#27 – The Gentle Power of Small Groups

I believe in the gentle power of small groups as places of belonging and support for spiritual growth. The structure they offer suits me as an introvert.

Womens-FeetSince early adulthood, I’ve belonged to a myriad of them. Most have formed within a particular church or with fellow travellers from our area church. Some have been short term, such as reading a book together for six sessions or meeting weekly during Lent to share guided prayer experiences. On the other hand, I’m part of a lunch group that has been exploring local restaurants for over thirty years!

I’ve also been in settings not defined as small groups which carry a similar sense of belonging and support. For instance, two colleagues and I have been co-leading a book group at the local women’s prison for seven years. When we meet for breakfast on a Saturday morning to debrief the sessions at the prison, of course we also talk about our own lives.

Eating breakfast with my Derstine cousins in Pennsylvania twice a year also feels like a small group, as does gathering with other spiritual directors with a common Anabaptist perspective.

I love it when a small group begins with a specific purpose, the participants click, and the experience morphs over time into something much deeper.

Several examples of the gentle power of small groups:

At one church, Sam and I met with four other couples as part of a system of congregational groups. One of our members in hospital claimed she started to heal when the women of the group visited her, held hands and prayed with her, and brought small fun gifts.

In another church, I invited several women in their 20’s and 30’s to read a book with me on feminine images of God in the Bible.  This developed into a significant support and vocational direction group lasting five years, with two reunions after that. After a while we found ourselves ending each session with a group hug, gazing at our feet….

Then twenty-three years ago four pastors – two men, another woman and myself –  began meeting as a requirement in a seminary extension course on spiritual disciplines. That group still continues, with some changes in membership as people have moved away or retired. I’ve seen it as a significant form of group spiritual direction. Each person in turn shares something out of his or her life and ministry. After a bit of silence, the speaker hears the gentle feedback of others in a question or a wondering, asks for a particular gift of God’s grace, and is prayed for by someone in the group.


Joan Chittester, The Gift of Years. BlueBridge, 2008; Christine Valters Paintner, Illuminating the Way. Sorin Books, 2016

And four years ago, I helped birth a small group of retired Mennonite professional women.  We meet nearly monthly to reflect on a chapter of a book on aging and/or spirituality, each giving our personal responses to what we’re reading –  our agreements and disagreements – and tying it to our lives. A retreat in cottage country each summer has enhanced our connection.

I love it when – by God’s grace – vulnerability and trust deepen (seemingly naturally) in various kinds of small groups. God’s spirit is at work, and we feel that gentle power. We walk a piece of the journey together in a profound way. Whether the group lasts 23 years or six weeks, my spirit is nourished, my sense of belonging grows, and I give thanks.

Questions for Reflection:

What “small groups” have you participated in over the years?

What makes such a group especially meaningful for you?

Next week: Mom’s Company Tables

#26—Thanksgiving Day in Plenty and in Want

I’m glad that in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving Day early in October, while the harvest is still happening. Thanksgiving worship takes me back to the Harvest Home services of my childhood.

Praise-to-GodIn 1920, my grandfather Michael Clemmer noted in his diary the Harvest Home service at Souderton Mennonite Church – a time to give thanks for the harvest. The church was “very full” for this event, he noted.  I imagine they sang the hymn Praise to God, immortal praise, one of the few harvest songs in the Church and Sunday School Hymnal of 1902.

Harvest Home services were still happening at Souderton Mennonite during my childhood. Taking place on a week night, they made me feel energetic and thankful as we sang harvest hymns, collecting food for local needs and money for crop failures far away.  One year my Mom noted that the service was not as full as it used to be. “Are we less thankful now?” she wondered. Maybe. Or maybe in the 1950’s already we were less tied to the land….

I still love singing harvest songs. My all-time favorite is Praise to God, immortal praise, with its poetry by Anna Barbauld and its stately stand-up-and-take-notice chords by Asahel Abbot. So far, it has been included in all the Mennonite hymnals of my lifetime.

Lord-Should-Rising-WhirlwindsThe red Mennonite Hymnal of 1969 – the songbook of my young adulthood – put a whole new spin on that hymn for song leaders taking notice. It revived Anna Barbault’s whole 9-verse poem of 1772 by calling Praise to God Part I, and Lord, should rising whirlwinds Part II, then placing them on the same page of the hymnal. The 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book did something similar, putting these two parts of Anna’s poem on facing pages – # 91 and #92.

