#95 – Thresholds

Available from Ave Maria Press

Always when we start a new spirituality book, our retired women’s group wonders, “could this book possibly be as timely as the last one?”

The answer usually is “well…it’s different than the last book, but it certainly looks promising.”  At least that’s how I responded as we began The Soul’s Slow Ripening by Christine Valters Paintner (CVP) last month.  The first chapter, on the Celtic Practice of Thresholds, spoke to my recent experience so directly.

“Thresholds are those times when life shifts,” says CVP, “when the past season  has come to an end but there is a profound unknowing of what will come next.”

That’s exactly how I felt as I was deciding whether or not to go on a new chemo pill in January, because the last one was no longer effective.  I asked a number of medically-related people whether my remaining quality of life would be better with or without the pill, but of course nobody could tell me.

“Thresholds are the spaces between, when we move from one time to another (as in dawn to day or dusk to dawn), or one awareness to another” (CVP).

I felt like I was stuck – facing a threshold but not being able to move through it. It clearly signaled a new phase of life for me, with or without the new drug.

“We are invited to release everything to which we cling too tightly – our need to be right, our need to feel secure, our need to be in control”(CVP).

Ah yes.  I really did feel the invitation – or rather the downright necessity – to release the need to be right, that is, to make the “correct” decision about this. For of course the “correct” decision was impossible to know.  “Which way will I feel more secure?” was also an impossible question.

The hardest thing to release was probably the need to be in control [it always is].  Yet the sooner-than-expected death of a friend made it clear that there is no control and in one sense, not even much predictability when living with cancer.

I wrote in my journal earlier in January, “I need to accept that I cannot know all the implications of any decision I make.  We do our best and then it’s in God’s hands.  We are not in control – there will be continual surprises.”

CVP’s husband John, a Scripture scholar, uses this verse from Jeremiah as a biblical foundation for the chapter on thresholds:

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.  Jer. 6:16 NRSV

It’s comforting instruction, as always.  I remembered the many times I’ve prayed with it in the past.  But what, I wondered, are the “ancient paths where the good way lies” in this instance? And what does Jeremiah know about 21st century cancer research anyway?!

…I decided that the “good way” would surely involve living my values to the best of my ability. Walking in the “good way” would surely mean giving up control. And it would surely mean claiming yet again the strong and tender assurance that nothing can or will ever separate me from God’s love.

I eventually decided to go onto the pill for now.

Blessing-BowlAt a scheduled meeting, the retired women’s group listened respectfully to my dialogue with Christine and John Valters Paintner.  After a bit of conversation, group members each read me a blessing, and we put the cards and scrolls into a Blessing Bowl with special meaning from Ten Thousand Villages.

The group’s listening and the special blessing bowl and its contents have helped me catch at least flashes of CVP’s wild assertion:

When we are able to fully release our need to control the outcome, thresholds become rich and graced places of transformation.

May it increasingly be so…..

Questions for Reflection

  1. When have you wrestled with crossing a threshold?
  2. When – if ever – have you experienced a threshold as a “rich and graced place of transformation”?

Next Week: TBA

#94 – Two Kinds of Noticing

During our cold, often grey January, my soul was restored through two kinds of noticing as I mulled over a significant decision. One kind of noticing was calm and consistent. The other kind was energetic and full of colour. Together these very different settings restored my soul.

First Setting: My Morning “Sit”

I reinstated my morning “sit” in January, looking over the golf course from my 10th floor windows as the light increased each morning around 7:00.

The Golf Course at 8:00 a.m.

Of course I reveled in the snow and trees of the golf course.   But last month, my eyes searched out the high yellow lights of the expressway in the far distance,  delineating the way.  The traffic below flowed calmly and rhythmically, not at all like the 401! A couple mornings, the haze in the distance obscured the expressway and even the high yellow lights completely. All this somehow comforted me.

One morning a gaggle of geese startled me, as they flew by in formation out of season. Two days in the row, I saw a “hole” in the grey sky, featuring the same two bright stars.

