Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Brent's Books On Kindle

I'm happy to announce that Mind the Light is now available on Kindle.  Mind the Light was first released in paperback in 2006. 

When it was released, Publishers Weekly said, "Those seeking a series of clever tips for cultivating spiritual growth overnight will not want to delve into this deceptively simple meditation on the Quaker custom of mindful seeing. A Friends minister and author of Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality, Bill describes his book as "a way of seeing our inner and outer lives with spiritual eyes and discovering the connectedness between inner and outer sight." Like a neighborly conversation across a kitchen table, this slender volume emphasizes the mundane details of daily life as they are enlightened by being attentive to the Spirit of God that Quakers believe dwells within each person."

While it's still available in limited quantities on-line and in bookstore, it has been declared out of print by the publisher.  So I've been able to make Mind the Light available, as originally printed, as a Kindle book -- for the low price of $2.99.

For those of you who like Kindle, a few other of my titles are also available there.

Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment was called by Richard J. Foster  "one of the finest books on discernment and divine guidance that I have seen in a very long time."

Also available is Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (with co-author Beth Booram).  Parker J. Palmer says, "With Awaken Your Senses, Brent Bill and Beth Booram have given us a superb resource for seeking the God of life through sensuous experience, a way of knowing that has been sadly neglected--and too often held suspect--by the church. How did a faith based on the claim that 'the Word became flesh' become so divorced from bodily, incarnate knowledge? Here is a beautiful book that will help us reclaim our bodies, our senses and our relationship with God."

Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality has also recently been released on Kindle.  Publishers Weekly said, "In this brief primer on Quakerism in general and silence in particular, the author uses a practical tone to anchor reflections on what is essentially a matter of mystery: how God speaks in and through individual and communal silence. A self-confessed "type A personality," Bill brings a buoyant but realistic tone to his subject. Interspersed with quotations from various Christian writers and pauses for "quietude queries," or reflective moments for relaxation and contemplation, the slim volume is a useful tool for readers seeking a guide to devotional practice."

Coming soon is a new edition of David B. Updegraff: Quaker Holiness Preacher.  So far this is the only modern biography of this radical Quaker preacher of the 19th century.  2013 will mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of this landmark work.  The new Kindle version will be an expansion of the 1983 edition and will include research I have done since that edition was originally published.

Enjoy -- happy reading!

-- Brent

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sunflowers & Souls: From Mind the Light

(from Mind the Light)

Light: Without it we die. Physically.Spiritually.

Our very lives depend on light for photosynthesis—energy from sunlight that converts into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel used by all living things. That’s why sunflowers track the sun across the sky, sea otters bask while floating in the ocean, and I look for an excuse to go to Florida in January. All God’s creatures move toward the light—flowers, trees, people. Light is constant and ever present. At least that’s what we assume. Then the power goes out or a month of clouds rolls in. We grumble and moan and whine until the light comes back.

But even more than physically, we respond to illumination emotionally and spiritually. Light—depending on its strength, tone, slant—changes how we perceive the world and people. Light sets a Midwestern sunset apart from a Western desert sunset, a Goya portrait from a John Singer Sargent portrait, and a joyful spirit apart from a mournful one. Yet even though light is all around us, we often don’t notice it and the difference it can make in our souls. That’s where an old Quaker saying—“Mind the Light”—offers help. “Mind” in this case means many things—including heed, tend, notice, observe, and obey. Minding the Light is a way of deep seeing.

I need help seeing. I’ve been nearsighted since high school and joined the bifocaled folks when I turned forty. I’m also diabetic. That means I go to my optometrist annually and have my eyes thoroughly checked. At a recent examination, Dr. Groninger talked me into trying contact lenses.

I liked the immediate results. I looked days younger with them—so much younger I considered getting a toupee and dyeing my beard. But I had trouble reading. I saw faraway stuff. But not near. The first day I went out to lunch with people from the office and picked up the check. That’s about all I did, because I couldn’t read it. I had to trust a coworker to fill in the amount for the tip.

