Friday, December 8, 2017

A True Friend

The summer I turned three, my family moved off the family farm (now Greenfield Restaurant and Bar for those familiar with Lancaster Co., PA) to become town dwellers in New Holland, PA. We lived on Locust Street in the first house (click on the link) in a duplex. Except for the fact that the duplexes weren’t connected together, our block comprised of what could be described as row houses on both sides of the street.

We were the only Mennonite family to live on the street, so we met quite a few interesting families in the neighborhood, including a Hawaiian family whom my father befriended. The man had just been released from jail for involuntary manslaughter due to an automobile accident, and my dad took him under his wing to help the transition back to life on the outside.

One of the other diverse families lived eight doors down the block from us. They were Catholic. They had a son Paul who was my age. If you grew up in the 50’s, I probably don’t need to define for you how most non-Catholic evangelicals, including Mennonites, viewed Catholics.

Paul and I became inseparable friends. He was an only child and his parents doted him with all the wordily goods children our age wanted. Our family consisted of four and grew to seven before we moved. Needless to say, there weren’t many extras at our house, so I spent all my time at Paul’s house. I remember my brother desperately wanting a baseball glove like all the other neighborhood boys. Since we couldn’t afford such a luxury, my mom sewed together a glove out of old material. My brother was so proud of the glove he ran right out to play, slapping his fist to form a pocket to catch a ball in. The other boys laughed him right off the field.

Paul had a sand box in his back yard, and we moved endless amounts of dirt with his front loader and dump truck. We played cowboys and Indians. He wore the chaps and strapped his pistol around his waist and he gave me the bows and arrows. He had a tent, so we spent a number of summer nights sleeping outside. I do remember the first night was a bit frightening. We heard a noise and got scared and ran home.

I can still visualize and smell his house. It was a mixture of cigarette smoke and beer—two smells totally foreign to me. Upstairs there were statues scattered around. In their basement was a workshop where his dad spent his free time working on various projects. And they had a TV! Of course, Mennonites didn’t have TV, so I would go over to his house to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Other that a few Western shows, where we learned how to authentically play cowboys and Indians, we didn’t spend much time watching TV. We were too busy playing. The wide expanse of land on the other side of our house gave plenty of space for exploring. In the summer, the empty field was usually filled with corn. In and out of that we would run, inventing games as we went.

On the top of the hill behind my house was a church and a large graveyard. We remember Memorial Day ceremonies, where a troop of soldiers would come and after playing some patriotic songs, would shoot their guns into the air. Once we sneaked into the church basement through an open window. We played hide-and-seek in the Sunday school rooms.

In spite of the differences between Mennonites and Catholics, my parents never forbade our activities and friendship. Perhaps they warned me about the dangers of TV, or other things, but I don’t remember.

Our first separation came when school began. I went to the local elementary school for first grade, and he went to a private Catholic school. We could handle that, because we still had afternoons and summers together.

Our biggest separation came before I entered the third grade. Our family, having grown out of the little row-house, bought a house and moved to Goodville, some five miles to the east of New Holland. It was the summer that I turned eight. This was a bigger challenge. I was devastated. I can still vividly remember a dream I had that we had returned to New Holland, and when I woke up I was distraught. I wanted my dream to be real. I missed my friend Paul more than anything else.

One day, about a month after our move and just before school began, there was a knock at our side door. It was my friend Paul! He had ridden his bicycle, without his parents’ permission, all the way to Goodville to visit me! Five miles on a 20” wheel bicycle was quite a feat for an eight-year old. This was how much our friendship meant to him!

My mother, half in shock, called his mother to tell her where her son was. Paul’s mother was also in shock. They came in their car to retrieve him and the bicycle. I don’t know what punishment he received for his little excursion, but I can imagine it wasn’t pleasant.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship
by Janice May Udry
I don’t remember having any contact with Paul after that incident. I returned to New Holland for high school, but he continued attending a Catholic school.

I’ve had many friends since Paul. But I don’t remember ever being as devoted to any other male friend as with Paul. This despite huge differences in upbringing and faith traditions. The innocence of childhood with the lack of socialized prejudices—what a refreshing reminder for an adult.

Have you had a best friend?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

No Permanent Home

"For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.” (Heb. 13:14 NLT)

I have lived a privileged life. I have been able to work and study in places around the world, and have learned to communicate in various languages in the process.

In Latin America, I have lived for extended periods of time (for at least a year) in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. In addition, I have visited all but three Spanish-speaking countries as well as Brazil. I calculate that in all I have spent the equivalent of seven years in the region.

In Europe, I have spent significant time in Switzerland, the homeland of my spouse, and recently returned from a year there. In all, with our summer visits included, I’ve spent nearly four years in Switzerland. I studied for four months in Germany, and visited eight other European countries.

There are many things that I have learned from these diverse places and have incorporated significant lessons from each of them into my world view. I have also developed significant relationships with beautiful people from these places. In addition, people from all around the world have been in my classes; from Iraq and Kurdistan, from Paraguay to Puerto Rico; from Japan and China to India and many parts of the former Soviet Union. I keep in contact with them years after they were my students. Their understanding of the world expands my own.

Because of these varied experiences, I have often asked myself the question, “Where is home?” This difficult for me to answer, because even having been born in the USA, I often don’t feel at home here. Nor do I feel at home in any of the other places I’ve lived. I feel like a “stranger[ ] and alien[ ] on the earth” (Heb. 11:13) with no “permanent home.”

After we’ve returned to the USA from our various adventures overseas, many well-intentioned people ask us, “Aren’t you glad to be home?” assuming that things are much better in the USA than anywhere else in the world. First of all, the USA is not my wife Esther’s home. She was born in Switzerland, and all of her family still live there. Second of all, I have discovered that things aren’t always better in the USA. In fact, there are many things that are worse. But I can say this only because I have experienced other ways of doing and being.

