Providence, Nevada

today's upi column

So There I was...

In the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

I was riding my Kawasaki Vulcan Motorcycle from Salem, Oregon to San Antonio Texas to preach at a Women’s Clergy Conference. It was April 1998, and I was about a third of the way there when my first major adventure occurred.

There was a whole lot of nothing out on route 95. It’s about 300 miles long, from east of Reno to Las Vegas. It runs between several Air Force testing grounds and the California border, with Death Valley just on the other side. The scenery is remarkable, if you like stark and barren.

There are about three towns out there, two just big enough to have a gas station. At one station I actually had to crank the pump manually. In the largest of the towns there is a place called the Mozart Piano Bar. The building sports a painting of a skeleton, and a caption reads, “This guy drank water”. The notion of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart reincarnated in a honky-tonk in Nowhere, Nevada, tickled my funny bone. In the smaller town there is a man who has a yard collection of dragsters, VW Bugs, an airplane and a sign that declares “Nothing for sale”. Nevadans seem big on pithy signs.

The longest stretch of road was about 120 miles of serious nothing. At about 4 p.m., I was about half way across this stretch when my bike, Rosie, short for Rocinante, choked. She was at full throttle, then just a hint of warning, in the form of an acceleration loss, then dead, nothing. I coasted to a stop. She re-started, but sputtered and died again almost immediately.

I got out my cell phone to test my emergency system. I had a service called Mo Tow, if you break down anywhere in the continental US, and call them, they will come get you. I wasn't ready to call them for a ride yet, but I wanted to know that they were there. This is when I learned a fundamental lesson about cell phones. They don’t work without a cell tower. I was deep in the middle of 'no service' land. If the Air Force was out there listening in Area 51, they weren't answering. Rats.

I was contemplating what I was going to do. It was too far to walk. I could not imagine abandoning my bike and gear and hitching a ride into Vegas; however, waiting all night in the desert cold for a state trooper, who probably wouldn't come, didn't seem like a good idea either. There were no ranches out here, and I hadn't seen another vehicle ahead or behind me for at least 30 miles.

I took out my spare 2 qt gas can and put it in the tank; pure superstition, as she had half a tank in her, but it seemed to cheer her up a bit. She started and stayed started. It was two hours until dark and I had 150 miles to go until I hit anything like civilization, even what passes for civilization in Nevada. We took off, but at full open throttle the best she could give me was 25 mph. It was going to a long cold ride, and that if I was lucky. I started up a long hill, just waiting for her to stop again.

I started to pray, and I prayed hard. The road was rising precipitously. Rosie fighting like the ‘Little Engine that Could’ to get us up. Then I topped the ridge and looked out over a huge caldera; a natural basin at least fifty miles wide, ringed by mountains. The sun was getting pretty close to the western slopes. Then, "Lo and Behold", as they say, out in the middle of the valley, I noticed a bunch of people and cars, tiny, like ants out on the plain, but clearly people and vehicles. I started down the slope. As I got closer I saw that there were motorcycles! Dirt bikes out in the middle of the desert, racing in circles.

Rosie sputtered again and I started to coast. I could see the nearest group of vehicles. Sitting there by the side of the road, like a mirage, was a semi-trailer that read “ Team Kawasaki - Race Team 1”. I was thunderstruck, but I swear I heard the angels laughing. It started to sink in that there in the middle of the stinking desert, within a few miles of where my Kawasaki had trouble, were the best Kawasaki mechanics on the planet.

I rolled on in like a pit stop at Indy; well, like a ghost into a pit stop in Hades because I arrived by gravity power, silent. Now, if I was surprised to see these guys, then I have to say that they were at least as surprised to see me. They were testing new bikes against team Honda and some others. Professionals only, no public invited. They had finished for the day, and they had won. They were celebrating, with enthusiasm, as they packed up their equipment. They were almost ready to roll off to the nearest hotel for the night.

