Friday, December 28, 2012

The Singing of Angels

The Singing of Angels

Howard Thurman

There must be always
remaining in every life,
some place for the singing of angels.

Some place for that
which in itself
is breathless and
beautiful.

Old burdens become lighter
deep and ancient wounds
lose much of their old hurting.

Despite all the crassness of life,
all the hardness and
harsh discords,
life is saved by
the singing of angels.

Source: The Mood of Christmas

 
"Study of a Winged Figure" by John Rush

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gifts that keep on giving...

Gifts that keep on giving


You know when you unwrap them:
fruitcake is notorious. There were only
51 of them baked in 1917 by the
personal chef of Rasputin. The mad monk
ate one. That was what finally killed him

But there are many more bouncers:
bowls green and purple spotted like lepers.
Vases of inept majolica in the shape
of wheezing frogs or overweight lilies.
Sweaters sized for Notre Dame's hunchback.

Hourglasses of no use humans
can devise. Gloves to fit three-toed sloths.
Mufflers of screaming plaid acrylic.
Necklaces and pins that transform
any outfit to a thrift shop reject.

Boxes of candy so stale and sticky
the bonbons pull teeth faster than
your dentist. Weird sauces bought
at warehouse sales no one will ever
taste unless suicidal or blind.

Immortal as vampires, these gifts
circulate from birthdays to Christmas,
from weddings to anniversaries.
Even if you send them to the dump,
they resurface, bobbing up on the third

day like the corpses they call floaters.
After all living have turned to dust
and ashes, in the ruins of cities
alien archeologists will judge our
civilization by these monstrous relics.

"Gifts that keep on giving" by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon. © Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From the "Writer's Alamanac"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Anti-Christmas Limericks: A Little Un-Christmas Cheer

Five Limericks Against Christmas


Old Fellow of Dallas

There was an old fellow of Dallas
Who was filled with atheist malice
And on Christmas Eve
He cried, "I don't believe"
To small children, which was terribly callous.

Old Dame of Westchester

There was an old dame of Westchester
A nasty Christmas molester
Who took refuse and piled it
By the Christ child
And police were called to arrest her

Old Man of Seattle

There was an old man of Seattle
Engaged in atheist battle
At a living nativity
He got so livid he
Wrestled the sheep and the cattle

Three Girls of Vermont

There were three girls of Vermont
Atheists just like their aunt
The family was famous
For no Adoramus
And avoiding the baptismal fount

Old Man of Blue Hill

There was an old man of Blue Hill
Who when church was quiet and still
At Christmas Eve mass
Liked to pass gas
Toward a candle, just for the thrill


"Five Limericks Against Christmas," by Anonymous. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bridge...

Bridge

Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
but the sea was too wide and it didn't
go anyplace. I'm proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge which was his idea.
Now that I'm old the work goes slowly
but the material keeps coming as I hang
here in the air. Ever nearer death I like
it out here high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
which imitates the sky's thunder
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss, the fatal plummet. Tonight the moon
will be in my lap. This is my job, to study
the universe from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea,
the faint green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.

"Bridge" by Jim Harrison. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Slaughter and Love: A Poem In Response to Sandy Hook

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
In this time of darkness following the senseless slaughter of the innocents in Sandy Hook (and other children whose bodies are ripped apart by war and disease and hunger around the world), I am grateful that Love still takes the risk of birth.  Let us all, especially those of us who endeavor to follow the Prince of Peace risk loving and working for peace.  Let us incarnate the almighty Love and Light of God in a world seemingly filled with hatred and darkness.  May the God of Love and Light bless us -- the broken-hearted, the down-trodden, the safe in our cozy homes -- everyone.
 
With love,

Brent

Thursday, December 13, 2012

SIlence and the Urban Desert

"The crowded bus, the long queue, the railway platform, the traffic jam, the neighbor's television sets, the heavy-footed people on the floor above you, the person who still keeps getting the wrong number on your phone. These are the real conditions of your desert. Do not allow yourself to be irritated. Do not try to escape. Do not postpone your prayer. Kneel down. Enter that disturbed solitude. Let your silence be spoiled by those sounds. It is the beginning of your desert."
Alessandro Pronzato  -- Meditations on the Sand

Photo by Brent

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Innocence Mission has a New CD!

