My priorities as I adjust to a new reality

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. The annual exercise helps me stay focused so various types of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters.

This birthday, however, found me in a “dark night of the soul” kind of mood – trying to make sense of and recuperate from a period of upheaval and loss that started even before the pandemic.

In 2019, I was hospitalized three times – once in ICU. Meanwhile, my mother was placed in hospice care in the spring and passed away in the fall. I remember actually looking forward to 2020, which I assumed couldn’t possibly be as much of a ring-tailed monster as 2019 …

COVID-19 has upended our lives in ways I’m just now beginning to completely absorb. Pete was hospitalized twice – for a week in 2020 and then for two very scary weeks in 2021. I’ve lost what feels like an unbearably long string of loved ones from various causes – at least a dozen family members and close friends, a much-admired mentor, my spiritual director, and even one of my beloved cats.

As the endless pandemic rages on in our community, I’ve struggled to establish new routines and ward off exhaustion and depression. I’m ready to turn a corner!!

So this year, I devoted my birthday weekend to prayer and reflection – sort of a personal retreat. Only instead of isolating myself in the house, I spent as much time as possible outdoors, including a trip to Jubilee Farm, where I walked their prayer labyrinth for the first time.

I’ve decided the overall priorities I identified in previous years are still important to me, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

For each priority, I’ve set a long-term goal, evaluated my progress for the past year, and created an intention for the coming year. 

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress/changes this past year: In my grief and anger at God over the loss of so many loved ones, I allowed my daily meditation sessions to go by the wayside for several months. Pete and I did make progress in other areas, however. After a year’s hiatus following the death of our previous spiritual director, we began working with someone new. We’ve also spent more time outdoors – mostly in our backyard and walking around the neighborhood – where nature’s majesty reassures me of God’s continued presence.

Intention for the coming year: I want to resume the meditation sessions that have been a vital part of my daily routine for more than a quarter century. I’m also working with my new spiritual director to address my grief issues and find a way to move forward from the disruption wreaked by the pandemic.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress/changes this past year: I must admit my healthy eating plan flew out the window for much of the year, and by spring, my cholesterol had gotten sky high again. During the height of the pandemic, especially before the vaccine became available to us, I was skimping on all but emergency medical care. This past year I was fortunately able to resume routine dental and eye care and regular visits with my primary care provider, and I completed a round of physical therapy for chronic pain issues.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I seriously need to get back on track with my healthy eating plan. And keep going on those walks with Pete.

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress/changes this past year: During the spring and summer, we finally got to visit face-to-face with family and friends for the first time in a couple of years – outdoors and mostly in our backyard. We’ve also continued to get together via Zoom and FaceTime.

Intention for the coming year: More and more, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m not always going to have my loved ones with me. Hopefully we’ll be able to do more in-person gatherings, especially outdoor activities. But now that we’ve learned the technology, I’d like to continue the Zoom and FaceTime visits as well. With family and close friends scattered all over the U.S. and in three different countries, staying connected was a challenge even before the pandemic. Why limit visits with far-away loved ones to once every five or ten years?

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and our friends.

Progress/changes this past year:  We had extensive landscaping work done in the spring and I planted lots of new native perennials. I’ve found gardening to be especially therapeutic, and the yard is looking beautiful! The inside of the house stays mostly presentable after I deep-cleaned it from attic to basement last year just before my birthday.

Intention for the coming year: Now that our house and yard are looking spiffy, the trick will be keeping them that way. I would like to commit to one hour each weekday for maintenance cleaning. I want to continue adding native plants to our flower beds and turn the yard into one big pollinator paradise. And hang some more pictures on our walls.

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress/changes this past year: I kept up with my blog and got some more book excerpts written. Writing and photography have also turned out to be therapeutic. Doing blog posts every other week is working out well. I post often enough to keep readers engaged, but spread out the posts enough so I don’t feel pressured.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I want to re-design my blog a bit to make it more user-friendly, and start working on an overall book outline, now that I have several excerpts written and have a better idea of where I want to go with the book.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress/changes this past year: At this point, Pete and i have definitely gotten re-involved in the community despite COVID. We began facilitating “Sundays@6” – an adult faith formation group at our church conducted via Zoom – which has proven to be quite successful. I continued to serve on our congregation’s community service committee and have committed to helping keep their micro food pantry stocked. We became Dominican Associates (who assist, among other things, with the Dominican Sisters’ social justice activities) and we plan to get involved in their anti-racism and environmental efforts.

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue these activities. I’m content to maintain the “status quo” here, since it’s important that I not allow my schedule to get overloaded the way it constantly was prior to the pandemic.

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate clutter and backlog tasks that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress/changes this past year: Pete and I finally set up a donor-advised fund with our local community foundation. The fund, created in honor of our parents, will make small grants to local charitable organizations and provide scholarships for needy/underserved students at our local community college. We’d been talking about doing this for years, so I’m pleased.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit to completing a couple more backlog tasks I listed as goals for last year. The first one: Getting together with Thrivent Financial to help us find some socially responsible investment opportunities. The second one: Getting solar panels on our roof. Let’s see if I can actually get them done this coming year!

