#48 — Fastnachts and Ashes: Mennonites and Lent

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

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

From Waterloo North Mennonite Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question for Reflection:

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

Next week: Good Friday

#47 – Paying Attention: Tapped Maples and Orange Evergreens

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Question for Reflection:

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

Next Week: Music for Lent




#46 — Of Funny Cakes, Potato Pie and Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther Musselman, Martha Clemmer, Esther Detweiler

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

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

Questions for Reflection:

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

Next week: Spring Teasers

#45 – My Childhood Home

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

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

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

Side view of Sue’s childhood house

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

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

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

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

Cousin Helen

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

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

Sue with nephew Gerry

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

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

Questions for Reflection

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

Next week:  The Gift of Hospitality

#44 – The Isle of Iona: Finding God in a Sheep Pasture

In the spring of 1999, I participated in a Pilgrimage with Celtic Christians in Scotland, Ireland, and England. One of its holiest hours emerged for me on the tiny windswept isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland.


As we approached the ferry dock in a driving rain, we saw the reconstructed Abbey dominating the landscape, reminding us immediately of the sacred memory Iona carries.

Symbols of the Four Evangelists (Clockwise from top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John) and an ox (Luke). From Wikipedia.

The Christian memory on Iona dates back to the year 563, when St. Columba landed there and established a community of monks.  In the 8th century, they began working on the Book of Kells – a colorfully decorated manuscript of the four Gospels.

But in the 9th century Viking raids devastated the island, killing 68 monks. Most of the surviving monks left, taking with them the Book of Kells.  But a tiny group remained, and the Christian presence on Iona continued through the centuries.

Then in the 20th century,  a renewal movement led by Rev. George MacLeod brought unemployed craftsmen from Glasgow and elsewhere to Iona to rebuild the 12th century Abbey.  Since that time, the Iona Community has become a vibrant international movement, with members who bring together concerns for social justice and for nourishing, empowering worship.

Given its sacred history, I went to Iona expecting to meet God. But my holiest moments didn’t spring forth in worship in the Abbey, although I did enjoy singing songs by John Bell and sharing communion oat cakes with visitors from many countries.

South Aisle Chapel, Iona Abbey. Published by Island Pictures Library

What I didn’t expect was that the Holy One would restore my soul in a sheep pasture, on a part of the island the locals call The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. For centuries now, this raised beach has been the common grazing land used by the various sheep crofters of the island.

Even my unpracticed eye could see at least three different flocks of blackfaced sheep grazing there together, each flock marked by a dye of a different colour.

Sheep on the Iona golf course

And even though this grassy beach also hosts an 18-hole golf course, I saw no other humans that sunny springtime afternoon. The sounds floating through the air were not the striking of clubs against golf balls, but rather the bleating of many sheep. They answered one another from here and over there and behind me somewhere, with a lamb once running full tilt towards the voice of its mother.

And once…once…I caught the sound of a shepherd using human voice in a way I can’t describe. It danced and laughed and cajoled all at the same time with an eerie pitch that floated on the breeze, sending a ripple through some of the sheep.  I wanted to record this moment and take it home with me.

But what technology can replicate the sting of wind and the warmth of sun together on one’s face?  What technology can evoke  the springiness of walking on a carpet of buttercups and wool towards a lamb standing placidly on top of the 10th hole? What technology can capture the varied sounds of lambs bleating and rabbits scampering and surf pounding and the eerie unmistakable call of a shepherd all at once? What technology can evoke the sense of trust and confidence in God called forth in me by those sheep and that unseen shepherd?  Not even a 3-D movie….

I have to admit that for some unknown reason sheep always get to me. So on Iona, Jesus’ word picture of himself as shepherd and us as sheep came alive.  I thought about us – individual sheep of Christ’s fold – grazing with other sheep not necessarily of Christ’s fold on common pastureland. In our pluralistic society, that surely describes us. We listen to much the same music, read many of the same books, and visit many of the same websites as folks around us. We take in the same political and economic doctrines, and choose with others our preferred slant on the news.

But what about Jesus’ statement – meant to evoke assurance and comfort – that he knows his own and his own know him? What about his assertion that we’re not fooled by the voice of a stranger? What about his implication that when the voice of the shepherd floats on the breeze, a ripple will go through us; we’ll leave our grazing, and follow that  dancing, cajoling voice?

