#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.


#75-The Silver-bellied Geese and the Manure

This week I’m reminded of an experience a friend recounted several years ago, after a fall visit to the prairies.

My friend wrote:

“After a restless night, I was frustrated, so I headed out the door for an early morning run down rough dirt farm roads.  It was an astonishingly beautiful morning, the rising sun in the east, and the full moon still in the western sky.

Old Greeting Card – Source Unknown

“Endless flocks of geese flew overhead. One particular flock flew low into the sun, and the light caught their bellies and underwings and turned them a blazing silver colour.

“I also ran between huge, stinking piles of manure – not once, not twice, but four times.  As I returned to my lodgings I wondered:
What am I going to believe in?
The silver-bellied geese or the stinking manure?”

“So many times I still wonder if the manure will win out,” wrote my friend.

“Will my cousin survive her debilitating disease with spirit intact?
Will I be able to do what I think I’m being called to do?
Will trust outlast fear?

“I know I’m not always going to make it to the top of the manure pile to see the silver-bellied geese fly by,” my friend concluded.

“But that moment reminds me to live in the paradox…
To take the risk of choosing beauty…
To walk through fear…

“To trust in God’s loving preservation deep down under…even on days when
I don’t quite believe it.

“Love is there… It’s waiting for me…for all of us.”

Yes indeed, I thought upon reading this once again. But some days it’s not easy.

Some days it’s not easy to walk through our fear, whatever that fear may be.
Some days it’s not easy to risk choosing beauty.
Some days it’s not easy to trust in God’s loving preservation deep down under.

Some days it’s easier to believe in the stinking manure pile, and to miss that gorgeous flock of silver-bellied geese.

It’s for this reason that I value the work of spiritual directors, poets and many others who invite us to pay attention, to notice the astonishing (or ordinary) beauty all around us, and to let that beauty nourish our souls.  Perhaps sometimes that beauty even tips the balance.

Published by Beacon Press

Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poetry collection entitled Red Bird. A poem entitled “Sometimes” includes this stanza:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

My friend and Mary Oliver help me risk choosing beauty.  I enjoy sharing the beauty I find with you, my blog readers.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What helps you risk choosing beauty?  How do you share it with others?
  2. What helps you pay attention and be astonished?

Next week: TBA

#74 – Celebrating Fall Energy

Kindergarten picture

Since the age of five, my spirit has soared each September with the onset of the school year. I loved school, whether kindergarten just up the street or Goshen College in Indiana.  Each September I anticipated a new teacher, a new classroom, and old and new classmates. At the same time I looked forward to my favorite season, with its cooler weather and coloured leaves.

After college I worked in a bookstore for ten years.  Fall signaled more customers and exciting new book releases.  Eventually I served as a pastor and an interim pastor. Every one of those settings had a clear fall startup, and I helped foster the congregation’s renewed energy and the startup of programs.

In my early retirement years I did considerable contract work, maintained a spiritual direction practice, and volunteered all over the place.  Most of those settings also had a distinct fall startup, perhaps conditioned by the Canadian full embrace of our short summer.

In short, the fall startup has always energized me.

So here I am in fall 2018, almost fully retired, with some limitations of body, mind and (especially) energy. Suddenly I realize I am no longer helping to shape a fall startup anywhere! So, what to do with those days immediately after Labour Day?

Newly retired teachers have told me they deliberately go on vacation right after Labour Day. So we followed their example and headed to our favorite early summer vacation spot – Colpoys Bay at the base of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

We observed the residents of Wiarton and Lions Head relaxing into their fall routines as they took their town back from the tourists. In the Tim Horton’s line at 6:00 in the morning, people greeted each other by name. In a “down home” diner in Lions Head, they joked loudly with each other between tables. Our walk down the main street of Wiarton with ice cream cones from Lloyd’s Smoke Shop elicited smiles and even remarks from local passersby.

Purple=GentianWe took a side trip to the Oliphant Fen, eager to see what bloomed there in September.  Our eyes took in nothing spectacular.  We saw no Lady Slipper orchids,  but rather a few Smaller Fringed Gentians and various kinds of little yellow flowers.

