For the Descendants

I stood on the windy hill and looked down at the old farmhouse, the barn, the fields, and on beyond to the long stretch of Appalachian Mountains. I was standing in a small family cemetery surrounded by modest tombstones that had cracked and tilted over the years.

This land had been farmed by my family for over two centuries; my ancestors were buried in these graves. I bent down and read: Samuel Oberholtzer Meyer. That would be great-great-great-grandfather. I tried to read other tombstones but the old German was barely legible.

Who were these people of my blood? What were their lives like? What did they love, and what did they live by? I wished I could travel back in time and interview them.

As I stood there, trying to look into the past and see more than dim outlines of ancestors moving away from me, I suddenly discovered my vision had reversed itself, and I faced the opposite direction. I am an ancestor, too! have descendants! Will someone one day look at my name and wonder who Nancy Meyer Bieber really was? What did she love, and what did she live by?

I decided to meet with a quartet of my descendants and invite them to ask me questions. A few weeks ago, these descendants (also known as granddaughters) and I plopped on a big bed, they with long hair, long legs, and irrepressible energy, and we began.

This favorite foursome (aged 12 to 15) live far from each other, but when they are together they have splendid adventures. I remember watching four little girls splashing in a bathtub. A few years later, they were hiking in the Rockies, then snorkeling among the Galapagos Islands. I remember them zooming downhill on a zipline, and also dressed in their best for an afternoon tea party (complete with fake British accents) for which they had baked and iced all morning. Now they’d gathered to question Oma.

I promised I’d answer a couple of their questions here and create a blog reflection for them. Of course I was asked “who was your first boyfriend?” but I’m skipping that and going for the big ones.

What message do you have for us, Oma?
Live loving-kindness.
Keep on learning your whole life.
Remember to play.
Pause, take in, and enjoy God’s amazing world.
You come from family who lived with integrity and truth.
Continue the tradition.

What do you wish you’d learned when you were our age?
To love is a decision we make again and again.
To forgive is a choice we grow into, usually not overnight.
Boldly stepping forth and trying the new enriches our lives.
We need wisdom from a loving community to make good decisions.

What’s important to you now, Oma?
You are.
I believe the Spirit placed within you so much strength, beauty, courage, and capacity for goodness that you’ll never run out. You have that of God within you. My hope is that you will respond in love to that of God within all that is.

You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.
(God’s message in Isa. 43:4.)

Holy Reading

I sat in a circle with my friends, each of us holding a paper filled with poems, prayers, and Bible quotations. We were going to read them silently and slowly to ourselves – with the clear intention of not finishing! We hoped to be so moved by a phrase or word that we would need to stop and prayerfully reflect on the meaning it held for us.

This is a very adventurous and mysterious kind of reading. Our usual habit of reading for information is turned upside down. We are not reading to learn something about current events or new technology; we are not reading to solve a problem or analyze a situation. We are not even reading to discover how a story turns out. Instead we’re reading for the purpose of opening to God, of paying attention to the Loving Spirit so we can grow spiritually. We read to be spiritually formed, not informed.

In Christian tradition, this way of reading is called lectio divina, or holy reading. For centuries, this prayerful attending to words has used the Bible as its sourcebook. Today other meaningful writings are often included, especially poems or written prayers.

Our group began lectio divina by pausing a few moments to consciously welcome the Spirit into our experience. Then we began to read silently to ourselves, attending to each word and phrase, looking for the words that would stir us and stop us. We didn’t know what we would find. And we didn’t know what we would discover in our prayerful reflection on the words.

I began to read the first passage:

I have called you by name and you are mine.  When you walk through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.  When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. . . You are precious in my eyes and honored and I love you.

But I never read to the end of these verses from Isaiah 43.  The first six words stopped me. These words were speaking to me; this “I” was calling me. This is where I needed to stop. I closed my eyes to reflect.

I wondered why these particular words moved me, what feeling or experience was in them. Suddenly I saw myself standing at the edge of a small stream, hiking poles in hand. There was a figure on the other side of the stream, extending a hand and inviting me to come over. The crossing was quite safe but I’d need to take off my shoes and wade. I wasn’t scared to cross but I was a little apprehensive about what I’d find on the other side. Even so, I was glad to be called.

