Garden of the Spirit

The Old Paint Can and Me

This summer’s big project is replacing some windows in our house. While professionals are doing the installation, my husband and I decided to paint the new window frames ourselves. We’d use the old paint stored in the cellar that matched the woodwork of each room. It was only eighteen years old!

A worthy plan, I thought, and my father who worked his way through college as a painter would be proud of me. I began to explore the dusty shelves of old gallon cans, brushing away spider webs and dirt and trying to read the faded labels written so long ago. I eventually discovered a cryptic scrawl on one can: “Study wood.” And on another: “Master bed.” These I could use.

The challenge was just beginning. Rusty and misshapen, the first lid stubbornly fought my efforts to lift it. I used a putty knife, and then a screwdriver. I persisted; the lid resisted. I kept prying at it, and the lid shifted but still clung tightly to the dried paint on its inside edge. Finally, bit by bit, I pulled all around the lip, and the lid slowly lifted.

What a mess inside! Instead of the soft peachy-pink I expected, it was bluish-brown with a thick, hard crust. Oops, this must be the wrong can. Discouraged, I began to search the shelves again, but nothing else seemed likely. Finally, I decided to stir the paint in the can I had opened. If I couldn’t use it, I needed to dispose of it. I pulled off the surface crust and found — an oily bluish-brown mess underneath.

I began to stir. And I stirred and stirred. At first nothing changed, but then wisps of pink began slowly to appear. As I kept on stirring, the thick paint recovered more and more of its soft pink shade. I stared in delight as my “Master bed” paint gradually reclaimed its true color.

Finally I was ready to paint. I dipped my brush into the smooth pale color, and spread paint onto the frame of the window through which the sun would shine, through which the world would glow in morning freshness and in evening peace. I had recalled the paint to its true identity, a thing of beauty and service.

This small, frustrating episode of the old paint can reminded me how I can be like a stubborn old can of paint! I, too, can be resistant and closed. I can fight against my world changing. And sometimes my crust can persuade people there’s no hidden beauty underneath.

The truth is I, and perhaps all of us, need God’s help to crack open our lives and stir us up. It is so easy to remain closed. Guarding ourselves under a tight lid and a thick skin may feel safer than being open, but we’re not fully living when we’re hidden away. We need the Divine One whose patient persistence pries open the sealed places. What happens when our lids come off? Yes, we are more vulnerable, more likely to feel pain. We are also more likely to know love and joy. We become more alive and awake to this amazing world we live in.

When God stirs us, we can slowly become more like the person we were created to be. God’s stirring might be experienced as a fierce challenge or as a gentle nudge stretching us in new ways. We might see a need and offer to help. Perhaps we discover colors, I mean gifts, we didn’t know we had inside us. And when we use them, when we care about and are involved in the world, our own unique beauty is revealed. We have grown into ourselves.

I’m glad I patiently kept working on the old can of paint. And I’m especially glad God keeps on working on us so we can become our true colors!

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

Hafiz or Yeats: Hope or Doom

Newspaper headlines proclaimed that 16 people were killed in shootings across the United States this Memorial Day weekend. On the next page, an article celebrated the fact that roses now are at their peak in southern Pennsylvania. I look out my study window and agree. My rosebushes are loaded with blossoms that glow in the morning sunlight, releasing their sweet perfume into the air. To paraphrase the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz, the roses have again opened their hearts and given us all their beauty.

Bombs fell last night on Kyiv, destroying homes and lives, strewing the streets with pieces of shrapnel and roofing. And yet, I know where there is a small twiggy nest, carefully built with ancient bird knowledge and lined with a bit of soft fluff. Soon there will be pale brown eggs resting in it. Birds sing their morning joy in my backyard; and they sing in Ukraine, too.

Someone in my town lost their apartment last week. They couldn’t pay the rent, and they were way behind on utilities. And yet, the strawberries at the roadside stand are sweetly delicious, and I’ll probably make strawberry shortcake for dinner this evening.

Public discourse overflows with ugly sniping hostility and name-calling. The subject may be elections or debt limits or guns; the language is designed to inflame. And yet, two days ago, I rejoiced with others as a couple in their late 60’s who had journeyed together for twenty years tenderly spoke their marriage vows. Life is finite, they declared, and we choose to pledge ourselves to love.

