Garden of the Spirit

What’s Your Song?

Last Sunday morning, as I was sitting quietly in worship, I heard an infant speak. “I have a voice!” she (or he) proclaimed again and again, experimenting with coos and chortles, low tones and high tones. In the quietness of our Quaker worship, we notice all messages! Mostly we hear thoughtful Spirit-led words offered by adults. This was different, and it still came through clearly.

As the infant vocalized, I thought how much like singing it was. Speaking uses words, carefully chosen to send a message. We think about the message, and it’s shaped by our minds. Music, on the other hand, can come straight from heart and soul without words. Who needs words to sing? Music can use words but it can also deliver its gift powerfully with no words at all.

“I have a voice,” this little one was telling us. “I have song within me.”

Later that day my husband and I attended an outdoor concert of the Wheatland Chorale, a premier singing group here in Lancaster. Their voices united to weave a spell of harmony and beauty as we listened. Dusk fell slowly, and they sang of light. Quoting poet E. E Cummings, they gave thanks “O God, for most this amazing day.” Their music rose in gratitude and celebration of the natural world around us, and the song within each singer was a gift for all of us.

The next morning, as I sat outdoors to drink my coffee, I listened to birdsong and remembered that not all song comes from human throats. The morning chorus of birdsong is a real celebration of a new day. Like the baby in worship on Sunday morning, the birds cannot resist singing. I felt like joining! The Celtic Christian tradition suggests that we do join in, that we pray outdoors so that our voices join with the rest of the created world in praise and thanksgiving. Whether it is the babbling of the river, the crash of the waves, the song of the birds, the lowing of the cattle, or the purring of the cat, all, all can be song.

We are called to pay attention and listen for the songs that are around us. And as we listen, we may discover the song we have within us. It will rise. It’s true that not all that is within is joy and gratitude; our lives and our songs include grief and lament. (There’s a whole book in the Bible named Lamentations after all!) Perhaps we need to give voice to the laments in our hearts and souls through song. Can you give grief a voice even when there are no words? Sometimes songs without words seem to go deeper than songs that have words.

Recently I attended a class called “Soulful Singing.” We didn’t come together because we were skilled singers. We gathered because this time was offered for our hearts and souls to sing. My friend Ruth Fitz led us in quiet chants and lively rhythms. She created a quiet pause between each song so that we could feel the music hovering in the room and open our hearts to it. My eyes filled with tears as I received and gave the gift of song.

There is that within each of us that is moved by music, even if singing isn’t a regular part of our lives. We are created to respond to music, and I believe we are also created to use our voices in song. You may use the words of an old song from many years ago or perhaps your music will be freshly created by the stirrings of your heart. You may need no words at all, and simply experience pure sound, perhaps a quiet humming. There is song within you. Let it rise.

What is your song? What is the music within you and how will you express it?

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others.


My Friend, the Albanian Atheist

An Albanian mountain scene

The first day I met Denis, he told us that he was an atheist. I’d just arrived in Albania with my friends, and Denis was going to help us explore his country. I immediately began to wonder what being an atheist meant in his life.

“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “where is Albania anyway?” This small country is snuggled next to the Adriatic Sea north of Greece. Torn apart by battling empires through the centuries, it has had a tumultuous history, but nothing can destroy its dramatic mountain beauty, fertile farmland, and beautiful sweeping beaches.

Albania is a mystery for many of us because it was totally isolated for almost half a century following WWII. It was ruled by the paranoid dictator Hoxha who quarreled with everyone (including other Communist leaders) and outlawed religion. While tearing down churches and mosques and persecuting religious leaders, Hoxha declared Albania to be “the first atheistic country in the world.”

Denis was born a few years after the dictator died and the Communist system collapsed. He grew up in a country trying to find its place in a new open world. For him and his family, religion wasn’t relevant. “I believe,” he told me, “in the physical, material world that’s around us.” For him, that is enough.

Is it enough? It isn’t for me. I remember my years of wrestling with the God-idea. I wanted to know that there was Something More, something larger than one traditional religion, but that includes the religious traditions. Slowly I began to sense a Presence, a Spirit that is a mystery larger than my human understanding can take in. I believe in a Creator God, A Spirit of Love who brings healing in the world. Whether I have a name for that God or not, I am pulled to follow the path of love and contribute as I can to wholeness and healing. Awake to that Spirit, I have awakened more fully to joy in the beauty and miracles of the world.

