Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sing Unto the Lord an Old Song

We walked into an old convent in the town of Cholula, Mexico. A choir from the University of the Americas was rehearsing for an evening concert. The program included  music composed by Mexican and Spanish artists from around the 16th Century. The music fit the venue. If you closed your eyes, you could visualize a group of monks chanting their evening office.

Capilla de la Tercera Orden del convento de San Gabriel,
San Pedro Cholula, Puebla, México
We are in Mexico leading a group of 22 students on their cross-cultural requirement. We were invited to the concert by a friend who had taught a class for a different Eastern Mennonite University cross-cultural group over five years ago. We have remained in contact over the years, and along with attending the concert, we enjoyed catching up with each other.

The sounds of Tomás de Victoria were reverberating through the convent as we entered; four-part polyphonic a cappella music rendered in straight-tones to keep a perfect blend while combating the tendency for the voices to splatter in the echo chambers of chapels. I was mesmerized. My eyes filled with tears as the veil between heaven and earth seemed to be especially thin.

Over the past month before bring the group to Mexico, I have attended a number of spring concerts featuring various groups given by high school and college choirs. I have always been a choir groupie. Perhaps it stems from the fact that choir was the only activity in which I was allowed to participate in my public high school. I sang in choirs throughout high school and college and until recently have sung in an assortment of adult choir groups.

Over the years I have collected a wide assortment of choral music that spans the decades  and genres. I am well-versed in choir repertoire. Unfortunately, as simple guitar-and-drum-accompanied choruses become more and more popular in church circles, I have often been afraid that my beloved choral music would die out. The verse “sing unto the Lord a new song,” which I deliberately mis-quoted in the title, is used as justification for their use.

I know this puts me on one side of the worship wars which is not my intention. However, I think we are missing a lot when we totally eliminate the old songs. I remember trying to sing traditional Christmas carols or Easter hymns when most of the people present did not know them. Within our old songs resides the collective memory of our Christian tradition. Can we just throw it away?

So aside from how glorious the music sounded when I entered the convent the other night, another thing lightened my heart. Something that gives me hope that the choral tradition will not die out. Here were nearly thirty young folks in Mexico, not exactly known for a great choral tradition, singing in perfect unaccompanied four-part harmony to a packed audience. I could see from the looks on many of their faces that the music was as transcending for them as it was for me.

One could say the same for the dozens of youth who sing in choirs at the universities in my home town of Harrisonburg, VA. You expect Eastern Mennonite University to have good choirs since four-part singing has been part of its tradition since their beginning. But one can even be more impressed with the choirs that the public university across town produces. Their select choir, the Madison Singers, features some 40 voices and the University Chorale features some 80 voices. Their repertoire includes many “old” songs and choral works of the church, and one observes how many of the singers are moved deeply by the old music as well.

So, sing unto the Lord an old song. It doesn’t have to be four-part a cappella. It can be accompanied by a majestic organ, a small ensemble of instrumentalists, or a full orchestra. Just let the collective memory and accumulated wisdom from across the centuries wash over you and lift your soul.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Thirty-year Fraud

When I retire after the 2015-2016 academic year, I will have completed over thirty years of teaching Spanish and other subjects at the university level. Twenty-eight of those years were full time, with four years as an adjunct.

I never prepared to be a teacher. I majored in Spanish because by testing out of numerous levels of the subject, it was the fastest way to complete a BA that I could find. I got my degree in three-and-a-half years. In fact, I have more hours in both music and communications than I have in Spanish.

While taking the requisite courses in Bible and Anabaptist thought at Goshen College, I became interested in pursuing a seminary degree. After graduating from Goshen, I enrolled part time at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. I loved my studies there more than my courses in Spanish, but after only one year, Hesston College, knowing my abilities in Spanish, called me to teach Spanish. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I accepted and began teaching Spanish. I only had a BA and no courses or experience in education.

As part of my employment agreement, I had to pursue a Master’s degree in Spanish, which I did. I enjoyed these studies greatly and did well enough to be nominated by the Spanish Department at Wichita State University for a Danforth scholarship to pursue my PhD in Spanish. They were stunned when I didn’t get the scholarship. I pretty sure I know why I was turned down. I had too many interests and was too honest. I said I wanted to be a missionary or a teacher. They were looking for a focused scholar/teacher.

I was invited to teach Spanish at Eastern Mennonite College after a successful 7-year stint at Hesston College with the promise that I would pursue my PhD. After teaching for two years, a budgetary crisis hit the college and there was a change in some of the promises I had been given to lure me to EMC. This was a disquieting time for me, and some of my earlier interests started to surface. I turned down an exciting opportunity to work in the travel industry and decided do a stint with Mennonite Central Committee. We went to Mexico for three years. That postponed my interest in pursuing a PhD.

