Saturday, June 29, 2013

You Are Beloved of God

Henri Nouwen and Ronald Rolheiser are two well-known and loved Catholic writers on spirituality for our time. My own spiritually has been deeply affected by their thoughts. I recently discovered some interesting parallels in their writings that I’d like to share.

In his book Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser outlines four “nonnegotiable essentials of Christian spirituality.” They are: private prayer and morality, social justice, participation in a community of faith and mellowness of heart.

In a series of sermons on YouTube (You Are Beloved), Henri Nouwen outlines Jesus’ example for a healthy spirituality from Luke 6 beginning with verse 12: “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” Jesus displays his need to be in relationship with God by withdrawing to a mountainside to pray privately. This passage would parallel Rolheiser’s first essential for a healthy spirituality; private prayer.

The passage in Luke 6 continues with verse 13: “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them.” One needs others to have a healthy spirituality, and Nouwen goes to great length to explain the need for community that choosing his disciples represents, in spite of its messiness. This parallels the essential that Rolheiser calls participation in a community of faith.

Finally, Nouwen shows that, after Jesus gathers his disciples together, he teaches them the importance of ministry and service. “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.”

Ministry and service parallel Rolheiser’s essential called social justice. One could spend one’s entire life praying on the mountain concentrating on one’s personal relationship with God, and over the centuries many have done this. One could meet with like-minded disciples and live beautifully in community basking in the support and love it provides, and over the centuries many have done this. But concentrating only on the first essential eventually leads to egotism and concentrating only on the second essential leads to ethnocentrism. So in order to combat these natural human tendencies, the third essential is necessary; outreach. Sharing the Good News with others.

Both Rolheiser’s and Nouwen’s outreach program contain word and deed. My own Anabaptist/Mennonite heritage emphasizes this as well. Not so with too many churches at both ends of the conservative/liberal divide. When one does acts of ministry and service like those mentioned in the Luke 6 passage, inevitably one runs into issues of oppression and injustice. This is where social justice intersects with ministry and service. And this is where things get messy. (See my blog post Good News for the Rich or the Poor?) This is where we need Rolheiser’s mellowness of heart to keep us from taking on all the evils of the world and taking ourselves too seriously.

When I first compared this list, I thought Nouwen’s spirituality was missing a piece. Where is the mellowness of heart? In discussing this exclusion with my friend Paul Souder, he pointed out that Nouwen’s all encompassing idea for the video series is, “you are beloved of God.” You are a child of God, made in his image and likeness. As God’s child, we receive the same blessing as Jesus did at his baptism: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” According to my friend, “Rohleiser’s ‘mellowness of heart’ would equate to ‘Living as a beloved child of God,’ Nouwen’s Big Idea.” Yes! There is no missing piece!

Nothing could make us more mellow than truly believing that we are beloved of God. Nothing could ease the pain of our loneliness better than knowing that we are beloved of God. Nothing could ease our restless hearts dashing from one vacuous activity to another better than knowing that we are beloved of God.

Pray, relate and serve; all with a mellow heart as a beloved child of God. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cultural Misunderstandings

This week I received a phone call out of the blue from a former Nigerian classmate at Hesston College, Goshen College and AMBS. He found my number in a recently-published Hesston College Alumni Directory and wanted to invite me to his son’s up-coming wedding. I was honored.

Hearing his voice brought back a memory from one of our first encounters. I don’t recall the theme of our conversation, but we were walking back from the snack shop in Erb Hall at night to the Kauffman Court dorm at Hesston College. It must have been significant, because while walking he reached out and took my hand. My initial reaction was to jerk my hand away and to see if anyone was watching, being embarrassed by walking hand-in-hand with another male.

I had lived abroad enough to intuit that this was a cultural rather than a sexual thing, so I walked hand and hand with him all the way to the dorm continuing our conversation as if nothing was amiss. Luckily for my sake, we didn’t meet anyone until we parted. I later learned that two males holding hands in friendship was not unusual in my friend’s country of origin. He was actually honoring our conversation and ensuing friendship by holding my hand.

