Garden of the Spirit

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)

The River Will Tell Us

Many years ago, I joined friends and family in the grand adventure of rafting down the Colorado River. For a week, we traveled through the Grand Canyon, carried by the mighty river by day and camping on its sandy banks by night. I remember the richly varied experiences of the week, both the wild roar of the rapids as we tore through them and the gentle hours of floating quietly past looming rock walls. It was a time of living in the sacred now. We experienced the Sacred through the magnificent power of the geology around us and through the breathtaking intensity of suddenly churning through rapids, my sun-warmed stillness soaked in icy water.

I remember Duffy. He was our guide, wise and experienced in the ways of both River and tourists, holding our safety in his hands. On the first day, someone asked Duffy, “So how far will we go this morning and when will we stop for lunch?” Duffy replied, “The River will tell us.”

In the afternoon, another traveler asked, “Where will we be stopping to camp for the night, and how long until we get there?” And Duffy calmly replied, “The River will tell us.” Duffy knew that the Colorado is changeable, that he needed to read the river carefully before he decided when and where we’d stop—and how we’d negotiate the rapids, too.

Those words echo for me now. The river will tell us. Yes, but only if we pay attention to it!

Our life journey is a bit like a rafting trip. Sometimes it’s quiet and peaceful; sometimes there’s tumult and fear, and we simply hang on through the waves. Much is out of our control, but almost always we can make decisions that shape our experiences.

In this time of rapidly shifting cultural, political and economic currents, amid the year of the pandemic and all the unknowns of the future, we may feel lost and overwhelmed. To make wise decisions on our lifetime rafting trip, we need to be attentive to the river. We need to know it so we can travel well.

Immersing ourselves in the present reality, its grief and weariness as well as those refreshing moments of gratitude and gladness, invites us to live contemplatively. Being contemplative isn’t separating ourselves from daily life, but living fully awake in the midst of daily life. Being contemplative means being attentive to what is, including being fully attentive to God’s presence.

When I am open to Divine Presence, I am more likely to find a way forward. I am more likely to notice when it’s time to pause and wait—and when the time comes to act. When I am open to God, I notice the Divine nudge that says, “Now! Now is the time to paddle.” Or perhaps “Now is your time to reach out in love! Now is the time to bear witness to truth.”

Can I trust God’s timing and nudges? A century ago, the Jesuit scientist-philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, wrote

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability--and that it may take a very long time.
........
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

The journey includes uncertainty and anxiety. Often we will be impatient, longing to “skip the intermediate stages.” May we instead be awake to the present moment and listen attentively. As we travel on life’s river, may we learn to trust the journey and the Guide.

Of Light and Salt

When I think that He meant me when He said, “Ye are the light of the world,” I feel very unworthy. I know that one must go on joyfully and with an urge to be a “light” and also “salt” to salt this old earth.

These words were written 75 years ago by a Pennsylvania farm woman in a letter to her daughter. Her name was Annis, and she was my grandmother. I’ve inherited letters written by both my grandmothers. I wrote about Grandmother Fianna in Fianna’s Story and this is the story of Grandmother Annis.

Annis’ life was hard. Longing to learn, she was forced to drop out of school at 14. Her parents also opposed church involvement, and she hungered for it. When her mother died tragically in a fire, she took over care of four younger siblings. Her life spanned two World Wars, and included church divisions, family brokenness, and Depression-era scrimping and saving.

Hers was an unnoticed life. Annis joined no movements, marched in no rallies, and made no headlines. She preached no sermons and wrote no books. Her world was limited to the local community and her mild voice easy to overlook. She was, as poet Thomas Gray wrote, like a flower “born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness. . .”

The poet was wrong this time; her sweetness was not wasted. Remembering my grandmother, I recall lovingkindness and patient sweetness in a woman who loved flowers and walking barefoot in the grass. I remember peach pie and the dress she made for me when I was six. I remember the stories she told and the warmth of her arms. Naturally, I took her for granted!

Only now, reading Annis’ letters, am I aware of the whole person. Now I see a woman of deep and unquestioning faith with a steadfast strength born through adversity, a soft-spoken country woman committed to Christ’s teachings. I see an unassuming woman who quietly saw the best hidden within others and loved it into opening. Annis’ daily living was grounded in the spiritual practice of tikkun olam.

The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam means repairing or restoring the world. What an enormous endeavor–and how many ways one can participate in the work! Annis’daily faithfulness, her small gestures of patient loving and forgiving, her reaching out to mend broken relationships was her way of practicing tikkun olam. Through following Christ’s teaching to be salt and light for “this old earth,” she spread the loving energy that allows others to discover their own flavor and their own light. One small encounter at a time, the world is repaired.

