Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The God-Child Has Come

In traditional Mexican Christmas celebrations, at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, everyone stops in their tracks, embrace each other, and say “The God-Child has come.” At this moment, the baby Jesus is placed in the manger for the first time in their elaborate nativity scenes; nativity scenes that have been prominently displayed since the beginning of Advent. The air is filled with expectancy as the children anxiously await this moment. Each child hopes that they will be the one selected to bring God into the world, to “make his dwelling among us.”

In many US American homes on Christmas Eve, children anxiously await the arrival of  Santa Claus. They can barely sleep from the excitement. They are told that a magical man will somehow miraculously appear in every home on earth, and if they have been good they will be given lots of presents. This man comes in a sleigh pulled by reindeer that can fly through the night. This scene is enacted not only in secular homes, but in many Christian ones as well.

For me, I much prefer the Mexican celebration to the US American one. The emphasis is on the true meaning of Christmas, the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” In US American homes, the emphasis is too often on the self and “what I am going to get.” Perhaps that really reveals the true meaning of Christmas in our culture—consumerism and acquisitiveness.

I can understand secular post-Christian culture including Santa Claus in Christmas, but I have never been able to understand the need for Christians to do the same. Yes, I understand the wonder and the awe and the mystical and the magical that he may represent. But the wonder and the awe that I have seen in Mexican children’s eyes awaiting the arrival of the God-Child was every bit if not more magical than any fat bearded man who shook like a bowlful of jelly.

“The God-Child has come.” May we open our homes and homes for his indwelling.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Little Girl's Christmas in Mexico

(The little girl is my daughter)

Melinda felt funny in her tummy.  Today was the day she had been talking about with all her little friends for a long time.  They were to have their “Posada” at kindergarten!

A Posada is a Mexican Christmas custom.  It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Everyone tries to re-enact the events of Christmas day!  First there is “la virgen.”  Every little girl wants to play the part of Mary.  She gets to put on a beautiful long white dress that looked a lot like a dress for a bride at a wedding.  Then she rides on top of a donkey through the streets being pulled by Joseph.  Behind them come all the little shepherds and shepherdesses dressed in colorful costumes, dancing and singing in praise to the newborn king!

Melinda wasn’t going to be Mary.  Even though she secretly wanted to, she would never admit it to her Mommy and Daddy!  Actually, she couldn’t be Mary.  The honor went to a girl from the third year of kindergarten, and she was only in the second year.  Usually the honor was given to one of the daughters of the rich families in town.  Every other little girl was jealous of the one who was chosen, but they all knew that there could only be one Mary!

On the other hand, none of the little boys really wanted to be Joseph!  Even though he could lead the donkey, and all the parents of the children ran excitedly back and forth to take exactly the right picture of the procession, who wanted to be Joseph, anyway, when all the attention centered on Mary?

Melinda had been waiting for this day all week.  Yet she was scared.  She could hardly wait to put on the little shepherdess’ dress which she borrowed from the girl next door.  Yet she remembered all the excitement of the first dance lesson and what had happened to her.  Would the same thing happen now?  Could she remember all the Christmas songs (villansicos) she learned to sing?

Alexandra came over to see if Melinda was ready.  She was dressed in a traditional shepherd’s costume that dated back many, many years to traditions brought to Mexico from Spain.

Now it was time to go.  Mommy, Daddy, Melinda, Matthew and Alexandra all got into the VW bus to head for the school.  At the school there was excitement in the air.  The children tried their tambourines.

The excitement soon turned to restlessness, as the expected donkey did not arrive on time.  Everyone anxiously looked to see if the next person coming around the street corner was leading the donkey for the Posada.

After about an hour wait, the donkey arrived.  Now there was a flurry of activity, as they tried to place the little girl on the donkey, holding a baby doll that was to represent the baby Jesus.  A police car arrived to provide an escort.  Parents lined the streets on either side as the children lined up in pairs behind the blessed couple.  Soon they were on their way.  The children, assisted by their teachers, began singing the traditional songs of the shepherds.

The procession turned the corner unto Federico del Toro, a main street.  It went right past the St. Peter’s church, whose spiral cut an ivory colored slice out of the bright blue sky.

People came out of the stores to watch the parade.  Cars that generally were in a hurry to complete their business downtown, had to wait until the slowly moving procession went past.  Several old men on the sidewalk stopped, and reverently tipped their broad rimmed “sombreros” as the holy couple went by.  Everyone was smiling.

