Friday, September 27, 2013

Precious Transformed Memories

Precious memories, how they linger
How they how they ever flood my soul
In the stillness of the midnight
Precious memories flood my soul. (Ray Price)

I went to a book signing for Shirley Showalter’s recently released memoir called Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World (Herald Press, 2013). It inspired me to think about a segment of my life that could/should be put down on paper as a memoir.

It didn’t take me long to know exactly what period I would write about—those 31 months I spent in Honduras as a conscientious objector during a very turbulent time in the history of the United States. John Kennedy had been assassinated. The Psychedelic Flower Children, the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war sentiment all plunged the country into deep self-examination. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the killing of anti-war demonstrators at Kent State all happened while I was in Honduras; all this with the threat of nuclear annihilation over our heads. The times they were “A-changin.’” The prosperous, idyllic post World War II era was turned on its head.

My own outer and interior worlds were a-changin’ as well. My naïve, bucolic world peopled with pastors and prayers was upended when I crossed the oceanic cultural divide between Miami and language school in San José.

Memories from those years flood my soul constantly and not all of them are precious. Scenes of grinding poverty, of racism and oppression, drunkenness and sexual aberrations (in my view), have beleaguered me. I clung to my faith as tenaciously as a leech clings to the hull of a ship. My soul was not prepared for what I encountered and I have spent years trying to get my soul to catch up with the rest of me.

There were many precious memories as well. Learning the magnificence of the language and culture of some of the most beautiful people in the world has shaped me forever; relationships over schedule, hospitality over selfishness, gratitude over entitlement. The hugs of friendship and fellowship flood my soul with many precious memories.

The inner work I have done over the past number of years has helped me to let my soul catch with the rest of me. Many of my other blog posts show parts of this movement. I haven’t been able to change the world as I had hoped at one time to do, but I have transformed my stories of traumatization into stories of hope. Those black, hungry eyes that burned a hole in my conscience in the stillness of midnight have turned into eyes of love and forgiveness. I now sleep with dreams of God’s Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. May the transformed memories linger. May they be precious.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Holy Perspective

I was in the middle of a profound thought that I wanted to include in my upcoming lecture for class when a student knocked on my office door. I was a bit irked by this intrusion since my door clearly marked when I had office hours and when I did not. This was not office-hour time.

What made the intrusion even more irksome was that the student seemingly only wanted me to sign a form but insisted on staying. Couldn’t she see my frown?

In the literature on spirituality, I have read the story several times of someone who views such interruptions as opportunities for ministry. Sometimes it was a priest who said it, sometimes it was a nun. The thought must be pretty prevalent, because a quick Google search reveals hundreds of blog posts related to the idea. Well, I was not feeling very pastoral at the time of the knock.

So I was intrigued when I read the following quote from Henri Nouwen: “Yet without this one hour a day for God [in contemplative prayer], my life loses its coherence, and I start experiencing my days as a series of random incidents and accidents rather than divine appointments and encounters” (Nouwen, 2013). 

The way he viewed his day changed by taking an hour of prayer and solitude with God. That hour changed his perspective. What he normally considered interruptions (incidents and accidents) became divine appointments and encounters.

Gaining perspective is a spiritual discipline. Sometimes it involves taking a longer view. The story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures shows how being sold into slavery, which looked like a terrible injustice at the time, turned into a salvation story for the children of Israel (unless you agree with the “scarcity” interpretation of Walter Brueggemann). Sometimes it involves viewing everyday events as God’s little surprises (see my blog post, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise”). In Henri’s case, it was to sense the presence of God in every encounter.

Gaining perspective is a choice. Whether through a long view, a surprise or a divine encounter, we can choose to see the hand of God working or we can choose to call the events of our day an injustice, a coincidence, or an interruption. Seeing God at work in everything is the God perspective; the perspective of the saints.

