Thursday, September 29, 2016

Leisurely Efficient

The church tower in
our village of Aarberg

The Swiss are known for their punctuality and efficiency. The clock tower on every village church, usually on the highest geographical point, dominates the landscape. It rings every quarter hour. One for quarter after, two for half-past, three for quarter to, and four for the top of the hour. After the four chimes, the bells more loudly toll the number of hours. Nearly everywhere you are in Switzerland, you can hear the tolling of the bells echoing through the valleys. The sound is beautiful and peaceful, except when you hear them in the middle of the night while trying to sleep.

Swiss public transportation has long been famous for its punctuality. Normally you can set your watch to the arrivals and departures. We have a bus stop right in front of our apartment. Every hour at the scheduled time, we hear the roar of the bus leaving for the next stop. Several times after boarding a bus at the route’s origin, a buzzer would go off, and the driver would immediately start his engine and take off. All the buses have computers programmed for the precise time to begin and to end, and all the schedules inbetween. If there is a known impediment to keeping the schedule, for example, construction or an accident, a huge sign is posted at the bus stop warning riders that not to expect the usual efficiency and punctuality.

So with all their obsession with punctuality, you would think that they, like US Americans, would continually be looking at their watches, hurriedly ending a conversation in order to run off to their next activity. You would be wrong.

I recently went with my brother-in-law to an insurance agency to investigate health coverage for our time in Switzerland. The person with whom we were to speak was tied up with another client. A manager, who was somewhat acquainted with my brother-in-law, invited us to enjoy a cup of coffee while we waited. He stayed with us the whole time chatting away, curious about my story, and deepening the acquaintance with my brother-in-law. He was with us for nearly a half hour. In our view, he “wasted” valuable time that should have been used for getting things done. But did he?

On an earlier visit, I was working for a Swiss construction company being paid by the hour. We were remodeling an office building. The owner of the building visited one day, and heard about my being from the USA. He invited me for coffee during coffee break time. After the normal time for break passed, I kept nervously looking at my watch, feeling that I was stealing from his time and should be getting back to work. He seemed totally unconcerned. I finally returned to work after an hour of conversation. Did he waste his valuable time talking to a laborer?

People gather for an afternoon of coffee,
relationships, and people watching at a
Café in our town of Aarberg
I have been on the lookout for a café here in Aarberg where I can do my writing. There are wonderfully quaint cafés all over town packed with customers, but interestingly enough, none of them have Wi-Fi, a requirement for any café in the USA. The Swiss don’t usually go to a café to work; they go with friends and family to hang out, talk, and watch people. And lingering over coffee after the noon meal is not unusual. Are they wasting their time?

I have experienced many such leisurely conversations in my visits to Switzerland; during the work day, evenings and on weekends. Relationships seem to be as important as getting work done. Because of a more leisurely pace of life, people generally seem to be more relaxed. I believe that taking such relationship breaks actually enhances efficiency and productivity rather than taking away from it. These breaks are daily; I wrote extensively about the leisure of European vacations compared to ours in The Spacious Heart. Spending time just being is a foreign concept to most US Americans.

I think we could learn something from the Swiss about balancing work and life. Although there is indeed stress and burnout among some Swiss employees, I am convinced that it is not nearly the occupational hazard that it is in the US. And their efficiency and productivity hasn’t been affected that much by having more time for relationships. In this study, they are only a little behind the US in the productivity of its workers.

Leisurely efficient. Getting things done while having time for relationships. Sounds like a good combination to me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Experiencing God among the Challenges

I was on a bus going to meet my wife Esther at her workplace. The bus was packed with a bunch of school children jabbering away, going home from school for lunch. At the next bus stop at least 15 men from some sort of work group wanted to board; probably in order to go out for lunch together. There was mass confusion as they tried to decide whether they would board the bus or wait for the next one, 10 minutes later. Half did, the rest stayed behind.

In the midst of this mayhem, my phone rang. At the beginning of our stay, I was the first to obtain cell phone service, and had only given my number to very specific people related to Esther’s work. I assumed the call was for Esther, so I tried to give the lady on the other end of the line Esther’s newly obtained number.