I found myself surrounded by 10- 15 guys, most in their early twenties. Now, motorcycle mechanics run the same gamut of humanity like everyone else, some are bad characters but most are genuinely nice folks. As a lot, however, they are not particularly known for their couth or communication skills. I stopped Rosie in the dust and whipped off the helmet. I was grinning like an idiot at my good fortune, and they were grinning like idiots at the sight of me. Their first attempt at communication was to offer me the Jim Beam. I thanked them and declined. I tried to explain my predicament. After a little good-natured jesting they tried to listen to my description of the mechanical trouble. Then, just as I got to the part about the acceleration loss, they all, to a man, fell over laughing - I mean hysterics. I had absolutely no idea what I had said that was so funny. So I waited, and the most mature of the lot finally pulled himself together and said this:

"We know what's wrong with your bike."

"Great", I said. "Is it fixable?"

"Oh yeah, no problem."

" What's wrong?"

"Well, Lady, (Laughter), you got problems with your petcock."
(riotous laughter all around)

"I didn't actually know I had a pet cock," said I,
(Now they are on the ground again).

You may not think this is all that hilarious, but then, dear reader, you are not, thank Goodness, a drunken motorcycle mechanic.

Eventually I found out that there is a spring-loaded vacuum valve between the gas tank and the carburetors, called the petcock, which stops or starts the flow of gas. If this valve becomes jammed for any reason, gummed up, or vapor locked, no gas flows and you stop. The cure oddly enough, was to open the gas tank and depressurize the tank. If this failed, you got off the bike, knelt by the side of the engine, unhooked the vacuum hose and sucked and blew the line clean.

The Kawasaki boys made sure that they instructed me in this practice and seemed to enjoy the spectacle. They checked out the rest of the bike, found me a plain old Coke somewhere, topped off Rosie’s gas tank and assured me that I would get to Vegas. They sent me off with a big cheer. All in all they were nice fellows. Never say that our God does not have a sense of humor, or cannot use whomever He chooses for whatever his purpose.

As I topped the next rise, I had the distinct feeling that if I turned around that they would have all disappeared. It was a real “Twilight Zone” moment, if I had seen Rod Serling standing by the side of the road, I would not have been surprised. But then I bet those poor guys woke up the next morning with hangovers, and not sure if a woman on a Vulcan had really ridden in to camp yesterday afternoon.

But I have never, since that day, ever had an excuse to doubt God’s providence. My God can, and does, meet my needs, in every circumstance, and with quality and humor.



todays UPI column

So There I was...

Selling insurance door to door.

Which was odd because I was fourteen years old.

It was about a week before Halloween. I was the president of the church youth group. This was not a powerful or prestigious position since it was a small church and there were about six teenagers. I was technically apostate at the time, but mostly no one knew it. I had really good parents, and I not only didn’t want to break their hearts with my apostasy, I was also hoping they would pay for college. Being in charge of the youth group meant that I had some influence over the level of religiosity, and could keep it to forms my hypocrisy could tolerate. A kind of theological detente.

Everybody knows that youth groups can only have fun if they have some cash to spend. It was part of my job to think up fund-raisers. I wanted to do something fresh. Something that actually provided a useful service to the community. Something that didn’t involve too much manual labor. Then the light bulb went on. We would sell window-egg insurance.

Some bad kids (not us) used the ‘trick’ part of ‘trick or treat’ to throw eggs at houses. It was common enough that local grocers would watch out for any kid trying to buy eggs in bulk in late October. My brilliant idea was to go door-to-door selling an insurance policy for a $1 premium. If your house got egged you call our hotline and we send a nice kid out immediately to wash your windows. I figured that most housewives would think it was a good deal and that most houses wouldn’t get egged, and that we would clean up (so to speak). I didn’t bother to run the idea past any adults. I printed up the flyers and coupons and the group of us set out to sell.

To our great disappointment, we made no sales – none. Some ladies just stared at us. Some ladies yelled at us like we were hooligans. “No. M’am, we are here to PROTECT you from the hooligans!” We regrouped – confused.

