# 34 – Michael above the Trumpets: Music of Advent

I can’t imagine our world without music. The earthed human spirit – always looking to soar – demands it. I can’t imagine the worship of God without music, some early Anabaptists notwithstanding.

I certainly can’t imagine the season of Advent without music. Our local Kitchener-Waterloo community believes likewise.

I’m not talking of course about sappy tapes in malls, meant to relieve us of our money. I’m talking about churches and choirs and ensembles of all sorts offering their very best during this season, offering up hope for us once again.

This year I’ve chosen four musical feasts for myself in addition to our weekly worship music – also beautiful – at Rockway Mennonite Church. I likely had 50 to choose from!

#1 – Amahl and the Night Visitors

AmahlLast Sunday night we sat in a familiar church sanctuary, absorbing once again the wonder of the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, a delight for all ages.

In my opinion, one of the gifts of St. Jacobs Mennonite Church to its community is its music. Directed by one of the church’s voice teachers, this enchanting production chronicled once again the visit of three kings and a page– each with his own personality – to the hovel of the dreamy disabled shepherd boy Amahl and his feisty mother.

By the end the boy is walking…dancing…running…healed!  And off he goes with the kings to thank the Child for whom they are still searching.

I loved it!

#2 – Handel’s Messiah

My friends are of mixed opinion. Some wouldn’t miss a live performance of Messiah during Advent. Others have heard or sung it so often they deliberately choose something else.

I’m with the first batch. Each Advent I endeavour to enter the concert venue with an open spirit, wondering which arias or choruses will most nourish my soul this time.

I don’t always choose the biggest spectacle in town, such as the Grand Philharmonic Choir with K-W Symphony Orchestra at the Centre in the Square, although that’s where I intend to go tomorrow night.

One year I took in instead a Messiah Sing-along at a smallish church in a nearby city. Sam and I went because Michael’s parents invited us. Michael, a promising music student from our church youth group, sang The Trumpet Shall Sound beautifully. I was so proud that he already had the volume to soar above the trumpets, which he continues to do as part of the Elora Singers many years later.

“Michael above the Trumpets” has become my code phrase for the places to which Messiah transports my spirit.

#3 – Joy to the World – Advent Jazz Vesper Service

Advent Jazz Vesper Service

My third pick in recent years has been the Advent Jazz Vesper Service in the Conrad Grebel University College chapel – a wonderful mid-week pause in the midst of the Advent rush.   Five talented guys coming together in business suits or jeans….introducing a familiar musical theme…giving time for mind and spirit to wander with piano, drums, trumpet, flute, guitar, vibes…then building into something wonderful. Last year a meandering Joy to the World settled in me a deep sense of all is well.

#4 – Rockway Church’s Children’s Christmas Pageant

Sue on the back of “The Camel”

Truth be told, this is the one I can’t do without. Each year I wonder: which small child will sing the donkey line or the cow line or the sheep line or the dove line in The Friendly Beasts?  What humorous contemporary elements will the Middlers surprise us with this year?

For years we used the same dear old props, including a star on a pulley which our  three kings tried to follow (but sometimes got ahead of). Then we moved, and that prop no longer worked.

What could possibly be as special, we wondered? Last year we found out! One of the Dads constructed  a large wooden camel. When it came time for the kings, that camel on rollers slowly emerged from the ramp at the back of our stage…to everyone’s delight.

#5 – Music at Home

Published by MennoMedia, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Or course I complement concerts with Christmas music at home. This year I’m drawn to calming CD’s, such as Christmas Sampler (1997) in the (Mennonite) Hymnal Masterworks series. The combination of pans and flute speaks peace to me, especially in Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

I’ve also rediscovered the Christmas music of the Mennonite Hour choral groups, which the radio brought to my childhood home in the 1950’s. I wonder what would happen if the Fairview Park Mall played Audrey Shank’s solo of The Star and the Wise Men with Men’s Chorus some morning. Wouldn’t that be amazing?!

Questions for Reflection

What role does music play for you during Advent? In what ways – if at all – does it lift your spirits and restore your soul during these weeks leading up to Christmas?

Next week: Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols

#33 – Cleaning Out the Fridge

Last Sunday afternoon, I cleaned out the fridge. I washed all the shelves, gathering up breadcrumbs, milk spills, and unknown food smudges.

RefrigeratorI checked “best before dates” on hummus and salad dressings. I threw out veggies in early stages of rot. I rearranged items for more logical reaching.

I didn’t do this because the fridge looked that much worse than usual. I did it because it had been a very good but emotionally-laden Sunday morning at church, preceded by a whole week of many things half-done, and I needed a mindless job I could accomplish in an hour with a clear outcome.

