Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Celebration 2015

The creche without the baby Jesus.
Right: The tray of cheeses and other things to grill.
The boiled potatoes.
Below: The grill for melting the cheese 
It is Christmas Eve, and as per our tradition, my family will gather to celebrate together. Our meal consists of Raclette, a dish from Switzerland where melted cheese is poured over boiled potatoes and eaten with pickles, olives, and other relishes.

We begin the evening by attending a Christmas Eve service at a local church, then we return home for the repast. Our Christmas is a mixture of Swiss, Mexican and US American customs, representing the three regions of the world where at least one of us was born. 

The creche, which has been up since the beginning of Advent, does not have the Infant Jesus in the manger. In Mexico, most families wait to put the baby Jesus in the manger until midnight on Christmas Eve, so we do it as well as close to midnight as possible.

When he was yet a child, my son wondered why the Wise Men were at the scene
of the birth, if they had to travel from afar to get there. So he began the tradition of placing the Magi in the farthest corner of our house and moving them a little closer each day during Advent until they reached the manger on January 6 when the church celebrates Epiphany. 

Before beginning our celebration, we light the real candles that we put on our tree. This tradition comes from Switzerland. We found some electric facsimiles to reduce the danger, but we still use a number of real candles. 

Real candles deck the tree.
Traditionally, we read the Luke 2 passage about the birth of Jesus in three different languages; English, Spanish and German, and listen to carols in the three languages as well.

After the readings and a prayer, we open our gifts. The last thing we do before we go to bed is to place the baby in the manger and proclaim, as they do in Mexico: "the God-child has come." 

We wish you a very Merry Christmas,
The Clymer family

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Gift of Love: “You are Beloved of God”

Henri Nouwen, prolific Catholic author of books on spirituality, frequently made the case for telling yourself: “You are beloved of God.” Over his short life, Nouwen struggled mightily with believing that he indeed was beloved of God. It was because of sharing from his deepest and darkest self in total vulnerability that he connected with millions of people around the world. Pastors of all denominations listed him as the person most read after the Bible.

In a course that I teach with a colleague on dealing with suffering and loss, at the end of the year, during our final exam, we have students face each other in inside/outside circles, look directly in the eye, and state to each other: “You are beloved of God.” They continue moving to several other students around the circle, then we open it up to anyone. It has a powerful effect. It is almost magical. There is laughter, there are hugs and there are tears.

I have become convinced that our US American culture teaches us to be self-loathing. We get messages from everywhere that we are not good-looking enough, not talented enough, not intelligent enough, not wealthy enough, not spiritual enough. We always compare ourselves with those who excel in the areas where we feel lacking; we never look at those who have less in any given category. The result is thinking that we can never measure up. The advertising industry is astute in capitalizing on this self-hate by providing us with products that will, according to their pitch, make us all the things that we are not.

The magic of the phrase “You are beloved of God,” as we do it in our class, comes about because it is given freely as a gift. The eyes are a window into the soul, and looking into each other’s eyes while stating this simple phrase goes directly to the soul. It connects on a very deep level. It helps us to realize that in God’s eyes we don’t have to measure up to any artificial cultural standard. He loves us as we are.

We had 43 students in our course. It is part of the general education program at Eastern Mennonite University where I teach. It is called the Senior Seminar, and during the semester they are to review their faith development, their cross-cultural experience and their vocational calling while at EMU.
For their final we asked them to reflect on what they had learned in the course, and what they will take with them as they graduate. I was overwhelmed with the gift of love I received from their reflections. Since I will be retiring after this academic year, this is the last time I will be teaching the course. I will forever treasure this gift to me.

Here are a few snapshots of their final reflections: “I learned that I don’t have to fix someone’s pain, that being present with them in silence is enough.” “I will never forget the phrase ‘hurt people hurt people.’ I am hurt and I now realize how I am hurting others.” “I became aware of the poison of unforgiveness. I have had to forgive someone who wronged me.” “I learned that there are many areas in my life that I need to let go. I cannot always be in control.” “I learned that community and our ‘cloud of witnesses’ is very important in dealing with our pain.” “I will always remember that I am beloved of God.” Variations on these statements were repeated numerous times.