Back in Wiarton, we watched a muted sunset, with few clouds in the sky. The bay was as calm as we’ve ever experienced it. Apparently nature took those days after Labour Day to catch its breath, along with the locals.


The calmness of Colpoy’s Bay

Georgian-Bluffs-TruckThe energy we felt came from the road equipment drivers of the Township of Georgian Bluffs, busily resurfacing a cottage road previously full of potholes. We thought half the equipment of the township must be there – a wood chipper, a roller, a water truck, a scraper, a digger and several dump trucks.

We arrived home after three detours around small towns where bridges were being replaced. A wonderful sunset greeted us Saturday night as we walked in Rockway Gardens across the street, reminding us of the pleasures of nature right at home.

Sunset in Rockway Gardens

Sunday morning I read the church bulletin online, as I usually do in preparing for the service.  Energy oozed out of that bulletin.  What will it be like – I wondered – to participate in that energy without having contributed to creating or preparing for it.  “Will I feel a part of things?” I asked myself with trepidation.

At church that morning, our “first hour” discussion about some potential changes to the church program was well attended, well planned, lively and good-spirited.  Then the service began with enthusiastic singing. Worship leader Betti Erb invited God to “take our fall energies and turn them into the liveliness of possibilities.”

Ah yes, “the liveliness of possibilities.” I like that turn of phrase.  As Betti prayed, I realized I can happily participate in relaxed liveliness where the congregation together creates the possibilities, with good prompting by leaders other than myself.

And from the residents of Wiarton, I glimpsed a new kind of fall startup – being energized as I relaxed into the fall routine, focusing on relationships.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What has the turn towards fall meant for you over the years?
  2. How do you celebrate the energy of fall in your life currently?
  3. What – if anything – does “relaxed liveliness” mean for you?

Next week: TBA





#73 – Point Pelee, Dune Grass, and Pastoral Ministry

Point Pelee in 1980s

In 1987, I compared my experience of entering pastoral ministry to walking at Point Pelee, the southernmost bit of land in Ontario.

I wrote: “My early experience in ministry reminds me of walking along the Lake Erie shoreline with surf pounding in the distance. We’ve just spied that shifting spit of land known as Point Pelee, where waves crash from two directions, with many shipwrecks attesting to the danger. Some years the point is large; other years it’s barely there.

Point Pelee in 2012

“I step out onto this year’s wide tip, and oh my it’s exhilarating. I’m not sure how much farther out we dare go. I don’t know where reasonable risk ends. I don’t know how to read the signs yet, but for now it seems stable enough underfoot. And though the waves creep towards me from both sides, they seem gentle and warm.”

Three guides in particular helped me find solid footing.  Or perhaps more accurately, they helped me cultivate my own ability to read the signs of the wind and the waves, attuned to God’s Spirit, in a vocation where the ground shifts regularly. Gradually I found my bearings as a congregational leader.

Lake Huron near Ruth’s cottage

Those three seasoned guides included Richard Yordy, a huge resource as the senior pastor at St. Jacobs. When I entered St. Jacobs as associate pastor, I was also pleased that the conference appointed Martha Smith Good as my mentor.  Martha left Ontario and Richard retired at about the same time, which coincided with my desire for a spiritual director. Ruth, my first director, was an experienced Anglican clergywoman who saw me at her year-round cottage near Kincardine, Ontario. I looked out onto Lake Huron as we met by her big window. The predictable rhythm of the waves comforted me.

I felt on dangerous ground once again nine summers later. I had recently left my pastorate on good terms, but without another pastoral assignment in the wings. Would I ever find a second placement, I wondered? (I’ve been the kind of transition maker who needs a “neutral zone” between assignments to know what I’m called to next).

Again a shoreline experience ministered to my spirit. We were on vacation on the Long Beach peninsula in the state of Washington – a stretch of shoreline rivaling in danger Ontario’s Point Pelee. I called the little essay I wrote about my experience “Along the Edge of Dangerous.”

I wrote: “I walked along the beach at low tide this morning.  I’ve never been able to go that far out into the ocean here before.

“This stretch of shoreline is considered very dangerous.  ‘Do not even wade more than ankle deep’ all the signs advise. Why? Because it’s so near the mouth of the Columbia River. There are riptides, shifting sandbars, and clam holes. More than 2000 vessels have been lost here, not to mention 700 lives.

