Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MARCH 12, 2013
The Power of Story

I have always loved listening to stories, especially funny ones. I have always loved telling such stories as well.
Recently I have discovered the power of writing stories in my own life. Not just funny stories. For many years I told stories about others; especially about my friends mired in poverty in Central America and Mexico, hoping to elicit compassion on my hearer’s part. Unfortunately, the more I told THEIR story, the more I repressed MY story, especially my anger toward the injustice contained within the stories I was telling.

So I started to write my own story, interwoven with my experiences with the “other” in Central America and Mexico. As I wrote and reflected, I saw how God was at work within my stories, even the ones that made me the angriest. The process has been transformative. This is why I resonate so deeply with Kevin Kling’s quote in an interview with Krista Tippett on APM’s radio show, “On Being.” He said, “When I turn something into a story, it doesn’t control me anymore.”

The power of story has transformed my most negative emotions and repressed feelings into something positive so that they don’t control me any more. 

MARCH 9, 2013
Dealing with Loneliness

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) Have you ever felt this lonely? I have. In chapter seven of our forth-coming book, A Mellow Heart, I recount a time when I was all alone on an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea with a seemingly unsolvable problem on my hands. I felt totally alone and abandoned.

In this chapter I discuss an “existential loneliness” that has developed in our culture because of a “loss of community, a loss of faith, a separation from and exploitation of nature, and fragmentation.” I examine Psalm 55, which speaks to all of these elements, as an framework to help us deal with these loneliness-causing problems in ourselves and in our culture, and to develop a mellow heart.

MARCH 6, 2013
Are Mennonites Becoming too Liturgical?

At a recent meeting of the Campus Ministries Council of Eastern Mennonite University, we were asked to reflect on how we are being drawn to, or away from a practice of Lent. I remember feeling ambivalent every year about “giving up” something for Lent, and yet felt drawn to the seasonal ebbs and flows of the church calendar.

Growing up Mennonite, the only thing I knew about Lent was my Spanish teacher showing up with ashes smeared on his forehead at some mysterious time of the year. The Mennonite Church had inherited the iconoclastic fervor of the Reformation in Zurich, where mobs went through Catholic churches and pillaged any token of art or image that led to idolatry. Zwingli even banned music from his services because of its potential for idolatry. At least Anabaptist Mennonites didn’t go quite that far.

Nor did Mennonites celebrate Advent in my childhood experiences. We did celebrate Christmas with the obligatory pageant and gifts of hard candy and oranges. My daughter and her husband who are serving in Nicaragua report that the Evangelical Church there has banned any outright celebration even of Christmas because most of the celebrations have pagan roots. A strong case could be made for that.
The point of the Anabaptists, and probably of the Nicaraguan Christians, is that every day in the life of the Christian should be a day of “giving up something” for our faith. They had a word for it: “Gelassenheit.” Our spirituality was a “daily taking up of the cross” and following Jesus, not just something we did on special feast or fast days.

Over the years, Mennonites have drunk deeply at the wells of spirituality found in church tradition, especially of our Catholic brothers and sisters. Catholic writers of spirituality like Henri Nouwen, Ronald Rolheiser, and Richard Rohr, among others, have influenced greatly our thinking about ritual. Because of this influence Mennonites have begun following the church calendar and the lectionary, with special Lenten and Advent emphases in our Sunday morning gatherings. I think this has had mostly a positive effect on the life of the church. But have we gone too far?

John Philip Newell, who writes extensively on Celtic spirituality, writes about a Celtic sensibility toward ritual which I think comes close to what Anabaptists must have been thinking. In his book Searching for the Heartbeat of God, Newell writes, “God is at the heart of all life, in both the visible and invisible. We don’t have to try to reach God through acts of devotion, for God is closer to us than our very breath.” (Newell, 1997) 

Perhaps we need rituals to remind us of how close God is to us because our distracted, materialistic culture has removed us so far from his presence. Perhaps we need seasons of the year to emphasize different aspects of God’s acts on our behalf. Yet I remain ambivalent about giving up something for Lent. I am not ambivalent, however, about wanting to be so aware of God in every moment of every day, that I can sense him in my breath.