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress/changes this past year: To be honest, I haven’t felt a lot of serenity in quite some time. I’ve been discussing my grieving process with my spiritual director, and she’s encouraged me to take whatever time I need to mourn my losses. I’ve discovered it is possible to feel gratitude and grief simultaneously – I certainly feel gratitude for the lives of the loved ones I’ve lost, which is one reason the grief is so strong! Pete and I are finally taking walks. We need to keep this up. 

Intention for the coming year: My spiritual director has suggested doing something to honor my lost loved ones. Pete and I have established the above-mentioned donor-advised fund with our local community foundation in honor of our parents. I planted a Rose of Sharon tree in memory of Little Oley Cat and scattered his ashes under it. I want to find ways to honor those others whose lives I’m grateful for as well, including those I’m lucky enough to still have with me. I’ve also started to experience some spiritual healing through gardening and taking walks with Pete.

As much as anything in the coming year, I’ve decided I need healing and hope. Fortunately, I have a wonderful new spiritual director and some great support from my family, friends and spiritual community to help me on this journey. For this, I am grateful.

I also have a favorite prayer I can recite whenever the need arises:

Amen.

A new commitment

Retirement had already represented a major transition. Now that my husband and I no longer punched a time clock, we had entered a new chapter of our lives and – as part of my spiritual direction journey – I had started asking myself a serious question: “What should this next chapter look like?”

Then COVID-19 upended our lives even more. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, Pete and I were beginning to feel like characters in the movie Groundhog Day – living the same day again and again … and again. Last fall, a scary hospital experience convinced both of us: “Groundhog Day is over!” Time to turn the calendar to a new day, we decided.

So, we embarked on something quite new and different: We began the formation process to join the Associates Program for the Dominican Sisters in our community.

Dominican Associates are people who embrace the Dominican traditions of prayer, study, community and ministry. Associates undertake individual volunteer ministries in their own churches/parishes and communities. They may also join the Sisters on committees and boards, work side-by-side with the Sisters in their ministries, or provide logistical support for the Sisters’ public events. 

As the Dominican Sisters’ website (link HERE) says – and I just love this: Associates “respond to God’s call to share the Gospel by preaching it through the witness of their lives.”

Pete and I had long admired the Dominican Sisters. During our 20-plus years of working for human service agencies (for me) and teaching at the local Catholic university (for Pete), we saw up close the many valuable contributions the Sisters made to our community (mentoring and helping not-for-profit organizations by serving as board members or in other volunteer capacities) and in other parts of the world (working with the Christian community in Iraq and Kurdistan).

Over the years, we also got to know some of the Sisters very well personally. One Sister in particular was a wonderful mentor to me professionally during my career in human services, coaching me on everything from how to manage a staff to locating possible funding sources for the agencies where I worked. We did lunch together often and she remains a personal friend. Two other Sisters have provided spiritual direction for Pete and me.  

When we learned that the Dominican Sisters were seeking applicants for their Associates Program, and that this opportunity was open to all baptized Christians, Pete and I very quickly decided we would be honored to partner with them in some way.

We completed a several-months-long formation process in which we learned about the dimensions of Dominican life as they are interwoven in study, prayer, community and ministry. The formation process concluded with a one-day retreat during which we were asked to discern the next step of commitment. Pete and I appreciated that the formation sessions were offered via Zoom so we could participate despite our pandemic restrictions.

One of the things we focused on as part of our formation process was discerning where God wants to use us next. We were asked to come up with “commitment statements” in which we agreed to join the Sisters in preaching the Word and witnessing Gospel values through various activities. These activities could include a renewed commitment to things we were already doing, or something entirely new.

Among other things, we learned that Associates in our community assist with the local Sisters’ social justice activities. A couple of these proved particularly attractive to Pete and me – the Sisters’ anti-racism efforts and their coordinating committee working on environmental issues. We decided we will join their efforts in these areas.

We will continue to be involved in our own church congregation as well, but in some rather new ways. When COVID broke out and many of our own church activities moved online, we found new ways to contribute our time and talents. I have been serving on our church’s community service committee (via Zoom) and helping keep our church’s micro pantry stocked. Since the beginning of the year, Pete and I have been leading an adult faith formation group on Zoom.

Our formation process as Dominican Associates was formalized and celebrated this past weekend through a commitment ceremony held in the convent’s beautiful chapel. In the photo below, I’m reading my commitment statements while my sponsor stands by my side.

Here are my commitments as I join the Sisters in preaching the Word and witnessing Gospel values:

  • Continuing with spiritual direction, in which I examine my relationship with God, prayer, my personal values, my investment decisions and various lifestyle choices.
  • Continuing to be an active member of my own church congregation by teaching (with Pete) a “Sundays @ 6” faith formation class offered via Zoom, serving on the congregation’s community service committee and helping with food pantry efforts.
  • Serving as a bridge-builder for peace and reconciliation through my writing, my interpersonal relationships and my involvement in social justice work. This will include participation in the Dominican Sisters’ anti-racism efforts.
  • Doing my part to preserve and protect the environment through my own habits, such as better recycling, environmentally-friendly gardening and lawn care, creating flower beds for pollinators and reducing our household’s use of fossil fuels. I will also be joining the Dominican Sisters in their Laudato Si’ Action Platform efforts.

