#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.

 

#44 – The Isle of Iona: Finding God in a Sheep Pasture

In the spring of 1999, I participated in a Pilgrimage with Celtic Christians in Scotland, Ireland, and England. One of its holiest hours emerged for me on the tiny windswept isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland.

1999-011

As we approached the ferry dock in a driving rain, we saw the reconstructed Abbey dominating the landscape, reminding us immediately of the sacred memory Iona carries.

682px-KellsFol027v4Evang
Symbols of the Four Evangelists (Clockwise from top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John) and an ox (Luke). From Wikipedia.

The Christian memory on Iona dates back to the year 563, when St. Columba landed there and established a community of monks.  In the 8th century, they began working on the Book of Kells – a colorfully decorated manuscript of the four Gospels.

But in the 9th century Viking raids devastated the island, killing 68 monks. Most of the surviving monks left, taking with them the Book of Kells.  But a tiny group remained, and the Christian presence on Iona continued through the centuries.

Then in the 20th century,  a renewal movement led by Rev. George MacLeod brought unemployed craftsmen from Glasgow and elsewhere to Iona to rebuild the 12th century Abbey.  Since that time, the Iona Community has become a vibrant international movement, with members who bring together concerns for social justice and for nourishing, empowering worship.

Given its sacred history, I went to Iona expecting to meet God. But my holiest moments didn’t spring forth in worship in the Abbey, although I did enjoy singing songs by John Bell and sharing communion oat cakes with visitors from many countries.

1999-14
South Aisle Chapel, Iona Abbey. Published by Island Pictures Library

What I didn’t expect was that the Holy One would restore my soul in a sheep pasture, on a part of the island the locals call The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. For centuries now, this raised beach has been the common grazing land used by the various sheep crofters of the island.

Even my unpracticed eye could see at least three different flocks of blackfaced sheep grazing there together, each flock marked by a dye of a different colour.

1999-012
Sheep on the Iona golf course

And even though this grassy beach also hosts an 18-hole golf course, I saw no other humans that sunny springtime afternoon. The sounds floating through the air were not the striking of clubs against golf balls, but rather the bleating of many sheep. They answered one another from here and over there and behind me somewhere, with a lamb once running full tilt towards the voice of its mother.

And once…once…I caught the sound of a shepherd using human voice in a way I can’t describe. It danced and laughed and cajoled all at the same time with an eerie pitch that floated on the breeze, sending a ripple through some of the sheep.  I wanted to record this moment and take it home with me.

But what technology can replicate the sting of wind and the warmth of sun together on one’s face?  What technology can evoke  the springiness of walking on a carpet of buttercups and wool towards a lamb standing placidly on top of the 10th hole? What technology can capture the varied sounds of lambs bleating and rabbits scampering and surf pounding and the eerie unmistakable call of a shepherd all at once? What technology can evoke the sense of trust and confidence in God called forth in me by those sheep and that unseen shepherd?  Not even a 3-D movie….

I have to admit that for some unknown reason sheep always get to me. So on Iona, Jesus’ word picture of himself as shepherd and us as sheep came alive.  I thought about us – individual sheep of Christ’s fold – grazing with other sheep not necessarily of Christ’s fold on common pastureland. In our pluralistic society, that surely describes us. We listen to much the same music, read many of the same books, and visit many of the same websites as folks around us. We take in the same political and economic doctrines, and choose with others our preferred slant on the news.

But what about Jesus’ statement – meant to evoke assurance and comfort – that he knows his own and his own know him? What about his assertion that we’re not fooled by the voice of a stranger? What about his implication that when the voice of the shepherd floats on the breeze, a ripple will go through us; we’ll leave our grazing, and follow that  dancing, cajoling voice?

1999-16…With that object lesson one sunny afternoon 19 years ago, I added Iona to the constellation of places where I have met God. Now as Lent begins once again, and I recall my experience in that sheep pasture, I wonder: Where and how will I hear the eerie, cajoling voice of the Shepherd this Lent? What will it mean to respond with a ripple and follow?

Question for Reflection:

Has a vacation or other travel ever become a pilgrimage for you? If so, how would you describe meeting God through that experience?

Next week: My childhood home

#43 – Of Diaries and Journals

Michael-R-Clemmer
Rare photo of Grampop Michael R. Clemmer

As a child  I vaguely knew that my grampop Clemmer kept a diary.

