The Day the Bells Called

It was a beautiful summer evening, the closing hours of our first day in England. We’d visited gardens overflowing with color and walked the wooded hills and peaceful farms of Devon. I was jet-lagged and tired, finished for the day and ready to return to our quiet cottage to rest.

“One more,” my husband begged enthusiastically. “It’s a high tor, a steep hill on the edge of the wildness of Dartmoor. The views are supposed to be tremendous.”

“Ok,” I replied. “You climb and take pictures. I’ll sit in the car and enjoy the pictures when you return.”

That was our plan. But when we parked by the side of the country road and gazed up the steep slope of the tor, we saw an ancient church tower perched at the peak. Looking up at the distant, apparently ruined church, we suddenly heard bells ringing. “Look,” Larry exclaimed, “Here’s a sign. Evensong Brentor Church Sunday 6pm. This is Brentor, and it’s Sunday, almost 6pm!”

What could I do? The bells were calling me, and I began the climb. It was steep, but a path curled up the slope. A few other visitors were climbing, too. As we drew closer, we saw the old stone building wasn’t ruined, just small and weather-beaten. On one side, a few gravestones stood crookedly erect, and there by the entrance, a casually dressed rector welcomed visitors.

The interior was intimate, with old pews facing the altar below a beautiful stained-glass window. When the bells quieted, we joined the other eight worshippers and opened our bulletin to follow the service: Evensong 29th August 2021. We warmly welcome all visitors.

“What am I doing here?” I wondered. “How did I end up in this tiny church at the top of the tor when I never even wanted to climb the hill?”

Sometimes Quakers describe our silent worship experience as an “expectant waiting.” We expect that some message in spoken words or in the silence itself will be given for us, even if we don’t know we need it. Perhaps this worship, so different from my usual Sunday experience, had something for me, too. What was it?

I listened to the readings and joined in the responses. I sang the hymns (masked, of course) and attended to the message. My strong expectation that something was here for me within this worship called for a deeper level of attention. I listened intently. The New Testament reading included the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) – Blessed are. . . .

Those words are so familiar that they could have floated right by, unnoticed. In that little church, however, I heard them. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t giving instructions, as much as he was making plain statements of fact: The poor in Spirit will find the kingdom; the grief-stricken will be comforted; the merciful shall be given mercy. The Beatitudes outlined a vision, the Christ vision, of life as it is to be.

Evensong ended with a hymn even older than the 800 year old walls that surrounded us – Be Thou my Vision. For at least a thousand years, this much-loved hymn from the Celtic tradition has expressed a passionate desire that we adopt the Christ vision as our own.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, save that thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word.
I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord....

You be my eyes.” is what I really sang. “You be my wisdom.” is what I really asked. With every line, I was acknowledging my need for a larger seeing and a deeper wisdom than my own.

The words carried a powerful message for me because I often forget how much I need the vision and wisdom, the guidance of the Spirit. It’s sometimes easier to depend on myself (my own thinking, my own seeing) and forget to attend to the Divine Guide. That Sunday evening, sitting with the small congregation at Brentor, I remembered. And I sang the words with a full and grateful heart.

It’s been almost a month since the Evensong service. i’m at home in my busy daily life, not on vacation anymore. I know, however, that there are still bells ringing, bells that invite me to come and see the world as Christ saw it, that remind me to draw from the wisdom that is more than my own thoughts.

The invitation of the bells appears in many ways in all our lives. May we pause and pay attention. May we climb the hill and experience the vision from the top.

Living with Abundance (in a World of Want)

This August in Pennsylvania, the soaking rain and warm sun combined to create an explosion of abundance. Grass is greener, corn is taller, and flowers are brighter than I ever remember. Everything growing has flourished. Tomatoes burst with juice at a touch, squash grow into yellow and green baseball bats overnight, raspberries strive to outdo each other, begging to be popped into my mouth. And the peaches! Their sticky sweetness is sheer heaven. Among my flowers, joe pie weed, described in the catalogue as four feet tall, has stretched to six, with its flowers surrounded by a happy cloud of butterflies and bees.

What rich sweetness is all around! What a profusion of plenty! I fill with joy and gratitude for such green and growing wealth.

