Monday, July 25, 2016

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

I came to the church meeting distraught by all the negative, hateful messages that had consumed me from following too many political commentaries on social media. Those of us gathered around tables chatted away while waiting for the meeting to begin. As I ranted and raved about the political mess in which our country is embroiled, a brother beside me looked me in the eyes and said: “Let the dead bury the dead.”

This really caught me up short. I immediately knew what he meant. The verse he quoted comes from Luke 9: 60, and follows with the exhortation: “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The political scene as it is playing out in US America has distracted me far too much. Hearing and reading the discussions of others, I can safely assume that we are all too distracted. Our business as Christians is to get on with Jesus’ Kingdom work, proclaiming the Good News. Jesus gave us the formula for this proclamation in his inauguration address in Luke 4: 18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

During the same weekend of the church meetings, I listened to a podcast of an interview of Xavier Le Pichon by Krista Tippett on her radio show “Onbeing”. Dr. Pichon is a world-renowned geophysicist and a devout Christian. After discovering that the continents are dynamic and moving instead of being static, Dr. Pichon was at the top of his career as a scientist. However, in his middle thirties, he became disenchanted by how his work consumed him, and how he was “not seeing people in difficulty and suffering,” To alleviate what he called his “spiritual crisis,” he went Calcutta, India, to work with Mother Teresa for six weeks. From this experience, he ended up working for a community of  L’Arche for three decades; a community that works with severely handicapped people.

Dr. Pichon went from being a world-renowned scientist to cleaning the diapers of people who for the most part have been pushed out of view to the margins of society. He left the comfort of his cushy job and fame to serve “the least of these.” He is a model of one who “let the dead bury the dead,” to carry out Jesus’ mission to “bring Good News to the poor.” He is proclaiming God’s Kingdom and making God’s Kingdom “come on earth as it is in heaven.”

It seems to me that we would be a lot less stressed during these anxious times if we would be about the work of God’s Kingdom, instead of trying to solve everything through allegiance to a false empire.

During the interview, Dr. Pichon stated that he spends one-two hours in prayer every day. This is what sustains him to continue to work with the challenges of the severely handicapped. This is also part of Kingdom work. If I spent as much time in prayer as I do on social media, I’m sure my anxiety about the political mess would abate significantly.

Let the dead bury the dead, and go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Spacious Heart

In 2014, Herald Press published a book by my sister Sharon Clymer Landis and me, titled The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening. In the book we try to show how we can open our hearts to experience God more fully in our everyday comings and goings.
n 2014,

The opposite of a spacious heart is a constricted one. In each chapter we identify some major problems in our culture and socialization which constrict our hearts to God, to others and to ourselves. The following are a few of these challenges.

Cynicism. Cynicism sucks all the joy and hope from a person. We become cynical when we envision a “future without hope, without meaningful change” (p. 25). This pretty well describes the political situation in US America today. After years of a congress that is paralyzed in partisan politics, many have become cynical about the political process. Our hearts are constricted by cynicism.

Anger. We are a very angry culture. Anger often precedes cynicism. Whereas cynicism stymies ones activism, anger too often fuels it. Again, the current political scene gives ample evidence of the debilitating anger passed back and forth between both sides on social media. An angry culture armed to the teeth results in numerous acts of violence which produce more anger. Our hearts are constricted by our anger.

Fear. Because of all the anger, violence and openly expressed hatred, we have become a culture of fear. Fear of disease, of an act of terror or random shooting, loss of security or life-style, all immobilize us and constrict our hearts.

Loneliness. Broken families, broken communities, loss of faith, hunkering down in our bunkers paralyzed by fear all contribute to our loneliness. We try to fill this loneliness with endless distractions and amusements, including drugs, alcohol, eating, sex and shopping to mention a few. We are social animals, and our hearts are constricted by our loneliness.

I can testify that I have experienced all these constrictive qualities to some degree. Perhaps the one that has affected me the most is cynicism. It took a spiritual crisis to break my cold, hard, cynical, constricted heart. I needed to turn inward in order to develop a more spacious heart. It wasn’t quick nor easy, but by turning inward I was more able to find God and my sense of being made in God’s image. The following are a few of the many ways I turned inward.

Dream work. I discovered that God speaks through my dreams. Many things that I ignore in my conscious life come through in my dreams. This is especially true of the parts of myself that I hide from the public. I also became aware of many parts of myself that I had in common with the rest of humanity.

Meditative walks. Early in the morning, before most people are awake, I hit the streets. Sometimes with a Bible verse, sometimes with a song, sometimes with the “Jesus Prayer,” sometimes with nothing. The combination of breathing, repeating and the rhythm of walking are all elements that help bring us into the presence of God.

