Monday, June 13, 2016

Celtic Christianity: Original Sin or Original Blessing?

For the next several blog posts, I’d like to explore a few important themes in Celtic Christian theology. Most of these thoughts come from reading John Philip Newell’s book Christ of the Celts, among others.

A Celtic Cross
I grew up in a home with a very strict authoritarian father. There was little I could do to receive his favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. I grew up in a church with a very strict authoritarian God. There was little that I could do to receive his (sic) favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a proverb based on Proverbs 13:24, was often quoted in my home and church.

My father’s “rod” was usually made of leather and was wrapped around his waist. My God’s “rod” was usually imagined as a bolt of lightning, zapping me for stepping out of line. This view of an angry, retributive God, was reinforced by innumerable evangelistic meetings that emphasized my sinfulness and degraded nature and the need for repentance if I wanted to avoid the eternal damnation of hell.

John Philip Newell, in his book Christ of the Celts, has written that the view of God which I portrayed, and the way my father reared me, comes from the doctrine of original sin. “It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bearers of light, that we are essentially ugly rather than made in the image of love. . . It is a doctrine that disempowers us. . . The consequences, both individually and collectively, have been disastrous,” p. 19.

Individually, this doctrine has made me feel like a worm; like a worthless creature incapable of ever measuring up to the standards of either my earthly or heavenly father. It has made me nearly incapable of receiving or giving love. If I wasn’t worthy of love, neither was anyone else. It has taken me YEARS to mitigate this self-loathing and projection on to others, and I am still a work in progress.

Collectively, Newell shows how the doctrine of original sin “was a convenient ‘truth’ for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling,” p. 19. In other words, the Roman empire now had the church to help keep its conquered peoples in line. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who developed the idea of original sin, lived during the time when the Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (380). A highly influential theologian, he became a leading apologist for the fusion of church and state.

In contrast to Augustine, Newell, citing many Celtic thinkers and writers, emphasizes that instead of being “opposed to God,” we are “essentially of God” (p. 58), because we were made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26-27). Furthermore, when God saw his creation, he pronounced it “good” six times, and after creating humankind, he pronounced them “very good!” (Gen. 1: 31).

“The image of God is at the core of our being,” writes Newell.  “. . . it is at the beginning of who we are,” p. 3. Some writers call being created in God’s image “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin.” This is not to deny the presence of evil and sin. It didn’t take long till Adam and Eve rebelled and tainted their God-likeness with disobedience. However, this does not make their origin—their beginning—evil. They were created good. It was their rebellion that caused evil and sin.

Because of the doctrine of original sin, “We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives,” writes Newell.  This is certainly how my upbringing, both church and family, defined me. Rather, according to Newell, we should be “seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.”

How different would my childhood have been, had I been affirmed as essentially good, rather than essentially bad? What if my church had declared my original blessing instead of my original sin? I can only imagine that I would have experienced a genuine love; a love that would not have been based on intimidation and fear, but instead based on the beauty of our mutual God-likeness. A love that would probably kept me from rebelling as much as I did.

Affirming our original blessing instead of our original sin does not mean that we do not need grace and repentance when we rebel. “Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves [our original sin], [. . .] grace [is] viewed as flowing […] from God,” writes Newell. “Grace is given, not to lead us into another identity but to reconnect us to the beauty of our deepest identity [image of God, original blessing].”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Technically Speaking . . . Motivation

I have officially retired from teaching language. Beginning in 1976 with several interruptions, my career teaching language spans 40 years. There have been a lot of changes in my field in those years, especially when it comes to the technology available to deliver the product.

Language Lab circa 1970
I began with what was called a language laboratory (lab). There were individual booths set up in a special room. A trained technician was needed to play the reel-to-reel tapes that were used at the time. The technician not only had to understand how to operate the equipment, but also had to have some knowledge of each language that was taught in order to cue up the tapes at proper time.

A special hour each week had to be scheduled for students to enter the lab for listening and speaking sessions. I typically had three classes, and sometimes a class had more students than the lab could accommodate, so there were years when I had as many as six different sessions with the lab; all of which had to be coordinated with the technician, usually a student, and the various levels of Spanish that were offered.

Language educators were really excited about this new technology. Where once language was an exercise in reading and writing, listening and speaking could now be added to the curriculum. Students could hear native speakers and reproduce the sounds as best they could; listening to their own efforts alongside the sounds of the native speaker.

As innovative as the language lab was, with the introduction of cassette tapes, they became obsolete.
The Walkman and access to cassette tapes
Not only were they very expensive to install and maintain, their availability to students was limited. With cassettes, nearly everyone owned a tape player and could listen to tapes on their own in their dorm rooms. So at the beginning of each semester, we would hand out a set of some 20 cassette tapes to each student. They carried them back to their rooms in plastic grocery bags, to be returned at the end of the semester for recycling. For the order of each book, a language instructor was issued a set of master tapes to be reproduced. Instead of a language lab, a school now only needed a good tape duplicator and someone to run it. 

As technology developed, the Walkman allowed students to listen to their tapes anywhere they wanted to. They were no longer confined to the limited schedule of the language lab. I even heard of students jogging while listening to their language tapes. There were a few issues with cassettes; tearing and jamming to name a few. Such issues were easily resolved simply by replacing the tape.

The Discman played DCs
Not too many years transpired until the advent of the CD and the Discman player. These were even more portable than the cassettes, and soon the lab component of the text was delivered by CDs. With the order of a textbook, each student received their own set of CDs to do the lab part of the course. Interestingly, the paper workbooks that were used from language lab, to cassette, to CDs didn’t change much other than a few revisions to keep up with new vocabulary.