Sandpipers at Long Beach, 1995

“But at low tide along the edge it is safe.  We see sandpipers, skittering quickly and gracefully along the beach on their long legs.  We come across many gulls of course, poking around in little puddles of seawater made by indentations in the sand. We walk past soft clam shells, mostly blueish; then a few piles of “sea debris” – rope and kelp and who knows what. We wonder about plant life that might be the runners or roots of dune grass.

“Why walk along the edge of dangerous?  Because I’m compelled to somehow.  Because it oddly revives my spirit. Because low tide makes it safe and possible to respect the sea, to absorb the environment, to have all powers of observation at work while knowing the limits.  Along the edge of dangerous, my footprints are soon gone.”

Dune grass at Long Beach, 1995

I was also fascinated by the dune grass, by how it adapts to the stiff sea winds, to the salt spray, to being buried in sand.

“I am tough,” I wrote, “with deep roots and the ability to live and grow underground for a while, and I am flexible.  I can sway in the breeze, I can endure salt spray dumped on me. I can be partially buried in sand.

“I like the looks of dune grass.  And you can’t get rid of it.  If you yank it up, imagine what all you connect with underground.  I am fond of dune grass.  Very fond.”

I’m grateful that images from Point Pelee and Long Beach calmed my spirit in my 40s.  During those same years, the calm but ever-changing waters of Colpoys Bay mirrored my many moods as I decompressed annually at a cottage on its shore.

Now that I’m in my 70s, the rhythm of waves still calms my spirit,  and the changing moods of Colpoys Bay still fascinate me.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which bodies of water or other aspects of nature have calmed your spirit during difficult times?
  2. Who have been spiritual guides and mentors for you through new and scary experiences?

Next week: Colpoys Bay Revisited

#72 – Retired Women Reading Books in Community

Available from Skylight Paths Publishing

Cleaning out files last week, I came upon my notes on all seven books our retired women’s group has read so far.

When we began five years ago, retirement was new for us, exciting and a bit scary. So we started by looking it straight in the face, with Marjory Zoet Bankson’s Creative Aging: Rethinking Retirement and Non-Retirement in a Changing World.

Next the five of us turned to books on aging and spirituality by Catholic authors. In A Season of Mystery, Paula Huston introduced us to 10 spiritual practices for a “happier second half of life,” such as delighting, lightening and blessing. In The Gift of Years, Joan Chittister gave us 40 short reflections on topics such as meaning, fulfillment and letting go.  Later we grappled with “awakening as we age” and other Buddhist-tinged concepts in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging.

In our last several books we’ve explored aspects of spirituality which are not age-specific. We focused for a time on Joyce Rupp’s The Open Door: A Journey to the True Self. Then we entered Christine Valters Paintner’s Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics. She showed us inner archetypes such as the Fool, the Orphan and the Visionary through introducing us to “monks and mystics” such as Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Hildegard of Bingen.

Available from Douglas & McIntyre

We’re currently savouring Richard Wagamese’s Embers –  short meditations from an Ojibway perspective on themes like stillness, reverence and gratitude, with wonderful nature photos.

I asked each woman to comment either on her favorite book or on our method of conducting our (nearly) monthly three-hour sessions.  Nobody could choose a favorite book – and I couldn’t either! As Brenda put it, “I have enjoyed all the books, and whichever one we are discussing at the time is my favorite.  I think this indicates that the books are merely a spark for the rich conversation and wisdom generated by our time together.”

We rotate leading the sessions and hosting the group.  When we meet, food is an important ingredient. Kaye speaks for all of us in naming, “Our group appreciates both the flavour and the beauty of food.  And food shared makes it taste and look even better.”

Of our sessions themselves Muriel says, “One of the things I appreciate most is the structure of our meetings, which insures that each person has uninterrupted time for sharing. We each have a chance to reflect in silence before offering our responses. For me, that structure is a primary ingredient in keeping our circle a safe and trusting space.”

Here’s how it works: the leader of the day sends us an “opening question” for our initial round of sharing (with food). The question may be related to the theme of the chapter or to the season of the year. Or it may simply prompt us to each offer a happening from our lives since the last time we met.

