Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Good-bye Sole Mates

There is nothing more important to me than a good pair of shoes. Especially if they fit. I have been blessed (cursed?) with duck feet (some would say that’s why I’m named Donald—don’t you dare go there!). I usually need to go a half size larger than my foot length in order to accommodate my wide feet. That results in tight sides with floppy fronts. To find a perfect fit is nearly impossible, but when I do, I wear those shoes into the ground. Literally.

I had such a pair of shoes. I wore them for two years and eight months. They weren’t the prettiest shoes or most fashionable I’d ever owned, but they functioned quite well. They were casual enough that I could wear them to my office and to the coffee shop. Often those were the same place. They were formal enough that I wore them to my son’s wedding. Who knew?

They were slip-ons. I could wait till the last minute to get into them before going out the door. I could easily slip them off when I wanted to prop my feet up. They required little to no maintenance. Because of the rough surface, they didn’t scuff much, and a good polish every month kept them looking like new.

Sole Mates. Old on the left, new on right.
These shoes nursed my arthritic knees through their most painful days. They also accompanied me to the hospital where I had double knee replacement surgery and followed my new knees home again. They were faithful companions during my three-month long recuperation.

These shoes accompanied me to Guatemala and Mexico. They walked the streets of Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, and along the shores of Lago Atlitlán. They walked the streets of Puebla, Cholula and Mexico City and visited numerous museums and cultural events.

These shoes took me to the cities of Zurich, Zermatt, Interlaken, Bern, and Basel, to name a few. They walked along the banks of the Aare River and trudged on alpine mountain roads and took me to lake-side celebrations. They visited barns and palaces. They traveled on cable cars, cog-wheeled trains, double-decker trains, planes and boats.

These shoes attended small churches, mega churches, big city churches, extremely rural churches and a few Bible studies. They attended six weddings. They preached in four pulpits. They worshiped in English, Spanish, Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel and Swiss German. They taught in innumerable classrooms before hundreds of eager-eyed learners and some not so eager.

Unfortunately, I had to put these wonderful companions, my sole mates, to rest. As I was walking along a gravel alpine path several weeks ago, I noticed some of the little stones were penetrating into my foot. I realized that I had walked the sole bare. Probably had walked nearly 1,000 miles in them. The sad day had arrived. The shoes that had fit me like a glove and had journeyed with me to so many places had to be put aside.

After a vain search for the same shoe in local stores, I scoured the Internet for the brand and model I wanted to replace my sole mates. They were no where to be found. I tried every combination of possibilities on dozens of shoe websites. Finally I came across the brand and model I was looking for. It wasn’t exactly the same model as my retired shoes, but close enough.

The new shoes came today. Eagerly I opened the box. The fit was pretty good, and the look better than I expected, but I couldn’t slip them on without a shoe horn. They were a bit tight at the duck-foot edges and snug because of my high arches, but I knew they would stretch as I wore them. I will miss my old pals. I will probably even put them on again for nostalgia and needed comfort. But I need to give the new pair a fair trial before I abandon them. Will they succeed like their brother?


Where will this new set of shoes take me if I finally adopt them as my new sole mates? If anywhere near as wonderful a ride as the last pair, I’m in for a delightful road ahead
. . .

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Confessions of a Polyglot

I was invited to a meal by a Swiss family who knew I could speak Spanish. They had also invited two Guatemalan pastors who were visiting Switzerland. I was to serve as interpreter for the conversation between the Swiss family and the Guatemalans. Swiss German to Spanish. Spanish to Swiss German.

This was not an easy task for me. Neither is my mother tongue. At one point in the conversation the Swiss man asked the Guatemalans a question. I turned to them to translate the question and repeated the question to them verbatim in Swiss German. I had no idea what I had done until everyone else at the table burst out laughing.

I am a polyglot. This means that I speak several languages. This does not mean that I am totally fluent in every language I speak. When people ask me how many languages I speak, I reply that I am still learning English. The more I learn in each language I speak, the more I realize how little I know. Languages evolve and words and expressions that I learned 30 years ago are no longer used, and many new ones have entered the language.