Music. Music has always played an important role in my life. Even in my most cynical moments, hearing a piece of music could break down the icy heart I had built up over the years. David played music to Saul to soothe his tormented spirit. I sing both out loud and in my mind at many points in the day. I listen to music constantly. Often the words will remain in my mind, reaching to my soul for the rest of the day, opening my heart to be more spacious.

One of the chapters of our book is titled “Invite you demons to tea.” The demons of cynicism, anger, fear and loneliness need to be faced head on, over tea. A way to keep them at bay is to find ways to turn inward where God is ever present. These spiritual disciplines along with many others, will help break open a constricted heart and make us more open to a fresh awakening to the presence of God.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

MacWorld and Tribalism

The recent vote to exit the European Union by Britain (Brexit) highlights a trend toward tribalism that has been going on since the turn of the century. The cause of this trend is a reaction against globalization. Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock, called this globalization “MacWorld.” He used the ubiquitous fast food chain MacDonald’s as a symbol of the changing world of both economics and culture. No matter where on the globe you live, what language you speak, or what tribe you belong to, you can order from exactly the same menu.

Economically, free trade agreements have opened up borders to buy and sell products globally. I can now buy my favorite Swiss chocolate in my local grocery store, whereas before I could only purchase it in Switzerland. Culturally, the world not only eats the same hamburgers, but it also consumes the same music, movies and wears the same outfits. The result of all of this is a homogenization of culture and tastes. Many dreamers have seen this as a boon to better understanding and peace among the various nations of the world and an end to tribalism. But this has not been the case.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was divided into two superpowers pitted against each other with either strong dictatorships or military alliances holding the precarious peace of world together. After the fall of the Berlin wall, tribalism began to break out across Europe like the Black Plague. The ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia and the votes in Catalonia for independence from Spain are two simple examples.

I witnessed some less dramatic changes in Switzerland over the years which I attribute to this return to tribalism and a reaction to globalization as well. When I first lived in Switzerland, all written communications were done in Standard German—German that could be understood by any German speaker from anywhere in the German-speaking world. All the radio and television programs were done in Standard German as well. The regional dialects of German, and there are many, were mostly used for oral communication. Since the turn of the century, however, and with the advent of the Internet and the cell phone, younger Swiss have increasingly begun to write in their regional dialects to communicate with each other. With literally hundreds of regional dialects, the size of the audience able to understand these individual communications has shrunk considerably.

The same applies to radio broadcasts, and to a lesser  extent television. Many independent radio stations have sprung up which use only the regional dialects in their broadcasts. Whereas before any German speaker could understand all radio broadcasts throughout Switzerland, it is now more difficult, since dialects used change from region to region.

For me, all this points to a reaction against MacWorld and a return to a love of the local tribe. Whether it is the breakup of Yugoslavia and Spain, or the use of regional dialects in Switzerland, or the British leaving the European Union, the world is reacting to the unstoppable march of globalization. We see it in the US as well with the Donald Trump phenomenon. Most of his supporters want to preserve the WASP tribe that they think is what made the USA great.

We all love our tribe, desiring to be with those who talk like us and look like us. I wrote about my own tribe here. But there is no way to stop the globalization which is taking place. We are surrounded by strangers, by strange languages, strange cultures and foods. We cannot stoop to xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Ronald Rolheiser in his weekly mediation says: “In Scripture, God's promise, revelation, and new truth are most often brought not through what's familiar or through those whom we know and who are like us, but through a stranger.” Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Celtic Christianity: Original Sin or Original Blessing?

For the next several blog posts, I’d like to explore a few important themes in Celtic Christian theology. Most of these thoughts come from reading John Philip Newell’s book Christ of the Celts, among others.

A Celtic Cross
I grew up in a home with a very strict authoritarian father. There was little I could do to receive his favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. I grew up in a church with a very strict authoritarian God. There was little that I could do to receive his (sic) favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a proverb based on Proverbs 13:24, was often quoted in my home and church.

My father’s “rod” was usually made of leather and was wrapped around his waist. My God’s “rod” was usually imagined as a bolt of lightning, zapping me for stepping out of line. This view of an angry, retributive God, was reinforced by innumerable evangelistic meetings that emphasized my sinfulness and degraded nature and the need for repentance if I wanted to avoid the eternal damnation of hell.

John Philip Newell, in his book Christ of the Celts, has written that the view of God which I portrayed, and the way my father reared me, comes from the doctrine of original sin. “It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bearers of light, that we are essentially ugly rather than made in the image of love. . . It is a doctrine that disempowers us. . . The consequences, both individually and collectively, have been disastrous,” p. 19.

Individually, this doctrine has made me feel like a worm; like a worthless creature incapable of ever measuring up to the standards of either my earthly or heavenly father. It has made me nearly incapable of receiving or giving love. If I wasn’t worthy of love, neither was anyone else. It has taken me YEARS to mitigate this self-loathing and projection on to others, and I am still a work in progress.

