#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.

Lester_and_Sue
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:

For_the_beauty_of_the_earch
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.

 

#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.

 

Lupins
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

Bcycle-blessing
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?”

Conestogo-River-at-Three-Bridges
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”!

Gentleman-in-Moscow
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.

Anne-Frank-Play
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.

Sue-and-Janet-Martin
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.

18-Anne-Frank
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.

Riversong-with-nephews
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.

Wise-men-built
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…”

Cemetery-after-the-hymn-sing
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-1969-08-02
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-with-Richard-Detweiler
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

Centereach
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-Grandchildren
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
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.

 

Card-to-mother

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

 

#56 – Cancer Journey #2: Waiting

“Teach me, Lord, teach me, Lord, to wait.” This snippet of a hymn by Stuart Hamblen  says it all, echoing the Psalmist. (See # 584 “They that wait upon the Lord” in Hymnal: A Worship Book).

I’ve always wanted to be in control of my life. I like to plan ahead.  Even for vacations my husband and I make itineraries and book lodgings months in advance.

But now I’ve been catapulted into a community of “waiters.” I along with many others waited months for a cancer diagnosis. Now I wait in crowded lounges for periodic lab tests – blood work, CT scans, MRIs. I wait for the results of those tests at my monthly appointment with my oncologist. I wait to see whether various side effects of my daily chemo pill will stabilize or subside or worsen.

Early on, before my diagnosis, I coloured a mandala which I called “Waiting.” I alternated between lighter and darker tones in the sections radiating out from the center,  for I knew not whether the outcome of my many tests would be welcome or dire.

WaitingThe orange hearts and intense yellows express the sense that whatever the outcome, God’s love remains. And God’s healing light continues to shine whatever the most recent scans indicate.

I’m learning that “waiting” carries an active dimension.

When-breath-beocmes-air
Published by Penguin Random House

Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, author of the bestseller When Breath Becomes Air, notes that a diagnosis of incurable cancer changes nothing and everything. “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely,” he says. (p. 131-132)

The reality is that, despite statistics, we really don’t know how much time we have, says Kalanithi, and this makes decision-making difficult. “Tell me three months and I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book.  Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases.” (p. 161-162)

Seminary prof Kate Bowler, author of the cancer memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and other Lies I’ve Loved, names that she lives her life in segments, between every-two-month scans. When the reports are good, she relaxes into the next two months of more-or-less active living.  I connect with that. (See Blog #54 “Cancer Journey #1: An Alternate Universe”)

I’m slowly learning the art of living from scan to scan, making very few commitments to be at a certain time and place to lead something for months or years into the future. I don’t think it’s fair to others for me to cancel out of things at the last minute  because of waning energy or sudden unexpected side effects of a chemo pill. I’m sad about some commitments I’ve therefore needed to let go of, such as offering one on one spiritual direction and co-leading a fiction book club at the local women’s prison.

Greedy-for-LifeI’m slowly learning to take each day as it comes, rejoicing in the pleasant surprises and taking the time needed to ride out the bumps. But I’m certainly not sitting around passively, waiting to die at some unknown time in the distant or not so distant future. I’m still greedy for life on this beautiful planet, as I coloured in this mandala two months ago.

And so…I love walking in Rockway Gardens across the street now that spring has burst out in profusion, or driving out into the countryside north of Waterloo.

I enjoy conversations with people from the past and present as energy permits.  I revel in opportunities to support people’s ongoing spiritual and vocational journeys, such as by attending the ordination of an old friend in Niagara last weekend.

I take pleasure at being part of groups I enjoy while carrying little or no responsibility, such as the annual church gathering of MCEC last weekend, or the upcoming spring retreat day of Mennonite Spiritual Directors of Eastern Canada.

I especially enjoy writing this blog each week. All these things connect me to the worlds I know and love – and they nourish my spirit.