Later I did a poll of some professional women and asked, “What mindless jobs do you gravitate to at home when things get stressful and you need a sense of control?”

Here are some replies:

  • I sort through the pantry unit in the kitchen, throwing out duplicates.
  • I iron cotton pillowcases.
  • I amalgamate the condiments from the cottage with my supplies back home.
  • I walk through the house and pull dead leaves off house plants.
  • I sort the Tupperware drawer, putting bottoms and tops together.
  • I chop up squash to make soup for the week.
  • If I have a sermon to write, I pay bills, making sure I have credit card slips for everything.
  • I clean out the garden.

What about at your workplace, I wondered?

  • I take apart the photocopier and repair it!
  • I check all the candles and oil lamps (at church) to see if the wicks are snipped and if there’s enough oil.
  • I put Vaseline on all the squeaky cribs in the hospital nursery so the babies won’t wake up.
  • I clean out files.

Tasks of cleaning, organizing and setting physical things right are essential components of self-nourishment for some if not many of us, until of course they verge into serious procrastination.

But symbolically “cleaning out the fridge” can carry deeper meanings as well. One friend tells me that when her children were growing up, she checked the fridge on Saturday and made nourishing soup with the leftovers of the week, adding spices and sauces to complement.  Once her family asked, “That was really good…could we have that soup again?” And she said, “Not likely….We work with what we have.”

Her comments speak wisdom to me as I ponder my current season of health difficulties. Symbolically, I won’t be creating  some of my trademark kinds of soup over the next while. Rather, I’ll be trying to pay attention to the ingredients for a nourished life that are right in front of me, ready to be surprised, working with what’s given….

Penguin/Random House

And at this time of year, cleaning, sorting and pondering carry other meanings as well. On Sunday we enter the season of Advent once again, the beginning of the liturgical church year. It’s a season of preparation and repentance, getting ready for Christ’s coming.

I love novels about female pastors. In the novel Evensong, author Gail Godwin creates the character of Margaret Bonner, the young pastor of  the High Balsam Episcopal Church. In a fictional sermon for First Advent, this young pastor asks:

But how do we prepare for the unknown, the unannounced, the thing we cannot even imagine yet?  For the unknown is not always an occasion for joy when it arrives. Sometimes it walks right in our front door like a visitor and makes off with things we hold most dear, or turns our lives completely inside out…

As people drawn to the light, we go about preparing for the hoped for and the unforeseen in exactly the same way. You clean your house and make yourself ready, you light your candles, you say “Come, Lord, come,” and then you compose yourself and wait for the knock…. pp. 215-216 (1st ed.)

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which mindless cleaning and sorting tasks nourish you (until they become procrastination)?
  2. How do you prepare for whatever may come during Advent?

Next week: Music of Advent

# 32 — The Icon of the Old Testament Trinity

I first encountered the icon of the Old Testament Trinity – or any icon, for that matter – 25 years ago as part of my spiritual direction training with Shalem Institute.

The concept of being drawn inside a “painting” was strange to me. But this icon, created by Rublev in 1425 and popularized in our era (first by Henri Nouwen and then by Richard Rohr) did indeed draw me in.

From Wikipedia

According to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, an icon is not a piece of art painted for our enjoyment. Nor is it an idol. An icon is a window through which we approach God. It is meant to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us to the heart of God. To paint an icon or to gaze at one is an act of devotion.  It is a means to a deeper spiritual reality.

This one is based on the Genesis 18 story of the heavenly visitors who came to see Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre. But for some early church fathers, those three heavenly visitors also prefigured the Trinity.

Whitaker House

Various people have speculated about which figure is meant to convey which person of the Trinity. Following Richard Rohr, I imagine the figure on the left  – with the gold filmy robe – as God the father.  I imagine Jesus in the middle, wearing a deep red gown, looking at the father and pointing to the chalice. I imagine the spirit portrayed in the green of new life and growth. All of them also wear royal blue.

Their energy moves in a circle, counterclockwise. They form a circle of love, and there’s a space for me – for each of us – to pull up a stool and join their circle.  The three heavenly visitors to Abraham and Sarah have become the hosts.

The little box in the middle – to which the Spirit is pointing – shows evidence of having once had a mirror attached to it, so that a person approaching this icon would see themselves reflected back as part of the circle.

Twenty five years ago it seemed almost sacrilegious to me to think in these ways. I had never thought of the Trinity as a dynamic circle before – or even as a community – and had certainly never imagined myself invited to join that circle. Yet I was amazed at the power of the invitation, and the power of sitting there, feeling the energy of the circle, directly facing Jesus….

