year he graduated Oxford. As a witness to the Spanish Civil War, Auden became increasingly religious and revealed that bent in his poetry. In 1946 he published For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio and dedicated it to his mother. Today’s poem, The Temptation of St. Joseph, comes from that Oratorio.

Joseph:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

Gabriel:
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

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. Joseph, as a righteous man, he can not in good conscience marry Mary, who was now thought to be unfaithful. Such a marriage would be an admission that he had some hand in this breaking of the law. But Joseph is as compassionate as he righteous and is unwilling to expose Mary to the disgrace of public divorce. He therefore choses a quieter way of obtaining a divorce, requesting one before two witnesses, permitted by the law. It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact.

Auden’s setting his Joseph in the modern world brings home to us in a way that the Christmas card setting which we’ve made the Bible story into cannot, Joseph’s dilemma – people whispering behind his back – or to his face. We cannot know the town’s people’s reaction to all this as the Bible doesn’t say. Auden helps us paint that picture ourselves. No wonder Joseph wanted to do what he planned – to put her away quietly and let the whole thing fade away.
But before he can put his plan into action, an angel comes in a dream. We modern day skeptics (myself included) by and large disregard dreams. Many of mine need to be disregarded – what can a dream of squirrels living behind the siding of my house in Seattle or my needing to give Nancy's car battery a jump while it’s sitting in an auto repair shop have to do with anything.
But dreams as means of divine communication in the Bible are the norm. In Joseph’s case, an “angel of the Lord” reminds the reader of divine messengers of ages past and focuses on God’s gracious intervention and the messenger's private communication.

The angel's opening words, “Joseph son of David,” ties this passage to the Davidic genealogy mentioned earlier in the first chapter of Matthew, from which today’s lesson comes. To Joseph, this greeting alerts him to the significance of the role he is to play. Joseph is about to find himself drawn into the mystery of the Incarnation.

The angel tells Joseph what he really needs to know -- that all this took place to fulfill Scripture. The last clause is phrased with exquisite care, literally, “the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

Auden does something else that Scripture does not. He has Joseph saying
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

We have all felt that way at one time or another. We want to know that the circumstances that are occurring are really God’s will and that God’s will is Love – with a capital “L.”

Now some things that happen do not seem to me to have any grounding at all in my understanding of God and God’s will. And I am not going to try to force them into that. Instead, this cry of Joseph as related by Auden reminds me of the desire of my heart, to confidently affirm deep in my soul Paul’s words that “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Even when I can’t see it and especially when I don’t believe it.

The angel’s response, as given by Auden, is as profound.
Gabriel:
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.


“No, you must believe. Be silent … and still.” Hard words to hear; harder to obey. Yet that is the essence of faith at times – you must believe. Not acquiesce, but believe. Faith, after all, is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, according to the writer of Hebrews. Sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Well, sometimes faith is stronger than at others. Still, if we desire to know that God’s will is Love, we must believe. We must trust – even when trust is impossible.

I would further suggest that the example of Joseph shows us that believing and being silent and still are actions of the inner life. They do not prohibit outward action. Joseph does not lock himself away in his carpenter’s shop. Instead he is a man of action – even if he is still in his soul. He marries the maid, they travel to Bethlehem, he leads Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safekeeping, and brings them home again when Herod’s threat is passed. There are no records of Joseph speaking anywhere in Scripture. He is a man of action, not words.

That is one of the lesson’s for us from the characters of Christmas – that our “yes” to God can be modeled on Joseph as well as any other Christmas character. He believes and acts, even when he’d rather have answers to his questions. He is silent and still in his soul.

May we be, at the season and through all of our lives, silent and still, even while we are busy living. May we be free to ask the questions that trouble our souls. May we be confident that God looks upon us with Love. May we be like Joseph – people of soulful action.

--Brent

Friday, December 14, 2007

Shepherds -- of Sheep and the Lamb: An Advent Meditation

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” That’s a passage we know so well that we can almost see these shepherds, huddled against the night’s cold, casting watchful eyes over their sheep. We have imbued them, these shepherds, with a sort of nobility that we don’t accord those considered the true royalty of that time, save the 3 kings from the Orient. Perhaps that is because they were the first to hear the news of the baby’s birth. And not by any ordinary means – no, by a host of angels.

Poet Beth Merizon also gives us some insight into why we honor these simple shepherds. I think it has to do with what is revealed in that last section of scripture: “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child…. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” They are the first, not just witnesses, but believers.

"Star Witness”

How could we be anything but true
believers –
We shepherds who heard the news
first-hand from heaven.

There stood that angel on the
grazing ground
Like a white fan,
Like a white blaze,
lighting the air all around;
Telling us the Promised One had come,
And where He was,
And what His destiny.

And then that great arc of angels
Singing a gloria.

We left our sheep that night
And found the Lamb.



The shepherds, by their readiness to seek out the babe in the manger and by their joy at seeing him and their faith and belief, are prototypes of all humble souls who seek the Savior.

They were unlikely heroes of faith, these shepherds. They weren’t the sort of men whom the general populace expected would receive angelic announcements. Those sorts of messages should have, by all human reckoning, gone to men like the three wise kings of the east. But no angels come to them. Instead they receive a star to guide them. God, perhaps as a way of showing that faith is best grounded in real life rather than much formal learning, sends the heavenly singers to the shepherds – men who consult no books, study the skies for nothing except clues for the weather, and have no social standing.

These men, huddled on the foresty hillsides of Palestine, warm beneath their ram skins, eyes vigilant, on guard against roaming wolves, were of low station. Shepherds of Jesus time were considered, by the general populace, generally untrustworthy (which makes Jesus’ later stories centering around the shepherd’s role in the life of faith all the more remarkable). Even worse, their work made them ceremonially unclean.

The idea of uncleanness is something we don’t know much about, but was an important part of Jewish life. The division between clean and unclean was fundamental for Israelites. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean (having offered the right sacrifices and been through the correct ceremonies), and morally clean. When people or things became unclean, they had to be washed to be considered clean again.

The shepherds were considered unclean because they had daily contact with carcasses of animals and came into contact, however incidental, with all sorts of unclean animals. Common unclean animals included spiders, flies, bugs, rats, and mice. A dead rat was not something to be overlooked. It was carefully taken out and buried. It’s a distinction we don’t think about today, but was strongly enforced in those days and had solid medical reasoning behind it, in the days before refrigeration and Orkin pest control.

So, surprisingly, when the angelic announcement arrives, it comes first to the social outcasts of Jesus’ day. These men are unclean and there is no mention of them stopping off to become clean before they make their trek to Jerusalem to see the new born babe. Which has further significance for us today. It tells us that we are called to God, in a paraphrase of the old gospel song, just as we are. The invitation to return to God’s good graces is the invitation to a “come as you are” party.

The shepherd’s coming, in their unclean state, is also a way of showing us that the faith he calls us to is not a list of purity rules and regulations. The old passed away, a new covenant was being given. We know that in Jesus’ time, sacrifice was required for the forgiveness of sin. Clean animals were sacrificed in a proscribed manner by priests made ritually clean. Only then were a person’s sins forgiven.

