#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.

 

#86 – By the tender mercy of our God…

Morning-sky-at-convent
7:25 am on December 6 at St. John’s Convent (Willowdale)

I woke up this morning at my second spiritual home – the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine. I parked myself at a particular window and watched the light increase through the trees facing St. John’s Rehab Hospital next door. I remembered the morning sky at home the day before -pink and yellow streaks amidst grey clouds in the big sky.

I recited the Song of Zechariah, anticipating our collective chanting of it in the chapel at Morning Prayer:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 2: 78-79, NRSV

It struck me again that the days become shorter and shorter during Advent, with the Longest Night at the winter solstice on December 21. When the nights are darkest and the days shortest, legend has it that the Christ Child was born.

So many phrases come to me from Scripture, Christmas carols and other Christian songs, speaking of light overcoming darkness.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. From the song “Christ, be our light” (Sing the Journey #54 ): “Longing for light we wait in darkness…Christ be our light.”
  2. Various songs from the Taize community, especially
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let not my doubt nor my darkness speak to me.
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let my heart always welcome your love.”
  3. The wonderful affirmation from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:5, 9, NRSV).

But the play of light and darkness is not always as we first imagine. For there’s another biblical tradition about light and darkness, supported by mystics and by many fewer songs. This tradition indicates that God is working in the dark, perhaps in hidden, imperceptible ways.  The hope in this tradition is not necessarily for the light to shine and the darkness to please go away! The hope rather is to begin to accept and grasp God at work in the dark.

John Michael Talbot’s provocative song, “Holy darkness,” speaks of darkness as “Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.” It affirms that “as we await you, O God of silence, We embrace your holy night.” Here’s the YouTube link if you’d like to listen to it.  Please note that all the indistinct words that could be either “night” or “light” in the song are actually “night.”

So… I want to keep chanting the Song of Zechariah, filled with hope.  I also want to keep exploring that other biblical tradition – the one where we accept the darkness and look for God’s unseen treasures within it.

A two-piano version of the Bach Chorale “Sheep Shall Safely Graze” always settles me, reminding me that sheep in an enclosure at night with a shepherd nearby are as “safe” – if not safer – than sheep grazing freely in the light during the day….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When and how have you welcomed the light?
  2. When and how – if at all – have you found God in the darkness?

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#85 – From Eternity Sunday to First Advent

Eternity Sunday is one of the most sacred Sundays of the church year for me. On this Sunday  at our church, we are invited to name a person important to us who has died over the past year, lighting a candle in remembrance. I lit a candle for my sister-in-law Ethel Clemmer, who died in February 2017.

After lighting candles, we receive communion. As we do so, the veil between those now living and those living on in memory seems to be as thin as it gets.

A week after Eternity Sunday comes the first Sunday of Advent – the first Sunday of a new church year.  I always consider the week in between as my time  to get ready for Advent, with simple rituals and tasks that I hope will nourish my spirit.

So here’s what I’m doing this week:

  1. Dove-and-treePutting up the tree. Our tree is now an artificial tabletop one with attached white lights. Most of the decorations are from Ten Thousand Villages, or represent special gifts we have been given over the years. The tree looks too full, as I’m tempted to display all these treasures at once. This year I’m highlighting a beautiful cloth dove, made by a former parishioner with health problems who has since died.
  2. Setting up the home Advent wreath. This turns out to be not as simple as expected! Three years ago a major church supply store closed in Kitchener-Waterloo.  I bought up three years’ worth of Advent candles at that time,  thinking that would hold me for awhile. Now those candles are burned, and  I can ‘t  find candles in  suitable colours for a home Advent wreath anywhere!  Christmas-wreathSo for a start, I’ve improvised with the few candles I have, whether of the “right” colour or not. I like to light a candle or candles each night during Advent as we begin supper.
  3. Decorating the front door. Rather than putting a Christmas decoration on our condo unit door, we choose a winter scene which Sam has photographed. It’s fun to walk the halls and see what people have chosen (if anything) for their doors.
  4. Displaying the Nativity a friend made for me many years ago out of clothes pins and scraps of cloth. I especially enjoy Mary’s flowing gown, the fuzzy sheep, and the colourful magi with their gifts.Nativity-set
  5. Buying tickets for Advent musical events. I love to nourish my spirit each Advent by wrapping myself in music. So far we’ve purchased tickets for Messiah at the Centre in the Square (an annual “must do”) as well as Menno Singers tickets for a Sunday afternoon concert.
  6. Jigsaw-puzzleBuying the Christmas jigsaw puzzle. We found this one – Kittens in the Basket – at the Living Waters Bookstore, now relocated just west of Elmira, Ontario. We like their huge selection of puzzles.
  7. Choosing an Advent devotional book to follow. This year it will be a well-worn tome which includes the O Antiphons. Here is one of my favorite “O Antiphons,” especially fitting for welcoming the dawn:

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light,
     sun of justice;
Come, shine on all who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death. 

