Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Loving Story: Myra and Howard

Yesterday, whilst Facebooking, I was alerted to a wonderful, yet bittersweet, story. Two of my school friends (Myra and I went from first grade through high school together) from the West High School class of 1969 were featured in The Columbus Dispatch (my hometown paper).

The article tells the story of Howard Foster and Myra Clark and how racism drove them apart 45 years ago. It's a wrenching story -- but ultimately one of the power of love. It's a tale of how, as Quaker William Penn said, "Force subdues, but love gains."

Their pictures in the 1969 edition of the West High School Occident yearbook show two young
people with most of their lives ahead of them. As the article notes, parts of our time at West were rocked at times by racial violence and demonstrations. On February 24, 1969, 74 West High students were arrested for refusing to end a sit-in. They were protesting the administration's refusal to allow a public address announcement of the fourth anniversary of Malcom X's assassination.

The sit-in was in the gym. Hardly disrupting anything. But the administration called the police and had students arrested. Which sparked even more racial tension than we'd experienced before.

I thought that move was stupid then. I think it was even dumber today. And it was just sad. It is still sad.

Little did Myra and Howard probably know that this was a harbinger of their future.

What is also sad is the racism Howard faced following high school. Those experiences were the reason he broke up with Myra -- “Society wasn’t going to let us be together and she be happy. ... She’d get tired of the stares; I just thought it was unfair to her,” Howard says in the article. “Her happiness was the most important thing.”

What's most sad -- and frustrating -- about this is that in many ways the issues faced by Howard are still with us today. While some things are better, we who live in the United States have a long way to go healing our racial divide. And when I say "we" I mean the white majority. White like me. 

I've been thinking a lot about that after reading Howard and Myra's story. And how we can't ask those who are oppressed to solve the issue for us. Then, ironically, I opened my email this morning and found this poem as today's "Poem-A Day":


Hope by Ali Liebegott

always the hopeless asked to give others hope
the ones pushed up against wall after wall

when you’re done unpinning yourself
from the wall, please give hope

those who work twice as hard to seem half as good
being asked to do one more thing

we need to be seen
because things are not going well
and the crows are up to no good

About writing this poem, Liebegott says "I often think of the expression, ‘You have to work twice as hard to be viewed half as good,’ used for women and people of color. Marginalized people are often asked to be the patient educators to non-marginalized people. I think this poem wrestles with the intrinsic unfairness of that."

Yet, Howard and Myra, despite the "intrinsic unfairness of that," continue to be "patient educators" to us all. They remind me to be ever vigilant and active in working against the entrenched racism in contemporary American society. They do give hope.

Earlier in this piece, I quoted William Penn. As I read Myra and Howard's story, I was reminded by another Penn quote: "Never marry but for love; but see that thou lovest what is lovely." Myra and Howard saw what is lovely in each other in high school -- and today. May we see what they saw -- and may it call us to work for a world where love rules and "gains."

Thank you, Howard and Myra.





Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Feral: A Book Recommendation

As I write this, I'm looking out my office window here at Ploughshares Farm. In 2003, most of our fifty acres was pasture or crop land. Today it is primarily tall grass prairie and native Hoosier hardwoods. With help from various foresters and conservation folks, we have -- what I just learned thanks to this week's QuakerBooks & More selection -- "rewilded" this "tamed" piece of Indiana.

Now I grew up a city boy so the idea of doing all this was, in Quaker parlance, "not a thought that would have occurred to me." Until, that is, until Nancy and I began building our home here. We began walking the land and both realized that we were called to steward it in the best sense of that word. And the best way to live up to that spiritual call was to restore -- or rewild -- it. Today we are blessed by an abundance of bunnies, butterflies, bald eagles, deer, wild turkey, and more. Hopefully the Earth is a bit better for all this work, too. I know my soul is.