I didn’t notice Lord, should rising whirlwinds, with its strong reference to Habakkuk 3:17-18, until about 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve encouraged churches to sing these two parts of Anna’s poem back to back. For surely they belong together.

Crop failure is a huge concern in our world – whether due to war or dislocation of peoples or climate change or the capriciousness of nature. I shudder when I read Anna’s/Habakkuk’s poetry about crop failure, sick flocks and missing herds – and I’m not even a farmer.  I do remember, though, the sick feeling around home when the chickens owned by my Dad’s feed mill died off by the thousands.

I can hardly imagine the impact of v. 6-9 of Anna’s poem in an era without insurance. Anna’s language still hits us in the gut, whether adversity has to do with barns and herds and crops, or whether it shows itself in other ways. Crop failure can stand in for many other kinds of trouble.

What might it mean to praise God in uncertain circumstances? Can my soul or yours authentically raise grateful vows and solemn praise when the blessings of health or stability or economic prosperity have flown? Can we love thee for thyself alone, as Habakkuk and Anna propose? Is such a response even possible?

Maybe it’s time for us to look Anna’s questions straight in the face. What if? What if our stable world – either our personal world or the world out there – falls apart?  Then what?

When the English fall
Published by Algonquin Books

The past couple days I’ve devoured a short novel called When the English Fall. It’s written in the voice of an Old Order Amishman who keeps a diary about his responses and those of his community when a “sun storm” shorts out everything and the world as we know it falls apart. In the novel, the Lancaster County Amish are of course far better off than most, but desperate “English” quickly find them.

Early reviews indicate that people either loved this novel or hated it. I liked Jacob the narrator a lot. The moral dilemmas his Amish community faced and their attempts at faithfulness kept me completely captivated….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you enjoy singing harvest songs? If so, what is your favorite?
  2. How do you put Part I and Part II of Anna Barbauld’s poem together?

Next Week: The Gentle Power of Small Groups

#25 – Autumn: My Favorite Season

One hot morning the other week, I was startled to hear the CBC radio show Tempo featuring the autumn movements of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and other such classical favorites.

I was startled because that morning in Ontario, the temperature was hotter than we’d experienced for most of the summer!  But it was indeed the first day of autumn. Julie Nesrallah, the program host, noted that while some people in Canada sported sandals that day, others bundled up to cope with the first snowstorm….

LeavesFall has been my favorite season for as long as I can remember. As a child, I connected it with the start of a new school year.  I loved school, and found its restart a welcome change from a summer that usually got boring by the end. The crisp air gave energy, and the coloured maple leaves in Pennsylvania shone with a beauty beyond compare.

So this year, I’m sad that the hottest day of the year didn’t happen here in Ontario till early fall. The maples are muted…stopped in their tracks…and until cooler nights arrived this week, it was hard to get into the spirit. Nonetheless, here are some of my joys this fall.  They’re bittersweet joys, heralding as they do the end of nature’s growing season.

Stemmlers-DisplayFrom nature: Yellow sunflowers still standing tall; others drooping, already brown…. Displays of pumpkins and gourds and mums at rural farm markets….The morning golden hour with sun reflecting on treetops, making them seem more orange than they are….An incredible orange and pink sunset with many small fluffy clouds in the sky.

And in the countryside on a Sunday evening drive in the heat I saw:

Clemmerview-FarmsTall rows of corn waiting for harvest…Early evening sunlight glowing over fields, reflecting on the sides of barns…Apple trees at Martins Family Fruit hanging low with fruit…Old Colony Mennonite youth playing baseball at the ball diamond at Three Bridges School… Fifty Old Order Mennonite youth playing an unfamiliar game in a large field, the boys looking identical in their white shirts, black ties and black pants, the girls shining in lovely dark solid coloured dresses – deep blue, deep green, or  rich purple.

Of course I missed the intense reds and oranges and yellows of sumac, maples and oaks. I missed them reflected in ponds. I missed the invigorating chill through a jacket. Maybe now that it’s finally turning cooler, some of these things will still happen this year….