I went to my afternoon job as a soda jerk in the local ice cream parlor. I sat in the back room with Robert, the old black man who washed dishes for the restaurant. I told him my troubles. Then he laughed himself off his chair, he laughed so hard he cried. Then he carefully explained to me the concept of a protection racket. See, we lived in a neighborhood heavily populated by the higher levels of the Chicago mob. Robert asked me if I had tried to sell my insurance at the home of Tony Accardo – a few blocks away. “Jeez, Robert, I’m not a MORON, nobody would egg Tony Accardo’s house!” At fourteen I knew about the mob, I just didn’t understand the finer points of their day to day rackets. We did a bake sale instead.

So here is what Robert taught me. ‘Protection’ was a process whereby the wiseguys in the area ‘watched’ your home, business, or auto in exchange for money that you paid them so that they would refrain from vandalizing you home, business, or auto.

Oddly enough, this is pretty much what I got out of my early theological education. If you did enough stuff for God (His preferred currency), He would refrain from blasting you. I am not saying that my parents taught me this, they didn’t, but it was a fairly common theme in the church culture I lived in.

Then I noticed that this God was a pretty crummy wiseguy. He often appeared to blast good people anyway. A God less honorable than the Mob was not a God I wanted. Hence the apostasy.

Eventually a truly weird thing happened. I met the Lover of my soul, and I found out that some really malicious slander and libel had been committed against Him, but that He was way too gentle to blast anybody over it, although the power to do so seemed to be there.

He is not a racketeer. I came to understand His protection as the state of being, in which, surrounded by His love, other things, including some pretty major hurts, begin to heal and rapidly lose their power over me. Some things that ought to hurt, don’t even hurt anymore. His Love has become my armor.

We started to travel together, and sometimes, (Just to mess with my head, I think), He started to provide some pretty amazing incidents of physical protection. Most of these events have happened when I was participating with Him in his hobbies (life transformation, wound healing, captive freeing etc.) So there I was again, back at the beginning, doing cool stuff, for and with Him, and there He is protecting me from blasts. But from the inside it had none of the feel of a scam.

It is also a mystery to me, unexplainable, because sometimes the protection does not seem to be there, and many people have never experienced it at all. Yet He assures me, it is there all the same. We argue about this a bit.

Being a wee bit of a risk taker, I occasionally test the limits of this protection. I have not yet succeeded in outrunning it. Mostly I just take it for granted, because I have way too much other stuff to do. But none of what I do is attempting to sell theological insurance, door-to-door, retail, or wholesale.


Not so Quiet

today's UPI Column

Be Still and Know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

So There I was…

Sitting in a very noisy Quaker meeting.

For some of us this is unusual. Quakers are known for having a big taste for quiet. We practice a listening spirituality. Whatever else we do, the core of our worship is supposed to be listening to the present Christ and if we are given a message for the community we are supposed to speak it. Because we have been around for 350 years with no centralized church government, the practice of this has become extremely divergent. African Friends sing, loudly and long, often dance, and then listen to the present Christ discerned by the designated preacher, some American meetings also follow this practice. At the other extreme you will find British meetings that will actually boast about how many decades it has been since anyone spoke in meeting – they have elevated the listening process, and appear to have forgotten the purpose of the listening. There is an urban American meeting that in the mid-1800’s would go out on Sunday morning and put straw over the cobblestones of the street so as to muffle the hoof beats of passing horses. Some of us like quiet just that much. The vast majority of Quaker meetings and churches include some quantity of sitting still, being quiet, and listening. It is not always easy. It is counter-cultural. It makes many people uncomfortable.

It’s not rock and roll, but we like it.

The meeting I usually attend is a Quaker hybrid. We sing a little. We pray out loud a bit. Then we settle down, and shut up. Someone usually receives a message to speak, often several someones. The messages are usually right on target. We like the peace that we get between the messages. Most of the people in the room are new Quakers; they are acquiring a taste for the silence.

One morning recently two strangers walked in. A mother and an early teenage son. The son looked around. He looked panic stricken. He turned to his mom and said loudly. “Oh NO! Not Church! Don’t want church!” The boy had autism. I greeted the mother and she said to me “This may not work, we may not be able to stay.” I said, “Please try, you are welcome here. Your son is welcome here.”