So please take a look Feral (and other Earth stewardship books) at QuakerBooks & More. It will feed your spirit.
Ploughshares Sunset

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In Praise of "Loafing" -- and Retirement

As I read this morning's featured poem on "The Writer's Almanac," it seemed a good way to announce my upcoming retirement and time for more"loafing."

Loafing
by Raymond Carver

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I looked into the room a moment ago,
and this is what I saw —
my chair in its place by the window,
the book turned facedown on the table.
And on the sill, the cigarette
left burning in its ashtray.
Malingerer! my uncle yelled at me
so long ago. He was right.
I’ve set aside time today,
same as every day,
for doing nothing at all.

"Loafing" by Raymond Carver from All of Us. © Knopf, 1998.  (buy now)

Despite my dad's joking that I wasn't afraid of hard work -- "Brent can watch me do it all day" -- since I began working at Sears in June 1970, I've been pretty much working full time ever since. That will end on October 31 when I retire from my present position at Friends General Conference.

I have been blessed, for the most part, with worthy work, including my current position at FGC; years at United Ways in Henry, Franklin, Jennings, and Scott counties; at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations; pastoring at Jericho Friends, Friends Memorial, and 1st United Methodist in Hillsboro, Ohio; teaching at Earlham School of Religion; being on Central Ohio Young Life staff, and much more (a truly itinerant -- or easily bored, perhaps -- minister).

But over the past year it's become clear to me that it's now time to step away from full-time employment. Time to putz around the farm, spend time with my family and friends, pray with my camera, write a bit more, read a lot more, and to "set aside time today,/ same as every day,/ for doing nothing at all." And to explore what God has in store for this next chapter in my life -- maybe leading writing, photography, or other spiritual retreats here at the farm. Or maybe "doing nothing at all." Whichever, whatever -- received in gratitude.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Humble Stumble: Hymns for Imperfect Saints: "Me And God"

I have stumbled a bit on my "hymnal" project in conjunction with my "Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker" book. This suggestion comes from Lauren Miller. She suggested "Me and God" by the Avett Brothers.  It's a perfect addition to this "hymnal."

These are not "hymns" in the traditional sense. Rather they're songs that have spoken to my soul in a spiritual sense -- even if they are not "spiritual songs" per se. Though my bias is that that our hearts hunger for beauty and meaning and when artists create something that sings deep in our souls, well, they've created a "hymn," even if it was unintentional.

You can listen to the who list on Spotify -- "Humble Stumble: Hymns for Imperfect Saints."

Suggestions of songs that have spoken deeply to you are welcome!

I'll also post lyrics and video (when available) here.

"Me And God"

Well I know a preacher he's a real good man
He speaks from The Good Book and his hand
And helps all people when he can
But me and God don't need a middle man

Well I found God in a soft woman's hair
A long days work and a good sittin' chair
The ups and downs of the treble clef lines
And five miles ago on an interstate sign
My God, my God and I don't need a middle man
My God, my God and I don't need a middle man

Now I don't doubt that The Good Book is true
What's right for me may not be right for you
To church on Sunday I'll stand beside
All the hurtin' people with the fear in their eyes
And I thank the Lord for the country land
Just like Paul I thank him for my hands
And I don't know if my soul is safe
Sometimes I use curse words when I pray


My God, my God and I don't need a middle man
My God, my God and I don't need a middle man
My God, my God and I don't need a middle man
My God, my God and I don't need a middle man

Writer(s): Robert William Crawford, Scott Yancey Avett, Timothy Seth Avett 



The Avett Brother's website is http://www.theavettbrothers.com/

Monday, April 10, 2017

So What I Said Was: It's Already Late

"When Jesus sent two disciples to fetch a donkey’s colt on Palm Sunday, they had no other task in the whole world more important than fetching it. If someone had said to them, “You are called to greater things; anyone can fetch a donkey,” and they had not done it, they would have been disobedient. But there was nothing greater for them at that moment than to fetch the donkey for Christ. I wish that we all might do every task, great or small, in this obedience." -- J. Heinrich Arnold


