"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Err..."Wisdom" (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 5)

Last day of consecutive blog posts. Can’t keep this pace up.

It was a three-way tie for quotes for today. I’ll admit I’m pretty much straying from the theme and quoting not a book but those with whom I am in community. These words of, um, “wisdom,” aren’t necessarily about the what or how or why of community, as much as the sharing of my own joy at the experience of being in an international community. And, they’re funny quotes. I have funny students. And very sweet, sincere students…

On Being in an Intercultural Community—My Students:

“How much wife do you have?”—Saudi student

We were working on the grammatical difference between “how many” and “how much” during class. This student—the same who recently expressed interest in having four wives, some of which could very well be American girls if he gets lucky enough while here—meant to ask “how many wives do you have?” Funny on a couple levels.

“Hugo Chavez is crazy.” –Venezuelan student

During my very small class of three students, all Spanish-speaking, came something like the following:

Matt: “…the eighth of May.”
Students: “The eighth of May.”
Matt: "Right, ‘ocho de Mayo.’ Like ‘cinco de Mayo.’ Mexican holiday, right?"
Mexican students: “Yes.”
Matt: “Is that a holiday in Venezuela, too?”
Venezuelan student (shaking his head in frustration): “Hugo Chavez is crazy!”

Maybe you had to be there. The delivery was perfect, and the comment seemed so random (and perhaps a bit bold), though I think the point he couldn’t quite express was that there was a connection between Chavez’ leadership and a lack of celebrating. Sounds right, from what little I know of the current political climate of Venezuela. Anyway…the four of us must have laughed for about two minutes straight, with intermittent laughter for several minutes after.

“No more Evergreen. Everwhite.”—Mexican student

This wasn't necessarily amusing as much as “cute,” I guess. He and I were gazing out the window during a class break this past Monday as snow was rapidly coming down. He said it, in a tone that made me think he knew he was being funny, but also kind of serious, like he’d just spoken a legitimate word that he wanted validated by his English teacher. But hey, why not? Words can be made up, as long as you say/write them with a lot of confidence. When I use words around my Dad that are new to the Oxford English Dictionary within the last thirty years or so, he really gets on me about it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Very Recent Wisdom (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 4)

I believe a part of being capable of community myself means not only being willing to receive from others, but to give and impart as well. However, any "giving" that is done should be done with the greatest respect...

On Being Respectful—Brian McLaren (blog):

“It seems like neither Jesus nor Paul "succeeded" in challenging people to a bigger and fuller way of thinking without being considered blasphemous ... so I know it's impossible to please, help, instruct, challenge, or serve everyone. Some people just aren't willing or able to think new thoughts at any given moment. (That might sound condescending or demeaning ... but I think that socially, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally, many people are - at any given moment - in such a bind that asking them to change their thinking is unrealistic, if not uncompassionate. The good news is that an hour, month, or year from now it might be different.)

Whether one finds McLaren’s theology, work, and question-evading (or redirecting, if you prefer) abilities inspiring or threatening, perhaps at least his insight on the human situation and our capacity for change (and the pace at which we change) is something we can rally around.

His words are a good reminder. When I, or maybe you, feel strongly about something, especially a way of thinking, believing, understanding, doing, that is different from others, it’s hard not to be a pit preachy and even pushy about urging others to “come around” and see it like we do. McLaren thoughtfully reminds me that, as a rule, people do not drastically change overnight. And to expect them to do so seems to show disregard for their context and situation, maybe a lack of compassion and sensitivity, or even a failure to understand some aspect of what it means to be human.

People may be wrong about something. A lot of people are wrong. But I think we are “bound” to our way of understanding to a great enough degree that it’s probably more often a delicate, slow process of transformation, and it’s probably going to be disrespectful to expect someone to change their views more quickly than they are ready for.

Even if we think we’re right about something, it probably took us months or years to get to the understanding we have now. You can try to persuade someone in a 15 minute conversation (as I’ve tried), but to try to do so can feel a bit violent, abrasive, and usually will not bear the immediate fruit we hope it will. The Holy Spirit works, yes, but I think that work is often very subtle and slow.