NEW RELEASE
A new album from Karen Peris, called Violet, is now available for purchase
as an immediate download, directly from our
webshop
as well as
iTunes, Amazon.com, emusic, etc.


CDs are now available - click here

"While we have been working on a new (the innocence mission) record, we've also enjoyed making recordings of a group of songs that seemed to belong together on a separate album. They were all written on piano. Some have words and are sung. I guess that's a bit redundant, unless we consider the possibility that they could have been rap songs. Well, anyway, about half the songs are sung, with piano and with beautiful guitar parts from Don. And the other half are piano, or piano and pump organ, and some other instruments. My instruments are all fairly old and NOISY, so Don gets a special award for most patient and excellent engineer. He worked so meticulously to record my old spinet and little field (pump) organ. The accordion was the funny last straw, it's started to sound like a giant bowl of rice crispies, so it is having a small rest. I'm thrilled that our children have added wonderful violin and viola parts to two of the songs. So I've had tremendous help with this record, which is called Violet, and it really has been a joy to make" .-Karen
 
I've ordered mine!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

then the rain came...

Rain

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

"Rain" by Raymond Carver, from The Collected Poems. © Knopf, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

The Gift of Books

Though it's hard to believe, there are less than three weeks left until Christmas.   And, like me, you may be searching for the perfect present.  How about giving a book?  And I'm happy to help you in that regard.

From now until December 20th, if you order one of the books below directly from me, I'll throw in:
  1. a free autograph and/or personalization (that's a $0 value!)
  2. a free copy of "Mind the Light: Learning to See With Spiritual Eyes" (list price is $14.95)
  3. free shipping (my way of supporting the USPS). 
Just send me an email at brentbil@brentbill.com to work out the money exchange details. 

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God -- In Awaken Your Senses, co-author Beth Booram and and I invite you to engage your right brain in your faith through sensory spiritual practices that position your heart for divine encounter.  $15.

Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality -- For centuries, Quakers have taught that when we are silent, God grants us insights, guidance, and spiritual understanding that is different from what we might realize in our noisy, everyday lives. This book invites you to discover this and other unique gifts of the Quaker way. $15.

Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment -- Sacred Compass offers a fresh and deeper way of living a God-directed life by drawing on the quiet beauty of the Quaker path to show how spiritual discernment is more about sensing God’s gracious presence than it is about making the right decisions.  $14

Imagination and Spirit: A Contemporary Quaker Reader -- The influence of the Quakers have far exceeded their perennially small membership, especially in terms of the written word.  Here's a sampling that graciously introduces Quaker faith to Friends and non-Friends alike.  $19.

If you order multiple copies of the same title, there's the amazing "Holiday Multiple Copy Super Discount" available.

Other of my books (classics?), such as "Stay Tuned," "Cruisin' and Choosin'", are available in limited quantities at exhorbitant rare volume prices. 

Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Remembered Light

by Clark Ashton Smith


The years are a falling of snow,
Slow, but without cessation,
On hills and mountains and flowers and worlds that were;
But snow and the crawling night in which it fell
May be washed away in one swifter hour of flame.
Thus it was that some slant of sunset
In the chasms of piled cloud--
Transient mountains that made a new horizon,
Uplifting the west to fantastic pinnacles-
Smote warm in a buried realm of the spirit,
Till the snows of forgetfulness were gone.

Clear in the vistas of memory,
The peaks of a world long unremembered,
Soared further than clouds, but fell not,
Based on hills that shook not nor melted
With that burden enormous, hardly to be believed.
Rent with stupendous chasms,
Full of an umber twilight,
I beheld that larger world.

Bright was the twilight, sharp like ethereal wine
Above, but low in the clefts it thickened,
Dull as with duskier tincture.
 
 
 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Tree Bones

Vertical


Perhaps the purpose
of leaves is to conceal
the verticality
of trees
which we notice
in December
as if for the first time:
row after row
of dark forms
yearning upwards.
And since we will be
horizontal ourselves
for so long,
let us now honor
the gods
of the vertical:
stalks of wheat
which to the ant
must seem as high
as these trees do to us,
silos and
telephone poles,
stalagmites
and skyscrapers.
But most of all
these winter oaks,
these soft-fleshed poplars,
this birch
whose bark is like
roughened skin
against which I lean
my chilled head,
not ready
to lie down.

"Vertical" by Linda Pastan, from Traveling Light. © Norton, 2010. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)
 
From the Writer's Almanac.
Photo by Brent Bill

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"There's a thread you follow..."

