#82 – Novels about Slaves, Black Loyalists, and “Enlightened Owners”

Book-of-Negroes
Published by HarperCollinsCanada

Ever since reading Lawrence Hill’s epic novel, The Book of Negroes (2007), I’ve been intrigued by how Canadian novelists of colour depict the slave culture in the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hill’s novel chronicles the life of the fictional character Aminata – stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery in the U.S. South…eventually sailing to a free colony in Birchtown, Nova Scotia…ending up as an abolitionist in England.

In the summer of 2015, Sam and I visited the newly-opened Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a state-of-the-art museum near Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

Black-Loyalist-HeritageWe were pleased that Hill’s novel (and subsequent TV mini-series) made many more Canadians aware of a significant part of our history.  We were pleased that the Heritage Centre helps people trace their roots, perhaps finding their own ancestors’ names in the Book of Negroes. This actual record book lists black Loyalists who had in some way aided the British during the American Revolution, and thus were eligible to be settled in Nova Scotia.

Pit-House
Pit House at the Heritage Centre

We were sad to hear and see how difficult life actually was for blacks in Nova Scotia, demonstrated by the Pit House on the heritage centre grounds.

Now this summer and fall, I’ve been intrigued by Canadian and other novelists of colour telling stories of the fraught relationships between 18th and 19th century slaves in the U.S. and “enlightened owners.”

Here are several  recent novels I recommend:

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (HarperCollins, 2018). Beginning in 1830, this fast-paced novel follows 11-year-old “Wash” from the Faith Plantation in Barbados. After the plantation owner’s brother “Titch” borrows him, Wash travels to a Hudson’s Bay trading post, to Birchtown, Nova Scotia,  and finally to England and beyond.  Wash loses his protector in the Arctic, then finds him again, driven to discover why Titch had chosen (and then seemingly abandoned) him. Here we glimpse the life of a strange and complex member of a slave-holding family. Is Titch the “enlightened slave owner” Wash first believes he is?  Is there such a thing?

Up from Freedom by Wayne Grady (Penguin Random House, 2018). Young Virgil Moody, from a slave-holding family in the U.S. south, decides he will never own slaves. But when he leaves the plantation, he takes with him a woman whom he believes cannot survive life there. Eventually he comes to think of her as his wife and her son as his son.  Several surprises later, events occur which cause him to consider whether he’s turned into a person he was trying to avoid becoming!

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). Written in the form of short stories, this novel tells the saga of two half-sisters in Ghana- Effia and Esi – and their descendants. Effia marries the British governor in charge of the infamous Cape Coast Castle, at the center of the slave trade. Meanwhile, Esi is taken captive by slave traders and kept in the dungeon at the Castle, awaiting a ship to America. The author, who is Ghanaian-American,  uses the short story to great effect to tell of the life of seven generations of their descendants,  choosing to include two stories for each generation.  The stories are stunning.  Often I wanted to hear more.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In what ways do you connect with the struggles of slaves, runaway slaves, freed slaves and “enlightened” owners from the 18th and 19th centuries?
  2. How – if at all – does reading of their struggles unsettle or nourish your spirit?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#81 – Celebrating 50 Years in Canada

Sam-in-Canada-1969
Sam in January 1969

Sam and I went out for lunch this week to celebrate his 50th anniversary of arriving in Canada as a Vietnam-era draft resister.

Back in Indiana, I had been part of what we would now call an intervention.  We his friends implored Sam to immigrate to Canada. We did not think his spirit could tolerate prison in the U.S. at that time.

We prevailed. So I wasn’t too surprised when Sam asked me to come along in the car taking him into Canada, so he could look for housing and a job. Then a week later I accompanied him again as he applied for landed immigrant status, conferred on November 2, 1968.

immigration-card-1968
Sam’s landed immigration card dated November 2, 1968 

Sam and I were part of the same friendship group at Goshen College, but we had been dating for only a month before my two weekend trips to Canada.  We agreed the other day that my saying “yes” to those trips was the beginning of a larger “yes” to him. We married the next summer on the lawn of Conrad Grebel College, after at least four more weekend trips by me to Kitchener, as well as many letters and weekly phone calls.