Chickory-HillAt church, I enjoyed kids bouncing with energy on the first day of children’s Sunday school after the summer break (I don’t have to teach them!). I appreciated the start of committee meetings again, after a summer off from most of them. I anticipated the first gathering of our book club at the local women’s prison, as two friends and I entered our eighth year of conversation with inmates about books and life.

Back at church, we put the finishing touches on our building renovation – painting, laying carpets, affixing interior signs, getting ready for an open house for the neighborhood and for folks from local churches. The highlight for me was the hymn My Life Flows On, adapted for choir and instruments by a young adult composer and musician in our midst….

Autumn – a time to celebrate natural bounty and beauty, and to grieve the end of a season. Yet also a time to renew energy for worship, for learning, and for projects at church and in the community.  Autumn – my favorite season.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which season of the year is your favorite? Why?
  2. What cheers you this fall? What causes you to grieve?

Next week: My favorite Thanksgiving hymns

#24 – Maggie Uncovered

Odd as it may seem, I was in my 40s and already a pastor when I met my maternal grandmother, Magdalene (Moyer) Derstine. She died in 1916, when my mother was ten. My mom treasured every scrap of memory about her mother, once showing me with great ceremony a poem of Maggie’s, tattered and yellowed, clipped out of an old Gospel Herald magazine.

During my childhood the few snippets of oral tradition that circulated about Maggie intrigued me greatly. “She taught Sunday school to adults!” my Aunt Anna proclaimed. “And when the [male] chorister at Rockhill couldn’t get the pitch, he looked at Maggie for help.”

Magdalene-DerstineIn 1993 I finally met young Maggie and her female friends.  A cousin revealed that he had a cache of Maggie-related letters from the year 1900. My archivist husband transcribed the faded ink and unfamiliar script from those mildewed sheets – and presented 128 pages of text to me for Christmas.

The letters revealed a hidden part of my own history. Through 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….

I realized with a start that 22-year-old Maggie had travelled across the state of Pennsylvania by train to attend Bible conferences. She was immersed in the developing Mennonite Sunday school movement. She sang in a quartet, presented essays on theological topics, and visited “the girls” at a recently-established mission in Philadelphia.

Elkhart Institute

References in letters suggest that she herself considered working at the mission. They hint that had money been available, she would have liked to attend the Elkhart Institute [precursor to Goshen College] along with her girlfriend Hettie Kulp.  As new things were being born, Maggie was there in the midst of them  – eager, energized, full of dreams, ministering in ways new for Mennonite women.

The beginning of Maggie’s article on April 1, 1900

What stunned me most was Maggie’s essay “The Sister’s Work,” published in the church paper Herald of Truth in 1900. She notes that in studying the Scriptures, “we find there is other work which the sisters may do” besides “looking after the needs of the family.” Her argument parallels that used by Holiness groups in her era to sanction female pastors. She quotes the prophet Joel on God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh, so that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28).  Prophesying, claims Maggie, “is speaking to edification, exhortation and comfort” (I. Cor. 14:3).

In the rest of the essay Maggie exhorts women to use their talents, whatever they may be, citing 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 Mennonite communities to head to India, and sewing circles were forming in congregations to support the new mission work.

Maggie concludes her article with these words: “As the Lord leads, let us follow. Let us be earnest in His work, so that He can say of us, ‘She hath done what she could.’”

…Six months after this heady essay on “The Sister’s Work” was published, Maggie stopped travelling around to Bible conferences and city missions.  Several letters show the agony of her decision making, the sorting out of her call. In October 1900 she returned home from an extended trip west at the behest of her mother, who said her help was needed in the butchering business.

Irvin-DerstineIn the throes of that decision, Maggie sought counsel from Irvin A. Derstine, with whom she exchanged six increasingly tender letters between August 30 and October 17. After she’d been gone a little more than a month, Irvin wrote:

“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…But the best is to find out God’s will and then obey.”

Maggie came home. Within four months she married my grandfather Irvin, who operated a gristmill on his family farm too far away for Maggie to assist with her family’s butchering!

Ever-Close-to-JesusAs a married farm woman, Maggie taught Sunday school when she could, gave the pitch when the chorister couldn’t get it, and published that one poem, Keep Ever Close to Jesus. She birthed three children who lived and two who died; the last baby took her also at the age of 39.  I’m her only granddaughter to survive infancy….