(From Your Prayerful JOURNAL for Advent, Bridget Mary Meehan, Liguori Publications, 1993).

I’ve loved repeating this antiphon or the Song of Zechariah from which it is taken (Luke 1: 78-79) while welcoming the dawn.

 And so I stand expectantly, waiting for Advent 2018 to nourish my spirit in ways familiar and perhaps also surprising….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are you part of a community that remembers those who have died by lighting a candle on Eternity Sunday or by some other ritual of remembrance?  If so, how does this nourish your own spirit?
  2. What do you do to prepare your spirit and your house for Advent? How is your spirit nourished by these preparations?

Next Week: TBA

 

#84 – The Sears Nativity Set

When I was a little girl I didn’t have a Christmas tree to decorate, or even electric candles to plug in at the front windows.

But I did have a favorite getting-ready-for-Christmas ritual. Right after (U.S.) Thanksgiving each year, Mom and I put together the Sears Nativity Set, then displayed it on top of the record player.

For most of the year the pressed board stable and painted ceramic figures rested in a box in the attic, each nestled in their own little compartments for safekeeping.

But the day came when Mom and I fetched that box from Sears, Roebuck and Company down from the attic.

vintage-lighted-cardboard-nativity_1_1a12fa578ba7eada4d75b27d2290f7db
Vintage nativity set similar to my childhood set. This one sold on Ebay.

First Mom set up the stable, then I placed baby Jesus in his own tiny manger, with Mary and Joseph watching from behind.  After that I hung the angel from its special hook, overlooking the scene.  Then the shepherds arrived, along with their dog and a couple sheep.  Next I carefully arranged the Wise Men, one kneeling in adoration, the other two standing, offering frankincense and myrrh while the camels waited nearby.

Finally came the star – just a yellow bulb dangling from a star-shaped hole at the back of the stable.  But when I plugged in that bulb, the whole nativity scene was bathed in pale light.  To an image-starved child it was wonderful.  I spent hours looking at it or moving the characters around, letting them tell their stories. Through most of my childhood, a windup music box attached to the stable also played Silent Night endlessly.

As a young adult, I claimed that manger scene.  I carefully set it up it each year and placed it at a prominent spot in my own home. Of course we had a Christmas tree also, and candles burning all over the place.

Yet I kept that nativity set until well into my 50s. I liked to use the figures as props at a local nursing home where I told the Christmas story. The residents woke up and gently touched the figures, their faces glowing.

Then one Sunday I displayed the manger scene in the pulpit area at church. Children cruised by to look at the figures and to handle them.

A museum curator in our midst became quite agitated. “Do you know how much these vintage sets are worth?” he asked. “They’re not children’s toys!”

I realized that the figures were getting chipped in a few places, so I decided to put the set in the silent auction at our local thrift shop, before it looked worse.

Yet I miss that dear old nativity set from my childhood.  I’ve found a set with the “right” angel on the internet, and another set where the humans and animals look accurate.  But I haven’t found an exact replica of “my” set.

Through “my nativity set,”  I entered the Story and made it my own.  Residents of a long-term care facility entered the Story and made it their own.

That’s one reason I’m a cheerleader for children’s Christmas pageants in churches.  I hope that via words and music and actions and costumes children will enter the Story and claim it as their own.  I hope the Christmas story will touch little ones in a deeper way than the mall Santas and the canned music everywhere.

I hope that on Christmas Eve children and adults of all ages will sing in calm wonder in the glow of candlelight, as we enter the Story and claim it once more as our own.

Silent-Night
From Hymnal: a Worship Book

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which getting-ready-for-Christmas ritual from your childhood or earlier adulthood has continued to nourish your spirit?
  2. By what means do you or your children or your grandchildren enter the Story of Jesus’ birth?