MARCH 4, 2013
Beatitudes a Location, Not a Spirituality

“The Beatitudes, the original language, was not ‘Blessed are’ or ‘Happy are’ the single-hearted or those who work for peace or struggle for justice. The more precise translation is ‘You’re in the right place if …’ And I like that better, you know, because it turns out the Beatitudes is not a spirituality. It’s a geography. You know, it tells you where to stand. You’re in the right place if you’re over here.”

This quote is from Fr. Greg Boyle, founder/executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, during his podcast interview with Krista Tippett on “On Being”. What a powerful new insight for me on the beatitudes, after having written a book Meditations on the Beatitudes: Lessons from the Margins. In my book I tell stories of how marginalized people exhibit more traits of the beatitudes than most of us comfortable, middle-class people.

According to Boyle, Jesus is teaching us to be with those on the margins, to be in relationship with them, not just developing an inner spirituality that mimics their kingdom-like traits. This makes the sub-title of my book come to life. One cannot learn lessons from the margins of society if one is not in relationship with marginalized people. I heard these stories and many more, while I was living among them. My current location has distanced me from the marginalized, even though I wouldn’t have to go very far to find them. It’s just too easy to remain comfortable and contented than challenged and confronted.

In spite of how much this quote impacted me, I think that the beatitudes are both a location and a spirituality. The two go hand-in-hand. They feed on each other. One is inner transformation, and the other is outer transformation.

The quote has challenged me to consider returning to doing volunteer chaplaincy work at the local hospital among the Hispanic population. My three-year experience doing such volunteer work challenged me nearly as much as the eight years spent in Central America.

For the whole interview on Fr. Boyle’s work with street gangs in LA click on

FEBRUARY 27, 2013
Overcoming Cynicism With Joy
I just completed my part of chapter six of the book on A Mellow Heart that I am co-writing with my sister Sharon. Although I use personal story throughout the book, this chapter is solely my story. In it, I recount how I rediscovered my happy-go-lucky youth after years of dealing with anger, bitterness and cynicism. I can’t believe how cathartic this writing has been. Basically, I rediscovered the joy of life by going inward through many spiritual disciplines after failing to change the world outwardly. I discovered that I can be both the class clown and be concerned with social justice; that I can care about the world’s injustices and still smile. I am made in God’s image, and that image can be found not only within myself, but also in whatever outer circumstances beset me. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. John 15:11.

FEBRUARY 24, 2013
Writing Projects and Dreams

I am writing this blog in order to update my friends on the writing projects I have been working on, and to challenge myself to complete them.
Presence: An International Journal for Spiritual Direction
I have submitted two articles to this peer-reviewed journal. One has been accepted for publication, and I am patiently waiting for word on the second.
1. “Resting in the Presence of God: Soul Care for Busy People.” This article was based on a sermon that I gave at Lindale Mennonite Church’s summer retreat. Later I presented it as a workshop Eastern Mennonite University’s fall faculty/staff conference. Basically it outlines how stressed out we are as a culture, and gives some tips of how to remedy that with little prayer-filled oases throughout the day. It has been accepted for publication, but no date has been given me as to when it will be published.
2. “Male Spirituality: a Personal Journey Toward Wholeness.” In this article I trace my own history of a deepening relationship with God, a fuller sense of His presence and a journey away from black and white views of God. I show how Celtic spirituality, Mayan spirituality, Jungian depth psychology have all played a part in opening me up to God’s fuller manifestations, all while reaffirming my unwavering faith in Jesus as God’s son incarnate. I am really excited about this article and think it has great potential for being accepted for publication.
Book: A Mellow Heart: Balancing Our Spirituality.
This is a book I have been working on for several years with my sister Sharon Clymer Landis. We were excited to learn that Herald Press has agreed to publish it! This is a book on spirituality that tries to temper our “Type A” aggressive cultural personality with a mellowness that is at the root of Jesus’ teachings. Some of the issues we deal with are; abundance vs. scarcity, developing heightened awareness and living in the present, gratitude vs. resentfulness, love overcoming fear, joy overcoming cynicism, Jesus’ peace overcoming existential loneliness, and so forth. We have about half of the chapters written and are primed to continue since we received the good news from HP!
Future book ideas:
1. A book about the talking points between Anabaptism and Celtic theology. Co-written by a friend and fellow spiritual pilgrim.
2. A book titled “Finding home: A Spirituality for Wandering Souls.”
Books that I have been reading to feed my soul, many of them I am re-reading:
1. J. Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
2. J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: a Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1998).
3. J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2008).
4. Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, 1ST ed. (New World Library, 2004).
5. Anthony De Mello, Song of the Bird (Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, 1984).
6. Anthony De Mello, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, ed. J. Francis Stroud (Image Books, 1992).
7. Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, 1st ed. (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009).
8. Richard Rohr O.F.M et al., Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, 1st ed. (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996).