So what do I make of her life?  How do I receive her? How do I put together her young adult eagerness, her excitement about new ways of ministering, and her settled life as a farm woman?

I like to imagine Maggie as an underground stream nourishing my own call. Surely her life – both before and after her marriage – contributed to the high value placed on church vocation amongst my Derstine kin. Three of Maggie’s grandchildren and two of her great grandchildren became pastors.

At the same time I receive Maggie as a metaphor – a metaphor of what happened to a whole generation of energetic Mennonite women who came of age around the year 1900. They cared deeply about the church. They had a lot to offer. But something happened – and it wasn’t only that they married and settled into farm life.

Many of the dreams of that generation of women were stillborn. For by the mid- 1920s the religious climate had changed. Fundamentalism overtook the Holiness movement as a major theological influence, with much debate about appropriate roles for women. Following two decades of institution-building, centralization under male leadership became the order of the day. Men even took over the Sewing Circle organization!

Given all this, I came to see my vocational call as continuing the trajectory of my grandmother and others of her era, as I ministered in ways and with a freedom which they couldn’t.  Yet discovering Maggie so early in my own ministry also fed into my sense of fragility about the ongoing place of women in church leadership. I wondered if the tide would turn and we would be a one-generation aberration. I’m cheered that a second generation of female pastors is serving with distinction. And now a third generation is emerging….

(Adapted from my 2013 memoir, Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry, now out of print).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What surprising new things have you learned as an adult about your grandparents? How have you reacted?
  2. Is there someone in your family of origin whose life and commitments help you understand yourself better?

Next week: My favorite season

#23 – The Artist’s Eye

At least once a week I return in spirit to the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, near the summer home of American artist Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009). I return there via the book Wyeth: Christina’s World which we purchased in Maine in June. Each time I look at the painting on the cover, I’m stunned again by Wyeth’s “artist’s eye” – his ability to evoke such deep longing through the figure of a girl groping towards a bleak farmhouse at the top of a hill, with browning grasses making up much of the landscape and Wyeth’s characteristic hint of a road.

Published by the Museum of Modern Art

This summer the interpreter at Olson House emphasized that Wyeth was not a realistic landscape painter. That is, his goal was not to stand at the bottom of a hill and faithfully reproduce what he saw. Nor did he intend to literally depict the figure of middle-aged Christina Olson. Rather, his artist’s eye transformed what he saw into a canvas evoking a deep sense of Christina’s longings.

It’s not even possible in 2017 to take a photo in which a figure is seated in the same relationship to the Olson farmhouse.  A large stand of trees gets in the way. The closest angle possible to the one Wyeth imagined is depicted below.

Olson-House In 1948 critics lauded Wyeth’s brilliant painting technique and his ability to evoke a way of life.  But he soon got caught in the culture wars, with many in the art world deriding his work as being stuck in a sentimental rural past when “real art” was moving in modernist directions.

There’s a resurgence of interest in Wyeth this year – the 100th anniversary of his birth – with a stunning retrospective of his work at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, near his permanent home.

Published by HarperCollins Canada

I suspect that the 2017 publication of Christina Baker Kline’s novel A Piece of the World has also renewed interest in Wyeth. This partly fictionalized backstory of Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro and their relationship with the young Wyeth culminates in the creation of Christina’s World, his most famous painting.

Shortly after visiting Olson House and the Brandywine River Museum of Art this summer, I read a meditation by Christine Valters Paintner on discovering our own inner artist (Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics, Sorin Books, 2016). This set me to thinking about the “artist’s eye” in another way. Paintner believes that each of us has an inner Artist which enables us to see things differently, revealing “the beauty of a hundred ordinary moments.” She believes we can all cultivate “this path of vision” (p. 159).

So I’ve started becoming more conscious of times when my own artist’s eye is flourishing, and looking for that “path of vision” in others. The artist’s eye is obvious for me in craftsmen and women such as woodworkers, quilt designers, hosts who present food in a pleasing manner, and worship leaders who design services with spiritual depth.

Mandella-2017-08-08I’ve also started seeing “ordinary” tasks, such as that of nurses, in a new way. I recently had occasion to be in a hospital emergency ward for a few hours with a friend. From where I sat I had a clear view of the central nurses’ station.