Ten years ago I had the privilege of reading some of them. Thus I found out when my Aunt Esther got new wallpaper in her bedroom, when the family got their first telephone, and who went to the hospital for what purpose and for how long. I saw how much my grandfather paid a nurse when one was needed for my sickly grandmother Lizzie.

I also learned about purchases for the family business, the Moyer & Son feed mill. Grampop documented excursions he took with my great-uncle Jake to buy a new adding machine, or a pair of black or brown horses to haul wagons of feed or coal to customers.

Souderton-Mennonite-Church-1952
Souderton Mennonite Church, June 3, 1952. Warthel Photos

I found out about burials at church, a packed house for the annual Harvest Home Service, and the time the communion wine was watered down too much. I found out that my grampop was once in the lot for minister at Souderton Mennonite, but another man chose the book with the slip of paper that signaled his call.

I heard the facts about all sorts of things, but from my grandfather’s diaries I could only guess how he felt about them. He never said or even hinted….

So…I knew about diaries, but I only learned about journals at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. In Grade 9 I started keeping my own journal. An early entry, dated January 28, 1962, read like this:

Diary-1962

The practice of keeping a journal where I explored my feelings became hugely important for me.  I did so off and on as a college student and as a young adult. Then when I became a pastor 31 years ago, I began writing in my journal almost every morning, before the activity of the day got underway.

Keeping an almost daily journal continues to help me talk to God and to myself.  It helps me know what I’m thinking and feeling. I owe my start to Miss Longacre – now Anna Mary Brubacher of Kitchener, Ontario.

At one point – maybe 20 years ago – I thought my edited journals might be published in some form after I died. I even named someone to read and edit and make decisions about them.  Later I realized that my journals are for my eyes only and should eventually be destroyed.  So four years ago as we were downsizing, I read a lot of old journals and then shredded them, keeping only the ones from the preceding seven years.

Love-a-guide-for-prayer
Presently available from Loyola Press

Every January since that time, I’ve read and shredded another year of journals.  Reading those old journals has become a spiritual practice – a review of my inner life, my fervent prayers, and my joys and struggles. At times I was dismayed at getting stuck in a struggle for an inordinate period of time, and was more than ready to shred the memory of it!  Yet in a few other cases I decided to keep an old  journal, because it chronicled so well how I had worked through a major transition.

My reading of old journals also reminds me of significant spirituality books which accompanied me at certain times, such as Love: A Guide for Prayer. Sometimes I’ve torn a quote from such a book out of the journal I’m about to shred, and pasted it into my current one.  Sometimes I’ve pulled a book off the shelf and browsed through it again.

Keeping a journal and reviewing it are significant means of soul nourishment for me. When I read an old journal, or even review a recent one, I often recognize God’s spirit come near….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever kept a diary?  A journal?  If so, has that practice brought nourishment to your spirit?  In what ways?

Next week: The Isle of Iona: Finding God in a Sheep Pasture

#42 – Reading Old Family Photos

I’m intrigued by old family photos – especially ones I haven’t seen before, especially if I’m in them!

SusanClemmer
H. Leh & Company photo

I cherish all available pictures of myself as a baby, toddler or young girl.  My parents relied on photography studios, and seemingly took few if any candid shots themselves.

So I’m fortunate that cousins on both sides of the family have been going through old slides and photos, and occasionally send one that includes me.

These days I’m curious about little Susan. Who was she, anyway? How did she make her way in the world as the only child in the household? What habits did she adopt which prefigured mine 60+ years later? What childhood tendencies  did she mercifully discard along the way?

I approach each new-to-me photo with curiosity, even excitement. What can I “read” in it (or perhaps “read into” it)? What new things can I learn or old impressions reinforce about this little girl and her environment?

Helen-and-Sue
Helen (left) and Susan

A number of photos document holiday dinners with my mother’s Derstine clan over the years.  The one on the left I’ve treasured for years – my cousin Helen and I holding our Christmas presents, looking startled. Perhaps that was the year we ripped open other people’s presents, desperate to find our own (See blog #3).

Fast forward five years or so, and we see Helen and Susan smiling broadly –  almost laughing – behind a whole pile of still- wrapped presents. Perhaps this documents some growing maturity on their part!  Some of the younger Godshall and Clemmer children aren’t quite so sure that’s appropriate.