My daily life this spring holds roses and birdsong, new nests and faithful love. Springtime itself is evidence of a renewal of life and hope for a harvest. I know I am blessed in living amid peace and security so that I can truly believe in renewal and hope for the future.

And yet. I dare not turn away from the grief and pain of others’ lives. I can’t read about peak rose blooming season and skip the page about bombings in Kyiv. I can’t ignore the need for affordable housing and simply lose myself in the gifts of delectable strawberries and birdsong. For many people, this is not a hopeful season but one of destruction and despair.

In his famous poem “Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Is he right? Is our world in a doomed time of destruction when, as Yeats believed, “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed”? Or can the “centre” be rebuilt with springtime hope and love – in spite of guns and bombs and inflammatory threats? I don’t know. I only know what Hafiz has said.

In Ladinsky’s translation of Hafiz, I read this poem:

It Felt Love
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to the world
All its beauty?

And the answer followed:

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its
We all remain

Yes, there are plenty of reasons we are too frightened to open our hearts. In a time when “things fall apart,” we seek to protect our hearts by remaining closed rather than take the risk of opening.

The title of the Hafiz poem is “It Felt Love.” The encouragement we humans need so that we will open our hearts and give our unique beauty to the world is love.

May we open our hearts and give to the world the beauty of our nest-building, our peace-making, and the sweetness of our loving. May we take the risk of living in love so that Yeats’ prophetic poem of doom will not become true. May we live in hope.

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

Mehr Licht

Sixty years ago, a young German girl named Barbara came to live with my family in Pennsylvania and attend school with me for a year. It was also sixty years ago that a young American boy named Larry joined a German family for a year. Thirty years ago, Larry and I and our daughters welcomed exchange students into our home. With all of them, we have created family ties that have deepened through the years. They are brothers, sisters, and daughters in our hearts. Recently, we traveled to Germany to visit them.

In Dusseldorf, brother Christian took us to an art exhibit called Mehr Licht (More Light), and I learned about early Romantic artists who fell in love with light. They saw a world that glowed with light streaming through the sky, revealing miracles of shape and color. They painted light reflecting from twisted trees and rough hewn rocks, from small brookside plants and from the tumbling brook itself.

I am not a painter, but I too revel in the beauty of light as it touches the world around me. I especially rejoice when I notice the extraordinary presence of the Light that glows within people.

Quakers speak of the Light as the Divine Light of God, and we believe each person carries this Light within them. I want to remember to focus on the Light within others when I interact with them. I want to be aware of each person as a unique expression of God’s presence. I must look for signs of loving-kindness, signs of open-hearted caring. When I see these signs in another, then I see the Light within them.

Here is an example: We traveled by train to Hamburg – immediately after a rail strike. Train schedules were in chaos, and trains were crowded and running late. But the tired travelers were patient, making jokes, and helping each other. Often those with seats offered them to those standing. Perhaps my white hair helped, but the man who gave me his seat stood for two hours!

This trip gave me many opportunities to notice the Light within those we visited. We attended a reunion of the five brothers in Larry’s exchange student family. It had been 15 years since they were together, but they gathered for a brother’s 80th birthday. They are strong-minded, busy, successful men who live all over Germany and Switzerland. Their ideas and ways of living have grown apart, and they could easily argue. But I saw them at their best.

I had the privilege of seeing the Light in the brothers. Within their laughter and sharing, I saw how they cared about each other. They would all return to their own lives, but, if there was great need, they would be there to help.

I saw the Light within sister Barbara and her family in their passion to protect the natural world. They know that the rich diversity of life in their country village is endangered. Together with others whom they inspired, they’ve preserved bubbling springs, small ponds, and the meadows around them. They have protected roadside wildflowers and small brown toads. Although there have been disappointments, they have hope for the future because young people care about the environment.

We traveled on to our exchange student daughters, to Maren and her family in Hamburg and to Anna and her family in Dresden. What joy to see them, to experience their lives and see how the children have grown! I saw how the Light in Maren is bright as she serves the teachers and children with whom she works. She is both fierce and gentle in her efforts to provide a good learning environment in spite of the twin afflictions of Covid and a construction project at her school. Anna’s patient care and nurture for her family expresses her Light within. Even her cheerful chauffeuring is an “I love you.”

