Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Yes and No: On Staying Home in Oregon Instead of Traveling

 Yesterday was Tuesday, which is the day of the week on which I'm committed to posting. This week's post was supposed to be about some place I've traveled to in the last year.

I have been very busy, so, instead, I'm going to tell you about staying home.

No doubt you already know this, but here on this mortal coil, you can't be in two places at once. It is really too bad.

Also, you usually can't say Yes to very many things without saying No to a bunch more. Also too bad.

Paul left today for the Horse Progress Days in Indiana. It might seem odd to you to have "horse" and "progress" in the same sentence. Essentially, it's a huge gathering of Amish people and a few others where they do all kinds of horse-related activities and demonstrate new machinery that's adapted for use with horses.

A couple of months ago, Paul sent me a video about the event, and when I saw the little Amish kids in a pony cart parade, I felt that I just had to go.

But there is that matter of the mutually exclusive Yes and No.

So Paul left today, by himself, with specific instructions to ask an in-charge Amish guy if it's ok to take pictures, and then to take 2-5 pictures of each event and send them to me. People who used to be Amish aren't supposed to be this ga-ga and touristy over little Amish kids, but I am. 

I said No to listening with delight to hundreds of Pennsylvania Dutch conversations and Yes to conversation of a different sort, very much in English but also deeply satisfying. My neighbor Anita and sister-in-law Lois are coming over tomorrow for our annual birthday tea.

I am planning fresh mint tea, cucumber sandwiches, a chocolate cake, and much empathy.

And, let's be honest, Oregon is the best place to be as June closes and July arrives. Golden fields in neat windrows, the whine of passing combines, the excitement of harvest, the exquisite smell of cut ryegrass on an evening breeze. All to the accompaniment of almost no humidity.

Saying No to traveling with Paul means saying Yes to watering my dahlias, watching the sun drop down behind Mary's Peak as it leaves a pink sky behind, and checking my potted plants on the porch in the cool early morning.

No to travel means Yes to staying home. Not a bad exchange, really, especially since Paul let me know that his flights were delayed and he arrives in Chicago at 3 am.

I hope he has fun, chuckled Mrs. Smucker as she tucked the chickens in for the night and turned off the lights.

A few shots of our summer, so far:

Jenny came home for a week. We visited Grandma and played Triominoes

The sisters-in-law went to the town of Sisters for a few days.

Emily came home for the summer. Jenny took a "Beau or Bro?" shot.

Ben graduated from Oregon State with a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering.

Ben demonstrated his expertise in his research field of smoldering combustion.

I tried a straw bale garden and it was a complete disastrophe, as Emily used to say.
I should have put more soil on top of the bales, but the main problem seems to be that the 
straw was from grass treated with a long-acting herbicide.

However, the geraniums and cats are flourishing.

And the garlic is growing little elf hats.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Mr. Smucker Speaks: On Asking God Why

Dorcas and Paul

Every human wants to know why.    Why am I sick?  Why does this food taste bad?  Why has this bad thing happened to me?  Why did my chicken die? We often ask why and usually that is a good thing.  We should ask why Sally failed the test or why Jill got 100% on the same test.  We should ask why John broke his arm or why Peter is always so reckless.  We should try to know why if it helps us solve a problem or to make something better. 

Too many times, however, we want to know why so we can figure out who to blame, which is what the disciples appeared to want to do in regard to the blind man in John chapter 9.  

1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

Jesus and his disciples had evidently seen this blind man many times.  They all knew he was born blind.  One day his disciples asked Jesus the question why.  Why was the man born blind?  Was it because of his own sin or because of his parents’ sin?  Who was to blame for his being blind from birth?  Jesus’s reply was the blindness at birth was not because of this man’s sin, nor was it because of his parents’ sin.  Neither were to blame.  In fact, there was no one to blame.  The disciples’ trying to figure out why in this case was of no value.  

Jesus explained that the man was born blind so Jesus could show forth the works of God when Jesus healed him from his blindness.  This man was born blind so that the works of God would be made manifest in him.

Jesus did not berate the disciples for asking the question why.  Instead, he reminded them that if the answer to the why question would not help solve a problem, then the why question was of little value. 

In October of 2020 I preached a funeral service for Tanner Zehr, a 16 year old former student of mine who died from injuries he suffered in an automobile accident.  Many people who were at the funeral were asking why.  So was I, but my why question was a little different from theirs.  My why question was why did Tanner die and not me.  I preached the funeral sermon while sitting on a chair on the platform because I was recovering from a fall in July.  I had fallen on to concrete which broke my skull, numerous ribs, my neck, my back, and both my wrists.  I had bad whiplash which bruised my spinal cord in the area where the nerves to my 4 limbs attach to the spinal cord.  Doctors told my wife that I should have either died or become a quadriplegic. 