Sue with presents as child
Derstine Christmas 1950s, L-R Helen Godshall, Gerry Godshall, Ken Clemmer, Susan Clemmer, Karen Clemmer

Another photo from a Derstine Christmas, acquired in the last couple years, intrigues me for a number of reasons. First of all, take a look at that wallpaper! Also, it appears that  my Mom and I are negotiating.  I wonder what that’s about!  And I can’t believe my bright orange knee socks. Perhaps the colour isn’t true?

Sue Clemmer and Martha Clemmer
Mom and Susan

Recently, a cousin on  the Clemmer side of the family sent me two slides of myself. Here I notice that my hair includes img011barrettes, as well as large ribbons at the end of my pigtails. I noticed the same hair decoration in the studio photo of myself. I wonder if that’s how all the little Mennonite girls in the Souderton area looked, or if it was my mother’s preference – or perhaps even mine?   I also wonder about the expression on my face.  Am I squinting at the sun?  Or unhappy about something?  My usual shining brown eyes are almost shut.

The other slide demonstrates a reality of my childhood – often I was the only young child in a group of adults. I’m fascinated by the variations in the dress code for females played out here. On a summer day,  my Aunt Esther – a preacher’s wife – has covering strings and is wearing a cape dress with long sleeves.  My Mom has no covering strings and is wearing a modified cape dress with 3/4 length sleeves. My sister-in-law Ethel is wearing a covering and a dress with ¾ sleeves (made of a sheer fabric). And there is Susan with arms nearly bare and those barrettes and ribbons in her hair.

img012Looking at this photo makes me feel included – those women are my family! – and at the same time a bit lonely, as the only child in the picture….

Question for Reflection:

What have you observed or wondered about your childhood self and the context of your early life by looking at old family pictures?

Next week: Keeping a Journal

# 41 – The Comfort of Old Friends

Sue-Sam-Carol
Sue, Sam and friend Carol

Recently an old friend from college days (Carol) drove six hours to spend two days with Sam and me and another old friend (Kathy) who lives here in Kitchener.  I appreciated this very much.

It set me to thinking about the special kind of comfort old friends can be and often are. They have seen me over many years – as far back as my early adulthood or even, perhaps, my childhood.

There’s something special about being known over time. Old friends have had some of the same formative experiences I’ve had. If I dare to ask, they can tell me whether a direction I’m pondering fits with the Sue they’ve known for 30 or 50 years.  They’ve seen my patterns of decision making and have a sense of the core essence of Sue and the way I’ve expressed that essence over time.   When facing a difficult situation, I can ask, “Is the way I’m approaching this consistent with the Sue you’ve known?”

Jim-Sue-Clemmer
Brother Jim and Sue

Plus, if they’re older than me, they have information which few others can offer. I remember asking my big brother Jim shortly before he died, “What type of apples did the two trees in our backyard produce before Hurricane Hazel took them out in 1954?”  And he knew! “The Smokehouse were for baking,” he answered promptly, “and the Red Delicious for eating.”   Almost five years after his death, I still miss the way his knowledge extended my sense of our family and the Souderton community back by an additional 20 years.  He was a dear old friend….

Susquehanna-at-Cooperstown
Headwaters of the Susquehanna River, flowing out of Lake Otsego, at Cooperstown, New York

My association with Carol, who visited me last weekend, started in the student publications offices at Goshen College, a very formative place for me. Since Carol and her spouse Katie reside in Upstate New York,  Sam and I have been able to visit there repeatedly to share in the beauty of their area, celebrate weddings, and compare our lives out of similar worldviews.

For me, there’s a comfort level in being with old friends that I rarely find elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why I’ve stayed part of some groups for a long time, such as the “Group of 5” who go out for lunch together most months.

With old friends, it’s sometimes possible to pick up the phone, initiate a call, and continue a conversation where we left off four years ago! And if both parties are committed to doing so, it’s possible to deepen the relationship over time.

Quilts-GaloreAnd it’s great to just plain enjoy each other’s company…remembering old times and exploring our common interests now. Last weekend Carol, Kathy and I spent more than an hour in a quilt shop on an Old Order Amish farm, enjoying Eileen Jantzi’s quilts and “helping” one of us choose fabrics for the quilt she commissioned.

While new friends stretch me and often signal new interests, old friends quietly witness my continuity…who I have been and who I am becoming. In this my spirit is nourished….

Question for Reflection:

In what ways – if at all – do old friends have a special place in your life?  How do they nourish your spirit?

Next week: Nourishing Hospitality

#40 – The Comfort of Reading

A friend told me that she and her family read Laura Ingalls Wilder books aloud to each other this Christmas. They started with The Long Winter on a blustery day with frigid temperatures.

