A Love Story: Fianna and Samuel

Fianna and Samuel were my grandparents, and I’ve inherited a boxful of letters that tell their love story. It’s a simple story from a century ago, but their joy and their sorrow is timeless, a tale of love and faith in the midst of pain, a tale for today.

Their romance began in college. There they saw each other daily in classes and clubs, at chapel and in the dining room. She was slender and graceful with a quick smile, and he was handsome with dark curly hair. With similar family backgrounds, a similar sense of fun, and a shared religious commitment, they were well-matched. Samuel reflected later how their union was “the result of much prayer and careful thinking.

Soon after Samuel finished college, they married and began their life together. A year later a baby boy arrived, and, before long, he had a little sister. Samuel worked in a bank and farmed while Fianna cared for the children and managed home, garden, and chickens. Contentment and happiness filled their home.

Then came the hard times. Fianna became mysteriously ill. She coughed a lot, had a persistent fever, and lacked energy to care for the children or do her work. The doctor called it pleurisy and advised rest, but she didn’t improve. Eventually they consulted another physician and discovered the truth.

Fianna’s trouble was one of the world’s oldest killers: tuberculosis. In the early 1900’s there was no cure or effective treatment. A few people survived though, and that kept hope alive for others. (Even with today’s antibiotics, this disease yearly kills a million and a half.)

Fianna and Samuel decided that she’d go to White Haven Tuberculosis Sanatorium, an isolated mountain facility far from their home. There, with rest and a special diet, she might have a chance. The regimen there (sleeping on the balcony in the snow! raw eggs and milk!) and the life among strangers was hard for Fianna. She remained cheerful, but she longed for her family. For Samuel, life at home without his beloved was painfully lonely.

Samuel’s first visit was at Christmastime. He brought gifts, their little son, and all his love. What joy it was to be together again! Although Samuel thought Fianna looked better, the doctors were not encouraging. Filled with both fear and hope, Samuel turned to prayer. “I walked out one day and back of the Sanatorium I found a path leading to the top of the mountain which overlooks the highest hills far and wide. When I came to the top, the occasion and quietude moved me to kneel on the pure snow and pray earnestly for the recovery of her who brought so much sunshine in my life. What more can I do than to pray, Lord I believe help thou mine unbelief.

Fianna remained at the Sanatorium for three months, but her health steadily declined. Finally, the doctors told Samuel she would not recover. They encouraged him to take her home where she could be cared for by her family and surrounded by a community that knew and loved her.

Together Samuel and Fianna prepared for the long separation. They discussed how Samuel’s life would unfold without her. “She took much interest in my and the children’s future.”

Fianna’s gentle gratitude for the care she received and Samuel’s tender steadiness as he cared for her touched those around them. After a house call one day, her family doctor spoke about “her cheerful spirit” that continued in the midst of pain. Fianna’s sister wrote that “a day before she died, she said to me, “If there is an ideal home ours was one.

Fianna’s last words were to Samuel. “I am going to my beautiful heavenly home.” He responded that he and the children would also come sometime, and Fianna whispered, “I will wait for you inside the gates.

In The Prophet, poet Kahil Gibran wrote, “Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.” May we, like Fianna and Samuel, face our grief and pain with courage and steadfastness, recognizing such times are woven into the tapestry of our lives as surely as is joy. May we trust, as Samuel wrote, “our God who can see both the sunshine and the shadows.”

NOTE: Moved by the joy and sorrow I found in my grandparents’ letters, I have written their story into a book, Fianna’s Story. It is available from Masthof Press or through Amazon. Click here to learn about it.

Lives That Are Linked

Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind. Henri-Frederic Ariel

Fifty years ago I was fresh out of college and learning to teach English to rooms full of ninth graders. My challenge was to interest almost 150 teenagers in books and reading, to teach them spelling and grammar, and how to write an essay. Some students were enthusiastic, especially when we borrowed play swords and acted out famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Others, I think, simply waited for the bell to ring.

