Monday, April 11, 2016

Thank you, I appreciate it!

While attending an out-of-town conference, I decided to take a walk around the area of town where the convention center was located. As I was walking on the sidewalk, a bag lady came toward me on her bicycle. She literally WAS a bag lady, there must have been 8 stuffed plastic grocery bags dangling from the handlebars of her bicycle. It was quite the sight to behold. For all I could tell, a clown that had escaped from the circus was approaching me.

As she neared me, I stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass to allow her to pass. It seemed pretty obvious to me that she was a homeless woman, probably emotionally ill, with long, straggly hair and many teeth missing. My quick judgement of her placed her on the margins of society, probably degraded, and left on the forgotten dung heap of society. The irony of this was her passing the resort where I was staying. Although most of those at the conference were working for the church, the cost of the stay was high, even with the discount for conference attenders. Was she about to fill her bags with the “crumbs from the rich man’s table?”

As she passed me I looked directly into her eyes. “Thank you very much,” she said, without returning my gaze. “I appreciate it.” I was astounded by her gratitude. How could she be so grateful when she had so little? Do people usually make her go around them, upsetting her balance, perhaps deriding her with a sneer and scorn? Was it because I looked at her in the eye and recognized her as a human being giving her a moment of dignity in her wretched life?

The other irony in the story is that the theme of our conference was finding our spiritual place at the margins. That in spite of the borders that we build to keep others out, we are all one. That “God made us exactly as God wanted us to be.” Did God make the bag lady exactly as God wanted her to be, or was it the society in which she lived that pushed her to the margins and made her what she was? I wondered what would have happened if she had walked into the room where all us “spiritual” people were soaking up the wisdom.

Beyond those questions, as I said earlier, I was struck by her gratitude. Inside the walls of the conference I heard many participants talk about gratitude but also heard many complaints about services and scheduling. When we do not live on the margins it is so easy to feel entitled and deserving of a banquet rather than being grateful for the crumbs. We acknowledge our debt to God for our deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but we too soon become grumbling wanderers in the desert.

I came away from the conference with my soul filled with incredible wisdom from people of many denominations and many faiths. My heart sang in delight with insights for spiritual practices to enable ourselves and others to become more in touch with the One that unites us all. My cup was full and running over. But perhaps the profoundest lesson I will carry home with me is the simple statement of the bag lady. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

It’s Friday, but . . .

“It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” This phrase has been circulating widely on social media during Good Friday both in script and as a meme. I don’t know the origin of this saying, but Tony Campolo uses it as his signature message.

It is not a bad message. The final result of the story of Holy Week is the resurrection. This is the culminating point of God’s action on our behalf. It is the main theme of our Christian faith. Our hope for eternal life hinges on this event.

In our US American culture, however, it seems to me that we are too quick to skip to the resurrection story without remembering what Jesus had to go through in order to get to Sunday. Without the agony and suffering of Thursday night and Friday, there can be no Sunday. In my own Christian tradition, we only celebrated Resurrection Sunday, and had no other special services during Holy Week. Fortunately, this has been changing.

Ours is a culture that denies suffering and death. We do everything to ameliorate any mention of death, and try any means to avoid suffering and pain. Most of us fear the suffering leading to death more than death itself. We’d prefer being wiped out quickly in a car accident or heart attack than go through the messiness of the suffering that sometimes can be drawn out over months and years before death overcomes us. So we’d rather talk about resurrection than suffering and death.

Statue of Jesus in a church in Guatemala
In contrast, Holy Week celebrations in Latin America, especially among the Catholic faithful, focus on Good Friday. Pageants, parades, reenactments of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus proliferate. A year-long process of purification is necessary for anyone wanting to play the role of Jesus during Holy Week. The actor is flogged, a real crown of thorns is smashed on his head, and real blood flows from the back and forehead. Thousands of spectators line the streets to watch the spectacle, many weeping uncontrollably at the abuse and torture of Jesus. The groups of students who have witnessed these reenactments with me over the years are profoundly moved. They will never take Good Friday lightly again. They will not rush to get through it in order to get to Sunday.

