Monday, March 31, 2008

Whiskers on Kittens

I woke up this morning at 4 pm in time to overhear my husband speaking quietly to my oldest daughter: “Somehow it crawled out of the box and got chilled. I found it on the porch, and I tried to put it in with its mama, but it was too cold to move. It will probably die. But we’ll do our best.”

I work the overnight shift at my local McDonald’s. On the days I work, 8 or 9 am is my bedtime, and I regain consciousness sometime in the afternoon… I often wake up to discover interesting things have been happening.

“Sweetheart, are you awake?”


“Would you do me a really big favor? Would you hold something for me?”

“Don’t think I’ve been so asleep that I don’t know you have a kitten.”

“I need to finish editing this book. I can’t type with one hand…. It’s probably going to die, but…”

OK. So I took the little thing. New born, sometime while I was sleeping. Still wet. Little black and brown stripes. Closed eyes. And awfully awfully cold. I tucked it inside my shirt against my skin, and its little feet were Really chilly. The children clustered around to see the kitten, so I showed them the little lump, then I tucked him back under my shirt. Chilly Willy and I stayed in bed another hour, while his little body stole my warmth for himself. Gradually, he began to make little mewing noises. Then he began to squirm. I felt his little head begin to root around, trying to find his mama. The next time the children asked to see him, he was holding his head up. The next time, he was straightening his front legs and lifting his upper body and swinging his head around. After his little feet felt warm, I brought him out to the porch, and put him in the box with his mama and his less adventurous brothers and sisters. I left him snuggling up to her, looking pretty good for a little dying kitten.

He reminded me of the little chicks that I would occasionally find separated from their mothers and chilled, back when our mother hens raised their own broods. Little piles of cold yellow fluff, lying limp in the grass. I would take them in and put them under a heating pad, and in an hour or two, they’d be standing and peeping, little bright eyes looking all around for their mamas. A few more hours, and they’d be running around the yard, pecking and exploring as though they’d never been dying.

I have learned that we aren’t very good at predicting what is going to die, after all. What seems hale and hearty is gone in a moment. What seems a sure goner recovers.

I do know this: if the kitten and those chicks hadn’t gotten help, they Would have died. Sometimes we are tempted to write off a relationship, or a business venture, or a community, or a group of people, or a church. “It’s a goner,” we say and prepare to walk away. Sometimes it is…. A friend of mine tells me that he has taken cold dying calves into his kitchen to try to help them, and ended up with warm dead calves. But sometimes all “the goner” needs is a little care, a little warmth, a little love… to send it on its way with bright eyes again.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On Being Faithful

Over and over this past weekend, Friends told stories about their lives that were sometimes frightening, occasionally heartbreaking, but mostly amazing and inspiring and wonderful. So many stories ended with words something like this: “I never would have thought that it was possible….”

And we talked about being faithful. And about being called to be faithful, without worrying about the outcome. Letting the Lord be the One in charge of what “success” looks like, whether it’s what we expect or whether it looks suspiciously like what we would think of as failure. Holding on to the call of the Holy Spirit, and letting go of expectations, and just doing what we have been called to do. Or trying to do it, even though we think it is impossible. Oh, how scary to feel like the Lord is calling you to do something that You think is impossible! Surely not me, Lord…. Perhaps you have me confused with someone else, Lord….

I kept thinking about my dog. Once upon a time, I had a big, ugly, gator-headed, black-and-brindle dog named Jack. We took him in off the street--dumped and hungry--and he lived with us for nearly 10 years. The day we buried him, my husband said to me, “He was the most faithful dog I ever had.” And I have thought about that since, and I thought about it during our weekend retreat…. What does it mean to be faithful?

When I say Jack was a faithful dog, what do I mean? Certainly not that he was bright. Frankly, he was pretty dumb. We enrolled him in obedience class once, and the work of remembering how to Sit and Heel always exhausted him so much that the instructor started telling us to let him rest in the middle of class. “OK, you’ve lost Jack,” he’d say. “Let him go sit down for a while.” So, thank goodness, being smart is not part of it.

But he was always willing. He always wanted to do what we said, although sometimes he failed. OK, often he failed. But he was willing. And once it penetrated his thick skull that something would be good to do, he did it. So obedience is part of it, and being willing to be obedient is part of it. But I’ve had dogs who were just as obedient.

And then I think of Jack’s last days, after cancer had completely eaten away his left rear hip bone. For a long time, he had walked with a limp, and I had helped him up and down steps. But by the end, he couldn’t get up by himself. He would lie on the floor in whatever room I was in, and if he wanted to get up, he would signal, by placing his paws just so and cocking his head just so, and I would come over and lift his rear legs while Jack worked his front legs, and then we would go out and he’d get a drink or a bite to eat or relieve himself…. But after a while the leg began to swell and began to drag when he walked, and we knew that the pain killers and our care weren’t what Jack needed anymore. So we made the appointment.