My friend Denis is passionately interested in learning about and exploring the world, too, both within his country and beyond. He treasures his friendships, and responds warmly to the people around him and their needs. He loves the beauty of the Mediterranean world and wants to share it with others. He dreams of making opportunities for others to be creative, perhaps through art, music, or the world around them. He wants to have a family someday, and he’ll be a good Dad.

Denis lives in hope for the future of Albania, a “gifted country,” he says, and filled with potential, although hope has sometimes been in short supply. “Having hope is most important,” he said. “It is the last thing to die.” Sometimes Albanians emigrate in search of a better life in another country, but Denis believes “a stone is happier in its own ground.” He is determined to remain and participate in Albania’s recovery. His hope brings hope for others.

Reflecting on Denis’ path and my own, I thought of this poem by the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky):

Every child
Has known God.
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
Anything weird,
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying;
"Come dance with me."

I call upon a divine Spirit that is greater than I. Denis doesn’t. But I believe we are both part of God’s grand dance. We love and want to make the world around us better. We embrace possibilities to grow, and we hold hope for the future.

I believe the Spirit strengthens my desire to be a loving presence, to contribute to the world’s healing. It takes me beyond my own strength and uses me in ways I may not know. I am grateful to belong to a spiritual community that helps me “walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone,” as Quaker founder George Fox wrote. That of God is everywhere, in everyone. May we be awake to see it and respond to it.

Mosques and churches in Albania have revived and exist together peacefully.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others!

Rooted or Uprooted

As a child, I lived in an old farmhouse where my ancestors had lived since the 1700’s. For many generations, my family attended a church built on land that another ancestor had donated to the congregation in the mid-1800’s. Four small family cemeteries lay within a few miles of my childhood home.

My family was deeply rooted in the wooded hills, the gently sloping fields, the big barns and the three generation farmhouses of rural southern Pennsylvania. Growing up, I knew this countryside was home; I belonged here. And I took all the security and stability of home for granted.

Although I don’t live on ancestral land or attend the church I did as a child, I still live surrounded by beautiful Pennsylvania farms and woods. I can still visit my childhood home and farm, attend worship in the old church or stand in the cemeteries and read the names on tombstones of those whose blood flows in me. Though I’ve traveled the world, I know where home is, and how precious it is to have a home land.

There are others whose roots in their homeland, in family and community, in hills and rivers, are just as deep in mine. And, tragically, people have sometimes been violently torn from the land of their ancestors. They’ve been uprooted, and they’ve lost their own rolling hills and familiar patterns of living. Their roots exist now only in their memories, and a changed world spins around them.

What happened? Perhaps they fled a war that seems to have no end and takes no prisoners. Maybe they were escaping chaos and riots and gangs or they were persecuted because of their religion. If they were lucky, they found a refugee camp where they might live for decades. But no one creates deep roots in a refugee camp; roots are shallow there because everyone is hoping to be transplanted.

Perhaps it is the land itself that uprooted them. Perhaps the climate changed and rain no longer comes as it always has. Crops dry up, dust blows, and living in the land of their ancestors is no longer sustainable. Even in the cities, the world changes as the weather changes, and life is harder.

Many people without a home set out on a perilous sea voyage or a jungle trek to find a new land where they can find work and begin again. Behind them are their roots; before them only the desperate hope that their children will, in time, begin to root themselves in a new place. They take the risks, hoping that they will find some place that can begin to be home.

Everyone needs a place that is home. Everyone needs to feel that here, here is where I belong. This need for a community and a country where one can be rooted is a basic human desire. All of us want a homeland in which to live in peace, celebrate birthdays, and worship God without fear. We want a place where we can laugh and love, earn a living, and finally die in peace.

I have never been torn away from my foundational roots like so many others have. I am grateful for the stability of my life, and I want to say to those who have lost so much:

Come, there’s space here for you to put down roots. We’ll work it out, and we’ll share. There’s schooling for your children and work for you here. Come, there’s a welcome here for you.

If you want to help provide a warm welcome, these are two organizations I know well that do good work: Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center and Church World Service. Click on the names to learn more.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others.

Celestial Events

A broad swath of the United States will be briefly darkened next Monday afternoon. It will be a full solar eclipse for thousands of people and a partial eclipse for thousands more. My home is within the strip of 90% darkness, and, like many others, I’m looking forward to experiencing this rare event.