Now this idea of sacrifice is something that our modern nature rebels against – the idea that animals could be an atonement for human sins. And I don’t propose to understand or explain it. I am just reporting it. Regardless of our sensibilities, this is how it was done.

Until, that is, Jesus comes to give us a new way. That’s because Jesus comes as the new sacrifice. That’s what the gospels tell us. Jesus is called the Lamb of God over and over, beginning when John the Baptist (“John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”). This title emphasizes the redemptive character of the work of Christ. The Passover lamb represented redemption from sin. The substitutionary use of the unblemished lamb in this sacrifice foreshadows the idea of the Suffering Servant, who as a lamb dies in the place of sinners.

As Isaiah says,
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter…


In Jesus’ case, his sacrifice was not performed by consecrated priests in the temple, following an ordained ritual, but by Romans – Gentiles, men who were considered, at the time and by Jewish custom, to be unclean. This new sacrifice breaks all the old rules. And in doing so, brings forgiveness of sin to all people for all time.

The shepherds, who knew sheep as few other men did, left their “sheep that night and found the Lamb.” They were men who could recognize the Lamb of God as others could not.

And in their open and honest worship of the newborn king, they restored some of their social standing – earning the nobility we grace them with today. They also recover some of the honor that was King David’s – called as he was from shepherding a flock to shepherding a kingdom. And became the royal ancestor of the Messiah.

They also point the way that those of us who would follow the Lamb of God, must become like shepherds – exercising joyful caring in various ways to others.

They left their “sheep that night and found the Lamb.” May we, at this advent time, also embark on such a journey of spiritual discovery.

--Brent

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Armed Church: A Sign of the Gospel?

I was listening to Over the Rhine's haunting version of "Little Town of Bethlehem" ("Snow Angels" CD) and was particularly struck with the verses added by Linford


The lamplit streets of Bethlehem
We walk now through the night
There is no peace in Bethlehem
There is no peace in sight


The wounds of generations
Almost too deep to heal
Scar the timeworn miracle
And make it seem surreal


The baby in the manger
Grew to a man one day
And still we try to listen now
To what he had to say


Put up your swords forever
Forgive your enemies
Love your neighbor as yourself
Let your little children come to me

Then came the announcement of the shootings in Colorado this past Sunday. Besides the obvious tragedy of the events, it seemed another tragedy nestled deep within them and went largely unnoticed. Until, that is, my friend David Lott put words to it. He has graciously given me persmission to reprint his blogged thoughts below:

By anyone's measure, this past Sunday's shootings at the Youth with a Mission training center in Arvada, Colorado, and the New Life Church in Colorado Springs were horrifying, and the five deaths--including that of the shooter, Matthew Murray--tragic. Yet throughout the prevasive media coverage of this incident, one dimension of it has gone relatively unremarked upon in both mainstream and religious circles, at least here in Washington--the presence of armed security guards at New Life Church, one of whom shot Murray three times (It was later revealed that he actually died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound). Indeed, in their race to interview the guard, Jeanne Assam, and elevate her as a hero, most reporters have treated the presence of an armed security guard as normal in Christian churches. That Pastor Brady Boyd, New Life's senior minister, has a personal bodyguard, hasn't seemed to strike anyone as unusual.

I raise this point not as a lead-up for a polemic on gun control or to make moral judgments on the security guard herself. Even a pacifist such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably agree that Assam's actions were morally justified in their attempt to prevent a greater loss of life. But what would Bonhoeffer make of a church that employs its own security force, much less one that packs heat? This is not to say that churches have never had to seek special protection. Even Martin Luther had his protectors! Perhaps even the churches that Bonhoeffer knew had to be on guard against Nazi threats. I have little doubt that black churches in the South active in the civil rights movement had to take special measures to protect their congregations, as did many Islamic congregations after the 9/11 attacks.

Yet such security efforts seem historically to be attached to special circumstances where a real, often societal, danger has been identified to the church and/or its leaders. But the use of armed security personnel as a normal part of life at New Life Church and other megachurches (the 30,000-member Potter's House in Dallas reports having forty security staff) strikes me as a new, or at least unremarked-upon, phenomenon that raises significant issues for reflective people of faith. And the issues are not simply cultural, but also biblical and theological.

Even in the story of Jesus, we see a rejection of such defensive actions. In Matthew 26:51ff., we are told that when Jesus is arrested as he leaves the garden of Gethsemane, one of his followers "put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear." Jesus rebukes this man, saying, "Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish the sword." Jesus' disciples at this time were people still making a transition from a way of life that demanded such defensive measures; indeed, many undoubtedly came from less-than-savory, if not criminal, backgrounds. Given this, one can't help but imagine that Jesus would be at least somewhat dismayed by the presence of armed guards in a church setting.

I believe most American churchgoers would probably share such a sense of bewilderment. For most Christians, the idea of a hiring armed guards is not only unthinkable, but also offensive to their understanding of the antiviolent nature of the gospel message. Certainly, violence at churches is not all that uncommon, but in most cases it happens at churches that would never consider hiring security forces, even if they could afford to do so. In short, it's simply difficult for many of us not to think that a congregation which must resort to such measures has misplaced some dimension of its soul, or lost some of its vision of what it means to be called together and live as the body of Christ. The questions are unavoidable: Are these churches taking sensible and pragmatic measures in response to their circumstances? Or are they simply acceding to a violent culture rather than working to transform it and stand against it?

The pragmatic response carries an undeniably strong logic. Certainly, with the size of the offerings such worship centers bring in at each service, they could easily be targets for thieves looking for readily available cash. And as reporter Karl Vick noted in a recent Washington Post article, "the institiutions exist as clearinghouses for the kinds of personal strife that can spiral into conflict." In Lexington, Kentucky, I witnessed two megachurches in close proximity to each other who must use local police to manage the traffic in and out of their worship centers in ways that do not disrupt their neighborhoods or regular traffic. Indeed, as a person in Vick's article notes, "When you are dealing with a large congregation on a Sunday morning, it is like a small city."

Yet the cultural accession argument is at least equally strong. Where do we usually encounter armed security guards in our daily lives? At places like museums and monuments, in large office buildings, and at shopping malls. And indeed, that last location is exactly the form that many megachurches have come to replicate in their creating multibuilding campuses that feature not just worship space and educational facilities, but also gyms, coffee shops, bookstores, and other indigenous businesses. They have become spiritual lifestyle centers that mirror the consumerist centers that dominate our suburbs and are reviving our city centers by meeting the needs of their constituents (read: members). When one reaches a certain critical mass of stuff and property, finding ways to protect those belongings becomes paramount. And this kind of consumption has a way of feeding fear.

Yet it is not simply a materialist/consumerist ideology that is at issue, it is even more a matter of ecclesiology. Increasingly, today's parishioners and their leaders seem to understand the nature of the church as being a need-meeting place. One of my former colleagues used to assert that if a church wasn't meeting her needs, then she wasn't going to spend much time there. Such an attitude seems to pervade much contemporary thinking about churches, and shapes much church-oriented publishing as well. The needs of multiple constituencies all make demands on the congregation's programming, and a failure to meet even one of such needs becomes an automatic black mark on that church's perceived relevance. More classic understandings of the nature of the church, shaped more by theology than by culture, have come to be regarded as outmoded. Indeed, in my experience, talking about eccesiology with many congregational experts makes them extremely uneasy! If they don't embrace the need-meeting construction of the church, a sociological/psychological motif, such as that of family systems theory, becomes their ecclesiological substitute.

