Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I Will Lift My Eyes to the Hills (Psalm 121)

Psalm 121 is a Psalm of ascents, thought to be sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem for annual festivals. Jerusalem stands on a hill between the coastal plain and the Jordan River valley, so traveling from any direction toward Jerusalem required looking up to the hills.
Being a pilgrim has often been used as a metaphor for Christians passing through our earthly life. Hebrews calls us “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13), with no “lasting city” (13:14).  
Our year in Switzerland was like a pilgrimage with no “lasting city.” The hills we saw daily, however, were a continuous reminder that God’s presence was constant and solidly reassuring, like Psalm 121.  

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
 where does my help come from?           
On the way to many of our destinations in Switzerland, we would round a curve in the road, emerge from a dark fir-lined forest, and feast our eyes on the scene pictured below. These are the incredibly beautiful Bernese Alps seen in the distance. In fact, this scene was visible to my wife Esther every day on her commute to work. It never got old, even though she grew up in Switzerland.

            Psalm 121 was also Esther’s parents’ favorite passage. The mountains were as much a part of them as the mountains were part of the scenery. They were so proud to show me their beauty when I made my first visit to their homeland. They were buried for their eternal rest in the shadow of their beauty.

View from parents-in-law's graves.

            Indeed, seeing the mountains’ rock hard-sturdiness that withstood the ravages of the ages, gave Esther and me confidence to go through whatever we had to face on a daily basis. For us they definitely answered the question: “Where does my help come from?”


My help comes from the Lord,
 the Maker of heaven and earth.
             The Lord, who helps us, is also the Maker of heaven and earth. It is hard to find a place in Switzerland where God’s creation is not in full display. Some of the most magnificent displays of nature in the world are packed into a very small land area the size of the state of West Virginia. Through God’s magnificent creation, we were reminded of God’s glory and presence at every turn.


He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
            Switzerland is replete with hiking trails. Hiking is one of the most popular activities of the Swiss. Because of twists and turns, steep inclines and descents, is easy to slip while hiking the many trails through the mountains, even if they are well maintained.  Being assured of God’s presence while on such treks is essential. Unfortunately, too often there are reports of serious injuries and even deaths from hikers who have slipped.



Indeed, he who watches over Israel
 will neither slumber nor sleep.
            Our pilgrimage to Switzerland did not include sleeping in the wild exposed to the whims of nature. Even so, we needed to feel assured of God’s abiding presence during our sleeping hours.

The Lord watches over you—
 the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day,
 nor the moon by night.
            When hiking in the Alps the sun seemed to be fiercer than in the lowlands. Protection from the sun was quite important. Apparently the right hand needed more protection back then because it didn’t have a shield. God’s abiding presence protects us from the elements.


The Lord will keep you from all harm—
  He will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going
 both now and forevermore.

            Not only will God protect you from the whims of nature, but throughout all your life. During our pilgrimage to Switzerland, the mountains that we repeatedly viewed, symbolized this protection for us. Their constant presence, their immutability, their beauty, continually reminded us of God’s enduring presence.  
            Our year is over, our pilgrimage to Switzerland complete. Fortunately we still retain our memories to remind us of God’s unfailing presence with us.


I will lift my eyes to the hills . . .



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pursued for their Faith

We drove past Langnau in the Emmental region of central Switzerland till we reached Trubschachen. There we turned left on a country road winding through a valley with majestically tall fir trees lining both sides of the road, typical for the Emmental Valley. We were looking for the “Täuferversteck” (Anabaptist Hideout). We drove through Trub and then turned left at Fankhus (the well-known name Funkhauser is a variation on this place, and means a person from Fankhus).

The road became one-lane, with pull offs to allow cars to go both ways. The fir trees were closer to the road, and there were only a few farmhouses dotting the landscape. The address “Hinter Hütten” could not be found on our GPS. We passed a sign for “Schwarzentrub,” where the Mennonite name “Swartzentruber” come from, but we couldn’t find our destination. Whenever we met a car, we stopped them and asked them if they knew where the “Täuferversteck” was, and they all replied in the affirmative. They tried to explain to us were it was. Their best directions couldn’t help us find the location because all the farm lanes that led anywhere looked the same, and there were no signs to show the way.

Supposedly there were two parking places along the road, which was to signal the entrance to Hinter Hütten. We must have driven past the entranceway several times. Somehow we found the place where we were to enter. The parking “lot” turned out to be a pull off that had space for no more than two cars. I couldn’t imagine how tour buses could park there.