Fifty years later, we believe that Sam coming to Canada and me joining him here were the best things that could have happened for both of us. Looking back, we’re amazed at how local Mennonites gifted us with both practical assistance and a sense of belonging in those scary early days and years.

A few examples:

  1. Dan Leatherman, political science prof at Goshen, drove us to Canada those two weekends with his (then) wife Kathryn and their young family. Our lodging and meals that first weekend were provided by Kathryn’s Ontario family.
  2. Peter Enns, one of Sam’s former college roommates, offered lodging and chauffeuring during Sam’s first week here.
  3. Jim-Reusser-1963
    Jim Reusser, 1960s

    Jim Reusser, pastor of Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church, called Lester Zehr, president of Zehr’s Markets, about a job for Sam as a grocery clerk. Longer term lodging and meals were arranged with Stella Cressman, an aunt of Helen Reusser.

  4. Aaron Klassen offered me a job as a cashier at Provident Bookstore in Kitchener, and Helen and Aaron often hosted us in their home. Eventually I became a book buyer for both the Kitchener and London stores, and stayed for 10 years.
  5. Frank Epp, editor of Mennonite Reporter, asked me to be a “church tramp” in 1973-74, visiting 11 local Mennonite churches in six different conferences and writing up the experiences for MR.
  6. Sam’s second place of employment, Mutual Life Assurance Co., came about with the help of Jake Enns, Peter’s father.  Sam left Mutual Life to complete his B.A. at the University of Waterloo in l973. There he found himself taking courses in Anabaptist/Mennonite history from profs Walter Klaassen and Frank Epp.
  7. In the meantime, John W. Snyder, pastor of Rockway Mennonite Church, kept showing up at Provident Bookstore, engaging me in conversation. So when we two “lost children of Menno” were ready to return to our Mennonite roots, of course we joined Rockway.

    Citizenship
    Celebrating Sam’s Canadian citizenship in 1974
  8. In 1974 Frank Epp, by then president of Conrad Grebel College, offered Sam a half-time job in the archives. Sam eventually became full-time, took a year off to get a library degree, and stayed at Grebel over 34 years.

    Sue-at-Provident
    Sue at Provident Bookstore
  9. I left Provident after 10 years to earn an M.Div. degree at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN, and eventually pastored a number of Ontario churches, including two I’d written up for the Mennonite Reporter.

I freely admit that those first few years in Canada were very difficult, as we adapted to a new country and to a relationship without much history.  Yet I give profound thanks that Sam decided to come to Canada as a draft resister.  For here we found a community that nourished us and supported both of our vocations. Here also our “relationship without much history” translated by God’s grace into a long and mutually-supportive marriage.

I’m thankful beyond words for the Mennonite community here in Waterloo Region, then and now. I delight in the topography here which reminds me of southeastern Pennsylvania. And I love living in a city with an obvious multi-cultural feel.

I reveled in that feel again recently, when a vibrant young woman from Syria sat beside me on the city bus. Soon her beautiful two-year-old son fell asleep in his stroller.

“He’s been up since 6:00. He goes with me to English lessons,” she said.  “I want to go to college,” she continued,  “and study more English, so I can help him when he goes to school.”

…How, I wondered, is our community welcoming this wonderful young woman, as Sam and I were welcomed here so many years ago?

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What communities – if any – have welcomed you to a new location?  What communities or individuals have nourished and supported you as you began a new vocation?
  2. How are communities you know nourishing and supporting newcomers?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#80 – The Daily Scrabble Game

For the last couple years, I’ve been playing a game of Scrabble most days. It’s often the most focused time of my day. Sam has refused to play Scrabble with me for years, so I’ve learned to play the game by myself and I quite enjoy my own version!

I usually set up the board at about 4:00 in the afternoon.  I get very engaged with it, and sometimes delay fixing supper so I can finish the game.

Scrabble-dictionaryI play against my own current high score,  using only one tray of seven tiles. I generally follow the official rules, but do allow myself to throw back a total of seven tiles per game as needed, one at a time.  I use The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (fifth edition) extensively as I play.

