#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.

 

#53 – Birthday Memories

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

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

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

1960-schwinn-hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detweiler-55th-birthday

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

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

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

Questions for Reflection:

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

Next Week: Living in the Glow

#52 — Claimed by the Conestogo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conestoga-River
Conestogo River near St. Jacobs

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

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

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

Question for Reflection:

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

Next week: Birthdays!

#51 – The Susquehanna River Project

For the past 42 years, Sam and I have journeyed to my childhood home in Pennsylvania at least twice a year, passing through territory nourishing to my eyes and my spirit.

Susquehanna-near-Wyalusing
Susquehanna River near Wyalusing, Pa.

We’ve travelled by four different routes, and on each one we’ve encountered the Susquehanna River.  That river is all over the place!  How can this be, we wondered?  And how can the same river look and act so differently at our various sightings?

First it’s a small stream flowing out of Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, New York.  Then it skirts the southern border of New York state as a babbling brook.  Further south it cuts wide curves through the Endless Mountains of northern Pennsylvania.  Then north of Harrisburg it flows as a more-or-less straight, broad, shallow river on its way to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Susquehanna-Basin
Susquehanna Basin map derived from original by Karl Musser on Wikipedia

With the help of friends who know the river, I came to realize that the Susquehanna indeed covers a vast watershed, and that our sightings could be augmented by many more.  We’d encountered mostly the north branch and the main stem. But a whole west branch beckoned us beyond Williamsport as well.

Over the past decade,  Sam and I took an extra day now and then to explore a part of the river we hadn’t seen previously or to experience more fully an area we’d been driving along for years.

We’ve enjoyed those explorations greatly.  Here are three highlights, all along the main stem of the river in my home state of Pennsylvania.

  1. On one trip we viewed the river from the overlook in Shikellamy State Park – an excellent place to see the two branches of the river coming together.  I loved how the deep blue of the west branch merges with the muddier north branch.

    Susquehanna-Branches-Merge
    Merging of North and West branches of the Susquehanna near Northumberland, Pa. 
  2. One summer we crossed the wide shallow river on a paddle boat at the Millersburg horse and car ferry, in continuous operation since 1817. This crossing is a bit downstream from McKee’s Half Falls along Hwy. 6, where we’ve stopped for years to watch the river. Of course we also patronized Weaver’s Market and Bakery nearby, run by Old Order Mennonites.

    Millersburg-Ferry
    Millersburg ferry crossing the Susquehanna
  3. Another time we hiked into Chickies Rock County Park in Lancaster County, ending up at Chickies (originally Chiques) Rock with its excellent overlook of the river.

    Chickies-Rock
    Susquehanna at Chickies Rock near Marietta

Our explorations most recently took us to Lock Haven along the west branch of the river.

The town built a (controversial) levee in the 1990’s after repeated flooding of the town.  Now a lovely walking, running and biking path proceeds for four miles along the top of the levee, offering an excellent view of the river and good exercise as well as flood control.  (I confess that we didn’t walk the whole distance and back).

Susquehanna-at-Lock-Haven
Lock Haven levee
Amish-School-near-Lock-Haven
Amish school house

An added bonus for us was finding a thriving Amish community in the countryside south of Lock Haven. Our suspicions were aroused when we noticed a full-page ad for the Sugar Valley Chair Shop in a local magazine. For one thing, the proprietor’s last name was Fisher – a familiar Amish name. And beside the phone number was the instruction to “call between 8-8:15 am, or leave a message” – a typical way Amish businesses use the phone.  The ad also clearly announced “No Sunday Sales.”

A visit to the local farmers’ market confirmed the presence of Amish nearby. So we put the address of the chair shop into the GPS and thus found the Amish community.  We love this kind of sleuth work and the discoveries it yields!

I could go on and on listing adventures we’ve had with the Susquehanna. We’ve watched the start of the 70-mile Memorial Day canoe race which begins where the river does in Cooperstown. We’ve taken a sightseeing riverboat cruise through the city  of Harrisburg.  We’ve visited the remains of the French Azilum, a refugee colony built along the river in the Endless Mountains during the French Revolution.

And so I circle back to that huge S curve the river has cut through the Endless Mountains. For it’s there that the Susquehanna first attracted and astonished us.  I find the lookout near Wyalusing – where we first encountered the river – gorgeous in any season.

