Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Veterans Day

As a pacifist, I don’t know what to do about Veterans Day. On this year’s November 11, I drove down the main street of a town that is home to a naval air station. Five days earlier I’d travelled that same route the opposite direction on my way to a writing workshop. That morning, winds had gusted at 35-45 miles per hour and whipped the American flags that lined the street in a wild dance.

But on Veterans Day, the sun shone, and the red and white stripes fluttered in a light breeze as I drove toward home. I tuned the car radio to NPR and listened to how some people across the country were honoring veterans. The station played an excerpt of Vice-President Joe Biden’s speech at Arlington Cemetery. I pictured the rows of white tombstones lined up over the burial ground’s 624 acres; over 400,000 veterans have been buried there since the Civil War.

The words and mental images got me thinking about those veterans and about the new poetry book in my backpack, Nothing Saved Us - Poems of the Korean War by Tamra J. Higgins. Intrigued by the title and the subject matter, I’d ordered the book a few weeks earlier when a friend posted a notice online about it.

    Ten percent of the book’s profits 
  donated to Vermont Peace Center
   

 Over the course of two years, Tamra interviewed her father about his experiences as a Marine on the front lines in the Korean War. She turned the results of those conversations into poems to show how soldiers cope with war’s absurdity. She used short and abrupt lines to reflect the rhythm and syntax of her father’s voice.  

Although I’d had time to read at the workshop, I hadn’t even opened the book. The author’s exploration of this “forgotten war” had compelled me to buy a copy, but it was also what made me resist reading it.

My stepfather served in the Marine Corps in Korea. That was nearly ten years before he came into my life when I was six. He never talked to me about his time in the Marines or about the war, but my mom was proud of his service and told me he’d received a purple heart medal. All that I remember is the tattoo on his left forearm—a ferocious-looking bulldog wearing a helmet with the letters USMC inked underneath. When my stepfather died twenty years later at age 54, that medal he’d been awarded entitled him to burial at Arlington Cemetery, a thousand miles from our home in southern Illinois. Instead, my mom arranged for Marines to preside at our small town cemetery; they presented her with an American flag crisply folded into a tight square.



Earlier this year I visited the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC. Tears choked me as I walked among the 19 stainless steel, larger-than-life-size statues representing a squad on patrol. I looked for one that resembled my stepfather and tried to imagine him over sixty years ago, among those soldiers trudging through Korean villages. I walked the length of the 164-foot-long black granite memorial wall. Photographic images were sandblasted into it depicting soldiers, equipment and people involved in the war.  I was grateful that no matter how long I searched, I wouldn’t find my stepfather’s likeness, because he had survived.

In this past week I’ve read all of the poems in Nothing Saved Us, admired and appreciated those stories by another daughter of a Marine. A daughter who could listen, did listen, to her father’s stories. Tamra Higgins’s dad sounds like someone my stepfather would have liked.  He received a purple heart, too, for injuries he sustained that cost him his right leg.

But the soldier’s life is only part of the story of war Tamra wanted to portray through her poems. As she researched the Korean War, she read several memoirs of Korean women who had been trapped in the throes of that battle. In the second section of the book, Tamra explores the impact of war on civilians through the voice of a Korean woman. In these poems, Tamra used long lines, based loosely on sijo, a traditional style of Korean poetry developed more than 750 years ago.  That story is heartbreaking, too.

So, where does this exploration of Veterans Day and the Korean War leave me?

Tamra’s poems and the flag-lined street don’t evoke for me pride or even gratitude for the veterans’ service.

Instead, I grieve.

I grieve for my stepfather and Tamra’s father and all the other men and women—military and civilian—who experience the violence of war.  I grieve for the children who lose parents, the parents who lose children, the spouses who are widowed. I grieve for the land, the homes, the businesses, the places of worship, and the national treasures that are destroyed.

And as I drive along flag-lined streets, I pray that someday we’ll put an end to war.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Afterthought #33 QuakerQuaker – A Resource for 21st Century Friends



Early Quakers had their journals to record their spiritual life and journeys. Today, many Friends do the same through blogs, sharing how they live Quaker ideals in this time. For nearly ten years, Martin Kelley has been sifting through hundreds of websites to come up with a daily curated list of the best of the Quaker web. The result is QuakerQuaker, a website and a community of Friends exploring Quaker witness, ministry and beliefs through blogs, photos, videos and news of gatherings.


QuakerQuaker’s primary audience is Friends and seekers from all traditions who want to explore classic Quaker understandings of theology and practice as well as what challenges and inspiration these pose for Spirit-led twenty-first century Friends. There you’ll find posts, links, and websites that reflect the great diversity of Quakers today.

QuakerQuaker is 100% reader-supported.  If you believe, as I do, that this kind of outreach and conversation is important, send a few bucks their way at the Quaker Tip Jar.




