#1 – Above all else: Grace!

I turn 70 tomorrow. This astonishes me.
How is such a thing possible?  Where did the time go?

I’m astonished that I even came to be, and that I survived my first year.

My parents conceived me when both were 41 years old. My brother Jim – 20 years and two weeks older than me – was an only child until I appeared. My conception and birth animated the gossipers in our neighborhood on West Chestnut Street, Souderton, Pennsylvania, and in our 500-member church at the end of the block.

My Mom’s pregnancy filled her with anxiety, and for good reason. Her mother Maggie lost two infants; the birth of the last one ended my grandmother’s life at age 37. Mom’s older sister Anna birthed five babies who didn’t make it to their first birthday. And while Mom was pregnant with me, Dad’s younger sister Esther delivered a baby girl who died.

My dad, Lester, and me

After my healthy arrival, both parents obsessed over whether the infant Susan was getting enough to eat. But I thrived! And 70 years later, here I am!

At various times of uncertainty during these 70 years, I’ve reflected on my unlikely birth, assuring myself that I was granted life on this planet for a reason.

Over this next year and a bit, I intend to write 70 blog posts as a thanks-be-to-God for this life I have been given.  I’m calling the series A Nourished Spirit.

At age 70, I continue to bask in God’s love and grace, and  to take comfort and courage in the companionship of God’s spirit.  Yet this nourishment often comes to me in the simplest of ways, through very earthy means.

Oh sure, sometimes my blog will give thanks for things overtly religious – Church Community, Old Hymns, and the like. Other posts will focus on relationships – Cousins, Soul Sisters.  But many will illustrate the third verse of my favorite hymn, honouring the senses as a doorway to the holy:

Public Domain. From Hymnal: a Worship Book

“For the joy of ear and eye/for the heart and mind’s delight/
for the mystic harmony/linking sense to sound and sight:/
Lord of all, to thee we raise/this our hymn of grateful praise.”

In fact the images and music of all six verses of For the Beauty of the Earth overflow with an amazing array of prompts to praise. Maybe that’s why I chose it as our wedding hymn in l969.

To complete my inventory of praise, I must surely include v. 6, even though the current Mennonite hymnal left it out:

“For thyself, best Gift Divine,/ to the world so freely given,/
for that great, great love of thine,/peace on earth, and joy in heaven:/
Lord of all, to thee we raise/this our hymn of grateful praise.”

Reflection Question: When you consider the circumstances of your own conception and birth, what if anything astonishes you? What if anything disturbs you?  What if anything makes you smile?

I invite you to sign up to receive a post each week by entering your e-mail address and clicking the “Follow” button at the very bottom of this blog.  

I hope my blog will encourage your own reflection on the myriad ways your spirit is nourished, whether in seasons of joy or sadness, excitement or boredom, or whatever unique combinations coexist in your life.

Next week: Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.


#92 – Downsizing

“Transitions are never comfortable,” claims spiritual writer Margaret Silf. “They make your feet ache, they make your head ache…worst of all, they make your heart ache.”  (The Other Side of Chaos, p. 3-5).

Last week, I re-read my journals from 2014, when we decided to leave our three-story townhouse condo and move across town to a 55+ high rise condo.  I remembered my feet aching, my head aching, and my heart aching.

But I also recalled the anticipation mingled with the sadness as we prepared to leave Candlewood Crescent in Waterloo for King St. East in Kitchener.

We talked the other day about why we chose to make a move then, at a younger age than most seniors.  We liked many things about our house, and about our location in Waterloo.

candlewood-interiorBut we became increasingly nervous about living in a house with a flight of stairs between each living area, and with a downstairs washroom on a landing rather than on the same level as the kitchen/living/dining room.  We also acknowledged that we didn’t need a place to host family dinners or to entertain grandchildren. And we didn’t  have children to tell us “It’s time to move!” We had to be proactive.

Then our cat Maggie, who we knew would not tolerate a move, had to be put down. “Well,” we said. “Let’s at least look around.”

So we called a realtor and started looking. We found two viable possibilities, both in Kitchener, and eventually took the plunge.  The spaciousness of our new unit and our view from the 10th floor sealed our choice.

candlewood-exteriorBefore we moved, I dedicated a section of my journal to writing down the things I loved and would dearly miss about Candlewood. The orange brick façade. The fireplace and mantle in the living room. Our small fenced in garden out the patio door, with its chippies, rabbits, neighborhood cats and mourning doves, which animated Maggie and entertained us.  We also knew we’d miss Uptown Waterloo with its Princess Theatres, the old Marbles restaurant, and  many coffee shops (including Starbucks for Sam).