I’m cheered to find that a new edition has come out this fall, and I’ve already used at least two words deemed newly acceptable in it (“ew” and “zen”).

When I started playing sporadically five years ago, my scores tended to hover around the low 700s, with quite a few in the 600s.  By now, I consider anything in the 600s quite low, and am finding most of my scores in the mid-700s, with the 800s showing up at least twice a week or so.  My highest score so far is 858, from sometime this July.

Scrabble-772The interesting thing for me is that I’m deliberately changing my strategy.   I used to have a specific place for my Q words (as in the photo of the finished game). I could get 45 points or more for the Q using a double letter spot combined with a double word score for one word (such as “quay”). Then I put my other Q word on a spot ending in a triple word score (as in “quite”), for another 42 points or more.  But this took quite a bit of pre-planning, and of holding as many as four letters, thus having only three to work with otherwise.

It’s so tempting to pre-plan, when I know that another player is not going to take the spots I’m considering!

But lately I find I’m doing less holding of letters, and less  heading for the corners. Instead, I’m trying to put the Q and the Z, as well as the J and the X on triple letter spots, having them count in both directions where possible.

Scrabble-834I’m using a Z more in the middle of words.  I’m doing less intricate pre-planning, and finding that often good words which I have not thought about do show up when needed.  I’m relaxing more as I play these games. And guess what. My scores are higher!

I play Scrabble for the joy of spelling and the joy of words.  I’m learning  some new words, and claiming a  new trust that things really will work out just fine in the end.  Sometimes I’ ll say to Sam “this one is a real mess…I don’t have any vowels!” Then suddenly I do, and I end up in the high 700s.

Scrabble for me is highly addictive and highly enjoyable.  It’s also teaching me much  about relaxing and going with the flow and believing that things will turn out OK whether or not I anticipate this or that. And…my last score in the 600s (693) was 27 days ago.

Of course, now that I’ve named this, I’m likely to score in the low 600s tomorrow….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What games, if any, do you find enjoyable and perhaps even addictive?  Who or what do you play against?
  2. How – if at all – has playing games taught you to “go with the flow”?

Next week: TBA

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#79 – Blog Book Just Released

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1When I turned 70 in April 2017, I decided to write 70 blog posts as a thanks-be-to-God for the life I have been given. As you know, I named this series of blogs A Nourished Spirit. At the behest of various readers, I’ve now selected 26 of those first 70 blogs and published them in a little book, along with some of Sam Steiner’s blog photos.

This project fascinated and occupied me for most of the summer.  I read over my first 70 blogs, making successive piles of “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”  As I read, I noticed that God’s nourishment throughout my life has often come in the simplest of ways, through very earthy means.

Once I got down to 26 blogs – or nearly – I re-edited them and organized them by categories, rather than in the random way I created them week by week.

For the beauty of the earth, #89 in Hymnal: A Worship Book (HWB), was Sam and my wedding hymn, and it provides the template for the first several sections of the book. The hymn names family, friends, nature, culture and church as sources of nourishment, doorways to the holy, and prompts for praise.

The next section of the book describes selected spiritual practices which open me to God.  A phrase from my theme song, My life flows on (#580 in HWB), gives shape to the book’s final section.

Table of Contents-1I’m grateful for the interaction with blog readers over the past 18 months, and for those who responded to my reflection questions. I’ve included the questions in my book, hoping readers will receive my reflections as a springboard to your own.

My life took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer in November 2017. I’m grateful that I could continue with my weekly blogs, meeting my goal of posting 70 of them.  Now I’m at #79, and I’m not ready to stop yet!

I’ve found that having cancer strangely heightens my nourishment and joy in cousins, in my niece and nephews and their spouses, and in old friends.  It heightens my nourishment and joy as I walk through Rockway Gardens across the street or drive through Old Order Mennonite country or gaze at the ever-changing sky from our 10th floor condo windows.

