#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.


#17 – Remembering Mr. Mast

Each summer I read my journals from seven years ago.

So over the past weeks I’ve delved back into my four journals from Summer 2009 through Summer 2010.  I saved pages that brought back significant turning points or recalled people who have nourished my spirit.  Then I shredded the rest, for the journals are for me, not for anyone else’s eyes.

Walter-MastOne entry reminded me once again of Mr. Mast, my 7th grade English teacher. Here’s what I wrote about him in my 2013 ministry memoir, Flowing with the River, now out of print:

Mr. Mast held the chalk between his fingers like a cigarette.  He talked about God openly, but not in language most of us heard in church.  Apparently it was okay to cry out in pain and defiance to Mr. Mast’s God. Most of us weren’t used to that.

Mr. Mast gave assignments in Grade 7 English at Souderton Area Junior High School which most students pronounced “weird.”  He didn’t try to cram grammar into our heads, as most teachers did.  Instead he lined up art prints in the blackboard trays, asking us each to pick one and create a story about it. A picture of dreamy-looking young women inspired me to write about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters on the American prairie – based, as it turned out, on a French Impressionist painting!

Vivaldi-CDSometimes Mr. Mast brought a record player into class, played a piece of orchestral music, and asked us to describe where the music took us or how it made us feel. Later he might tell us that the composer had in mind donkeys descending into the Grand Canyon or the sounds of spring.

I loved those assignments.  They drew something out of me which no other teacher had. They introduced me to new worlds, since we had neither art prints nor classical music at home. Mr. Mast also demonstrated how music and images could inspire my faith and help me express it.  I had never imagined such a possibility.

In response to one of Mr. Mast’s recordings I wrote:

I was overwhelmed by the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.  As the calmness of evening grew into the darkness of night, I felt an urgent need to do my best for my Master. This would be thanking him in the best way possible for the unspeakable riches he had just shown me.

Mr. Mast responded to my burst of adolescent piety with an A+, then these words in red ink:

You are a true poet and have a beautiful faith.  “Feed my sheep” – and the sheep have a need for many kinds of food.  What are our talents?  How can we best use them?

Thus my grade 7 public school English teacher articulated for me a call floating on the breeze throughout my childhood – a gentle breeze which I felt whenever those family missionaries and ministers graced my Mom’s dinner table.

Looking back I wonder: as a 13-year-old, did I know Mr. Mast’s Bible reference?  Or did I ask my Mom what Mr. Mast meant, and did she point me to the story of Jesus and Peter on the beach after Jesus’ resurrection?

In any case, Mr. Mast’s red words lodged themselves at some deep place within me.  So much so that I came to understand my call to church vocation in the John 21 pattern:

“Susan, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know I love you!”

(Well then): “Feed my sheep.”

Mr. Mast blessed me by taking my piety seriously, by enriching it with music and art, and by teasing it towards a vocation I took up decades later.

…That’s what I wrote about Mr. Mast in 2013. Then last week in reading a journal from 2010, I discovered that Jesus’ dialogue with Peter had come back to me as I’d considered a significant change of direction. Fifty years after Mr. Mast gave it to me, that text from John 21 was still an anchor point as I sorted out the next expression of my call.

I saved that journal entry, and thanked God once again for my weird 7th grade English teacher. And I still play a CD of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in the car when we drive through lovely scenery….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Recall a teacher or other adult whose words or actions lodged themselves at some deep place within you and helped give direction to your life.
  2. Is there a Bible passage or other text which has stayed with you over the years and become an anchor as you make decisions?
  3. If you keep a journal, what do you do with your old ones? Why?

Next Week: What do Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kathleen Norris and Rudy Wiebe have in common?

#16 – The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

Convent LogoThe (Anglican) Convent of St. John the Divine in Toronto is one of my spiritual homes.  I’ve been making an overnight retreat there at least four times a year for the past 27 years.

On my most recent visit, Sr. Dorothy greeted me by name when I arrived at the guest house office.  Then Frisca, the guest house administrator, welcomed me warmly.

Mandella1I checked the board and found that Frisca had assigned me to St. Helena – the room with a view of three majestic pines, my favorite. I lugged my bags up the steep flight of stairs and settled in by playing a Scrabble game, my usual pattern….