Susquehanna-near-Wyalusing-in-winter
Susquehanna River near Wyalusing, Pa. in winter

I’m not making that trip between Kitchener and Souderton these days, due to health and insurance concerns when travelling outside Canada. But our memories and Sam’s photos of the Susquehanna continue to nourish me….

Questions for Reflection:

Which river (if any) especially nourishes your eyes and your spirit?

What kind of sleuth work and discovery nourishes your spirit when traveling?

Next week: A Second Childhood?

#50 – Easter Carols Then and Now

Up-from-the-grave
From Life Songs #2

I remember it like this:

In my childhood congregation we celebrated one Sunday of Easter, and it was glorious. In our new Easter outfits, we greeted one another with the only call and response I remember from our worship in that era:

“The Lord is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”

Each year I reveled in the Easter carols, especially the tempo changes and sheer energy of Low in the grave He lay. It began so sad and quiet and slow:

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior!
Waiting the coming day – Jesus my Lorrrrd!

We held that last note for a long time, gaining momentum for the high speed romp of 500 unaccompanied voices through the refrain:

Up from the grave He arose, (He arose)
with a mighty triumph o’er His foes! (He arose!)
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
and He lives forever with His saints to reign.
He arose! (He arose!)  He arose! (He arose!)
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
(#273 in Hymnal: A Worship Book)

We followed that carol with another rouser: Christ who left his home in glory (HWB #283).  We sang as fast as we possibly could, so fast I wondered whether the chorister would lose control of us. Eventually we got around to the more stately Lift your glad voices (HWB #275) or The strife is o’er  (HWB #263). On that morning, we dared to joy. But the singing and all that went with it ended abruptly, and Easter was over for another year.

I’m glad that in the churches I know best, we now keep a whole season of Easter, stretching from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. I need that time each year to let Easter soak into my pores once again and to be startled by its implications.

While childhood carols still resonate deeply with me on Easter morning, my favorite hymn for the whole season of Easter is Christ is alive! Let Christians sing! (HWB #278).  Brian Wren’s words speak hope to me: Christ is “no longer bound to distant hills in Palestine” but “comes to claim the here and now….”

Lilies-and-Bread

One year a old “secular” Easter song spoke volumes to me about Christ claiming the here and now.  I had just concluded an interim ministry assignment with the Black Creek Faith Community, located in a high rise subsidized housing building in Toronto.

Easter-Card
The card from Mary

I thought of Brian Wren’s words when I  received a card in the mail from Mary, whose distinctive handwriting I recognized on the envelope. When I opened the card, my eyes took in these words printed on the inside:

God bless you and keep you
When Easter is here…
God bless you and keep you
Each day through the year.

But my ears took in a quite different sentiment. It was one of those musical cards, and I was startled to hear this tune:

In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.

I laughed.  First I laughed at the incongruity of the messages. Then I laughed because neither Mary nor I would ever be the “grandest lady” in any Easter parade.

Of necessity, Mary wore whatever clothes she could buy very cheaply.  And I’m no fashion plate either.

But then it occurred to me. Mary actually was a very grand lady in Jesus’ Easter parade. For in spite of severe health challenges, she built a community of kindness around her.

She walked three long blocks to visit community members in hospital. She picked up the mail for elderly folks who struggled to leave their apartments. She modeled patience when dealing with residents with mental health challenges. I once told her that while  the Black Creek Faith Community doesn’t have deacons, she is one!

…I’ve kept that card for 20 years. The tune now wavers when I open it. I still smile when I hear that tune. It reminds me that Mary shines in the Easter parade that matters.

Questions for Reflection: Which Easter carols touch your spirit the most? Why?

Which carols or other Easter songs speak new insights to you about the implications of Jesus’ resurrection?

Next Week: The Susquehanna River Project

 

 

 

#49 – Niagara Falls and Good Friday

A friend says that every year on Good Friday she feels like she’s standing as close as she can get to Niagara Falls.

Niagara-FallsSomething terribly powerful is happening. The water thunders down right beside her.  The roar is deafening. She knows she’s in the presence of an enormous mystery. She’s standing so close that the water sprays her.  She’s getting wet.

But she feels frustrated, because she can’t catch much of the water.  She has only a little thimble, or at most a small cup. So all she can do is stand at the edge of this giant waterfall  –  as close as she dare –  and catch a trickle in her little cup….

When I led Good Friday services as a pastor, I hoped we knew ourselves to be in the presence of an enormous mystery.  I hoped we stood as close as we dared, holding out our little cups to receive the wonder. I hoped we ended up very wet.