Songs in the night also keep coming to nourish my spirit – phrases of old or newer hymns such as:

  • Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life
  • All the way my Saviour leads me
  • Come and fill our hearts with your peace (Taizé)
  • Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us (Taizé)
  • Be still and know that I am God
  • My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation
  • It is well with my soul     (See Blog #5: Childhood Hymns Re-purposed)

As a spiritual director, I  tried for years to encourage people into deeper awareness of the present moment, and to live in God’s Presence in the here and now.  Now it’s my turn.

At the same time, we are planning some short trips and other events later this spring and summer. The urge to plan continues, in a modified manner!

Questions for Reflection: What has encouraged (or forced!) you to focus more on the present and less on future planning? What has nourished your spirit as you’ve done this? What helps you “live in God’s Presence in the here and now”?

Next Week: TBA

#55 – Surprising Nourishment

MCEC-2018A pastor friend’s jaw dropped when I walked into the 31st annual church gathering of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) last Saturday morning.

“Why would you come to ‘conference’ when you don’t have to anymore?” another pastor asked.  “I’m here because I want to be,” I responded. “This is home.”

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) is indeed home. I’ve attended the March or April AGM at least 28 times.  Before that, I took in at least five spring gatherings of one of its predecessors – Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ).

Looking back, I remember that I first showed up in 1980 when my husband Sam began serving  as MCOQ’s secretary. Then I continued to attend as various jobs I held required it.

Seeing a table of youth this year, I recalled that from 1982-85 MCOQ gave me my first ministry position as conference youth minister. I laughed to myself about the big deal we made when treasurer Omar Bauman explained the budget to the youth delegates. We invited them to check whether Omar was wearing a new pair of shoes….

OQMYF
MCOQ Youth Council, 1985. L-R (Back): Peter Allemang, Sue Steiner (youth minister), Trevor Bauman (president); (Front): Janet Martin, Gail Roth, Jenny Snyder

Last Saturday as always, I rejoiced when we celebrated congregations exploring with us via emerging church membership status – Assemblée de la Grâce (Montreal) and Matu-Chin Christian Church (Kitchener). I silently applauded when delegates spoke of developing natural connections with neighbours through the Re-learning Community process sponsored by MCEC in recent years.

I was transported back to the mission committee “reports” of the late 80’s when three Ontario conferences were in process of amalgamating. I chaired one of the mission groups then, and also served as interim missions minister for one year.

Share-the-Light-1989-small
1989 Missions Celebration–“Sharing the Light”

Our reports on the conference floor were lively affairs, involving lots of people, as we tried to familiarize delegates from three conferences with one another’s dearly held church plants, service ministries, hopes and dreams. In 1988 in Leamington, we mounted an evening celebration called A Festival of New Creation. In 1989 in Kitchener, we focused on Sharing the Light. (On an advance planning visit to Leamington, I recall running a stop sign at a four-way rural crossroads in the area, greatly alarming my passenger and myself. I still shudder every time I stop there….)

In l987 MCOQ ordained me as I began serving the well-established St. Jacobs congregation as associate pastor. Later the Waterloo North congregation, formed during the time I was interim missions minister, called me as their lead minister.  So of course I continued to show up at the annual spring gathering. And I’ve done so since – partly to see old friends, partly because I love the music, partly because the speakers are generally inspiring. All these things nourish me.

But I also continue to attend because I’m curious, and because I know I will be stretched. I felt comfortable with the way MCOQ and the early MCEC did things in the l980’s.  I enjoyed being part of getting those things done! But 2018 is not 1988.  Faithfulness does and must look different than it did in the 1980’s.

I was particularly pleased this year to see competent female leaders willing to take on difficult positions – Marilyn Rudy-Froese as church leadership minister and Arli Klassen as moderator. I was pleased to listen to the innovative problem solving of pastors such as Louise Wideman and Ruth Boehm.

Each year, as part of the Mennonite Spiritual Directors of Eastern Canada, I pray for our annual spring gathering. I’m grateful for those leading MCEC, and pray that they will continue to be open to the nudgings of the Spirit, presenting to us ways of being faithful that fit the situation in 2018, as we endeavored to do in the l980’s.

