Rising above Fear: A Writer’s Story

This morning I received a note from a friend I haven’t seen for a long time. She had just finished reading my book Fianna’s Story, and sent hearty thanks for this “wonderful piece of art.”

Her note brought me joy. But I thought, “Oh, my friend, you have no idea! My writing journey has been so confusing, so filled with fear and self-doubt.”

It’s time I confessed. It’s time I admitted my ambivalence about writing and my struggles with the simple idea of producing something that others would read. I need to tell the story of the Loving Presence that nudged and prodded, the One who grabbed me and gave me a shake when I wanted to hide.

This is the story. For many years, I had the same dream. Fast asleep, I watched a hand that was writing and tried to read the words it wrote. I could never read the message, but I always woke up thinking it was important. One night, as I watched this mysterious hand moving across the page, I suddenly realized the hand was attached to my own body. I still couldn’t read the message, but the hand belonged to me.

At that time, my waking self had never written much beyond letters. I occasionally thought of writing “something,” but I was afraid to try. Now I tentatively began to try a poem or two, and eventually discovered I was in love with words. I was still afraid though. It took years to let others read what I wrote. It took years to grow into the word author. (I still hesitate and take a deep breath before I click “publish” and send this monthly blog into the cybersphere.)

Self-doubt and fear are powerful. We all carry some inner giftedness we haven’t opened. It’s a big step to reveal the precious creative spirit within us and offer something to others who will see it, hear it, observe it, and judge it.

I never had that dream again, but I still had plenty of fear and self-doubt. I wanted to write something longer than a short article, but I was afraid to try. Could I write “something substantial”? I avoided the word book– too overwhelming.

Finally I was in my sixties, and I knew that I would always regret it if I never even tried. On my death bed, I wouldn’t wish I’d eaten more ice cream (I have that taken care of). I would wish I’d tried to write a — longer piece.

“OK,” I thought. “This is it.” I decided to write about spiritual discernment since I knew it well from classes I taught. Slowly I began to putter around the subject.

This time it wasn’t a dream, but a direct shove. A couple months into puttering, I received a phone call from SkyLight Paths inviting me to submit a book proposal for their series The Art of Spiritual Living. They’d heard of my teaching and wanted me to write a book on spiritual discernment.

Was I afraid? More than that, I was awed, dumbstruck, and terrified. Did I dare refuse the offer? After picking myself off the floor and finding my voice, I squeaked into the phone, “Yes, I’d like to do that.” And then I whispered, “God, this was your idea. It’s your book. Help!”

The experience of writing Decision Making & Spiritual Discernment The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way (here) and now Fianna’s Story (here) has taught me to trust more fully this Mystery we call God. I’ve learned to take the risk of stretching myself to share more deeply, and I’m a little more courageous in speaking and writing than I was.

I’ve learned to name fear and pay attention to it, but not allow it to rule. I know I must live from love, not from fear, if the creative spirit within me is to thrive. I hold on to Paul’s wisdom in his letter to Timothy: Our God has not given us the spirit of fear but of power and love and discipline. (2nd Tim. 1:7)

I offer Paul’s words to you, too. May your creative spirit rise freely and express more fully the unique gifts you carry within.

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

Brief Beauty

Outdoors it is windy and cold, and the brown of old leaves and dead grass is dappled with leftover patches of last week’s snow. At this time of the year, I am so ready for spring to come. I’m ready for maples to flower and attract early bees, for the aconite to put forth its small gold petals, for warm breezes that encourage me to to take off my jacket as I prune the shrubs. I see small green shoots of daffodil and hyacinth, but they hesitate to grow in this weather.

There is something happening right in my living room though. For 15 years, my walking iris plant has bloomed at the end of February. Just when I am most in need of flowers, this brief splash of tropical beauty shows up.

It always shows up, but I have to pay attention or I miss it. Each bloom opens in the morning and closes by dusk, and rarely are there more than one a day! Eight precious hours of a delicately exquisite flower, and then it’s finished.

Last week I saw buds forming on the long strapped leaves, but I still missed the first three blossoms. When I finally paused to examine the plant, I saw the three curled-in faded blossoms had bloomed unseen. I’d missed the colorful expansiveness of the open petals. I’d missed their brief beauty.

Today I looked — another elegant purple and white blossom is uplifted into brightness next to the window. And I counted six more buds preparing to put forth the same miracle. I don’t want to miss any of them.

