Wednesday, June 30, 2010

30 Days of Smell -- Flood Mud

One of the joys of farm living ("Green acres ain't the place to be/Farm living ain't the life for me/ Flooded land spreading out,so far and wide/ Give me Indianapolis, you take the countryside." -- my current version of "Green Acres" theme) is getting to mow. Which I did tonight for a few hours. Unlike when I lived in town and fired up the $200 Lawnboy for a 30 minute jaunt around the yard, here it's running to town for 2 5 gallon containers of fuel and pouring said fuel into an expensive zero turning radius mower and zipping around the yard at 12 mph. The scale of things is bigger, so a 1/2 acre lot her (like in town) would look like a postage stamp. I mow about 3 acres when I mow.

And that's just "the yard."

There's also all the rows between all the trees we planted for conservation's sake. Thousands of 'em. I have to mow to keep the weeds and grasses down to give the trees a chance. That means using the tractor and bushhog.

Which I did recently. With fear and trepidation. Not that I'm afraid of John Deere ... well, maybe a little bit, ever since I rolled him down a hill one time. No, I was afeared of what I would find when I got to one of our lower fields. One that, laying aside a creek bed, is prone to flooding.

And last week was the perfect week for flooding. Storm after storm after storm. In a period of a few days. And the creek reached within two feet of record levels. Which meant that the lower field had been 2 feet underwater. The smell of flood mud was heavy in the air when I moved that direction. Heavier than the diesel exhaust of John. One reason it was so heavy is that there was so much newly exposed bank. The flood had decimated our creek bank, claiming hundreds of feet (and washing it downstream). I claim I own acreage in four counties ... because a bunch of it ain't here anymore. It's in counties farther south.

The river flood mud smell also told me that many of the trees we had carefully tended had also gone downstream. The reason we had planted them was so that they would put down roots and stabilize the field in future floods. That was 4 years ago and we've had 3 floods since. At least 1.5 acres have washed away, carved out by raging water, along with hundreds of trees.

I have come to hate the smell of flood mud.

Still, it does remind me of Jesus' story of the wise man who builds his house upon the rock and the foolish man who builds his on the sand. I wonder if the Sandman planted trees, too? And watched it all wash away?

So, I wonder, which am I? Wise for being here and planting trees in sandy soil on a bluff overlooking a creek, or foolish for no living in town in a condo without the smell of flood mud?

Ah, only time and the love of God will tell. For now, it's time to get back to mowing, carving a new path through the old wood from one set of trees to the other to replace the path that the flood washed away, and smell the mud.

Whatever happened to "God gave Noah the rainbow sign/ No more water, the fire next time!"?

-- Brent

30 Days of Smell -- Road Construction

For the past few days, a prominent smell every morning and late afternoon has been a mixture of dust, pulverized concrete, diesel fuel, heavy equipment exhaust, blacktop, and the like. The powers that be have decreed that a portion of Interstate 70 on my route to and from work needs updating. So updating it they are -- and not just sorta updating it, either.

No patching here... they are taking the road down to the roadbed beneath. Down to the dirt. Which has meant tearing up the concrete, pulling out all the old rebar, regrading, putting down beds of gravel and leveling it, setting up new rebar structures, and pouring new concrete.

It really is a very thorough process ... and interesting to watch. And, and this is for that same fellow I always seem to get stuck behind passing through the construction zone, you can still watch it at 45 mph! You don't have to slow down to 20!

Okay, now that that's out of my system, while the construction smells drifted into the Camry's cabin this morning, it set me to thinking about how many times I had rebuilt the roadway of my life. Not many, to be honest. Oh, I've done lots of patching. Ripped out a bad section or two and smoothed it up. Put a fresh coat of spiritual sealer down.

But I've never taken it down to bedrock and built it back up again. And so maybe I am long past due for such an overhaul. To strip away all the layers that have built up since my initial decision that I would "arise and go to Jesus."

My road looks pretty smooth to me... until I put my head down and look along the surface. Perhaps it is a bit wavy and rough. So I will heed the advice of Isaiah -- "Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people." I will take some time to strip my road to God back down to the bedrock of belief and rebuild slowly with prayer and reading and silence. Just enough surface to travel along ... to get me to my destination. And in so doing I will, to rephrase Isaiah just a wee bit, "Prepare ye the way to the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway to our God."

