On Retreat

This is a “cross-post” from my newsletter reluctant sleuth

reluctant sleuth is a Substack newsletter in which I write about mystery fiction, and my search for clues about the mystery of life. I think this particular post might also fit for this blog. If you want to check out what I do on reluctant sleuth, you can find it here:


I’m at Jericho House, near Wainfleet, Ontario, for a (mostly) silent 4 day retreat. This afternoon I went for a long walk in the conservation area next door. It surrounds a disused quarry. From the website of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority:

“Once covered by a shallow, warm sea 300-450 million years ago, what is now the Wainfleet Wetlands Conservation Area was the site of a clay and limestone quarry from the late 19th century until the 1960s. Fossils of the plants and animals that lived in the Paleozoic sea can be seen in the exposed limestone of the Onondaga Formation, in the quarry walls and on rock tableland…

I’ve loved fossils since my late teens, when a guide gave me a fossilized shark’s tooth during a tour of the Science Gallery at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. I still have it. I named it Genesis, and I’ve occasionally used it to take a bite out of religious claims the Earth was formed in 7 days, about 6000 years ago.

When I see fossils “in situ”, as I did in the quarry today, it touches a deep place in me. It’s moving to see signs of life that go back millions of years.

…the quarries and clay pits have naturalized and are home for fish, birds, waterfowl, turtles, snakes and plants. Unique alvar communities of rock-loving plants also thrive in the shallow soils…

It brings me joy to see vegetation rooted in the most unlikely places. Life persists. These remind me of the chicks and hens in my rock garden at home.

…contains the best exposed fossil and viewing area of geological formation and fossils (ancient marine lifeforms) in the Niagara Peninsula, highlighting species that lived 380- 450 million years ago in the shallow warm saltwater sea of the Michigan Basin that covered the site. Trilobites, crinoids, shellfish and corals can be seen.

This is what the floor of the quarry looked like this afternoon. I walked halfway around the rim until I found a gentle slope down to the quarry floor. It looks like beach in this photo, but it’s actually sedimentary stone, with a thin top coat of dried mud, algae, miraculous vegetation, and many, many rock fragments.

When I walk an actual beach, my eyes are almost always at my feet. I seek out interesting rocks. This requires slow, short steps and the willingness to bend at the waist and stare down, looking like I’m either catching my breath or losing my lunch.

It’s worth the risk of looking foolish. I brought some of what I found back to the retreat house, cleaned them, and laid them out on a paper labyrinth. Sadly, when I read the website for the Conservation Area, I learned we are not actually meant to remove the rocks. (I’ll take them back tomorrow, honest.)

For now, you can see some of the varieties named in italics above. (All except for the specimen outside the ring at 7 o’clock on the dial. It’s a porcelain shard. I just liked the colour. I’ll keep that one, since it’s not a rock.)

This day began with a teaching about the labyrinth, an ancient, archetypal symbol that’s fascinated people for centuries. Many retreat centres have one, as do some public spaces. A church I once served had one lined out in masking tape on blue plastic tarps joined so that when unfolded, they covered the floor of the sanctuary, after we moved the chairs out.

The world’s most famous labyrinth is on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral. (They also have to shift chairs to use it!)

There is nothing all that mysterious about walking a labyrinth. It’s walking. But it’s possible to walk with the intention it be a spiritual practice. Unlike a maze, a true labyrinth has only one entrance, and provides an unimpeded, if circuitous route to the centre, at which point you may pause, before retracing your steps on the only way out.

I’ve walked labyrinths in many places, and often found the experience helpful, and laden with meaning. Today I decided to walk around the quarry, down into it, back out and around it again, intending this would be my “labyrinthine” journey.

Labyrinth guides will often suggest taking a moment before you cross the threshold of the labyrinth, to quiet your insides, and open yourself to the experience of the walk.

Walk a natural pace, paying attention to what may be found in the present moment, something like the old sleuth searching out stones on a beach.

You might take time at the centre of the labyrinth, to notice and receive what arises internally- thoughts, images, feelings. (Maybe like looking closer at that cool stone you picked up.)

On the way back out, you may find you’re integrating whatever you discovered on the inward walk. There may be something useful or beautiful in the thoughts, images, or feelings that emerged. Unlike the fossils, which I have to take back, you can bring home what you find.

What did I find today? (I mean, other than the fossils.)

Yesterday I sat with a spiritual director and stumbled through an incomplete summary of my life, internal and external. She suggested I find a way to listen to my “inner child”, to attend to what they need. She went on to say this archetypal character might need some coaxing, and it might be best to invite them out to play, and see where it leads.