So I went back to the doctor. She made an adjustment. Much better. I could read. But then I started driving. My distance was blurrier. Another week and I was back. “What do you think?” Dr. Groninger asked. “Well, I like not messing with glasses. I like the freedom. But I’m still having trouble— now it’s distance.” “Let’s try modified monovision.” She explained that she was going to power up my left eye for reading and my right eye for distance. “Oh, we’re going to trick my brain, huh?”

“Not really,” she said. Then she explained that sight already tricks our brains. We favor one eye over the other all the time, based on what our needs are. If we’re in a concert and someone with a big hat sits in front of us, the eye that can see the show tells the brain, “Hey, pay attention here and forget that hat.” And we do. So now I’m learning to see in a new way and tell my brain what to pay attention to.

The poet Tess Gallagher writes:

My father loved first light.
He would sit alone
at the yellow formica table
in the kitchen with his coffee cup
and sip and look out . . .

My father picks up his
cup. Light is sifting in
like a gloam of certainty
over the water. He knows
something there in the half light
he can’t know any other way.

That’s what Mind the Light is about: A way to learn things in the light, whether at Formica tables with coffee cups or quietly reading a spiritual memoir or in the middle of our workaday world. Minding the Light adds a further dimension to eyes and brain: our souls. It helps us pay attention to God’s Light around us and in us. How we see our lives changes as this illumination leads us to a deep appreciation of the soulful things of life. Minding the Light is an invitation to experience a new way of seeing that shows our brains and souls what to pay attention to. It’s a way of seeing our inner and outer lives with spiritual eyes and discovering the connectedness between inner and outer sight.

Throughout Mind the Light you’ll encounter boxed text labeled “Illuminating Moments.” These are meant as brief exercises in Minding the Light. Illuminating Moments are based on the Quaker practice of asking Queries. The Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are officially known) have used Queries for almost 350 years as a way to examine our souls, seek clarity, and gain spiritual insight. Queries are a practice that can be used by anyone looking for God’s Light in life. The Illuminating Moments in this book are not about mystical experiences of God, though they may occur. As you read the Illuminating Moments, let your mind and soul fill with words, ideas, or images. Using the Light of God inside and outside you, look deeply into the Holy.

Learning to Mind the Light is CPR for the soul. It’s an encounter that will save your light. 

the above is an excerpt from Mind the Light: Learning to See with Spiritual Eyes which is now available for $2.99 on Kindle.   You can download a free sample chapter!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fifty Acres and a Fool: Rain and Redemption

"No rain in sight."  Hmmm.  How my perspective on that phrase has changed.

It used to be I longed to hear it.  Especially on weekends, when I had time off to go golfing, put the top down on the old MG, or just generally have fun.  Even after I began tending the farm I often looked forward to those words -- they meant that I would have unbroken hours to get the mowing and other chores done.

But this spring I am watching the sky with hope and the dry dirt with alarm.  That's because there are zillions of tiny seeds planted in that ground by my friend Dan "Woody" Wood and I.  Rain is need to help them sprout and grown.  And there's no rain in sight.

We planted the seed at the very end of April.  Since then, we've had a little over two inches of rain -- in a month that normally sees 5+ inches.  We've had lots of sun, hot weather, and warm breezes.  All good and necessary things.  But, without rain, the fields that were seeded are drying out.  I walk those fields almost every evening, killing poke berry, thistle, and briars and scanning the seeding rows for signs of sprouts.  They are few and far between -- and that is a reality, not a cliche. 

Late yesterday afternoon and early evening I heard the sound of distant thunder.  A friend came to worship and reported that his freshly washed car was rained on while coming there.  I was jealous.  Not a drop fell on the farm.  The tantalizing sound of thunder was like an false-hearted lover's empty teasing. 

