Friday, January 29, 2010

A Quietude of Quakers: Or What Do You Call a Group of Friends?

As I've mentioned before, my friend Carrie Newcomer has a new CD coming out (you can, like me, pre-order it now!). "Before and After" is a wonderful album of of sublime songs with soul-felt lyrics. As we fans have all come to expect from Carrie, a thoughtful, deep, spiritual singer-songwriter.

But, there is this other side to her that folks who only listen to her serious stuff miss -- and that is her playful side. She writes some absolutely hilarious little tunes -- such as "Don't Push Send" on "Geography of Light." "Before and After"'s final track is a delightful example of a fun song -- "Crash of Rhinoceros." It's about Adam naming the animals (rather pedestrianly -- "Horse and cow and goat and sheep") and Eve thinking that the animals deserved something "a bit more unique and refined." And so she begins coming up with things such as "crash of rhinoceros," "pomp of Pekingese," "Parliament of owls," and so on.

As I said, it's delightful. A truly fun song.

And, though I am no songwriter (and certainly no singer -- as those who have heard me in my misspent younger days can attest!), it did remind me of a similar project I started a few years ago but never finished. That was coming up with names for groupings of religious people. I started with my own -- "a quietude of Quakers." Then came a "mass of Catholics." And then I was off:
  • a presdestinarian of Presbyterians
  • a bishop of Episcopalians
  • a glossolalia of Pentecostals
  • a healing of Charismatics
So I emailed Carrie about this. And about five minutes later she fired back:

  • a litany of Lutherans
  • a munificence of Methodist
  • a boisterous of Baptist
And we were off to the naming races:
  • a money of tele-evangalists
  • a nest of snake handlers
  • a sabbath of Seventh Day Adventists
  • a tenacious of evangelical Quakers
  • a visitation of Jehovah's Witnesses
  • an aura of new-agers
  • a brass of Salvation Army
  • a momentum of Mormons
  • an inclusive of Unitarians
  • a dodecahedron of Disciples of Christ
  • a singularity of Independent Christians
  • a liberality of United Church of Christ
We paused for breath. Then she said, "Geeze Louise get two writers started on this. :-)" Geeze Louise, indeed.
This too much fun just to keep between Carrie and me -- so... submit your naming ideas!


Thursday, January 28, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Fire

If you average things out, I am warm. It's cold here in Indiana and that cold has seemed to seep into even a place as snug and warm as our Yankee Barn Home. So I am sitting by the fireplace. About as close as I can get. The geo-thermal is working hard to warm the place up, but is needing some assistance from the auxiliary heat. But the one-half of me facing away from the fireplace feels freezing. Cold drafts sneaking up my pants legs.

Gosh, I sound ... um... like my grandparents did when they were my age. I mean, they were old when they were my age (they were always ancient -- at least as I remember). And they would complain about drafts and sit wrapped in afghans and... OMG, that's me!!!

Being half cold and half hot made me think a bit about my life -- spiritual and otherwise. On the average, I'm okay. Sometimes I'm warm. Sometimes I'm cold. For the most part, I'm just right. And the older I get, just right (on average) is fine by me.

But for now... I am going to scoot a bit closer to the fire!

-- Brent

Monday, January 25, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Red Pen

I've been using a red pen a lot today -- my editing pen. I use it to make notes on other people's writing and to fix my own.

My writing has a lot more red marks than their's.

While I was using it, I remembered how, a few years ago, when I was writing Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and I sent it to my former college professor and mentor T. Canby Jones. Though he called me and told me how much he liked it (which meant a lot), I remember getting the marked up manuscript back and feeling just like I did when I was a student of his at Wilmington College.

And I also thought of all the green ink that my fave editor Lil Copan has bled over the three books of mine that she's worked on. And that was after I had red-penned them numerous times!! I lived for the occasional "Good" or "Great" -- instead of the "I know you're a preacher, but quit!" comment. Even though she was right.

Ah, the editor's touch. Red ink, green ink, blue ink, yellow highlighter, Microsoft Word "track changes" and more. Hard to take, sometimes. But all with intent of making my writing clearer, stronger, better. And, for the most part, it did. And, I have learned to be a bit more brutal with myself while editing -- to kill my favorite phrases and most impressive words. If I am that enamored of them -- the words -- then I have probably stopped writing to express and have started just showing off, literary-ily speaking.

So what's the point of this little meditation? Well, I hate writing that always gives "the moral to the story." And I fear I do that too much. So, with editing pen in hand, I have crossed that part out. The moral is ... for you to figure out what the moral of touching the red pen is.

-- Brent

Sunday, January 24, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Granola Bar

One of the "joys" of the diabetic life, as my fellow diabetics will attest, is "going low." Technically, that's known as hypoglycemia, but most of us in the diabetic cohort just call it "going low." It happens when our blood sugar goes below the normal range and it impacts us differently depending upon our body chemistry. For me, I tend to start feeling very sluggish. Then I progress (or digress) to fuzzy thinking, slurring words, and dragging my left foot when I walk. And my nose starts running.
It's the last one that bothers me... When the others happen, I tell myself I'm fine, but if my nose starts running, then I know I had better get something to eat and get my blood sugar back up into the normal ranges. Because the next step, for me, after runny nose is ... um... cussing and becoming combative. Until I slip into a sort of sleep state where I feel aware but my body just lays there.

It's not fun.

That's why I've got stuff stashed in my car, my golf bag, my camera bag, desk drawer, etc.

So of course, I never go low where that at work or golfing or in my car. I only go low in places where I don't have a stash and when I have forgotten to carry something with me.

I had gotten lax about that lately and so had some "episodes." My friend Chantale, a fellow diabetic, chided me about that, so I've been trying to be better. So today, when I went to Meeting for Worship, I stuffed my faithful standby -- a Quaker granola bar -- in my pocket. I was teaching Sunday school after worship and so knew that the possibility of needing a snack was real.