Then we enter the main block of response time to the chapters we have all read. Each person takes up to 15 minutes to reflect, with no interruptions. She may name highlights of the chapter, talk about how it connects with her life, or take issue with it!  After a moment of quiet, we each feed back to her some observations, usually of appreciation or agreement. Then we go on to the next person.  We take a break (for more food!) after two or three persons have presented.  At the end, the facilitator for the day may close with words of sending.

Gift of Years available from BlueBridge Books. Illuminating the Way available from Sornin Books

Ardith says, “I often find that listening to others reminds me of things I had forgotten, or sheds a slightly different light on something that also caught my attention. I always go home feeling enriched and grateful for this group of women who have become dear friends and fellow travelers.”

Kaye affirms, “My appreciation for this group runs deep. Being given the opportunity to share one’s reflections with openness and honesty and to have those reflections held and honoured with loving care, attention, and wisdom is a profound experience. It is an honour and a pleasure to be part of this group – enjoying the company of each other on this quest of greater self discovery in retirement and aging.”

Brenda adds, “Aging is inevitable, but how we age can be so intentional with the encouragement of friends. Taking our circle to the cottage has been so meaningful and adds beauty to this space.  Laughter has also been an important part of our time together.”

Art exercise from Illuminating the Way

I think it’s clear how my spirit is nourished by this group!  I love reading books in community with these women.  I delight in our annual cottage days. I also enjoy sharing things like art exercises suggested by various authors. I love to see how what I colour or otherwise create compares to what others have done. This madala is from the St. Francis chapter in Illuminating the Way.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How have groups you have joined fostered respect for members and their varied experiences?
  2. Do you agree that “food shared makes it taste and look even better?”

Next week: TBA



#71 – Of Farm Markets and Village Bakeries

We did not have a garden – other than flowers – on the small property in Souderton where I grew up.  My Mom bought quantities of green beans and peaches for canning, apples for making applesauce, and corn for freezing and drying.

As an adult I’ve always lived in the city, on properties not suitable for growing vegetables.  We did coax along raspberries in a flower bed for a couple years long ago – a special delight for Sam.

IMG_6286For years now, I’ve marked the growing season with farm markets and roadside stands. Touring the countryside for my favorite foods (and flowers) has long been one of the simple pleasures of my life. When I had a driver’s licence, setting out on my own gave me great joy. Now I still find such excursions satisfying, with my long-suffering husband doing the driving.

The season begins for us with local asparagus. This requires at least one trip directly to Barrie’s Asparagus Farm in rural North Dumfries Township. There I buy a $5 bag of the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten, and marvel at all the products Barrie’s makes with asparagus.

IMG_6299During the many years we lived in Waterloo, I tracked the harvest by weekly visits to Herrle’s Country Farm Market on the road between Waterloo and St. Agatha.  They’re known for their corn, but there’s lots to get me there long before corn appears.

Herrle’s opens each June when strawberries are ready. So Sam begins with strawberries and continues through raspberries and blueberries. In the meantime we find new potatoes and new carrots, and eventually corn, green beans, beets, peaches, new crop apples and enormous sweet potatoes. The “first fruit” of each new crop tastes wonderful! And if I can no longer tolerate a particular food, I savour the memory of how it tasted.

We also regularly visit stands at the end of farm lanes, mostly for stems of gladiolas at 3 for $1.00.  I look for bright colours wherever possible. One time recently I was especially pleased with the available choices. But when we settled ourselves back in the car to drive home, Sam killed ten ants, and we think we missed some!  So unfortunately we had to ditch those bright glads. I decided the two loads of roadside glads I’d bought previously were enough for this year.

IMG_6295The lovely thing about the Kitchener Market, Martin’s Family Fruit Farm (north of Waterloo), and Stemmler’s Meat & Cheese (in Heidelberg) is that I can visit them in any season. Likewise with village bakeries.  I especially favour bakeries owned by Old Order Mennonites. At Sittler’s Home Baking in Conestogo I head for the gingerbread figures, oatmeal bread and various kinds of granola. At Sunnycrest Home Baking, now in Hawkesville, I look for small pies (especially cherry), muesli bread and Christmas cookies.