Pete and I are definitely looking forward to this new chapter in our spiritual journey.

My priorities as I rejoin the world

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? I use my morning meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluate my progress for the past year, and create an intention for the coming year. 

This annual exercise helps me stay focused so various types of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters. And this past year has definitely been a year for clearing out clutter of all kinds. 

The overall priorities I’ve identified in previous years are still important to me, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude. But the past year has brought some unexpected lessons, along with changes in how I approach my priorities. 

While the pandemic created an enormous amount of disruption, the prolonged quarantine forced me to slow down, which in turn gave me an opportunity to evaluate how I spend my time. If nothing else, the pandemic reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments.

At first, I struggled to establish new routines and ward off mild depression, but with a bit of creativity, I began finding ways to turn the enforced downtime into a surprising level of genuine productivity. With so many activities cancelled, my schedule opened up and needless “busyness” disappeared. 

Frankly, I’d like to keep it that way, which raises the question: What changed during the pandemic, and which changes would I like to hang onto?

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress/changes this past year: Our church building remained closed for a good part of the year, which meant no in-person Sunday services. However, my husband and I did “attend” our church’s online service nearly every week, and we participated in a weekly Bible study group, a book group and committee meetings via Zoom. Since the ongoing quarantine almost entirely prevented us from leaving the house, I had time for meditation sessions nearly every morning and added some evening sessions as well. I also spent more time outdoors – mostly in my backyard and walking around my neighborhood – where nature’s majesty constantly reassured me of God’s presence.

Intention for the coming year: As Pete and I rejoin the outside world, I want to make sure my indoor and outdoor meditation sessions remain part of my daily routine. Sadly, one of my losses in 2020 was the death of my spiritual advisor last fall. I had engaged her three years earlier to help me sort through my bushel basket full of questions about everything from what my life purpose should be in retirement to my occasional doubts about the existence of God. She was completely nonjudgmental, and encouraged me to be honest about the questions I had. In her honor, I plan to keep asking those questions as I move forward in my spiritual journey.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress/changes this past year: With our twice-weekly Stay Fit exercise program cancelled and my healthy eating plan off the rails because of emotional binging on too much comfort food, I started the year well on my way to gaining the dreaded Quarantine 15. However, I reminded myself that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I mostly managed to get back on track. Pete and I added yoga and regular walks to our routine and, with our favorite restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery, I spent a lot more time cooking.

Intention for the coming year: Before the pandemic, Pete and I ate out at restaurants way too often – usually several times a week. Worse, we consumed many of those meals at all-you-can-eat buffets. I’d like to keep our new eat-at-home habit in place, since it’s much healthier. 

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress/changes this past year: All face-to-face gatherings with family and friends have been off the table since March 2020, and we are just now beginning to plan in-person visits. Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime. Learning new technology – new to me, I should say – really helped me stay in touch with everyone.

Intention for the coming year: With family and close friends scattered all over the U.S. and in three different countries, staying connected was a challenge even before the pandemic. So I plan to continue scheduling regular online “get-togethers” with family and friends even after our quarantine ordeal is a thing of the past. Now that I’ve learned how to use the technology, why limit visits with far-away loved ones to once every five years?

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and our friends.

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve come tantalizingly close to achieving my goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place. While quarantined, I cleaned out drawers, cupboards and closets, and tackled the basement and garage. We even got our trees trimmed and some new landscaping completed. 

Intention for the coming year: Now that our humble abode is looking pretty spiffy, the trick will be keeping it that way. I would like to commit to one hour each weekday for maintenance cleaning. I will also be adding several native plants to our flower beds this fall and next spring. I already have the fall flowers ordered.

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress/changes this past year: My writing is another priority that has actually seemed easier to achieve under quarantine. I kept up with my blog pretty well, posting nearly every week. I also completed several book excerpts. The pandemic, with its ever-present threat of mortality, reminded me that I don’t have forever to write that book – an item I’ve had on my bucket list since age 10.

Intention for the coming year: I’m now well on my way to actually writing the book and I intend to keep going. I’d like to commit at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet – unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress/changes this past year: In our online book group and Bible study sessions, members of my congregation extensively discussed ways to “be church” even with our building closed. I personally found creative ways to contribute to that effort from home, including joining our church’s community service committee via Zoom.

Intention for the coming year: I intend to keep participating in the community service committee, which coordinates a variety of outreach activities ranging from highway clean-up and collecting new books for a local elementary school library to preparing meals for a homeless shelter and keeping our church’s new micro pantry stocked.