And even if I didn't, it was a comfort to know that it was there. Throughout Meeting, I felt that granola bar there. And, when Meeting was over and I stood up, my head felt a little muzzy. So out came the granola bar and back up went the blood sugar. And I was fine to teach and would be okay until I arrived at home for lunch.

As I thought about the granola bar -- that little bit of rolled oats, rice, coconut, raisins, and so on -- and how it could bring me back to life, I thought about the little things I carry with me that bring me back to life spiritually. Mine are mostly invisible, unlike more liturgical friends of mine who carry rosaries or wear crosses or have a talisman in their pocket. Mine are things like spiritual silence and sentence prayers. Things that help me regain a sense of spiritual perspective in the midst of going low spiritually.

Of course, the idea of a spiritual granola bar is just a metaphor... and sometimes nothing can stave off a low, be it physical or spiritual, but professional intervention. A doctor. Or a spiritual friend. But, for me, most of the time, a granola bar is just what the doctor ordered -- for my body or my soul.

-- Brent

Saturday, January 23, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Woods and Mushrooms = Rest

Today has been a writing day. Deadlines have a wonderful way of focusing my attention. But unlike some writers I cannot write all day, hour after hour, without breaks of sorts. This morning I took a long one -- a walk in the woods.

It is a gloomy day, but I donned my boots, Carhart jacket, John Deere cap, grabbed my camera and went to see what the weather had wrought over the past few weeks while I've been mostly indoors. I tried to talk the dog into going with me, but Princess is even older than I am (at least in dog years) and figured there were no coyotes the direction I was heading, so declined. Ebony, the last surviving kitteh went with me part way, but then spotted a blue bird on a low branch -- and the stalking was on.

I walked on alone, feel the moist ground give beneath my old boots. I checked where there were newly fallen tree limbs that would need clearing come a drier day. I saw how much more bush honeysuckle needed pulling out, sawing down, or --*gasp* -- poisoned. That stuff is nasty. Much that I had cut last spring and fall, had come back. In force!

I also saw happily that in spite of some heavy rain, the creek bank had not eroded much. And I uncovered some of the tree saplings that had been engulfed in weeds and grass over the summer.

And, though the light was not great, I got some decent shots. Fallen logs covered with moss. Winter mushrooms. And then I heard shots. Close. To close. Very rapid. Large caliber. Large enough to put a fair sized hole in a guy my size, whose dressed in blue jeans and brown jacket and might be mistaken by some doofus as a deer or other critter worth shooting at -- legally or illegally, trespassing or not.

One would think that having 50 acres of land around you would guarantee a far amount of privacy and safety, but it is amazing how small an acre is when someone is firing a lot of ammunition very quickly and you can't tell what direction they are from you or what direction they are aiming.

So I decided to hotfoot it back up to the house. Indignantly, I returned -- my walk cut short.

Still, the walk and time away from words helped settle my mind and soul and get me ready to come back to words. Which I did with a renewed vigor -- and hopefully some decent writing.

I thought about that break as I thought about worship tomorrow. I thought about skipping it since I am in this writing mode. I have to go to Sunday school -- I'm teaching!! But, worship... hmmm, maybe I'll pass. After the walk, I thought, "No." I need to go. It will be the break I need to refresh and replenish my soul. If I am a writing a book that has a lot of God-talk in it, how in Heaven's name could I even consider not going and meeting with the One whom I'm writing about?

I'm slow sometimes. But eventually, God willing, I catch on. So tomorrow morning, I will arise and go to Jesus/ He will embrace me in his arms/ In the arms of my dear Savior/ O there are ten thousand charms.

And rest. Refreshment. Rejuvenation. And so much more.

-- Brent

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Purse

I held a purse this morning. That's not something I usually do. I don't carry a purse (even a man bag) as a rule, so that made this morning's touch a bit extraordinary.

How I came to touch a purse was out of the ordinary, too. My friend Cynthia was visiting the Center for Congregations with a group from the Capitol Region Theological Center in Albany, New York. As I came out to greet her and her fellow travellers, she held out her purse to me. "I brought this for you to feel," she said with a wink. The group of staff people and her friends at the CRTC looked quizzical. "You know why, don't you?" Cynthia said to me. Indeed, I did. One of the by-standers said, "Why?" So Cynthia said, "Well, Brent's writing this series called '30 Days of Touch' so I brought him this to touch. Now he has something to blog about today."

That's how I found out who the person is who reads the blog. It's Cynthia!

And that is how I came to be standing outside the conference room of the Center for Congregations fondling a deep green velveteen clutch with a rather elaborate flower of the same material and color attached.

It did not go with my outfit today at all.

So I handed it back to Cynthia after enjoying the lushness of the velveteen and the chuckles of the others standing there. The purse was pleasing to the touch. And that Cynthia thought enough to bring it for "inspiration" also touched me.

As the day has gone on, I thought about other purses ... notably ones in the Bible. Not all of them are good. Such as the sinner's in warned against in Proverbs 1. Beware those who say "let us all have one purse" -- they are up to no good. And Jesus sends his disciples out with "no money in their purse" and indeed, makes a fashion statement when he says (in Luke) not to carry a purse (about the only "commandment of Jesus that I have faithfully followed all my life).

Of course, the most famous purse in the Bible is one that is implied, but not called a purse -- the Samaritan's purse. The one that good fellow dipped into for funds to care for a stranger. Which reminded me of all the strangers who need me to dip into my purse -- most notably this week, the strangers of Haiti., hit again today by aftershocks.

While green velveteen may not be my style, I am glad again that Cynthia brought hers for me to touch -- and remind me to touch my own. And while touching it, to draw out some of what's in it and help those in need.

-- Brent

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

30 Dyas of Touch -- A Multitude of Feeling

So what has been the "touch" of the day? Well, fingers have touched keyboards, paper, skin, cloth, food, and so much more. The brisk winter wind has touched my face and reddened my cheeks. Lotion has touched my skin and eased the soreness beneath the redness. A ball cap has touched my bald head and covered its vulnerability from the cold.