As always when we’ve moved, we wrestled with how much decorating and renovating to do at our new place, and how much to “take it as is” for now.

The difficulty of stripping off old wallpaper glued to the drywall became a serious issue to be resolved. We also needed to figure out how to make our space soundproof enough for me to offer confidential spiritual direction.

Yet shortly after we moved I wrote:

The view from my study

“My overriding feeling this morning is gratitude – gratitude that we have been able to make this move, do this downsizing, and do it together.  Gratitude for the wonderful view. Gratitude that each room is as lovely as I had imagined. Gratitude for Rockway Gardens, for the trees and the golf course across the street.”

In my journal I also noted:

“What I keep being stunned by is the sky.  It is so beautiful in the morning and the evening.  The panorama is wonderful.  It makes we want to weep.  That view is now mine.”

RainbowI thought about our move to Eastwood as an adventure – getting to know another part of the city, being among the youngest people in the building, living in a high rise again (as we did when we were first married). And I loved the surprises, like seeing the sun reflect off the high buildings in downtown Kitchener during the morning “golden hour.”

One of my last moving-to-Eastwood entries in 2014 reads like this:

“I do give thanks for being led this far – for being at 1414 King.  I think it will be a good place for us, no matter how life unfolds”….

I’m glad I can reflect on our move four and a half  years later by reading my 2014 journal.  It has been a good move.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How have sadness, gratitude and anticipation mingled for you as you’ve downsized or in other kinds of transitions?
  2. What has kept your spirit nourished during these chaotic times?

Next week:


#91 – A Gift by Increments

Way back in November, I told Sam that for my Christmas present I’d like a slideshow for my iPad, with highlights of travel and just plain ordinary events of our 49+ years together.

An exciting encounter for us new Canadians

Sam’s taken lots of photos over the years, so I thought it would be pretty easy for him to pull such a slideshow together.

I was wrong. He took this opportunity to look through his negatives and scan (or pitch) a whole drawer full he had never dealt with! My Christmas present is still evolving, as Sam hasn’t touched most of the 1980’s negatives yet.

But what I have so far is a wonder – starting with our wedding in 1969, a few pictures from the 1970’s and 1980’s, then picking up our lives again from 1990 on.

Only twice did we travel outside North America together. The first experience came in 1977, when we were invited to join the Schleitheim II Study Tour sponsored by TourMagination.  It came at an excellent time for me, as I was owning and trying out my theological voice during those years. I think the tour leaders were startled when various participants didn’t accept their interpretations of 16th century Anabaptist history!

Petra, tombs for the poor

Our second time outside North America came 30 years later, when we went to Israel, Palestine and Jordan with our friends John Kampen and Carol Lehman. John, a Dead Sea scrolls scholar, wanted to test how he might lead an archeological tour for students at his seminary. We had always wanted to travel to that part of the world, so we said “We’re in.” I was fascinated by how Herod maintained his presence in 1st century Palestine with many palaces, now archeological sites.  But the visual highlight of that journey had to be visiting Petra, the stone wonder in Jordan.

stone-angeljpgIn looking at the photos, we recalled that we did much of our North American sightseeing on the way to the assemblies of various Mennonite bodies.  Usually one of us was a delegate or a board member. In one trip to Manitoba, we looked up sites related to the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, enjoying the large stone angel  (actually a shepherdess) in the Neepawa cemetery which she immortalized.  On the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota,  we found a Laura Ingalls Wilder plaque, and I now wish we had spent more time looking for the other Wilder sites nearby.

The conferences we attended have mostly faded in memory,  but the sights we encountered in the 90’s continue to delight and nourish me. Driving to a conference in the U.S. South, we came upon the Peaks of Otter with its deliberately “primitive” lodge (no TV or phones in the rooms), located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.  We discovered the rugged Washington coast and the rain forest and alpine meadows of the Olympic National Park on our way to a conference in Oregon, and loved the scenery so much we went back.

olympic-national-parkHow these roundabout journeys to conferences have nourished us through the years….