It is easy to walk to my study right past the plant on its stand without glancing at it. It is easy to focus on work and think about appointments that fill my day. But to experience this flower, I need to pay attention to what’s in front of me, to see what is here now. The blossom won’t wait around a few days until my schedule is lighter, and I’m not in a hurry.

I realize I’m considering how to live. I want to be awake to passing beauty, to brief moments of joy, and to small gestures of kindness. I want, as William Blake wrote, to “kiss the winged joy as it flies.” His poem reminds us that joy can never be captured; it is winged. I can’t capture the flowers and force them to bloom for several days. But I can see them and delight in how my walking iris has yet again brightened my drab February day.

Perhaps if I’m attentive to the brief beauties, the brief blessings, that show up in my life, I might also grow more attentive to those ongoing, longstanding blessings that are easy to take for granted. I want to be attentive to the blessing of a heated home and a refrigerator filled with food. I want to remember to be grateful for my car that works and for work that is fulfilling.

And I want to really see the familiar people whose beauty fills my life. It’s so easy to take them for granted just because they are so close every day. I want to notice the beauty of small expressions of love, like my husband faithfully loading the dishwasher and feeding the cats, like phone calls from my daughters, emails from friends, and the neighbor who brings freshly baked surprises from her kitchen.

I need a few pauses each day simply to be attentive to such beauty. I could call them “Wake Up” pauses. I would pause and notice the warmth within my house. I’d picture the faces of my dear ones and whisper my gratitude. And I’d definitely pause to touch this day’s fragile blossom and marvel at its beauty.

A “wake up” pause will help me be more awake to that which can easily go unnoticed. Will you join me in this practice? Can we together notice the small miracles that bless us?

If this writing has spoken to you, please share it with another.

Note: Walking iris is also known as neomarica.

From the Seeds of Winter

I’m a gardener, and right now I have nothing to tend. The vegetable garden is still and silent. Only a dried-up old gourd stuck in the fence wire like a fly in a spider web and the withered brown leaves of the herbs catch my eye. The frozen earth crunches as I walk the paths. In the flower beds, even weed seeds are dormant. Nothing, I conclude, is happening. I return to my warm house and my purring cats.

But I’m wrong. For many plants, harsh conditions are essential for life. Though dormant, many seeds need winter to germinate, to flourish into plant-hood. I recently learned about stratification and how freezing and thawing are needed to break down the tough outer shell so seeds can sprout. Without cold wintry blasts, the green potential remains locked within.

Heat and fire do the same for other kinds of seeds. Lodgepole pines need fire to melt the hard resin that seals their cones. When a fire opens the cones, the seeds quickly germinate and start the next generation of tall trees.

It is a strange miracle that hardship triggers growth. What a contradiction to my desire to tenderly provide optimum growing conditions for all babies–human, animal or plant! But the challenge of hardship and the tenderness of careful nurture are both needed for full development. When a butterfly struggles to break through its protective chrysalis into new winged life, it strengthens those new wings to fly. If I ‘help’ by snipping at the chrysalis so it can emerge more easily, it will never fly.

What about human life? I believe we hold more undeveloped potential than we know, more creativity, more strength and wisdom, more possibilities for loving and doing good than we can imagine. Like sealed-up seeds, these untapped potentials are gifts we haven’t yet opened. Although potentials within us can grow when they are carefully nurtured, the strange truth is that sometimes these gifts sprout forth most strongly through painful, harsh conditions. Like seeds that need fire or frost, our full strength and wisdom, our capacity for creativity, courage, and determination can grow more through adversity than through easier times.

As a spiritual companion for others, I am grieved by the pain I witness, but I give thanks for what is sprouting and flourishing in the midst of it. I rejoice when I see untapped potentials from within begin to emerge in difficult, challenging conditions. During economic struggles, it may be strength to hold multiple jobs and support the family or creativity to figure out how to keep a business or community organization running. Perhaps unsuspected gifts of patience and compassion flourish when a loved one has an accident or serious illness. Or perhaps the sprouting of new strength and patience comes when you are the one whose life is upended by accident or illness.

During these last two years, we have been living through a kind of endless pandemic winter. Some of us have known severe loss–the death of someone close or the loss of a job or the loss of in-person school. We’ve struggled with being isolated or with being crowded together. We’ve been scared. We’ve known the pain of divided families and communities. As I listen to people, I hear exhaustion.