Why did 16 year old Tanner die and 61 year old Paul live to preach at his funeral? Through the story of the blind man in John 9, I got my answer.  So God could receive glory.  So the works of God could be manifest in me.  So the works of God could be manifest in Tanner’s death.  So the works of God could be manifest in everyone who attended Tanners funeral.  

Horrible things happen to every human.  Some worse than my fall.  Some worse than being born blind.  I am convinced if we demand an answer to the question of whose fault it was we are missing the point.  The point from God’s perspective is not whose fault it is, the point is, will the works of God be manifest in us, the followers of God, as we go through that horrible experience? 

Because of my fall I retired from my 30 plus years of teaching Christian school.  I retired from my 25-year ministry in the Brownsville Mennonite Church.  I retired from the daily grind of the Wilton Smucker grass seed warehouse I had owned for 20 years.

During my recovery I had the opportunity to start doing PR work for a ministry called Open Hands, and that is God’s calling on my life now.

Open Hands is a mission that reaches out to people in poverty around the world, not with humanitarian aid, but by training local Christians to facilitate community groups who save money together.  People with few resources realize they have the ability to save as they begin to overcome their dependency and regain their dignity.  In 13 countries around the world, Open Hands savings groups are currently helping more than 30,645 people in poverty understand that they have God given resources they can use to survive without being dependent on another culture. 

If I had not fallen, I would have missed out on this opportunity to learn about poverty, hearing the voice of the poor, and how savings groups are changing the outlook of many poor people around the world.  The people in the savings groups learn not to ask whose fault it is that they struggle financially, but how they can manifest the works of God in the midst of their hardships.

--Paul Smucker

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

On Writing: Leveling Up

Week 5 of my 6-week blogging rotation is a post on how to write.

I've spent the last week wanting to tell you an important concept but having a hard time coming up with a good analogy.

Here's the idea: you want to be an excellent writer, polished and wise and amazing. I mean, your head is full of deep insights, interconnected information, and incredible stories, all swimming in a sea of words and images. You have experience to share, and you see things that others don't. You want to put it out there and hear a collective gasp because it is just that amazing.

As Elizabeth Bennet said to Mr. Darcy, "We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."

Here's the truth: you can't leap from here to there in a single bound.

We all want to be like the young janitor in Good Will Hunting who solved graduate-level math problems without actually going to college because he was just that brilliant.

Or like the poor girl who can't afford figure-skating lessons, but when she finally laces a pair of skates on her feet, she shows such a natural ability that she blows past all the rich girls who have been taking lessons for years and wins the competition. I think that was in a story one of my daughters used to love.

Emily Dickinson wrote in private and didn't publish much of anything, but then the world was amazed after her death.

Most of us are not Emily Dickinson. 

We are just us.

We have to take all the prerequisites before we can take the upper-level math classes.

We have to start writing and we have to let people see it, even though we know that someday we're going to be embarrassed at these early efforts. We have to accept feedback in order to improve. 

We can't get to "expert" without first being "beginner."

I had heard the phrase "level up" in regards to video games, so I asked Paul's cousin Darrell's son Tristan in a WhatsApp message if it worked to compare writing to gaming, that you had to pass through level one to get to level two, and so on.

DISCLAIMER: this is not a blanket endorsement of video games, so if you are 12 years old and your mom doesn't let you play anything beyond Tetris, don't go telling her that I endorse Minecraft. This is a comparison. That is all. 

Let's just say Tristan is a patient teacher and I learned a lot. He said:

It's actually less of an analogy and more of a direct parallel. Games where your characters level up are usually RPGs, role-playing games. The way you level up in those games is by collecting EXP or experience points. By doing the same thing over and over you gain EXP and eventually level up and your stats go up, or you learn a new skill or something.

Even some non RPG games work like this where your characters will get better in certain aspects by repeating the related activities.

While it's certainly true that certain classes have different strengths and weaknesses and natural inclinations, they're not always fixed. A fighter may naturally have higher strength stat growth, if you invest on say their intelligence or wisdom stat you could still have them learn skills or change classes.

"Three Cats on a Porch Rail" [a pseudonym] is a perfect example of this. Each character has certain skills that they're naturally gifted at, but you can choose for them to pursue whatever ones you want them to. And sometimes if you pour enough time and effort into a certain skills they may discover a hidden talent in that area.

Look at the parallels to writing--"By doing the same thing over and over you gain experience and eventually level up. . . or you learn a new skill or something." And if you pour time and effort into certain skills you can discover a hidden talent!

Tristan goes on:

"Honestly it's pretty much like real life. The only way to get better at something is practice. Some people may have natural giftings in certain areas, but even without that work and perseverance can surpass that. I guess to simplify to get to level 10 you have to achieve all the levels 1-9 first. And to do that you gotta repeat stuff a lot. There's literally a term for repeating something over and over either to gain experience or a bunch of items or whatever. It's called grinding. Level grinding, material grinding, skill grinding etc ."

