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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why I Cried When Our Dog Died

(Note to reader: This blog post does not reflect on the current state of my two adult children who have developed into very responsible, respectable citizens. I am very proud of both of them. It reflects what goes through a parent's mind during the process of raising them.)

I am not a huge fan of pets. I’m not against animals, just animals in the house. They are expensive, need constant care, and are too often doted on and loved more than human beings. Many of our pets are fed better than people in the developing world. I think there is something wrong with this.

Children, however, are drawn to animals in the house like I am drawn to freshly-baked bread. So when children entered our lives, we had to put up with a constant begging for pets. We acquiesced, first with a gerbil and gold fish, later a parakeet. We kept advancing and got a cat, each progression to larger animals with some trepidation on my part.

“I want a doggie,” our son would continually beg us in the most pathetic and desperate sounding voice he could muster for all his eight years. This begging went on for years. Dogs, being the most dependent of domestic creatures, were the last thing we wanted to have under our roof.

But the begging continued. So eventually we gave in. Yep, guess we are wimps. We started visiting the local SPCA shelter for a dog we thought would meet our standards. The first one we adopted turned out to be a big mistake; it had apparently been abused by its former owner and responded by biting several of our son’s playmates. We returned that creature pretty quickly to where it we had found it.

I was not too keen on trying again, hoping that the kids had learned their lesson, but they were determined. My daughter did research on the Internet and decided that a cocker spaniel was the perfect dog for us. Boy, was she wrong! But I am getting ahead of my story. We found the cutest four-month old brown and white cocker spaniel puppy at the SPCA. We brought him home and named him Benji. That’s when the fun began. NOT.

Benji was an extremely excitable dog, jumping nervously at every noise, particular ones like the door bell setting him off uncontrollably. The kids worked with him, but had a hard time making any breakthroughs until they enrolled him in obedience school. He was fairly smart and they taught him a number of neat tricks. He almost became tolerable. Almost.

Most of you know that there is more to taking care of a dog than teaching him tricks and getting him to perform them. Apparently our children didn’t. There are such things as walking him twice a day so that he can do his duty, feeding him, seeing that he gets water, taking him to the vet, seeing that flea stuff is applied. And of course, cleaning up after he has emptied the garbage can, ate a loaf of freshly baked bread off the table or barfed up some the dozen foil-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. By the way, if you thought, or heard that chocolate is poisonous to a dog and can kill it, I’m skeptical.

You probably know where I am going with this. Somehow the children came up MIA when hard duty called. The reverse begging and pleading on our part fell on deaf ears. Threatening to get rid of the dog was met with mocking laughter. I know, by now you are really wondering about our parenting ability.

My wife and I were stuck with doing the dirty work while the kids enjoyed his play. Our son taught him to pull his sled up the hill so that they could coast down together in the snow. Such energy and ingenuity could have been used on the ordinary daily tasks, but to no avail. Ok, so maybe the morning duties were a little early for the children, but there was plenty of time other time during their waking hours that their helping hands could have been useful.

I was used to jogging every morning since I was in my twenties. By now my knees had reduced me to a daily walk instead of a jog, so I included the dog in my morning routine. We developed various routes of two miles in our neighborhood. Benji eagerly and faithfully accompanied me. After a lot of coaching he learned how to heel. For several years I decided to be paid for my morning exercise, so I took on our neighborhood paper route. My wife Esther joined me for part of those years, and so did the dog. I thought that being paid to walk the dog was pretty fair compensation for the responsibility that I thought belonged to the kids.

I complained loudly and bitterly about the dog, especially after dealing with one of his numerous mishaps. My son continually replied, “Dad, you love him and you know it.” Of course, the dog curled up at my feet and came to me since he was fed by my hand and accompanied me in the mornings (Esther did the evening duties), but I would show absolutely no recognition of affection for said creature.

Leading cross-cultural programs for several months several different years made us give up the paper route. First my daughter and her friends, who were now in college, took care of the house and the dog. The second time my son and his roommate took on the duties of house and dog. Each time we returned, the poor dog, who was used to a strict routine from middle-aged owners, was all out of sorts. It took weeks for him to settle back into his (our) beloved routine. At least our kids finally had their turn at total dog duty!!