This is not to condemn out of hand any members of New Life Church or any other megachurch as being spiritually shallow materialists, ecclesiologically faulty, or focused only on self-need. Undoubtedly some powerful ministry comes out of many of these churches. But it's disheartening that many of these churches and their leaders seem to defend the pragmatic, cultural answer reflexively, without giving us any evidence of deeper reflection on the theological and church-cultural implications of reaching a point of growth where such security measures would become so necessary. Some will simply respond that the growing criminal nature of our society make such measures an unfortunate must. Yet when their church membership and attendance reached the point that hiring security forces became essential, did any of these leaders ever consider that other ways of managing such growth might be more theologically palatable than hiring armed guards? Has Brady Boyd, or his predecessor, Ted Haggard, ever considered that needing a personal bodyguard sends a message counter to what we hear in Matthew?

In the wake of these shootings, undoubtedly many congregations will be pondering what, if any, security measures they need to employ to keep their churches safe. Some will react out of fear, and take advantage of local gun laws that allow people to carry personal firearms, which they will in turn carry into their local sanctuaries. Others will reassert their convictions of the church as a place of open doors, of being a house of prayer for all peoples. This Sunday, churches across America will hear Isaiah's glorious vision of the ransomed of the Lord returning to Zion. Today we must ask ourselves, When these exiled get there, will they find the land open and accessible so that may rejoice in the blooming desert, obtain joy and gladness, and experience the flight of their sorrow and sadness? Or will they be greeted with the suspicion and fear that cooperation with violence breeds?
------------------
David B. Lott is editor of New Proclamation (Fortress Press) and online host for the Web site NewProclamation.com (subscription only), which features his weekly blog View from the Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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The article David refers to can be found at Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/11/AR2007121100784.html

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Holy Places" -- Brent's Newest Book

From the shameless self-promotion department -- Brent's newsest book, co-written with co-workers Nancy DeMott and Tim Shapiro, has just been released. It's title is Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message. It's important topic because buildings communicate. Stained glass windows, high altars, multi-purpose worship/gymnasium spaces, Plexiglas pulpits, padded pews—these and all other architectural elements say something about a congregation’s theology and mission. They point to a faith community’s beliefs about worship, identity, purpose, and more. From the stark simplicity of a Quaker meetinghouse to the splendor of a Romanesque Revival building, sacred spaces speak loudly. What they say can either reinforce a congregation’s mission or detract from it.

Our book is designed to be used by congregations who are involved in or are contemplating work on their facilities. This could include renovation, remodeling, expansion, or building. No matter how extensive the project, approaching the work with mission at the forefront is the key to having a final result that strengthens the congregation’s ministry.

Intended for leaders in a congregation’s facility project—from expert builders to novices—this book will help you create a reflective approach to your work, enable you to learn from one another, and make space for discerning God’s direction for your congregation. Each phase of the process—discern, decide, and do—consists of a series of questions that a congregation must address and assumes no particular level of prior knowledge about building issues. This effective process lets congregations begin where they are and provides the help they need to move to the next level.

********
Praise for the Book
“Have every member of your leadership team read Holy Places; it offers a clear and compelling guide to rethinking—not just rebuilding—your sacred place.” —Ron Wolfson, Author, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community, President, Synagogue 3000

“The authors describe the most common mistakes made during renovation and new construction—so your congregation doesn't have to make them! The chapters outline each step of the building process, so your congregation can have confidence in the outcome—a completed project that matches your mission” —Cynthia Woolever, Sociologist, U.S. Congregational Life Project

“Holy Places coaches you in the art of good communication by enhancing your discernment and decision-making skills. This book provides you with insight to help take advantage of one of your greatest resources: opportunity.” —Keith Crouch, AIA, NCARB, Church Architecture Resources

Check it out at Alban.org

-- Brent

Friday, December 07, 2007

The End of the Beginning -- Advent Thoughts

This is a good time to be alive. This is a terrible time to be alive. I mean, commerce is good, business is booming, international trade is strong. Prices aren’t all that bad. The mail gets there pretty well on time, except of course, for the occasional lost letter or during holiday times.
That’s to be expected.

There’s lots of types of entertainment to choose from – not at all like times past when there was just one or two things to do around town. There are many choices as to where and what to eat.

Physical fitness is all the rage. Everybody is health conscious – gyms are springing up everywhere. And it seems that there’s a spa in every other back yard. Spa’s – with warm water. Why some of us here remember the old days when good plumbing in a private residence was something a lot of people didn’t have.

Religious freedom is the rule rather than the exception, unlike our forefathers and some governments they lived under. That alone is something to be thankful for.

But there are problems as well. Crime is up again this year and the courts are back-logged, in spite of a generally well written and widely understood system of laws. Banking today, well, I hate to even go there, what with all the changes in interest rates and regulations that seem to change everyday. Banks are being bought and sold like so many bananas in the market. The things you have to do to get a loan or open an account. Your whole life has to become like an open book.

Then there’s the tax system. Taxes just keep going higher and higher and higher. It’s bad enough that you have to be them. You’d better do it just right or you end up having a little chat with one of their representatives. One of the last things you want to have happen to you is a visit from the tax man. I mean, we’ve all been hearing about the abuses of those guys lately. But I doubt that the government will really do anything about it.

And so many of the taxes go to support the military. The people in power seem to be increasingly buying into the sentiment that the poor will always be around and so it is up to religious organization, charitable groups and families to take of people in need. Meanwhile, the military gobble us more and more of the money and taxes keep going up.

All of this while the people running the country live high on the hog, feeding at the public trough in a city far away that many of them never leave, except for political posturing. Corruption is all around that place and the high living continues as tax rates rise.

At least many of our young men won’t serve in the military. They know our tradition and its regulations about fighting.

And some of the religious people today. Don’t get me started. Those people have turned our faith into a systems of do’s and don’ts. It’s hard enough to keep young people interested in the things of God without piling rule upon rule upon rule. I mean, not looking in a mirror on the Sabbath because you might see a gray hair and pull it out – as if that would really be working. And that’s only one of the more than two thousand rules of faith today. I mean, you have to be a scholar to remember them all, let alone understand what they mean.

And there are those blankety-blank Romans everywhere. Yes, yes, I know, compared to the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Persians and all the others who have ruled this country in the last several centuries, the Romans aren’t all that bad. At least, that’s what I hear, I’m not really old enough to remember all those other invaders. Yes, the Romans are generally benevolent if you mind your own business and don’t do anything they don’t like. But if you don’t, watch out. The road to Jerusalem is lined with crosses of those who crossed the Romans’ path. There they are hanging six feet off the ground, brave for an hour or so, until the pain of crucifixion begins to quickly sap the life from their pitiful, tortured bodies.

At least we don’t have to associate with them. That’s one of the few things they seem to understand. Our religious laws (thank God for that part of them) forbid us eating, playing or bowing down to their emperor with them. After some of the riots, they even know better than to carry their battle flags around, with all the pagan symbols on them.

