Garden of the Spirit

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.

Both/And

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.

If this story speaks to you, share it with others.

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.

Belonging

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.

Ordinary Miracles

Recently I attended an outdoor concert in the park. The audience was scattered on a grassy slope, the orchestra played, and a hot summer day cooled into dusk. Although it was all lovely, what I remember best was the young child in a group near me. She stood and swayed with her head thrown back and her arms stretched out to the heavens. She danced her joy in the evening, the music, the place, and the people.

How I envied her! Oh to be four years old and dance with happiness for a simple evening outing. As adults, if we notice the miracle of a perfect summer evening, we are likely to exclaim, “What a beautiful sky!” and then pass on. We don’t often pause to revel in it. We don’t truly stop and rejoice in the breeze, the evening bird chorus, the sunset’s glow.

I wonder how much repetition and familiarity dulls our senses. (How many summer evenings have you experienced?) I wonder how much the tasks and responsibilities of our lives blind us to the miracles around us. Like horses wearing blinders that narrow their vision, we trot along the appointed path, undistracted by stray wonders. Our days pass quickly, and we too easily miss the miracles of daily life.

A Shabat prayer speaks of this condition: “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.”

Some years ago, I had a friend with cancer whom the doctors gave only a slim chance of survival. Looking back, she recalls those years as a time of feeling particularly alive, in spite of the pain and grief and challenging treatments. She felt fully awake and attentive to the miracle of each moment — because the present moment was all she had! Nothing was taken for granted; no gesture of love, no small beauty passed by unseen. After she had recovered, she determined to live the rest of her life with the same awakened heart and fresh vision. She would continue treasuring the sacredness of each ordinary moment.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air but to walk on earth.”

Do I walk on the earth and know, really know that I’m walking? Do I notice my breathing (panting actually) as my legs move rhythmically, my knees bend, and my arms swing back and forth? Do I smell the moist summer air and hear the breeze rustling the corn stalks? Do I see the spectrum of midsummer greens that paint the fields and woods, and notice that the cornstalks are now much taller than I? Am I truly awake to the daily miracles around me?

When we remember to notice ordinary miracles, we will be more fully alive. We will be more centered, not always tilting into the past (“Did I say the right thing in that last email?”) or into the future (“What do I need to accomplish this afternoon?”). These reflections are important, of course, but while we are tilting, the present moment slips through unseen.

To live in awareness of miracles, we need to be able to pause. We need to stop what we’re doing at the keyboard or in the kitchen or garden — or in the busyness of our thoughts. When we do, we can wake to the ordinary miracles around and within us. And we can remember that we are not horses with blinders, but children of God who see–and may in our own unique way be called to dance in the park with joy and gratitude.

Ordinary Miracles

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

A Friendly Event

Lancaster Quaker meetinghouse

Last Sunday I sat in a circle of 25 persons who had gathered to discuss a matter that really challenged us. We held deep and clashing opinions about how to spend the group’s money! Going around the circle, we took turns speaking as we each earnestly tried to explain the hopes and concerns that contributed to our differing positions.

I belong to a Friends Meeting, a local congregation of Quakers. We have sometimes been labeled ‘peculiar’ for our form of worship – sitting in silence until someone is led by the Spirit to offer a spoken message. But Quakers have an additional peculiarity that is less known. When our organization needs to make a decision, we will never vote on it. Nor do we have a leader who imposes a decision. So how do we find our way forward?

We find our way by listening to each other, by listening for God’s guidance for our Quaker community. Only through careful listening can we hear the wisdom and truth each person has to offer. We need each individual contribution to help us find our way into harmony with God’s ways. When we conclude that a specific decision is “Spirit-led”, we call it coming to unity.

Last Sunday was an unusual Friendly event. We engaged in a special listening exercise because we were stuck. We had not come to unity, and we needed more time than our usual business meeting provided for speaking, listening, and reflecting together. The options for using our money were all good ones, but we as a community couldn’t agree on a choice. Traditionally, this kind of listening session has been called “threshing.” Farmers of earlier times threshed wheat to sort out the good grains. We needed to listen to each other until we’d uncovered the kernels of truth, and blown away the chaff.