JUNE 6, 2012
I am the way the truth and the life

I have been reading J. Philip Newell’s book A New Harmony. I came across some interesting quotes. First from page 119: “An American rabbi was once asked what he thought of the words attributed to Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, ‘I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). The rabbi replied, ‘Oh, I agree with these words.’ To which the surprised questioner asked further, ‘But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ ‘Because,’ answered the rabbi, ‘I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.’”
 The wisdom of these words would go a long way in helping us to negotiate the political and religious climate in our country these days. They would also go a long way to facilitate interfaith dialog.
Let’s start with the political and religious climate. There is no question that the US population is polarized to extremes—both in questions of politics and religion. If there is a middle ground, the voices are silenced by the shrillness of the voices on either extreme. “Either-or” thinking abounds. Either you believe the way I believe, or you are ____________ ! You fill in the blank with how you have labeled people who don’t agree with you. Is this Jesus’ way, truth and life? Or is this YOUR way YOUR truth, MY way and MY truth? Since none of us see God’s truth but “through a glass darkly,” how can we be so adamant that our way is the truth? Both – and thinking is needed. Both YOUR way and MY way are truth. This isn’t being wishy-washy, relativistic thinking. This is recognizing that since everyone is made in God’s image, everyone has some of the truth, and that no one has all the truth.
This could also extend to interfaith understanding. Have any of us listened to the faith of a Muslim, a Jew, a Baha’i, or other faith perspective? Have we had the same understanding that the rabbi had toward Jesus? Is there a possibility that God has revealed some truth in each religion as a means to discover Jesus?
But there’s more. Newell writes on p. 119: “Instead of seeing Jesus as embodying the way of love that we are to follow, the truth of love that we are to believe, and the life of love that we are to live, we have turned his teachings into a set of propositional truths about Jesus. We have pretended that the most important thing is to give assent to particular beliefs rather than to follow the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love. And part of what we have ended up doing is creating a Jesus who is so insecure that he needs to be thinking about him all the time.”
What difference would it make in our polarized political/religious climate if we would EMBODY Jesus’ ethic of love, his way of love, his truth of love, instead of just saying that we BELIEVE in it and in Jesus? What if we would LIVE Jesus’ command to love everyone, instead of reciting the creeds in order to be sure we have “correct” belief? For as Newell stated, “Jesus teaches us that we will truly find ourselves only by giving ourselves away in love,” p. 116. And on p. 118, “This was Jesus’ wisdom. He showed us that we truly find ourselves by losing our egocentricity.” Losing our egocentricity as well as our ethnocentricity.
Finally, many of us “have been appalled at the way in which Jesus has been hijacked by triumphalist [superior to all other] religion [and culture]. The truly humble one at the heart of our tradition [Jesus] has been used to prop up an often arrogant and irrelevant religious system. The son of compassion has been used to justify intolerance and even violence,” p. 118. Unfortunately, as this quote points out, there has been far more arrogant and violent Christianity—especially in the West, than the Christianity of Jesus portrayed in the Beatitudes.
Is Jesus “The Way, The Truth, and The Life?” If you believe that he is, and I do, than let’s embody that way—the way of love and the way of the cross. 

