Garden of the Spirit

Spiritual Practice in a Time of Pandemic

Today I emailed a friend and cancelled our lunch. Yesterday I called those who meet with me for spiritual direction and offered Skype or Zoom conversations. The news changes hourly, and I check it at least that often. I’m concerned about those I love who work in health care. I’m concerned about those I love who are in the older adult, high-risk category, and then I’m shocked to remember that “older adult” includes me, too.

In the midst of uncertainty and fear, we need each other more than ever, but we need to remain six feet apart. We want to actively combat the threat, but we are asked to remain passively at home. We don’t know what normal means any more. Normal has been spinning so fast that we’re dizzy and unbalanced. COVID-19 has curtailed our usual lives, and we wonder if we’ll ever get them back again. Of course we’re confused and panicky and afraid.

We need a strong foundation to live through a time when so much is unknown and uncertain. We need to be grounded more deeply in the One in whom “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul wrote. (Acts 17)

Can this time of pandemic bring an opening, an invitation, instead of just a curtailment? There’s a challenge here to deepen spiritually, to live from an enlargement of love and compassion rather than an enlargement of fear. Let us take up the challenge.

We need spiritual practices for a time of pandemic, practices to strengthen our grounding in God on this journey. Here are some possibilities:

1. Practice gratitude. I have found no better disinfectant for fear than a steady application of gratitude. Pausing to reflect on what I am thankful for, especially when I write it down, moves my spirit into an entirely different space. I am grateful for medical professionals, the arrival of spring flowers, money to pay the bills, my purring cat, my refrigerator, the beauty of the sunrise. The list goes on.

2. Pause and breathe deeply every three hours, becoming awake to the present moment. (A phone chime can provide a timely reminder.) Notice something of beauty. If possible, step outdoors and walk around, attending to the miracles of the natural world. Be aware of messages coming from body and senses. Here, now, this moment of this day, I am alive.

3. Select a picture or painting, a sacred writing, or a piece of music that will open your spirit to God. Gaze quietly at the image, slowly read the words, listen to the music. Allow it to sink deep within and refresh your spirit through a time of meditation and prayer. Is there an invitation in the picture, the writing, or the music for living in this time?

4. Create a prayerful ritual through movement. Our bodies can offer the prayer of our hearts, can literally in-corporate our spirit’s yearning. Going for a run or a walk can be a spiritual practice. Dance can be a prayer. Our hands can express our prayer through their position or movements. Prayer beads can guide our devotion, our intercession, and our gratitude. My friend washed dishes as he prayed; each spoon, fork, or plate representing someone held into God’s love. What wisdom for these days rises through my body?

5. Touch others with love and compassion daily. This is the essential practice. Even when we self-isolate or socially distance ourselves, we still need to connect. Make use of text, email, or Skype/Zoom/Facetime, and also remember those who need a phone call or a written note. I pledge to touch with love at least five people beyond my home every day. Whom will I reach out to and touch with my heart today?

6. Close the day with these questions for reflection: Where did I receive love today? Where did I give love today?

I received love today from my daughter whose concern for me kept her from visiting, from those in my Quaker Meeting who are organizing online meeting for worship, from my friend who suggested a visit through Zoom with a cup of tea. I gave love today with a letter to my immune-compromised sister-in-law, with a care package to my homebound Seattle granddaughters (cookies, books, and a jigsaw puzzle), with a phone call to check on a friend.

May we grow more steadily grounded in God in the midst of the frightening realities of this time. May we be rooted ever more deeply in the Spirit of Love.

Puddleglum’s Hope

Many of us are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ well-loved books about Narnia, the country where Aslan the Lion rules, and people and speaking animals live together peacefully. I wonder, however, how many remember the Narnian named Puddleglum. He appears in only one book, but he offers us an important message.

This is the story. In The Silver Chair, two children visiting Narnia seek for a lost Prince who was captured by a Witch and imprisoned in a dark underground world. Puddleglum is a truly glum character, always expecting the worst, but he faithfully supports the children on this quest.

Eventually the seekers find the Prince, free him, and prepare to journey out of the underground world when the Witch suddenly shows up. She pretends to be puzzled by their desire to leave the underworld and travel to Narnia. The children and Puddleglum try to explain the wonders of Narnia and the majesty of Aslan the Lion, but she insists that her underground world is the only world. Using her magic, she tosses a mysterious powder into the fire, and the air fills with a sweet scent. As they breathe it, the children begin to fall under her spell and repeat after her “there is no Sun, there is no Aslan.” But Puddleglum resists! Stamping out the fire with his leathery feet, he says to the Witch:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . .We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Puddleglum’s words, I believe, express the essence of hope. He’s not certain any more that Narnia exists, but he decides to live as though it does and try to return to Aslan’s country. They do find their way back to Narnia eventually, but when they start, they have only the hope to guide them.

