Saturday, August 30, 2014

Contemplating Life

“When the external life and the inner life are working together, we always have beauty, symmetry, and actual transformation of persons—lives and actions that inherently sparkle and heal, in part because they can integrate the negativity of failure, sin, and rejection and they can spot their own shadow games.” ~Richard Rohr

This pithy statement from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation of August 28 is true but a bit more complicated than it appears. Arriving to “actual transformation” is hard work and takes many years to complete. Integrating our image of God with the “negativity of failure, sin, and rejection” doesn’t happen automatically.

We avoid facing our shadow self like the plague. It is much easier to project our sin and failure on other people rather than owning up to them. Jesus identified the phenomenon when he said in Matthew 7:5, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, nearly 2,000 years later, called it “projection” and identified the projected items as the “shadow.”

We put up false fronts, called personas, to keep other people from knowing the real person behind the front. These false fronts come from what is expected of us from our socialization—culture, family, church, occupation. They are not completely bad; we need them to function. They become bad when we begin to believe that these false selves are our real selves. They become bad when we repress the bad stuff and project it on others.

There are two ways to get to know your shadow, according to Jung. Think of a trait in someone that you can’t stand. More than likely that is a part of your self that you have not dealt with and you project it onto the person you can’t stand. Or ask your spouse or close friend if you are like the person you can’t stand. If they are honest, they will identify the shadow traits you try to conceal.

Most of us don’t have the courage to do this, however. We’d rather mosey along living under the pretense of our personas and our false selves. That is, until someone inadvertently yanks the mask right off your face. That happened to me when someone told me that they thought I was experiencing a spiritual crisis. I was wearing personas of churchman, missionary, and Bible teacher. The statement, a mere observation with no intention to hurt, cut me to the core. It exposed my pretense and made me turn inward; to contemplation among other spiritual disciplines.

Contemplation allows us to see the false selves for what they are: false. If we started contemplation as part of our daily “rhythm and rule,” we would eventually be able to discern the true self from the false self. Most of us, however, are not capable of doing that on our own. We need some kind of crisis like my own mask “off-ripping” to look for help. When we reach that point, we need a guide to help us along the way; a spiritual companion, a spiritual director or a counselor. And we need time.

Once we begin the painful yet liberating process of contemplation, we are confronted with all the shadow traits we had been projecting on others. Fortunately, we also find the true self buried under the garbage of our false selves—the God image within us. This God-image carries his eternal love for us as well as his unbounded mercy and grace.

When the shadow and the God-image confront each other in contemplation, the God-image transforms the shadow and we “have beauty, symmetry, and actual transformation of persons,” just as Rohr claims. When these two opposites are integrated, we have “lives and actions that inherently sparkle and heal.” This does not happen overnight, however. For me the process took years and I am still a beginner on the journey.

Without contemplation, we have superficial lives that are resentful, that grumble and that poison. We see too much of this around us, even among Christians. My wish is to encourage people to begin the process of contemplative transformation before a crisis hits, to turn inward to find the true self before too many personas are established. I would rather be around people who “sparkle and heal” than people who grumble.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Good-bye Sole Mates

There is nothing more important to me than a good pair of shoes. Especially if they fit. I have been blessed (cursed?) with duck feet (some would say that’s why I’m named Donald—don’t you dare go there!). I usually need to go a half size larger than my foot length in order to accommodate my wide feet. That results in tight sides with floppy fronts. To find a perfect fit is nearly impossible, but when I do, I wear those shoes into the ground. Literally.

I had such a pair of shoes. I wore them for two years and eight months. They weren’t the prettiest shoes or most fashionable I’d ever owned, but they functioned quite well. They were casual enough that I could wear them to my office and to the coffee shop. Often those were the same place. They were formal enough that I wore them to my son’s wedding. Who knew?

They were slip-ons. I could wait till the last minute to get into them before going out the door. I could easily slip them off when I wanted to prop my feet up. They required little to no maintenance. Because of the rough surface, they didn’t scuff much, and a good polish every month kept them looking like new.

Sole Mates. Old on the left, new on right.
These shoes nursed my arthritic knees through their most painful days. They also accompanied me to the hospital where I had double knee replacement surgery and followed my new knees home again. They were faithful companions during my three-month long recuperation.

These shoes accompanied me to Guatemala and Mexico. They walked the streets of Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, and along the shores of Lago Atlitlán. They walked the streets of Puebla, Cholula and Mexico City and visited numerous museums and cultural events.

These shoes took me to the cities of Zurich, Zermatt, Interlaken, Bern, and Basel, to name a few. They walked along the banks of the Aare River and trudged on alpine mountain roads and took me to lake-side celebrations. They visited barns and palaces. They traveled on cable cars, cog-wheeled trains, double-decker trains, planes and boats.