I wondered what particular opportunity or invitation these words, this image, held for me. My image of crossing a stream was powerful but I didn’t know why it had come or what invitation it represented. What kind of metaphor was it? Perhaps I would only discover the opportunities on the other side after I’d said yes, walked through the stream, and began to look around. Entering the territory across the stream would be venturing into the unknown.

In our daily lives, as in the spiritual practice of lectio divina, we don’t know what we will notice that will make us pause. We don’t know what will move us, what invitation will come to us if we are mindful and attentive in our living. It may seem strange or unusual (like a vision of being beckoned across a stream) or it may continue a familiar path. May we always choose to live attentively. May we always respond in love to what arises.

Sacred Walking

With my face tilted into the fresh autumn sunlight and my poles in my hands, I gazed toward the mountains. Mt. Kazbek loomed high above me, its snow-covered peak shining with light. Before it, rooted on a rocky promontory, stood Gergeti Trinity Monastery whose church had lifted its tall steeple in this place for over six hundred years.

I was traveling with friends through Georgia, a beautiful small country on the Black Sea with the stunning Caucasus Mountains slicing it into many valleys and languages. One day we walked from the village at the foot of Mt. Kazbek through woodland and meadow to the Gergeti Monastery. It was a breathless climb up the slope to the church where expansive views lay before us–from the small town below to the rim of mountains that surrounded us. We entered the church and looked in awe at the icons covering the walls, saints whose steady gaze held our own, offering us a bridge to the Holy, inviting us into an experience of God.

Every day we walked. Some days our goal was a crumbling fort or a distant alpine lake. Another day our destination was an isolated, abandoned church where the stone cross still hung above the altar space, and where I could imagine prayers and incense lingering among the half-broken walls. We trekked through the mountain landscape, past grazing cattle and their herders, through steep, forested hills and high, grassy meadows. We clambered across rocks, waded streams, and had lunch by hidden lakes.

The mountains, I discovered, were inviting me into an experience of the Holy. The Celtic tradition describes the world of nature as “God’s other book.” Written in God’s inimitable handwriting, the icons of nature were inviting me to a grand arms-outstretched “Yes!”

I realized that I was a pilgrim, that my walking was pilgrimage. Most religions recognize and encourage pilgrimages to the holy sites of their tradition. Pilgrims bring to their journey a desire to grow closer to God, a quest for spiritual deepening. Whether the goal is circling the Kaaba in Mecca, praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, visiting the place where the Buddha died, or walking the Camino in Spain, the journey itself is a sacred one.

There is a blessing for the pilgrim in reaching the holy site, but the inner transformation is actually happening all along the way. Each step renews the pilgrim’s desire to open to the Sacred; each step subtly invites the pilgrim’s heart into deepening.

Whether my intent was to reach a mountain view, an ancient fort, or a church, the gift of the walking came as I was open and alive to all around me. I treasured the wonderful variety of my fellow travelers, their adventurous persistence in walking, their laughter, and their questions. I drank in the richness of “God’s other book,” the jutting shafts of rock, trees beginning to turn color, rippling grass, and cascading streams. The present moment filled me, the contemplative moment of “Here, now, this, yes.”

A pilgrim returns to daily life, and I have returned to my home. The gifts of the journey are lived out in daily life. I wonder how I can continue being awake to the miracle of “God’s other book” when around me are only familiar hills and fields. Can I remember to pause and see them, drink them in? My home life is busy with schedules and responsibilities. Can I pause and attend to the beauty at the heart of the familiar people who share my everyday life?

We are all called to be pilgrims who are transformed through the journey. We don’t need the exotic and new for transformation. Our everyday journey is an invitation into the Holy, perhaps the most challenging pilgrimage of all.


Where I live, September is a time of harvest. My garden, noting the morning coolness that foretells the end of the growing season, is surging into one last big effort to produce. I can almost hear the whispers in the breeze among the tomatoes, beans, and squash: Ripen up! Grow bigger! Now is the time!

