Monday, December 19, 2011

The Peaceable Kingdom

Ginger-scented night
Snowflake-dusted day

An angel breezes by
awakening my heart
and singing
“Peace on earth to relatives of good will!”

For today the turkey will not be served
with a side of resentment
nor the dressing seasoned liberally
with vitriol

Glad tidings
of warfare accomplished
of lions and lambs
leopards and goats
feeding together

Hold the menagerie, Isaiah
just promise me a Christmas dinner
rich in savory memories

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Subversive God

It recently struck me that, for years now, I've been suppressing the entire Advent season from my consciousness. The process started when the easy-listening station that I tune into now and then began switching to all Christmas music, all the time earlier and earlier.  The day after Thanksgiving is already way too soon for my taste.  But two weeks before Thanksgiving is ridiculous, and one week after Halloween is absolutely intolerable. I hope the hobgoblins eat them next year!

The whole Christmas shopping scene is something I dread. Garish ads promising me that my relatives and friends will love me more if I buy them this or that expensive gadget, stores over-packed with mass-produced merchandise, and the atmosphere saturated with Christmas carols degraded to the state of noise pollution. 

I hate the drill so much that I've been blocking out the entire four-week period before Christmas, robbing myself of an entire month of my life each year.

Fortunately, the Spirit has stepped in to rectify the situation and restore that month to my life. Today and last First Day (that's Quaker-speak for Sunday), as I settled into the silence of meeting for worship, I heard the stories from the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel reverberating in my heart.

Today it was Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said:
   “My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
   of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
   holy is his name.
 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
   from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
   but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
   but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
   remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
   just as he promised our ancestors.”
  Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
                                                                                                     Luke 1:39-56
If it's of any importance to you, gentle reader, I no longer take these stories as literal, factual history. I realize that they constitute legends, interpolated by the author (whoever he was) into his community's story of the life, teachings, and deeds of Jesus. Some of these legends are patterned on the myths surrounding the birth of Caesar Augustus. as though to say: our guy is as great --and maybe even greater-- than your guy.  But that's OK.  These stories do not need to be hard facts. As Bible scholar Marcus Borg says, "I do not think they are historically factual, but I think they are profoundly true."

It occurred to me this morning that this is the story of a baby shower!

For starters, only women are present: one who is rather advanced in age (her story, was told in verses 5-25) and her much younger cousin who has come to visit. Two disgraced women at that: one who has been labeled "barren" (always the woman's fault, apparently) and the other pregnant out of wedlock.

Neither of them is Church Lady material.

Their lives are about to change profoundly.  Maybe Elizabeth is worried that her aged body might not be able to produce enough milk for her baby. Maybe she is wondering how many years of her child's life God will allow her to enjoy before it's time for her own life to close. Maybe Mary is wondering if Joseph, so gracious and accepting at the moment, will throw this miraculous conception up to her face the first time they have an argument. These pregnancies may have been made in heaven, but the earthly mothers sure have some heavy things to ponder while knitting baby booties. So they get together to support each other and to celebrate a bit too.

Elizabeth has had the stigma of barrenness lifted from her.  Best of all, after helping sisters and cousins and neighbors care for their babies, she will finally have a little one of her own to rock to sleep. Mary gets reassurance --and maybe also a little material help-- from her cousin who, as wife of the High Priest, was probably a little better off financially. We're told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. In other words, she assisted at the birth, stayed a while to help her cousin, and got some practice in caring for a newborn. Elizabeth no doubt sent Mary home with a nice pack of baby supplies.

But enough of this baby showering.  There's some pretty dramatic imagery in this story.  There's a Mighty One who with his arm is casting rulers from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.  Poor people are getting fed and rich people are getting turned away. This Mighty One even knows who is proud "in their inmost thoughts."

Not even Santa Claus can claim to do that.

But what's really different about this Might One, as opposed to the mighty with a small "m," is that he keeps his promises. Rulers and their broken promises. Some things never change. This ruler even remembers to be merciful. That's the kind of ruler people will praise God for.

And just who is spouting all this talk about a ruler both Mighty and Merciful? A 14- or 15-year-old unmarried mother-to-be.

Yet Israel is under the yoke of the Roman occupier.  Soldiers are garrisoned all over the country and even force people to carry their military gear. The inhabitants are falling so deep into debt from taxes that many are losing their land. With her people in such dire straits, surely Mary foresees the birth of a couple of warriors who will one day show the Romans who's boss.