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate clutter and backlog tasks that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress/changes this past year: In addition to the massive housecleaning project, I actually got our tax return done on time. I got some new landscaping done. I got the attic fixed. This last one was a huge undertaking – some raccoons got into our attic and wreaked extensive damage. Luckily, our homeowner’s insurance covered most of the repairs and we got new energy-efficient insulation out of the deal.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit to completing a pair of backlog tasks I’ve been putting off for years. The first one: Getting together with Thrivent to help us find some socially responsible investment opportunities. The second one: Getting solar panels installed on our roof.

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress/changes this past year: Despite all the disruption and stress caused by the pandemic, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Unlike so many essential workers, my husband and I had the luxury of being able to shelter in place and stay safe. I’m so grateful I’ve had Pete and our kitties hunkering down with me. We also have some amazing delivery services in town, which reduced our need to venture outside for high-risk activities. Most of all, I’m grateful for the vaccine!!! My fear level dropped by several orders of magnitude once I got that second jab in my arm. Thanks be to God for inspiring the scientists who developed this life-saving vaccine so quickly.

Intention for the coming year: Pete and I are finally taking walks. We need to keep this up. And each morning for the coming year, as we re-enter the outside world, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Tribute to a terrific mentor

In a year of losses, I’m now facing another one. My spiritual director for the past three years died this month following a valiant fight with multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Prior to beginning my journey with Sister M, I had found myself at a spiritual crossroads. My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?

Several factors had led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my congregation’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

I made a commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be, and live accordingly. Toward this end, I engaged Sister M to help me sort through my bushel basket full of questions. It’s important for me to point out here that seeing Sister M did not replace going to church. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. It’s a supplement to — rather than a substitute for — church. 

Sister M and I met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offered a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. Sometimes she would have me write my thoughts about a topic. Other times she might have me create an image, or take my camera and go for a walk, or read a book. 

I had already developed a morning meditation ritual — sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. I began using this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by the homework assignments. 

I must admit the idea of working with a spiritual director made me a bit nervous at first. While I hoped this person would ask the hard questions, I didn’t want someone who would merely push me to adopt their own belief system. I needed this person to be nonjudgmental and open to the idea that I was questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological. 

Sister M, thankfully, was patient as I grappled with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. Her demeanor was very pleasant, and we immediately discovered one thing in common — we both grew up on farms.

One of her first assignments: Come up with an image that best symbolizes my present spiritual condition. I created a Photoshop image of myself buried under a mountain of clutter. A pair of arms juggled several balls in the air — family, friends, volunteer work, the house. More balls had been dropped and were nestled on the ground at the bottom of the heap — my writing, self-care, God.

I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered. My relationships. A messy house. My frantic, overloaded schedule. Health issues. My writing, which seemed to languish. My emotional life, which often left me feeling like a walking bundle of anxieties. The suspicion I entertained from time to time that my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless to-do lists. My spiritual life, with all those questions and doubts.

Sister M listened to my litany without negative judgment — at least none that I could detect. I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. Instead, she suggested I spend an hour each day tackling the clutter — just one hour — and leave the rest for the next day. Baby steps.

One of the first questions Sister M asked me was, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God. Yet, nagging doubts continued to creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the Christians around me ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

As I began taming my schedule and tackling the endless clutter — one hour and one day at a time — a flash of insight occurred to me. A little epiphany, one might say. Could the question of God’s existence be what I was distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that cluttered my life and unquieted my mind? My spiritual director agreed that I might be on to something. 

I confessed that what I really wanted was the “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them. 

She recommended I use part of my morning meditation time to be completely quiet. “Listen for God’s voice,” she said. Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me — at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing. 

I walked outside. Dismissing the existence of a God is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their fellow and sister human beings while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it’s almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.

Sister M helped me explore various kinds of “spiritual clutter” that was crowding attention to God out of my life — and I eliminated a major distractor by walking away from an incredibly abusive volunteer work situation. As much as leaving the organization saddened me, I immediately felt so much “lighter” — like I put down the 100-pound bag of stress I had carried around for five years. 

When my spiritual director asked me point-blank if I ever doubted the existence of God, her question gave me permission to “go there.” For the next leg of my spiritual journey, I wanted to keep being honest about the questions I had. And I had LOTS of them.

Who, or what, exactly, is this Entity I choose to call God? What is my authority for what I believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Why go to church, when by my own admission, I feel the presence of God most while immersed in nature? What is prayer and how should we pray? Can writing, singing and gardening be forms of prayer? Is it okay to ask God for things? What does salvation mean, actually? How do I relate the 10 Commandments to 21st Century issues? In a world where many “sins” have been reframed as “diseases” or “dysfunctional behavior,” is sin still a legitimate concept? How would liberal Christians define sin versus how conservative Christians define it? Considering that no creed exists anywhere in the Bible and a number of Christian churches don’t have one, do we need a creed? If so, what should be in it? Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Do all of these denominations offer equally legitimate paths to God? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?

That was just for starters. When I shared this list of questions with Sister M, as usual, there were no lectures. She just smiled and asked, “Where do you want to start?”

We explored a variety of prayer techniques. Among them: morning meditation, nature prayer, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing and journaling as a form of prayer, and practicing better mindfulness in church. While I had used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I committed to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. 