We found that we both enjoy historical discovery as well as the scenery, although I rebel against guided tours from which one cannot escape the line! Since 2004, we’ve focused on a Maritime province every five years. So in Nova Scotia we took in both the Black History Museum near Shelbourne, NS and the touristy Peggy’s Cove.

Lately we have found some Ontario oddities, such as the very basic motel in Thorold where ships silently passed through the Welland Canal in the middle of the night, right outside our window.

Both our historical explorations and the scenery we have encountered have been backdrop for spending good downtime together. My incremental gift from Sam, still in process, reminds me again of the beautiful world we have been given to care for  and enjoy, and moves me to celebrate all the years we’ve done it together…

Questions for Reflection

  1. How do you remember and celebrate the places of beauty or historical importance you have explored  by yourself or with travelling companions over the years?
  2. How – if at all – does that remembering nourish your soul?

Next week: TBA







#90 – The Post-Holiday Blues

“Trying to live all the time in rising or fullness is exhausting,” says Christine Valters Paintner, one of my favorite spiritual  writers, in her end-of-year meditation.

I thought about this in relation to the post-holiday “blues,” which most of us, I imagine, try to avoid.  Or at least I do.

Aunt Esther Musselman and husband, Russ, in 1996

While my parents were still living, we drove to Pennsylvania on Christmas Day, arriving in time for a light supper and Christmas carol singing with my Aunt Esther. Going to Pennsylvania, I could let go of the pre-Christmas busyness of the Provident Bookstore or the congregation I was serving and enjoy the anticipation of spending time with my Pa. family.


But the drive home five days later felt very different.  I felt just plain sad. I knew I wouldn’t see my family again for 4 or 6 months, and let’s face it, Ontario in January is pretty dull for people like me who don’t enjoy winter sports. I also thought of the major hosting my sister-in-law did, and how exhausted she must be afterwards.

Our travel pattern changed when my mother died in 2003.   We stayed in Ontario in December, heading for Stratford on Boxing Day for a couple overnights. It was a way to decompress after a lot of holiday activity – and to try to avoid the post-Christmas blues. But I still “came down” when we arrived home from Stratford.

This year, we ate Christmas dinner with friends and planned mostly low-key holiday activity. We decided not to go to Stratford.

So I scheduled some things at home to nourish my spirit, wondering  – in what state will be my spirit be after the holidays this year?

Here are some nourishing things I planned for the last days of December and into January:

  1. Joshua-Ehlebracht-Headshot
    Joshua Ehlebracht

    The day Sam watched three football games on TV, I arranged with a friend to go to an organ concert by 19-year-old Joshua Ehlebracht at St. Peters Lutheran Church in downtown Kitchener. Beginning with the Nutcracker Suite and ending with Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, with lots of Bach in between, Ehlebracht stunned us with his talent and confidence.  The large church was nearly full.  Ehlebracht can be a bit of a showman who projects fun at the organ. He wore a black tee shirt which sparkled when he moved. Two-tone green and silver shoes completed his otherwise black outfit.I felt wonderful when I came home – and sorry for Sam, since the “wrong team” won in all three football games he watched!

  2. We competed with each other for a turn with the puzzle Kittens in the Basket, and completed it on New Years’ Eve day.
  3. Michelle-ObamaI enjoyed browsing at Wordsworth Books a couple times, savouring a gift certificate. I bought (and enjoyed) a book I would call an “entertainment” – The Colors of all the Cattle, the latest in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana lady detective series.Over Christmas, I read more heady tomes, including Michelle Obama’s very well-written memoir, Becoming. She’s clearly a self-aware woman, talking about her journey with an amazing lack of invective. More difficult but also a worthwhile read was Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. The author expertly reveals what the Wilder books hide. Laura and her daughter Rose created and added to myths about western settlement and the pioneer life which, in her opinion, have negatively contributed to U.S. self-understandings.
  4. Of course we managed a drive north of Waterloo, visiting Martin’s Family Fruit and Stemmler’s Meats on New Year’s Eve day.

And yes, we built in lots of reflection time.

….There’s really nothing wrong with “coming down” after Christmas. It’s a time to savour the joys and acknowledge the disappointments of extended family time, to step back from hosting, to read a book or take a drive or watch football on TV or listen to music or hope for snow or to simply be.