Then there have been the emotional touches. The little joys that have come -- like a friend's reporting in that she had a good interview for a job I think will suit her. And the pricks that have come when I have felt I disappointed someone I care about.

And there have been the soul touches ... the times when, for a moment or a bit more, the Divine presence broke through. Like when the sun broke through the leaden clouds at a particular moment whilst driving home. No, I am not foolish enough to think that God planned that just for me ... but, but, but... what if the ways of God were so mysterious, so wise, and so caring that even in the midst of the human tragedies unwinding across the globe, there was just a bit of grace for me. Ah, dare I hope so. Or fear so... because if so for me, then why not for others in more desperate straits?

Ah, the vagaries of faith.

There are times, I wish, I did not feel. To not feel would mean to never hurt -- either by the prick of the lancet for blood testing or the prick of the heart when I know I have not lived up to my best self (and in so doing have hurt others as well). But to feel hurt ... to feel joyful ... to feel anything -- is that not part of being human? And to be fully human -- is that not what God has called us to be?

-- Brent

"Of making many books there is no end"

So says the writer of Ecclesiastes. And his words are no less true today than they were when written thousands of years ago.

I have been thinking a lot about book making every since my post yesterday on "Pages" started some discussions, including about the advantages of e-reading over paper reading, the ecological impact, and so on.

I do want to say that I was only saying, in that original post, why e-reading, by and large does not work for me other than email, blogs, and other mostly shorter forms. But that's just me. And others, I know, love to e-read and that's great.

But I do feel sort of like addressing some brief thoughts about the subject. One is the whole idea of books and community. It may seem like a stretch, but to me, books have an advantage over e-reading in creating community. Here's how -- for one, when I would read on my Kindle, that book was mine and only mine. Sure, I could pass the Kindle onto someone else -- but then I couldn't read my next e-book. Whereas, when I read a good traditional book, I can pass it on -- literally. I see or think of a friend who I feel would enjoy it and take it or mail to her or him. And I receive books that way, too.

And when I am done with a book, and feel that I will never use it again for research in my writing or just plain enjoyment, I can take it and donate it to a worthy group. I can share, that way.

I am pleased that there are many books on the Internet via public domain and Google books, but there are also many that are not. And so being forced to buy them electronically adds to our consumer culture. I suppose there are libraries who have electronic versions of books that are not in the public domain, but I have yet to learn of many around here.

And, yes, I do use libraries. I have had a library card since I was 10. One of the first things I do when I move to a new town is go to the library and get a card. But that's a whole 'nother subject.

Another think I do think about is the ecological impact. And yes, McSweeney's as a literary quarterly, is rarely a source for hard news, but the article I referred to earlier ("Can a Paper Mill Save a Forest: The strange possibility that the transferring of information digitally is more environmentally destructive than printing it") was part of a special edition of the quarterly that featured hard news in the format of a newspaper. It (San Francisco Panorama) came complete with news, opinion, arts, food, sports, and comic sections. And the story I referred to was part of the news. Nicholson Baker is a keen researcher, so I read his article with more than just a passing interest.

Here I where I am going to admit that I don't know which is more ec0-friendly. I'm not that smart. And I would have to do a lot more research. But I do think that the answer is not as clear as folks on either side would make it.

I do wonder about the recyclability factor though. I think of recycling in a number of ways. The first way is the sharing I mentioned about. When I am through with a book I often pass it on. Indeed, many of the books I have purchased have found their way to other homes -- including homes of people I don't know, since many of my friends pass books along, too.

A second way is the very paper itself -- it can be recycled and used in other books. Or insulation. Or...

A third thing I think about is trees as a renewable resource. If used correctly and well.

A fourth thing that occurs to me is just how hard a time I have recycling old computers and other electronic hardware here at work. And how so much of them is plastic and potentially dangerous heavy metals that can leach into our water table.

A fifth is carbon footprint of both types of printing -- the electricity used to make paper and LCD screens, the fossil fuels used to transport them from their source of manufacture to their end user, and more.

Ah, I could probably wonder forever about this. I often do think things to death. But those are my thoughts so far.

Like I said, I don't know the answer. And I'm not sure the answer matters as much as being aware of the question and trying to live out a faithful response to it. That's what I think we are all asked to do.

-- Brent

Monday, January 18, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Pages

I had a Kindle. I admit it. I was intrigued by the idea of a cool techno device that would allow me to carry books with me all the time. And I used it a lot. For a week or two. Then it went into my desk drawer and mostly sat there until late in 2009 when I got it out, charged it up, and ... gave it to someone else in our office.

I don't know what she thinks of it.

I have many good friends who use a Kindle or other e-reader. And my Sacred Compass is available on Kindle (more about that in a minute). And I feel like, Well, good for them. Hooray. Glad it works. But it just doesn't work for me. I don't think it's my age. I know folks older than me who love it. Especially the way they can enlarge the font.

I think it's because I am still a toucher of pages. Yes, I know that is somewhat contradictory for a guy who's writing a blog this very minute, but... since confession is good for the soul, as they say, there you go. And today I've been touching a lot of pages for lots of different reasons.
This evening, though, I've been enjoying touching pages of two books new to me. Howard Zehr's The Little Book of Contemplative Photography and Michael Sullivan's Windows into the Soul: Art as Spiritual Expression. Both are very good and I commend them to you.

But the point of this particular blog is not how good the content of these books are. Instead, it's how good they feel. I like the feel of the pages between my finger tips. I like the feel of a real marker sliding over the page ... be it slightly rough recycled paper or finely finished and smooth.

And as I enjoyed turning and marking the pages, I was reminded of other pages. Both of these books are, as you may have guessed from their titles, very spiritual, but I am thinking of the pages of the Bible. I started reading that book of books at an early age. Which is amazing.