I pray that I have the spiritual strength to say with the Quaker mystic Pierre Ceresole: "Eternal, grant me the possibility of revising, understanding and weighing everything anew, truly and freely, without violence. Grant me not to be fossilized against your Spirit and your Call, but to be ready at your command to start everything over again and undo all I had thought I had also built at your command previously."

I wonder what smells I'll smell as I begin the tearing down?


Monday, June 28, 2010

Russian Quakers Hordes Head to US

According to Google Alerts that picked up an Associated Press report, a huge influx of Quakers from Russia are setting sail for the United States. And when I say huge, I mean HUGE -- 200,000.

This especially alarmed me because the Friends World Committee for Consultation lists only three Friends Meetings in Russia. They must have the Russian version of mega-churches over there (I'd better contact Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute about this -- he's the expert in mega-churches). So are they mega-Meetings?

In case you think I'm making this up, here's the report, direct from the Los Angeles Herald.

NEW YORK, Jan. 11.— Two hundred thousand Russian Quakers are coming to this country to establish a permanent colony near Los Angeles, according to P. A. Beamans, who claims to have been at one time a captain in one of the regiments composing the Russian Imperial guard.

The advance guard of the so-called Russian "Quakers" recently arrived in Los Angeles and it is reported that 15,000 of the sect are preparing to follow. If they come anywhere near deserving the name which is commonly given in America to the Society of Friends they will be welcome in Southern California.

I read closer and noticed that the issue of the Herald was dated January 12, 1905.

So I guess the number of Friends in the United States will not be doubling anytime soon. Which I guess is okay, since I don't speak Russian anyway.

до свидания (do svidaniya),

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

30 Days of Smelling -- The Sweet Smell of Success

I went golfing today. This did not used to be an unusual event, but of late it has been. I don't get out nearly so much as I used to. So, even though it is almost the middle of June, this was just the second time I have been out this year.

The early morning saw me out golfing with my son-in-law Michael, grandson Anthony, and a fellow we just met named Steve Belden. Steve's a judge from Canton, Ohio and his daughter, we discovered, attends Malone University (where I attended) and is an intern at the Indianapolis Zoo (which I drive by often).

My goal -- seeing as how it was just my second time out this year -- was not to stink. And we all know how much stinking ... um ... stinks.

The newly re-opened Bald Head Island course (just a shade nicer than my usual courses in Indiana -- the fairways here resemble the greens there) proved quite a challenge -- lots of water and sand. I was hoping to acquit myself not too badly.

Now I used to be a pretty fair golfer. Not great, but not bad for a hacker. But to play well you have to play often. So my goal was to shoot somewhere under 110.

I know... an abysmal score, but for a course essentially new to me and with my lack of playing, I'd take it.

I will say, that by the grace of God, some lucky shots (off the decking surrounding the green and plopping right next to the hole), and a few "mulligans," I succeeded. 108. A couple of pars. A bunch of bogeys. And a few... well, let's just say they were pretty bad.

But the biggest smell, amid the myriad of smells including sea salt air, deep maritime woods, cool water, sweat, sunscreen, sun-baking skin, and so forth, was the smell of grace. So many times, as one of us approached a close putt (especially after a difficult hole) someone would say, "Oh, that's good. Pick it up." Words from family and a new friend alike.

Now I seriously doubt that I shall see Steve again (thought it is a small island we're on), but it was grace, I believe, that brought him into our lives for those five hours making our way around 18 holes. But I am grateful that he was part of them, grateful to have spent hours with two other of my favorite people (Michael and Anthony), and grateful for those few good strokes I put together -- without having a stroke in this heat.

Thank you, God, for this good day.

-- Brent

Monday, June 14, 2010

30 Days of Smell -- Sunscreen

In Tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire to take their clothes off and perspire
It's one of those rules the greatest fools obey
Because the Sun is far too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet rays
The natives grieve when the White Men leave their huts
Because they're obviously....definitely....Nuts!

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
-- Noel Coward, "Mad Dogs and Englishman"

Well, I am neither truly a mad dog or an Englishman (though the latter is my heritage -- and some wonder about the first), but I am in the tropical climes (sort of) and while I did take my clothes of and perspire, I took them off to put on a pair of bathing trunks and head out to the ocean side in the midday sun.