Next week: TBA

 

#83 – Delighted by Hoarfrost (No Matter What)

On Tuesday morning I woke up to a gorgeous display of hoarfrost on the trees outside our 10th floor condo windows.

HoarfrostSuch displays always surprise me – and send me to the obscure book of Ecclesiasticus.  As part of a long list, the writer exclaims:

“Over the earth, like salt, he [God] 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.’” (Ecc. 43: 19, 27)

The beauty of hoarfrost ushered in my day on Tuesday with gratitude.

New-Horizons-magazine-last-issue-1That stance of gratitude was reinforced for me recently in an article written by my high school classmate Marty Kolb-Wyckoff.  Two different people sent me her article, Living with Loss, from the Fall 2018 issue of New Horizons (a publication of the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Pa.)

Loss presents itself to us in a myriad of ways. For Marty, it’s most apparent in the ongoing dimming of her eyesight, caused by a defective gene which has been rife in her family.

“How,” she asks, “do I live with some sense of meaning while continuing to lose function and ability?” It’s a significant question for many of us.

Marty names three behaviors which she has found helpful:

  1. “Face the challenges presented by the loss. Acknowledge the hurt, the pain, the disappointment, the grief, the sadness – whatever the feelings are that result from the loss.”
  2. “Find new opportunities…we need to see beyond the loss to something new, to that which can give us meaning and joy in ways we have not experienced before.”
  3. “Focus on today…One way I seek to live in the ‘now’ is to pay attention to all that I am grateful for.”

It strikes me that the three behaviors Marty suggests are ones I’ve tried to embrace in my journey with cancer.

I’ve grieved the loss of independence in surrendering my driver’s license.  I’ve grieved closing down my spiritual direction practice. It was sad to resign from co-leading a fiction reading group at the women’s prison.  I’ve grieved having to eat ever so carefully in restaurants and in people’s homes. I miss being “in the loop.”

Grand-River-Bus
Grand River Transit bus on the 7A route

Yet I’ve also found new opportunities to engage in spiritual (and other!) conversation with blog readers. I’ve enjoyed learning more about our multi-cultural city by riding the city bus. I’ve delighted in connecting in various ways with friends old and new, as energy permits.

And I find that on many days, gratitude wells up of its own accord.  It’s not always as obvious as opening the blinds and seeing hoarfrost. Gratitude can come as a response to a difficult but honest conversation with a medical professional. It can arise when I’m reading a really satisfying novel or memoir, or during an e-mail exchange with someone I haven’t seen for a while. Gratitude can overwhelm me when a Psalm or an icon or a song on my playlist really connects for me.

On many days, I’m quietly rejoicing with the writer of Psalm 138:3:

“On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.” (NRSV)

And on days when my “strength of soul” feels weak, I remember that wonderful assurance from Romans:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 NRSV).

…And always – no matter what else is going on – I delight in hoarfrost!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What natural occurrence – whether hoarfrost or something else – causes gratitude and delight to well up in you?
  2. In a loss you are undergoing now or have in the past, how do you receive Marty’s three behaviors for living with loss?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#82 – Novels about Slaves, Black Loyalists, and “Enlightened Owners”

Book-of-Negroes
Published by HarperCollinsCanada

Ever since reading Lawrence Hill’s epic novel, The Book of Negroes (2007), I’ve been intrigued by how Canadian novelists of colour depict the slave culture in the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hill’s novel chronicles 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.

In the summer of 2015, Sam and I visited the newly-opened Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a state-of-the-art museum near Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

Black-Loyalist-HeritageWe were pleased that Hill’s novel (and subsequent TV mini-series) made many more Canadians aware of a significant part of our history.  We were pleased that the Heritage Centre helps people trace their roots, perhaps finding their own ancestors’ names in the Book of Negroes. This actual record book lists black Loyalists who had in some way aided the British during the American Revolution, and thus were eligible to be settled in Nova Scotia.

Pit-House
Pit House at the Heritage Centre

We were sad to hear and see how difficult life actually was for blacks in Nova Scotia, demonstrated by the Pit House on the heritage centre grounds.

Now this summer and fall, I’ve been intrigued by Canadian and other novelists of colour telling stories of the fraught relationships between 18th and 19th century slaves in the U.S. and “enlightened owners.”

