Porridge of the Quakers
A teaser from So There I Was ... in Africa
So there I was ...
Thinking twice. I woke up in Kigali, on the morning after a particularly difficult bus day. The problem was that the previous day was supposed to be the easy day. The day ahead was the one predicted to be challenging.
When your friends are all genocide survivors you learn to take seriously their view of what is problematic. Sometimes you have to be more concerned than they are, because they tend to think that anything that doesn’t involve hand grenades is pretty low key. But if they tell you to worry, you should not ignore this. My friends describe an actual shoot out as “activity” and genocide as a “situation.”
The previous day had not risen anywhere near the level of activity, and yet I was whipped, emotionally and physically. A night’s sleep in a middle class African hotel had not restored me. I was not sure that I should proceed.
I was traveling solo, no comrade input. But the reasons for taking the next bus were fairly compelling. I was expected to teach the following day. The students waiting for me were working with victims in an active war zone. They had no training in trauma theory or resolution. They had way too much experience with trauma. If I bailed, no one else was coming anytime soon. I was carrying tools they needed and I had no way to send the tools without bringing my person.
I did what Quakers do in such a situation. I got quiet. I centered down. I prepared to listen to the present Christ. And I received from the present Christ what I often receive, calm peaceful silence. A sense of the Presence, to be sure, but no direction, no reassurance, no warning. In my experience the Divine does not usually repeat Itself. If I have my marching orders, I have them. I can act on them or not, the Presence does not leave me, but once I am clear, the directions are not usually repeated.
On that morning, I really wanted more. As I left my time of worship and reflection I prayed quite sincerely “Look, I know You are here, but I am exhausted and afraid, and I need some clear, obvious indication that I am on the right path and that it is safe and good for me to proceed - or else a clear stop sign. You have about an hour.”
I went down to breakfast. African hotel breakfast is very nice. It comes with your room, and it is buffet style. The coffee is always excellent. There is always fruit and bread. The fruit; how do I tell you? If you have eaten a perfect, home grown tomato in August, or sweet corn picked and cooked in the same hour, and compare those to a January grocery store tomato or canned corn, that is the qualitative difference between what you know of as a banana or a pineapple and what comes with an African breakfast. Central Africans were taught bread making by the French - ‘nuff said there. At the typical hotel breakfast buffet there is also always a hot dish option. It is usually some form of stew, frequently cooking bananas and spinach type greens swimming in viscous orange palm oil. I never really acquired the taste for the breakfast stew, but the other parts were so ambrosic that I didn’t care.
On that morning I was almost alone in the dining room. An attentive young man in a white coat was overseeing the room. He greeted me and poured my coffee. I chose bread and pineapple. The hot dish was covered.
Mostly to make conversation I asked “And what is the hot breakfast this morning?”
The young man turned away and grimaced.
“Oh, Madame, the hot breakfast this morning she is terrible!”
Now, I was curious, what could be more terrible than spinach banana stew.
“Really? What do we have this morning?
“Madame, please, believe me. Can I get you some eggs? Chef would be very happy to make you an omelet.”
Now I just had to know.
“Truly, I must know, what is it?
He reached for the warming tray lid. Arm extended to its extreme, he turned his head and shoulders away and made a face of repulsion.
I was expecting toxic biohazard casserole.
“Madame, I am so sorry, it is the porridge of the Quakers.”
He uncovered a perfectly beautiful dish of Quaker Oats.
“But Monsieur, I, myself, am a Quaker!”
“What? Madame, you, a Quaker? But this is wonderful! We have made this porridge for you! I will get a bigger dish!”
And he ran and got a giant serving dish and served me up the largest bowl the Oats that I have ever attempted to eat.
I tried to share my oats with Jesus but he was not taking up His share. But He was at the table with me. And He was with me on the bus going forward.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
Will be off the presses this week.
Coming in at just under 150 pages, it has 28 stories from Africa. There's comedy, tragedy and a unique cross-cultural perspective.
The price is going to be $15.00 per copy, and 100% of the revenue from this book is going into a fund to send Peggy back to Africa next summer to get some fresh material.
For those is the Northwest - Friday night December 4 at 7pm, Peggy is throwing a book party at Freedom Friends Church. Peggy will read and take questions and show picture from her trips some of which even corroborate her accounts! Come join us for an informal get together.
Seasonal repeat #3
Some people have a long-term dysfunctional relationship with Christmas. All of this post is for them, and some of it is for all of us.
Let it begin!
We once had a dog who kept Christmas better than many people. He appeared to understand the theological concept of Advent, the expected surprise.