I’ve sensed that no matter how good and true and helpful our views seem to us, often people need more space than I often give, more appreciation and understanding of their views than I normally possess, and more willingness on my part to listen without sword in hand, less prepared to defend my territory, more prepared to love with gentleness, openness, compassion, patience, and respect.

But…that doesn’t mean others won’t eventually come around and see the light. It also doesn’t mean we won’t eventually come around and see the light.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ancient Wisdom (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 3)

Quotant is not a word.

Further thoughts on community from recent reading...

On Being a Holy Community—Paul (Romans):

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:9-19)

Convicting and (I think) very demanding (but potentially liberating) words. I know I (and we) need to be reminded to value orthopraxy as much as (if not more than) orthodoxy. That is, I believe we ought to understand our identity to be found not solely in our doctrines and beliefs about God, Jesus, new identity, salvation, etc., but in our character and virtues and practices as a Christian community.

Let me articulate that differently. I don’t imagine a lot of people outside the Church, when they think about the Church, understand Christians to be an outstanding community of very ethical people who regularly make the love of God known. I would guess (maybe I should just start asking) that they think of the Church more as a people who engage in peculiar weekly practices who share common beliefs (please set me straight if I’m horribly mischaracterizing people’s perceptions of Christians here).

But I love the words of Paul from Romans here, because I think it’s a great glimpse of what Christians should be, the kind of life we should be striving for as a community.

However, I’m not so sure that churches are generally setup to “train” people into this kind of holy life together, the kind of life Paul calls the Romans to. I know we tell people to be good, patient, be hospitable, etc…but I’m not confident that the Christian community really “practices” these kinds of things together as well as we could. I think people like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard (Renovare) are doing a lot in this area, but we could surely use more. Churches do preach truth well; I haven't experienced as much training (with a few exceptions) about how to live that truth well.

The problem I see? It is work. It takes time and effort. We’re already really busy with so much in our lives. I wonder if this busyness and anxiety about doing any more than we’re already doing as Christians makes us use “grace” as a crutch. I’m not accusing anyone (or at least not exempting myself from the accusation) here, but do feel that sometimes our fear of “works” and “doing” in the church encourages us to understand the reality of God’s grace as an excuse to do nothing by way of becoming people of a higher ethical standard, a holy people, a people of radical love.

It’s this kind of thinking that assumes Jesus was too Divine to imitate, rather than embraces his humanity as a call to become like him in our lives. But to more deeply become the kind of people that are truly a foretaste of the Kingdom of God requires a willingness on our part to really be changed, transformed, shaped—not into people who are just “louder” and more sure about their beliefs, but people whose beliefs are obvious in the way they live and move and function in daily life.

Idealistic again? Yes. Realistic? I think part of Jesus’ mission was not simply to be our eternal salvation, but to form a community that could carry on the work he started and “do greater things” than himself, as He puts it. That’s a convicting call, one I hope we’re willing to not ignore as followers of this man.

Paul’s words here challenge me. I can’t necessarily make other people “become” the kind of people capable of the life Paul is describing here. But I can, with the help of a few others, allow myself to become one who is increasingly more filled with genuine love, persistent in prayer, willing to let God avenge while refusing to seek such vengeance myself, and able to be the kind of person that, because I’ve dealt with those inner demons—be they pride, sloth, apathy, whatever—is able to better live in harmony with others...to live as one capable of community.

I write these words not as one who thinks he has attained sainthood, but as one who feels a growing conviction that something like sainthood is what God is calling us to, if we are going to label ourselves Christians. Or maybe at least a genuine pursuit of it, empowered not by guilt or duty but because we increasingly more fully understand the extent of God’s goodness to us. That’s probably it—the path to becoming a more holy and good and ethical people comes through more clearly seeing/encountering God.

Maybe that resonates with you. It's also possible I'm projecting my own journey onto others here, or underestimating the holiness of others or the effectiveness of our churches in making disciples. Forgive me if so.

And if that little paragraph just sounded like a wimpy, self-doubting cop-out for what you think are convicting words of truth…then forgive me for that too. :)

Just forgive me, please, all of you...for what I have and haven't done. Thanks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Wisdom (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 2)

More thoughts on community from recent readings...