1999-16…With that object lesson one sunny afternoon 19 years ago, I added Iona to the constellation of places where I have met God. Now as Lent begins once again, and I recall my experience in that sheep pasture, I wonder: Where and how will I hear the eerie, cajoling voice of the Shepherd this Lent? What will it mean to respond with a ripple and follow?

Question for Reflection:

Has a vacation or other travel ever become a pilgrimage for you? If so, how would you describe meeting God through that experience?

Next week: My childhood home

#43 – Of Diaries and Journals

Rare photo of Grampop Michael R. Clemmer

As a child  I vaguely knew that my grampop Clemmer kept a diary.

Ten years ago I had the privilege of reading some of them. Thus I found out when my Aunt Esther got new wallpaper in her bedroom, when the family got their first telephone, and who went to the hospital for what purpose and for how long. I saw how much my grandfather paid a nurse when one was needed for my sickly grandmother Lizzie.

I also learned about purchases for the family business, the Moyer & Son feed mill. Grampop documented excursions he took with my great-uncle Jake to buy a new adding machine, or a pair of black or brown horses to haul wagons of feed or coal to customers.

Souderton Mennonite Church, June 3, 1952. Warthel Photos

I found out about burials at church, a packed house for the annual Harvest Home Service, and the time the communion wine was watered down too much. I found out that my grampop was once in the lot for minister at Souderton Mennonite, but another man chose the book with the slip of paper that signaled his call.

I heard the facts about all sorts of things, but from my grandfather’s diaries I could only guess how he felt about them. He never said or even hinted….

So…I knew about diaries, but I only learned about journals at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. In Grade 9 I started keeping my own journal. An early entry, dated January 28, 1962, read like this:


The practice of keeping a journal where I explored my feelings became hugely important for me.  I did so off and on as a college student and as a young adult. Then when I became a pastor 31 years ago, I began writing in my journal almost every morning, before the activity of the day got underway.

Keeping an almost daily journal continues to help me talk to God and to myself.  It helps me know what I’m thinking and feeling. I owe my start to Miss Longacre – now Anna Mary Brubacher of Kitchener, Ontario.

At one point – maybe 20 years ago – I thought my edited journals might be published in some form after I died. I even named someone to read and edit and make decisions about them.  Later I realized that my journals are for my eyes only and should eventually be destroyed.  So four years ago as we were downsizing, I read a lot of old journals and then shredded them, keeping only the ones from the preceding seven years.

Presently available from Loyola Press

Every January since that time, I’ve read and shredded another year of journals.  Reading those old journals has become a spiritual practice – a review of my inner life, my fervent prayers, and my joys and struggles. At times I was dismayed at getting stuck in a struggle for an inordinate period of time, and was more than ready to shred the memory of it!  Yet in a few other cases I decided to keep an old  journal, because it chronicled so well how I had worked through a major transition.

My reading of old journals also reminds me of significant spirituality books which accompanied me at certain times, such as Love: A Guide for Prayer. Sometimes I’ve torn a quote from such a book out of the journal I’m about to shred, and pasted it into my current one.  Sometimes I’ve pulled a book off the shelf and browsed through it again.

Keeping a journal and reviewing it are significant means of soul nourishment for me. When I read an old journal, or even review a recent one, I often recognize God’s spirit come near….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever kept a diary?  A journal?  If so, has that practice brought nourishment to your spirit?  In what ways?

Next week: The Isle of Iona: Finding God in a Sheep Pasture

#42 – Reading Old Family Photos

I’m intrigued by old family photos – especially ones I haven’t seen before, especially if I’m in them!

H. Leh & Company photo

I cherish all available pictures of myself as a baby, toddler or young girl.  My parents relied on photography studios, and seemingly took few if any candid shots themselves.

So I’m fortunate that cousins on both sides of the family have been going through old slides and photos, and occasionally send one that includes me.

These days I’m curious about little Susan. Who was she, anyway? How did she make her way in the world as the only child in the household? What habits did she adopt which prefigured mine 60+ years later? What childhood tendencies  did she mercifully discard along the way?

