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.”


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?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Afterthought #32 - Wait! Wait!

Back in April, I gushed about how, as a devoted fan of National Public Radio (NPR), I had toured NPR national headquarters in Washington, DC.  I also admitted that I often listen to podcasts of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me (WWDTM) on my walks, laughing out loud as host Peter Sagal quizzes a team of comedians about the week’s “news.”

So.  My husband wasn’t surprised when I suggested for our anniversary that we buy tickets to be in the audience when WWDTM came to Seattle’s Paramount Theater. We laughed together as panelists Maz Jobrani, Paula Poundstone and Luke Burbank joked their way through some of the week’s headlines. Their confusion about the United Kingdom is especially funny.

We also cheered as native Washingtonian and travel guru Rick Steves played “Not My Job.”  I’ve long appreciated Rick’s approach to travel as a way to broaden our perspectives and promote understanding of our world.  That value came through in Rick’s lighthearted interview with Peter, along with his advocacy for drug reform.  When I visited Rick’s website, I also learned about how his faith influences his activism, particularly related to homelessness.

You can listen to the show that aired Sept. 20.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget to contribute to your local affiliate of this listener-supported broadcasting organization.  It will make you smile.

 “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.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Eating Real*

*Warning to non-meat eaters:  this post includes stories and images about beef, chicken, and lamb.  Dark chocolate and salt appear, too.

A school bus-yellow forklift hummed through the crowd at last Saturday’s Eat Real Fest at Jack London Square in Oakland, CA. People veered to the left or right, like an opening stage curtain.

“Stand back, folks,” called two guys, one on each side of half of the carcass of a butchered cow swinging from an S-hook on the forklift’s overhead bar. Bystanders’ mouths dropped open as they reached for their phones, snapped photos, and followed the procession to a butchering demonstration at one of the Festival’s stages.  Sweat trickled down my back in the afternoon heat as I joined the throng.

As the carcass coursed through the foodie crowd, comments such as “Wow, beautiful!” outnumbered the few, “Eww, gross!” reactions. Four teams of award-winning butchers  awaited the arrival of the half of beef at the festival’s makeshift butcher shop.  Fifty or so festival-goers perched on hay bales as Eat Real Festival founder Anya Fernald gave some background on this event, now in its sixth year.

Eat Real, a three-day festival of “food-centric fun and epicurious education,” brings together seventy-plus Bay area food-makers to focus on food craft, street food, artisan beers, local wines, and food choices that feature sustainable, local ingredients. There’s no admission fee for the almost 200,000 people who attend the festival, and vendors charge no more than $8 for the foods they serve (many items cost $5 or less, and free samples were abundant). The festival was founded by a group of people with a social change agenda to promote delicious, convenient, affordable, and sustainable food.  In addition, 100% of the festival’s profits go to the Food Craft Institute (FCI), a non-profit educational institution, also started by Anya. FCI combines classroom and hands-on teaching of traditional food-making techniques that date back centuries, alongside contemporary entrepreneurship, to create viable food-related businesses.

I first learned about the festival from my daughter, who works for Anya at her other food venture, Belcampo, a farm-to-fork organic meat production company (read about our visit to the farm in my August 25 post, "Vacation Time").  Belcampo provided the grass-fed beef for the Eat Real butchery demonstration, and more than one of the butchers praised the meat’s quality and its high level of marbling (those bits of fat that add so much to the flavor).  

I’m an enthusiastic omnivore, and I’ve learned a lot in recent years about the downside of the U.S. food industry as well as efforts to improve it, so I was delighted to attend this celebration of good food. 

But, the festival isn’t all about meat  (though there was plenty of that, including lamb gyros and grilled chicken). 

The first stop on my tour among the food trucks and tents was at Sweet Bar Bakery. Who could pass up S’mores on home-made graham crackers with dark chocolate ganache, surrounded by marshmallow crème (carmelized before my eyes with a mini-blow torch)?

And there were fresh vegetable juices by the Beet Generation Juice Co.,

organic pickles,

and wood-fired Margherita pizza.

Cooking demonstrations broke up the eating, and I picked up some tips about making soup from scratch (good stock and fresh veggies are key) and Indian curries.

Chef Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club advised roasting spices that may have been languishing on the spice rack to bring out their flavors; she also whipped up a mouth-tingling curry of chicken thighs, kale, onion, and jasmine rice (more free samples).

I couldn’t resist bringing home a few treats such as a unique finishing salt created by Omnivore Salt

(visit the company’s website for a charming food story about owner Angelo Carro and the recipe he learned from his grandmother during his boyhood in Sicily). I bought a small pack of the salt and was happy, though skeptical, when the vender (photo) told me the company recently shipped some packages to Lopez Island. Sure enough, earlier this week when I went to Blossom Grocery, Omnivore Salt was on the shelf. 

Blossom co-owner, Brian Kvistad, confirmed the story I’d heard at Eat Real that the company persevered through shipping challenges to get their product to our community’s small natural foods store.

Wondering what happened at the butchering demonstration? In the afternoon sun, the butchers wielded knives and hand saws (“cross-fit with half a beef,” Anya said), pausing occasionally to wipe sweat from their foreheads and to slide knife blades on the sharpening rods they all wore in the belts around their waists.  Anya’s questions about the characteristics of the various cuts led the butchers to explain flavors and cooking techniques, the kind of consumer education they all provide in their respective butcher shops.  And for the Eat Real crowd,  a few lessons in how using the whole animal adds to the viability of organic meat production.

Over the course of an hour, that half beef became roasts, steaks, ribs, bone marrow, and flank steak.  

Doesn’t get much more real than that.