The roads approaching Jerusalem were jammed, as were the suburbs. After all, the main city, the site of the pilgrims’ travels for high holy days, was only about 1,200 yards wide by 1,500 yards.. Traveling the same roads as Jesus and his of disciples almost 2 million other pilgrims, coming to celebrate Passover in the holy city. Passover was one of three high holy times in the Jewish faith and the entire nation of Israel tried to squeeze within the walls surrounding the Temple. Some came from faraway lands, where the previous year they celebrated Passover with the words “This year here, next year in Jerusalem.” This year they were in Jerusalem.

Along the way Jesus continued his teaching. His opponents continued their plotting. By this time Jesus is a marked man. There’s a bounty on his head placed by those who fear him. They are afraid of him for any number of reasons. The religious leaders fear his heresy; they find his words blasphemous. The politicians worry that he has the people worked up into such a state that they will riot – thereby leading Rome to send in more soldiers to put down the ensuing insurrection. Still others just find Jesus unsettling to their comfortable way of living. All of them agree – it’s better than one man die than an entire nation.

At this time, Jesus still has the support of the populace, though. However, that support was like it is for all popular causes – it may have run the seventeen miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, but it was only about an inch deep.

He sends two disciples ahead to a village by the Mount of Olives. The Mount is in sight of the gates through the Temple walls. The two men are instructed to find a colt, whose owners will let them have it when they say the pre-arranged words “The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.”

They bring the colt back to Jesus. Instead of sneaking safely into the city, certainly the most prudent move a man in his position should make, he, a marked man, an outlaw, climbs upon it and begins his ride to the city – prominent visible to all, supporters and enemies alike. What a courageous act!

The people respond to this. They cheer and call out the words of the Psalms – praising God for sending the Messiah, the one they assume will free them from the power of Rome and restore Israel to its rightful place as premier among the nations. They chant the equivalent of “God save the King,” their words coming directly from Psalms used in Passover rituals. The specific Psalm they use is the 118th, which is known as the conqueror’s Psalm and signifies their hope that it will only be a matter of time until Jesus sounds the trumpet and their victorious battle against the infidels is joined. They wave their palm branches before him and shout their support.

His shallow supporters see in him the fulfillment of all their personal ideas about the Messiah. His disciples are feeling that, at long last, their time has arrived. Everyone is shouting, except Jesus.

He heads for the temple. Evidently he goes there with just his disciples – there is no mention of the crowd that had been hailing him. And then, “since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

That phrase, “since it was already late,” is fraught with meaning. Of the surface, of course, it merely means it was late in the day. The sun was setting and lamps would be lit all over Jerusalem. The time for work was over.

And, as we now know from 2000 years of hindsight, it was “already late” at another level – the end of Jesus’ life, as the end of the day, was fast approaching. His earthly ministry was about over. The end of his personal appeal to the masses was about over. The end to the plotting was about over. The angel of death was about to steal over the city as the sun set – “it was already late.”

On Palm Sunday we celebrate what is known as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday. Yet, as we examine the text, we see that triumphant, as the world understands it, is hardly the right word. Yes, Jesus may have rode into Jerusalem hailed as the conquering hero, but it was a triumph that would be of the most unexpected kind. Part of the challenge of this Lenten season and Palm Sunday is for us to re-examine our own views of who Jesus is. If we believe, as the Bible and our own experience tell us, that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, then his message is unchanging also. The question is what might that message be for us today? Do we take time to do that, or will we, as the morning ends, and the noon hour approaches, decide that “it is already late” and head for our comfortable lunches and afternoon activities.

The message that Jesus was showing to those who had eyes and hearts to see that Palm Sunday long ago, was that, while he claimed his royal nature, his kingdom was one of spiritual peace and love. He rode into strife-riven Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace.

He rides on today – son of the high king of Heaven, with the armies of that kingdom riding behind him and his banner of peace. He rides on today to bring peace to us – in our lives, our families and in our world.