My spiritual director, Ruth, arranged my first visit to the convent 27 years ago. With her guidance I started going on silent retreats. At that time the convent was perched just across a ravine from the furiously busy Highway 401.  I could hear the muffled roar from the chapel. Getting off the 401 and immediately entering sacred space was jarring but most welcome!

At first the convent seemed so foreign to me.  But over time I learned the Anglican prayer book.  As I chanted Psalms to musical tones my mind and my body slowed down; I felt at-one-ness with the Sisters in worship. Since I was a pastor at that time, I looked forward to receiving the Eucharist simply as a worshipper. Eventually it felt natural to eat meals with others in silence and to not make eye contact in the hallways.

Mandella2From the convent’s site on Botham Road, I took long walks in a residential neighborhood undergoing gentrification. I tried to guess which old houses had been razed for a new start, and which ones had been gutted and renovated almost beyond recognition. On those walks, I mused how God’s Spirit gently and sometimes not-so-gently renovated me and the congregations I served.

My retreats continue at the convent’s new site on the quiet grounds adjacent to a rehab hospital they used to run. I sense “prayer in the walls,” as the guest house used to be the residence for nuns who worked at the hospital.

I always look forward to a forced break from the tyranny of e-mail and from all social media, as well as a forced break from speaking, other than during worship. At the beginning of a retreat, my hope is that sinking into outer silence will begin to still my inner clamour as well. I always sleep very well.

Sometimes my retreat offers a chance to discern something at hand.  More often I assume that God will provide whatever I need – sometimes through a book for sale or one I’ve brought with me, sometimes through a hymn or a Psalm we’re chanting, sometimes through walking the labyrinth on the lawn.

I could worship with the Sisters four times a day in the chapel – Morning Prayer at 8:30, the Eucharist at 12:00, Evening Prayer at 5:00, and Compline (or Night Prayer) at 8:10. I usually skip morning prayer, since my pattern is to get up early, watch the light increase through the trees, then write for a long time in my journal and go for a walk.

Over 27 years, I’ve gotten to know some of the Sisters and their varying personalities, even though I’ve rarely spoken to any of them other than the Guest Sister and the second-last Reverend Mother. I greatly respect the Sisters’ way of life. I’m impressed with their social conscience and with their Benedictine hospitality. While I have no formal relationship with them – I’m neither an associate nor an oblate nor a residential “alongsider” – I see them as my sisters.

Mandella3I vividly remember some of my encounters with the Holy One while on retreat. Other times feel more like a calm oasis, preparing me to step back into a full life at home. Or perhaps some discomfort in me begins, signalling a shift, with much more work to do after I leave.

For the last five years or so, I’ve coloured a mandala towards the end of each retreat, letting the colours choose themselves.  I look at it when I’m finished, and a title presents itself to me –  such as “Spinning Out New Life – expressing the theme of my 24 hours there.

While I was a pastor, I urgently needed these times away to focus on my own spiritual life. They are still an enormous gift of God’s grace to me.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever gone on a spiritual retreat? If so, how did you experience that time away?  How has this focus on your inner life nourished your spirit?
  2. What other ways have you found of taking a time apart for your spirit to be nourished?

Next week: Summer Reading Discoveries

#15 – Family Weddings

Courting picture of  my parents, Martha Derstine and Lester Clemmer

How Mennonite weddings have changed over  the last century! My parents’ wedding took place at the bishop’s house on June 12, 1926.  It was a “double wedding” together with their friends Elmer and Elsie.  Nobody else attended. According to the bill from the dressmaker, my Mom’s silk dress cost $13.90.  I believe they headed for their wedding trip to Washington DC immediately afterwards, and my grandparents held a small family dinner at their farm when the couple returned.

I missed my only sibling Jim’s wedding to Ethel Alderfer because my mother was afraid I would disrupt the proceedings by crying. Since I was 11 months old at the time, she may have been right!

My Uncle Russ was one of the first people in our circle to own a movie camera, and he made the most of it at Jim and Ethel’s wedding at her home farm in 1948.  I’ve seen his little film so often I think I was there!