Melinda forgot all about her tummy ache.  She knew every word of every song they sang.  She felt happy to know that her whole family came to her Posada.  Mommy held little Matthew while Daddy took pictures of the parade from every angle.

The procession ended up at the Ramírez house.  It was a typical Spanish-style colonial home, with an open courtyard in the middle, where beautiful poinsettia were blooming.  Around the courtyard, on the veranda, chairs were set up for the parents to sit and eat and visit.  Many parents were already waiting for the procession when it arrived.  there was a big cheer for Mary and Joseph.  Their part and the donkey’s part were done.  Now came the festivities.

Many women had prepared huge tubs of “tamales” and “atole.”  Both of these are traditional Christmas foods and go back to the time of the Indians.  Both are made with corn, which is the staple in the diet of most Mexicans.  The tamales are made with a handful of corn mush, wrapped in husks of an ear of corn.  There is either a spicy meat sauce in the middle, or something sweet.  The atole is a hot drink that is traditionally made from corn.

While the parents ate and drank their traditional food, the children sat together and continued to entertain with Christmas songs.  Then came the event all the children were waiting for.  The breaking of the “piñata.”  Melinda loved this as much as all the other children, but she was always too bashful to try her luck at hitting it.

Today the piñata was made in the shape of the donkey-- just like the donkey that Mary rode on!  It was hung on a rope that was suspended between the two sides of the courtyard.  Melinda stood at the back of the group of children.  How she wanted to try to hit that donkey!  But there were just too many people watching, and that made her nervous.  Anyway, she knew that if the earthen bowl inside the donkey that was filled with candy would break, there would be such a stampede of children that she was afraid she would be crushed!

“Güerita,” they called to Melinda, offering her the stick.  Melinda just could not bring herself to do it.  Melinda’s Daddy came to her and tried to get her to hit the piñata with the stick.  She was sure she didn’t want to do it.

Suddenly the clay bowl broke.  Candy and children flew everywhere.  Melinda did not budge from her spot, even though she wanted to participate.  It just looked too rough for her.  Many of the older boys dove in first, and she was scared of them.  It seemed that the parents didn’t care if the big boys hogged all the candy for themselves.  Melinda didn’t want any part of that.  She secretly wished that just once they’d have a piñata just for girls!  Maybe then she would help.

Luckily, the teachers never put all the candy into the piñata.  They always had bags hidden that were full of treats.  After the dust settled, they would see to it that all the children had some candy, even the shy ones like Melinda.

It was over all to soon for Melinda.  They were in the VW bus once again going back through the city to their home.  She and Alexandra slumped together in the back seat.  All the excitement had made them tired.  They had fallen asleep.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mary’s Song and the Pope’s Message

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV)

Pope Francis’ Peace Message December 12, 2013 from the Toronto Sun Times:

Pope Francis attacked mega-salaries and big bonuses on Thursday, saying in the first peace message of his pontificate that they are symptoms of an economy based on greed and inequality.
In his message for the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace, marked by the Church around the world on Jan. 1, he also called for more sharing of wealth among people and nations to narrow the gap between the rich and poor.
"The grave financial and economic crises of the present time ... have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy," he said.
"The succession of economic crises should lead too a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles," he said.
Francis, who was named Time magazine's Person of the Year on Wednesday, has urged his own Church to be more fair, frugal and less pompous and to be closer to the poor and suffering.
His message will be sent to national leaders, international organisations such as the United Nations, and NGO's.
Titled "Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace", the message also attacked injustice, human trafficking, organised crime and the weapons trade as obstacles to peace.
The new pope's style is characterised by frugality. He shunned the spacious papal apartment in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace to live in a small suite in a Vatican guest house, and he prefers a Ford Focus to the traditional pope's Mercedes.
A champion of the downtrodden, he visited the island of Lampedusa in southern Italy in July to pay tribute to hundreds of migrants who had died crossing the sea from North Africa.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Watch Your Possessiveness: A Cross-cultural Lesson on Private Property

I lived in La Ceiba, Honduras a number of times. During one of my stays, the first full-time Honduran voluntary service worker (VS), Julio Pineda, joined our VS team. We lived in the same room that I had earlier helped to build in the basement of the VS house. We did a lot of things together. I remember riding around town with him on the VS motorcycle, dropping in at a local dive to drink cokes and talk about life. I also remember him being one of the biggest fans of softball; several of us VS boys were on local teams.