Thanks be to God for the challenges and opportunities of 1988 and of 2018  – and grace for all that is to come….

Question for Reflection:

Where – if at all – have you been nourished by church gatherings beyond the congregation?

Next Week: Cancer Journey Part II: Waiting

#54 – Cancer Journey Part I: An Alternate Universe

One morning last August I walked into the emergency department of a local hospital to check out some chest pain and shortness of breath.  At suppertime I walked out the door with a prescription of antibiotics for what was “thought to be pneumonia.”

Mandella-2017-08-08I felt very well taken care of that day, and coloured a mandala in gratitude for the care I received. A sense of peace came over me. “If there’s more to it than this,” I said to myself, “I’m in good hands.”

The antibiotics didn’t work. Three months later,  after much further testing, I received a diagnosis of lung cancer which had spread to my brain.  This kind of cancer can be managed for a time, I was told, but it’s not curable.

By then I certainly knew that “something was wrong,” but as a non-smoker, I wasn’t expecting lung cancer.  I was shocked and distressed. It felt like Sam and I had just been plunged into an alternate universe.  The terrain looked scary, and I didn’t know how to navigate it.

The competence and compassion of various specialists we saw at the Grand River Cancer Centre impressed and reassured me.  Sam’s unfailing love and support upheld me (and still does). Beyond that, I name three significant happenings early on which calmed my shocked spirit and continue to nourish me now. They’ve become touchstones to which I frequently return….

RWG-Symbols1) Within days of the diagnosis, my retired women’s group offered me symbols of support at a scheduled meeting – a special candle, a heart-shaped stone and butterflies, including one fashioned from stones at a cottage where we’ve retreated. I added a Hope stone, then arranged all the objects in a wooden box and displayed them in my living room.

2) At church the first Sunday after my diagnosis, our pastor prayed for Sam and me, with the congregation standing with us in a prayer circle. I was stunned to find out afterwards that the youth came down from the balcony to be part of it. Ever since that day, the worship space at Rockway Mennonite Church with people in it has become a true sanctuary, enfolding me in God’s care.

3) A couple evenings later, a group of 20 friends and colleagues gathered with Sam and me in an anointing service led by our pastor in the home of hospitable friends.

In my opening statement I said: “I didn’t invite you here tonight so we could beg God for a miracle. I do want to place myself in God’s hands as we pray together for healing and peace in all its dimensions.  I pray for God’s perfect love to cast out my fear of so many possible kinds of losses as I move more deeply into this cancer journey.”

I’d conducted quite a few anointing services as a pastor and saw how calming and reassuring they can be for people.  Then it happened for me.  A friend said afterwards that I looked “radiant.”

I can scarcely describe the cumulative effect of these happenings and many others.  It’s hard to find words that do justice to my sense of God’s reassuring presence during those early weeks. Sometimes I think of that time as “living in the glow,” even while uncertainties and new routines and  difficult decision making also consumed us.

Everything-Happens-for-a-Reason
Available from Penguin Random House

Kate Bowler, in her recent cancer memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, speaks of the feeling of floating – floating on the love and prayers of people who “mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.” (p. 121).  Yes! I thought. That also describes my experience well.

I remembered how I used to preach about “floating on the sea of God’s love and grace.” So I was amazed when a former colleague sent me this prayer: “May you know that you are held in the ‘great sea of Mercy’ where you cannot not be in the presence of God; where you cannot fall out of God’s care.”

Yes it’s true that the intensity of those feelings of “living in the glow” or “floating in God’s love and care” have faded over time. But, as Bowler puts it, “an imprint remains.” I know something has happened between God’s spirit and my spirit, and I’m not the same.

…Five months later, the sanctuary at Rockway Mennonite Church continues to be a comforting space.  I want to be there every Sunday. And I still display that box of butterflies, candle and stones in my living room, along with many well-chosen and well-written cards.  I also have a fat folder of e-mail messages received during those early weeks and since.  I could go on and on….