Do you remember how to play?

At this stage of life, I find it so much easier to be task oriented. So my “job” for today was to get outside, do a large-scale labyrinth-like walk, and get at the “work” of gaining deep insight.

At about the halfway mark, down on the flats of the quarry, near the water’s edge, I heard something. A vigorous splashing. I stopped walking, to look out at the water.

There was a strange, circular splashing wave. Every so often, a dark triangle broke the surface. I realized it must be a big fish, because the creature had no need to surface.

The tail-fin, I supposed it was, would point almost straight up, which led me to surmise the rest of the fish was engaged in directing its mouth to the bottom, to feed on what ever bottom-feeders feed on.

The circular wave would subside, and then the tail would cut a line in the water for a few yards, and the dance began anew. I was hypnotized.

My reverie was interrupted by a voice from above. Seriously.

A woman standing up top at the edge overlooking the quarry shouted down, “Any idea what that is?”

I said, “No, but it makes me very curious.”

And then I was.


I began to see more around me.

That’s actually when I noticed many of the rocks I’d been walking over and around, bore fossils.

I’d somehow forgotten I like to hunt for rocks. I was in a quarry, just walking.

A fish, and a strange voice reminded me to take a look.

The child in me finds the best rocks.

reluctant sleuth

my new project

I have launched a Substack newsletter, which is a new (at least to me) form of web-based publishing. It’s called reluctant sleuth

I am using reluctant sleuth to serially publish my mystery novel, The Book of Answers, which was nominated for a Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence. It has been exciting to have people outside my circle of family and friends read it, and let me know what they think.

Two new chapters of my book go live each week, and there is an online archive where all the chapters are accessible.

Here is a link to the first two chapters:


I also write short posts every week related to my interests in mystery and thriller fiction, and the mysteries of life.

This week I wrote a bit of a memoir, that traces the beginning of my interest in these things. It’s a fun, and fond recollection of my favourite bookstore when I was a child. Click on the link below to read it:


A note to my readers.

The dashboard for this blog shows me that a surprising number of people follow and read what I post.

I am very grateful for all of you! I really, really am.

I am also branching out.

This blog tends to be a place for things I write that are connected to church- preaching, teaching, and that kind of thing.

I’ve started another project using a platform called Substack, which is more like an email newsletter. My plan is it will be the place for writing that is more in the mystery and detective fiction vein.

The two “worlds” do intersect, and inform each other. That’s inevitable. I look at mystery fiction with the heart of a spiritual seeker, and I look at sermons with the critical eye of a fiction writer.

If you are interested in the “mystery” end of things, I would love it if you were to click on the link below and check it out, and perhaps even take a free subscription to my Substack, which is called “reluctant sleuth”.

One of my ideas for “reluctant sleuth” is to serialize my first novel as I revise it. My writing mentor gave me some constructive criticism about how to make it better, and I was thinking I could let people read it, chapter by chapter, and get your reactions.


Books I’ve read in 2023

My son keeps a list of the books he reads, albums he listens to, and movies he watches. I’ve long thought this was a great idea. For 2023 I plan to keep a record of what I read. I’ve started with the fiction, but am now wondering about including the non-fiction.

(Part 1: Jan-Feb, and a hint of March)

January 1, 2023. The Night Fire by Michael Connelly. 2019. This is the third novel to focus on LAPD night-shift detective Renee Ballard. It also the 22nd featuring Detective Harry Bosch.

Noting this helps me recall that I’ve read these other Ballard books:

The Dark Hours (2021)

Dark Sacred Night (2018)

The Late Show (2017)

I will look to read the new one, Desert Star (2022), when I can.
January 4, 2023 The Foulest Things by Amy Tector. I read it because a reviewer mentioned Louise Penny liked it. It was well constructed, with distinct characters, except for 2-3 women who worked with the protagonist at the archives- they all blended together, which was at times confusing. I might read more in this series, just because of the Ottawa setting.