Our trip ended in Munich with brother Michel and his wife Tina. As we sat over cake and coffee and shared our stories, I felt the strength of the Light within them. The suffering they’ve known has deepened their compassion. Acceptance of aging has brought them greater wisdom.

Suddenly I realized how much I’d been blessed by the Light in everyone I met on this trip. I knew my own inner Light had grown brighter as I saw the Light within others. All of us are Light-bearers; each of us carries a unique expression of the Divine.

Now I have returned home. I want to continue to look for the Light throughout my daily life. And I hope all of us will sing together:

This little Light of mine,
I'm going to let it shine, 
let it shine, let it shine,
             let it shine!

Spiritual Lessons at a Volleyball Tournament

I recently attended a high school girls’ volleyball tournament. My granddaughter Ruth was playing, and the stands were filled with family and friends watching our favorite teens. We watched as they served, jumped, and spiked, as they carefully set the ball for another to hit or dove to the floor for a save. All that energy, strength and skill exploded on the courts, and all those ponytails bounced wildly. Outside the gym, the corridors teemed with girls hanging out together, checking their phones and snacking while waiting their turn to play.

It seemed like a strange place for spiritual lessons! But spiritual truths need to surface in a variety of ways in our lives so we can discover them anew and relearn them. I expected to learn about volleyball at the tournament. I didn’t expect a refresher course in spiritual wisdom as well. It was there, however, if I paid attention.

What did I notice that day at the tournament? The first lesson was I’m not alone; it doesn’t all depend on me. These girls had learned to join together, using their individual skills on a team for a common purpose. They depended on each other. Sometimes I feel alone, as if I’m the only person who cares about an issue, but somewhere there are others who are equally concerned. We can form a team. Together, we are stronger, whether we want to win a volleyball game, battle an injustice, or worship in a faith community. Sharing a purpose and a passion brings hope. And when I falter, another will pick up the ball – and perhaps pick me up, too!

A second lesson from the volleyball day: The other side is not an enemy. At a volleyball tournament, I learned, one never boos the opponents. One only cheers for your team with a supportive “Great hit!” or an encouraging “Good set!” Can I remember to have that kind of respect in dealing with my opponents, persons whose purposes and goals are fundamentally different from mine?

At the tournament, teams lined up and walked by their opponents, touching hands with them before the game. The ritual emphasized their shared reality. “We are all teenage girls who love this game. And we’re going to try hard to win.” It helped me remember the reality I share with those on “the other side.” We are all humans who want the best for those we love, even when we heartily disagree on what that is and how to obtain it. If I remember that, I can strongly oppose the goals of “the other side,” yet act with respect.

The third spiritual lesson is one I always need to relearn: It’s all about paying attention. Volleyball is a fast moving game, requiring players to be totally alert in their own positions and vigilant about everyone else’s movements. These girls were poised to move quickly in any direction at any moment. They were fully awake and attentive.

Fortunately daily life isn’t a super fast volleyball game, but we are called to pay attention and be awake to the world. When we experience joy or pain, when we notice miracles around us, we feel more awake. When we pay attention to subtle nudges from God that can guide our living, we are more aware of God’s presence. Sometimes I drift along, less than half awake, and miss most of what is stirring within me and around me. Perhaps I’m weary or bored; perhaps I’m late and rushing to reach my office before my client arrives. I’m not aware of the present moment. I’m not paying attention to Here and Now.

Yesterday my husband and I hiked through a nearby woodland and looked for early spring wildflowers. I paused frequently in delight at their shy, delicate beauty. There were glowing white bloodroot, tiny humorous Dutchmans- breeches, the small spring beauty, and the yellow bowed cap of the trout lily. Often appearing singly or in a small clump, they were almost hidden among last year’s brown leaves. In searching for these subtle treasures, I was more fully alive. I was awake to the sacred present moment.


Spiritual truths show up all the time, whether we notice them or not. I’m glad I noticed the volleyball truths. I need to remember them: I’m not alone; it doesn’t all depend on me. The other side is not an enemy. It’s all about paying attention.

May we all be awake to the Spirit’s wisdom, however it shows up. May it guide our lives and our decisions.

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

The Man on the Bridge

I was driving across the mighty Susquehanna River near my home when I saw him. Dangling his legs over the low wall of the bridge, he gazed peacefully down at the half-frozen river.