The world was not ready for the message that day almost two thousand years ago. Nor were his disciples. It may not be ready for the message today. The question for us is, are we? As a people who call ourselves his “Friends,” are we ready to lay down our notions about who our friend Jesus is and what his message is about? Dare we take a fresh look, with newly opened spiritual eyes, at what this son of God has to say to us? Are we willing to open our ears and hear? Or is it “already late.”

What a mixture of pain and sorrow that day must have been for Jesus. The tumult of popular acclaim had to feel good at first, and yet the closer he rode to Jerusalem, the more he must have realized how shallow that popular acclaim was. By the time he reaches the temple, he is alone with his fearful band of disciples. Instead of reigning in royal purple with a gold crown upon his head, he knows he will wear a crown of thorns and blood soaked purple robe. The hardest part must have been knowing that the very ones who acclaim him this day will call for his crucifixion by the end of the week. All because “it was already late.”

As we celebrate this day, let us pray that, though it is “already late,” we will have our spirits opened. Let us see this one who we call our Friend with new eyes and spiritual depth. Let us pledge anew our devotion to him and his cause – while realizing that to follow him will lead us ultimately to the foot of a cross.

It is already late.

Monday, March 27, 2017

So What I Said Was: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Racism, Sexism, Empathy, and Lent

The past two weeks, in two different places (Village Chapel of Bald Head Island and West Newton Friends) I spoke on the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan women. So what I said (sorta) was:


Compared to the width and breadth of the mighty Roman empire, Palestine at the time of Jesus was just a tiny speck. A mere 120 miles from its northern tip to its southern border. But even within this tiny plot of geography which Jesus and the disciples found themselves walking, were three major divisions of territory – and belief. In the north, where they started their journey, was Galilee.

The most direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee was through Samaria. However, many devout Jews arranged for extra travel time to skirt the whole territory. Those who didn’t, traveled at their own peril. Samaritans attacked pilgrims on their way to the holy city. Jews led assaults on Samaria, destroying their temple on their holy mount, where they held that Moses had received the 10 commandments.

It was into this that Jesus walked this day.

Now, most of the time when we hear this familiar story, we focus on the woman at the well. And her story is a fascinating one. But today I want us to look at what this story tells us about Jesus and his nature.

It’s noon. The middle of the Jewish day of that era, which runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s also the hottest time of the day. Jesus is weary and thirsty. The disciples go ahead to town to buy some food. Some major attitude change must be occurring in them, for them even to go buy food from Samaritans. A Jewish truism held that to eat with a Samaritan was as eating “swine’s flesh.”

As Jesus sits there, at a well on the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph, whose body had been buried there after the Exodus from Egypt, he’s approached by the familiar woman of the story. His dealings with her give us insight into three important aspects of Jesus’ personality.

The first is that it shows us, in its fullness, the humanity of Jesus. Here is no man free from the demands of our common life. He’s been walking a long way, he’s hungry, thirsty and tired. His life, his walk, was an effort for him, the same as it is for us. And so Jesus, in his humanity, shares in ours.

A second thing it shows is the depth of his empathy. From any other religious leader of the opposition of the day, the woman most likely would have fled. She would fear such a person as condemning and hostile – because of her race and her lifestyle. But she talks to Jesus and it is he who begins the conversation. We have only the barest record of what was said – the Bible never pretends to be a stenographer’s record. What we have is what the gospel writer thinks we need to know. One has to wonder what else was said. Whatever it was, the woman opens to Jesus – a friend who came not to criticize or condemn, even though many might say she deserved criticism and condemnation. Jesus does not even give her his quite common command to “go and sin no more.” He lets her be. In his empathy he sees she has need of his grace, not judgment, for the judgment she’s laid on herself over her lifetime has been probably almost more than she can bear. He lets her off “Scot free.”