Br. Paul Quenon, a fellow monk with Thomas Merton, reflects on life writing in his recent memoir, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir. He says of his book, “These reflections and stories about my life are another way of being present to my life intentionally. Not in order to relive it, but to re-create it as a form of celebration.”(p.132).

May it be so with me.

Question for Reflection:

By what simple or earthy means has God’s nourishment come to you throughout your life?

Next week:

The Daily Scrabble Game

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

To order a copy of the book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

 

#78 – Cancer Journey: Surprising Gratitude, Grace Unmistakable

Wagamese-Embers
Published by Douglas & McIntyre

“Joy,” says Richard Wagamese, “is a spiritual engagement with the world based on gratitude. It’s not the big things that make me grateful and bring me joy. It’s more the glory of the small” (Embers: One Obijway’s Meditations, 140).

As Canadian Thanksgiving approached last weekend, I wondered what it would be like for me. For my journey with cancer took an unexpected turn a couple weeks earlier.

A scheduled scan showed that my chemo pill continues to be effective below the neck.  However, some new lesions became visible in my brain. This necessitated a five-day course of palliative whole brain radiation, ending the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

So we’ve embarked on a new stage of my journey with cancer. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve witnessed myself living in the “glory of the small.” Grace Unmistakable has found me during recent days and especially recent steroid-fueled nights.  These are still the days of miracle and wonder, which leave me grateful for lucidity.

Richard Wagamese asserts that “what defines me is not what I do but what I receive, and I have received in great measure” (155). Here are ten gifts I have recently received, which together embody for me Grace Unmistakable.

Gift #1: Visits during this period by three sets of old friends from afar, bringing chicken soup, new hymn arrangements for listening, and medical knowledge.

Gift #2: Steroid-fueled energy to get some things done, such as collecting books to donate to spiritual directors and beginning pastors, and fixing a box of sermons, books and files to send to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Gift #3: Increasing colour bursts outside our condo windows, with brilliant orange and golden leaves now dotting the cityscape.

Yellow-fall-treesGift #4: A brightened sky after the rain, calling me to a lovely walk in Rockway Garden across the street, which still looks amazingly good.

Gift #5: A wonderful church service on Thanksgiving Sunday for all ages, with rousing singing.  A self-possessed middler sings two verses of For the Beauty of the Earth, one of my favorite hymns.

Gift #6: Thanksgiving dinner with friends, followed by backyard entertainment involving chickens and growing boys.

Gift #7: Members of groups I’m in, making accommodations that enable me to participate with the energy levels I now have.  The sense of inclusion and caring is wonderful.

Gift #8: Finding the music CD of my farewell service at Waterloo North Mennonite Church in 2005, thus adding two tracks to one of my nighttime play lists. The rendition of Great Is Thy Faithfulness by two skilled pianists on two grand pianos makes me smile, reminding me of my Aunt Esther’s most joyful, animated piano playing.  The Bach Chorale Sheep Shall Safely Graze settles me in God’s care.

Candle-and-iconGift #9: Lighting a long-burning tea light candle in front of the icon of the Holy Trinity, which I keep in one of my alternate sleeping/resting places. Each time I open my eyes during the night, I gaze at that glow illuminating the Trinity.  I feel myself part of the circle, directly facing Jesus.  (See blog #32:The Icon of the Old Testament Trinity). This comforts me in the night and my spirit sings.

Gift #10: Receiving this verse, which comes to me one night and feels true and right: “So we are not depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, CEB).

I cannot control the future.  I can revel in and be grateful for “the glory of the small.” I can embrace these days of miracle and wonder.  I can take each day and night as it comes, in gratitude.

I touch and trust Grace Unmistakable.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How has Grace Unmistakable found you during difficult times?
  • Which gifts of the season and of your community are you receiving with joy and gratitude?

Next week: A New Book!

#77 – Of Blankets and Prayer Shawls

As a preschooler, my parents didn’t need to wean me from a ragged blanket which I carried around for comfort.  I was a thumb sucker though, which likely signifies the same thing.

As an adult, I’ve wrapped myself in warm quilts as I read or listen to music on the sofa or watch TV from the recliner.

