Monday, July 28, 2014

The Fightin' Quaker, part 1: Humble Stumble

My career as a killer began early.  By the time I was thirteen I had killed each member of my immediate family (one of my sisters I had murdered numerous times),  countless cousins (the boy cousins because they were the only ones who counted back then), a number of my neighbors, and a slew of strangers.

I amassed a pretty high body count -- especially for a Quaker.  I picked them off with my Mattel Fanner 50, rubber band guns, ping pong ball squeeze guns, water pistols, wooden flintlocks, Thompson sub-machine guns, James Bond Walther PPKs with silencers, my finger, more.  The Indian head ornament perched on the hood of my grandfather's Pontiac Star Chief made a perfect sight for the twin .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the bumpers.  The last murder I remember was in Tijuana when I shot the person taking my picture right after I'd purchased the gun I'm pointing at her.

I guess, for a kid, I had a lot of pent up anger or something to be such a killer.  And, though I knew a little bit about Quakers supposedly being a peaceful people, that wasn't so much my experience of them.  At least the group I grew up in.  I had a whole bunch of family members who had served in the Army, Navy, and Army Air Corps in previous wars.  Many of my friends' fathers had been in the military, too.  And as I prepared to graduate from high school, it was going to soon going to be my turn.  The Vietnam War was at its bloodiest -- at least for the U.S.  Suddenly being in the Army didn't seem as much fun as playing army just a few years earlier.  While morally ambiguous about shooting -- really shooting -- another human being, I pretty sure I didn't want to be shot myself!

Then, as freshman in college, came May 4.  A week before my birthday.  Just up the road from where I was in college, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds into unarmed protesters (some of whom were throwing rocks and National Guard tear gas canisters), killing four of them and wounding nine others.  Two of those killed were not protesters, but students walking to class.   I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that, if I were drafted, I might be called on to shoot my fellow citizens.  Although I also thought I might just do it if they riled me up enough.  I was both afraid to fight and afraid I might like it too much.

And, while I'd always taken my faith seriously, I began trying to figure out what it meant to be a Quaker.  Not in the abstract.  But for me.  A question that kept coming was, "Who would Jesus shoot?"  Even though we told a joke about a Quaker farmer who, awakened one night by the sound of a burglar coming up the stair, grabbed his shotgun and pointed it down the stairs and proclaimed, "Friend Burglar, I would not harm thee for the world, but thee is standing where I'm about to shoot!", I wasn't so certain that my faith would let me shoot anybody.  Despite my willingness as a kid to knock off anybody who annoyed me.

My move toward peace and away from being a mass murderer was furthered when I came across the words of 17th century Quaker Robert Barclay -- "Whoever can reconcile this, ‘Resist not evil’, with ‘Resist violence by force’, again, ‘Give also thy other cheek’, with ‘Strike again’; also ‘Love thine enemies’, with ‘Spoil them, make a prey of them, pursue them with fire and the sword’, or, ‘Pray for those that persecute you, and those that calumniate you’, with ‘Persecute them by fines, imprisonments and death itself’, whoever, I say, can find a means to reconcile these things may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the Devil, Christ with Antichrist, Light with Darkness, and good with evil. But if this be impossible, as indeed it is impossible, so will also the other be impossible, and men do but deceive both themselves and others, while they boldly adventure to establish such absurd and impossible things."

Sure, the language was a bit stilted, but I caught the drift.  I couldn't reconcile those things.  What would I do if drafted?  Would I fight and deny my faith?  Would I even serve as non-combatant?  The issue was decided on the draft lottery of July 1, 1970.  My birth date was number 293.  I was beyond the range of who would be called.

But there was still the question of what to do with my decidedly unpeaceful nature.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Humble Stumble Toward Grace

I had a grace-filled week last week. I visited Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative where I got to spend time with two of my favorite people -- Deborah Fisch and Carrie Newcomer.  It was my first trip to IYM-C and I was a bit nervous since the only person I really know from there is Deborah.  But I, from a Friends United Meeting meeting and a Friends General Conference staffer, was greeted graciously by Iowa Friends.  They were friendly and kind and welcomed me in ways beyond mere politeness.  I had some wonderful conversations and the times of worship were deep, too.

Carrie's afternoon workshop and evening concert were Spirit-filled.  My soul was enlarged as her ministry of music washed over and through me and all the others in the room.  So you would think that, as I returned home, I would have been so soaked in the Spirit that my continual stumble toward grace might actually be a stroll for a while.  After all, when I have been blessed by grace, immersed in it, I often find myself more graceful toward others.

Well, it was a short stroll.  Sigh.

I am just bad at being good.  As I turned on my computer to catch up on emails and the like, I encountered this on a friend's Facebook page.

This picture happens to coincide with many of my values... but my friend (with whom I often disagree) had put a statement on his page reflecting his profound disagreement with these sentiments, basically saying that this was a matter for individuals and charities, not the government.  For some reason, this tweaked my over-sensitive political and faith feelings so I wrote a little post noting that Colbert does not say that the government should do this.  He was saying that Christ followers "just don't want to do it."

Which sparked some other comments -- about whether the US is a Christian nation (which I don't believe it is), what Colbert was implying (if not saying straight out), and so forth.

Then a person chimed in with a long post about a whole range ills caused by the government and left-wing Democrats.  Which really piqued my (self-) righteous indignation for a whole lot of reasons. I didn't want to write a hasty response, so instead, while mowing for 2 hours, I composed a wickedly smart satirical retort that, in my opinion, completely dismantled this specious, fallacious, and malicious post.  It was brilliant.  So I posted it.

