#1 – Above all else: Grace!

I turn 70 tomorrow. This astonishes me.
How is such a thing possible?  Where did the time go?

I’m astonished that I even came to be, and that I survived my first year.

My parents conceived me when both were 41 years old. My brother Jim – 20 years and two weeks older than me – was an only child until I appeared. My conception and birth animated the gossipers in our neighborhood on West Chestnut Street, Souderton, Pennsylvania, and in our 500-member church at the end of the block.

My Mom’s pregnancy filled her with anxiety, and for good reason. Her mother Maggie lost two infants; the birth of the last one ended my grandmother’s life at age 37. Mom’s older sister Anna birthed five babies who didn’t make it to their first birthday. And while Mom was pregnant with me, Dad’s younger sister Esther delivered a baby girl who died.

My dad, Lester, and me

After my healthy arrival, both parents obsessed over whether the infant Susan was getting enough to eat. But I thrived! And 70 years later, here I am!

At various times of uncertainty during these 70 years, I’ve reflected on my unlikely birth, assuring myself that I was granted life on this planet for a reason.

Over this next year and a bit, I intend to write 70 blog posts as a thanks-be-to-God for this life I have been given.  I’m calling the series A Nourished Spirit.

At age 70, I continue to bask in God’s love and grace, and  to take comfort and courage in the companionship of God’s spirit.  Yet this nourishment often comes to me in the simplest of ways, through very earthy means.

Oh sure, sometimes my blog will give thanks for things overtly religious – Church Community, Old Hymns, and the like. Other posts will focus on relationships – Cousins, Soul Sisters.  But many will illustrate the third verse of my favorite hymn, honouring the senses as a doorway to the holy:

Public Domain. From Hymnal: a Worship Book

“For the joy of ear and eye/for the heart and mind’s delight/
for the mystic harmony/linking sense to sound and sight:/
Lord of all, to thee we raise/this our hymn of grateful praise.”

In fact the images and music of all six verses of For the Beauty of the Earth overflow with an amazing array of prompts to praise. Maybe that’s why I chose it as our wedding hymn in l969.

To complete my inventory of praise, I must surely include v. 6, even though the current Mennonite hymnal left it out:

“For thyself, best Gift Divine,/ to the world so freely given,/
for that great, great love of thine,/peace on earth, and joy in heaven:/
Lord of all, to thee we raise/this our hymn of grateful praise.”

Reflection Question: When you consider the circumstances of your own conception and birth, what if anything astonishes you? What if anything disturbs you?  What if anything makes you smile?

I invite you to sign up to receive a post each week by entering your e-mail address and clicking the “Follow” button at the very bottom of this blog.  

I hope my blog will encourage your own reflection on the myriad ways your spirit is nourished, whether in seasons of joy or sadness, excitement or boredom, or whatever unique combinations coexist in your life.

Next week: Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.


#14 – Of Wind and Sea, Cows and Canada Day

When I return to a known vacation spot, I hope for a mix of things fondly remembered and things unexpected. I’m eager to see whether remembered splendors still shine the second time around, and to add new sights and sounds to my sensory treasure chest.

LupinsDuring our recent week on Prince Edward Island (PEI), I reveled again in many things we experienced ten years ago.  Here are just five of them:



  • Sighting colourful lupines blooming by the roadside.
  • Strolling along the boardwalk at the Charlottetown harbor, this time with tall ships framed against a gray sky.
  • Savoring the richness of PEI’s own Cows ice cream with its 16% butterfat!
  • Seeing Anne of Green Gables – the Musical once again, as vibrant and endearing as ever in its 53rd year.
  • Walking the Greenwich Dunes Trail at PEI National Park, still amazed at its varying habitats. In 45 minutes we sauntered down an old farm lane, picked our way through a woodlot, and crossed over Bowley Pond on a floating “boardwalk” (now made of hard plastic).

    BoardwalkThen came the hard climb to the top of the dunes with a stunning view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, followed by a careful descent down to the beach.

I loved standing at the top of the dunes and looking both directions – to the boardwalk behind me and the ocean in front of me.

But what held my fullest attention this time on PEI were the sights, sounds and sensations of a place we hadn’t explored before.  North Cape, at the northern tip of the island on the western side, hosts the Atlantic Wind Test Site and the Wind Farm Interpretive Centre.

A publicity brochure calls Cape North “a symphony for the senses.” Standing in this harsh yet wonderful windswept place where land meets sea, I agreed.