The Fankhauser home, location of the Täuferversteck
We climbed the steeply inclined dirt lane until we reached a farmhouse. It looked like a normal Swiss farmhouse until we saw an unassuming sign announcing that we had arrived at the “Täuferversteck.” We were confronted by a farmer, apparently the owner of the farmhouse.  He had returned from the fields for lunch. We did not realize that we were to arrange with the family to be able to see the mini-museum located in their living quarters.

“You can’t just walk in like you own the place,” he said to me in Swiss German. “This is a family home.” I apologized profusely, saying that I didn’t realize this. When he detected an accent in my Swiss dialect, he asked where we were from. I told him I was showing my brother and wife from the USA around Switzerland, and that we were Mennonites wanting to see important places from our heritage. With that information he softened up and let us look around.

Simon Fankhauser, the farmer who confronted us, is the 12th generation of Fankhausers living on the property. Some three hundred years ago, Christen Fankhauser, his ancestor, became an Anabaptist. It was the period of time in Switzerland when the authorities of the Canton of Bern pursued Anabaptists relentlessly. This was when hundreds, if not thousands of Anabaptists, including my own ancestors, left Switzerland, going for a time to Germany before emigrating to the USA.

Those who stayed risked being imprisoned, tortured, killed or sent to the Roman galleys to provide hard labor. The Bernese authorities not only wanted to erase these “heretics” from the region, but also from the collective memory of the Swiss people. There were Anabaptist hunters who roamed the back countryside of the Emmental where the movement was especially prolific. The Anabaptists developed an elaborate warning system to let neighbors know when the Anabaptist hunters were seen. It would allow them time to find a place to hide.

The only known hiding place still in existence is the “Täuferversteck” located at the Fankhauser
The trapdoor leading to the hidden chamber
home I described above. Christen Fankhauser built a hidden chamber behind the place in his barn where the family smoked meats to preserve for the winter. There was a trapdoor that led to the room covered by straw. Except for family lore, the hideout was unknown to the public until the current owner’s wife, Regula, decided to research the history of the hideout. She became fascinated and decided to turn her farm into a museum and to open it to the public. Lure has it that because of her research into Anabaptist history, she became convicted and converted to Christianity.

During the past decade, the Zwinglian Reformed Church of Switzerland, and the Mennonites (Anabaptists) have been working on reconciliation. I heard a Reformed pastor say that Mennonites should be considered “siblings of the Reformation” instead of heretics. Since these movements of reconciliation, there has been renewed interest in Anabaptist history in Switzerland. Two historical novels, “Die Furgge” which traces the history of the Hershey family, and “Das Ketzerweib” (The heretic woman) have sold hundreds of copies. Non-Mennonite as well as Mennonite Anabaptist historians are in high demand for seminars and talks. What was for three hundred years erased from history is now in back vogue.

As hard as it was for us to find the “Täuferversteck,” it made the perfect hideout for my ancestors. I wonder if any of my relatives spent time in this hideout.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Learning Language a Spiritual Discipline

We were invited by Swiss friends to eat in an exclusive restaurant during our last weekend in Switzerland. As we got settled around the table, my friend asked me: “Are you comfortable with speaking Swiss German, or should we speak English?”

There were four of us at the table and I was the only native speaker of English. All the others were native speakers of Swiss German. Even though the others could speak English, we were in Switzerland. Why would I force three others to struggle to accommodate me? 

Being present during a table conversation in Swiss German
Truth be told, the lazy side of me wanted to speak English. Each speaker at the table had a slightly different dialect of Swiss German, and one of them spoke so rapidly I had to strain to catch every nuance.

Two days later, I was at a church service. The worship leader spoke in High German, the music director in the dialect of Bern, and the sermon was given in a mixture of High German and the dialect of Zürich. The Bible was read or quoted in High German, some of the songs were sung in High German and some in the Swiss dialect. I had to concentrate very carefully to worship and to understand.

Many years ago, in a seminary class, Lawrence Yoder remarked offhandedly, “Learning another language is a spiritual discipline.” He didn’t explain what he meant; he just let it hang in the air for us to try to make sense of it. As a teacher of languages for more than 35 years, that statement resonated with me, even if I couldn’t explain why.