I realized that I could see some things better in semi-darkness than in full daylight – such as those high yellow expressway lights. This spoke to me of God’s care of us even in semi-darkness, as when songs or new approaches or reassurances come to me during the night when I’m burning a tea light candle.

This month, I also pondered the fact that I couldn’t identify Mt. Trashmore across the way until the day emerges from the night. This reclaimed old garbage dump is only visible as itself in daylight, with no haze. In darkness, Mt. Trashmore is merely a black blob on the landscape.

After the Eclipse

And wouldn’t you know it…in the midst of all this focused noticing in one direction,  I missed the eclipse of the moon!  Sam did take a photo out our dining room window afterwards, with the sun reflecting off the high rises in downtown Kitchener and the moon still visible. I also nearly missed the sun dogs during daytime hours earlier this week, when I wasn’t looking out the windows then.

Second Setting: The Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory

Two friends and I made the trek to the butterfly conservatory on a cold Saturday. We stepped into a world all its own, filled with warmth, colour and energy.  I reveled in the heat and humidity and sunshine.

A “rider” on Sue at the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory in 2013

I took in the energy of the many children, screaming in delight and fascination. I loved identifying at least 10 species of butterflies, and watching a Rice Paper land on a person and “ride” on that person’s face for a time.  I listened for the high pitched song of the miniature finches, and marveled at the colourful Gouldian Finch. I spotted one of the new Red-eared Slider Turtles, placidly sitting on a rock. I especially enjoyed sitting silently on a bench with my two friends and taking in all the colour and energy.

That week was a time of raw grief at the unexpectedly early death of a friend and colleague, Margaret Loewen Reimer [more on Marg in a coming blog].

Being in that butterfly setting with two old friends and just observing the scene in silence became an unexpected  healing balm for me.

I needed to notice the play of semi-darkness and light out my window in January. I also needed the silent presence of friends, taking in  a lively scene together in a setting of warmth and energy.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What kinds of noticing have restored your soul this January?
  2. Are things revealed to you more in light or in semi-darkness?

Next Week: A Significant Decision

#93: Tender Mercies: Remembering My Baptism

The other evening, Sam and I watched my favorite movie, a gentle little flick from 1983 called Tender Mercies, featuring Robert Duvall.  The whole movie – and the baptism scene in particular – took me back to my own baptism at Souderton Mennonite Church in 1959.

Souderton Mennonite Church in the 1950s

The hot summer morning of my Christian initiation I wore a navy long-sleeved dress.  I was the youngest in the long line of 11 waiting to be baptized by my Dad’s Uncle Jake. Whether by happenstance or design, my turn came last.

All my senses were heightened that day. I remember my fear that I would faint from kneeling so long in the heat and then my baptism wouldn’t “take.” I remember how hard the bare wood floor felt under my knees. I remember my concern that the water poured on my head would dent my new prayer veiling. I remember the smell of sweat and the trickle of water making its way down my hot face. I remember my dread of the “holy kiss” I would receive from the deacon’s wife.

As a baptized 12-year-old, I was also terrified of participating in foot washing.  My Aunt Esther came to my rescue, offering to be my partner the first time. After that, I always “washed feet” with a girlfriend, so as not to get stuck with some old lady I didn’t know, who would actually expect me to take off my nylons rather than just sloshing water over them.

Looking back, I do wonder whether a young adolescent girl with typical concerns about looking good, doing things right, and not embarrassing herself was ready for baptism!

And yet…I recall asking for baptism out of a tender heart. I wanted to know for sure that my sins were forgiven. I wanted to follow Jesus. I understood that baptism in and of itself couldn’t “save” me. I understood it was setting a direction for my life. And I would have been devastated if the bishop, preacher and deacon had said “no” to me, perhaps snuffing out my emerging faith.


Baptismal tank used at Rockway Mennonite Church, 2016 (A more celebratory baptismal scene than 1950s Franconia).

I  also wondered if more was going on than they told us. Years later, when I was a pastor, I said “Yes!” to John Rempel’s simple statement in the 1998 (Mennonite) Minister’s Manual: “Rituals condense vast realities into simple gestures.”