Yes, it’s a good time to be alive. But it’s hard, too. I sure wish the rabbi was right about Jeremiah’s prophecy – the one he read in synagogue last Sabbath. “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring forth for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: The Lord is our righteousness.” I for one am ready for that day to come true. I think the whole nation of Israel, indeed, the whole world is. Change has to happen – and happen soon. I hope God does come quickly.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Deer Hunter

"He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD." -- Genesis 10:9

Yesterday morning, while getting dressed for work I looked out our bedroom window and spotted a large, brown animal about 1/3 mile away in the field next to our house. I couldn't make out what it was so called for Nancy to come. She couldn't see it clearly enough either and fetched the binoculars. Well, between our old binoculars and older eyes, we finally deduced that it was a deer that had been hit by a car or been shot and had fallen in the field. It was close to the ground, thrashing around, but clearly not standing up.

What to do? I decided to get out my rifle -- an old Marlin .22 that my dad gave me when I was 12 or so. In the 44 years since that gift, it's probably been fired 10 times (mostly at tin cans) and mostly 20+ years ago. For years it sat in the corner of our television room with an artificial flower stuck in the barrel. When we moved to the farm, I had it cleaned and put it in the corner of my closet.

Of course, a gun is no good without ammunition, so off I went to find my bullet. Yes, bullet. Singular. I only have one, making me, I guess, the Barney Fife of farmers. It was left over from the time I fired the rifle 20+ years ago and is usually in one of my dresser drawers or old cuff link boxes. As I searched for it I girded up my psychic loins so I could shoot this poor dear and put it out of its obvious misery. My physical loins had their own problems at that time -- the thought of actually killing a living being was wreaking havoc with my guts.

Thus armed -- an old man with an old gun and an old bullet (safe in my pants pocket), I set out. I asked Nancy if she wanted to go, but she hurriedly declined. I climbed in the car and started the drive out to the road closest to the downed deer. I knew I had one chance -- a shot to the head was required. Could I get close enough without it going wilder in pain and kicking me? Was it rabid? Was there even such a thing as a rabid deer?! That's when I noticed I had my work clothes on -- dress slacks, penny loafers, necktie. Quite the hunting outfit.

I pulled out on the road, found the spot where I thought the deer would be (there a slight risings and fallings that hide things even on our flat land), put on the hazards, grabbed my rifle and headed out. I couldn't see it at first. Had it moved? Was it writhing in pain? I spotted dark brown movement and went that way. After picking my way across the ditch, carefully since I was carrying a rifle (even though the bullet was safe in my pocket, I didn't want to trip and end up with the rifle barrel in my nose or something), I looked up and saw the deer. Except it wasn't. A deer, that is. It was brown and writhing. It was an extra large garbage bag. Snagged on a piece of corn stubble, it alternately filled and emptied as the wind whistled across the field, snapping it around. The piece of corn stalk was what I had mistaken through the binoculars for the deer's tail.

It being trash day, I snagged the garbage in one head, pointed my rifle downward, and headed back to the car. Back at home, I stuffed the deer/bag in with the rest of the refuse as Nancy asked, "And exactly how many shots did it take to put down the garbage bag?"

Quoth Bugs Bunny, "You poor little Nimrod."

-- Brent

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanks for a Bounty of People, Redux

This is the time of year that I love living in the Midwest -- more than summer, spring or winter, which each has its own charm. But fall has a particular beauty. The landscape is alive with wonderful color, and I don’t just mean the trees in places like Brown County. I mean the fields and woods that adorn the countryside.

The sunlight is softer at this time of year, which of course brings a chill to the air most of the time. 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 highways and backroads 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 feel a sense of connectedness with the land and that sense grows stronger every year. Yes, I was born and raised in the city and I often proclaimed the wonders of that existence compared to that of my country cousins when I was a kid. But the fact is I loved visiting the farms of our rural families’. And my father was, and still, is a tramper of fields and forests. We often were out and about.

That’s one reason I am happy about our new house. Just four years ago, the home site was a tangle of briars, thorn trees, and poison ivy all tangled in old fences. My two sons-in-law, my dad, and I began clearing all that out on Thanksgiving weekend, getting ready for building. We worked in the rain and mud and cold and snow. We cut, we sawed, we pulled bushes out with the tractor. I drove the tractor -- a first since I was about twenty, although now I own one. All through that work, I smelled the scents of farm and field – clumps of mud clinging to boots, wood smoke from burning limbs.

Then, as the house was being built, I’d hike back and work, watching the seasons move through – budding spring, humid summer. After we moved in, we enjoyed watching fall ebb and being safe and warm in winter’s blast.

I love living in the country now. And more than that, this move and 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.

God's faithfulness, to me, is evident in the changing seasons. Crops are planted, grown, and harvested. The soil rests over winter. Though the face of the earth changes, God does not. God watches over it all, and has for eons, and is faithful.

We question that. Sometimes when life is good, we imagine that it is good solely from the sweat of our brow or our own efforts. I cut those trees and mowed the field for the view – not God after all – forgetting that all I have comes by the grace of God in the first place.

Sometimes we question it, out of our troubles, like Job. We wonder if it is true and try to understand the mind of God. We would do well to remember the questions of God to Job – “Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone -- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

“What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? … Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail? What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth? … Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?”

“Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?”

God asked Job these questions because it was important for Job to remember that God was not his enemy as he was coming to believe. This encounter with the Lord was not to say why Job was suffering, but to learn, by faith, that God was his Creator, Sustainer, and Friend.
This is something we forget, but the Psalmist reminds us that the earth does not. “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;” the psalmist sings, “let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’ Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them! Then the trees of the forest will sing, they will sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Singing trees, jubilant fields – these things we take as poetic language. Things that don’t really happen. Or do they? Could it be that the golden light that transforms field trash into something of beauty is a way the fields are being jubilant, reflecting God’s light back to him? Could the graceful, waving naked limbs of trees be hands uplifted in praise to God? Maybe that’s all bit a mystical, yet we each could use a bit of the mystery in our lives, for true encounters with God are more than slightly mysterious.

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, singing “for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. 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 love a Thanksgiving poem by Max Coots that says:

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.
For children who are our second planting, and, though they grow like weeds and 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, as 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 as good for you;
For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;
For friends as unpretentious as cabbage, 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 throughout 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, and 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, 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.”

--Brent

Monday, November 19, 2007

Love Books? Then Consider Yourself Invited!

Once again I'll be participating in the Holiday Author Fair sponsored by the Indiana Historical Society.

Here's what the Historical Society says about it...

Book lovers, Hoosiers fans and holiday gift-givers come together for a one-of-a-kind annual event at the Indiana History Center , featuring more than 90 authors, photographers and illustrators . . . all with Indiana ties.

The fifth annual Holiday Author Fair, the largest gathering of its kind, features works of fiction, non-fiction, history, travel, children’s, gardening, poetry and more. Authors include inspirational authors BRENT BILL (okay I added that part of the "blurb"), Gloria Gaither and Phil Gulley, award-winning author James Alexander Thom, Hoosiers screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, local TV personality Dick Wolfsie and many more who will meet-and-greet and sign copies of their books for fans.