For my aged ears, it is often difficult to understand callers in English, let alone a speaker of the Swiss dialect amidst the racket on the bus. I must have sounded like a fool to the people packed around me on all sides, trying to convince the lady on the other end of the line that the call wasn’t for me.

Eventually I understood the message, and it wasn’t one I had wanted to hear. The woman was calling from the bank where we were trying to open an account. The proof I had to show that I was legitimately in Switzerland, my Visa, had run out. I was astounded. Both Esther and I had understood that I had been granted a Visa for a year, when in fact it was only for three months and had become effective immediately the day it was issued, June 14. It ran out 10 days after we arrived in Switzerland.

There are always challenges when one moves from one community to another; even when one just moves across town. When one moves over 4,000 miles across many cultural and linguistic boundaries, the challenges are magnified. For Esther, the challenges weren’t cultural or linguistic, but learning the peculiarities of the new technology she has to use to find clients and to report on her visits, as well the differing ways clients are cared for. For me, there were challenges of legality of my stay mentioned above, computer issues, and continuing issues setting up technology in our apartment, banking, and learning where the best cafés are. 😀

In spite of these challenges, I have tried continually to remind myself to look where God is present in every moment. When we dwell on the frustration alone, we can become quite discouraged. When we focus on the bright God moments, however, our mood improves. For some reason, we are much more attuned to the negative, and need constant effort to remember the positive. I heard somewhere that we need 10 positive reinforcements to obliterate one negative one. So I decided to list some of my God experiences during the past several days.

When I was in the midst of my telephone call, the lady on the bus across from me gave me a very empathetic smile. This was nicely encouraging. I’ve seen my share of scowls here, when people show their disgust at a foreigner struggling with the dialect. Thank you, God.

Swiss children on the bus happily
singing their alphabet song with
The day before I was on another bus, and a swarm of elementary-aged children entered, again, probably going home for lunch. They were a delightful bunch. They all were sporting colorful backpacks and chatted away unabashedly. The quartet across the aisle from me was practicing singing their alphabet song from school. None of the adults around me, nor I, could contain our pleasure or our smiles at the energetic, joyful scene. Thank you, God.

After the school children got off the bus, it continued twisting its way up the side of a large hill. For miles we were going through a huge forest of tall, stately fir trees, adding an eerie tone of a childhood fairy tale. When we finally came out of the forest, the sun broke through the fog, breaking the gloomy yet magic spell. We had reached the top of the hill. The view from the top was amazing, with the snow-capped Alps in the background. As if in celebration of the sun and the view, a striking pony, next to the road and fenced in its alpine pasture, friskily leaped in adoration of its maker. This was a beautiful sight to behold. Thank you, God.

I was pursuing answers to some of our challenges on the main streets of Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The streets were especially bustling because of an open-air market on one of the main squares of the city. Unusual for the normally well-organized citizens, people crossed pedestrian-only streets willy-nilly on a quest for the latest fashion or bargain. The only vehicles allowed on these streets are trolley cars. As an elderly man tried to cross the street, a trolley came bearing down on him. He quickened his step to avoid the trolley, but tripped on the curb and tumbled head first onto the pavement where he lay still.  Immediately he was surrounded by concerned people. No passing to the other side of the street like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan.

I watched while the concerned citizens tried to lift the elderly man to his feet. He was a large man, and since most of the Good Samaritans were women, I joined to add my helping hand. Nothing was broken, and he hadn’t suffered a fainting spell or a heart attack. He was free to go his way with his worst wound being embarrassment. The city returned to its anonymous activity, but I left impressed with how many people didn’t let their busyness interfere with the needs of a fellow citizen. Thank you, God.

A smile, singing children, a pony and Good Samaritans in a cosmopolitan city—all ways in which I experienced the presence of God recently during days of significant challenges. God is ever present. We only need to be aware and to remember. “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29: 13). Thank you, God.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Prayer Changes Things

This post first appeared in The Mennonite several years ago. 