I learned to speak Spanish after I was 19 years old. I learned to speak Swiss German after I was 32 years old. I’ve learned to understand other languages along the way, but English  is my mother tongue. I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I can express myself much better in my mother tongue than in any other language. This bears itself out with two simple illustration from my own experience. There are two things that one would rather do in their mother tongue no matter where they are or what they are speaking. Count and pray. Trying to figure out how much something costs for me always gets translated into English. No matter how long I’ve lived somewhere. Same thing with prayer. God understands me better in English.

http://family.wikinut.com/img/2n1zi6tp6grdqyrc/Polyglot
It is true that sometimes when I am completely immersed in the language that is not my mother tongue, I find myself thinking in that language. Yet, when it is time to go into a store or some other space to speak with someone new, I find myself composing sentences in my head before I enter. This never happens in English. I have enough resources in my native tongue that I can simply enter a new space and begin to express myself.

English has become the lingua franca of the world. It is the official language of the European Union. Moreover, English is spoken by millions of people around the globe, but only about 20% of them speak it as their native language. Even though they may well get along in English at a certain level, they probably cannot express their deepest longings. Even though they may find themselves thinking in English when immersed in it, they probably still count and pray in their native tongue. They probably begin to think of what to say before they enter a store.

Because English is so wide-spread, many US Americans assume that it is not necessary for them to learn other languages. This is a very arrogant stance. As I have experienced when speaking languages other than my mother tongue, no matter how advanced I am in that language, I am still at a distinct disadvantage. So when we assume that we can use English wherever we go, we are putting at a distinct disadvantage those who do not speak English natively.

Indeed, some communication is better than no communication at all, but we need to be aware the dynamic we are setting up when we demand that the other person speak our mother tongue. The reason that English is so ubiquitous is because it was the language of empire builders. First the English and now the US American empire. So as a native speaker of English from one of these empires, not only do we put others at a disadvantage when assuming that English is the language of communication, we also reaffirm our power advantage and privilege. Even just a few words in their language helps level this power dynamic—how much more when we can put together complete sentences and paragraphs in the others’ language.


I am a polyglot. Like translating between Spanish and Swiss German, I love the challenge that communicating in languages other than my native language brings. However, I am still most comfortable speaking in my native tongue. Learning another language helped me to be more humble about the relationship between languages and the people speaking them. As we communicate with those who do not speak our language natively, we need to keep this in mind.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Eucharist: Finding Unity Amid Differences

Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said: “If Christians had actually done what Jesus taught us to do—namely, love our enemy—the world would long have been transformed.” How true. There is one thing, however, that most Christians do as Jesus taught. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). They celebrate the Eucharist.

In the past three weeks I was able to celebrate the Last Supper in two different countries. I shared the memory of the broken body of Christ in two different languages, two very different worship services, and yet a common experience.

On July 2, I attended a Celtic Evensong service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. People entered the cathedral-like sanctuary reverently with little exchange of greetings. Many arrived early and sat in silence, waiting for the service to begin. A few minutes before the designated time to begin, a classical flute and piano duet played to continue the meditative mood. The church was packed. Nearly 500 people were in attendance.

July 20, I attended the Charismatic church of my sister-in-law in Übeschi, Switzerland. People entered the lobby and everyone greeted each other and struck up conversations wherever they went. The conversations continued into the sanctuary, with people walking up and down the aisles to find more conversations in which to engage. Suddenly the band began to play and the worship leader started singing. The congregants (sort of) settled into their places in the sanctuary. The church was about 60% full. Because of summer vacations about 175 people of the normal 250 had gathered.

Beginning with the way congregants gathered to each worship experience, the two services couldn’t have been more different from each other. At the Episcopal Church, everything except for the short homily and the hymns was printed out on a program, which was four pages long. The printed word ruled the service. In contrast, the Charismatic Church had nothing printed, no program, no hymn books, few people consulted Bibles for biblical references. Although the songs were projected on to two large screens, few people referred to them, as the four or five songs that were repeated various times were familiar to the gathered community. To use anything printed seemed to suggest that it would inhibit spontaneity.