Here are several  recent novels I recommend:

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (HarperCollins, 2018). Beginning in 1830, this fast-paced novel follows 11-year-old “Wash” from the Faith Plantation in Barbados. After the plantation owner’s brother “Titch” borrows him, Wash travels to a Hudson’s Bay trading post, to Birchtown, Nova Scotia,  and finally to England and beyond.  Wash loses his protector in the Arctic, then finds him again, driven to discover why Titch had chosen (and then seemingly abandoned) him. Here we glimpse the life of a strange and complex member of a slave-holding family. Is Titch the “enlightened slave owner” Wash first believes he is?  Is there such a thing?

Up from Freedom by Wayne Grady (Penguin Random House, 2018). Young Virgil Moody, from a slave-holding family in the U.S. south, decides he will never own slaves. But when he leaves the plantation, he takes with him a woman whom he believes cannot survive life there. Eventually he comes to think of her as his wife and her son as his son.  Several surprises later, events occur which cause him to consider whether he’s turned into a person he was trying to avoid becoming!

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). Written in the form of short stories, this novel tells the saga of two half-sisters in Ghana- Effia and Esi – and their descendants. Effia marries the British governor in charge of the infamous Cape Coast Castle, at the center of the slave trade. Meanwhile, Esi is taken captive by slave traders and kept in the dungeon at the Castle, awaiting a ship to America. The author, who is Ghanaian-American,  uses the short story to great effect to tell of the life of seven generations of their descendants,  choosing to include two stories for each generation.  The stories are stunning.  Often I wanted to hear more.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In what ways do you connect with the struggles of slaves, runaway slaves, freed slaves and “enlightened” owners from the 18th and 19th centuries?
  2. How – if at all – does reading of their struggles unsettle or nourish your spirit?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#81 – Celebrating 50 Years in Canada

Sam-in-Canada-1969
Sam in January 1969

Sam and I went out for lunch this week to celebrate his 50th anniversary of arriving in Canada as a Vietnam-era draft resister.

Back in Indiana, I had been part of what we would now call an intervention.  We his friends implored Sam to immigrate to Canada. We did not think his spirit could tolerate prison in the U.S. at that time.

We prevailed. So I wasn’t too surprised when Sam asked me to come along in the car taking him into Canada, so he could look for housing and a job. Then a week later I accompanied him again as he applied for landed immigrant status, conferred on November 2, 1968.

immigration-card-1968
Sam’s landed immigration card dated November 2, 1968 

Sam and I were part of the same friendship group at Goshen College, but we had been dating for only a month before my two weekend trips to Canada.  We agreed the other day that my saying “yes” to those trips was the beginning of a larger “yes” to him. We married the next summer on the lawn of Conrad Grebel College, after at least four more weekend trips by me to Kitchener, as well as many letters and weekly phone calls.

Fifty years later, we believe that Sam coming to Canada and me joining him here were the best things that could have happened for both of us. Looking back, we’re amazed at how local Mennonites gifted us with both practical assistance and a sense of belonging in those scary early days and years.

A few examples:

  1. Dan Leatherman, political science prof at Goshen, drove us to Canada those two weekends with his (then) wife Kathryn and their young family. Our lodging and meals that first weekend were provided by Kathryn’s Ontario family.
  2. Peter Enns, one of Sam’s former college roommates, offered lodging and chauffeuring during Sam’s first week here.
  3. Jim-Reusser-1963
    Jim Reusser, 1960s

    Jim Reusser, pastor of Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church, called Lester Zehr, president of Zehr’s Markets, about a job for Sam as a grocery clerk. Longer term lodging and meals were arranged with Stella Cressman, an aunt of Helen Reusser.

  4. Aaron Klassen offered me a job as a cashier at Provident Bookstore in Kitchener, and Helen and Aaron often hosted us in their home. Eventually I became a book buyer for both the Kitchener and London stores, and stayed for 10 years.
  5. Frank Epp, editor of Mennonite Reporter, asked me to be a “church tramp” in 1973-74, visiting 11 local Mennonite churches in six different conferences and writing up the experiences for MR.
  6. Sam’s second place of employment, Mutual Life Assurance Co., came about with the help of Jake Enns, Peter’s father.  Sam left Mutual Life to complete his B.A. at the University of Waterloo in l973. There he found himself taking courses in Anabaptist/Mennonite history from profs Walter Klaassen and Frank Epp.
  7. In the meantime, John W. Snyder, pastor of Rockway Mennonite Church, kept showing up at Provident Bookstore, engaging me in conversation. So when we two “lost children of Menno” were ready to return to our Mennonite roots, of course we joined Rockway.