Sometimes when I gaze at the icon, the compassionate look of Jesus draws me in, touching me in deep places. When Jesus points to the chalice, I take it as an invitation to drink.  I think of this chalice as the cup of blessing. I never know ahead of time how joy and suffering mix in this cup of blessing, but it feels safe to drink because Jesus is offering, always with such a look of compassion.

Ave Maria Press

At other times, it’s the circle of love with its flow of energy that draws me in.  This icon continues to speak to me beyond words, to enfold me in God’s house of love, as Henri Nouwen would put it.

Nouwen’s question from 30 years ago is still relevant for us today:

“How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred and violence, and not be destroyed by it?”  His response: This circle comes with us into the life of the world where God’s perfect love casts out fear.

At a time of change years ago I wrote this in my journal:

 I truly do not know how to ‘take care of’ all this.

I do know that you invite me into the fellowship of the Trinity again…still…even in the midst of all that’s going on.

You invite me into that calm, centered place.

You invite me to sit across from you as you look kindly into my face.

You put your hand gently on my shoulder with a blessing.

All this is enough. In fact, it is too much.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What attracts you – if anything – to gaze at this icon? What resistance to gazing at it do you experience, if any?
  2. What experience do you have with praying with icons?

Next week: Favorite Advents carols

# 31 – The Butterfly Conservatory

Except for certain small children, everyone looks happy in a butterfly conservatory.

If it’s a dreary November day and I’m feeling dull headed, I think of the nearest butterfly sanctuary, half an hour from home, and wonder whether I have enough time to head there now!

Green-Cheeked Conure

The warmth and humidity of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory are a pleasure in themselves. In addition to the 30 species of butterflies, I enjoy the pond with its two turtles; the display of chirping  finches, quail and doves; and the loud colorful parrot,  all living within a habitat of tropical foliage. I enjoy watching the chrysalides hanging by the Emergence Window, as well as the recently emerged butterflies, drying off their wings on the ground before taking their first flight.

Rice Paper Butterfly

The common conservatory butterflies are all there – the small postman, the  rice paper, the owl butterfly, the blue morpho and various swallowtails. It’s especially fun to watch small children and their mums or dads. The wee ones have such unpredictable reactions – from squeals of delight to vigorously shaking- it-off when a butterfly alights on them.

In wintertime, I try to go at least once a month, on a sunny day if possible, taking a friend with me. We try to identify each species, then have lunch or coffee in the snack shop onsite….

I first paid attention to butterflies at Longwood Gardens, west of Philadelphia. There in one of the perennial gardens on a hot summer day, Sam snapped the photo which I used to say goodbye to the people of St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, the first congregation I served. (To “capture” a butterfly on film seems almost a sacrilege.)

Farewell-card-smallInside the card I had these words printed:

“Today we are suspended in mid-air. We cannot know all that our new beginnings will hold. We carry both sadness about what is ending and anticipation of what is beginning. We can alight on that new flower with confidence, knowing that God in Christ goes with us always.”

…Often when watching butterflies, I recall that they have long been a Christian symbol of resurrection from nature, joining others such as the lily, the pomegranate, the peacock, the phoenix, and the lowly egg. I’ve included butterflies in Easter sermons from time to time, and reveled in the joy of the children when some monarchs were released as part of a graveside service for a child. Recently, I watched a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, dripping wet. I saw it drop from the chrysalis to the walking path, where I had to be careful not to step on it and the others there.

Julia-ButterflyThe wings of these newly hatched butterflies were closed, but from time to time they opened briefly, offering a glimpse of the iridescent blue of the owl butterfly or the red and white design of the small postman or the brilliant orange of the Julia.

As I watched the butterflies drying off I thought…surely our resurrection lives will surprise us with colour and intricate design as we dry off our wings…they will be so different from what we know now that there’s no point in speculating much about it. We can only wonder….Christ has gone before us, and surely that’s enough….

Questions for Reflection:

What symbols of resurrection animate your spirit?

Do you have a favorite butterfly?  If so, which one?


Next week: The Icon of the Old Testament Trinity

ANS #30 – The Awkward Month?

I usually think of November in Pennsylvania and Ontario as the dreary month – if not the ugly month – an awkward switch between fall and winter, with trees bare and colours mostly gray.