Annis knew that even small steps were not easy. She knew that she could not be salt and light for the world unless her heart was open. Reconciling with another with whom she disagreed or reaching out to a person who had hurt her was more than simply an act or a few words. She needed to want to welcome the other into a changed relationship. She wrote I’ve experienced in my life that when I can not do the [hard] thing pleasantly, which seems almost going the third mile, there is no power at all and one is terribly miserable.

What is it to “go the third mile”–when Jesus’ teaching was only for a second mile? (Matt. 5:41) After all, choosing to carry the burden a second mile, when a Roman soldier ordered a Jew to carry it one mile, should be sufficient. I believe the third mile is the heart mile. For us today, it means seeing the ‘Roman soldiers,’ whoever they may be, as fellow human beings, and then loving them. It also means loving people who are not truly enemies but still irritate us dreadfully.

Annis knew this heart-deep work would change her, too. I’ve experienced that if one keeps on and does what is at our hand to do, graciously, why our faith grows. . when we look back it was not so big a burden as it seemed.

May we, too, find that reaching out in love and going the third mile changes us and makes our burdens lighter. I echo Annis’ words: My prayer and hope is that we shall all be faithful.

Annis and her granddaughter Nancy

When I think

A New Year’s Prayer for 2021

Out of the depths, I cry to You, Lord. Ps. 130

As I sat at my desk to write this month’s reflection, I was given a prayer for the new year. It’s a prayer I needed to write, with hope for new beginnings in a new year.

O God, in this season of new beginnings,
may we choose our beginnings wisely.
May we choose to be open
to the journey of healing
here within this country of conflict.

In this season of new beginnings,
the journey of healing 
begins at the portal of grief.

We bring our grief for the pain we have caused,
for the hatred we blasted at each other,
for the blinders that narrowed our seeing 
and the indifference of our listening.

We bring our remorse,
knowing new beginnings are rooted
in the soil of remorse,
rooted in horror at the deaths
of those who should have lived.
They paid for our blindness,
 our disregard, our turning away.

O God, out of the depths of grief, 
we call to you, but we know
our lament has no power unless it pierces us.
Our lament has no power unless we weep,
acknowledging we are complicit
in the brokenness around us.
For our silence, our walking on the other side,
our shrugging lightly when it is time to tear our clothes,
for all this, others have paid.

In this season of new beginnings,
O God of love and mercy,
we desire a new beginning.
In the midst of our grief, may we birth love.
Surrounded by wreckage from the storms,
broken open by our lament,
teach us to live beyond our fears,
to embrace the other and love generously.

In place of our blindness,
may we give ourselves to the work 
of clear-eyed seeing, whole-hearted listening,
until the pangs of deep compassion stir us 
to live and love as if our souls depend on it.

O God, may walking the path of grief
bring us to the healing work
of a new beginning for this time.

The words of this prayer poem came to me as an unexpected gift, a response to a question I didn’t know I was asking myself. The question may be yours as well: How can I contribute to healing in this divided and struggling world as we move through 2021? I don’t have a step-by-step answer, but I do believe the attitude of my heart is the place to begin. I bring my heart’s grief and my recognition that I am involved in brokenness through silence. I bring my desire to be a presence of love through my being and my doing. Now is the time of beginnings.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Martin Luther King

A Song for Dark December

The darkness of the northern hemisphere this month seems longer and the days shorter than I remember from past Decembers. Perhaps my perception matches the world’s mood. Though we know the earth’s tilt will shift (and vaccines are on the way), it’s cold and dark now, and we are weary of our restricted lives and, yes, weary of crises.

In 1899, writer Thomas Hardy wrote of a bleak December in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” As he gazed out over a desolate December landscape that seemed to hold no potential for life’s revival, he suddenly heard a song. “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small” was flinging “his soul upon the growing gloom.” And Hardy, grieving the world’s brokenness at the end of the century, wondered if there was “some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware.”

Hardy ended his poem there so I don’t know if he grew more hopeful about the future upon hearing the thrush. What I do know is that a song of hope flung into dark times has a power out of proportion to the size of the messenger. If a little brown bird can sing hope, I wonder what hope is mine to fling forth.

Poet Edwin Muir also found treasure in dark times. In “One Foot in Eden,” he described how the world’s suffering, its “darkened fields,” brought forth blossoms of love and hope that mysteriously flourished best because they grew in the brokenness of the world. Great love and great acts of compassion are called forth in the midst of suffering. They are, he wrote, the “strange blessings” of a broken world.

Perhaps hope, love, and compassion do put forth their brightest blossoms in dark times of pain and hardship, but I don’t want to live in such times. I’d like to sing out hope and to bloom with love–without a pandemic, grief, great loss, and bitter division in my country. I want warm, light-splashed times!