MAY 21, 2012
Too many choices

Choices. I wanted to upgrade my cell phone. I didn’t use it much, but was intrigued by the possibilities of the new smart phones everyone was carrying with them. I also wanted to be free of the major telephone companies and their 2-year contracts in order to buy one of their phones. I had used a family plan with one of the major companies for many years, and every time I examined my bill closely (I mean reading the really fine print) I would discover that I was paying for much more than I was using, even if I was on the minimum plan. After using a “pay-as-you-go” plan for my cell phone while abroad, I decided that was the way to go.
During the past number of years I had carried around an iPod Touch, which acted exactly like an iPhone without the phone part. I had accumulated hundreds of applications for it that I really liked, so I wanted to buy an iPhone. So I tried to find a pay-as-you-go company that offered an iPhone. No such luck. I searched for plans and the accompanying phones and I could not believe the number of companies out there—and then added to that was the myriad number of phones available to buy. It became obvious that the iPhone was only available through a large company with a minimum of a 2-year contract, both of which I wanted to avoid. The iPhone was also by far the most expensive. So now the need to choose. Do I find a phone with minimal capabilities and keep using my iPod Touch? If I go with a smart phone, which one? There were literally hundreds of possibilities for phones and plans.
So I spent hours on line trying to decide which phone and company offered me the best value for the money. The more I tried to decide which was my best option, the more irritated I became. I simply had too much information and too many choices.
This simple illustration highlights the irritation of having too many choices for one little product. Yet practically everything we experience has choice involved—cars to drive, colleges to attend and majors to study, churches to join, or computers to use—the list is endless. Unless we consume compulsively, each one of these choices requires a certain amount of deliberation raising our expectations with each new piece of information. In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz writes: “So the more choices we have, the more effort goes into our decisions, and the more we expect to enjoy the benefits of those decisions.” (Swartz, 2005) Unfortunately, because our expectations are so high, Schwartz’ book proves the contrary.
We tend to think that having lots of choices improves our quality of life. In fact, the whole socio-economic system in the United States is based on the idea that, “Freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy” (Schwartz, 2005). Based on this assertion, one would think that the US would be the freest and most autonomous country in the world, and therefore the happiest. Schwartz’ book has shown the fallacy of this cultural myth. “… though modern [US] Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically” (Schwartz 2005). In fact, instead of well-being, too many choices has seemed to cause resentfulness.
I have often taught my students that “People living in the developing world suffer from too few choices while people in the industrialized nations like US Americans suffer from too many choices.” Why is this so? According to Schwartz, when “opportunities [choices] became so numerous [ … ] we feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope” (Schwartz, 2005). One of the predominate cultural traits of US Americans is the need to be in control. Losing control depresses us. When we finally make a decision on what to buy, what school to attend, which spirituality to adhere to, we second guess our choice. “You’re hit with a double whammy—regret about what you didn’t choose, and disappointment with what you did” (Schwartz, 2005). If for some reason we are happy with our choice, that delight doesn’t last very long because of a psychological phenomenon called adaptation. “Simply put, we get used to things, and then we start to take them for granted” (Schwartz, 2005). When we take things for granted, we raise our expectations even more, and when those expectations aren’t met, we become resentful.
Taking things for granted must be the plague of any person of faith trying to live in the United States or other industrialized country. According to Mary Jo Leddy in her book Radical Gratitude, “The longer we live ungratefully, the more we strengthen the claims of a culture that takes everything and everyone for granted” (Leddy, 2002). How do we combat this attitude? The first lesson that I hope the students who go on my semester-abroad programs learn is not to take their privileges and comfortable life styles for granted. When they experience poverty and oppression in the countries we visit, they immediately express the desire to be more grateful and not to take things for granted. When we (myself included) return home, it is much more difficult to maintain this attitude because of adaptation. Schwartz asserts, “Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn’t sustain itself.” (Schwartz, 2005). Whether the positive experience had to do with the consumptive choices we have made or the new cross-cultural learning, it doesn’t last. Our dissatisfaction turns to frustration or even to anger. The irony of having too many choices, instead of making us happy, grateful and more fulfilled, is that it makes us resentful.
I find it quite ironic that we get grouchy because of too many choices, but my own experiences confirm this. Because of these experiences, I hope that I can avoid the grouchiness and entitlement that I feel and become more grateful. For more on entitlement and gratitude, read my previous post.