Click here for a complete list of authors attending this year's event.

The Indiana Historical Society is located at 450 West Ohio Street in Indianapolis.

I hope to see you there!
--Brent

Monday, November 12, 2007

Some Thoughts on Prayer

Prayer is an invitation to hear God’s voice in the still places of our lives. One of the things Quakers have long been known for is feeling that silence is good preparation for hearing God’s voice – sensing His leadings, knowing His will, and preparing to obey His call.

But our society values busy-ness, not stillness. Silence, we often think, means doing nothing. Thomas Merton challenges that thought. “The contemplative,” says Merton, “is not merely a man who likes to sit and think.” The purpose of contemplation, he continues, is “to entertain silence in my heart and listen for the voice of God.”

Prayer and listening to God’s voices have no point and no reality unless they are firmly rooted in life. Listening silences created by prayer are filled with God’s presence and wonder that lead us out into the world.

Merton reminds us, “Contemplation is … the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our being: for we ourselves are words of His.”

-- Brent

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Resting In the Everlasting Arms?

“True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” That’s what William Penn said centuries ago. Many Americans think that the picture on the Quaker Oats box is a portrait of William Penn, for whom Pennsylvania was named. Except it’s not and it wasn’t. Pennsylvania was named for William’s father and nobody know who the man on the oats box is.

William Penn was one of the first Friends. There are times that I think that he wrote the above quotation after seeing Friends snoring softly in Meeting. If, so, he’s not the only one. Benjamin Franklin (who many people think was a Quaker because he dressed funny) writes about this happening on his first visit to Philadelphia. “…[I] walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean-dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meeting-house of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro’ labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.”

In spite of that occurrence, which was not unique to Franklin, Penn probably had Jesus’ statement in mind – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Who among us – mother, father, co-worker, boss – is not weary and burdened? Whose soul doesn’t need nourishment and refreshment? Words and phrases like burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, stressed out, fill our conversations. Silence invites us to rest in God’s loving care, a loving care so restful that some fall asleep.

Need some rest?

-- Brent

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Of Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Butts

Ah, Fall has fallen and the season of serious butt-patting by men has begun. I noticed that the other evening whilst watching the World Serious (as my Dad used to call it) and Ohio State Football simultaneously with my friend Lil. At the end of every good play, some guy's tush got touched -- often multiple times.

I know this is a sports phenomenon, but I still find it interesting (though I participate in it little since I'm too old for most contact or semi-contact sports and golf is not a butt patting sort of game -- "Great birdie" pat, pat). I mean, here we are in the good old US of A, still one of the most homophobic places around (other than Iran, where they don't have any gay people -- alive!) and our television screens from now until, well, forever, since it never stops, are filled with posterior patting professional athletes. It's just that autumn seems to be high season of heiny hugging as baseball, football, and basketball are all in full swing -- or pat.

This is not something that you see outside of sports. My boss does not tap my tush when I write a great grant report and I don't low-five the guy who changes my oil. To do so, would probably result in my personal oil being changed by a slap up the side of the head. And yet, it is completely natural -- expected even -- in sports.

What makes it even more remarkable is that football and baseball, especially, are dominated by Evangelical chapel services and chaplains. These players are not, for the most part, members of the United Church of Christ (open and affirming) or any other more mainline or liberal faith. Rather they tend to be pretty conservative and yet go around bopping each other's bippies like there's no tomorrow.

And even those of us who don't play any more, spend hours watching hot, sweaty men straining in tight uniforms and then pressing the posterior flesh. What is that about?!

I don't have any great thoughts on this -- just wonderment that the last hold out of acceptable homo-eroticism seems to be college and major league sports.

Excuse me, I have to adjust my jock strap and get ready for the next game.

--Brent

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Word Born in Silence -- A Writer's Meditation

Pierre Lacout once wrote that “The word born of silence must be received in silence.”

“The word born of silence…” While there probably as many writing techniques as there are writers, this is probably the one thing that most writers share – our words are born in silence. I know mine are. This silence is not a pure absence of sound. Depending on our style and circumstances we may be surrounded by music, the hum of traffic, children playing in another room, the roaring drone of a tractor (for me), or any other of the myriad sounds that go on around us and remind us of our connection to the great human experience.

What I am talking about is the silent, holy hush of dedicated writing time.

Whilst I think about my writing all the time, the time I put aside for intentionally paying attention to it in love results in words that speak to my soul and hopefully the soul of whoever who reads my writing. I think that’s because when we grow silent and still, we connect with the deepest parts of ourselves – and those are the parts that speak to others. As Thomas Kelly said, in relation to the spiritual life, “Deep calls to deep.” I believe that is true to the writing life, too – our deep calls to our readers’ deeps; our silence to their silences.

In the silence and stillness we also reconnect with God, a connection that we do not have when we rush. As the poet Kilian McDonnell says, “Swift Lord, you are not.” The things of the Spirit are not found in speediness and production. We slow ourselves to hear what it is that we are being given to write. We then begin the careful work with word, granted, as we are, the charge and task of sharing it with those who seek communion with the eternal. Our words, in that sense, become sacramental, a means of grace. While that may seem a bit strong – especially coming from a Quaker-type, a member of the tribe that eschews outward observances of anything even slightly of sacramentalism – I stand by those words. Indeed, I do believe that our writing, if the intent is true spiritual writing, is a means of grace. I find good company in that feeling in the work of Leland Rykins, of Wheaton College. Rykins once wrote that, “A means of grace, as I use the phrase, is anything in our lives by which God makes his truth and beauty known to us, and correspondingly anything in our lives by which God's presence becomes a reality to us.”

And so, at table, desk, laptop, or whatever we slowly craft the words that will hopefully help God’s presence become a reality to our readers. Our words, born of silence will be received in the silence of the reader’s soul. They are the gift we give from the gift given to us. An offering, if you will, of soul to soul, spirit to spirit from the Spirit who spoke all creation into being with a Word. A word that is alive and vibrant in us today, in souls that recognize that word even when our oh so rational minds do not. We then – writer and reader alike – experience what William Stafford did when he met his muse --

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off--they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. "I am your own
way of looking at things," she said. "When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation." And I took her hand.

The word born of silence and received in silence is a sort of salvation. Let us take the hand of silence now.

--Brent

Monday, October 22, 2007

Quaker Thought for the Day

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.

This guiding hand resting lightly upon us is best felt when we are silent and still.

--Brent

Friday, October 19, 2007

A New Quaker Sunday School Curriculum?

While cleaning out my desk today, I found the following. It is, as I recall, a memo that was circulated around on of the Friends publishing houses (the name has been whited out) for a possible new set of First Day School lessons aimed at attracting younger members.



CONFIDENTIAL

Memorandum – Friends XXXXXXXXX
To: XXXXXXXXXX, Friends XXXXXXXXXXX
From: XXXXXXXXXX, General Secretary
Date: October 19, 2005
Re: New Quaker Curriculum


Thought I’d let you know that your idea to piggy-back a young Friends curriculum on the re-release of the Star Wars Trilogy was a good one and that I’ve done some work on it, too. It’s obvious that we need to do something to attract young people to Sunday school and that they are media-saturated. How about calling it “Fox Wars” and doing it in three parts also (again, modeling the “Star Wars” theme). We could base the curriculum on the early years of Quakerism (by far the most exciting). Part One could be “A Primitive Hope Revived,” followed by “The Puritans Strike Back.” The final part might be “Return of the Quietists.”