Our son just before leaving for the vet
The last time we left for a cross-cultural semester, we left the house and dog to some trusted students. At exactly the half-way point, Benji got sick. Our neighbor lady, who is a huge dog lover and keeps her eye out for us and our house whenever we are gone, noticed something was wrong. The students said he wouldn’t eat. So along with our neighbor, our son decided to take him to the vet. He had a tumor on his liver. Already being 13 years old, and any means of intervention seemingly to no avail, by recommendation of the vet, they decided to put him down.

At the time we were visiting our daughter and husband who were doing a term of missionary service in Nicaragua. I knew something was wrong from the cryptic messages on Facebook from our son. We were staying in a wonderful bungalow-like hotel when the news came. Our son sent the picture of him and Benji shown here. I was overcome with emotion. Tears are filling my eyes as I write this. If I have such a distain for pets, and if Benji was such a nuisance to me over the years, why did I cry?

One reason was because it was hard to see my son having to go through with the most difficult and final duty of caring for a pet—putting it down. He really loved the dog even if he didn’t do much with it over the years. It was hard for me to be so far away and not be able to support him.

Beyond that, Benji, as annoying as he was, was a living, breathing creature. He was a piece of God’s creation and marvelous handiwork. Psalm 24:1 declares: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; yes, even Benji. He loved life and his owners. It was hard to see his quick demise, but he didn’t have a long time of suffering. His short life taught me to be faithful no matter what, to be dependent on others and God. He also taught me that as another creature of God’s handiwork, I too must die. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons from the Margins

God has always been on the side of the marginalized. He made provisions for the most vulnerable of society in the Hebrew scriptures; people at the margins. Here are a few examples: Deuteronomy 10:18: He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. Deuteronomy 24:19: When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. Deuteronomy 24:20: When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.

Seems like the most vulnerable people were the alien, the fatherless and the widow. These were people at the margins of Hebrew society. The provisions made in these verses were the welfare system that God put in place for them. There are myriad other verses which make the same point. God looks out for people at the margins, for the most vulnerable of society.

Things don’t change when we read the New Testament. In Matthew 25 we read about the marginalized: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The “least of these” are the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, the naked, the stranger and the sick. These are people at the margins, people who too often are ignored by the rest of us. When we relate to these people we relate to Jesus.

Jesus often rebukes establishment people and lifts up people at the margins. Just two stories illustrate this. The first comes from the beginning of Luke 21: “He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

Here the poor widow was certainly living at the margins, while the rich people were part of the establishment. The rich establishment people looked down on the poor widow as someone to be pitied; someone at the margins. Yet Jesus praises the poor widow while he rebukes the wealthy. The poor woman is attached to God rather than her material possessions. From her marginalization, Jesus teaches us a lesson.

Or consider the story recorded in Luke 18:10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The tax collector, even though he is rich, is marginalized in the eyes of the Jewish establishment because he has sold out to the Roman oppressors. Yet Jesus calls him blessed, or “justified,” because he humbled himself by recognizing his sinful state. The establishment Pharisee, who in Jewish society has everything stacked in his favor and can look down on people on the margins, is rebuked. The tax collector recognized that he had to give up control of his ego and his life in order to enter the Kingdom of God. This is another lesson from the margins.

We learn a lot from people at the margins. We find Jesus when we relate to people at the margins. Our lives are turned upside down when we relate to those at the margins. Like the poor widow and the tax collector, we learn to depend on God, to humble ourselves and to be grateful instead of resentful.

How do you relate to people at the margins, and what spiritual lessons have you learned from them?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pain and Life

I wanted to title this blog post “pain and death,” but I was afraid that in this death-denying culture, nobody would read it. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that any discussion about death is really a discussion about life.

For eight days I was surrounded by various stages of illness and pain. I was hospitalized for four days to have knee replacement surgery in both knees. Immediately following my hospitalization I spent four days in rehab. During those days there were audible moans of pain, and I’m sure, from my own experience, many suppressed ones. Being in the presence of so much pain, and feeling one’s own, makes one begin to wonder if pain is the norm. Pain begins to define reality.
First steps with the new knees

I will never forget that first night in the hospital after my surgery. I had little time for sleep and it wasn’t only because of the pain. There were nurses and aides coming in and out of my room constantly. Little did I realize how many things could go wrong after a fairly routine elective surgery like mine. I imagined them thinking, “Get him through the first night, and he will be fine.” My memory, although admittedly probably a bit foggy from all the medication, remembers being interrupted from my sleep nearly every two hours. I know they checked my vitals, and who knows how many other machines were being monitored to see how I was doing. Was I ever hovering between life and death? Pain makes you have such thoughts.