I’ve forgotten most of the faces, but a few rise before me now, and I can even remember where they sat. Mary, for example, sat in the first row on the right. She dressed plainly and wore her dark hair braided and pinned on her head. A Japanese American, she was one of the few students with non-European ancestry. I remember Mary’s smile and friendliness, and how she sometimes hung out in my classroom after school had ended. She was an excellent writer and responded thoughtfully during class.

I moved away after a couple years and left my teaching job. I never lost Mary though. Intermittently through the years, we’ve been in touch. I met with her when she was editing a magazine. Then I heard she had moved west and was passionately engaged in anti-war activism through art and poetry. She hosted music programs on public radio and found her home in Albuquerque’s art world. I read the poems she posted on her website. Once she told me about helping lost street kids rebuild their lives. Reclaiming her Japanese heritage, Mary continued to develop her strong sense of self and her calling to poetry.

And then, almost ten years ago, Mary asked if she could dedicate her first published book of poetry to me. Yes! What an honor! When the book arrived, I opened it eagerly. Under my name was written “my ninth grade English teacher who saved my life.” I did what??

Turning to Mary for an answer, I learned of the other side of her ninth grade life. Behind the gifted writing and her ready smile lay a home life of religious fundamentalism and white supremacy, a place of cruel abuse from which she escaped as soon as she could. I had seen the surface and never guessed what lay beneath. How did I save her life when I was just figuring out how to live my own?

Affirming her gift for writing, enjoying her conversation after class, sending her a postcard from England–these were small things, not life-saving actions. But Mary recounted another small event, one that I don’t remember. Once she was hanging out in my room after school when a couple of the big guys came swaggering in to see me. As she was leaving, they made a disparaging joke about her. Mary remembers me fiercely telling them: You just wait. Mary is the kind of person who is going to change the world!

I wish I remembered saying that, but it doesn’t matter. The only person who needed to remember was Mary, and she did. Her life has been about changing the world, using her gifts and her energy, her compassion and her wisdom to make the world better.

Mary is my teacher now. What has she taught me? I’ve learned that our lives are profoundly linked to others, and the ripples from our small actions and words extend further than we would ever expect. We are never a neutral presence in another’s life. We can do harm, even through ignoring another. (Whose raised hand gets recognized in the classroom?) Or we can be attentive and experience the other as an equal, as another child of God. We may not always save a life, but we always have an influence.

Mary has taught me that gratitude travels two ways. I may have saved Mary’s life through means I will never understand, but Mary has deeply blessed my life by inviting me to participate in hers. In the end, we have both given, and we have both received.

Last week I heard from Mary again. She has been named Poet Laureate for the city of Albuquerque, and she invited me to watch the online ceremony. I watched, I remembered, and I filled with gratitude.

       from I am a poet
i am a poet to reclaim humanity from the ravages of war
not to count the casualties but to heal them

i am a poet and my task is immense
i cannot do it alone
but an army of poets can kiss the world awake
                 Mary Oishi
       from you are here
you should have died
you should have died so many times
i cannot count them all
you should have died but

here you are
still here
still here
still dancing.
                ---Mary Oishi

Justice and Love

Justice is what love looks like in public. Writer Cornel West’s words have been haunting me the last few weeks.

One of my frequent prayers is “God, may I be a channel of your love today.” Sometimes it’s more of a cry for help. “God, I need your loving wisdom to guide me to love today. I can’t do it on my own.” This prayer rises from the heart of my faith and theology: God is a God of love, and I believe actions of loving-kindness are the most important thing we do. Whether through simple friendliness to those I pass on the street, reaching out to someone in need, or giving patient attention in difficult situations, I want to honor others as beloved of God.

My prayer to be a channel for love has focused on individuals I interact with, but Cornel West’s words challenge me to a larger understanding.

Injustices happen to individuals, but injustice categorizes groups of people by such things as skin color, place of birth, sexual orientation. A person is no longer an individual but a category. When we stand for justice, we are not blind to our varied humanity, but we see and honor the uniqueness of each person. We want respect, fair treatment, a life free of fear for all people, regardless of categories. Love, wearing its public face, pours its energy into creating that reality.