These shoes attended small churches, mega churches, big city churches, extremely rural churches and a few Bible studies. They attended six weddings. They preached in four pulpits. They worshiped in English, Spanish, Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel and Swiss German. They taught in innumerable classrooms before hundreds of eager-eyed learners and some not so eager.

Unfortunately, I had to put these wonderful companions, my sole mates, to rest. As I was walking along a gravel alpine path several weeks ago, I noticed some of the little stones were penetrating into my foot. I realized that I had walked the sole bare. Probably had walked nearly 1,000 miles in them. The sad day had arrived. The shoes that had fit me like a glove and had journeyed with me to so many places had to be put aside.

After a vain search for the same shoe in local stores, I scoured the Internet for the brand and model I wanted to replace my sole mates. They were no where to be found. I tried every combination of possibilities on dozens of shoe websites. Finally I came across the brand and model I was looking for. It wasn’t exactly the same model as my retired shoes, but close enough.

The new shoes came today. Eagerly I opened the box. The fit was pretty good, and the look better than I expected, but I couldn’t slip them on without a shoe horn. They were a bit tight at the duck-foot edges and snug because of my high arches, but I knew they would stretch as I wore them. I will miss my old pals. I will probably even put them on again for nostalgia and needed comfort. But I need to give the new pair a fair trial before I abandon them. Will they succeed like their brother?

Where will this new set of shoes take me if I finally adopt them as my new sole mates? If anywhere near as wonderful a ride as the last pair, I’m in for a delightful road ahead
. . .

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Confessions of a Polyglot

I was invited to a meal by a Swiss family who knew I could speak Spanish. They had also invited two Guatemalan pastors who were visiting Switzerland. I was to serve as interpreter for the conversation between the Swiss family and the Guatemalans. Swiss German to Spanish. Spanish to Swiss German.

This was not an easy task for me. Neither is my mother tongue. At one point in the conversation the Swiss man asked the Guatemalans a question. I turned to them to translate the question and repeated the question to them verbatim in Swiss German. I had no idea what I had done until everyone else at the table burst out laughing.

I am a polyglot. This means that I speak several languages. This does not mean that I am totally fluent in every language I speak. When people ask me how many languages I speak, I reply that I am still learning English. The more I learn in each language I speak, the more I realize how little I know. Languages evolve and words and expressions that I learned 30 years ago are no longer used, and many new ones have entered the language.

I learned to speak Spanish after I was 19 years old. I learned to speak Swiss German after I was 32 years old. I’ve learned to understand other languages along the way, but English  is my mother tongue. I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I can express myself much better in my mother tongue than in any other language. This bears itself out with two simple illustration from my own experience. There are two things that one would rather do in their mother tongue no matter where they are or what they are speaking. Count and pray. Trying to figure out how much something costs for me always gets translated into English. No matter how long I’ve lived somewhere. Same thing with prayer. God understands me better in English.
It is true that sometimes when I am completely immersed in the language that is not my mother tongue, I find myself thinking in that language. Yet, when it is time to go into a store or some other space to speak with someone new, I find myself composing sentences in my head before I enter. This never happens in English. I have enough resources in my native tongue that I can simply enter a new space and begin to express myself.

English has become the lingua franca of the world. It is the official language of the European Union. Moreover, English is spoken by millions of people around the globe, but only about 20% of them speak it as their native language. Even though they may well get along in English at a certain level, they probably cannot express their deepest longings. Even though they may find themselves thinking in English when immersed in it, they probably still count and pray in their native tongue. They probably begin to think of what to say before they enter a store.

Because English is so wide-spread, many US Americans assume that it is not necessary for them to learn other languages. This is a very arrogant stance. As I have experienced when speaking languages other than my mother tongue, no matter how advanced I am in that language, I am still at a distinct disadvantage. So when we assume that we can use English wherever we go, we are putting at a distinct disadvantage those who do not speak English natively.

Indeed, some communication is better than no communication at all, but we need to be aware the dynamic we are setting up when we demand that the other person speak our mother tongue. The reason that English is so ubiquitous is because it was the language of empire builders. First the English and now the US American empire. So as a native speaker of English from one of these empires, not only do we put others at a disadvantage when assuming that English is the language of communication, we also reaffirm our power advantage and privilege. Even just a few words in their language helps level this power dynamic—how much more when we can put together complete sentences and paragraphs in the others’ language.

I am a polyglot. Like translating between Spanish and Swiss German, I love the challenge that communicating in languages other than my native language brings. However, I am still most comfortable speaking in my native tongue. Learning another language helped me to be more humble about the relationship between languages and the people speaking them. As we communicate with those who do not speak our language natively, we need to keep this in mind.