# 58 – The Joy of Anticipation

I enjoy anticipating events almost as much as experiencing them.  I like to be nourished three times – before an event, as it’s occurring, and when I look back on it.

When Sam and I married in 1969, there were of course the usual pesky details to sort out – or worry about – ahead of time. I wondered if we could find the kind of everyday garden flowers we wanted for my bouquet [Farmers’ Market].  Would our relatives get across the border uneventfully? [More or less]. What if our outdoor wedding got rained out? [It didn’t]. And where would we find a bakery willing to make us a wedding cake that was not a fruit cake? [We didn’t!].

Wedding party (L-R) Sara Freed, Sue, J. R. Burkholder, Sam, Tom Harley

But there was lots for me to positively anticipate as well. With my counter-cultural self I’d bought a short wedding dress, and we engaged our friend Lyn to sing and play Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” on guitar. I deliciously anticipated what the relatives would think of such wedding innovations.  I was curious about what our Goshen professor friend J.R. Burkholder would emphasize in his meditation. But mostly, I simply anticipated being married to this dear draft resister Sam for whom I had left my country of origin.

Ordination, 1987, with cousin Richard Detweiler

Eighteen years later, as my ordination day approached, I looked forward to my cousin Richard Detweiler’s sermon, and to my Aunt Esther’s children’s story and piano playing. I anticipated the service as a way for the congregation at St. Jacobs to get to know me better, and as an occasion for my Ontario and Pennsylvania worlds to come together. But mostly, I wondered what I would feel like after this ceremony – would being an ordained pastor make me a different person? And if so, how?

Over the years, I always anticipated our vacations with enthusiasm and hope as we booked lodgings and planned itineraries.  Before last summer’s trip to Prince Edward Island, I wondered what it would be like to celebrate Canada Day where the historic Charlottetown Accord was signed.  I looked forward to our search for two small settlements of Amish folks who had moved to PEI from Ontario just a couple years earlier [we found them!]. And I wondered whether our journey across the island to the windmills at North Cape would be fascinating enough to justify the drive [it was!].

IMG_5640And now, as we look toward our annual June excursion on the Bruce Peninsula, I wonder –  will we spot those rare pink Lady Slipper orchids this year, and if so, where?

I look forward to more “routine” joys as well.  Most Sunday mornings I anticipate the worship service by reading the Scriptures and the hymns ahead of time at home, sometimes playing the songs on the piano.  I anticipate our weekly drive into the countryside northwest of Waterloo, wondering which trees will be blooming or what produce might be newly available at farm lanes [asparagus!].

And for over 40 years I’ve anticipated our semi-annual trek to Pennsylvania in spring and fall to visit family and old friends. Will the spring blossoms or the fall colours be as spectacular as last year, I’ve wondered. What family news will I hear? Or, in years gone by, what tidbits of family history might I pick up from my Aunt Esther or Aunt Mildred or my brother Jim?

Now this week, I anticipate three nephews and two cousins and their spouses travelling from Pennsylvania and New York to visit us.  My anticipatory joy overflows!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which special events have you anticipated in your life? Which routine occurrences?  How has anticipatory joy nourished your spirit?

Next Week: Singing my Story

#57 – Before E-mail and Blogs

Vacation Bible School at Centereach, Long Island, New York

My cousin Helen lived in such an exotic place. Or at least I thought so as a child.   For one thing, we had to go through New York City to get there, craning our necks as we passed the Empire State Building. Also, Helen and her sisters ate pizza and lived only half an hour from Long Island’s beaches.

Each week my mother and I eagerly anticipated a letter from Aunt Mildred in Centereach, Long Island, New York. Through those letters, I gleaned not only tidbits about my cousins’ lives, but also  an uncensored view of what church planting was really like in the 1950’s, far from the sheltered assumptions at the center of the Franconia Mennonite Conference in southeastern Pennsylvania. I do wish my Mom had kept those letters chronicling Curt and Mildred Godshall’s joys and struggles.

We cherished other letters from afar also. Occasionally one arrived from Cuba, where my much older cousin Betty King and her husband Aaron ministered as a revolution unfolded around them.

We also heard from England, where Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman and her husband Quintus were hosts at the London Mennonite Centre. (We never told them that the fruit cake they sent each Christmas always arrived in little pieces.)

Later, in my 40’s and my 60’s, I relished hearing about family members from before the time I was born, reading letters which someone had saved.