What touched me the most, however, were the statements made about their faith. Nearly a half-dozen students said that they returned to a lost faith through the course. One said that she was afraid to talk about her faith thinking that she would be rejected, but she felt affirmed in her unusual spirituality through the course. Most said that their faith was strengthened, that they wanted to commit to deeper spiritual practices like prayer, Bible study, walks in nature and sitting in silence.

Over the nine years that I have taught this course, there have been many satisfying moments. There  have also been ugly moments, perhaps to be expected in a required course. Yet today’s final exercise will forever be etched in my mind as one of the most positive outcomes I have experienced. Thank you students, for this wonderful gift of love. “You are beloved of God!”

Soli Deo gloria

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Are You Giving Up for Advent?

The season of Advent in Christianity was originally a period of fasting and introspection much like Lent. It was a time to reflect on the second coming of Christ and how we should prepare for this momentous event.

Somehow, as time went on, the season of Advent has become a preparation for the coming of the birth of Jesus. With the addition of all the hoopla surrounding Christmas, Advent has become more of a time of expectation of gifts, festivities and parties. The wait for the birth of Jesus, although still emphasized in most churches, has been pushed to the background while trees, lavish decorations, and extravagant gifts are what are emphasized in most people’s daily activities leading up to Christmas. The hubbub surrounding Christmas has made this time of the year one of the most frantic and stressful times. 

Where is the introspection, the fasting, and the contemplation of the coming of Jesus? Both as a vulnerable baby born in poverty and the return to fully establish his reign in the new heaven and new earth? Where is the contemplation of God’s justice, the real purpose of Jesus’ incarnation?

When our family lived in Mexico, we were invited to take part in a traditional Mexican Christmas celebration, and I found the contrast to our own traditions to be starkly ironic. The main focus was on Christmas Eve. After reenacting the story of Mary and Joseph looking for lodging, called a “posada,” the extended family ate a traditional meal of tamales and hot chocolate. At the stroke of midnight, the head of the family proposed a toast to everyone and stated: “the God-child has arrived.” At this point, the baby Jesus was placed in the nativity scene for the first time. Children celebrated Jesus’ arrival.

In our own celebrations, on Christmas Eve, children wait for the arrival of Santa Claus. While the excitement among children in Mexico is on who will be the one to place the baby Jesus in the manger, in US America, children are excited about Santa Claus bringing them gifts. Which tradition is more faithful to the spirit of Advent?

In our culture, is it possible to slow down during Advent instead of speeding up? Is it possible to focus on Jesus rather than on decorations, gifts and Santa Claus? Is it possible to spend time in contemplation, silence and fasting instead of scurrying hither and yon to keep up with the neighbors’ extravagance? Is it possible to focus on justice for all, the true message of Christmas rather than what I and my family can get out of the season?

I’ve always wondered how we can sing the words of the traditional Advent song (and many others) “Hark the Glad Sound” without feeling remorse at our blindness to the true message of what we are waiting for during Advent: “His silver trumpets publish loud, The jub’lee of the Lord, Our debts are all remitted now, Our heritage restored.” Jubilee is the time when the inequities and injustice are overturned and God’s justice is restored. This is Advent. This is good news for the poor.

What are you giving up for Advent?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Humus Beings

I have always had a fascination with words, languages, word plays and puns. So it probably wouldn’t surprise you if I told you that I would often say “humus beings” rather than “human beings.” Little did I know the significance of this so-called word play until I attended a sustainability seminar led by an Old Testament scholar. I was just trying to be funny.

Genesis 2:7 states: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The Hebrew word for man is Adam, and Adam is related to the Hebrew word for ground or earth, Adamah. Adam literally means the “ground man;” the man who was made from the ground.

English gets the word human from the Latin with a similar etymology as the name Adam in Hebrew. In Latin, homo means man, humanus means human, and humus means ground. It should be easy to see the relationship between the concepts of “man” and “ground,” even if we don’t hold these original meanings as literal anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about these historical relationships and speculate on how they might give us a fuller sense of our own creation. Following this train of thought, in English, like in Hebrew, a human is a “ground man,” or an “earth man.”
Why should this interest us? First, humus is the part of the land that sustains life. According to Webster, humus is “a brown or black variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil.” Humus is full of nutrients that have developed from decaying forms of life. These nutrients are the spawning ground for new life. Humus is teeming with life. It is a microcosm of the cycles of death and life that are abundant in nature.

