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.

To learn about this spiritual community, click hereor learn about our new Quaker school here.

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.

Rising above Fear: A Writer’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Walking iris is also known as neomarica.

From the Seeds of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I Like Jesus”

I’ve been thinking about Jesus a lot lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeast My Bread!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tumult and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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