I must admit that my very favorite Old Order Mennonite vendor is not in Ontario, but rather in Pennsylvania. We found Weaver’s Market and Bakery along the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. We’ve always stopped and bought preserves for the pantry and a large ginger cookie for sharing when we’ve traveled to my home community by that route.

IMG_2133Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your relationship to the summer growing season?
  2. In what way – if at all – is the procuring (or preserving) of locally-grown food, or the procuring of local baking a simple pleasure for you?

Next week: TBA

#70 – Enjoying Second Best

We were so much looking forward to a four-day vacation between Sudbury and Sault St. Marie last month. Sam knew the location of three new conservative Anabaptist settlements, all of them migrations from southern Ontario.

We wanted to buy something at the end of farm lanes from the Swartzentruber Amish, the Orthodox Mennonites, and the “regular” Old Order Mennonites.  But alas, we heard reports of uncontrolled wildfires and smoke at unpredictable places.  So we decided it was prudent to stay away from the Parry Sound and Sudbury regions.

Horses on a Swartzentruber Amish farm near Williamsford, fall 2016.

We settled on Owen Sound and parts of rural Grey County instead. We satisfied our Amish longings by driving through the Swartzentruber Amish settlement near Williamsford on our way north. But all was quiet – too early for the harvest scenes we’ve enjoyed in years past.

We satisfied another longing by driving past Mennonite Corners just south of Owen Sound, the site of the former Kilsyth Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church. Now a commemorative plaque marks the spot.

IMG_20180724_080753947Then as we approached Owen Sound, we turned our attention to new discoveries.  We enjoyed the view of the sound from our hotel window. We loved walking along the Harbour Trail on the east side of the sound, learning about days gone by from plaques along the way. We saw old grain elevators, reminding us of the era when large grain shipments found their way to Owen Sound via the Great Lakes, for transshipment by rail.

IMG_20180724_092649799We visited once again the grave of Tom Thomson in the village of Leith, noting the paint brushes people had placed by his stone along with photos and a walking stick.

We saw on the map a site called Sheffield Park, a black history and cultural museum just outside the village of Clarksburg, south of Thornbury. We had known of Owen Sound as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad in the 19th century.  But we knew nothing of “Howie” Sheffield of Collingwood, a black restaurateur and hockey player of local fame who also researched Grey and Simcoe County black history.

Now two nieces own and operate the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum on an old Nazarene campground, giving a home to the many artifacts collected by “Uncle Howie” and others. We walked through the main exhibit on black history, as well as 13 other buildings such as a church, a seamstress and dress shop, a shoe shine shop, and a one room schoolhouse. We were amazed at this place!  We had never heard of it before.

“Cemetery”  at the Sheffield Park Black History Museum

We also had in mind locating as many of the eight waterfalls in Grey County as possible.  We did catch a glimpse of Eugenia Falls, but couldn’t find the upper trail to Hogg’s Falls nearby. So we gave up for the day. It’s just as well, since we drove back to Owen Sound in a heavy downpour. The next morning we easily found Inglis Falls in a picturesque setting just outside Owen Sound.

Inglis Falls

So our mini-vacation unlocked quite a few unexpected treasures of Grey County for us. Second best was just fine….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When have you needed to settle for “second best” when vacation plans went awry?
  2. What unexpected treasures did you find?

* * * * *

Well, I’ve done it!  I’ve posted 70 blogs in gratitude to God for 70+ years of life.

And I’m not ready to stop yet.  I hope to continue the A Nourished Spirit blog with a new subtitle: “finding simple pleasures amidst earth’s lamentation.” So stay tuned for #71 next week.

Next week: Of Farm Stands and Countryside Bakeries

#69 – Our Annual “Drive By” of Mennonite Churches

Our own Mennonite church takes a break on holiday weekends in summertime. So for the last three years, I’ve aided Sam’s research with our annual Sunday morning “drive by” of Mennonite-related churches.

Last Sunday we located as many such churches as possible on a route planned by Sam. Our explorations took us into Perth and Wellington counties as well as Waterloo Region.   We did our “driving by” from 9:50 to 12:20, often stopping to take photos of conveyances in parking lots. Our route took us past 26 worshiping groups.