It is easy to forget that it’s the moon’s dance through the sky that will block our light. The sun will be shining as usual! Whenever the moon is directly between the sun and the earth, the sun is eclipsed somewhere on earth. And what we see of that moon throughout the month – full moon, new moon, or in between – depends on how much the sun illuminates it, and how much our earth gets in the way. What a dance it is!

In fact, the relationship of the moon with the sun and earth plays a bigger role in our calendars than we usually notice. Many religious holidays change their dates according to the appearance of the moon in the sky. In the western Christian tradition, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. Passover is always around the time of the full moon in the Hebrew calendar. Then there is Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, on the date of the first full moon between February and March. And Ramadan lies in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and lasts a full lunar month, beginning with one crescent moon and ending with the festival of Eid al-Fitr at the following new moon.

This year we celebrated an early Easter (thank the moon), and now there’s an eclipse coming (thank the moon again). This stately dance of interweaving celestial beings is fascinating to learn about. And, with science at my fingertips, I’m not afraid of it! People many centuries ago found the mystery of a darkened daytime sky terrifying, but, when the sky darkens in the middle of the afternoon next Monday, I won’t fear an angry God or think the world is ending.

Perhaps that’s why the Bible recounts that the sky turned dark for several hours while Jesus was on the cross. This darkened sky was no eclipse. (Jesus’ crucifixion occurred at Passover, a time of full moon when an eclipse can’t occur.) I believe that the terror and dread associated with an eclipse was probably the strongest statement the Gospel writers could include in their account of the day. It was truly a time of despair and fear for those who had been touched by Jesus.

In many ways, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are echoed in the process of an eclipse. The sun is gone, – or should it be “the Son is gone”? – and there is darkness and desperation, fear and panic. And then the light returns again! People rejoice and hope! Whether it is the sun or the Son of Man, we feel the presence of light again. This is truly an Easter event.

Therefore, as we celebrate the resurrection of sunlight after the eclipse next week, may we also honor the living presence of the Son in our lives. May we remember that the Presence of the Christ Spirit throughout the world depends on our choosing to glow with the Light.

In an eclipse, the sun, moon, and earth follow the ancient steps of their ordered ancient dance. But we humans participate in an even more amazing dance. Like the moon dancing with the sun and reflecting its light, we humans are invited to move in harmony with the Divine One and reflect Divine Light.

This Light can illumine the earth and its peoples with a love brighter than anything the sun can produce. May we join in.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please pass it on to others.

Of Hellebore and Hope

In the flowerbed close to my little brick patio lives a helleborus niger. Although Pennsylvania winters are quite cold, this variety of hellebore actually begins to bloom in December. When the days are short and cold, helleborus niger generously offers a vision of spring!

First, my little hellebore tentatively offered me only a few white flowers, but when I looked closely, I could see a dozen or more buds preparing to enliven wintertime. And so they did. More and more flowers bloomed all through January and February, even when they were bowed down by snow. Now it’s early spring, and the stalks are overflowing with new white flowers and older pink ones waving in the raw March wind. (Unlike humans, older hellebore blossoms turn pink with age.)

For me, this hellebore is the flower of hope. In the bleakness of winter, it reminds me to hold on, that warmer weather will eventually come. Even more than a reminder of the future though, hellebore lives as though springtime has already arrived, blooming when no other flower dares to hold up its head! It embodies hope by blooming in the middle of winter’s cold and stormy weather.

We use the word hope frequently. It often expresses something we wish would happen, such as “I hope it will be sunny tomorrow,” or “I hope I get a raise.” True hope, however, is much more than a wish for the future. Holding onto a hope is a decision that can affect how we live in the present.

My little hellebore doesn’t say deep in its roots, “I wish it were April already. ” Instead it lives and blooms as if it actually is April. “Yes,” it whispered to me as it prepared to begin blooming back in December, “I have hope in springtime, and I’m going to live springtime right now!”

I can learn from my hellebore; I can try to live my hope. I hope for a world where people live in peace, where we humans treat each other with respect and love. I am challenged to live as if that hope were a reality right now. I am called to treat others with respect and love, to see a spark of the Divine in each person I meet.

Bearing witness to our hope through how we live is a powerful spiritual practice. It’s a discipline that will stretch us into blooming more than we ever thought possible. And we’ll never finish blooming. In fact, we can grow stronger in hope as we practice it – as with any exercise we might take on.