The two recent experiences that I describe above may begin to give an indication of what he meant. In the first instance, my attention was completely focused on what my friends were saying. My mind was not wondering off to other places nor was I trying to form an answer before they finished speaking. I was fully present to them. It was “deep listening,” a practice so infrequently used in our everyday conversations that seminars and books have arisen to teach this practice. Being fully present to the other recognizes their worth as someone made in the “image and likeness of God.” It is a spiritual discipline. 

In the second example, my attention was wholly focused on every part of the worship service. So often when I am in an English service, my mind wonders in and out of what’s going on. When I’m listening in English, I take my ability to understand everything for granted. In contrast, when I’m listening to a worship service in a language other than my native tongue, I need to be much more attentive. I can’t take my understanding everything for granted. This attentiveness brings me closer to the essence of the service and to hearing God’s message. Much writing on spirituality focuses on attentiveness and awareness. Learning another language facilitates this need to be attentive and present. They are spiritual disciplines.

Our culture is one of much distraction by so many different media and personal obsessions. Because of these distractions, it is difficult to be totally preset and totally aware. They clog our ears and blind our eyes. Yet these are spiritual qualities that even secular writers affirm. Jesus recognizes our need to be attentive and present to when he explains why he teaches in parables: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’” (Matt. 13:13).

While we should develop awareness and presence in whatever our cultural or linguistic circumstances, learning another language helps us to expedite developing such qualities. Learning another language is a spiritual discipline.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Be Still!

(Originally published in Purpose Magazine, July 2015 edition)

I was driving home from a quick visit to Pennsylvania trying to make it in time for an evening concert at Eastern Mennonite University. A number of my students were performing and I wanted to be there for them. The traffic was heavy. I had to drive a bit above the speed limit, hoping not to be stopped for speeding.

In order to keep up my speed, I had to weave frantically in and out of traffic, something I normally wouldn’t do. My shoulders tensed up and I found myself gripping the steering wheel harder. I was a bundle of nerves by the time I finally arrived home. I made it in time to enjoy the concert.

Did I say “enjoy” the concert? Eventually I did, but I continually felt my body tensing up as I tried to relax and savor the beauty of Handel’s Messiah featured at the concert. The wild and furious ride from Souderton to Harrisonburg had left me physically and emotionally exhausted.

During the concert, in spite of the glorious sounds I was hearing, I had to remind myself to breathe in deeply, then breathe out slowly, and let my shoulders droop. It was like I was present physically but my soul was still somewhere on the interstate trying to catch up with the rest of me.

This is a perfect picture of the hectic lives that most of us lead. We run frantically from one activity to another, whether church, work, or play; seldom allowing time for our souls to catch up with the rest of us. We are human doings rather than human beings.

“Be still and know that I am God,” declares Psalm 46:10, reassuring us that God is in charge in spite much that causes fear. “Stand still,” Moses tells the fearful Children of Israel as the Red Sea stood between them and the pursuing Egyptian army according to Exodus 14:13. During a hectic time in his ministry, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” Mark 6: 31.

Jesus modeled for us the need to be still. He withdrew numerous times to pray and to let his soul catch up with the rest of him (Matt. 14:13, Mk. 3:7, Lk. 15:6, Jn. 6:15). How do we follow his example?

First we need to be intentional. It has to become part of our daily routine. I try to spend 20-30 minutes on our back porch every day. Then we need a spiritual practice. Centering Prayer is the practice I frequently use (see: http://www.centeringprayer.com/ for a more comprehensive discussion on the subject).

I like to begin by breathing intentionally. I call it “sacred breathing.” I breathe in deeply saying the word “grace.” Then I breathe out slowly saying the word “gratitude.” Eventually, as my mind settles, the breathing becomes automatic and I can let go of the words. When my mind strays, I return to my word(s). My pulse slows, I can feel my blood pressure lowering, my body relaxes. I am at peace with the world and with myself. I feel a deep sense of God’s presence. My soul is open for a word from God.

When I first began this daily practice, I dreaded it. I had to force myself to do it. But as I continued the practice, and continued to experience a deep peace, I looked forward to this daily routine. I find that reserving those few minutes a day, instead of robbing me of precious time, actually make me more productive. Instead of the frantic feeling at the concert after my hectic drive home, I feel a peace and a calm. People experience me more as a non-anxious presence than a bitter, stressed-out bundle of nerves.

There are many other spiritual practices we could use. The book The Spacious Heart: Room forSpiritual Awakening, written by my sister and me, deals exclusively with this subject.


Instead of frantically driving down the highway of life without time to catch our breath, we need to deliberately find times to be still and let our souls catch up with the rest of us.