The Susquehanna River near McKee’s Half Falls, north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

But before church last Sunday I embarked on a neighborhood walk in light-rain-that-turned-heavier and noticed:

  • Raindrops perched on the needles of evergreens
  • The odd rose or geranium still blooming
  • A few decorative pumpkins holding their shape and colour
  • A small bush with clusters of red berries, planted in a church garden
  • A few trees still full of yellow leaves
  • Raindrops dancing on a side street
From YouTube

I enjoyed sounds like:

  • The ping of raindrops landing one by one on my umbrella
  • The swoosh of tires hitting puddles on a main road, sending spray my way
  • The rattle of a full rainspout disgorging its content onto the cement below.

Yes, arriving back at my condo building was lovely, but so was the walk.

As a child, I found it consoling to curl up on the backseat of the car as we drove along in the rain. The rhythmic windshield wipers mesmerized me, leaving me feeling safe and happy.

But when I drove myself to church a bit later, the windshield wipers gave a rhythmic grating sound which was not very soothing.  Nor was it relaxing to not be able to see well when I backed out of my parking space to head home.

After lunch, I went to the second of two funerals (a day apart) at a church I used to pastor. On that dreary day, I felt enveloped by a beautiful calming sanctuary.  I found the stone on the wall behind the pulpit which reminded a certain member of his dog Fudge! I felt welcomed by the greetings of many people from my past.

I felt enriched again by the lives of the two patriarchs who had died recently. One of them, Ralph Lebold, paved the way for women to be able to serve as pastors in what is now Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. Most of us earlier female pastors in the conference were at his funeral.  Among other things, Ralph also pioneered clinical education for pastors in the Mennonite Church, getting training himself, setting up a site at the church he pastored, and convincing the seminary of the value of this approach.

Helen & Jim Reusser at their cottage at Red Bay

The other man, retired pastor Jim Reusser, was an important mentor for me when I pastored that congregation, through his service as a member of our Ministry Team of mostly lay people.  Sometimes he pushed me to try things I was unsure of, such as offering anointing for anyone who wished as part of  a Sunday morning worship service during  Lent.  After the memorial service, I loved telling and hearing favorite stories about Jim around a table of retired pastors!

…So yes, November in Ontario is an awkward transition month. It’s a time for autumn to end and for reminders that winter will be upon us soon. But it’s not an ugly month, not really. For there is much beauty in rain, in the vestiges of fall, and especially in remembering the many good things brought into my world and into the world of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada by Ralph Lebold, Jim and Helen Reusser, and many others who have gone before.

Even the chill wind last night as I scraped ice off my windshield couldn’t pierce through my grateful spirit….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How do you think of the month of November ? Awkward? Ugly? Or in some other way?
  2. Who do you remember this month for the “many good things” they brought into your world?

Next week: TBA

#29 – Mom’s Table on the Back Steps

Last week I wrote about the feasts my mother prepared at the dining room table for extended family members and friends. I recalled the impact those gatherings had on me as a child…how I imbibed a vision of the church along with the food as pastors and missionaries came to dinner.

Back-stepsBut my mother also had another company table – the one on the back steps – and the man who showed up there impacted me greatly.

A couple times a summer a certain thin man dressed in black would politely knock on the back door about an hour before suppertime, leaving the little cart with his belongings out by the front gate.  His face looked so old and weather-beaten, and he wore layers of clothing, even in the heat.

He would ask if there was any food he could have that night. My Mom understood that it was her obligation to feed him. So she locked the screen door, phoned for my Dad to come home from the mill early, and kept me in the house while the man in black waited outside.

Then she made a big extra portion of whatever she was preparing for us. She filled a plate for that man in black, and he sat on the porch steps and ate.  After finishing his dinner he knocked on the door, said thank you, returned the plate, and continued on his way.

Afterwards my Dad launched into stories of the many men who passed through Souderton on freight trains during the Great Depression, looking for a meal, or sleeping by the grain elevators at the mill.  They were homeless, said my Dad, down on their luck, and it was good for us to feed them.

My Mom (center) on the porch at Derstine’s Mill

Much later an older cousin told me that at Derstine’s Mill where he and my Mom grew up, they also fed transient men on their porch.  With their farm and grist mill located right by the railway line, they had outbuildings where persons travelling the rails could sleep.  It struck me that my Mom fed “our” homeless man – even in town – because that’s what she was taught to do as a child.

My cousin wondered – what if we had invited this man to sit with us at one of Aunt Martha’s family dinners?  Surely that would have been hospitable – and unheard of in the 1950’s.

Yet my mother’s feeding of a homeless man on the back steps left a deep impression on me partly because of where it happened. To me as a child, it felt like my Mom’s company table was no longer confined to the dining room.  If she could feed someone so strange and different in our own yard, right outside our back door, I had some thinking to do about who belonged and who didn’t.

Her act so many years ago likely fed into my decision in recent years to participate in our local Saturday night Stirling Suppers, where precariously housed people in our city become our guests, with table clothes, good food, and live entertainment in a church fellowship hall….