Henrys-Red-SeaMy own introduction to Laura Ingalls Wilder came when my Mom read The Long Winter aloud as I lay on the couch with the chicken pox. She also read Henry’s Red Sea by Barbara Smucker aloud, which made me cry. Would Henry’s family ever stop being refugees and find a new home? Would the Mennonite refugees be able to cross the Russian Zone in Germany without their train being stopped? It was so suspenseful!

As adults, Sam and I received a gift of a book to read aloud on an upcoming trip to Pennsylvania. Cleveland Amory’s gentle tale, The Cat who Came for Christmas, features the writer and his cat, Polar Bear. The two can never agree about when the author’s meal is finished – that is to say, when it’s OK for the cat to jump up on the table and help himself to the leftovers.  It was a fun book to read aloud on a long journey.

Books have been a comfort to me as I’ve heard them read by people I love.  I’m  grateful, though, that I live in an era and a part of the world where most people learn to read for themselves. I wouldn’t want to have to access Bible stories only via stained glass windows, Bible illuminations, and pastors’ homilies. And I do cherish the opportunity to read a book people are talking about for myself and come to my own conclusions, then share my ideas in a book club or in informal conversation with others.

And yes, I’m old fashioned. Holding a physical book in my hand is part of the pleasure of reading. Reading from a screen is a different and much less satisfying experience for me.

Here are eight books in three categories I wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading this past year:

Spirituality

  1. Wagamese-EmbersEmbers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese. (Douglas and McIntyre, 2016). Wagamese is an indigenous Canadian novelist who writes beautifully, with a clear spiritual sense. I treasure this book of photos and one-paragraph meditations, especially given his untimely death in 2017.
  2. Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics by Christine Valters Paintner. (Sorin Books, 2016). Our women’s group enjoyed exploring 12 inner archetypes (the healer, the fool, the mother, the pilgrim, etc.), learning more about people like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day,  and Hildegard of Bingen who embodied the archetypes, and making connections for our own lives.
  3. Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Harper One, 2014). Taylor is a favorite spiritual writer of mine. I reread this one over Christmas, and found the topic of embracing darkness not nearly as scary as when I first encountered the book!

    Fiction

  4. Juby-WoefieldThe Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby. (Harper Perennial, 2011). A gentle humorous novel about characters thrown together in a city girl’s attempt to make a small farm in decrepit condition profitable. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The novel and its unusual characters are fun!
  5. Glass Houses by Louise Penny. (Minotaur Books, 2017). I got hooked on Louise Penny when she set one of her murder mysteries in a remote monastery in Canada. Alas, most are set in the small fictional tourist town of Three Pines in Quebec. I love the quirky characters who reside in the town, as well as Penny’s ability to weave complex plots.

    Church History/Memoir/Theology

  6. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. (Baker Academic, 2016). One year on sabbatical, I loved listening to Kreider talk about the growth of the early church by unexpected means in a January course. Now he’s systematically presented his research in an easy to read academic book, highlighting the virtue of patience.
  7. JLBurkholderCover-IMSRecollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century by J. Lawrence Burkholder. (AMBS, Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2016). Drawn mostly from interviews with J. Lawrence, this book offers a fascinating look at the life and viewpoints of this relief administrator, teacher, college president, and churchman. I was especially taken by the low pay/poverty of church leaders struggling to get an education after World War II, by the interplay of Mennonite perspectives on theological trends, and – always – by the ethical challenges Burkholder faced in administering aid in China.
  8. (Re)union: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints, and Sinners by Bruxy Cavey. (Herald Press, 2017). I’m always interested in new ways of expressing Christian faith. This year I listened to Bruxy preach on the site of his home church – The Meeting House, an evangelical Anabaptist megachurch near Toronto. I love his humour, his fresh use of metaphor,  and the gentle way he leads people towards experiential Christian faith. I don’t agree with everything in this book, but it was certainly worth reading and discussing with others.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. Have you enjoyed reading books aloud to one another as a family or as friends? If so, what has made it enjoyable?
  2. What would be on your list of eight recent books you wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading?

Next week: The Comfort of Old Friends

#39 – My Life Flows On…

My-Life-Flows-OnI remember the excitement when the blue (Mennonite) Hymnal: A Worship Book  became available for use in churches in 1993.