I had two watches during that time, wearing the one I favored, and leaving the other one behind on the dresser of our room. One day I noticed that Julio was wearing the watch I had left on the dresser. I was more than a little irked. By now I was fairly well-schooled in the language and the culture, so I knew that I should not accuse him directly of stealing—what I would have done in my home culture. I had to give him a way out; that is to say, a way to save face. I stewed on this for some time until I finally came up with an idea. When we were in an appropriate environment, I said to him, “that’s a really cool watch you are wearing, did you buy that here in La Ceiba or somewhere else?” I thought I was giving him a way out to say his mother bought it in San Pedro Sula and gave it to him for his birthday, or something else. “I didn’t buy it,” he replied without batting an eye. “It’s yours.” Now I was totally floored. He was openly admitting to what my culture would consider stealing.

I do not remember much else of the conversation between us, but this little incident caused me to reflect a lot on the differences between the two cultures on private property. I learned that in Honduras, what’s yours is mine. If we share the same living space, we share the same possessions. I had to admit that God had a little lesson in this incident for me. Perhaps Julio was helping me be a better steward of my possessions. I normally would not wear two watches at the same time, so one was being unproductive. Having two watches was wasteful. Julio was helping me to be more faithful with the things I own.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels . . ." (2 Corinthians). So often we focus on the "earthen vessels" and the depravity of our humanity. Augustine conceived of "original sin" wherein we are tainted with sin before we are born. This caused the need for infant baptism to assure that the blighted, newborn is cleansed from his/her genetic depravity.

Anabaptists believed that children were innocent until they reached the age of accountability. Pelagius, an originator of Celtic Christian thought, was declared a heretic for attacking Augustine's doctrine of original sin; instead emphasizing the goodness of our humanity through being made in God's image. Sin entered through the development of an individual's ego and socialization into fallen systems.

Because of Western Christianity's emphasis on original sin and the Calvinist corollary of total depravity, I grew up with the focus of being an "earthen vessel." My church, especially during the revivals of the 50s and 60s, reinforced this notion. How I believed in my worminess!

On the other hand, we are made in God's "image and likeness" (Gen. 1:26). This is the "treasure" that we carry in these earthen vessels. Throughout my adult life, I've had to work hard to see this treasure within and to quell the socialized voices that keep appearing. Through work with my dreams, contemplation, music, and other spiritual disciplines I have come to recognize how valuable this treasure is.

But we can't stop with just recognizing our own treasure. We have to see the treasure in others as well. Because of my own socialization, it has been easier to see the earthen vessel in others rather than their treasure. By seeing others' treasure within, we focus on their potential rather than their behavior.

We cannot deny that we are earthen vessels. But let's not get stuck there. Let's focus on the treasure within and our potential as God's good creation.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Imagination, Myth and Dreams

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts.” ~Robert Fulghum

I have been ruminating on this quote for several days. Something about it resonates in my soul, but not in my head. There’s the rub. Imagination, myth and dreams are all left-brain activities, while knowledge, history and facts are right-brained. The first group of adjectives belongs to poets and musicians, while the second belongs to historians and scientists. 

The reason that I call it a rub is that as a Western male, I have been socialized to believe that the second set of adjectives are more important than the first. That right-brain functions are worthier than left-brained ones. “I think, therefore I am” (Rene Descartes) has been the ruling principle of the Age of Reason. Westerners would contend that, “Knowledge is stronger than imagination. History is more potent than myth. Facts are more important than dreams.”

Fulghum turns that Western thinking on its head. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, also turned that thinking on its head. He studied the areas of imagination, myth, and dreams, and discovered a deep reservoir of paranormal phenomena within  our psyches. These were not accepted as science, because much of what he discovered could not be explained, let alone proven. Yet, for those of us in tune with our souls, what he discovered touches us deeply. 

He found myths and symbols that crop up in our night-time dreams to be similar around the world. He called the source of these images our collective unconscious. I call it the place where God stamped his image into our souls. 

The more I have experienced God through spiritual disciplines, the more I have been able to understand the truth of Fulghum’s quote and Jung’s discoveries. I also am more able to draw from the depths of my psyche all the good, the bad and the ugly that is me, hold them together and let them be my teacher. I am much more open to mystery, ambiguity and paradox.  

