Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Non-anxious Presence

During the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training for my seminary degree, a story was told of a new chaplain entering an extremely anxiety-producing hospital scene. The family he was to visit had just experienced the tragic loss of a loved one in an accident. The novice chaplain was at a loss to know what to do or what to say to be a pastoral presence to a family in deep shock and grief.

He entered the room filled with relatives of the victim, and the scene was chaotic to say the least. People were coming in and out of the room as nurses and doctors finished up their heroic efforts to save the life and the family was discussing funeral arrangements. Not knowing how to respond in a helpful way, the chaplain introduced himself and sat down in a corner of the room a bit removed from the mayhem. He left the encounter feeling a complete failure.

Several weeks later he received a note from the family. “Thank you for your presence during our stressful time,” they wrote. “We don’t know how we would have made it without you.”

Although not as dramatic as the hospital story, life is full of many anxiety-producing events, and we think we have to “fix” the situation some way or another. Our first response is often to use words, so we babble on and on, trying to find the right phrase, thinking of something profound to say, or quoting a Bible verse or two. But like in the hospital story, words are not the answer. Presence is; a non-anxious presence.

Many of our encounters at work, at home, or at church can be filled with anxiety. Conflicts in relationships, heavy-laden agendas for meetings, stress from too much to do in too little time all cause anxiety. We are also anxious because we want to protect our fragile egos, and we want to keep up our good appearances. We are plagued with questions like, How will I come off? Will my views, my person be accepted? Will people like me?

According to Anthony de Mello, anxiety and fear are the root of all maladies in our culture. Richard Rohr claims that “do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible. Apparently fear, worry, and anxiety have been around a long time, affecting both moderns and ancients.

Amidst all this anxiety, there is a need for a non-anxious presence. A presence that calmly listens, makes eye contact, breathes in deeply and prays silently. A presence that is able to recognize the existence of everyone in the room without drawing undue attention to him/herself. A presence that is not afraid to touch someone exuding anxiety. This kind of presence exemplifies the adage attributed to St. Francis’: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

The chaplain didn’t need to tell the family about the love and comfort available in Jesus. His presence embodied it. Would that I could learn to be a non-anxious presence in my encounters with others.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Gratitude for Life

I recently attended the memorial service of a first cousin who was only a year older than I. The beauty of his life intersected with the sorrow of his early death. I came away from the service with a renewed sense of gratitude for the few days we spend on this earth. It could have been different.

I had three childhood brushes with death; two severe illnesses and a near drowning. As a young adult I nearly plunged into the ocean in a small plane while serving the church in Honduras. Below I recount that story from the chapter on fear in my upcoming book.  

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I was flying in a small plane between the island of Roatan and the coastal city of La Ceiba, Honduras. There were five of us and our luggage packed in the four-place Cessna aircraft. “I have just enough fuel to reach the coast,” said the pilot before takeoff. “So I’m not worried about having one extra passenger aboard.” We barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway, but soon we were sailing smoothly above the Caribbean on what seemed like a perfect day. After about 15 minutes of flying, we ran into a squall that had appeared suddenly and without warning. The plane started to lose altitude within the squall, and every attempt the pilot made to gain back the lost altitude resulted in the plane stalling and dropping even more. We were buffeted by winds and rain, flailing around at the complete mercy of the storm.

I was gripped by fear. I was ready to hit the water, and imagined what would happen to us in the ocean if we survived the crash. When we finally emerged from the storm, we spotted the shoreline in the distance, but there were no familiar landmarks to identify where we were. We had no idea how far the storm had pushed us off course. Then I remembered the pilot’s word that he had just enough fuel to reach the coast. A new fear gripped me. There were hundreds of miles of undeveloped jungle along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and even if we were able somehow to land the airplane on a strip of beach, how many days would it take until we would finally be discovered? We had no food or water with us, just several suitcases full of dirty clothes.

We followed the coastline to the west and shortly the city of our destination, La Ceiba, appeared on the horizon. Although I loved to fly and even took flying lessons for a time, we couldn’t land soon enough for me. When I stepped out of the plane, my legs shook uncontrollably. My colleague’s face was ashen as if he had seen a ghost. We both knew that we had barely escaped death, and through our experience, we understood how the emotion of fear can take over a person. We didn’t kiss the ground, but gratitude and a profound love for life filtered in where fear had reigned.

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In the normal ups and downs of our everyday existence, we tend to take the miracle of our life for granted. Unless something tragic happens to a friend or a relative, or we miraculously escape a brush with death, we forget how precious and how tenuous our life is. Because our life is so tenuous, every breath we take is a miracle.