Wind-TurbinesI felt enveloped by the soft swoosh of many types of wind turbines, with the rhythmic hiss of the surf as counterpoint. I watched the lighthouse flash its steady warning to ships about the rock reef extending two kilometers offshore.

I marveled at the waters of the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence merging with their different colours. And on the shore, my eyes took in the Irish moss, a type of seaweed being harvested with a moss scoop.

FoxesOn a dune by the research station, I spotted two red foxes outside their dens, surrounded by a meadow of wildflowers. And at the Wind and Reef Restaurant on the grounds, I relished the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the best grilled haddock I’ve ever eaten.

But while I enjoyed these splendors of PEI, another set of realities also clamored for my attention.

We deliberately planned our trip to PEI to coincide with Canada Day, thinking Charlottetown would be a fascinating place to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1. For after all, the Charlottetown Conference of 1864 is what got the confederation ball rolling, despite the poor welcome for its delegates. (They needed to sleep on board their ships the first night, since a travelling circus had filled up all the available land accommodations!)

I was indeed in Charlottetown for Canada’s 150th birthday. But strangely, I didn’t much feel like celebrating. I watched exuberant people decked out in red, and caught the tail end of a parade in a nearby town, but my spirit was heavy.

For the image of that tepee pitched on the grounds of Parliament Hill in Ottawa stayed with me.  It brought to mind so clearly the reality of who was not represented at the Charlottetown Conference or any other deliberations about confederation of the British North American colonies. The fallout continues 153 years later….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When you return to a known vacation spot, what mix between things fondly remembered and things unexpected are you hoping for?
  2. Where have you experienced “a symphony for the senses”?
  3. At times of national celebration, how do you deal with the reality that some groups such as indigenous people were not at the table, with unhealed consequences to this day?

Next week:

Family Weddings

#13 – Finding the Amish on Prince Edward Island

“The wash” gave them away. When I saw that clothesline of purple and blue shirts and dresses fluttering in the breeze, I knew we’d done it!

My Mennonite historian husband and I had found a settlement of Old Order Amish in the sparsely-populated eastern part of Prince Edward Island.  We knew a few families had migrated from two areas of Ontario in the last year or so, but weren’t sure we had enough information to locate them.  Doing so was one of the highlights of our recent vacation on PEI. (We always search for settlements of small Anabaptist-related groups wherever we travel.)

Below is a “guest blog” from Sam Steiner about our experience.

Summer-SausageSeveral weeks ago, my wife Sue and I had the opportunity to find two Old Order Amish settlements on PEI during a vacation there. We knew only general locations based on newspaper articles. We searched back roads north and east of Bridgetown, and had about given up that part of the search, when Sue spotted from Highway 4, just west of Bridgetown, a clothesline full of Amish-colored clothing. There was no mailbox, but a hand-painted sign advertised Summer Sausage and Maple Syrup. As I took a picture of the sign a horse and buggy turned in the lane, and across the road a young Amish lad was dealing with the truck delivering feed.

Harness-ShopThe next farm, identified as a Kuepfer family, advertised a harness shop and “free-range brown eggs.” This settlement, seemingly the smaller of the two on PEI, was composed of Amish from the Milverton area of Ontario.

We then explored between Montague and Summerville. On a sideroad west of Montague we found the first of many Miller families, again alerted by a clothesline of colorful wash.

BakeryWe soon found, east of Summerville on Highway 3, more Miller families, including a Miller bakery that unfortunately was not open on the day of our exploration. We did not linger to take more pictures, since a young Amish girl in a dark green dress was walking towards us on the side of the road, and we didn’t want to cause alarm, or invade their privacy by taking their picture.

This settlement appeared to be larger than the “Milverton Amish” settlement at Bridgetown. There was much evidence of new buildings being erected in this settlement, and it seemed relatively compact, which speaks well for its long term prospects. Besides the multiple Miller families, we also saw Byler and Troyer family names. The roots of this settlement are the Old Order Amish community around Norwich, Ontario. These Amish are somewhat more conservative than the Milverton Amish.

SignThe CBC in Prince Edward Island provided an “Amish 101” article in 2016 that is quite helpful in distinguishing the two groups. The PEI government has also begun to erect road signs near the Amish communities on the larger roads, though “evidence” of horses was not as easily spotted as on some Region of Waterloo roads!

After our return to Ontario, we learned that five Old Order Mennonite families have also moved to Prince Edward Island this summer (2017). My informant did not know a precise location, but said they were west of the Confederation Bridge.