We can also grow stronger in our hope when we’re part of a community that shares it. I live in the hope that love is stronger than hate, and I need a community to support me in making that hope part of my daily life. If my hope flickers, companions are there to encourage me and lend me their strength for the journey.

What hope do you have that you want to live into? What hope can bloom in your life? And where will your support come from as you practice living it?

Helleborus niger is rightly known as the “Christmas rose.” In my garden it began blooming while we celebrated the birth of Jesus – and Jesus is called “the hope of the world.” Like the hellebore, Jesus lived in a hostile world, and yet his life and teachings offer hope. May we catch Christ’s hope for the world, and spread love throughout our life journey.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Romans 12:12.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others.

The Super Bowl and the Bombs

I have a story to tell. It happened this past Sunday evening when my husband and I had settled into our living room couch with a bowl of popcorn filled to the brim. We were ready to participate in the all-American ritual of watching the big game. But somewhere in the second quarter, it all changed for me.

Later, I wrote a poem story about my evening.

The Super Bowl and the Bombs

Super Bowl Sunday.
I sat with my husband as the game began.
He wanted to watch (he'd played in college),
and I wanted to keep him company.
I mostly caught the replays
as I ran through my emails and planned my week.

Then came the message tossed right into my box:
"Meeting for silent prayer now!
Murad in Rafah asks us for prayer now!"

My friend Joe had written me.
He'd worked with Murad in Gaza,
teaching divided peoples
ways to live in peace,
teaching non-violent responses
to those surrounded by strife.
Together, Murad in Gaza
 and Joe in America
built spaces where peace could grow.

But now Murad texted to Joe:
"Very violent bombing now --
in all of Rafah!
We may be martyrs tonight.
Pray for us, to save my family and the children."

In my living room
Super Bowl ads filled the screen:
This is the beer to drink!
This insurance will always protect you!
Driving this car (or maybe this other one)
will make you happy!

And my friend Joe wrote
"Join us on Zoom for prayer now.
The need is immediate."
Just silent words on my laptop screen;
 no drama of song or dance to coerce me.

I left the TV and the Super Bowl, 
and the Chiefs and 49ers
to battle to the end, and beyond the end.
I left Travis and Taylor for others to watch.
I left the adverts to scream
their happiness directions for others
to follow.

I clicked on the Zoom link,
and entered the place of prayer.
Joe said he'd heard from Murad again.
It was 3am in Gaza,
"and the bombs are falling everywhere here.
They may hit us at any time."

We joined in prayer as the bombs fell.
Together we wove a circle of Light 
around Murad and his family, 
around all of Rafah and Gaza
and the world.

The Chiefs won the Bowl in overtime.
but when bombing is the game, no one wins.
There's no shaking hands at the end of that game,
no "Well played today!" from one team to another.
When bombing is the game, we all lose.

If my poem story has spoken to you, please share it with others.

(Murad and his family survived that night’s bombing. Not all did.)

Testing Times

We’ve all had painful times when daily living feels like a test. However recently I’ve been thinking of times when the big challenge is to be faithful to our foundational beliefs. I’m thinking of times when it would be easier to flow with the majority opinion, when a decision to speak or act from our deepest beliefs could have hard consequences in our lives. Those are definitely testing times!

Quakers use the word testimony to describe important beliefs we express through our lives. For example, there is the peace testimony, the testimony of integrity, and the testimony of equality. We testify to those beliefs by the way we live. And it can be hard; it can be a real test.

Consider the peace testimony. Our daily lives bring plenty of opportunities to be a presence for peace in the world. There’s everything from not taking offense at an aggressive driver to speaking out for peaceful resolutions in world conflicts. And sometimes people testify by refusing to go to war.

I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, and I have a sprinkling of Mennonite ancestors. I am now a Quaker. These are historically known as the “peace churches,” denominations that have held steadfastly to the peace testimony as central to their understanding of Christian living.

Beginning with World War II, this testimony was accepted by the American government. When my Brethren uncles were drafted, they entered alternative service. They worked for the Civilian Public Service, building roads and trails in national parks and doing agricultural work and research.

It was a lot harder for some of my friends during the Viet Nam War. They were not members of a historic peace church, and they were literally tested. They needed to defend their pacifist positions before their local draft boards – who were not sympathetic. They also faced friends and family who didn’t understand. It was a real challenge, but, as they testified to their truth, they grew stronger.