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


---William Stafford, The Way It Is

Hands...

Taking the Hands


Taking the hands of someone you love,
You see they are delicate cages . . .
Tiny birds are singing
In the secluded prairies
And in the deep valleys of the hand.

"Taking the Hands" by Robert Bly, from Silence in the Snowy Fields. © Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Alphabet & God

God's Letters


When God thought up the world,
the alphabet letters
whistled in his crown,
where they were engraved
with a pen of fire,
each wanting to begin
the story of Creation.

S said, I am Soul.
I can Shine out
from within your creatures.
God replied, I know that,
but you are Sin, too.

L said, I am Love,
and I brush away malice.
God rejoined, Yes,
but you are Lie,
and falsehood is not
what I had in mind.

P said, I am Praise,
and where there's a celebration,
I Perform
in my Purple coat.
Yes, roared God,
but at the same time,
you are Pessimism—
the other side of Praise.
And so forth.

All the letters
had two sides or more.
None was pure.
There was a clamor
in paradise, words,
syllables, shouting
to be seen and heard
for the glory
of the new heavens and earth.

God fell silent,
wondering,
How can song
rise from that commotion?

Rather than speculate,
God chose B,
who had intoned,
Bashfully, Boldly,
Blessed is his name.

And he made A
first in the Alphabet
for admitting, I am All—
a limitation
and a possibility.

"God's Letters" by Grace Schulman, from Days of Wonder. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

By Edgar Albert Guest 1881–1959
 
Gettin’ together to smile an’ rejoice,
An’ eatin’ an’ laughin’ with folks of your choice;
An’ kissin’ the girls an’ declarin’ that they
Are growin’ more beautiful day after day;
Chattin’ an’ braggin’ a bit with the men,
Buildin’ the old family circle again;
Livin’ the wholesome an’ old-fashioned cheer,
Just for awhile at the end of the year.

Greetings fly fast as we crowd through the door
And under the old roof we gather once more
Just as we did when the youngsters were small;
Mother’s a little bit grayer, that’s all.
Father’s a little bit older, but still
Ready to romp an’ to laugh with a will.
Here we are back at the table again
Tellin’ our stories as women an’ men.

Bowed are our heads for a moment in prayer;
Oh, but we’re grateful an’ glad to be there.
Home from the east land an’ home from the west,
Home with the folks that are dearest an’ best.
Out of the sham of the cities afar
We’ve come for a time to be just what we are.
Here we can talk of ourselves an’ be frank,
Forgettin’ position an’ station an’ rank.

Give me the end of the year an’ its fun
When most of the plannin’ an’ toilin’ is done;
Bring all the wanderers home to the nest,
Let me sit down with the ones I love best,
Hear the old voices still ringin’ with song,
See the old faces unblemished by wrong,
See the old table with all of its chairs
An’ I’ll put soul in my Thanksgivin’ prayers.

Thanks for a Bounty of People: Last Sunday's Sermon

Thanks for a Bounty of People
1 Chronicles 16:7-36

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

The sunlight is softer, this time of year.  And this softer light is golden, transforming the ordinary into extraordinary, helping me see the richness of life around me.

That’s why I love driving around Indiana at this time of year,  I drive and watch the light play across the countryside – field stubble casting shadows along the dirt, bare black tree limbs silhouetted against a royal blue sky, clouds puffy and white floating serenely along.  .

But I feel a sense of connectedness with the land and that sense grows stronger every year.  Yes, I was born and raised in the city and I often proclaim the wonders of that existence compared to that of my country cousins.  But the fact is I loved visiting the farms of our rural families.  And my father was a tramper of fields and forests.  We often were out and about.

That’s one reason I am happy about our house.  Nine years ago, the home site was a tangle of briars, thorn trees, and poison ivy all tangled in old fences.  Mark Peterson, Mike LaPorte, my dad and I began clearing all that Thanksgiving weekend, getting ready for building.  We worked in the rain and mud and cold and snow.  We cut, we sawed, we pulled bushes out with the tractor.  All through that work, I smelled the scents of farm and field – clumps of mud clinging to boots, wood smoke from burning limbs.

Then, as the house was being built, I’d hike back and work, watching the seasons move through – budding spring, humid summer.  Now we’re eight years in the house, and watching fall ebb, knowing winter is coming. 

