#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.


#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

#65 – What Nourishes my Spirit?

Last Sunday I was the lead off speaker for our summer series – “What nourishes my spirit?”– at Rockway Mennonite Church. Our summer services are informal, with presenters from within the congregation and time built in for response.

“For the past year and a bit, I’ve been considering this question regularly,” I began.  I spoke of the genesis of this blog, and my beginning hunch that “my blog would honour what I experience through my senses as a doorway to the holy,” as well as celebrating things like Mennonite community.

For_the_beauty_of_the_earchI’ve recently re-read my first 60 blogs, and tried to put them into categories. I found that the verses of my favorite hymn – For the beauty of the earth – form a template for many of them.

For instance, verse 1, For the love which from our birth over and around us lies, inspired my reflections on “My Childhood Home” (blog #45) and “Cousins” (blog #3).  Verse 2, For the beauty of each hour, brought to mind “Sunday Afternoon Drives” in Old Order Mennonite country (blog #8) and “Sinking into Peace on the Bruce” (blogs #10 and 62).

Verse 3, For the joy of ear and eye, fostered blogs on music and on reading, as one might expect, but also  “Balthasar, Augustine and other Cats” (#6) and “Nourished by Coffee Mugs” (#21).

Verse 4, For the joy of human love, brought forth “Farewell to our Matriarch” (#46) and “The Comfort of Old Friends” (#41).

And finally verse 5, For the church… is reflected in blogs like “Tulips, Sunlight and Dust: Worshiping in Community” (#7) and “The Gentle Power of Small Groups” (#27).

Published by Orbis Books

A book I’m presently reading, Vesper Time: The Spiritual Practice of Growing Older by Frank Cunningham, suggests that in our senior years we look for an “arc of nourishment, a leading theme that fed the multiple phases of our past” (p. 1).

My own  “arc of nourishment” surely began in the Mennonite community of Souderton, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s and early 60’s. It curves through Goshen College in the late 1960’s, and then into the Mennonite world here in southwestern Ontario in the 1970’s and 80’s and beyond.

A good deal of my personal work in life has been learning to celebrate the similarities and navigate the differences between the Mennonite community that nourished me early on and the one I now espouse, while being grateful for them both!

I find it fascinating that some of my blogs start in childhood in Pennsylvania and continue in the Waterloo Region of Ontario. For instance, our Sunday afternoon drives into the countryside around here hark back to the drives we took in my Dad’s 1939 Buick Roadmaster to look at fields of grain he’d heard about.

And to my surprise, I’ve found that many of the same things that nourished me before my diagnosis of cancer continue to nourish me now. Having cancer strangely heightens my nourishment and joy in nephews and cousins and their spouses, in old friends and in my childhood home remembered. Cancer heightens my nourishment and joy as I walk through Rockway Gardens across the street or drive through Old Order Mennonite country (full of my fifth cousins!) or as I  gaze at the ever-changing sky from our 10th floor condo windows…

And it has certainly increased my nourishment and joy in my present church community; our worship space at Rockway is now a true sanctuary for me, enfolding me in God’s care.  Thanks be to God!


Question for Reflection:

Has a troubling time in life heightened your experience of those things which nourish you most or which you especially enjoy?  If so, what did this reveal to you?

Next week: TBA

#64 – Driving Through Old Order Country: Mt. Forest

On the Saturday morning of the long weekend, we looked for a half-day drive of interest to both of us.  We settled on the Old Order Mennonite country around Mt. Forest, about 80 kilometers north of  here.

The initial settlement began in the late 1960’s, as historian Isaac Horst and others bought farms there and established the first successful “daughter colony” of Old Order Mennonites from Woolwich Township, just north of Waterloo.

I dimly remember travelling to Mt. Forest years ago to “take notes” while Sam interviewed Isaac Horst.  His wife Selina prepared a tasty noon meal for us, and talked about her market garden patch and stand along the road.  Then about five years ago we took a half-day to explore the Mt. Forest settlement– numbering 180 families by 2002 – but hadn’t been back since.

Last weekend we enjoyed the healthy -looking fields of corn, beans and grain as we angled our way through the countryside. We stopped first at the crossroads hamlet of Conn, east of Mt. Forest on Hwy. 89.  There at the Misty Meadows Country Market we bought a more-or-less current map of the settlement, showing the location of five churches, 12 schools, and many Old Order farms, identified by the “head” of the family.