Concentrating on the heavy traffic of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had whipped by and was climbing the hill on the other side before the truth hit me. What if he wasn’t peacefully gazing down at the river? What if he was considering jumping? Someone should do something!

There was nothing I could do though. There was no place to pull over on this highway, and I was alone. I’d never know what happened. I’d never know the end of the story.

Then I passed a sign: “If you see an emergency, call*11.” I thought, “Oh, good. Someone will call in. One of these truck drivers will call, and someone will check on him. I can’t – I’m already late, and anyway, there’s no place to pull over.”

Another mile of trees and fields slid by, but I didn’t see them. I was wrestling with myself. Was it a life-or-death emergency or was he only being peaceful, even if it was illegal to sit on the bridge? I didn’t want to overreact. And I’d never made an emergency call before. Was it necessary? Did I really need to get involved? Besides, lots of people had probably called that emergency number by now. But I kept on seeing him sitting on the edge of the bridge.

One of my favorite discernment questions has always been “Is this truly mine to do?” When I asked myself the question now, all I heard was an unhelpful “maybe.” Thanks! Finally, after another mile or so, I admitted to myself that I would always regret it if I didn’t call.

I pulled to the side of the road next to a No Parking sign, and I dialed the number. When I reported what I had seen, I was thanked, and I learned that only one other person had called to report the man on the bridge.

With a sense of relief, I left my illegal parking spot and continued on. Had I really needed to make the call? No, someone had already done so. But only one person of the hundreds who witnessed the man had called in. Apparently everyone else thought like I did: Someone else would do it.

Had I needed to make that call? Yes, I did. I want to be someone who cares enough to get involved. I don’t want to be an indifferent bystander. Even when I am unclear about the need, there may be something that is mine to do. I know how I would have felt if I hadn’t called, and then read in the newspaper the next day: Man Jumps to his Death from Bridge!

In Jesus’ famous story of the man who lay at the side of the road, ignored by many people until a Samaritan rescued him, the need was clear. The man needed help, and the Samaritan gave it, even to the point of paying for his treatment.

I didn’t know what the man on the bridge needed, and I surely wasn’t called to take him anywhere. But I believe that the key to Jesus’ story lies in the question that spurred the story: Who is my neighbor? That’s what I was wrestling with.

Had I recognized the man on the bridge as someone I knew, I would not have hesitated to pull over and call the emergency number. But this man was not a neighbor. He was a nameless unknown. I needed to expand my neighborhood list, to draw a bigger circle that drew him in.

When I see the unknown one as my neighbor, or my brother or sister, it is harder to “pass by on the other side.” Even if I am uncertain about the need, I can still risk the rejection and offer help. When my eyes are opened to truly see another person, my heart opens, too, and I realize again that there are no strangers. There are only neighbors; there is only family.

And Jesus said, “Which do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)

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


Some years ago my husband and I were walking down a street in St. Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze, and we should have been relaxed and happy to be on vacation in this beautiful place. We weren’t.

We, along with everyone else on the island, were waiting for Hurricane Georges to strike. In 24 hours, we would be huddling indoors while the roaring wind lashed against the door, and water squeezed in through the shuttered windows. On this bright, balmy Sunday morning, it seemed almost impossible to believe the forecast for tomorrow. We’d probably be safe in the small, concrete block inn we found after our tented ecolodge was closed, but it all seemed quite unreal.

As I recall that sunny day, I am haunted by two sounds that followed us everywhere as we walked through the town. The first was a sharp repetitive hammering as plywood was nailed across windows, roofs were battened down, and doors were sealed. The islanders had been through this before; they knew how to prepare.

The second sound provided a counterpoint to the percussion of the hammer. The Cathedral Church of All Saints was broadcasting its Sunday morning service on the radio. We heard the music and prayers of the gathered congregation coming from all the little shops as we strolled down the street. From one open door and then the next came the music: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blasts. We heard the prayers of the people. And we heard more music: Martin Luther’s A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.

Yes, these islanders had been through this before. They knew how to prepare. They knew that hammering plywood was not enough. For courage, they needed the grand old hymns and the community united in prayer. They – and we – needed to turn to the One who was a fortress, whose help and hope sustains through the centuries.

Worshipping in person in the Cathedral or joining in the worship by listening to the radio broadcast wouldn’t turn the hurricane aside. But it could bring strength to endure what had to be endured. It could bring hope to a time filled with dread. In a storm, God-given hope is as necessary for survival as plywood over the windows.