Secondly, God made humans from this humus. God “breathed the breath of life” into this fecund dirt. I have an image of God holding in his hand some of this dirt, this humus, this substance teeming with life and death, and breathing into it her breath of life. I realize that this is an anthropomorphic view of God, but it gives me an intimate image of the relationship between the creator, the earth or nature, and the created. It admonishes me to remember my intimate connection with the earth and God’s creation.

In teaching about spirituality, my main focus in the past has been our creation in the image and likeness of God, as defined in Genesis 1:26. So many of us forget this image-ness in ourselves, and deny it in others. It is good to be reminded that we are all made in God’s image.

Now, however, I have another focus for teaching about spirituality: our God-given connection to the earth, and to nature. It is a more holistic view of who we truly are. Unfortunately, Western culture has desecrated God’s good creation, and we are now suffering the consequences. It is time that we rediscover our connectedness to nature and to the earth. It is time to reclaim our God likeness and become true humus beings.   

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How’s Your Prayer Life?

“How’s your prayer life?” he asked me. It probably would have felt better had he hit me upside the head. I was meeting with my spiritual director. I was telling him about the many activities and distractions that had comprised my summer.

I was taken aback, not because the question was particularly unusual for a spiritual director, but because I was supposed to be the expert on prayer. I have written numerous articles in various publications on prayer. In fact, I have written a book with my sister on prayer and spiritual practice (see The Spacious Heart). How dare he challenge me?

I was also brought up short because I knew that my spiritual practices had taken a back seat. I was not living up to the image I was trying to project to the public. My public persona was stripped away with that question. I was standing naked in front of my spiritual director trying desperately to find some fig leaves to cover myself up. There were none to be found. I wonder if my face was red with embarrassment.

In answer to his question, I tried to outline the many spiritual practices I performed daily, knowing in my heart that I was trying frantically to cover my nakedness. I don’t think he was impressed. He admonished me to try to find more time in my daily routine for prayer.

I have discovered over the years that moments like the one I described above are the most teachable moments. When we come up short of our own expectations of ourselves, we are forced, often with much embarrassment and shame, to examine who we are and what we do.

The interchange with my spiritual director also shows how important it is to be accountable to other human beings in living out our faith. Our culture is so individualistic that we assume that we can do it all on our own. Indeed self-examination is very important and necessary. But other people can see through the facades we put up much better and more objectively than we are able to do on our own. We need other people to keep us honest.

So, how is your prayer life?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Education for Transformation

The Guatemalan family brought home a bag of groceries. The whole family gathered around the kitchen table to watch. Each time the father took out an item, the whole family cheered. Flour, check. Sugar, check. Cans of tomato paste, check, and so forth.

An Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) student, living with this family while studying on a cross-cultural program, came out of her room to see what was going on. She watched the proceedings with astonishment. “Why do you cheer about every item in the grocery bag?” she asked. “These are very ordinary things!” She thought something spectacular had been purchased.

“We are cheering because this time we were able to get everything on the list,” answered her host sister. The student rushed back to her room to hide the tears that were flowing from her eyes.

“How can I ever take anything for granted again?” she wrote in her journal. She recalled a time when she was angry at her mother for bringing home the wrong flavor of Dorito Tortilla Chips. “We are so spoiled. We have no idea how most of the world lives.”

Stories like this fill the journals of students who have traveled to nations all over the world in EMU’s cross-cultural programs. These experiences transform them in ways that classroom lectures and readings seldom do.

I will be retiring after the end of this academic year. As I look back over my thirty-year career, leading groups of students to Spanish-speaking countries for a cross-cultural experience stands out as the highlights of my career. Below I list the groups that I was involved with, the year and the country. The ones with an asterisk are semester-long programs. The rest were four-week programs except the last one which was a combination of a 3-week and a 6-week program.