Post-moderns are actually beginning to embody Fulghum’s wisdom and move beyond the Age of Reason. Post-moderns are becoming more open to mystery, ambiguity and paradox. But those who are entrenched in their black-and-white, either-or, creedal thinking, will continue to hang on to their “truth” with a vengeance. 

“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The historical Jesus as God incarnate; holding both historical “fact” and myth in tension.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

I teach Spanish at Eastern Mennonite University. The other day while awaiting for all the students to arrive, a few began to engage me in some small talk. “Do you know that you are different when you speak Spanish?” one student asked. “You are more laid back; funnier. You seem to be more serious when you speak English.”

I asked other students who had arrived if they experienced the same difference in me. I was a bit non-plussed at how vigorously several students nodded their heads. Now, I had been told before that I act differently when I speak Spanish, but this was back during a time when I was struggling with faith issues and had become quite cynical. My responses to questions in English tended to be dripping with biting sarcasm. My Spanish persona wasn’t as hard edged, perhaps because I used it mostly in teaching situations or social encounters. 

When I was in high school, I was a class clown. I was knocked for not taking anything seriously. That silliness was replaced by cynicism through the severe realities of poverty and oppression that I witnessed in Latin America where I learned my Spanish. I have worked hard at overcoming my cynicism and snide remarks and thought that the class clown and cynic had resolved their differences. I guess the class clown still resides in the Spanish side of my brain while the cynic still influences
the English speaker. 

I know for a fact that it is easier for me to give compliments in Spanish than in English. Part of the reason is that I never received many compliments in my own upbringing, while I was overwhelmed with compliments when living in certain parts of Latin America. Another reason is because giving compliments in English, especially to someone of the opposite sex, depending on the recipient, can be seen as harassment. In Spanish, a compliment is always accepted with huge grins, unguarded thank yous, and often a hug; from either male or female. 

I am also more polite in Spanish. I use more words to express my thanks; many that would be too flowery in English. I use more hand gestures and touch more while speaking Spanish. Do these examples make me be more laid back and funnier in Spanish? 

I have known quite a few multi-lingual people over the years, but I can’t say that I observed a wide variance of personality in them when speaking different languages. One, a native speaker of English, has converted his way of thinking and use of language completely into the mindset of the second language he had learned. Another is exactly the same in all three languages. Each language is pronounced with the same cadence and the same personality comes through no matter which he is speaking. 

I do know of one example of a woman who speaks Italian and a rural dialect of German.  When she speaks Italian she seems to be a fashion model, but when she speaks the dialect of German she comes off as an ordinary farmer’s daughter. This example seems to be more like the differences my students were pointing out in me than others I have cited.

So this begs the question, do I have two distinct personalities depending on whether I speak English or Spanish? Wonder if I would score differently on the Myers-Briggs scale if I took it in Spanish. I have not even addressed the fact that I have to deal with a third reality, Swiss German, the language of my wife. Do I act differently when I speak in Swiss or is the German more akin to English so that not such a drastic difference in personality can be detected? 

Will the real me please stand up? I really don’t think twice about how I am acting when I speak a certain language. Whatever I speak or however I act, it is me. I am not two-faced. I do not have a split personality or an evil twin. I am not Jekyll and Hyde. I think I am simply emphasizing certain aspects of my personality as I embody the cultural and linguistic nuances of each. My soul, stamped with the image of God, is just reflecting more of God’s wonderfully diverse mosaic of people.

The real me stands up no matter what I do or say. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Collective Unconscious, Mandalas and DNA: Preparing Our Souls

I am extremely intrigued by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory on the collective unconscious. He believes that as human beings we inherit images, myths and symbols that are shared across time and cultures. These collective manifestations appear in our legends, dreams and art. 

An example of a symbol that Jung found in most cultures around the world is the Mandela symbol. This symbol is a circular image which meant wholeness for Jung. “A  mandala is generally a circle with dividing lines separating it into several quadrants. Each quadrant represents a different theme and starts at the center of the circle working outward,” according to a site on mandalas. (source: http://www.meaningofmandalas.com/

His initial discovery of this symbol came from India where they are quite prevalent. Here is an example: 

From Europe, we have appearing in many cathedrals what is called a “Rose Window.” These windows have the same circular shape and quadrants. 

(Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/Rosace_cathedrale_strasbourg.jpg)

From Latin America, we have the Aztec calendar which also meets the definition of a mandala symbol. 

From Africa comes this image, which is not exactly a circle, but it has the same quadrants, and a circle can certainly be imagined by rounding off the corners. 