Our congregation, which I thought of as a “hymnal church,” loved learning My life flows on. It had a familiar feel as a  19th century hymn, yet it was new, because it came to Mennonites via our sister denomination the Church of the Brethren. My life flows on quickly became one of our favorites, as it did in quite a swath of Mennonite churches.

A mentor from that era recalls how that hymn also gave voice to the aspirations of women who were coming into congregational ministry during that time…it was in a way “our hymn,” for we ourselves were a “new creation.”

I titled my 2013 ministry memoir Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry.  At that time I was a  recently retired pastor and a spiritual director, so I wrote:

“As for me, I’m no longer…offering God’s refreshment to a particular community of faith. I do have an inkling of where some of the deeper channels of the river lie, and I want to keep inviting others in.

“Most importantly, I want to keep moving with the current of God’s grace and intent for the world, wherever it flows. I want the river to carry me. I want to be curious and unafraid, open to surprise about the river up ahead and the landscape to be explored around the next bend.

“A hymn I’ve loved since I first sang it 21 years ago keeps luring me down the river. animating my journey.  It begins like this:

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet though far-off hymn,
that hails a new creation.”

Ohio-River
Ohio River at Ripley

“As is usually the case with me and 19th century hymn texts, sometimes I’m content to sing it as is, but at other times I want to nuance it.  Some days I’m fine with imagining the song of new creation “far off,” located “above” earth’s lamentation. Other days, I’d prefer to sing it like this:

My life flows on in endless song.
amidst earth’s lamentation
I catch those clear, surprising tones
that hail a new creation.”

This raises for me an interesting question. Where – in relation to earth’s lamentation – is the song of new creation?  Is it above earth’s lamentation, soaring,  as in “the lilts and peals of children’s song and laughter…above the wind, the warplanes and the highway traffic,” as Syrian refugee children go to school in Jordan? Is it beneath earth’s lamentation, under girding, as in Peace Beneath the Clamour (Blog # 37)? Or does it simply appear from time to time, amidst earth’s lamentation?

And is it a sweet melody, though somewhat faint because it’s far off…something we have to listen hard to catch?  Or are the tones clear and surprising,  like When peace like a river in the MRI room (Blog #37)?

Or is it some of both? Or sometimes this and sometimes that? And does it really matter, in any case?

For me, it matters. New creation tones clear and surprising , right in the MRI room, are different than ones far off, barely audible, and out of this world. New creation tones intermingling with lamentation are more hopeful for my world and my experience now than faint tones far off. Clear and surprising tones right here now mean that genetic mutation researchers and creators of new radiation technologies are cooperators with God in bringing about new life. This pleases me more than I can say….

Conestoga-River
Conestoga River near St. Jacobs

 

Questions for Reflection:

  1. For you, are the tones of new creation above earth’s lamentation, beneath earth’s lamentation, or intermingled with earth’s lamentation?  Or some of all three?
  2. If you know the hymn “My Life Flows On,” when were you introduced to it?  Is it one of your favorites, so-so, or not pleasing to you at all?

Next Week: The Comfort of Reading

#38–The Annual Jigsaw Puzzle

For the past 20 years or so, we’ve done a jigsaw puzzle at our house each Christmas, starting about the third week in December.

Acadian-CottageBut the adventure begins earlier, as we look for just the right puzzle.  We might find one featuring an historic Acadian cottage, as we did at the garden shop of the Annapolis Royal Historical Gardens in Nova Scotia in 2015.

Or we might choose a puzzle of a painting from an art gallery shop, as we once did in Ottawa for a Group of Seven painting.

But we’re most likely to find our puzzle of the year while meandering through the countryside and spotting the Living Waters Christian Bookstore in Linwood, ON , with its great selection of puzzles downstairs. Or we might find it at a heritage-themed shop, such as at the Blue Gate Restaurant in Shipshewana, IN. or Sauder Village in Archbold, OH.

Lets-get-startedAnd, to be honest, I’ve  found that I really do prefer 500 piece puzzles recommended for ages 10 and up, such as last year’s Let’s Get Started, with its five charming cats, rather than 1000 pieces all of uniformly small size as in this year’s Trail Bottom Autumn. Sam, on the other hand, has the patience to work with the small pieces, and prefers that challenge.

By the third week of December, we set up the card table in the corner of the living room, drag over a good light, and get to it.

When I first opened the lid this year, I saw nothing but piece after piece of yellow and orange leaves, and it looked pretty hopeless. But we took a deep breath and made a start.

First, I put the lid where I could see it.  The picture on the lid gave me the security that somebody has done this puzzle before…or at least somebody designed it and knows what it’s supposed to look like when its finished.