    Citizenship
    Celebrating Sam’s Canadian citizenship in 1974
  8. In 1974 Frank Epp, by then president of Conrad Grebel College, offered Sam a half-time job in the archives. Sam eventually became full-time, took a year off to get a library degree, and stayed at Grebel over 34 years.

    Sue-at-Provident
    Sue at Provident Bookstore
  9. I left Provident after 10 years to earn an M.Div. degree at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN, and eventually pastored a number of Ontario churches, including two I’d written up for the Mennonite Reporter.

I freely admit that those first few years in Canada were very difficult, as we adapted to a new country and to a relationship without much history.  Yet I give profound thanks that Sam decided to come to Canada as a draft resister.  For here we found a community that nourished us and supported both of our vocations. Here also our “relationship without much history” translated by God’s grace into a long and mutually-supportive marriage.

I’m thankful beyond words for the Mennonite community here in Waterloo Region, then and now. I delight in the topography here which reminds me of southeastern Pennsylvania. And I love living in a city with an obvious multi-cultural feel.

I reveled in that feel again recently, when a vibrant young woman from Syria sat beside me on the city bus. Soon her beautiful two-year-old son fell asleep in his stroller.

“He’s been up since 6:00. He goes with me to English lessons,” she said.  “I want to go to college,” she continued,  “and study more English, so I can help him when he goes to school.”

…How, I wondered, is our community welcoming this wonderful young woman, as Sam and I were welcomed here so many years ago?

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What communities – if any – have welcomed you to a new location?  What communities or individuals have nourished and supported you as you began a new vocation?
  2. How are communities you know nourishing and supporting newcomers?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#80 – The Daily Scrabble Game

For the last couple years, I’ve been playing a game of Scrabble most days. It’s often the most focused time of my day. Sam has refused to play Scrabble with me for years, so I’ve learned to play the game by myself and I quite enjoy my own version!

I usually set up the board at about 4:00 in the afternoon.  I get very engaged with it, and sometimes delay fixing supper so I can finish the game.

Scrabble-dictionaryI play against my own current high score,  using only one tray of seven tiles. I generally follow the official rules, but do allow myself to throw back a total of seven tiles per game as needed, one at a time.  I use The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (fifth edition) extensively as I play.

I’m cheered to find that a new edition has come out this fall, and I’ve already used at least two words deemed newly acceptable in it (“ew” and “zen”).

When I started playing sporadically five years ago, my scores tended to hover around the low 700s, with quite a few in the 600s.  By now, I consider anything in the 600s quite low, and am finding most of my scores in the mid-700s, with the 800s showing up at least twice a week or so.  My highest score so far is 858, from sometime this July.

Scrabble-772The interesting thing for me is that I’m deliberately changing my strategy.   I used to have a specific place for my Q words (as in the photo of the finished game). I could get 45 points or more for the Q using a double letter spot combined with a double word score for one word (such as “quay”). Then I put my other Q word on a spot ending in a triple word score (as in “quite”), for another 42 points or more.  But this took quite a bit of pre-planning, and of holding as many as four letters, thus having only three to work with otherwise.

It’s so tempting to pre-plan, when I know that another player is not going to take the spots I’m considering!

But lately I find I’m doing less holding of letters, and less  heading for the corners. Instead, I’m trying to put the Q and the Z, as well as the J and the X on triple letter spots, having them count in both directions where possible.

Scrabble-834I’m using a Z more in the middle of words.  I’m doing less intricate pre-planning, and finding that often good words which I have not thought about do show up when needed.  I’m relaxing more as I play these games. And guess what. My scores are higher!

I play Scrabble for the joy of spelling and the joy of words.  I’m learning  some new words, and claiming a  new trust that things really will work out just fine in the end.  Sometimes I’ ll say to Sam “this one is a real mess…I don’t have any vowels!” Then suddenly I do, and I end up in the high 700s.

Scrabble for me is highly addictive and highly enjoyable.  It’s also teaching me much  about relaxing and going with the flow and believing that things will turn out OK whether or not I anticipate this or that. And…my last score in the 600s (693) was 27 days ago.

