Gather ‘Round Bids Farewell

After 8 years, 32 quarters, and 416 weeks, this is the last week of the current children’s Sunday school curriculum, Gather ’Round: Hearing and Sharing God’s Good News. Next week will be the first week of the new curriculum, Shine: Living in God’s Light.


In the course of this thoughtful curriculum I have done countless puzzles, tried my hand at various crafts, and edited numerous Bible stories as I read through session after session.

But my own work comes nowhere close to that of Project Director Anna Speicher. By my estimation, she has read a total of some 2600 sessions. (Curriculum was produced weekly for seven age groups for the first two years of Gather’ Round, and after that it was for six age groups each week.)


This is what eight years of curriculum looks like when all stacked up.


I was hired by Anna in February 2005 to serve as managing editor for Gather ’Round, a full year and a half before the first curriculum was used by congregations. MennoMedia and Brethren Press are the co-publishers of Gather ’Round (just as they are for Shine), and in those early days we made decisions about student book names, we established the parameters for what each product would look like, and most of all we hoped and prayed that this curriculum would aid congregations and families in forming faith.

Being part of the Gather ’Round team has been a privilege in my life, and I’d like to share a few highlights.

  • Sharing: In my former congregation, I was part of planning a summer worship series using Gather ’Round themes. It was a delight to bridge my own faith and my work in this way, and to share this brand new curriculum with my church.
  • Teaching: I have loved teaching Gather ’Round. For two years I taught the Middler curriculum to one child. It was certainly a small class, but this one-on-one teaching was such a good way for me to really understand each session. Since then I’ve mostly taught the Preschool curriculum to a group of about five children. There’s no time to go deep with active three and four year olds, but I have appreciated the great variety of activities suggested in each session as we quickly moved between them. It was a delight to see how some children got engaged in memory work, others in art, some in games, and still in others in retelling the story. It reinforced for me the importance of teaching to the multiple ways that children learn.
  • Learning: Participating first as the managing editor and later as a member of the oversight group for Gather ’Round has meant that I’ve learned about all angles of producing a curriculum. I’ve put my seminary Greek language skills to good use and also sharpened my pencil as I looked over sales figures and budgets.

Thank you for the privilege of serving you and the children, youth, and families in your congregation with Gather ’Round! And we look forward to sharing with you through Shine: Living in God’s Light.


To close, here’s a glimpse of Gather ‘Round by the numbers:




publishing partners


age groups


denominations represented among Gather ‘Round users


Bible scholars




curriculum writers


student books


teacher’s guides


Bible stories


Bible insight essays


responding activities

Thousands and thousands

 of children and youth taught



Amy Gingerich, Editorial Director, MennoMedia.Picture of me 1

Siblings Discover ‘Space’ to Write a Book Together

A new book written by siblings Don Clymer and Sharon Clymer Landis, The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening, is launching September 1, 2014. Twenty years ago, this brother/sister pair would not have dreamed of writing a book together. It was not that they were estranged; they simply “barely knew that each other existed.” You’ll find out why below. What follows is a chat with Don and Sharon.  


Q: When and how did you first decide to write a book together?

Don: Sometime in my mid-fifties, I began picking up on some chatter at family reunions from my sister Sharon about taking courses on spiritual formation/direction at some “Kairos” place in Pennsylvania. I had begun taking similar courses at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute. After years of barely knowing that each other existed, we began to share our discoveries with each other.

My journal shows that I began reading Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality during the summer of 2009. I was really taken by this book. All the things I had studied in my program at the seminary seemed to come together in this book. I was so taken by it that I started a small group of college students who met to practice the “four nonnegotiable essentials of a healthy Christian spirituality.”

It was the one essential, mellowness of heart, that kept jumping out at me as unusual in most writings on spiritual formation. I thought a lot about what this concept meant and  gave a number of devotionals on the subject. I decided that there was enough material in this “nonnegotiable essential” concept for a book.

I probably approached Sharon during our family Christmas gathering after the New Year in 2010. I thought her experience with many people as their spiritual director and her bout with cancer gave her an unusual depth of understanding. I also knew that she was a great writer. That’s where it all began for me.

sharon lilacsSharon: I read Rolheiser’s book while a student at Kairos: School of Spiritual Formation and was intrigued when Don began sharing with me his delving into the mellowness of heart concept. When he first asked about writing a book together, though, I was hesitant. I wondered how I could do this being so physically drained from six months of chemo treatments for lymphoma while finishing my spiritual direction training. I wanted life with no pressure. My mind usually resists while my heart draws, so eventually I was drawn into the possibility of writing and trusting our partnering.

Q: Who is this book for? Why did you want to write a book like this?

Don: I teach a course in Eastern Mennonite University’s general education called “Dealing with Suffering and Loss.” It is a senior seminar and I have had an average of 45–50 students in this class each year over the past seven years. I am deeply moved by the amount of brokenness I have seen in this class over the years. Added to the brokenness are their questions about faith and God. I wrote the book with them in mind, hoping that I could guide them toward a deeper commitment to God and a more “spacious heart.”