But, as we live through these pandemic times, the challenge and the pain continues to crack open new depths of strength and new breadth of compassion. New creativity rises from desperation, and we send forth new shoots. In the hardship of the pandemic, we are still growing.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” I don’t know what kind of seeds we each carry hidden within us; I do know we are capable of wonders. In the midst of hardship and pain, our gifts unfold, and we experience the miracle of growing more fully into whom we’ve been created to be.

I invite you to consider how you have grown during painful, wintry seasons of your life. What seeds have sprouted within you that may never have grown without such hard times? Name them and give thanks.

“I Like Jesus”

I’ve been thinking about Jesus a lot lately.

Last week a friend said to me, “You know, I like Jesus.” Since my friend is an Episcopal priest, we chuckled a bit, and I thought, “Well, I hope you do!” But I wondered, “Do I like Jesus?” To like someone is different from following or worshipping them. Great spiritual leaders aren’t necessarily likeable, no matter how powerful their message is.

There’s so much I don’t know about Jesus. I don’t know what kind of a kid he was or what foods he liked. When he was a carpenter, did he love the feel of wood and rejoice in creating furniture and tools? Did he like music – and did he ever dance? The Gospel accounts omit these details, but the stories that are included are alive and rich. In spite of having different authors and many translations, the Gospel stories tell me enough. I know that I do like Jesus.

I like how Jesus really noticed people. He paid attention when his overly protective adult followers tried to send children away. “Let the children come to me.” When Jesus was walking down the street, he saw the man lying by the side of the road, and even noted that he’d been lying there a long time. “Do you want to get well?” While walking with a group of friends, Jesus was the one who saw Zacchaeus the tax collector in a tree above their heads. Jesus sensed what Zacchaeus really wanted. “Zacchaeus, come down. I’m coming to your house.”

As Jesus traveled the country and crowds followed him, the Gospels tell that he felt compassion for the people. Jesus’ compassion is central to who he was, and I really admire it. Matthew recounts that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A few chapters later, I read that Jesus was stirred to compassion because the crowd had run out of food and because some were sick. For Jesus, compassion led to action. The people were fed, and the sick were healed.

I am particularly fond of Jesus the storyteller. What wonderful stories he told! Ordinary daily objects and events were illuminated with larger meaning. Who hadn’t sown seeds on rocky ground as well as on good soil? Who hadn’t experienced “deaf ears” when they tried to explain something? Shepherding was as familiar as farming. I can see heads nodding when Jesus told how a good shepherd cared for all his sheep and searched through the night for the lost one.

Another reason I like Jesus is because I like the message of his stories. Jesus’ world was as divided as ours, and what to do about the Roman conquerers undoubtedly led to endless heated arguments. Collaborate? (Zacchaeus’ model) Prepare to rebel? (Zealots’ model) Jesus offered a third way: When ordered to carry a Roman soldier’s burden, don’t carry it the required one mile. Carry it two miles! I wonder if anyone tried that experiment, and what happened during the second mile. Perhaps they talked together, the soldier telling how he missed his family back home in Italy, and the burden-bearer talking about his family, too.

Jesus’ stories are about drawing people together. He wanted us to see each other as neighbors and fellow travelers. “A man,” Jesus said, “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho -“ You know the story. It was the outsider, the Samaritan, who saw the wounded man by the side of the road and stopped to give aid. If you truly see others as neighbors, it may change your plans for the day – and your plans for your life, too.

Jesus was all about love, and I like that. “Love your enemies. . .do good for those who hate you.” For Jesus, loving was active but not necessarily safe or easy. You couldn’t sit back and say to yourself, “This afternoon I will practice feeling love for the soldiers, for the Roman governor Pilate, and for the tax collector although I’m sure he is lining his own pockets.” Jesus’ love was about carrying burdens, binding wounds, and, yes, being friends with the tax collector. Look into the faces of strangers and see neighbors. Extend loving care to your enemies. This kind of love can turn the world upside down – not a bad idea in his day or in ours.

Today, amid the darkness of winter and still another Covid variant, we’ve just celebrated Jesus’ birthday. And I’ve just re-discovered that I like Jesus. Liking, however, is not enough. I invite us to begin 2022 with a renewed commitment to love in the Jesus way, to begin to turn the world upside down.