January 5, 2023. The Recovery Agent, by Janet Evanovich. The first in a new series by the author of the Stephanie Plum novels. Essentially the same style, and patterns of dialogue. Gabriella Rose chases after lost or stolen items. Stephanie Plum finds people who skipped out on bail. The similarity was magnified because I listened to the audio version, which I think has the same narrator as the Plum stories.
January 17, 2023 The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly. Second in his series featuring reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI agent Rachel Walling. They work together to defeat and capture a serial killer who uses the internet to identify victims and set up others to take the fall for his crimes. McEvoy is the protagonist/narrator. He does not seem to have the depth of Bosch, Ballard, or Haller, but I’ve admittedly read more titles featuring them. I started the first in this series, The Poet, and quickly realized I’d already listened to it, probably the COVID summer I cycled big kilometres every day with a book in my ear.
January 23, 2023 The Overlook by Michael Connelly. Another Harry Bosch crime story. In his timeline, it follows the events at Echo Park. Harry and his ex-girl friend FBI agent Rachel Walling work together to solve a murder made to look like an attempt by foreign terrorists to acquire medical cesium to build a radioactive dirty bomb. I have never sat down to sort out how many of the Bosch books I’ve read, so it seems like each time, I jump in at a different place in his timeline. Connelly is pretty good at providing enough context to sort it out as I read. Wikipedia says this #13 in the Bosch book series, published in 2007. In it, Bosch can barely work his cell phone.

January 26, 2023 Cold Storage Alaska by John Straley. Published in 2013. The first I have read by the author laureate of Alaska, who is also a private investigator. Filled with quirky characters, a long slow burn of a plot, and wonderful evocative descriptions of locale. This is part of a series about an isolated village on the Alaskan coast. I will definitely read more. I noted that he wrote “over the heads” of several major characters, allowing depth of character development, and a roving point of view that worked well. 

January 30, 2023 Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey. Published in 2020. This novella was recommended by my daughter who is a librarian. It is a story set in a future history in which the United States is broken into smaller territories, and there is some kind of war going on which claims much of the available wealth and resources. We meet a trio of traveling Librarians, who have license to make their way on the broken down highways that link communities in a new “old west”. The most common mode of transport is horse and wagon, and the Librarians wear badges, ride horses, and wield six-shooters. They are also smugglers, moving contraband books and other media, as well as supplies for the “insurrectionists”. The background society described is reactionary and homophobic. The Librarians we meet in the story are other than hetero-normative, which comes as a shock, and eventually a liberating relief to the young protagonist, a young woman who is struggling to claim her own identity, and who fled her home community after her lesbian lover was hanged for possession of subversive materials. This novel is less about plot, and more about the protagonists movement from grief and fear and towards love, purpose, community, and self-acceptance. I appreciated this character arc, and get how important it is. At the same time, the book carries the burden of being a bit preachy/teachy (pedantic) and at times I wondered if I was reading a YA book.
February 5, 2023 Desert Star by Michael Connelly, 2022. This is one I’d been waiting to read. Now retired LAPD homicide investigator Harry Bosch is recruited by Detective Renee Ballard to serve as a volunteer on the open/unsolved “Cold Case” unit she has re-established. They work together to close long unsolved cases, one of which was close to Bosch’s heart. One of the things I respect about the author is he allows his protagonists to grow, change, and age in real-time. In this novel, Bosch is 72 and feeling it. He has serious health issues, and there are hints/red herrings dropped that this is his last case. There are also “cameos” by his daughter, Maddie, who is now an LAPD street cop, and his half-brother, Mickey Haller, the defense attorney also known in another Connolly series as the Lincoln Lawyer.
February 5, 2023. Bloody Genius, by John Sandford, 2019. This is the 12th in a series about Virgil Flowers, an investigator with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. I will be reading more of these. Flowers wears band t-shirts and jeans and drives a Chevy Tahoe, and lives on a horse farm, and takes on special assignments when a mess needs to be cleaned up. He’s also a part-time writer, and likes to read mystery fiction. In this one, he works his way through a James Lee Burke novel when he’s not hunting the killer of a university professor and medical researcher. Two things I especially liked in this one were Sandford’s deft handling of a point of view behind, but not in Virgil’s head, and the way he used conversations between Virgil and other characters to reveal the detective’s thought process in searching for the killer. Less appealing in the book was the sometimes gratuitous use of profanity, in places that didn’t require it for drama or character revelation.
February 10, 2023 The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992). This mystery novel by the former writer laureate of Alaska, is the first in John Straley’s series about private investigator Cecil Younger. Straley’s descriptions of locale are incredible, and his turns of phrase about characters are compact, nuanced, and very effective. The impression I had was of not so much being told a story as shown one, with me as reader doing some of the work of noticing how elements could connect. I like this approach, and to some degree have attempted it in my own writing. It is a contrast with the “think it through out loud” method, that reminds the reader what needs to be considered, in the solution of the crime. The third to last paragraph of the last chapter, contains a lovely line about the function of myth. The investigator reflects on the folktale that gives the book its title, The Woman Who Married a Bear, which was told to him by the matriarch who hired him to find her son’s killer. He wonders if the old woman told him the story to “ease me along the path of her own suspicions”, but he chose not to ask. He decided, and this is the line I love, “Most old stories don’t have anything to do with facts; they’re the box that all the facts came in.” 
February 16, 2023 Holy Ghost by John Sandford. 2018. Eleventh in the Vernon Flowers series, immediately previous to Bloody Genius. I again enjoyed the use of the narrator who told the story from “over the shoulder” of several characters, including at one point, “the shooter”. That was a careful tease that actually contributed to the confusion over their identity. I continue to zlso enjoy the way the protagonist talks out his theories of the crime, or lack of theories, with those in his company. It provides a particular kind of characterization, and avoids lines like “Flowers thought it possible the killer was one of the nuns from Uruguay.” (There are no Uruguayan religious in the book, so that wasn’t a spoiler.)
March 3, 2023 Babel, by R.F. Kuang. 2022. Rebecca Kuang is a Chinese-American scholar, and fantasy writer. She holds degrees from Georgetown University, Cambridge, Oxford, and she’s currently at Yale working on a PhD in Asian languages. Her familiarity with the higher end of the academic world comes through in this historical fantasy, set in Victorian England. I enjoyed her view of that society, and the rarefied circles of Old Oxford, described from the perspective of people of colour who are recruited to do a special kind of magic that undergirds the industrial progress and colonial expansion of the Empire. The full title: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence is a nod at one of the important themes of the book. The colonial project is both furthered and maintained by systemic violence, racism, classism, and the subjugation of the people of non-white nations, and the threat of military force. To undo, or dismantle this empire would seem to require something like a civil war. She succeeds in making the novel a meditation on the human cost of imperial capitalism. My only criticisms are that her passion for linguistics seems to lead her to some awkward word choices, and that at over 1400 (Kindle) pages, it’s a long read.