There are two important disciplines to help us gain a divine perspective in our lives. Like Nouwen, spending time alone in contemplative prayer is a wonderful way to start the day. This first discipline helps to surround ourselves with a sense of God’s presence as we begin our day, and tends to say with us throughout, viewing each event as a divine encounter. The second is the “consciousness examen” at the end of the day. Before I fall asleep each night I ask myself something like, where have I seen God today? By renaming interruptions and accidents as divine encounters or as God’s surprises, I transform my perspective.

The student who interrupted my office hours really had more on her mind than signing a form. She was dealing with a heavy burden and needed to talk with someone about it. She had sensed a dramatic shift in her vocational call while on her study-abroad program. No one, especially her family, understood what had gotten into her. Together we discerned that she was finally listening to God’s call on her life rather than her culture’s call. She sensed peace and joy knowing that her “deepest desire aligned with God’s desire” (Nouwen, 2013).

After she left, my perspective on my interrupted office hours changed. I could see it as a divine encounter instead of a random incident.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Spirituality and Nature

I have read widely the literature on spirituality both for my seminary concentration in spiritual formation and for personal interest. I had found little mention of nature as part of our spirituality until I encountered Celtic spirituality.

This is why I was caught up short while reading Henri Nouwen’s recently published book on discernment (Nouwen, 2013, published posthumously from lectures and unpublished notes on the subject). He has a whole chapter on reading the “book of nature” as part of discernment. I had never read anything about nature in any of his previous books (and I have read most of them), and he never struck me as a nature lover from his writings or from his bookish, professorial persona. He seemed more at ease in a library, a lecture hall or in a monk’s cell than on a forest path.

Another writer of spirituality that has influenced me greatly is Ronald Rolheiser. I have become a huge fan of his “four nonnegotiable essentials of a healthy spirituality” found in his book, The Holy Longing (Rolheiser, 2009). Those essentials are, 1) a deep personal relationship and experience of God along with personal morality; 2) participation in a community of faith; 3) peacemaking and social justice; and 4) mellowness of heart. I was so fascinated by the balance in this paradigm that I am writing a book on mellowness of heart—the least explained of Rolheiser’s concepts.

However, there is nothing mentioned about nature in Rolheiser’s scheme. It has taken Celtic sensibility and the writings of Philip Newell for me come to an understanding of the importance of nature in a healthy spirituality. Creation “ex deo,” out of the very essence of God, instead of the traditional teaching of “ex nihilo,” out of nothing, gives a reverential respect for nature rather than a materialistic, exploitative view. Reference to the “big book,” the cosmos, along with the “little book” (in size) of the Holy Scriptures, elevates the teachings of nature to the same level as the Bible in Celtic spirituality—it’s where we see and experience the essence of God (creation ex deo).

This understanding of nature as essential to a healthy spirituality has led me to exploring traditional native spiritualties (see blog posts “I want to be a pagan” and “Amish Spirituality”), especially as I had experienced them from my reading and from my experience with the Q’eqchi’ Mennonites in rural Guatemala. In simplistic terms, they exhibit a reverence for nature and the sense of being part of nature rather than lording over it. This helps them to read the “big book,” or as Nouwen called it, the “book of nature,” in a way that allows them to feel the “heartbeat of God” (Newell, 1997), or the heartbeat of the cosmos.

I suspect that if I went back over my readings of the early Christian writers of spirituality, before the bias of the modern scientific era and my own blinders from that bias, I would find lots of references to nature as part of spirituality. That we have created so many works on spirituality without reference to nature shows all too well how we have become alienated from our own creation. In my own thinking, I will alter Rolheiser’s four essentials to five so that nature can be included, even though it throws out of kilter native spirituality’s symbol of four as wholeness.

