We came upon this stately bird standing in the “salmon stream” beside a cottage road in June 2016. We’d walked by Gleason Brook near Wiarton for years, but had never seen a great blue heron there. We were startled by its beauty and its perseverance.
Sam took the photo with a telephoto lens from the bridge over the brook. The heron, camouflaged somewhat by wild grasses, stood perfectly still and paid no mind to us. It gave all its attention to locating and catching the next fish.
Years ago a small public park provided access to Gleason Brook. The grass was mown and we could walk right up beside the stream. But sadly, in more recent years, we found the little park overgrown with tall grasses, with the sign toppled over.
Since we usually came to Gleason Brook in June, it took years for us to recognize it as a salmon run. One year in September we saw the salmon moving upstream to spawn. We saw their great effort in jumping upstream from pool to pool in the brook, which carried very little water that fall. It seemed like such hard work….
Questions for Reflection:
When have you really paid attention to something, as the heron waiting for a fish? What was that like for you?
In what circumstance have you taken in the beauty of the great blue heron or other bird or animal?
When have you looked at something in nature for years without recognizing what it was, as with me and the salmon run?
Henry’s Red Seaby Barbara Claassen Smucker was one of the most formative books of my childhood. Set in Berlin, it dramatically recounts the story of post-World War II Mennonites who have fled from Russia. It’s told from the point of view of 11-year-old Henry Bergen, who carries responsibilities far beyond his age in his fatherless family.
The book incorporates the work of Peter and Elfrieda Dyck of the Mennonite Central Committee as they care for refugees in Berlin. I still remember the scene in which children carefully pick raisins out of their soup because they think the raisins are bugs! “Mrs. Dyck” eats some raisins to convince them otherwise.
The “red sea” Henry must cross to get to West Germany is the Russian Zone of divided Germany. From the North Sea, ships will take the refugees to Paraguay or Canada to find a new home. The most dangerous part of the journey, very dramatically told, is the train trip through Russian-held territory.
As I wrote these paragraphs just now, something remarkable happened. I realized that I was crying. My emotional reactions to this formative story have apparently resurfaced after 64 years!
I’ve asked a number of people of my vintage who grew up in Mennonite communities in North America: “Did you read Henry’s Red Sea as a child?” Most of them said “Yes.” Some started talking about the raisins-in-the-soup or the escape by train.
I asked Mennonites of Swiss Mennonite heritage: “Is this where you first heard the Russian Mennonite story?” Most said “Yes.” Another said: “It’s where I first found out there are refugees in our world.”
Henry’s Red Sea, published in 1955 by Herald Press, joined Coals of Fire, published in 1954, which showed people who believed in loving their enemies taking dangerous risks throughout church history.
Not all the stories resonated with me, but “The Mystery of the Thatch” from 18th century Switzerland certainly did.
Mennonite preacher Peter realized one night that men were on the roof of his house, removing the thatch. He said to his wife, “workmen have come to us; you had better prepare a meal.”After a while, he called to the young men on the roof, “You have worked long and hard. Surely you are hungry. Now come in to us and eat.”
They came into the house, sat at the table, and somehow endured Preacher Peter’s blessing of them and the meal as he prayed. They filled their plates, but could not eat. Instead they went back outside, replaced the thatch on the roof, and quietly left.
I checked the Fall 2018 Herald Press catalogue, and found to my astonishment that both Henry’s Red Sea and Coals of Fire are currently in print. One friend told me she gives a copy of both books to adult nieces and nephews, hoping they will read them to their children.
I also spent time as a child with a book not published for children. The Franconia Mennonites and War (1951) pictured all the young men from the conference who spent time in Civilian Public Service camps as an alternative to joining the armed forces in World War II.
I liked to flip through the book and see the photos and descriptions of three of my much older cousins – Paul Brunner, Richard Detweiler and Roy Clemmer (left to right above).
They were my heroes.
Questions for Reflection:
What were the most formative books you read or had read to you as a child?
Last weekend, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons washed over us as violinist Nikki Chooi and the K-W Symphony put on an amazing performance at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square.
The only thing missing was the scenery Sam and I see in all seasons on countryside drives, as we listen to a CD of The Four Seasons.
As a followup to hearing The Four Seasons live, I decided to choose a favorite winter and a favorite spring photo of Sam’s, representing the season we’d so like to leave behind, and the one we’re anticipating.
The winter photo I chose didn’t require driving into the countryside – just walking a few steps into my study. Taken just after 7 a.m. one morning in February 2015, it features the lights leading to Rockway Gardens in the foreground and the trees and snow of the golf course in the middle ground. In the distance are the expressway (and other) lights, Mt. Trashmore (reclaimed garbage dump), the red Staples sign and more.