But I don’t live in a world that stops at the edge of my garden. I – and you, too – live in a big world, and it is also a world of want. How can I live with abundance in a world of hunger, fear, and insecurity? How can we live in plenty when we know (and can’t forget) that there are empty tables and people who are hungry? My life has been secure; I’ve never cast a last frightened look around my home as I fled to the airport to escape the approach of soldiers. I do not want to take that for granted. But what can be done?

Here is one way: Look and do not turn away. Looking at the needs of the world, whether through the news, through seeing someone homeless on the street, or even receiving a request for a donation, can be uncomfortable. We can grow immured to suffering. “Oh, yes, that famine in Ethiopia (or is it Haiti?) is still going on.” Perhaps our eyes pass over the man holding the cardboard placard at the street corner that says–what did it say anyway? Did we look at him and read his sign?

For those of us who live with abundance, experiencing discomfort is the least that we owe to those who are hungry or afraid. When the encounter is in-person, we owe an additional debt – to honor our common humanity. Can we see the person sitting on the sidewalk and say to ourselves, “This is a child of God,” and act accordingly? Or is it easier to avert our eyes? Every time I look at someone, meet their eyes, and nod or speak a greeting, I honor their humanity. And I discover they are not a distant “other.”

My daughter Alisa keeps energy bars in her car for distribution at intersections where people hold placards asking for help. The energy bar, the touch of the hand, and the few words she speaks are her way of honoring the person.

Be creative in giving. There is more need than anyone can address, but the challenge is to discover what it is that is ours to do. There are more ways of compassionate and generous giving than we may realize. To discover our way, we must pay attention to our hearts. Writer Joanna Lacy says, “You don’t need to do everything. Do what calls your heart; effective action comes from love.

Sometimes a program already exists which can become our avenue for loving service. I have friends who have “adopted” a child in Haiti through such a program, paying support for him and sending him regular letters. Others give their time and energy to a local school or non-profit. What “calls your heart?” There may be a faraway need that tugs you or perhaps a local one captures your heart.

Give thanks. For those of us who live amid plenty, it is essential to recognize that such abundance is all gift. How wonderful it is to live amid the peaceful beauty and rich fruiting of the hills and fields of Pennsylvania. This privilege is not something I have earned; it is gift. All I can do is be aware of it and give thanks for it. And I can follow the advice of anti-war activist and writer Daniel Berrigan: “All, all is gift. Give it away, give it away.”

May our living be a grateful rejoicing in the gift of earth’s abundance and a deep gladness in passing it on.

Unexpected Opportunity

Imagine yourself among a group of Quaker families a century ago. They have gathered on a warm summer evening for a shared meal. The children are running around on the lawn as their mothers arrange food on a long table on the porch. After the meal, they do what people did a century ago–the adults sit together and talk, sharing the news, while the children continue playing as dusk falls.

Then, gradually the talking slows and stops. Without intending it, the group simply grows quiet, and sits in silence together. The Friends recognize this is worship, this is an opportunity, an opening to God. Perhaps someone speaks from the silence; perhaps not. At some point, people begin to stir in their chairs and look at each other. “Yes,” their eyes say, “we moved unexpectedly into worship.”

Today Quakers don’t use the word opportunity in the same way, and they don’t usually enter into silent worship on social occasions. That doesn’t mean, however, that spiritual opportunities are missing from Quaker lives or from any of our lives.

A spiritual opportunity is an opening, an invitation from God that sneaks up on us. It’s not planned or pre-programmed. There is something surprising and unexpected about the experience. Something deep within us shifts. We may not even name it as ‘holy,’ but we know something has happened, something that is beyond our understanding.

When a spiritual opportunity comes to us, we are confronted anew by the mystery of God’s presence around us and within us, both fresh and familiar. We may be subtly quieted and comforted. We may feel a challenge to new growth in our lives, an invitation to stretch ourselves. Always, the spiritual opportunity comes bearing love, strengthening us to give love to others.

A month ago I was standing in the middle of a huge Iowa cornfield that stretched out almost to the horizon. I had gathered with other family members to visit the place where my brother-in-law Dale tragically died when his single-engine airplane crashed and burned. (See God Done Good post.) We were trying to understand, if we could, what went wrong.