MARCH 24, 2012
Gratitude and Entitlement

 “[This book] is about liberation that begins with a sense of gratitude for the most ordinary and taken-for-granted realities.” (Leddy 5) Thus writes Mary Jo Leddy in the introduction to her book Radical Gratitude. Gratitude for ordinary things is the basis of much writing on spirituality, and the mark of a saint. But oh, how difficult it is to practice.
The Children of Israel were miraculously saved from their slavery in Egypt and had every reason to be grateful, but when things didn’t go well for them in the desert, they began to murmur and grumble and even longed for the “comfort” of their former slavery. How much we are like the Israelites. When our group sojourning in Mesoamerica arrived safely and on time after being nearly denied boarding because of a mix-up about our electronic tickets, we were all grateful, and openly expressed our gratitude. But now, a week later, are we still grateful? Wilkie Au reminds us in an article from the Presence journal that “To live spiritually and vital lives […] requires that we make gratitude a habitual attitude, not just remembering something we feel when tragedy has been averted” (Au 8-9).  
When our students encountered atrocious conditions in the bathrooms where they were staying for an extended weekend they complained. One even grumbled, “How is it that I am paying EMU $30,000 a year to live in conditions like this?” The food was also murmur-worthy—basically a repeat of beans and tortillas in different configurations three times a day. Yet when the group met and related to the children studying and living in these conditions all the time, they became very grateful for even meager facilities. Many wrote in their journals that they would never take their life-styles for granted again. Yet it wasn’t long until murmuring and complaining hit the camp. For some reason human nature seems to thrive on grumbling, and when one in a group starts to moan about something, the negativity spreads like wildfire through the camp. The attitude of gratitude is shoved into the background of our consciousness.
 Why is it so hard to be grateful and to extend gratefulness beyond being thankful for “tragedy being averted?” I think it is because of our sense of entitlement. Our culture of acquisitiveness and self-worth drawn from what we have, keeps us from ever being satisfied. Leddy claims that “… ingratitude is ingrained in our economic system and in the worldview that has shaped our imaginations for more than 200 years” (Leddy 4). Not only do we want more, but we feel entitled to have whatever we want. “… when we feel entitled to everything, we end up thankful for nothing” (Au 11). Feeling “entitled to everything” is what our culture would want us to feel. That is what drives us to want to acquire more.
Our group is exposed to extreme contrasts on our trip through Mesoamerica (Guatemala and Mexico). One weekend we stay in the meager conditions mentioned earlier, and another weekend we stay in a four-star hotel. It is difficult to know how to bridge these extremes, so one of the goals that Esther and I have in leading groups of students on such a journey is to have all of us learn how to move from entitlement to gratitude and to make gratitude the basis for our living. A life of gratitude helps us recognize our abundance and moves us to generosity, while a life of entitlement moves us to scarcity and hoarding. A life of gratitude allows us to “reach[ ] out to others in loving service” (Au 15), while a live of entitlement leads us to a life of resentfulness and selfishness.

