Thursday, April 17, 2014

Confessions of a Backsliding Perfectionist

I am a perfectionist. I get angry at every little mistake I make. I get angry at every little mistake anyone else makes. 

I have been socialized to be a perfectionist. My father was a perfectionist. I could never do anything right in his eyes. Seldom was there praise for anything I had done; mostly criticism. So I was driven to be as perfect as possible in order to please my father and get those extremely occasional pats on the back. 

My father was a serviceman for heating and air conditioning and had a truck full of tools. They were some of his most prized possessions. When I would borrow one of his tools, I would carefully place it back in exactly the place from where I had taken it. Didn’t seem to matter; my father’s perfectionistic eye would always catch a foreign presence in his private domain. “Who was messing in my tool box?” he would bellow the next time he returned from work. 

Not only did I receive perfectionistic socialization from my father, but also from my religious tradition. Mennonites, following their Anabaptist forbearers, were serious about following Christ in their daily life. A whole list rules was established to make sure all the tools were placed properly in the tool box. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), was my church’s rallying cry. 

Like my earthly father, my heavenly Father seldom praised me (or so I thought). I had to strive ever harder to reach the high expectations of my demanding parents. Of course, I expected no less of others as well. The word grace was more foreign to me than the “buenos días” I heard on my uncle’s tomato fields as a boy. 

Over the course of my teaching career, I have directed many one-act plays for my advanced Spanish students to be presented in public. (Oh yes, I learned what "buenos días" means) Like my father’s toolbox, I was meticulous with every detail; especially the intonation and the pronunciation of every word and phrase. It had to be perfect. If they got it wrong, it reflected on me, their teacher. I was a perfectionist. 

For the most part, my students responded well to my perfectionistic direction. Perhaps they were taught in the same tool-box schools of perfection as I had been. However, I will never forget a scene with a sensitive female student during one of the rehearsals for our play. She was SO close to getting it, but I rode her relentlessly until she was reduced to tears. My perfectionism was more important than my relationship with this student. I felt horrible. I’m sure I apologized profusely for hurting her, but the damage had been done. 

Last night my Spanish class staged another play. It was very well done. It was very well received. During the course of the rehearsals, there were times when my perfectionistic self had to bite its tongue, had to stifle its tendencies to demand more and more effort. You see, over the years I have learned that praise goes a lot farther than criticism when expecting students to perform. Whether it is in the classroom or on stage, the same rule applies. 

There were points during the rehearsals that gave me serious doubts whether we could pull it off. There were times when I was tempted to call for more rehearsals, to correct pronunciation and phrasing and stop the ugliness. Instead I pointed out the good things I saw in each performer. 

After the awkwardness of learning to know the meaning of the lines, the importance of proper blocking and movement, and the need to for being present at all times while on stage, my students started to have fun. So that was my final exhortation before the performance. “Have fun,” I told them. And they did. A few tools were misplaced, but it didn’t matter. 

The underlying issue for a perfectionist is the need to control, whether the tool box or the stage. Over the years I have learned to let go. I don’t need to have everything perfect. I am a backsliding perfectionist. And I couldn’t be happier.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beauty and Ugliness

Devotional for a spring day

Psalm 24:1-4 (NRSV)
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas,
    and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
    and do not swear deceitfully.

I write this during one of those spectacular spring days with perfect temperatures and low humidity. As I crested a hill on my morning bicycle ride, I could see for miles in every direction—the marvelous beauty of the fresh green trees contrasted with the crystal-clear blue sky. I could smell freshly mown hay, and the wind on my face felt like a sweet caress. My heart sang in praise to my Maker as I experienced the beauty of His handiwork.

Yet, as my eyes returned to the road, everywhere I looked there was evidence of human invasion of this lush garden. Trash littered nearly every foot of the roadside; pop cans of every brand in plastic and aluminum, remnants of fast-food establishments, discarded newspapers and magazines. The contrast between the beauty and the ugliness could not have been starker.
Isn’t this contrast similar to our lives as Christians? On the one hand we are made in God’s image—reflecting the perfect beauty of His creation. On the other hand we have littered our souls with the trash of our human desires and wants—the ugliness of our sin. In order “ascend the mountain of the Lord,” we need to clean up the garbage of sin that obscures the beauty of what God wants us to be.  When we have completed the garbage disposal, we can “stand in his holy place” with “clean hands and a pure heart.”

O God, thank you for the beauty of your creation. Help us not to spoil with garbage either our environmental surroundings or the precious lives that you have given us.
Thought for the Day:
We only have one earth and one soul to take care of. Let’s treat them both with care.
Prayer Focus:
For greater care of all of God’s creation

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Thy Holy Place We Bow

In Thy holy place we bow,
Perfumes sweet to heaven rise,
While our golden censers glow
With the fire of sacrifice.
Saints low bending, prayers ascending,
Holy lips and hands implore;
Faith believing and receiving
Grace from Him Whom we adore.

