Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thoughts on Communicating with Youth and Young Adults

I recently heard a sermon in which we were admonished to learn the language of the youth if we want to relate to them and keep them in the church. I totally agree with this, but I think it is too simplistic.

It reminds me of the Spanish students who accompany us on our cross-cultural programs to Guatemala and Mexico. They quickly pick up the local street language and use it frequently to the delight of the hosts in each country. However, this slang is often country- or even region-specific, and causes a break down of communication when traveling from one country or region to another. What evokes a smile of recognition in Guatemala may cause a frown in Mexico.

In addition, if the student uses only street talk and doesn’t develop more legitimate language and expanded vocabulary, they will be quite limited in what they can say and how they relate to their host culture. Original smiles of cultural identification through street-smart language will turn into scowls of derision when the attempts at communication remain at a superficial level.

The same can be said about trying to relate to youth and young adults. I have spent 27 years working with young adults teaching at the college level. They can smell a fake, an adult trying to be cool, as easily as a mouse smells the cheese on a trap. And they aren’t impressed. They might smile or chuckle at our initial attempts to use their vocabulary, but if that is what we base our relationship on, the smiles will soon turn to frowns.

What young adults want more than cutesy youth speak is authenticity. They want adults who relate to them to be real. And they want adults who will spend time with them; to listen to their concerns and to take them seriously; adults who share with them their own doubts; fears and struggles. They want us to accept them and love them for who they are; tattoos, piercings and all.

I can text and tweet and do all the cool stuff on Facebook and learn all the symbols necessary to be understood by young adults, but if I “have not love [and time], I am nothing but a clanging cymbal.” Authenticity, love and time are what create relationships, not specialized street speak; and those transcend any culture or language. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013


“The false self is your psychological creation of yourself in space and time. It comes from your early conditioning, family, roles, education, mind, culture, and religion,” claims Richard Rohr in is daily meditation of August 24, 2013.

The minute we are born, leaving the most beloved and intimate place in the eternal love of God, we begin the process of developing the false self in the way Rohr identifies. This process is called socialization and is quite necessary for us to survive these few short years of breath before returning to the eternal embrace of God.

Unfortunately, we begin to believe more in the false self placed on us by societal expectations than in our true selves. Our true selves are that which is imprinted on our souls as God’s image and likeness. Over the years I have developed various selves, called personas, or masks, to play the roles I have been thrust into by the various socializing entities Rohr wrote about. They can be identified as: Clymer, son, Mennonite, class clown, U.S. American, professor, missionary, father, administrator, church elder, spiritual director, writer, just to name a few. Some of them are false selves and some are part of my true self.

Discernment is the process of distinguishing between our true self and the false selves we have created to be accepted by our peers. Henri Nouwen writes that discernment “is listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire” (Nouwen, 2013). Some of the roles I chose to play indeed reflected an alignment between my deepest desire and God’s desire. Most did not—I was doing what I was expected to do given my socialization.

Discernment involves at least four levels of discipline. I borrow them from Ronald Rolheiser’s list of the “nonnegotiable pillars of a healthy spirituality” in his book The Holy Longing. I will only write briefly about each one, because a much longer essay could be written on each one.
The first discipline of discernment is developing a contemplative prayer life. I say contemplative because most of our prayers are a wish list making demands on God. They become “the egocentric self deciding what it needs, but now, instead of just manipulating everybody else, it tries to manipulate God” (Rohr, 2013). This type of prayer comes from the false self. Contemplative prayer examines what is within the soul, discovering the true self.
The second discipline of discernment is to bring our doubts and yearnings to other people—preferably in a community of faith. Other people can more readily see the blind spots in our words and actions than we ourselves are able to do. When one’s relationship with another is deep enough where such give and take can happen, discernment is possible.
The third discipline for discernment is ministry or service to others. When we focus on the needs of others, we often encounter people and situations that resonate with our souls; that make us tingle all over—or other situations that do just the opposite. Listening to these areas of resonance or repulsion is discernment. So often when students go on a cross-cultural program, their secure socialized personas are stripped away and they discover callings that they never knew they had. This often happens in the context of service to others, or in relating to a totally different value system.
The last discipline for discernment is to have a mellow heart. We take ourselves far to seriously. We need to lighten up and laugh at the wrong turns we may have made.
Discernment isn’t easy. It is not the same as decision making. It is “sifting through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away” (Nouwen, 2013). 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

“Surprise, surprise, surprise,” Gomer Pyle would say in his inimitable southern accent. This character played by Jim Nabors first appeared in The Andy Griffith Show, a comedy series from my childhood. Pyle, a childlike (and somewhat childish) character, was perpetually surprised by the most ordinary things of life that most of us take for granted.