Irvin Derstine with grandchildren; Sue held by brother Jim, back right

When I was 43, I learned to know my maternal grandparents, Magdelena (Maggie) Moyer and Irvin Derstine, through increasingly serious “pre-courting” letters they wrote to each other in the year 1900.  Prior to reading those letters, I remembered my grandfather Irvin only as an old man sitting in a chair with one leg amputated.

Since Maggie died when my mother was 10 years old, my discovery of  her via young adult letters was an enormous gift. I glimpsed her traveling to Sunday school conferences in western Pennsylvania, and visiting girlfriends all over the place.  I found in my grandmother a soul mate who helped “explain” some of my own impulse toward church leadership. (See #24 – Maggie Uncovered for more on Maggie.)

Lester-to-MarthaThe few “courting letters” from my Dad to my Mom in 1922-1924 are a hoot!  He wrote mostly about his adventures walking home to Souderton late at night from dates at her farm near Sellersville. Or about escapades with his Chevrolet sedan in a snowstorm…what it was like to be “the first machine to go through” on a snow-covered country road where they had to make their own tracks. I recognized in his writing a jaunty voice I heard him use years later when he was trying to impress people!

Roy Clemmer

My Mom’s weekly letters to my older cousin Roy in Civilian Public Service camps in 1943 gave me a glimpse of our household, of the family feed mill, and of  life in Souderton during World War II.

I learned that my then 16-year-old brother Jim had a paper route and sang in a chorus. I wasn’t surprised to read that after my Dad worked at the mill “until late” one January night, he tried unsuccessfully to fix the furnace when he arrived home. I was reminded of my Mom’s fondness for homemade ice cream.  I found out that she frequently fed and lodged CO’s who came to help out at the feed mill in addition to their work at Norristown State Hospital.

I cherish the memories created by reading these letters and by finding old greeting cards. They give me the “feel” of my family before I was part of it and when I was a child. They nourish my soul. I’m grateful to my Mom and other family members for saving them.



I wonder…in the age of instant communication via social media and smart phones, how will future generations learn such things about us?  How will they get glimpses of our traits and our everyday lives? How will they know what was important to us?

Questions for Reflection: How – if at all – have old family letters or diaries nourished your soul? What have you gleaned from them that’s important for you now?

How will future generations know what has been important to you?

Next Week: The Joy of Anticipation


#56 – Cancer Journey #2: Waiting

“Teach me, Lord, teach me, Lord, to wait.” This snippet of a hymn by Stuart Hamblen  says it all, echoing the Psalmist. (See # 584 “They that wait upon the Lord” in Hymnal: A Worship Book).

I’ve always wanted to be in control of my life. I like to plan ahead.  Even for vacations my husband and I make itineraries and book lodgings months in advance.

But now I’ve been catapulted into a community of “waiters.” I along with many others waited months for a cancer diagnosis. Now I wait in crowded lounges for periodic lab tests – blood work, CT scans, MRIs. I wait for the results of those tests at my monthly appointment with my oncologist. I wait to see whether various side effects of my daily chemo pill will stabilize or subside or worsen.

Early on, before my diagnosis, I coloured a mandala which I called “Waiting.” I alternated between lighter and darker tones in the sections radiating out from the center,  for I knew not whether the outcome of my many tests would be welcome or dire.

WaitingThe orange hearts and intense yellows express the sense that whatever the outcome, God’s love remains. And God’s healing light continues to shine whatever the most recent scans indicate.

I’m learning that “waiting” carries an active dimension.

Published by Penguin Random House

Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, author of the bestseller When Breath Becomes Air, notes that a diagnosis of incurable cancer changes nothing and everything. “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely,” he says. (p. 131-132)

The reality is that, despite statistics, we really don’t know how much time we have, says Kalanithi, and this makes decision-making difficult. “Tell me three months and I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book.  Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases.” (p. 161-162)

Seminary prof Kate Bowler, author of the cancer memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and other Lies I’ve Loved, names that she lives her life in segments, between every-two-month scans. When the reports are good, she relaxes into the next two months of more-or-less active living.  I connect with that. (See Blog #54 “Cancer Journey #1: An Alternate Universe”)

I’m slowly learning the art of living from scan to scan, making very few commitments to be at a certain time and place to lead something for months or years into the future. I don’t think it’s fair to others for me to cancel out of things at the last minute  because of waning energy or sudden unexpected side effects of a chemo pill. I’m sad about some commitments I’ve therefore needed to let go of, such as offering one on one spiritual direction and co-leading a fiction book club at the local women’s prison.