Because of environmental devastation, there seems to be a heightened interest throughout Christianity in returning to more respect for nature and including it as part of our spirituality. Someone recently asked in a discussion why there seemed to be a close affinity between Mennonites and Celtic spirituality. I think it has historical roots in Anabaptist beliefs—a subject for another post. However, regarding nature, I think 400 years of farming is still “bred in the bone” of most ethnic Mennonites no matter how far we have strayed, and as such we feel a close kinship with our Amish cousins and their respect and care for nature.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Legend or History?

Recently I was going over my notes for my classes on the indigenous civilizations that flourished in Latin America before the arrival of the Europeans. I had two points on both the Aztezs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru: legend and history.

I became intrigued by my separation of these two “realities” and wondered why they shouldn’t be one and the same. Perhaps it is because we look at the “historical” as provable facts and “legend” as not being scientific. The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that our separation of these two realities stems from western dualism; the separation of body and soul. The historical is from the brain, or the intellect, while the legendary is from the soul (Greek = psyche, or the unconscious in depth psychology terms).

Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, made a career of studying the archetypal images that bubbled up from the soul (unconscious) that could be found in common in all cultures. Many of these images are ensconced in legends, myths and fairy tales. And many of these legends appear in similar fashion in cultures around the world. Creation stories are a good example of this.

The historical view of how the Americas were populated show roaming tribes crossing the Bering Strait from Asia or coming in boats across the Pacific Ocean from Polynesia. Yet the indigenous cultures in Latin America have their own creation stories which have many parallels to the Genesis account. God created them in their own land, they did not migrate from some other place. Is that any less believable than our view that somehow God created humankind in Mesopotamia?  I won’t argue whether our view of creation is historical or not. The fact that similar stories about creation arise around the world is what fascinates me.

My view is that these creation stories, as well as many others that cultures around the world hold in common, come from the indelible stamp of the “image of God” on our souls. Whether you call it the collective unconscious as Jung did, or the soul as I did, these archetypal images and tales give humankind a longing for a relationship with our creator, and a restlessness until we find the meaning for our existence in our God-likeness.

We see the combination of history and legend in many of our Christian celebrations. Christmas, for example, was placed during the time of pagan celebrations of the winter solstice when the ancients feared that darkness would encompass the whole world rendering it lifeless. The festival of lights ceremonies to placate the gods into bringing back the sun is why we have candles and lights at Christmas. The ancients in the Americas had similar ceremonies during the winter solstice.

The historically minded would call this syncretism. I would call this proof of a longing for God that is stamped into the soul of every human being on the face of the earth, and a preparation of the soul for the arrival of Christ.

History or legend? It doesn’t need to be either or. In my view, it is both history and legend. The two do not have to compete with each other. With the one we see with the eyes of our minds, with the other we see with the eyes of our souls.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

My published writing beyond my blog

As a newly added writer on MennoNerds, I thought I should give readers a sample of my writing beyond my blog. I am including the links to varios articles and essays that were published in The Mennonite, the official publication of Mennonite Church, USA.

April 21, 2009
"Prayer Changes Things"
Stories of how prayer makes a difference in our lives.

June 16, 2009
"For I was as stranger and you invited me in"
Stories about how to treat the undocumented alien among us with biblical injunctions to do so.

February 1, 2010
"Young adults, we stand amazed in their presence"
How post-modern young adults approach life and why it is good.

April 1, 2011
"Do you understand what I have done for you?"
Reflections on foot washing from the prospective of a Mennonite church in Mexico City.

October 10, 2011
"As you go . . . are you preaching or walking?"

December 3, 2012
"Where is your heart?"
Reflections on God's providence and how different views of money are between U.S. Americans and a friend of mine in Mexico.

July 1, 2013
"Entertaining Angels"
Another story from the church in Mexico City that my cross-cultural group visited in 2010. This one reflects on hospitality to strangers.

I have also published a book Meditations on the Beatitudes: Lessons from the Margins that might be of interest to some of you.
Goodreads link
Cascadia Publishing House link link
Facebook link

Thanks to MennoNerds and all my readers for your support. Live is good!