I (Sue) was sad that the Bakery was closed on Mondays, so I was unable to buy a loaf of bread or a fruit pie or some cinnamon buns (or all three!) from Mrs. Miller. I would have loved to talk with her, tell her I am from Ontario, and wish her and her family a peaceful life on PEI. I’m pleased that these distant spiritual cousins of ours have found a compatible rural setting for maintaining their way of life, that they are well-received by the surrounding community, and that they’ve joined 2000 Buddhist monks in re-populating eastern PEI!

The Miller’s bakery building is situated near the road, while their house and barn are further back on the property, hidden from the road behind a thick row of trees. I hope the PEI Amish can find ways of keeping their privacy, while interacting with the local community and passersby via farm-based businesses, as they were used to doing in Ontario. I wish them well. Their adherence to a traditional lifestyle speaks to the part of my spirit that yearns for a “simpler” way of life….

Sam’s full blog, including background on the move to PEI, will be posted at https://ontariomennonitehistory.org on Monday, July 18.

Questions for Reflection:

Have you ever longed for a “simpler” way of life? If so, what practices of simplicity have you been able to incorporate into your present life?

Next week:

Of Wind and Sea, Cows and Canada Day

#12 – Meeting Emily (and Andy and Christina) in New England

We went to Rockland Maine last week to connect with Andy and Christina – Pennsylvania artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his Maine muse, Christina Olson. We found Andy at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and both of them at the Olson Farmstead nearby.

We didn’t expect to meet up with Emily.

Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. (Restored version.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Emily was a New England poet. When a few of her poems were first published, very few people took notice. But 130 years after her death, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is ranked with Walt Whitman as the most significant American poet of the 19th century.

Walking through downtown Rockland near the Farnsworth Art Museum, we chanced upon the Strand Theater. A sandwich board announced A Quiet Passion, the recent biopic about Emily Dickinson.  It seemed proper to view a film about this New Englander while in New England ourselves, so we decided to come back that evening.

We enjoyed the retro theater for its own sake – an old-style ticket booth on the sidewalk, a long snacks counter right inside the door, and a 350-seat theater with balcony, offering both films and live musical productions.

Strand-TheaterThe announcement on the screen to turn off all devices was a hoot, picturing a woman in a theatre seat with a typewriter, an old-fashioned phone, and an oven [no outside food permitted]!

I’d read some of Emily Dickinson’s 19th century verse in a fat anthology of American Literature in high school. I remembered her poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” and several others, but hadn’t thought of her much for decades.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

From Wikisource at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/%22Hope%22_is_the_thing_with_feathers_%E2%80%94

In the film, I identified with young Emily’s struggles to express religious views outside the local norms. I shared her anger at a newspaper editor who altered the punctuation and capitalization in her poems to fit the current conventions, and who changed words to make the meaning less oblique. I found the film hard to watch as Emily became more and more intense and reclusive, as her physical condition deteriorated, and as people important to her inner life kept moving away or dying.

I was astonished to recall that only 12 or so of her thousands of poems were published in her lifetime, altered and usually attributed to “anonymous”.

Later, a quick internet search revealed that when significant numbers of her poems were published in altered form after her death, opinion was mixed, with many critics viewing her as “half-educated” and not really knowing how poetry is to be written. Only in the 20th century did critics begin to see her as ahead of her time, writing a in proto-modern poetic form.  Only in 1955 were her poems published unaltered.

Difficult as it was to watch her struggles, I was glad to meet Emily last week….

As for Andy and Christina, stay tuned for a blog post later this summer, after I visit a Wyeth retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art near Philadelphia.  Or read Christina Baker Kline’s recent novel, A Piece of the World, a partially fictionalized backstory of Wyeth’s connections with the Olsons, leading to the  creation of his most famous painting, Christina’s World.

That novel is what drew me to Rockland in the first place, where I also had the unexpected privilege of connecting with Emily….

Question for Reflection:

What historical figures have you met through films or books or through visiting  museums or preserved historical sites? How did such “meetings” inspire you or cause you to think about these persons and their contributions in a new way?

Next week: The Ordinary Splendors of Prince Edward Island

#11 – Rowing Across the Current

Since childhood I’ve associated bodies of water with refreshment and renewal. My parents and I vacationed at Pecks Pond, a small lake in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, toting food, bedding and fishing gear to a cabin owned by friends.