Current-puzzleOur first step is always to find all the smooth edges of the border,  thus framing  the puzzle, so we can see the actual dimensions and the actual size of the pieces. Next we look for something like a small section of blue sky or a row of buildings that cuts the puzzle into sections, then for how the lights and the darks intersect, and one thing leads to another.

But always, when putting a puzzle together, there are missing pieces.  I look everywhere…under the box…on the floor…and they’re simply not there.  So I assume that the puzzle making machine malfunctioned at that point, or that the cat (when we had one) dragged them off.

So I go away for awhile, and when I come back to the puzzle, behold, there is a missing piece!

And of course there are pieces I think MUST fit at a particular spot and I almost force them to fit but they simply won’t, until finally I find the spot where they really do fit instead.

Gradually, over time, the pattern develops and the picture really does take shape until eventually – at the end- we can see the whole picture, and we can grasp that this one little piece and what we did with it IS an important part of the whole….

A friend of mine, who is an avid puzzler, tells me that putting together a jigsaw puzzle is a holy undertaking for her. As the picture begins to make sense it reminds her, she says, that God is here with us, working with the choices we make and fitting them into the larger picture.

Another puzzler friend says, “Puzzles are so relaxed; they never call out for attention, they are just there, waiting patiently for someone to fill in blank, empty spots.”

Trail-Bottom-1So…when will this year’s puzzle look like the picture on the box?  Maybe by the end of January??? And meanwhile, the puzzle waits patiently….

Questions for Reflection:

If you are a puzzler, where does the satisfaction come?  In completing it?  In finding a hard-to-locate piece? In seeing the design unfold? Something else? Do you find puzzling relaxing or stress producing? Why?

Next week: My Life Flows On….

#37–Peace Beneath the Clamour

It’s 11:00 on a Friday night. I find myself in a drab hospital waiting room, hoping my turn on the MRI machine will arrive soon, as my appointment was for an hour ago.

I’m here to set up targeted radiation treatment for an unexpected – and unwelcome – occurrence of cancer. The hospital has phoned just hours earlier to ask if I’ll take a cancellation, and of course I said “Yes!”

Waiting impatiently, I almost laugh as I recall the loudness of the MRI machine, which I will now experience for a second time.  It groans…it clicks…it hisses…it gives off a steady buzz – all at extreme volumes which require ear plugs and ear muffs.

Then suddenly, without warning, a snippet of an old hymn comes to me, loudly, insistently, then the whole first verse:

“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul….”

When my turn finally comes, the song accompanies me into the room and into the MRI machine.  In my spirit, When peace like a river drowns out that exceedingly noisy equipment. I’m so relaxed I nearly fall asleep….

I paid attention to that snippet because I always do when old hymns appear unbidden, believing they have something significant for me now (See Blog #1). I also paid attention because this seemed such a lovely counterpoint to “Michael above the Trumpets” (see Blogs #34 and 35). Music nourishes me both by rising to the heights, and by under girding me and  sowing peace. When peace like a river  is now prominent on my playlist when encountering  diagnostic or treatment equipment, whether the machine in question is noisy or eerily quiet….

So, besides snippets of old hymns, what else has grounded and nourished me as my journey with cancer proceeds?

  1. Receiving short notes and prayers from many people, including a prayer circle at my home church the Sunday morning after my diagnosis.  Ever since, that space feels different, calming me, embracing me with God’s presence, keeping me safe….
  2. Butterfly-pictureSitting before the Icon of the Holy Trinity (Blog #32) in the dark with a lit tealight candle. The candle illumines a circle which includes me facing Jesus as he points to the cup of blessing, whether that blessing may come in joy or in suffering or (most likely) in strange combination.
  3. Identifying with the butterfly (Blog #31) as a beautiful, fragile creature, soaring in flight, symbolizing transformation. Each day I colour one from Peterson Field Guide Coloring Books: Butterflies. I choose one in  colours which fit my mood or the spirit of the day, and paste it into my journal at the end of my entry. And I cherish my Christmas present – a print of an illumination from the St. John’s Bible of butterflies feeding on milkweed.
  4. I also revel in the view outside our large tenth floor condo windows, whether of sunset or fresh snow on roofs or sun reflecting off high rises. Or, as we saw the other morning-into-afternoon, the beauty of hoarfrost on many trees, evoking a pure, white winter wonderland and these verses:

He sprinkles snow like birds alighting,
           It comes down like locusts settling.
The eye marvels at the beauty of its whiteness,
          And the mind is amazed at its falling.
Over the earth, like salt, he also pours hoarfrost,
          Which, when it freezes, bristles like thorns….
We could say much more and still fall short;
          To put it concisely, “He is all.”

