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: 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. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Human Doing or Human Being?

An eastern philosopher when describing western society said that we are human doings rather than human beings. What did he mean?

Our culture is constantly on the go. We define ourselves more by what we do than by who we are. We become fixated on action, activity, doing. We become obsessed on our role in life, whether it’s being a teacher, a preacher, a farmer, or “only a housewife.” We become so focused on outward activity, that we forget who we are in the very core of our beings. We try to be something other than who or what we really are in order to fit into the mold that our culture tells us to be. Our inner selves get out of whack from our outer demands. We become fragmented, fractured, and sometimes to the extreme, schizophrenic.

Sit in silence along the lake and contemplate nature
The only way to bring balance back is to pay attention to the inner self, the Spirit of God in us, our souls, if you please, the image of God in which we have been made. And the only way we can come in touch with this inner self is to spend time in rest and solitude. “In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15).

Our culture has an aversion to silence and rest. It provides us with many distractions.

How we become human doings:
1.     Busyness. Many of us avoid facing our true selves by becoming busy. We think that we can avoid facing what we don’t want to know about ourselves by staying busy. We think that by doing more things we will become more important in the eyes of others. But will we become more important in the eyes of God?
2.     Noise. Noise comes in all forms. Too many of us turn on the radio or TV, or some other noise as soon as we get into a car, enter our office or our homes. We can’t stand the silence. We are afraid of what the silence might show us.

Our excuse for rest is to “Veg out” and to plop in front of the TV or computer and be distracted by the mindless babble that flows out of the programming. It is constant noise, and it is the noise of our culture’s values, not the voice of God.

3.     Boredom. When our children are bored, we rent them a movie, turn on the TV or electronic device, and they turn into immediate automatons, and they are out of our hair. What if we would let them wallow in their boredom? More often than not, out of the boredom comes an idea, and a spark of the imagination, and they are off into their own little world. It is no coincidence that image and imagination are related. By using our imagination we discover the image of God in which we are made.

Even as adults, we should let our “vegging out” time take our minds into the world of our imagination instead of letting the purveyors of sleaze control our imaginations.

4.     Experiences. We tend to live on the surface, going from one new experience to another, much like we surf the channels on TV, never getting into the show completely, but always looking for a more exciting, more engaging show or experience that may just be on the next channel.

This “experience surfing” is a reality for most post moderns. Too often we are more interested in listing the countries or states we’ve visited than learning anything about the culture and people who are in the area. Our exciting experiences are recorded on social media punctuated with our spectacular pictures.

Many tend to experience church and religious life the same way. You hear people who leave a certain church say that they “just weren’t being fed.” This generally is more a commentary on the eater rather than on the feeder. What they mean is that they want a “better,” or a “newer” experience.

The church, too often in trying to meet this consumer demand thinks that it needs to make its worship more contemporary with louder music, dancing down the aisles, high-tech PowerPoint presentations. But there will always be a church down the road that will have a newer charismatic leader, a jazzier praise band and offer a better worship experience. Se we channel surf to the next place of worship.

5.     Drugs. A way that our culture deals with the fragmentation that we feel between our inner selves and the demands of our “human doing” culture, is to turn to mind and body altering drugs.

I find it easy to understand why so many young people turn to drugs. They see no difference between the new experience of altering their mood with drugs and their parents taking drugs to induce sleep, to have sex, to suppress their appetites, and to control every malfunctioning body part. Drug advertising is everywhere—drugs will fix everything, even the huge void in our souls??

Food is also a big drug in our society. Do we live to eat, or do we eat to live? I think it is no coincidence that our “human doing” culture has an epidemic of obesity while the “human being” cultures of the East do not. If not with drugs, we turn to food for the comfort we need to fill that fragmentation we feel between our outer and inner selves.

How to become human beings:
1.     Spiritual Disciplines. Because of the hunger for balance between the inner self and the demands of our superficial “human doing” culture, many people are turning to eastern religions. Many of us forget that Christianity is an Eastern religion as well. Before the Enlightenment and the crowning of science as more important than religion, Christians practiced most of the spiritual disciplines that Eastern religions offer. These disciplines help to keep the balance between the demands of the inner and the outer worlds. They help us to become human beings rather than human doings.

In our book The Spacious Heart, my sister and I outline many of the spiritual disciplines that have been practiced over the centuries by Christians, in this space I will mention a few that will help us bring some balance to our lives.

2.     Solitude. I already quoted the Isaiah passage, “In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” By letting our minds run in solitude and rest we can get in touch with our inner self.

3.     Prayer and Meditation. You might take a favorite Bible verse along with you on a walk, or a favorite song. Or using your imagination, you might walk along the banks of the sea with Jesus and have a conversation with him.

4.     Fasting. Takes the focus away from food and on to more important matters.

5.     Retreats. What we call retreats are often filled with activity— “doing.” How many of us plan a retreat to just be!? Alone in the woods with our thoughts, our imaginations, our journals?