Of course some liberties will have to be taken to bring the story up-to-date and make it more appealing to young people. How about instead of George Fox, we have Luke Leatherbritches? William Penn could become Wm. Penn-Kenobi. James Nayler’s new name would be I.M. Solo. Solo’s occasional side-kick could be Chewnotobacco (consistent with one of our testimonies). Wm. Penn-Kenobi could instruct Luke in the use of his “Inner Light Saber” and wear it as long as he can. Dark Evader might be a name for the Oliver Cromwell figure, a one time supporter of the rebel seekers, but now determined to crush them.

We could also possibly turn this into a video series. George Lucas has expressed some interest in seeing a script and Brad Pitt would like to play Luke. Keep me informed of your progress.

Hmmm. Wonder if it ever took flight?
-- Brent

Friday, October 12, 2007

I'll Take the Fish

If you're a fan of quirky movies, check out "I'm Reed Fish." The plot sounds pretty simple -- small town radio dj's Reed Fish's life becomes chaotic when a girl he had a crush on in high school comes back to town three weeks before his marriage to thre richest, prettiest, and queen of car sales in town. Katey Sagal stars as the astrology spouting mayor and DJ Qualls as a convenience store manager who's a cousin of Reed's highschool flame (and a madly in love wack-job).

Schuyler Fisk plays the highschool sweetie Jill -- or does she? That's about all I can say without giving away what makes this such a fun little film. Fisk's music is also good -- and the soundtrack's lots of fun, too (one of my few downloads from i-tunes).

Check it out -- not deep, but fun.

--Brent

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sow in Peace

“I believe there is more thought and attention given to the cause of peace today, both in this country and Europe, than at any former period. … I think we may reasonably hope that this is the beginning of a new era in the history of the world.”

Those are the words of Daniel Hill, secretary of Peace Association of Friends in America in his 1872 annual report to the yearly meetings. Human activity in the years to follow proved him right, though not in the way he meant. The world was about to embark on a new era — one of mechanized death and wholesale slaughter of civilians on a scale that no one in 1872 could imagine. The numbers of wars and rumors of wars is hard to fathom even today.

Which gives a Quaker pause. What is the worth of working for peace if, after doing so for 350 plus years (in the case of the Quakers), it has made no difference in the world?

Or has it? When somebody asked Winston Churchill how he could be such an evil man and still say that his faith was important, Churchill is reported to have replied, “Madam, imagine how awful I should be were I not a Christian.” Indeed, that might be a point for us to consider — how awful might the world be if we, in the face of seeming futility, did not proclaim and work for the way of peace?

The Quakers have always held that the way of peace was an integral part of Christian faith and could not be separated from the heart of the gospel. As Robert Barclay said “Whoever can reconcile ‘Resist not evil,’ with ‘Resist violence by force,’ … and ‘Love thine enemies’ with ‘Spoil them, make a prey of them, pursue them with fire and the sword,’… may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the Devil, Christ with Antichrist, … and good with evil.”

Strong words to back a strong conviction. Why then, should people of faith work for peace today? Ron Mock, Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at George Fox College, once wrote three essential teachings which are the basis for working for peace today:
1) the belief that we are intended by God to have an eternal loving relationship, even with our enemies
2) the belief that forgiveness is even more central to relationships than is justice of revenge
3) the belief that an omnipotent and loving God will always, without exception, provide a way to give
everyone means to meet their needs, if we can only find it and follow it.


These are all teachings which call for action. We are called to be active in the cause of peace. Jesus does not call us to passivity. Jesus does not say “Blessed are the pacifists.” Instead He says “Blessed are the peace-makers.” Peace-making is action — love in action.

The way of love as a way of life, the way of the peace-maker, finds its foundation ultimately in trusting God and to remember, in the words from the 1959 edition of Christian Faith and Practice, “that God is not alone the God of things as they are but the God of things as they are meant to be.”

If we are children of the God of things as they are meant to be, and followers and friends of Jesus, then we must ask the Spirit for power to live lives of peace and to work for peace. We must try what Love will do in the assurance that if we do we will find greater peace in our lives, neighborhoods and world. And the hope contained in Daniel Hill’s words may finally be realized.
--Brent

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Pilgrim Life

Early Quaker mystic Isaac Penington wrote:

Know what it is that is to walk in the path of life … It is that which groans, and which mourns; that which is begotten of God in thee. … The true knowledge of the way, with the walking in the way, is reserved for God’s child, for God’s traveller. Therefore … be no more than God hath made thee. Give over thine own willing; … and, sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart and let that grow in thee.

I love the idea that, as Pennington says, “The true knowledge of the way, with the walking in the way, is reserved for God’s child, for God’s traveller.” As I look at my life, I see one of motion. Though firmly rooted in the Midwest, as an adult I’ve lived in sixteen houses in two states, held fifteen full or part time jobs, and owned way too many cars. My life is one of various – careers, family, spiritual, and other changes. They all fit well with the concept of way opening. Way opens implies motion; a moving along life’s pilgrim way. What a winsome discovery.

--Brent

Friday, October 05, 2007

Quaker Thought for the Day

Isolation of spirit ... comes to most - perhaps all of us - at one time or another. There are times in our lives when the tides of faith seem far out, times of dryness, times when we do not feel the comfort and guidance of God’s hand. … within, we feel the agonies of isolation and the longing for light to lighten our darkness. I can think with thankfulness of Friends who have brought light to my darkness - perhaps a single sentence, a friendly letter, a walk on the downs: their help was perhaps given unconsciously, but it was because they were sensitive to God’s leadings that they were able to do it. Do we seek to be the channels of God’s love and caring? ‘Caring matters most.’

-- Edward Milligan

quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice: Second Edition (London: The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I wonder....

What do you call a woman who goes on television dressed like a sluttier version of Britney Spears, spewing venom about anybody she disagrees with, confusing being a smart-ass with being funny, and spouting things completely against Jesus' message?

A "conservative Christian." At least that's what Ann Coulter said about herself yesterday on "The Today Show."

True conservative Christians like Billy Graham must be so proud.

-- Brent

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Sacred Compass

Compass. As a kid the very word conjured images of treks across trackless wastes, blazing trails through primeval forests, and other adventures unavailable to city boys. I didn't need a compass in a city composed of north-south avenues and east-west streets. One block north, two blocks west, two more blocks north and I was at my grandparents. Simple. Straight. No adventure.

"Compass" still hold an aura of mystery for me today in this time of GPS and turn by turn directions issuing out of my car's stereo speakers. It still implies a journey where no navigation DVD has gone and no satellites peer. And while there are few of those in my business life, they abound in my spiritual life.