Before seeing these reenactments first hand, I, like many people in my culture, mocked this extreme devotion as unnecessary fanaticism. But I think there is a reason for it. The majority of Latin Americans live lives of suffering and oppression. They identify with a God who suffers, a God who walked the path of suffering, oppression; even torture and death. This God fully understands their situation. They cannot deny their suffering, and death is always close by.

At my home congregation this Palm Sunday, we heard a wonderful sermon titled “The Plot Thickens.” The events leading up to Resurrection Sunday were delineated carefully, not mincing on the agony, pain or suffering. But a caveat had to be given; this is not the end, come back next Sunday to hear the rest of the story. So I was pleasantly surprised at our Tenebrae service. Progressively the seven candles were extinguished as the darkness of Good Friday and the grave loomed upon us. I was waiting for the caveat, “but Sunday is coming,” but it never came. The last words we heard at the service were sung: “were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” Silently, soberly, in deep grief and meditation, we left the sanctuary. Not a word was spoken. Many were wiping their eyes. 

I believe that Latin Americans and US Americans could learn from each other and our celebrations of Holy Week. They could use a little more of the hope of the Resurrection, and we could use a little more understanding of the suffering of Good Friday. I’m glad my congregation left us momentarily groveling in the dark. It wasn’t as gruesome as the reenactments in Latin America, but the light of the Resurrection will be much brighter for us after meditating on the darkness of suffering and death.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stay, Watch and Pray

On Thursday of Holy Week, according to tradition, Jesus took his disciples late at night to Gethsemane to pray. He was preparing himself for what lay ahead; his pending trial, crucifixion and death.

Mark writes that Jesus was “deeply distressed and agitated” (Mk. 14:38). Matthew says that he was “deeply grieved, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Luke states that “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Lk. 22:44). Jesus himself said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26: 41).

This short portion of scripture shows as clearly as any the human side of Jesus. Jesus was afraid. He was lonely. He experienced existential angst. When he most needed the support of his companions, they fell asleep. Three times. When he most needed the support of his faith they rejected him and were soon to call for his crucifixion. Later, he even felt abandoned by the one who had sent him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he calls out from the cross, quoting Psalm 22.

This passage more than any other is where I most closely identify with Jesus. It is the place where he shows his most human side. Yet, at the same time, it is at the place where God comes closest to me. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, moved into our neighborhood and shared our anxieties with us.

As a human, Jesus gives us a way to deal with our moments of existential angst, fear and anxiety. At many crucial points in Jesus’ ministry, he withdraws at night to pray. Get away from it all, in the stillness of night, when most of the world is asleep, Jesus withdraws, as was his custom, to pray. Sometimes he went alone, sometimes he took his disciples with him, as he did on this occasion. And he gives his disciples these instructions: “stay, watch and pray.” This is great advice for dealing with existential angst. His disciples fell asleep. Is this how we deal with our own fear and anxiety?

Stay. Stay is often translated “abide.” “God is love,” states the writer of 1 John 4: 16, “. . . those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Jesus was trying to abide in God’s love through his prayer. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prays (Matt. 26:39b). He repeats this prayer three times. Feeling God’s presence is not often immediate. Sometimes we need to repeat our doubts, our fears, and our needs in order to become more centered, more focused on God than on ourselves.

1 John continues: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Jesus’ fear abates somewhat as he repeats the prayer. After the second time, he states “your will be done.” After the third time, Jesus is ready to face what is ahead: “the hour is at hand.” His fear hasn’t gone away, but it has lessened as he senses God’s presence and abiding love.

Watch. Jesus also told his disciples to watch. Watch means being mindful, being on the lookout for the enemy, for the movement of God’s spirit among us. Being open to God’s presence wherever we are and in whatever circumstances. Jesus’ companions failed this test as well. They fell asleep. It is easy to criticize them for their lack of watchfulness, but how many of us sleep walk through life not noticing either the enemy’s distractions or God’s beckoning?