By his third Christmas he saw the tree and knew what was coming. He knew where I kept the decorations. He liked the food and he appeared to enjoy walking around the neighborhood looking at the lights. Because we had children with a sense of justice, the dog got presents. His were very simple and wrapped in the funny papers, but he understood the concept of a present and anticipated it. He waited as others opened theirs with vicarious joy, but when the child passing the presents spoke his name he would bounce up with delight. He was a package ripper. By his fifth or sixth Christmas he could count well enough to be aware that others were getting many presents to his one, and we had to start making several for him. We could fake him out by going around the circle twice before he would notice, but then he would sense that it was time for him again, and whimper with anticipation. I have no doubt that if he could have given presents, he would have. He understood that they were not all for him, and never bothered a package left under the tree until Christmas morning.
There are many Western Christian humans who could take a few lessons from that dog. There are many people who due to their upbringings or personal history and choices need to spend the season in Christmas rehab.
I have walked several friends and many counseling clients through Christmas rehab. It works. The major intervention can be done in one year, but must be followed up especially well in the next few years. Christmas serenity can be achieved in five years for most people.
Here are the ten principles of Christmas Rehab.
ONE: The operative verb of Christmas is “keep.” Christmas is not a storm that blows through. Christmas is not a misery forced upon you. It is not a black hole that you get sucked into. Once you are an adult, the Christmas you keep is the Christmas you get, and the Christmas you deserve. It is a matter of faith, effort and personal responsibility. You should keep the Christmas that you believe in. No one can force you to do anything else.
TWO: Do not stretch the season. This waters the thing down and makes it insipid. Avoid the stores as much as possible between Halloween and Thanksgiving. If you find the season to be tiring, shorten it.
THREE: Do beauty, appreciate beauty. Start with cleanliness. Spend the days between Thanksgiving and December 1 making your home clean and orderly. Repair or paint if necessary. Then decorate. Focus on quality not quantity. Have a few things to wear that you do not wear at any other time of year. Go out and look at the lights, the public displays. But not until you are ready to do beauty of your own.
FOUR: Simplify. If part of your tradition is giving and receiving gifts, then before you shop, you should get rid of all excess things in your possession. This is a marvelous tradition to do with children. Have them go through their toys and possessions and give a few away. Tell them that this is an essential part of getting ready for Santa.
FIVE: Have a budget and stick to it. Debt should have no place in Christmas. If this is hard for you, start saving in January. If you need to, take your Christmas budget out in cash and put it in envelopes marked for different purposes and when it is gone, STOP spending. If your budget does not feel generous enough, up your savings for the next year.
SIX: Participate in Charity. Sort food at your local food bank. Volunteer to serve a meal at the mission. Never, ever, walk past a Salvation Army bell ringer. Keep change in your pocket for this purpose. If a store you normally patronize does not allow the bell ringers, stop shopping there for a few weeks and tell the manager why. Adopt a kid or a family. Quantity of giving does not matter. Giving, especially if you can do it as a surprise, does.
SEVEN: Make faith the core of your holiday. It is a Christian holiday after all. Easter should actually be a little bigger, but Christmas is Number Two. Keep the core of your denomination’s and your ethnicity’s traditions. Go to midnight mass. Walk the Posada. Find out what your ancestors did and do some of that. Read religious stories to your children. Attend church – for the whole month.
EIGHT: Balance solitude and community. You may have to fight for this one; you may have to disappoint a few people. If you are a social person, do not go to every party you are invited to. If you tend to isolate, find a few public events and attend them. Do not overbook yourself or your family. Take a Christmas, or post-Christmas retreat at a local Monastic retreat house.
NINE: Have and make Flexible traditions. Do some things the same every year. Have a few traditional foods. If you had good Christmases in your childhood bring something of that forward to another generation. But stay flexible. Your children and grandchildren will need time and space to make their own traditions, and that by necessity means letting go of some of yours.
TEN: Avoid people who have the inclination to sabotage holidays. Avoid situations that are a set-up. Some families should just have a moratorium on the season for a year and then start fresh. In some families the longest standing tradition is the Christmas crisis, which can involve a fight, a trip to the ER, a drunken rampage, whatever. Some people need to avoid their biological relations to keep Christmas. Some people need to have a completely alcohol free Christmas. Some people need to cut back on spending even if that means offending some relations. Some people need to adopt a whole new family. It is not a sin to scale back. It is not a sin to choose who you wish to see and not see this holiday. You can turn off and unplug the phones on the 23rd and not turn them back on until the 26th – this breaks no law.
I suggest you take these principles out for a test run. If you have limited success, try them again next year with better preparation.
If you find these guidelines to be intuitive and easy to implement, well, then grasshopper, you are ready for the big task.