Many years later in Ontario, my first spiritual director Ruth offered soul refreshment from her year-round cottage on Lake Huron. The rhythm of the water quieted me as we sank into comfy chairs by huge windows overlooking the lake.

And as I wrote in last week’s blog, Colpoys Bay at the base of the Bruce Peninsula has calmed me as its shown off “ordinary splendors” for the past 29 years.

In addition to all that, rivers keep beckoning me. My husband Sam, the photographer in our family, has taken countless photos of rivers over the years at my behest. Rivers will appear repeatedly in my blog. I’ve chosen to begin with the lazy Ohio viewed high above the banks at Ripley.

Ohio RiverWhen I’m actually on the river I can’t see beyond the next bend.  I need to trust the current to carry me. But 100 steps above the Ohio at Ripley, I view the river from an omniscient perspective. My eyes and my spirit take in two bends as I look downstream, and several more if I turn to face upstream. The present moment expands to include where I’ve come from and where I’m going. This comforts me.

Yet the Ohio River at Ripley has a story to tell beyond flowing from its origins in Pittsburgh to the mighty Mississippi. The river at Ripley tells not only a familiar story of flowing with the current, but also a story of rowing across the current.

For in the 19th century, it was at Ripley that nearly 2000 escaping slaves and their river guides crossed the dangerous boundary from the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio.

Rankin HouseAt the top of the hill above Ripley, just out of the river photo’s range, is a stop on the Underground Railroad known as Rankin House. The Rankins – Presbyterian minister John, his wife Jean, and their 13 children – apparently hid most of the 2000 slaves who crossed into freedom at Ripley. They expressed pride at never having “lost a passenger.”

Looking down at the river from their back yard, I’m filled with gratitude for the willingness of those river pilots to row across the current, for the courage of those who trusted them, and for the readiness of the Rankins to offer dangerous hospitality. I’m reminded when I’m called to be a river pilot, I have options beyond “going with the flow.”

The river below Rankin House reminds me that sometimes – likely more often than I choose to see – I’m called to row across the current. It reminds me that when God’s Spirit invites me to lean into new life for myself and others, it may well mean taking uncomfortable risks.

Loving my neighbor as myself…acting and speaking out for justice…these may require of me courage sustained over a long time.

Oddly enough, wrestling with this part of my call restores my soul. For a nourished spirit doesn’t only feed on the “feel good” stuff, but also on invitations like the one to join that mighty torrent of justice glimpsed by the prophet Amos.

Questions for Reflection:

When have you heard and responded to a call to “row across the current”?

How has doing so nourished the spirits of others?  Your own spirit?

Next week: Reflections on a Road Trip

#10 – Ordinary Splendors on the Bruce

Simply put, the cottage we rented for 25 years on Colpoys Bay at the base of the Bruce Peninsula became one of my spiritual homes.  When the cottage was sold several years ago, I consoled myself with the belief that the sense of home it evoked is by now deeply embedded within me.

IMG_5225Yet we rejoiced when we found a motel nearby with the same view of the bay.  Our stay at Waterview on the Bay for two nights each June brings back the peacefulness and wonder which characterized our bygone cottage days.

Earlier this week, we explored once again the ordinary splendors of the Bruce from that base near Wiarton, Ontario.

IMG_5201Each year it seems one or more of those ordinary splendors become luminous. Perhaps we chance upon a stately bird standing guard in the salmon stream we pass on one of our walks. Or a kilted man plays Amazing Grace on bagpipes at a lookout point at dusk. Or nature gifts us with Impressionist or Cubist art in clouds or trees reflected on the water. Or the sunset is especially splendid, with intense shades of purple and orange.

This year it was the orchids whose splendor became extraordinary. We wandered the back roads of the Bruce by car and walked the fens, on the lookout for two kinds of rare orchids native to the area.

Years ago, an employee of the Ontario Federation of Naturalists directed us to Summer Drive, which shows off the Yellow Lady Slipper in great abundance by the roadside. There she was again – dozens of clumps of her by the roadside.

IMG_5609We always visit the fens of the Bruce Peninsula, alkaline environments along the edge of Lake Huron which provide a habitat for certain rare and more common flowers. This year we found the Oliphant and Singing Sands fens wetter and more lush than usual.  Ducks landed and took off in standing water, a contrast to the usual dry cracked earth with just the hint of a small stream.  We enjoyed the delicate blue Dwarf Lake Iris as always, as well as the Pitcher Plant, this year less prolific than usual.