…Which brings me back to Robert Duvall and Tender Mercies. This film didn’t catch on at the box office, but Duvall won an Oscar as Best Actor for his role nonetheless.

In the film, Duvall plays a down and out Country and Western singer named Mac who lands at a rural Texas gas station/motel run by a pretty lady named Rosa Lee.  Of course he marries the pretty lady, and gradually wins the trust of his new wife’s young boy, Sonny.

Amidst a great struggle, Mac decides to fully claim his new life. Mac and Sonny are baptized by immersion on the same day in a little country church where Rosa Lee sings in the choir.

Rosa Lee, Sonny and Mac talk about the baptism (from Tender Mercies)

In the truck on the way home, Sonny asks Mac “do you feel different now”? And Mac answers “Not much different…nah…not yet…not yet.”

“Not much different…not yet” has stuck with me as part of an essential reality about baptism.  I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that it takes a lifetime to live into our baptism.  Baptism, it seems to me, ushers us into God’s dream for our world.  The implications of God’s dream for us and for our world don’t unfold all at once.  It takes a lifetime. Or at least it has for me.

At this point, I see my “believers’  baptism” at age 12 as a tender mercy offered by the church to an overly scrupulous young adolescent. I’m actually glad I’ve had 60 years to live into it!

Sam,  who was baptized by his father at age 11, took a different approach. He decided to be re-baptized as a young adult, considering his first baptism “not Anabaptist.”

…Two valid approaches – in my opinion – to claiming God’s dream for our world….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are your memories of your baptism good, not so good, mixed or simply absent (as in infant baptism)? Was the day solemn for you or celebratory, or some of both?
  2. Do you agree that it takes a lifetime to live into our baptism, whenever it happened? Why or why not?

Next week: TBA

#92 – Downsizing

“Transitions are never comfortable,” claims spiritual writer Margaret Silf. “They make your feet ache, they make your head ache…worst of all, they make your heart ache.”  (The Other Side of Chaos, p. 3-5).

Last week, I re-read my journals from 2014, when we decided to leave our three-story townhouse condo and move across town to a 55+ high rise condo.  I remembered my feet aching, my head aching, and my heart aching.

But I also recalled the anticipation mingled with the sadness as we prepared to leave Candlewood Crescent in Waterloo for King St. East in Kitchener.

We talked the other day about why we chose to make a move then, at a younger age than most seniors.  We liked many things about our house, and about our location in Waterloo.

candlewood-interiorBut we became increasingly nervous about living in a house with a flight of stairs between each living area, and with a downstairs washroom on a landing rather than on the same level as the kitchen/living/dining room.  We also acknowledged that we didn’t need a place to host family dinners or to entertain grandchildren. And we didn’t  have children to tell us “It’s time to move!” We had to be proactive.

Then our cat Maggie, who we knew would not tolerate a move, had to be put down. “Well,” we said. “Let’s at least look around.”

So we called a realtor and started looking. We found two viable possibilities, both in Kitchener, and eventually took the plunge.  The spaciousness of our new unit and our view from the 10th floor sealed our choice.

candlewood-exteriorBefore we moved, I dedicated a section of my journal to writing down the things I loved and would dearly miss about Candlewood. The orange brick façade. The fireplace and mantle in the living room. Our small fenced in garden out the patio door, with its chippies, rabbits, neighborhood cats and mourning doves, which animated Maggie and entertained us.  We also knew we’d miss Uptown Waterloo with its Princess Theatres, the old Marbles restaurant, and  many coffee shops (including Starbucks for Sam).

As always when we’ve moved, we wrestled with how much decorating and renovating to do at our new place, and how much to “take it as is” for now.

The difficulty of stripping off old wallpaper glued to the drywall became a serious issue to be resolved. We also needed to figure out how to make our space soundproof enough for me to offer confidential spiritual direction.