That’s good news to us today. Not that it gives us license to behave any which way, but it shows us that God looks on the inner person and sees the heart. A person may act outwardly contrite and yet have a heart of stone. That’s what Jesus often got on the Pharisees about. Or a person may not seem to have “paid for his or her sins” and yet grieve over them in the very deepest part of his or her being. And that is the man or woman to whom Jesus extends his love and sympathy.

Finally, the story shows Jesus as a breaker of barriers. In this case the barriers of racism and sexism. The hatred between the Jews and Samaritans ran deep and wide. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. He made the Samaritans heroes of some of his stories and conversed freely with them – as he did the woman at the well. It’s no wonder, with the history of hatred, the woman was surprised he would speak to her – a Samaritan. But speak he did. And indeed he stayed with the Samaritans for two days after this encounter.

He also broke the barrier of sexism. Some of the Pharisees of this time were known as the bruised and bleeding Pharisees. That’s because their interpretation of the Law forbid them from speaking to a woman in public, even their sisters, mothers, or daughters. Yet Jesus sits and talks with this woman as if she was as capable of understanding as any Jewish man. This is highly unusual, for many Jews (as did other religions of the day) believed that a woman was incapable of understanding the things of God and so such talk would be wasted. Some doubted women even had souls.

Jesus dealings with this woman, as well as many others, show that the faith he established is one of equality of all people. Thus in Galatians, Paul can write, “I Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Jesus’ was a breaker of barriers, how can we, his followers, be any less? We need, as part of the gospel message, to show a church that welcomes all regardless of race, gender or any other distinction and to work to eliminate such distinctions in our community.

To a Jew of Jesus time, this encounter was an amazing one. It should be so for us today. Here came the Son of God dusty, thirsty, and tired. He breaks through the barriers of race, religion and gender to love everyone in his and their humanity. He invites us today, as he did that Samaritan woman 2,000 years ago, to drink from his well, a draught of water that will quench our every thirst.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"What a wonder I was/ when I was young..."

VII. 
Ben and me in woods, 1977

by Wendell Berry

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What a wonder I was
when I was young, as I learn
by the stern privilege
of being old: how regardlessly
I stepped the rough pathways
of the hillside woods,
treaded hardly thinking
the tumbled stairways
of the steep streams, and worked
unaching hard days
thoughtful only of the work,
the passing light, the heat, the cool
water I gladly drank.
"VII." by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch. © Counterpoint, 2016.  (buy now)

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Wisdom of the Body -- A Guest Post by Christine Valters Paintner

As someone who's written about using our five physical senses as doors into a deeper spiritual life (
Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God), it is my pleasure to welcome Christine Valters Paintner as a guest blogger this week. She's penned a number of my favorite books and her newest one, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women, has just been released. For Holy Ordinary, she's written a piece titled "Sacrament of the Senses." I'm sure you'll be blessed by it. I know I was.

*********************

As the twelfth- century teacher Hildegard of Bingen says, “God has a burning love for the flesh.” And there are four stages, she says, in the ascent of holy knowing: “seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting.” --J. Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul


The Catholic Mass, which is my own home tradition, is often described as “smells and bells.” A full liturgy will often meet and inspire every one of our senses: the scent of incense rising, bells ringing, stained glass windows, singing songs, embracing another at the kiss of peace, eating the bread and drinking wine.

I have always loved the Catholic idea of sacramentality, which means that physical things participate in and reveal the presence of the holy. The liturgy with all of its sensual dimensions is sacramental, the marriage union between two lovers is sacramental, the holy oil of anointing used in healing is sacramental, this bread and wine become flesh and blood is sacramental.

And then there are of course the more ordinary everyday sacraments. The sacramentality of our own flesh which allows us to be present in this world and receive its gifts through our senses.

If we ponder the monastery setting, we might imagine the soaring arches of the cloisters, the fragrant garden in the center providing herbs and medicine for healing and a taste of Eden in their midst, and the songs rising at the Hours for prayer. There is a profound honoring of the way these sensual delights can bring us closer to God.