Greedy-for-LifeI’m slowly learning to take each day as it comes, rejoicing in the pleasant surprises and taking the time needed to ride out the bumps. But I’m certainly not sitting around passively, waiting to die at some unknown time in the distant or not so distant future. I’m still greedy for life on this beautiful planet, as I coloured in this mandala two months ago.

And so…I love walking in Rockway Gardens across the street now that spring has burst out in profusion, or driving out into the countryside north of Waterloo.

I enjoy conversations with people from the past and present as energy permits.  I revel in opportunities to support people’s ongoing spiritual and vocational journeys, such as by attending the ordination of an old friend in Niagara last weekend.

I take pleasure at being part of groups I enjoy while carrying little or no responsibility, such as the annual church gathering of MCEC last weekend, or the upcoming spring retreat day of Mennonite Spiritual Directors of Eastern Canada.

I especially enjoy writing this blog each week. All these things connect me to the worlds I know and love – and they nourish my spirit.

Songs in the night also keep coming to nourish my spirit – phrases of old or newer hymns such as:

  • Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life
  • All the way my Saviour leads me
  • Come and fill our hearts with your peace (Taizé)
  • Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us (Taizé)
  • Be still and know that I am God
  • My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation
  • It is well with my soul     (See Blog #5: Childhood Hymns Re-purposed)

As a spiritual director, I  tried for years to encourage people into deeper awareness of the present moment, and to live in God’s Presence in the here and now.  Now it’s my turn.

At the same time, we are planning some short trips and other events later this spring and summer. The urge to plan continues, in a modified manner!

Questions for Reflection: What has encouraged (or forced!) you to focus more on the present and less on future planning? What has nourished your spirit as you’ve done this? What helps you “live in God’s Presence in the here and now”?

Next Week: TBA

#55 – Surprising Nourishment

MCEC-2018A pastor friend’s jaw dropped when I walked into the 31st annual church gathering of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) last Saturday morning.

“Why would you come to ‘conference’ when you don’t have to anymore?” another pastor asked.  “I’m here because I want to be,” I responded. “This is home.”

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) is indeed home. I’ve attended the March or April AGM at least 28 times.  Before that, I took in at least five spring gatherings of one of its predecessors – Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ).

Looking back, I remember that I first showed up in 1980 when my husband Sam began serving  as MCOQ’s secretary. Then I continued to attend as various jobs I held required it.

Seeing a table of youth this year, I recalled that from 1982-85 MCOQ gave me my first ministry position as conference youth minister. I laughed to myself about the big deal we made when treasurer Omar Bauman explained the budget to the youth delegates. We invited them to check whether Omar was wearing a new pair of shoes….

MCOQ Youth Council, 1985. L-R (Back): Peter Allemang, Sue Steiner (youth minister), Trevor Bauman (president); (Front): Janet Martin, Gail Roth, Jenny Snyder

Last Saturday as always, I rejoiced when we celebrated congregations exploring with us via emerging church membership status – Assemblée de la Grâce (Montreal) and Matu-Chin Christian Church (Kitchener). I silently applauded when delegates spoke of developing natural connections with neighbours through the Re-learning Community process sponsored by MCEC in recent years.

I was transported back to the mission committee “reports” of the late 80’s when three Ontario conferences were in process of amalgamating. I chaired one of the mission groups then, and also served as interim missions minister for one year.

1989 Missions Celebration–“Sharing the Light”

Our reports on the conference floor were lively affairs, involving lots of people, as we tried to familiarize delegates from three conferences with one another’s dearly held church plants, service ministries, hopes and dreams. In 1988 in Leamington, we mounted an evening celebration called A Festival of New Creation. In 1989 in Kitchener, we focused on Sharing the Light. (On an advance planning visit to Leamington, I recall running a stop sign at a four-way rural crossroads in the area, greatly alarming my passenger and myself. I still shudder every time I stop there….)

In l987 MCOQ ordained me as I began serving the well-established St. Jacobs congregation as associate pastor. Later the Waterloo North congregation, formed during the time I was interim missions minister, called me as their lead minister.  So of course I continued to show up at the annual spring gathering. And I’ve done so since – partly to see old friends, partly because I love the music, partly because the speakers are generally inspiring. All these things nourish me.

But I also continue to attend because I’m curious, and because I know I will be stretched. I felt comfortable with the way MCOQ and the early MCEC did things in the l980’s.  I enjoyed being part of getting those things done! But 2018 is not 1988.  Faithfulness does and must look different than it did in the 1980’s.

I was particularly pleased this year to see competent female leaders willing to take on difficult positions – Marilyn Rudy-Froese as church leadership minister and Arli Klassen as moderator. I was pleased to listen to the innovative problem solving of pastors such as Louise Wideman and Ruth Boehm.