Misty-MeadowsAfter purchasing  spelt bread, morning glory muffins, and bulk food staples at the market, we headed west on Southgate Rd. 4.  I had fun calling out the names of farmers and checking the mailboxes to see if they matched. In many cases, they did. We found familiar Woolwich Township names such as Martin, Weber, Bauman, Wideman and Frey in abundance.

Saugeen-RiversideWe stopped to take photos at the Saugeen Riverside School and the Riverdale Church on a nearby side road. Riverdale is the newest Old Order meetinghouse in the area, built in 2003.

We wanted to spend most of our time in the districts south of Mt. Forest. To head towards them, we drove down a rugged but beautiful “no winter maintenance” road with fields on one side and a canopy of trees overhead.


Spring Creek Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse

Southeast of Mt. Forest, we saw the oldest Old Order meetinghouse in the area (1972), constructed of yellow brick rather than the more common white frame.

The nearby Maple View School had the usual playground equipment – two swings, two seesaws, and a baseball diamond. Bike racks were also in evidence.  At Tollgate School, constructed  in 2005, we noticed a building addition underway and the usual flowers planted nearby.

In the cemetery of the Westdale meetinghouse, built in 1997, we found only seven tombstones, two of them stillbirths. This suggested to us a congregation of mostly younger families.

It being a very hot day, we didn’t see as many Old Orders on the road or engaging in outside work as we might have expected.  Perhaps their long lanes hid what was going on better than in Woolwich Township, where farmhouses, lawns and orchards tend to be located near the roads.  Also, we didn’t see as many signs out at the road for produce, maple syrup or farm businesses as we usually find in Woolwich Township.

After exploring these country roads, we decided to go back into Mt. Forest for lunch, ending up at a Coffee Cultures. We noticed a young man who looked homeless walk in the front door. He headed for the easy chairs and coffee tables halfway back, slouched in a chair, put his feet on a table, and promptly fell asleep.  Before long, two police officers entered, woke the young man up, and gently led him out the back door.

We wondered: in a small town like Mt. Forest, where can a homeless person come inside to cool off on a hot day?

…As we left the area and headed home, Sam mused that the Old Order settlement nearly surrounds Mt. Forest by now (with fewer farms to the northwest).  We noted that this migration out of Woolwich Township has really worked!

Question for Reflection:

What explorations do you enjoy on a hot summer long weekend?

Next week: TBA

#63 – The Prison Book Club

Published by Ballantine Books

For 7 ½ years, it was my most nourishing volunteer assignment. Two friends and I co-led a monthly book club at the federal women’s prison in Kitchener under the auspices of Book Clubs for Inmates. I’d been in book clubs for the past 30 years, so when the invitation came to help launch this one, I jumped at the chance.

Book Clubs for Inmates was founded by Carol Finlay, an Anglican minister and former high school teacher, and now has clubs in 22 different federal prisons in Canada. Participants get to keep the books after reading them.

At book club, we meet with up to 14 inmates and the very supportive prison librarian in a classroom in medium security.  In recent years several women from maximum security have joined us also.  (A club with different leaders meets in minimum security.)

We read mostly fiction, with a memoir and perhaps a self-help book included each year. We choose the books with help from a list of suggestions generated by Book Clubs for Inmates. Each spring we leaders read books at a dizzying pace, looking for titles accessible yet also challenging for the range of readers in our group.

The women especially gravitate towards novels and memoirs with feisty resilient female characters who overcome great odds. Five of their many favorites over the years have been:

  1. Book-of-Negroes
    Published by HarperCollins

    Above all others, The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, chronicling the life of the fictional character Aminata…stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery in the U.S. South…eventually sailing to a free colony in Birchtown, Nova Scotia…ending up as an abolitionist in England. Hill was a huge hit when he came to the prison as our first visiting author. He endeared himself with his calm, respectful spirit, and took an interest in some of the inmates’ own aspirations as writers.