Christine Valters Painter notes that “when we turn to the natural world we find with each new day, each moon cycle, and each season a rhythm of rise and fall, fullness and emptiness.”

She’s helping me understand that we humans too are made to flow with the rise and fall of each day and with the changing seasons.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Do you tend to “come down” after the Christmas/New Year holidays?
  • If so, how is your spirit nourished during these “down times”?

Next week: TBA

#89 – The New Year 1900 (and 2019)

Maggie Moyer

“Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

Thus began a letter received by Maggie Moyer  from her girlfriend Sue Denlinger, written on January 2, 1900.  Maggie and Sue and other young adults corresponded with each other between attending Bible conferences together or working short stints at city missions.

Maggie Moyer eventually married Irvin Derstine and became my maternal grandmother. Since she died young, I never met her in person.  So I was thrilled when in the 1990’s a cousin made available a stash of letters between Maggie and her young adult friends.  They told me much about Maggie and about the church era in which she lived.

Here’s the whole quote from Maggie’s friend Sue in 1900:

Hitherto hath the Lord helped us, and during the year in which we have just started may we realize more and more that He is All, and in All.

There is something sad isn’t there about the dying year?   How many things have happened to each one of us since the first of January 1899.  What joys have been ours and again there were times when we cried out ‘Oh dear Lord, help us in this trial, or I will have to fall.’

And now we are in the last year of the century. Who knows what will be our portion in this year?  None but God.

I deeply connect with what Sue Denlinger wrote in a spirituality typical of 1900.

It’s certainly fascinating to see the particulars of the disasters people wrote about then, and to compare them to our own time.  For instance, in the letter Maggie read about two Lancaster, Pennsylvania people killed by trains, and another person who died months after being bitten by a cat.

Now, 119 years later, we’re concerned about climate change, and about people being killed in school or synagogue shootings. We assume we’ve greatly improved rail safety in the intervening years, until a tragedy like Lac-Mégantic in Québec comes along.  In Canada people rarely die from being bitten by a cat. Cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases are the health scourges of the western world today.

Yet this letter to my grandmother still speaks to me as the calendar turns over 119 years later: For “who knows what our portion will be in 2019? None but God.”

As I move further into the unknowns of cancer decline in the year ahead, at least two things in particular nourish my soul:

  1. I’m still bathed in the music from four acoustically wonderful venues during Advent: The Messiah at Centre in the Square, Menno Singers at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Advent Jazz in the Conrad Grebel chapel, and the Christmas Eve lessons and carols service at Rockway Mennonite. When I told an old friend that I stopped singing a few times on Christmas Eve so I could just absorb the music, she indicated that she had too!

I enter the new year both consoled and energized by having heard and sung the music of God with us once again.

  1. In our Christmas letter to folks geographically far away, Sam and I named a stance which nourishes my spirit as we move forward:

“We want to graciously receive each day we are given, and be open to whatever it brings.  I hope to keep blogging as long as I’m able, while enjoying Sam, family, and friends from near and far.  The rest, as always, is in God’s merciful hands.”

Graciously-ReceivingHere is a mandala I colored last week, which I called “Graciously Receiving the Day.”  Gazing at it, my spirit finds nourishment and rest. Unfortunately, the restful colours haven’t reproduced as well as I’d like.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What does the turn to 2019 mean for you?
  2. How do you relate to this question and response:

“Who knows what our portion will be in 2019?  None but God.”

Whatever your situation, may you graciously receive each day.

And may your spirit be nourished in 2019 in ways expected and in ways astonishing….

Next week: TBA

#88 – Seizing the Day?

When it’s sunny and we don’t have much going, we tend to “seize the day” with a drive some distance through familiar countryside. We’ve enjoyed at least five such drives since mid-November, taking advantage of the relative warmth and lack of snow.  We attached a “purpose” – however flimsy – to each one of the drives.


Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op

Trip #1 – Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op.  We visit this beautiful space in downtown Owen Sound at least twice a year.  This time the purpose was for Sam to choose a Bruce County photo as a Christmas present from me. He started looking at the framed photos while I wandered off to the beeswax candles and the art cards. He chose so quickly I barely got to glance at the photo before it was securely wrapped by the clerk! So it will be a surprise for me  on Christmas Eve day.

