Friday, December 25, 2009

Love Still Takes the Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn
Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “The Risk of Birth”
copyright 1974 Madeleine L'Engle

I am grateful that Love still takes the risk of birth -- this Christmas and every day -- in the heart of God and the hearts of women and men everywhere.
With love,

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Silence and God's Presence and Advent

Biblical parallels. I've been thinking about them a lot this season -- especially when it seems like all sorts of parallels are being made between the worlds in the Old Testament and the New -- to point to Jesus' coming. Still, I thought of a parallel that I don't think I've seen anybody else has drawn -- and that is between Jesus and Elijah and caves (hmmm, perhaps that's a tri-allel).

But it occurred to me, that Jesus was probably born in a cave (mangers in that day and place often put in caves) and Elijah hiding out in one. And how silence infused them both.

Yes, silence.

Silence speaks – yes, speaks, oddly enough – to a hunger evident in our culture. Just look at the rising interest in silent retreats and contemplative reading. Something in our souls tells us that getting quiet is a good way to meet God. That is something the prophet Elijah discovered. When he needed to hear God, the Lord told him:

“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

Now Elijah was not a Quaker, though we would be happy to claim him (but only if he repented of killing the 800 prophets of Baal – hardly a Quaker act). Come to think of it, maybe Elijah was the first Friend. He learned that God was in “a gentle whisper.” What Elijah’s story teaches us lies at the heart of Friends silence. Quaker silence is about the real presence of Christ being with us in an intimate way. Quaker silence encourages us to relax so deeply in the love of God that we hear the Spirit’s voice whispering softly in our soul’s ear.

And that is "the silence of eternity" that Whittier spoke of -- a silence experienced by Elijah and those who stopped by the manger in the cave. At that manger they experienced a holiness that awed them into stillness and silence which is the only appropriate response to being in the presence of the Divine.

And in that silence, they heard in their souls the words echoing down eternity's way "`et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis." "On earth peace, good will toward all humankind."

It is my hope during this season that I put aside the rush of life and any expectation of hearing God amidst the busyness. I need to wait quietly by the cave of my soul for the Eternal presence.
-- Brent

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let It Be To Me -- An Advent Meditation

One of my fondest memories of Christmastime is meeting at the church to go caroling. We’d gather around dusk in the black-topped parking lot and board the old school bus that now bore our church name. The engine would cough and sputter to life and off we’d go, bouncing along on springs worn out by school kids, out onto the main drag of our part of town.

One of my Dad’s friends always drove and if I cajoled and wheedled enough, my best friend and I got to sit on the steps beside the driver. We’d listen to the whine of the gears as he shifted up through them, hear the noisy little fan mounted on the ceiling above the driver’s head trying desperately to clear the windows fogging up from the combination of warm bodies and cold night air and watch the parked cars whiz by, seemingly inches from our noses. The bus would fill with the sounds of children’s laughter and adult story telling.

Down though the gears. A slow stop. We’d pull up in front of one of the homes of a shut-in from the church and pile out, forming ranks on the front lawn or porch. We weren’t very orderly. After all, we were Quakers and military precision was something we didn’t do well. A few carols, including some where we smart boys fractured the lyrics, a quick verse of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and then it was back to the bus and on to the next victim’s house.

I always enjoyed those stops. The people we sang to, no matter how badly, enjoyed them too, their faces lighting up with the Christmas spirit at the mixed bag of families, singles, kids and adults singing to them.

But there was one stop that was different for me.

I didn’t look forward to it. In fact, I dreaded it.

Our last stop before heading back to the church for hot chocolate and cookies took us up a winding lane to a big house that had been left to the Yearly Meeting. We filed off the bus, but gathered more solemnly than at all the other. Adults seemed nervous and shuffled their feet. I really didn’t understand why there was so much unease, but picked up on it quickly. The door to the big house would open and we would file into the huge living room, which was filled with young women. I didn’t know all the particulars as a young boy, but my dad tried to explain to me when I asked him why they were at the Friends Rescue Home, that these girls had gotten “into trouble.”

What kind of trouble, I wondered. He mumbled a lot and said I was too young to understand and he’d explain it later. All I could pick up at the time was that it must have been bad trouble and something to be ashamed about. After the first visit there, I was always glad to beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the bus and head to the church. For a while I felt tainted with something inexplicably dark and brooding. This at a season of light and miracles.