Hurricane Georges arrived, and we huddled in our little room. We read by flashlight, sopped up water from the floor, and ate our sandwiches while we listened to the roar of the unending battle just outside our concrete walls. Eventually the wind and rain quieted, and we carefully opened the door and stepped out. Most houses still had their roofs, although many of the boats had been badly tossed around. All the trees and shrubs had been stripped of their leaves. But no lives had been lost, and we were grateful.

I’ve never forgotten that experience on St. Thomas, and the lesson of both/and. In our ordinary daily life or in extraordinary stormy weather, we need both to do the work before us and to turn to the One whose Presence strengthens and brings hope. When we turn to the Source, to the God of love, we are better able to sustain the work we’re called to do. And we remember that, like the vegetation of St. Thomas that was stripped bare by the hurricane, we too are designed to grow new leaves.

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Lighted Candles

Every December when I was a small child, I watched my mother place a single electric candle in each window of our big old farmhouse. When evening came, I trailed her from window to window as she gave a little twist to each bulb – and its light shone out into the darkness.

I follow her example. On December evenings, I go to each window of my house and give that little twist to light the candle there, releasing its light into the night.

What a powerful image is a lit candle in the darkness! For us of the northern hemisphere, last week’s winter solstice brought the longest darkness of the year. Here in Pennsylvania that meant the sun was with us less than six hours. It’s not surprising that we humans are drawn so strongly to a burning candle as it spreads its light into the December night.

It’s significant that lighted candles proclaim the truths of December’s holy days and winter festivals. The candles of Hanukkah tell the story of the miracle of the lamp in the temple of Jerusalem. When the rebuilt temple was to be dedicated, the holy lamp contained only enough oil for one day – but it lasted eight days! (I Maccabees 4:59) During Kwanzaa which celebrates the culture and expresses the hopes of people of African descent, the seven candles proclaim seven unifying principles. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa and each of the eight days of Hanukkah are marked by lighting another candle.

Christians traditionally have lit four candles during the four weeks of Advent and ended with the fifth candle, the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve worship often concludes with worshippers passing the light of their candles down the row, lighting each tilted candle in turn until everyone’s face is softly lit and the whole church glows.

A worship service with everyone holding a lit candle is a powerful reminder that we humans are truly bearers of light. The candles become symbols of the Divine Light that lives within each of us. It affirms for us that we can bring the Light of God into dark places. Quakers call this the Inner Light, or sometimes the Inner Christ. It is a reminder that we all have that of God within us.

When we pay attention to the Divine Light within, our own path forward becomes less confusing. We understand more how to live in love, how to let our unique Light shine forth. Many years ago, during a time when I was confused and struggling to find my way, I talked with my friend Beverly, a wise Quaker woman. This is what she told me:

Nancy, you are standing in darkness and you can’t see the way forward. But you carry a lantern that spreads light enough for one step forward. When you take that step, the light moves with you and illuminates another step. You will always have the light: it is within you.

The candles of December speak to us of Light that is more than a temporary bulb glowing on my window sill. There is the Hanukkah miracle of a lamp that keeps on burning. There are the Kwanzaa candles that call one to faithfully live the foundational principles. There is the Christ candle that reminds us that we are Light.

The apostle John wrote The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5) As we enter the new year of 2023, may your Light shine brightly.

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

Update to “Amid the World’s Wild Weather

We discovered after sending yesterday’s monthly Garden of the Spirit blog to the subscriber list that the music to accompany “Let There Be Peace on Earth” was missing. Here’s the link to watch and listen to the music. Click this link. You can also return to the blog itself and click on the ‘read more’ note at the bottom of the post.

Amid the World’s Wild Weather

I’m sitting at my desk listening to the wind blow fiercely through the trees just outside. I watch as agitated branches bend before the gale, and raindrops pelt the window. This weather is noisy and tumultuous, and I hope no branches come crashing down. Briefly it grows quiet, and branches pause their acrobatics. Then the wind takes a deep breath and blows vehemently again, chasing waves of rain that gust sideways across the field beyond the trees.