Finally, in the early early morning hours, rain fell.  One-tenth of an inch.  Better than none, but still not nearly as much as I hoped for. 

As I drove by the fields on the way to work this morning, I noticed that the rain was just enough to help make soybeans sprout in the field next to mine.  And I rejoiced in Doug Cook's good farming fortune.  But the prairie grasses and wildflower seeds are tiny and temperamental and so far are content to stay snug in their earthen beds.


Which, in made me think -- of all things -- about Quakers and gambling.  We've long been agin it -- casinos, horse racing, the lottery.  And yet many Quakers spring from farming stock and what bigger gamble is there than farming.  Like the lottery and casinos, the odds are against you -- everything has to fall just right (sunlight, rain, growing degree days, etc) if a crop is to come in.  All the preparatory work, seed selection, machine fixing, planting, and so forth go to naught if sunlight and rain do not fall at the right times -- or do at the wrong times.  Talk about a gamble.

And yet the hope to grow something persists.  For some it is more than a hope.  It is a need.  For income.  For feeding a family or the human family.  For purpose and meaning, even.  It's becoming so for me.  The warm season grass and wild flower seeds sprouting (hopefully!) will not positively impact my economic bottom line.  Nor will they feed my family or the world directly.  But they will provide beauty.  They will help cleanse the polluted air from our nearby city.  They will provide food for the bees, birds, bunnies, deer and other wildlife.  They will provide housing for various wildlife, as well.  They will make the world better.

Seeding those fields (and planting tree saplings in others) is my way of participating in Tikkun olam.  That's a concept I learned from my little Jewish brother, Aaron Spiegel.  Aaron told me that tikkun olam means  "repairing the world" or "healing and restoring the world" and is tied to the Jewish belief that we have a shared responsibility to work with God in healing and transforming the world.

We are all called to work with God in the healing of the world.  We all have the opportunity to work with God in redeeming the world.  We are called to this wonderful that will also, beside repairing the world, repair us.  Now planting a prairie or a woodlands may not be everyone's cup of tikkun olam, but it does seem to be mine at this time in my life.  And for all my grumbling (and I do plenty of it) about how I'd rather be living in a condo downtown and letting someone else do it, I'm not ready to let go of that call yet.

And so tonight, when I get home, I'll scan the weather channel in hopes of rain on the forecast horizon and then walk the fields and look for sprouts and speak prayers of encouragement to the ground and the bounty of beauty and redemption it holds.

And I will up my eyes unto the heavens, from whence cometh my rain.  Or at least I hope it will!

- Brent

Monday, May 14, 2012

Fifty Acres and Fool: More Weeds -- and God

I took a break from farming this weekend -- a combination birthday gift to myself and Mothers Day present for Nancy. We went to southern Indiana to visit some family there. The men-f0lk went golfing (I shot a 97, not bad for my first time this year), the women went shopping, we all went out to eat, and then to a movie. It was a nice relaxing time.

It rained a good bit while we were there. In fact it rained a whole freakin' bunch. Which would have made me feel not so bad for not being homing snuffing out weeds except I checked the weather report which reported that our place, just two "r's" (as they say in southern Indiana) to the north was basking under sunny skies and mild temperatures.

Perfect weed growing weather.

So I fretted a bit -- thinking I should be Round-up-ping the dastardly poke berry and its noxious relatives whose sole evil purpose (other than to survive) was to make my prairie life miserable. I should be home, I thought, removing every stain of weedy sin from the land so that a wonderful crop of WSG and forbs might emerge to the glory of ... well, um, Brent.

During one of my weedy musings, the thought occurred to me that I may care a whole lot more about weeds -- both real and metaphoric -- than God does.

Part of that comes from remembering an old joke about story about a man who bought a farm that was overgrown with bushes and weeds. The place was a mess. But slowly the man began to clear the weeds and bush and turned the farm into a show place -- weed free and verdant. One day the man's minister came to visit, and when he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he observed, "Well, friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden."