My vegetable garden invites me into a particular kind of aliveness. Growing food in the earth requires me to attend to the rhythms of the seasons, to sun and rain, to the soil. When I carefully place into the soil those tiny miracles of possibility that we call seeds, I have begun to participate in their life story. I watch them sprout, then I water and weed as needed. And when they are ready to harvest, I kneel before them in homage, thankfully plucking onions from soil, beans from bush, cucumbers from vine.

Harvesting brings delight and gratitude. In fact, I think we need an early Thanksgiving Day to celebrate our garden harvest. I celebrate and give thanks for cherry tomatoes that explode into flavor when picked and eaten right from the sprawling plants, and for the very different sweetness of red and gold raspberries sampled fresh off the bushes. There are cucumber sandwiches and salads, beans sauteed with a little lemon juice, and summer squash to prepare in as many ways as I can invent. I delight in the flavors and textures and colors unique to each. I am grateful beyond words for the rich soil, the warm sun, and the rain that created such abundance.

Working in my small square of earth, I feel joined to a multitude of gardeners, all of us tending our individual plots, alive in our own ways to their miracles. Throughout the summer we’ve observed their needs and rejoiced in their growth. We rejoiced in the harvest but we have also noted the vulnerabilities of our plants. Destructive insects can attack squash and beans; cucumber vines can wilt. Visiting deer can eat almost all the sweet potato leaves in one short night. Being alive in the garden includes attentiveness to these realities of the natural world.

Deep within, I’m still a farm girl whose summers were filled with growing, eating, and preserving produce from our big garden. Three generations gathered in the kitchen to freeze vegetables, to can peaches and applesauce, to make pickles and jams. I took it all for granted when I was a child, but now I am awed by these treasures from the earth. Now it is I who fills the shelves with jars of applesauce and tomatoes, with pickles and jams. Onions are braided and hung from the rafters while beans and peaches wait in frozen splendor for a winter summons to the table. Sweet potatoes contain their lumpy orange goodness on trays in the basement until their turn.

Being alive in my garden, being alive to the food I eat and its journey to my table, I overflow with gratitude. I am glad to be an integral part of this journey. I am grateful to the One who created these treasures of the earth, and I am grateful to join in this creative work.

When winter comes, my garden will still live — through the produce stored in my house and through my summer memories. Remembering the garden and the harvest, I wrote these lines:

Down in the cellar
a huddle of onions
rustles in flaky brown skins.
    Spring dew chills my bare feet,
I run to see if the onions are up
bringing spring’s fresh bite.
In summer’s heat, a fat old fellow
pulled from his earthy home
for a dinner stir-fry rewards me
with tears.

Rough unpainted shelves
hold rows of applesauce.
A hot summer day
and a house heavy with the smell 
  of apples cooking;
my hands know the touch
of Grandmother’s colander.
Its pores ooze the steaming sauce
that trickles down its sides
and drips into a bowl.

Behind the freezer door
stiffly at attention stand
boxes of beans both yellow and green.
A midday sun warms my back
and fuzzy leaves cling to my shirt.
I’m squatting with aching knees,
lapped round by a low green sea.
Short fat lima pods
and long dangling pencil pods
wait to be picked.
Fresh cooked beans blush deeper green,
crunch tenderly on my tongue.

Tucked away treasures all over the house;
quart jars bulging with Big Boys,
tomato red for a winter night stew.
Under them, cucumbers
sour sweetly into pickles.
Of jams and jellies, three neat rows;
strawberry and raspberry
glowing softly in their corner.

Like the squirrel, my sister,
in the seasons of ripening
I gather.
All canning and pickling,
all drying and freezing
are mine.
As long as earth bursts with banquets
in sensuous abundance,
so long will I lay up its gifts,
store up my memories,
and, in the cold days, the dark months,
bring them forth in gratitude,
these treasures of the earth.

Safe Places

Yesterday after work I went shopping in the local sprawling shopping center. On the weekend I will worship with others of my faith tradition. In two weeks my grandchildren start back to school. I loved the concert I attended last week with my husband.