Learn from Ebenezar Scrooge and keep Christmas everyday of the year.
seasonal repeat #2
So There I was...
Looking at the news. Late in the day after the Feast of Gratitude. There was a video clip of a two women being interviewed by a Local TV reporter clearly at the low end of the Totem Pole. It was this poor man’s job to get a story out of how their shopping had gone. I almost clicked off, and then the camera caught an unusually good angle; the woman’s chin up and out, a laugh rolling out of her mouth, and flash of her eye that meant victory. The look was one that in earlier times or other places would be called blood satiation. She had triumphed and was bringing home the trophies, scalps and booty. She had planned and executed an invasion. The God’s and Goddesses of war had smiled upon her. She was the hero to whom the crowds yell “Die Now! Die Now!” for nothing more noble could be achieved.
She had shopped well.
Oh, my sister. How we have fallen. This is our victory.
The pillage of Wal-Mart. The plunder of Target. The sack of Sachs.
Clearly, no one has ever told you who you really are. What you were created to do. Let me try and give you a glimpse. See if it does not sound an echo within your soul.
Our most ancient stories tell us the truth of who we are and what we can do. In every culture, the stories exist. Scheherezade knew these stories. Boudica told these stories to her daughters. These stories tell of heroic women; Judith and Xena. This archetypal woman has come down to our day and turns up as a blonde in Sunnydale. But she is here and she will not go away. You know these stories, you have just forgotten their meaning, and failed at their application.
The oldest story I know is of a garden. Firstmother was seduced by a lie. A fear-based lie. A myth of scarcity. She was told that her creator was holding out on her. She bought the falsehood that she must acquire, by deceit or force, what she was not given. She realizes her mistake very quickly, but the adhesive gum of the price-sticker of that lie stuck to her soul and was passed down.
But not before her creator gave her one more thing.
He spoke to her seducer and said this.
“You who were made for glory, you who has never had a predator, you have now made an enemy, and her name is woman, and you should be afraid, very afraid for although you will cut her, in the end, she will crush your head.”
Not Firstfather. Not the second Adam who came to plant the new garden. No, SHE was tasked with vermin eradication. She shall have the final victory. Doubt me? Get thee to a Roman church; find the pretty Lady, the one of the serene face, the upturned eyes. Look at her feet, and see what is crushed under them.
Since that day two forces have been competing for your soul, my sister. One, a foul lie from Hell, which says that you are not complete, that you are not good enough, that you must have more, be more. The other force is deeper and more powerful, but often buried, unawakened. It says that you are more powerful than you could ever know – right now. That force knows that evil itself, fears YOU. You were meant to crush poverty. To thwart abuse. To free captives as well as to bind wounds. You were meant to have clear sight, wisdom and power.
But sister, you have bought the lie. You have bought it wholesale, retail and on sale. You have stocked your cupboards with it and put it away for the winter. You have breast-fed and spoon fed it to your babies. Your soul has root cellars full of it.
You have let your enemy bind your feet, so that you cannot stand your ground. You have let your enemy steal your right to read, so that your may not look upon the truth. You have let your enemy impoverish you through mistaken wars you have enabled with your cooking pot and laundry pail. You have died bearing daughters who do not know who they are.
Yet in your deepest dreams the battle songs on Miriam and Deborah still sing.
“Horses and chariots are no match for my God”
There was nothing wrong with that feeling you felt on Friday night, my dear. You were hardwired to crave it, seek it, fight for it and revel in it. But oh, by sister, my mother, my daughter, you have settled for a pale echo of the truth.
Give it a thought now, before we settle into the cookies and the glass balls and the laughter of children. Any maybe on this New Year, you might want to sing a new song, and laugh a new laugh, and look your true enemy in the eye and let him see that you see him, clearly. Let him see that flash in your eye. Scare the Hell out of him, I tell you it will.
“Get the claymore out of the thatch where you hid it Molly.”
Veni… Vidi… Vi – effin – Ci
Seasonal repeat - Thanksgiving
The Spiritual Discipline of Gratitude
Three seasonal repeats
So There I was...
…Getting my clock cleaned weekly.
I was training to be a counselor. I was in my last term. I had 18 months of clinical practicum in my backpack. End of tunnel in sight – didn’t expect that light to be an oncoming train.
I had a new supervisor, and she did not appreciate me. I don’t think that there was anything about me that she liked. And her disdain of all things Peggy Parsons was apparent in the first session. Our meetings focused on listening to, and critiquing tapes of my counseling sessions – my clients signed up for this by getting a cheap student driver counselor. From the get go it was apparent that she thought that I could do nothing right. I remember her criticizing the tonal pitch of one of the sounds that counselors make to show empathetic listening. She didn’t like it when I spoke, she didn’t like it when I was silent. Realizing, of course, that a good supervisor would never give ONLY criticism, she occasionally faintly praised ridiculously small things; as in “Well, Peggy at least you called your client by their proper name – that was adequate.”