Unlike GPS and other wonders of modern direction finding, a compass does not give us step by step steps to our destination. It does, though, no matter what direction we turn, always point us to true north -- a destination most of us (unless we're named Amundsen, Byrd, Peary, or Henson) never reach in this lifetime. This is a metaphor for our spiritual lives and the work of discerning God's will for them. There are many times I wish God would speak as clearly and as obviously as Mapquest or GoogleMaps. But the life of faith is not that way. Instead our sacred compass points us to our spiritual true north -- the mind and love of God -- and asks us to travel by faith and use the various maps we've been given. Things like spiritual friends, the Bible, prayer, and other faith practices. Our sacred compass is that which is embedded in our souls that calls us to life with God -- life abundant and adventurous, even during those times we wish it was less so.

-- Brent


Friday, September 21, 2007

Haven Kimmel & Brent -- Together -- Live

Yep, that's right, the girl named Zippy and I will be doing a gig together -- sort of, kind of... We're both presenters at Earlham School of Religion's annual Ministry of Writing Colloquium in lovely Richmond, IN (10 miles from any known sin). She's the headliner and I'm doing a couple of workshops. So about the closest we'll be together is when she's speaking and I'm sitting in the audience ... or at the booksigning when I ask her to sign a copy of The Used World, her newest novel.

Besides Haven and me, there are other really good presenters -- Lil Copan of Paraclete Press, poet Maurice Manning, Old Testament scholar and humorist (some combination, eh!?) Howard Macy, and others. You can download a copy of the registration form for this October 26-27 event at http://esr.earlham.edu/events/writersColloquium/esr_colloquium_07REF.pdf

It's a great time of hanging around with other writer types, making connections and meeting new friends. A good time will be had by writers and readers. Plan now to attend and besides hearing Haven's great prose, you'll get to hear me read my short story "A Trip to Amity." Why would you want to miss that?!

Hope to see you in Richmond!
-- Brent

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Sign from God

“Let's Meet At My House Sunday Before The Game.” – God. So said the white letters on a black background on a billboard. Some co-workers and I noticed it on a recent road trip to Evansville via a route not exactly known for it’s scenic opportunities. US 41 is long stretches of boring four-lane with only billboards and a few small towns to look at for any kind of conversational stimulation.

So the billboard got conversation going. “Like God would really speak in billboards,” scoffed Nancy A (so called to distinguish her from my wife Nancy B(ill)). At least, I pointed out, this message was fairly benign. Welcoming even. Unlike others we began to spot – the ten commandments painted in stark black on the side of a building, a sign warning “Turn or Burn” with burning red letters, and worse.

It turns out that the “God Speaks” ads were created by the Smith Agency in Florida which won awards for their campaign. Targeted at people who no longer attend church on a regular basis, there were eventually the campaign went nationwide and developed seventeen messages including, “C'mon Over And Bring The Kids,” “What Part of "Thou Shalt Not..." Didn't You Understand,” and “Loved The Wedding, Invite Me To The Marriage.”

For all our poking fun at these and other signs, a thought came to me – there are many times I wish God would speak to me as clearly and as obviously as on the billboards. But the life of faith is not that way. God, in my experience, is much more subtle. To discern God's direction, I have to pay quiet, close, loving, attention to the people, places, and things around me.

That’s what Elijah discovered. Here’s a fellow you would think would have pretty good spiritual ears. After all, he had a big showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah triumphed, and the idolaters lost -- their lives. Then Queen Jezebel sent an un-thank you note to Elijah saying, “You killed my prophets. I’ll kill you.” Elijah’s spiritual zeal evaporated and he got out of town, praying as he went, “God, I’ve had enough. Take my life.” God does not oblige.

Instead God tells him: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (see 1 Kings 19)

God’s whisper is so deep and so holy that it may appear to be sheer silence – unless we pay heartfelt attention.

--Brent
PS The above church sign is not real -- I computer generated myself. Still... I wouldn't mind seeing a sign or two like that!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Judgment Day, II

Once again, heading to Meeting on Sunday morning, Garrison Keillor spoke to my condition. Especially after the discussion with the ATV'ers (see the earlier post, if you're interested).

This time it was via a skit brought to listeners by the Ketchup Advisory Board. Jim and Barb are talking and she's fretting and she says, "Well, anyway I was just sitting here thinking, what if I die right now, and I get up to heaven, or wherever it is I'm going, and God wants a report, huh? Like, what have you been doing all this time down there?"

I flashed back to the ATV'ers and our conversation. Then she says, "I wouldn't know what to say, Jim. What-I got up and did the laundry, and grocery shopping and then came home and took a nap? I mean, that's not what God wants to hear, does he? ... I mean, where is all my charity work? I never volunteered at a hospital, or adopted a strip of highway-I mean, I couldn't even take in that stray raccoon who wandered into the garage?"

Me, neither, I thought. And while Nancy and I laughed as the skit unwound and became more absurd, after I reached Meeting, plopped in the pew, sang a couple of hymns, and then settled into the silence, I thought, "Yes, that is what God wants to hear, doesn't he?" "How'd you do?"

"Oh," comes my reply, "some good, some bad. Some outstanding, some quotidian."

"Well, done, thou good trying and faithful as best you can be servant."
Maybe I do need some ketchup. Maybe then Judgment Day wouldn't seem so fearful.
--Brent



Judgment Day

I had just finished putting away the big mower when I heard the abominable sound -- ATV's heading down the creek. As I rushed to the hillside and looked down, I witnessed them blowing by all my "Posted! No Trespassing" signs. Angry, not an emotion I'm proud to admit, I shook with rage as I scooted and slipped down the hill, over the steep bank, and into the creek, alternately waving my arms to get their attention and reaching behind me to make sure I didn't somersault into the creek and drown. To no avail -- well, except for the somersaulting part. I tramped up the creek, following their tracks across the sand bars and rock piles exposed by the unrainy summer. They had neatly skirted each sign. I was as steamy as the Indiana weather. I tracked them for a while, but an old, tired Quaker trudging through sand and stream in cowboy boots was no match for this unholy trinity of four-wheelers. I gave up and turned back.

Climbing the bank through the weeds, headed for the cleared trail, I heard them returning. I ran back to the tracks. The first guy blew right by me. I spread my legs, waved my hands, and the second guy stopped. "Is there a problem?" he asked. "Yes," I said. "You're on private land." "Didn't know that he mumbled." I pointed to the sign -- "Guess I didn't see it," sheepish. The third rider pulled up. "What's the problem?" I repeated, heatedly, the problem -- and pointed out the signs up and down the creek. "Calm down, man," he said. "You're way too excited." That didn't calm me down. I went on about the ten signs that were posted and that I wasn't buying that they didn't see them, since their tracks swerved around the signs. Then he started shouting that there was no need for me to talking to them like they were a bunch of "little kids" -- with a few interesting adjectives inserted. He began using one of those adjectives, as the conversation continued, as both a noun and a verb -- and he and his friend roared off, running over my foot, and throwing gravel.

It was not one of my finest moments. I knew it even as I stood there fuming. It's not that I didn't feel like yelling -- I did. And, even though I was within my property rights -- and trying to protect the creek bed and all the critters that live along and within it -- I sure didn't handle things right. I remembered the early Friends declaration to the king of England that:

"Our principle is, and our practices have always been, to seek peace and ensue it; to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God; seeking the good and welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of all."