Once I was walking along a busy thoroughfare in Guatemala City. I happened across an obviously poor woman walking slowly while carrying an infant in her arms. Since my gait was faster than hers, I soon overtook her. After I passed her, I discovered a fairly large wad of bills lying on the sidewalk. I looked all around and couldn’t see anyone to whom they might have belonged so I scooped them up. Without thinking, I turned around and handed the wad of bills to the poor woman behind me. I had no idea how much money was in the wad, nor how it found its way onto the sidewalk.

“Who knows where this came from,” I said as I handed her the wad. I was thinking maybe it was some dirty money hastily thrown out of a car window from a drug deal gone awry. Without the slightest hesitation she replied, “From God.” Her day, maybe her year, was made by a surprise from God.

As I reflected on this little incident, I learned several lessons. First, my worldview is mostly materialistic. My assumption about where the money came from shows that I look to logical explanations for miraculous events. I think that I do not need to depend on God to provide my sustenance—I’ve got a good job and have most of my needs met. In contrast, the poor woman’s response showed beyond a doubt that she depended on God to provide for her needs. Who is to say whether the wad of bills came from a passing car window or straight from heaven?

Secondly, there are probably many little surprises that God has in store for us if we only allow ourselves to be aware of them. Sometimes we are so stuck in our routines and schedules that we do not acknowledge God’s little surprises that await us at every moment. Or we write them off as little coincidences or have some other rational explanation for them. Or we see them as annoying interruptions of our routines.

The following are little surprises in my life from yesterday. The little girl that waved and smiled at me in the coffee shop. The motorcyclist who asked if I was a professor in the coffee shop and proceeded to tell me interesting stories of his adventures. The student who wrote to me about his job change and how important one class he had with me was for him. The picture of Pedro that I was searching for and the joy radiated in his face after I found it. The dead battery on my lawn mower that made me meet a hulking, friendly mechanic who made me laugh. My wife’s thank you for doing some household chores that surprised her. The “like” I received for a birthday greeting on Facebook.

It is interesting that as I started to write about those little surprises, I kept being reminded of more. I could have continued for several more paragraphs, and that was only from yesterday. Like finding a wad of bills, these little surprises can make us aware of God’s presence and working in our lives. How much better our lives would be if we regularly reflected with gratitude on the littlest and seemingly insignificant surprises of each ordinary day.

“Surprise, surprise, surprise.” We think Gomer Pyle’s childlike wonder shows his naiveté and his ignorance. Instead, it shows his gratefulness for every little event that comes along. We should do the same. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Week in Guatemala: Strangers No More

I spent last week in Guatemala with two colleagues from the Spanish Department at EMU (Eastern Mennonite University). We were there to review the program for our students at the Anabaptist Seminary called Semilla and the ancillary program CASAS for teaching Spanish and the Guatemalan cultural and historical realities.

Occurring at the same time as our visit was an encounter between forty young adults from Indonesia, Europe, Africa and Mesoamerica. Their theme was “Strangers No More.” The encounter was underwritten by the Dutch Mennonite Church.

What a blessing it was to share space with this group during our stay in Guatemala. Conversations with both young people and their leaders during our meals proved to be a gratifying experience.

First, it was impressive that this encounter took place without the presence of any North Americans; leaders or youth or resources. Too many of us assume that a gathering like this can only happen if it is planned and executed at the initiative and organization of the church in the USA—especially if it happens in our hemisphere. It was gratifying to see this assumption refuted.

Secondly, we hear so much about the church in Europe dying, and yet the European young people I met as well as their leaders were quite committed and active in their churches. Our critique of Europe is like us seeing the speck in their eye while ignoring the log in our own. The church in the USA is close behind Europe in losing its importance. It seems to me that Christendom is what is dying in both places, and I am hopeful that the remnant will represent a truer form of Christ’s church. It was gratifying to be able to come to this realization.

Finally, hearing several dialects from Indonesia, Spanish with varying accents from Mexico through Nicaragua, a number of African dialects from Tanzania to Zambia along with Dutch and Frisian was a real joy. I didn’t need to understand the words in order to sense the joy in their faces. It was gratifying to interact with brothers and sisters from four different continents.

Strangers no more. Our man-made borders make us strangers. Following Jesus brings us together. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). How gratifying it would be if everyone, but especially Christians, would recognize this.