Each year, as part of the Mennonite Spiritual Directors of Eastern Canada, I pray for our annual spring gathering. I’m grateful for those leading MCEC, and pray that they will continue to be open to the nudgings of the Spirit, presenting to us ways of being faithful that fit the situation in 2018, as we endeavored to do in the l980’s.

Thanks be to God for the challenges and opportunities of 1988 and of 2018  – and grace for all that is to come….

Question for Reflection:

Where – if at all – have you been nourished by church gatherings beyond the congregation?

Next Week: Cancer Journey Part II: Waiting

#54 – Cancer Journey Part I: An Alternate Universe

One morning last August I walked into the emergency department of a local hospital to check out some chest pain and shortness of breath.  At suppertime I walked out the door with a prescription of antibiotics for what was “thought to be pneumonia.”

Mandella-2017-08-08I felt very well taken care of that day, and coloured a mandala in gratitude for the care I received. A sense of peace came over me. “If there’s more to it than this,” I said to myself, “I’m in good hands.”

The antibiotics didn’t work. Three months later,  after much further testing, I received a diagnosis of lung cancer which had spread to my brain.  This kind of cancer can be managed for a time, I was told, but it’s not curable.

By then I certainly knew that “something was wrong,” but as a non-smoker, I wasn’t expecting lung cancer.  I was shocked and distressed. It felt like Sam and I had just been plunged into an alternate universe.  The terrain looked scary, and I didn’t know how to navigate it.

The competence and compassion of various specialists we saw at the Grand River Cancer Centre impressed and reassured me.  Sam’s unfailing love and support upheld me (and still does). Beyond that, I name three significant happenings early on which calmed my shocked spirit and continue to nourish me now. They’ve become touchstones to which I frequently return….

RWG-Symbols1) Within days of the diagnosis, my retired women’s group offered me symbols of support at a scheduled meeting – a special candle, a heart-shaped stone and butterflies, including one fashioned from stones at a cottage where we’ve retreated. I added a Hope stone, then arranged all the objects in a wooden box and displayed them in my living room.

2) At church the first Sunday after my diagnosis, our pastor prayed for Sam and me, with the congregation standing with us in a prayer circle. I was stunned to find out afterwards that the youth came down from the balcony to be part of it. Ever since that day, the worship space at Rockway Mennonite Church with people in it has become a true sanctuary, enfolding me in God’s care.

3) A couple evenings later, a group of 20 friends and colleagues gathered with Sam and me in an anointing service led by our pastor in the home of hospitable friends.

In my opening statement I said: “I didn’t invite you here tonight so we could beg God for a miracle. I do want to place myself in God’s hands as we pray together for healing and peace in all its dimensions.  I pray for God’s perfect love to cast out my fear of so many possible kinds of losses as I move more deeply into this cancer journey.”

I’d conducted quite a few anointing services as a pastor and saw how calming and reassuring they can be for people.  Then it happened for me.  A friend said afterwards that I looked “radiant.”

I can scarcely describe the cumulative effect of these happenings and many others.  It’s hard to find words that do justice to my sense of God’s reassuring presence during those early weeks. Sometimes I think of that time as “living in the glow,” even while uncertainties and new routines and  difficult decision making also consumed us.

Available from Penguin Random House

Kate Bowler, in her recent cancer memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, speaks of the feeling of floating – floating on the love and prayers of people who “mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.” (p. 121).  Yes! I thought. That also describes my experience well.

I remembered how I used to preach about “floating on the sea of God’s love and grace.” So I was amazed when a former colleague sent me this prayer: “May you know that you are held in the ‘great sea of Mercy’ where you cannot not be in the presence of God; where you cannot fall out of God’s care.”

Yes it’s true that the intensity of those feelings of “living in the glow” or “floating in God’s love and care” have faded over time. But, as Bowler puts it, “an imprint remains.” I know something has happened between God’s spirit and my spirit, and I’m not the same.

…Five months later, the sanctuary at Rockway Mennonite Church continues to be a comforting space.  I want to be there every Sunday. And I still display that box of butterflies, candle and stones in my living room, along with many well-chosen and well-written cards.  I also have a fat folder of e-mail messages received during those early weeks and since.  I could go on and on….

Question for Reflection: How have you experienced God’s reassuring presence during difficult times?

Next Week: Cancer Journey Part II: Waiting

#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….


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.


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 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.

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.

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….

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 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 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.

    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 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.

    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).

Lock Haven levee
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 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

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….”


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.

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