Many of the churches we passed represent less assimilated groups than our own conference, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC). So as we drove through the countryside, we  listened to a CD of music from my less assimilated days – Mennonite Hour favorites from the 1950s (Hallelujah! Amen!).

Four of our sightings especially intrigued me:IMG_6268

  1. In the town of Millbank, we were pleased to find a lot full of horses unhitched from open carriages. We realized we were close to an Old Order Amish service taking place in a house, shed or barn– a “bishop district” worshiping in its usual manner.IMG_6256
  2. We came across two Old Colony Mennonite churches, originating with Mennonites who had migrated to Mexico from Canada. We were intrigued by the boat hitched to the maroon pickup truck in front of the Crosshill Old Colony church, and surprised by the large size of the new-looking Old Colony church at Carthage.  We happily noted the Amish-run Misty Pine Bulk Foods store across a side road.IMG_6271
  3. We were excited to locate the Hesson Christian Fellowship, now meeting in a former mainline church in the small village of Hesson. It’s the only local church belonging to Charity Ministries, a Lancaster County Pa.-based group which does not call itself Mennonite. It holds to dress codes for women and doctrines similar to those of conservative Mennonites, but with a charismatic twist. A sign in the yard with an evangelical message told us that the big old church no longer houses mainline worshipers.
  4. At one time or another, we’ve seen 14 of the 15 Old Order Mennonite meetinghouses in Waterloo, Perth and Wellington counties. Our route on Sunday took us past four of them, including the Conestoga meetinghouse.
    Conestoga Mennonite Meetinghouse without people

    At 12:20 we came upon it on Three Bridges Road near St. Jacobs. From a distance, the yard seemed full of wonderful colour swatches! As we came closer, we saw one block of white shirts and black pants (younger men and boys); another block of black (older men); and yet another swatch of solid-coloured dresses, some black (older women) and some even pink (little girls). People visited with each other in these groupings after the service. We saw horses hitched to open carriages or closed buggies at various locations around the yard, as well as a pile of bicycles.

    I’ve always had a special interest in the Conestoga meetinghouse. The Old Order split of 1889 separated families who had worshiped together near the present school and cemetery at the intersection of Three Bridges Road and Hawkesville Road. Part of that group formed the Conestoga Old Order congregation. I once pastored the other part of the group, which became the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in the town of St. Jacobs. I likely saw some of the Conestoga meetinghouse people at funerals in town.

Other reflections: I’m amazed (and personally shamed!) by the number of Mennonite-related people worshiping on a holiday weekend. Perhaps, I mused, we “should” have joined one of them for worship rather than just driving by!

Sam identified 13 different groups to which the 26 churches on our route belong.  Do we really need to do all that splitting, I wondered?  On the other hand, new church structures do sometimes bring spurts of growth and new freedoms. Or they preserve doctrines and practices which some believe others have let lapse.

The drive through the countryside was of itself nourishing.  When the Mennonite Hour CD finished, I pulled out Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for us to enjoy.

We hoped to find stooks amongst the Amish in Perth County, but didn’t see any there.

IMG_6225We did take photos earlier in the week of stooks in the Amish community near Aylmer, Ontario. I love those squat stooks! We found them located between two Amish businesses we enjoy – Pathway Press (a major Amish publisher) and the Country Flavour-Rites Bakery.

Question for Reflection:

How do you view the splitting of Mennonites into different groupings?  A good thing? An unfortunate thing? Or just “the way it is”?

Next Week: Second Best Isn’t Bad!

#68 – Musings on Riding the City Bus

Bus-stopMonday morning I took the #7 Mainline from our home near Rockway Gardens in Kitchener to Waterloo Town Square, a bus ride of 20 minutes or so.

I lost my driver’s license last December due to brain lesions, and have depended on my dear husband and occasionally other friends for transportation since that time. But in good weather this summer, I’ve taken the bus to one or another of the many coffee shops in uptown Waterloo to meet friends.

On the bus, I sink into the reality of our multi-cultural twin cities with pleasure. I observe parents with babies in strollers, older women with shopping carts or walkers, teenagers with ear buds, and people who look to be homeless transporting their possessions. A cell phone occupies nearly everyone.

If anything I’m surprised by the politeness and consideration of most riders. Many say “thank you” when exiting the bus.