Our room is pretty small. We sit facing each other in concentric semi-circles. There isn’t really anyplace to hide. The mother took her son and sat on what constitutes the backbench. The boy was not happy. He did not want to stay. The mother tried several tricks to get him to settle. He vocalized, every few seconds, for the next hour.

We sang. The boy declared “No sad songs!”

We prayed. The boy said “No. No No. No church!”

We settled into silence. The boy moaned, clucked, muttered and talked.
“Don’t wanna be quiet!” he called out.

After a few minutes, some other vocal ministry arose. It was sweet. It was true. It was just what Jesus would have said. It didn’t directly address the situation, it addressed the needs of the meeting. The boy said “Good one!” and proceeded to yip.

After a few more minutes, a scripture passage was raised. The boy crowed.

I experienced what some Quakers call ‘gathering’ it is a deepening of the silence. A kind of mystical feeling of the bottom dropping out of the meeting. A transcendence. A visceral experience of the presence of God. It was a gathered non-silence.

The time passed swiftly.

The meeting rose. Friends greeted the mother and the boy. The mother attempted to apologize. No one was having any of that. We knew that we had experience a first rate Quaker meeting. We know that the purpose of meeting is not to escape from the world to a place quiet enough to listen, but to learn to listen well enough that we can listen anywhere, under any conditions. It had been a good and rewarding morning’s practicum. We were grateful. There was not a single kvetcher, not a single grumbler, not then, not later.

One of those present was a new attender, a new Christian, a new Quaker. She is a transgendered woman. She has lots of tattoos. She was checking us out, watchful. She had been burned by church people. She walked up to me after meeting and said “Well, hmm. I guess you really mean it. I guess everyone really is welcome, wow. Walking the talk, hmm.”

God told the psalmist, Be still and know that I am God. Quakers like that verse. Many think the stillness referred to means silence. It does not. The Hebrew verb means to relax, let go, stop trying so hard, release. In order to see God, you have to stop striving, stop relying on your own strength. You have to give up your notions of how things should be. You have to let go of preferences and pet peeves. You have to open yourself up to the uncomfortable.

Then God shows up.


Star-belly Sneetches and modern day Cossacks

Today's UPI column

Walking the halls of democracy and sitting in the midst of hostility.

The Capitol Building of the State of Oregon is a short distance from my house. I had received a phone call from a clergyperson I associate with and she was trying to turn out bodies for a series of evening hearings at the Capitol. The legislature was considering two bills, one to limit discrimination against gays, lesbians and trans-gendered people, and one to set up a way for the same people to legally protect their relationships in a manner akin, but not equal to, the institution of marriage that straight people have available to us. I could go, so I did.

My problem was that I was two weeks home from a Central African war zone. I still had a pretty bad case of the social/emotional/spiritual bends. It takes me about a month to re-adjust from the effects of genocide to the comforts and concerns of American life. I cannot do counseling during this time. I just cannot immediately work up compassion for normal American problems after being emotionally present to people living in actual Hell. I get over it. I reset all the dials. But it takes a while.

That night as I walked into the Capitol I was not real enthusiastic. But I remembered that I normally felt quite strongly about this issue and I figured I could be bodily present, if not spiritually present.

The first thing I noticed as I entered was that everybody was labeled. It was Dr. Seuss and the star-bellied Sneetches. Everybody was wearing stickers to designate their side. There were folks in the doorway discerning what party you belonged to and handing you your sticker. I don’t really like stickers on my person. I was picked out by the Basic Rights Oregon person and offered my progressive sticker. I was not real sure how I was spotted, but I declined out of sheer rebelliousness. The young man then took another look at me, and spotted my grandmother’s cross that I often wear around my neck. He actually took a step back, and said “Oh, sorry.” That was my first clue.

The next thing I noticed was that the building was overflowing with people. I had trouble finding any of my friends. There was the main hearing room and then many overflow rooms with closed circuit TV and because those were all full, the lobbies were filled with chairs and people and additional TV sets. And security. Lots of security people. The security people looked nervous. Second clue.