Even further back in our country’s history, times of war could bring a real test of one’s commitment to peace because there was no alternative way of serving. During the Revolutionary War, all men between 18 and 50 were required to join the local militia and pledge allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They weren’t automatically sent to fight, but it did mean they needed to turn out to drill and prepare to fight. If a man refused, he needed to pay a substantial fine or hire a substitute to take his place. In addition, he was often ostracized and condemned by his neighbors.

As a member of a peace church and a pacifist, what could he do? He could say, “I can’t afford the fine so I’ll just join the militia and drill with my neighbors. I probably won’t be sent to war to kill people.” In that case, his church judged him, and he was removed from membership. Church community was family; being cut off from them was painful for everyone.

These men were truly caught between church and state. I’ve discovered some of my Brethren ancestors joined the militia, and others refused to join. And a few of them joined the militia, and then returned to the church after the war ended! Whatever path they chose, there was a price to pay. This was truly a time of testing for them and their families.

Today, as we try to be faithful to the foundational beliefs we hold as truth, we still find challenges. We still find testing times when it is easier to remain silent. We may be tempted to avoid testifying with our words and actions even when we are faced with a clear situation of injustice or prejudice. The situations may be different from those faced by my colonial ancestors, but the challenge is the same.

I remember the old saying that emphasizes the importance of living from one’s deep convictions: Let your life speak. Our lives are speaking all the time. What do they say? Is our living in the world in harmony with the ideas and beliefs we endorse?

What do you want your life to testify to?

. . . .“be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. George Fox (1600’s)

If this reflection speaks to you, please share it with others.

The Locked Chest

It was almost Christmas, and I was excitedly preparing for the arrival of my daughter Alisa and her family. I made up the beds, carefully spreading my rarely used quilts over them. Discovering that I needed two more quilts, I turned again to the chest where I stored them. But I couldn’t open it! Somehow it had locked itself, and I had no key.

This old chest had belonged to my mother, and I vaguely remembered that she kept a key taped to the inside of the chest. That certainly didn’t help me now! Frustrated and helpless, I decided to address the key problem after the holiday season when it was time to return the blankets and quilts to the chest. I had no idea what I’d do then. (Would I need a locksmith?)

How eagerly we welcomed our family from afar, and how gladly we shared news of our lives with them! We laughed as I told my locked chest story, and then I suggested others might help out by tackling my problem.

My son-in-law Sam took up the challenge. He began by studying the chest. He took pictures, and he did research on the Internet. He turned the chest upside down and found its model and serial number. I learned I had a Lane cedar chest built in 1941. Then Sam found an Illinois locksmith whose specialty was making new keys for old furniture. Could this person make a key to match this specific chest?

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was the tiny box that contained a new key for the old cedar chest. And, yes, the key opened my old chest — the chest that still had its original key taped to the inside lid! I was very grateful.

What impressed me most about this experience was how Sam paid attention to the chest. My approach had been to poke energetically around in the keyhole with a bent paper clip to force it open. He got acquainted with it, learned its name, and where it was made. I had used my antique chest for many years, but I had never gotten to know it.

Later, I reflected how often we humans take my approach in dealing with our fellow human beings. We talk at them and we use them, but we don’t truly give them our attention. We don’t get to know and appreciate them. And so we remain locked mysteries to each other, never revealing the treasures that are hidden inside each of us.

Unlike my old locked chest, we humans have that within us that wants to be known. We all hold such amazing stories. There are hardships we’ve faced, joys we’ve known, strange adventures we’ve had, and faithful years of work. Caught between our desire to be known and our fear of being known, we peek out wistfully, wondering if anyone cares to listen to our story.

When it feels safe to open ourselves, to share our stories, we will flourish and bloom. As columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “Above almost any other need, human beings long to have another person look into their faces with love and acceptance.” To give the “gift of attention,” as Brooks calls it, means listening with open hearts. It means having a genuine interest in understanding another person. It means receiving another human story, and accepting that it can be as complicated as our own story.

I think I’ve just discovered my 2024 New Year’s Resolution. I resolve to become someone who listens, someone who gives the gift of attention to those I meet. My hope is that I will approach others with an open heart, believing each person holds a unique treasure. My desire is to make it safe for others to open up and share their treasure.

Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us. So . . . be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And may the blessing of God, who made us, who loves us, and who travels with us be with you now and forever. (Henri-Frederic Amiel, 1821-1881)

If this story speaks to you, please share it with another.