Very quickly the poster responded with another long post.  This one accused me of impugning his character and other un-graceful acts. Which was not my intent.  My intent was to impugn his argument -- which in my opinion -- was horribly flawed and completely errant.

As I though about what he said, though, I had to admit that my intent was not that pure.  My intent was also to show, through the use of satire and my amazing cognitive abilities, how clever I was by dismantling his "errors."  I have to admit to being completely convinced of what an easy job it was going to be to destroy this wrong thinking.  A big win for my big brain and big wit.

So much for being either grace-filled or graceful.  So, trying to recover my center, I took the posts down and sent a note of apology.  Not for the position, but for the snarky way I said what I said.

It was a good lesson for me.  One I seem to need again and again.  When I am being brilliant and witty and slicing an intellectual opponent with my razor-sharp thinking, I am not relying on the Spirit.  Nope, I'm relying on good old J. Brently Bill's ego.  I see Jesus smacking his forehead and going, "Doh!  Not what I had in mind."  Sigh.

Yep, I think God made me smart and witty.  But not so I could display it at someone else's expense.  So once again I had to stumble to be made humble so that I can continue to be made in the image of Christ.

I'm just bad at being good.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

"the astonishing array of whites...

from “Thoreau” by Cole Swensen

In the essay “A Winter Walk,” which predated the more famous essay “Walking”
by a few years, Thoreau paid particular attention to the astonishing array of whites

from fog to snow to frost to the crystals growing outward on threads of light. The
fact that white is separately known. That it is its own wildness, entirely exterior,

like all weather you notice is a version of an open room coming through
the wind in prisms. White holds light in a suspended state, unleashing it later

across a field of snow or a sheet of water at just the right angle to make the surface
a solid, and on we go walking. Goethe’s Theory of Colors depicted each one

as an intense zone of human activity overflowing its object into feeling there is
a forest through which something white is flying through a wash of white, which is

the presence of all colors until red, for instance, is needed for a bird or green
for a world.

"Something is calling to me..."

"In the Corners of Fields" by Ted Kooser

Something is calling to me
from the corners of fields,
where the leftover fence wire
suns its loose coils, and stones
thrown out of the furrow
sleep in warm litters;
where the gray faces
of old No Hunting signs
mutter into the wind,
and dry horse tanks
spout fountains of sunflowers;
where a moth
flutters in from the pasture,
harried by sparrows,
and alights on a post,
so sure of its life
that it peacefully opens its wings.

"In the Corners of Fields" by Ted Kooser from Flying at Night. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985. From "The Writers Almanac." (buy now)

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Ohio: "I know Ohio like the back of my hand..."

Hillsboro, OH 1978
I was at home for a little while last week.  Not the home where I live, but the home where a part of my heart still resides.  Though I have been gone from Ohio longer than I lived there, it is still my place.  When I crossed into Ohio under the arch at the Indiana border on Interstate 70 there was an immediate feeling of homecoming.

Weird, huh, considering that I crossed under that arch into Indiana in 1978 and never moved back.

On my journey across the Buckeye state, I saw historical sites.  Not the kind marked with plaques -- rather my own personal historical sites.  Vandalia where some of my cousins and friends lived.  London where I spent a hot Ohio summer landscaping the year my best friend Greg killed himself.  Columbus where I lived until I was 24.  Though I was zipping by all these on the interstate, their neighborhoods, houses I lived in, schools I attended, friends I had, girls I fell in love with, jobs I had all floated by.  Headed toward the eastern border, I spotted the place where Marlon Troyer once stopped the car to scrape up a raccoon carcass for a study he was doing in biology class in college.  Floods of memories washed over me.  The roads I travelled as a young man.  The family reunions.  Church softball games.  Sunday evenings spent in Quaker meeting.

Here past the edge of town,
this one as well as any other
in the Adirondacks, the trees lock arms
and lean into each other like
relatives at a family reunion.
This is some history; listen to the names,
Sugar Maple, Black Spruce, Wild Cherry,
Sweet Birch, the old White Oaks. On and
on into the hillsides until my tongue rolls
and I whisper Ohio, imagining this is what it was
one hundred years ago, imagining this is what
whispered in the ear of Tecumseh, who fought for it
for twenty years, knowing when he started he couldn't
win, but who fought and lost anyway, imagining
this is what whispered to my great grandfather
Marvin Peabody, when he dropped down out of the
Northeast. Who left when he heard his neighbors
unfolding the arms of trees with axes and bucksaws
and headed west, rubbing the fine dust from his eyes.
But came back when he saw that like Ohio, that too
was lost. He came back I suppose because he had
nowhere else to go. Or maybe he just liked the name
Ohio. And why not. Whisper it now, whisper
Ohio, Ohio, Ohio, and amid the miles of concrete,
under the culverts dumping waste, around the smokestacks
over by the river, a breeze picks up
sending a ripple, like a litany
through the family of tree.

("Reunion" by Robert Kinsley, from Endangered Species. © Orchises Press, 1989. (buy now))

...maybe he just liked the name
Ohio. And why not. Whisper it now, whisper
Ohio, Ohio, Ohio, ...

I do like that name.  I love that place.  It's still my home.  And I still cry when I hear Karin Berquist sing "Ohio"