Yet shortly after we moved I wrote:

The view from my study

“My overriding feeling this morning is gratitude – gratitude that we have been able to make this move, do this downsizing, and do it together.  Gratitude for the wonderful view. Gratitude that each room is as lovely as I had imagined. Gratitude for Rockway Gardens, for the trees and the golf course across the street.”

In my journal I also noted:

“What I keep being stunned by is the sky.  It is so beautiful in the morning and the evening.  The panorama is wonderful.  It makes we want to weep.  That view is now mine.”

RainbowI thought about our move to Eastwood as an adventure – getting to know another part of the city, being among the youngest people in the building, living in a high rise again (as we did when we were first married). And I loved the surprises, like seeing the sun reflect off the high buildings in downtown Kitchener during the morning “golden hour.”

One of my last moving-to-Eastwood entries in 2014 reads like this:

“I do give thanks for being led this far – for being at 1414 King.  I think it will be a good place for us, no matter how life unfolds”….

I’m glad I can reflect on our move four and a half  years later by reading my 2014 journal.  It has been a good move.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How have sadness, gratitude and anticipation mingled for you as you’ve downsized or in other kinds of transitions?
  2. What has kept your spirit nourished during these chaotic times?

Next week:


#91 – A Gift by Increments

Way back in November, I told Sam that for my Christmas present I’d like a slideshow for my iPad, with highlights of travel and just plain ordinary events of our 49+ years together.

An exciting encounter for us new Canadians

Sam’s taken lots of photos over the years, so I thought it would be pretty easy for him to pull such a slideshow together.

I was wrong. He took this opportunity to look through his negatives and scan (or pitch) a whole drawer full he had never dealt with! My Christmas present is still evolving, as Sam hasn’t touched most of the 1980’s negatives yet.

But what I have so far is a wonder – starting with our wedding in 1969, a few pictures from the 1970’s and 1980’s, then picking up our lives again from 1990 on.

Only twice did we travel outside North America together. The first experience came in 1977, when we were invited to join the Schleitheim II Study Tour sponsored by TourMagination.  It came at an excellent time for me, as I was owning and trying out my theological voice during those years. I think the tour leaders were startled when various participants didn’t accept their interpretations of 16th century Anabaptist history!

Petra, tombs for the poor

Our second time outside North America came 30 years later, when we went to Israel, Palestine and Jordan with our friends John Kampen and Carol Lehman. John, a Dead Sea scrolls scholar, wanted to test how he might lead an archeological tour for students at his seminary. We had always wanted to travel to that part of the world, so we said “We’re in.” I was fascinated by how Herod maintained his presence in 1st century Palestine with many palaces, now archeological sites.  But the visual highlight of that journey had to be visiting Petra, the stone wonder in Jordan.

stone-angeljpgIn looking at the photos, we recalled that we did much of our North American sightseeing on the way to the assemblies of various Mennonite bodies.  Usually one of us was a delegate or a board member. In one trip to Manitoba, we looked up sites related to the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, enjoying the large stone angel  (actually a shepherdess) in the Neepawa cemetery which she immortalized.  On the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota,  we found a Laura Ingalls Wilder plaque, and I now wish we had spent more time looking for the other Wilder sites nearby.

The conferences we attended have mostly faded in memory,  but the sights we encountered in the 90’s continue to delight and nourish me. Driving to a conference in the U.S. South, we came upon the Peaks of Otter with its deliberately “primitive” lodge (no TV or phones in the rooms), located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.  We discovered the rugged Washington coast and the rain forest and alpine meadows of the Olympic National Park on our way to a conference in Oregon, and loved the scenery so much we went back.

olympic-national-parkHow these roundabout journeys to conferences have nourished us through the years….

We found that we both enjoy historical discovery as well as the scenery, although I rebel against guided tours from which one cannot escape the line! Since 2004, we’ve focused on a Maritime province every five years. So in Nova Scotia we took in both the Black History Museum near Shelbourne, NS and the touristy Peggy’s Cove.

Lately we have found some Ontario oddities, such as the very basic motel in Thorold where ships silently passed through the Welland Canal in the middle of the night, right outside our window.