These are ordinary life activities, and I relax in the safe familiarity of them. Schools and churches and stores and concert halls have been safe places where good things have happened throughout my life.

There are many places in the world where the daily activities of shopping in the market, attending school, going to work, or worshipping in church or synagogue or mosque are life-threatening. There are many places where violent death is a daily danger.

I grieve that my country, with its great beauty and its great potential for creating safe lives for those who live here, has become less safe, more fearfully dangerous. I grieve that, within the last few years, other countries have issued travel warnings to those considering visits to the United States. Warnings have have come from countries whose people might be targeted for violence because of religion or race. But travel warnings have also come from such countries as Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Canada and New Zealand. “Be aware of the potential risk of gun violence and terrorism anywhere” is the general message.

Gunfire is not an unusual sound here in my rural Pennsylvania area. I hear the neighbors practicing target shooting, and, in late November, I hear the hunters who help control our burgeoning deer population. But no one has pointed a gun at me, and I have not been afraid. Life does not come with a safety guarantee for anyone, but in my life I have lived in safe places and felt that I was safe from violent death. I know that I have been privileged.

For me, violence and its accompanying tragedy has been secondhand. I have seen the powerful, painful pictures and read the heartbreaking stories, but I have not suffered as others have who cry out and live the pain and the loss. My heart has wept, I have been angry and horrified, but I have not known the agony of realizing my child will never come home, that my lover is gone forever. I have not carried such burdens through the years.

What is to be done with such privilege? How am I called to live? I have searched for answers, and I invite readers who have been similarly privileged to search for themselves. So far, this is my answer:

I must never become inured to the suffering of others; I must not look away from pain to protect my own comfort. I will try to live safely but never to live a shuttered, locked-down, self-protected life where the illusion of safety appears to be something one can capture and possess.

I have visited the room where cynicism and despair live, but I must not remain in that bleak and hopeless place. I am called to be bold in speaking or writing truths I believe, and to join with others, however I can, to create more places of safety for all.

There are many ways in which violence explodes into the lives of ordinary people. When a culture protects the potential and the means for violence, it can become a norm. Like a plant pushing to grow into a stone wall, trying to change a cultural norm is very hard work. Not impossible, just hard, long, discouraging work. I will, as I am able, show up for this work.

This is what the Lord says:  Do what is just and right. . . Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.  (Jeremiah 22:3)


Needing the Quiet

I recently spent a weekend being quiet. My Quaker Meeting sponsored a “Silent Retreat,” a whole weekend in which participants gathered for morning and evening worship and sharing, but were in solitude and silence the rest of the time. Disconnected from the internet and our phones, we read, wrote, played music, created a craft, walked in the woods or sat quietly. Some of us took a nap.

Both Muslim mystic Rumi and Christian mystic John of the Cross wrote of silence as God’s first language. This weekend was space for listening to the silence. It was time for simply “hanging out with God,” as one friend commented.

I had agreed to guide this event months ago. Unfortunately when the time came, I didn’t want to go on retreat! I had too much to do at home. I had a garden to weed, people to talk to, work to do. I was behind on all my tasks, and felt as though I’d never catch up.

The blessing for me was that I couldn’t change my mind at the last minute. I was committed to show up–and so I discovered once again the quiet stillness that is my soul’s deepest need. Lost within the stress of tending my “to do” list, I had forgotten that we humans were created for stillness as well as activity, for restful reflection as well as bustling achievement.

This retreat was a counter-cultural adventure. We slowed down and paused to pay attention. What we received would come as a gift, and, in our pausing, we created space to notice the gift. Perhaps it felt like a new deep breathing, perhaps like a flash of lightning suddenly illuminating the night. We may have named an insight, discerned a next step, or discovered new questions. And sometimes we were simply still and aware of the presence of the Holy.

Many years ago, in need of spiritual renewal, I took a retreat entirely on my own. After settling into the cabin, I took a walk in the woods, read a bit, went for another walk. In a little while, I began to question: God, why isn’t anything happening yet?” It took me a full day to shed my impatience. It took another day to release my questions and simply open my heart and mind to whatever would come. In letting go, I opened to receive.