That’s gotten me thinking about other tangible things which wrap me in comfort and hope. So I’m remembering the prayer shawls I’ve received these last years. I’m thinking about these shawls again as the weather gets cooler. I can wrap myself in them at home and or at church or wherever.  I’ve seen people take prayer shawls to cold hospital rooms with them as well.

Prayer Shawls Blessed
Blessing of prayer shawls at my church of origin–Souderton Mennonite in Pennsylvania

I especially honour the prayer shawl ministries which have emerged over the past 20 years.

In 1998, Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo, two graduates of the Women’s Leadership Institute of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, developed the Prayer Shawl Ministry as a result of their Applied Feminist Spirituality program with Professor Miriam Therese Winter of the Medical Mission Sisters. In a mission statement, Bristow said in 1998, “They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify.  Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly above their troubles.”

Sue-and-prayer-shawl
From the Shawl Sisters

In my current illness, I’ve received two shawls – one from the prayer shawl ministry at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church where I have served, and one from an informal group calling themselves Shawl Sisters.

In prayer shawl ministry, people get together to knit or crochet reflectively.  Often they do some of the knitting or crocheting at home as well.  Some groups pray quietly part or all of the time. Sometimes they have specific people in mind to receive a shawl; at other times they may just knit them and make them available for pastoral staff to give out.

Both groups which have given me a shawl “knew my colours,” which pleased me greatly.

And both times I received the same lovely printed Prayer of Blessing, which had been offered  over the shawl before it was given away.

Prayer-of-Blessing

A thoughtful knitter friend recently said to me, “My working theory is that one of the reasons why shawl ministry touches so many people is that the literal and the symbolic come together in ways they usually don’t. That is, shawls are symbols of warmth and comfort, while literally providing warmth and comfort.”

In the same vein, many congregations have shown warmth and support by giving a comforter at some point in the life of a child of the congregation, often via a baby quilt to recognize a birth.

At Rockway Mennonite Church, we give a comforter to persons leaving high school in colours they enjoy as part of our Milestones Ministry.  In our litany, echoing that shawl ministry prayer, we say:

May God’s grace be upon you,
Warming, protecting, and enfolding.
May this comforter be a reminder of God’s presence and invitation to follow, as you make decisions about your life direction and relationships.
May you be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in love.
_______, we bless you in Jesus’ name. Amen

Such ministries nourish me and many others in body and in spirit. I applaud them.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What tangible things wrap you in safety, comfort, and hope?
  2. If you’ve been part of a prayer shawl, comforter knotting, or similar ministry, what has that experience meant for you?

Next week:  A New Book!

#76 – Soundings in Hope

Rainbow

This week, in the midst of cancer treatment, I had reason to lean into hope. Here are some “soundings in hope” I pondered.

Sounding #1:

This week I remembered Hope Bear, a pastoral care assistant at one of the congregations I served. This cuddly teddy bear resided with older children and with women for a time as they underwent surgery or struggled with trying illnesses. Hope lost an ear at one point, which I thought appropriate, since many of her recipients had missing body parts.  I gave her to someone permanently a few years back.

A woman with Parkinson’s disease sewed Hope Bear for me. Hope was one of the last sewing projects her hands could manage.

Sounding #2

I remembered a conversation I had long ago with a person with a chronic illness.  I was amazed by his wisdom, and still am.

He said something like this:

“Our society is so big on control, on happiness being defined in particular ways. But to even try to define hope is a kind of control. Because if we can define something, then we think we can measure it.  And if we can measure it, then we think we should be able to manufacture it or duplicate it.

“Maybe it’s only when things happen that we can’t control that we begin to enter into hope. Maybe it’s only when we come up against a barrier, up against mystery.

“Maybe sometimes we need to declare hope without explanation or proof, even when our experience challenges it.”

Sounding #3:

Messiah-programI remembered standing one evening as a choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus in a concert hall. And it seemed to me that we were up against mystery.  By standing and listening (or by standing and singing!), we were declaring Christian hope without explanation or proof, in spite of or perhaps because of some of our recent experiences.