One day I’m standing on a full bus when I notice a physically challenged teenager communicating by signs with her mother.  Soon the mother stands up and tells me that her daughter wants me to take the mother’s seat.  I don’t feel at all decrepit that day, so I protest that I’m just fine standing, thank you!  But the daughter insists that I sit down!  So I do. It’s a humbling experience; I’m overwhelmed by the girl’s kindness….

Waterloo Town Square

Riding the bus fosters in me a sense of independence. After coffee one day, I take the time to try on necklaces at Ten Thousand Villages, then browse at Wordsworth Books and buy an old P.D. James mystery. Before heading home, I buy flowers in the Valu-mart at Waterloo Town Square.

This is the kind of leisurely shopping I enjoy! But when my husband is waiting (usually patiently) in the car, I rush through my shopping and thus it’s not very enjoyable.

We do have a good system for buying our weekly groceries, however. On busy Saturdays we split the list; recently we were in and out of the Stanley Park Zehrs Market in less than half an hour….

Testing the LRT near Waterloo Town Square

Perhaps when Light Rail Transit (LRT) finally begins operating in Kitchener-Waterloo, many more people with a driver’s license will abandon their cars for crosstown trips. In the meantime, the loss of my driver’s license  can symbolize for me diminishment, a loss of independence, and perhaps even a changed identity. But my joy in riding the bus also symbolizes the gains of a new way of living.

Kate Bowler, a prof. at Duke Divinity School who is also living with cancer, puts it like this in a recent podcast:

“Maybe you can, I don’t know, learn to settle into a different kind of present, where you’re alert and grateful for what you have, as opposed to always being hungry for something else” (from the podcast “Not all pain has to be explained,” Faith and Leadership, February 6, 2018).

Some days I’m almost there….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What have you learned about your community or your region by taking public transportation?
  2. What, if anything, has helped (or forced) you to “settle into a different kind of present?”


Next week: TBA

#67 – Summer Reading

I’m drawn to novels and memoirs which are set in locations I have visited, or that flesh out stories I already enjoy. And for “summer reading,” they don’t need to be masterpieces!

Thus I’ve spent enjoyable time in June/July with these five:

1.  Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller (William Morrow, 2017). This historical novel purports to tell part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder story from Ma’s perspective – the trip by covered wagon from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Kansas Indian Territory, and the family’s ill-fated settlement there. I’ve often wondered “But what about Caroline?!” in the Little House books, so it’s fun to read someone’s imaginings about her perspective.

2.  In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir  by Paul Quenon (Ave Maria Press, 2018).  I’ve visited Thomas Merton’s monastery at Trappist, Kentucky on several occasions, including a Kentucky Holy Land Pilgrimage in 2011. So when I saw this title for sale at the convent, I was eager to read it.

From Ave Maria Press

Br. Quenon has spent his whole adult life at The Abbey of Gethsemani. He weaves together glimpses of Merton (“Fr. Louis” or even “Uncle Louie”) with glimpses of the monastic life. I remember some of the beautiful Kentucky countryside he describes. And among other gems, he speaks of prayer as “a breathing that purifies the air, like leaves on the tree.” As a “community breathing together,” he suggests, “we raise the effect to an exponential level.” (p. 136)

3.  The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (Simon and Schuster, 2011). On a trip to Israel/Palestine 11 years ago, we endured a very hot half day at the archaeological site of Masada near the Dead Sea.  We approached Masada, at the top of a very steep “table mountain,” by cable car. We saw Roman tiles, storage rooms, and piles of rocks of the sort thrown down the mountainside at the Roman legions by 1st-century Jewish Sacarii (extremist Zealots) during the siege of Masada in 73-74 CE.Masada
The historian Josephus and legend have it that when the Romans finally breached the walls of Masada they found 960 persons (the Jewish patriots and their families)  already dead, apparently  choosing death at each other’s hands rather than slavery or death at Roman hands. Legend also has it that two women and three children survived the massacre by hiding in a cistern.

Alice Hoffman writes the fictional story of four women who find each other at Masada, including the eventual survivors.  It’s a 21st century feminist tale with more than enough violence and sex, but still a good “summer read.” Sam liked it too.