Sharon: I wrote for all spiritual seekers who are longing for emotional and spiritual intimacy with themselves, others and God.  I wrote to encourage understanding that gaining self-knowledge is not narcissistic but actually helps one know the Source of life and love. Stories help us know from where we came and where we desire to go. I wrote to encourage all who are disillusioned with church or old faith paradigms, who long for stories of spiritual awakening, and who aren’t able to go to a spiritual director.

Q. Did your roles in your family come into play as you worked together on the manuscript?


Don and Sharon Clymer as kids–a group of 11 siblings. Don is third from left and Sharon is fourth from right.

Don: As we write in the book, we essentially came from two different families in spite of being brother and sister. I grew up in the first half, Sharon in the second half. We really didn’t have much of a relationship before our middle age, and working on this project helped me develop a deep respect and love for my sister. We had no serious conflicts over our manuscript.

Sharon: Family roles only came into play in my initial fear of not being able to keep up with what I perceived as a more productive brother! Don was gentle and gracious; I loved working on this project with him, reading his stories, and understanding his concept of family and faith. I can easily say that I have also developed a deep respect and love for him that goes beyond family ties.

Q. When did you first get involved in spiritual direction?

Don: I began receiving spiritual direction after I returned from Mexico in 1989. Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation was where I was trained as a spiritual director. I began the summer of 2003 and have been giving spiritual direction ever since.

Sharon: I tentatively explored receiving spiritual direction as a student at Kairos–and wrote one of my favorite stories in The Spacious Heart book about my fears of it all. Turns out, my director’s companioning me and her deep listening, mirrored love to me. This allowied me to heal and grow in intimate, close relationships with others and with God. I had no plans to become a spiritual director myself, but the Spirit and my own heart kept drawing me. I enrolled in training at Kairos in 2008, began seeing people in 2009, and continue to experience joy in walking with people on the path to greater intimacy with God and life.

Q: What was the original concept and title for the book as you envisioned it?

Don: The title we used to submit our manuscript to Herald Press was Mellowness of Heart: Balancing Our Spirituality. The idea for the title came directly from Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing. “Mellowness of Heart” was that elusive “nonnegotiable essential of a healthy spirituality” that Rolheiser proposed. The word mellowness immediately raised red flags to our eventual publisher. I was simply trying to be faithful to Rolheiser and hoped that by doing so, we would receive an endorsement from him. Not to be the case.

Sharon:  Don explains our original concept well. I was not quite as attached to remaining faithful to Rolheiser, although the word mellow still appeals to me. That said, I totally love the spacious heart title as it says exactly what I desire. I want my heart to be spacious and my soul to keep spiritually awakening.

Q: How did the final title come about?

Don: There were a number of titles proposed before we came up with the one now on the cover of the book. Neither Sharon or I were really happy with the proposed titles, so we did a survey on Facebook with the “MennoNerds” group. There was a lot of serious discussion, alternative titles, as well some humorous interchange. Harvey Yoder came up with the idea of The Spacious Heart. It pleased all interested parties.

Sharon: Nothing more to add except I feared we’d never find a title that everyone liked.  My amusement usually comes after fearing; I’m so grateful that Don’s sense of humor is contagious!

Q: What is your desire for the book and for those who read it?

Don: I hope the book reaches a wider audience than those in the constituent Mennonite Church. I hope it is picked up as a textbook for classes on spiritual formation and other classes. I hope that through reading this book, people can avoid many of the pitfalls I experienced in my life. Above all, I hope it deepens the reader’s relationship with God.

Sharon: My desire is for seekers of all faiths, seeders of an authentic life, to find the courage to tell their own truths, their stories. Every story of an individual’s experiences of God shows the world another face of Divine Love. We’ve kept secrets, repressed emotions, feared real intimacy and vulnerability too long; our churches, our faith, our ability to listen and love deeply, our very awakening rests on finding the courage to risk knowing ourselves and thus knowing God, the Source of life itself.


Recreating the “sibling stairsteps:” this time Sharon is fourth from left, and Don is third from right.

Q: What is your family saying about the book?

Don: Our family seems to be quite excited about the book. By reading it, they will hear new perspectives on family lore and learn some things about us that they never imagined.

Sharon:  Perfectly stated, Don!

Q: What are some of your first speaking engagements about the book?

Don: I am speaking at Staunton Mennonite Church on Sunday morning, September 28, on the subject “Letting My Soul Catch Up with the Rest of Me.” This is the title of chapter 12 in the book.

Sharon: I am speaking at a Soul Tenders retreat on September 13 on the subject “Tending Self-Compassion.” I plan to tell one or two of the stories in our book.


