Friday, November 30, 2012

Tree Bones


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,
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


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,
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



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


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: 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.