Of course, I know now why the young women were there and what they were being rescued from. It was a much different time than today. A time when it was a matter of personal and family shame to be single, teen-age and pregnant. I’m not saying it was a better time than now, I’m just saying it was a different time. A time that called for drastic measures – sending your daughter away (“out of town visiting relatives” or “attending boarding school”) if she was unmarried and pregnant. That’s why the faces of the girls, even those who wanted to enjoy Christmas and the carols, didn’t look like those of the rest of the people we caroled to. They always looked apprehensive, downcast, sad – and to a young boy who picked up that something was wrong here – slightly sinister.

As I grew up, of course, so did my understanding and feelings. Now it just seems ineffably sad to have to live in shame daily away from the support of friends and family. It’s almost cruel. Yet it was the norm. It was something to be hidden away from the view of polite society. It wasn’t talked about. And it was a blot on the family.

As I think today of that time, I can’t help but think of the mother of our Lord – Mary. If anything, the time she was pregnant and unwed was even tougher than the 1950’s and 60’s in the Midwest. In the case of the young women at the Friends Rescue Home, many of them were sent away for a few months, until the time for the baby to be born and adopted (sight unseen) came and then they went home. In Mary’s case, the penalty was a whole lot more severe. Family shame was bad enough. Strict interpretation of the laws regarding sex before marriage called for severe punishment.

I think that’s important for us to remember. We have come to take the story so for granted and accept the wonder of the angelic announcement and ensuing miraculous birth, that we fail to recognize the boldness and obedience behind Mary’s “Yes” to God. This was no easy thing to ask of a young virgin girl betrothed to a man. This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on single mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to. As the poet Luci Shaw writes:

it seemed too much to ask
of one small virgin
that she should stake shame
against the will of God.
all she had to hold to
were those soft, inward
and the remembered sting
of a brief junction – spirit
with flesh.
Who would think it
more than a dream wish?
An implausible, laughable

A risky, unqualified yes. That’s what Mary said to God’s request. What would our response be ? I think that’s important for us to consider at this advent time. How do we respond when God calls us to service – even though our call does not make the demands upon our very lives and families that Mary’s did upon hers? Do we shrink from the tasks before us, the things God would want us to do, those things we know in our hearts are right and good, because they might cause us some embarrassment?

I’m afraid we worry way too much about what people think of us than we do about doing what we know needs to be done. And yet, even during this time of year when we celebrate the unselfishness of God and his handmaiden, we shrink from doing them. We close ourselves off from the possibility of wider service to God, claiming to be too busy (which we are), or unqualified (which we might be), or not the right person (even though God says we are). We ask to be excused from service, or at least excuse ourselves in our own minds, because of obligations we perceive as having a higher priority.

Mary, on the other hand, a simple (in a positive sense) trusting young woman looked into the face of the eternal and said “Yes.” And once the “yes” was said, moved forward joyously with it. I am sure there were times when she wondered if she had said “yes” wisely, especially in those early days when even her beloved Joseph felt bewildered and betrayed and was going to send her away. But overall, her obedience and willingness to serve is something she embraced with a joy and serenity that we would do well to be emulate in our own lives.

Who can imagine what Mary felt when she stood in the face of the mystery of the eternal? What could her thoughts have been? Surely she knew she was risking society’s, family’s and Joseph’s disapproval. But did she also know the supreme joy she would have cradling the baby in her arms? Could she even begin to dream of shepherds abandoning their flocks or wise men bringing gifts from afar to come and worship the baby king? Was there even a slight shuddering premonition of the cross that awaited her beloved baby boy?

We can not know Mary’s feelings, other than what we read in the scripture passage today. When the angel speaks she stands in reverence and awe and says “Let it be to me according to your word.” It is then that the wonder of the incarnation, God come down in human form to live among and bring his people back to him, begins – with the simple “yes” of Mary.
At this advent time, let that be our ideal as well. To say “yes” to God when called. Even as foolish as the call may seem. What is called for is not rational, self and community respecting reflection. What is asked for is obedience. Madeleine L’Engle, writing as Mary, says
An angel came to me
And I was unprepared
To be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
Thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.
A palace should have been
The birthplace of a king
(I had know way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
It was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
My cloak was old, and thin,
They turned us from the inn;
The town was overflowing.