By observing stickers, I noticed that all the gay families were huddled together in the hearing rooms. The lobbies were full of their opponents.

The next thing I noticed was that the people opposing the bills all looked like each other, really - they did. Round, scarved, middle aged women who looked like nesting dolls, and droves of tall, good-looking, clear skinned, brown haired blue-eyed men. A smattering of pretty blonde girls.

I found my clergy friend.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“They are all from one church here in Salem. It’s a Slavic fundamentalist church. They can turn out 300 bodies any time the pastor calls for it. Thanks for coming, Peggy.”
“Where are your folks?”
“They are all together in the hearing rooms, nobody feels comfortable mingling with the people out here.”

Well, then, that gave me my mission for the night. Mingle with the Slavic Christians and see what was what. I don’t like fear-based segregation. I do not often find that it is based in reality. I like to challenge it and look for the good in the other side. That’s my default setting.

There was a seat open in front of one of the TV’s right in the middle of a knot of young men. I took the seat. The energy was really quite amazing. I could feel it in the air. Primal, like big sexual energy only about anger not sex. Anger pheromones. I watched as people testified before the legislators - three pro, then three against. The rule for the evening, both in the hearing room and in the lobby, was no vocal demonstrations. But the young men around me were having a hard time containing it. Quietly cheering the people who predicted the fall of civilization if a couple of lesbians made a civil union, and jeering, hissing and spitting invectives at anyone who disagreed with that analysis. There were many dozens of testimonies that night. I got weary, but the young Slavic men did not. They seemed to gain steam from each chance to hate, which did not dissipate with the speakers who they supported. They had a one-sided reaction that ratcheted up with each round.

I was touched in some way by all the testimony, I was pretty put off by the fear-mongering, but when someone stood up and spoke eloquently on behalf of their alternative family, it warmed me, gave me hope, and trust that love would eventually win out. One young woman did an especially good job, and I just couldn’t help but say a quiet “Amen, preach it sister.” The young men on either side of me, sat bolt upright and looked at me.

“Hi, my name’s Peggy, I’m with the other side – I just didn’t get my sticker.” I put out my hand to the young man on my left.
He did not take it.

The next speaker was a clergyman from some progressive protestant denomination. He wore a Roman-style collar. He spoke of God’s love for all people. This really heated up my area. Much gasping and hissing. They really didn’t like the pro-gay clergy guy.

The young man on my right sat with his fists and probably a few other body parts clenched. “Using God’s name to defend an abomination! – God should strike him dead,” he hissed. I had the distinct impression that if God didn’t do it, that this young man would volunteer to be God’s agent.

I suddenly remembered why I cared about this issue. These fine Christian folk, would if they knew everything I believed and everything I preached, and if given a free rein, stone me dead without a second thought.

Think that couldn’t happen in America? Quaker preacher Mary Dyer was hung in Boston Commons by fine Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving Day, Christian folk. The framers of our constitution knew that well and attempted to prevent it from happening in the new union. But they knew it was a real problem that needed to be addressed.

I remember something Garrison Keillor said about the Puritans, his forbearers. He said, “They came to America to practice religious persecution at a level not actually allowed under British law.” He was right, the Puritans, of course, thought they were fleeing religious persecution and protecting their faith by hanging Quakers. The Slavic Christians gathered around me also fled religious persecution and believe that they are protecting their faith.

There was one other person sitting in that group that stood out even more than I. An orthodox Jew – side curls, hat, fringe – the whole thing. We don’t see a lot of that in Salem, Oregon. From his sticker I could see that he was in harmony with the Slavic Christians on this issue. When I got the chance I moved and sat by him.

“Hello, Friend, so you agree with these folks?” I said
“I do, they are on God’s side of this issue.” He said, stiff not looking at me.
“Don’t they remind you of anyone?”
“I do not know what you mean.”
“Like, I don’t know, Cossacks, maybe?”
“You do not know what you are talking about.”
“Probably not, no I’m sure I don’t. But are you really sure that if they managed to put down the gays like they wish to, that they wouldn’t come next for, oh, say the Jews?”