Holy light doth fill this place,
Spirit light our way to guide;
In the presence of Thy face
Sin and darkness ne’er can hide.
Heaven’s gleaming, fullness streaming,
Life and truth for man is found;
Light pervading, never fading,
Lighting all the world around.

On Thy holy bread we feed,
Hunger never more to know;
Thou suppliest all our need;
Father, whither shall we go?
Ne’er forsaking, here partaking
Bread our souls to satisfy;
Here abiding and confiding,
We shall never want nor die.

As a youngster, the words to this hymn written by Samuel Coffman, filled my mind with otherworldly and ethereal images. I don’t know if I really understood them, but they evoked something in me that touched my soul. I was not sophisticated enough to be able describe what was happening to me during this song, but I think it was something mystical.

Added to the otherworldly words was the beauty of the music written by J. D. Brunk. The progression of the chords matched the ethereal nature of the words perfectly. They did not flow in stock harmonies, but modulated slowly and beautifully between major and minor chords, lifting one up musically as did the perfumes, the light and the Eucharist. 

Perhaps it is because the many words are sense-related and image-producing. Smell (sweet perfumes), sight (fire, light, gleaming), touch (lips, hands, feed), taste (bread), are sensory. The perfumes and golden sensors with fire evoke images of burning incense, and the consecrating of the path where the holy walk. The holy bread brings to mind the partaking of the Eucharist, not only food for the body but food for the soul.

Not everyone had the same love of this hymn as I. Even though both the musician and the poet were Mennonites, and the hymn was published in several Mennonite hymnals over the years, it caused some controversy among some Mennonite ministers. Singing the hymn was discouraged in some churches. The reason given was that it was too mystical; too other worldly. 

In my childhood, Mennonite worship was austere at best. Worship centered around the preaching of the Word, with a few simple hymns providing the only aesthetically interesting elements. No crosses, no images or pictures of any sort adorned the walls. Even the hymns were unadorned; no instrumentation, only a showcasing of the unaccompanied voice in four-part harmony. Beyond solemnity, any overt display of emotion was discouraged. Our worship was no where near the description given in the hymn.

In spite of discouragement from some of the leadership, this hymn was loved by many Mennonites. No wonder it had an appeal. Not only is there sensory elements to touch the universal soul, but there is movement; bowing, bending, ascending, guiding, streaming, and going. It gave people permission to FEEL something and exercise their hearts instead of just their heads. 

Movement and emotion were an anathema to pious, stoic, God-fearing, Swiss-German folk. But imminence meeting transcendence cannot be stifled. The joy that bubbles within where the veil between the eternal and the temporal is made thinner cannot be snuffed out. We are created to experience God because we have his image stamped on our souls. That meeting place can happen even in the most austere places. That meeting place is mystical. 

In Thy holy place we bow. Indeed we do. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

In Loving Memory of “Pedrito”

Three days ago I posted a link to my article in the latest issue of the official magazine of Mennonite Church USA called The Mennonite. The article was about Pedro, a man I met during a visit to his church in Mexico City. It was titled “A New Creation.”

The way several friends from the church in Mexico responded to my article, I suspected that something was amiss. Sure enough, when I inquired, my brother in Christ, whom they affectionately called “Pedrito,” had died. They assumed that I had written the article in tribute to him because of his death. 

As a matter of fact, the story took place more that four years ago while I was leading a group of 18 students from Eastern Mennonite University on a semester-long trip through Guatemala and Mexico. I wrote the story about a year ago, and submitted it for publication shortly thereafter. It took that long to be published. 

There is a resurrection theme in the article, so I figured it would appear in the issue of the magazine closest to Easter. That indeed turned out to be the case. The coincidence of my article appearing near the time of Pedro’s death makes the message of the article even more powerful. Pedro’s life as a drug addict was transformed by the power of Christ when all other attempts at rehabilitation had failed. I describe it this way in the final paragraph of the article:

Our final church service together was Easter Sunday. During that service, we circulated around all the members of the church greeting them with the phrase, “Christ is risen,” to which the other responded, “He is risen indeed.” When I came to Pedro and looked him directly in his eyes, an emotion came over me, and I said to him, “Christ is risen, and I see him in your face.” This was the same face that I had rejected just a few days earlier. Without hesitation, he replied, “Yes, I was dead and now I am alive. I have risen from the dead like Christ.” I could not hold back the tears as I hugged him. Pedro was a new creation. So was I.