On Encountering the Other—Hauerwas (The Peaceable Kingdom):

“We acquire character through the expectations of others. The “otherness” of another’s character not only invites me to an always imperfect imitation, but challenges me to recognize the way my vision is restricted by my own self-preoccupation. This kind of community in which we encounter another does not merely make some difference for our capacity for agency, it makes all the difference. From this perspective we are not the creators of our character; rather, our character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift. Our freedom is literally in the hands of others. I am free just to the extent that I can trust others to stand over against me and call my own “achievements” into question. It is from them that I learn the story that gives my life a purpose and direction.”

“This love that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. For love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. But to see the other as other is frightening, because to the extent others are others they challenge my way of being. Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”

One of the many aspects of my understanding of myself that I’ve had challenged in recent years is my individualism. I think many of us possess a kind of fervent individualistic spirit; it's partially cultural. One obvious (to me) danger of such a general life attitude is the tendency toward defensiveness and fear.

I find that I often fear what I don’t know, and my response tends to be to defend what I do know. If somebody possesses a lifestyle or a worldview that is different than mine, I more often respond with suspicion than receptivity. Rather than allowing another’s way of being or understanding to challenge me, push me, possibly even reveal the shortcomings of my own view, I tend to resist, fearing that what is really happening is not an invitation to more deeply discover Truth but a personal attack.

I’m not totally sure of the significance of this. It causes me to suspect I’m not as wired for community as I’d like, that my response to the diversity around me is not curiosity but resistance. I don’t want to realize I’m wrong about something, because than maybe I’ll overreact and assume I’m wrong about everything. And when I am threatened in this way, it is easy to react with violence, attacking others, pushing them away, belittling their way of life, disrespecting the work God has done in them, failing to see others as a gift to us and instead seeing them as enemies.

But the kind of love I think I’m after as a follower of Christ is a love where we welcome others, giving them the right and privilege of shaping us. We choose not to deceive ourselves into thinking we are “self-made persons" but recognize that who we are has been shaped by countless forces around us, be it genetics, culture, and most obviously the communities and families and friends who’ve been a part of our journey. We are free and responsible people, yes, but only to an extent. We haven’t become who we are in a vacuum, in isolation, but in a community of people whom God has used to shape us.

I don’t simply think of being a Christian as reflecting that I’ve chosen a particular worldview that I believe gives me a sense of hope, or salvation, or inner peace. I understand myself as being a part of a historic community that--at its best--lives at peace with one another, is willing to give and receive insight, critique, and guidance to and from one another, and possesses so deep a respect, compassion, and acceptance of others, within that community and without. A community that, by living in such a manner, shows the world what life could be and will be. The question of how well I (and we…I know I’ve waffled between “I” and “we” in my language here) actually do this is another matter.

But I know the vision I’m pursuing and where I believe God is taking me, shaping me into someone who is not afraid of what I don’t understand, what is foreign, someone who recognizes my life is a gift and not of my own making, and someone who knows how to function in community with others because I approach every person with gratitude, humility, and honor, knowing I’m not encountering a “mere mortal” (Lewis) but someone who God can and will likely use to further shape me if I receive the "other" with hospitality and curiosity and gratitude, rather than violent defensiveness or fear.

These are the ways in which Hauerwas’ insights push me and challenge me. Idealistic? Yes. Realistic? I hope so, because helping others become the kind of people through whom God can be encountered and enjoyed, and becoming myself such a person—this is what I’m devoting much of life and career to. That is, of course, in addition to my devotion (addiction?) to fresh coffee, fine wine (my palette really can’t yet differentiate between fine and poor wine, I'll confess), and dark chocolate (superior in taste and nutrition to milk chocolate). I suppose I have both lofty pursuits and simple ones; balance seems appropriate.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wisdom Distilled from the Wise (or, Quotant Quotables, Part 1)

Despite the challenges brought on by the events mentioned in my last post, these past couple weeks have been rich with study and contemplation. I think the freedom of both time and mental/emotional space has paved the way for a very life-giving season of considering identity-related questions: what do I believe, what do I value, what are some areas of needed growth, how do I want to live, what is the church, where am I headed, why does every barista have a different interpretation of what “light room” means, etc.