I began to see their ministrations with an artist’s eye, and later coloured this mandala. I named it “St. Mary’s Angels of Mercy – warming a cold room with blankets, dignity, calm and competence.”

The nurses in ER moved at the heart of things, and the way they went about their work startled me. It embodied something resembling beauty in an often scary environment…..

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When have you or others you know approached ordinary moments with an Artist’s eye?
  2. When has a work of music or art evoked for you the deep essence of something?

Next Week: Discovering Grandmother Maggie

#22 – My First Mentor

Long before I knew what a mentor is, I had one – my Aunt Esther Musselman. She was not only my Dad’s younger sister, but also my piano teacher and the wife of one of our pastors.

Esther and Sue in late 1990s

I remember Aunt Esther as an energetic woman, much livelier than my parents.  She took a special interest in me, perhaps because her own daughter Mary had died at birth six months before I was born.  Aunt Esther was an agent of God’s care for me, and she didn’t expect me to be perfect.

This vibrant, gifted woman with a bit of flare (for our community!) had the pluck to get certified as a piano teacher and to complete high school by correspondence as an adult. [My grandfather had seen no reason why she needed a high school education.] I noticed early on that as a pastor’s wife, she had considerable freedom to use her creativity and her leadership gifts,

I took piano lessons from Aunt Esther from Grade 2 through most of high school. While I certainly wasn’t a natural musician, I likely progressed adequately until heavy school responsibilities cut into my practice time.

We had piano recitals at the local Fire Hall.  Each year it was predictable as clock work that Susan Clemmer would forget the piece she had so carefully memorized. Nervousness took over, and halfway through I just stopped!

Esther-Musselman-handsAfter several years of trotting out to give me the book so I could finish the piece, Aunt Esther finally gave up.  She invited me to play duets with her, using the book. An act of desperation for Esther translated into special time with her for me, with all the pressure gone.

During my teenage years, I interacted with Aunt Esther in many settings.  After I was baptized at age 11, she coached me in the strange ritual of foot washing by volunteering to be my partner my first time.  I was pleased to exchange a “holy kiss” with her! As my youth Sunday school teacher, she made it safe for me to ask questions. She accepted doubt as a part of faith, giving me hope.

Aunt Esther and Uncle Russ celebrated my graduations with little gifts and remained important encouragers to me as a young adult.  Unlike my Mom, Esther did not think the sky was falling when I chose to marry a draft resister and move to Canada.

Esther and Russ travelled to Ontario for my ordination, and Esther told the children’s story in that service. She played piano when Sam and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Canada.

Aunt Esther still taught 15 piano students at the age of 82, and played piano or organ for funerals. She died in 2002 in her 90th year.  Even though she’s been gone for 15 years, my heart still smiles when I think of her.

Christmas, 1996 with husband Russ

I especially treasure my memories of four generations of Clemmers singing Christmas carols in Jim and Ethel’s living room with Esther playing the piano. And she delighted us endlessly by playing our phone numbers!

Aunt Esther blessed me by noticing me, by accepting me with my foibles, and by expecting God’s best for me with a non-anxious spirit.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In your growing up years, which extended family member or other adult in your family’s circle blessed you? How did he/she do this?
  2. As an adult, which young person(s) have you noticed and blessed?

Next week: The Artist’s Eye

#21 – Nourished by Coffee Mugs

My first conscious decision each morning is choosing a coffee mug for the day. I press the button on the Keurig machine, then select a mug from the rollout drawer beneath it.

The choice I make hints at the state of my early morning spirit. It may also require a quick think about what I expect the day to hold.

Mugs-1If my spirit needs a boost, I select “If the shoe fits, buy it in every colour.”  I laughed when I found this mug at Thrift on Kent, and I still smile each time I reach for it.  It reminds me of my Dad, who bought his dress shoes from a salesman who came to the house by appointment.  If Dad liked a shoe, he bought two pairs in black and one in brown right away.  We had lots of his shoes to give to the thrift shop when my parents moved to a seniors’ community.

If I feel mellow (or want to), I grab the stoneware mug with an historic blue and rust design, created by potter Mark Nafziger. We stop by his studio at Sauder Village in Archbold, Ohio each fall when we visit Sam’s sister nearby. That mug settles me down as my spirit is drawn to its understated beauty. It’s a good choice when I’m offering spiritual direction or nearing a writing deadline.