In the Episcopal service, everyone stood or sat together as indicated in the printed program. All the assembled people did everything together. In the Charismatic service, some people stood during the songs, some people sat. Some raised their hands in worship, some did not. Some spoke in tongues during one of the songs (which seemed to be designated for that purpose), some did not. 

In the Episcopal service, there was a pastoral prayer during which time people could go to the front to place a candle at the altar for their unexpressed special prayer needs. I was surprised at the number of people who went forward to do so. I was also surprised that at the Charismatic service there was no pastoral prayer offered. In fact, in contrast to the many prayers offered in the Episcopal service, all written of course, there were few prayers during the Charismatic service.

In the Episcopal service, the homily couldn’t have lasted more than eight minutes. It was clearly not the central part of the service. Yet the service lasted over an hour and a half. In contrast, the sermon for the Charismatic service was clearly central to the gathering. It was nearly forty-five minutes long, nearly half of the hour-and-a-half service. Most of the rest of the Charismatic service time was taken up in congregational singing. There were only a few congregational songs in the Episcopal service.

One thing that both churches had in common, however, was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The way the elements were administered was somewhat different, but the same scripture verses were offered. In the Episcopal church we were given a wafer and real wine. At the Charismatic service we were offered real bread and grape juice. In the Episcopal church everyone went forward to receive the elements, while in the Charismatic service the elements were distributed to the congregants in their pew.

In spite of the few differences in the celebration of the Eucharist, the same Jesus was lifted up. The same unity of the body of Christ was felt. The same openness to share the sacred meal was evident. I felt a sense of transcendent awe in both services, especially at the celebration of communion. I also felt the imminence of the incarnate God in both services as I partook of the bread and the cup. Both experiences made me feel united with all the other congregants in what Gandhi called the “love-force,” or the “soul-force.” This is the soul-force that helps us to love our enemy.

These memorials of Christ’s death are celebrated the world over in many more than the two languages, and two different countries in which I experienced them recently. Yet Christians themselves remain divided—divided to the point of hatred in some instances.
If Christians the world over remembered what we have in common instead of how we differ, we would make huge strides toward unity. Celebrating the Eucharist together would be one way to do this.


From celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, we could take the next step to embody what the poster from Mennonite Central Committee implored us to do: “Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Only then will we be true followers of Jesus. Only then will Christians have an answer to Gandhi’s challenge.   

Friday, July 11, 2014

Justice or Righteousness?

English has one of the richest vocabularies of any language in the world. It is classified as a Germanic language on the Indo-European language tree because of the way it is grammatically structured, but it gets more of its vocabulary from other sources. More than half comes from Latin, mostly through the French.

This richness of vocabulary is both a bane and a blessing because English often has two (or more) words that mean the same thing; one coming though its German sources and the other through its French sources. For example, we get “shy” from the German and “timid” from the French and they are synonymous. Interestingly, the euphemistic words that English uses to replace the dirty, impolite words, often come from French while the prohibited ones come from the German. Manure would be such an example. I don’t think it is necessary to give the English equivalent.

This can be a problem when translators of the Bible try to decide which word to use given a choice. One such problem area, in my view, is the difference between “justice” and “righteousness.” English gets the word “justice” through its French roots (spelled the same way in the French), while “righteousness” comes from its German roots—Gerechtigkeit. Recht=right, Gerecht=fair, keit=ness. Put the components all together and you get the word in German for “justice.”

For most of us, the English word “righteousness” has strayed in meaning from its German roots. It has come to mean “personal piety,” or being “morally right.” For the beatitude in Matthew 5:6, translators chose the word “righteousness” instead of “justice.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” In both my German and Spanish Bibles, the word used is “justice.”

Would it make a difference if we hungered and thirsted for justice instead of righteousness? I think it would. For righteousness, I see myself huddled in a corner reading my Bible and praying—bettering my relationship with God. For justice, I see myself involved with the marginalized, “the least of these,” trying to work towards Jesus’ mission of “setting the oppressed free.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, both of these activities are important. In fact, righteousness really means “right relationships”—right relationship with God and with others. When Jesus was asked what the “greatest commandment” was, he replied in Luke. 10: 25f, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But he didn’t stop there like we mostly do with righteousness. He continues, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is righteousness, loving both God and one’s neighbor. Loving your neighbor adds the element of justice.