Collectively, Newell shows how the doctrine of original sin “was a convenient ‘truth’ for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling,” p. 19. In other words, the Roman empire now had the church to help keep its conquered peoples in line. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who developed the idea of original sin, lived during the time when the Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (380). A highly influential theologian, he became a leading apologist for the fusion of church and state.

In contrast to Augustine, Newell, citing many Celtic thinkers and writers, emphasizes that instead of being “opposed to God,” we are “essentially of God” (p. 58), because we were made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26-27). Furthermore, when God saw his creation, he pronounced it “good” six times, and after creating humankind, he pronounced them “very good!” (Gen. 1: 31).

“The image of God is at the core of our being,” writes Newell.  “. . . it is at the beginning of who we are,” p. 3. Some writers call being created in God’s image “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin.” This is not to deny the presence of evil and sin. It didn’t take long till Adam and Eve rebelled and tainted their God-likeness with disobedience. However, this does not make their origin—their beginning—evil. They were created good. It was their rebellion that caused evil and sin.

Because of the doctrine of original sin, “We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives,” writes Newell.  This is certainly how my upbringing, both church and family, defined me. Rather, according to Newell, we should be “seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.”

How different would my childhood have been, had I been affirmed as essentially good, rather than essentially bad? What if my church had declared my original blessing instead of my original sin? I can only imagine that I would have experienced a genuine love; a love that would not have been based on intimidation and fear, but instead based on the beauty of our mutual God-likeness. A love that would probably kept me from rebelling as much as I did.

Affirming our original blessing instead of our original sin does not mean that we do not need grace and repentance when we rebel. “Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves [our original sin], [. . .] grace [is] viewed as flowing […] from God,” writes Newell. “Grace is given, not to lead us into another identity but to reconnect us to the beauty of our deepest identity [image of God, original blessing].”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Technically Speaking . . . Motivation

I have officially retired from teaching language. Beginning in 1976 with several interruptions, my career teaching language spans 40 years. There have been a lot of changes in my field in those years, especially when it comes to the technology available to deliver the product.

Language Lab circa 1970
I began with what was called a language laboratory (lab). There were individual booths set up in a special room. A trained technician was needed to play the reel-to-reel tapes that were used at the time. The technician not only had to understand how to operate the equipment, but also had to have some knowledge of each language that was taught in order to cue up the tapes at proper time.

A special hour each week had to be scheduled for students to enter the lab for listening and speaking sessions. I typically had three classes, and sometimes a class had more students than the lab could accommodate, so there were years when I had as many as six different sessions with the lab; all of which had to be coordinated with the technician, usually a student, and the various levels of Spanish that were offered.

Language educators were really excited about this new technology. Where once language was an exercise in reading and writing, listening and speaking could now be added to the curriculum. Students could hear native speakers and reproduce the sounds as best they could; listening to their own efforts alongside the sounds of the native speaker.

As innovative as the language lab was, with the introduction of cassette tapes, they became obsolete.
The Walkman and access to cassette tapes
Not only were they very expensive to install and maintain, their availability to students was limited. With cassettes, nearly everyone owned a tape player and could listen to tapes on their own in their dorm rooms. So at the beginning of each semester, we would hand out a set of some 20 cassette tapes to each student. They carried them back to their rooms in plastic grocery bags, to be returned at the end of the semester for recycling. For the order of each book, a language instructor was issued a set of master tapes to be reproduced. Instead of a language lab, a school now only needed a good tape duplicator and someone to run it. 

As technology developed, the Walkman allowed students to listen to their tapes anywhere they wanted to. They were no longer confined to the limited schedule of the language lab. I even heard of students jogging while listening to their language tapes. There were a few issues with cassettes; tearing and jamming to name a few. Such issues were easily resolved simply by replacing the tape.

The Discman played DCs
Not too many years transpired until the advent of the CD and the Discman player. These were even more portable than the cassettes, and soon the lab component of the text was delivered by CDs. With the order of a textbook, each student received their own set of CDs to do the lab part of the course. Interestingly, the paper workbooks that were used from language lab, to cassette, to CDs didn’t change much other than a few revisions to keep up with new vocabulary.

We have now entered the Internet age. Everything has gone on the web. No more cumbersome labs, bags full of cassettes, or stacks of CD cases. With the purchase of a textbook, students now receive a code with access to the textbook’s “supersite.” All a student needs is a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone and they have access to all their assignments. Not only can they do their listening and speaking assignments on the go, but their written assignments as well.
Laptops bring everything online

Throughout my career, people would ask me what program I would recommend for learning a language on my own. My stock answer is, “buy the cheapest one you can find.” Why do I say this? I have seen many well-intentioned people buy the latest and greatest language technology that promises amazing results in a very short amount of time for a very high price. Too often those expensive programs wind up in a closet or desk drawer with little results.  The adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” applies here. All the bells and whistles of modern technology may get a learner to the language, but unless there is motivation and time, it can’t force a them to learn. A highly-motivated student who invests the proper amount of time will learn on the most basic and simplest of methods.