MARCH 18, 2012
Traveling mercies and perils
On Saturday, March 17, 2012, 19 students, my wife and I, were scheduled to fly from Guatemala City to Mexico City through San Salvador, TACA airlines’ hub. What a harrowing experience we had. We arrived in plenty of time to get the group through check in, but when our first student reached the counter, there was a long delay so I went up to investigate, and the woman trying to check in our student said that she could not find our electronic ticket number for the trip. I gave her several other names of members of our group, and she found some information about us. She saw that we had been on our flight from Washington, D.C, to Guatemala City, and could see our return trip from Mexico City to Washington D.C. through San Salvador, but she could not find the portion of our trip to get to Mexico—where we were hoping to go.
After searching for some 30 minutes, she found our names as being reserved; she just could not find our e-ticket number, and therefore could not confirm that we had paid for the flight. She asked me for our reservation number, and I knew I had packed it and knew exactly where it was, but I couldn’t remember which suitcase to find the folder. With all the activities of the last day in Guatemala, who would have thought enough to put that number right with my passport, anyway? Electronic tickets are so handy and I’d never had to produce such a number before!
Rather than search through Esther and my three suitcases, we decided to call our agent MTS Travel’s number on our itinerary. I don’t know who I talked to, but she had a very heavy accent and the airport was so noisy that it was REALLY hard to hear OR to understand her, and she got very frustrated with me when I made her repeat stuff. The TACA employee tried several of numbers that MTS Travel gave to no avail. One of the numbers MTS gave turned out to be the reservation number for the group that was located in a file somewhere in one of our suitcases. Unfortunately, that number did not produce any results at the counter either. Finally, realizing that we DID have seats reserved, and that there were only a few minutes remaining to be able to board the plane, a supervisor decided to check us in, saying that we would be re-issued e-tickets from the central office in San Salvador to solve the information gap on their computers. They hurried us through check-in and we rushed through security and we got to the gate just as they had begun boarding. The plane took off only a few minutes behind schedule. It’s a good thing they rushed us thorough check-in because a preliminary weighing of our bags revealed that about one-third of our group’s bags were overweight. Lots of souvenirs bought in Guatemala!
I breathed a sigh of relief as I settled into my seat. It would have been one thing to be in the situation I was in if I had been traveling alone, but being in that situation with 20 other travelers was nerve-wrecking to say the least. At one point TACA’s ticket counter employee asked me if it would be all right for us to take a direct flight to Mexico City at 8pm that evening since our problem was unsolvable to get on the current flight, and that would give them more time to work it out. I hoped to avoid that if at all possible—I couldn’t imagine entertaining a group of 19 tired, hungry, potentially grouchy students for 12 more hours at the airport in Guatemala City. I also hoped to avoid trying to call Mexico to change arrangements for our pick up without having a phone with me or access to the Internet.
But the story doesn’t end there. We were only headed to San Salvador, and we had to change planes there to get to Mexico City. As part of our check-in process, we had received boarding passes for our Salvador-Mexico leg, but when we started to board, they saw a “show ticket” warning on the boarding passes and stopped us again at the gate. Apparently TACA’s San Salvador central office had done nothing, and we were again in limbo. For some unknown reason, I had shoved into my pocket a piece of computer-print-out gobbeldygook from my interchanges with the airline agent back in Guatemala. How I remembered that piece of paper in my pocket, and was aware enough to hand it over to the agents at the gate, I will never know. Why I hadn’t thrown it away somewhere between Guatemala and the long concourses at the San Salvador airport, I will never know either. Apparently those funny configurations of numbers, letters and explanation points must have made sense to the TACA counter agents in San Salvador, or perhaps they made sense to the computer, because after they started plugging them into their computers, they worked like magic. We were on the plane to Mexico.
My sigh of relief as I now settled into my seat must have been heard around the world. We were rewarded for our ordeal after arriving to the airport in Mexico City. We had a two-hour inter-city public bus ride ahead of us to get to Puebla, our final destination for the next five weeks. Entering the bus we were handed a plastic bag of free snacks including one of my favorites from Mexico, Japanese peanuts, and a free drink of our choice. There was also free Wi-Fi for the trip, so I quickly checked the Phillies score on my iPod, then turned on some music and closed my eyes—relieved and contented. As we traveled through the pass between the two snow-capped volcanoes, Popocat√©petl and Iztacc√≠huatl, I sent a prayer of gratitude heavenward; not only for getting through the computerized messes at the airports, but also for keeping us safe along the way.
 MARCH 3, 2012
Family life in Guatemala