When it came to my dreams, one goal on my bucket list remained elusive. From age 10 onward, I’d dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal was … still on my bucket list. So, with encouragement from Sister M, I decided it was time. My book — with the working title We Need to Talk — will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and share my personal search for an appropriate Christian response.

My spiritual progress may seem agonizingly slow to some who are reading this. But for me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts about God’s existence was HUGE. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation was an enormous step in the right direction. My creativity has soared. I’ve now written several book excerpts, I recently posted my 100th blog entry, and I’ve discovered a new hobby – nature photography. And while I haven’t yet tamed all the clutter in my house, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with incremental progress. Baby steps, as Sister M would say. 

The graphic I produced for her at the beginning of our work together would now look more like this.

As they say around the tables at 12-Step meetings, we aim for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. One thing I do know for sure: I’m grateful God gave me the opportunity to make a portion of this journey with Sister M.

Rest in peace, dear sister in Christ. In your honor, I’m going to keep asking those pesky questions.

My priorities in a time of pandemic

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? This annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters. I use my morning meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluate my progress for the past year, and create an intention for the coming year. 

To say this past year did not go as planned would be a huge understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every familiar activity and routine in my life. Dulcimer group – cancelled until further notice. Choir practice – cancelled until further notice. Stay Fit classes – cancelled until further notice. Visits with family and friends – cancelled until further notice. Groceries – delivered to our home. Church, Bible study, book group and even some doctor appointments – all online.

However, I’ve decided the priorities I identified last year are still good ones, so they will remain the same for now: my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

Since it looks like the pandemic will be with us for a while, my challenge is this: How do I continue to work on my priorities in the face of the restrictions and disruption? When the lockdown began in March, I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, struggling to establish new routines and warding off mild depression. But with a bit of creativity, I’ve begun finding ways to turn this quarantine experience into productive time. 

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress/changes this past year: I continued to meet with my spiritual director, but due to the pandemic and underlying health conditions for both of us, we’ve begun meeting by phone rather than face to face. Fortunately, we’ve developed enough of a relationship over the past three years that the phone meetings work just fine.

Intention for the coming year: In addition to sessions with my spiritual director, I need to make sure I keep morning meditation part of my daily routine. Since the ongoing quarantine almost entirely prevents Pete and I from leaving the house, there’s really no excuse not to do this every morning, except for Sunday when we “attend” our church’s online service. We also participate in a weekly Bible study group via Zoom.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress/changes this past year: Ugh. Our Stay Fit exercise program has been cancelled since March, and my healthy eating plan went off the rails about the same time. The lack of exercise – except for an occasional walk – coupled with way too much comfort food has me well on my way to gaining the dreaded Quarantine 15.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are still the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! Doctor appointments have definitely gotten more complicated, and I no longer have access to the spa for the massages that were so helpful in relieving arthritis pain. But if anything, this makes routine self-care more important. I need to focus on eating healthy food, getting the right exercise, and getting enough sleep.

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal:  Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress/changes this past year: All face-to-face visits with family and friends have been off the table since just before Easter. Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime.

Intention for the coming year: Learning some new technology has been really helpful. I plan to schedule regular “get-together” FaceTime sessions with family and friends while we’re under quarantine. And, of course, we can continue to stay in touch via Facebook. 

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and our friends.

Progress/changes this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place eludes me at the best of times. But now we can no longer use the services of our marvelous cleaning ladies because we can’t safely let them in the house. Yes, I know this is a First World problem, but it does create some extra work I wasn’t expecting.

Intention for the coming year: Now that so many of our regular activities are on hiatus, I have no excuse not to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. And get some more pictures up on the walls.

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well, posting nearly once a week. I’ve also finally begun writing my book. Believe it or not, this is one priority that actually seems to have gotten easier to achieve under quarantine.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. We’re not going anywhere for possibly the next year, so I want to come out of this enforced hibernation period with a BOOK! No excuses. This needs to happen. 

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress/changes this past year: For the first half of the past year, my volunteer work involved a lot of church activities, along with participation in a musical group that entertained residents at a local retirement center. That all ended when the lockdown began in March.

Intention for the coming year: My congregation has extensively discussed ways to “be church” even with our building closed. Pete and I have decided to adjust some of our charitable contributions upward since we’re less able to contribute volunteer hours and we can afford it. And I plan to volunteer for a couple of my favorite candidates in this year’s election by writing postcards and letters, something I can do safely from home. 

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate clutter and backlog tasks that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress/changes this past year: Quarantining threw a monkey wrench into my best-laid plans. For example, doing my taxes got more complicated, so we’ve had to ask for an extension for the first time in years.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. This is a perfect time to get some of those backlog tasks done that I’ve been putting off for years, like going through our financial records and cancelling subscriptions we no longer use.

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress/changes this past year: I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Unlike so many essential workers, Pete and I have the luxury of being able to shelter in place and stay safe. We have some amazing delivery services in town, which reduce our need to venture outside for high-risk activities. And I’m so grateful I have Pete and the kitties hunkering down with me.