I love it.  And more than that, this move and this time of year helps me remember that I am connected to God’s good earth all the time – from witnessing it’s visual beauty to partaking of its sustenance with every mouthful of food I eat.

That’s nice, you say, but what’s this all got to do with Thanksgiving or even today’s scripture lesson?  Precisely this.  Our Bible lesson is a psalm, one of the oldest, of God’s faithfulness.  That’s why the reading is from Chronicles instead of the Psalms (where the Psalm sung here is abbreviated as Psalm 96).  This faithfulness, to me, is evident in the changing seasons.  Crops are planted, grown, and harvested.  The soil rests over winter.  Though the face of the earth changes, God does not.  God watches over it all, and has for eons, and is faithful.

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

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

“Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges?…  Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?  Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?  Tell me, if you know all this.”

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

“Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?  Can you loose the cords of Orion?  Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?  Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?  Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?”

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

God asked Job these questions because it was important for Job to remember that God was not his enemy as he was coming to believe.  This encounter with the Lord was not to say why Job was suffering, but to learn, by faith, that God was his Creator, Sustainer, and Friend.

This is something we forget, but the Psalmist reminds us that the earth does not.  “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;” the psalmist sings, “let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’  Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!  Then the trees of the forest will sing, they will sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

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

Of course, what makes the countryside beautiful and rich are the memories it evokes.  And inevitably entwined in those memories are people.  The people whose woods I walked in.  The families whose haylofts I played in.  The folks, past and present, who molded my life.  I remember Grandpa and Grandma Bill, Uncle Johnny, Uncle Burt, Aunt Orie, cousin Ernie, and on and on.  A parade of Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and pastors also march past.  As do people from the present.  Not a farmer myself, the seasons of my life have been blessed by a rich bounty of people, not crops.  And I am richer for them all.  They have been the jubilant fields and singing trees, singing “for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”  They planted the seeds of faith in my life and watered them and watched them grow.  Some of them have sung the song of harvest home.  Some I get to see daily.  Regardless, they continue to bless me.

God’s land and God’s people are intricately interwoven.  Even those of us who rarely venture outside the city limits are tied to the earth by strong bonds and a bounty of people.  And this season is about giving thanks for that bounty to the gracious God who loves us more than we can imagine.

I came across a thanksgiving poem the other day that expresses that thought better than I am able.  It’s by Max Coots and says:

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.

For children who are our second planting, and, though they grow like weeds and wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks; For generous friends ... with hearts ... and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbage, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you throughout the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;

And, finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.

 
Let us give thanks, this holiday time, for golden light, good friends, and God’s graciousness.  May we open our eyes to jubilant fields and singing trees.  Soaring clouds, be they white or gray with rain.  Winds warm or chilled by the north.  People who are made in God’s own image.  Let us give thanks and “sing for joy before the LORD.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New Quaker Outreach Tool

This idea occurred to me whilst reading classic Peanuts cartoons.  We could set up little stands like this all around the world and solve two problems at one time.  1) We could explain that we are NOT the Amish.  2) We could raise a little financial capital, too.

Hmmm, wonder what FGC's New Meetings Project working group will think of this idea?


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"the dogs were warmth and love..."

Shackleton's Decision

At a certain point he decided they could not afford
the dogs. It was someone's job to take them one by one
behind a pile of ice and shoot them. I try to imagine
the arctic night which descended and would not lift,

a darkness that clung to their clothes. Some men objected
because the dogs were warmth and love, reminders
of their previous life where they slept in soft beds,
their bellies warm with supper. Dog tails were made

of joy, their bodies were wrapped in a fur of hope.
I had to put the book down when I read about the dogs
walking willingly into death, following orders,
one clutching an old toy between his teeth. They trusted

the men who led them into this white danger,
this barren cold. My God, they pulled the sleds
full of provisions and barked away the Sea Leopards.
Someone was told to kill the dogs because supplies

were running low and the dogs, gathered around
the fire, their tongues wet with kindness, knew
nothing of betrayal; they knew how to sit and come,
how to please, how to bow their heads, how to stay.


"Shackleton's Decision" by Faith Shearin, from Moving the Piano. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Autumn Poem

A Long and Gracious Fall


A long and gracious fall this year.
The leaves are down. Gardens: emptied,
manured, tilled, smooth, and waiting.
Mower and tiller serviced and put away.