The spiritual disciplines have traditionally been the way Christians have come closer to God and closer to themselves--until the twentieth Century. They are a means to turn our tendency to be “human doings,” stressed and burned out, into “human beings.”

If we are really interested in meeting the needs of our church, and others around us, we need to address this spiritual gap between the inner and outer worlds to make a difference. This is what people are hungry for. The rest is just part of the larger noise of our culture.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What’s in a name?

Some twenty odd years ago, while working as the director of communications for Virginia Mennonite Conference and Missions, I began our monthly newsletter with a short devotional titled “Klymer Klatsch.” It was a takeoff on the German word/phrase “Kaffeeklatsch” which means a conversation over coffee. I simply changed the first letter of my name to form an alliteration.

The old city hall in Affoltern am Albis, Switzerland
When I began to write a blog a few years later, it was only natural for me to resurrect the name Klymer Klatsch for the title. I’ve had numerous conversations about this title; most people are bemused by my choice.

While here in Switzerland, I’ve enjoyed doing some work on my ancestry, particularly looking into the origins of my father’s name Clymer, and my mother’s, Horst.

The immigrant from whom I descend arrived in Philadelphia with the name Henrich Clemmer. He had been Klemmer in Germany before he made the cross-oceanic voyage. My great-grandfather changed our name from Clemmer to Clymer.

Through email exchanges with Mennonite historian John Ruth, I discovered that the Klemmer name originated in Affoltern am Albis, a region southeast of Zürich. He also told me that there were variants of the name in the same region: Klimer, Klimmer, and Kleiner. So I searched websites related to the region and found another interesting variation of the name: KLYMER. Yes, the same name as I use in my alliterative blog title!

But it gets even more interesting. I kept finding all sorts twists and turns on the Clemmers’ migration to the USA with genealogical experts presenting contrasting views. So when I discovered a website, I was lured by the statement, “Research your Swiss, German, or Mennonite Ancestry,” including information on the Clemmers, I sprung for it.

I excitedly opened the PDF file on the Clemmer genealogy and the very first entry at the top of
The region Am Albis, near Zürich, where Klymer comes from
the page was this: “Thoman Klymer, b. c1554 at Affoltern, Zurich, Switzerland.” So the earliest found relative of mine was named KLYMER. The very same name I have used in my blog title. A coincidence? Pure luck? Or was it something planted in my unconscious that I’ve carried with me all these years?

I planned an excursion to Affoltern, the area of my ancestors. Since there was no graveyard near the train station, I started out on foot, looking for variations of my name on the mailboxes of apartment complexes. I must have looked at some 100 mailboxes without any success. Instead I found all sorts of other Swiss-Mennonite surnames: Huber, Good, Eberly, Lichty, Noll, Siegrist, Gautsche, Bergey, Mischler, Hess, Eby and Baer. I even found the name of some Honduran Anabaptists multiple times: Machado!

Not to be deterred, I began asking people on the street if they had a schoolmate or acquaintance named, Klemmer, Klimmer, Klymer or Kleiner. After enduring a number of puzzled looks, I finally found someone who knew of several Kleiners who were classmates of hers. I didn’t have time to schedule a visit with them, but I felt like I had made a connection.

What’s in a name? For me searching for my ancestry through my surname was a process of finding roots, a home. I now know where I’ve come since at least 1554. That’s over 450 years.

What’s in a name? A name that has been passed down for so many years and in different places, gives me a sense of knowing who I am. That name ties me to a human history of both time and place. But I also have another name. I have been stamped with the “image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27), like every other human being. While my Klymer name links me to an earthly heritage, my God identity links me to an eternal heritage. “I have called you by name, you are mine, (Isa. 43:1)” says my creator. God has been calling me “Klymer” since before I was born, and since before I discovered where I’m from.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Swiss Independence Day, August 1, 2017

The Prelude. The Swiss are quite patriotic. You see their red flags with a white cross and little red candleholder cups designed with the white cross in multitudinous places—homes, stores, and public places. The candles are lit at dusk on August first.
Flags decorating my apartment complex balconies.

Beginning three nights before the actual celebration, we could hear firecrackers going off all around us. But nothing prepared us for the actual celebration on the evening of August 1. 

Stores began stocking all sorts of fireworks, sparklers, and firecrackers of all sorts a month before the celebration. In fact, they began appearing around July 4, which was ironically interesting for a US American, navigating his way through a year in Switzerland.

The brunch. It has become increasingly popular to eat brunch on a farm sometime before noon
Andy, Ruth, Esther's sister and
daughter Jasmina Wyss.
on August first. Esther’s sister Ruth invited us to join her family for brunch. We drove up into a very remote corner of the Jura Mountains, passing a number of Mennonite settlements, including the farm where my brother-in-law’s mother grew up. She is an Amstutz. Winding along narrow roads and through a one-lane tunnel, we ended up at the Scheidegger Ranch with some one hundred other people.