The mood of this cold, blustery day is an appropriate reflection of the world’s mood. There is turmoil and struggle, fierce battles among the elements and among the nations. There is passionate intensity interrupted only when opposing forces stop to take a breath or re-arm themselves. A wild and violent storminess has taken hold of the weather and the world.

I caught the world’s mood as I read the news on my phone this morning: Protests in Iran and China, darkness in Ukraine, hunger in Ethiopia – and all around the world. Even the World Cup is touched by the winds of controversy. Closer to home, our country’s mood is a stormy conflict regarding library books and human rights, guns and strikes. There are fierce conflicts about church groups and ethnic groups, about climate change and immigration waves.

I am tired of such stormy weather. I want a respite! Like the disciples in the story of the fierce storm on the Sea of Galilee, I want to hear Jesus’ voice command the turbulence, “Peace, Be still.” According to Mark 4:39-40, Jesus then turned to his frightened followers on the boat and said, “Why are you so afraid?”

Well, duh, Jesus! It’s pretty windy out here. If the wild winds outside my window are scary, the world’s stormy conflicts are really frightening. While some of them may seem far away, our own country’s storms whirl close at hand. Forces beyond our control could capsize our little boats.

This is the world we live in, and I don’t truly want to run away from the reality of it. That means I live amid the turbulence and storms. We cannot command the world’s storms to stop but we can choose how we live amid them. We can choose, not just to survive for ourselves, but to live for peace, for the healing of the world and its peoples. Living for peace means cultivating inner peace, becoming deeply rooted in the love demonstrated by the Prince of Peace in his strife-filled world. It also means living for peace and love, for justice and mercy through our actions.

Last weekend I had a brief respite from the world’s storms through the refreshment of a family gathering. My husband’s family has a forty year tradition of coming together at Thanksgiving in a cozy mountain lodge. We cook and talk, play games and talk some more, sing together and walk in the woods. We live far apart, but when Thanksgiving comes, we are reeled in – from California and Oklahoma, from Washington, Wisconsin and Iowa, from Kentucky and New Jersey. Those who were babies when the tradition began are now watching their own children grow up. We who were adults when the tradition began are now the elders, trying to remember which great-niece or nephew belongs to which niece or nephew.

However much our lives differ, we share a profound gratitude for the love that has woven us into family and for the privilege of retreating to a peaceful mountain refuge together. I wanted to remain there, insulated on the mountain!

But one evening I was reminded where I belong, and what purpose I have. I was filled with the hope and energy I needed for re-entering the stormy world and living for peace. Two of our family teens offered the mealtime blessing through music as we stood in a circle before dinner. They reminded me that I cannot remain apart from the world’s storms. They reminded me how I am called to live in the world.

This is what they offered

Yes. Let peace begin with me. Though I was refilled with hope and love through this family reunion, I live in a larger, strife-filled world . There is surely a justice-building, peace-making, love-sharing work that is mine to do. And there is that which is yours to do. Let us begin.

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

Adele and the Elizabeths: Lives of Courage and Faithfulness

I have four teenage granddaughters. Aged 15 to 18, these young women give me much joy and hope. It’s not an easy time to enter adulthood. My hope is that they will grow strong and steady within themselves, and that they will care deeply about others, and about our divided, suffering world. I want them to take their places among the strong women of the world, women whose courage and faithfulness have made our world a better place. I’m thinking of strong women like Adele and the two Elizabeths whose rich lives gave generously to the world. I want to tell them – and you – about these women.

I’ve long admired these three women. Their lives differed enormously, and they never met each other. But, if they had ever sat together over tea and told their stories, I think they would have enjoyed themselves and found they shared underlying qualities of heart and mind. They were all courageous and faithful, combining a clear sense of responsibility with humorous, inquiring minds. They lived fully; they “inhabited [their] days”, as poet Dawna Markova has written. Until their deaths this year, they kept on learning and loving, expanding boundaries and building bridges.

The first Elizabeth grew up in a rural Pennsylvania world that limited her options for becoming all she had within her to be – a guide for others as a leader and minister. Her religious denomination ruled that women could not be ordained as ministers, even though she knew she was called to this work.

There finally came a time when Elizabeth, assisted by her congregation and her bishop, needed to break the rules, to fully claim her calling and be ordained. Although breaking through boundaries can be risky, this service of ordination provided a joyful affirmation of her gift for ministry. Within a few years, other women followed her, and now her denomination welcomes women as ordained clergy. Elizabeth was faithful to her calling and, by courageously stepping forward, opened the way for others.