That event reminded me of my worst cultural faux pas in Honduras a few years earlier. I was participating in my first Maundy Thursday foot-washing service in our small Mennonite congregation in La Ceiba. At my home church in the USA, it was customary to give a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; and 1 Thessalonians 5:26) to the person whose feet you were washing.

Apparently this was not the custom in Honduras. As I zeroed in for the kiss, I could see the panic in my washing-partner’s eyes. I was sure I was going to be slugged senseless, even in a church known for its pacifism and nonviolence. I don’t know what was going through his mind, but I imagine that it was similar to my own reaction to the hand-holding incident.

Both of these incidents show how easily our intentions can be misunderstood, especially in cross-cultural encounters. These misunderstandings can happen just as easily in places where we think we understand the rules of the game. Misinterpreted glances, gestures, and words all can potentially cause problems of communication. Human interactions are always messy, and yet fun! They require a lot of openness and grace.

During our telephone conversation my Nigerian friend and I discovered that both of us had taught a course on intercultural communication at our respective universities. I have used these two incidents in my class as illustrations of cultural misunderstandings. I wonder what stories about me he has used to illustrate some similar concept.

Do you have any stories of cultural misunderstandings to share?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Luke 4: Good News for the Rich or for the Poor?

(adapted from a chapel address at Eastern Mennonite University, Feb. 2011)

When I was 20 years old, I was with Mennonite Voluntary service in Honduras. For one week during that time, I accompanied a colleague to a remote village where he was trying to promote better nutrition by teaching the residents how to garden. I was to train them in setting up a cooperative to sell their excess produce and along with better nutrition, enhance their economic power.

There were no roads or public transportation, so in order to get to the village we travelled by horseback for a full day. The place where we were to stay was a thatched-roof hut with a dirt floor. We slept on “petates,” mats made out of reeds. Our diet was rice, beans and tortillas. There was no running water or toilet facilities. The conditions were so primitive, that I couldn’t wait to put in my week and get out of there.

One night when I was trying to sleep on the hard dirt floor, Luke 4 came into my mind:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

I think the Spirit of the Lord was upon me that night as I couldn’t sleep. For the first time I had to examine my own life as I contemplated the misery of the people with whom I was living that week. What brought them to these conditions, and how was the church preaching the “good news” to the poor? To be sure, I could leave those primitive conditions and return to my normal life after a week, but they were stuck there. Years of exploitation and oppression by wealthy land owners and greedy multi-national corporations left them in virtual slave-like conditions with little hope for the future. As I lay there trying to sleep, I wondered how differently these people would hear these words from Jesus.

Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News, claims that in the overdeveloped world, this passage is one of the most spiritualized in the New Testament. That good news to the poor means those who are poor in spirit, not materially poor, that release to the captives, is release from our sins that keep us captive, that recovery of sight to the blind is a cure for our spiritual blindness, that liberty for the oppressed is liberty from our psychological obsessions and ills, and that the year of the Lord’s favor is for some future time when Jesus would return to make things right.

When I looked around me at the churches who were ministering to the poor in Honduras, indeed this seemed to be the interpretation. Accept Christ as your savior, and the Spirit will help release you from your sins and that justice was to come in heaven. Be patient and endure your lot. Somehow I couldn’t buy that logic. Jesus had already begun his ministry doing many of the things he said he would. When John the Baptist wondered if Jesus was the Messiah he told his disciples to, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Sounds like the kingdom he was pronouncing in Luke 4 was already happening. Seems more than spiritual healing.

When I returned to States after my 2.5 years of service in Honduras, I decided to enroll in college to prepare for a return to Central America to help work at missing piece of Jesus ministry—the social justice piece. Those were heady times for understanding doing more with this passage than spiritualizing it. Liberation Theology used Luke 4 as the defining passage from the New Testament to support their preferential option for the poor, for liberating them from disease, from their oppression, and speaking out against the structures and world systems that kept them oppressed. In addition, John Howard Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus had just come out and in it he argued convincingly that “the year of the Lord’s favor” referred to the year of Jubilee; the year when, according to Leviticus 25, debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the original owners. That was indeed social justice.