I mean, when as a kid I would go to the Hilltonia branch of the Columbus Public Library, wander into certain sections, pick out a book and take it to the circulation desk, the librarian would call my mother to see if I was allowed to read a book that was above my reading level and might have fairly adult themes. But, if I pulled out the Bible with all it's murder and mayhem and sin and sex, nobody batted an eye.

Think about it.

I'm glad they didn't. For those stories formed my faith life. Those thin onion-skin pages filled with King James language opened up the stories of God and God's people. I found they were an often unruly, unrepentant lot -- even in the best times. And I could, even as a kid, identify with that. I knew I wasn't nearly as good a kid as my Sunday School teachers hoped I would be.

Still, I hungered for God. And those thin pages welcomed me. They opened the words of God to me. They still do. And so I am grateful today for the touch of pages between my fingers.

And I hope you are so blessed, too... even if they be virtual pages. Kindle-ized or memorized or whatever -- burned upon your heart.

-- Brent

PS Oh, Sacred Compass (yes, I am shameless, and yes, if you own a Kindle, I hope you'll buy it!) and Kindle... here's the rest of the story. While I was pleased that Sacred Compass was Kindle-ized (after all, that's more people who will read what I consider an important message), I was shocked to find out that some mistake in "translation" from print to Kindle had been made and the word "God" had appeared throughout the Kindle version as "god". Lowercase. Yikes. Thanks to Jennifer Ertel for catching that major faux pas. And thanks to the folks at Paraclete Press (my publisher) for fixing it right away.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Markers

I taught Sunday School today. For the second week. This was something I had vowed I would never do again after my friend Stan Banker asked me (20 years ago) to teach a six week course on Quakerism at First Friends in New Castle, Indiana. That six weeks turned into six years! I didn't quit teaching; I retired. Ha.

In spite of my vow, I did sign up to teach some sessions on Sacred Compass at West Newton Friends where I've been attending. Last week we drew our LifeMaps and this week we did Call Charts (places where the call of God has broken through in our lives). We use big ole flip chart paper and colored markers.

I brought lots of markers -- thin, fat, scented, unscented, vibrant colors, muted pastels. Most people seemed to enjoy the exercise. I'd like to think that was because it had some spiritual significance, but even if it was just that they got to play with markers, well, that is fine by me.

I know I enjoyed the markers. The first one I picked up was a fat barreled scented marker. Licorice. Black licorice. Which I love. Ymmm. Then I used a thin pale blue marker, no scent at all. Just for fun, when no one was looking, I made a little dot on my hand... just to see what it would do.

It's still there, faint. The color that was so smooth and vibrant on the chart paper, is faded and .... hmmmm.... wrinkly textured on my hand.

Which made me think about the textures of my spiritual life. They are many. Some are smooth -- like the times when I felt in complete sync with God and the marker of my life moved easily across the paper. Others were rough, like trying to draw on a piece of sandpaper. The marker skipped and jumped and I really had to bear down to leave a mark.

I think that describes some of my most obstinate times.

At other times, the marker was fine, but the surface was slick. Beyond smooth -- it was glossy and did not seem to take the color. It would smear if even lightly touched. I think those were the times that I was a young know it all. I had all the spiritual answers and so really didn't need God's help in thinking things through. I had already thought them through, thank you very much.

What are some of the textures of your life? And how do they speak to you?

Now, after thinking about that licorice scented marker, I think I'll go get a piece of licorice!

-- Brent

Friday, January 15, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Clean Sheets

I haven't touched them much yet, but I am anticipating the feel of freshly laundered bed linens on my old skin tonight. This morning when I left, Nancy was stripping the bed. Tonight I helped her remake it with sheets just out of the dryer.

Now I know it's no big deal. Making the bed is hardly a monumental event. But still, in a little more than an hour, I'll be ditching my khakis, warm sweater, and slippers and, book in hand, be sliding between those fresh smelling, crisp clean sheets. Ah! That will feel good. To be enveloped with cleanness, freshness, and a feeling of safety that comes with drifting off to sleep with a good book and in my own bed.

I don't think there's anything in Bible that equates the love of God climbing between clean sheets. But, despite that lack, that's sort of how I thought about God's love as I anticipate doing so in a little while. An enveloping love -- safe, clean, fresh, pure. No desire other than to put me at ease and help me feel loved. Hmmm, if the canon is not closed, perhaps I could contribute a Psalm ...

Psalm 151
A song before retiring by Brent

The LORD is my clean-sheeted bed,
in God do I rest. He lays me down in love
as in fresh linens; as they sooth my my skin
He soothes my soul.
And, yea, though I go into the blessed sleep in
darkness, His Light and Love go with me
and comfort me.
And though worries do daily afflict me and at night
if they could they would assail me, this night
remembering God's encompassing love, I shall fear
no evil. Instead, I shall rest in
the bed that has been prepared for me; the bed of
God's love.


-- Brent

Thursday, January 14, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Contacts

I just started wearing contact lenses again for the first time in about 20 years (ever since I had to wear bifocals). There were two reasons I decided to give them a try again. One was that I get tired of pushing my glasses up or down or bending the frames or cleaning the lenses or any other of a zillion things that drive me crazy about glasses.

The other was ... well... vanity. I looked in the mirror and saw that I was now 58 not 18. Where did my hair go???? And why was my beard white. So I thought contacts might restore at least some semblance of youthfulness. And, indeed they did. I put them in and looked hours younger.

They did take some getting used, of course. They are bifocal lenses so they are a little funny vision wise at first -- until my brain figures out how they work and translates the impulses into clear vision (all very scientific, I know). And the other is putting them in.

I have this aversion to anything touching my eyes. You know that puff of air they shoot you with to test for glaucoma? I start flinching from the time I put my face anywhere near the machine. And if you point your finger toward my eye, I start backing up.