Don and Sharon’s stories are personal and compelling, and some are gut
wrenching. You can buy the book at pre-launch discount of 30 % off until Sept.1. 
Now $12.75 and regular price is $16.99.TheSpaciousHeart


Sharon and Don are both happy to consider any and all speaking, retreat, and book signing invitations. Contact us at for their direct email addresses.

Part II: And then she was gone …

Blog post in 2 parts: 1st part here.

Mary Christner Borntrager was born the seventh child in an Amish family of ten and went on to author of a series of novels with over 500,000 copies in print.

Part II: And then she was gone …

Here’s oldest daughter Kathryn Borntrager Keim’s account of her mother’s last years and days:

“When I walked into the hospital that morning, I was already tired. For the past three months, I had been running back and forth—juggling my household duties, babysitting grandchildren, and taking care of my mother’s things.


“Mother moved in next door to us after my father died of cancer. For 10 years, things went pretty well. Then Mother’s ailments took a turn for the worse. She had TIAs (ministrokes) and heart problems. She was in her 70s and when the doctor said she should not be living alone, Mother moved in to live with my husband and me. She was in our home for four years. Then her health got worse. The morning I called the paramedics, I almost dropped her. She couldn’t walk and had tremors so bad she couldn’t even hold a spoon.


“Now, three months later, she had been in the hospital, then rehab, then a nursing home for the third time. Here she was back in the hospital again, and not doing well.


“I met her doctor in the hall and he gave me an update. The Lupus she had developed taxed her body to the limit causing the tremors to accelerate. He said her lungs were full of fluid again, but felt she was too weak to stand the procedure to clear them. His question was, ‘What should we do?’ My thought was, ‘Please God, I’m too tired to make another decision.’


“The doctor said Mother agreed to have the procedure if he thought it would help. But he wanted my input. I told him as long as Mother could make her own decision, I would go along with it. He said, ‘Why don’t you go in and talk it over with her and I’ll go talk to the other doctors. I just don’t feel good about this. She looks so tired.’


“I walked in the room and Mother greeted me with a weak smile. We talked about getting her lungs drained. She said what she always said, ‘I’ll try.’ I wasn’t so sure but said it was up to her and the doctor.


“Her food tray was sitting untouched by her bed. I asked her if she wanted to eat anything. She replied, ‘Since they were kind enough to bring me something, I should at least try. But I’m not really hungry. I told her she didn’t have to eat, but she said again, ‘I’ll try.’ I gave her a sip of water, and then a bit of pudding. Her mouth moved, and then she was gone.


“I’m not sure what I said when I realized Mother was not breathing. But a nurse came running right away and took over. I sat in a chair and watched in a daze, so many things going through my mind. I wanted to scream, ‘Mother, don’t give up. Please just try.’ Then I realized that Mother never gave up. She lived what she taught us. Keep trying. When things get tough, just keep trying. God is always there to see you through. Just keep trying ‘til He calls you home.


“After my father died, Mother said she sometimes felt like giving up. But then she would remember that as long as you have life, God has something for you to do.


“Her first book had just been accepted for publication about a week before my father died. Yes, she kept trying. The book Ellie, which she wrote while in her 60s, became a best seller for the publisher. When they asked her for more novels, she supplied them with nine more books over the next nine years. At times, it wasn’t easy, but she kept trying.


“I loved to take her to her speaking engagements and watch the people as she spoke. She had a way of making you feel at home. It was like having a cup of tea and chatting with a friend. That is also how she wrote her books—about people’s lives just like hers. The struggles, joys, hopes, and fears. But all in all, never giving up.


“The Ellie’s people series is a wonderful legacy for me to remember how one woman touched many lives through her books and her life. Never giving up.


“Good bye, Mother. I’ll miss you. But now, I must go and make some more decisions. I can’t give up ‘til God calls me home.” –Kathryn Keim, 2002.


Mary Christner Borntrager, at her writing desk.

And now, these books are being resurrected to not only provide a whole new generation with entertaining reading, laced with wisdom and inspiration to think through and solve the family problems and issues that face them, like one reader commented above. At least we hope so.

Rebecca, New Edition
The next book in Mary Christner Borntrager’s 
series, Rebecca, is due out Oct. 1, 2014.

Through this legacy of her books, Mary is still helping her small denominational publisher hang in there and keep trying during these difficult economic times for many publishers.

We thank her family for allowing her books to be published again. May another half million be sold! And we’ll all do a happy dance.


Have you read any books in the Ellie’s People series? What was your favorite?

Did you ever meet Mary Christner Borntrager?

 To purchase Ellie, go here.



Kathryn’s story of her mother’s last days and relatively peaceful death reminds me profoundly of a recent Herald Press on dying called Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well: A Doctor Explains How to Make Death a Natural Part of Life by Dr. Glen E. Miller. See more here

P1050565Post by Melodie Davis, MennoMedia editor, writer, producer. Also blogging