Wedding photo of my brother, Jim Clemmer, to Ethel Alderfer

Ethel says they drove to Quakertown for formal picture-taking with car horns blaring immediately after the wedding, then came back to the farm for a ham dinner and wedding cake.

Lots of older cousins married during my childhood years, and I attended all the weddings held in our community, and at least one in Ohio.  What I loved most about those weddings was when the couple opened their presents for all to see, and when they fed each other a piece of wedding cake.

I participated in my cousin Helen’s wedding in Maryland as a bridesmaid – the only family wedding I’ve actually been in. I was a student at Goshen College in Indiana at that time, and traveled to Maryland by train.

Sam and I with niece Karen, and nephews Gerry and Ken (back), baby Andy, and Mike (squinting)

As an adult, I attended the weddings of each of my four nephews, since they had each graciously attended mine (actually, they had no choice…it was a family vacation).

My memories of them at my wedding are captured in this photo, with Gerry holding his baby brother Andy a bit awkwardly (did the baby smell, I wonder?) and Mike squinting.

Perhaps what I remember most from the weddings of my four nephews is Mike singing to his bride April as she walked down the aisle (a surprise for her!).

One of Mom’s last trips was travelling to Hagerstown, Maryland for Andy and Pam’s wedding. She was persuaded to let Sam and me take her on that trip when her sister Mildred went along to visit with her daughter, my cousin Gerry, who lived (and still lives) in the same community.

Hannah Clemmer Ulloa and Alex Ulloa, with her parents, April and Michael Clemmer

In recent years, the weddings of Jim and Ethel’s grandchildren have also served as significant family reunions. Sam and I have been pleased to attend the wedding or Pa. reception of each of my great nieces. All 40 members of Jim and Ethel’s family showed up at Hannah and Alex’s wedding earlier this month. I wish my brother Jim had been alive to see it!

During the growing up years of Jim and Ethel’s grandchildren, family dinners and annual family beach vacations kept the cousins connected with each other.  So now they and the aunts and uncles show their support at milestone events such as weddings and graduations. And at Hannah and Alex’s wedding, it was fun to see five little girl cousins in yet another generation getting into the act, swirling on the dance floor in their matching party dresses….


Questions for Reflection:

  1. On what occasions (if any) do members of your extended family of origin still get together?
  2. How do you experience those times?  What is nourishing for your spirit? What (if anything) causes stress?

Next week: The Sisters of St. John the Divine

#14 – Of Wind and Sea, Cows and Canada Day

When I return to a known vacation spot, I hope for a mix of things fondly remembered and things unexpected. I’m eager to see whether remembered splendors still shine the second time around, and to add new sights and sounds to my sensory treasure chest.

LupinsDuring our recent week on Prince Edward Island (PEI), I reveled again in many things we experienced ten years ago.  Here are just five of them:



  • Sighting colourful lupines blooming by the roadside.
  • Strolling along the boardwalk at the Charlottetown harbor, this time with tall ships framed against a gray sky.
  • Savoring the richness of PEI’s own Cows ice cream with its 16% butterfat!
  • Seeing Anne of Green Gables – the Musical once again, as vibrant and endearing as ever in its 53rd year.
  • Walking the Greenwich Dunes Trail at PEI National Park, still amazed at its varying habitats. In 45 minutes we sauntered down an old farm lane, picked our way through a woodlot, and crossed over Bowley Pond on a floating “boardwalk” (now made of hard plastic).

    BoardwalkThen came the hard climb to the top of the dunes with a stunning view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, followed by a careful descent down to the beach.

I loved standing at the top of the dunes and looking both directions – to the boardwalk behind me and the ocean in front of me.

But what held my fullest attention this time on PEI were the sights, sounds and sensations of a place we hadn’t explored before.  North Cape, at the northern tip of the island on the western side, hosts the Atlantic Wind Test Site and the Wind Farm Interpretive Centre.

A publicity brochure calls Cape North “a symphony for the senses.” Standing in this harsh yet wonderful windswept place where land meets sea, I agreed.

