#105 – Singing our Hearts Out

Sue Clemmer Steiner and Martha Derstine Clemmer in 1996

This photo of my 91-year-old Mom and me singing our hearts out in 1996 is one of my favorites of the two of us.

It’s probably a Christmas photo, taken in my brother Jim and Ethel’s living room, rather than an Easter photo. But the singing reminds me that Easter felt very different to me in 1996. Most years, my colleague or I preached the Easter sermon at the church we served.  Easter was a joyful, exuberant, energetic Sunday featuring  lots of flowers and a special choir and some sort of dramatic reading.

But Easter was different that year.  It was the first Easter in nine years during which I was not serving a church.  I had resigned from my first congregation, and was in fact “between churches.” I knew that no exuberant Easter worship service of the type I was used to leading could assuage my grief.

So I decided on something totally different.  Sam and I drove to Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with my Clemmer family. And I chose to celebrate Easter morning with my Mom and other “regulars” in the chapel at Rockhill Mennonite Community, where my Mom lived.  There were flowers of course, and a low-key reading of the resurrection story.   The sermon didn’t need to be innovative or try to connect with people who came to church only once or twice a year.

The tone of the service in the nursing home chapel was just what my spirit needed that Easter. The singing was hearty, with piano accompaniment of not-too-rousing old favorites, such as The Strife is O’er. Mom and I especially enjoyed the singing, and we sang enthusiastically.

Then I noticed.  In the photo, Mom has a walker. Now Mom is gone.  And these many years later, my niece and I are the Clemmers with a walker. I expect to use mine mostly outside as spring weather comes on, since some days my walking is very slow and my balance is not good.

It cheers me somehow to think that Mom and I are both singing our hearts out in the photo. Our need for such a device doesn’t keep either one of us from singing heartily.

I’m thankful that I and other Clemmers learned to sing at Singing School (my grandfather and father), men’s chorus (my brother), Christopher Dock Mennonite High School (me and others), Souderton Mennonite and Rockhill Mennonite churches (many of us) – and my brother’s living room!

The 19th-century hymn ( #580 My life flows on in Hymnal: A Worship Book) says it all for me (altered slightly):

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

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
(on Easter weekend or anytime).

Brother Jim Clemmer and father Lester M. Clemmer in 1989

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Was there a time in your life when you couldn’t celebrate Easter in your usual way because of life circumstances? How did you mark the day?
  2. If you enjoy singing, where did you learn it?
  3. Do you, or does anyone close to you, use a walker or other such device? How have you incorporated it into your joy of life?

Next week: TBA


#104 – Looking in Every Direction

This week I decided to adapt an exercise in seeing from The Soul’s Slow Ripening by Christine Valters Paintner (CVP).

Here’s what I did. On our Sunday afternoon countryside drive, I alerted Sam that I would be asking him to stop and take a photo of something in the landscape that attracted my attention. On Powell Road (between Hawkesville and Wallenstein, Ontario) we drove past a field that looked like some new green growth was trying to break through.  Sam was not at all sure the green growth would “show” on the photo, but we decided to take the photo anyway.  It showed.


The next part of the exercise was to do a 1/4 turn to the left and take a picture of whatever we see. We saw Powell Road with its fence posts, Independent Old Order (David Martin) farms in the distance, plus a large farm bush.


That scene, which we’ve noticed every time we’ve  driven down Powell Road, reminded us of summer baseball games and pink flower gardens  and substantial farm-based industries on those distant farms. Then we took another 1/4 turn to the left with the camera, and came upon one such farm close up.


So what do I make of all this? “We are sometimes so captivated by what is in front of us that we miss what is to the side of or behind us,”claims CVP (p. 77).

Such beauty, such promise everywhere – if only we have eyes to see.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Try taking 1/4 turn photos when driving or walking and ponder what you usually miss.
  2. What have you missed in life by turning only one direction?  What have you gained by looking to the left or the right or behind you?

Next week: TBA

# 103 – Of Butterflies, Finches and Turtles

In this week which teased us between spring and a return to winter, I gloried in all-out spring for a couple hours on two different sunny days. I first went with a friend, then returned with my favorite photographer.

I basked in the energy of a massive climate-controlled butterfly garden – the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory.  This week I didn’t consult the guidebook to try to identify each butterfly that flew by – there were too many of them, and they were too energetic. This week I simply observed the warmth and beauty of the conservatory. In 30 years, I’ve never seen the plants looking so lush.


Pair-of-Birds-2Turtle-on-RockNot only did I revel in the butterflies and the abundant miniature finches, but also in the slider turtles lounging by the pond, draping themselves over the rocks in various configurations.

The butterfly conservatory always  nourishes my soul. I love the loud splash of the waterfall. The usual squealing of children was tamed this week by the presence of 10 seniors in wheelchairs with their attendants.  I was pleased to enjoy the colour and energy and warmth of the place with them.

I always leave the Conservatory calm and happy, pondering the transformation of new butterflies drying off their  wings over by the emergence window. My calm spirit in the midst of all that energy always mystifies me

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In weeks that tease you between spring and a return to winter, what places of “all out spring” does your spirit inhabit?
  2. As winter turns to spring, what nourishes your soul?
  3. How, if at all, do newly emerged butterflies connect for you with the Easter story?

Next Week:






#102 The Great Blue Heron

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:

  1. When have you really paid attention to something, as the heron waiting for a fish?  What was that like for you?
  2. In what circumstance have you taken in the beauty of the great blue heron or other bird or animal?
  3. When have you looked at something in nature for years without recognizing what it was, as with me and the salmon run?

Next week: TBA

#101 – Henry’s Red Sea

The modern cover for this classic

Henry’s Red Sea by 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.”

Original cover of Coals of Fire

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.

Paul-Brunner Richard-Detweiler Roy-Clemmer

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:

  1. What were the most formative books you read or had read to you as a child?
  2. What about them has “stuck with you” as an adult?

Next Week: TBA


#100 – Winter and Spring

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.

February-2017The 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.

Peaks-of-Otter 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:

  1. Does music nourish and invigorate your spirit?  Does the change of seasons nourish your spirit?
  2. 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.

Next week: Mind-Changing Books of Childhood




#99 – Movies that Mesmerize and Nourish

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.

  1. Chariots of Fire_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.
  2. 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.Of Gods and MenIt’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.

  3. 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.The ChosenDanny 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:

  1. Which films have you seen in which the characters stuck to their ethical and spiritual principles in a compelling way?
  2. If you’ve seen any of these three films, whose struggle mesmerized you the most? Why?

Next week: TBA

#98 – Reflections on Water

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.

I wonder:

  1. When else does illusion look like reality for me?  Why is it so mesmerizing?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

Next week: TBA



#97 – The Practice of Blessing Each Moment

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:

Amaryllis*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

Available from Penguin/Random House

*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).

Photo by Andy Tapel

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:

  1. 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!
  2. Do you think focusing on “gifts and graces already present” denies “life’s lamentation”?  Why or why not?

Next Week: TBA



#96 – The Grist Mill

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.Abe-Erb-Mill 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!

Abe-on-DoorThe 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?”

Next week: TBA