As I’ve turned to the wisdom of others, I’ve found guidance for the journey in all these areas, especially regarding the nature and demands of living in community. I share here, over the next few days, some of the wisdom gained recently regarding life in community, by people who are much more articulate and poignant in their words than I.

On Self-Awareness—Nouwen (The Genesee Diary):

“…I had just begun to realize how much my own life was motivated by self-glory: even going to monastery could be a form of self-indulgence. My problem with work is obviously related to my tendency to look at manual labor as a necessary job to earn a couple of free hours to do my own work. Even when this work seems very spiritual, such as reading about prayer, I often look at it more as an opportunity to make interesting notes for future lectures or books than as a way to praise the Lord.”

Reading Nouwen can be very liberating. I feel like he gives me the permission to be transparent, to not be shy about confessing my inadequacies, fears, self-doubts, and most importantly in all that—to not deceive myself. His words come from a published version of his journal from a short stint living at a monastery. The first quote reminds me of the continual struggle to look at all of my life as significant, rather than just a small part of my day or week.

I don’t tend to feel overwhelming excitement about the end of a weekend, but last Sunday evening, I found myself genuinely eager to get back to work. I don’t always feel that way, but because I love the community I’m a part of at Evergreen so much, I think I’m truly drawn to being there—with a community I value, and a role—teaching—I love.

I think this is one of many movements or journeys I’m continually on—living more and more in the present, cherishing even the simplest, mundane moments as a gift, not simply something to be endured. Or even further than that, as Nouwen recalls, I’d like to be able to enjoy a given moment not just for how it’s contributing to my own “kingdom” or glory or advancement, but simply because it’s an opportunity to find God and praise God.

I feel like this kind of presence in the moments we are in and with the people present to us maybe related to "how well" we do community. Just last night, I was babysitting three of my newly-acquired-through-marriage nephews--Aaron, Donny, and Beniah. For part of the time I was working on my computer, kind of monitoring them while also doing some writing. At some point, I felt funny about this. Sure, they didn't need my continual maintenance; they were fine as they were. But I felt like I was missing something. Even though they are only 4, 3, and 2 years old, I felt like something precious was to be gained from being more fully present to them. I shut the computer and embraced the moment...and had a blast! Donny actually said to me earlier in the evening "close it...close it...you got to close it" in reference to my computer...how's that for a genuine call to be present to him?!

“While (working this afternoon), I realized how difficult the control of thoughts…really is. My thoughts not only wandered in all directions, but started to brood on many negative feelings, feelings of hostility toward people who not given me the attention I wanted, feelings of jealously toward people who received more than I, feelings of self-pity in regard to people who had not written, and many feelings of regret and guilt toward people with whom I had strained relationships. While pulling and pushing with the crowbar, all these feelings kept pulling and pushing in me.”

The second quote, again, captures what I love about Nouwen—a courageousness in admitting his weaknesses, to others and to himself. I saw my own challenges in his. Most of the time my mind is moving too fast with other concerns to allow these negative thoughts to come up. But it can be shocking when they do arise. Hostility, jealousy, self-pity, regret, guilt—how easy for these to emerge when we’re not centered, not at peace, not sustained by the deeper truth about our beloved-ness and our call to love.

How easy to, out of some kind of lacking or emptiness, allow some very ugly emotions to rise to the surface, turning us against others, and against ourselves. I’m trying to learn to listen to these emotions; it seems like the path to wholeness and peace and freedom goes through them.

I believe a part of doing community well requires us to stop and wrestle with these kinds of feelings and thoughts, as painful as they may be. If we don't, then we will carry into our relationships a lot of hidden emotions like resentment and neediness and jealousy and pride that affect our ability to really bless and be blessed by others.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TCC, we hardly knew ye.

Note: Some of you who’ve been in contact with me probably already received some variation of what follows.

These past few days, I’ve been recalling all the insights I’ve gathered from various sources throughout my life about the futility of plan-making. I’m not just speaking as an ENFP who’s very “P” and very biased against long-term planning and closed doors and dogmatism. I’m speaking as one who knows and has experienced how quickly something we thought was one way was actually another way, how quickly expectations can be thwarted, how random the universe seems at times. Make plans, but hold them with a loosened grip, I’d say. God, life, others—they have a way of kindly mocking any attempts we make to gain some sense of control of our lives. I think "control" can become an idol, if we allow it.