As we were getting ready to go to the vet, one of my other dogs was standing between me and the kitchen door, and without thinking, I said, “Let’s go, Jack…” Talking to my other dog, shooing him out of the way, but using the wrong name. (I do that to my kids, sometimes too.) And I heard a sudden scrabbling, scratching, lurching noise from behind me on the kitchen floor, and I turned around. Jack was struggling to stand. He had managed to brace his front feet and pull his chest off the floor, and he was straining to pull his rear legs under him. And he was looking at me. I had said, “Let’s go, Jack” and that was good enough for him. He knew he couldn’t stand by himself. He hadn’t been able to stand by himself for awhile. But he knew I had called him, so he was willing to attempt the impossible, if it was what I wanted. I ran over and helped him to his feet. And he leaned on me… so calm, so trusting. That, in the end, is what being faithful means…. Trusting. Jack trusted me so much, that he was willing to attempt the impossible. Simply because I had called him.

I think about Jack sometimes when I am afraid to do something that I feel God is calling me to do. Some things just seem so big. So impossible. How can I? There must be some mistake.

And then I remember Jack. He never questioned me when he heard my call. He never looked afraid or doubtful. He just Tried. And he trusted me to be there for him. If I, who am just a grumpy old mama, can help Jack to his feet when he needs me…. How much more will my Lord catch me?

Hold on.
Let go.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Mysteries of Transformation

Talking about Christ in Liberal Meetings
A Friends Center weekend retreat facilitated by Brian Drayton
March 14-16, 2008

I knew I belonged at this weekend the moment Brian Drayton began to speak… because he began with a poem by Emily Dickinson:

The Soul should always stand ajar.
That if the Heaven inquire,
He will not be obliged to wait,
Or shy of troubling her.

Depart, before the host has slid
The bolt upon the door,
To seek for the accomplished Guest—
Her visitor no more.

Twenty of us gathered from 11 different states and many different yearly meetings to explore the role of Christ in our lives and in the life of our meetings. It was an extraordinary group of people, deeply committed to our Faith and to exploring what our Faith means to us and to others. Often abundantly joyous, sometimes sad or uncertain how to go forward, always hopeful… we meditated on the needs of the Soul, told our own stories, discussed our own understandings of Christ, related our understanding of Christ to the way we can choose to act within our meetings and the world beyond, and shared our thoughts on our Way Forward--how we might bring our insights home with us.

When I say it was an extraordinary group of people, I am not exaggerating… listening to each person speak, I was awed by the great work that God was undertaking in each of our lives, and at the faithfulness of these Friends in listening to and obeying their individual calls. I filled up 23 pages with notes, and I suspect that I will be meditating on and writing about this weekend for a long time. For now, just a tiny sample of what we discussed will have to be sufficient.

As we discussed ways of choosing to act, Brian made sure we kept in mind Naylor’s instructions for fighting the Lamb’s War: Waiting (listening for the Spirit), Obeying (acting promptly when the call becomes clear), and Suffering (daring to make a fool of oneself in the name of Love).

One way of expressing our call to the world felt particularly striking to me. Brian and some other participants expressed it beautifully... if any of you recognize your words in here, I thank you very much for sharing such good words:

Part of our calling is to feel where the divine Seed is oppressed--in ourselves, in others, in the world-- and to be sensitive to opportunities to liberate the Seed. Creating life with more abundance, more joy, more freedom, more Love. Living out the promises, learning the Dance of the Spirit. Being willing to accept the possibility of failure out of sheer love.

This perspective on our calling to the world as followers of Christ feels good to me, because it feels generous, and open, and positive. It feels like an invitation. I have always felt that talking about Christ should feel more like an invitation to a party than like a summons to a court. It felt good to be able to share that sense of joy with others this weekend.

There is so much more to say! But this will have to do for now. More prosaic tasks like the dishes and diaper-changing are calling me. More later. I very much hope and pray that other participants in this weekend will feel led here to share something of what felt important to them.

I'll ditto Brian's parting prayer: May the Lord keep us all watchful, courageous, diligent, cheerful, foolish, and sweet.

God bless us, everyone!

