Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Experiencing God among the Challenges

I was on a bus going to meet my wife Esther at her workplace. The bus was packed with a bunch of school children jabbering away, going home from school for lunch. At the next bus stop at least 15 men from some sort of work group wanted to board; probably in order to go out for lunch together. There was mass confusion as they tried to decide whether they would board the bus or wait for the next one, 10 minutes later. Half did, the rest stayed behind.

In the midst of this mayhem, my phone rang. At the beginning of our stay, I was the first to obtain cell phone service, and had only given my number to very specific people related to Esther’s work. I assumed the call was for Esther, so I tried to give the lady on the other end of the line Esther’s newly obtained number.

For my aged ears, it is often difficult to understand callers in English, let alone a speaker of the Swiss dialect amidst the racket on the bus. I must have sounded like a fool to the people packed around me on all sides, trying to convince the lady on the other end of the line that the call wasn’t for me.

Eventually I understood the message, and it wasn’t one I had wanted to hear. The woman was calling from the bank where we were trying to open an account. The proof I had to show that I was legitimately in Switzerland, my Visa, had run out. I was astounded. Both Esther and I had understood that I had been granted a Visa for a year, when in fact it was only for three months and had become effective immediately the day it was issued, June 14. It ran out 10 days after we arrived in Switzerland.

There are always challenges when one moves from one community to another; even when one just moves across town. When one moves over 4,000 miles across many cultural and linguistic boundaries, the challenges are magnified. For Esther, the challenges weren’t cultural or linguistic, but learning the peculiarities of the new technology she has to use to find clients and to report on her visits, as well the differing ways clients are cared for. For me, there were challenges of legality of my stay mentioned above, computer issues, and continuing issues setting up technology in our apartment, banking, and learning where the best cafés are. 😀

In spite of these challenges, I have tried continually to remind myself to look where God is present in every moment. When we dwell on the frustration alone, we can become quite discouraged. When we focus on the bright God moments, however, our mood improves. For some reason, we are much more attuned to the negative, and need constant effort to remember the positive. I heard somewhere that we need 10 positive reinforcements to obliterate one negative one. So I decided to list some of my God experiences during the past several days.

When I was in the midst of my telephone call, the lady on the bus across from me gave me a very empathetic smile. This was nicely encouraging. I’ve seen my share of scowls here, when people show their disgust at a foreigner struggling with the dialect. Thank you, God.

Swiss children on the bus happily
singing their alphabet song with
The day before I was on another bus, and a swarm of elementary-aged children entered, again, probably going home for lunch. They were a delightful bunch. They all were sporting colorful backpacks and chatted away unabashedly. The quartet across the aisle from me was practicing singing their alphabet song from school. None of the adults around me, nor I, could contain our pleasure or our smiles at the energetic, joyful scene. Thank you, God.

After the school children got off the bus, it continued twisting its way up the side of a large hill. For miles we were going through a huge forest of tall, stately fir trees, adding an eerie tone of a childhood fairy tale. When we finally came out of the forest, the sun broke through the fog, breaking the gloomy yet magic spell. We had reached the top of the hill. The view from the top was amazing, with the snow-capped Alps in the background. As if in celebration of the sun and the view, a striking pony, next to the road and fenced in its alpine pasture, friskily leaped in adoration of its maker. This was a beautiful sight to behold. Thank you, God.

I was pursuing answers to some of our challenges on the main streets of Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The streets were especially bustling because of an open-air market on one of the main squares of the city. Unusual for the normally well-organized citizens, people crossed pedestrian-only streets willy-nilly on a quest for the latest fashion or bargain. The only vehicles allowed on these streets are trolley cars. As an elderly man tried to cross the street, a trolley came bearing down on him. He quickened his step to avoid the trolley, but tripped on the curb and tumbled head first onto the pavement where he lay still.  Immediately he was surrounded by concerned people. No passing to the other side of the street like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan.

I watched while the concerned citizens tried to lift the elderly man to his feet. He was a large man, and since most of the Good Samaritans were women, I joined to add my helping hand. Nothing was broken, and he hadn’t suffered a fainting spell or a heart attack. He was free to go his way with his worst wound being embarrassment. The city returned to its anonymous activity, but I left impressed with how many people didn’t let their busyness interfere with the needs of a fellow citizen. Thank you, God.

A smile, singing children, a pony and Good Samaritans in a cosmopolitan city—all ways in which I experienced the presence of God recently during days of significant challenges. God is ever present. We only need to be aware and to remember. “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29: 13). Thank you, God.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Prayer Changes Things

This post first appeared in The Mennonite several years ago. 