Well. To get to level 10 you have to achieve all the levels 1-9 first. Keep that in mind, all you hopeful writers.

Don't be afraid to start at level 1. Once you're at 5 or 10, you'll look back and think level 1 looks easy and a bit silly. That's right and good.


Your natural talents may make some steps shorter or faster. But still, you're supposed to look back someday and find all kinds of flaws in your early writing. That's how it works.

It's why I almost never go back and read my own books or old blog posts. I kind of choke at some things--word choices, subject matter, conclusions, my thought process, all kinds of things.

But now it's 20 years later and I think I can safely say I've leveled up a few times.

That is how it works.

But I couldn't get from there to here without going from then to now. If I would have waited until now to start writing, I would most likely write like I did back then and not like I write now. I might have an equal amount of life experience but not equal hours of putting that experience into words.

So make peace with putting words on paper and letting people see your floundering process. You have a story to tell, and that is how you learn to tell it. Dive in. Start telling it in your imperfect beginner way.

You won't ever amaze the whole room if you don't start now, right where you are, and start shaping your story into words.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Winners!

Congratulations to the winners of the book giveaway!
Please contact me at with your mailing address.

36 Poems--
Naomi Yates
Lori Hershberger*

30 Little Fingers
Marnita Kornelson
Renita Kauffman

*Yes, this happens to be my daughter's roommate, but I promise the random number generator chose her, and not me. Of course I let out a happy little squeal when it landed on her name, though.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Book Review--36 New and Laughably Random Poems by Sheila Petre

I'm going to review Sheila Petre’s Thirty-six New & Laughably Random Poems today. But first, a story.

Once upon a time I was a flighty young schoolteacher living with another teacher, named Cynthia, who was the oldest daughter in her family and very responsible and good.

We lived about a hundred yards from a grass-seed warehouse, and the owner had told us we could go into the workers’ lunchroom and help ourselves to hot chocolate packets and other supplies.

One night I wanted a cup of cocoa and discovered we were out. I ran out the back door and dashed across a few backyards to the warehouse, where I found the empty, dusty lunchroom, grabbed a few packets, and ran back to the house.

When I returned, Cynthia sputtered, “You just DO things!”

I was confused.

“You just decide to go get something and you run over to the warehouse IN THE DARK with who knows what guys working the night shift, and you don’t even THINK or PLAN or SAY ANYTHING. You just up and DO THINGS.”

My normal bent at that time was to immediately melt into a puddle of shame when a big sisterly type of person defined me, but because Cynthia was more flabbergasted than judgy, and because the logic outweighed her opinion, I was fine.

In my mind:

1. We were out of hot chocolate.

2. Jason had said we could get more in the lunchroom.

3. Therefore, it made sense to go get more.

Cynthia and I didn’t get along very well, until we did, and that happened only because Cynthia was much better than me at sitting down and having hard conversations. We came to accept our differences, for the most part. I hope if she were alive today she would tell me that I still just DO THINGS, and we would laugh.

I recalled that story because I want to review Sheila’s book, and if ever there was someone who just up and does things, it’s Sheila. She does things the rest of think, vaguely, would be fun to do someday, but we never make it happen. She also does things we haven’t thought of or don’t have the nerve to do. And she has a lot of fun in the process.

I wonder what it would have been like if she had been my age and a part of my life at age twenty. I think I’d have learned to have adventures far beyond running to the warehouse for hot chocolate mix.

Sheila actually has connections with the West and my past. For the MennoConnectors among us, her mom used to be in the same youth group as Cynthia. Sheila and her family travel out West every so often and attended at least two of our annual Western Anabaptist Writers’ Dinners, held at our house every August. We never have enough time to talk.

Despite all she’s been through, and it’s a lot, the word that always comes to mind when I’m with her is “fun.” I admit it’s an unlikely description of a mom of nine who dresses in very plain Mennonite styles and ties her covering strings and doesn’t access the internet.

I find that she’s hilariously and thoroughly honest, immersed in real life but given to poetry and nuance, impulsive yet deliberately figuring out how to make things work, and conservative in appearance while liberal in acceptance of others.

Sheila doesn’t have a social media presence, but she’s widely known among Anabaptist readers and probably outside that circle as well. She’s found ways to communicate, write, and publish where she’s at, with what she has. Like I said, she does things.

Many of us writers are angsty and agonized, loving to have written but hating to actually write. We make heavy weather of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. We are like Cynthia, always wanting to do things the Right Way, unable to think of other ways that would also be perfectly fine.