The water was refreshing but I am, as my good doctor put it, blessed with northern European fair skin, and so after a very short while, the scent of burning flesh accosted my nostrils. Okay, it was not quite that drastic, but noticed my shoulders felt a little warm. So I scrambled up out of the water and headed to my beach chair where I'd stashed my SPF4,000 sunscreen.

A little girl started crying when she saw me. "Mommy, what is that bleached white thing running up the sand?" she moaned, pointing. "Don't be afraid, darling," I heard the mother comfort her, "it's just Moby Brent, the great white whaleman."

Reaching my chair, I dried off and slathered the sunscreen on. It smells the same to me as it always did and brought back memories of being the whitest kid at Westview Swim Club in Columbus, Ohio. "The Amazing Brently -- The Boy Who Will Not Tan."

The few times I tried to tan, I ended up being badly sunburned. The sunburn then turned into a giant skin flakes until I looked like a reptile shedding his skin. While others tan as brown as a berry, I burn bright as a cherry. Not at all an attractive look.

So the scent of sunscreen soon came to mean safety from sunburn to me. A welcome smell of protection. Dowsing myself with sunscreen means I can go play in the ocean or spend hours at the holy game of golf and come home with my skin moisturized and as cadaverously white as when I left.

I also thought about other sun protection I have. Found in the Bible. Psalm 121:6 to be exact. "The sun will not smite thee by day..." King James Version. Ya just gotta love the idea of the sun not smiting. And why won't I be smitten? Because, "The LORD shall preserve thee..."

Ah, the ultimate sunscreen.

Okay, that may seem a bit of a stretch ... to go from the virtues of Coppertone Sport SPF 30 to the watchfulness of the Lord, but that's how a kid who grew up reading and memorizing the Bible thinks as an adult. I'm Bible-haunted and my life -- including sunscreen -- reminds me of verses.

I don't think that's a bad thing. Especially when I need protection from the sun -- and a number of other sorts of things, too.

Now, I have given up the idea that, even as buff as my body is, strolling the beach will ever get me longing glances, amazed at the rock hard abs and my deep dark tan and my full head of beached hair blowing in the breeze. Instead, I am an almost 60 year old white man who, if he wants to live until his 70s or 80s needs to cover up. And besides, it's fun to scare little kids occasionally.

-- Brent

Sunday, June 13, 2010

30 Days of Smelling -- Sea Salt

I am currently at one of my favorite places -- Bald Head Island, North Carolina. I started coming here about six years ago and it has not lost its charm. A quiet island south of Wilmington. No cars allowed. Right now the sun is sinking and the ocean looks silver in its light. Waves are up and the smell of salt is in the air.

Earlier, slathered in sunscreen, I made my way to the beach and played in the water. A hot, humid day was downright pleasant, basking as I was in sun and just sitting in that saline sea from which scientists say all life once began. Perhaps something in my genes calls me back to the salty soup that God created.

Regardless, this place smells different that Indiana. The heat and humidity are today about the same, but the scents here are decidedly different. And the salty smell of the sea reminded me of the vastness of creation.

The same God who created God's country of the Midwest (which truly is with its deep dirt just right for farming, woods and glens, rivers and streams, and masses of wildflowers) also made this place with its own special beauty -- sand, sea, sun, horizon, maritime woods, and marshes.

I have seen so little of this world and yet each place I've been has shown me a side of God that I could not see anywhere else. And most of all, on this trip, I have been struck by the wildly creative side of God -- the land and seascapes the Master Designer devised. Amazing. And for no other reasons, so far as I can tell or read in Scripture, that the pure pleasure of the creative act and for the our enjoyment and sustenance. Both physical and spiritual.

So on this Firstday (as we Quakers say), I give thanks for the smell of salt in the air -- even if it is accompanied by sand in my shoes.

-- Brent

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

30 Days of Smelling -- Mulberry

I had to mow today. It seems like I could say that every day. Though much of Ploughshares
50 acres is prairie and woods, most of the woods and prairie is new and must be maintained. Plus there's 5 acres of lawn, which sounds like a lot -- and is, except for the scale of the place. Five acres is about right to frame the house, allow for a football field (I am an Ohio native -- football is our state religion -- Go Bucks!), and line the 1/3 of mile driveway.