  2. The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls of growing up in a poor, dysfunctional family.
  3. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. A lovely story about a tough young adult woman just released from the foster care system who heals through the language of flowers.
  4. Finding Nouf, a murder mystery involving a teenage girl set in Saudi Arabia, where author Zoe Ferraris lived for a time.
  5. Indian Horse by Canadian author Richard Wagamese.  A novel depicting the residential school experience and its aftermath, told in the voice of a boy enthused about hockey named Saul Indian Horse.

What astonishes me is that most months, there comes a time during our hour together when the differences between us fade away, and we’re just an intergenerational group of women (aged 20 – 70+) exploring a book together and making some connections with our own experiences.  I’m often amazed at the women’s  insights. And some of the best discussions are about books which club members don’t like or which garner a variety of opinions!

Comments from participants over the years include:

“The books are a gateway to anything, anytime, anyplace we want…” “Reading takes me out of my own misery and puts me into someone else’s…” “I like all the different takes on the books and being able to speak our opinions openly and freely…”

Last winter, health issues required my resignation from book club leadership. I was very sorry to leave the group. But I’m pleased that my friends are continuing, with a new partner.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your most nourishing volunteer commitment? Why?
  2. Which novels or memoirs have been healing for you? Why?

Next week: TBA

#62 – Peacefulness and Decision Making on the Bruce

Sunrise-on-the-bayFor at least 28 years, we’ve made the trek to the Bruce Peninsula at the end of Father’s Day weekend.  For the first 20 years or so, we rented a cottage with a lovely view of Colpoy’s Bay from folks at St. Jacobs church (See #10 – Ordinary Splendors on the Bruce).

Now we content ourselves with a nearby “resort motel” with a similar view of the bay. After lugging our bags up the outside staircase, we unlock the door to our room.  I glance at the bay through the patio windows. I’m stunned at the sensation of peacefulness that envelops me.

I realize with a start: the body remembers. My body remembers the bay as a place of calm, conducive to mulling over decisions.

Available from Penguin Random House

In his book entitled Sabbath, Wayne Muller submits that “the Sabbath rocks us and holds us until we can remember who we are” (p. 151).  Colpoy’s Bay does that for me.  The bay grounds me and whispers to me once again who I am. Almost always I sink into the utter peacefulness of it.

I’m relieved, for we find ourselves at a crossroads on this visit.  A decision of some significance calls out to be made over the next few weeks.  This might be a good place (I hope)  to mull over all the information we’ve gathered, to consider some implications where we just can’t know, and perhaps to leave the bay with a clearer sense of direction.

But on the Bruce we tend not to sit down to serious heady conversations full of pros and cons. Instead, we quietly mull during our usual relaxed drives around the peninsula. In our ramblings, we like to experience something different each year, so we choose two unpretentious-looking restaurants that have been around for years but that we’ve never tried before.

St-Margarets-ChapelEach year we also like to check out what’s new and what’s the same. So we’re pleased to spot one or maybe two pink Showy Lady Slipper orchids on the Oliphant fen. We’re glad to hear about an ecological upgrade of the Singing Sands fen site now underway (and we hope to visit it in September when it’s finished). We’re happy to see a new parking lot at St. Margaret’s Chapel near Cape Chin, presumably to accommodate worshipers at their summer Sunday evening services.  And I’m overjoyed to find lovely photo cards for sale at a couple different artists’ co-ops, thus resupplying my stash of greeting cards to send to people.

Haze-on-Colpoys-BayBack at the motel, I’m intrigued by the constantly changing moods of the bay and wonder how this might mirror my decision making process. Monday afternoon a mist falls, making indistinct the far shore. Then within half an hour the mist rises like smoke, until it’s completely dissipated and I see trees again across the bay.

In the evening, fog covers all but the very tops of the trees, then clears, and the sun shines through gray clouds as sunset nears.

So…did we make a decision through all this mulling, this noticing of things on our drives,  this imbibing of the moods of the changing bay? Well, yes, sort of. On the way home, one of us expressed a sense of the next step, and the other person agreed. Naming the next step and seeing what happens seemed fitting to us….


This year, no rainbow formed over the bay on our last morning there.  But on our first day back in town, my eye spied something colourful and bright out the window at 5:30 a.m.