God’s Word, a child so small,
Who still must learn to speak,
Lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
And moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd.
A stable set apart.
The sleepy cattle lowing;
And the incarnate Word
Resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
The folly of the Lord,
Wiser than all men’s knowing.

Let it be to me according to your Word.

-- Brent

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Caroling We Go ... Or Maybe Not...

For all my friends who are even thinking about, or have been invited to, participate in a Holiday Program over this season, I want to remind you of the guidelines in force regarding such festivities.

The Rocking Song
Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir;
We will lend a coat of fur
We will rock you, rock you, rock you,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you:

Fur is no longer appropriate wear for small infants, both due to risk of allergy to animal fur, and for ethical reasons.

Therefore faux fur, a nice cellular blanket or perhaps micro-fleece material should be considered a suitable alternative.

Please note, only persons who have been subject to a criminal background check and have enhanced clearance will be permitted to rock baby Jesus.

Persons must carry their criminal background check disclosure with them at all times and be prepared to provide three forms of identification before rocking commences.

Jingle Bells
Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way

A risk assessment must be submitted before an open sleigh is considered safe for members of the public to travel on. The risk assessment must also consider whether it is appropriate to use only one horse for such a venture, particularly if passengers are of larger proportions.

Please note, permission must be gained from landowners before entering their fields.

To avoid offending those not participating in celebrations, we would request that laughter is moderate only and not loud enough to be considered a noise nuisance.

While Shepherds Watched
While shepherds watched
Their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around

Local #666 of the Associated Brotherhood of Shepherd's has complained that it breaches health and safety regulations to insist that shepherds watch their flocks without appropriate seating arrangements being provided, and so, to avoid job actions or reporting to the Labor Relations Board, benches, stools and orthopedic chairs must be made available.

Local #666 has also requested that due to the inclement weather conditions at this time of year that they should watch their flocks via closed circuit television cameras from centrally heated shepherd observation huts.

Please note, the Angel of the Lord (i.e. Management) is reminded that before shining his/her glory all around she/he must ascertain that all shepherds have been issued with glasses capable of filtering out the harmful effects of UVA, UVB, and Glory rays. Workplace safety must be paramount.

Little Donkey
Little donkey, little donkey on the dusty road
Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load

The ASPCA has issued strict guidelines with regard to how heavy a load that a donkey of small stature is permitted to carry, Also included in these guidelines is guidance regarding how often to feed the donkey and how many rest breaks are required over a four hour plodding period. Please note that due to the increased risk of pollution from the dusty road Mary and Joseph are required to wear face masks to prevent inhalation of any airborne particles.

The donkey has expressed his discomfort at being labeled 'little' and would prefer just to be simply referred to as Mr. Donkey.

To comment upon his height or lack thereof may be considered an infringement of his equine rights.

We Three KingsWe three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

Whilst the gift of gold is still considered acceptable - as it may be redeemed at a later date through such organisations as 'cash for gold' etc, gifts of frankincense and myrrh are not appropriate due to the potential risk of oils and fragrances causing allergic reactions.

A suggested gift alternative would be to make a donation to a worthy cause in the Baby Jesus’ name or perhaps give a gift voucher. We would not advise that the traversing kings rely on navigation by stars in order to reach their destinations and suggest the use of GPS or Mapquest navigation, which will provide the quickest route and advice regarding fuel consumption.

Please note as per the guidelines from the ASPCA for Mr. Donkey, the camels carrying the three kings of Orient will require regular food and rest breaks. Facemasks for the three kings are also advisable due to the likelihood of dust from the camels’ hooves.

Rudolph the red nosed reindeer
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose.
And if you ever saw him,
you would even say it glows.

You are advised that under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 it is inappropriate for persons to make comment with regard to the ruddiness of any part of Mr. R. Reindeer.

Further to this, exclusion of Mr. R Reindeer from the Reindeer Games will be considered discriminatory and disciplinary action will be taken against those found guilty of this offence.

A full investigation will be implemented and sanctions - including suspension on full pay - will be considered whilst this investigation takes place.

Your thoughtful attention to these guidelines will be greatly appreciated, mitigate the need for any subsequent legal action, and ensure that we all have a safe and happy … um… celebration of … er… something.