1.     1977 Guatemala (30 students)
2.     1978 Mexico (12 students)
3.     1980 Mexico (14 students)
4.     1983 Mexico (12 students)
5.     1994 Spain (12 students)
6.     2007 Guatemala/Mexico (20 students)*
7.     2010 Guatemala/Mexico (18 students)*
8.     2012 Guatemala/Mexico (19 students)*
9.     2015 Mexico (24 students)

There are a variety of reasons why these have been the highlights of my career. Indeed, seeing the transformation that takes place is extremely gratifying. To know that you have been a part of this transformation is also gratifying. However, I think that what I have discovered to be most important are the deep, enduring relationships that I have developed with students. Being with them 24/7 is a lot of time invested, especially on a semester-long seminar. Students see your very best and your very worst. Of course, I see that in them as well. You cannot hide behind degrees or a spectacular resume during that amount of real-life exposure.

I have come to see that education that transforms is based on mutual vulnerability. Cross-cultural education provides the best laboratory for this to happen. I became very angry with my group one year in Guatemala and lashed out at them. Here is what happened.

We all ate in common cafeteria with the staff of SEMILLA where we were studying Spanish. On one particular day, the meat was fairly tough according to US American standards. I watched as student after student scraped their serving of meat into the trash bin. The incident tugged at me and I became more frustrated as the day went on. I wanted to use this as an object lesson on entitlement and privilege. I couldn’t sleep very well that night as I pondered on how best to approach them about this occurrence.

Two things bothered me about the incident. The kitchen staff and other non-salaried employees, many working diligently to eke out a living, would wait until all the students and the salaried staff were finished eating. They were allowed to eat the leftovers for free. For many of them it was the biggest meal of their day. I could only imagine their thoughts as they saw our students throwing away what they probably thought to be perfectly good food. The other thing bothering me was that we had just visited the city dump several days before. My students were absolutely appalled that a whole class of people scavenged through the garbage to find whatever they could to eat and other reusable and/or resalable items. I wanted them to see the relationship between their cavalier attitude toward food and how the much of the world had to forage for even a few morsels to eat.

I don’t remember much about how I approached the students about the incident. What I do remember, is that in sharing the stories about hungry people whom I had met through the years, and the two things I mentioned above relevant to their own situation, I broke down with emotion. Soon most of the group was in tears. Some were tears of sympathy and some were tears of shame.

I don’t know if my students will remember the incident. One thing that they will always remember, however, was my vulnerability in front of them. In a journal collection that the group gave me at the end of the trip, along with thanking me for leading the semester program, student after student wrote, “thank you for being real with us,” or “thank you for your vulnerability.” I sincerely believe that they responded better to my teaching and to me as a person because of this. 

In the process, not only were they transformed, but so was I.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mennonite World Conference: Reasons to Celebrate

Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pa., is history. I only had the privilege of attending for one day, but through that minimal exposure and speaking with friends from around the world who attended for the full week, I found many reasons to celebrate.

1.     Thousands of “cradle” Mennonites do not have Swiss/German/Dutch surnames. Second and third generations of Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups are from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and bring new meaning and vitality to what being an “ethnic” Mennonite is.
2.     The epicenter of the Mennonite world is moving farther and farther to the south. 66% of those claiming Anabaptist connections are from the global south. Nearly 40% from Africa, 20% from Asia and 16% from Latin America. This might be disconcerting for those of us with European roots, but it makes our World Conference a rainbow of diversity and a piece of heaven on earth.
3.     There are thousands of people joining the Anabaptist fold here in North America who are not “cradle/ethnic” Mennonites. While our own children are abandoning the faith of their fathers/mothers in droves, a new stream of Neo-Anabaptists are discovering the genius of an alternative to the extremes of both ends of the Christian spectrum in US America. Christendom is falling apart, and Anabaptism has been articulating an alternative to Christendom for 500 years.
4.     New theologies based on Anabaptist thought are emerging from the margins to minister to people in their places of oppression/need. In Guatemala, SEMILLA, an Anabaptist seminary, is training pastors and lay people throughout Central America on how the church can be a witness and an answer in an extremely violent context. Out of Philadelphia, Drew Hart is espousing a Christ-centered response to structural racism with a theology/discipleship he calls Anablacktivism. I am sure there are many more in other contexts.

All of these elements were evident at World Conference, and I celebrate them. Jesus’ Kingdom in its Anabaptist/Mennonite expression is alive and well and growing. Let’s not grovel in the negativity of the splintering of factions in our own context (USA), but celebrate God’s liberating, redeeming work around the world.