So where IS home? The scripture I quoted above from Hebrews, says that we have no permanent home. Other versions say: “no continuing/ enduring/ lasting city.” I like the German “Hoffnung für Alle” version the best. (Loosely translated by me) “For on this earth there is no city where we can always feel at home.” This has been my experience.

Valley where the Emma River cuts through the Alps
to form the Emmental, where many Anabaptists lived before
being pushed out of Switzerland.
300 years ago, my ancestors were pushed out of their homeland in Switzerland. The Bernese government was so eager to get rid of them, they paid their passage on a river boat down the Rhine to Holland. Some tried to resettle in Germany, but were still considered second class citizens with lots of push-back from the locals, both neighbors and government officials. Many eventually emigrated to the USA when they learned of the invitation of William Penn and received aid from Dutch Mennonites for the passage across the ocean.

When they arrived in the USA, they were almost immediately confronted with the American Revolution, along with skirmishes with local Native Americans. Some moved farther west or to Canada. They understood better than we do the concept of “no permanent home.” They were refugees, “strangers and aliens” for several generations. This lack of permanence made them more dependent on God.

I am seven generations removed from those refugees. Most of their descendants have chosen an “enduring city,” and have become settled and self-satisfied where they live. It is easy to fall into this trap. I am not immune to these tendencies.

How do we avoid the propensity to build ourselves “permanent cities,” where we “always feel at home,” where we become smug and self-satisfied? Where we become less dependent on God?

1.     Move to another country and live for a year or more doing some sort of service with a mission agency or NGO.
2.     Get to know some refugees in your town, county or state. Listen to their stories, prepare them a meal, walk with them in their daily struggles.
3.     Get to know anyone who lives at the margins of your town. Every town has them, and if you don’t know who they are, you are living in a bubble.  
4.     Volunteer at a food pantry, soup kitchen, or social service agency in your town.

So where is home? Our home is not a permanent city in a particular geographical location. Our home is where we find our authentic selves apart from what our culture tells us to be—our true God-imageness.  Our home is where we meet with others who are also searching for their authentic selves. Our home is where we reach out to others to help them find their own God-imageness/ belovedness/ goodness. Our home is in Jesus’ kingdom that knows no geographical boundaries, political system, or cultural preference.

As a wise former student wrote, “Home is anywhere our soul finds rest.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I Will Lift My Eyes to the Hills (Psalm 121)

Psalm 121 is a Psalm of ascents, thought to be sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem for annual festivals. Jerusalem stands on a hill between the coastal plain and the Jordan River valley, so traveling from any direction toward Jerusalem required looking up to the hills.
Being a pilgrim has often been used as a metaphor for Christians passing through our earthly life. Hebrews calls us “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13), with no “lasting city” (13:14).  
Our year in Switzerland was like a pilgrimage with no “lasting city.” The hills we saw daily, however, were a continuous reminder that God’s presence was constant and solidly reassuring, like Psalm 121.  

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
 where does my help come from?           
On the way to many of our destinations in Switzerland, we would round a curve in the road, emerge from a dark fir-lined forest, and feast our eyes on the scene pictured below. These are the incredibly beautiful Bernese Alps seen in the distance. In fact, this scene was visible to my wife Esther every day on her commute to work. It never got old, even though she grew up in Switzerland.

            Psalm 121 was also Esther’s parents’ favorite passage. The mountains were as much a part of them as the mountains were part of the scenery. They were so proud to show me their beauty when I made my first visit to their homeland. They were buried for their eternal rest in the shadow of their beauty.

View from parents-in-law's graves.

            Indeed, seeing the mountains’ rock hard-sturdiness that withstood the ravages of the ages, gave Esther and me confidence to go through whatever we had to face on a daily basis. For us they definitely answered the question: “Where does my help come from?”

My help comes from the Lord,
 the Maker of heaven and earth.
             The Lord, who helps us, is also the Maker of heaven and earth. It is hard to find a place in Switzerland where God’s creation is not in full display. Some of the most magnificent displays of nature in the world are packed into a very small land area the size of the state of West Virginia. Through God’s magnificent creation, we were reminded of God’s glory and presence at every turn.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
            Switzerland is replete with hiking trails. Hiking is one of the most popular activities of the Swiss. Because of twists and turns, steep inclines and descents, is easy to slip while hiking the many trails through the mountains, even if they are well maintained.  Being assured of God’s presence while on such treks is essential. Unfortunately, too often there are reports of serious injuries and even deaths from hikers who have slipped.

Indeed, he who watches over Israel
 will neither slumber nor sleep.
            Our pilgrimage to Switzerland did not include sleeping in the wild exposed to the whims of nature. Even so, we needed to feel assured of God’s abiding presence during our sleeping hours.

The Lord watches over you—
 the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day,
 nor the moon by night.
            When hiking in the Alps the sun seemed to be fiercer than in the lowlands. Protection from the sun was quite important. Apparently the right hand needed more protection back then because it didn’t have a shield. God’s abiding presence protects us from the elements.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
  He will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going
 both now and forevermore.

            Not only will God protect you from the whims of nature, but throughout all your life. During our pilgrimage to Switzerland, the mountains that we repeatedly viewed, symbolized this protection for us. Their constant presence, their immutability, their beauty, continually reminded us of God’s enduring presence.  
            Our year is over, our pilgrimage to Switzerland complete. Fortunately we still retain our memories to remind us of God’s unfailing presence with us.

I will lift my eyes to the hills . . .