It was not only the fact that I was under anesthesia and then monitored carefully by a full staff of medical efforts that made me reflect on life. There were other instances that caused me to think about my ultimate demise. For example, the estimated lifetime of the artificial joints in my knees are said to be 20-25 years. The doctor tells me that they should last. Last until what? One starts to do the math.

Then in rehab, I was surrounded by people much older than I. They were recovering from strokes, from heart attacks, from broken hips and other age-related illnesses. Some of them were suffering because of specific lifestyle choices, others from accidents, and still others from having been dealt with a unfortunate set of genes. Life seems to be a crapshoot. Being in close proximity to people seemingly closer to death than I made me reflect on my life and my remaining years.  

Can I avoid some of the pain I saw other patients enduring? Is it simply a matter of fate, or are there things I could be doing now to prevent future hospitalizations? I have always been dedicated to exercise, the years of jogging probably the reason for my need for knee replacements. As my knees became increasingly bad, I switched from walking to cycling, either outdoors or indoors on a stationary bike. I have a rejuvenated interest in pursuing aerobic exercise as soon as my knees permit it. It lowers my blood pressure and makes me feel better all over. 

One health-related item about which I haven’t been so careful, is my diet. My pain-riddled journey has made me more concerned about this. I’m not about to embark on some fad diet, I simply want to eat more moderately to try to balance my weight. My weight has crept up over the years in spite of the exercise, and it has mostly been because of a lack of discipline when it comes to the portions I serve myself at meals and the unhealthy snacks I continually consume.

Through experiencing pain and witnessing others with their own aches makes me more grateful for life than ever. Spending time in a hospital and rehab center and seeing what I may be facing in future years makes me rededicate myself to a healthier lifestyle.

Here’s to life!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pain and Creativity

A friend of mine, knowing how much I enjoy writing, innocently asked me in an email: “Getting any writing done [this summer]?” It was a fair question. He had run into me other summers at local coffee shops pounding feverishly away at my keyboard, working on another writing project. And indeed, I had recently completed a manuscript that will be published in September. I had two published articles in a peer-reviewed journal within the past six months, and two articles published in The Mennonite, the magazine for the Mennonite Church (MCUSA), and completed chapters to be included in two other books. My friend was also aware of my participation in a writers’ retreat/workshop at our university for the past number of years; usually held in the month of May.

But this summer has been different. Because of arthritis-riddled knees, I submitted myself to the skill of an orthopedic surgeon for total knee replacement in both knees. I am now nearly five weeks removed from that surgery, and it has been quite the journey. I’ve already written a little about it in a blog post titled “Pain and Prayer”. These past five weeks have been more filled with pain than creativity.

Pain really saps one’s strength and energy. In my earlier blog post, I wrote about ten hours that were nearly unbearable, but since then my pain has been manageable even if constant. In spite of the pain being manageable, I am constantly tired. I take two to three naps a day. At first it was mostly because of my pain medication. It is also because I can’t sleep as deeply at night. Being in a continual state of tiredness does not foster an environment for creativity.
Where I need to spend more time when the pain abates.

There is another factor. Before surgery, I would spend 20 to 30 minutes every morning sitting on our patio in silence and contemplation. These times alone were filled with inspirational moments, whether reflecting on something I’d read, a podcast or music I’d heard, or simply sitting in silence. The pain and the lack of mobility resulting from the surgery has altered this inspiring time. During my rehabilitation, I have tried doing this indoors, in my den, but there are too many distractions, none of the least of which is the pain.

Another possible reason for lack of creativity is that it has been over two years since my wife and I have lead a cross-cultural group to Guatemala and Mexico. I usually come back from these trips with loads of stories that need to be told. Indirectly, it was the pain in my knees that prevented us from leading such a group this past semester. Where shall I go to find new stories?

There is another problem that is related to the above paragraph. I currently do not have any particular writing project on the front burner. I have several ideas for future topics, but none is making my creative juices flow. I do believe, however, if I were not dealing with the pain factor, and if I were back to my routine of patio sitting, and if I were independent enough to drive to the local coffee shops, I would be feverishly pounding away on my keyboard like in years past. New projects and new ideas would feed the old ones and I would be working on several stories at the same time.

Pain is all-consuming and because it saps so much energy, it inhibits creativity. At least this has been my experience. I’m wondering if anyone has had a different experience.