IMG_5625But truth be told, we were actually looking for the very rare Showy Lady Slipper, with her rose-coloured slipper and three white leaves. They’re hard to spot – whether close up or far away – because they like to hide in the shade of the dwarfed cedars and other growth. The last couple years we spotted just one blooming plant by a clump of cedars at the far back edge of the fen.

IMG_5640This year we directed our eyes to make a thorough search of the miniature cedars right by the boardwalk we were on. To our amazement, we walked right by a Showy Lady Slipper, fat and obvious and easy to photograph if one is paying attention.  Then we found another one close to the boardwalk, and yet another.  We spotted six in all in that fen. Thus an ordinary splendor of the Bruce became extraordinary….

IMG_5650Tuesday morning, I took one last look at the Bay, fixing this year’s visit in memory before packing the car to go home.  As usual, I felt a little sad to be heading back to ordinary life. Then suddenly a faint rainbow appeared, the first time in 29 years we’ve seen one over Colpoys Bay….

Colpoys Bay and the Bruce offer splendors daily to any who pay attention.  Maybe the promise of the rainbow is that paying attention can be practiced not only while in vacation mode, but also amidst the demands of daily life.  I hope so.

Next week: Rowing against the Current

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Is there a particular cottage [called a “cabin” in Pennsylvania], a campground, a beach, a lake, or a national park that has renewed your spirit?
  2. If so, what ordinary splendors have attracted your attention at that spot?
  3. How has that experience illuminated the rest of your life?

#9 – Welcoming the Dawn

I first consciously welcomed the dawn at a cottage we rented each June on Colpoys Bay at the base of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

Colpoys BayOne morning I happened upon sunrise – yellows, pinks and purples, first muted then magnificent.  The next day I deliberately rose before five a.m. to sit by the window with my cup of coffee, waiting. I marveled that each morning without fail the light increases.

I noticed the simplest of things: the ripple reaching towards shore as a fishing boat glides by; a set of headlights bobbing along the far shore; a family of ducks foraging near the water’s edge – and a lone pine jutting from the cedar grove, standing at attention.

In a burst of praise I wrote: “My gaze lifts beyond the water’s smooth surface to face into sunrise. It beckons so brightly, promising a new day. How can I not stand at attention? How can I not open my arms in welcome?”

…Now, eight years later, welcoming the dawn is one of my morning sitting practices. At least once a week – more often in wintertime – I light a candle and sit in silence, watching the light increase outside our tenth floor condo windows.

Sometimes I begin my sit at the stage called nautical dawn. My eyes register a blacked out section – the golf course – just across the road.   Beyond it, street lights twinkle.  High posts and bobbing headlights delineate the expressway in the near distance. Traffic lights turn red and green in the far distance.

Since I’m facing southwest, I can’t actually see the sun rise.  But I notice the black sky moving almost imperceptibly towards a deep grey, then to a lighter grey or blue. Soon the trees of the golf course reappear, and eventually the twinkling street lights fade away….

Sunrise in KitchenerSometimes my sitting practice begins later, during the golden hour, when the treetops already glow in low beams of sunlight and the sun reflects off high rise towers in downtown Kitchener.

Then I’m reminded of a prayer poem by Dom Helder Camara. He imagines skyscrapers in the golden light of morning participating in “creation’s hymn of praise.” (From A Thousand Reasons for Living, Fortress Press, 1981).

As I watch the light increase or revel in the golden hour of morning sunlight, I too participate in “creation’s hymn of praise.”  In my own way, I observe the morning hour called Lauds by Christians, Shacharit by Jews, and Salat al-fajr by Muslims.

When I’m at St. John’s Convent at Lauds, I join with the sisters in chanting the promise-filled Song of Zechariah:

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 1: 78-79 NRSV) 

Yet the impulse toward morning praise also moved the non-liturgical Mennonite congregation of my childhood.  Perhaps the oft-sung  I Owe the Lord a Morning Song was our Lauds. Lancaster County Mennonite preacher Amos Herr wrote “I owe the Lord a morning song/of gratitude and praise/for the kind mercy he has shown/in lengthening out my days.”  It appears in all the 20th century Mennonite hymnals under the tune name GRATITUDE.

For years I dismissed it.  I thought I’d sung it too often. Now I’m reclaiming it….

Questions for reflection:

Do you have a sitting, walking or jogging practice to welcome the day?

If so, what prompts you to praise during that time?