As I entered the hospital room and introduced myself, I could feel the tension in the air. The woman lying in the bed had lost a child in birth and had requested a visit from a hospital chaplain. I assumed that the man standing by her bedside was her husband. I expressed my sorrow at their loss and tried to be a loving, non-threatening presence; hoping to draw out their reason for requesting a pastoral visit. Every attempt resulted in my being stonewalled. Hoping to salvage a little of the visit, I asked if I could pray for them before I left. Somehow they agreed. I went over to the woman, laid my hand on her shoulder, and prayed a very simple prayer, thinking that the shorter the prayer, the quicker I would be through with this stress-filled ordeal. I prayed that they would feel a special sense of God’s presence during these difficult times. When I lifted my head, the man was sobbing, his shoulders visibly shaking. He proceeded to tell me a litany of woes that he and his wife were going through in the past three months, culminating with the death of their newborn. The atmosphere in the room changed remarkably after the prayer. The relationship between me and the people changed. What started out as a forced, awkward encounter, had become a God moment.

As a child I remember seeing the motto hanging on our living room wall, “Prayer Changes Things.” I think that I believed it to be true, but I wasn’t really all that convinced. At least not until I started visiting people in our local hospital and nursing care facilities.
The Bible is full of encouragement to pray. Romans 12: 12, states: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Prayer is one of the basic elements of the Christian life. Almost every Christian thinks that they could pray more. Beyond encouragement to pray, the Bible also promises that prayer will be answered. 1 John 5:14: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” So by praying for each other, and understanding that God hears our prayers, we move on to discover that prayer changes things.
My visit with an elderly woman was a very pleasant one. We chatted away about her life, her accomplishments and her faith. She seemed to be a very optimistic and well-adjusted woman who had learned to live her life gratefully. She consented to a prayer on her behalf. In the prayer I recounted some of the things she had accomplished in her life and thanked God for her faithfulness and commitment. As I was about to leave she grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to herself. “I need to talk more to you,” she said. “I have something I need to confess.” She proceeded to tell me about some unresolved issues in her life that she said “made her more than a little resentful.”  Her change of attitude took me aback, and we spent a long time talking about things in a totally different way than previously. Prayer brought humility and contrition to an otherwise normal visit. The seemingly normal visit with little of the abnormal had become a God moment.
Lest you think that these changes only occur with the infirm and the elderly, let me recount an experience with a group of twenty college students in rural Guatemala. We were in the middle of a service project among the Quechi Mayan people. Our living conditions were very basic; we slept on boards and had neither electricity nor running water. Bathrooms were makeshift plastic sides with a board over a hole in the ground. After several days of working in the dirt and hot sun, we arrived at the project to find that our directors hadn’t arrived and that we had to wait until they came with the supplies that we needed to keep going. I sensed that the spirits of our group were low. I gathered them in a circle in the local church that served as our project headquarters to hear their complaints.

“We are just tired and ready to go home,” they stated. There was no denying this. “We are sick of trying to analyze our every experience.” One of the practices that our group had to do was to journal on where they had experienced God in the previous two weeks, and where they had experienced distractions that had taken them away from a sense of God’s presence. The distractions were obvious, so I asked them to list where they had experienced God during the past several days of our time in the boonies. The students started coming up with all sorts of ways they had experienced God; the gorgeous starlit sky where no artificial light was present, the smile of a host child, the smell of the fresh tortillas cooking on the grill, the faithfulness of the people who walked miles and miles in the dark over steep mountain trails to fill the church on a Wednesday night. We prayed and thanked God for showing us his presence in spite of the distractions.
Students working in the hot sun
 and dirt preparing soil
 for the nursery project
The directors of the project arrived with our materials and we headed out once again to the dirt and the sun. There was a noticeable spring in their step as they made their way down the long, narrow mountain path to the field where we were preparing soil for a nursery. As they started to work several students began singing. Soon the whole group was engaged in singing lively African-American spirituals. “As I went down to the river to pray . . . .”  The dirt sieve swung back and forth in rhythm. The local Quechi Mayan people, working alongside us, caught the spirit and several of the kids tried to mimic our singing. There were smiles all around.
In their evaluations at the end of the semester, most of the students rated the rural Guatemala experience among the Quechi Mayan people as the best of their semester. The prayer of examen completely turned around the atmosphere and tone of the experience. The grime and the sweat had become a God moment.
I could recount many other experiences of prayer remarkably changing the encounter and the atmosphere of a visit or a group dynamic. God expects us to pray, and will answer if it is according to his will. Those answers to our prayers often bring unexpected changes—changes that become God moments—God moments that help build our faith.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In the Midst of Life We Are in Death

I love John Rutter’s musical version of the Requiem, a memorial  to departed loved ones. In the Agnus Dei movement, there is a line that comes from the Book of Common Prayer, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

I was reminded of how true this is from recently experienced events. My first grandchild was born between the deaths of two beloved relatives. On July 22, my uncle James Sauder, long-time missionary to Spanish speakers in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Reading, Pa., died too young after a battle with Parkinson’s. Three of the most formative years of my life were spent in Honduras with uncle James and his family close by to serve as a cultural bridge. Because the Clymer clan (James’ wife was a Clymer) is quite numerous and scattered across the USA and Honduras, there were few of my Clymer relatives that I got to know as well as a young adult.