The landscape along Hwy. 6 on the way north looked wonderful. We saw just enough snow to cover the gently rolling hills – and none on the road. We stopped for lunch at Pebbles, a Mennonite buffet at Varney, just south of Durham, where I know some of the food agrees with me.

Trip #2 – Simcoe. The following week, we drove south to Simcoe on a promising  day to deliver a couple books which a friend ordered.  Why put them in the uncertain mail, we wondered, when it’s such lovely day?  Plus I got to see my friend briefly! Lunch that day was a Subway sandwich, an occasional treat for both of us.

Again, we drove in sunshine, with just a little snow covering the rolling hills. The drive reminded me of my reflection time on the road during the years I had a spiritual director in the Simcoe area. I used to love the rural drive for three seasons of the year, not including winter.

Trip # 3 – St. John’s Convent.  One Wednesday we traveled much less serenely on the 401, the 407 and Yonge Street in Toronto. We had been determined to find a compatible date for spending an overnight at the convent before Christmas, and this was it.  We are always so pleased to get off the expressway and Yonge St., arrive at the very sheltered  convent, and then go walking in what is actually a quiet residential neighborhood.

The next day, on the way home, we had coffee with a friend at a restaurant near the Yonge St. entrance to the 407. Steeped in the peace of the convent, I really didn’t think about the upcoming drive home during the afternoon commute!

CandlesTrip #4 – Burning Hanukkah Candles. This time we drove west, picking up an old friend at the retirement home where he lives north of Stratford. Again, we drove through lovely countryside to get there.  An added bonus was going into Stratford to a place which permitted us to burn Hanukkah candles. I was pleased to find a way for the three of us to revive our thirty-year tradition of setting up a menorah and watching the dancing coloured candles in darkness for 45 minutes or more before they burned themselves out.


Farm near Glen Allan, Ontario

Trip #5 – To Dorking and the Country Sisters. One Saturday, we delivered a book in Elmira, then headed west on the old Hwy. 86.  We had passed Dorking Groceries & Home Baking, run by Markham Mennonites, many times when it wasn’t open, and had determined to stop in when it was open. We bought some Christmas cookies from a good saleswoman who would have sold us the whole store! We also ate a very basic lunch at Country Sisters just up the road, and could also have reveled in lots of their yummy-looking Christmas baking.

Looking back on these drives, I think they were not so much about “seizing the day” as about “graciously receiving the day”. For they included Advent time seeing old friends, viewing beautiful artwork and going on retreat, as well as  driving through the sunny  southwestern Ontario countryside.  “Seizing the day” sounds too forceful – violent even- for our gentle endeavors.

Christmas blessings to all as you visit with family and friends. And, if you’re driving in the countryside in daylight (especially in sunshine!), take a moment to let your eyes and your spirit graciously receive what you see…

Question for Reflection:

What’s the difference for you between “seizing the day” and “graciously receiving the day”?  Which stance beckons you as Christmas nears?

Next week: A new year beckons….

#87 – Ode to Joy

Cradled in a safe space…Enveloped in a familiar joy…Transported to marvelous destinations I already know….How else can I describe my musical journey of the past weekend?

Messiah-2018-12-08First of all, Handel’s Messiah. Why does the excitement build each year as I anticipate going to the Centre in the Square to be enfolded by 120 voices from the Grand Philharmonic Choir, plus members of the K-W Symphony and soloists?

I keep pondering why this oratorio is such a must for me. The first notes of the overture and the words “comfort ye” from the tenor soloist do indeed transport me to a marvelous place I already claim.  I land back in the concert hall two and a half hours later, as the full-voice choir sings “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” with the long amen.

In the meantime, I wait for the solos “Behold a virgin shall conceive,”  “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” I hear echoes of various budding soloists from my past while listening to the accomplished ones on tonight’s stage.

I listen in expectation for the choruses “For unto us a child is born,”  “His yoke is easy and his burden is light,” and of course the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Each year I remember a snowy December night when I was in London on church business, and made the unwise decision to drive home. Furthermore, I decided to take the “back way” which I usually drove between London and Kitchener, consisting of rural roads with little traffic.

I had the CD The Gift of Messiah  with me that night.  The music in the car and the barn lights along the way somehow cradled me in a safe space and got me home….

