#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.


#110 – Peace Before Me

I created this watercolour in 2014 in a workshop at Five Oaks Retreat Centre here in Ontario. It has nourished me ever since.

I had never worked in watercolour before. I did not go into the art exercise with a sense of what I was trying to depict.  As instructed, I simply allowed the brush strokes to fill the page as they wished, then let meanings emerge as I reflected on my work (or my play?).

IMG_5269This watercolour speaks to me of safety and hope in a Trinity of colours.

The tight mass of brush strokes in the middle of the page depicts me. The shorter red stroke at the right edge of the mass is the “current me,” dragging 70 decades of life with me.  Or sometimes it’s me carrying my communities with me.  Or  perhaps my ego!

The Trinitarian God surrounds me in the curvy strokes around the edge of the paper, as in “peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet. Peace within us, peace over us, let all around us be peace” (From Sing the Story #16).

The watercolour has a present direction, and also a future dimension. I am moving towards the Light, and beyond that is Depth. Eventually there will be a necessary leap…a letting go…a trusting….

Sometimes snippets of songs from childhood appear to me, usually towards morning.  They comfort me in an odd sort of way.  They fold understandings I’ve had since my youth into present realities in a manner almost too deep for words.  This watercolour elicits a deep affirmation of my spirit, which is given language by means of the refrain of an old Gospel song:

“Moment by moment I’m kept in his love; moment by moment I’ve life from above; looking to Jesus till glory doth shine; Moment by moment, O Lord I am Thine” (Life Songs #2 – #192).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When have you created a drawing, an art piece, or some other expression where you didn’t know in advance what you were trying to depict? Did you trust the results?Why or why not?
  2. What experiences have you had of God speaking to you through something you have created – or something you and God have created together?

Next Week:

Jesus Hugs our Planet








#109 – The Sisters’ Work

In a women’s group recently, we were asked:

“What were one or two of the special gifts you received from your mother or grandmothers that influenced the way you live – gifts for which you are grateful?”

My grandmother Magdalene Moyer before marriage

My maternal grandmother Maggie immediately came to mind. She died when my mother was 11. She greatly intrigued me as my Mom and her sister Anna talked about a poem and a couple essays which Maggie had published in the church paper, the Herald of Truth.

So, what gift did Maggie give me?  The gift of keeping letters she and her girlfriends wrote to each other when they were young adults in the year 1900. I was 42 years old and already a pastor when I realized that the letters existed, and that an older cousin had them. Sam transcribed them for me as a Christmas present.

Those letters – 100 pages of them – gave back to me a crucial, missing piece of my own past.  As I read the letters, I realized with a start that my grandmother was flirting with a call to church ministries as a 22-year-old woman.  In 1900 she worked at city missions for short stints and attended Sunday School and Bible conferences in western Pennsylvania, often with like-minded girlfriends. Their enthusiasm shone through in their letters.

My grandfather Irvin Derstine

But in the fall of 1900, things changed for Maggie.  Her mother implored her to come home to help with the butchering. Maggie consulted with her increasingly serious correspondent, local businessman/farmer Irvin Derstine.

He wrote this telling response:

“You ask the question what you should do about staying out there.  I think you ask the wrong party if you ask me. I might still be too selfish to answer it….The best is to find out God’s will and then obey.”

Maggie came home, married Irvin the next February, and settled into life on his family’s farm business. She gave the pitch at church if the male song leader couldn’t find it. She taught Sunday school to adults.

What stunned me most was an essay for the Herald of Truth called The Sister’s Work, which Maggie wrote in 1900, before her marriage.

First paragraphs of “The Sister’s Work”

Maggie’s argument parallels that used by Holiness groups in her era to sanction women pastors.  She quotes the prophet Joel on God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh, so that “your sons and daughters shall prophecy.”

In the essay Maggie exhorts women to use their talents, whatever they may be.  She cites the example of Dorcas, who sewed garments for the poor, and Mary Magdalene, who was a missionary to the disciples on Easter morning.  These examples are carefully chosen, for at this time young women were leaving their sheltered rural Mennonite communities to head to India, and sewing circles were forming in local congregations to support their mission work….

The letters from my young grandmother’s circle revealed a hidden part of my own history. Through young Maggie and her friends, I uncovered a missing piece of myself.  I understood better how I came to be the person I am.  Perhaps most importantly, I glimpsed a group of ministering sisters who gave my own vocation a tradition.

All this, because Maggie saved her letters! (or someone saved them for her).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What story would you tell about how your mother or a grandmother has given you a gift which has nourished you and guided how you live?
  2. What surprises have you gleaned from reading old family letters?

Next Week: TBA

#108 – Surprises while I Wait


I encountered several surprises this week as I watched and waited for “real spring.”