I found, somewhat to my surprise, that the simplest way of approaching this mystery was likely the best….

It probably started for me in Souderton. There in the 1950’s, the merchants of Souderton closed their stores from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday.  They deliberately kept commerce out of the hours when Jesus hung on the cross.

So instead of shopping, my Mom and I went to church. Each year, we attended part of the come-and-go community service which rotated between several of the town churches. At the Lutheran church the dim light and the stained glass windows mesmerized me. And each year, wherever we met, I entered the story of Jesus’ passion read section by section from one of the Gospels.The Bible story itself held such power. More power than the brief mediation by a pastor after each reading.

Kneeling-at-the-crossMuch later, when I became a pastor,  I entered the Good Friday morning service completely.  The solemnity of it washed over me. The power of the story gripped me. Jesus struggling in the garden. Peter denying Jesus three times. The crowd shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross. Then Jesus crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the centurion proclaiming, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Each year, at the various churches I served, we simply heard the story via Reader’s Theatre, sometimes with a bit of acting. We interspersed a song after each section. Sometimes we had opportunity to pick up a nail and contemplate it, or to kneel before the cross.  My mediation was extremely brief, if I offered one at all. The communion which followed always felt like one of the holiest moments of the church year to me….

At Rockway, the church Sam and I now attend, Good Friday morning also focuses on entering the story.  The chairs are arranged in a circle around a cross laid out on the floor. We hear the power of the passion story read from one of the Gospels, interspersed with songs. Then follows a time of meditation, when all who wish come to kneel at the cross as we sing songs from the Taize community, accompanied by piano, violin and recorder. We each place a stone on the cross to represent a personal burden we are leaving there, or our concern for someone else’s pain or for the pain of our world.

I wouldn’t miss that service for anything.  But Good Friday isn’t over yet!

St-John-PassionFor in the evening, Sam and I hear the story once more – this time sung by the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion with the Grand Philharmonic Choir. What a day of entering into Jesus’ passion!

…But I also need to name what happened at breakfast one Good Friday during my pastoring years. I was famished after church, so we headed to our  favorite breakfast place. I was still wearing my Good Friday black, with a cross around my neck.

As we sat down, I noticed the lads at the next table enjoying their beer and eggs. One of them glanced over at us, then said loudly to his friends: “So…it’s Good Friday.  Jesus just died for our sins.” Another replied, “But it didn’t take, eh?”

I wished I could transport these guys, beer and eggs and all, to Niagara Falls, set them down so close they’d be bound to get wet, and give them each a little cup….

Question for Reflection:

When, if at all, has the story of Jesus’ passion and death especially gripped you? When have you felt the mystery and the wonder of it all?

Next week: Easter with my Childhood Chorister

#48 — Fastnachts and Ashes: Mennonites and Lent

(This week’s blog is adapted from a Lenten sermon I preached in 2013.)

Ten years ago, I spent Shrove Tuesday in my hometown. It’s known as Fastnacht Day there – the eve of the fast. Fastnacht Day in Souderton was and still is the time to eat a particular kind of doughnut called a Fastnacht. This heavy concoction made with potato flour can be rolled in white sugar or in powdered sugar – messier, but much tastier.

Ash-Wednesday
From Waterloo North Mennonite Church

That Tuesday, I ate a Fastnacht out of nostalgia, but with a tinge of sadness. For in my Mennonite community when I was growing up, we ate Fastnachts but didn’t practice Lent. But what is Fastnacht Day without Lent?  Or put another way, what do the pancakes of Tuesday mean without the ashes of Wednesday?

I first experienced the ashes thirty years ago at the Lutheran Church in St. Jacobs, Ontario. There in a community service sponsored by the village churches, I knelt at the altar rail, received ashes on my forehead in the form of a cross, and heard these solemn words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The ashes and those words always remind me that I am mortal. I am a creature, inclined towards sin. But the ashes are applied to my forehead in the form of the cross.

So at the very same time that I am reminded of my mortality and my human frailty, I am just as strongly reminded that I am made in God’s image…that I belong to Christ…that Christ claims me and I claim Christ.

It’s a full and paradoxical understanding of myself that is always humbling, often frightening, and yet in some odd way reassuring and comforting.  For this paradoxical view of myself feels true and whole.

Lent is a time to find once again my true home in Christ, to distinguish between the many voices impinging on me, and to listen carefully for God’s leading.