I hadn’t seen Pedro for over four years. The success rate of people kicking the habit when addicted to the kind of drugs he was is very low—extremely low. My friends confirmed for me that he remained faithful to his commitment to Christ and was free of drugs until he died. Pedrito is now in a place where no one will judge him by who he was, how he looked, or what he did. His short life touched me powerfully—even if we were only together for a few days. 

Thank you, Jesus, for bringing Pedro into my life. He’s probably got English down pat now.

Pedro with his Spanish/English Bible

Pedro in the middle of a bunch of "Gringos"

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Abstinence and Moderation

We are in the period of Lent in the church calendar. Lent is a time when many sincere Christians give up something to remind themselves that they are often too consumed by habits and practices that take over their lives. Those habits can relate to food and drink, to time playing favorite games, to time watching sports or other things on TV, or to time spent with social media. Some of these practices are more harmful than others when done to excess, but all of them can take over our lives, blocking out room for God. 

So we fast during Lent from one of the habits that dominate our lives. During that time we think and pray more deliberately about our relationship to God, our calling, and our need for discernment. It is part of discipleship; becoming more like Christ.

Anabaptists, the radical reformers of the 16th century, scoffed at the need for special emphases during the church year. Theirs was a daily practice of discipleship. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Self denial didn’t take place only during Lent, but every day of the year. 

Growing up Mennonite, the inheritors of the Anabaptist legacy, I have some of this iconoclastic debunking of Lent in my DNA. My life needs to be moderated every day, not just for forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. 

But there’s the rub. Moderation requires more discipline than the average human being has, at least in my personal experience. Take my diet, for example. At a recent wedding reception, I had a choice between some healthy vegetables and the Swedish meat balls. I took a little of each, but when I went back for seconds, only the meat balls made their way to my plate. When I was on a strict low-fat diet, I would have avoided the meat balls completely. My intentions were to go moderately on the meat balls. Instead I overindulged. I won’t tell you about the dessert options.

Abstinence is easier than moderation. This is why Lent is necessary for most of us. When we give up something, we abstain from it. We just say no. When we say we will control our appetite with moderation, we slip and fall over and over again, each time reinforcing our guilt and rebounding with even a bigger helping of the forbidden fruit the next time. It’s human nature and it can be applied to nearly every area of our lives. Not just meatballs.

I didn’t say I would give up Social media for Lent, but I thought about it. I decided instead to try to moderate my use of it. Many of you will understand the pull that Facebook, Twitter and other forms have on us. Like the meatballs at the wedding reception, I kept breaking my moderate fast to see what was “trending.” I kept wondering what I was missing. 

I have several friends who do not have Facebook accounts. They just say no. They are not tempted to see what is going on in the world of their friends. They do not have the urge to see what is trending and to control their use of the medium. Abstinence is easier than moderation. (I have heard that some of them sneak a peak at their spouse’s accounts once in a while).

I try hard to be a faithful disciple like my Anabaptist forbearers  and “deny myself and take up my cross daily and follow Jesus.” But I find it difficult to do so. I need Lent to force me abstain from some of the things that dominate my life and crowd out God. I’m a failure at moderation. 

Now let me have a few more meatballs. I’m abstaining from the vegetable tray.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Who Are the Poor?

Juan lives with his family in a rural village in Mexico. He farms a small plot of land which provides enough food to give him a fairly-well balanced diet. He does not have a lot of extra cash on hand. His home is very basic with little furniture; just the basics. There is no running water in the village or indoor plumbing. Water needs to be carried from the river which is about a quarter of a mile away.

Most of us from the north would consider this man living in poverty. But he is surrounded by family and friends who help him out when he has a special need; like when his daughter got sick and he didn’t have any money to pay the small fee charged by the government-supplemented clinic. His brother’s family paid the fee, not expecting anything in return. It’s the way things are done in this rural village. Some day Juan’s brother may need the same assistance and perhaps Juan will be in better financial shape and return the favor. Or pass the favor on to someone else who is in need.

Juan lives in tune with the rhythm of nature. He gets up at sunrise, goes to sleep at sundown since there are no artificial lights to keep him awake. He knows how to read the signs of the seasons and how to hear the sounds of the flora and fauna around him.

Recently Juan has had to give up farming his small plot of land. Since the NAFTA neo-liberal economic trade agreement that his country made with the USA and Canada, corn that is subsidized by the US government is flooding the market in Mexico. It is cheaper to buy US corn than the corn that Juan raised on his small plot without subsidy. Without any source of income, Juan emigrated with his family to the nearest City to try to find work. 