While the accident site helped us understand a little how it happened, what was truly important was the unexpected opportunity that appeared. As we walked through the knee-high corn stalks to the blackened circle where few stalks appeared, we began seeing small fragments on the ground. A two inch square of blue metal, a long curved wire, a blackened metal coil, and some shards of glass. We slowed our steps and spoke in low voices. Tears came. This, here, was where it happened. We picked up pieces tenderly; we held them reverently and silently.

Here, where our feet were planted in rich Iowa dirt, the Sacred Presence surprised us with a far deeper experience than we had expected. We were on holy ground. My daughter Diana Bieber Locke wrote about it later in a poem addressing her uncle Dale:

We gather together what is left for us to gather
These things you touched. . .
We are here, I tell you
With every thing we find and hold and bless
We are here
We are holding your hand
We are washing your feet
We are smoothing your hair
We are closing your eyes
We are saying I love you
We are here

We felt a close presence, a giving and receiving of love, and we were comforted. Such unanticipated Spirit-given experiences come as they will, and we simply receive them. In the cornfield, we had no ritual of worship, no spoken prayer to honor the sacred space, but we acknowledged it with every slowed step and quiet voice. The unexpected gift of an opportunity created a temple in the middle of a cornfield, a sacramental opening out of scraps of metal and glass. In the midst of grief and painful love, God was present.

Early Quakers entered into silent worship while sitting around talking about everyday matters. We went to the field to solve a puzzle, and we experienced the Mystery beyond knowing. We were indeed blessed.

Sacred Spaces–the Pause

in the wheelchair

I pulled smoothly into the parking lot at St. Anne’s Nursing Center, locked the car, and strode into the familiar lobby. Taking the elevator to the second floor, I walked quickly down the long hall. By the time I had reached the room at the end, however, my pace had slowed, and I stepped softly into my mother’s room.

For five years, this was my routine – an hour carved out of each day for this visit. My mother, partially paralyzed and with increasing dementia, always greeted me from her bed or wheel chair with a warm smile, even when she no longer knew who I was. And I always settled into a chair by her side and gently took her hand.

I had entered her space, and I had entered her time. With memory gone, she had only now. With mobility gone, she had only here. Together we sat and looked out the window at the cars. We spoke a bit (“Look at this flower, Mamma. Isn’t it beautiful?”), listened to old hymns, or reviewed family pictures on her wall. She sang along with the hymns although remembering the family on the wall was harder. Often we sat in silence.

Through my hundreds of visits, I slowly discovered that this time spent at St. Anne’s was sacred. These visits were an important spiritual practice for me. I slowed down and, in the silence, I heard the Divine Voice say, “Be still and know that I am God.” My mother’s here and now opened me to God.

Although I considered visiting my mother as something to do, a daily activity, it was actually a time to be. Within that holy pause in my day, as I sat with her and held her hand, I was awakened to the Presence that is always present.

Today I tend to focus on my day’s ‘to do’ list, and it’s easy to forget the holy pause. During those years with my mother, I was able to find space within my busy schedule for a daily visit. In some mysterious way, she became my spiritual guide. How can I now cultivate stillness and create a space for God’s presence without her holding the space open for me? Now I must choose stillness and weave it into my day.

Roberta Bondi wrote that “a lot of prayer is just showing up.” What does it mean to “show up” in the midst of everyday activities? I think showing up prayerfully is pausing. And, in the pause, we remember that this very moment is sacred. “Oh, yes!” we say. “This ordinary time in my kitchen or at my desk or in my car is sacred time.” When we show up, we wake up to the God of love present in our lives and in the world. We remember again that, as Paul wrote to the early Christians in Ephesus, we were created to be “rooted and grounded in love” and in the God of love. (Eph. 3:17)

Sometimes I remember to pause at odd moments throughout the day, such as moments when I notice beauty. But I’ve learned that having a regular set-aside time or place for stillness helps me remember God’s presence at all times. How we choose to pause is as varied as we humans are. A friend sets her phone to chime several times each day. Like the Muslim call to prayer or the Benedictine bell, this is her reminder to open to God throughout the day. Some friends join daily on-line worship or receive daily meditations that call them to prayer as they check email. What pattern of pausing, of remembering God’s presence would work for your life?