So there's lots of mowing -- with a bushhog and a John Deere Zero Turn Radius mower. The racing mower.

Which is what I was on tonight for 2 hours. It is fast, but mowing is still a chore.

As I thought of what I might smell tonight, I anticipated writing about newly mown grass. I had even figured out where I would go with that. But that was not the scent that captured my attention.

Instead it was the reek of over-ripened mulberries. We have tons of mulberry trees and the squirrels and birds have had a feast time ever since the mulberries came in. They were so heavy laden this year, in fact, that the squirrels and birds have not been able to keep up. They are rotting on the trees and the ground underneath. As I zip by, my nose is assaulted by the scent of rotting fruit above and below. Pungent, sweet, cloying. Not at all pleasant. Good mulberry wine and pies going to waste, I think, as my tire grind the berries into the ground. An abundance of fruit just rotting while I am at work in the city.

It caused me to stop and think about what other abundance I am letting go to waste while I am busy paying attention to other matters. Matters that I think are more important. And maybe they are more important. At the moment. And yet, there is abundance all around me and I fail to notice it. Instead I focus on the lack -- the lack of love I feel, the lack of resources, the lack of time, the lack of... And meanwhile I am blessed with SO MUCH. So much is rotting while I bemoan this perceived -- though not real -- lack.

God, teach me to see and use what you have given me before it goes to waste. And to quit fretting about that which I do not have.

-- Brent

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"Silence is wisdom where speaking is folly, and always safe."

-- William Penn

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

30 Days of Smelling -- Burning Human Flesh

Nice title, eh? Sorry about that. But that was the smell that was on my olfactory mind today. Except I did not end up smelling it. Hooray.

Okay, I'm old. I've admitted that before. And as I have aged, my sun-damaged skin has erupted in some interesting formation. I mean, for the most part they are not noticeable to anybody but me, but one on my back that started as small as a pencil dot had transmogrified into something that was growing larger than that US's 1960s-70s "police action" in Vietnam.

And we know how that ended for us.

So at my last trip to my good doctor (who I've been seeing off and on now for almost 30 years), she said she could remove it. Being afraid of needles, knives, and other other medical paraphernalia, I demurred. After all, I rarely see it, not being in the habit of turning my back on myself.

But I am heading to the beach soon. And I thought why should this beautifully sculpted male body (joke!) be marred by this ugly thing on my back?

So I made an appointment to have it removed. Today was the day. As we prepped for the removal (her by getting medical stuff ready and me by taking off my shirt!), we began talking about removal. "Burning it off?" I trembled. "No, we don't do that much anymore," she said.

Phew. Because I remember when I as a pre-teen I was afflicted with a severe case of warts. I had to have them burned off by Dr. George Clouse armed with what my current good doctor (Dr. Ludmilla Trammell) told me was an "electric needle."

"Oh, the smell," she said. "It was awful. It would stink up the whole office. Patients waiting would turn green." No kidding!? I turned green. And I was the patient. And I remember that smell.

In fact, I remember all day today wondering if that's what awaited me.

It didn't. She froze the thing off with liquid nitrogen. No muss, no fuss, no smell.

It still hurts like hell right now, but ... no stink.

As I thought of that smell today, I did think about how it represented a malignant part of me being excised. Something that needed to go. And burning, perhaps, was a good thing to smell in that case. Getting rid of something awful, should it be easy?

That's what our Puritanical (and I mean that in worst possible popular usage of that word -- nothing too close to the original Puritans) American religiosity calls for. Nothing worth having should come too easily. Faith is hard won and the smell of brimstone and hellfire is always in our spiritual nostrils.



There's grace. Grace abundant. As we used to sing (messing up the words), "There's a wildness in God's mercy, like the wildness of the sea."

Well, grace is pretty wild. And it doesn't reek of the stench of brimstone. Or burning flesh. And if that makes it "cheap," then cheap God's grace is.

Guilt. Well that's another matter. It stinks and hurts. And is a self-imposed burden that sometimes I need to carry. To remind me not to be so hateful and judgemental of others as I remember my own faults and failings.