I checked to see the page count in hardcover- it’s 544- which is still a lot!

The Whispers of Angels- Worship for May 2, 2021

Have you ever been surprised by the urge to do something out of the ordinary? Some might call it a whisper from God, or as in the story from Acts, like an angel is speaking to you. If you have had such a moment, did you follow the urge, and do the strange thing?

 I have a personal story about one of those angel whispers. It was more than thirty years ago.  I was a student minister, in rural Manitoba. It was 9 pm, on a cold January night. I was home alone in the manse, the minister’s house beside the church. I had been out for a supper visit. As a young, single minister in farm country, I rarely ate at home.

I got this odd urge to go out again into the cold dark night, without knowing where. I warmed up my little silver-grey Chevy Chevette, and headed out. The village I lived in was very small, more like a place where two country roads crossed near a grain elevator. There were maybe 60 houses, one church, and a post office. It was only a short drive up the main street before it met the provincial highway. By the time I reached the stop sign, I knew I should turn left. That took me south on highway 59, but I did not stay on the highway long. I turned right on the road towards the ski hill, which led up into rolling hills along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. You could stand on a marker at the top of of Thunder Hill and be in two provinces at once.

 The car seemed to know where I was supposed to go. I slowed and turned right, and up the long driveway to Eric’s house. He was a man in his forties who was very involved in the church. His lights were on, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too late to drop in. At harvest time a late night visit would have made more sense, because the odds would be good that Eric would have just been getting in from driving combine. But in the middle of the winter this was all very strange.

 Eric saw me coming up his drive, and light spilled out as he opened his mudroom door. The mudroom is the way you enter if you are not company. Company would use the front porch door. The mudroom is where you knock the mud or snow off your boots, remove your outer wear, and come in the back of the house to the kitchen.

 Eric welcomed me, and had me sit at the kitchen table while he put on the kettle for tea. Seriously, two guys sitting down in a farmhouse kitchen to chat over tea! He ran water into the kettle, but before he could plug it in, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. Eric said hello, and then just held the receiver against his head, and stood, mouth open.

I saw his face, and I knew why I was there, why I had left my house so late at night, in the January cold, to show up unannounced at Eric’s door. There had been a tragic, unexpected death in his family, just around the time I climbed into my car. His brother-in-law was making the calls to let all the family know.

I sat with Eric for a few minutes, and went with him to the next farm over, where his mom and dad had already had their phone call. Eric’s older sister had died. The family, from different parts of the province, would all be coming home.