Hope is not wishful thinking. (I hope I get X for my birthday; I hope it snows–or doesn’t snow.) Hope is not optimism or expectation that things will work out. Hope is stronger than all that. It’s a decision for how to live.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

Living in hope means we acknowledge the present reality, but we put our energy toward something more. As my houseplants lean toward light on a gray winter day, so I lean into my hope. I put my energy into the possibility that the deepest human desire is to live in peace and love with each other, and that love can outstare fear. I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope.

If we live in hope, it shapes our life’s activities. I have friends who pour their energy and time into building more understanding between peoples, into creating bridges in a divided world. Their hope shapes their lives. What is your hope? How does it shape your life?

Hope lives in the gap between a dismissive “there’s no problem here; it will all work out” and the despairing or cynical “it’s beyond saving.” This is a hard place to live, and we can easily drift away in either direction. We need companions if we are to remain in that sacred place of hope. I choose to walk with Puddleglum and hold his hand. I invite you to join us.

. . . those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; . . . (Isa. 40:31a)

Coming Together: An Invitation

Just over a year ago, I took a deep breath and clicked “publish,” thus sending out my first Garden of the Spirit reflection. I called it Advent Adventure, a fitting title with which to enter the world of posting!

And this last year has been an adventure. Apprehension and anticipation are both part of adventure, and I’ve experienced them in full. I still don’t click “publish” with ease; it still takes a deep breath, but I do click.

My intentions for this writing are the same as when I began. I hoped to share experiences of the Spirit, trusting that my stories would resonate with you, and help you to honor your experience of the Spirit. I’ve written about spiritual practices that help me be aware of God’s presence in my life, implicitly inviting you to join me in the practice.

I receive from you, too. Every time I’ve sent out a monthly reflection from Garden of the Spirit, I have heard from readers, telling how my story reflected their experiences, and sharing their openings to the Spirit. I have learned that my experience does resonate with others. Our spiritual paths are interwoven, touching each other, even while each is unique. Often we don’t know how much we are together. We feel alone.

A pastor friend said to me yesterday, “I feel alone even when I’m not alone.” We are not alone on this journey, but it can seem very lonely. This felt aloneness need not be overwhelming, however, when we join with others.

In Will and Spirit, Gerald May, spiritual director and psychiatrist, wrote:

The spiritual journey seems lonely. . . .There is a dimension of delicate pain in this, but even in our aloneness, we are together for we each have it. At the deepest level of our hearts we are all aching, for each other and for the same eternally loving one who calls us. It would be well, I think, if we could acknowledge this more often to one another.

I have been a spiritual director for over two decades, and a therapist and listener to others for much longer. I’ve seen repeatedly how much our human journeys are similar, even though the details are unique. And I’ve noticed how much we want to share our experiences of the Spirit.

At my Quaker Meeting, we occasionally offer a program called “My Spiritual Journey.” This is simply one person telling of experiences that shaped their relationship with God, both the rocky times and the fulfilling times. It is always one of the best attended events of the year. As May wrote, “at the deepest level of our hearts, . . .we are all aching” for such sharing.

I called this blog post “An Invitation,” and here’s the invitation! Two invitations actually.

With this post I have opened the “comments” section of the blog. I invite you to respond to my Garden of the Spirit reflections by sharing your insights with other readers through “comments.” (I will still respond to notes from those who want to write just to me; simply hit “reply” on email.)

We need companions on the spiritual journey. I hope you will share your experiences of the Sacred, your uncertainties and your discoveries, with others through my blog or through face-to-face friendships.

Here’s my second invitation. Begin the adventure of this new year by reaching out to someone who is not already close to you. Is there someone whom you see regularly but don’t really know? Or someone who needs an outstretched hand – and you haven’t yet offered yours? Give a thank you to someone, embrace someone, visit someone, forgive someone, reach across boundaries.

In Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:

What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. . . .encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get, in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing, which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. . .

This year may we be more open to truly see and treasure each other, to honor our universal human journey, and our journey with God.

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For the Descendants

I stood on the windy hill and looked down at the old farmhouse, the barn, the fields, and on beyond to the long stretch of Appalachian Mountains. I was standing in a small family cemetery surrounded by modest tombstones that had cracked and tilted over the years.