Last evening Esther and I finished the arduous task of visiting all the 19 families that host EMU’s (Eastern Mennonite University) students while we are in Guatemala. We spent an average of one-and-a-half hours with each family, usually visiting two families per evening about three times a week. We were shuttled from visit to visit by our good friend and brother Carlos Carrillo or his wife Alejandra.
Esther and I made a few observations from these short visits. They probably won’t be as profound as the view our students have from staying in a single home for eight weeks. However, ours probably cover a wider range of family expressions.
Overall our visits were delightful. Generally the families, whether Catholic or Evangelical, were deeply religious. Our topics ranged from doing works of charity to leading workshops for pastors to talking about spiritual direction. Of the 19 families, only four attended Mennonite churches while four were devout Catholics. One family attended a Friends congregation. The others were a wide mix of Evangelical expressions, many with independent Pentecostal roots. Whatever the mix, all attended church services faithfully, many more than once a week.
Another thing we observed was how obedient and well-mannered the children were—especially those in the difficult teenage years. Only three of the families had children that were all under six, and only three of the families had children a lot older than our students. That leaves 13 families all with children with in the age range of our students. Seven of these families had their teenaged and young adult children sit with us for the whole visit, contributing greatly to the conversation. We were particularly impressed with the young men of five of the families that stuck with us during our visit, some of them sitting very close to their mothers and affectionately stroking them. 
In research for a workshop on host families for a conference, Ann Hershberger and I concluded that a host family having younger children was usually a better experience for our students because relating to them was less threatening—especially as they were learning the language. Furthermore, teenaged and young adult children were more likely to have activities with their friends and studying which took them away too often from the family and our students. This was not as often the case with many of this year’s host families with children in our students’ age range. Two families specifically stated that our students and their children had hit it off remarkably well and “were included as part of their children’s circle of friends.” There were other families where this was also the case. Because of this better integration with host siblings, our students came up with the idea to host a pizza party gathering for host families at SEMILLA/CASAS where our students study. Most of the siblings came along. It was a HUGE success. All 19 families attended, and many remarked to us on our visits how meaningful this was for them.
Our final observation is how attached the host families have become to our students, in the eight short weeks that we are here. Over and over again the families stated how sad they were to see our students leave, and how much they would miss them. Some were counting the days left, and with tears in their eyes expressed remorse at how many weekends we took their “children” away from them on our weekend excursions. Many stated over and over again how they treated our students just like their own children, and we saw much evidence that this was true.
Esther and I came away from these visits with a greater appreciation for the 19 families that host our students. (only 9 were repeats from our previous groups) SEMILLA/CASAS does an excellent job of interviewing and selecting the families which host our students. We have made some wonderful connections with them, and by an overwhelming majority, our students have been excellent ambassadors for EMU, for the USA, and for their own families and churches at home.

FEBRUARY 5, 2012
Holy Longing

This past week our theme was religious expressions in Guatemala. Last Sunday we attended a Catholic mass in Chichicastenango and this Sunday we attended a Mega-church, one of several neo-Pentecostal churches so called because of their huge membership and attendance. At the service we attended, the five-thousand seat auditorium filled up and this was one of four services on Sunday with another on Saturday night.
The mass in Chichi included many elements from Mayan spirituality which were interspersed with traditional Christian religious expressions. As an example, along with the offering baskets taken to the alter to be blessed, ushers carried poles with symbols of fruits, vegetables and other things from nature that were blessed as an offering along with money.
Between these two Sundays, we had our own worship service with communion and were invited to a Baha’i community gathering for an evening meal where prayers for peace and unity from various religions were read.
A more diverse sampling of religious expression would be difficult to reproduce in any of my more normal weeks of the year. There were many questions among students about appropriateness of forms of worship, authenticity of religious expression, and of course, whether there is truth in any of the non-Christian forms of spirituality.
These are all good questions and I in no way want to make light of them, but the thing that I carry with me from this past week is to once again marvel at how each of us has a deep-seated longing for God within us—a longing that seems to be stamped into our DNA. Perhaps that longing is part of our “God-likeness,” stamped on us at birth and to which we long to return. There is a ground swell of mystery, of unexplainable phenomena which blind-sides us; a tingling sense of transcendence which makes us experience the holy.
Unfortunately, Western civilization has tried to downplay our holy longing, or to explain it in psycho-social terms. Yet it keeps bubbling up and breaking out everywhere, often in strange forms. We seldom speak of the transcendent dream we had, or the feeling of “presence” we’ve had while walking in nature, or being overcome with sweeping emotion while experiencing a particular work of art. Yet these are nudges to remind us that the veil in the temple between us and the Holy has been “torn in two.”
In Guatemalan culture, as I have experienced it, the expressions of holy longing, whether simple or spectacular, are overtly displayed. There is no apology for experiencing God, for speaking of God, for attributing one’s all to God. Even if I may question the extravagance of the Mega-churches, or the simplicity of the Mayan woman kneeling in reverence at Catholic mass with a traditional brightly embroidered Mayan veil on her head, I cannot deny the deep sense of holy longing breathing through this volcano-dotted land.