The passage in 1 John continues, “. . . as he is, so are we in this world.” Because Jesus experienced everything that we face, because he was fully human and struggled with the same things with which we struggle, we have little excuse for falling asleep in crucial moments.

Abide in God’s love, withdraw to pray and be watchful through the night. We do not have to let our existential angst overcome us. Jesus has led the way by his example, “for neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). Amen.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Father’s Blessing

This is a tribute to my father on his birthday. He would have been 93 today, February 26.

Children grow up seeking the approval of their parents. They learn whatever it takes to please them. I was no different, except that my father was very stingy with his praise. I suppose it had something to do with pride and the Anabaptist concept of “Demut.” I am also sure it had something to do with the way he was brought up.

One thing we had in common: Love for baseball and the Phillies
In addition, my father was an orderly perfectionist and demanded that everything be returned to its proper place. “Who’s been in my toolbox?” I can hear him bellow when I misplaced a borrowed screwdriver by a few inches.

My father was a tradesman and he expected each of his four sons to grow up learning a trade. He valued very much working with one’s hands. He was not only a tradesman, but a craftsman. He took pride in the quality of his work, spending extra time to make sure he got it right—if not perfect. He began with plumbing, then moved to heating and air-conditioning and in the process learned all the trades involved in building.

So after high school, I began working for my uncle in order to learn the carpentry trade. To call the ability that I had with my hands a disaster would have been a compliment. I was assigned all the jobs that required little skill, and my brain couldn’t anticipate the next steps needed in the building process.

My skills were in language, music and writing, none of which were particularly esteemed in my family with the exception of music—if it was four-part acapella hymns. I travelled the world learning several languages and the cultures attached to them. I served nearly three years in Honduras as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.  I eventually entered the world of academics and became a Spanish teacher.

My father was a Pennsylvanian through and through, and rarely travelled unless it was to visit relatives, especially his children who were scattered across the USA. Even that he did reluctantly, but agreed when my mom insisted. He dragged his feet about attending my wedding in Switzerland, but eventually acquiesced when my siblings paid their airfare and refused to hear any of his excuses. The trip made a profound impact on him, and I’m proud to say that he talked about it for months afterward.

Nevertheless, to say that we existed in separate worlds would be an understatement. I remember when he and my mother came to visit me in Hesston, Kansas. I was teaching Spanish at Hesston College. I wanted to give them a campus tour and I could see his unease at the possibility. My parents were always suspicious of higher education, and often told stories of relatives who went to college and either lost their faith or became so high-minded that they were no earthly good.

To dad’s surprise, a man who worked with him in Civilian Public Service in Grottoes, Virginia, was the president of the college! And the man, Laban Peachey, thanked him profusely for having taken him under his wings and showed him the ropes when he first arrived at the camp. This broke the ice, but we still lived in different worlds.   

Several months before his death, I visited my father in his apartment where he lived independently. It was one room with a kitchen, living room and bedroom all in one area. He slept on his bed and I slept on his recliner. I had just returned from leading a group of 18 students to Guatemala and Mexico for their semester abroad program at Eastern Mennonite University. I was enthusing about the experience and what we had learned together and how much I appreciated my students.

At one point, my father turned to me with a twinkle in his ice-blue eyes: “the experience you had in Honduras really changed your life, didn’t it?” he said. Tears welled up in my eyes as I nodded my head, glowing in his recognition of what had become my life’s calling. But I was not prepared for what he said next. “I really admire you for passing on your passion to your students and to others through your writing. Keep it up.” I was overcome by emotion. Just days shy of my 62nd birthday I received my father’s blessing for my life. It was the last time I saw him alive. But his blessing lives on. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The big snow of 2016

Some pictures of my car buried in the snow. 
At least three feet of snow fell (91 cm). 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Anger, Contemplation and Facebook

In my book A Spacious Heart, I spend much of the first chapter explaining how I became a very angry and cynical adult after being the class clown in High School. I wrote similarly in the book  A Living Alternative, to which I contributed a chapter. In the original document of my book Meditations on the Beatitudes, a reviewer was turned off by how many times the word anger and angry appeared. I was challenged to find synonyms. Point is, I knew how much anger controlled my existence. And it wasn’t pretty.