Taking a retreat away from daily life is one way of honoring our need for quiet and stillness. But our greater need is to build spaces for quiet and stillness into our daily lives. It can seem almost impossible to claim “retreat time” at home, surrounded by tasks and people and many concerns.

In my Quaker tradition, we gather together in the quiet. We engage in silent worship every Sunday. It’s an expectant waiting worship, trusting that the Spirit is present, expecting that we will receive something through spoken messages or from deep within us. But there, too, the noise in my head can be clamorous and jangling. I need the community’s silent support, gathering me up in a group experience of opening to God.

In some Jewish traditions, there are detailed rules for Sabbath regulating travel and acts of work. Those who observe the rules are building opportunity for quiet, for a pause in their lives. I need a Sabbath practice to help me remember how I want to live. Could I be internet-free and refrain from text or email one day each week? Would this help me build space in my life for quiet?

There are many practices that open us to the Divine. There is music and the spoken word, there is fellowship and service. All these are important. The path we too often ignore is the way of silence and stillness.


Two weeks ago, I looked out a bus window at a sand-strewn landscape with rocks and cliffs in shades of brown and ochre rimming the horizon. A few camels wandered by. We were traveling through the Negev Desert, one of earth’s driest environments. During the weeks we had traveled in Israel, I had been awed and grieved, moved to tears and to laughter and love. I grew more aware of the country’s complexity, of its peoples and their stories.

Most of all, I was deeply aware of water, its presence and absence and my need for it. At home surrounded by the green farms of Pennsylvania where rains usually arrive on time and the mountains and the valleys are green, I don’t think about my need for water. When I am thirsty, I fill my glass and drink. It is always available.

On our hiking pilgrimage through Israel, however, when the waves of heat regularly soared above 100 F, we paid attention to water! Our guide David repeatedly reminded us, “Fill your water bottles” before we set out to walk. And whenever we paused, he said, “Did you remember to drink?” Hiking up and down dry hills where only thistles and thorns flourished, climbing canyon walls where sand-colored stone reflected the sun’s burning heat into our faces, we drank, and then drank some more. Water was at the center of our experience, the underlying, unifying theme touching everything else that happened.

Water, I realized as I never had before, is life; it is sacred. While it can be destructive by its fierce presence or by its decimating absence, water is still sacred. Islamic tradition teaches that God created all creatures out of water. Some waters are sacred places of pilgrimage, like the Ganges River in India and the Jordan in Israel. Christian pilgrims come for baptism in the Jordan where Jesus was baptized. In these waters, people hope to experience forgiveness and a new beginning, a re-made life.

In Celtic Christianity, wells and springs are often sacred places for purification and healing. I visited St. Winifred’s Well in Wales a few years ago and dipped my hands in its water, open to its blessing while remembering Winifred. Jewish ritual bathing (mikveh) and the Muslim practice of washing before prayer both reflect our human need to bring our cleanest, purest selves into Divine presence. To be physically alive, we need water within. Water on our skin can help us be spiritually alive.

Israel’s parched landscape is marked by wadis, old dry riverbeds, and it is also marked by thin green lines deep within rocky canyons where water flows from hidden springs like a secret blessing. Scrambling down trails into the canyons, we found the streams. Sometimes we crossed a stream multiple times until we arrived at a small waterfall and a pool in which we were gladly refreshed. Or we waded down the green-bordered stream, grateful for the cooling flow against our legs on a searing hot day. We were thirsty for the touch of water.

In this Biblical land, I better understood water metaphors. I knew why the prophet Amos passionately declared, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream!” Our need today for justice and righteousness is as great as in Amos’ time, and we need Amos’ passion, too. Borrowing from Psalms and Isaiah, I wrote:

Holy water.
Dry wadis in a thirsty land
longing to be filled,
dry people under a hot sun
needing to drink;
the dry land longing for green pastures,
the dry people needing to dwell
beside still waters.