“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: “Miracle Motors—A Pert Near True Story"



Some people go to the woods or the mountains to encounter the Divine. They seek the quiet to listen for the “still, small voice.” Peggy Senger Morrison, though, has some of her best conversations with God while driving a Kawasaki motorcycle named Rosie. She writes about them and other adventures in her new book, Miracle Motors - A Pert Near True Story.

This is a story of an unmediated relationship with God, writes Peggy, a Quaker preacher, teacher, and trauma healer. She’s also a storyteller who took some cues from a Cowboy Poet who spoke in Quaker meeting from time to time.

When he spoke, he stuck to the point and spoke what God put on his heart, and then sat down. He did tell stories—good ones. One time, after meeting, I asked him if the rather fantastical story he had told was true. His answer was, “Pert near.” I laughed and asked him to explain...

“Pert near true is a story that has so much truth to it, that it doesn’t really matter whether it happened or not.”

The Cowboy Poet’s philosophy helped Peggy see the “Quaker thing about truthfulness” in a new way, and …solved so many problems for her as a storyteller.

Miracle Motors started as a motorcycle travelogue nearly fifteen years ago; now it’s a collection of stories loaded with truth.  Peggy writes: It may be disguised as a memoir, but it is really a post-modern narrative theology. It is everything that I know by direct experience with God.  It has more in common with the journals of the first Quakers and the confessions of old Catholics than it does with the systematic theologies of modern scholars. It also has more motorcycles.

You feel like you’re winding along highways and back roads in Oregon and California with Peggy (and Rosie) as she unfolds story after story of her childhood in Chicago, earning a degree in counseling with a minor in pastoral ministry, her trip to a Holiness Women’s Clergy convention in Texas, and her early years as a Quaker minister. Peggy also writes plenty about Quakerism, the Bible, Jesus, and how all of these inform her actions.

But while Peggy is a preacher, I never felt “preached at.” Rather, her stories—like this one about her conversation with a truck-driver—made me think, and smile.

“So, watcha do when you aren’t ridin?”

“I’m a Quaker preacher.” This always stops them for a moment…

“So, what are y’all about?”

“Oh, you know, the standard Jesus stuff—being good to folks even when they aren’t good to you, taking care of the poor, keeping it simple, telling it like it is, not letting anything get between you and God.”

“Hunh.”

That has to be one of the most succinct descriptions of the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, and equality.

Peggy’s adventures on the open road are rich in metaphors for life’s unexpected turns. One of those for her came with her first meeting of an African Quaker named David Niyonzima, a trauma healer in the Central African nation of Burundi.

While we were talking, I had a bit of a God moment, a clear but quiet voice ringing up from down inside me someplace… Quakers call this voice The Present Christ. It’s okay with me if you think we are delusional.  So the Voice said, “Do whatever this man asks of you.”

What David asked of Peggy was to teach him about trauma healing… and ultimately to travel to Burundi to help with his work there to train others in this approach. In 2003, Peggy left for the first of three trips to Central Africa, and the second half of the book includes stories of her experiences there.  More than a few involve motorcycles.

It will be no surprise to readers that Peggy returned from Africa, with, as she says, fresh eyes.

I came back with a passion for healing and for finding ways of escape through the barriers, obstacle courses, and mine fields that we use to keep people apart.

Those fresh eyes looked deeply at the schisms within Quakerism and the vision she and her partner, Alivia, shared for this faith:  something truly Quaker, and truly inclusive, and deeply Christ-centered. An oasis community where people could rest and recharge for whatever good work they did the rest of the time. Maybe even a church, not one that existed for its own sake, but one whose only purpose was to make some room for Mercy and Goodness.”

The closing chapters of Peggy’s memoir wind back and forth between another trip to Africa in 2010 and bike rides in the Western U.S., including a few stories about Freedom Friends Church that she and Alivia started in Salem, OR. Peggy finds parallels between group motorcycle rides and pastoral leadership.

Quaker pastors tend to ride sweep. The group itself sets the pace, the pastor watches and listens, to lend aid to anyone who falls or breaks down. A pastor should carry a tool kit.

Whether you’re a Quaker in the unprogrammed or the pastoral tradition, or someone seeking in other ways, Peggy’s “pert near true” stories will take you along on her spiritual journey. They’re also good ones to keep in your spiritual tool kit.

Miracle Motors is available through independent booksellers or online at unction.org.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Inward Activism—Outward Prayer


Every morning before I unroll my yoga mat, I have to resist the urge to go online to check the headlines in the New York Times. I catch myself creeping toward the email in- box before I settle into my rocker for a time of meditative journaling. It’s as if I’m on both ends of a tug-of-war rope, pushed and pulled by inward and outward action. It’s not a new struggle for me; I wrote about it here three years ago in my post Paddling Through Contemplation and Action. And with this tension as the theme for the fall gathering of Quakers in Washington (and part of Idaho), I know that I’m not alone.