JANUARY 21, 2012
From Scarcity to Abundance
2012 Guatemala and Mexico Cross-Cultural Musings
One of the themes of our semester together is to contrast God’s narrative of abundance to Pharaoh’s narrative of scarcity as explained by Walter Brueggemann in his book Deep Memory Exuberant Hope. When I chose this as a theme for our semester-long sojourn to Guatemala and Mexico many months ago, little did I know that this same theme would be the center of Brueggemann’s keynote addresses at Eastern Mennonite Seminary during the annual School for Leadership Training. Also, little did I know how soon this theme would manifest itself.
As we were planning to leave, there were two students who couldn’t register because they hadn’t yet paid their outstanding balances from the past semester. One student quietly found a way to settle his accounts and registered. On Wednesday at noon, fewer than 18 hours from our scheduled departure, the other student was still without the necessary resources to pay up her account to come along. A plea about her need had gone out through the Student Life Office and through a network of friends, but by noon the trickle of funds that started to come in didn’t cover even a fourth of her debt. She was totally resigned to her fate; if not enough came through she said that her semester abroad was “not meant to be,” and that she “would use the semester to try to work off her debt.” Most of us involved in the situation, using the all-too-common thinking of the narrative of scarcity, were already making plans for not including her in the semester abroad program.
Since she had been part of the group since the beginning, and since she had been participating along with us in the first days of on-campus orientation, I decided to tell the group of her dilemma and pray for her situation. Adding to the financial as well as other complications, was the fact that we had already purchased an airline ticket in her name for which she would be responsible.
At a break in our orientation time, I noticed another member of our group take the indebted student aside and they went off together. I continued with the orientation, but when the two women didn’t return my curiosity couldn’t contain itself. During a movie I slipped out and made my way to the business office.
Now I need to back up further in the story. The woman who left the room with the indebted student had joined our group at the very last minute. I had jokingly referred to an opening in my group during the last day of classes, and she took me seriously. She had sensed a restlessness of spirit and a need to explore God’s call on her life to go to Latin America, and thought that this semester abroad would be the perfect way to test that call. But she was also faced with more expenses than she had planned for, an apartment to sublet, and a car to sell. She used the week between the last day of the semester and the date we had to submit her name to the airlines, as a week of prayer and discernment. She met with her community of faith and mentors. Everything worked out! In fact from out of nowhere, following the narrative of God’s abundance, a “compassion fund” had been set up in her name that exceeded substantially her expenses. “It’s not my money,” she said, continuing in the narrative of God’s abundance. “It’s God’s money and it was given to me to share.” She transferred the remaining amount of her compassion fund to the indebted student.
But the story doesn’t end there. Our indebted student was still shy of $500 to be able to go along with us. Five minutes before (4:00 pm) the dean of students was to tell her her final fate, someone called him offering $500 if “it would make a difference.”
What a difference it made! When I arrived at the business office, her debts were paid, and she was free! God’s narrative of abundance had won out over Pharaoh’s narrative of scarcity and hoarding. 
I returned to our group to report the good news. After the claps and tears of jubilation subsided, the other student with financial uncertainties reported his own miracle of abundance. He had received a donation of $2,000 from an unknown source in the nick of time, or he wouldn’t have been able to go along either. Two appearances of manna and God’s abundance before we even left the country. Two Eucharist experiences of bread being broken, blessed, and given to feed the thousands before the pages of the assigned Brueggemann article even had a chance to sink in.
I am now basking in the warm Guatemalan sun after spending several hours listening to the podcasts of Brueggemann’s addresses to the Eastern Mennonite Seminary assembly. I continue to reflect on how the narrative of God’s abundance brings life, while the narrative of Pharaoh’s scarcity brings death, and how we so often slip into the narrative of scarcity. What we expected on Wednesday at noon was turned on its head by 4:00 pm of the same day. In God’s economy and creation there is enough for everyone if we don’t store up His abundance in our ever bigger barns and hoard. That hoarding brings maggots, rotting and death.
I excitedly await where this journey with my students will lead us in further evidence of this biblical truth.

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