Esther and I enjoying our brunch.
The food.
The buffet menu consisted of fried eggs and bacon along with the Swiss version of hash browns (called Röschti, and a good bit better, I would add). Breads, including the traditional braided Sunday Züpfe, jams, and a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, Birchermüesli and coffee rounded out the buffet’s offerings. We ate to our hearts’ content.

The Outing. You cannot be invited to a Swiss celebration of any sort without going on an after brunch (dinner) walk to “help with the digestion,” so we wound our way down one mountain through Tramelan and up the other side to Chasseral, a lookout point with communication’s tower on the top of a 5,000 ft. mountain. I understand that it is the highest point of the Jura mountain range that borders on France in the western part of Switzerland. The tower is visible from many areas of Switzerland, even from our dinning room window in Aarberg.
Overlooking Lake Biel from the tower

We walked the fifteen-minute trail from the parking lot to the tower, took some pictures and then headed back. We had to stop at the restaurant for drinks before heading back home. 

The Celebration in Aarberg. From about 7:30 pm on to midnight, the town of Aarberg planned an Independence Day Celebration in the “Stedtli,” the beautiful “Old Town.” About 300 people gathered to hear a local choir and band that provided entertainment while they ordered a variety of foods and drinks before taking part in the official part of the evening.

First, there was a welcoming speech by the Mayor, then a reflective speech by a distinguished
Mayor of Aarberg
The youth who were honored
guest on the future of democracy in the Switzerland as well as the world. The next part of the ceremony was a pleasant surprise for me. They had invited about 20 young people, who had just turned 18, as special guests for the ceremony. They were given a letter from the Mayor, and encouraged to become active citizens in Switzerland’s civic life. Not only is 18 the voting age for Swiss, but also when they are allowed to get their driver’s license. I found this to be an interesting touch to an Independence Day Celebration, but am told it is pretty common throughout Switzerland. I find this to be a wonderful rite of passage unknown to us in the USA.

Words to the Swiss National Hymn
After the youth were honored, we stood to sing all four verses of the Swiss National Hymn. The
crowd was admonished for only knowing the first verse, so flyers with all four verses were passed out so that all could join in. That was a great help for me, who didn’t even know the first verse. In my opinion as a musician and a singer, the music of the Swiss hymn far surpasses our own anthem, which is nearly unsingable. The words paint a picture of the beauty of Switzerland’s natural God-given land and a longing for that land, rather than a bellicose tribute to a flag.

At exactly 9:15 pm, the children paraded through the Stedtli with the traditional red ball lanterns suspended on a stick called “⁠⁠⁠Fackeln,” accompanied by drumming. The Fackeln lanterns are red with the white cross, with a lit candle inside. Many of the children were dressed in traditional dress. It was a touching sight, with the children eagerly anticipating their inclusion in the national event. The traditional parade is called a “Fackelnumzug.”

After the children’s parade, everyone was encouraged to stay on to dance until midnight. A band was provided for that purpose. Esther and I were pretty exhausted from all the activities of the day, so we went home.

Decorated Old Town
The Fireworks. I was pretty sure that we could see some major fireworks displays from our kitchen window on the third floor of our apartment complex. Several years earlier, we were invited to one of the more famous fireworks in Switzerland set off over Lake Biel. Since Biel is only 20 minutes away from where we live, I figured that we could see them from our house. I was not disappointed. Although not as spectacular from a distance, I could still claim that I saw them.

However, who needed the fireworks from a distance? The Swiss LOVE fireworks, and the laws prohibiting certain types must not be as strict as they are where I am from. We had spectacular displays both in front of as well as behind our apartment. Along with the numerous firecrackers, the noise sounded like we were in the middle of a war zone. The only similar thing I’ve experienced was in Honduras during their New Year’s celebrations after being suppressed by a state of siege during a war.

It was impossible to escape the noise. I finally fell asleep at around 11:00 pm, but when I went to the bathroom at 2:00 am, they were still going strong. All the reticence of the typical Swiss character seemed to be let loose with a bang—or maybe I should say quite a few bangs.

The other traditional event is the lighting of a huge bonfire. We didn’t personally witness any of these, but as we travelled around during the day, we saw many pyres prepared for this event. They are HUGE. I did see a large plume of smoke off in the distance from my kitchen window, but I wasn’t sure if it was from a bonfire or some other fireworks.  

The aftermath. I have come to know the Swiss to be some of the neatest and tidiest people on the planet. However, when I walked around my city the morning after, there was trash, mostly from various and sundry spent fireworks, littered everywhere. For a US American who likes tidiness up to a certain point, a tidiness that doesn’t include obsessiveness, it was a sight to behold!

On my walk, I ran into a neighbor who wasn’t as enthused about the celebrative noise as most Swiss. After asking about how I slept, she went on a tirade against the festivities of the night before. She said her dog went berserk with every bang, and she imagined that the many babies in the neighborhood weren’t very impressed either. She probably has her house in pristine order.
Decorated Old Town of Aarberg