The second Elizabeth (more commonly known as Elizabeth II), though very different from the first one, also lived courageously. For her, it was the courage to faithfully fulfill a role she never chose and to subtly adjust that role as the world around her shifted. Her commitment and faithfulness was to an ancient tradition and to a country that took precedence over her individual life. When she was 21, she pledged that her “whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service. . . ” She had no idea that her “service” would stretch for 70 years!

This Elizabeth helped the world to be a better place in her unique way. Her service included becoming a source of stability in a world whose foundations changed enormously in her 96 years. She fulfilled her commitment with grace and staunch loyalty, although there surely were times she would rather have been riding her horse in the countryside or kicking her shoes off and spending a day cuddling with her corgis.

And finally there is Adele. Although increasingly frail as she entered her 100th year, it was a joy to visit her and listen to her stories. She talked about her youth in New York City as a child of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants, her commitment to social justice, and her early leadership in minority hiring.

Adele’s interests were lively and wide-ranging. She explored the world of ideas as well as places. Experiences in ashrams in India and the United States profoundly influenced her spiritual path. Well into her 90’s, she continued participating in discussions of the “Science and Spirituality” group she had founded. She loved to read, but when her eyesight failed, she listened to her favorite War and Peace, enjoying it again and again. Adele always maintained a strong interest in others, even when she needed to dictate the letters that she wrote them. She was as faithful in friendship as she was cheerful in accepting the diminishments of her last years.

Adele and the two Elizabeths. I need to talk with my granddaughters about them. I will lift them up as women who responded to the unique challenges of their lives with high courage and faithfulness. Their lives exemplified poet Dawn Markova’s words in “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life.”

I choose to risk my significance;
to live
so that which came to me as seed
goes on to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom
goes on as fruit.

Bridging the Gap

My work is listening to people, and I love doing it. Sometimes it is painful though, as I listen to stories of loss and grief. Over the past months, I have heard many stories of divisions within families and between friends:

"I don't know how we'll do Thanksgiving this year without fighting about politics. Maybe we should skip it altogether."
"I decided we won't have our week at the beach next year since the families are so different about Covid. We always go to the beach together!"
"If I have to wear a mask, I won't return to church." "Unless we all wear masks, I won't return to church."
"My son is immune-compromised and nobody wears a mask at work. I try to stay away from the others."
"We used to be so close but now. . .  They helped so much when my parents died. I miss going out for lunch together."

There is a deep grief when families are divided, and when churches and communities are as well. During these strife-filled times, it is easy to take sides. Sometimes people feel that those on the other side aren’t trustworthy, or are even downright dangerous. Yet a few years ago, these same people would have vacationed together, worshipped together, and enjoyed each other’s company. What a loss this is! Grieving, I wrote these words:

The chasm yawns deepest
where love has been,
where love lies still.
I watch as
the pain of the breech
sunders them anew,
and I wonder,
"What then can love do?
Can it bridge this gap?"

In last month’s Garden of the Spirit post, I wrote about the Georgian villages in the Caucasus mountains, and how people there had bonded through centuries of shared music. In contrast, within our country, it seems right now that our bonds are weakened, and we are more sharply separated. There is a special kind of painful grief and even anger when those whom we love, people we thought we knew well, and with whom we shared major life experiences – these people end up on the other side of the chasm.

Can love bridge the gap? I remembered poet Edwin Markham’s lines from “Outwitted.” He drew a circle that shut me out. . . . But Love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that took him in.”

How can love help us draw an inclusive circle? Love is a potent force, tough and persistent. Love is also creative and imaginative. When we decide to keep on loving, we need to call on our creativity to find new ways to connect, and then we need to persist in our efforts.

So how do we let others know that they are still within our circle, that we still care about them in spite of our differences? Relationships are unique, and there is no clear one-size-fits-all formula. But here are a couple of suggestions.

First, remember all that you hold in common, all the shared interests. Focus on these things. Despite our fierce differences, we share human joys and hopes, fears and griefs. Perhaps you have children or grandchildren to talk about. Perhaps living in the same neighborhood brings common experiences. Show up with that casserole or tin of cookies, not only in a crisis, but on ordinary days, too. Perhaps you’ll share your fears about hurricanes or your delight in autumn colors. Shared faith can encircle both of you even if masks are an issue. Be creative–and persist!