Once again Hesston College called. Could I return to teach Spanish and German after the three-year term with MCC? Having a young family with no way to look for other opportunities while abroad, I readily accepted. I lasted for five years before the restlessness of wanting to pursue interests once again surfaced. Those of you who have studied the Enneagram will not find it surprising that I am probably a seven. We tend to be “gluttons” for new experiences. So off I went to work as the director of communications for Virginia Mennonite Conference and Missions for seven years. During this time I taught as an adjunct at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

You guessed it. Another attractive position for director of cross-cultural programs opened up at EMU with a half-time teaching load. I have been there ever since, returning to full-time teaching discovering after five years that academic administration wasn’t for me.
Throughout my years of teaching at the university level, I have felt like a fraud for two reasons. First, I had never had any training in education and although I was considered a good teacher, my mind was always fanaticizing about other more interesting pursuits. Secondly, I never attained that PhD.

I have been reminded on many occasions and in many ways of my lack of a PhD, each time enhancing my sense of being a fraud. Many times I have been introduced as “Dr. Clymer” with the assumption that by working at a university, I had attained this level of education. Over the years I have received lots of correspondence addressed to “Dr. Clymer.” I was grandfathered in as “Assistant Professor;” under current policies, I could not have this title, cannot be tenured nor apply for a sabbatical. I have been denied the teaching of certain classes because of my lack of a PhD.

Instead of pursuing a PhD, I returned to studies in seminary and graduated with a second master’s degree in 2008. My concentration was in spiritual formation and I found tremendous catharsis in examining the intersection between spirituality and cross-cultural experiences; especially my own. Perhaps to vindicate my sense of fraud, I poured myself into writing and have been published widely with dozens of articles in church periodicals and several books. But within some academic circles, these writings have been dissed for not being academic. Feelings of fraud reared its ugly head again.

In spite of these feelings of being a fraud over the years, I have come to realize that I have made significant contributions to the lives of hundreds of students and others. I have hundreds of notes from them to back this up. I continue to mentor students who have entered my life, and none of them have asked me why I don’t have a PhD. In spite of how difficult it is at times, I also have come to realize that I am not defined by my educational level.

Groveling in the dirt with a student during a service project
 in rural Guatemala.
Tomorrow for the last time, I will be leading a group of 24 students on a cross-cultural adventure to Mexico, some for three weeks and the rest for six weeks. I am confident that for many of them this will be a life-changing experience, and I thank God for the privilege I have of having a hand in this. It is my relationships with these and many other students that I choose to remember as I ride off into the sunset.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sola Scriptura: A New Reformation with Celtic Spirituality

This was first published as a guest post on Tyler Tully's blog "The Jesus Event" on March 11, 2014.

Martin Luther, along with many other reformers, founded the Reformation on the phrase Sola Scriptura (only scripture). Over the years the Church had developed rites and practices that were based on tradition more than scripture. Many of those practices were abused and according to the reformers, idolatrous. Reformers admonished their flocks to return to reading the scripture for their spiritual practices instead of worshiping images and saints. Whereas the Holy Bible previously was only available in Latin, the reformers translated it into the common languages of the people, making the printed word accessible to everyone, not just the learned clergy.

The printed page became the basis not only for the reshaping of the church, but also the reshaping of the mind. Linear thought, the scientific method, and individual rights grew from the influence of the new medium of print. It was the foundation of what became the Modern Age. Sola Scriptura was the perfect rallying cry of the Reformation.

The printed page, although still around, is loosing influence to images, which are becoming more and more important as screens replace books as the medium of choice for most people. Images are more ambiguous and less linear that the written word. Sola Scriptura, as a written form, is loosing its ability to retain the imagination of seekers of God in a post-modern world.

Perhaps, like John Eriugena, a teacher of Celtic spirituality, we should look to another form of Scriptura. “God speaks to us in two books,” taught Eriugena. “One is the little book, the book of scripture, physically little. The other is the big book, the book of creation, as vast as the universe” (Newell, 2008, p. 50). The book of creation as God speaking to us has largely been ignored since the Industrial Revolution. Nature was to be exploited and used for our material gain, not something deserving reverence. This misuse of creation has caused untold devastation and alienation. 