As I reflect on 40 years in the language classroom, I am grateful for the changes and innovations the new technology has brought to the instructor. In many ways these innovations have lessened the burden on us teachers. Grading online assignments with a computer is much easier than toting 40 half-inch workbooks home to grade. However, I cannot say that students are learning better with the new technology now at their disposal. In my experience, the student who is motivated and puts in the necessary time will learn, no matter how simple or attractive the technology.

Technically speaking, motivation is the key.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Recharge Your Batteries!

Phone supposedly charging on my night stand.
Every night before falling asleep, I plug in my smart phone to let it charge. It usually takes about an hour and a half to recharge, depending on how low the battery is. This morning when I awoke, I noticed that for some reason, even though I had plugged my phone in when I went to bed, it hadn’t charged. The battery was under 20% and going on low power mode. I sorta panicked. When would I have time to charge it? I needed its services and it was running low!

Those of you who frequent airports have probably noticed the proliferation of poles in waiting areas. These are a recent phenomenon. They are for recharging the batteries of all the electronic equipment we carry with us wherever we go. There are often lines of people waiting to recharge their indispensable gear. Most of the rest of the people in the waiting areas are staring at their hands or their laps, using what seems to be so necessary.

Few of us can function without these apparatuses that need a constant recharge. We carefully monitor their use and the percentage of charge left. We are quick to recharge so that we don’t lose all the valuable data we have so carefully saved.

When it comes to our own lives, are we as careful about a getting a recharge? Do we carefully monitor how low our batteries are getting? Do we put in the necessary time to recharge? Do we find places to recharge along the way like in airports, cars or the office?

A favorite story that I have recounted endless times, takes place in Paraguay during a church conference. An indigenous man who lived in a very remote village about four hours away from the capital AsunciĆ³n, took a bus ride to attend the conference. After arriving in AsunciĆ³n, he was observed sitting in a corner by himself. After about an hour, some concerned friends approached him and asked him if there was anything wrong? “No,” he replied, “the bus ride from the Chaco was so fast and furious, that I am waiting for my soul to catch up with the rest of me.”

How often we live our lives “fast and furious” on a bus careening out of control. How seldom we sit for an hour to let our souls catch up with the rest of us; to recharge our batteries. Most of us are running on empty and wonder why we are frazzled, stressed, and burned out.

The Israelites experienced a “fast and furious” time when they were fleeing Pharaoh’s army after their escape from the bondage of Egypt (recounted in Exodus 14). They were in “great fear” and cried out for their deliverance. Moses tells them: “stand still,” and later on “keep still.” One could easily say that they were frazzled, stressed and burned out. Yet to be delivered from their situation, they needed to be still; to let their souls catch up with the rest of them.

Instead of being pursued by Pharaoh’s army, we are pursued by the demons of self-image, self-worth and productivity. We think that getting on a faster bus that takes advantage of every second of our day, will help us get what we think we need. We think that taking time for silence, Bible study or prayer will keep us from getting done all that we think is so important. We have become human doings rather than human beings. Our batteries are in low-power mode and we have no time to recharge them.

Be still. Stand still. Recharge your batteries. Let your soul catch up with the rest of you. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Treasures in Heaven?

I have been going through my files while cleaning out my office. I found this letter that I wrote to faculty colleagues at Hesston College who were celebrating a recent pay raise. My thoughts were shaped by a recent return from a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in rural Mexico. I don’t recall anyone agreeing with my thoughts. Our culture is blind and deaf to this perspective. What do you think?

Dear colleagues,

Before we project our family budgets over the next three years based on what we will be earning, permit me to share some thoughts.
  1. How will this extra money make us “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5: 3)?
  2. How will these extra dollars make us “mourn and meek” (Matt: 5: 4 & 5)?
  3. How will the extra material wealth make us “hunger and thirst after justice” (Matt. 5: 6)?
  4. How will more spending power make us “merciful” (Matt. 5:7)?

Can we afford the extra “spiritual” burden receiving this extra money places on us? Are we “spiritually” capable of being better stewards of God’s money?

Should we compare our salaries with other similar institutions or with the workers who live in the trailer park just a few blocks away?

I, too, feel a budget crunch at home. But I have no notion of hunger, of nakedness or of homelessness. I pray that we can examine the reasons we so eagerly accept more of what loving so dearly is the “root of all evil” (I Tim. 6:10 and Heb. 13:5)

In Christ,
Don Clymer