Frida Claire Shank, born 8/2/16
Eleven days later, on August 2, my granddaughter Frida was born to my daughter Marisa and her husband Adam Shank. After months of anticipation, and especially the last week when she went beyond her due date, seeing the joy in her parents’ eyes after the birth was priceless. When I looked at her face for the first time, I was overcome with emotion: her innocence, her newness of life, the hope and expectation that lay ahead for both her and her parents. I sensed what Celtic theologian Pelagius said: “When we look into the face of a newborn child, we are looking into the face of God freshly born among us.”

Eight days later on August 10, my aunt Eva Clymer died. Since her husband and my father were next to each other in age in the Clymer tribe, our two families spent a lot of time with each other while I was growing up. Those times were some of the highlights of my boyhood—long weekends at the cabin in the woods with hiking and swimming, hunting on the family farm, picking tomatoes, playing Rook, and just hanging out. Aunt Eva nicknamed me the “woodchopper” because I spent many after-school hours chopping wood for the stove/heater in our home. I felt special because she always singled me out in order to tease me.

If this was not enough, on July 29, the very last day of my wife Esther’s employment before leaving for Switzerland, a long-term client, who didn’t want her to leave, literally died in her arms. It was very traumatic for my wife. However, during the same time frame, two close acquaintances had new babies to celebrate.

Three deaths and three births in the span of fewer than three weeks. Indeed, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The Rutter Requiem reminds us musically that we are mortal beings. While the women are singing in Latin: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest,” the men add in a lower register: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The voices are accompanied with a persistent beating of the timpani; is it a heartbeat of life, or the death knell? It is both.

Rutter does the same musical juxtaposition with the verse from Job 14: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow.” My granddaughter came forth like a flower, while my uncle and aunt were cut down, their shadow fled.

Rutter doesn’t leave us hanging on to the sadness of death or fleeting nature of life. He reassures us at the end of the movement with words from Jesus in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

In the midst of life we are in death. The longer I live, the more aware of death I am. Our death gives us perspective on our life, something we too often ignore, especially at younger ages. At the same time, with the birth of my granddaughter, I am reminded of the gift and miracle of life. I will delight in the wonder and amazement of her development, curiosity and joir de vivre. I want to live as if I will die tomorrow—not in fear because we have the promise of John 11:12, but rather with gratitude for each breath I take.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Psalm 42: A Holy Longing; A Craving for God

“As the deer longs for streams of water so I long for you, O God,” declares verse one of Psalm 42. It has always been intriguing to me because of the many different translations of the verb “longs for” found in different versions of the Bible and in different languages. I read the Bible in Spanish, German and English, but I cannot read the original Hebrew. My good friend Jim Engle, retired professor of Old Testament and Hebrew scholar, tells me that the Hebrew word used here is only used three times in all the Hebrew scriptures; twice in this verse alone.

The following are the various renditions from the three languages I read, garnered from different versions of each on Spanish: pants, bellows, longs for, searches for, is eager for, clamors, wishes for; German: cries, brays, lusts for, drools over; English: pants, longs for, and craves.

Spanish seems to have the most variety, with English, in spite of having the most available translations, the least. Of the 12 different renditions of the phrase that I found, four are specifically related to animal noises: pants, bellows, cries, and brays. This would be consistent with this verb’s use in the only other place: Joel 1:20 in the Hebrew Scriptures. In all of its uses, there is a relationship between an animal and the need to satisfy its thirst. It is obvious that neither animals nor humans can exist for long without water.

“Longs for” is the most consistent use in the numerous English versions I checked. Although German has a perfectly good verb to express the idea of “longs for,” it was not used in the five versions I checked. The verb that means “lusts for” was the most consistently used in German. Indeed, that expresses an extreme longing. I am wondering why no English version uses the verb “yearns,” which in my mind connotes a stronger urge than “longs for.”

Whatever word is used in this passage, it is a clear metaphor of a thirsty animal searching for water, and it is a strong one. There is little more important for bodily health than quenching one’s thirst, whether human or beast. Like quelling thirst for the body, our longing for God is fundamental. Deep within all of us is a yearning for a return to the God-image buried beneath many layers of socialization and cultural accommodation, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. This is a holy longing.

The Psalmist becomes disquieted, or restless (v. 5) because of his intense longing for God and the taunts of his enemies. “ My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” continues the Psalmist in verse 2. “Where shall I come and behold the face of God?”

Our culture tries desperately to mask this holy longing and to fill it with everything but God. Even sincere Christians get caught in the trap. We always compare ourselves with those who have more talent, better looks, more athletic ability, more whatever, and we end up loathing ourselves. The advertising industry tells we can fill this insatiable void with buying things. When getting these things doesn’t satisfy, we turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, or many other addictions to make us feel better. It is a never-ending cycle of acquisition, obsession, acquisition and obsession.

“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God,” wrote Saint Augustine. This holds as true today as it did 16 hundred years ago—perhaps even more so, since not only do we have more distractions, but also because there is so much more denial of a need for God.

If we recognize that the lonely void that we feel in our being is a holy longing, a thirst for God, we will be less apt to fill this longing with things “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19).

Some ways to work at satisfying your holy longing from previous posts:

How do you yearn, long for, lust after God?  How do you quell your thirst for God, your holy longing?