-- Brent

adapted and revised from an email sent to me by Molly Robertson!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silence as Spiritual Work

While no expert in the art of holy silence, I am a long time practitioner it. Sometimes I even wear a button that says, “I am a Quaker – in case of emergency, please be quiet.” That is more that a joke. Silence is a deep part of my faith life.

Even though the old Quaker gag is that we are called to, “Don’t just do something, sit there,” holy silence is more than just sitting there. If it isn’t something more, then we’ll end up like the Quakers described by some west England fishermen – “They Quakers just came here and sat and sat and nobody never said nothing, until at last they all died and so they gave it up.”

Silence is something we do, not something done to us. It is a participatory act. It engages our heart, mind, soul, and body. We actively listen for the voice of the Beloved. Quaker silence is not passive. After all, how could Holy Communion, which deepens our faith and fills us with passionate love for God, ever be inactive?

But this meeting, since it happens in our spirits and souls, may not seem so different to an outsider who sees us practicing it. She would not see any angels descending. He would not notice halos appearing over our heads. There is no physical evidence of the life changing activity that goes on inside us as we feed on Christ in our souls. “Outwardly,” says Friend Thomas Kelley, “all silences seem alike, as all minutes are alike by the clock. But inwardly the Divine Leader of worship directs us …”

That active listening for God’s direction is the very stuff that gives us Life – and life more abundantly.

-- Brent

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Silence and Spiritual Knowledge

Those of us who call ourselves Quakers today grew out of a rather rag-tag 16th century group known as the Seekers.  Today they would fit right in, since many churches offer “seeker” services.  But in the 1650s there wasn’t any such thing.  So these women and men from all religious groups came together and worshipped in silence.

That’s because they believed that the Spirit speaks loudest when we are silent.  George Fox taught them that, “Christ was the true teacher within;  and that God was come to teach His people himself.”  If they wanted to be taught by Christ, “the true teacher within,” then they reckoned that being silent was the best way to hear their teacher.

350 years of Friend-ly practice has shown us that the Holy Spirit grants us insight and guidance when we wait in expectant silence.  Quaker silence helps us learn God’s will. 

That’s important if we believe that faith and daily living should somehow reflect and have an impact on each other.  Holy silence infuses us with God’s power so that we can live faithfully in every part of life – even the normal, everyday stuff.  As English Friend William Littleboy wrote, “God is above all the God of the normal.  In the common facts and circumstances of life He draws near to us, quietly He teaches us in the routine of life’s trifles, gently, and unnoticed His guidance comes to us through the channels of ‘reason [and] judgment’… we have been taught by Him when we least suspected it; we have been guided … though the guiding hand rested upon us so lightly that we were unaware of its touch.” 

This “guiding hand” that rests lightly upon us is best felt when we are silent and still.   

So at this season of busy-ness and noise (even the holy noise of carols), let's take time for some silence and stillness in order that we might truly experience Christ's coming -- in our souls.

-- Brent

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Silence and Presence

“The less form in religion the better, since God is a Spirit; … the more silent, the more suitable to the language of a Spirit.” That’s what William Penn said over 300 years ago, urging Christians to embrace silence as a way to encounter God. Taking time to think about using silence as a religious practice extends Penn’s invitation to us today. That’s because Penn wasn’t talking not about stillness, as such, but rather about encountering God in a living and vital holy hush. This spiritual silence encourages us as we travel along our journey to a quiet inner place where God teaches us. It is a place where we can come “to receive freely from Him,” as George Fox said.

This deep silence of the soul can be our Eucharist. Rufus Jones said of sacramental silence that, “it may be an intensified pause, a vitalized hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God. The actual meeting of man with God and God with man is the very crown and culmination of what we can do with our human life here on earth.”

Holy silence invites us to an immediate personal encounter with God. Quaker silence is communion with God. As one group of Friends wrote, “In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present … [that] this is our Eucharist and our Communion.”

That is the sort of communion my soul craves.

-- Brent

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude 'Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted' can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word 'comfort' means 'with strength' rather than 'at ease'. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state."

--S Jocelyn Burnell

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock.' And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening."

-- Thomas R Kelly

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"For though our Saviour's passion is over, his compassion is not. That never fails his humble, sincere disciples."

-- William Penn