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. The quarantine has forced me to slow down and evaluate how I spend my time. Pete and I are finally taking walks! We need to keep this up. And each morning for the coming year, even as the pandemic rages on, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Spiritual progress as I begin 2020

My current spiritual journey began with a bushel basket full of pesky questions and a commitment.

About two years ago, I found myself at a spiritual crossroads. My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?

Several factors led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my congregation’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

My commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be and live accordingly. 

I engaged a spiritual director to help me sort through my basket of “ultimate” questions, challenge all kinds of dogma from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological, and reorder my beliefs and values as necessary. For the past two years, we have met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offers a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful, and she recommends various reading materials as well.

It’s important for me to point out that seeing a spiritual director has not replaced going to church. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. It’s a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. 

One of the first questions my spiritual director asked me was, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God. Yet, nagging doubts continued to creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the Christians around me ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

I confessed that what I really wanted was the “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them. Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me – at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing. 

I started spending more time outside. Dismissing the existence of a deity is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their neighbors while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.

Because the natural world constantly reassures me of God’s existence, I’ve discovered that going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts. I can watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell some flowers. Feel the breeze against my face. Take a walk. Dig around in the dirt and plant flowers or veggies. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator.

Once I discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence, it was time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey – improving my conscious contact with God. For the past year, I’ve been exploring a variety of prayer techniques. Among them: morning meditation, nature prayer, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing and journaling as a form of prayer and practicing better mindfulness in church. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’ve committed to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. 

As I’ve engaged in nature prayer, I’ve acquired a new hobby – photography. I even invested in a new camera recommended to me by the author of From My Window, a blog featuring amazing nature photography (link HERE). The Canon PowerShot SX720 HS camera is a simple “point-and-shoot,” but it has a 40X zoom, which has allowed me to capture stunning close-up photos of birds and other wildlife. I’ll be sharing more of my favorites on my own blog in the coming months.

1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and my medical adventures of the past year have sent an unmistakable message that I need to take better care of mine. Toward that end, I’ve been experimenting with recipes designed to make my healthy eating plan more enticing. After much adjusting and tweaking of ingredients, I’ve managed to come up with a few recipes that are worth sharing, so I’ll be doing that from time to time as well.

So what’s next as I continue my spiritual journey?

Part of my initial motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the extreme level of vitriol permeating our society in recent years, and the stressful impact all the fighting has had in my personal life. I must say I’m dreading the 2020 election season here in the U.S. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an “exhausted majority” of folks who feel pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time, I don’t fit neatly into either the left-wing progressive or the right-wing conservative camp. As the increasingly polarized positions have hardened, and the endless bickering has begun to penetrate every area of our lives, common sense seems to have flown out the window. 

This situation has prompted me to ask: What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors and what is my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How do I engage people who disagree with me, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love my neighbor as myself? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we as Christians change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them? And perhaps more importantly, how do I avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry? I will be exploring these issues and questions with my spiritual director in the coming year.

Time to fasten my seatbelt and embark on the next leg of my spiritual journey. 

My priorities as I turn 64

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? 

As always, I used this morning’s meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluated my progress for the past year, and created an intention for the coming year. 

The past year has felt like one long roller coaster ride marked by repeated trips to the hospital for myself, family members and friends. Even our two kitties developed medical issues. So needless to say, some of my priorities ended up sidetracked or completely hijacked.

However, I decided the priorities themselves are good ones, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

This little annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters.

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress this past year: I’ve met monthly with my spiritual director, who has helped ease my doubts about God’s existence and guided me in exploring various kinds of prayer.

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue working with my spiritual director to improve my prayer life. I’ll also use journaling, imagery and other exercises to sort through my beliefs about God, clarify my values and explore more of my burning questions.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress this past year: First, the good news – I persuaded my husband Pete to embark with me on a healthy eating plan, beginning the day after my last birthday, and I’m now down 30 pounds from my top weight. The not-so-good news – I’ve had several recurring medical problems, some of them stemming from the ever-growing pharmacopeia of pills prescribed to me by various doctors over the years. In March, the blood-thinning medication I was taking landed me in intensive care for two days. Since then, I’ve been weaning myself off nearly half those meds under the supervision of my primary care provider.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! I’ve begun getting much more assertive with my health care providers regarding medications and coordination of care. Meanwhile, I plan to continue shedding weight and I’d like to experiment with recipes delicious enough to convince both my sweetie-pie and myself that healthy eating can be fun rather than torture! I also need to focus on developing a regular sleep schedule and improving my exercise routine. 

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress this past year: Again, there’s been good news and bad news. The good news is we got to see most of my immediate relatives at least once, including a cousin who lives in Denmark, and we reconnected with a pair of close friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years. The bad news is, some of my family and friends have spent as much time negotiating doctors and hospitals as I have. And the really sad news is that, after more than a half-dozen hospitalizations over the past year, my beloved mother is now in hospice care.