Thinking about the people in the remote village in Honduras, I took to these new ideas about Luke 4 like a duck to water. The Spirit of the Lord was upon me as I became a herald for the poor and the oppressed. I am not so sure that it was the Spirit, however, that made me become outright hostile to the spiritualizers of this passage. I had become so focused on social justice and the problems of oppression, that I forgot who had given the Good News. I forgot that Jesus’ message was proceeded by being anointed by the Holy Spirit.

So often there is this split in what should be the whole gospel of Jesus Christ. I have seen this over the years not only in churches, but also at EMU. On the one hand there are those who think the Spirit is only for freeing us from the oppression of our sins. It is easy for Christians in the overdeveloped world, who control two-thirds of the world’s wealth, to justify their comfort by wanting to focus on being freed from spiritual poverty. On the other hand there are those who argue that it’s difficult to present the message of salvation to someone when they are starving, and that this passage refers to working for and freeing the oppressed social justice. It is just as easy for Christians in the underdeveloped world, who wallow in dehumanizing squalor, to justify their use of whatever means to focus on being freed from their poverty.

Though I still lean heavily on the social justice side because of how often the poor and marginalized are mentioned in Jesus’ ministry, over the years I have come to see the importance of both sides of the issue. The one without the other, is not good news. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I want to be a Pagan!

When I say that I want to be a pagan, I am not referring to the motorcycle gang that wreaked havoc in Eastern Pennsylvania in my teenage years, rivaling the Hell’s Angels for atrocious acts. No, I am referring to the groups of tribal peoples that missionaries called pagans as they carried the Good News of Christ to them. They were called pagans because of their supposedly inferior spiritual beliefs. We associate pagan not only with an inferior belief system, but also with an inferior civilization, making the name pagan a pejorative term among Christians. I cite an example of the use of the word from Merriam-Webster: “the Spanish conquistadores regarded the native peoples of the lands that they conquered as pagans (my emphasis) who were uncivilized and inherently inferior.”

With such a negative definition, why would I want to be a tribal pagan? It’s because I believe that they live closer to God’s intention for humanity than most of us “moderns” do, including Christians. In his book Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong, John O’Donohue writes: “For the ancients, prayer was an attempt to enter into harmony with the deeper rhythm of life. Prayer tempered human arrogance; it became the disclosure point of the deeper, eternal order. In post-modern society, the isolated individual has become the measure of all things. It is no surprise that in our loss of connection with Nature, we have forgotten how to pray. We even believe that we do not need to pray,” p. 186-187.

If we assume that in O’Donohue’s quote “the ancients” are the tribal peoples (pagans) who inhabited the earth before the onset of “modernity,” and many of which still survive today, we have several examples of how they live(d) closer to God’s intention for humanity. First, they were at harmony with the “deeper rhythm of life.” Celtic thinkers call this the “heartbeat of God.” “To listen for the heartbeat of God is to listen both within the vastness of the universe and within the intimacy of our own hearts,” writes Philip Newell in this book A New Harmony. There is a connectedness with ourselves, with nature, and with everyone and everything else. Moderns have split off this connectedness and we have become fragmented, lonely, disembodied souls.

This fragmentation is the result of moderns, even Christians, raising the individual to god-like status. As O’Donohue says, “the isolated individual has become the measure of all things.” In contrast, pagans live as part of a tribe and recognize their need for each other. Mutual aid, so clearly defined in the practice of the early Christian church in the book of Acts, and re-emphasized by the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation, has been shoved into the background by modern Christians as each individual must learn to “pull their own weight.”

Finally, prayer, instead of a list of demands on their deity, was the glue that held everything together. Because of the interconnectedness of all of life, prayer was unceasing. Prayer flowed out of this sacral life; there was no separation between one’s Sunday behavior and the rest of the week. One was attuned to the heartbeat of God. Because we are so fragmented, O’Donohue writes not only that we have “forgotten how to pray,” but also that “we believe that we do not need to pray.”