Unfortunately, because of NAFTA, hundreds of other Juans are doing the same thing, competing with each other for the few available jobs in nearby cities. Juan lives in a hovel with his modest belongings. He has better access to health services and schools for his children, but he can’t afford them. He sends his children to the streets to sell whatever they can to help supplement the family income. His wife had to find a job as a maid with a rich family because Juan couldn’t find a steady job. 

Unlike when he lived in the village, he worries every day where his family’s next meal will come from. His support system has been severed; in the marginal community where he lives, most of his neighbors have their own problems, few are willing to help each other out. It’s a dog eat dog world. He also is estranged from nature. Because he has no job, he has too much free time on his hands. He spends his time worrying about the future, or devising plans to earn money for his family; both legitimate and illegitimate. He is lonely.

When Juan walked around his village he held his head high. He greeted everyone and they greeted him in return. He now walks with his head down, recognizing few people, and caring less for them. 

Juan is a caricature of two poor men that I have met over the years in Latin America. I always thought that the man in the village was poorer than the man in the city. After all, the Juan of the city has all sorts of services available to him that didn’t exist in the country. Economically speaking, however, and by the standards of people in the north, they were both dirt poor. They both are in need of some charity. 

There is one huge difference between the two men, however. The Juan of the village had his dignity. The Juan of the city did not. The Juan of the city had his spirit crushed. The one of the country did not. The Juan of the city is much more susceptible to alcoholism, drug abuse and exploitation. The Juan of the country is not as susceptible to these plagues. 

The lifestyle of most people of the north is more like the Juan of the city than the Juan of the village. Although we have lots of money and live in relative comfort in comparison, like the Juan of the city, we are generally cut off from support systems of family and community. We are cut off from and alienated from nature. We have too much time on our hands and worry incessantly about the future; especially if we will have enough money for retirement. We are lonely. We have lost our dignity and try to find it through over-consumption of food, sex, drugs or material goods. We are poor. 

In order to recover our dignity, we need to identify the God image and likeness within us. This will help us proclaim that we are beloved of God. Our belovedness reaches out to the belovedness of others and we form a community of the beloved. To really recover our dignity, we need to get in touch with nature. Respect it rather than exploit it. Restore right relationships (what righteousness means) with God, our fellow human beings, and nature. 

Juan of the village is rich in dignity. It has nothing to do with money or possessions, but rather with right relationships. May we recognize our poverty and our need for dignity through right relationships. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Loved Into Life: Vincent Harding

After some 50 years, Vincent Harding, colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Eastern Mennonite University once again. His smallish, unassuming manner and subdued speech belied an internal strength that permeated his comments and his life.

During a chapel address at EMU, he outlined numerous people from whom he had received love, and how these people shaped him into the person he is. It reminded me of the book Strength to Love written by his friend, whom he affectionately referred to as Martin. Hearing him speak, shaking his hand and exchanging introductions, made me feel part of a living history. 

His mother, his church community in New York City, and his elementary school teachers were all people whom he listed as his “lovers.” Then he was drafted into the army. He absolutely loved basic training; he was good at hitting the target with his rifle and was proficient at using a bayonet. At some point, however, he heard a voice with the question, “Vincent, how does learning to kill another human being square with your understanding of Jesus, who taught you to love your enemies?” 

He didn’t identify the voice as coming from God, and he didn’t elaborate on how he left or stayed in the army, but identified the voice as “love that loved him into life.” Upon release he found himself at the University of Chicago doing graduate work in history. It was there that he met a “strange group of people” who were the Mennonites. Eventually he became a pastor in a Mennonite Church on the south side of Chicago that was one of the few churches interested in staying and ministering in a neighborhood where whites were leaving in droves and blacks were taking their place.

Through the Mennonite Central Committee, he and his wife Rosemarie, the first black graduate of Goshen College, established a Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit in Atlanta, Georgia, a few blocks from the home of Martin Luther King. 

There is more that I could say about his life’s story and his comments yesterday, but I’d like to focus on his character. I kept asking myself as I observed him, how can this man be so calm, so collected, with love exuding from his every pore? After facing dogs and water hoses, irrational hatred and jail, how can he be so serene? Why isn’t he consumed by anger, by the wish for revenge? After all, only a few things have changed since the Civil Rights movement reached its height in the late 60s.

He claimed that his “strength to love” came from being loved, and named those who loved him. I suspect something much deeper. I believe that he has a spiritual life that goes beyond saying a few prayers around meal time and reading a quick devotional before beginning his day. True, receiving love from the people he named is a very important element, but that love needs to be sustained by a divine love that one can only find through a deep relationship with God. That is the only way one can sustain a true love for enemies and overcome anger and the desire for revenge. 

Vincent Harding is a wonderful example of someone who combines a deep spirituality; an inner world, with a deep commitment to social justice; work in the outer world. Would that there were more Christians following his example.