Of course, now that I’ve named this, I’m likely to score in the low 600s tomorrow….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What games, if any, do you find enjoyable and perhaps even addictive?  Who or what do you play against?
  2. How – if at all – has playing games taught you to “go with the flow”?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#79 – Blog Book Just Released

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1When I turned 70 in April 2017, I decided to write 70 blog posts as a thanks-be-to-God for the life I have been given. As you know, I named this series of blogs A Nourished Spirit. At the behest of various readers, I’ve now selected 26 of those first 70 blogs and published them in a little book, along with some of Sam Steiner’s blog photos.

This project fascinated and occupied me for most of the summer.  I read over my first 70 blogs, making successive piles of “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”  As I read, I noticed that God’s nourishment throughout my life has often come in the simplest of ways, through very earthy means.

Once I got down to 26 blogs – or nearly – I re-edited them and organized them by categories, rather than in the random way I created them week by week.

For the beauty of the earth, #89 in Hymnal: A Worship Book (HWB), was Sam and my wedding hymn, and it provides the template for the first several sections of the book. The hymn names family, friends, nature, culture and church as sources of nourishment, doorways to the holy, and prompts for praise.

The next section of the book describes selected spiritual practices which open me to God.  A phrase from my theme song, My life flows on (#580 in HWB), gives shape to the book’s final section.

Table of Contents-1I’m grateful for the interaction with blog readers over the past 18 months, and for those who responded to my reflection questions. I’ve included the questions in my book, hoping readers will receive my reflections as a springboard to your own.

My life took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer in November 2017. I’m grateful that I could continue with my weekly blogs, meeting my goal of posting 70 of them.  Now I’m at #79, and I’m not ready to stop yet!

I’ve found that having cancer strangely heightens my nourishment and joy in cousins, in my niece and nephews and their spouses, and in old friends.  It heightens my nourishment and joy as I walk through Rockway Gardens across the street or drive through Old Order Mennonite country or gaze at the ever-changing sky from our 10th floor condo windows.

Br. Paul Quenon, a fellow monk with Thomas Merton, reflects on life writing in his recent memoir, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir. He says of his book, “These reflections and stories about my life are another way of being present to my life intentionally. Not in order to relive it, but to re-create it as a form of celebration.”(p.132).

May it be so with me.

Question for Reflection:

By what simple or earthy means has God’s nourishment come to you throughout your life?

Next week:

The Daily Scrabble Game

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

To order a copy of the book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

 

#78 – Cancer Journey: Surprising Gratitude, Grace Unmistakable

Wagamese-Embers
Published by Douglas & McIntyre

“Joy,” says Richard Wagamese, “is a spiritual engagement with the world based on gratitude. It’s not the big things that make me grateful and bring me joy. It’s more the glory of the small” (Embers: One Obijway’s Meditations, 140).

As Canadian Thanksgiving approached last weekend, I wondered what it would be like for me. For my journey with cancer took an unexpected turn a couple weeks earlier.

A scheduled scan showed that my chemo pill continues to be effective below the neck.  However, some new lesions became visible in my brain. This necessitated a five-day course of palliative whole brain radiation, ending the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

So we’ve embarked on a new stage of my journey with cancer. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve witnessed myself living in the “glory of the small.” Grace Unmistakable has found me during recent days and especially recent steroid-fueled nights.  These are still the days of miracle and wonder, which leave me grateful for lucidity.

Richard Wagamese asserts that “what defines me is not what I do but what I receive, and I have received in great measure” (155). Here are ten gifts I have recently received, which together embody for me Grace Unmistakable.

Gift #1: Visits during this period by three sets of old friends from afar, bringing chicken soup, new hymn arrangements for listening, and medical knowledge.

Gift #2: Steroid-fueled energy to get some things done, such as collecting books to donate to spiritual directors and beginning pastors, and fixing a box of sermons, books and files to send to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Gift #3: Increasing colour bursts outside our condo windows, with brilliant orange and golden leaves now dotting the cityscape.

Yellow-fall-treesGift #4: A brightened sky after the rain, calling me to a lovely walk in Rockway Garden across the street, which still looks amazingly good.

Gift #5: A wonderful church service on Thanksgiving Sunday for all ages, with rousing singing.  A self-possessed middler sings two verses of For the Beauty of the Earth, one of my favorite hymns.

Gift #6: Thanksgiving dinner with friends, followed by backyard entertainment involving chickens and growing boys.