As I looked around, I saw numbers of people who had endured serious illnesses, or who had come through difficult times of one sort or other. I hadn’t known whether some of these folks would ever be able to enjoy an evening at a concert hall again, much less sing such an affirmation of Christian hope.

But there we were.  I imagined us as a sort of temporary community holding ourselves and others in God’s hope.

Sounding #4:

Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, I remembered that the first Christians relocated hope.  Hope finds its true home, they said, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. These usher in a reign of God that has no end – in which all of us are called to participate.

Sounding #5:

I’ve concluded that hope is different from optimism and positive thinking.  It’s also not the same thing as wishing. Wishing tends to focus on specific objects or outcomes, as in “I wish I would have traveled more.” Wishing can become quite a self-absorbing and self-absorbed activity.

Hope focuses instead on the larger picture, often including but going beyond human activity, as in “I hope for God’s reign on this beautiful planet.” At the very same time, hope recognizes limitations, and can actually be quite ordinary in its expectations, as in “This fall I hope to drive into the countryside to revel in the coloured leaves.”

Swartzentruber-school-in-fall

Seasons-of-your-heart
Published by HarperCollins

In A Prayer for Standing on Tiptoe, Macrina Wiederkehr puts together our “Kingdom-loving hearts” and our “earth eyes” in describing the location of hope.  Her prayer poem concludes:

“But still we stand
on tiptoe
Owning our kingdom-loving hearts
and our earth-eyes
We lean forward
and hope.”

Sounding #6

God be with you till be meet again (HWB #430) was our sending song at church last Sunday. It felt like our local Christian community was singing itself into the hope and the expectation of God’s loving care. All week, I’ve wrapped myself in this hymn’s lyrics, enhanced by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ comforting tune.

This weekend and always, may you abound in hope!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. For you, what is the difference between wishing and hoping?
  2. What are some of your deepest hopes?

Next week: TBA

#75-The Silver-bellied Geese and the Manure

This week I’m reminded of an experience a friend recounted several years ago, after a fall visit to the prairies.

My friend wrote:

“After a restless night, I was frustrated, so I headed out the door for an early morning run down rough dirt farm roads.  It was an astonishingly beautiful morning, the rising sun in the east, and the full moon still in the western sky.

Geese-flying-small
Old Greeting Card – Source Unknown

“Endless flocks of geese flew overhead. One particular flock flew low into the sun, and the light caught their bellies and underwings and turned them a blazing silver colour.

“I also ran between huge, stinking piles of manure – not once, not twice, but four times.  As I returned to my lodgings I wondered:
What am I going to believe in?
The silver-bellied geese or the stinking manure?”

“So many times I still wonder if the manure will win out,” wrote my friend.

“Will my cousin survive her debilitating disease with spirit intact?
Will I be able to do what I think I’m being called to do?
Will trust outlast fear?

“I know I’m not always going to make it to the top of the manure pile to see the silver-bellied geese fly by,” my friend concluded.

“But that moment reminds me to live in the paradox…
To take the risk of choosing beauty…
To walk through fear…

“To trust in God’s loving preservation deep down under…even on days when
I don’t quite believe it.

“Love is there… It’s waiting for me…for all of us.”

Yes indeed, I thought upon reading this once again. But some days it’s not easy.

Some days it’s not easy to walk through our fear, whatever that fear may be.
Some days it’s not easy to risk choosing beauty.
Some days it’s not easy to trust in God’s loving preservation deep down under.

Some days it’s easier to believe in the stinking manure pile, and to miss that gorgeous flock of silver-bellied geese.

It’s for this reason that I value the work of spiritual directors, poets and many others who invite us to pay attention, to notice the astonishing (or ordinary) beauty all around us, and to let that beauty nourish our souls.  Perhaps sometimes that beauty even tips the balance.

Red-Bird
Published by Beacon Press

Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poetry collection entitled Red Bird. A poem entitled “Sometimes” includes this stanza:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

My friend and Mary Oliver help me risk choosing beauty.  I enjoy sharing the beauty I find with you, my blog readers.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What helps you risk choosing beauty?  How do you share it with others?
  2. What helps you pay attention and be astonished?

