Thursday, October 15, 2015

Humus Beings

I have always had a fascination with words, languages, word plays and puns. So it probably wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that I would often say “humus beings” rather than “human beings.” Little did I know the significance of this so-called word play until I attended a sustainability seminar led by an Old Testament scholar. I was just trying to be funny.

Genesis 2:7 states: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The Hebrew word for man is Adam, and Adam is related to the Hebrew word for ground or earth, Adamah. Adam literally means the “ground man;” the man who was made from the ground.

English gets the word human from the Latin with a similar etymology as the name Adam in Hebrew. In Latin, homo means man, humanus means human, and humus means ground. It should be easy to see the relationship between the concepts of “man” and “ground,” even if we don’t hold these original meanings as literal anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about these historical relationships and speculate on how they might give us a fuller sense of our own creation. Following this train of thought, in English, like in Hebrew, a human is a “ground man,” or an “earth man.”
Why should this interest us? First, humus is the part of the land that sustains life. According to Webster, humus is “a brown or black variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil.” Humus is full of nutrients that have developed from decaying forms of life. These nutrients are the spawning ground for new life. Humus is teeming with life. It is a microcosm of the cycles of death and life that are abundant in nature.

Secondly, God made humans from this humus. God “breathed the breath of life” into this fecund dirt. I have an image of God holding in his hand some of this dirt, this humus, this substance teeming with life and death, and breathing into it her breath of life. I realize that this is an anthropomorphic view of God, but it gives me an intimate image of the relationship between the creator, the earth or nature, and the created. It admonishes me to remember my intimate connection with the earth and God’s creation.

In teaching about spirituality, my main focus in the past has been our creation in the image and likeness of God, as defined in Genesis 1:26. So many of us forget this image-ness in ourselves, and deny it in others. It is good to be reminded that we are all made in God’s image.

Now, however, I have another focus for teaching about spirituality: our God-given connection to the earth, and to nature. It is a more holistic view of who we truly are. Unfortunately, Western culture has desecrated God’s good creation, and we are now suffering the consequences. It is time that we rediscover our connectedness to nature and to the earth. It is time to reclaim our God likeness and become true humus beings.   

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How’s Your Prayer Life?

“How’s your prayer life?” he asked me. It probably would have felt better had he hit me upside the head. I was meeting with my spiritual director. I was telling him about the many activities and distractions that had comprised my summer.

I was taken aback, not because the question was particularly unusual for a spiritual director, but because I was supposed to be the expert on prayer. I have written numerous articles in various publications on prayer. In fact, I have written a book with my sister on prayer and spiritual practice (see The Spacious Heart). How dare he challenge me?

I was also brought up short because I knew that my spiritual practices had taken a back seat. I was not living up to the image I was trying to project to the public. My public persona was stripped away with that question. I was standing naked in front of my spiritual director trying desperately to find some fig leaves to cover myself up. There were none to be found. I wonder if my face was red with embarrassment.

In answer to his question, I tried to outline the many spiritual practices I performed daily, knowing in my heart that I was trying frantically to cover my nakedness. I don’t think he was impressed. He admonished me to try to find more time in my daily routine for prayer.

I have discovered over the years that moments like the one I described above are the most teachable moments. When we come up short of our own expectations of ourselves, we are forced, often with much embarrassment and shame, to examine who we are and what we do.

The interchange with my spiritual director also shows how important it is to be accountable to other human beings in living out our faith. Our culture is so individualistic that we assume that we can do it all on our own. Indeed self-examination is very important and necessary. But other people can see through the facades we put up much better and more objectively than we are able to do on our own. We need other people to keep us honest.

So, how is your prayer life?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Education for Transformation

The Guatemalan family brought home a bag of groceries. The whole family gathered around the kitchen table to watch. Each time the father took out an item, the whole family cheered. Flour, check. Sugar, check. Cans of tomato paste, check, and so forth.

An Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) student, living with this family while studying on a cross-cultural program, came out of her room to see what was going on. She watched the proceedings with astonishment. “Why do you cheer about every item in the grocery bag?” she asked. “These are very ordinary things!” She thought something spectacular had been purchased.