But this now is what we have. If Muir’s “darkened fields” are a place of germination and growth for the human flowering of hope and love, what blooms can we bring forth? What soul song is ours to sing now?

This is a time of darkness to attend to the Loving One who nudges us to grow by presenting opportunities for practicing love. This is a darkness where we can see the needs around us, and we give as we can. This is the long night of winter when the energy for creating a better future can be strengthened through vision and faithful communities. This is the bleak season when we long to be together with those we love, and we are challenged to celebrate in new ways. Can we celebrate the hopeful song of the thrush in new ways?

A year ago, I wrote a piece for my blog titled “Puddleglum’s Hope.” (Link Here) Puddleglum, a figure from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, chose to live by hope in a time of darkness, even though he had no certainty that the Lion Aslan or Narnia itself were real. That still remains our challenge. Can we decide to live out of hope, to act out of compassion and love, even if we feel darkness inside us as well as outside us? If we choose hope and join with others, the song of hope will grow, but it’s not ever easy.

My mother loved to sing, and her beautiful voice often filled my childhood home with music. Her favorite Christmas carol was “O Holy Night,” and I remember the depth of feeling with which she sang “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” Like the thrush flinging his song into the bleak world, she offered her song into December darkness, and her voice soared with hope.

My prayer for this weary world is that we will find ways to sing of hope and offer it to others. My prayer is that hope, compassion, and love, the “strange blessings” of painful times, will deeply root themselves in us and bloom with great power and beauty.

Hanging Out With Trees

Exhausted, discouraged, and stressed, 
I turned to the forest
all aglow in morning light, 
and the tall trees drew me 
into their golden hearts. 

A few weeks ago, my husband and I stepped back from our daily life and all the turmoil in the country and world. For a few days, we stayed in a small cabin deep in the Appalachian Mountains and hiked the forests that surrounded us. I didn’t know how much discouragement and anxiety I carried until I began to shed it. I didn’t know how tired I was until the rhythm of my days slowed down, and I breathed easily again.

Far from the conflicts of a world threatened by civil unrest amid a flourishing pandemic, I focused on watching deer outside the window. Each day we walked leaf littered mountain trails, while, above us, the giants of the forest accepted our presence with quiet serenity. By the edge of a mountain pool, I lay back on the grass and stared through gilded branches into a blue sky. I wondered, how could I have forgotten such soul-restoring stillness?

I needed the trees. Walking a forest path was like walking into a cathedral, breath-taking and quieting, bringing me to tears with its beauty. I was inside a space that opened me to God. I walked down a leafy aisle, I climbed up the steep slope on sprawled root steps, and the trees embraced me and filled me with peace.

I turned to the trees,
burnished by autumn's palate,
and they breathed on me.
I leaned to their silent embrace,
comforted by deep rooted strength.

I turned to the trees
whose boughs, bending down,
brushed me softly with falling leaves,
and I was quieted 
by their feather light touch.

I turned to the trees,
and far above me I heard
a slow deep murmur,
"Welcome home, child. We are still here.
Come, and rest among us."

Hanging out with trees brings me other gifts as well. The long arc of tree life reminds me that trees measure time by centuries. Absorbing the deep-rooted, long wisdom of trees, I wake to hopeful possibilities behind my own ephemeral lifetime. When I recall tree time, I can live for a future that I will never see.

Like a tree whose living nurtures other life, whose dying feeds future blossoming, may my presence in God’s world nurture its healing. May my spirit be rooted in the Divine Spirit and contribute to a future where people offer the wisdom and peace of the trees — to each other. The Psalmist writes of such people: “they are like trees planted by streams of water which yield fruit in its season.” (Ps. 1:3) May we indeed bring forth such fruit!

My husband and I have returned home to our usual daily lives and responsibilities. Around us, the furious tumult of the world goes on. But the healing wisdom and quiet strength of the trees remain with me. I cherish hope again. I look ahead, and live for the lives of the children of my grandchildren — who may turn to the identical trees I turned to. And the trees will gift them, too, with peace and renewal.

Outside my window, a profusion of colorful leaves spreads across the grass. Even as the pine tree that stretches above my house retains its green, the maples surrounding it are preparing to release their last gold and red into the light wind. Shimmering in the sun, the leaves will float silently down to join the carpet below. The season is turning, and the skeleton of the maples is revealed in all its elegance and strength.

When wind-whipped, raucous storms
buffet our lives,
when fault lines crack ever deeper 
in our world,
I turn to the trees for healing, 
to the comforting patience of the forest,
to the long-lived continuity of trees.
I trust the passing seasons again;
my soul is restored.