This land had been farmed by my family for over two centuries; my ancestors were buried in these graves. I bent down and read: Samuel Oberholtzer Meyer. That would be great-great-great-grandfather. I tried to read other tombstones but the old German was barely legible.

Who were these people of my blood? What were their lives like? What did they love, and what did they live by? I wished I could travel back in time and interview them.

As I stood there, trying to look into the past and see more than dim outlines of ancestors moving away from me, I suddenly discovered my vision had reversed itself, and I faced the opposite direction. I am an ancestor, too! have descendants! Will someone one day look at my name and wonder who Nancy Meyer Bieber really was? What did she love, and what did she live by?

I decided to meet with a quartet of my descendants and invite them to ask me questions. A few weeks ago, these descendants (also known as granddaughters) and I plopped on a big bed, they with long hair, long legs, and irrepressible energy, and we began.

This favorite foursome (aged 12 to 15) live far from each other, but when they are together they have splendid adventures. I remember watching four little girls splashing in a bathtub. A few years later, they were hiking in the Rockies, then snorkeling among the Galapagos Islands. I remember them zooming downhill on a zipline, and also dressed in their best for an afternoon tea party (complete with fake British accents) for which they had baked and iced all morning. Now they’d gathered to question Oma.

I promised I’d answer a couple of their questions here and create a blog reflection for them. Of course I was asked “who was your first boyfriend?” but I’m skipping that and going for the big ones.

What message do you have for us, Oma?
Live loving-kindness.
Keep on learning your whole life.
Remember to play.
Pause, take in, and enjoy God’s amazing world.
You come from family who lived with integrity and truth.
Continue the tradition.

What do you wish you’d learned when you were our age?
To love is a decision we make again and again.
To forgive is a choice we grow into, usually not overnight.
Boldly stepping forth and trying the new enriches our lives.
We need wisdom from a loving community to make good decisions.

What’s important to you now, Oma?
You are.
I believe the Spirit placed within you so much strength, beauty, courage, and capacity for goodness that you’ll never run out. You have that of God within you. My hope is that you will respond in love to that of God within all that is.

You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.
(God’s message in Isa. 43:4.)

Holy Reading

I sat in a circle with my friends, each of us holding a paper filled with poems, prayers, and Bible quotations. We were going to read them silently and slowly to ourselves – with the clear intention of not finishing! We hoped to be so moved by a phrase or word that we would need to stop and prayerfully reflect on the meaning it held for us.

This is a very adventurous and mysterious kind of reading. Our usual habit of reading for information is turned upside down. We are not reading to learn something about current events or new technology; we are not reading to solve a problem or analyze a situation. We are not even reading to discover how a story turns out. Instead we’re reading for the purpose of opening to God, of paying attention to the Loving Spirit so we can grow spiritually. We read to be spiritually formed, not informed.

In Christian tradition, this way of reading is called lectio divina, or holy reading. For centuries, this prayerful attending to words has used the Bible as its sourcebook. Today other meaningful writings are often included, especially poems or written prayers.

Our group began lectio divina by pausing a few moments to consciously welcome the Spirit into our experience. Then we began to read silently to ourselves, attending to each word and phrase, looking for the words that would stir us and stop us. We didn’t know what we would find. And we didn’t know what we would discover in our prayerful reflection on the words.

I began to read the first passage:

I have called you by name and you are mine.  When you walk through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.  When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. . . You are precious in my eyes and honored and I love you.

But I never read to the end of these verses from Isaiah 43.  The first six words stopped me. These words were speaking to me; this “I” was calling me. This is where I needed to stop. I closed my eyes to reflect.

I wondered why these particular words moved me, what feeling or experience was in them. Suddenly I saw myself standing at the edge of a small stream, hiking poles in hand. There was a figure on the other side of the stream, extending a hand and inviting me to come over. The crossing was quite safe but I’d need to take off my shoes and wade. I wasn’t scared to cross but I was a little apprehensive about what I’d find on the other side. Even so, I was glad to be called.

I wondered what particular opportunity or invitation these words, this image, held for me. My image of crossing a stream was powerful but I didn’t know why it had come or what invitation it represented. What kind of metaphor was it? Perhaps I would only discover the opportunities on the other side after I’d said yes, walked through the stream, and began to look around. Entering the territory across the stream would be venturing into the unknown.

In our daily lives, as in the spiritual practice of lectio divina, we don’t know what we will notice that will make us pause. We don’t know what will move us, what invitation will come to us if we are mindful and attentive in our living. It may seem strange or unusual (like a vision of being beckoned across a stream) or it may continue a familiar path. May we always choose to live attentively. May we always respond in love to what arises.