To which the homeowner replied, "You should have seen it when God had it by himself."

I feel that way sometimes. Yep, when God had Ploughshares by himself, he pretty much let it go to seed -- bush honeysuckle seed, poke berry seed, etc. It's taking a lot of work to clear the invasives out and let the good stuff grow. Blood, sweat, and tears -- literally.

And, truth be told, should I stop doing this, then in a few years, the place would be busy and weedy again. And God would not seem to care. Birds would still nest, coyotes would make their dens, deer would tramp down the tall grass for their beds, bees would zoom around the poke berry and bush honeysuckle and iron weed and milkweed and... life would go on. And it would be -- if not aesthetically pleasing as I want -- still good.

And I wondered -- do I worry too much about weeding in my life? Weeding the teeny-tiny sins out? OCD for righteousness?

Some of that nature in me, comes, I know, from growing up in a place where altar calls were not uncommon and guilt was the faith flavor of the day. We were sinners facing the wrath of an -- if not angry -- pretty peeved God. And at 9 and 10 I knew I was sinner and sins that needed to be rooted out like weeds -- even if I couldn't quite figure out what they were. I mean, I was serial smart-ass, not a serial killer.

But it's a tendency that's hard to shake after all these years -- the need for perfection, to root out evil. Even though, when I get to the end of my field and look back and see sin seedlings popping up!

How can that be?

I'm starting to decide that it can be because that's how human life it. We sow good and sometimes weed seeds blow in -- just like on the farm.

And God does not seem to be overly upset with it. From my reading of scripture, that's what grace is all about. It's not by our works (weeding) but by our faith (trusting in God) that we are saved. And by saved I mean become a beautiful garden for God.

So, in an attempt to be less O-Weed-D, I'm not going to spray tonight. I'll let the seeds and tares spring up together.

Tomorrow, though, them weeds better watch out!

-- Brent

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fifty Acres and a Fool: Weeds

Weeds have become my mortal enemy.

This comes as a complete surprise to me. For decades I have been able to gaze upon a field of weeds with absolutely no compunction to do anything about them. Of course, that was before they were my fields and my weeds.

In my pre-weed days, the only weeds I really paid any attention to were dandelions in my suburban lawn. And even then I was far from the herbicidal maniac that the Lawn Nazis around me were.

But times have changed. They began changing when I began my (til now) eight year war with Bush Honeysuckle. Bush Honeysuckle is not technically a weed – it’s an invasive bush. But something that’s growing where I don’t want it growing is – in my agricultural book – a weed. And Bush Honeysuckle fits that description.

For years now I’ve been going into the woods and chainsawing it down, pushing it over with the front loader on the tractor, wrapping chain around it and pulling it out by roots, and, finally, as a last resort, spraying it with herbicide. I am finally turning the tide and now, where there was once nothing but an infestation of Bush Honeysuckle, there are now tree seedlings pushing their way skyward and wildflowers sprouting. Yay! There’s still massive amounts of Bush Honeysuckle to get rid of, but progress is being made.

I hate the stuff. It’s evil. You know it’s evil because it’s soooo pretty at first glance. Broad green leaves, pretty white flowers, yummy looking red berries. The birds and bees and other critters love it. And help it take over.

It always makes me think of what pretty things I let into my life – which then take over. Well, let’s not go there!!

The Bush Honeysuckle is getting a little bit of break right now while I tackle the things most people think of when they think of weeds – dandelion, Canadian thistle, and so forth. I’m battling them now because we just planted 8 acres or so of prairie – warm season grasses (WSG) and wildflowers (forbs – don’t you love the lingo?). And the WSG and forbs will not stand a chance again thistle and burdock and common purslane and hairy nightshade (sounds like a baddie in a cheap detective thriller!) and turf grasses and …

It seems that, as hearty as the prairie once was around here, until we burned it down, plowed it under, and cropped over it, it’s just as hard to reestablish it. I should know, I’ve been trying for six years and have a pretty thin stand of big bluestem and little blue stem for my efforts. The weeds, despite mowing and spraying with prairie stock friendly herbicide, are persistent. They just keep coming back, despite my efforts to eradicate them.