At some point I made the connection between my Mom’s feeding that homeless man and Jesus’ Parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14. That story of excuse-making insiders and startled outsiders fascinated me endlessly, compelling me to write a major paper on it many years later in seminary. Eventually it dawned on me that through the strange and wondrous diversity of folks around God’s banquet table, we catch a glimpse of what the reign of God actually looks like.

So in each of my ministry settings I began at least one sermon with “Mom’s Company Tables.” I always included both tables – the dining room and the back steps. In those sermons, the theme of a table of belonging for us – so vivid from my childhood – shared space with the theme of a hospitality stretching us well beyond our comfort zone.

For me, the most poignant Martha Clemmer Dinner sermon emerged from an invitation to preach at my home church in 2001. Souderton Mennonite had recently completed a major building addition which enveloped the whole block, including my childhood home.

Souderton Mennonite Church
My back steps were within the new sanctuary (left center)

That morning I privately reveled in the symbolism: Souderton preachers, including at that time my nephew Gerry, proclaimed God’s hospitality from a pulpit on or near the spot where my mother had fed a homeless man.  I concluded the sermon:

“May the hospitality of Martha Clemmer’s table be extended by this congregation in ways far beyond her imagining.”

Questions for Reflection:

In what ways do you participate in the feeding of the hungry in your community? How is that happening with dignity and inclusion?

Next week: The Old Testament Trinity

#28–Mom’s Company Table

I feasted on comfort food and the comfort of belonging at my Mom’s company table.

The night before, we’d pull the dining room table apart, put the boards in, cover the table with cloths, wash the glassware, and set out the good china and silverware. Then I’d dust the extra chairs Dad and I brought down from the attic.  All the while, Mom baked and cooked.  Thus we prepared to host company dinners, usually for members of Mom’s Derstine or Dad’s Clemmer family.

Mennonite Community Cookbook
Published by MennoMedia

Thanksgiving with the Derstines featured turkey with both oyster pudding and bread stuffing. We all knew that the small plate of ham was meant only for my brother Jim and Aunt Mildred, who didn’t eat poultry.

Along with the meat, my Mom served mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, baked lima beans, a jellied salad, her own frozen corn, string beans with mushroom soup, dinner rolls, and of course a dish of black olives.

For dessert, she often baked her famous walnut cake with caramel icing or a rich dark chocolate cake with chocolate icing, then waited for the rave reviews. Sometimes she served pie instead, usually a choice of cherry or blueberry with vanilla ice cream. For the diet-conscious, she offered fruit salad and strawberry Jello with DreamWhip.

Post-Thanksgiving-DinnerI still savour the tastes and aromas from that table laden with basic Pennsylvania Dutch food. I understand why that sort of carb-and-sugar-laden dinner put the men to sleep, as they purported to watch the football game on TV. I guess washing the dishes kept the women awake!

At those dinners, much more than the feast on the table sustained me. For here I experienced the warmth and comfort of my extended families. Here I most basically belonged.

Betty and Aaron King, with baby Michael (newly retired Dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary)

At that same table of belonging I took in the wider world. Here on ordinary weekdays my mother and I read the mail from family missionaries – letters from my cousin Betty King in Cuba before the Revolution, from Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman at the London (England) Mennonite Centre, and from Mom’s cousin Esther Detweiler in Cuba and then Mexico. Here the church-planting efforts of Aunt Mildred and Uncle Curt Godshall in Centereach, Long Island, New York took weekly shape, like a magazine serial.

Here my calling to care for the world through the church was birthed, as the six pastors, their wives, and three foreign missionaries from both sides of the family all eventually came to dinner. Their energy rubbed off on me; I rated them livelier and much more exotic than the other adults in my small world.  Not all of them ministered far away; during my growing up years and far into my adulthood, at least one of our Moyer/Clemmer kin served on Souderton Mennonite’s pastoral team at all times.

So in our family, pastors and missionaries were not remote folks. I saw them with their guard down in letters and at the family dinner table.  Around my mother’s table I caught what Jack Suderman, formerly of Mennonite Church Canada,  calls an “ecclesial vision.”  My place of belonging easily expanded from my extended family to the church. I came to see my vocation of offering soul food as an extension of my Mom’s table hospitality.

Questions for Reflection:

What memories do you have of your family of origin’s “company table”? Of the lost art of letter writing? What has replaced these ways of connecting in your life today?

Where as a child did you feel you “most belonged”?

What childhood experiences – if any – made pastors seem less remote to you?

Next Week: Mom’s Other Company Table

#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