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.