Incarnation-2018-12-09Incarnation: Menno Singers. One other musical experience also defined last weekend for me – Incarnation, brought to us by the 50-voice Menno Singers choir. Here we were cradled in the sanctuary of an old downtown church, surrounded by gorgeous sound, whether a cappella voices or organ accompaniment.

Since it was a lessons and carols service, we sang five hymns throughout the afternoon. I loved the experience of being rocked and held by music even while participating in the music making. A headline in Monday’s Globe and Mail proclaimed “Odes to Joy: Researchers study the uplifting power of singing.” And I thought: I do believe Mennonite congregations and choirs of all sorts have known this for a long time!

I loved so many things about the Menno Singers approach, including their use of two composers from within the choir, as well as readers and soloists from the choir, as well as another well-known local composer.

I enjoyed hearing again some familiar lilting music from my childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 60s, including old carols at the manger arranged by Alice Parker.

I relished being at the first Menno Singers event following the recent death of Abner Martin, the choir’s founder in 1955 and conductor for 20 years.

And – there’s lots of Advent music still to come. I’m looking forward to  Advent Jazz at Conrad Grebel University College; three more worship services at Rockway Mennonite Church; and – of great importance! – our annual Children’s Christmas Pageant.

Oh the joy!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which annual Advent music presentations – if any – are you unable to do without?
  2. How does the music of Advent nourish your spirit?

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#86 – By the tender mercy of our God…

7:25 am on December 6 at St. John’s Convent (Willowdale)

I woke up this morning at my second spiritual home – the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine. I parked myself at a particular window and watched the light increase through the trees facing St. John’s Rehab Hospital next door. I remembered the morning sky at home the day before -pink and yellow streaks amidst grey clouds in the big sky.

I recited the Song of Zechariah, anticipating our collective chanting of it in the chapel at Morning Prayer:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 2: 78-79, NRSV

It struck me again that the days become shorter and shorter during Advent, with the Longest Night at the winter solstice on December 21. When the nights are darkest and the days shortest, legend has it that the Christ Child was born.

So many phrases come to me from Scripture, Christmas carols and other Christian songs, speaking of light overcoming darkness.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. From the song “Christ, be our light” (Sing the Journey #54 ): “Longing for light we wait in darkness…Christ be our light.”
  2. Various songs from the Taize community, especially
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let not my doubt nor my darkness speak to me.
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let my heart always welcome your love.”
  3. The wonderful affirmation from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:5, 9, NRSV).

But the play of light and darkness is not always as we first imagine. For there’s another biblical tradition about light and darkness, supported by mystics and by many fewer songs. This tradition indicates that God is working in the dark, perhaps in hidden, imperceptible ways.  The hope in this tradition is not necessarily for the light to shine and the darkness to please go away! The hope rather is to begin to accept and grasp God at work in the dark.

John Michael Talbot’s provocative song, “Holy darkness,” speaks of darkness as “Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.” It affirms that “as we await you, O God of silence, We embrace your holy night.” Here’s the YouTube link if you’d like to listen to it.  Please note that all the indistinct words that could be either “night” or “light” in the song are actually “night.”

So… I want to keep chanting the Song of Zechariah, filled with hope.  I also want to keep exploring that other biblical tradition – the one where we accept the darkness and look for God’s unseen treasures within it.

A two-piano version of the Bach Chorale “Sheep Shall Safely Graze” always settles me, reminding me that sheep in an enclosure at night with a shepherd nearby are as “safe” – if not safer – than sheep grazing freely in the light during the day….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When and how have you welcomed the light?
  2. When and how – if at all – have you found God in the darkness?

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#85 – From Eternity Sunday to First Advent

Eternity Sunday is one of the most sacred Sundays of the church year for me. On this Sunday  at our church, we are invited to name a person important to us who has died over the past year, lighting a candle in remembrance. I lit a candle for my sister-in-law Ethel Clemmer, who died in February 2017.

After lighting candles, we receive communion. As we do so, the veil between those now living and those living on in memory seems to be as thin as it gets.

A week after Eternity Sunday comes the first Sunday of Advent – the first Sunday of a new church year.  I always consider the week in between as my time  to get ready for Advent, with simple rituals and tasks that I hope will nourish my spirit.