It was a huge rainbow…the whole thing visible from our living room window…both ends brilliant, speaking of beauty, God’s constancy, and promise…

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you have a relaxing place to mull over decisions that need to be made? Where is this place for you?
  2. How do the changing moods of a favorite lake or river or the ocean commune with your spirit?

Next week:  TBA

#61 — A Perfect Sunday

Looking back, I thought – “now that was a perfect day.”

My Sunday morning began as usual, with the opinion and arts sections of Saturday’s Globe and Mail.

Then I wrote in my journal in a leisurely fashion, and read a couple articles in Presence, the magazine of Spiritual Directors International. A poem about snow geese, cranes, herons and whales attracted my eye and my spirit.


Abundant lupins on Prince Edward Island

After that, bright orange and red poppies called to me as I walked through Rockway Gardens across the street. The colourful lupins reminded me of roadside ones we saw in the Maritimes a year ago.

Back at home I took coloured pencils and experimented with artwork to accompany a text I’ve been considering lately:

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
     and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
     and find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16a

Pastor Scott blessing a bicycle

Then we walked to church for a special service of “Blessing the Bicycles.”  Cyclists from preschoolers to seniors  rode their bikes to church, storing them at the back of the parking lot under the watchful eyes of two biking veterans. The service focused on seeing the natural world up close, being environmentally friendly, and imagining various kinds of blessing with biblical writers.

At the end of the service, we processed to the parking lot, where our pastor “blessed” each bicycle by putting a dab of 3-in-1 oil on the sprocket while we sang. It was a great intergenerational event!  One family grouping included a grandfather in his 70’s, along with his two daughters, a son-in-law,  and five grandsons…

After lunch and my nap, we headed across town to take in an event at Conrad Grebel University College. Starting a bit late, we got caught in slow-moving traffic in Victoria Park when I suggested, “It’s a perfect day…why don’t we go driving instead?”

The Conestogo River at Three Bridges near St. Jacobs

Thus began a long, leisurely drive combining parts of our two favorite excursions through Old Order Mennonite and Amish country.

What made that jaunt more perfect than usual was listening to seven innings of an amazing Toronto Blue Jays baseball game on the radio while driving. [Yes, I’ve become a serious fan over the past several years.] The flagging Jays won the game against the flagging Orioles 13-3, with rallies in the 4th, 5th and 6th innings, causing us to hoot with satisfaction….

But there was more! When we arrived home we relived our hymn sing of a couple weeks ago by looking at photos on the computer and deciding which ones to print.  Then after supper Sam read to me the first two months of my Aunt Esther’s diary from 1950, courtesy of a cousin. [The musty smell makes these diaries too difficult for me to read myself].

Thus I eavesdropped on my 37-year-old aunt. I glimpsed her life as a pastor’s wife, a mother and sister, a piano teacher, and a woman willing to name in private that certain endeavors of other people had “flopped”!

Published by Viking 

Finally I settled into a charming novel which our women’s book club at church will be discussing in September. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles recounts the adventures of a fictional Russian count under house arrest in a  formerly swanky Moscow hotel after the Revolution….

Reading the newspaper…journaling…walking in the public gardens…playing with art…blessing bicycles…driving through the country… listening to an amazing ballgame…recalling our hymn sing…glimpsing the life of a favorite aunt…losing myself in a novel.

A perfect rejuvenating Sunday….

Question for Reflection:  What does a perfect rejuvenating Sunday look like for you?

Next week:  Standing at the Crossroads


#60 – The Diary of Anne Frank

Fifty-three years ago today, I graduated from Christopher Dock Mennonite High School (CD) near Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Acting edition, copyright 1958, dramatized by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

At our 50th class reunion in Jim and Beth Styer’s barn, we remembered our junior class play, The Diary of Anne Frank, as uncommonly significant.  [In those years, the 11th graders put on a banquet and play for the graduating class; afterwards the play was staged again for the public.]

Before Anne Frank, I’d memorized and recited Scripture for Spring Day, but I’d never had a major role in a play – nor have I since.  Somehow I landed the role of Mrs. Frank, with my friend Joyce playing the lead as Anne.

Anne-Frank-programThis substantial play put us in touch with the longings of a teenage girl who kept a diary while her Jewish family hid in Amsterdam during World War II.  Being in the cast brought out the best in me and introduced me to some of the pain of the world. Plus, we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company during the rehearsals!