Both our historical explorations and the scenery we have encountered have been backdrop for spending good downtime together. My incremental gift from Sam, still in process, reminds me again of the beautiful world we have been given to care for  and enjoy, and moves me to celebrate all the years we’ve done it together…

Questions for Reflection

  1. How do you remember and celebrate the places of beauty or historical importance you have explored  by yourself or with travelling companions over the years?
  2. How – if at all – does that remembering nourish your soul?

Next week: TBA







#90 – The Post-Holiday Blues

“Trying to live all the time in rising or fullness is exhausting,” says Christine Valters Paintner, one of my favorite spiritual  writers, in her end-of-year meditation.

I thought about this in relation to the post-holiday “blues,” which most of us, I imagine, try to avoid.  Or at least I do.

Aunt Esther Musselman and husband, Russ, in 1996

While my parents were still living, we drove to Pennsylvania on Christmas Day, arriving in time for a light supper and Christmas carol singing with my Aunt Esther. Going to Pennsylvania, I could let go of the pre-Christmas busyness of the Provident Bookstore or the congregation I was serving and enjoy the anticipation of spending time with my Pa. family.


But the drive home five days later felt very different.  I felt just plain sad. I knew I wouldn’t see my family again for 4 or 6 months, and let’s face it, Ontario in January is pretty dull for people like me who don’t enjoy winter sports. I also thought of the major hosting my sister-in-law did, and how exhausted she must be afterwards.

Our travel pattern changed when my mother died in 2003.   We stayed in Ontario in December, heading for Stratford on Boxing Day for a couple overnights. It was a way to decompress after a lot of holiday activity – and to try to avoid the post-Christmas blues. But I still “came down” when we arrived home from Stratford.

This year, we ate Christmas dinner with friends and planned mostly low-key holiday activity. We decided not to go to Stratford.

So I scheduled some things at home to nourish my spirit, wondering  – in what state will be my spirit be after the holidays this year?

Here are some nourishing things I planned for the last days of December and into January:

  1. Joshua-Ehlebracht-Headshot
    Joshua Ehlebracht

    The day Sam watched three football games on TV, I arranged with a friend to go to an organ concert by 19-year-old Joshua Ehlebracht at St. Peters Lutheran Church in downtown Kitchener. Beginning with the Nutcracker Suite and ending with Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, with lots of Bach in between, Ehlebracht stunned us with his talent and confidence.  The large church was nearly full.  Ehlebracht can be a bit of a showman who projects fun at the organ. He wore a black tee shirt which sparkled when he moved. Two-tone green and silver shoes completed his otherwise black outfit.I felt wonderful when I came home – and sorry for Sam, since the “wrong team” won in all three football games he watched!

  2. We competed with each other for a turn with the puzzle Kittens in the Basket, and completed it on New Years’ Eve day.
  3. Michelle-ObamaI enjoyed browsing at Wordsworth Books a couple times, savouring a gift certificate. I bought (and enjoyed) a book I would call an “entertainment” – The Colors of all the Cattle, the latest in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana lady detective series.Over Christmas, I read more heady tomes, including Michelle Obama’s very well-written memoir, Becoming. She’s clearly a self-aware woman, talking about her journey with an amazing lack of invective. More difficult but also a worthwhile read was Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. The author expertly reveals what the Wilder books hide. Laura and her daughter Rose created and added to myths about western settlement and the pioneer life which, in her opinion, have negatively contributed to U.S. self-understandings.
  4. Of course we managed a drive north of Waterloo, visiting Martin’s Family Fruit and Stemmler’s Meats on New Year’s Eve day.

And yes, we built in lots of reflection time.

….There’s really nothing wrong with “coming down” after Christmas. It’s a time to savour the joys and acknowledge the disappointments of extended family time, to step back from hosting, to read a book or take a drive or watch football on TV or listen to music or hope for snow or to simply be.

Christine Valters Painter notes that “when we turn to the natural world we find with each new day, each moon cycle, and each season a rhythm of rise and fall, fullness and emptiness.”