Yeast My Bread!

Occasionally I have felt like a lump of dough without yeast, like a sticky, dense heap of dough slumped on the kitchen counter with no potential for rising and growing into something new. Without the aliveness that yeast brings to bread, I have been both weary and dreary.

“O God, yeast my bread,” wrote poet Werner Jahney. Yes, I thought, that’s my prayer. In this time of darkness, this time of discord, hostility, and grief, I need the lift that yeast gives to bread dough. We all do. We need something that will lighten our heaviness and expand us. We need to rise!

Last week I received such a lift for my living, a rich abundance of ‘yeast’ that refilled me with energy and hope. I was blessed by a Thanksgiving weekend with my extended Bieber family. Siblings and parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandchildren (all bearing negative Covid tests!) gathered from across the country for an eagerly anticipated reunion.

In the two years since we last met, we have experienced hardship and opportunity, and we’ve been challenged by beginnings and endings. There has been joy in babies joining the family and deep grief in the sudden death of a dear brother. One sister was hospitalized with Covid, and others have been ill. We have been discouraged and weary of uncertainty. We are tired of masks and the need to be cautious. Our lives vary greatly, as do our opinions. I wondered how our time together would unfold.

This is what I noticed. Outside the window of our mountain retreat house, a few snowflakes floated through the wintry air, but inside it was warm with love. I heard singing in the kitchen as a group prepared for lunch. Half a dozen adults were buried in books while others were deep in conversation. A trio of young girls was playing Uno on the floor as their younger siblings toddled around discovering new toys. In one bedroom five teenagers Zoomed with a cousin who couldn’t come. Some of us focused on computer screens while others joined in fiercely competitive board games. When we gathered to share stories and memories about the brother who died, laughter came freely with our tears. We sang together the old songs first enjoyed by my generation, and danced as we sang Lord of the Dance.

Dough with yeast added needs a warm place in which to rise. The love we held for each other provided such a warm place. Mutually cherished, we mutually expanded and flourished. I overflowed with thankfulness, discovering anew what a privilege it was to be together. This gathering, which I might have taken for granted in the past, was a precious treasure, a joy for my spirit.

Gratitude comes with joy. There’s a beautiful children’s book by Matthew Fox called In the Beginning There was Joy. I love the wisdom of that title. When we re-joice, we are reclaiming something that was in the beginning; we are finding something we’ve lost or forgotten. With love, gratitude and joy in us, we are like dough leavened with yeast, and we lightly rise, filling with energy and hope.

Will I continue to be ‘yeasted’ as I return to daily life with winter and another new variant on the horizon? I hope so, but I don’t know. I do know that I need to notice the places in my everyday life that are warmed by love. I need to remember to pause for gratitude, to live in hope, to be open to joy.

I am fortunate that I received a Thanksgiving blessing through this family gathering, and I know that such blessing through family doesn’t always happen. But we all need to be leavened with yeast, to rise in hope and gratitude. Will you pause to notice the unique blessings within your life? Will you pause to be grateful, to pay attention to how your heart expands with love? As we enter the adventure of Advent, what will lift your life?

Tumult and Peace

A gull on the beach stands
poised and pointed to sea;
then drawn by beckoning waves, 
steps stiffly out until water and sky
fill all his world, and he floats,
lost and found in the curve of a wave,
caressed by water's passioned loving,
breast to breast, and home at last.

I, like gull, trust water's wildness
and lean to sea.
Surf sounds pull at me; wave tendrils lap
my steady pacing feet.
Then, launching forth with faith-buoyed bones,
I stretch myself upon the sea,
to toss among some random foam
or lightly rock in Love's embrace,
'til floating deep within Love's heart,
I rest at last, and am at home.

Sometimes daily life is like gently floating down a stream. To live in harmony with God’s ways seems peaceful and unfolds smoothly. But many of us have also known times of tumult when saying yes to the tug that is God’s beckoning can seem quite risky and downright scary.

In such times, God’s beckoning is not easy or peaceful. It’s challenging to go beyond one’s comfort zone. There’s a definite difference between floating gently down a stream and being tossed among the waves. It’s so much harder to trust that God’s call is leading us through waves when we see them crashing!