Desert-near-Dead-Sea Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, I take comfort and courage in the story of Jesus remembering who he is, as he distinguishes between voices in the harsh Judean wilderness while fasting shortly after his baptism.

And it seems to me that if we truly enter the landscape of Lent, we’re bound to get at least a whiff of wilderness. For Lent invites us to a stripping down, to a severe dependence on God on our way to a renewed sense of what’s important.

Chapel-Banner-smallWilderness may sometimes be a geographic place. I fondly remember the Lenten banners created for Conrad Grebel University College one year by an international student. “In Canada, wilderness is pine trees,” he said after spending a summer planting trees up north!

Yet wilderness is primarily a place of the spirit, an interior place. Sometimes life circumstances put us there and we cling to God and community as severe difficulties strip us bare and threaten to undo us. At other times wilderness is a place of the spirit we will ourselves to enter.

However we get there, the consolation is that wilderness is not a God-forsaken place. It does not belong to the powers of evil; it too is a place where God dwells.  On the risky, sacred ground of wilderness, God meets us in Lent.

Spiritual disciplines in Lent are meant to help us pause…to help us distinguish between voices, as Jesus did. My Lenten practices vary from year to year. I don’t give something up for the sake of giving something up, but I almost always engage in a deliberate practice.

One Lent years ago, I decided that as a spiritual discipline I was not going to buy any new clothes for Easter, not even a new pair of shoes. For when I was a little girl, Easter had always included a major shopping expedition. Part of the joy of Easter was showing up in church in a new outfit.

Radical-GratitudeAs an adult, I was stunned and embarrassed by what happened when I bought no new clothes or shoes for Easter. I found myself quietly crying as I sat in the Easter service that year. Pulling apart the joy of Easter from the joy of dressing up in new clothes ended up being unexpectedly hard spiritual work….

Another year I decided to give up grumbling, and focus on gratitude instead. At the same time I read Mary Jo Leddy’s book Radical Gratitude with a group.

I almost always follow a Lenten devotional guide. Sometimes it’s the Lenten Guided Prayer sheets from the Mennonite Spiritual Directors of Eastern Canada. At other times I pick up a book such as The Awkward Season or Simplifying the Soul, my choice for 2018.

SimplifyingOften I also focus on particular music, as I’m doing by attending Taize services in the community this year. At church this Lent we’re using my favorite Taize refrain, “Jesus remember me” each week following the Gospel reading (Hymnal: A Worship Book, # 247).

Lenten practices bring me back to basics and help me remember who I am and whose I am. In this way, they revive my soul.

Question for Reflection:

How, if at all, do you mark Lent? What spiritual practices have revived your soul?

Next week: Good Friday

#47 – Paying Attention: Tapped Maples and Orange Evergreens

One of my spiritual disciplines this Lent is simply to be present – to see, hear and pay attention to what’s right in front of me.

Here in Ontario, we enjoyed a stretch of three consecutive warm sunny days before our latest snowfall  (minor in our city, major in many other places).

I decided to use that spring-like window to pay attention to all the signs of spring I could find on my morning walks and in two drives out into the country.

Pansies

On my morning walks through Rockway Gardens and environs, I hoped to glimpse some snowdrops. I didn’t find any, but I discovered one bed of pansies with green leaves and a few brave blue/violet flowers.

I watched a squirrel rushing across the grass and up a tree trunk. I listened to a chatty bunch of LBB’s (little brown birds). I noticed lots of dogs being walked, strollers parked in driveways, a young boy riding a tricycle, and a basketball placed near a net on a front lawn. Trash previously covered by snow skittered across lawns and streets in the wind. And a winter’s worth of cigarette butts littered the ground near the side door of an office building.

St-Jacobs-Dam

Our drives showed us the Conestogo River running high near the St. Jacobs dam, and the soil turned over in various fields. We passed many buggies filled with Old Order folks taking advantage of the relative warmth to conduct business or go visiting.

But perhaps the surest signs of spring came with the blue pails attached to maple trees in small burgs like Hawkesville and in sugar bushes all over the countryside. As Sam got close to snap a photo, he heard the sap running fast.

Tapping-the-tree

Of course the serious potholes on unpaved country roads also heralded the spring!

Potholes

Early signs of spring  – even potholes! – nourish my spirit and hold out the promise of new growth and hope. A hymn we sang in church last Sunday invites God to “alert our hearts to apprehend the silent witnesses you send” (From “O God of mystery and might” in Hymnal: A Worship Book #130).