I remember scouting out thrift shops with my Mom to purchase a suitable off-white shawl. I kept it and occasionally wore it for at least 30 years, until it fell apart. I also recall searching for a menorah – not a common object in our mostly “Christian” town. I finally located one in a jewelry store. I told the proprietor my Dad was an owner of the feed mill just around the corner, thus convincing him to lend it to us for the play if we gave him credit in the program.

Janet Martin, 2015

As we recalled this play at our 50th reunion, it struck us that The Diary of Anne Frank was a daring choice for class sponsor and play director Janet Martin to make.  The “acting edition” of the play had only been available for 6 years, and surely dealt with more serious subject matter than usual for high school drama. The horror of the Jewish experience during the war was still fresh in the mid-1960’s. We commended Miss Martin, a guest at our reunion, for selecting such a play.

My nephew Gerry, 12 years old at the time, attended the public performance with his family. He told me a few years ago that he had never seen a “live” play before Anne Frank. It stuck with him, as it certainly has with me.

Joyce Clemmer as Anne (standing), Sue Clemmer as Mrs. Frank (leaning forward)

As a grade 11 student testing my gifts, I stretched myself and gained confidence by acting in a major role. I was the right age to have my world broadened by the suffering of teenagers caught in horrendous political circumstances. This was tempered, of course, by the hope conveyed in Anne’s famous quote: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

At an alumni event several years ago I said this about my high school experience: “CD gave me a safe place to belong as a Mennonite girl. The school expanded my world and helped me explore what a person of Christian faith has to offer. It gave me outstanding teachers who drew out the best in me as I gravitated toward history, English and social studies.

“CD fostered in me a love of stories.  It honoured my early attempts to express myself in writing, as I began to find my own voice and to believe I had something to say. ”

My Diary of Anne Frank experience symbolizes all that formation and more.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In what ways was your high school experience formative for you?
  2. Is there a particular involvement or event that symbolizes this for you?

Next week: TBA

#59 – Singing my Story in Community

Last Sunday I had an amazing experience. Close to 70 of us met in the historic Detweiler Mennonite meetinghouse near Roseville, Ontario for a hymn sing on a warm and sunny afternoon.

Sam-and-Sue-at-hymnsingThe stated purpose was to mark some spring/summer events in my life – a birthday, an ordination anniversary, a wedding anniversary – all in the context of the reality of my current health challenges.  Sam and I invited family members, friends, and some past and present colleagues to join us in this.

I wanted a representative group of folks to sing my story with me and for me. I wanted us to sing my story in community. The group Sam and I  assembled brought together the Pennsylvania world of my childhood with the Ontario Mennonite world where I’ve now lived and worked for nearly 49 years. In addition a friend since college days in Goshen, Indiana was able to join us.

I was blessed by the presence of three nephews and their spouses, as well as two dear “girl cousins” and their husbands.  Friends from my retired women’s group contributed to the afternoon by offering reflections during the service and looking after the gorgeous flowers and refreshments. Another friend gave our voices a break by playing several tunes on harmonica. And our pastor led in a much-appreciated prayer of blessing.

Nephews and cousins and spouses with Sam and Sue at Riversong Banquet Hall near St. Jacobs. Photo by April Clemmer

But mostly we sang, expertly led by Mark Diller Harder and my nephew Michael Clemmer. We sang my story in three sections: Songs of Gratitude and Praise, Songs of Growth and Commitment, and Songs of Peace and Hope.

I wanted to begin and end in exuberant praise!  So we started with Joyful, joyful we adore thee and concluded with the “Mennonite anthem,” Praise God from whom all blessings flow, affectionately known as “606” due to its placement in a previous hymnal.

I’ve sung at the Detweiler Meetinghouse previously, so I listened expectantly for those first unaccompanied notes in four-part harmony. The gorgeous sound overwhelmed me and continued to nourish my spirit throughout the afternoon, as Mark led us fast and then slow, vigorous and then quiet.

The highlights of the hymn sing are almost too numerous to name. I’ll certainly cherish my nephew Mike leading our wedding song – For the beauty of the earth – with a tuning fork that had belonged to his great grandfather [my grandfather], also named Michael R. Clemmer.