Then he looked at me.

“Just a thought” I said and I moved on.


A scene from my recent trip to Chicago

Midway airport


My Quaker Yoda - or - On Spiritual Maturity

today's UPI column
So There I was...
Sitting in the big-city hospital waiting room. My friend and mother Vivian had been rushed there from the Oregon Coast Quaker retreat center. She had suffered a heart attack followed by a massive stroke. She was in the middle of her eighth decade of life.

Vivian did not give birth to me any natural fashion. That was apparent that morning because one of her natural born children was doing a fine and appropriate job of protecting her mother’s repose and it was clear that I was not going to get in to see her. Absolutely appropriate, and painful as a red-hot poker.

I met Vivian when I was in my twenties. She is not the reason I became a Quaker, but she is a big piece of the reason that I stayed a Quaker. She was a big part of my accepting the process of becoming a recorded minister and a public Friend. She has been a mother to my soul.

She is hard to quantify or qualify. She is a little tiny thing, and getting tinier with time. Her eyes can still flash blue fire, but the rest of her has gone velvety soft, her muscles no longer fill out her skin. Her voice is almost always soft and gentle, but she has much of Christ in her, so she carries a power that infinitely greater than it’s container. She laughs easily and often. She has rebuked me, and occasionally reigned me in. She has shed tears over me. She has breathed fire into me. She has salved my wounds.

She and her life partner Hubert facilitated the wedding for my first-born and her young man. Hubert is no larger than Vivian. My son-in-law is six foot something; my Emily is a foot shorter than he. It looked like the pastors of Hobbiton Friends Church were marrying off a favorite daughter to an elf-Lord. But my Son-in-law, an observant young man, nailed the best ever description of our Vivian.

“I get it now” he said. “Vivian is Yoda – she’s your Jedi master.”

Vivian put me on the road to spiritual maturity, and she has walked that road before me. She has always made time to teach me when I need it. The following is what I have learned from her by word and observation.

Our value as children of God does not depend on our spiritual maturity - grandparents do not have more intrinsic worth than the babies - but neither are they less valuable. So it is with spiritual maturity. It is merely the natural consequence of time spent in the presence of the Holy One, like age is the natural consequence of life. But maturity is a need of, and a blessing to, the Body of Christ. It can be sought, but not acquired. The goal must be Christ - the by-product is maturity.

Maturity can be seen in terms of Freedom. We were created to be free. Christ died and rose to restore us to a place of freedom. Spiritual maturity is the presence of spiritual freedom and the absence of spiritual slavery.

A spiritually mature person is free to bring pleasure to others, without needing to make them happy all the time.

A Free Christian can be honest, and will know how to be respectfully honest with their thoughts, behaviors and feelings.

They will not need to revise the past to feed their ego or ease their pain.

They will be free to follow their path and change course when it seems wise to them.

They will be free to listen to God and to follow.

They will be free from the slavery of what people will think of them.

They will be free from a morbid fear of rejection.

They will be free from the need to collect second-hand information about the thoughts, words and actions of others as a way to buttress their own opinions and self-esteem

They will be free to bless those who disagree with them.

They will be free from the need to correct all misconceptions that others may have of them.

They will be free to trust that Christ will work in others as He works in them.

They will be free from the need to make others “get it”.

They will be free to let go when appropriate, to speak when appropriate and to act when appropriate.

They will be free to take personal responsibility for all their thoughts and behaviors and feelings.

They will be free to ask for, and then accept, criticism from trusted guides.

They will be free to apologize and make amends where possible.

All these things I learned from Christ through Vivian. I have seen her live them out. She will, of course, discount this when she reads this because she has also mastered humility.

Yes, she will read this. She was in a hospital with some mighty fine doctors. After two hours of no blood flow to the entire left half of her brain, they managed to surgically remove the blood clot. Then they put in a pacemaker. Shortly thereafter she opened her eyes and looked at Hubert and said.

“Hubert, you’ve been in those clothes for three days now, don’t you think you ought to change?”