To have a sacramental spirituality is to honor that our senses are doorways into the holy. When we bring ourselves intentionally to an experience and let ourselves receive it through our senses, the richness of it and the multi-dimensionality of it shimmers forth.

There is even a tradition in Christian spirituality of what are called the “spiritual senses.” The senses were seen as so essential to receiving the gift of the sacred in the world, that there was believed to be parallel interior senses to the exterior ones. There was spiritual vision which was the ability to see God beneath the surface of things. There was spiritual hearing which was the capacity to hear God underneath the noises and distractions. Each sense, including taste, smell, and touch, were imagined as having these inner counterparts, and when cultivated, offered us the ability to encounter God in the flesh and blood reality of the world.

The root of the word savor comes from the Latin word saporem which means to taste and is also the root of sapient which is the word for wisdom. Another definition I love is "to give oneself over to the enjoyment of something." When I give myself over to the experience of savoring, wisdom emerges. Savoring calls for a kind of surrender. We have all kinds of stories in our minds about why we perhaps shouldn’t give ourselves over to enjoyment, whether out of guilt or shame or a sense of fear out of what might happen. Yet we are called to yield to the goodness of life, to bask in it. It is an affirmation and celebration of God’s creation and an echo of “that’s good” from Genesis.

Savoring calls me to slowness: I can't savor quickly.

Savoring calls me to spaciousness: I can't savor everything at once.

Savoring calls me to mindfulness: I can't savor without being fully present.

It also calls for a fierce and wise discernment about how I spend my time and energy. Now that I know deep in my bones the limits of my life breaths, how do I choose to spend those dazzling hours? What are the experiences ripening within me that long for exploration? Do I want to waste my time skating on the surface of things, in a breathless rush to get everything done when all I need is here in this moment?

There is also a seasonal quality to savoring – this season, what is right before me, right now, is to be savored. It will rise and fall, come into fullness and then slip away. When I savor I pay attention to all the moments of that experience without trying to change it.

And finally, there is a tremendous sweetness to this open-hearted way of being in the world. Everything becomes grace because I recognize it could all be different, it could all be gone. Rather than grasp at how I think this moment should be, I savor the way things are.

(excerpted and adapted from The Wisdom of the Body)



Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE is the online Abbess at AbbeyoftheArts.com, a virtual global monastery offering resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of ten books including her newest, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women. Christine lives on the wild edges of Ireland with her husband where they lead pilgrimages and retreats.

Friday, January 06, 2017

"They take Alfonso/ And no one stands up..." What Canst -- or Will -- Thou Say?


Today, after reading Kaminksy's poem below, I was thinking of Martin Niemöller. He was a prominent German Lutheran pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He is perhaps best remembered for the quotation which seems timely to me:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I've been thinking:

First they came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Mexican.

Then they came for the African Americans, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a African American.

Then they came for the other non-Europeans, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a non-European.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

While I am a Quaker who loves silence (and have even written a book about it's importance!), as the writer of Ecclesiastes says:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
...a time to be silent and a time to speak...

This is not the time for public silence. It is a time to -- with discernment, but not necessarily caution -- to speak.

Town Watches Them Take Alfonso

by Ilya Kaminsky

Now each of us is
a witness stand:

Vasenka watches us watch four soldiers throw Alfonso Barabinski on the sidewalk.
We let them take him, all of us cowards.

What we don’t say
we carry in our suitcases, coat pockets, our nostrils.

Across the street they wash him with fire hoses. First he screams,
then he stops.

So much sunlight—
a t-shirt falls off a clothes line and an old man stops, picks it up, presses it to his face.

Neighbors line up to watch him thrown on a sidewalk like a vaudeville act: Ta Da.
In so much sunlight—

how each of us
is a witness stand:

They take Alfonso
And no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.

"Our silence stands up for us."  What canst -- or will -- thou say?