At the time I wrote the poem above, I had been invited to take on a leadership role in my Quaker Meeting during a time of transition and conflict, a challenging job that could toss me among the waves. To trust such an invitation as a true call was like entering the surf with only “faith-buoyed bones” to carry me through.

When we recognize and respond to God’s call, even when it seems to lead through intimidating waves, we are accepting a path that is right for us. We are saying yes to living God’s love in a way uniquely ours.

One’s person’s unique call may be to serve in places that are actually dangerous. Frontline peacemaking around the world is risky, but I have friends who knew this was their work. In the midst of the conflict around them, they carried an inner certainty. Much nearer to home, someone else’s calling could be striving to create peaceful relationships among neighbors and family who passionately disagree. This can be as scary as crashing waves!

Often we are called to something that is hard simply because we must persist and be faithful. One friend has postponed a dream so she can be available to aging parents. Another has continued working with a struggling nonprofit rather taking on a highly paid job. Both have been tossed with uncertainty; both have accepted this call for this time in their lives. And both bear witness to Love.

I am reminded of Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who became United Nations Secretary-General. He wrote in Markings that

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Hammarskjold faithfully lived out his Yes, however challenging it was to be a voice for peace and reason in the mid-20th century world. I believe that whether one is a caregiver within family, a bridge-builder among quarreling neighbors, or the head of the United Nations, to live in daily faithfulness to one’s unique call brings both the tumult and the peace of “Love’s embrace.”

May we learn to trust when we feel God’s pull. May we “launch forth with faith-buoyed bones” into the tumult.

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.

Climbing the Willow

When I was a child on the farm, I had my own willow tree to climb. Its strong branches were low and spreading, inviting me upwards. Hidden high behind a waving green curtain, I looked down on the world. I watched my mother hang laundry on the line, glimpsed my grandmother in her flower beds, and smelled fresh cut grass as my father mowed the lawn. With an apple and a book, I curled into the small space where three branches met, snug and content in my green balcony.

Now I have another willow tree, and it is blooming green-gold in the springtime sun. My granddaughters climb it sometimes as I work below in my flower beds. I wonder if my grandmother watched me surreptitiously, concerned for my safety, as I do them.

But today, on this sunny spring day, my willow glowed with an invitation for me to climb. “Come,” it whispered, “come and join my celebration of greening, of springtime renewal.” How could I resist?

I grabbed the first low branch and pulled myself up. The bark was rougher than I remembered. My hands gripped firmly, and I carefully placed my feet as I stepped up the ladder of branches angling off the trunk. Finally I leaned back and looked up into the canopy of pale color draped around me. Light and shadow flickered as a breeze whispered and gently waved the greening fronds. I was awake to the sacredness of the moment and content within it. “Here, now. This place, this time,” I thought.

I was held within the willow tree, but when I climbed down and turned to resume my work, I discovered that the tree was within me, too. A bit of willow’s tree-ness had entered me and changed my day. I was refreshed. It was a balm for my thirsty spirit, though I had not even known I was thirsty.

I hadn’t realized how much I needed that brief time of stillness in the tree. Turning to my garden again, I walked differently, steadied and grounded. I was more aware of the world around me, seeing more than just the weeds I had been focused on.

What happened to me? Was there extra rich oxygen I breathed, straight from the breath of the tree? While such an image may be fanciful, I knew one thing I had done–I had stopped my work and climbed. I had paused in the middle of a task-focused day, opening to become aware of the sacred now, this amazing Spirit-filled, never-to-be-repeated day.

Perhaps my willow is inviting me to become a prayer partner, to join together in a practice of opening to the Holy around us and within us, to celebrate together God’s miracle of renewal. I wonder what it would be like to pray regularly while perched within a tree. Perhaps there is a miracle of springtime renewal there, not only for the tree, but also for me.

The Celtic Christian tradition celebrates the presence of the Holy within everything that is created. In Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Celtic Christian prayers and poems, one prayer affirms that “There is no plant in the ground but is full of God’s virtue. There is no form in the strand but is full of God’s blessing.

All living things are of God. I knew that when I climbed down from the tree, but I often forget. I forget to see the miracles of creation all around me. Springtime’s blossoming trees and new green shoots help me to remember, but my task-focused life makes it easy to pass by even these signs. I want to remember to be awake.

May we all remain awake to the miracles around us, whatever season we are living in. May we remember to pause and pay attention to the Holy, however it appears in our lives.

See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it. (Isa.43:19)