Published by Penguin Books

4. The Lost Chapters: Reclaiming my Life, One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz (Penguin, 2018). I’m a sucker for any author who writes about her experience inside a prison.  So I naturally gravitated towards this one.  A writer of literary fiction and a teacher of writing, Schwartz speaks in graphic language of her six weeks inside the Los Angeles County Jail on charges on DUI and battery during a relapse into addiction.

She chronicles her reading of 22 books which helped her reclaim her life while incarcerated. She also speaks of unexpected kindnesses from inmates named Duckie and Wyell, and of her amazement at meeting Qaneak the day  before her release. A Maundy Thursday service in the jail’s chapel with footwashing completely undoes her….

5. The Way of Kindness: Readings for a Graceful Life, ed. by Michael Leach et. al. (Orbis Books, 2018). I don’t usually read anthologies, but I picked this one up at the convent along with Br. Quenon. It was a head-spinning experience to read Ann Lamont, Pope Francis, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Joyce Ropp and others on kindness at the same time as imbibing the culture of abuse of the Los Angeles County Jail!

Questions for Reflection:

1. Which books have helped you reclaim parts of yourself?

2. How do you select books for summer reading?

Next Week: Grey County Vacation

#66 – Stratford Remembered

I’ve been charmed by the Stratford Festival – and the small city of Stratford, Ontario – for 50 years now.

Last Sunday as I watched an expertly acted Oscar Wilde play, I dimly remembered my first introduction to Stratford in 1968. That summer I signed up for a two-week Stratford Seminar with Prof. John Fisher and other Goshen College students.  I’d never seen live professional theatre before, so Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Festival Theatre thrust stage mesmerized me.

25th anniversary along Lake Victoria

By the next summer, I had moved to Ontario to marry draft resister Sam Steiner. In our discussions of where to live, I longingly wondered about Stratford, where I dreamed of being an usher at the Festival Theatre. But common sense prevailed! We made Kitchener our home, and a Mennonite Church-owned bookstore employed me.

We didn’t own a car for our first two years of marriage, so we rode the Greyhound bus between Kitchener and Stratford and made a day of it. In those years, people really “dressed up” to see Stratford plays, so we came attired in our funkiest. A late bus from Stratford to Kitchener got us home in the wee hours of the morning. Shakespeare plays we saw together early on included Hamlet (1969) and The Merchant of Venice (1970).

We followed the Stratford career of actor William Hutt, especially enjoying his Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Wilde (1975), and his reprise of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2005). It turned out to be his last role at Stratford before his death in 2007.

Stratford-1994-smallBy this time we were already enamored with the acting of Brian Bedford, taking in Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya (1978) and just about any other play in which Bedford carried a lead role. Over the years, we also followed the Stratford career of Martha Henry, and later loved Cynthia Dale in The Sound of Music (2001), My Fair Lady (2002) and other musicals.

When seeing a play, we almost always arrived in time to walk around the Avon River where it widens into Lake Victoria. We’d start walking east along Lakeside Drive, continue across the bridge, and take the dirt path on the other side, ending at the William Hutt Bridge on Waterloo St. Sometimes we brought a picnic lunch to eat at one of the tables beside the lake.

Created in Google Maps

Slowly other charms of the city of Stratford beckoned us also. At 40 minutes from Waterloo, it became a perfect location for winter getaway weekends. Over the years we chose various of its small hotels at off-season rates, settling most recently on The Annex Room Inn. Knowing our interest, two different churches which I pastored gave us gift certificates for a weekend in Stratford as a parting gift!

We started eating Italian food at Fellini’s for special occasions in Sam’s life. For a while we joined Monforte Dairy’s artisan cheese CSA, and met cheesemaker Ruth Klaussen. She liked Sam’s “Russian” hat made of rabbit fur and thus somehow assumed we were “Russian Mennonites.” And of course I found women’s clothing shops and gift shops to visit twice a year….

In the last 10 years or so, we haven’t seen Stratford plays as often, alternating years between Stratford and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But the memory of beloved bygone plays and musicals continues to nourish my spirit, as do our weekend and shorter jaunts to the city of Stratford.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. To which theatre or music or art venue have you consistently gone to nourish your spirit over the years?
  2. Which town has charmed you in repeated getaways?

Next week: TBA