God, help me to be grateful for every moment of every day so that I don’t need any more dramatic reminders. Help me to live each day as if it were my last. Help me to see each moment as if I were being buffeted by a storm and my only recourse is to put my life in your hands. Help me remember that each moment I have is sacred. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I Love My Tribe

I am a member of an ethnic tribal group called Mennonites and I love it. I love how it gives me a sense of roots, of connectedness and stability. I love sauerkraut and shoo-fly pie (well, actually, a sweeter, unhealthier version called vanilla pie). I am guilty of playing the “Mennonite game” to see how I connect to the larger tribe.

Why do I love my tribe? We have a history of over 450 years, and because at one time we were pursued as a result of our successful outreach, we had to circle the wagons and identify ourselves by our language, ethnic foods and radial beliefs—and hide.

I feel it in my bones when I hear folk music from the Alps of Switzerland and the Rhine River valley of Germany. I made a pilgrimage to the village from where my earliest ancestor emigrated and felt a touch of pride and an almost “holy” connectedness. I know where he is buried in the USA and carry a picture with my father and me standing beside his tombstone as a reminder of my tribal connectedness. I married a woman from Switzerland—the heart of the origins of this ethnic tribe.

Unfortunately, I am told from all sides that my tribe is dying, and this makes me sad. I see it in my own family—more than half of my 11 siblings have left the tribe. In the tribal institutions where I have studied and worked, fewer than half of our students are from my tribe. More and more of my colleagues are not from my tribe.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love these students and colleagues who don’t share my genetic and ethnic pool. Many of them show more fire for the radical beliefs that my ancestors died for than people from my own tribe. I love it when they challenge me to define more sharply my beliefs over and against my tribal identity.

Also, it’s not like I have remained buried in my tribal enclave. My tribe taught me to serve “in the Name of Christ,” and I spent seven years working in Mexico and Central America. I know well how to cross ethnic and linguistic barriers. I have many friends from those churches that my tribe established who have taught me unforgettable lessons in discipleship, challenging and deepening my faith. In fact, while my tribe is dying in North America and Europe, their churches in the Global South are growing by leaps and bounds.

It is also interesting that the radical beliefs that my tribe established 450 years ago are becoming attractive in a world where the Christianity of empire is breaking down. Stuart Murray reminded my tribe of this in Naked Anabaptist. Greg Boyd and his mega-church would like to affiliate with my tribe, but hesitates because of the sauerkraut and shoo-fly thing. Brian McLaren makes many references to my tribe, and even Rick Warren claims his Anabaptist roots and influence.

So here I sit, wanting to retain my rootedness and tribal loyalties but also wanting to welcome other tribal neophytes. Ted Grimsrud, in his provocative blog post “What Makes a Mennonite?” writes this: “. . . it is difficult to imagine a very positive future for Mennonite institutions. The theology will not die, but how much will it be linked with this specific tradition?” This is what caught me up short and made me reflect on my tribe and why I love it. I don’t want Mennonite institutions to die. I don’t want my tribe to die. According to Grimsrud, at least the theology will live.

Obviously the theology—the emphasis on discipleship, meaning the daily following of Christ and his hard sayings—is the most important element in this discussion. Thank God that will live. But what about my tribe? Is my identity, my connectedness worth sacrificing for the survival of the institutions? Instead, could it be possible to create a constellation of various tribes into a mosaic that honors individual ethnicities while clinging to the core of our common faith?

In the meantime, have a piece of shoo-fly pie, my friend and brother Ted! 

The first 8 of the 11 children in the Clymer tribe. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Brother-Sister Act

I am co-authoring a book on spirituality with my sister Sharon Clymer Landis. Whenever I tell people about it, they get a puzzled look on their face. I’m never sure what their reaction is about. You have a sister? Well, yes, I have seven of them. You have a sister who writes? Yes, and better than me I might add. You have a sister interested in spirituality? You mean you get along with your sister well enough to work together? And so on, I imagine.

We really believe that this brother-sister act strengthens our views on spirituality. We may be close in relationship, but differ in many ways. Male-female, extrovert-introvert, story teller-poet, world traveler-farmer’s spouse are the most obvious of many divergent perspectives we present to our readers. So, at the request of our publisher, we decided to
write up a little statement about ourselves to include in the introduction. Here it is:

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Sharon and Don are brother and sister, having grown up in a large family of 11 siblings. Having so many siblings resulted in what appears to be two different families. Don was in the first half of the family, Sharon in the second. They barely knew each other growing up. Don is male and Sharon is female giving varying interpretations of what it meant to belong to this huge clan. Don was extroverted and the life of the party while Sharon was shy and into her own world.

Somehow in midlife, they both became aware of something they had in common; a mystical bent to life. Don discovered his while dealing with the grinding oppression he encountered in Latin America as a mission worker. Sharon didn’t have to discover hers, it was always present, she just needed tools to name what she was experiencing. Both received training as spiritual directors without the other knowing it. What fun it was to suddenly discover a new sister and a new brother! Thus began our journey together in putting together this book!

*     *     *

So that’s how the story goes, in case you are one of those with a puzzled look on your face.