It is my favorite winter scene. I love seeing the city wake up. All seems right with the world, somehow – even with traffic on the expressway.
A favorite spring picture taken by Sam is harder to identify. There are so many to choose from. I’m drawn to photos taken south of the border, remembering how we loved to drive to Pennsylvania in early April, when vestiges of winter hung on in Ontario. This photo comes from further south, showing the rustic Peaks of Otter Lodge in Virginia in the 1990’s. We’ve stayed there and enjoyed the restaurant and the grounds at least three times, usually in spring.
Both music and experiencing the seasons nourish and invigorate my spirit. Putting them together is wonderful!
Questions for Reflection:
Does music nourish and invigorate your spirit? Does the change of seasons nourish your spirit?
If they both nourish your spirit, how do you put them together?
* * * * *
Today I’m posting Blog #100! Initially I planned for 70 blogs, but was unable to stop. I hope to continue to post more blogs, but I may need to skip a week now and then, given the vagaries of cancer.
Thank you, readers, for your thoughtful feedback and for the way different ones of you have held particular blogs in your heart.
The act of writing this blog nourishes me. So do you the readers.
This week I’ve been looking for movies where a person or group stands on principle. Here are three which Sam and I have watched this week from our collection – all mesmerizing and nourishing in different ways.
Chariots of Fire (1981) – “God made me fast! When I run I feel his pleasure.” Thus Eric Liddell, the son of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, explains why he delays going back to China so he can run in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Much of the film’s drama comes from Liddell’s refusal to run on Sunday, holding firm even in a meeting with the Prince of Wales. The solution: find him a race that will run on a weekday, even if it’s not his “best” race. While Liddell runs for the glory of God, the film also features Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who is running to fight prejudice. Both of them win gold medals.
Of Gods and Men/Des hommes et des dieux 2010) – We first saw this amazing film (in French and Arabic with English subtitles) at the Princess Original art theatre in Waterloo during Lent 2011.It’s loosely based on the story of eight Trappist monks from France living among the Muslim population in Algeria. Luc, one of the monks, is the village doctor. When the country is plunged into civil war in the 1990’s and the monastery is threatened, the monks have to decide whether to stay or to go back to France.The film is patient and restrained – in other words, the beginning is slow! – setting up the ordinary lives of the monks and the interactions of each with the villagers. But it’s also mesmerizing. The two discernment scenes especially stand out for me: 1) a tortured meeting which elicits a difference of opinion on whether to leave or stay and 2) the meeting at which the monks unanimously decide to stay, and their euphoric response upon making this decision.Brother Christian, the group’s leader says, “We’re martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtakes us, despite ourselves – because up to the end we’ll try to avoid it – our mission here is to be brothers to all.”
The monastery is eventually raided by terrorists, and all but one of the monks is captured (he hides under a bed). The film ends with a forced march in the snow.
Of Gods and Men resonates with quiet power, and leaves viewers with much to think about long after seeing it.
The Chosen (1981), based on the novel by Chaim Potok. In this coming-of-age story, Danny and Reuven meet as teenagers in an unforgettable stickball game which opens the movie.Danny Saunders resists strong pressure by his father the Rebbe to remain in the Hasidic Jewish community in New York and take over hereditary leadership from his father. He becomes good friends with Reuven, from a Zionist family, whose father is working to form the secular state of Israel.Danny’s struggle to go his own direction vocationally while respecting his father plays out in strange and wondrous ways.
Questions for Reflection:
Which films have you seen in which the characters stuck to their ethical and spiritual principles in a compelling way?
If you’ve seen any of these three films, whose struggle mesmerized you the most? Why?
This wintry week, filled with high political drama, I escaped to Ontario cottage country through two favorite water photos taken by Sam.
In summer and autumn, I enjoy gazing at lakes I’ve come to know, marveling at how much the surface of the water keeps changing.
Sometimes a lake presents itself smooth as glass, with scarcely a wrinkle. Then shapes and colours appear – nature gifting us with Impressionist art in trees reflected on the water.
My favorite lake photo depicting this wonder is Minkes Lake in Grey County. It’s a private-access lake, surrounded by cottages. The mooing of some Grey Co. cows add the sound effects as we take in the beauty of the scene before us. I keep marveling at colourful tree images which appear to reach deep into the lake.
I sit and quietly take it all in. I could watch the lake for hours, but the image likely won’t last that long. For at the slightest breeze, or with the slightest ripple in the waters, the lake again reflects nothing but itself.
In a similar phenomenon to Minkes Lake, this clouds-on-water image from Colpoys Bay near Wiarton startled us one summer day as we looked out the window of the cottage we were renting. The reflected clouds seemed as real as the ones in the sky, if not more so….
These photos leave me with a number of “I wonder” questions.