Question for Reflection: How have you experienced God’s reassuring presence during difficult times?

Next Week: Cancer Journey Part II: Waiting

#53 – Birthday Memories

dixie_cupsOnce and only once, my Mom brought ice cream treats to school for my birthday. That day Jack surreptitiously let the white mice out of their cages.  The teacher ran around the classroom after Jack and the mice, thus upstaging my Mom.  She never brought birthday treats for my classmates again.

A friend recalls the only time her Mom organized a birthday party for her, inviting other girls to the house. Her Mom told such scary ghost stories that my friend ran to her room and hid.

NootchieMy husband Sam remembers a birthday gathering of boys one year – a rare occurrence. Nothing untoward happened. They played baseball and ate hot dogs and burgers grilled on the outdoor fireplace. Earlier that day, Sam chose Nootchie as his birthday present from the litter of mongrels across the street. The dog watched the party, tied up on the sidelines….

1960-schwinn-hollywood

By today’s standards, my birthdays in the 1950’s and those of my friends were pretty low key. Each year I enjoyed the simple ritual of cake and ice cream at home after supper. I loved blowing out the candles while my parents sang Happy Birthday.  I received a present from them each year, but the only one I recall was the pink Schwinn bicycle which I picked out myself….

My 16th birthday memories center around earning my drivers license. My Dad taught me, seeing no reason to pay a drivers ed instructor. One Sunday afternoon we took Mom along for a driving lesson. As I practiced in the large Franconia church parking lot, I hit the accelerator instead of the brakes. I rammed the car smack into the stone wall of that venerable old Mennonite church.

I was sure I was a total failure and would never learn to drive.  My Mom hugged me. My Dad quickly inspected the wall of the church. And then – probably to comfort himself – he said, “Don’t worry.  We won’t report this.  No damage to the church. I’ll take the car in for Bill to fix tomorrow.” [Bill looked after the feed mill fleet.]

Eventually I did learn to drive, and even to park, and we all went up to the testing center near Allentown, where thankfully I passed….

As a younger adult, those singing birthday phone calls from my parents continued to nourish me. And I’ve enjoyed choosing a restaurant each year for my birthday dinner with Sam. I’ve selected venues as various as the Green Frog Tearoom near Aylmer, Golf’s Steakhouse in Kitchener, and Taris on the Water by the old canal in Welland – all with bodies of water in view to nourish my spirit.

For several milestone birthdays, I’ve taken deliberate steps to reflect and look ahead with others. My 40th birthday coincided with our purchase of a new house and the start of my first pastorate. So we marked these events with a house blessing for 40 people. An octet from Conrad Grebel College, where I had recently served as interim chaplain, sang for us. Our cat got into the act by jumping up onto the full buffet table, finding the one and only open spot to pounce….

We marked my 55th birthday and the 15th anniversary of my ordination with a hymn sing at the Detweiler meetinghouse, an historic 19th century Ontario Mennonite church which sings beautifully.

Detweiler-55th-birthday

Mary-Schiedel-anointing
Sue anointed by retired pastor Mary Schiedel

And I organized a Twenty Sisters Lunch for my 60th birthday and the 20th anniversary of my ordination. I had just finished an interim pastoral assignment, and declared myself retired from congregational ministry.  So I invited friends to join me, as well as female colleagues I’d been engaged with over the years. They reminisced with me and blessed me for the retirement ministries I anticipated, including clergy coaching, spiritual direction and writing.

Ten years later, on my 70th birthday, I launched this blog as a thanks-be-to-God for the myriad ways my spirit was and is being nourished through 70 years of life. Now, on the cusp of my 71st birthday, I’m pleased that getting to 70 blogs will take me through most of the summer. Maybe I’ll even continue blogging after that. I enjoy writing these blogs, and I’m not finished yet!

Questions for Reflection:

Which birthdays do you especially recall? What has made a birthday memorable for you? How have you taken time for reflection at  milestone birthdays?