Wind-TurbinesI felt enveloped by the soft swoosh of many types of wind turbines, with the rhythmic hiss of the surf as counterpoint. I watched the lighthouse flash its steady warning to ships about the rock reef extending two kilometers offshore.

I marveled at the waters of the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence merging with their different colours. And on the shore, my eyes took in the Irish moss, a type of seaweed being harvested with a moss scoop.

FoxesOn a dune by the research station, I spotted two red foxes outside their dens, surrounded by a meadow of wildflowers. And at the Wind and Reef Restaurant on the grounds, I relished the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the best grilled haddock I’ve ever eaten.

But while I enjoyed these splendors of PEI, another set of realities also clamored for my attention.

We deliberately planned our trip to PEI to coincide with Canada Day, thinking Charlottetown would be a fascinating place to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1. For after all, the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 is what got the confederation ball rolling, despite the poor welcome for its delegates. (They needed to sleep on board their ships the first night, since a travelling circus had filled up all the available land accommodations!)

I was indeed in Charlottetown for Canada’s 150th birthday. But strangely, I didn’t much feel like celebrating. I watched exuberant people decked out in red, and caught the tail end of a parade in a nearby town, but my spirit was heavy.

For the image of that tepee pitched on the grounds of Parliament Hill in Ottawa stayed with me.  It brought to mind so clearly the reality of who was not represented at the Charlottetown Conference or any other deliberations about confederation of the British North American colonies. The fallout continues 153 years later….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When you return to a known vacation spot, what mix between things fondly remembered and things unexpected are you hoping for?
  2. Where have you experienced “a symphony for the senses”?
  3. At times of national celebration, how do you deal with the reality that some groups such as indigenous people were not at the table, with unhealed consequences to this day?

Next week:

Family Weddings

#13 – Finding the Amish on Prince Edward Island

“The wash” gave them away. When I saw that clothesline of purple and blue shirts and dresses fluttering in the breeze, I knew we’d done it!

My Mennonite historian husband and I had found a settlement of Old Order Amish in the sparsely-populated eastern part of Prince Edward Island.  We knew a few families had migrated from two areas of Ontario in the last year or so, but weren’t sure we had enough information to locate them.  Doing so was one of the highlights of our recent vacation on PEI. (We always search for settlements of small Anabaptist-related groups wherever we travel.)

Below is a “guest blog” from Sam Steiner about our experience.

Summer-SausageSeveral weeks ago, my wife Sue and I had the opportunity to find two Old Order Amish settlements on PEI during a vacation there. We knew only general locations based on newspaper articles. We searched back roads north and east of Bridgetown, and had about given up that part of the search, when Sue spotted from Highway 4, just west of Bridgetown, a clothesline full of Amish-colored clothing. There was no mailbox, but a hand-painted sign advertised Summer Sausage and Maple Syrup. As I took a picture of the sign a horse and buggy turned in the lane, and across the road a young Amish lad was dealing with the truck delivering feed.

Harness-ShopThe next farm, identified as a Kuepfer family, advertised a harness shop and “free-range brown eggs.” This settlement, seemingly the smaller of the two on PEI, was composed of Amish from the Milverton area of Ontario.

We then explored between Montague and Summerville. On a sideroad west of Montague we found the first of many Miller families, again alerted by a clothesline of colorful wash.

BakeryWe soon found, east of Summerville on Highway 3, more Miller families, including a Miller bakery that unfortunately was not open on the day of our exploration. We did not linger to take more pictures, since a young Amish girl in a dark green dress was walking towards us on the side of the road, and we didn’t want to cause alarm, or invade their privacy by taking their picture.

This settlement appeared to be larger than the “Milverton Amish” settlement at Bridgetown. There was much evidence of new buildings being erected in this settlement, and it seemed relatively compact, which speaks well for its long term prospects. Besides the multiple Miller families, we also saw Byler and Troyer family names. The roots of this settlement are the Old Order Amish community around Norwich, Ontario. These Amish are somewhat more conservative than the Milverton Amish.

SignThe CBC in Prince Edward Island provided an “Amish 101” article in 2016 that is quite helpful in distinguishing the two groups. The PEI government has also begun to erect road signs near the Amish communities on the larger roads, though “evidence” of horses was not as easily spotted as on some Region of Waterloo roads!