If I want to relive a recent vacation on Prince Edward Island or Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, I reach for the mug with the pink Lady Slipper. I’d seen this design ten years ago in a potter’s shop on PEI, and almost purchased a mug then. I was pleased to locate Malcolm Stanley in Victoria-by-the-Sea this summer and to find that he still creates Lady Slipper mugs. I asked him how easily Lady Slipper orchids can still be found on PEI.  “If you’re willing to tramp deep enough into the woods in June,” he replied, “you’ll find them.”

In addition to these three current favorites, I also treasure three nostalgia mugs, choosing them when the spirit moves.

Mugs-2Sometimes the mug by St. Jacobs potter Phil Yordy attracts me for no particular reason. Its dancing design lightens my spirit. The pink and green colours remind me of the communion ware Phil created for Waterloo North Mennonite Church while I was a pastor there.

When administrative work looms, I might be drawn to the pleasing blue-grey mug by Winnipeg potter Alvin Pauls. I received this mug when I completed my term as chair of the Christian Formation Council of Mennonite Church Canada. It whispers to me, “OK, Sue, let’s settle down and get to work!” I find the thumb rest on its handle comforting.

When I need a smile, I’m likely to pick up the old round brown and beige mug from The Electric Brew in Goshen, Indiana.  That comfortable, quirky coffee shop in my college town has often been a “must do” stop when we’ve visited there.

The Electric Brew came to Goshen long after I studied there, but something about its first location on Main St. brought back the vibe of the student publication offices I inhabited 50 years ago.  The Brew still makes me feel energetic and happy.  It also reminds me of my sister-in-law, who has had coffee there every weekday morning for years….

The reality is that for health reasons, I try to restrict myself to one cup of coffee a day – and that cup is a decaf. So after I breathe in the aroma and savour the taste of that one marvelous cup, I sip water from my mug for the rest of the day. Drinking the water out of a special mug allows me to pretend that I’m still able to imbibe five cups of high test coffee a day.  And the mug offers a much more satisfying experience than drinking water out of a glass or a water bottle.

Years ago I participated in a group experience of Joyce Rupp’s book, The Cup of our Life. At the beginning, we each chose one special cup for the whole six weeks of daily meditations. I have no idea which mug I selected.  I don’t know how I could possibly choose just one now.

But when I asked my husband Sam if he has a favorite selection of mugs, he said,  “Only one – the newer one from The Electric Brew.” When I wondered why that one, he responded, “Because it’s big and sturdy!”

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is the first conscious decision you make each morning?
  2. What special object in your home or office – a mug or candle or plant or art print or something else – nourishes your spirit for the day?

Next week: My first mentor

#20 – Bible Stories that Live – First Batch

Bible stories first came alive for me in Summer Bible School at Souderton Mennonite Church. The Grade 1 curriculum, “Stories about Jesus,” especially engaged me.

Now published by Gospel Publishers

I loved the coloured pictures and the smell of the glue as we pasted them into our books. I remember a sick girl lying in a bed.  There was a slot in the bed so you could pull her out when Jesus healed her.  I was a sucker for such devices….

This week, I started gathering a list of my favorite stories of Jesus – ones that return frequently to nourish and sometimes challenge my spirit. Their significance stems from a particular struggle, or from intensive study, or from praying with the text while on retreat.

Here are my Top Five stories of Jesus as a healer and as a teller of parables – for this week. Next week, or a year from now, the list could be different…

Three Stories about Jesus as Healer

  1. The healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar (Mark 10: 46-52).
    Story-JourneyI memorized this story in a workshop with the Network of Biblical Storytellers, founded by Tom Boomershine.  The story is so simple and compressed. People tell Bartimaeus to shut up when he shouts to attract Jesus’ attention. But Jesus notices him and inquires, “What do you want me to do for you?” He responds, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus heals him with the words, “Go, your faith has made you well.”  I love that Bartimaeus doesn’t go. Rather, he follows Jesus “on the way.”
  2. A man born blind receives his sight (John 9: 1-41).
    In contrast to the simplicity of Bartimaeus, I love the complexity of this story from the Gospel of John. I enjoyed studying it at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1982 with Prof. Howard Charles. In a multi-layered narrative with many characters and a fair bit of humour, the man receives physical sight while his detractors move further into spiritual blindness.
  3. The bent-over woman (Luke 13: 10-17)
    In this little-known story, Jesus has compassion on a “woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years.”  He heals her in the synagogue on the Sabbath, creating quite a kerfuffle with the religious leaders.