When Jesus was pushed on who “the neighbor” is, he responded with the story of the good Samaritan. Two people who were “the least of these.” One who was robbed and needed help desperately, and the other the despised Samaritan. Serving these needy ones is righteousness. It is justice. It is right relationships—with both God and the neighbor.

In Amos 5:24 we have an interesting scene where both righteousness and justice are used in the same verse in English. “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” How do Spanish and German deal with this? In standard translations (i.e., the ones used the most), both languages use “right” in the first part of the verse, and “justice” in the second part.  “But let “right” roll down like waters and “justice” like an ever-flowing stream.” Does this change the meaning of the verse for you?

It is interesting how language evolves. Did the words “righteousness” and “justice” in English receive separate nuanced definitions because there are two separate words? Or, did the word “righteousness” evolve to have the “personal piety” meaning because of cultural influences? More than likely both, but I can think of several cultural influences. We are very individualistic culturally, so personal definitions suit us better. The influence of pietism, revivalism, and a “personal savior” have pushed our religion to be a private practice; what matters is “my God and I.” Finally, being well-to-do makes us less interested in working with “the least of these” because it may well threaten our own opulent lifestyles.

Can you think of other reasons? 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blessed Are the Meek

For the past three Wednesday evenings, I have been leading discussions on my book Meditations on theBeatitudes: Lessons from the Margins at Ridgeway Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va. It has been a challenge, not only to review what I wrote years ago, but also to revisit these incredibly pithy and challenging sayings from Jesus the Christ.

It is no wonder that some Christians, especially those linked to Christendom (union of empire and church), place these sayings in some future idealistic age. They are far too countercultural for us to live in our time and place. I believe, however, that Jesus meant what he said, and he meant it for us today. So we struggle with swimming against the current of our surrounding culture as we try to embody the beatitudes.

What does it mean to be meek? The opposite of meek is arrogant. In our culture it seems to be much easier to find someone who is arrogant than someone who is meek. Webster defines someone who is meek as “bearing difficulties or injuries with patience and humility.” Too many of us bear difficulties with resentment and bitterness. To be meek is a difficult, seemingly inhuman trait.

It seems to me that there are people who are forced to be meek because of their circumstances. People who are held down and oppressed with little hope of improving their conditions. In my book I write of such a person—doña Josefina.

Josefina kept repeating to me, “No soy nada” (I am nothing; a nobody). “Being a woman, she was near the bottom of the social ladder in her culture. Being a woman who couldn’t bear children forced her even lower down the ladder. Then, to make matters worse, being a woman deserted by her husband because of barrenness landed her only a few rungs above prostitutes and other lowlifes.”

Yet, in spite of her self-assessment, she bore her injustice with patience and humility, and carried herself with a sense of dignity. For me she embodied what Jesus meant to be meek. She could have chosen to be bitter and resentful about her circumstances, but she chose to bear them with patience and humility.

Most of us in middle class US or Canada are not forced to be meek because of our social circumstance. Some of us are forced to be meek because of illness, death or injury to ourselves or to a loved-one. Many of these circumstances are transitory, however, so how do we become meek during ordinary times?

Contemplative prayer is one way. Richard Rohr, in his daily meditation says it well: “in the practice of contemplative prayer [ . . . ] we will naturally become much more compassionate and patient.” Compassion and patience are traits of the humble and the meek. Too few of us in the hustle and bustle of our times take time out for contemplative prayer.

Another writer, Kerry Walters whom I quote in my book, says that through silence (contemplation) we can learn to “tame the savage beast” of pride, arrogance and other non-meek traits within us. That squares with Rohr’s assessment in his meditation. “Only such a new person [meek person] can take on the social illnesses of one’s time, and even the betrayal of friends, and not be destroyed by cynicism or bitterness.”

Cynicism and bitterness are plagues of our time in the US and Canada. They are not qualities of meekness. My own journey took me through a period of cynicism, and I was only able to “tame the beast” with arduous inner work, including contemplation. I write more extensively on this journey in chapter one of my forth-coming book, The Spacious Heart: Room for Spiritual Awakening

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matt. 5:5