After our return to Ontario, we learned that five Old Order Mennonite families have also moved to Prince Edward Island this summer (2017). My informant did not know a precise location, but said they were west of the Confederation Bridge.

I (Sue) was sad that the Bakery was closed on Mondays, so I was unable to buy a loaf of bread or a fruit pie or some cinnamon buns (or all three!) from Mrs. Miller. I would have loved to talk with her, tell her I am from Ontario, and wish her and her family a peaceful life on PEI. I’m pleased that these distant spiritual cousins of ours have found a compatible rural setting for maintaining their way of life, that they are well-received by the surrounding community, and that they’ve joined 2000 Buddhist monks in re-populating eastern PEI!

The Miller’s bakery building is situated near the road, while their house and barn are further back on the property, hidden from the road behind a thick row of trees. I hope the PEI Amish can find ways of keeping their privacy, while interacting with the local community and passersby via farm-based businesses, as they were used to doing in Ontario. I wish them well. Their adherence to a traditional lifestyle speaks to the part of my spirit that yearns for a “simpler” way of life….

Sam’s full blog, including background on the move to PEI, will be posted at https://ontariomennonitehistory.org on Monday, July 18.

Questions for Reflection:

Have you ever longed for a “simpler” way of life? If so, what practices of simplicity have you been able to incorporate into your present life?

Next week:

Of Wind and Sea, Cows and Canada Day

#12 – Meeting Emily (and Andy and Christina) in New England

We went to Rockland Maine last week to connect with Andy and Christina – Pennsylvania artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his Maine muse, Christina Olson. We found Andy at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and both of them at the Olson Farmstead nearby.

We didn’t expect to meet up with Emily.

Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. (Restored version.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Emily was a New England poet. When a few of her poems were first published, very few people took notice. But 130 years after her death, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is ranked with Walt Whitman as the most significant American poet of the 19th century.

Walking through downtown Rockland near the Farnsworth Art Museum, we chanced upon the Strand Theater. A sandwich board announced A Quiet Passion, the recent biopic about Emily Dickinson.  It seemed proper to view a film about this New Englander while in New England ourselves, so we decided to come back that evening.

We enjoyed the retro theater for its own sake – an old-style ticket booth on the sidewalk, a long snacks counter right inside the door, and a 350-seat theater with balcony, offering both films and live musical productions.

Strand-TheaterThe announcement on the screen to turn off all devices was a hoot, picturing a woman in a theatre seat with a typewriter, an old-fashioned phone, and an oven [no outside food permitted]!

I’d read some of Emily Dickinson’s 19th century verse in a fat anthology of American Literature in high school. I remembered her poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” and several others, but hadn’t thought of her much for decades.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

From Wikisource at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/%22Hope%22_is_the_thing_with_feathers_%E2%80%94

In the film, I identified with young Emily’s struggles to express religious views outside the local norms. I shared her anger at a newspaper editor who altered the punctuation and capitalization in her poems to fit the current conventions, and who changed words to make the meaning less oblique. I found the film hard to watch as Emily became more and more intense and reclusive, as her physical condition deteriorated, and as people important to her inner life kept moving away or dying.

I was astonished to recall that only 12 or so of her thousands of poems were published in her lifetime, altered and usually attributed to “anonymous”.

Later, a quick internet search revealed that when significant numbers of her poems were published in altered form after her death, opinion was mixed, with many critics viewing her as “half-educated” and not really knowing how poetry is to be written. Only in the 20th century did critics begin to see her as ahead of her time, writing a in proto-modern poetic form.  Only in 1955 were her poems published unaltered.

Difficult as it was to watch her struggles, I was glad to meet Emily last week….

As for Andy and Christina, stay tuned for a blog post later this summer, after I visit a Wyeth retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art near Philadelphia.  Or read Christina Baker Kline’s recent novel, A Piece of the World, a partially fictionalized backstory of Wyeth’s connections with the Olsons, leading to the  creation of his most famous painting, Christina’s World.

That novel is what drew me to Rockland in the first place, where I also had the unexpected privilege of connecting with Emily….