In the same publications, I wrote how I was able to overcome the anger and cynicism through contemplative activities. Dreams, meditative walks, music, scripture, and centering prayer were a few of the means that I used to turn inward; to deal with the anger within myself instead of projecting it outward on to others. After years of my inner journey, I reported that a colleague remarked, “You’re always smiling!” The class clown had apparently returned. It was pretty.

I joined Facebook during the year my son was in Germany, and my wife and I were leading a group of students to Guatemala and Mexico. It was a way to keep in touch with him beyond Skype and Email. We shared photos from our activities, not only with each other, but also with family and friends. Later, having become quite close to the students on our group, Facebook was a nice way to stay in touch with them after our trip was completed.

As the years have gone by, the lure of Facebook has become more and more powerful, cutting into the time that I had had for inner work. Slowly but surely the anger and the cynicism began to creep back in. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was an article posted by a good friend about how angry US Americans are, especially whites and Republicans.

As I read the article and many of the comments that followed, I began to wonder what role social media in general and Facebook in particular played in producing all these angry people. As I started to examine my own use of Facebook, I counted how often I felt distressed, frustrated, or downright angry after a session. The results were not encouraging. I tried scrolling past the anger-producing posts to happy pictures and great quotes, but invariably I was drawn to click on articles and blog-posts that produced more anger than enlightenment. I wonder how true this is for others. Have you experienced anger while scrolling through your news-feed?

Facebook or not, ours is a very angry culture. I received the wrath of my father, and I’m sure he received it from his father. I thought that the “make love not war” generation would pass on a different quality to their children, but I have encountered many young adults consumed by anger. I do not think that Facebook helps to mitigate anger, but rather to fuel it. 

I know what mitigates anger. I have experience. The contemplative practices I mention above, along with many others, helps us to stop, to look within, to listen to the still, small voice of God rather than the roar of our culture. As I begin the new year, I hope to spend less and less time on Facebook and more and more time contemplating the beauty of creation and God’s love for me and everything in all creation. Selah.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Celebration 2015

The creche without the baby Jesus.
Right: The tray of cheeses and other things to grill.
The boiled potatoes.
Below: The grill for melting the cheese 
It is Christmas Eve, and as per our tradition, my family will gather to celebrate together. Our meal consists of Raclette, a dish from Switzerland where melted cheese is poured over boiled potatoes and eaten with pickles, olives, and other relishes.

We begin the evening by attending a Christmas Eve service at a local church, then we return home for the repast. Our Christmas is a mixture of Swiss, Mexican and US American customs, representing the three regions of the world where at least one of us was born. 

The creche, which has been up since the beginning of Advent, does not have the Infant Jesus in the manger. In Mexico, most families wait to put the baby Jesus in the manger until midnight on Christmas Eve, so we do it as well as close to midnight as possible.

When he was yet a child, my son wondered why the Wise Men were at the scene
of the birth, if they had to travel from afar to get there. So he began the tradition of placing the Magi in the farthest corner of our house and moving them a little closer each day during Advent until they reached the manger on January 6 when the church celebrates Epiphany. 

Before beginning our celebration, we light the real candles that we put on our tree. This tradition comes from Switzerland. We found some electric facsimiles to reduce the danger, but we still use a number of real candles. 

Real candles deck the tree.
Traditionally, we read the Luke 2 passage about the birth of Jesus in three different languages; English, Spanish and German, and listen to carols in the three languages as well.

After the readings and a prayer, we open our gifts. The last thing we do before we go to bed is to place the baby in the manger and proclaim, as they do in Mexico: "the God-child has come." 

We wish you a very Merry Christmas,
The Clymer family