This enlarged photo of hyacinths and-surprise!-a butterfly which I can’t identify, was taken in Rockway Gardens this week. Is it perhaps a Painted Lady?


Sam enlarged it to better highlight the butterfly, which flitted about and sometimes lay flat on the hyacinths, but ignored the nearby daffodils.

The butterfly was just one of the surprises of this coolish week. Others included opening the blinds and seeing the  panorama of trees leafing.  Or listening to birdsong from the open bedroom window. Or walking the garden paths at Rockway in the late afternoon sun, seeing how much is changing from day to day. Or noticing forsythia bushes bursting out yellow on our countryside drives.

On one such drive, we encountered rain on the way home. As the rain pattered on the hood of the car, I remembered how as a child I used to enjoy the sound of  rain from the backseat. I remembered how safe I felt in that enclosed space, and how much I liked the rhythm of the windshield wipers.  The only thing missing was the rhythmic squeak of the wipers as they reached a certain spot in their cycle….

Yes, indeed, “real spring” is coming. And I’m increasingly enjoying the surprises along the way….

Questions for Reflection:

Do you prefer “getting there”?  Or rather enjoying the surprises along the way?

Next Week: TBA


#107 – Waiting for Real Spring

Rockway Gardens, May 17, 2018

I love this photo of yellow spring flowers planted thick, one of them even falling over!  To my eye, this is “real spring” in southwestern Ontario. We need to wait a couple more weeks for it, at least according to last year’s schedule.

Rockway Gardens, April 30, 2019

In the meantime, I find these stark purple and white crocuses just as satisfying – maybe more so. It’s fun to watch bulbs bursting forth in unexpected places.The bench speaks to me of welcome and warmth and promise in days to come. The photos together assure me that not every week in May will be chill and rainy. And amazingly, by early evening, warmth and sun have returned, new bulbs have burst forth, and new flowers are blooming.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you prefer the beauty of cultivated beds of spring flowers, or the surprise of bulbs springing up in unexpected places?   Why?
  2. What assures you that not every week in May will be chill and rainy?

Next Week: TBA









#106 – Quietly Waiting for my Birthday

Some years, I’ve hardly thought about my birthday in advance. Other years, like when I knew I was getting a bike, or when I turned 16, or when I was having a party, I waited impatiently.

This year, I waited with quiet anticipation. Would I even reach 72, I wondered?  I marveled when I saw that I probably would.

I felt good that morning, still glowing after an exceptional Easter service at Rockway Mennonite Church the day before.  It was a warm sunny Monday, so we drove an hour and a quarter to Aylmer, a favorite destination for us.  I bought coffee mugs in the Green Frog Gift Shop, and we found we were early enough to eat in the Tea Room without a reservation.  A special pleasure was the quiet…the room is usually full and too noisy to have a good conversation.

Photo by our waitress

After lunch we drove through the Old Order Amish settlement near Aylmer – another pleasure – and Sam stopped at Pathway Publishers to pick up a new Amish directory.

We returned to Kitchener in lots of time to eat homemade chicken potpie and an ice cream cake with friends in their home.

All in all, it was one of my most satisfying birthdays…

I wonder – how long is a “good” life span anyway? It surely varies from era to era. In my own family over three generations, the age of death of those who survived infancy ranged from my mother Martha Clemmer at age 97, to her mother Maggie Derstine at age 38 (from complications of childbirth). Grammy Lizzie Clemmer, considered “sickly,” died when she was 72, and Grampop Irvin Derstine, with a leg amputated due to diabetes, made it to 71.

When I read obituaries in the church papers, I get the impression that everyone who has died was in their 90’s!

The Psalmist takes a rather jaded view of the human life span in Psalm 90, where he speaks of God’s wrath, God’s eternity, and human frailty.   In v. 10 he says:

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Photo by Kathy Waltner-Toews

My life has certainly been much more than “toil and trouble.”

In fact, I’ve had a good life, believing it has  a purpose, marveling at the grounding  my family of origin and community of origin in Pennsylvania have given me.

I’ve gratefully received the gift of living and working as an adult in southwestern Ontario.  I love the landscape, the multi-cultural setting, and the multi-faceted Mennonite community here.

But still…I’m pleased that I’ve reached my 72nd birthday. I’m  thankful for the extension of my life on this beautiful planet. I receive my present life with gratitude.  And I’m curious about what’s ahead….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When have you barely noticed a birthday coming up?  Waited impatiently? Waited with quiet anticipation?
  2. What has been your most satisfying birthday? Why?
  3. What do you make of Psalm 90:10?

Next Week: TBA


#105 – Singing our Hearts Out

Sue Clemmer Steiner and Martha Derstine Clemmer in 1996

This photo of my 91-year-old Mom and me singing our hearts out in 1996 is one of my favorites of the two of us.