Next week: TBA

#74 – Celebrating Fall Energy

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Kindergarten picture

Since the age of five, my spirit has soared each September with the onset of the school year. I loved school, whether kindergarten just up the street or Goshen College in Indiana.  Each September I anticipated a new teacher, a new classroom, and old and new classmates. At the same time I looked forward to my favorite season, with its cooler weather and coloured leaves.

After college I worked in a bookstore for ten years.  Fall signaled more customers and exciting new book releases.  Eventually I served as a pastor and an interim pastor. Every one of those settings had a clear fall startup, and I helped foster the congregation’s renewed energy and the startup of programs.

In my early retirement years I did considerable contract work, maintained a spiritual direction practice, and volunteered all over the place.  Most of those settings also had a distinct fall startup, perhaps conditioned by the Canadian full embrace of our short summer.

In short, the fall startup has always energized me.

So here I am in fall 2018, almost fully retired, with some limitations of body, mind and (especially) energy. Suddenly I realize I am no longer helping to shape a fall startup anywhere! So, what to do with those days immediately after Labour Day?

Newly retired teachers have told me they deliberately go on vacation right after Labour Day. So we followed their example and headed to our favorite early summer vacation spot – Colpoys Bay at the base of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

We observed the residents of Wiarton and Lions Head relaxing into their fall routines as they took their town back from the tourists. In the Tim Horton’s line at 6:00 in the morning, people greeted each other by name. In a “down home” diner in Lions Head, they joked loudly with each other between tables. Our walk down the main street of Wiarton with ice cream cones from Lloyd’s Smoke Shop elicited smiles and even remarks from local passersby.

Purple=GentianWe took a side trip to the Oliphant Fen, eager to see what bloomed there in September.  Our eyes took in nothing spectacular.  We saw no Lady Slipper orchids,  but rather a few Smaller Fringed Gentians and various kinds of little yellow flowers.

Back in Wiarton, we watched a muted sunset, with few clouds in the sky. The bay was as calm as we’ve ever experienced it. Apparently nature took those days after Labour Day to catch its breath, along with the locals.

 

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The calmness of Colpoy’s Bay

Georgian-Bluffs-TruckThe energy we felt came from the road equipment drivers of the Township of Georgian Bluffs, busily resurfacing a cottage road previously full of potholes. We thought half the equipment of the township must be there – a wood chipper, a roller, a water truck, a scraper, a digger and several dump trucks.

We arrived home after three detours around small towns where bridges were being replaced. A wonderful sunset greeted us Saturday night as we walked in Rockway Gardens across the street, reminding us of the pleasures of nature right at home.

Sunset-in-Rockway-Gardens
Sunset in Rockway Gardens

Sunday morning I read the church bulletin online, as I usually do in preparing for the service.  Energy oozed out of that bulletin.  What will it be like – I wondered – to participate in that energy without having contributed to creating or preparing for it.  “Will I feel a part of things?” I asked myself with trepidation.

At church that morning, our “first hour” discussion about some potential changes to the church program was well attended, well planned, lively and good-spirited.  Then the service began with enthusiastic singing. Worship leader Betti Erb invited God to “take our fall energies and turn them into the liveliness of possibilities.”

Ah yes, “the liveliness of possibilities.” I like that turn of phrase.  As Betti prayed, I realized I can happily participate in relaxed liveliness where the congregation together creates the possibilities, with good prompting by leaders other than myself.

And from the residents of Wiarton, I glimpsed a new kind of fall startup – being energized as I relaxed into the fall routine, focusing on relationships.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What has the turn towards fall meant for you over the years?
  2. How do you celebrate the energy of fall in your life currently?
  3. What – if anything – does “relaxed liveliness” mean for you?

Next week: TBA

 

 

 

 

#73 – Point Pelee, Dune Grass, and Pastoral Ministry

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Point Pelee in 1980s

In 1987, I compared my experience of entering pastoral ministry to walking at Point Pelee, the southernmost bit of land in Ontario.