So this year, after doing the planned prairie burn, I decided to replant the whole prairie. I mowed everything level. Then I used a selective herbicide (avoiding the stands of WSG that I wanted keep). Then Dan “Woody” Wood, from Pheasants Forever, came out and helped me replant (actually he did much of the work – I just rode on the back of the seeder and kept the seed stirred and coming out the seeder).

Then I “hit it” (farmer talk) again with a prairie friendly herbicide. Then, after the herbicide did its work, I mowed the few struggling weed-y survivors.

But walking the freshly planted prairie last evening, I noticed a whole “crop” of pokeberry. So tonight, I’ll be walking the prairie in an effort get rid of it.

Field weeds seem to always be popping up in my soul’s field, too. I plant good seed but then, when the seed sprouts, forget to cultivate the seedlings, weed around them, and soon the pretty field is a huge weed patch.

Hmmm, seems Jesus once told a story about sowing seeds and weeds.

Fortunately, as regards the field weeds, a little spot herbicide (and a long walk) and they will be gone and the WSG and forbs will have access to the sunlight and soil nutrients they need. Unfortunately, for my soul, there is no herbicide … it needs constant cultivation by hand.

I need to get to it.

-- Brent

PS Here's Woody planting one of the hillsides. Just slightly dangerous!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Fifty Acres and a Fool: Dressed for Farming Success

While I don’t usually feel much like Oliver Wendell Douglas of “Green Acres” (“Farm livin' ain’t necessarily the life for me…”), I did relate to him the other day. You remember how Douglass exchanged his New York City life as a high-powered attorney to farm down by Hooterville (that town’s name is a whole ‘nother blogpost!) yet kept his wardrobe? You always see him in a suit and tie – driving the tractor, haggling with Mr. Haney, chatting with Arnold Ziffle (the pig).

I had to stop by Tractor Supply Company (as their commercials say, they sell most everything except tractors) for an assortment of parts on the way home from work the other day. I wandered as I wondered where the parts I needed were and felt as if the folks there were all staring at me. Even the guy from TSC helped me locate parts that would work looked at me funny. As did the woman at checkout and the people in line.

As I walked out to my car, I caught a glimpse of myself in the store glass. Ah – I’ll bet I was the only man in TSC wearing wing-tip shoes, a glen plaid suit, and lavender shirt with matching tie. That explained the stares.

And it reminded me of the day I went to buy my tractor. As with the visit to TSC, I did that on my way home from work. My tractor guy had called and said he had a used John Deere and if I wanted a really good used one, then I’d better move fast to get it. So I stopped by. He gave me a walk-around, showed me the controls, gave me the keys and invited me to take a test spin around the lot. As I drove by him, I heard him singing the “Green Acres” song. Sure enough, I was driving the tractor replete with suit and tie. I did threaten to not buy the tractor if he didn’t knock it off.

Both incidents did give me a sense of uneasiness. I was obviously the guy who was not in his element and how I dressed showed it.

It also made me think about how I judge others based on how they’re dressed. I’m as judgmental I fear as the TSC and John Deere crowd. And I need to remember that the next time I encounter someone at the grocery, art museum, or worship that may be dressed differently than me. I need to rejoice, instead, in the need/desire that brought them there and pray that their time will be blessed.

So the next time you’re at the implement dealer and see some lost looking guy in a suit and tie* trying to find the right couplings for a front loader’s hydraulic lines, be nice. Just walk over and ask, “Is there anything I can help you with Brent?”

-- Brent

*Truth be told, I have that same look when I'm wearing my Carharts and old John Deere cap!