Gift #7: Members of groups I’m in, making accommodations that enable me to participate with the energy levels I now have.  The sense of inclusion and caring is wonderful.

Gift #8: Finding the music CD of my farewell service at Waterloo North Mennonite Church in 2005, thus adding two tracks to one of my nighttime play lists. The rendition of Great Is Thy Faithfulness by two skilled pianists on two grand pianos makes me smile, reminding me of my Aunt Esther’s most joyful, animated piano playing.  The Bach Chorale Sheep Shall Safely Graze settles me in God’s care.

Candle-and-iconGift #9: Lighting a long-burning tea light candle in front of the icon of the Holy Trinity, which I keep in one of my alternate sleeping/resting places. Each time I open my eyes during the night, I gaze at that glow illuminating the Trinity.  I feel myself part of the circle, directly facing Jesus.  (See blog #32:The Icon of the Old Testament Trinity). This comforts me in the night and my spirit sings.

Gift #10: Receiving this verse, which comes to me one night and feels true and right: “So we are not depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, CEB).

I cannot control the future.  I can revel in and be grateful for “the glory of the small.” I can embrace these days of miracle and wonder.  I can take each day and night as it comes, in gratitude.

I touch and trust Grace Unmistakable.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How has Grace Unmistakable found you during difficult times?
  • Which gifts of the season and of your community are you receiving with joy and gratitude?

Next week: A New Book!

#77 – Of Blankets and Prayer Shawls

As a preschooler, my parents didn’t need to wean me from a ragged blanket which I carried around for comfort.  I was a thumb sucker though, which likely signifies the same thing.

As an adult, I’ve wrapped myself in warm quilts as I read or listen to music on the sofa or watch TV from the recliner.

That’s gotten me thinking about other tangible things which wrap me in comfort and hope. So I’m remembering the prayer shawls I’ve received these last years. I’m thinking about these shawls again as the weather gets cooler. I can wrap myself in them at home and or at church or wherever.  I’ve seen people take prayer shawls to cold hospital rooms with them as well.

Prayer Shawls Blessed
Blessing of prayer shawls at my church of origin–Souderton Mennonite in Pennsylvania

I especially honour the prayer shawl ministries which have emerged over the past 20 years.

In 1998, Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo, two graduates of the Women’s Leadership Institute of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, developed the Prayer Shawl Ministry as a result of their Applied Feminist Spirituality program with Professor Miriam Therese Winter of the Medical Mission Sisters. In a mission statement, Bristow said in 1998, “They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify.  Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly above their troubles.”

Sue-and-prayer-shawl
From the Shawl Sisters

In my current illness, I’ve received two shawls – one from the prayer shawl ministry at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church where I have served, and one from an informal group calling themselves Shawl Sisters.

In prayer shawl ministry, people get together to knit or crochet reflectively.  Often they do some of the knitting or crocheting at home as well.  Some groups pray quietly part or all of the time. Sometimes they have specific people in mind to receive a shawl; at other times they may just knit them and make them available for pastoral staff to give out.

Both groups which have given me a shawl “knew my colours,” which pleased me greatly.

And both times I received the same lovely printed Prayer of Blessing, which had been offered  over the shawl before it was given away.

Prayer-of-Blessing

A thoughtful knitter friend recently said to me, “My working theory is that one of the reasons why shawl ministry touches so many people is that the literal and the symbolic come together in ways they usually don’t. That is, shawls are symbols of warmth and comfort, while literally providing warmth and comfort.”

In the same vein, many congregations have shown warmth and support by giving a comforter at some point in the life of a child of the congregation, often via a baby quilt to recognize a birth.

At Rockway Mennonite Church, we give a comforter to persons leaving high school in colours they enjoy as part of our Milestones Ministry.  In our litany, echoing that shawl ministry prayer, we say:

May God’s grace be upon you,
Warming, protecting, and enfolding.
May this comforter be a reminder of God’s presence and invitation to follow, as you make decisions about your life direction and relationships.
May you be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in love.
_______, we bless you in Jesus’ name. Amen

Such ministries nourish me and many others in body and in spirit. I applaud them.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What tangible things wrap you in safety, comfort, and hope?
  2. If you’ve been part of a prayer shawl, comforter knotting, or similar ministry, what has that experience meant for you?

Next week:  A New Book!