I approach each new-to-me photo with curiosity, even excitement. What can I “read” in it (or perhaps “read into” it)? What new things can I learn or old impressions reinforce about this little girl and her environment?

Helen (left) and Susan

A number of photos document holiday dinners with my mother’s Derstine clan over the years.  The one on the left I’ve treasured for years – my cousin Helen and I holding our Christmas presents, looking startled. Perhaps that was the year we ripped open other people’s presents, desperate to find our own (See blog #3).

Fast forward five years or so, and we see Helen and Susan smiling broadly –  almost laughing – behind a whole pile of still- wrapped presents. Perhaps this documents some growing maturity on their part!  Some of the younger Godshall and Clemmer children aren’t quite so sure that’s appropriate.

Sue with presents as child
Derstine Christmas 1950s, L-R Helen Godshall, Gerry Godshall, Ken Clemmer, Susan Clemmer, Karen Clemmer

Another photo from a Derstine Christmas, acquired in the last couple years, intrigues me for a number of reasons. First of all, take a look at that wallpaper! Also, it appears that  my Mom and I are negotiating.  I wonder what that’s about!  And I can’t believe my bright orange knee socks. Perhaps the colour isn’t true?

Sue Clemmer and Martha Clemmer
Mom and Susan

Recently, a cousin on  the Clemmer side of the family sent me two slides of myself. Here I notice that my hair includes img011barrettes, as well as large ribbons at the end of my pigtails. I noticed the same hair decoration in the studio photo of myself. I wonder if that’s how all the little Mennonite girls in the Souderton area looked, or if it was my mother’s preference – or perhaps even mine?   I also wonder about the expression on my face.  Am I squinting at the sun?  Or unhappy about something?  My usual shining brown eyes are almost shut.

The other slide demonstrates a reality of my childhood – often I was the only young child in a group of adults. I’m fascinated by the variations in the dress code for females played out here. On a summer day,  my Aunt Esther – a preacher’s wife – has covering strings and is wearing a cape dress with long sleeves.  My Mom has no covering strings and is wearing a modified cape dress with 3/4 length sleeves. My sister-in-law Ethel is wearing a covering and a dress with ¾ sleeves (made of a sheer fabric). And there is Susan with arms nearly bare and those barrettes and ribbons in her hair.

img012Looking at this photo makes me feel included – those women are my family! – and at the same time a bit lonely, as the only child in the picture….

Question for Reflection:

What have you observed or wondered about your childhood self and the context of your early life by looking at old family pictures?

Next week: Keeping a Journal

# 41 – The Comfort of Old Friends

Sue, Sam and friend Carol

Recently an old friend from college days (Carol) drove six hours to spend two days with Sam and me and another old friend (Kathy) who lives here in Kitchener.  I appreciated this very much.

It set me to thinking about the special kind of comfort old friends can be and often are. They have seen me over many years – as far back as my early adulthood or even, perhaps, my childhood.

There’s something special about being known over time. Old friends have had some of the same formative experiences I’ve had. If I dare to ask, they can tell me whether a direction I’m pondering fits with the Sue they’ve known for 30 or 50 years.  They’ve seen my patterns of decision making and have a sense of the core essence of Sue and the way I’ve expressed that essence over time.   When facing a difficult situation, I can ask, “Is the way I’m approaching this consistent with the Sue you’ve known?”

Brother Jim and Sue

Plus, if they’re older than me, they have information which few others can offer. I remember asking my big brother Jim shortly before he died, “What type of apples did the two trees in our backyard produce before Hurricane Hazel took them out in 1954?”  And he knew! “The Smokehouse were for baking,” he answered promptly, “and the Red Delicious for eating.”   Almost five years after his death, I still miss the way his knowledge extended my sense of our family and the Souderton community back by an additional 20 years.  He was a dear old friend….

Headwaters of the Susquehanna River, flowing out of Lake Otsego, at Cooperstown, New York

My association with Carol, who visited me last weekend, started in the student publications offices at Goshen College, a very formative place for me. Since Carol and her spouse Katie reside in Upstate New York,  Sam and I have been able to visit there repeatedly to share in the beauty of their area, celebrate weddings, and compare our lives out of similar worldviews.