She’s helping me understand that we humans too are made to flow with the rise and fall of each day and with the changing seasons.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Do you tend to “come down” after the Christmas/New Year holidays?
  • If so, how is your spirit nourished during these “down times”?

Next week: TBA

#89 – The New Year 1900 (and 2019)

Maggie Moyer

“Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

Thus began a letter received by Maggie Moyer  from her girlfriend Sue Denlinger, written on January 2, 1900.  Maggie and Sue and other young adults corresponded with each other between attending Bible conferences together or working short stints at city missions.

Maggie Moyer eventually married Irvin Derstine and became my maternal grandmother. Since she died young, I never met her in person.  So I was thrilled when in the 1990’s a cousin made available a stash of letters between Maggie and her young adult friends.  They told me much about Maggie and about the church era in which she lived.

Here’s the whole quote from Maggie’s friend Sue in 1900:

Hitherto hath the Lord helped us, and during the year in which we have just started may we realize more and more that He is All, and in All.

There is something sad isn’t there about the dying year?   How many things have happened to each one of us since the first of January 1899.  What joys have been ours and again there were times when we cried out ‘Oh dear Lord, help us in this trial, or I will have to fall.’

And now we are in the last year of the century. Who knows what will be our portion in this year?  None but God.

I deeply connect with what Sue Denlinger wrote in a spirituality typical of 1900.

It’s certainly fascinating to see the particulars of the disasters people wrote about then, and to compare them to our own time.  For instance, in the letter Maggie read about two Lancaster, Pennsylvania people killed by trains, and another person who died months after being bitten by a cat.

Now, 119 years later, we’re concerned about climate change, and about people being killed in school or synagogue shootings. We assume we’ve greatly improved rail safety in the intervening years, until a tragedy like Lac-Mégantic in Québec comes along.  In Canada people rarely die from being bitten by a cat. Cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases are the health scourges of the western world today.

Yet this letter to my grandmother still speaks to me as the calendar turns over 119 years later: For “who knows what our portion will be in 2019? None but God.”

As I move further into the unknowns of cancer decline in the year ahead, at least two things in particular nourish my soul:

  1. I’m still bathed in the music from four acoustically wonderful venues during Advent: The Messiah at Centre in the Square, Menno Singers at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Advent Jazz in the Conrad Grebel chapel, and the Christmas Eve lessons and carols service at Rockway Mennonite. When I told an old friend that I stopped singing a few times on Christmas Eve so I could just absorb the music, she indicated that she had too!

I enter the new year both consoled and energized by having heard and sung the music of God with us once again.

  1. In our Christmas letter to folks geographically far away, Sam and I named a stance which nourishes my spirit as we move forward:

“We want to graciously receive each day we are given, and be open to whatever it brings.  I hope to keep blogging as long as I’m able, while enjoying Sam, family, and friends from near and far.  The rest, as always, is in God’s merciful hands.”

Graciously-ReceivingHere is a mandala I colored last week, which I called “Graciously Receiving the Day.”  Gazing at it, my spirit finds nourishment and rest. Unfortunately, the restful colours haven’t reproduced as well as I’d like.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What does the turn to 2019 mean for you?
  2. How do you relate to this question and response:

“Who knows what our portion will be in 2019?  None but God.”

Whatever your situation, may you graciously receive each day.

And may your spirit be nourished in 2019 in ways expected and in ways astonishing….

Next week: TBA

#88 – Seizing the Day?

When it’s sunny and we don’t have much going, we tend to “seize the day” with a drive some distance through familiar countryside. We’ve enjoyed at least five such drives since mid-November, taking advantage of the relative warmth and lack of snow.  We attached a “purpose” – however flimsy – to each one of the drives.


Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op

Trip #1 – Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op.  We visit this beautiful space in downtown Owen Sound at least twice a year.  This time the purpose was for Sam to choose a Bruce County photo as a Christmas present from me. He started looking at the framed photos while I wandered off to the beeswax candles and the art cards. He chose so quickly I barely got to glance at the photo before it was securely wrapped by the clerk! So it will be a surprise for me  on Christmas Eve day.