I never did figure out if there was anything I did to precipitate her treatment of me, but I do know that moment that I sealed the deal.
After weeks of tearing apart my work, we ended a meeting and I looked up at her shelf of books by feminist theologians and psychologists and said “Gee, you know, I would have thought that feminist supervision would have been a little more nurturing than this.”
It wasn’t a clever thing to say. After that she called the school I was to graduate from, and the clinic where I was doing my practicum and tried to get me fired and held-back. It’s pretty rare to get held back a grade in graduate school, but she tried.
At that point I was starting to wonder if, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, I really sucked at this. And if I did not, how I was going to get through the last couple of months of the ordeal.
I hired an independent person, another clinical supervisor, to give me some perspective. He listened to my tapes and told me that I was doing fine. I asked him for advice on surviving an upcoming exit interview, when my supervisor would meet with me and the director of the clinic where I was working. The one I was hoping would hire me after my graduation. I was certain that she was going to try and make sure that I did not get that job.
His advice; “Thank her.”
“For what? – abusing me?”
“Yes, call it diligence and thank her for it. Make a list of everything you could possible think of, and thank her for it. Thank her for providing you with a chair to sit in, thank her for agreeing to see you, thank her for her attention to detail. Start with that list – take up as much time as possible and then when she gets her say, argue with nothing and thank her again, in detail. Gratitude is your only option, any other response will look like defense or offense and they will both fail. But Peggy – you have to thank her sincerely, you can’t sound facetious when you do it.”
I didn’t like his advice, but I took it.
It was nasty hard to do, but I did it.
The look on her face was pretty precious, but the bottom line was that I graduated, got the job, and that woman has become an unnamed footnote in my story.
That was my first awareness of gratitude as a spiritual discipline.
I am grateful to her for that. Really.
My mom taught me to say thank-you – but that was usually for things that were good, and that I liked. She gave me a way to express my natural gratitude.
The discipline of being grateful when things are going to hell in a hand basket came harder and later.
But I have come to believe that it is a foundational spiritual discipline. It is the discipline that frees you to learn all the others. It completely circumvents resentment. It takes anger and divides it into that which requires action and that which can be released. Eliminating resentment and reducing anger allows you much more time for attention. It makes failure bearable. It sweetens everything that is already sweet.
If I start and end my day with gratitude, nothing that happens in between has the power to ruin tomorrow.
A couple of years back I received a second-hand instruction from a Benedictine nun. It was shared with me by a friend, and it dropped immediately into that hole in my soul that is truth shaped. She said, “Pray this prayer daily; Thank-you for everything – I have no complaint.”
I have tried to do this, not just daily but hourly and moment-by-moment. It is not easy. Some things, like interruptions and thwartings, do not fall easily into the gratitude basket.
I wrestled for a while with thanking God for things that I did not really believe that God was sending me. I do not believe it is God’s explicit intention for me to be sick or stupid or in harms way. But then I came to believe that these things were part of the global package and that for all its faults I choose to believe that the package is good.
Most of my problems are the consequences of my own foolish actions. I realized that having painful consequences for stupidity was indeed a gift from God, how else was I going to know when to change?
A smaller percentage of the things I hate are the consequences of other people’s stupid actions. But I have learned to thank God for this because it gives me a chance to be perfected in my own reactions, and to step up to the plate for things like justice and peace.
The smallest percentage of my grief is in response to things that are not in human control, like death and sickness. This IS God’s deal – it is part of the set-up. I do not like it very often. But I have come to accept even these things, and trust God in them.
The hardest part of this prayer is the “choosing not to complain” bit. For years I have used God as my unedited sounding board. If I have to yell at somebody, why not God, I mean God’s a tough mother and can take it, right? God has always seemed patient about this, and after I rant a bit, I always feel better and settle into a better place. So to give up complaints, seemed to be giving up one of my favorite coping mechanisms. It also seems at odds with justice. There is a lot of bad stuff going down on this planet; don’t we need to make an issue of certain things?What I have discovered is that forsaking complaint and going straight to gratitude has zero affect on the truth, in fact, it makes truth clearer, and you can move straight to action.
Dear God, thanks for this mess – I have no complaint – please get my back as I step into the middle of it.
Sometimes I need to do something. Sometimes I need to be something. I have found that gratitude is the fast track to the place where God needs me most, and where I most need God.
Two Minutes of medicinal Baby Laughter
Apply as needed.
Can repeat as often as necessary.