I wrote: “My early experience in ministry reminds me of walking along the Lake Erie shoreline with surf pounding in the distance. We’ve just spied that shifting spit of land known as Point Pelee, where waves crash from two directions, with many shipwrecks attesting to the danger. Some years the point is large; other years it’s barely there.

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Point Pelee in 2012

“I step out onto this year’s wide tip, and oh my it’s exhilarating. I’m not sure how much farther out we dare go. I don’t know where reasonable risk ends. I don’t know how to read the signs yet, but for now it seems stable enough underfoot. And though the waves creep towards me from both sides, they seem gentle and warm.”

Three guides in particular helped me find solid footing.  Or perhaps more accurately, they helped me cultivate my own ability to read the signs of the wind and the waves, attuned to God’s Spirit, in a vocation where the ground shifts regularly. Gradually I found my bearings as a congregational leader.

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Lake Huron near Ruth’s cottage

Those three seasoned guides included Richard Yordy, a huge resource as the senior pastor at St. Jacobs. When I entered St. Jacobs as associate pastor, I was also pleased that the conference appointed Martha Smith Good as my mentor.  Martha left Ontario and Richard retired at about the same time, which coincided with my desire for a spiritual director. Ruth, my first director, was an experienced Anglican clergywoman who saw me at her year-round cottage near Kincardine, Ontario. I looked out onto Lake Huron as we met by her big window. The predictable rhythm of the waves comforted me.

I felt on dangerous ground once again nine summers later. I had recently left my pastorate on good terms, but without another pastoral assignment in the wings. Would I ever find a second placement, I wondered? (I’ve been the kind of transition maker who needs a “neutral zone” between assignments to know what I’m called to next).

Again a shoreline experience ministered to my spirit. We were on vacation on the Long Beach peninsula in the state of Washington – a stretch of shoreline rivaling in danger Ontario’s Point Pelee. I called the little essay I wrote about my experience “Along the Edge of Dangerous.”

I wrote: “I walked along the beach at low tide this morning.  I’ve never been able to go that far out into the ocean here before.

“This stretch of shoreline is considered very dangerous.  ‘Do not even wade more than ankle deep’ all the signs advise. Why? Because it’s so near the mouth of the Columbia River. There are riptides, shifting sandbars, and clam holes. More than 2000 vessels have been lost here, not to mention 700 lives.

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Sandpipers at Long Beach, 1995

“But at low tide along the edge it is safe.  We see sandpipers, skittering quickly and gracefully along the beach on their long legs.  We come across many gulls of course, poking around in little puddles of seawater made by indentations in the sand. We walk past soft clam shells, mostly blueish; then a few piles of “sea debris” – rope and kelp and who knows what. We wonder about plant life that might be the runners or roots of dune grass.

“Why walk along the edge of dangerous?  Because I’m compelled to somehow.  Because it oddly revives my spirit. Because low tide makes it safe and possible to respect the sea, to absorb the environment, to have all powers of observation at work while knowing the limits.  Along the edge of dangerous, my footprints are soon gone.”

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Dune grass at Long Beach, 1995

I was also fascinated by the dune grass, by how it adapts to the stiff sea winds, to the salt spray, to being buried in sand.

“I am tough,” I wrote, “with deep roots and the ability to live and grow underground for a while, and I am flexible.  I can sway in the breeze, I can endure salt spray dumped on me. I can be partially buried in sand.

“I like the looks of dune grass.  And you can’t get rid of it.  If you yank it up, imagine what all you connect with underground.  I am fond of dune grass.  Very fond.”

I’m grateful that images from Point Pelee and Long Beach calmed my spirit in my 40s.  During those same years, the calm but ever-changing waters of Colpoys Bay mirrored my many moods as I decompressed annually at a cottage on its shore.

Now that I’m in my 70s, the rhythm of waves still calms my spirit,  and the changing moods of Colpoys Bay still fascinate me.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which bodies of water or other aspects of nature have calmed your spirit during difficult times?
  2. Who have been spiritual guides and mentors for you through new and scary experiences?

Next week: Colpoys Bay Revisited