Next Week: Living in the Glow

#52 — Claimed by the Conestogo

On a Monday morning in 2001 the Conestogo River in St. Jacobs claimed me. This river meanders through picturesque Old Order Mennonite country north of Waterloo, part of the Grand River watershed.

Conestogo-River-near-Hawkesville
Conestogo River at the bridge near Hawkesville

During my years as a pastor in St. Jacobs, I rarely went down to the river flats.  But then Woolwich Township got serious about walking trails. By 2001 the riverside Health Valley trail in St. Jacobs extended from the parking lot behind Benjamin’s restaurant almost to the expressway bridge. I returned to St. Jacobs to walk that trail from time to time – a pleasant walk, but not brimming with significance.

All that changed the morning I ventured under the expressway bridge and found a much less well-marked dirt path continuing on the other side.

Conestogo-River-at-Highway-85
Near St. Jacobs at the expressway bridge

I followed the path through a small bush,  then through a farm gate which reminded me of rural walks in the British Isles.

After a while I couldn’t identify the actual trail anymore, but since the gate opened onto wide river flats, it didn’t much matter. I focused on finding solid footing on the squishy ground.  Someone had built makeshift bridges where small streams cut through. I noticed some cow patties, but a sturdy fence kept the cows themselves in a pasture on a hillside. Every so often I stepped right up to the river’s edge to watch its gentle flow.  It seemed an idyllic place.

But as I continued along the flats I became aware of my internal chatter: “It’s really quite isolated here…I’m not sure I should be here…maybe I should turn back towards St Jacobs.”  And then, “I’ve never been here before…I really don’t know where I am or what’s up ahead.”

Then another internal voice reminded me, “You can’t possible get lost, for you’re following the river.  It’s here on your left the whole time. You know this river flows to the village of Conestogo. You know that if you keep following, eventually it will take you there.”

(Later I realized I had experienced that spot along the river before.  For when Orvie heard me tell this story, he informed me that the trail meandered alongside his river flats and lower pasture,  which I’d admired many times from the family’s orchard near the fenced-in cows on the hill)!

…Nevertheless, that walk along the Conestogo, farther than I’d ever gone before, became a metaphor for me of trust in God and the markers God has graciously provided for my life and ministry. Often I’ve found myself in territory I’ve never traversed before – or think I haven’t – and typically there hasn’t been a wide well-marked trail.

Ospry-on-Conestogo-RiverSince that day in 2001, walking along that section of the Conestogo revives my spirit. As the sun sparkles on the water, I watch for the osprey, gliding from a certain rock in the river to a tree top along the bank, sun glistening on its wings.  In springtime I cheer when I spot the trillium in the bush or smell the fragrant blossoms in the old orchard. In summertime I step carefully around those cow patties in Orvie’s (now Stuart’s) lower pasture.

For some unknown reason, that section of the Conestogo connects my spirit with the river of the water of life – one of the deep metaphors of the Bible.  It bubbles up in Genesis 2, watering a garden. It flows from the throne of God in Rev. 22, refreshing a city. It expands into a mighty river in Ezekiel 47, teeming with fish, renewing the land wherever it flows.

As I walk or drive along the Conestogo, it becomes for me this life-giving stream. I imagine myself wading in, then finding the current, carried by its healing energy.

Conestoga-River
Conestogo River near St. Jacobs

I want to keep moving with the current of God’s grace, wherever it flows. I want it to carry me.  I want to be curious and unafraid, open to surprise about the territory up ahead.

…But beyond all that heady stuff,  I simply enjoy the river and its environs. My most nourishing countryside drive follows the river from the St. Jacobs dam to the village of Hawkesville and beyond. I never tire of it. I request it at least once a week in spring, summer and fall….

St-Jacobs-dam
Conestogo River at St. Jacobs dam

Question for Reflection:

What walk along a body of water or drive through the countryside especially nourishes your spirit?

Next week: Birthdays!