Question for Reflection:

What historical figures have you met through films or books or through visiting  museums or preserved historical sites? How did such “meetings” inspire you or cause you to think about these persons and their contributions in a new way?

Next week: The Ordinary Splendors of Prince Edward Island

#11 – Rowing Across the Current

Since childhood I’ve associated bodies of water with refreshment and renewal. My parents and I vacationed at Pecks Pond, a small lake in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, toting food, bedding and fishing gear to a cabin owned by friends.

Many years later in Ontario, my first spiritual director Ruth offered soul refreshment from her year-round cottage on Lake Huron. The rhythm of the water quieted me as we sank into comfy chairs by huge windows overlooking the lake.

And as I wrote in last week’s blog, Colpoys Bay at the base of the Bruce Peninsula has calmed me as its shown off “ordinary splendors” for the past 29 years.

In addition to all that, rivers keep beckoning me. My husband Sam, the photographer in our family, has taken countless photos of rivers over the years at my behest. Rivers will appear repeatedly in my blog. I’ve chosen to begin with the lazy Ohio viewed high above the banks at Ripley.

Ohio RiverWhen I’m actually on the river I can’t see beyond the next bend.  I need to trust the current to carry me. But 100 steps above the Ohio at Ripley, I view the river from an omniscient perspective. My eyes and my spirit take in two bends as I look downstream, and several more if I turn to face upstream. The present moment expands to include where I’ve come from and where I’m going. This comforts me.

Yet the Ohio River at Ripley has a story to tell beyond flowing from its origins in Pittsburgh to the mighty Mississippi. The river at Ripley tells not only a familiar story of flowing with the current, but also a story of rowing across the current.

For in the 19th century, it was at Ripley that nearly 2000 escaping slaves and their river guides crossed the dangerous boundary from the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio.

Rankin HouseAt the top of the hill above Ripley, just out of the river photo’s range, is a stop on the Underground Railroad known as Rankin House. The Rankins – Presbyterian minister John, his wife Jean, and their 13 children – apparently hid most of the 2000 slaves who crossed into freedom at Ripley. They expressed pride at never having “lost a passenger.”

Looking down at the river from their back yard, I’m filled with gratitude for the willingness of those river pilots to row across the current, for the courage of those who trusted them, and for the readiness of the Rankins to offer dangerous hospitality. I’m reminded when I’m called to be a river pilot, I have options beyond “going with the flow.”

The river below Rankin House reminds me that sometimes – likely more often than I choose to see – I’m called to row across the current. It reminds me that when God’s Spirit invites me to lean into new life for myself and others, it may well mean taking uncomfortable risks.

Loving my neighbor as myself…acting and speaking out for justice…these may require of me courage sustained over a long time.

Oddly enough, wrestling with this part of my call restores my soul. For a nourished spirit doesn’t only feed on the “feel good” stuff, but also on invitations like the one to join that mighty torrent of justice glimpsed by the prophet Amos.

Questions for Reflection:

When have you heard and responded to a call to “row across the current”?

How has doing so nourished the spirits of others?  Your own spirit?

Next week: Reflections on a Road Trip

#10 – Ordinary Splendors on the Bruce

Simply put, the cottage we rented for 25 years on Colpoys Bay at the base of the Bruce Peninsula became one of my spiritual homes.  When the cottage was sold several years ago, I consoled myself with the belief that the sense of home it evoked is by now deeply embedded within me.

IMG_5225Yet we rejoiced when we found a motel nearby with the same view of the bay.  Our stay at Waterview on the Bay for two nights each June brings back the peacefulness and wonder which characterized our bygone cottage days.

Earlier this week, we explored once again the ordinary splendors of the Bruce from that base near Wiarton, Ontario.

IMG_5201Each year it seems one or more of those ordinary splendors become luminous. Perhaps we chance upon a stately bird standing guard in the salmon stream we pass on one of our walks. Or a kilted man plays Amazing Grace on bagpipes at a lookout point at dusk. Or nature gifts us with Impressionist or Cubist art in clouds or trees reflected on the water. Or the sunset is especially splendid, with intense shades of purple and orange.

This year it was the orchids whose splendor became extraordinary. We wandered the back roads of the Bruce by car and walked the fens, on the lookout for two kinds of rare orchids native to the area.