    I remember a service where a friend and I walked down the aisle of a church bent over from the weight of things we carried in a backpack.  What if we could all leave our heavy backpacks here, I asked in my sermon, rather than taking them home with us again? What if our congregation would become a healing place?

Two Stories Jesus Told

  1. The Parable of the Great Supper (Luke 14: 15-24)
    Of all Jesus’ parables, this one intrigues me most. It first attracted my attention through the song, I cannot come to the banquet, popularized by the Medical Mission Sisters. In seminary I wrote a major paper on it. I’ve preached it repeatedly, sometimes putting it in the context of a backyard barbeque. At my home church in Pennsylvania, the current pulpit is about where the back steps of my childhood house were located. So when I preached this parable there, I included the story of my mother feeding a homeless man on our back steps.

    My childhood home shortly before it was torn down for the church expansion.

    The parable paints such a vivid picture of Jesus’ welcome to outsiders, and of the precarious position of those of us who consider ourselves insiders.

  2. The Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4: 26-29)
    In the shadow of the large parable of the sower and the seeds, we find this tiny one about the seed growing secretly and mysteriously. The sower sleeps and rises night and day, “and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  It’s a reminder to me that the seed will bear fruit, and that it’s not all up to me (in fact, very little of it is.)

Watch for more favorite Scriptures in future blogs!

Questions for Reflection:

What are your favourite healing stories and parables of Jesus?

Why do you think these particular ones stick with you?

For next week:

Coffee Mugs that Renew my Spirit

ANS #19 – Summer Fascination: Road Construction and the Gardens

Who knew that the road construction directly in front of our condo would be more fascinating than frustrating. This summer it’s our turn to have our street torn up for months to replace underground services.

Construction-1Early on, we enjoyed watching drivers blithely ignore the Road Closed sign, then turn around in front of our building. On the side street which is the escape route, someone put up a homemade sign which read: “What don’t you understand about ROAD CLOSED? It means YOU CAN’T GET THROUGH.”

Peering down from our 10th floor windows, I’ve been impressed by the skill of equipment operators, the careful sequencing and the precision needed to find and replace three kinds of pipes.  One morning I opened the blinds and found ten dump trucks lined up.

Construction-2Watching the process, I now understand that four (or maybe five?) persons are actually needed when a huge hole is dug – one to operate the excavator, one to give signals about where to dig,  one or two to descend into the hole to do technical work, and one to direct traffic.

I can only imagine the frustration of construction crews required to provide access for high-rise condo dwellers and nearby medical buildings at all times. It must slow them down considerably. When I arrive on the scene midday and say to the traffic director “I live in that building…how do I get into the parking lot today?” he usually responds “OK, wait just a minute and we’ll move that truck.”

The road construction has given me cheap entertainment and respect for a complex project.

Gardens-1And it hasn’t prevented me from accessing my favourite neighborhood spot for joyful relaxation. I can still cross the street on foot and glimpse the first bursts of colour which signal Rockway Gardens on ahead. Most days my morning walk begins with a stroll through its 4.4 acres of artfully designed annual beds, perennial gardens and rockery.

Two small waterfalls tumble down the rocks, feeding ponds of lily pads. A stone arch and benches suggest places for wedding and other photos to be taken.  Four fountains, a bridge and a gazebo offer more places to pause and enjoy.

On my morning walk, I often see volunteers from the Kitchener Horticultural Society cheerfully at work, planting in spring, early summer and fall, and weeding in between.

I’m amazed at how the gardens show off their beauty both close up and at a distance. The hydrangeas at the top of the rock garden make a striking statement from the road, as do the beds of annuals with their pleasing colour combinations and designs. With more rain than usual this year, everything looks perky and lush, even in late August.

Gardens-2Early in the morning the gardens are restful. At other times, they pulse with energy. On Saturday afternoons, wedding parties jam the narrow roadway. And one Sunday at suppertime, I come upon parents cajoling a toddler to sit for a photo, a woman reading on a bench above the rock garden, two older men conversing in the gazebo, and a young couple emerging from a car with two long-stemmed red roses. They’re joined by dog walkers, by large groups in traditional garb arranging themselves for photos, and by numerous strollers like me.