Intention for the coming year: More and more, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m not always going to have all of my family and friends around me. I plan to spend quantity as well as quality time with Mom in the time we have left with her, and stay in contact with other family and friends through regular visits or correspondence. I also want to let the people I love know how much they mean to me and stay out of other people’s battles.

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and friends.

Progress this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place still eludes me.

Intention for the coming year: I need to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. Then, develop a maintenance schedule to keep the house clean and neat on an ongoing basis so I can invite people over more often. I want to enjoy our beautiful home!

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well and have even acquired some followers. I’ve found that posting once every 2-3 weeks works for me.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. I also want to make my blog more user-friendly and take advantage of all the cool tricks Word Press is capable of.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress this past year: Shortly after my last birthday, I followed through on my decision to walk away from an abusive volunteer work situation that had been poisoning my soul for way too long. I have no regrets about that decision. With all the trauma from medical issues, I’m glad I haven’t had to contend with this additional stressor on top of it all!

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue my current church activities – choir, bringing treats for fellowship hour on Sundays, bringing soup or desserts for Advent and Lenten suppers – and my participation in a musical group that entertains residents at a local retirement center twice a month. That’s enough for right now, because I’m learning I can do a much better job in one or two areas if I allow myself to pare down my commitments and focus my energy rather than trying to spread myself too thin. 

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate backlog tasks and clutter that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress this past year: I got our taxes done on time for the second year in a row! I’m not sure if our accountant has recovered from the shock.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. Large tasks can be broken down into bite-size chunks if necessary. I also need to avoid nerve-wracking deadline pressure by getting things done before the last possible minute! This unfinished business only keeps me in crisis mode and turns my focus away from important priorities like writing, healthy living, keeping our home looking nice and spending time with family and friends. What I also need to commit to, for now, is to not take on any new projects until I have everything crossed off my backlog list!

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress this past year: With my own health problems and with my mother in hospice care, I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of support from family, friends and church people. For that, I am VERY grateful! 

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. I want to be AWAKE! While we Christians may talk a lot about heaven, I believe God also meant for us to enjoy and appreciate life in the here-and-now. If that’s not true, why did God create flowers, beautiful sunsets, majestic trees that turn gorgeous colors in the fall, and small furry animals who curl up with us in bed? I need to reserve mornings for Pete and I as much as possible, take walks when the weather is nice, notice my surroundings and remember to count my blessings. 

And each morning for the coming year, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Nature prayer

Martin Luther is said to have observed, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” 

Tertullian is quoted by Galileo (link HERE) as saying, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”

In other words, one can think of nature as God’s “other book.”

Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend several veggie, herb and flower beds. On warm sunny days, I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Sometimes I grab my camera and visit a neighborhood park.

Whether I’m feeding the critters, admiring the flowers in our backyard, snapping photos of flora and fauna at the park or strolling along the bike path, experiencing God’s creation with all my senses ranks as one of my favorite activities. Not to mention one of my most effective forms of relaxation and stress relief. (It sure beats arguing with complete strangers about politics on Facebook.) 

Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator. As I’ve said before, I find it almost impossible to deny God’s existence when I’m outdoors with the evidence all around me. So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible and engage in what has become my most potent form of prayer: Nature prayer.

According to the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor-at-large of America magazine (link HERE), nature prayer is simply being “attentive to the presence of God in nature.” 

For me, this form of prayer doesn’t even necessarily need words. Just looking at the vibrant colors of spring blossoms and fall leaves. Listening to birds singing and cicadas humming. Drinking in the scent of lilacs. Feeling a gentle breeze against my face. Tasting the sweetness of a vine-ripened strawberry. 

I’m aware some Christians eye nature prayer with suspicion. Isn’t it too “New Agey?” Too “pagan?” Aren’t we worshipping creation instead of the Creator? Resistance to nature prayer has always baffled me, frankly, because the Bible itself is chock full of passages that extole nature and invite us to immerse ourselves in it, appreciate it and learn from it.

Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” 

Luke 12:27 says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” 

Being in nature not only brings us close to God, but can restore us physically and spiritually. The opening verses of the 23rd Psalm affirm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

Psalm 104:24 exclaims, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” In fact, Psalm 104 in its entirety presents one long ode to the natural world – mountains that smoke, melodious birds, wine that gladdens the heart, trees and streams that protect and feed wildlife of all kinds.

Even Jesus found nature conducive to prayer and meditation. After a long day of healing, teaching and preaching to crowds, “he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed,” says Luke 5:16.

For those interested in pursuing nature prayer from a Christian perspective, the Web site Busted Halo (link HERE) offers suggestions for an “outdoor retreat.” Designed to “deepen our relationship with God and nature,” this retreat has three parts, each involving prayer and reflection – seeing God, listening to God, and breathing in God. To access the retreat guide, click HERE.

As I engage in nature prayer, I sense God speaking to me every bit as directly as God speaks to me while I’m in church or reading the Bible. 

When I watch a brilliant sunset dance along the tops of rioting fall leaves, I sense that God loves beauty.