Traditionally, my Quaker faith and practice has not recognized specific times or places as uniquely holy. Several centuries ago, Quakers even refused to celebrate holidays (or holi-days) because all days, all moments are holy. I believe this, but I struggle to live my life in real awareness of that truth. I need the reminder that comes through the sacred pause, the dedicated space for remembering again that God is present and God is Love. I need the pause to discover again and again that all spaces are sacred.

the pause

God Done Good

A few weeks ago, I was standing high in the Great Smoky Mountains, looking down at a vista of mountains upon mountains, valleys after valleys, all tinted with many shades of springtime green. In the distance, a slight haze merged mountain into sky. Other people were looking, too, gazing in silence or snapping pictures with their phones. A man in an orange shirt paused next to me. “Isn’t it amazing?” he asked. And I answered, “yes, it is.” Then he walked on, adding emphatically, “God done good!” And I, surprised and delighted, responded, “Yes, God did!”

That evening, snuggly enjoying our mountain cabin, my husband Larry and I received a phone call from our sister-in-law Carla. With her voice breaking, she told us that Larry’s brother Dale had been killed when his airplane was blown into power lines, exploded, and burned. We listened, stunned with horror and disbelief. It couldn’t be true! Dale was healthy and a very experienced pilot who was taking off or landing his plane in clear weather. What had happened? No one knew.

When sudden tragedy comes close, we humans, in the midst of our pain and grief, want to understand it. How did this dreadful accident happen? Although an official agency will eventually report on causation, wind shear perhaps, only Dale was there, and we will never know exactly what happened.

We wrestle with the really big questions, too, the “why now? why Dale?” questions, and they, too, remain unanswered. Through my fog of pain and confusion, I continued to hear the voice of the man in the orange shirt: God done good. No way! There is nothing good and never will be about this accident!

Now I am at home again. I remember the Smokies, the greening trees and the proliferation of fern and wildflowers that had given so much joy while we were there. The Biblical story of creation (Genesis 1) repeats no fewer than six times that “God saw that it was good.” Verse 31 even states that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.” Yes, God done good, but this accident of Dale’s death was not created or purposed by God. This accident was more like a malfunction in the universe that God created.

Myron Miller, another brother-in-law, wrote that “God is not the author of tragedy but the master redeemer.” To redeem something is to bring something good into all that is wrong. Someone said to Carla, “I cannot make it right for you, but I can mow your lawn. And here is a flower, too.” He brought something good to assuage the overwhelming wrong.

I believe that God was present in the offer to mow the lawn, in the gifts of casseroles, and the notes expressing sympathy and love. Jesus’ disciple John wrote in a letter to early Christians, “Friends, let us love one another, for love is of God.” Love is the very essence of God, a very powerful force. When we reach out in loving compassion toward each other in our suffering, we are evidence of God’s presence in the most painful of times.

As we embrace those who grieve and embrace each other in shared grief, we are on holy ground. God is within the loving tenderness we show. We humans can grow calloused and immured to others’ pain when overwhelmed by cruelty and tragedy. I don’t believe, however, that the inner God-force that draws us to compassion is ever completely extinguished in us.

During this time of great pain in the world, of pandemic-caused illness and death, of cultural wars and political wars, of wars of words and of weapons, we have grown exhausted. But an extraordinary part of this extraordinary time is the huge number of people who have found the energy to give extra caring to others, even though it could seem easier to harden themselves and turn away. Their continued compassion and care is living evidence of the strength of the Love-force we carry within us.

In the giving and receiving of such loving care, whether the acts be large or small, we draw closer to each other in a kind of sacred communion. My family is scattered across the country and sees each other infrequently. But when 25 of us met on Zoom a week after Dale’s death, we were on holy ground. We wept and laughed, shared stories and discussed plans. In the midst of all that was wrong, this was good. We were grateful.

May we be channels of loving care for each other in times of grief and pain, and may the God of love draw us close.