For me, there’s a comfort level in being with old friends that I rarely find elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why I’ve stayed part of some groups for a long time, such as the “Group of 5” who go out for lunch together most months.

With old friends, it’s sometimes possible to pick up the phone, initiate a call, and continue a conversation where we left off four years ago! And if both parties are committed to doing so, it’s possible to deepen the relationship over time.

Quilts-GaloreAnd it’s great to just plain enjoy each other’s company…remembering old times and exploring our common interests now. Last weekend Carol, Kathy and I spent more than an hour in a quilt shop on an Old Order Amish farm, enjoying Eileen Jantzi’s quilts and “helping” one of us choose fabrics for the quilt she commissioned.

While new friends stretch me and often signal new interests, old friends quietly witness my continuity…who I have been and who I am becoming. In this my spirit is nourished….

Question for Reflection:

In what ways – if at all – do old friends have a special place in your life?  How do they nourish your spirit?

Next week: Nourishing Hospitality

#40 – The Comfort of Reading

A friend told me that she and her family read Laura Ingalls Wilder books aloud to each other this Christmas. They started with The Long Winter on a blustery day with frigid temperatures.

Henrys-Red-SeaMy own introduction to Laura Ingalls Wilder came when my Mom read The Long Winter aloud as I lay on the couch with the chicken pox. She also read Henry’s Red Sea by Barbara Smucker aloud, which made me cry. Would Henry’s family ever stop being refugees and find a new home? Would the Mennonite refugees be able to cross the Russian Zone in Germany without their train being stopped? It was so suspenseful!

As adults, Sam and I received a gift of a book to read aloud on an upcoming trip to Pennsylvania. Cleveland Amory’s gentle tale, The Cat who Came for Christmas, features the writer and his cat, Polar Bear. The two can never agree about when the author’s meal is finished – that is to say, when it’s OK for the cat to jump up on the table and help himself to the leftovers.  It was a fun book to read aloud on a long journey.

Books have been a comfort to me as I’ve heard them read by people I love.  I’m  grateful, though, that I live in an era and a part of the world where most people learn to read for themselves. I wouldn’t want to have to access Bible stories only via stained glass windows, Bible illuminations, and pastors’ homilies. And I do cherish the opportunity to read a book people are talking about for myself and come to my own conclusions, then share my ideas in a book club or in informal conversation with others.

And yes, I’m old fashioned. Holding a physical book in my hand is part of the pleasure of reading. Reading from a screen is a different and much less satisfying experience for me.

Here are eight books in three categories I wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading this past year:


  1. Wagamese-EmbersEmbers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese. (Douglas and McIntyre, 2016). Wagamese is an indigenous Canadian novelist who writes beautifully, with a clear spiritual sense. I treasure this book of photos and one-paragraph meditations, especially given his untimely death in 2017.
  2. Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics by Christine Valters Paintner. (Sorin Books, 2016). Our women’s group enjoyed exploring 12 inner archetypes (the healer, the fool, the mother, the pilgrim, etc.), learning more about people like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day,  and Hildegard of Bingen who embodied the archetypes, and making connections for our own lives.
  3. Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Harper One, 2014). Taylor is a favorite spiritual writer of mine. I reread this one over Christmas, and found the topic of embracing darkness not nearly as scary as when I first encountered the book!


  4. Juby-WoefieldThe Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby. (Harper Perennial, 2011). A gentle humorous novel about characters thrown together in a city girl’s attempt to make a small farm in decrepit condition profitable. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The novel and its unusual characters are fun!
  5. Glass Houses by Louise Penny. (Minotaur Books, 2017). I got hooked on Louise Penny when she set one of her murder mysteries in a remote monastery in Canada. Alas, most are set in the small fictional tourist town of Three Pines in Quebec. I love the quirky characters who reside in the town, as well as Penny’s ability to weave complex plots.