Holy water.
Immersed in the cold wet stream
that pours from above,
sweet pleasure for a searing day;
then emerging from the waterfall,
freshly baptized and alive,
blessed like a well-watered garden
like a spring whose waters never fail.

May we be attentive to the touch of water and to the water we drink. May we open to the Spirit through water’s blessing.

Hands and the Holy

Namaste, they said.

On my desk is a circle of polished black prayer beads. I brought them back from Nepal after trekking there with friends. Remembering Nepal, I especially recall the little children, and how they ran the steep Himalayan trails, easily passing us panting hikers. As they ran past, they brought their palms together at heart level and greeted us. Namaste.  We responded, holding our hands as they did. Namaste. I bow to the Holy within you.

I bring my hands together again in that movement and whisper namaste. How essential my hands are in opening me to the Holy! All faith traditions use hands in their practices. In the Jewish tradition, one touches a mezuzah on the doorpost, a reminder of the covenant with God. There’s the Christian gesture of the sign of the Cross, and, of course, the worldwide use of prayer beads to guide prayer.

Much as I talk with my hands in ordinary conversation, expressing gladness or pain, enthusiasm or doubt, my hands also participate in my conversation with the Divine. My prayer may be the open hands of “God, here I am,” the folded hands of childhood’s “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the clenched fists of “Help, God! I am in pain.” I express gratitude and remorse, awe and yearning in my prayer simply by using my hands.

Some of my friends are knitters who find the repetition of stitches centers their prayerful meditation. One person told me she washes dishes and prays for people in her life with each piece she washes. One plate; one friend. I remember the father who prayerfully lifted his children into God’s love as he folded each child’s clothing fresh from the dryer.

What other hand activities could open us to the Holy? Could texting or emailing become openings to the Holy? What if I began and ended these activities with a gesture expressing a desire to be loving and wise through my communication? We could create a new hand prayer by holding our hands quiet for a moment and offering the next email, the next text to God.

Planting my garden this spring has been prayerful. As my hands extracted each plant from its tiny pot and pressed it securely into its new home, I gave thanks. As I planted a row of cucumber seeds, as I lightly covered a row of beet seeds, I was more aware of the tiny holy miracle I touched.

The use of beads is a very familiar way of praying by hand. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims all use circles of beads on a string. Each religion has traditional prayers to repeat as one passes the beads through one’s hands, traditional words that express something of the heart of the faith tradition. Repeating the same phrase or sentence over and over again can engrain it within our hearts and renew our intention to be open to God. When our attention drifts away from the prayer, our hands can draw us back again.

I often use non-traditional words with beads. I pass my circle of prayer beads slowly through my hands as I name people and situations for which I am grateful. I hold each bead and give thanks, then pass to the next bead. One grandchild; one bead. At times, I focus on people and situations about which I feel great concern, naming my desire that there may be healing as beads pass through my hands.

Our hands are magnificent tools for prayer. May they continue to open us to the Holy.

Among the Bulbs

Returning home from a trip recently, I was delighted to discover that the annual miracle had happened once again. Springtime had arrived and daffodils were blooming! Their golden heads joyfully bowed and waved at me from all corners of my garden. I remembered how these cheerful flowers had taught me a lesson many years ago.

When my daughter Diana was in seventh grade, she needed a project for the science fair. After much discussion, she decided to explore what happens when daffodil bulbs are planted upside down. Would they still grow? And would they grow up?

With Dad’s help, she built long, narrow planting boxes, one side made of glass with a removable flap for observation. She carefully planted a lucky right-side up control group and an experimental group turned toes-side up. After a month, she ruthlessly created a second experimental group, turning some of the containers of the right-side up group up-side down after they’d already started to grow.

Then she observed them. While the lucky control group took off running, the others were uncertain. The bulbs planted up-side down paused to get their sense of direction clear before their growing tips curved around through the soil and headed toward the surface. Those unfortunate bulbs who were turned after they’d started to grow actually made a u-turn and plowed through the soil toward the surface, too.

How awesome is the force of a bulb, how strong and urgent the drive to grow, how amazing the sense of upness!