Pelagius, one of the original Celtic theologians, debated with Augustine about creation. Augustine thought that God created the world ex nihilo; out of nothing. Pelagius countered that God created the world ex Deo, out of the very essence of God. How much different would we treat creation if we considered it coming from the very essence of God rather than out of nothing? J. Philip Newell contends that Augustine’s view of creation is materialistic, and as such, served the Roman Empire well in exploiting the natural resources it needed to extend its empire. Every empire since has exploit the earth’s resources in similar fashion. Augustine’s view of creation ex nihilo became the standard belief of Christendom and the reformers accepted it as well. Pelagius was condemned as heretic.

The objectification of nature and its exploitation has taken a huge toll. Many younger people are worried about what will happen to their future and their children’s future if something isn’t done to restore creation to God’s original intention. The big book, God’s good creation, “has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:22 NRSV). God is calling us through creation. It is time for the next Reformation to begin. It is time for God’s children to rally around a new emphasis on Sola Scriptura, the big book of scripture: creation. Creation that comes out of God’s very essence.

J. Philip Newell calls this reading of the creation “listening to the heartbeat of God.” “If God were to stop speaking,” wrote Newell, “the whole created universe would cease to exist” (Newell, 1998, p. 35). We need to stop and listen to this eternal song, which is found in all of creation, ourselves included. “The deeper we move in the body of creation and in the inner landscape of the human soul,” writes Newell, “the closer we come to the Presence. Christ carries a tune that is at the heart of matter.” (Newell, 2008, p. 97)

In order for us to take the Scriptura of nature seriously, we need to quiet ourselves and listen to its tune. We can listen within, where our souls bear the stamp of our God-imageness. We can listen to our neighbors and get in touch with their God-imageness. We can listen all around us, to the rhythm of the seasons, the beat of the animals or the song of the wind. There is a longing within us and within all of creation for wholeness, for restoration, for resurrection (Rom. 12:8). Listening to the “Heartbeat of God” within the cosmos, which Celtic spirituality teaches, helps the restoration.

“When we hear the Heartbeat of God, whether in our own soul or in the heart of another, whether in the body of creation or in the vast expanses of the cosmos, we experience ourselves as being called ‘by name’” (Newell, 2008, p. 120).

Sola Scriptura. Time to allow ourselves to be reformed by the other book of scripture.

J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1998).
J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2008), p.50.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Timely Reflections

¿Qué hora es? Wie spät ist es? What time is it? This is how the three languages that I am familiar with ask about the time of the day. The answer to each of these questions is: Son las tres, Es ist drei Uhr, and It’s three o’clock.

I am a literalist, so I am not very good at translating poetry and aesthetic prose. I do things word for word. I also like to translate idioms literally and speculate how they may have come about, even though they may have come to mean something different in current usage. This helps me compare languages and the cultures from which they have come.

Take the expressions we use for telling time. In Spanish, they literally ask “What hour is it?” They answer that question, “They are three (hours).” When asking what time something is, they ask “¿A qué hora es . . .?” meaning “At what hour is . . .?” The answer to this is “Es a las ocho.” That means “It's at the eight(h) (hour).

Spanish-speaking countries are notorious for their lack of punctuality. The way they talk about time reflects this. When an invitation to a social event says 3 p.m., so long as you show up before 4 p.m. you are still on time. After all, the event is “at the third hour.” The third hour begins at 3 p.m. and ends at 4 p.m. So as long as you arrive before four, you are within the hour stated as the time of the event.

Contrast that to the German time expression “Wie spät ist es?” That means, “How late is it?” German-speaking countries are well known for their punctuality. They are always worried about getting somewhere late. Now there is another way to ask the question about the time in German: “Wie viel Uhr ist es?” This literally means, “How much clock is it?” Perhaps a shorter way of saying “How much of the clock is it?” In everyday speech it is much more common to hear “How late is it,” but both expressions are related to punctuality.

Interestingly, when they ask at what time something is, they say, “Um wie viel Uhr ist es?,” which means “Around (about) how much of the clock is it?” The preposition “around” doesn’t seem to lend itself to punctuality. The answer to this question is: “Es ist um drei Uhr.” “It’s around three of the clock.”

English is clearer on punctuality. “What time is it?”, we ask. And we answer, “It’s three o’clock. O’clock is a contracted form of “of the clock.” We use the same expression in the answer to the question, “What time is . . .?” We answer, “It’s at three of the clock.” There is no ambiguity with the preposition “at.” It means “on the dot” without having to say it.

Does our language reflect our culture, or does our cultural reflect our language? I’m sure this discussion could be developed more by examining more languages and how the expressions surrounding time reflect the way those cultures respond to clock time.

Time to reflect on how timely this subject is. It is timeless.