Nephew Mike leading the Wise man built his house… Photo by April Clemmer

The most fun song for me was The wise man built his house upon the rock with motions. I and my nephews Ken, Gerry and Mike all learned this action song as children at Summer Bible School at Souderton Mennonite Church. Their vehicle missed a turn on the way to the hymn sing as they rehearsed the song and motions in the van, leaving the driver to find the way on his own!

I relived my ordination as I heard  my text from 2 Timothy read. In the Scripture reading, we substituted the names of my own maternal grandmother and mother – Maggie and Martha – for Timothy’s fore mothers Lois and Eunice. Then we all sang How firm a foundation, as an octet did in June 1987 when I knelt for my ordination prayer….

The reflective song Come and fill our hearts with your peace from the Taize community in France comforted me, enhanced by the haunting sounds of a recorder. The song Peace before us with motions reinforced pastor Scott Brubaker-Zehr’s prayer of blessing with its “let all around us be peace…love…light…Christ.”

Muriel Bechtel noted in her reflection that “for Mennonites, it’s our hymns that connect us to God and to the faith community. Through our hymns we express our heartfelt prayers, our gratitude and confidence that morning by morning God has been, is now, and will be our hope and strength…”

Sue with Marianne Coleman (accompanied on recorder) and friend Carol Beechy

And so we sang together. All in all, it was a glorious day. A CD of the hymn sing and many photos mean I can be wrapped in it over and over again.

As an added bonus, the rain and thunderstorms forecast for the day did not materialize. So we lingered over refreshments outside under the trees or in the cemetery, being community  together in yet another way….


Question for Reflection: When have you sung your story in community? What were the gifts of that occasion for you?

Next Week: TBA


# 58 – The Joy of Anticipation

I enjoy anticipating events almost as much as experiencing them.  I like to be nourished three times – before an event, as it’s occurring, and when I look back on it.

When Sam and I married in 1969, there were of course the usual pesky details to sort out – or worry about – ahead of time. I wondered if we could find the kind of everyday garden flowers we wanted for my bouquet [Farmers’ Market].  Would our relatives get across the border uneventfully? [More or less]. What if our outdoor wedding got rained out? [It didn’t]. And where would we find a bakery willing to make us a wedding cake that was not a fruit cake? [We didn’t!].

Wedding party (L-R) Sara Freed, Sue, J. R. Burkholder, Sam, Tom Harley

But there was lots for me to positively anticipate as well. With my counter-cultural self I’d bought a short wedding dress, and we engaged our friend Lyn to sing and play Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” on guitar. I deliciously anticipated what the relatives would think of such wedding innovations.  I was curious about what our Goshen professor friend J.R. Burkholder would emphasize in his meditation. But mostly, I simply anticipated being married to this dear draft resister Sam for whom I had left my country of origin.

Ordination, 1987, with cousin Richard Detweiler

Eighteen years later, as my ordination day approached, I looked forward to my cousin Richard Detweiler’s sermon, and to my Aunt Esther’s children’s story and piano playing. I anticipated the service as a way for the congregation at St. Jacobs to get to know me better, and as an occasion for my Ontario and Pennsylvania worlds to come together. But mostly, I wondered what I would feel like after this ceremony – would being an ordained pastor make me a different person? And if so, how?

Over the years, I always anticipated our vacations with enthusiasm and hope as we booked lodgings and planned itineraries.  Before last summer’s trip to Prince Edward Island, I wondered what it would be like to celebrate Canada Day where the historic Charlottetown Accord was signed.  I looked forward to our search for two small settlements of Amish folks who had moved to PEI from Ontario just a couple years earlier [we found them!]. And I wondered whether our journey across the island to the windmills at North Cape would be fascinating enough to justify the drive [it was!].

IMG_5640And now, as we look toward our annual June excursion on the Bruce Peninsula, I wonder –  will we spot those rare pink Lady Slipper orchids this year, and if so, where?

I look forward to more “routine” joys as well.  Most Sunday mornings I anticipate the worship service by reading the Scriptures and the hymns ahead of time at home, sometimes playing the songs on the piano.  I anticipate our weekly drive into the countryside northwest of Waterloo, wondering which trees will be blooming or what produce might be newly available at farm lanes [asparagus!].