The Christian cross can also be imagined as a mandala symbol since it has four quadrants. The Celtic especially designed the cross with a circle in the center, making it more like a mandala symbol. The following image of a celtic cross shows that relationship.

Now an interesting find. There are images of our DNA that look like mandala symbols. Here is an example of one from the website http://www.blazelabs.com/f-p-geom.asp

Not only are these images in our collective unconscious, but also in our DNA. Apparently there are mandala-like patterns throughout the universe; from DNA to galaxies. 

According to Jung, the mandala symbol comes from our collective unconscious. 
I believe that the collective unconscious is the stamp that God has put on our soul. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read that we have been created in the  “image and likeness” of God. Within that image and likeness resides a holy longing for God. Symbols that well up from our unconscious (soul=psyche), like the mandala symbol, are reminders of our need for God. They are also reminders of what we as humans across cultures and times have in common. 

Ultimately, I believe that good missionary work is to listen to the stories and the symbols of each people to whom we want to share the Good News. These stories and symbols, rather than being cast off as “pagan,” are the groundwork that God has laid in each of our souls to prepare us for the final revelation of Truth; God’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is Your God a Puppeteer or a Novelist?

In his book A Grace Disguised (Zondervan 2005), Jerry Sittser uses two metaphors for God on pages 156-157: God as a puppeteer and God as a novelist. The puppeteer is an all-powerful God who predetermines our every move. We are passive victims of God’s whims; we have little freedom to choose. On the other hand, God as novelist is in overall control of the writing of the book, but as the story line develops, the characters change as their characters develop. Rather than being manipulated and controlled, they have a freedom to choose their own destinies.

In thinking about these two metaphors for God, I came up with a list to describe each one and their contrasting characteristics.

God as puppeteer
       God of much of Christianity, especially fundamentalism
       All-powerful God
       God of justice (fairness-we get what we deserve)
       God of sending Hebrews into exile
       Story of Job
       Causes fatalism (I’m stuck)
       God of creeds and “isms”
God as novelist
       God of Nouwen, Sittser, many other writers on spirituality
       All-loving God
       God of grace (mercy)
       Story of Prodigal Son
       God of allowing Hebrews a king
       Causes hope (I can change)
       God of mystery

My first claim is that the puppeteer metaphor is the one that most of us grow up with in our black-and-white Sunday school faith. Many stay stuck with this image of God. This stuck-ness results in rigid belief systems that produce fundamentalism. Most writers on Christian spirituality show us how to grow and mature in our faith by moving us more toward the novelist metaphor.

The puppeteer God is all-powerful while the novelist God is all-loving. I have written about this difference in a previous blog post: "God: Almighty or All-loving?"

The puppeteer God is a God of justice and righteousness. This God judges us for our faults; dishes out what we deserve—if we are good we get a reward, if we are bad, we get punishment (Deut. 28).  This God is the God who sent the Hebrews into exile for their disobedience. In contrast, the novelist God is a God of mercy. The best example of this is the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:32). This God loves and forgives no matter how egregious the straying and the sin.

The best biblical story that portrays God as a puppeteer is the story of Job. Job is seemingly at the mercy of the forces of good and evil, and Job is a mere marionette on a string being manipulated by God. The best biblical story to illustrate the God as novelist is the story of the Hebrews’ desire for a king (1 Samuel 8). This was not in God’s original plan; It was an outright rejection of God’s sovereignty. However, as the novel developed, and the people’s characters changed, God allowed for them to have a king.

The puppeteer God causes fatalism. “That’s life.” “It was or wasn’t God’s will.” We get stuck in the blame game with no way for movement out. On the other hand, the novelist God brings us hope. We can change, we are not stuck.

The puppeteer God is the one that has the followers develop creeds to believe in, doctrines to follow, and institutions to be preserved. The novelist God is mysterious, beyond rational explanation and characterization. This is the God that mystics through the ages and in all religions traditions have experienced.

Of course, as mentioned above, there is biblical evidence for both kinds of “Gods,” and the categories are probably not as neatly defined as I make them. Nevertheless, the lists can give us some food for thought in how we experience or view God.

During my crisis of faith, I became very cynical about the church, God and religion in general. I was stuck on the institutional God of creeds and “isms.” My faith was restored and my cynicism conquered by the mysterious God, mainly through the spiritual disciplines. I learned to “know” God rather than just to “believe” in God.