“We are cheering because this time we were able to get everything on the list,” answered her host sister. The student rushed back to her room to hide the tears that were flowing from her eyes.

“How can I ever take anything for granted again?” she wrote in her journal. She recalled a time when she was angry at her mother for bringing home the wrong flavor of Dorito Tortilla Chips. “We are so spoiled. We have no idea how most of the world lives.”

Stories like this fill the journals of students who have traveled to nations all over the world in EMU’s cross-cultural programs. These experiences transform them in ways that classroom lectures and readings seldom do.

I will be retiring after the end of this academic year. As I look back over my thirty-year career, leading groups of students to Spanish-speaking countries for a cross-cultural experience stands out as the highlights of my career. Below I list the groups that I was involved with, the year and the country. The ones with an asterisk are semester-long programs. The rest were four-week programs except the last one which was a combination of a 3-week and a 6-week program.

1.     1977 Guatemala (30 students)
2.     1978 Mexico (12 students)
3.     1980 Mexico (14 students)
4.     1983 Mexico (12 students)
5.     1994 Spain (12 students)
6.     2007 Guatemala/Mexico (20 students)*
7.     2010 Guatemala/Mexico (18 students)*
8.     2012 Guatemala/Mexico (19 students)*
9.     2015 Mexico (24 students)

There are a variety of reasons why these have been the highlights of my career. Indeed, seeing the transformation that takes place is extremely gratifying. To know that you have been a part of this transformation is also gratifying. However, I think that what I have discovered to be most important are the deep, enduring relationships that I have developed with students. Being with them 24/7 is a lot of time invested, especially on a semester-long seminar. Students see your very best and your very worst. Of course, I see that in them as well. You cannot hide behind degrees or a spectacular resume during that amount of real-life exposure.

I have come to see that education that transforms is based on mutual vulnerability. Cross-cultural education provides the best laboratory for this to happen. I became very angry with my group one year in Guatemala and lashed out at them. Here is what happened.

We all ate in common cafeteria with the staff of SEMILLA where we were studying Spanish. On one particular day, the meat was fairly tough according to US American standards. I watched as student after student scraped their serving of meat into the trash bin. The incident tugged at me and I became more frustrated as the day went on. I wanted to use this as an object lesson on entitlement and privilege. I couldn’t sleep very well that night as I pondered on how best to approach them about this occurrence.

Two things bothered me about the incident. The kitchen staff and other non-salaried employees, many working diligently to eke out a living, would wait until all the students and the salaried staff were finished eating. They were allowed to eat the leftovers for free. For many of them it was the biggest meal of their day. I could only imagine their thoughts as they saw our students throwing away what they probably thought to be perfectly good food. The other thing bothering me was that we had just visited the city dump several days before. My students were absolutely appalled that a whole class of people scavenged through the garbage to find whatever they could to eat and other reusable and/or resalable items. I wanted them to see the relationship between their cavalier attitude toward food and how the much of the world had to forage for even a few morsels to eat.

I don’t remember much about how I approached the students about the incident. What I do remember, is that in sharing the stories about hungry people whom I had met through the years, and the two things I mentioned above relevant to their own situation, I broke down with emotion. Soon most of the group was in tears. Some were tears of sympathy and some were tears of shame.

I don’t know if my students will remember the incident. One thing that they will always remember, however, was my vulnerability in front of them. In a journal collection that the group gave me at the end of the trip, along with thanking me for leading the semester program, student after student wrote, “thank you for being real with us,” or “thank you for your vulnerability.” I sincerely believe that they responded better to my teaching and to me as a person because of this. 

In the process, not only were they transformed, but so was I.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mennonite World Conference: Reasons to Celebrate

Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pa., is history. I only had the privilege of attending for one day, but through that minimal exposure and speaking with friends from around the world who attended for the full week, I found many reasons to celebrate.