Next Week: Singing Sands, Showy Lady Slippers and Sabbath Rest

#8 – Sunday Afternoon Drives

1939-SpecialI was embarrassed by my Dad’s 1939 Buick,  inherited from his father. My friends drove around in normal cars with big fins, or in station wagons.  Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed those Sunday afternoon drives through the countryside north and west of Souderton, Pennsylvania.

Lester grillingSometimes a couple of my parents’ friends or one of my girlfriends accompanied us.  At other times, Dad, Mom and I toured the countryside by ourselves. Often the ostensible purpose was to look at an especially lovely field of wheat or barley which Dad the feed man had heard about.  But I loved those drives for their own sake. I loved them also because my Dad was at his most relaxed.

Sometimes we took along a picnic lunch and  Dad’s portable grill.  We’d find a roadside table and I’d sit there reading a book while he heated up the charcoal and grilled the burgers. We ate them with Mom’s wonderful potato salad, “her own” applesauce, and a piece (or two) of shoofly pie or funny cake….

Tree SilouetteNow on many Sunday afternoons after the Jays game is over, Sam and I head northwest out of Kitchener-Waterloo into rural Woolwich and Wellesley townships – our own version of the Sunday afternoon drive.

Those drives calm my spirit and help me hone the spiritual practice of paying attention.

In springtime I notice a solitary tree with leaves partly unfurled, standing tall against the huge blue sky. I take in the intense greenness of pastures and trees.

I look for changes from week to week, as we usually follow a similar route. One week I can barely see the tiny blossoms on the apple trees at Martin’s Family Fruit; by the next week they’re in full bloom. One week I look at bare fields and smell manure, obviously spread recently.  By the next week, green shoots appear.

I search for the flock of sheep just past the buggy bridge by the St.Jacob’s dam.  Will they be in the pasture on the river flats this week, or rather on the steep green hill on the other side of the road? Are the Old Order youth still playing baseball at the schoolhouse up the road, or have they gone home by now to do the chores?

AlpacasI’m astonished to come across a pasture of lounging alpacas, having never seen any locally before. I assure myself I wasn’t dreaming when we look for them again the next week, and behold, there they are.


Laneway signsI take in the signs for maple syrup and greenhouse plants at the end of farm lanes, and anticipate choosing gladiolas in a riot of colours at “3 stems for a dollar” later in the season.

Our drives these past weeks whisper springtime wisdom and wonder to me. They show me the natural order of the universe.

How, I wonder, do those leaves “know” when to unfurl? What gives the apple trees the energy to blossom?  What makes grazing sheep and alpaca take full advantage of that intensely green grass? And why is it that Old Order Mennonites grasp better than I do the need for a pause day, with “No Sunday sales”?

In the midst of all this musing, suppertime creeps up on Sam and me.  Alas, we don’t have a charcoal grill. There are no roadside tables on our route. And even if there were, I wouldn’t have the patience to sit there and wait for my supper.

However we do sometimes look for an ice cream cone on the way home to our leftovers….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In what way (if at all) does driving or biking through the countryside calm your spirit?
  2. In what way (if at all) does being in natural settings help you hone the practice of paying attention?

Next week: Welcoming the Dawn

#7 – Tulips, Sunlight and Dust: Worshiping in Community

Belonging to a worshiping community is so basic I hardly know how to write of it.

From Souderton Mennonite Church, into which I was born, I can still hear 500 voices singing in unaccompanied four-part harmony.

Souderton Mennonite ChurchI recall the stories in Summer Bible School, where the Bible first animated me (and the ice cream cups brought great joy). I recall the only object lesson I ever saw at the front of that church – a model of the Old Testament tabernacle made by one of our pastors.

I remember watching the acted parables of baptism, communion, and foot washing with solemn wonder. I remember enduring the deacon’s long prayers as we knelt backwards, facing the bench on which we had just been sitting.

As a young child, I waited eagerly for the deacon’s benediction, signalling “we can go home now.”  I memorized the one from Jude: “Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy….”  Imagine! Little Susan, who couldn’t sit still in church, could be presented faultless before God!

I knew I belonged at Souderton Mennonite Church as a child. It likely helped that my Dad’s uncle was the bishop, and my own uncle and later an older cousin were among our pastors….

As an adult, I have twice chosen Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener as my church home. When Sam and I started attending as young adults in the 1970s, Rockway and its pastor John W. Snyder welcomed our faith questions. I give thanks for Rockway’s role in helping me, fresh from the ‘60s, find my way back to church and even begin imagining the vocation of pastoral ministry.