So, I had to get used to putting the tiny lenses on the end of my finger and then keeping my eye open long enough without flinching to get the lens in place.

Of course, it is no big deal -- except that they are my eyes! Over the past month, though, the procedure has become almost automatic -- I can put them in, uh, not blindfolded obviously, but easily.

And I can see. Very well. These little teeny tiny small pieces of plastic suck right up onto my eye and put the world in focus for me.

Oh, and did I mention that they make me look hours younger? Very youthful. They make my beautiful blue eyes sparkle.

As I thought about these lenses and how easily they have become an invisible part of me, I began to think about other things that have become second nature and improve my spiritual vision. Attending worship is one. I rarely anymore (unlike when I was a pastor) wonder whether I will go or not... I just do. Not out of habit (well, maybe a little) but because, like putting in my contacts, I know that doing so will help me see my way through the coming week more clearly.

Looking with attention and love at the world around me is another that helps bring my God-sight into focus. It is easier to see God at work in the world when I gaze that way -- with loving attention. And though I still have along way to go in doing that well, I slowly am getting better at it and thereby seeing the Divine breaking through my day all around me.

Those are just two of the things that serve as spiritual contact lenses for me. Others include listening to music and hearing the creative forces at work, soulful reading of poetry and prose, and having spiritual conversations with friends. All of these are, in small ways, like contact lenses -- not very big, but making a big difference. Helping me focus on the important life of the spirit. Bringing sight to my soul's eyes.

-- Brent

Earthquake Relief

Please join me in supporting the American Friends Service Committee's earthquake relief work in Haiti.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Lotion

I'm not a lotion using sort of guy. At least until lately. Nancy got me a bottle of men's hand and body lotion for Christmas. MEN's. For a manly guy like me -- no generic family use stuff. Ha.

Well, it doesn't smell too bad -- no lilacs or rosewater -- so I decided I'd try it. Surely a little couldn't hurt. Well, that little trial became daily use. My skin -- usually dry and flaky (like me) in winter -- is now radiant and smooth. Well, okay, maybe not exactly radiant and smooth. But it is certainly less dry. It feels better.

I've especially enjoyed using it on top of my little bald head. Evidently my skin had been hungering for some moisture and the lotion has worked wonders.

As I put it on this morning, I began thinking of an old gospel song -- "A Balm in Gilead"

There is balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole

Then at work today I've been listening to Ricki Lee Jones' new CD "Balm in Gilead." Which again brought the old song to mind.

So, I began wondering, what's that about? Why all this stuff about balm?

Perhaps, I thought, it's because your soul is as badly in need of balm as your skin was. Indeed, there have been some spiritual dry skin and hurts lately -- a betrayal, worries over friends' illnesses, family concerns, relationship problems, and other disappointments. All the stuff of everyday life ... but as hard on the soul's skin as a windy Hoosier winter day is on my epidermis.

And that balm, for me, is the presence of Christ in my life. It is a presence I welcome even in silence because of Jesus intimate knowledge of sorrow. His experience of my condition brings me solace. I am with Emily Dickinson when she said:

When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is "acquainted with Grief," we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.

So come on in Jesus. Pour your balm on my wounded soul. Bind my hurts with your presence. No words are needed. No explanation. Just be with me -- sharing our acquaintance with grief.

-- Brent

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"There can be no friendship where there is no freedom. Friendship loves a free air, and will not be penned up in straight and narrow inclosures. It will speak freely, and act so too; and take nothing ill, where no ill is meant; nay, where it is, it will easily forgive and forget too, upon small acknowledgements."

-- William Penn

Monday, January 11, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Touch

As I was thinking about what to write about touch today, I was reminded of one my favorite movies. "Touch." It's a Paul Schrader film based on an Elmer Leonard novel (two of my favorite creatives) and I first saw it at the Festival of Faith and Writing (if you care about writing and spirituality, you must attend!). In brief, it's the story of a fellow named Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) who, when he displays the stigmata, can heal people.

Well, you can imagine the problems. When he hears about Juvenal, evangelist turned RV dealer Bill Hill (Christopher Walken) sees a money train. So he hopes to trap Juvenal with the seductive charms of Lynn Faulkner (Bridget Fonda), a former baton twirler at Hill's church. Absurd, yep? And it only gets more so. August Murray (Tom Arnold), Catholic who wants to restore the Latin rites and more, sees Lynn as a corrupting influence on Juvenal, wants to get rid of her, use Juvenal for his own devices. It gets fairly complicated -- as things involving faith do -- and, well, let's just say a cast of thousands (it feels like) is soon involved.

The film appeals to me on various levels. One is the whole idea of the stigmata -- something that fascinates a non-liturgical type Quaker like me. Exhibiting the wounds of Christ and all the mystery and dogma that surrounds that.

The other is the idea of faith-healing. And by that I mean true faith healing -- not the hokey, set-up faith healing one associates with TV evangelists, but the real healing by faith. Like Jesus, the apostles, and various ones since. I am amazed by it... and a bit taken aback by it at the same time.

And third is the whole idea of how we will use any anybody's gift to benefit ourselves at times.

And so, I am now touching the VCR tape of "Touch" (I need to get it on DVD) and may pull it out, plug in the VCR and watch it again. It helps me think about the healing force of touch -- whether spiritual/physical/Divine/human or some combination of all of those -- and how we long for it. I know I do.

-- Brent

Sunday, January 10, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Absence

I was late to Meeting this morning. I hate being late to anything, but especially to Meeting where we gather in a circle in silence and wait for the person presiding to read the call to worship. It's hard to sneak in ... there being no back pew, so to speak.

I was there early enough. I'm teaching Sunday School so arrived with all my supplies and was bundled up against the cold. I jumped out and hit the lock button on the car. Andy (my car's name) made a funny bleat which I chocked up to the cold. After I got indoors though, put my materials down, took off my coat and hat, and headed to worship, I did my after de-coating pat down. No car key. Must have left it in my coat, I thought. So I headed back to the cloakroom, pulled down my barn coat and searched in all the pockets. Nothing. So I checked my pants pockets again. Nothing.