Smoker put away, as is the summer table.
Prayer flags, windsocks and their poles: down.
Twenty-foot homemade badminton poles,
peace flag at the top of one, store-bought net—
all down and put away for another year. No more
outdoor summer chores.

Fall planting — peonies and tiger lilies — done.
Summer flower stalks removed, beds mulched,
a blanket for the cold. Fall pruning done.

Woodshed roof hammered down and sealed again.
Cellar closed. Drive staked and flagged so the
snowplow knows where to go.

What else is there to do? Finally, for once, we are ready
for the snow. Ready now to come inside. Time now for
words and music, poems and shakuhachi. Time now
to light some incense, sit and stare at candlelight.
 
"A Long and Gracious Fall" by David Budbill, from Happy Life. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Friday, November 09, 2012

Divinity

What is Divinity

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch,
These are the measures destined for her soul.

"What is Divinity" by Wallace Stevens, from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
from "The Writer's Almanac"

"Take those old records off the shelf...."

Ode to the Vinyl Record


The needle lowers into the groove
and I'm home. It could be any record
I've lived with and loved a long time: Springsteen
or Rodrigo, Ray Charles or Emmylou
Harris: Not only the music, but
the whirlpool shimmering on the turntable
funneling blackly down into the ocean
of the ear—even the background
pops and hisses a worn record
wraps the music in, creaturely
imperfections so hospitable to our own.
Since those first Beatles and Stones LPs
plopped down spindles on record players
we opened like tiny suitcases at sweaty
junior high parties while parents were out,
how many nights I've pulled around
my desires a vinyl record's cloak
of flaws and found it a perfect fit,
the crackling unclarity and turbulence
of the country's lo-fi basement heart
madly spinning, making its big dark sound.

"Ode to the Vinyl Record" by Thomas R. Smith, from The Foot of the Rainbow. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"
 
PS Yes, those are some of my 45s and LPs.  Still have hundred of them...

Thursday, November 08, 2012

"Will All Our Visitors Please Stand?"

“Will all our visitors please stand?” If someone finally is brave enough to walk through the doors of your church, the last thing they want is to be singled out. They probably don’t know the songs you’re singing or the prayers or responsive readings you’re reading. Depending on the translation of the Bible you use, the scripture may not make much sense, and they probably have no idea where the bathroom is. So why add to the discomfort by making them stand so everyone can stare at them? Also, calling someone a visitor already implies they are simply passing through, that they’re not a part of things. Instead of “visitor” or “guest,” try something less loaded like “newcomer.” Better yet, walk up to them, introduce yourself and learn their name.  from Christian Piatt's "Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use."

Ah, my research on new congregations for FGC's New Meetings Project says this over ... and over... and over again.  Now, with every head bowed and every eye closed ....

-- Brent

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Quakers and Church Planting -- Two Reviews

As part of my work for FGC's New Meetings Project, I've gathered a stack of books about how to start new churches.  I blogged a bit about some premises gathered from Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts by Jim Griffith and Bill Easum.  After reading that book, I moved on to The House Church Book: Rediscover the Dynamic, Organic, Relational, Viral Community Jesus Started by Wolfgang Simson.

I had great hopes for this book.  After all, I have had some experience in helping to start a "house church" (Friends in Fellowship that meets at Ploughshares Farm) and I think the house church model may be helpful to Quakers as we think about ways of seeding new meetings and worship groups.  That idea seems to me to be very much in keeping with how the early Friends did their "church planting" work. 

So I opened this book with great anticipation -- only to find that it's just horrid and unhelpful. Its scope is as small as its premise -- and is far from "dynamic, organic, relational, viral" and "Jesus" (to quote the cover). There's a mean-spirit about this book -- criticising and dismissive of all other expressions of what it means to be church. Disdainful that God might be at work in other forms.  And the author's "biblical" premises for his positions seem to me as if he's reading some other Bible than mine. I finally put it down in disgust without finishing it.  It will be one of the few books that gets literally recycled -- I don't want anybody I know to read it.  Or anybody I don't know -- so it's not going to Goodwill or Friends of the Library.

In some ways I feel I should have known better than to expect good things from this book.  It's forward is by George Barna and the book is published by his company.  I've long had a negative bias  against his church research (after all, I do hang around with social scientists of religion and American congregations and was once a member myself of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion) and my friends do not tend to have a high regard for his methodology.  Plus he always seems to have something to "sell" -- both figuratively and literally.  I should have avoided this book and I recommend you do, too.