My prayer to be a channel of God’s love has taken on new meaning as the world once again confronts embedded racism. The work against the sin of racism must involve me–if I am to be a channel of God’s love. Justice is what love looks like in public. I need to acknowledge the public, pervasive wrong of how our world has created categories of people who are automatically seen as less than. I need to help change this.

As a white, middle class woman, my life has not been limited by racial prejudice and injustice. I have not needed that extra alertness to danger for myself or my family as a basic life skill. If I decide on a road trip with my family this summer, I don’t need to plot a route with safety in mind. I have never been trailed by a suspicious security person as I shopped. As my white husband hikes the country roads near our house in his t-shirt and old backpack, his presence has never been questioned. Racism wears a variety of guises, both subtle and brutal, but I have not been required to pay attention to them simply in order to live.

If I want to be a public face of love, I must look at myself and learn how living in a world where racism flourishes has influenced me. I must be willing to pay attention. When my 13-year-old granddaughter sent me a link to her school project on environmental racism, she taught me. Last week I researched “redlining” and found an old map online that showed the official redlining of my town of Lancaster. More learning.

If I want to be a public face of love, I must never look away from the whole reality of other lives. When I see injustice, I must be willing to speak out and to bear witness in whatever way I can. I must be willing to do what is mine to do. I want to be a channel of God’s love through being for justice. How will you join me?

Suggestions for learning and doing appear on Pendle Hill Quaker Retreat Center’s website: https://pendlehill.org/support/news-and-notes/suggested-readings-on-understanding-and-addressing-racism-and-white-supremacy/#action and in this list: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234.

Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream. (Amos 4:24)

Days of Uncertainty

In the midst of these days of uncertainty, I have turned to things that remain constant. I bake, knowing I can depend on yeast to create a well-risen, delicious loaf of bread. I plant seeds in my garden that will grow into lettuce and beans and cucumbers. The turn of the seasons is unchanging, and it is springtime. On my ancient sewing machine where I made children’s clothing many years ago, I make masks for my family. Sewing is the same as always though I’ve never sewn masks before.

Engaging in small certainties brings me comfort. My family has been fortunate in many ways. We continue to have work. We have known some who have been ill or died, but we have lived in good health. I know this could change at any time.

The reality of uncertainty, of not knowing what lies ahead, has touched us all, and created much anxiety and fear. We have lived in the illusion of certainty, the security of believing that we knew what tomorrow would bring. I never fully appreciated that blessing. Now I realize that I know less than ever before. Now I recognize certainty was always an illusion even when I trusted it.

Then I could say, “Of course I’ll meet with my book group on Mondays and my writing group on Tuesdays. Of course we’ll take a trip somewhere this summer. We want to visit our family in Seattle, and perhaps plan a vacation to my beloved England.” Then I could say, “Of course my worshipping community gathers together at 10:00 on Sunday mornings.” Then I could say, “I’ll be glad to meet with you for spiritual direction. My little office is on Columbia Ave.”

Now what do I know? Not much. The public discussion is focused on opening up, but no one really knows what we’re opening into–or how to do it well. While some make predictions confidently, the forecasts show little agreement. How do we live with such uncertainty? How do we live with the insecurity of such unknowing?

It’s natural to want to see further ahead. There is wisdom in planning for the future, but if we focus too much on peering through the fog of confusion, we may miss the certainties that we have. We may miss living fully alive now.

I remember Quaker George Fox’s words from the 17th century: Look not back, nor too forward. . . .For you have no time but this present time. All I have is this present time. To look not too forward means I have to accept living with a lot of uncertainty. I have to find a stable footing within the world’s instability.

A friend said recently, “So how do I live the rest of my life–COVID and all?” That’s the big question. We begin living the rest of our lives here and now in the middle of all the confusion and uncertainty. Now is the only certainty we have.

Wendell Berry wrote that It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. Real work, real living, he says, begins with not knowing. This is where we are, confused and uncertain, so let us begin.