I knew that the car key had to be somewhere close -- after all, I had driven the car to Meeting. And even though, because Andy is a Toyota hybrid, there is not an ignition switch into which to insert a key, a key has to be in the area for the car to come to life. And it had lived all the way to West Newton Friends Meeting. So I redonned my coat and hat, went back out into the single digit temperatures, and looked in the car. Nope. No key. I looked in the trunk. No key. I sat in the driver's seat and pushed the start button. The car started.

The key had to be there somewhere!!! But it was 9:35 -- past time for Meeting. So I was late on entering. I almost asked for a bit of divine guidance in finding the key when the time for prayer requests came, but since I was going to be teaching from Sacred Compass which talks about finding divine guidance, would not show how lacking in this area I was. So I sat in Meeting, with my hand in my pocket, resting where my key would normally be. Feeling its absence.

And then in the silence, it hit me what that funny bleating sound was that Andy had made when I locked him. It was him saying, "Ah, I don't think so. A key is inside." And so he had not locked. Which I should have noticed when I went out to look for the key. I didn't have to unlock.

So, I knew where the absent key was supposed to be, had a rough idea of where it was, but still felt it's missingness. And wondered if some enterprising car thief might come along and test her luck on my car and hit the start button and drive off with my Andy while I sat in worship (something that I have personally known to happen twice to others while in Meeting).

Still, I was able to settle into the silence and even spoke some words of vocal ministry -- a first for me at West Newton. And they weren't about the missing car key.

Right after worship dismissed, I hustled into my coat and hat and zipped back out to the car. Where could it be? I looked in the console, on the floor, felt back into the seat, and then looked down. There, wedged between the seat and the console, sat the key. It must have slipped out of my pocket either last night or this morning. I pocketed it. Hit the lock button. Heard a satisfying beep. And went in to teach Sunday School.

Ever since then, though, I have been thinking about absence -- the feel of missingness. The reaching for something that is supposed to be there and is not. And that made me think of the despairing times when God seems absent. Who among us has not cried, with the Psalmist, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" If not out loud, at least deep inwardly.

And I thought about God as being the key that gives life. That it is God in whom we have come to life and move through this life. Indeed, as Paul told the people of Athens:

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.'"

No wonder the feeling of God's absence is so disturbing. The dark night of the soul, indeed. The dark night of no life. If it is in him we live and move and have our being, then the feeling of absence is the feeling of death and despair.

Oh, I could work this metaphor a long time. I am a writer, after all, and a minister-type. That's probably a bad combination which could tend to over-thinking as one of my friends accuses me. So I'll stop.

Other than to say, that the feeling of not touching a key in pocket led me on a search. A search for the key. And the feeling of absence of God can likewise lead me on a search. A search for the Divine presence which gives me life. And I thought again of the Psalms -- "My heart says of you, 'Seek his face!' Your face, LORD, I will seek."


-- Brent

Saturday, January 09, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Prick

Snick. Click. Prick. OUCH!

Ah, after 12+ years that last word always follows the other three sounds. The "ouch" comes because the "prick" is the touch of my lancet shooting out of my "finger pricker" (real name "diabetic lancet device") through the slightly tougher epidermis of one of my fingers searching for the capillary blood that will provide an accurate reading on my glucose meter.

The touch of that lancet (nicer word than @#$!needle) still makes me jump. It still hurts. Yes, I know I'm a wienie, but... I am glad I don't have to do it as often as I used to. But I still bear the tiny tell-tale signs of a diabetic -- slightly callused finger tips an tiny little red marks where the lancet has plunged. And it also -- to the delight of music lovers everywhere -- means my steel stringed guitar has largely been retired. The lancet has to be set to plunge deeper if I play a lot to get through the string hardened calluses. And so it hurts more.

Still, "taking the plunge" so to speak is a part of my life. As is recording the findings that the tiny computer called a glucose meter spills out. It's easier now than it used to be -- the meter has a memory, so I can enter them in the computer and track my blood sugar story. Make pretty graphs and charts. Show my doctor what a good boy I've been -- most of the time.

In the old days, the touch of the finger pricker was accompanied by the feel of paper and pen as I opened my little log books and entered the date, time, amount of medicine I took, any unusual activities (like extreme exercise or a piece of food that had sugar in it), and the glucose amount.

As I thought about that today, I went and looked at the old log books. I am a pack-rat -- keep way too much stuff. But in them I read the story of my diabetic life. Then I thought about journaling -- an art I've never much been very good at. Not compared to people like George Fox or John Woolman or many of my friends. At least in the traditional journaling sense.

Instead, I journal through my writing -- here on this blog, on articles and essays I start (but may never finish), the books I've written, sermons composed, prayers, poems, and other forms of placing thoughts on paper (real or virtual). And there is often an accompanying "prick" -- something that sticks me somewhere and says "Time to think about this...."

I am grateful that "prick" is often much gentler than the lancet device's is. Often it is more like a soft nudge from a good friend. But sometimes it is more direct and painful -- and really gets my attention. Regardless, the result, as I've seen after I've looked over old files of writing today, is my spiritual story -- the true story of my life.


Snick. Click. Prick. OUCH! For the touch of the lancet -- physical or spiritual -- I am grateful. Whether it stings or not.

-- Brent

Friday, January 08, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Keyboard

The computer keyboard. I've spend a lot of time today touching it. From the time I got to the office to answer an email from my boss, to memos to staff about various and sundry things, to showing a new consultant around our information database, to instant messaging a staff person in Seymour, to chatting with a friend, to searching for songs on I-tunes, to ... Well, you get the idea.