It is interesting that in spite of most of us thinking that “pagans” are inferior both in spirituality and in culture, Christianity has borrowed heavily from their sensibilities and traditions over the centuries. One doesn’t have to look far for such syncretism—nearly all the Christmas and Easter traditions in North America are based on pagan ceremonies; even the date of Christmas itself. Perhaps you are more pagan than you imagined.

Celtic Christianity has done the best job of melding the wisdom of the ancient “pagans”  with the hope of Christ. Anabaptist Christianity also has the potential to bring the two together, and there is increasing interest in both of these theologies. The Amish, heirs of the Anabaptists, are one example of this integration. (See my blog post AmishSpirituality). I also see hope in today’s young adults who long to become reconnected to the whole, to reclaim their ancient “pagan” past, and to heal their fragmentation. “Deep within us, amid our differentiations as individuals and nations and species, is the desire for oneness,” writes Newell. “This holy longing is found not only in the human soul, but in the soul of the universe, at the heart of everything that has being.”

Because of this yearning in my soul I want to become more pagan. Do you want to join me? 

Caveat: I was made aware by two good friends and subscribers to my blog that not all in ancient “pagan” cultures is to be admired; there was plenty of barbarity and living outside of God’s intention for humanity. But as a sage once told me, “all cultures reflect the image of God and all cultures distort the image of God.” In my syncretism I was attempting to combine the best of ancient culture with the best of Christianity in order to get closer to God’s intentions for us. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who is My Neighbor?

I recently read that each of us meets more diversity in one day than a pilgrim in 17th Century Europe would have met in a lifetime of travels. As I compare the neighborhoods that I grew up in with the one in which I currently live, this statement seems to hold true.

There was not a single person of color in the town in which I grew up. Diversity meant that the one family of Oberholtzers was Methodist while the other was Mennonite. They both came from the overarching Pennsylvania Dutch culture of Pennsylvania, so we ate the same foods, spoke with the same accent and mostly shared the same cultural values.

The neighborhood in which I currently live is quite different. Of course, I myself added to the diversity by marrying a Swiss woman. To my immediate south, my neighbors are a man from one of the republics of the former Soviet Union and his wife is from El Salvador. To my immediate east, the family is from a different republic of the former Soviet Union. To my immediate west is a Mexican family. Within two blocks of us there is a family from Colombia, an African American family and a family from Korea.

My neighborhood was built after World War II with everyone being like my childhood neighborhood. As these people died or moved into retirement communities, newer ethnicities began to move in. One of the original residents of the neighborhood, an elderly woman whom we befriended, bemoaned the arrival of each new family—they would cause a drop in property values! Interestingly enough, we found out from another neighbor that when she first heard that we were arriving, Mennonites for Pete’s sake, she had the same commentary about us.

This diversity has mostly happened in the past 20 years and has caused a great deal of fear in many of the long-term residents in my neighborhood. Part of that fear is the fear of the unknown; the stranger. It is true that “Birds of a feather flock together.” We prefer to be with people who think like us, who look like us, and who act (mostly) like us. When I survey the cafeteria at our university, it doesn’t take long to see this phenomenon at work.

Nevertheless, the biblical injunction is to include the stranger, and even love them. There are many verses to substantiate this claim. “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:34. See also Lev. 24:22, Num. 15:15, Deut. 10:19).

The problem is that we have mostly forgotten our alien status in the world. We think we belong to our neighborhood and others do not. If we recognize the fact that we all are pilgrims and strangers in the world, we would be more apt to welcome the “stranger” in our midst.

How do we work at this? Esther made a loaf of Swiss bread to give our newly arrived neighbors from Russia and El Salvador. We buy all our tires from the tire business owned by our Mexican neighbors. We share tea and ethnic delicacies with our other Russian neighbors. We could do a lot more, but we believe, as members of the majority culture,  “as you have done it to the least of these . . .”

Apropos to this discussion is an article I wrote for The Mennonite several years ago titled: “For I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

For I was a stranger . . .