It happens this way, sometimes. If we are open to being led by God’s spirit, then God’s spirit will lead us. I chose that dramatic example, because I will never forget that night. But little nudges, and good ideas, intuitions, and inspirations happen all the time. We notice a person who seems like they need a little attention. We get the urge to pick up a phone and check in with someone we have not talked with for a while. We do it and discover it was exactly the right time to call.

The subtle whispers of God may nudge us, ask us to go outside our comfort zone.  In the story from the Book of Acts, Philip responds to such a whisper, and sets out down a wilderness road. There was an Ethiopian eunuch on that road, a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of her entire treasury, and was travelling from Jerusalem back to Ethiopia, in his own chariot.

 Philip heard the Spirit whisper to him again, to go to the chariot. He ran over, and heard the court official reading from the prophet Isaiah, from a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures.

 This is pretty interesting. Philip followed the Spirit’s urging to approach a total stranger, who turned out to be a foreigner. He was a non-Jew who had been to Jerusalem to worship, and who was apparently well enough educated, and wealthy enough, to have his own scripture scroll.

 The Acts of the Apostles is essentially volume two of the Gospel of Luke. It tells stories of the development of the early church. In the days following the first Easter the small group of Jesus followers, mostly Jewish converts living in or near Jerusalem expanded rapidly. Their movement spread into nearby communities. It also began to cross ethnic, and economic, and cultural lines, and cultural taboos.

In the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we can see the early Jesus movement was radically inclusive, and incredibly welcoming. Philip heard the person in the chariot reading the Hebrew scriptures, and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The man in the chariot replied, “how can I unless someone guides me?” 

 Philip would have been taught from childhood to keep his distance from anyone outside of his class, and culture, and religion. Even so, he stepped across all those boundaries to share his faith.

 A eunuch was a man who’d been castrated as a boy. In some ancient cultures this was done to slaves before they reached puberty, with the belief it would make them docile, and trustworthy.  Eunuchs often served female royalty because they were not seen as a sexual threat to the women, or a threat to the men who considered the women to be their exclusive property- but that’s a road we aren’t going down today.

 The man in the chariot had climbed the ladder of respectability and trust, and had been placed in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He would have a lot of power and influence back home. But to most people in Jerusalem he’d be seen as ritually unclean.

 Some foreigners were allowed to come to Jerusalem to worship, and even to enter the courtyard around the Jewish temple. The man in the chariot would not have been welcome, because he had been castrated. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, no man who had been mutilated in this way could worship in the assembly of God’s people. He was a permanent outcast, made irredeemable by the abuse that had been done to him, without his consent, when he was a child.

 When Philip joined the eunuch in his chariot, he’d been reading the part of Isaiah that said,

 “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

 I can imagine those words would have touched him deeply. He might identify with someone who had been unjustly treated, and humiliated.

 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

 Philip followed a whisper of God, and stepped out of his comfort zone. The result was a man who was once a stranger felt so touched by God’s love he decided to be baptized, and become a follower of Jesus. His life was forever changed. I think it would also have changed Philip, left him more open to what could happen, if he continued to listen to the Spirit’s whispers.

 This is a great story. It may inspire us, challenge us to be a little more like Philip, to listen for God’s promptings, step outside of our own comfort zones, and share God’s love in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Amen

 Pastoral Prayers

Welcoming, Humbling, Loving, Nurturing, Challenging, Guiding, Overwhelming God;

 We know, somehow, that all you really want for us in this life is everything,

and that all you really want from us in this life is everything.

 You love us totally, and long for us to embrace a life that is about pouring out our lives,

to love and serve, to welcome, to nurture, to challenge and guide those around us,

So that they can do the same for others.

 Your love, and our very selves, come alive, as we pass it along.

But we resist. We hold back.

The smaller part of us, skilled as it is in self-preservation, puts the brakes on.

Wait a minute, the little voice says, what about me? What will happen if I don’t take care of me first, last, and always?

Help each of us to know the worst thing that can happen if we live totally, is that we will be totally alive.

 Give us the courage, the faith, the trust we need, to live a little more like Jesus.

 Help us to dare to ask you to lead us, even if that means taking us outside of our comfort zone. Help us to have the courage, and strength and grace we will need, to do what you may ask of us.

 We pray not only for ourselves, but for all others who need your guidance, your leading, your strength, your comfort, your hope.

 We pray for people we know, who are sick, or in recovery and for those who are caring for them.

 We pray for those who take risk on our behalf each day, working on the front lines of the pandemic. We pray for their well-being, their morale, and their safety.

 We pray for the decision makers, and those who create public policy, and those who have to enforce the laws, and the rules.

 We make all of our prayers as followers of Jesus. Amen