Fast forward to the adult lives of the future sons of these two women (unfortunately, future daughters never seem to be the subjects of prophecy...but then Gloria Steinem wouldn't have had any work to do).  Neither will be a warrior. Both will die a violent death at the hands of the mighty-with-a-small-m. Abject failures in the eyes of the world.

So...why such rapture from this young mother-to-be?

The clue, I think, is that Mary speaks in the present perfect tense.  God has performed mighty deeds, he has scattered the proud, has brought down the rulers, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the poor with good things, has sent the rich away, and has helped Israel. The time of peace and justice promised long ago is here right now.

With righteousness he will judge the needy,
   with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
   with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
  Righteousness will be his belt
   and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
   the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
   and a little child will lead them.
 The cow will feed with the bear,
   their young will lie down together,
   and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
   and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
 They will neither harm nor destroy
   on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
   as the waters cover the sea. 
                                                                           Isaiah 11: 4-9

But come on! What was in that cup of coffee Elizabeth gave her cousin?

Mary sees a Kingdom that bears no resemblance to the one celebrated by Virgil. And she knows that she, little no-account Mary, is literally and figuratively pregnant with the force of that transformation. As are we all. God is indeed infinitely more subversive than we give him (or her) credit for. Mary's son will one day declare, "the Kingdom of Heaven is within you," and Mary is already shouting, "Yea verily!" 

George Fox knew about the subversiveness of God when he told the military recruiters that "he lived in the Life and Power that takes away the occasion for war." Remember what he got for it? Six more months in prison. But by cooperating with that Power and truly living peace in his body and soul he brought the Kingdom to Yorkshire.

Like her son and like her cousin's son, Mary sees the upside-down Reign of God as already here, that once and furture Kingdom where peace abides, where the hungry are fed, where the lowly are lifted up. This is happening already and will happen wherever there are those who selflessly follow the word of her Son.

OK, time to be truthful. (Darn that Testimony of Integrity!) I don't seriously believe that the mother of Jesus foresaw any of this. She probably did not conceive her child any differently than women have throughout the history of motherhood. Nor did she have a cousin who conceived and gave birth to a son long after menopause. It's not hard to see where that story came from. I think that the author of Luke put those words into the mouth of a poor teenage girl and her cousin long after the beloved Teacher had suffered death at the hands of the mighty-with-a-small m. He did it to exalt the lowly in his is own literary way and to create examples of those who were last in this world but first and most important in the Kingdom restored,  subjects who felt the power of a God who was truly bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh and whose loving, gracious will could be accomplished only through them, subjects who were blessed because they heard the word of God and kept it.

So, let the merchandise pile up around me, let the carols blare. I pray for the strength to cooperate faithfully with that transformational power. I can feed the poor. I can bring cheer to someone who is downcast. I can remember to be merciful. I can make the Reign of God manifest here and now.

I need only let the Mighty One do great things for me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Must be election time

 12/4/2011 - Update
Well, Sen. Ayotte failed to make a name for herself as our latest tough-as-nails-on-terrorists politician.  (Romney will have to find something else to tout about her).  Her amendment never even came up for a vote.  Yaaaaaaayyyy!!!!!

Unfortunately, McCain and Levin managed to push through their venomous sections of the National Defense Authorization Act. Gitmo will continue to stand as a monument to infamy -- as well as a possible home even to American citizens accused and convicted of terror without benefit of trial.  Andy Worthington best tells the story of our deranged Senate:


Torture and indefinite detention are again rearing their ugly heads. An amendment and two other provisions, tucked cozily into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (S. 1867), to be voted on in the Senate tomorrow or Tuesday, threaten to take our country farther back into the pre-Enlightenment era.

  •     Amendment 1068 to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (S. 1867), proposed by freshman Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire (mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney),  would authorize a classified list of additional interrogation methods  beyond those allowed by  the Army Field Manual.  Civil rights groups fear that this amendment  could be used to establish more aggressive interrogation techniques, as it supersedes the executive order  President  Obama signed two days after taking office in 2009, requiring  that prisoners "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and shall not be subjected to violence to life and person (including murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture), nor to outrages upon personal dignity (including humiliating and degrading treatment).”    The ACLU has already drafted a letter addressed to senators, which has been co-signed by more than 30 other human rights organizations, strongly condemning the proposed amendment ( ).   
   Please contact your senators and tell them to oppose Amendment 1068 to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (S. 1867).
  •   The second issue involves sections 1031 and 1032 of the same bill (National Defense Authorization Act).  These sections contain provisions for expanded powers of indefinite detention.  Specifically, these provisions would
1)  Explicitly authorize the federal government to indefinitely imprison without charge or trial American citizens and others picked up inside and outside the United States;
(2)  Mandate military detention of some civilians who would otherwise be outside of military control, including civilians picked up within the United States itself; and
(3)  Transfer to the Department of Defense core prosecutorial, investigative, law enforcement, penal, and custodial authority and responsibility now held by the Department of Justice.

    Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is offering the Udall Amendment that will delete the harmful provisions and replace them with a requirement for an orderly Congressional review of detention power.
     Please contact your senators and tell them to support the Udall Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (S. 1867) and to oppose Sec. 1031 & 1032.

If you reside in PA, here’s contact info for our senators:
 Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr.
(202) 224-6324
Phila. Office:  (215) 405-9660
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey
(202) 224-4254
Phila. Office: (215) 241-1090

Contact info for all US senators can be found at:

More info on these two issues:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving, family, and zumba

  Started the holiday out right: a 1 1/2-hr zumba "burn your turkey" session.  Lots of fun -- at least 40 participants!  

   I did 3 1/2 hours of cooking last evening and am now packing it all up to take to share with the in-laws who are too infirm to travel out.  Our younger son will join us.  So happy we'll all be together. 

  My love affair with the music of Latin America continues, and I've recently discovered the Colombian singer Fonseca.  His song Gratitud couldn't be more perfect for the day. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Scenes from an occupation

Yesterday was lovely in D.C., as occupiers gathered in Freedom Plaza for the kick-off of the Stop the Machine/Create a New World actions.  Wish I were still there but, as one of the fortunate Americans with a job, I need to report for work today.

 Occupiers were peaceful...
The music was great
 I volunteered with The World Can't Wait, which occupied one entire end of the plaza with messages of peace, a halt to torture, and the permanent grounding the drones.

my poster

Young people were notably present, a very good sign... and many, many persons 55+ years old who have been laid off...OK, next stop, Occupy Philadelphia!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Nothing between Thee and me

Back in the 60's (I know I'm showing my age here), poet/songwriter Rod McKuen published a collection of verse entitled Listen to the Warm. Arriving quite early at our meetinghouse this morning (my heart must finally be repenting of my chronic tardiness and must be turning over a new leaf), I sat listening to the crackling fire that a Friend had generously lit in the fireplace for the comfort of all, and the words "listen to the calm" came to me...along with these words:

Nothing between Thee and me
as I sit in the stillness
safe in the embrace
of four pure white walls

No organ swell
no hymns
only the song of wood crackling in the hearth

No incense
only the fragrance of rough-hewn benches

No stained glass
just pristine windows
transmitting unadulterated sunlight

No sermon
no oration
only Thy voice
wafting over the arid sands
of my desert heart

Thy words
an oasis
my refreshment

Thee bids me
drink deeply
thirsty wanderer
my child
my own

Sunday, August 21, 2011


This morning
I stand still in that which is pure
as liquid Light seeps down
into the dark chinks
where I hide my sins

as relentless illumination scours
those deep recesses
of self-deception

No need to strike my breast
my heart heaves and rocks
with each wordless mea culpa

still I stand in the Light

Then mercy comes in

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Meeting for Worship

Like letting a sunbeam
kiss the part in your hair
like breathing
that’s more like drinking
like your favorite easy chair
like the best seat in the house
like the perfect setting on the audio system
like the right word
like a turn of phrase
that makes the meaning clear
like a whisperless silence
like a whisper-filled silence
like transcribing Morse code
like deciphering hieroglyphics
like feeling pleasantly full
after a meal
like learning something again
for the first time
like a warm hearth
on a damp, cold day
like following the sunbeam
toward the friend waiting at the other end

Friday, August 12, 2011

The lastest war of words

angry words

cock-sure-of-yourself words
They’re wrong and we’re right words
God hates you and loves us words
What would Jesus do words

Words to accuse
words to judge
words to condemn
words to draw the line 
Abused words
violated words
mangled, mutilated words
Blocks of words
bricks of words
IED’s of words

Words that conceal our helplessness
words that mask our impotence
words – all bravado all the time


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ode to my frying pan

While participating in a hiking/yoga/writing seminar in the high desert of Abiquiú (New Mexico) last week, I was invited to write an ode to some ordinary object in my life, taking inspiration from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things. Here's what emerged.