We have now entered the Internet age. Everything has gone on the web. No more cumbersome labs, bags full of cassettes, or stacks of CD cases. With the purchase of a textbook, students now receive a code with access to the textbook’s “supersite.” All a student needs is a laptop, a tablet or a smart phone and they have access to all their assignments. Not only can they do their listening and speaking assignments on the go, but their written assignments as well.
Laptops bring everything online

Throughout my career, people would ask me what program I would recommend for learning a language on my own. My stock answer is, “buy the cheapest one you can find.” Why do I say this? I have seen many well-intentioned people buy the latest and greatest language technology that promises amazing results in a very short amount of time for a very high price. Too often those expensive programs wind up in a closet or desk drawer with little results.  The adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” applies here. All the bells and whistles of modern technology may get a learner to the language, but unless there is motivation and time, it can’t force a them to learn. A highly-motivated student who invests the proper amount of time will learn on the most basic and simplest of methods.

As I reflect on 40 years in the language classroom, I am grateful for the changes and innovations the new technology has brought to the instructor. In many ways these innovations have lessened the burden on us teachers. Grading online assignments with a computer is much easier than toting 40 half-inch workbooks home to grade. However, I cannot say that students are learning better with the new technology now at their disposal. In my experience, the student who is motivated and puts in the necessary time will learn, no matter how simple or attractive the technology.

Technically speaking, motivation is the key.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Recharge Your Batteries!

Phone supposedly charging on my night stand.
Every night before falling asleep, I plug in my smart phone to let it charge. It usually takes about an hour and a half to recharge, depending on how low the battery is. This morning when I awoke, I noticed that for some reason, even though I had plugged my phone in when I went to bed, it hadn’t charged. The battery was under 20% and going on low power mode. I sorta panicked. When would I have time to charge it? I needed its services and it was running low!

Those of you who frequent airports have probably noticed the proliferation of poles in waiting areas. These are a recent phenomenon. They are for recharging the batteries of all the electronic equipment we carry with us wherever we go. There are often lines of people waiting to recharge their indispensable gear. Most of the rest of the people in the waiting areas are staring at their hands or their laps, using what seems to be so necessary.

Few of us can function without these apparatuses that need a constant recharge. We carefully monitor their use and the percentage of charge left. We are quick to recharge so that we don’t lose all the valuable data we have so carefully saved.

When it comes to our own lives, are we as careful about a getting a recharge? Do we carefully monitor how low our batteries are getting? Do we put in the necessary time to recharge? Do we find places to recharge along the way like in airports, cars or the office?

A favorite story that I have recounted endless times, takes place in Paraguay during a church conference. An indigenous man who lived in a very remote village about four hours away from the capital AsunciĆ³n, took a bus ride to attend the conference. After arriving in AsunciĆ³n, he was observed sitting in a corner by himself. After about an hour, some concerned friends approached him and asked him if there was anything wrong? “No,” he replied, “the bus ride from the Chaco was so fast and furious, that I am waiting for my soul to catch up with the rest of me.”

How often we live our lives “fast and furious” on a bus careening out of control. How seldom we sit for an hour to let our souls catch up with the rest of us; to recharge our batteries. Most of us are running on empty and wonder why we are frazzled, stressed, and burned out.

The Israelites experienced a “fast and furious” time when they were fleeing Pharaoh’s army after their escape from the bondage of Egypt (recounted in Exodus 14). They were in “great fear” and cried out for their deliverance. Moses tells them: “stand still,” and later on “keep still.” One could easily say that they were frazzled, stressed and burned out. Yet to be delivered from their situation, they needed to be still; to let their souls catch up with the rest of them.

Instead of being pursued by Pharaoh’s army, we are pursued by the demons of self-image, self-worth and productivity. We think that getting on a faster bus that takes advantage of every second of our day, will help us get what we think we need. We think that taking time for silence, Bible study or prayer will keep us from getting done all that we think is so important. We have become human doings rather than human beings. Our batteries are in low-power mode and we have no time to recharge them.

Be still. Stand still. Recharge your batteries. Let your soul catch up with the rest of you. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Treasures in Heaven?

I have been going through my files while cleaning out my office. I found this letter that I wrote to faculty colleagues at Hesston College who were celebrating a recent pay raise. My thoughts were shaped by a recent return from a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in rural Mexico. I don’t recall anyone agreeing with my thoughts. Our culture is blind and deaf to this perspective. What do you think?

Dear colleagues,

Before we project our family budgets over the next three years based on what we will be earning, permit me to share some thoughts.
  1. How will this extra money make us “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5: 3)?
  2. How will these extra dollars make us “mourn and meek” (Matt: 5: 4 & 5)?
  3. How will the extra material wealth make us “hunger and thirst after justice” (Matt. 5: 6)?
  4. How will more spending power make us “merciful” (Matt. 5:7)?

Can we afford the extra “spiritual” burden receiving this extra money places on us? Are we “spiritually” capable of being better stewards of God’s money?

Should we compare our salaries with other similar institutions or with the workers who live in the trailer park just a few blocks away?

I, too, feel a budget crunch at home. But I have no notion of hunger, of nakedness or of homelessness. I pray that we can examine the reasons we so eagerly accept more of what loving so dearly is the “root of all evil” (I Tim. 6:10 and Heb. 13:5)

In Christ,
Don Clymer

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.