So here’s what I’m doing this week:

  1. Dove-and-treePutting up the tree. Our tree is now an artificial tabletop one with attached white lights. Most of the decorations are from Ten Thousand Villages, or represent special gifts we have been given over the years. The tree looks too full, as I’m tempted to display all these treasures at once. This year I’m highlighting a beautiful cloth dove, made by a former parishioner with health problems who has since died.
  2. Setting up the home Advent wreath. This turns out to be not as simple as expected! Three years ago a major church supply store closed in Kitchener-Waterloo.  I bought up three years’ worth of Advent candles at that time,  thinking that would hold me for awhile. Now those candles are burned, and  I can ‘t  find candles in  suitable colours for a home Advent wreath anywhere!  Christmas-wreathSo for a start, I’ve improvised with the few candles I have, whether of the “right” colour or not. I like to light a candle or candles each night during Advent as we begin supper.
  3. Decorating the front door. Rather than putting a Christmas decoration on our condo unit door, we choose a winter scene which Sam has photographed. It’s fun to walk the halls and see what people have chosen (if anything) for their doors.
  4. Displaying the Nativity a friend made for me many years ago out of clothes pins and scraps of cloth. I especially enjoy Mary’s flowing gown, the fuzzy sheep, and the colourful magi with their gifts.Nativity-set
  5. Buying tickets for Advent musical events. I love to nourish my spirit each Advent by wrapping myself in music. So far we’ve purchased tickets for Messiah at the Centre in the Square (an annual “must do”) as well as Menno Singers tickets for a Sunday afternoon concert.
  6. Jigsaw-puzzleBuying the Christmas jigsaw puzzle. We found this one – Kittens in the Basket – at the Living Waters Bookstore, now relocated just west of Elmira, Ontario. We like their huge selection of puzzles.
  7. Choosing an Advent devotional book to follow. This year it will be a well-worn tome which includes the O Antiphons. Here is one of my favorite “O Antiphons,” especially fitting for welcoming the dawn:

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light,
     sun of justice;
Come, shine on all who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death. 

(From Your Prayerful JOURNAL for Advent, Bridget Mary Meehan, Liguori Publications, 1993).

I’ve loved repeating this antiphon or the Song of Zechariah from which it is taken (Luke 1: 78-79) while welcoming the dawn.

 And so I stand expectantly, waiting for Advent 2018 to nourish my spirit in ways familiar and perhaps also surprising….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are you part of a community that remembers those who have died by lighting a candle on Eternity Sunday or by some other ritual of remembrance?  If so, how does this nourish your own spirit?
  2. What do you do to prepare your spirit and your house for Advent? How is your spirit nourished by these preparations?

Next Week: TBA


#84 – The Sears Nativity Set

When I was a little girl I didn’t have a Christmas tree to decorate, or even electric candles to plug in at the front windows.

But I did have a favorite getting-ready-for-Christmas ritual. Right after (U.S.) Thanksgiving each year, Mom and I put together the Sears Nativity Set, then displayed it on top of the record player.

For most of the year the pressed board stable and painted ceramic figures rested in a box in the attic, each nestled in their own little compartments for safekeeping.

But the day came when Mom and I fetched that box from Sears, Roebuck and Company down from the attic.

Vintage nativity set similar to my childhood set. This one sold on Ebay.

First Mom set up the stable, then I placed baby Jesus in his own tiny manger, with Mary and Joseph watching from behind.  After that I hung the angel from its special hook, overlooking the scene.  Then the shepherds arrived, along with their dog and a couple sheep.  Next I carefully arranged the Wise Men, one kneeling in adoration, the other two standing, offering frankincense and myrrh while the camels waited nearby.

Finally came the star – just a yellow bulb dangling from a star-shaped hole at the back of the stable.  But when I plugged in that bulb, the whole nativity scene was bathed in pale light.  To an image-starved child it was wonderful.  I spent hours looking at it or moving the characters around, letting them tell their stories. Through most of my childhood, a windup music box attached to the stable also played Silent Night endlessly.

As a young adult, I claimed that manger scene.  I carefully set it up it each year and placed it at a prominent spot in my own home. Of course we had a Christmas tree also, and candles burning all over the place.

Yet I kept that nativity set until well into my 50s. I liked to use the figures as props at a local nursing home where I told the Christmas story. The residents woke up and gently touched the figures, their faces glowing.

Then one Sunday I displayed the manger scene in the pulpit area at church. Children cruised by to look at the figures and to handle them.