What do I know now? I know that seeds grow into fruit, that yeast expands into bread. I know that online visits with those I love encourage all of us even if we can’t hug. I know that laughter is healing, and so are tears. Perhaps my real work is planting seeds, baking bread, and loving my neighbors. Perhaps my real living is walking with others on the path of unknowing amid the angst of uncertainty.

This is our now. May we find gratitude and love on this path. May the Spirit guide us in our real work, the work of living fully alive in this present time.

Anchored in Place with Julian

As we enter the second month of Pennsylvania’s official shut down, my thoughts have turned to a woman who lived in England a long time ago. The words of Julian of Norwich have often spoken to me, and I believe her life and wisdom have a special message for us today. This is her story.

Julian was an anchoress, a manner of living quite foreign in our century. She literally anchored in one place and was ceremoniously walled-up within one or two rooms. She desired to give herself entirely to God and a life of prayer, and this was her way. While this extreme seclusion was unusual even in the 1300’s, she was not unique. The room of the anchoress (or anchorite) always attached to a church with a window through which one could gaze on the altar and join in worship. An exterior window opened to the street so people could come to receive guidance. A servant attended to her physical needs, and often there was a cat for company – and catching mice.

Julian and her cat

Julian lived secluded but she was not truly separated from the violent 14th century world outside her window. Norwich was a major seaport, and Julian’s church sat on a main street. She lived during a time of ongoing war, appropriately named the Hundred Years War. During her years as an anchoress, the bubonic plague repeatedly swept through her city. Starvation was not unknown, and fierce persecution of religious dissenters sometimes concluded with a burning.

I imagine Julian’s prayers interrupted by the rattle of corpse carts past her window, by the marching of soldiers, by the wailing of the bereaved. I imagine Julian was often called to the window when someone came in search of her wisdom and comfort. Julian lived in the space between two windows, between the suffering world and the holy space of the sanctuary. Anchored in that place, grounded deeply in God, she gave herself as a channel for God’s love in times of plague, starvation, and war.

What did she offer those who came to her window in such times? We know some of what she offered because Julian passed on her experience and understandings through Showings, the first book in England written by a woman. She wrote

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’

Yes, Julian wrote, you will be in pain, exhausted from the storms that rage and toss you in their midst. But, in the end, you will not be overcome.

Perhaps the most famous Julian quotation is All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. These have always been difficult words for me. How can she say “all shall be well” when it clearly isn’t, when pandemic, economic collapse, and war, like fierce storms, rage around us? It wasn’t “well” in her century, and it’s not “well” in ours! But Julian told a story for times like ours:

God showed me in my palm a little thing, round as a ball, about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: “What can this be?” And I was answered: “It is everything that is created.” I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothingness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It endures and always will, because God loves it; and in this way, everything has its being by the love of God.”

In this little thing I saw three properties.
The first is that God made it,
the second is that God loves it,
the third is that God preserves it.

Today, when it seems our world could “suddenly disintegrate into nothingness,” Julian invites us to deeper intimacy with God, or, as she described it, being one-ed to God. Anchored in the space between all that is Holy and a world of pain and fear, Julian calls us to anchor more deeply. In some mysterious way we don’t need to understand, God is still creating, loving, preserving. The power of Love is still greater than the power of disintegration.

May this time of sheltering in place also shelter and anchor us within God. May we, trusting the mystery, echo all shall be well.

Spiritual Practice in a Time of Pandemic

Today I emailed a friend and cancelled our lunch. Yesterday I called those who meet with me for spiritual direction and offered Skype or Zoom conversations. The news changes hourly, and I check it at least that often. I’m concerned about those I love who work in health care. I’m concerned about those I love who are in the older adult, high-risk category, and then I’m shocked to remember that “older adult” includes me, too.

In the midst of uncertainty and fear, we need each other more than ever, but we need to remain six feet apart. We want to actively combat the threat, but we are asked to remain passively at home. We don’t know what normal means any more. Normal has been spinning so fast that we’re dizzy and unbalanced. COVID-19 has curtailed our usual lives, and we wonder if we’ll ever get them back again. Of course we’re confused and panicky and afraid.