Shoots of spring bulbs are silent witnesses from nature which speak loudly and hopefully to my inner spirit.

 

Green-shoots

As Richard Rohr puts it in a recent post: “Every day we have opportunities to reconnect with God through an encounter with nature, whether an ordinary sunrise, a starling on a power line, a tree in a park, or a cloud in the sky. This spirituality …almost entirely depends on our capacity for simple presence…” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, March 6, 2018).

Recently I’ve been sitting in my 10th floor study for 15 minutes each morning watching the light increase. Or, if I’m not early enough for that, I time my morning pause to overlap with Golden-Hourthe golden hour – when the low rays of the sun reflect off an apartment complex in the near distance or temporarily color the evergreens orange.

The effect of the sun at this time of day always leads me to worship. As the Psalmist writes:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world…. Psalm 19 v. 1-4 , NRSV

I can almost imagine those sun-drenched trees and buildings worshiping too! (See my blog post #9, Welcoming the Dawn).

Question for Reflection:

What early signs of spring have you seen (perhaps between snowstorms!) in recent weeks? How has your spirit responded?

Next Week: Music for Lent

 

 

 

#46 — Of Funny Cakes, Potato Pie and Welcome

Last Sunday we publicly said goodbye to the matriarch of our family, my 89-year-old sister-in-law Ethel.

Table-setShe excelled at offering hospitality on many sorts of occasions, usually involving food. For more than 25 years she and my brother hosted Sam and me on our semi-annual trips to Souderton. Their place felt like a comfortable home away from home.

I marveled at Ethel’s ability to calmly produce a wonderful meal for 5 people or 35, sometimes sitting down for a conversation an hour before serving time. She and Jim built a large room onto the back of their house on Meadow Wood Lane, then bought an Amish-made table with many boards, so they could seat 35 comfortably.

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Ethel has just called two of her sons “liars.”

In years past, Sam and I always tried to arrive in Souderton on a Thursday, by suppertime, because that’s when Ethel served dinner each week for her local children and assorted grandchildren. It was a lively table, with stories that sometimes got out of hand.

In their smaller “retirement” condo on Holly Bush Circle, Ethel occasionally invited people over for potato pie. On one such occasion, in the midst of a story way out of hand,  Ethel called her two pastor sons “liars,” to much laughter all around.

Bethlehem-83Ethel demonstrated her gifts wondrously at Bethlehem ’83, a large gathering of two Mennonite groups in Bethlehem, Pa. She was in charge of an outdoor stand where people could pick up coffee and doughnuts on their way into the gym at Lehigh University, where the meetings took place.

Pennsylvania set records for heat and humidity that July. In anticipation, Sam and I chose to lodge in Jim and Ethel’s guest room with its window air conditioner, rather than in a university dorm with no air conditioning. We punctuated our 45-minute drive up to Bethlehem each morning with a stop at an out-of-the-way bakery to pick up dozens of donuts which Ethel had ordered.

They proved to be excellent glazed doughnuts, and people devoured them. But their eyes really lit up at the fruit cups which Ethel added to the menu at her own initiative.  Conference goers gratefully carried the refreshing fruit with them into the sweltering gym. A few die hard caffeine freaks bought a coffee as well….

Ethel's-bakingEthel was especially known for her sticky cinnamon buns, baked in angel food cake pans. Sometimes one of her buns fetched the highest price at the annual youth group auction.

She was also known for her “funny cake” – a breakfast cake with a pie crust, then a thin chocolaty layer topped by a white cake-like mixture. Funny cake is locally famous in the Souderton area; I’ve never seen it anywhere else other than in the Mennonite Community Cookbook. At a Clemmer family retreat the other year, a teenage grandson won the contest to bake a funny cake which looked and tasted most like Grammy’s.

In one of my weekly phone calls with Ethel during her last months, I thanked her for her hospitality to Sam and me over many years, and marveled aloud at how calmly she went about preparing meals for many people, talking with them at the same time. “I could never do that,” I told her. “Preparing meals for people makes me too anxious.”

“Well, that’s not your gift,” Ethel responded.  “You have other gifts.”

Ethel’s gift of hospitality included a natural welcome not only of family and friends, but also of strangers. An MCC international exchange visitor hosted by Jim and Ethel long ago became an honorary member of the family, flying in from California with his violin and honouring Ethel by playing at her memorial service.