Discovering Holy Ground in Japan

a Japanese garden

Last week I traveled through Japan, learning about a unique and beautiful culture – and discovering holy ground.

I watched Japanese worshippers taking off their shoes before they offered prayers at Buddhist or Shinto temples, and I felt their deep devotion. Although I was simply a visitor, I too removed my shoes as I entered the building, and I remembered how I had taken my shoes off when I visited a mosque. Although we Christians keep our shoes on as we worship, we recognize that, in the words of the hymn, We’re standing on holy ground; For the Lord is present And where He is is holy.”

God’s presence is not limited to temples, mosques, and churches though. Holy ground, I believe, is any place that opens us to God, that awes us with beauty, that enlarges our souls with love and compassion, and moves us into knowing God is here.

We can experience God’s presence anywhere, but some places deepen our awareness of holy ground. In Japan, we walked through steep, wooded mountains where centuries-old giant cedars silently gazed down upon us. This, I thought, was a sacred space, a place where God liked to hang out. I was glad and grateful to hang out there, too.

A few days later, I walked through a very different holy ground – Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. This place of quiet beauty is located where the first atomic bomb was dropped, where fires raged, where thousands were killed instantly, and even more thousands died later. Today there is green grass and trees, a few monuments (one dedicated to the children), and a deep-toned Peace Bell to ring. There is an eternal flame dedicated to peace, and there is the skeleton of a large building, the solitary remnant of that dreadful destruction.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is also there. Although I didn’t remove my shoes as I walked through the museum, I felt like I should have. The walls held pictures of individuals who died on August 6, 1945 or in the time following, together with their unique stories and a few small possessions. Rooms were crowded but strangely silent as we gazed into the faces and learned the stories. Here was the story of a school child, here a mother and baby, here a father who had hurried into the bombed area to find his family and died later of radiation poisoning. The Museum tour ended with displays that told of efforts to limit atomic weapons in the future.

Why is this place of unbelievable suffering, this evidence of the inhumanity of war, a sacred place? I believe the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum speak of the power of healing and hope. The evil event has not been erased, but, through the decades, the hope and work for peace has been redemptive. Redemption happens when love, compassion, and healing rise through an experience of deep suffering and pain. Through our silent grief as we walked in the Museum, through the deep bonging of the Peace Bell when we pulled the rope and offered prayers for peace, we pilgrims joined the hope for peace.

Later I wrote this poem “Hiroshima Pilgrimage.”

Sixth day, eighth month,
eighth hour of the day:
the heart of darkness explodes
and the inhumanity of humans
is revealed in blinding light.

Many years later, the pilgrims come.
We shuffle silently through darkened rooms;
we read flowing Japanese calligraphy or
blunt-nosed English letters.
Both punch their truths at us.

In silence we meet the victims.
Not by the thousands, 
but singly they appear.
We see his picture, read his name, hear his story,
view his small book, lunch box, half shoe
left behind.
Then comes another face, and another,
and another and another.
Nearby a table holds cloth fragments,
infant sized, child sized, adult, too.

Circling deeper into darkness,
we enter the time beyond,
a time when weeks followed weeks,
and suffering lasted longer 
than flesh that didn't heal.
A people lost in hell wandered helpless
until they dropped.

Here within this grim memorial
we pilgrims read the stories,
our souls stunned into silence.
The eyes of those gazing back at us
ask questions:
"What now? You know my story now;
what will you do about it?
How will you bear witness to my truth?"

We travellers read the stories and were challenged to participate in the redemptive work of peacemaking. My prayer is that all of us, each in our unique way, will join in this sacred work.

Ringing the Peace bell in Hiroshima

If this writing has spoken to you, please pass it on.

Living This Season

Some years ago I wrote a book about wise decision making, Decision Making & Spiritual Discernment The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way. I had led many workshops on this important subject, and, of course, the book brought more invitations.

I am still privileged to join with others and explore this topic, this “sacred art of finding your way.” In fact, I just finished a series of meetings with a thoughtful group from a local church. Together we talked about opening to God’s guidance and becoming attentive to our lives. Together we looked at the steps we take to live out our decisions.

This group, however, offered unique situations to consider. Perhaps their workshop should have been called Decision Making 201 because many of their stories brought especially difficult and complex situations for us to consider. This was an advanced class!

What made this class different? Most participants were within the “older adult” season of life. Many had retired, and some had moved to a retirement community. The decisions they faced reflected this chapter of their lives.