We need a strong foundation to live through a time when so much is unknown and uncertain. We need to be grounded more deeply in the One in whom “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul wrote. (Acts 17)

Can this time of pandemic bring an opening, an invitation, instead of just a curtailment? There’s a challenge here to deepen spiritually, to live from an enlargement of love and compassion rather than an enlargement of fear. Let us take up the challenge.

We need spiritual practices for a time of pandemic, practices to strengthen our grounding in God on this journey. Here are some possibilities:

1. Practice gratitude. I have found no better disinfectant for fear than a steady application of gratitude. Pausing to reflect on what I am thankful for, especially when I write it down, moves my spirit into an entirely different space. I am grateful for medical professionals, the arrival of spring flowers, money to pay the bills, my purring cat, my refrigerator, the beauty of the sunrise. The list goes on.

2. Pause and breathe deeply every three hours, becoming awake to the present moment. (A phone chime can provide a timely reminder.) Notice something of beauty. If possible, step outdoors and walk around, attending to the miracles of the natural world. Be aware of messages coming from body and senses. Here, now, this moment of this day, I am alive.

3. Select a picture or painting, a sacred writing, or a piece of music that will open your spirit to God. Gaze quietly at the image, slowly read the words, listen to the music. Allow it to sink deep within and refresh your spirit through a time of meditation and prayer. Is there an invitation in the picture, the writing, or the music for living in this time?

4. Create a prayerful ritual through movement. Our bodies can offer the prayer of our hearts, can literally in-corporate our spirit’s yearning. Going for a run or a walk can be a spiritual practice. Dance can be a prayer. Our hands can express our prayer through their position or movements. Prayer beads can guide our devotion, our intercession, and our gratitude. My friend washed dishes as he prayed; each spoon, fork, or plate representing someone held into God’s love. What wisdom for these days rises through my body?

5. Touch others with love and compassion daily. This is the essential practice. Even when we self-isolate or socially distance ourselves, we still need to connect. Make use of text, email, or Skype/Zoom/Facetime, and also remember those who need a phone call or a written note. I pledge to touch with love at least five people beyond my home every day. Whom will I reach out to and touch with my heart today?

6. Close the day with these questions for reflection: Where did I receive love today? Where did I give love today?

I received love today from my daughter whose concern for me kept her from visiting, from those in my Quaker Meeting who are organizing online meeting for worship, from my friend who suggested a visit through Zoom with a cup of tea. I gave love today with a letter to my immune-compromised sister-in-law, with a care package to my homebound Seattle granddaughters (cookies, books, and a jigsaw puzzle), with a phone call to check on a friend.

May we grow more steadily grounded in God in the midst of the frightening realities of this time. May we be rooted ever more deeply in the Spirit of Love.

Puddleglum’s Hope

Many of us are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ well-loved books about Narnia, the country where Aslan the Lion rules, and people and speaking animals live together peacefully. I wonder, however, how many remember the Narnian named Puddleglum. He appears in only one book, but he offers us an important message.

This is the story. In The Silver Chair, two children visiting Narnia seek for a lost Prince who was captured by a Witch and imprisoned in a dark underground world. Puddleglum is a truly glum character, always expecting the worst, but he faithfully supports the children on this quest.

Eventually the seekers find the Prince, free him, and prepare to journey out of the underground world when the Witch suddenly shows up. She pretends to be puzzled by their desire to leave the underworld and travel to Narnia. The children and Puddleglum try to explain the wonders of Narnia and the majesty of Aslan the Lion, but she insists that her underground world is the only world. Using her magic, she tosses a mysterious powder into the fire, and the air fills with a sweet scent. As they breathe it, the children begin to fall under her spell and repeat after her “there is no Sun, there is no Aslan.” But Puddleglum resists! Stamping out the fire with his leathery feet, he says to the Witch:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . .We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Puddleglum’s words, I believe, express the essence of hope. He’s not certain any more that Narnia exists, but he decides to live as though it does and try to return to Aslan’s country. They do find their way back to Narnia eventually, but when they start, they have only the hope to guide them.