The landscape along Hwy. 6 on the way north looked wonderful. We saw just enough snow to cover the gently rolling hills – and none on the road. We stopped for lunch at Pebbles, a Mennonite buffet at Varney, just south of Durham, where I know some of the food agrees with me.

Trip #2 – Simcoe. The following week, we drove south to Simcoe on a promising  day to deliver a couple books which a friend ordered.  Why put them in the uncertain mail, we wondered, when it’s such lovely day?  Plus I got to see my friend briefly! Lunch that day was a Subway sandwich, an occasional treat for both of us.

Again, we drove in sunshine, with just a little snow covering the rolling hills. The drive reminded me of my reflection time on the road during the years I had a spiritual director in the Simcoe area. I used to love the rural drive for three seasons of the year, not including winter.

Trip # 3 – St. John’s Convent.  One Wednesday we traveled much less serenely on the 401, the 407 and Yonge Street in Toronto. We had been determined to find a compatible date for spending an overnight at the convent before Christmas, and this was it.  We are always so pleased to get off the expressway and Yonge St., arrive at the very sheltered  convent, and then go walking in what is actually a quiet residential neighborhood.

The next day, on the way home, we had coffee with a friend at a restaurant near the Yonge St. entrance to the 407. Steeped in the peace of the convent, I really didn’t think about the upcoming drive home during the afternoon commute!

CandlesTrip #4 – Burning Hanukkah Candles. This time we drove west, picking up an old friend at the retirement home where he lives north of Stratford. Again, we drove through lovely countryside to get there.  An added bonus was going into Stratford to a place which permitted us to burn Hanukkah candles. I was pleased to find a way for the three of us to revive our thirty-year tradition of setting up a menorah and watching the dancing coloured candles in darkness for 45 minutes or more before they burned themselves out.


Farm near Glen Allan, Ontario

Trip #5 – To Dorking and the Country Sisters. One Saturday, we delivered a book in Elmira, then headed west on the old Hwy. 86.  We had passed Dorking Groceries & Home Baking, run by Markham Mennonites, many times when it wasn’t open, and had determined to stop in when it was open. We bought some Christmas cookies from a good saleswoman who would have sold us the whole store! We also ate a very basic lunch at Country Sisters just up the road, and could also have reveled in lots of their yummy-looking Christmas baking.

Looking back on these drives, I think they were not so much about “seizing the day” as about “graciously receiving the day”. For they included Advent time seeing old friends, viewing beautiful artwork and going on retreat, as well as  driving through the sunny  southwestern Ontario countryside.  “Seizing the day” sounds too forceful – violent even- for our gentle endeavors.

Christmas blessings to all as you visit with family and friends. And, if you’re driving in the countryside in daylight (especially in sunshine!), take a moment to let your eyes and your spirit graciously receive what you see…

Question for Reflection:

What’s the difference for you between “seizing the day” and “graciously receiving the day”?  Which stance beckons you as Christmas nears?

Next week: A new year beckons….

#87 – Ode to Joy

Cradled in a safe space…Enveloped in a familiar joy…Transported to marvelous destinations I already know….How else can I describe my musical journey of the past weekend?

Messiah-2018-12-08First of all, Handel’s Messiah. Why does the excitement build each year as I anticipate going to the Centre in the Square to be enfolded by 120 voices from the Grand Philharmonic Choir, plus members of the K-W Symphony and soloists?

I keep pondering why this oratorio is such a must for me. The first notes of the overture and the words “comfort ye” from the tenor soloist do indeed transport me to a marvelous place I already claim.  I land back in the concert hall two and a half hours later, as the full-voice choir sings “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” with the long amen.

In the meantime, I wait for the solos “Behold a virgin shall conceive,”  “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” I hear echoes of various budding soloists from my past while listening to the accomplished ones on tonight’s stage.