Second, when the conversations between you and your friend or relative turn to painful areas, it is essential to listen. Don’t frown or interrupt; just listen and try to understand. (That can be a challenge, but I have found it easier when I look at the person and remember what we have in common.) You can ask questions and try to find any points where you agree. As valuable as it is to listen and acknowledge the beliefs of the other person, it is also important to say “I don’t see it that way.” Then one can ask, “Do you want to hear how I see it?” The differences between you will probably remain, but you and Love have drawn a larger circle that includes you both.

When we look at those whose beliefs oppose our own and we know they are within the grand circle of God’s Love, we can be grateful. When we imagine how the God of Love is looking at both of us with tenderness, something in us may heal. There is a healing power in the act of inclusion – for those on both sides of the gap. May we be open to such healing. May we persist in our loving.

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


A few weeks ago I visited an isolated mountain village hidden within the towering Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, that beautiful and vibrant small country in eastern Europe. My friends and I had been invited to listen to the traditional music of the mountains and join the musicians in a sumptuous feast as they celebrated their unique culture.

Villagers of all ages had gathered around a semi-circle of men whose powerful, resonant voices blended together, singing stories in a language new to me but which had been alive in this place for centuries. Other-worldly yodeling and call-and-response within the group awed me. A few villagers spontaneously began to dance. I listened, delighted and tearful, to an old woman singing, her voice lifted in a melody she may have learned from her grandmother.

Later we sat at heavily loaded tables and ate together. Nine hundred year old stone towers and walls reared above us as twilight deepened into night. At one end of the table sat an old man whom the younger singers toasted exuberantly as their “living legend.” With a voice still strong and full, he began singing anew, and the others joined in. Then a trio of sisters sang together as one played an ancient stringed lute. I wondered how many hands had held that bow before her.

This music was attached to this place, and this place was bonded to this music. I studied the intent faces as the musicians wove their polyphonic harmonies, and I knew that these people belonged to both the place and the music. Their lives had been shaped by these villages, and the music, with its stories and emotion, had risen from within the mountain life. Though some people had moved to the cities, their roots drew them back to the villages and the music.

As we bid farewell and left the village, I thought how music had helped to preserve a culture and a people. This corner of the world had been fought over many times. But in the hidden mountain villages, the ancient music and the old stories and language continued to anchor the people no matter which empire ruled. The people knew that they belonged here – and that their music had outlasted empires.

I wonder what anchors us today. We usually don’t know the centuries-old villages where our ancestors lived. We don’t know the actual places, villages such as these Svaneti people of Georgia hold dear. Perhaps we have a story or a piece of music that tells a story. The story may be inherited from our ancestors or it may be a story we have found that guides our lives and gives us a sense of belonging. Sometimes shared hardship has created a painful anchoring place. Every year at the Jewish Passover, an old, old story is retold. Enslaved or persecuted people have a shared experience that has shaped their lives.

Faith stories and the spiritual communities in which they live can provide a strong anchor. We cherish the generations of people who traveled the journey of faith before us. Knowing their journey helps us on ours. Some have found a community where they belong among those who share a passion for the earth, its sacredness and its fragility. Others have been working for peace around the world, joined by companions whose actual living places are widely separated but whose anchoring place is the same “village”.

Humans need a sense of belonging to something that is shared in community. We need a place to return to, a place from which we gain strength to sing the song and tell the story. I invite you to consider what anchors you. What stories bring meaning to your living – and what is the community that anchors them? What village provides a place where you belong, a place whose story is yours to sing?

I remember the warm welcome our small group of travelers found in the Georgian village, and I know how important a welcome is for those who visit but don’t belong. The story that anchors me is different from those that give meaning and music to the Svaneti people in Georgia. I want to hear their music and stories though – just as I hope to share with others the song and story that anchors me.

We all gain when we freely share our music and our stories of pain and hope and joy. To be rooted in a community that is open-hearted in giving and receiving is a gift for everyone. It is my hope that we can say to each other:

I belong here and am rooted in this community. These are my songs. Come and sing with me. I want to share this music that anchors me, and I want to hear your music, too, and sing with you.

To actually hear unique Georgian music, click here. We were guided on this journey by John Graham Tours.