And for over 40 years I’ve anticipated our semi-annual trek to Pennsylvania in spring and fall to visit family and old friends. Will the spring blossoms or the fall colours be as spectacular as last year, I’ve wondered. What family news will I hear? Or, in years gone by, what tidbits of family history might I pick up from my Aunt Esther or Aunt Mildred or my brother Jim?

Now this week, I anticipate three nephews and two cousins and their spouses travelling from Pennsylvania and New York to visit us.  My anticipatory joy overflows!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which special events have you anticipated in your life? Which routine occurrences?  How has anticipatory joy nourished your spirit?

Next Week: Singing my Story

#57 – Before E-mail and Blogs

Vacation Bible School at Centereach, Long Island, New York

My cousin Helen lived in such an exotic place. Or at least I thought so as a child.   For one thing, we had to go through New York City to get there, craning our necks as we passed the Empire State Building. Also, Helen and her sisters ate pizza and lived only half an hour from Long Island’s beaches.

Each week my mother and I eagerly anticipated a letter from Aunt Mildred in Centereach, Long Island, New York. Through those letters, I gleaned not only tidbits about my cousins’ lives, but also  an uncensored view of what church planting was really like in the 1950’s, far from the sheltered assumptions at the center of the Franconia Mennonite Conference in southeastern Pennsylvania. I do wish my Mom had kept those letters chronicling Curt and Mildred Godshall’s joys and struggles.

We cherished other letters from afar also. Occasionally one arrived from Cuba, where my much older cousin Betty King and her husband Aaron ministered as a revolution unfolded around them.

We also heard from England, where Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman and her husband Quintus were hosts at the London Mennonite Centre. (We never told them that the fruit cake they sent each Christmas always arrived in little pieces.)

Later, in my 40’s and my 60’s, I relished hearing about family members from before the time I was born, reading letters which someone had saved.

Irvin Derstine with grandchildren; Sue held by brother Jim, back right

When I was 43, I learned to know my maternal grandparents, Magdelena (Maggie) Moyer and Irvin Derstine, through increasingly serious “pre-courting” letters they wrote to each other in the year 1900.  Prior to reading those letters, I remembered my grandfather Irvin only as an old man sitting in a chair with one leg amputated.

Since Maggie died when my mother was 10 years old, my discovery of  her via young adult letters was an enormous gift. I glimpsed her traveling to Sunday school conferences in western Pennsylvania, and visiting girlfriends all over the place.  I found in my grandmother a soul mate who helped “explain” some of my own impulse toward church leadership. (See #24 – Maggie Uncovered for more on Maggie.)

Lester-to-MarthaThe few “courting letters” from my Dad to my Mom in 1922-1924 are a hoot!  He wrote mostly about his adventures walking home to Souderton late at night from dates at her farm near Sellersville. Or about escapades with his Chevrolet sedan in a snowstorm…what it was like to be “the first machine to go through” on a snow-covered country road where they had to make their own tracks. I recognized in his writing a jaunty voice I heard him use years later when he was trying to impress people!

Roy Clemmer

My Mom’s weekly letters to my older cousin Roy in Civilian Public Service camps in 1943 gave me a glimpse of our household, of the family feed mill, and of  life in Souderton during World War II.

I learned that my then 16-year-old brother Jim had a paper route and sang in a chorus. I wasn’t surprised to read that after my Dad worked at the mill “until late” one January night, he tried unsuccessfully to fix the furnace when he arrived home. I was reminded of my Mom’s fondness for homemade ice cream.  I found out that she frequently fed and lodged CO’s who came to help out at the feed mill in addition to their work at Norristown State Hospital.

I cherish the memories created by reading these letters and by finding old greeting cards. They give me the “feel” of my family before I was part of it and when I was a child. They nourish my soul. I’m grateful to my Mom and other family members for saving them.



I wonder…in the age of instant communication via social media and smart phones, how will future generations learn such things about us?  How will they get glimpses of our traits and our everyday lives? How will they know what was important to us?

Questions for Reflection: How – if at all – have old family letters or diaries nourished your soul? What have you gleaned from them that’s important for you now?

How will future generations know what has been important to you?

Next Week: The Joy of Anticipation