Ode to my frying pan

Your non-stick coating minimizes the need for grease
  but a touch of sesame oil lends a proper oriental flavor
  to my stir fry
  Or a few tablespoons of olive oil
  makes for an authentic ratatouille

I truly admire your versatility,
O frying pan,
  though your shape remains ever the same
  you supply us with an endless variety
  of dinners

Whether sizzling, simmering, or sauteing
  you sing contentedly 
  transforming raw into cooked
  You seem happiest when blending veggies
  of all colors
  and skillfully inculcating them with the savory seasonings

Then humbly you sit cooling on the stove
  all alone
  while dinner plates serve up your handiwork.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On self-defense

Today it was a cholla that taught me to defend myself
  to grow nettles if need be to ward off intruders
  to twist and curl away to avoid more demands on my time

If I could, I’d plant that cholla
  next to my work table
  and hang a sign around its neck
  Beware: ferocious intruder-eating plant

I don’t know much about the cholla
  except that it's part of the cacti family
  and I’ll bet that mine has a reservoir
  an internal font of Gatorade
  of plasma and electrolytes
  that hums as it flows up and down
  through arteries and veins

“Protect your vital juices,” she told me
“Keep them far below the surface lest they evaporate”

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This one's different

I feel as though I'm living in some sort of futuristic, dystopian novel. At 8am the kitchen table and counter tops are warm to the touch, and even after the sun goes down the heat does not abate. Not a hint of a breeze if I open the window.  From the time I left work on Friday, I've been running errands in temperatures around and even above 100°F (37.7°C), with a heat index that makes it feel like 113° (45°C). I remember heat waves, but there's something very unsettling and ominous about this one. Just breathing is difficult. I almost feel feverish when I'm outside.

The heat wave extends over most of the southwest and northeast of the country. So those of us who can, barricade ourselves inside air conditioned buildings.  Makes me think of the massive Canadian ice storm of 1998, when the electricity went out and vast areas were plunged into cold and darkness. What would we do if the electric grid went out in this region and we were at the mercy of the excessive heat and humidity ... no air conditioning, no ice cubes, no refrigeration, no relief? But our air conditioning and our automobiles are only contributing to the damaged environment.

Meteorologists say that temperatures will come down a bit in the next couple of days -- to around 88°F (31°) --and then go right back up again.  I bet we'll see a lot more of these hot spells in the future, as well as increased snowfall in the winter.  I think it's called climate change...although there are members of the Senate who question whether it's caused by human activity...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Legislative visit


It was a hot, humid day in the former swamp, capital of the free world since 1791.  I  made a trip to our senators' offices yesterday with pastors Sandy, Linda, and Deborah to discuss the issue of torture. Friend Will Penn came along too in the guise of his book Some Fruits of Solitude.  I even quoted maxim #537 for the greater amusement of one of the staff members: "A good End cannot sanctify evil Means; nor must we ever do Evil, that Good may come of it.”
I'm still at a loss as to why it was necessary for me to play the sober Quaker in the presence of my senators' staff and to inform them that I do not approve of torture in general and US-sponsored torture in particular. I thought that Cesare Beccaria had pretty much settled the question in the 18th century.  His avid fans thought he had, at least. They complained that Beccaria's landmark work on torture and other areas of what we now call criminal justice had left nothing else for them to expound upon. Povero Cesare!  You didn't know that the State will resort the worst of human behavior rather than seem soft on its enemies.  Or maybe you knew that but, carried away by Enlightenment optimism, crossed that sentence out of your manuscript.

Anyway, the staffers made all the properly lofty statements and assured us that each of our respective senators tenaciously occupied the high moral ground. I presented postcards signed by Friends from the Philadelphia in support of NRCAT's current action, urging each senator to do all in his power to get the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee published, so that the American people can know what torture (a.k.a., enhanced interrogation methods, or, THE TOOLS needed to gather information) accomplished or did not accomplish.  (The committee convened in 2009 and expected to produce a report within a year.)

Of course, it is not really the morality of torture that is being called into question but its utility. Osama bin Laden's remains had not yet sunk to the bottom of the sea before John Yoo published a commentary crediting the Bush administration's interrogation techniques with locating Public Enemy No. 1. Never mind that former interrogator Matthew Alexander refuted this nonsense in an essay in Foreign Policy. "Most importantly," says Alexander, "we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy." Perhaps one day we'll finally do more than just talk about it.