Reading Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities by Frank Viola was time much better spent (at least I didn't find myself throwing the book down in disgust!). 

Viola offers a number of helpful thoughts (including practical arrangements for starting a new group -- where to meet, time, etc.), an detailed view of what he considers "apostolic" church planting based on his reading of the New Testament, and the idea that "organic" is the way to go. The organic, as he describes it, method of church planting seems to me to have much to commend it and indeed reminded me of early Quakers establishment of meetings and the way our meetings today (at their best) conduct worship (fully participatory by those attending) and business (striving toward a sense of the meeting -- though Viola used the term consensus, which is something close, but not equal to the sense of the meeting). Some of Viola's s suggestions could come straight from a "Quaker church playbook" were there such a thing. But, he seems not to have heard (or at least, studied) us at all.

Some things about this book were off-putting. The main one is his use of the male pronoun -- "he" this, "him" that. He says in the preface that he "has no problem with the idea that women can engage in apostolic work" but that "it's simpler to write 'he' than "he or she." Lame -- both as an excuse and for lazy writing.  So I think women who read this will find it tough going. 

Another thing is what I consider his tortured reading of the New Testament to make it conform to his "apostolic" method. I think that he makes a lot of assumptions about what scripture says and infers that are not laid out as clearly in the Bible as he implies they are.  Many of them are good thoughts -- it's just that it's more eisegesis than exegesis

Viola's also a bit repetitive -- especially when giving the biblical basis for his model, which he contends begins with how the Trinity interacts. A bit of a stretch there, too, I think.

Still, there's a good deal of helpful material here, much of which I hope to adapt for use by the New Meetings Project.  If you can read past his seeming gender and Biblical biases, I think you'll find it worth the read -- at the very least it will help you think about issues surrounding starting new Quaker groups (and maybe revitalizing some older ones) today.

-- Brent

Monday, November 05, 2012

Twilight

Twilight: After Haying


Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed —
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
— sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen...the soul's bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses....

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
 
"Twilight: After Haying" by Jane Kenyon, from The Boat of Quiet Hours. © Graywolf Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Friday, November 02, 2012

November Night

November Night
by Adelaide Crapsey
Listen. . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

Monday, October 29, 2012

"Bedtime" by Levertov

Bedtime


We are a meadow where the bees hum,
mind and body are almost one

as the fire snaps in the stove
and our eyes close,

and mouth to mouth, the covers
pulled over our shoulders,

we drowse as horses drowse afield,
in accord; though the fall cold

surrounds our warm bed, and though
by day we are singular and often lonely.
 
"Bedtime" by Denise Levertov from Poems 1960-1967. © New Directions Publishing, 1983. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Letting go...

I must let go.
For so long I have held to the habit of holding on.
Even my muscles
Are tense; deeply fearful are they
Of relaxing lest they fall away from their place.
I cling clutchingly to my friends
Lest I lose them.
I live under the shadow of being supplanted by another.
I cling to my money, not so much
By a wise economy and a thoughtful spending
But by a sense of possession that makes me depend upon it for strength.
I must let go--
Deep at the core of me
I must have a sense of freedom -
A sure awareness of detachment - of relaxation.
I must let go of everything.
I must let go of pride. But--
What am I saying? Is there not a sense of pride
That supports and sustains all achievement,
Even the essential dignity of my own personality?
It may be that I must let go
My dependence upon triumphing over my fellows, which seems
To give me a sense of security in their midst.
I cringe from my pain; I do not relish
The struggle of life but I do not want to let go
Because the hurt and the tension of contest feed
The springs of my pride. They make me deeply aware.
But I must let go of everything.
I must let go of everything but God.
But God--May it not be
That God is in all the things to which I cling?
That may be the hidden reason for my clinging.
It is all very puzzling indeed. When I say
"I must let go of everything but God"
What is my meaning?
I must relax my hold on everything that dulls my sense of Him,
That comes between me and the inner awareness of His Presence
Pervading my life and glorifying
All the common ways with wonderful wonder.
"Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions,
So that in my trust I shall find restored to me
All I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With aught that is less."
Howard Thurman
Source: Deep Is the Hunger

Friday, October 26, 2012

Quakers and Money -- The Evil Offering Plate

I was reading "Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts" and came across this passage which made me thing of the recent discussions I've heard and articles I've read (primarily in Friends Journal, see especially Merry Stanford's excellent "The Ministry of Giving Money") about Friends and money. 