Years ago, an employee of the Ontario Federation of Naturalists directed us to Summer Drive, which shows off the Yellow Lady Slipper in great abundance by the roadside. There she was again – dozens of clumps of her by the roadside.

IMG_5609We always visit the fens of the Bruce Peninsula, alkaline environments along the edge of Lake Huron which provide a habitat for certain rare and more common flowers. This year we found the Oliphant and Singing Sands fens wetter and more lush than usual.  Ducks landed and took off in standing water, a contrast to the usual dry cracked earth with just the hint of a small stream.  We enjoyed the delicate blue Dwarf Lake Iris as always, as well as the Pitcher Plant, this year less prolific than usual.

IMG_5625But truth be told, we were actually looking for the very rare Showy Lady Slipper, with her rose-coloured slipper and three white leaves. They’re hard to spot – whether close up or far away – because they like to hide in the shade of the dwarfed cedars and other growth. The last couple years we spotted just one blooming plant by a clump of cedars at the far back edge of the fen.

IMG_5640This year we directed our eyes to make a thorough search of the miniature cedars right by the boardwalk we were on. To our amazement, we walked right by a Showy Lady Slipper, fat and obvious and easy to photograph if one is paying attention.  Then we found another one close to the boardwalk, and yet another.  We spotted six in all in that fen. Thus an ordinary splendor of the Bruce became extraordinary….

IMG_5650Tuesday morning, I took one last look at the Bay, fixing this year’s visit in memory before packing the car to go home.  As usual, I felt a little sad to be heading back to ordinary life. Then suddenly a faint rainbow appeared, the first time in 29 years we’ve seen one over Colpoys Bay….

Colpoys Bay and the Bruce offer splendors daily to any who pay attention.  Maybe the promise of the rainbow is that paying attention can be practiced not only while in vacation mode, but also amidst the demands of daily life.  I hope so.

Next week: Rowing against the Current

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Is there a particular cottage [called a “cabin” in Pennsylvania], a campground, a beach, a lake, or a national park that has renewed your spirit?
  2. If so, what ordinary splendors have attracted your attention at that spot?
  3. How has that experience illuminated the rest of your life?

#9 – Welcoming the Dawn

I first consciously welcomed the dawn at a cottage we rented each June on Colpoys Bay at the base of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

Colpoys BayOne morning I happened upon sunrise – yellows, pinks and purples, first muted then magnificent.  The next day I deliberately rose before five a.m. to sit by the window with my cup of coffee, waiting. I marveled that each morning without fail the light increases.

I noticed the simplest of things: the ripple reaching towards shore as a fishing boat glides by; a set of headlights bobbing along the far shore; a family of ducks foraging near the water’s edge – and a lone pine jutting from the cedar grove, standing at attention.

In a burst of praise I wrote: “My gaze lifts beyond the water’s smooth surface to face into sunrise. It beckons so brightly, promising a new day. How can I not stand at attention? How can I not open my arms in welcome?”

…Now, eight years later, welcoming the dawn is one of my morning sitting practices. At least once a week – more often in wintertime – I light a candle and sit in silence, watching the light increase outside our tenth floor condo windows.

Sometimes I begin my sit at the stage called nautical dawn. My eyes register a blacked out section – the golf course – just across the road.   Beyond it, street lights twinkle.  High posts and bobbing headlights delineate the expressway in the near distance. Traffic lights turn red and green in the far distance.

Since I’m facing southwest, I can’t actually see the sun rise.  But I notice the black sky moving almost imperceptibly towards a deep grey, then to a lighter grey or blue. Soon the trees of the golf course reappear, and eventually the twinkling street lights fade away….

Sunrise in KitchenerSometimes my sitting practice begins later, during the golden hour, when the treetops already glow in low beams of sunlight and the sun reflects off high rise towers in downtown Kitchener.

Then I’m reminded of a prayer poem by Dom Helder Camara. He imagines skyscrapers in the golden light of morning participating in “creation’s hymn of praise.” (From A Thousand Reasons for Living, Fortress Press, 1981).