After two hours of going around the circle, speaking of our hopes and explaining how we felt, we were all tired. But something had shifted. We’d practiced patient, loving listening. We’d come together prepared to wrestle with a troublesome issue, and the result was that we’d learned to know each other better.

In those hours, we spoke of deeply felt disappointments, of childhood traumas, of the experiences and foundational beliefs that shaped our lives. We said how much we loved and trusted each other in spite of our differences. Being vulnerable is never easy, but there was enough trust in this gathering, enough love in this listening to share deeply and speak openly. Some spoke passionately about the option they espoused, but no one decried the other possibilities as wrong. Speaking from our hearts freed us to listen with our hearts.

It would be nice to name the final decision here, but it won’t be made until our business meeting next month. I know, however, that reaching a decision is not the only consideration. How the decision is made is tremendously important, too. Does the decision-making process hurt the community or does it draw people closer and strengthen their bonds?

Whatever decision is finally made regarding the money, I know the community has become stronger. We are a group of people who have come together seeking to live out God’s love more fully. We have learned from each other, and we have grown more deeply committed to our shared spiritual journey.

I have been part of this Friendly community for forty years. There have, of course, been other challenges and tough decisions through the years. Quakerly differences can be strongly expressed and stubbornly adhered to. As I reflect on those years, however, I know that my journey within this community has profoundly strengthened my ability to love. In a spiritual community, we rub against each other until we are finely polished and reflect the Divine Light, –and are light for others.

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Praying for Others

Another public official in the midst of a recent national tragedy was speaking, “We are holding the families of these victims in our prayers.” His words rolled out with a dreadful smooth familiarity, but his voice reflected the helplessness and grief he felt.

A family in Uvalde implored, “Just pray for us, pray that we can get through this.” Their child was murdered last week. We, on the sidelines of their tragedy, can’t know the depth of their pain. We can, however, pray for them.

These are days of prayer. Whatever religious tradition shapes our prayers, or if we have no tradition of praying, when we hear of another mass shooting in our country or another discovery of atrocity in Ukraine (or Ethiopia or ?), we might cry out, aghast, “Oh God! Oh, God! and discover it is a prayer.

Prayer is turning toward the One who is the Great Creator, the Divine Lover. In ordinary times, we might have a prayer practice, a time for attentiveness to the Divine Presence, but in times of pain or tragedy, we turn more desperately to God. We need a Loving God who is with us in our pain, whose Presence strengthens us to bear it and guides us through the suffering.

My songwriter cousin, Scott Schell, opened his latest song with the line God cries a river, a mighty river. It describes a loving God weeping over the brokenness of the world and the suffering that exists when humans choose to ravage and kill other humans. And when we grieve, our tears join that mighty river. The tears in our hearts are the prayer–we don’t even need words. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit, through our inarticulate groans, is praying in us.”

A woman of Kharkiv, living in the midst of war, told a journalist, “We are praying. What else can we do? We pray for peace. We pray for everyone, Russians and Ukrainians.”

I picture my prayers joining the prayers of the woman of Kharkiv which join all the other prayers around the world, a mighty stream of prayer that draws us into God’s own longing for peace and healing for the world. In some mysterious way we don’t understand, our prayers are a necessary part of the stream.

In my Quaker tradition, we sometimes say that we hold persons or situations in the Light. In my prayer, I am lifting them into the light of God’s love and healing. I sometimes picture those I pray for as surrounded by a powerful loving Light and absorbing from the Light the strength they need to “get through this.” The Light is a constant; my part is to uphold those who suffer.

It can feel risky to open our hearts to the pain of others and hold them in our prayers. It can be tempting to look away and be comfortably unaware, avoiding the pain of caring. And, besides, praying for others could change us in ways we don’t expect.