But grace, like liquid nitrogen, attacks that which much be exorcised and does it fairly painlessly. Yes, there is a bit of pain now. But it is minor... a reminder of something that was ugly and harmful is no longer a part of me.

Perhaps I should apply grace more liberally to myself.

-- Brent

Monday, June 07, 2010

30 Days of Smelling -- Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I had a late night last night. I had agreed to pick up my friend Katie at the airport. Her plane was initially due at around 11:30 -- which is well after my usual bedtime of Quaker midnight. Quaker midnight, for the Methodists among the readership of this blog, is 10 p.m. (Sometimes, in my case, Quaker midnight comes earlier than 10 p.m. -- depending on how tired I am. I figure, if I'm tired enough, then it's got to be 10 p.m. somewhere in the world, and off to bed I go.)

But Quaker midnight came and went last night and I was still up. In fact, Katie texted me at around 10:30 saying they were just getting ready to take off from Atlanta. I tracked her flight for awhile on the Internet and then, when it said it had landed, headed for the airport.

I forgot about waiting for luggage. Anyhoo, it was past 12:30 a.m. before we wandered into the house. And I wandered straight to bed, after telling Katie to sleep in if she felt like it. "Will you sleep in?" she asked. "Probably not," I replied.

Sure enough, right at the crack of 6:30, just like usual, I was awake. Well, sort of. My body brought my mind out of slumber into an awareness that it was time to get up. Even though I didn't want to. At all. But I was eased into the new day by the smell of coffee brewing. Nancy, who always beats me up (hmmm, that doesn't sound quite right!) had been up for at least 30 minutes and the aroma of fresh coffee was filling the air. It made me feel almost alive.

Later, after an hour in the office, I smelled fresh coffee again. My little brother, rabbi Aaron Spiegel had made his way into the office, turned on his computer, and brewed a fresh pot of coffee as he does every morning he's here. I think it's a Jewish ritual.

At any rate, the smell perked me up again. And while some Friends joke that coffee is Quaker communion (we don't do the bread and wine thing), I did think just a bit about it as such whilst smelling that heavenly aroma.

It is a form of communion in many place -- if by communion we think of communing with each other. I know I've had many a deep conversation with a friend -- about life and God -- over coffee at the local brewhouse. And many times we officemates gather while pouring Coffeemate into our cups and recap our weekend's activities. And many is the cuppa Joe that I enjoyed in between Meeting for Worship and Firstday (Sunday) School.

While I often have enjoyed communion with my friends and family over coffee, I would also maintain that I have had communion with God in those moments as well. Both in the God whose Spirit lives in His children whether at Meeting or in the kitchen at work and in the goodness that comes from God's gift of coffee to us. Yes, I do think that all good things -- including coffee (sorry Mormons) -- come from God and are given for our pleasure.

And sometimes just to help us wake up.

I think I need to smell some coffee just now. And maybe sip some, too.

-- Brent

30 Days of Smelling -- an Invitation

Many of you know that I am in the process of writing my next book, Awakening Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (InterVarsity Press/2011), along with co-author, Beth Booram. Beginning last fall, Beth and I initiated a series of 30 day experiments focusing on each of the senses. We are on our fifth and final one--30 Days of Smell--and would love for you to join us as we begin this olfactory journey. The purpose is to hone our sense of smell and let it teach us to notice the fragrance of God in our world.

Beth and I invite you on one last adventure beginning today Monday, June 7th. Join us, please, in "scent"-sing God around us.

Here's how you can participate:
  • Put a note in your calendar for the next 30 days that reminds you to pay attention to what you smell.
  • Each day, notice fragrances, whether pleasant or repugnant, and ask God to speak to you through them.
  • Keep a journal of your experiences and what you learn.
  • Follow my blog, Beth's blog ( or join us on our Facebook and share your own stories. I
We look forward to hearing what you smell!

-- Brent

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"Eternal, grant me the possibility of revising, understanding and weighing everything anew, truly and freely, without violence. Grant me not to be fossilized against your Spirit and your Call, but to be ready at your command to start everything over again and undo all I had thought I had also built at your command previously."

-- Pierre Ceresole

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Quaker Wisdom for Today

"Jesus did not come to found an institution that would carry on after he was gone, but he came to die and rise again and continue to be present in the midst of his people as their abiding head."

-- Lewis Benson