Hope is not wishful thinking. (I hope I get X for my birthday; I hope it snows–or doesn’t snow.) Hope is not optimism or expectation that things will work out. Hope is stronger than all that. It’s a decision for how to live.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

Living in hope means we acknowledge the present reality, but we put our energy toward something more. As my houseplants lean toward light on a gray winter day, so I lean into my hope. I put my energy into the possibility that the deepest human desire is to live in peace and love with each other, and that love can outstare fear. I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope.

If we live in hope, it shapes our life’s activities. I have friends who pour their energy and time into building more understanding between peoples, into creating bridges in a divided world. Their hope shapes their lives. What is your hope? How does it shape your life?

Hope lives in the gap between a dismissive “there’s no problem here; it will all work out” and the despairing or cynical “it’s beyond saving.” This is a hard place to live, and we can easily drift away in either direction. We need companions if we are to remain in that sacred place of hope. I choose to walk with Puddleglum and hold his hand. I invite you to join us.

. . . those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; . . . (Isa. 40:31a)

Coming Together: An Invitation

Just over a year ago, I took a deep breath and clicked “publish,” thus sending out my first Garden of the Spirit reflection. I called it Advent Adventure, a fitting title with which to enter the world of posting!

And this last year has been an adventure. Apprehension and anticipation are both part of adventure, and I’ve experienced them in full. I still don’t click “publish” with ease; it still takes a deep breath, but I do click.

My intentions for this writing are the same as when I began. I hoped to share experiences of the Spirit, trusting that my stories would resonate with you, and help you to honor your experience of the Spirit. I’ve written about spiritual practices that help me be aware of God’s presence in my life, implicitly inviting you to join me in the practice.

I receive from you, too. Every time I’ve sent out a monthly reflection from Garden of the Spirit, I have heard from readers, telling how my story reflected their experiences, and sharing their openings to the Spirit. I have learned that my experience does resonate with others. Our spiritual paths are interwoven, touching each other, even while each is unique. Often we don’t know how much we are together. We feel alone.

A pastor friend said to me yesterday, “I feel alone even when I’m not alone.” We are not alone on this journey, but it can seem very lonely. This felt aloneness need not be overwhelming, however, when we join with others.

In Will and Spirit, Gerald May, spiritual director and psychiatrist, wrote:

The spiritual journey seems lonely. . . .There is a dimension of delicate pain in this, but even in our aloneness, we are together for we each have it. At the deepest level of our hearts we are all aching, for each other and for the same eternally loving one who calls us. It would be well, I think, if we could acknowledge this more often to one another.

I have been a spiritual director for over two decades, and a therapist and listener to others for much longer. I’ve seen repeatedly how much our human journeys are similar, even though the details are unique. And I’ve noticed how much we want to share our experiences of the Spirit.

At my Quaker Meeting, we occasionally offer a program called “My Spiritual Journey.” This is simply one person telling of experiences that shaped their relationship with God, both the rocky times and the fulfilling times. It is always one of the best attended events of the year. As May wrote, “at the deepest level of our hearts, . . .we are all aching” for such sharing.

I called this blog post “An Invitation,” and here’s the invitation! Two invitations actually.

With this post I have opened the “comments” section of the blog. I invite you to respond to my Garden of the Spirit reflections by sharing your insights with other readers through “comments.” (I will still respond to notes from those who want to write just to me; simply hit “reply” on email.)

We need companions on the spiritual journey. I hope you will share your experiences of the Sacred, your uncertainties and your discoveries, with others through my blog or through face-to-face friendships.

Here’s my second invitation. Begin the adventure of this new year by reaching out to someone who is not already close to you. Is there someone whom you see regularly but don’t really know? Or someone who needs an outstretched hand – and you haven’t yet offered yours? Give a thank you to someone, embrace someone, visit someone, forgive someone, reach across boundaries.

In Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:

What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. . . .encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get, in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing, which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. . .

This year may we be more open to truly see and treasure each other, to honor our universal human journey, and our journey with God.

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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.

Harvesting

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.