We were looking at decisions of relinquishment (deciding to let go of something) and experiences of diminishment (it’s gone – even if we haven’t let it go). For example, retirement from a job can mean relinquishing, not only a paycheck, but also an important part of one’s identity. “Who am I now?” wonders the physician or teacher or – . We may need to let of of possessions, activities, even a beloved home, knowing that we simply can’t continue as we were. And most likely, we have experienced diminished strength or stamina – or hearing. I remember my mother’s grief when she could no longer sing in the church choir.

Our culture values accomplishments and growth. It values taking on new activities and expanding our worlds. In this season, we are out of step with the world around us. What does it mean to live a full, rewarding life while in a time of letting go?

I, too, am in this older adult chapter of life. I haven’t moved to a retirement community, but I’m aware of physical diminishments and the need to let go of some activities and possessions. I’m also asking the question “How does the Spirit invite me to live fully and continue growing now?”

I remember Mary. She was my 97 year old aunt, and I regularly visited her in the nursing home where she lived for 10 years. She glowed with love. She offered friendship to the aides, the hairdresser, the neighbor to whom she gave her newspaper, and to me. She sang old hymns quietly to herself to stave off pain at night, and she enjoyed reading old books. She enjoyed the fresh local strawberries I brought, and loved hearing about my grandchildren. She lived a whole life in half a room! Once she said, “I wonder why I’m still here,” and then she answered her own question. “I’m still here because I’m still learning. I’m still loving.”

Mary had experienced severe pain and loss. She had needed to adjust to a different way of living. She had also found friendship, new interests, and new people to treasure. She had opened to receive blessings within the nursing home chapter of her life. If we, like Mary, want to live fully as older adults, we need to be awake to blessings in our lives. We must choose the spiritual practice of gratitude.

The most important spiritual invitation never changes, no matter what age we are. That is the call to be a loving presence in the world. While there are many ways to live from love, I think there are special ways that an older adult, in the midst of diminishments and relinquishments, is called to give love.

A friend calls it a “hospitality of presence.” It’s the simple gift of being with another, of listening, of sharing stories together, of touching a hand, of being someone who cares. Mary shares her newspaper, John writes notes to old acquaintances, Sharon volunteers for Meals on Wheels and offers a listening ear while delivering dinner.

I challenge all of us to discover more ways to be carriers of love. May we pay attention to the divine Spirit that will show us the need for love and will nudge us to respond with open hearts.

The Great Aquifer

Here in eastern Pennsylvania, we’ve recently had four days of rain. Sometimes it came as a downpour, sometimes as a drizzle, and I welcomed it all. We needed rain after our hot, dry summer. The grass, the newly planted perennials and shrubs, the trees shedding dry brown leaves, all needed a good soaking. And, as water seeped down through the soil, it began to replenish our aquifers.

Aquifers are those deep places underground where water saturates a layer of permeable rocks. They are earth’s water storage tanks. At some locations this groundwater bubbles up and creates springs and streams. Often we humans have to dig down to reach an aquifer and bring the water up. The well outside my house burrows deep underground to bring us water for the laundry, for taking a shower, and for a sweet fresh drink. We need aquifers! During a drought, however, they are not being refilled. And, unfortunately, some of them around the world are definitely shrinking because we use the water faster than it is replenished.

Water is life; we cannot live without it. The Hebrew scriptures, shaped by a desert culture, frequently describe our human need for water – and they compare it to our need for God. The Psalmist wrote “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) Isaiah calls across the centuries, “Come, all you who are thirsty; come to the waters. . .” (Isa 55:1) And he wasn’t referring to the well at a nearby inn!

In the New Testament, Jesus was traveling through Samaria when he met a woman drawing water from a well. He told her he offered “living water,” and that, when she drank his water, she wouldn’t be thirsty again. It would be like unlimited refills from a spring that doesn’t run dry, from an aquifer that doesn’t need replenishing.

The Great Aquifer of God never shrinks or needs replenishing. Sometimes it bubbles up in a fountain of everlasting love, and we can rejoice and run about in the spray like children. Our lives are rich and full and joy-filled. We are immersed in God’s presence and are grateful.

But there are also hard times when our spirits are thirsty, and we seem to have lost the connection to the Source. It can feel like we are traveling through a barren land without a green oasis in sight. We wander without a clear direction, lost in a dry world with problems that seem unsurmountable. We desperately need a drink from God’s Great Aquifer.