**A postscript: I finally finished a more formal report about the "Talking About Christ" weekend. If you are interested, you can find it on The Conservative Friend's Viewpoints page.**

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Blessing of Light

Back in October 2007, my husband (Kevin) and I attended the Universal Light Expo, a “new age-y” expo in Columbus. It calls itself the largest metaphysical expo in the Midwest, and I don’t doubt it. A friend of Kevin’s had given him the program for the 2006 Expo, back in 2006. As we browsed through it, we were struck by the fact that there weren’t any Quakers listed anywhere as participants in this “Light” expo. We both agreed that Quakers needed to be there. Who better to be a part of a Universal Light expo? Who is more familiar with the Light? What better place to find people seeking God? So, we decided we needed to go.

We applied for a booth in which to sell our honey, beeswax candles, and bodycare products from the hive. And we started asking our fellow Friends if they would like to help us bring the good news to this audience. Some were enthusiastic. Some offered to pray for us. Some gave money. Some volunteered to come hang out with us and be evangelists. Some were skeptical.

The skeptics told us that people at metaphysical expos weren’t interested in Christianity. That we would be wasting our time in a hostile environment. Some of them were concerned that we would be making conservative Friends look bad by associating with such an event. There were enough people encouraging us that we felt our leading to go was probably correct. There were enough skeptics discouraging us that we proceeded cautiously, even while we hoped.

The expo was a wonderful success. We set up the booth so that roughly a third of the space was devoted to information about Quakers and Christianity: tracts, book catalogs, some books, handouts with Quaker websites on them, etc. The rest of the space was our hive-products, which we hoped to sell enough of to pay for the weekend (which it did. Yay!). Our fellow evangelists came out and hung around the booth and also wandered around the show, making conversation with people, and leaving tracts here and there as the Spirit led.

Many people asked us questions about Quakerism in general, and conservative Friends in particular. Some asked us where they could find a Quaker meeting/church to attend. Several people expressed happiness that Christians were at the expo (“Oh, wonderful! Oh, it’s about time!” said one enthusiastic woman with a cross around her neck). A few clearly thought we were delusional, but since we were so cheerful about it, they stayed and chatted and asked questions just to see what sort of delusion we had. Several of the other vendors stopped by at various times throughout the weekend with little gifts for our children… “Is it OK if they have this?” they would ask, handing me a book or some crystals, or some little carved wooden toys, or some candy. There were indeed one or two people who seemed very uncomfortable near us, but they were few, and were far outnumbered by the ones who seemed to want to chat and chat… and chat! It felt very good to be there. There was such a sense of spiritual yearning among the people there, such a strong spirit of seeking and hoping.

One of the things we did was to give away free Bibles. We kept a Bible on the table all the time, with a sign on it that read: “Free to a Good Home (or a bad one)”. Approximately a dozen Bibles walked away from our booth that weekend. One went to a little old lady who told me, “I got my old Bible 30 years ago, but my eyes are 30 years older now… thank you so much for this nice big print!” A couple Bibles were spirited away when I wasn’t looking. Some people tried to pay for them. I remember one young woman in particular: She was probably 18, dressed in black, a piercing here, a tattoo there, extravagantly dyed hair… an ordinary lovely unremarkable young lady of her generation. She was walking by the booth with her two young male friends, but she stopped when she saw the Bible.

“Is… Is that really free?” she asked.

“Yep,” I said. “Free. If you’d like it, you can have it.”

“What kind of Bible is it?”

“Oh, just an ordinary King James.”

“No… Umm… I mean, what denomination?”

I paused here, trying to think of a useful answer. I stumbled a bit. “Well… it’s just a Christian Bible… lots of denominations use it…”

By now, she had picked it up, and was beginning to randomly turn the pages. “Does it have the psalms?”

Behind her, I could hear her friends muttering and snickering together—“…doesn’t even know what’s in a bible….” … “…thinks she’s a Christian…”.

“Oh, yes. It has the psalms. They’re in the middle of the book. Here…” and I reached over and helped flip the pages to the right place.

I watched as she turned a few more pages, ran her finger down a column, and stopped, and read silently. And her eyes lit up, and she breathed, “Oh, yes!” And she clutched the book to her with both hands and strode off, with her two jesters trailing behind her. And I wanted to holler out, “Wait! Which psalm was it!?” But she was already gone. Maybe someday I will find out…

I am thinking of this now, because in less than a week my husband is going to be attending our second metaphysical expo, The Gift of Light Expo, also in Columbus. The plan is more or less the same… hive-products for sale, tracts for free, conversation for the asking. We are very much looking forward to being among such seekers again. We are hoping to be able to help some along their spiritual path. Through God’s Grace, we also hope to be helped along our spiritual path. If you think of it, say a prayer for us, that we will be a blessing at the Gift of Light Expo this weekend. And that we will find that we are blessed there, too.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Who is My Neighbor?