Baskets in the back of the room don't cut it. They send the wrong message to the person looking for a serious place to their[sic] money. Baskets in the rear scream, "The way we handle money isn't important." Putting baskets in the back doesn't teach people how to handle their money. If you want serious givers to give ... take an offering; and don't use baskets in the back of the room.

Hmmm, baskets in the back of the room -- sounds like many Friends meetings I know.


-- Brent

Christ Visible

Christ Visible

Rumi

 
A mouse and a frog meet every morning on the river bank.
They sit on the ground and talk.

Each morning, the second they see each other,
they open easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding back.

To watch and listen to those two
is to understand how, as it's written,
sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.

Source: The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Preacher

The Preacher


When times were hard, no work on the railroad, no work down on the farm, some
of my ancestors took to preaching. It was not so much of what was said as the way
in which it was said. "The horn shall sound and the dog will bark and though you
be on the highest mountain or down in the deepest valley when the darkness comes
then you will lie down, and as the day follows the night you will surely rise again.
The Lord our God hath made both heaven and earth. Oh, my dear brothers and
sisters we know so well the ways of this world, think then what heaven must be
like." It required a certain presence, a certain authority. The preacher was treated
with respect and kept at a bit of a distance, like a rattler. There wasn't much money
in it but it was good for maybe a dozen eggs or a chicken dinner now and then.

 
"The Preacher" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It. © Will O' the Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I read this poem today on "The Writer's Almanac" and was struck by memories of how we, when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, treated our "preachers" and thoughts of how those called to public ministry of Word and Sacrament are treated today. I also recalled a "conversation" between two preacher-types in John Updike's Rabbit Run.

“Do you think,” Kruppenbach at last interrupts, “do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: the psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up the holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job.”

Now it seems for many of us, the "preacher" is our friend, confidant, golfing buddy -- no longer "kept at a bit of a distance, like a rattler."  She "plugs up the holes and makes everything smooth;" he makes as much money as us and buys his own dozen eggs and chicken dinners.
 
Now this is certainly more in keeping with my Quaker-ish understanding that there should be no clergy -- all Christians are called to ministry, after all.  But, even in my Friend-ly experience, there are people I recognize as possessing "a certain presence, a certain authority."  And while I long to be spiritual friends with them, I still approach them with a certain respect and distance. 
 
And reading Jenkins' poem and Kruppenbach's preaching (if you have a chance, read the whole section) to his younger counterpart, I began musing if this super-friendly connection with our preachers (clergy or not) has also trickled down to our relationship with the Divine.  In the same way we no longer keep our preachers at a distance and now embrace them to our hearts, thereby robbing the position of a certain bit of presence, authority, and ... dare I say it? ... danger, has that filtered down into our relationship with God.  A bit too friendly and not quite wary -- as in a rattler -- enough?
 
I certainly preach (when invited or called to speak) of our God of love -- the One who Loves us more than we can imagine.  But I still find encounters with the Divine mysterious, awesome -- and more than a bit dangerous at times.
 
I don't long for a return to the days of either Kruppenbach or the preachers in the poem. At least so far as how they were treated.  Still, a bit of respect might not hurt -- and might help us, who so easily gaze upon the God we feel comfortable with and do not die (Exodus 33:20), step a bit more carefully into that eternal "Certain Presence, Certain Authority."
 
-- Brent 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Quakers and ... um... the "E" Word

I must admit I feel just delighted to be in my new position as coordinator of Friends General Conference's New Meetings Project.  The projects goals are something I believe in and have written about for a number of years -- most recently on posts here and some other blogs.

As part of this position, I've been doing a lot of reading and research.  And I'll be sharing that reading and research here and (hopefully!) elsewhere.  On my shelf (in place of my usual stack of novels and short-story collections) are titles such as Planting Missional Churches, The House Church Book, Organic Church,  Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts and more.  Many of these have at least some information helpful to Friends -- especially if we're willing to wade past some assumptions (you can decide what they are) and look for the nuggets that are helpful.