    Church History/Memoir/Theology

  6. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. (Baker Academic, 2016). One year on sabbatical, I loved listening to Kreider talk about the growth of the early church by unexpected means in a January course. Now he’s systematically presented his research in an easy to read academic book, highlighting the virtue of patience.
  7. JLBurkholderCover-IMSRecollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century by J. Lawrence Burkholder. (AMBS, Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2016). Drawn mostly from interviews with J. Lawrence, this book offers a fascinating look at the life and viewpoints of this relief administrator, teacher, college president, and churchman. I was especially taken by the low pay/poverty of church leaders struggling to get an education after World War II, by the interplay of Mennonite perspectives on theological trends, and – always – by the ethical challenges Burkholder faced in administering aid in China.
  8. (Re)union: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints, and Sinners by Bruxy Cavey. (Herald Press, 2017). I’m always interested in new ways of expressing Christian faith. This year I listened to Bruxy preach on the site of his home church – The Meeting House, an evangelical Anabaptist megachurch near Toronto. I love his humour, his fresh use of metaphor,  and the gentle way he leads people towards experiential Christian faith. I don’t agree with everything in this book, but it was certainly worth reading and discussing with others.


Questions for Reflection

  1. Have you enjoyed reading books aloud to one another as a family or as friends? If so, what has made it enjoyable?
  2. What would be on your list of eight recent books you wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading?

Next week: The Comfort of Old Friends

#39 – My Life Flows On…

My-Life-Flows-OnI remember the excitement when the blue (Mennonite) Hymnal: A Worship Book  became available for use in churches in 1993.

Our congregation, which I thought of as a “hymnal church,” loved learning My life flows on. It had a familiar feel as a  19th century hymn, yet it was new, because it came to Mennonites via our sister denomination the Church of the Brethren. My life flows on quickly became one of our favorites, as it did in quite a swath of Mennonite churches.

A mentor from that era recalls how that hymn also gave voice to the aspirations of women who were coming into congregational ministry during that time…it was in a way “our hymn,” for we ourselves were a “new creation.”

I titled my 2013 ministry memoir Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry.  At that time I was a  recently retired pastor and a spiritual director, so I wrote:

“As for me, I’m no longer…offering God’s refreshment to a particular community of faith. I do have an inkling of where some of the deeper channels of the river lie, and I want to keep inviting others in.

“Most importantly, I want to keep moving with the current of God’s grace and intent for the world, wherever it flows. I want the river to carry me. I want to be curious and unafraid, open to surprise about the river up ahead and the landscape to be explored around the next bend.

“A hymn I’ve loved since I first sang it 21 years ago keeps luring me down the river. animating my journey.  It begins like this:

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet though far-off hymn,
that hails a new creation.”

Ohio River at Ripley

“As is usually the case with me and 19th century hymn texts, sometimes I’m content to sing it as is, but at other times I want to nuance it.  Some days I’m fine with imagining the song of new creation “far off,” located “above” earth’s lamentation. Other days, I’d prefer to sing it like this:

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

This raises for me an interesting question. Where – in relation to earth’s lamentation – is the song of new creation?  Is it above earth’s lamentation, soaring,  as in “the lilts and peals of children’s song and laughter…above the wind, the warplanes and the highway traffic,” as Syrian refugee children go to school in Jordan? Is it beneath earth’s lamentation, under girding, as in Peace Beneath the Clamour (Blog # 37)? Or does it simply appear from time to time, amidst earth’s lamentation?

And is it a sweet melody, though somewhat faint because it’s far off…something we have to listen hard to catch?  Or are the tones clear and surprising,  like When peace like a river in the MRI room (Blog #37)?

Or is it some of both? Or sometimes this and sometimes that? And does it really matter, in any case?

For me, it matters. New creation tones clear and surprising , right in the MRI room, are different than ones far off, barely audible, and out of this world. New creation tones intermingling with lamentation are more hopeful for my world and my experience now than faint tones far off. Clear and surprising tones right here now mean that genetic mutation researchers and creators of new radiation technologies are cooperators with God in bringing about new life. This pleases me more than I can say….

Conestoga River near St. Jacobs


Questions for Reflection:

  1. For you, are the tones of new creation above earth’s lamentation, beneath earth’s lamentation, or intermingled with earth’s lamentation?  Or some of all three?
  2. If you know the hymn “My Life Flows On,” when were you introduced to it?  Is it one of your favorites, so-so, or not pleasing to you at all?

Next Week: The Comfort of Reading