As I entered the hospital room and introduced myself, I could feel the tension in the air. The woman lying in the bed had lost a child in birth and had requested a visit from a hospital chaplain. I assumed that the man standing by her bedside was her husband. I expressed my sorrow at their loss and tried to be a loving, non-threatening presence; hoping to draw out their reason for requesting a pastoral visit. Every attempt resulted in my being stonewalled. Hoping to salvage a little of the visit, I asked if I could pray for them before I left. Somehow they agreed. I went over to the woman, laid my hand on her shoulder, and prayed a very simple prayer, thinking that the shorter the prayer, the quicker I would be through with this stress-filled ordeal. I prayed that they would feel a special sense of God’s presence during these difficult times. When I lifted my head, the man was sobbing, his shoulders visibly shaking. He proceeded to tell me a litany of woes that he and his wife were going through in the past three months, culminating with the death of their newborn. The atmosphere in the room changed remarkably after the prayer. The relationship between me and the people changed. What started out as a forced, awkward encounter, had become a God moment.

As a child I remember seeing the motto hanging on our living room wall, “Prayer Changes Things.” I think that I believed it to be true, but I wasn’t really all that convinced. At least not until I started visiting people in our local hospital and nursing care facilities.
The Bible is full of encouragement to pray. Romans 12: 12, states: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Prayer is one of the basic elements of the Christian life. Almost every Christian thinks that they could pray more. Beyond encouragement to pray, the Bible also promises that prayer will be answered. 1 John 5:14: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” So by praying for each other, and understanding that God hears our prayers, we move on to discover that prayer changes things.
My visit with an elderly woman was a very pleasant one. We chatted away about her life, her accomplishments and her faith. She seemed to be a very optimistic and well-adjusted woman who had learned to live her life gratefully. She consented to a prayer on her behalf. In the prayer I recounted some of the things she had accomplished in her life and thanked God for her faithfulness and commitment. As I was about to leave she grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to herself. “I need to talk more to you,” she said. “I have something I need to confess.” She proceeded to tell me about some unresolved issues in her life that she said “made her more than a little resentful.”  Her change of attitude took me aback, and we spent a long time talking about things in a totally different way than previously. Prayer brought humility and contrition to an otherwise normal visit. The seemingly normal visit with little of the abnormal had become a God moment.
Lest you think that these changes only occur with the infirm and the elderly, let me recount an experience with a group of twenty college students in rural Guatemala. We were in the middle of a service project among the Quechi Mayan people. Our living conditions were very basic; we slept on boards and had neither electricity nor running water. Bathrooms were makeshift plastic sides with a board over a hole in the ground. After several days of working in the dirt and hot sun, we arrived at the project to find that our directors hadn’t arrived and that we had to wait until they came with the supplies that we needed to keep going. I sensed that the spirits of our group were low. I gathered them in a circle in the local church that served as our project headquarters to hear their complaints.

“We are just tired and ready to go home,” they stated. There was no denying this. “We are sick of trying to analyze our every experience.” One of the practices that our group had to do was to journal on where they had experienced God in the previous two weeks, and where they had experienced distractions that had taken them away from a sense of God’s presence. The distractions were obvious, so I asked them to list where they had experienced God during the past several days of our time in the boonies. The students started coming up with all sorts of ways they had experienced God; the gorgeous starlit sky where no artificial light was present, the smile of a host child, the smell of the fresh tortillas cooking on the grill, the faithfulness of the people who walked miles and miles in the dark over steep mountain trails to fill the church on a Wednesday night. We prayed and thanked God for showing us his presence in spite of the distractions.
Students working in the hot sun
 and dirt preparing soil
 for the nursery project
The directors of the project arrived with our materials and we headed out once again to the dirt and the sun. There was a noticeable spring in their step as they made their way down the long, narrow mountain path to the field where we were preparing soil for a nursery. As they started to work several students began singing. Soon the whole group was engaged in singing lively African-American spirituals. “As I went down to the river to pray . . . .”  The dirt sieve swung back and forth in rhythm. The local Quechi Mayan people, working alongside us, caught the spirit and several of the kids tried to mimic our singing. There were smiles all around.
In their evaluations at the end of the semester, most of the students rated the rural Guatemala experience among the Quechi Mayan people as the best of their semester. The prayer of examen completely turned around the atmosphere and tone of the experience. The grime and the sweat had become a God moment.
I could recount many other experiences of prayer remarkably changing the encounter and the atmosphere of a visit or a group dynamic. God expects us to pray, and will answer if it is according to his will. Those answers to our prayers often bring unexpected changes—changes that become God moments—God moments that help build our faith.