While I do think that a Quaker model of starting new congregations and/or worship groups will vary in methodology and practice from most other denominational models (I mean, if we want to be true to our Friend-ly roots and theological understandings of congregations as being comprised of people of faith called and led by the Spirit to do God's work together and not organized and/or presided over by ordained clergy*), there are some things we can learn from others' efforts.  And one struck me this evening whilst reading Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by by New Church Starts.  The authors say:
Our experience has confirmed that over 80 percent of those who visit a church and return to that church and gradually become enfolded into that faith community do so on the elbow already connected to that church.  So work on making your your church the most loving and inviting place in the area so when people do show up they are loved.

Hmmmm.  Two thoughts occur to me.  If 80% of those who visit, return, and become involved do so because someone has brought/invited them, then perhaps we had best shed a bit of our Quaker reticence to let others know that we are Friends, and friendly, and would welcome them.  Yikes! Invite a friend to Friends?  Well, yes.  In a Friend-ly sorta way, of course -- a mere invitation would suffice.  Either personally ("Um... err... I'm a Quaker.  You wouldn't want to come to Meeting me with me, would you?" probably isn't the best approach, though) or corporately through Facebook or Google ads or the like.

The second is that "loving and inviting" line.  What I noticed when I read that is the lack of of specific theological position mandate.  Evangelical.  Liberal. Programmed.  Unprogammed. Middle of the road.  Nope, the theological mandate is love.  Reminds me of something I read in a certain pretty important book -- "the greatest of these is love." 

Loving, inviting Meetings, filled with people of Spirit.  Perhaps that's a sort of Quaker E- E- E- En-vitation we can embrace.

-- Brent

"... changed, a little."

Sojourns in the Parallel World


We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension—though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it 'Nature: only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be 'Nature' too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal—then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we've been, when we're caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
—but we have changed, a little.

"Sojourns in the Parallel World" by Denise Levertov from Sands of the Well. © New Directions Books, 1994. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Midlife"

A poem by my friend Julie Cadwallader-Staub -- as featured on the Writer's Alamanc.

Midlife


This is as far as the light
of my understanding
has carried me:
an October morning
a canoe built by hand
a quiet current

above me the trees arc
green and golden
against a cloudy sky

below me the river responds
with perfect reflection
a hundred feet deep
a hundred feet high.

To take a cup of this river
to drink its purple and gray
its golden and green

to see
a bend in the river up ahead
and still
say
yes.

"Midlife" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"In Heaven it is Always Autumn"

In Heaven It Is Always Autumn


"In Heaven It Is Always Autumn"
John Donne

In heaven it is always autumn. The leaves are always near
to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven's paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven's calm, they take each other's arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that's said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?

Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
shining brightly
as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we're here, I think it must
be heaven.


"In Heaven It Is Always Autumn" by Elizabeth Spires, from Now the Green Blade Rises. © W.W. Norton, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Friday, October 19, 2012

"we are alive/ with one another..."

A Prayer among Friends


Among other wonders of our lives, we are alive
with one another, we walk here
in the light of this unlikely world
that isn't ours for long.
May we spend generously
the time we are given.
May we enact our responsibilities
as thoroughly as we enjoy
our pleasures. May we see with clarity,
may we seek a vision
that serves all beings, may we honor
the mystery surpassing our sight,
and may we hold in our hands
the gift of good work
and bear it forth whole, as we
were borne forth by a power we praise
to this one Earth, this homeland of all we love.


"A Prayer among Friends" by John Daniel, from Of Earth. © Lost Horse Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
 
From "The Writer's Almanac"

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Trees" -- A Poetic Complaint Filed with the Creator

Another in the series "Fifty Acres and Fool"

I think that I shall never see
A thing so evil as a tree
That reaches out of time and space
To smack me right across the face
No matter how low I lean and duck
I always find that I've been struck
By locust trees with wicked barbs
Or oaks and maples that mean me harm.
"Why?" is the question that I ask
When all I'm doing is mowing grass
Or thistles or pokeberry growing fast.
To the many trees I mean no ill
So why do they endeavor to spill
Me from the John Deere's seat
Or turn m'nose and cheek into raw meat?
Oh dear Creator reigning up above
Who embues his creation with all sorts of love
Couldst thou please speak to thy trees
And ask them to give me some ease
Quit battering me from head to toes
As I mow along the grassy rows
To give me some grace as I pass
Lest they feel my chainsaw's wrath!

-- with apologies to Joyce Kilmer, but not to the trees.

I am bloodied but not bowed and will sally forth to mow again this afternoon!

Or to post more pictures of the offenders.