I’m so grateful that in 1925 the city fathers decided to develop these gardens as a way of welcoming people to Kitchener, scrapping the billboards and gas station previously planned for an old garbage dump site. The flowers, the setting, and the spirit of open community at Rockway Gardens nourish my spirit.

Questions for Reflection

  1. When has an irritant such as road construction become a fascination for you?
  2. Where in your community do you find a welcoming public space to nourish your spirit and that of diverse neighbours?

Next week: Stories I can’t do without.

#18 – Are Earth and Sky our Friends?

The earth and the sky, the wind and the water were mostly our friends – or so it seemed to me as a child growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Skippack-CreekThe small streams, including a tiny branch of Skippack Creek down the hill from our backyard, rarely overflowed their banks. The only severe “weather event” I recall was Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which took out the apple tree in our backyard.

I enjoyed driving through the gently rolling hills around Souderton, seeing the fertile fields which produced the grain my Dad the feed man sometimes sold over the phone.

In my memory, spring was long and lovely, with daffodils and tulips in March already. Summer was hot and humid, with lightning bugs in our yard to catch at dusk, and window air conditioners to help us sleep at night. Some summers were drier than others, but I don’t recall any drastic droughts.

Each autumn, the maple trees along Chestnut St. faithfully put on their spectacular show.  I loved the way the leaves rustled underfoot when my Mom and I walked through the neighbourhood with my treat bag on Halloween. We had enough snow to play in during the winter, but rarely an out and out blizzard.

Thus I experienced earth and sky, wind and water, as overwhelmingly genial. Likely my Dad and my brother Jim, both feed men, would tell the story differently, reminding me of emergency efforts to get feed to chickens during snowstorms.  As I grew older, I did dimly become aware of a changing farm economy and the stress that put on farmers and their suppliers.

StooksBy coming to southwestern Ontario to marry a draft resister, I chose a landscape with natural elements quite similar to those I experienced as a child.

Then this summer I re-read three authors who caused me to look at earth, sky, wind and water through a different lens. I chose these books because they beckoned me back: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s last three Little House books;  Rudy Wiebe’s memoir Of This Earth, and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Only later was I astonished by the connections I found between them.

All of them demonstrate what Norris calls spiritual geography : how the place where we live shapes our spirit…how the landscape and its ordinary or harsh beauty affects our outlook on life.

I wonder how I would approach life differently if I’d come of age in a claim shanty in the Dakotas in the 1880’s with Laura Ingalls Wilder, as my Pa turned the sod for the first time.

Of-this-earthI wonder how I would have thought of sky and earth, wind and water during that blizzard that lasted all winter, or when the crops failed year after year from a plague of blackbirds or a sustained dry wind.  Would it have occurred to me as a mature adult to write stories for children about these experiences, celebrating my Pa’s pioneering spirit and our family’s resilience?

I wonder how I’d view life differently if I’d grown up with Canadian Mennonite novelist Rudy Wiebe in the tiny settlement of Speedwell in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan in the 1930’s and 40’s, with the old-growth trees much more difficult to clear than anticipated, with books in short supply, and with my beloved older sister dying of a heart condition? Would such a setting have incubated in me a published story about my sister, or a major novel on an indigenous leader?

Or what if I had moved with Kathleen Norris from New York City to a small town on the high plains of south Dakota to take over my grandmother’s house temporarily? Would I have understood this as a good place for spiritual writers, and stayed?

Some view the Dakotas as “empty,” Norris wrote in 1993, with a few ranches, Benedictine monasteries and settled towns in a land belonging to far-flung indigenous peoples, prairie grasses, and buffalo. The old pioneer spirit of independence threatens to fold in on itself. Hope is scarce. This is a place, Norris claims, for poets!

So I wonder: are natural environments like southeastern Pa. and southwestern Ont. too tame to incubate great novelists, poets, spiritual writers, and authors of iconic children’s stories? Or does it have more to do with developing a certain inner eye, no matter what the natural surroundings?

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How would you answer the questions in the paragraph above?
  2. In the places you have lived, how would you describe your relationship to earth and sky, wind and water?

Next Week: Summer Delights in our Neighbourhood