Well, I wasn't in the least "doing that which tends to the peace of all." And my own words -- though they did lack that word which above all words can be used in a variety of ways -- condemned me. Yes, I did talk to them like children -- the third guy was right. The scolding voice, whilst it did lead them to vacate the premises, condemned me for my trespasses much more than it did them for their trespass.

After standing and staring down the creek for awhile, I made my way up to the woods and toward the house. Nancy came running down the trail, alarm on her face. "I heard ATV's -- and shouting. I was scared." Still shaking, with embarrassment instead of rage, I told her what happened. She said I was being too hard on myself. They were wrong. I was within my rights -- and protecting the deer, bald eagles, snakes (ick!), et al who had no voice. Perhaps. Perhaps not. All I could think was, here I am a Quaker who professes peace and what kind of witness for Jesus did I make to these guys? Again, I thought about the early Quakers' words:

"O, Friends! offend not the Lord and his little ones, neither afflict his people; but consider and be moderate. Do not run on hastily, but consider mercy, justice, and judgment; that is the way for you to prosper, and obtain favor of the Lord."

Would that I had remembered them sooner, walked the creek in silence, and approached the three with the concern for the earth and her inhabitants that I held as the reason for my rage. May God -- and the riders -- forgive.
-- Brent

Monday, August 13, 2007

Open Source Religious Publishing -- The New Movable Type?

I attended a gathering about open-source (sometimes known as crowd-sourcing) publishing this past weekend in Ann Arbor, MI. It was convened by David Crumm who is the lead religion writer of the Detroit Free Press. David, and a group of like-minded folks, have had a web presence titled Spirit Scholars for about a year -- you can visit it at http://www.spiritscholars.com/ That effort led them to arrange a gathering last Saturday of publishers (Zondervan, Paraclete, Skylight Paths, and others), writers, web folks, and others (around 65 total) to talk about new ways to connect in a post-modern world where newspapers are dropping their religion specific coverage (i.e. the Dallas Morning News, once one of the leaders in this area now has no specific religion department) and book review sections (or farming them out to AP wire reviews, etc).

Some things that we found out (though they aren't, upon reflection, all that surprising) are that readership of Google News now surpasses the readership of the New York Times and USA Today combined. And that YouTube viewership far surpasses Google News. Beliefnet, according the statistics presented Saturday, has a declining number of viewers and the same is true for the online version of Christianity Today and Gospel.com. Publishers' websites do not seem to be losing ground -- but they're not gaining much either. The top religious sites are by Muslims (4 in the top ten), the LDS (Mormons), and Bible Gateway.

David and his cohorts are going to be setting up a new way for readers and writers to connect called Read The Spirit (visit it at http://www.readthespirit.com/). The event Saturday outlined their vision for this site and the connections and explored 10 principles behind this movement. Since the 10 are available on their website, I won't enumerate them here, other than the first one, which I thought was intriguing -- "It's about the VOICE, not the book..."

One thing their site will do that I find exciting is electronically publish Top Ten lists -- for example, their recommendations of the top ten spirituality books, the top ten inspirational books, etc. There will also be moderated discussion pages about the books.

All of this is, as I understood from the presentation, geared toward cutting through the clutter surrounding getting spiritual wisdom to people.

I had some questions, of course -- coming from my almost always skeptical little brain. And one was -- so, what? So what that You Tube outdraws the New York Times? What is the implication for us as writers and readers? I don't know what other people go to You Tube for, but I know in my case it's usually for silliness such as Will Ferrell parodying George W Bush and the like. I don't go there for book reviews or serious reflective pieces. Not that they aren't there -- it's just that I don't use You Tube for those things and I would like to know who does and how many of them are there? Is this an area writers and publishers ought to be using -- and if so, how do we do it?

Also, if places like Beliefnet.com are in decline, do we know why, considering we hear much about the hunger for spirituality and links to religion in this rather rootless age? What sites are growing and why? What can we, who write so that people will read what we have to say, do to get our words out to people outside of the "traditional" means? I was hoping for more of this sort of thing -- practical advice or thoughtful reflection on these questions -- from the gathering.

Crumm, et al see this new venture as the 21st century version of movable type. That's an intriguing idea and Read the Spirit will be something to watch.
--Brent

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"I Know Ohio ...

... like the back of my hand." So sang "Over The Rhine" last Saturday evening in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I wasn't surprised. I had asked if they might as we had breakfast together at the Glen that morning. As fellow Buckeye natives and Malone College alums (I attended there one year), I was happy to make their formal acquaintance at this arts and faith festival sponsored by Image. Still, I was surprised at how affected I was by "Ohio" -- my eyes teared up and I was nineteen again and back in my home state. I wasn't the only one affected by the haunting rendition of one of the band's signature songs. The room of 200+ was still as the last note from Karin's piano hung and hummed in the high desert air.

Over The Rhine, in case you don't know, is the songwriting-singing-playing duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. Though they've been around for fifteen years, I first encountered them through their release of the 2 CD set "Ohio." Yes, I'm a sucker for anything Buckeye related (though I've lived in Hoosierland longer than I did in Ohio), but I found this a simply stunning set of CDs. “... a deeply moving, maddening, and redemptive work of art, and necessary, ambitious pop,” All Music Guide’s Thom Jurek called it in a 4.5-star review. And I've bought everything released since and many from before (including Linford's solo piano efforts).

If you're a fan of literate lyrics, moving melodies, and heartfelt harmonies, you'll want to check out "Over the Rhine." Their new album, "The Trumpet Child," is set for release on August 21. Don't miss it.
-- Brent

More from "The Glen" in future posts...

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Poem... Sort of

"Friend,
I would not harm thee
for the world
but thee is standing
where I am about to
shoot," says the Friendly
farmer in the old Quaker
joke. Today's joke
is, harm or no, that
the world is standing
where we are
shooting,
Friend.

-- Brent Bill

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More on As Way Opens

As I wrote on my other blog (friendsinfellowship.blogspot.com), Nancy and I hosted the second gathering of our new worship sharing group last Sunday evening. Much of our talk centered around the topic of spiritual discernment. Besides the personal searching of this topic, it's also of interest because I'm writing a book on the topic.

We spent time talking about how you know a leading is from God -- and not your own ego. Are the voices we hear from the Divine or from Legion inside us? And why are we so fearful at times that we distrust our leadings -- testing them over and over again, afraid to act. One Friend suggested that it was time to put away false modesty and lay claim boldly to the leadings God gives us. To say, ala' Luther, I guess, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

We also talked about whether leadings were always personally rewarding -- or could a true leading take us to dangerous places emotionally or soulfully. As we talked about that I thought of what writer/theologian Frederick Buechner says, “The vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet -- something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s dictum that “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Perhaps both overstate sides of leadings. Or perhaps both are true -- ultimately. Perhaps the idea that we are called to die somehow leads us into deep happiness -- as we die to self and live for God.

One of the few things I do know (how's that for boldly proclaiming a leading!) is that discernment is a lifelong process. And as one Friend mentioned the other night, it takes the ability to long backward over life more than it does to look forward. In the case of spiritual discernment, hindsight being twenty-twenty is a very good thing.
-- Brent Bill