It’s probably a Christmas photo, taken in my brother Jim and Ethel’s living room, rather than an Easter photo. But the singing reminds me that Easter felt very different to me in 1996. Most years, my colleague or I preached the Easter sermon at the church we served.  Easter was a joyful, exuberant, energetic Sunday featuring  lots of flowers and a special choir and some sort of dramatic reading.

But Easter was different that year.  It was the first Easter in nine years during which I was not serving a church.  I had resigned from my first congregation, and was in fact “between churches.” I knew that no exuberant Easter worship service of the type I was used to leading could assuage my grief.

So I decided on something totally different.  Sam and I drove to Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with my Clemmer family. And I chose to celebrate Easter morning with my Mom and other “regulars” in the chapel at Rockhill Mennonite Community, where my Mom lived.  There were flowers of course, and a low-key reading of the resurrection story.   The sermon didn’t need to be innovative or try to connect with people who came to church only once or twice a year.

The tone of the service in the nursing home chapel was just what my spirit needed that Easter. The singing was hearty, with piano accompaniment of not-too-rousing old favorites, such as The Strife is O’er. Mom and I especially enjoyed the singing, and we sang enthusiastically.

Then I noticed.  In the photo, Mom has a walker. Now Mom is gone.  And these many years later, my niece and I are the Clemmers with a walker. I expect to use mine mostly outside as spring weather comes on, since some days my walking is very slow and my balance is not good.

It cheers me somehow to think that Mom and I are both singing our hearts out in the photo. Our need for such a device doesn’t keep either one of us from singing heartily.

I’m thankful that I and other Clemmers learned to sing at Singing School (my grandfather and father), men’s chorus (my brother), Christopher Dock Mennonite High School (me and others), Souderton Mennonite and Rockhill Mennonite churches (many of us) – and my brother’s living room!

The 19th-century hymn ( #580 My life flows on in Hymnal: A Worship Book) says it all for me (altered slightly):

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

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
(on Easter weekend or anytime).

Brother Jim Clemmer and father Lester M. Clemmer in 1989

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Was there a time in your life when you couldn’t celebrate Easter in your usual way because of life circumstances? How did you mark the day?
  2. If you enjoy singing, where did you learn it?
  3. Do you, or does anyone close to you, use a walker or other such device? How have you incorporated it into your joy of life?

Next week: TBA


#104 – Looking in Every Direction

This week I decided to adapt an exercise in seeing from The Soul’s Slow Ripening by Christine Valters Paintner (CVP).

Here’s what I did. On our Sunday afternoon countryside drive, I alerted Sam that I would be asking him to stop and take a photo of something in the landscape that attracted my attention. On Powell Road (between Hawkesville and Wallenstein, Ontario) we drove past a field that looked like some new green growth was trying to break through.  Sam was not at all sure the green growth would “show” on the photo, but we decided to take the photo anyway.  It showed.


The next part of the exercise was to do a 1/4 turn to the left and take a picture of whatever we see. We saw Powell Road with its fence posts, Independent Old Order (David Martin) farms in the distance, plus a large farm bush.


That scene, which we’ve noticed every time we’ve  driven down Powell Road, reminded us of summer baseball games and pink flower gardens  and substantial farm-based industries on those distant farms. Then we took another 1/4 turn to the left with the camera, and came upon one such farm close up.


So what do I make of all this? “We are sometimes so captivated by what is in front of us that we miss what is to the side of or behind us,”claims CVP (p. 77).

Such beauty, such promise everywhere – if only we have eyes to see.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Try taking 1/4 turn photos when driving or walking and ponder what you usually miss.
  2. What have you missed in life by turning only one direction?  What have you gained by looking to the left or the right or behind you?

Next week: TBA

# 103 – Of Butterflies, Finches and Turtles

In this week which teased us between spring and a return to winter, I gloried in all-out spring for a couple hours on two different sunny days. I first went with a friend, then returned with my favorite photographer.

I basked in the energy of a massive climate-controlled butterfly garden – the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory.  This week I didn’t consult the guidebook to try to identify each butterfly that flew by – there were too many of them, and they were too energetic. This week I simply observed the warmth and beauty of the conservatory. In 30 years, I’ve never seen the plants looking so lush.


Pair-of-Birds-2Turtle-on-RockNot only did I revel in the butterflies and the abundant miniature finches, but also in the slider turtles lounging by the pond, draping themselves over the rocks in various configurations.

The butterfly conservatory always  nourishes my soul. I love the loud splash of the waterfall. The usual squealing of children was tamed this week by the presence of 10 seniors in wheelchairs with their attendants.  I was pleased to enjoy the colour and energy and warmth of the place with them.