I was pleased when Paul, one of the youth I taught in Sunday school said,  “When we pray, it’s as if there’s a big circle around the room and our prayers go up to God together and become one prayer.”  What a wonderful picture of what’s going on here, I thought….

Many years later, Sam and I chose Rockway a second time after I had served several other churches as a pastor. We felt fully welcomed back by the congregation and by our pastor, Scott Brubaker-Zehr. When we returned, I appreciated the fact that we still knew quite a few people; at the same time I took considerable comfort in the fact that others had joined in our absence.

At Rockway, we still explore new theologies and welcome faith questions. I enjoy the singing in the lovely old church building we bought a couple years ago – the first time our congregation has owned a building in our 57-year history. I’m pleased that we sponsored a Syrian refugee family at the same time we’re paying for our building.

I no longer eagerly wait for the congregational prayer to end, as I did in childhood.  It fact, it’s become one of the most sacred parts of the service for me, a weekly emblem of Christian community. When we pray I often feel that big circle around the room named by Paul more than 30 years ago; I believe our prayers do ascend to God together and become one prayer.

Of course the Souderton Mennonite Church of the 1950s was not perfect.  Nor was Rockway Mennonite in the 1970s; nor is it now.  All worshiping communities have their blind spots, as do the people within them – or at least I’m regularly confronted with mine.

Sun-and-dustThat’s why I was bowled over earlier this spring by the juxtaposition of tulips, sunlight and dust. Each sunny Sunday in our new-to-us building, we’ve wondered where the shaft of sunlight coming in through the high window to the right of the pulpit is going to hit us. For a while some of us wore sunglasses to church, in case it was our turn to be hit in the face.

Then one Sunday, following a wonderful sermon on “Living out of Wilderness,” the sun shone brightly on a pot of tulips on the communion table as Scott was taking prayer requests. Scott said that he had noticed it too, and had noticed at the same time the layer of construction dust on the communion table!

Hmm…Tulips making beauty out of sunlight on a dust-covered communion table. Does the confluence of these elements spell promise?  It just might. For God remembers that we are dust, all the while nurturing us with warmth and light.

With this particular sun-drenched, dust-formed bunch called Rockway Mennonite Church, I have joyfully thrown in my lot. Here by God’s grace we sometimes manage to make beauty out of sunlight, rooted as we are in the dirt.

Here my soul is regularly restored. Here we are collectively energized for our work in God’s world.

Questions for Reflection:

1.  How important is it for you (if at all) to be part of a worshiping community?

2.  When thinking of your church communities – past or present – how do you put together the sunlight and the dust?

Next week: Sunday afternoon drives

#6 – Balthasar, Augustine and Other Cats

Unless you count my Mom’s tank of tropical fish, we had no pets in my childhood home.

As a young child, my reaction to most animals was fear. I was especially wary of the farm dog at Grampop Derstine’s place. It tried to accompany us every time we walked from the car parked in the barnyard up the l-o-n-g sidewalk to the house.  I was afraid that big dog would jump up on me and knock me over.

Martha-and-cowAn old photo of my Mom petting a cow outside the barn intrigued me. Had she considered that big animal a friend, I wondered?….

The only house pet I encountered as a child was my Aunt Esther’s cat, who usually slept on a daybed in the kitchen during my piano lesson in the living room.  That cat conveyed a sense of mystery for me.  I could almost imagine having one for myself. But my Mom said that cats made a person’s house smell bad….

Many years later, friends with a cat named Millie inspired Sam and me to acquire two of them while living in a small apartment.  Thus began a 40-year fascination with cats.  From 1973-2013 we lived with a succession of cats, with a few small breaks.

One of our early cats – and the smartest one to ever grace our home – was Balthasar, named after the 16th-century Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier. Balthasar answered the phone by knocking the receiver off its hook and meowing into the speaker. He fetched a ball and had sophisticated culinary favorites such as black olives. We hoped a successor might some day match his smarts, but none of the others came anywhere close.

GusWe named Gus and Ellie after the 5th-century theologians Augustine and Pelagius, who held starkly different views on the doctrines of sin and grace. Ellie had a heart defect and died young. Gus was much more robust, and enjoyed sitting on books.