When else does illusion look like reality for me? Why is it so mesmerizing?
How do I, made in the image of God, reflect God’s love? Do I bring it nearer to earth, as these reflected clouds seem so very near?
Is my spirit ever still enough for the image of God in me to put on a display of such extravagant beauty as in these two photos?
When I see this chapter title in a spirituality book – the practice of blessing each moment – I’m first of all skeptical. Blessing each moment?! Is this a way of pretending things are fine, when sometimes they’re not? Or of ignoring the hard realities of life?
At first blush, it sounds too much like “I’ve just hurt my finger, praise the Lord!”
But writer Christine Valters Paintner (CVP) explains the ancient Celtic practice of blessing each moment in a way that takes into account life’s realities for me:
“Blessing is really acknowledging the gifts and graces already present and entering into partnership with the divine ” (From chapter 4 of The Soul’s Slow Ripening). It’s not pretending that earth’s lamentation does not exist.
So I decided to try it for a few days…to acknowledge the gifts and graces already present and see what happens.
I found myself:
*enjoying my morning oatmeal while reading two newspapers
*reveling in the amaryllis with its four blooms after a month of dormancy and another of growth
*noticing the lovely snow settled on the trees in the thick bush on the way to the grocery store
*appreciating visits with friends old and new
* marveling at a sermon by a first-year university student
* eating a six-inch roasted chicken sub on honey multigrain bun
* rediscovering the hymn tune Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken among Haydn’s string quartets (Opus 76, No. 3, Emperor)
* Listening to rain hit our windows with a sizzle
*glimpsing the sun reflecting off houses in a far subdivision during the morning “golden hour”
*lying on the couch in the quiet of the evening, re-reading a perfectly delightful novel –A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
*being captivated once again by the old movie, A River Runs Through It
In my estimation, acknowledging such gifts and graces does not deny that we also live in the midst of earth’s lamentation. It does not prevent us from praying fervent prayers of lament ourselves from time to time, as did the Psalmist. The Psalms are full of both lament and exuberant praise.
Acknowledging our gifts and graces, says CVP, “helps us to be present to life as it actually is, rather than how we would like it to be…. We often hold so tightly on how we want things to be that we miss what is actually being offered” (also from chapter 4 of The Soul’s Slow Ripening).
In this spirit, I’ve found my trips to the Cancer Centre at Grand River Hospital transformed. Rather than focusing on “well, here we go again” or “I wonder what I’ll find out today,” I’ve found myself giving thanks for the Cancer Centre itself, and blessing the intake clerks, nurses, volunteers, oncologists, radiologists, pharmacists and others who work there.
This is “our place,” I tell myself. “It feels homey. I like the crackers. I know the routines. Things are usually more or less on schedule.” The competence and kindness of the staff I’ve experienced month after month is really quite astounding, and I am grateful.
Questions for Reflection:
If you would make a list of “the gifts and graces already present” in the mundane events of your life over several days, what would your list include? Try it!
Do you think focusing on “gifts and graces already present” denies “life’s lamentation”? Why or why not?
This week I’m introducing another blog format which I plan to use from time to time – a photo of Sam’s with some short commentary. This photo was taken on January 2, 2008. It’s taped to the blue door of our condo unit. Almost everyone who knocks at the door is taken with it, and asks something like: “That picture looks sort of familiar but I can’t place it. Where was it taken?” Or ” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that building. What it is?”
If you drive in Waterloo, you pass this scene on your right every time you curve around Caroline St. N. in its approach to Erb St. This building is now dwarfed by the Perimeter Institute behind it, and by the Clay and Glass Museum on the corner. Good drivers aren’t looking at buildings at all at this spot, but rather trying to change lanes properly and not get cut off!
The building was constructed by the City of Waterloo in 1996 as a replica of the first grist mill built in the city by Abraham Erb in 1816, at the same spot by Silver Lake. It’s part of Waterloo Park, and can be approached on foot or bicycle from within the park, or from a parking lot off Caroline St. It’s a popular spot for weddings and for photos, and can host up to 75 people.
Seeing how many motorists don’t even notice this building I wonder, “What beautiful places do I drive by regularly without really seeing and enjoying them?”
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.
At 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
When have you wrestled with crossing a threshold?
When – if ever – have you experienced a threshold as a “rich and graced place of transformation”?
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.
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 theday emerges from the night. This reclaimed old garbage dump is only visibleas itself in daylight, with no haze. In darkness, Mt. Trashmore is merely a black blob on the landscape.
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.
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:
What kinds of noticing have restored your soul this January?
Are things revealed to you more in light or in semi-darkness?
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.
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.
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:
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?
Do you agree that it takes a lifetime to live into our baptism, whenever it happened? Why or why not?