I always leave the Conservatory calm and happy, pondering the transformation of new butterflies drying off their  wings over by the emergence window. My calm spirit in the midst of all that energy always mystifies me

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In weeks that tease you between spring and a return to winter, what places of “all out spring” does your spirit inhabit?
  2. As winter turns to spring, what nourishes your soul?
  3. How, if at all, do newly emerged butterflies connect for you with the Easter story?

Next Week:






#102 The Great Blue Heron

We came upon this stately bird standing in the “salmon stream” beside a cottage road in June 2016.  We’d walked by Gleason Brook near Wiarton for years, but had never seen a great blue heron there. We were startled by its beauty and its perseverance.


Sam took the photo with a telephoto lens from the bridge over the brook. The heron,  camouflaged somewhat by wild grasses, stood perfectly still and paid no mind to us.  It gave all its attention to locating and catching the next fish.

Years ago a small public park  provided access to Gleason Brook.  The  grass was mown and we could walk right up beside the stream.  But sadly, in more recent years, we found the little park overgrown with tall grasses, with the sign toppled over.


Since we usually came to Gleason Brook in June, it took years for us to recognize it as a salmon run.  One year in September we saw the salmon moving upstream to spawn.  We saw their great effort in jumping upstream from pool to pool in the brook, which carried very little water that fall. It seemed like such hard work….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When have you really paid attention to something, as the heron waiting for a fish?  What was that like for you?
  2. In what circumstance have you taken in the beauty of the great blue heron or other bird or animal?
  3. When have you looked at something in nature for years without recognizing what it was, as with me and the salmon run?

Next week: TBA

#101 – Henry’s Red Sea

The modern cover for this classic

Henry’s Red Sea by Barbara Claassen Smucker was one of the most formative books of my childhood. Set in Berlin, it dramatically recounts the story of post-World War II Mennonites who have fled from Russia.  It’s told from the point of view  of 11-year-old Henry Bergen, who carries responsibilities far beyond his age in his fatherless family.

The book incorporates the work of  Peter and Elfrieda Dyck of the Mennonite Central Committee as they care for refugees in Berlin. I still remember the scene in which children carefully pick raisins out of their soup because they think the raisins are bugs! “Mrs. Dyck” eats some raisins to convince them otherwise.

The “red sea” Henry must cross to get to West Germany is the Russian Zone of divided Germany.  From the North Sea, ships will take the refugees to Paraguay or Canada to find a new home. The most dangerous part of the journey, very dramatically told, is the train trip through Russian-held territory.

As I wrote these paragraphs just now, something remarkable happened.  I realized that I was crying. My emotional reactions to this formative story have apparently resurfaced after 64 years!

I’ve asked a number of people of my vintage who grew up in Mennonite communities in North America: “Did you read Henry’s Red Sea as a child?”  Most of them said “Yes.”  Some started talking about the raisins-in-the-soup or the escape by train.

I asked Mennonites of Swiss Mennonite heritage: “Is this where you first heard the Russian Mennonite story?”  Most said “Yes.”  Another said: “It’s where I first found out there are refugees in our world.”

Original cover of Coals of Fire

Henry’s Red Sea, published in 1955 by Herald Press, joined Coals of Fire, published in 1954, which showed people who believed in loving their enemies taking dangerous risks throughout church history.

Not all the stories resonated with me, but “The Mystery of the Thatch” from 18th century Switzerland certainly did.

Mennonite preacher Peter realized one night that men were on the roof of his house, removing the thatch. He said to his wife, “workmen have come to us; you had better prepare a meal.”After a while, he called to the young men on the roof, “You have worked long and hard.  Surely you are hungry. Now come in to us and eat.”

They came into the house, sat at the table, and somehow endured Preacher Peter’s blessing of them and the meal as he prayed. They filled their plates, but could not eat. Instead they went back outside, replaced the thatch on the roof, and quietly left.

I checked the Fall 2018 Herald Press catalogue, and found to my astonishment that both Henry’s Red Sea and Coals of Fire are currently in print.  One friend told me she gives a copy of both books to adult nieces and nephews, hoping they will read them to their children.

I also spent time as a child with a book not published for children. The Franconia Mennonites and War (1951) pictured all the young men from the conference who spent time in Civilian Public Service camps as an alternative to joining the armed forces in World War II.

Paul-Brunner Richard-Detweiler Roy-Clemmer

I liked to flip through the book and see the photos and descriptions of three of my much older cousins – Paul Brunner, Richard Detweiler and Roy Clemmer (left to right above).

They were my heroes.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What were the most formative books you read or had read to you as a child?
  2. What about them has “stuck with you” as an adult?

Next Week: TBA