Sheila writes and publishes like it’s no big deal, and has lots of fun in the process. She isn’t stopped by circumstances or custom or nine children. For example, she hires house help so she has time to write. She walks to the post office to mail books with half a dozen children in tow. When her new book comes out, she tells her friends she’ll trade books for casseroles, and ends up with a bunch of meals in the freezer.

Many of us rely on social media as a platform for expressing ourselves. Sheila pours her words into emails. I don't know if she sends out a group newsletter, but I know she doesn’t consider it wasteful to channel her considerable talent and limited time into individual emails to very fortunate friends.

She also bypasses all the traditional publishing channels and protocols to do things her own way. 

Which brings us to Thirty-six New and Laughably Random Poems.

Here’s how it came about:

I mean, who does this, following whims and collecting talented help until a whole book emerges?

Most of us, my children included, don’t have moms who send us poetry prompts. We also don’t tend to publish our poetry with this many quirky details, such as the ducks that waddle along and leave their tracks throughout the book, or the many different bindings available, invented and twisted and tied by the many little Petres.

Look at all those creative bindings!

I tell you, Sheila does the things, and she has fun.

The prompt for December 23 was “write a love poem.” Sheila wrote:


in which I say “I do” again

When you are absent

I yearn for you.

When you are present

I know why I do.

Another sample—


The dark space there between each span of light

Not only keep the days apart,

But gives their brightness depth.

Its quiet hours hold

This contradiction:

Doing nothing fuels the heart

For doing more. We would grow old

Too young, grow weak, and die,

If between our labors did not lie

This gift from our Beloved:


The prompt for December 6 was, “Choose an author. Make his or her name the title of your poem.”

I think every writer should contemplate the poem Sheila wrote:


If a cause you love has merit,
You are not ashamed to share it.
Unscathed by private complication,
Falsehood froths a fearful nation.

Behind a hundred walls you cower,
Loath to own your face or power.
You frame your novel, pen your ode,
And let unnumbered dozens shoulder
The fame and blame, which being bolder,
You might have carried as your load.

Even if you don’t feel like you “get” poetry or speak the language, I think you’ll enjoy Thirty-six Poems. It’s accessible and fun, but the imagery and the twist at the end of each poem will stay with you.

I also need to mention Sheila’s other book, Thirty Little Fingers. It was written a few children ago, and it will make you gasp, think, and feel understood. You will also shriek with laughter when Sheila and her family go to the potluck with all the foreign students and their hosts.

I mentioned Sheila having been through hard things. I know I have Anabaptist readers who will wonder if I feel it necessary to Take a Stand about Sheila and what she believes and writes, because she sat down some time ago with a concordance and Bible and decided to research what Scripture says about the afterlife.

She wasn’t reading Preston Sprinkle or listening to podcasts and didn’t know this was a hot button topic in current Christianity. She was just curious. So she found passages on the subject and wrote about some of her conclusions. These were somewhat different from traditional Mennonite beliefs, and she was consequently dropped from publications, distributors, and speaking opportunities.

Here is my response, in case it matters to you:

1. I haven’t read Sheila’s writings on the subject and haven’t studied it in depth myself, so I can’t say if I agree or disagree with her conclusions. At this point, I don’t need to dig deeper than that.

2. I don’t tend to dismiss or cancel or cut off people for what they believe. I have atheist and non-religious friends whose company I enjoy, who have taught me a lot, and whose books I recommend. I also appreciate many different kinds of Christians, even the ones who weary me with repeating the same pronoun-heavy phrase 17 times during their worship time on Sunday mornings, something like “He is there and this is what it is."

3. I avoid people or choose not to associate with them based mostly on their behavior and how they treat people. If they are dishonest, arrogant, selfish, harsh, abusive, or grasping for power or money, I keep my distance and don't endorse their work.

4. I am uneasy about discouraging people from studying the Bible for themselves, reaching conclusions, and writing about them. After all, our denomination began when men like Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz did that very thing.

Sheila is a kind person and an amazing writer. She does things, she has fun, and she tells the truth. I recommend her and her books. She inspires me to enjoy writing and to publish for fun. I hope she motivates you to go out and do something you've been wishing you could do.

The illustrations are lovely

Sheila and I are doing a giveaway of both of her books! She is generously offering two copies of each title.

To enter, comment on the blog or Facebook or Instagram with your name and which book you would like most—36 poems or 30 Little Fingers. You can comment once on each platform if you want to enter multiple times. If you want to, share something you’d like to do but haven’t done yet.

You can choose the "anonymous" setting for your comment below, but please include your name somewhere in the comment itself so I can reach you when you win.

I’ll pick the winners on Saturday, June 10.

To order a copy of either book,  Sheila says, “If people want to buy, they’ll have to send their payment (cash, money order, check) to 

Sheila Petre

P.O. Box 127

Mercersburg PA 17236

Price is $15 per book, and includes shipping.

For bulk orders, contact Sheila at