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote “the force that . . . drives the flower drives my green age.” Thomas was right. Like bulbs, we too have been created with a deep drive to thrive and grow. And, like Diana’s bulbs, we’re usually trying to grow in conditions far from ideal. Up-side down planting, harsh setbacks and tragedies happen to us, too. We may struggle through the darkness of our soil mix, searching for cues, looking for a compass. Not all Diana’s bulbs bloomed – even though the need to put forth leaf and flower was so powerful that a couple tried to bloom while they were still underground.

But we’re not bulbs. We have much more freedom than bulbs to shape our growing. Though up-side down planting and painful reversals are real and have lasting effects, we can make decisions that aid our flourishing.

I believe the Creator placed in us a deep desire to burst forth into the fullest flowering that we can as well as the capacity to make decisions that will help us. Sometimes that means even growing out of the container in which we’ve been planted. I believe the God of love is not a neutral observer doing a science experiment. Instead God is for us, longing for us to find our way and to reach toward the Light that can help us be the being we most truly are.

Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t include daffodils in his poem but he does say it well:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; . . .
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells:
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

When we’re struggling in the darkness, it can be hard to respond to Hopkins’ vision. But holding on to its truth may encourage us as we find a way to the surface, as we become “that being [that] indoors each one dwells.”

May we be awakened to the deep inner desire to bloom. May the Light illumine our way as we discover the flowering that is ours.

Diana’s planting boxes

Holding Lightly

My granddaughters and I went shopping for new school shoes recently. As we wandered down the aisles searching for just the right pair, I came to a halt before this sign:


Wow! What a beautifully concise expression of the consumerist progression in our culture. I love it, I want it, and finally I really need it! How easy it is to slide from one stage to the next. And then, buying it, we are satisfied — or not.

In stark contrast are teachings from the great religious traditions of the world. Most familiar to me are Jesus’ words, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. And a bit later, Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. (Matt. 6 NIV)

And here is the quandary. Jesus’ teachings may work well for an itinerant preacher who walks the countryside with only the clothes on his back and has followers who provide food but what about me?

I live in a material world and have many material possessions. I own a house; it has furnishings. I travel, and bring home souvenirs. My closet is filled with clothes, my attic with family mementos and Christmas decorations, my basement with garden tools, an old sofa or two, and my husband’s motorcycle. How should I live with these things? How much is too much? How do I decide?

Sometimes the quantity of material objects that fills the space around us is burdensome, and we know it is time to de-clutter. Perhaps it’s time to downsize. There are books and guides to help us, and we freely donate useful objects to appropriate non-profits.

But many times we just want to live more cleanly and simply in relationship with our possessions and we don’t know how to do it. Once I tried writing a material autobiography, sharing my story through significant material objects. I didn’t get very far but I did consider why I treasured them. I remembered William Morris’ dictum to possess only those things that we “know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And I added another category: things that tell an important story.

These guidelines help us see our possessions and honor them for the role they play but they don’t help us negotiate our day-to-day relationship with them. They can still feel burdensome.

The challenge, I believe, is to appreciate the things we have without clutching them, to hold them lightly rather than tightly. The only difference between lightly and tightly is a small horizontal line – and a basic orientation to the material world.

Holding lightly does not mean we value our material things less but it means we carry a willingness to release them, recognizing they are ours only for a time. Perhaps they will be given to another, perhaps they will wear out. Perhaps we will be the ones worn out, and the release will be an involuntary release at the end of our lives. Possessing our things while being willing to let them go transforms the relationship.

I know a woman who decided to give away one thing she owned each day in Lent. Forty days, forty releases. She not only released some possessions, but she learned to hold everything more lightly. Holding lightly and releasing was more than an abstract idea for her. It was a powerful spiritual practice that created more space for God in her life.

I would like to replace the shoe store sign with another:


Fianna’s Witness: Two Pieces of Toast

two pieces of toast and a cup of milk

I’m holding a letter Fianna wrote over a century ago. The year was 1915 and she wrote from a mountaintop tuberculosis sanatorium. Fianna was a gentle young mother, dressed plainly and wearing a prayer covering on her head as was the custom for women in her church. She’d never been so far from her rural Pennsylvania home before. She was lonely and homesick, and very sick.