When I watch a hummingbird flit from blossom to blossom sipping nectar while its tiny wings flap 70 times per second, I sense that God wants to inspire awe.

When I observe the more than three dozen varieties of flowers just in my own backyard, I sense that God prefers diversity.

When jonquils poke up through snow, I sense that God encourages us to feel hope. No matter how cold, dark and bleak life may seem, spring will come eventually.

Most importantly, when I’m immersing myself in nature, I understand at the deepest level that we are meant to appreciate and care for God’s creation. Because nature is part of God’s creation and a gift to us, we have an obligation to protect and preserve it.

A lesson in acceptance

Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.

I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.

As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.

One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared especially for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.

At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.

I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. If they want to …

Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.

But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.

Spiritual lessons from animals

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. – Job 12:7-10

God has blessed me with a fine parade of pets over my lifetime, and these precious companions have taught me valuable spiritual lessons. 

Throughout my childhood, I often related to pets better than I could to people. From this photo, it’s clear that Dad and our first dog taught me to respect animals from an early age.

Mewlinda, a friendly gray farm cat who lived to be about 25 years old, exhibited saintly patience with small children – which is fortunate, since I liked to dress cats in doll clothes. I wish I had a photo, but she looked a lot like this cute girl we met at a state park last fall.

My pets prompted me to learn healthy assertiveness. When I first lived on my own, any “no pets” rule was a deal-breaker, no matter how nice the apartment I wanted to rent. I offered to pay an extra deposit if necessary, but potential landlords had to understand that my furry roommates and I were a package deal.

The critters in my life continue to impart lessons. Here, Oley gently coaxes me to keep my priorities straight …

… while Champaign – basking in a small patch of morning light on our sun porch – teaches me the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment.

They remind my husband and I that companionship makes just about any activity more fun – or at least more endurable. Here’s Oley, helping Pete grade papers …

Torbjorn helping me assemble a newsletter …

… and Champaign helping me wake up in the morning. (Who knows? If I didn’t have that little cat alternately purring and howling in my ear at 6 a.m., I might sleep all day!)

The creatures who share our space in the backyard have taught me we don’t always need to fear strangers, especially when we learn more about them. My first impulse when I discovered a fox living under our deck was to call animal control. But a bit of quick Google research assured Pete and I that foxes pose no threat to humans as long as we maintain respectful distance, and we grew to love Roxy and her kits.

Several animals demonstrate for us the art of seizing opportunity: Oley likes to sneak a drink of water straight from the bathroom faucet.

Vixen and DW, the horses who live next door to our North Carolina cousins, know they’ll probably get a treat if they greet visitors at the fence.

A goose in our neighborhood park eagerly anticipates a slice of bread.

And the squirrels in our backyard figure, “Why let the birds have all the good stuff?

My friends and relatives have some cuties I adore almost as much as my own. Piccolo shows us how to be way cool without even trying – by simply being himself.

Nala derives pleasure from simple things … like watching the popcorn popper perform its task.

Millie, an adorable beagle we like to think of as our semi-official church dog, shows us how to win friends and influence people as she visits sick congregation members (including me, when I was in the hospital). She’s such a good sport, she allows us to dress her up as a sheep for our annual Christmas pageant. 

Animals have thoroughly convinced me that some angels have four legs, fur and whiskers.

During a particularly challenging time in my life – when I was enduring both work and health problems – our sweet Angie Cat sat with me in my recliner every single morning as I poured my feelings of fear, anger, resentment and despair onto my journal pages. I can only aspire to practice such unconditional love. May you rest in peace, my beautiful little friend!

Bear, a magnificent Great Pyrenees, helped his human buddy though some of his darkest hours, staying faithfully by his side as he put his life back together. And then, one day this past winter, this beautiful boy was gone. Everyone in his Nashville, Tennessee neighborhood misses him greatly.

Members of our church had only begun to love Creed – our new pastor’s dog – when God called him home suddenly. Creed left behind a heartbroken congregation.

Finally, some animals teach us to risk loving again, even after a painful loss. 

When I’ve lost beloved pets over the years, I’ve often been tempted to say, “Next time I’m not going to get q-u-i-t-e so attached.” Friends have confessed similar thoughts. Invariably the new pet has other ideas – and before we know it, we’re absolutely smitten. Again. 

“Grief isn’t just something to endure,” says clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North, Reviving Ophelia and several other books. “It also is a reflection of our capacity to love.” Our new fur babies don’t replace the ones we’ve lost, of course. Instead, they expand our hearts and show us that love is an endlessly abundant and renewable resource.

My friend who lost his beautiful Bear over the winter posted a photo last week and asked, “Should I take him, yay or nay?” Of course the pup went home with him. Who could possibly resist this furry little bundle of pure tail-wagging joy?

Gospel, our congregation’s newest church dog, came home with our pastor a few days ago. How long before our pastor and the rest of the congregation start spoiling him absolutely rotten? Can anyone count to one?? Oh wait … I can see the spoiling has already begun.

Perhaps the most important lesson our animal companions teach us is this: LOVE WINS.

Every. Single. Time.