          -Ecclesiasticus 43: 19-21, JB  

white-chrisxtmas-small

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am now just past the halfway mark with the 70 weekly blogs I hope to write in gratitude to God for nourishing my spirit through 70+ years of life. My gratitude for this nourishment continues unabated.

I intend to keep writing these weekly blogs, but may adapt the form to something simpler from time to time or skip a week here or there as cancer treatment continues….

As we prepare to enter 2018, this quote from a colleague nourishes me daily:

 “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.”

Happy New Year!

Question for Reflection:

What spiritual practices do you keep which nourish your spirit in difficult times as well as good times?

Next Week: The Christmas Jigsaw Puzzle

#36 – The “Nourishing Cats” Project

Last May at the New Hamburg MCC Relief Sale, Sam and I searched through the quilted wall hangings on offer, looking for ones we could afford to bid on.

Our first picks quickly surged beyond our price range. Eventually we settled on one called “Cat Nap,” which intrigued us as former cat owners. Plus, its predominantly orange and brown hues were “my colours” exactly!

The-Cat-ProjectFor a while I used it as a lap quilt, channeling the various cats who had purred there over the years. Eventually we hung it in the dining room.  As I kept looking at it, I hatched the idea of attaching a name to each cat on the quilt, calling to mind our most noteworthy felines. I thought of the hanging as a tribute to them and the gentle or humorous (or occasionally frustrating) ways they nourished our spirits.

First on the list, of course, was Sam’s cat as a little boy on the farm – Fluffy by name. And then of course Fluffy #2 (son of Fluffy), who made the move into town with the family but – alas – was run over by a car shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, a thorough search has yielded no extant photos of either of those short-haired cats!

Next we selected five of our jointly-owned cats. It was fascinating to recall their names, giving a clue about things that preoccupied us at the time.

Of course we included our first two felines, Balthasar and Ervine, whom we acquired in the fall of 1973. Balthasar, named after 16th century Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier, reflected Sam’s scholarly interests at that time. That cat was actually our smartest one ever, with the skill to answer the phone and to fetch and return a cloth ball.

Ervine, initially misnamed Ervin, showed our fascination with U.S. Senator Sam Ervin of Watergate fame. We had been glued to the TV that summer as the Watergate hearings unfolded.

Frank H. Epp, Sam’s boss at Conrad Grebel College, rightly guessed that our next cat, Frank, was named after him!

As for Gus, I was reading the theologian Augustine when we brought him home. Since he enjoyed sitting on books, he was likely well named.

Sue-and-MaggieOur last cat, Maggie, held a special place in my heart as our best lap cat and was difficult to release as her health declined.  We found her not long after I discovered my maternal grandmother Magdelena Moyer Derstine through letters she and her girlfriends wrote to each other as young adults. [I had never met my grandmother in person because she died when my mother was 10.]

So…that takes care of seven cats, but what names would we give to the 11 other felines waiting on the wall?

It struck us that though various friends had been cat lovers over the years, only one couple still had cats! I sent out e-mails, asking about this cat or that one. I could feel between the lines their joy in those bygone cats. I also heard some great stories!

Snuggles was a house cat on a family farm who belonged to our friend Philip as a five-year-old.  But Mother got tired of that cat being underfoot, and gave Snuggles to the neighbours. Soon she missed the cat, and wanted it back.  So she sent Philip into the neighbour’s barn to steal Snuggles back. He saw the cat perched there and nabbed it. Mother told the neighbor the cat had found its way home…and Philip got his Snuggles back!

Cats--Ferd-&-AmeliaEllen writes, “These two cats, from the same litter, were my first cats.  Their names come from the exploratory traits they demonstrated as young kittens. Amelia comes from famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and Ferdinand from world circumnavigator Ferdinand Magellen.  Unlike many cats, they went to greet my guests at the door.  They were my best cats ever, although other fine cats followed  their paw prints in my heart.”

I asked Marg about that large elderly cat curled up when a prayer group met at her house years ago, calming the room. She recalled George as the “purring patriarch of a large loving family. He enjoyed life till he was 20…Beloved of our youngest daughter, who pleaded with Santa in a letter when she was 10 for a friendly cat that she would love forever.”