A lot of things I did involved the keyboard, today. A smallish piece of technology (compared to the computer box or LCD) that is based, in many ways on a quickly becoming antiquated technology (the typewriter), it still is key to my productivity. My keyboarding skills, which were none too great in the typewriters day (I used to pay people to type my major papers in college) serve me well today. I can input information almost as quickly as I think it. And, indeed, the act of inputting it helps me think about ... um... what I'm thinking about. To see the words or numbers appear on the screen makes them real somehow and the lag between be my typing and my thinking gives me at least some small chance to reflect on what is appearing there. And if I want it to stay "appeared" or whether it's time to backspace and/or delete.

Especially emails that begin "Dear Idiot" or other such things.

And I can use that keyboard even in the dark (like right now) -- the only light coming from the computer screen. I don't look the keyboard. I know it by heart. My fingers move and the words and phrases jump into life up on the screen. Almost magically.

As I thought about touching these little plastic pads arranged ala' QWERTY, I began to think about things that I touch that help me spiritually slow down and think about what I'm feeling. What's my spiritual keyboard?

I have decided it is something that I cannot really "touch" but that touches me -- and that is spiritual silence. It is my touchstone. My keyboard. That which I finger and helps me think. Just as the rhythm of the keyboard helps me think about that which I really wish to say, so too does the rhythm of holy silence help me think about the things that I really wish to feel or pray or believe or act on.

Silence, likewise, mysteriously brings my soul's thinking in to crystal clarity -- without me really paying attention to how it's working. In the same way that I don't need to look at my fingers on the keyboard. They know their way. The soul knows its way. What I need to do more frequently is relax into that way, the way I relax when my writing is going well. To go with the the word flow. To go with the Spirit's flow.

So I am grateful tonight for the feel of little black plastic keys under my fingers.

And for the silence in my soul.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Snow

The forecasters are happy here in Indianapolis today. Their prediction of snow has proven to be accurate. Though the description of our white precipitation as "the first major snowfall of the season" on television smacks a bit of hyperbole. I mean... it looks to be about 2" so far with a bit more on the way. It certainly has caused major traffic headaches as Hoosiers have forgotten how to drive in the stuff. Some, especially those in 4-wheel drive trucks and SUVs seem to think they are entered in the Indianapolis 500 as they blow by us lesser mortals in our our tiny cars. Often I have seen them later by the side of the road -- 4-wheel drive did not help them much when they had to slam on their brakes on an icy patch of roadway.

But mostly I've been enjoying watching the snow. And my brief time out in it. The gentle, soft touch of delicate snowflakes alighting on my coat, scarf, hat, eyelids, cheek. A brief caress and then -- is gone, a drop of dewy wetness left in its place.

As I thought about the touch of snow, I thought about one of my favorite Quaker quotes -- it's by English Friend William Littleboy. Littleboy said:

“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.”

Ah, I thought, as lightly as a snowflake. Easy to miss, but leavng a mark of grace upon us.
In that case .... let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

-- Brent

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Shape

I am not a morning person. I doubt that I ever will be. So, while getting ready for work in the morning, I often keep the bedroom lights dim. This has rarely led to any serious mishaps (except the time I wore 2 different shoes to work -- one penny loafer, one tassel loafer).

And, because I am diabetic and have a number of the health issues that go with that wonderful disease, I take medicine in the morning. Not nearly so many as in the picture. Just four pills. All different shapes. A small triangular pill for diabetes. A large "horse pill" (I call it) for diabetes. A small round pill for high blood pressure. And an oblong pill for high blood pressure. They are all different colors, but that doesn't matter so much early in the morning -- I rely on their shapes. And the shapes and sizes of the bottles they come in.

I pay attention to the shapes, of course, because this medical combination helps keep me alive and my health fairly stable. The shapes matter because they tactically show me that I am taking the right pills at the right time.

I thought about that this morning as I ran my fingers over the pills and carried them into the bathroom to get a glass of water. The shape of things that save my life. And I thought of the feel and shape of spiritual things that save my soul -- on a daily basis. The feel of leather and cloth and paper of my Bible and various prayer and devotional books that help guide my path. The cloth covering of the chair I sit in at Meeting on Sundays. The warm physical embrace of my friends. The smooth plastic of the computer keyboard where I do these musings that illuminate me more than they could possibly help anybody else (writing being a form of prayer, worship, and meditation for me). And the list goes on. I am looking forward to seeing what other "touches" feed my body and soul today. I know I am more attuned to that idea after fingering the life saving pills with their various shapes.

May you be "touched" today, too!

-- Brent

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Vibration

I've started carrying my phone with me all the time lately. This is new for me. In many ways, I saw cell phones similarly to my old boss Jack Finster. When "car phones" began to be popular in the early 90s, he had one. But it was never plugged in or turned on. I remember seeing it sitting on his dashboard. When I asked it about it, Jack said, "I got it for when I want to call someone. Not for when someone wants to call me." Ah, my sentiments exactly.

Back then.

But now I carry mine almost all the time. And leave it turned on. I have work stuff I want (notice I say want, not need) to take care of in a timely fashion. I have family and friends who have health issues that I need to be kept apprised of. Oh, the reasons are myriad at this point.

And, being the techno-savvy guy I am (as if!), my phone also tracks my calendar, my email, and "World Conquest Game" (not that I play that much! So un-Quakerly. Ha).

Most of the time, the phone is set to ring. My ringtone is mostly the theme song to Mr. Deity. No, I do not have delusions of grandeur -- I just like that series (tongue firmly in theological cheek and witty writing). But when I go into meetings or in the evening, I put the phone on "vibrate."

It was on vibrate most of today. I was in some very intense meetings and then I was -- because of the vagaries of Indiana weather and their introducing some electrical gremlin into the windshield wipers of my car (turning them on all the time!!!!) -- driving my pick-em-up truck today. Which, while compared to my old truck (the infamous "Chick Magnet"), is quiet is still... um... well... a truck. So the ringing needed to be accompanied by vibration because between the truck noise and Lyle Lovett's singing "She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To" (he and Emmylou Harris travelled with me today), I couldn't hear the ringtone.