In those times, we often grow quite frantic, looking everywhere for water that will sustain us. What we actually need is to be still, to take time to quiet ourselves, and to send roots deep from wherever we are. We may need to clear out all kinds of loose rocks, all kinds of clutter in our lives to find a still place. I invite you to picture yourself as a tree sending roots deeply into the soil, trusting that your roots will reach God’s Great Aquifer. And it is there. It never runs dry. Then you will discover that you actually are “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season.” (Ps. 1:3)

Yesterday a friend told me how strongly rooted she feels these days, as though the roots of her soul are drawing sustenance from an underground source. She is a graduate student, a wife, and a mother of young children, and she knows what it is like to be running dry! But now she is filled with a humble gratitude and a renewed clarity about her life. Listening to her trying to describe the indescribable, I knew she had tapped into the Great Aquifer of the God of Love, and I was glad.

Blessed are those which do hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled. Matt 5:6

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others.

The Voice From My Attic

The bulging folders in my attic had lain undisturbed for over a quarter century. I knew what they held, but I’d never looked at them. I hadn’t been ready to take them on.

Finally, I decided it was time. I opened the first folder and scanned the first page. At the top were the words A Call to Commitment. They transported me right back to the church of my childhood: I’m ten years old, sitting on the third bench from the front on the right side with my mother and younger brother who is wriggling restlessly. The church is sparsely filled as usual. I’m looking up at my father who is in the pulpit opening his Bible, beginning to preach in his gentle, thoughtful voice.

These folders in my attic held hundreds of pages of sermon notes, more than fifty years of sermon notes. These papers, covered with a small, fine handwriting and yellowed with age, were the notes from my father’s lifetime of ministry.

Ammon Bucher Meyer died in 1991, but his voice lives on in these pages. I began to flick through the folders. There were sermons from World War II (While Men Die), sermons addressing injustice (Race Problems), sermons on following Jesus (The Mind of Christ). I was awed by the depth of his thinking, the gentle teaching of his stories, and the strength of his faith.

Yes, this man was my father, but I hadn’t known this aspect of him. I was the child listening from the third pew on the right – and then I grew up and moved away. As I held his sermons in my hands, almost able to hear his voice again, I rediscovered him.

Then I remembered that, despite his half century of ministry, Ammon never actually chose ministry as his profession! And his congregation never paid him to be their minister.

A century ago in his denomination, the congregation chose men from their midst to serve them as ministers. This call was from God, and one didn’t turn it down. They were expected to serve as a minister while earning their living in other ways. Ministry was learned “on the job.”

Ammon earned his living as a farmer, a teacher, and a school administrator. At the same time, he ministered faithfully, freely giving his time and energy. He married and buried, he counseled and taught. He attended endless meetings and spent many hours in sermon preparation and prayer. He had extra tenderness for those who suffered and extra patience for young people with their questions.

His hardest task was bringing people together when they were bitterly divided. At various times, this congregation was divided over theology, worship practices, and even which of several meetinghouses to use. Sometimes Ammon was deeply discouraged and questioned whether he was called to serve. I recall one particularly painful time when his peace-making efforts failed, and a small group of members angrily left the congregation. He almost gave up then, but he was faithful to his calling.

Despite conflicts and long hours of unpaid work, Ammon continued, year after year, to serve faithfully. In the end, I believe he was blessed through his long service. He’d helped the congregation grow into a more unified community, and his faith had deepened and sustained his ministry. (His final project was preparing the congregation for a paid pastor.)

No, Ammon didn’t choose ministry. He was called, and he grew into it. I can picture him at the beginning of his journey, 23 years old and nervously stepping forward to preach his first sermon before people who had known him since he was a baby. His subject was Jesus Our Friend, and I hope he felt the loving support of the Friend that morning! He didn’t know the challenges of the ministry that lay before him, or how he would choose to remain faithful to his call.

We can all choose to live faithfully, each of us in our unique way. Of course being faithful is a challenge. There are times of questioning and doubt, perhaps a new shaping of the call. But, as we are committed and willing to serve, we can grow to know that this work, this service is ours to live out. As Mother Teresa said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” And may Jesus, the Divine Friend, strengthen and guide us all.

Ammon Bucher Meyer, 8/31/11-4/6/91

Ammon’s ministry papers have been donated to the Elizabethtown College (PA) Archives.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others.