Martha-Clemmer-Birthday
Esther Musselman, Martha Clemmer, Esther Detweiler

Thinking back over my sister-in-law’s life reminds me to give thanks for others who exercise gifts I do not have. I recently came across this photo of a special birthday celebration for my Mom at Jim and Ethel’s place.  Ethel created the kind of low-key dinner party my Mom could handle, inviting people dear to her. I could not have pulled off an event in such style, and certainly not from Ontario. And for  years, Ethel hosted both a Christmas Day breakfast for her whole family, and a smaller supper including my piano-playing Aunt Esther, who led us all in a carol sing afterwards. Ethel’s gift of bringing people together shone.

I have been nourished in body and spirit by Ethel’s hospitality, by her love of flowers, and especially by her gift of being  a natural connector with family, friends and strangers.  And I cherish the words she wrote on a recent poster, which we’ve received as her motto: “Never give up.  Things will get better. Keep praying.”

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Who in your family has a particular gift which you do not have? How is that person a blessing to your family and to others?
  2. Who has especially nourished you in body and spirit by their hospitality?

Next week: Spring Teasers

#45 – My Childhood Home

auction006Recently a cousin sent me some slides from my parents’ household auction in 1978. They moved to an apartment at the Rockhill Mennonite Community after living in their house for 48 years, so they needed to divest themselves of many household effects.

The slides got me thinking about my childhood home, half of a duplex at 125 W. Chestnut St. in Souderton, Pennsylvania. I warmly recall the setting where I grew up. I knew all our neighbours and enjoyed my playmates. My church occupied the end of our block; my elementary school sat just across a side street from the church. Grampop Clemmer and Aunt Esther lived just two houses beyond the school. And I could easily walk the two blocks to the family feedmill at the center of town.

It all felt safe and comfortable to me as a little girl. And fortunately, a woman up the street knew my name and phoned my Mom when she found my three-year-old self walking alone up the middle of the road, heading “towards town.”

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Side view of Sue’s childhood house

As for the house itself, the place where I most liked to hang out as a young child was the padded bench in the kitchen. It hid a radiator, making the spot warm and cozy. The bench belonged to my Dad at mealtimes, but the rest of the time I could lie or sit there while my Mom prepared lunch or baked for the weekend or did the laundry or canned peaches or froze corn.

During my primary school days and beyond, I often gravitated to the rocking chair in the dining room. From there I could look out the big “picture window,”  which faced our side yard. I loved reading there after school or in the evening; my Mom often joined me in “her” chair, which faced the rocker.

Martha-Clemmer-in-Living-RoomIn that dining room, the larger world came to  us, as Mom made Sunday dinner for various pastors in our extended families, and for foreign missionaries amongst our kin when they came home on furlough.

In the living room, my Mom claimed an easy chair by the radiator as her favorite spot. I preferred curling up on the couch, where she helped me through the chicken pox by reading aloud Laura Ingalls Wilder books. And in younger years, I loved the corner hideaway where the couch from one wall and an easy chair from another wall came together, giving space for little ones to play on the floor. Sometimes an adult helped me and my friends create a roof over our hideaway with a blanket.

Helen-Godshall-in-Sue's-bedroom
Cousin Helen

I enjoyed hosting my cousin Helen on sleepovers. But by the time we reached junior high and found boys fascinating, we discovered another use for the bedroom. We knocked on the wall with a hair brush, thereby alerting Jonny – who slept on the other side of the wall – that we were ready to hang out the window and watch for the Sputnik with him. My Mom inevitably heard the racket; more than once she showed up with her pillow and bedded down on the floor, ending our fun for that night.

The unfinished basement of our house did scare me. My Mom sometimes asked me to go down to the fruit cellar to bring up a jar of peaches.  But that meant I had to run past the furnace and the coal bin, both of which seemed creepy.

Gerry-and-Sue
Sue with nephew Gerry

The Souderton Mennonite Church up the block bought our house when my parents moved on. They used it for various purposes for 20 years, then tore it down when the church expanded down the whole block. Since my nephew Gerry was one of the pastors, I got to go through the house with him shortly before it was demolished…a lovely trip down memory lane.

In that house and that neighborhood I felt nourished as a young girl, and for that I am most grateful.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What were your favorite spots in your childhood home or homes?
  2. What warm memories – if any – do you have of your childhood home(s) and neighborhood(s)?
  3. If your childhood home was not a secure place for you, where else in your childhood environment did you find grounding for life?

Next week:  The Gift of Hospitality

#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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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