As I watch the light increase or revel in the golden hour of morning sunlight, I too participate in “creation’s hymn of praise.”  In my own way, I observe the morning hour called Lauds by Christians, Shacharit by Jews, and Salat al-fajr by Muslims.

When I’m at St. John’s Convent at Lauds, I join with the sisters in chanting the promise-filled Song of Zechariah:

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 1: 78-79 NRSV) 

Yet the impulse toward morning praise also moved the non-liturgical Mennonite congregation of my childhood.  Perhaps the oft-sung  I Owe the Lord a Morning Song was our Lauds. Lancaster County Mennonite preacher Amos Herr wrote “I owe the Lord a morning song/of gratitude and praise/for the kind mercy he has shown/in lengthening out my days.”  It appears in all the 20th century Mennonite hymnals under the tune name GRATITUDE.

For years I dismissed it.  I thought I’d sung it too often. Now I’m reclaiming it….

Questions for reflection:

Do you have a sitting, walking or jogging practice to welcome the day?

If so, what prompts you to praise during that time?

Next Week: Singing Sands, Showy Lady Slippers and Sabbath Rest

#8 – Sunday Afternoon Drives

1939-SpecialI was embarrassed by my Dad’s 1939 Buick,  inherited from his father. My friends drove around in normal cars with big fins, or in station wagons.  Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed those Sunday afternoon drives through the countryside north and west of Souderton, Pennsylvania.

Lester grillingSometimes a couple of my parents’ friends or one of my girlfriends accompanied us.  At other times, Dad, Mom and I toured the countryside by ourselves. Often the ostensible purpose was to look at an especially lovely field of wheat or barley which Dad the feed man had heard about.  But I loved those drives for their own sake. I loved them also because my Dad was at his most relaxed.

Sometimes we took along a picnic lunch and  Dad’s portable grill.  We’d find a roadside table and I’d sit there reading a book while he heated up the charcoal and grilled the burgers. We ate them with Mom’s wonderful potato salad, “her own” applesauce, and a piece (or two) of shoofly pie or funny cake….

Tree SilouetteNow on many Sunday afternoons after the Jays game is over, Sam and I head northwest out of Kitchener-Waterloo into rural Woolwich and Wellesley townships – our own version of the Sunday afternoon drive.

Those drives calm my spirit and help me hone the spiritual practice of paying attention.

In springtime I notice a solitary tree with leaves partly unfurled, standing tall against the huge blue sky. I take in the intense greenness of pastures and trees.

I look for changes from week to week, as we usually follow a similar route. One week I can barely see the tiny blossoms on the apple trees at Martin’s Family Fruit; by the next week they’re in full bloom. One week I look at bare fields and smell manure, obviously spread recently.  By the next week, green shoots appear.

I search for the flock of sheep just past the buggy bridge by the St.Jacob’s dam.  Will they be in the pasture on the river flats this week, or rather on the steep green hill on the other side of the road? Are the Old Order youth still playing baseball at the schoolhouse up the road, or have they gone home by now to do the chores?

AlpacasI’m astonished to come across a pasture of lounging alpacas, having never seen any locally before. I assure myself I wasn’t dreaming when we look for them again the next week, and behold, there they are.


Laneway signsI take in the signs for maple syrup and greenhouse plants at the end of farm lanes, and anticipate choosing gladiolas in a riot of colours at “3 stems for a dollar” later in the season.

Our drives these past weeks whisper springtime wisdom and wonder to me. They show me the natural order of the universe.

How, I wonder, do those leaves “know” when to unfurl? What gives the apple trees the energy to blossom?  What makes grazing sheep and alpaca take full advantage of that intensely green grass? And why is it that Old Order Mennonites grasp better than I do the need for a pause day, with “No Sunday sales”?

In the midst of all this musing, suppertime creeps up on Sam and me.  Alas, we don’t have a charcoal grill. There are no roadside tables on our route. And even if there were, I wouldn’t have the patience to sit there and wait for my supper.

However we do sometimes look for an ice cream cone on the way home to our leftovers….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In what way (if at all) does driving or biking through the countryside calm your spirit?
  2. In what way (if at all) does being in natural settings help you hone the practice of paying attention?

Next week: Welcoming the Dawn