We named our last cat Maggie, after my maternal grandmother Magdelena Moyer Derstine. Like all cats, she could be most entertaining. Once she fell off a ledge in the entry area, and narrowly missed plopping onto a friend in process of leaving the house. Maggie landed on her feet and pretended she had meant to provide this unique farewell all along.

MaggieMaggie also regularly rushed from window to window with her tail enormous if another creature dared to enter her backyard, be it a chippy or a rabbit or a mourning dove or – God forbid – another neighbourhood cat.

As we settled into retirement and travelled for longer stretches of time, Maggie didn’t respond well to our absences. And when she encountered  health issues which would have meant intrusive interventions with no guarantees of success, we sadly put her down. Thus we joined several other friends in deciding “no more cats.” Being “cat-free” enabled us to prepare our townhouse for sale and move to an apartment-style 55+ condo.

I do miss the warmth and endless entertainment of having a cat. I always found it calming to have a cat sit on me, purring loudly.  At the same time, I loved the haughty sense of independence in which cats specialize. Our cats excelled at the art of curling up in small boxes, the art of staring, the art of nipping, and the most important art of all – purring.

Now I enjoy the antics of a certain New York State cat named Lilly, whose “servants” often post her cute poses on Facebook. As a kitten, she broke her pelvis in an outdoor accident; now she’s a charming, healthy, 10-year-old cat. I spent time with her on a recent trip, and relived the joys of our own 40 years of cat “ownership.”

Questions for Reflection:

  • Have pets or other animals (such as birds at a birdfeeder or butterflies in your garden) contributed to restoring your soul? If so, how?
  • If you have had household pets, how did you go about naming them?

Next week: Tulips, Sunlight and Dust

#5- Childhood Hymns Repurposed

Sometimes in the early morning a snippet of an old hymn flits through my consciousness. It shows up during that precious time between sleep and wakefulness, leaving me feeling refreshed and whole.

Church Hymnal (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1927)

The snippet may comfort me when I’ve botched it, as in “O Lord, take up the tangled strands where I have wrought in vain.”  It may remind me to Take time to be holy when I’m feeling frazzled. It may give energy for the upcoming day, as in Forth in Thy name, O Lord I go. It may reassure me when the way ahead is unclear, as in “Can I doubt his tender mercies, who through life has been my guide?” It may express my gratitude for the simple blessings of loving family and basic needs met, as in v. 1 of  I thank the Lord my Maker.

Sometimes I only receive a phrase or two, and identify the song via an Internet search. Sometimes I find that the song uses a theological language I no longer espouse. But almost always the spirituality of the piece still works for me (even if the expression of it may be a bit sappy). Almost always the Spirit and my subconscious offer a word I crave for my life right now.

Consider that first verse of I thank the Lord my Maker.  Through it I still receive the positive warmth of my family of origin.  I had a father and a mother who did give me clothes and food and much more.  My connection with my brother’s family remains life-giving for me. I do not have a biological sister. The sisters for whom I give thanks include women in my family, women in various sharing groups over the years, and the nuns of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, where I have gone on retreat for the last 25 years. In these relationships of belonging and support, past and present, I still receive bounties rich and free.

Growing up in the (Old) Mennonite Church in North America in the 1950’s, the hymnal was my prayer book.  Actually we had two prayer books – the rather staid black Church Hymnal (1927) and the livelier brown Life Songs #2 (1938).

I thank the Lord my Maker is not in the red hymnal of my young adulthood (The Mennonite Hymnal 1969), nor in the blue Hymnal: A Worship Book of the last 25 years. I have not sung it in church for 47 years. But that first verse continues to restore my soul.  In fact the whole song conveys for me the spirit of God’s grace, and for that I give thanks, even though I now express it in somewhat different language.

Hymnal: a Worship Book (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Press, 1992)

I’m also finding that some old hymns I’d more or less rejected due to painful associations are returning to me with new life. Just as I am is a prime example.  I had set it aside for many years due to the manipulative way it was employed in revival services of my youth.

But I’m reclaiming it after seeing how this hymn expresses the welcoming love of God and churches for LBGTQ folks and others:  “Just as I am,/thy love unknown /hath broken ev’ry barrier down./Now to be thine, yea, thine alone,/ O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”



Questions for reflection:

  1. In what ways (if at all) do you find spiritual nourishment in the worship music from earlier periods of your life?
  2. How do you deal with hymn language which you no longer espouse?
  3. What new insights or experiences (if any) have helped you reclaim some old hymns you had set aside?

Next Week: Balthasar, Augustine and other cats