Lynne remembered Liza Jane, who “loved listening to Mozart and would twitch her tail in time to the music.” David reminded me that their large cat Lenny was of course dressed in black like his namesake Leonard Cohen.

ShadowI’m especially drawn to Shadow, a lovely upstate New York kitty who unwittingly became a prop in our informal 25th anniversary photos in 1994. Sitting comfortably on a little table between us on her own front deck, Shadow was even willing to have us touch her, showing the way cats have nourished our spirits….

Question for Reflection:

Which family pets – if any – have nourished the spirits of your family? Might you remember them fondly as part of your family Christmas gathering?

Next week: Unwelcome news

#35 – Music of Advent: Enhanced…Raucous…Sublime

In last week’s blog, I looked toward performances of Handel’s Messiah and an Advent Jazz Vesper Service with eager anticipation.  Here’s what happened.

Handel’s Messiah

Messiah-programOn first blush, the idea of “adding something” to a performance of Handel’s Messiah – enhancing it, if you will – is absurd.

But I and doubtless many of the other 2000 persons at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square last Saturday night received it that way.

Of course we heard an excellent choir and soloists and orchestra as usual.  The concert  was augmented by 13 illustrations from the 20th century Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press, featuring ancient inks and gold and silver leaf.

For the performance of Messiah, these images were digitized and projected on a large screen above the choir and orchestra  with animation –  twinkling stars, coloured dots, angels floating to Jesus’ birth, the earth twirling, words and images slowly forming and reforming.

Far from being a distraction, these illuminations gave me additional Bible texts – favorites of mine not in Messiah but related to its words – which added to the depth of meaning already there for me. So my experience of Messiah was enhanced…deepened…illuminated…by 21st century slow, meditative media.

The animated illumination To the ends of the earth brought the final Messiah chorus, Worthy Is the Lamb, into the 21st century for me in a remarkable way. The earth, shown as part of the universe, kept changing, twirling, enlarging, receding, becoming darker and lighter. Strands of DNA emerged from the background, as well as images from the Hubble telescope.

I marvelled at the wonder of our 21st century universe while the choir sang praise of Christ full-throttle.  Wonderful!

Advent Jazz Vespers

Love Poems from God
Available from Penguin Random House

People aged 50 to 90 gathered, and engaged with eyes closed or small smiles or very gentle foot-tapping in a meditative setting where jazz pieces on piano, brass, guitar and percussion alternated with snippets of poetry.

This year, Conrad Grebel’s chaplain, Ed Janzen, chose readings from Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, featuring mystics and saints from various traditions.

So interspersed with tune fragments  like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Go Tell it on the Mountain  came tidbits such as: “It acts like love – music, it reaches towards the face, touches it, and tries to let you know His promise: that all will be okay…” (Rabia of Basra). Or from John of the Cross: “If you want, the virgin will come down the street pregnant with light and sing.”

The quiet meditative atmosphere  changed with Joy to the World, announced as the final piece. By the end of it, heaven and nature are raucously singin’ and rockin’, and we’re bobbin’ and tappin’ vigorously, laughing, completely energized.

Then Ed suggests that if we applaud, who knows, there might be an encore. The pianist suggests Silent Night, and we laugh.  Silent Night? After that rowdy rendition? But it works.  The mood shifts. After the raucous music of the spheres, we tap into the ever so gentle side, quietly singing “sleep in heavenly peace” to the Christ Child…quietly acknowledging the dawn of redeeming grace.

Then we greet each other, put on the hats and mitts, and head for our cars.  We open the door – and Look!

Snowflakes gently falling.  A fresh dusting of snow. A sky made light on one of the longest nights of the year.

And, as revealed to another mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, we can’t help but echo that in any ultimate sense, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

For our hearts have been tuned to the music of the spheres and our spirits have played it – heaven and nature singing raucously, with the gentlest dawn of salvation, sleeping in luminous, heavenly peace

Celtic Harp Music

Angels-on-high
Find out more about this CD at http://www.susantoman.com/

When we arrived home, the luminous peace prevailed as I played a new CD, Angels on High by Susan Toman on Celtic harp. We’d loved her sound on harpsichord at a wedding celebration in Ottawa several years back.  And now the harp…

So…Messiah enhanced…raucous music of the spheres…luminous peace….the music of Advent.

Question for Reflection:

What musical concerts or recordings have most nourished your spirit this Advent?

Next week: The Cat Project