At that time there was no cure for tuberculosis. Large sanatoriums isolated the victims of this frightening disease and provided ineffectual treatment for them. The sanatorium dormitories were filled with patients, many from crowded cities with varied languages, faith traditions, and ways of living.

Fianna had her Bible and her hope for healing and her faith in prayer. In the midst of all the strangeness, she was determined to follow Christ’s teachings in this hard, strange place. But it was not always clear how best to do that. Fianna wrote:

Yesterday morning while taking my milk I said to my roommate “I wish I had a piece of toast to eat with this.”  Before I knew it she went out in the kitchen and stole two pieces of toast with butter and brought  them to me.
Well I didn’t know what to do.  My conscience told me it was wrong to eat it as she had stolen it and I knew I would offend her by not taking it.
After a while I said “I couldn’t do it.”  She asked why. I said my conscience won’t let me.
She started to scold me, called me a foolish thing, etc.
I left her talk but resolved in my heart not to take it.
After she had cooled down,  I said,  “Maybe the Lord will let me get well on my conscience and if I don’t have so much in my stomach.”
After a while she said “Of course it’s stealing.”
It was a little thing but I am sure that toast would have been very hard to digest had I taken it.   There are so many chances to let your light shine in a place like this.

Fianna wanted to follow what she knew was right. But she also wanted to be a good roommate. I wonder what I would have done. Would I persuade myself it was so small it didn’t really matter?

It’s one challenge to know what is right to do. It’s another challenge to discern how to do it with both integrity and kindness. Bearing witness in small neighborly situations can sometimes seem harder than boldly bearing witness in the larger world.

May we be quiet enough to attend to the Spirit, the Guide that will show us if we are to eat the toast–or not. May our neighborly witnessing rise from our desire to be both truthful and kind.

Although Fianna was my grandmother, I never met her and I only have her letters. She died a few months after she wrote this. Her witness still lives on.

Evening Questions

In these gray January days, nightfall comes early. I welcome evening darkness that, as Longfellow wrote, “falls from the wings of night.” Perhaps evening comes with a flurry of activity as dinner is prepared, children are minded or emails answered. Perhaps the end of the day brings a quieter pace. Winter evenings encourage me to light a candle that doubles itself against the windowpane and gives gentle light for evening questions.

Of course these questions aren’t exclusively for evenings. However the spiritual practice of prayerful reflection on the day fits well as the day draws to an end. Evening questions are the ancient prayer of examen, an examination of the day. Praying the examen invites us to thoughtful, Spirit-filled reflection, to gratitude and love.

Evening Questions: How did I give love today?  How did I receive love today?

Love is at the heart of the spiritual journey. When I open my heart and truly listen to another, feel the miracle of another’s strength amid human brokenness, my loving deepens. And when I receive this gift of being heard and seen, love grows, too. Love is present when I forgive—and am forgiven. I believe noticing love’s presence in the large and small moments of this day prepares me to love tomorrow.

Today I gave love to my cat who slept on my lap and awkwardly shared the space with my laptop. I gave love to my daughter who called grieving when she heard Mary Oliver had died. My sister-in-law loved me with words of encouragement as I anticipated leading a retreat while dealing with a sinus infection….and a snowstorm. Love came through when my husband texted me a heart.

More Evening Questions: What filled me with life today?  What drained me today?

Noticing the activities, thoughts and feelings that fill us with energy and life (and those that drain us) help us to know ourselves better. When I pay attention to the patterns of what I am passionate about and what is heavy and burdensome, I learn more about who I am now, and am guided in decisions for tomorrow.

This was a day of quiet solitude, and I realized how solitude is life-giving for me. A troubling email reminded me of a challenging relationship, and I immediately felt my energy drain. I reflect on how I’ve clutched this hurt, and I wonder how I’m led to forgive and be forgiven.

Another evening question:  How have I known God’s presence today?

It is through God’s loving presence that we reflect on the day. Held in God’s love, we remember the day, and then release it as we settle to rest.