At the gathering’s opening session, Tom Ewell and Christ Betz-Hall of Whidbey Island Friends Meeting shared from their experiences to guide our weekend exploration of “Faith in Practice - Weaving Together the Sacred Strands of Ourselves, Our Communities, and the World.” These two Friends are, rather than in a tug-of-war, more like a balancing scale—Tom a peace and justice activist and a leader in the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Chris the founder of Way of the Spirit, a program of contemplative study.

Chris led us in an exercise to visualize ourselves in a “Sabbath Garden,” a place where we feel grounded and centered.  She asked us to imagine a wall at the edge of the garden and then to picture ourselves moving beyond that wall.  As we sat together, visualizing ourselves in the garden and moving out into the world, Chris suggested we notice our thoughts at the wall and to consider whether we feel more drawn to the garden or the world. As we returned our awareness to the room, Chris reminded us that the Presence meets us wherever we are.

Tom then spoke of how he prepares himself so the Presence can meet him. He prefaced his comments acknowledging that he’s at a stage of life (retired, children grown) that offers some opportunities for the practice he follows and that each of us needs to find the path that works for us.

I was surprised to learn the discipline this man of action follows, and I’ve adopted parts of it to help slow my dive into the “doing” that calls to me. Tom begins most days with quiet, considering what is going on in the world that he needs to be aware of. Then he thinks back to the previous day and notices gratitudes—“Times I felt in partnership with God.”  

Next, Tom enters a time of prayer.  First, he “prays for the 4 Ps: people in prison, the poor, peace, and the planet.” Then he prays for his family, his Meeting and the wider Quaker community. Next he prays for himself, seeking compassion, conviction, consciousness, patience, hope. Tom ends this centering time reminding himself that in the day ahead, he’ll give himself over to God. “God’s presence is very real­ to me,” Tom said, “and it’s still the big mystery.”

As Chris spoke of her experience of weaving the strands of contemplation and action, she returned to her image of the Sabbath Garden.  “I believe that Spirit sends emissaries to my small garden,” she said, describing that it’s often other people entering our lives who nudge us from contemplation to action.  “My job is to respond in faithfulness.” Answering these questions helps Chris discern how, or if, to reply to calls she receives:

Is it good?
Is it mine to do?
Is it now?

When those emissaries come to me, discernment usually is the hardest, or at least the most important first step, I need to take. Chris’s questions can serve me well, along with this:  “I don’t have to save the world—I only have to be faithful to what I’m meant to do and to remember it’s good enough.” 


Prior to the gathering, we’d been encouraged to read the Pendle Hill  pamphlet by Daniel Snyder, “Quaker Witness as Sacrament.”  Dan’s examination of our tendency to polarize contemplation and action is informed by his experience teaching at Pendle Hill and his discovery that students were more drawn to his classes on nonviolence and forgiveness than to his offerings on prayer and peacemaking. He urged prospective students to generate lists of “the worst of spirituality” and “the best of spirituality.”  When they repeated the exercise for the “worst and best” of activism, they found that the best (and worst) of spirituality is very much like the best (and worst) of activism. Then Dan promised that if students took the class, rather than polarizing prayer and peacemaking, they would “work toward a practice that integrated the best of both while guarding against the worst…bringing the best of activism into our inward lives and the best of prayer into our outward action.”

Here’s what happened:
  • Activists kept the class grounded in the needs of a broken world and challenged contemplatives to bring their faith to outward visibility.
  • Contemplatives challenged classmates to season their sense of urgency in prayer and to resist the temptation to carry the world’s problems on their own shoulders.

The classes also explored how early Quakers followed a discipline of “…bringing minds and hearts again and again to the searching of the Light.” The Light they spoke of, though, didn’t confront them in the manner of “an overworked and punitive conscience,” but rather as the “work of Love, a purifying Fire that brings us home to our deepest authenticity.”

Ultimately, the contemplatives and activists concluded, “Quaker witness is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace.” Dan suggests that this is the classic definition of a sacrament,  “To live, walk, speak, and act in the world, not as our anger, guilt, fear, or despair shapes it for us, not as our personal hopes or political ideologies would shape it for us, but as it is re-shaped, again and again, in our ongoing encounters with God.”

Re-shaped, again and again, in our ongoing encounters with God. No wonder I keep revisiting how to balance inward and outward actions.  And now, with help from Tom and Chris and others I shared with during the gathering, I approach those encounters more open to the work of Love, perhaps in the form of emissaries, who will re-shape me to my deepest authenticity.

Do you tend to polarize contemplation and action?

How do you weave the strands of your inward and outward life?