So here's my admission. When the phone vibrates, it is almost impossible not to reach for it and see who is calling, texting, or sending me an email. I mean, my gosh, it MIGHT BE IMPORTANT.

And, of course, since the day was filled with important meetings and travel, it vibrated all the time! During the most important part of meetings or while in the thickest traffic jams (which in Indiana are often more like traffic soup. Not all that gelled.).

But it set me to thinkin' (a phrase appropriate to a guy driving a pick-em-up truck, doncha think. Even if said driver was attired in necktie, button down shirt, and camel hair topcoat -- it was WORK!), that what would it be like if every message from God came through with a ringtone (truly Mr. Deity) and vibration. Would I then pick up on more of them?

Because, if I am sure of one thing, it is this ... God is dropping me text, emails, and phone call (spiritually speaking) messages all the time and somehow I miss many of them. Oh, I'm better than I used to be. I notice, I think, the more obvious things. But still, it would really help to carry my Godphone with me set on vibrate. That way I would be sure to get the message.

Well, I'd get it, maybe. But would I heed it? That's another question altogether.

-- Brent

Monday, January 04, 2010

30 Days of Touch -- Cold!

Chestnuts roasting on a open fire
Jack Frost nibbling on your nose....

"Jack Frost nibbling on your nose..." That's how Asthon LaPorte, youngest grandson (fifth grade) sings that line of Mel Torme's classic "Christmas Song." And regardless of whether Mel was right ("Jack Frost nippin' at your nose") or Ashton, today I was on Ashton's side -- it felt like Jack Frost was nibblin' on my nose.

It was cold today in Indiana. Fifteen degrees colder than it normally is in Indiana. I mean, nowhere are as cold as International Falls, MN (-9 at the minute), but still cold enough for me -- and my cute little nose. It was cold enough that I wore a sweater ... a top coat ... a fedora...gloves...and a scarf. And turned on the heated seats in the hybrid (nicknamed Andy).

But the time I got to work today I had shed the gloves, the fedora, the coat and scarf. The heated seats remained on.

The touch of the cold reminded me of the warmth of God's love. That's because that cold ... any bitter cold ... feels so much like absence of warmth that it literally takes my breath away. I find it hard to breathe -- to suck the warming elixir of life into my lungs and let it speed oxygen through my body. And if there is anything about God that I know (and as I age, it seems like the depth of the bowl of knowledge of God and God's ways is much deeper than my wisdom can fill) it is that God's love is warm and life-giving. It is not bitter cold and breath-stealing.

And so I gave thanks today -- in spite of the cold -- for a warm coat, nice scarf, dapper looking hat, lined gloves, and a toasty car. And I remembered, as I passed them, my brothers and sisters who are less fortunate than I -- who live with the bitter cold in their bones. And not just on cold days like today. And I wondered ... as I wandered ... what am I called to do for them? Surely it is not just enough for me to rejoice in my warmth. Or to think good, warm thoughts toward them. What would Jesus have me do?

And dare I leave my warm surroundings to do it?


Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Sensory Prayer

My friend Elizabeth Bullock-Rest sent this to me and it seems perfect for the upcoming "30 Days of Touching" -- Thanks, Elizabeth.

May the touch of your skin
Register the beauty
Of the otherness
That surrounds you.

May your listening be attuned
To the deeper silence
Where sound is honed
To bring distance home.

May the fragrance
Of a breathing meadow
Refresh your heart
And remind you you are
A child of the earth.

And when you partake
Of food and drink,
May your taste quicken
To the gift and sweetness
That flows from the earth.

May your inner eye
See through the surfaces
And glean the real presence
Of everything that meets you.

May your soul beautify
The desire of your eyes
That you might glimpse
The infinity that hides
In the simple sights
That seem worn
To your usual eyes.

From TO BLESS THE SPACE BETWEEN US: A Book of Blessings by John O'Donnohue (2008)

Friday, January 01, 2010

Touching God -- An Invitation

"To have life as vocation is to be aware that there are two ways to go--the wide road and the narrow road.
The wide road might be called the way of unconsciousness and the narrow road the way of consciousness.
The wide road is the road of the crowd. Jesus describes the people on it as not seeing and not hearing."
Journey Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O'Connor

Happy New Year, friends!

I like to think of a new year as a fresh start. This year, I hope that you and I can live with renewed spiritual intention as we seek God and the life he has for us. One of the ways I am learning to attend to God more fully is through focusing on one particular sense and allowing it to help me become present and aware of God. Many of you have participated in the last two experiments--30 Days of Tasting and 30 Days of Seeing--all apart of the workshop and potential book, The Art of Faith: Awakening Your Senses to the Wonder of God.

Beginning Monday, January 4th, my friend and co-author, Beth Booram and I will begin 30 Days of Touching. We'd love for you to join us and begin your new year with an intention to become more sensitive to God's presence and leading in your life.

Here's how to participate:

  • Beginning Monday, January 4th, copy and paste a note in your calendar for 30 days that reminds you to "pay attention to touching!"

  • Invite your spouse/friends/small group/house church to participate with you.

  • Each day, intentionally notice how different things feel to your touch. (The moment you isolate your sense of touch, you begin to live in the present moment, the only place where you can experience God.)

  • As you become present, seek to experience God in the thing you are touching. ( How is God speaking to you through the rough bark of a tree, the cold wind on your face, the smooth skin of a baby's cheek, the soft fur of your dog's coat?)

  • Reflect on and write about your experience. (You can join Beth and me by commenting about your experiences on either of our blogs or by commenting on our Art of Faith group on Facebook. Your encounters will add depth and color to everyone's experiences!)
May 2010 be a year that you take "the narrow road" and become more conscious of God by tasting, seeing, touching, hearing and smelling the One who is Life within life!

-- Brent