A museum curator in our midst became quite agitated. “Do you know how much these vintage sets are worth?” he asked. “They’re not children’s toys!”

I realized that the figures were getting chipped in a few places, so I decided to put the set in the silent auction at our local thrift shop, before it looked worse.

Yet I miss that dear old nativity set from my childhood.  I’ve found a set with the “right” angel on the internet, and another set where the humans and animals look accurate.  But I haven’t found an exact replica of “my” set.

Through “my nativity set,”  I entered the Story and made it my own.  Residents of a long-term care facility entered the Story and made it their own.

That’s one reason I’m a cheerleader for children’s Christmas pageants in churches.  I hope that via words and music and actions and costumes children will enter the Story and claim it as their own.  I hope the Christmas story will touch little ones in a deeper way than the mall Santas and the canned music everywhere.

I hope that on Christmas Eve children and adults of all ages will sing in calm wonder in the glow of candlelight, as we enter the Story and claim it once more as our own.

From Hymnal: a Worship Book

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which getting-ready-for-Christmas ritual from your childhood or earlier adulthood has continued to nourish your spirit?
  2. By what means do you or your children or your grandchildren enter the Story of Jesus’ birth?

Next week: TBA


#83 – Delighted by Hoarfrost (No Matter What)

On Tuesday morning I woke up to a gorgeous display of hoarfrost on the trees outside our 10th floor condo windows.

HoarfrostSuch displays always surprise me – and send me to the obscure book of Ecclesiasticus.  As part of a long list, the writer exclaims:

“Over the earth, like salt, he [God] also pours hoarfrost, which, when it freezes, bristles like thorns….We could say much more and still fall short; to put it concisely, ‘He is all.’” (Ecc. 43: 19, 27)

The beauty of hoarfrost ushered in my day on Tuesday with gratitude.

New-Horizons-magazine-last-issue-1That stance of gratitude was reinforced for me recently in an article written by my high school classmate Marty Kolb-Wyckoff.  Two different people sent me her article, Living with Loss, from the Fall 2018 issue of New Horizons (a publication of the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Pa.)

Loss presents itself to us in a myriad of ways. For Marty, it’s most apparent in the ongoing dimming of her eyesight, caused by a defective gene which has been rife in her family.

“How,” she asks, “do I live with some sense of meaning while continuing to lose function and ability?” It’s a significant question for many of us.

Marty names three behaviors which she has found helpful:

  1. “Face the challenges presented by the loss. Acknowledge the hurt, the pain, the disappointment, the grief, the sadness – whatever the feelings are that result from the loss.”
  2. “Find new opportunities…we need to see beyond the loss to something new, to that which can give us meaning and joy in ways we have not experienced before.”
  3. “Focus on today…One way I seek to live in the ‘now’ is to pay attention to all that I am grateful for.”

It strikes me that the three behaviors Marty suggests are ones I’ve tried to embrace in my journey with cancer.

I’ve grieved the loss of independence in surrendering my driver’s license.  I’ve grieved closing down my spiritual direction practice. It was sad to resign from co-leading a fiction reading group at the women’s prison.  I’ve grieved having to eat ever so carefully in restaurants and in people’s homes. I miss being “in the loop.”

Grand River Transit bus on the 7A route

Yet I’ve also found new opportunities to engage in spiritual (and other!) conversation with blog readers. I’ve enjoyed learning more about our multi-cultural city by riding the city bus. I’ve delighted in connecting in various ways with friends old and new, as energy permits.

And I find that on many days, gratitude wells up of its own accord.  It’s not always as obvious as opening the blinds and seeing hoarfrost. Gratitude can come as a response to a difficult but honest conversation with a medical professional. It can arise when I’m reading a really satisfying novel or memoir, or during an e-mail exchange with someone I haven’t seen for a while. Gratitude can overwhelm me when a Psalm or an icon or a song on my playlist really connects for me.

On many days, I’m quietly rejoicing with the writer of Psalm 138:3:

“On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.” (NRSV)

And on days when my “strength of soul” feels weak, I remember that wonderful assurance from Romans:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 NRSV).

…And always – no matter what else is going on – I delight in hoarfrost!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What natural occurrence – whether hoarfrost or something else – causes gratitude and delight to well up in you?
  2. In a loss you are undergoing now or have in the past, how do you receive Marty’s three behaviors for living with loss?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.