I remember it was sunset. I remember seeing my lost dog racing home through the newly sprouted field of rye. The black dog. The purple light. The green rye. I remember giving up. I remember falling to my knees in the gravel beside the barn, asking God to forgive me and to help me come Home to Him, safe like my lost dog. Giving my oath of fealty to Jesus Christ, as my dog gamboled about me, licking my face.

I remember checking myself, after I stood up... was I different now than I had been before? Nothing. Yes. Everything. Yes, I finally decided... yes, I could sense a seed there now, that I hadn’t felt before. Now, I supposed, I would have to wait for it to sprout green like the rye. That was the beginning.

My first call, after I had promised Jesus that I would follow Him anywhere, so long as I got to follow Him Home at the end, was to go to church. It was this small constant pressing at the back of my mind. Church? Insistent. But I’m busy on Sundays. Nagging. Do I have to? Pushing. I remember giving up. I chose a church almost at random from the town directory, and showed up for worship on the Sunday after Easter. A pew-mate quietly coached me through the service. And it was right and good to be there. And I kept coming back. And I listened and tried to learn. And waited for the seed to sprout.

It didn’t take long for me to realize something. I have nothing in common with these people. What am I doing here? I mean, they’re nice and all, and they’re friendly, but our interests and concerns seem so different. They’re older, mostly. They play golf. Maybe I should go somewhere else. Maybe I should look for people I have more in common with. What am I doing here? And the answer came back... You’re learning how to love.


I thought about this answer for a while. Learning how to love. Learning how to love. Didn’t I know how to love already? Didn’t I love my Mom and my Dad? My sister and brother? Didn’t I love my husband? My friends? My dogs? But Christ told us to love everybody. Not just our family and friends. But doesn’t my heart already go out to those suffering, here and in other lands? Doesn’t my heart break to think of the little children with nothing to eat and nowhere to go? But Christ told us to love everybody. Not just the general mass of humanity. God, you mean I have to learn how to love These people? Yes. I had to learn how to love individual people with whom I had little in common. I had to learn how to love individual people who really really annoyed me. I had to learn how to love individual people with bigger houses than mine. I had to learn how to love individual people whose actions seemed to conflict with what they said every week in church. I had to learn to love golfers. For the sake of God, who loves these people, I needed to learn how to love these people too. And it was right and good to be there, learning how to love. And I kept coming back. And I waited for the seed to sprout.

Some years later, I ran across a passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which I recognized immediately from my own experience in those early days. The devil Screwtape is writing a letter of advice to his subordinate reporting devil Wormwood, who has been assigned to bedevil a person (the “patient”) who has just converted to Christianity:

“When he goes inside [the church building], he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real–though of course an unconscious–difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like.”

Ah, it was good to discover that my own experience was not unique! Many of us, it seemed, had to learn how to accept that the “church” is made up of ordinary people, with all the foibles and idiosyncracies and failings that ordinary people have. Sometimes the only thing we have in common is that God loves us. And that’s enough. For the sake of Christ, who loves us, we learn to love each other too. That, I think, is the purpose of the church. Learning to love each other.

I have had the opportunity to learn to love people in three congregations since I became a Christian. The one I am in now, I believe to be my permanent home, although I understand that God sometimes has other plans. In some ways, I have more in common with these people than my first congregation. In other ways, we are just as foreign to each other. But these are my people. And it is good and right to be here, learning to love each other. Learning to be patient with each other. Learning to be kind to each other. Learning to allow other people their foibles, and being grateful that they allow me mine.

Lately, I have been stretching my understanding of the “church” beyond my local congregation and small group of affiliated congregations. I have been privileged to participate in an email forum that has given me more opportunities to practice loving people around the world, as we all discuss topics of interest to the group. My husband will tell you that this has not always been easy for me (He will be glad to tell you that I have always been more willing to try to learn how to love, than I have been successful at actually loving!)... But when I find myself incredulous that someone could think something so foolish–and write it in public too!–I remind myself that God loves that person. And am I not a fool, too?

I have also begun to think about those “other” denominations, lately. Fundamentalists. Liberals. Conservatives. Evangelicals. Orthodox. Catholic. The church stretches out through eternity, terrible as an army with banners. All those who love Christ are in her ranks. We all have our own stupid forms, and our own mistaken beliefs, and our own worn-out traditions–it is easy easy easy to mock each other and cut each other down and point out the others’ failings. But aren’t we all fools? How much better to build each other up by sharing our strengths with each other, by recognizing and encouraging those good things about each other. By allowing others their foibles, and being grateful that they allow us ours. It is right and good to be here. Learning to love each other. Helping each other to run Home through the green rye in the purple light.

I think that seed might be beginning to sprout.