When we offer prayers for others, we are joining in God’s love for the world. Praying deepens our compassion, and we want to do something to help bring comfort to those who suffer. We want to work toward a better world. Praying for others strengthens us, and we want to help create the world we pray for.

When we pray for another, we embrace hope. We turn away from cynicism and despair, and open to healing and love. By praying, we are declaring our belief in the possibility of a peaceful, less broken world. in the midst of great discouragement and grief, we are choosing to join in the stream of God’s love.

Let us pray.

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

Remembering Njidda: A Life Well Lived

I want to tell you about an amazing man who died a few weeks ago. Njidda Mamadu Gadzama grew up in an isolated village in Nigeria where his job as a teenager was helping raise my husband Larry’s younger siblings. He was the ‘babysitter’ for this missionary family, but he was much more than a babysitter. He was like a brother, and that’s a bond for a lifetime.

Njidda on left

His life journey took him far from his village and Nigeria, but his heart remained in his homeland, and he always returned. Holding a doctorate from New York University, he taught in Nigerian universities and became a renowned expert on desert expansion in Africa.

Three years ago Njidda came for one last visit to the United States. He and his daughter Nubwa stayed in our home and, joined by Larry’s siblings, we had a grand reunion. We looked at old photos and remembered together, and we told stories about our lives today. One morning Njidda taught Sunday School class, though he needed a cane to stand. One evening he attended a program at my granddaughters’ school. We grieved about our troubled countries (his and ours) and about our planet’s ill health, but Njidda always expressed hope.

Njidda’s deep Christian faith and hope, his love for others and his gentle wisdom remained strong and steady throughout his life. Being with him for those few days brought light and hope into our lives.

Later, I imagined Njidda talking to his daughter Nubwa before he came to visit us, and I wrote this:

Sixty years ago
I left my little village Lassa
hidden deep within the Nigerian savannah.
I flew on a plane the first time
to enter college far away in Kansas.

The church and my village 
supported me but it was cold and flat
in Kansas. I stayed, and I studied
and kept a 'B' for my scholarship.
I washed dishes with a rich man's son;
he wanted spending money, too.

I missed my village, little Lassa,
and good Nigerian food.
I missed the English of my homeland 
and speaking Margi, and Hausa, too.
I missed my Bieber family,
and the worship of the church at home.

In New York City, I explored
the hippie neighborhood near the University.
I organized rallies, met with our diplomats,
(such dreadful fighting divided Nigeria then)
and always kept on studying. Finally,
in cap and gown, I received my doctorate.
They wanted me to stay, do more research,
but I missed little Lassa
and good Nigerian food.

I returned home to teach at University.
In Maidugeri I found students eager to learn,
eager to study our fragile sahel
threatened by the fierce Sahara.
We struggle to protect our land
but still the desert grows.

I've traveled everywhere I want to go now.
I served my country, and its universities
as best I could, though being chancellor
was not my favorite job.
I taught and wrote; I lectured
on ecology around the world,
but still the desert grows.

I've traveled everywhere I want to go now
but there is one more trip in me.
Dear daughter Nubwa,
come with me back to the United States.
I want you to hear my story
and visit my friends, those living still.
I want you to meet the Biebers (those lively
missionary children I helped to raise).

I haven't much time, I think.
I'm slow and often tired; I need my cane.
I think I can do it if you come, too.

Being my daughter has not been easy, I know.
When I was chancellor, violence filled the air
and you needed a bodyguard.
You were 13 when your dear mother died;
I couldn't make that up for you.
And now Boko Haram kills 
and even Maidugeri isn't always safe.
Our dear Nigeria suffers so much.

But you are strong, my Nubwa.
You are a doctor, and if you came with me,
you could follow my American brother Larry,
see his patients, visit the hospital there.
(Ahh, I thought you'd like that.)

Oh, my daughter, I want you to visit the States
with me. I know the times are troubled,
but you can learn from this journey, and
I need you. Let us go together.
You will be glad that you did.

And so she came with him,
and she was glad she did.

Dear Njidda, I join others around the world who give thanks for your life, your love, and your faith. Your light remains strong.