I listen in expectation for the choruses “For unto us a child is born,”  “His yoke is easy and his burden is light,” and of course the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Each year I remember a snowy December night when I was in London on church business, and made the unwise decision to drive home. Furthermore, I decided to take the “back way” which I usually drove between London and Kitchener, consisting of rural roads with little traffic.

I had the CD The Gift of Messiah  with me that night.  The music in the car and the barn lights along the way somehow cradled me in a safe space and got me home….

Incarnation-2018-12-09Incarnation: Menno Singers. One other musical experience also defined last weekend for me – Incarnation, brought to us by the 50-voice Menno Singers choir. Here we were cradled in the sanctuary of an old downtown church, surrounded by gorgeous sound, whether a cappella voices or organ accompaniment.

Since it was a lessons and carols service, we sang five hymns throughout the afternoon. I loved the experience of being rocked and held by music even while participating in the music making. A headline in Monday’s Globe and Mail proclaimed “Odes to Joy: Researchers study the uplifting power of singing.” And I thought: I do believe Mennonite congregations and choirs of all sorts have known this for a long time!

I loved so many things about the Menno Singers approach, including their use of two composers from within the choir, as well as readers and soloists from the choir, as well as another well-known local composer.

I enjoyed hearing again some familiar lilting music from my childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 60s, including old carols at the manger arranged by Alice Parker.

I relished being at the first Menno Singers event following the recent death of Abner Martin, the choir’s founder in 1955 and conductor for 20 years.

And – there’s lots of Advent music still to come. I’m looking forward to  Advent Jazz at Conrad Grebel University College; three more worship services at Rockway Mennonite Church; and – of great importance! – our annual Children’s Christmas Pageant.

Oh the joy!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which annual Advent music presentations – if any – are you unable to do without?
  2. How does the music of Advent nourish your spirit?

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.

#86 – By the tender mercy of our God…

7:25 am on December 6 at St. John’s Convent (Willowdale)

I woke up this morning at my second spiritual home – the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine. I parked myself at a particular window and watched the light increase through the trees facing St. John’s Rehab Hospital next door. I remembered the morning sky at home the day before -pink and yellow streaks amidst grey clouds in the big sky.

I recited the Song of Zechariah, anticipating our collective chanting of it in the chapel at Morning Prayer:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 2: 78-79, NRSV

It struck me again that the days become shorter and shorter during Advent, with the Longest Night at the winter solstice on December 21. When the nights are darkest and the days shortest, legend has it that the Christ Child was born.

So many phrases come to me from Scripture, Christmas carols and other Christian songs, speaking of light overcoming darkness.  Here are just a few examples:

  1. From the song “Christ, be our light” (Sing the Journey #54 ): “Longing for light we wait in darkness…Christ be our light.”
  2. Various songs from the Taize community, especially
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let not my doubt nor my darkness speak to me.
    Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
    Let my heart always welcome your love.”
  3. The wonderful affirmation from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:5, 9, NRSV).

But the play of light and darkness is not always as we first imagine. For there’s another biblical tradition about light and darkness, supported by mystics and by many fewer songs. This tradition indicates that God is working in the dark, perhaps in hidden, imperceptible ways.  The hope in this tradition is not necessarily for the light to shine and the darkness to please go away! The hope rather is to begin to accept and grasp God at work in the dark.

John Michael Talbot’s provocative song, “Holy darkness,” speaks of darkness as “Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.” It affirms that “as we await you, O God of silence, We embrace your holy night.” Here’s the YouTube link if you’d like to listen to it.  Please note that all the indistinct words that could be either “night” or “light” in the song are actually “night.”

So… I want to keep chanting the Song of Zechariah, filled with hope.  I also want to keep exploring that other biblical tradition – the one where we accept the darkness and look for God’s unseen treasures within it.

A two-piano version of the Bach Chorale “Sheep Shall Safely Graze” always settles me, reminding me that sheep in an enclosure at night with a shepherd nearby are as “safe” – if not safer – than sheep grazing freely in the light during the day….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When and how have you welcomed the light?
  2. When and how – if at all – have you found God in the darkness?

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.