Monday, March 09, 2009

Pure-It-Tree or Orchard or Garden: A Parable

"I've been thinking, Jesus, of trying my hand at parables." So said the follower who thought himself one of the few true apostles and very wise and close to understanding everything Jesus said. Jesus sighed and settled himself on the most comfortable rock around. His hopes were not high.

"The kingdom of God is like a fruit tree," said the would-be parablist. "The only one of its kind, it grows straight and true. It produces one kind of fruit -- uniform in texture, appearance, color, and taste. And it must be pruned hourly lest any unsightly, un-uniform fruit appear."

He smiled at the wisdom of his parable.

Jesus thought for a moment and then asked. "So the kingdom of God is like a fruit tree? Singular."

"Yes," replied the would-be disciple.

"Then how does it produce fruit? Can a solitary tree produce fruit?"

"Hmmm, I hadn't thought of it quite that way before," said the story-teller. "Okay, let me try again. The kingdom of God is like an orchard with only one kind of tree. The trees all grow straight and true and produce one kind of fruit -- uniform in texture, appearance, color and taste. And they must be pruned hourly lest any unsightly, un-uniform fruit appear." He smiled again. Thanks to his deep understanding of what Jesus was getting at, he knew he had come up with a great parable.

"One kind of fruit, eh?" asked Jesus.

"Indeed. All alike in every regard."

"Which fruit is it?"

"Ah, I'm not sure I get your meaning, Jesus. Fruit -- it's just a metaphor."

"That's not what the apostle Paul says. As I recall, my friend Paul said that there were all kinds of fruits of the kingdom -- 'But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' "

"And," continued Jesus, "I don't think God created an orchard. As I recall, it was a garden, somewhere over east of Eden. 'And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.' Perhaps your parable needs a bit of work."

The parablist said, "Nope, I think it works pretty well as it is. And I think somebody needs to get work pruning -- I've been discerning some unsightly and un-uniform fruit popping up. Fruit that doesn't suit my taste, I mean the criteria, as I understand it, for what is good fruit and what isn't."

Jesus sighed. Loudly this time. He hauled himself up off the rock and climbed back on the cross.
-- Brent

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Association of Bad Friends

"So you're a Quaker?" I get that question a lot since I travel a good bit schlepping my books. People always seem a bit intrigued -- as if surprised any of us still exist. I usually answer, "Yes, a bad Quaker." Eyebrows generally raise at that. Then I go on to explain that, though I have been a member of the Religious Society of Friends all my life, I'm just not very good at being a Quaker. I find that I frequently fail to live up to the ideals of our Religious Society -- I'm not always peaceable, humble, truthful, ... well that's enough confession. While confession might be good for the soul, too much is enough to send a depressive like me into an emotional tailspin. But now you know why I say I am a "bad Quaker."

I have been comforted to find that I'm not the only one. Indeed, there are a number of us out there. Not that I'm going to name any. As I've discovered in my 58 years of Friendship, those who some people consider bad Quakers are often quite good Friends and some quite bad Friends are considered good Quakers.

So, other than obvious exceptions (like John Dillinger above), I think "bad Quaker" needs to be a form of self-nomination. One has to name one's-own-self a bad Quaker -- no one else can do it for thee.

I was thinking about this for lots of reasons (for one, there's a good deal of talk around these parts of Indiana about who's a good Quaker -- as defined by a certain Yearly Meeting's book of Faith and Practice -- and who's not), but mostly because one of my favorite self-named "bad Quakers" by the name of Jacob Stone sent me an email containing the following questions -- "Should we form the Association of Bad Friends??? Or Rogue Quakers of America???"

Whilst RQA has a certain ring to it (and slightly parallels the RSF), I think I'd go with the Association of Bad Friends (ABF). I've never thought of myself as a rogue -- I do like to heckle the herd from within, not lead it off into a new direction. And I think "of America" is a little too parochial. There are bad Quakers across the globe, aren't there?

So, I am hereby feeling led to begin the first local chapter of the here-to-fore non-existent Association of Bad Friends. You can only self-nominate. If you'd like to join, just reply to this blog or send me an email at

Non-Friends are eligible to join the Friends of the Association of Bad Friends (FABF) -- so long as they would consider themselves bad Friends were they actually Quakers.

I'll be designing membership cards shortly.

-- Brent

P.S. As Jacob also noted -- "When I think about being a recalcitrant Quaker I am always reminded of a line from Rumi's poetry: 'Your sweet blasphemy is the truest devotion.'" Indeed.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Discerning Questions

I just returned from Memphis, Tennessee where I was presenting a series of workshops on "The Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment" at the Baptist College of Health Sciences. BCHS has about 900 students and focuses on undergraduate health care education. Karen Smith, the Director of Campus Ministries, did a wonderful job putting the program together and she and the students, faculty, and staff made me feel very welcome.

I ended each session by offering a "Query" for the students and staff to ponder -- based on the Quaker tradition of using questions for reflection and as spiritual exercises. The final session was titled "Discerning Questions" and I offered a whole host of queries that they could use as part of their discernment processes. And I offered them the opportunity to ask questions of me about spiritual discernment. Now, by and large, they were a pretty quiet group (I joked a time or two that I had done the impossible -- turned Baptists into Quakers -- that's how silent they were), so during the "Discerning Questions" session, I asked them to write their questions, which I would then try to answer. I hoped to get one or two really good ones and end our time together by answering things close to their hearts and souls.

I got more than one or two. And the time ran out before I could answer more than one or two. I didn't get a chance to read them all until after I got home, but when I did, I decided they were too good not to share. So here they are -- no answers, just the questions (well, most of them -- there were a couple along the lines of "Is it God's will for the Memphis Tigers to have a #1 seed in the NCAA basketball tourney?" That's just silly -- everyone knows God is Buckeye's fan).

The questions:
  • What do you think is the most important tool or tools to carry with you on your journey through life toward God's will?
  • In my prayers I include "Let God's will be done," but how do I know it's God's will?
  • What is God's will?
  • What should you do if you feel called to do more than one thing, or maybe many things. Okay, maybe so many things you don't know how you will do them all in a life span?
  • What is spiritual discernment?
  • Is it wrong to ask for a sign from God?
  • How, after make so many journeys that have failed, do you know what direction to go?
  • Why is it so much easier (or seem to be) for folks to discern God's will/plan for other people?
  • It seems easier to see God's involvement through "the rear view mirror." How do we discern where God is moving ahead?
  • What if you think you are going in the right direction but don't like it or feel empty about it?
  • How can you effectively listen to God related to the direction one might be going?
  • Should I always seek God's approval before I make any life choices?
  • How do I listen and hear what God wants for me in my life?
  • I feel like I'm being used to do God's work. But recently I have been feeling disconnected from God. How do I reclaim my connection to God -- to follow his plans for me?
Really good questions. Thoughtful. Important. Questions we all need to wrestle with.

As the session ended on Friday, I had time for one more question and one more PowerPoint slide (I gave a lot of my presentation on PowerPoint). The question was "How do you figure out what God's will is for you versus what you think your purpose in life is?" The final slide I had prepared to share was this, "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. --Frederick Buechner."

I think that says it all. God brought it all together -- six sessions, caring staff and students, wise questions, and an answer that fits the Sacred Compass and its leading us to the face of our loving God.

-- Brent