1.     Thousands of “cradle” Mennonites do not have Swiss/German/Dutch surnames. Second and third generations of Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups are from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and bring new meaning and vitality to what being an “ethnic” Mennonite is.
2.     The epicenter of the Mennonite world is moving farther and farther to the south. 66% of those claiming Anabaptist connections are from the global south. Nearly 40% from Africa, 20% from Asia and 16% from Latin America. This might be disconcerting for those of us with European roots, but it makes our World Conference a rainbow of diversity and a piece of heaven on earth.
3.     There are thousands of people joining the Anabaptist fold here in North America who are not “cradle/ethnic” Mennonites. While our own children are abandoning the faith of their fathers/mothers in droves, a new stream of Neo-Anabaptists are discovering the genius of an alternative to the extremes of both ends of the Christian spectrum in US America. Christendom is falling apart, and Anabaptism has been articulating an alternative to Christendom for 500 years.
4.     New theologies based on Anabaptist thought are emerging from the margins to minister to people in their places of oppression/need. In Guatemala, SEMILLA, an Anabaptist seminary, is training pastors and lay people throughout Central America on how the church can be a witness and an answer in an extremely violent context. Out of Philadelphia, Drew Hart is espousing a Christ-centered response to structural racism with a theology/discipleship he calls Anablacktivism. I am sure there are many more in other contexts.

All of these elements were evident at World Conference, and I celebrate them. Jesus’ Kingdom in its Anabaptist/Mennonite expression is alive and well and growing. Let’s not grovel in the negativity of the splintering of factions in our own context (USA), but celebrate God’s liberating, redeeming work around the world.

Monday, July 6, 2015

MCUSA Convention 2015: Perspective

I will begin by admitting that I couldn’t be more in the center of power when it comes to the make up of delegates who attended the convention. I am a middle-aged (okay, some would say old) white male from ethnic roots that extend back over 300 years in the USA alone. Some people quake when I say I am a professor and others squirm when the discover that I am a published author. I am not marginalized by any stretch of the imagination, unless my two artificial knees qualify for some sort of handicap.

Kansas City skyline from my perspective.
So I just got home from my first-ever national convention of the Mennonite Church. The experience was pretty awesome. That four thousand people, only 800 of whom were voting delegates, thought it worth spending beaucoup bucks (okay, maybe here I would have a critique) speaks volumes.

The first night I attended the combined worship service. Now I confess that the attempt to be relevant to people jaded by the bells and whistles of popular culture was a little over the top. I wouldn’t have needed the hype, the volume, the multi-colored floodlights and the smoke, but there were many worshipful moments and great teaching. In fact, the teaching at each worship session I attended was first rate. I was especially challenged by Dale Schrag’s message about certitude.

Let me mention walking in the halls between all the sessions. I met friends from all across the nation, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years—from places I’d lived and from former students. And they weren’t all pale faces, either. Hugs, smiles and pictures from Latino and African-American friends livened up my encounters. True, there weren’t enough of them in the halls and at the tables, but I can only imagine there were more than 20 years ago, and the number continues to grow.

Not only did I get to meet old friends, I met many new ones. I had some significant conversations with numerous people during meals or over coffee. We didn’t solve the world’s problems, but we came close.

Table group No. 4. 
Then we get to those delegate (delicate?) sessions. Over 800 of us crammed in the hall. I was at table number four. Apparently there were some substantial issues at stake for us to discuss, so I viewed those around the table with quite a bit of skepticism. I only knew one of them. Our table leader, Earl Kellog, a member of the Executive Board, was such a sweet, non-threatening presence, that we were put at ease before we started.

As we progressed through the agenda of the week, it became obvious that we differed substantially on nearly all the issues. But we discussed everything civilly, learned to trust each other, and to deeply respect each other’s point of view. Could I even say we “loved” each other? It sure differed from the way people tend to express their views on social media.

Being a delegate, I couldn’t attend all the seminars that were available (although I did play hooky from one delegate session in order to present a seminar of my own). Wow! What a plethora of offerings! When we had free time I was able to attend a very useful and provocative panel discussion on the post-Ferguson effects on the Mennonite church.

It was impossible to attend everything. There were special services for particular issues, times to meet in prayer and contemplation for the soul and times to exercise for the body. Kudos to the planners for all the work that went into this event.

I realize that there was pain and exclusion at the conference. I realize that not everyone has the same perspective as I. However, I have become rather weary of all the negative stuff posted on social media about the conference, and the echoes from their friends who hadn’t even attended. It was not perfect, but there were a lot of things to celebrate at this gathering of God’s people at this particular time in our history.