Please feel free to write me off as being a bit overdramatic, though I don’t feel I’m exaggerating my current sentiments.

As of late last week, I’m no longer a part of the church plant—Trinity Community Church—for which Joann and I moved to Olympia to begin our new married life together. It was unexpected, hard, frustrating, and hurtful. I’m disappointed by this outcome, the decision that led to it, and the philosophy that drove the decision.

Please extend me grace if I speak out-of-line here. I seek to share with objectivity, but am in reality a bit bound by my own subjectivity. That’s kind of the nature of things, I think.

Dan (my co-pastor) and I came to the realization of a significant divergence in our theology, and the conclusion he reached was that we could not minister together.

The issue at hand is salvation. Dan holds a very conservative stance on the matter, basically affirming that those who are Christians in this life will live eternally with God, those who aren't, won't. Eternal salvation is exclusively for those accept Christ.

I hold an inclusivist position on salvation. What this means in short is that I believe that we cannot know who will or won't be with God forever, and are unable to judge this. I believe the gates of heaven are much wider, and that while Jesus is the one who has made the salvation of humankind possible, there will be many people who for whatever reason do not affirm Christ as Lord in this life—people that God, who is a loving, merciful and just judge, will accept as God’s own. Part of the difference is that I believe we cannot know who will be saved, Dan believes we can (Dan is certainly not alone in this belief).

Also, the difference between inclusivism and universalism is essentially that inclusivism allows for people who adamantly reject Christ in this life and possibly the next to, on judgment day, when they truly encounter God, still resist God. Christian universalism or universal reconciliation affirms God's sovereignty and recognizes our corporate identity as humans and essentially says God has already justified all humankind and will eventually obliterate sin, healing all people and relationships and freeing everyone in the end—no matter how awful they were in this life or to what “god” or experience of the Divine they gave their allegiance. I would describe myself as an inclusivist who hopes universalism is true, though I'm not convinced. :)

My theology is certainly Biblical. I've come to my conclusions through my understanding of the God I encounter in God's word and the teaching of Jesus and others, in addition to reason and experience. Dan, however, has reached different conclusions. Both are justifiable positions, as evidenced by how many brilliant scholars and followers of Jesus throughout history have reached both conclusions. However, my view is not Dan's.

Now to be clear, I didn't want to leave the church plant, nor stop partnering with Dan. I knew for a long time, even when I was in China and we had our initial Skype conversations, that Dan was much more conservative than I. However, the issue never explicitly came up. I knew my views were likely different, though I did not realize they would be offensive to Dan and a barrier to serving in ministry together. What drew us together was not our identical theology. It was personality, and a common vision of ministry that had more to do with spiritual formation and empowering people for ministry and what Christian community looks like.

Also, Dan's vision of a plurality of leadership—multiple co-pastors—seemed to allow room for differences in theology, as long as we were all set on the fact that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, the author of our salvation, etc. I was drawn to this vision, believing a diversity of Christ-centered theologies is something that challenges and enriches a community of Christians, rather than harms them. However, I was mistaken. Plurality for Dan means different personalities and gifts, not diverse theology. In short, I wrongly assumed there was space for my views and for dialogue about such matters as a church.

Dan wants TCC to have a conservative theology, with a very outlined conservative doctrine. I do not. I wanted us to be very simple in our theology, affirming the historic creeds of the early church (rather than specifically Reformed theology, Catholic theology, Quaker theology, whatever) and focusing more on how we want our community to live and act and be, while giving room for disagreement among the leadership and the whole church body on matters like this one.

So unless I were willing to change my views dramatically, which I don't feel I could do simply for the sake of making this ministry partnership "work," we can't serve together. Unless Dan were to change his vision of leadership and church to allow for differing opinions among leadership—even about an important aspect of theology such as this—it won't work. And he will not budge.

We told our church community last week, and it was awful. People were stunned, and rightly so. We just had our other pastor, Jeff, leave the group several weeks ago for very different reasons. But most appeared supportive of both Dan’s theology and his belief that this disqualifies me from leadership of this church. I was a bit shocked and a little disappointed at how little discussion there was about the matter. I guess it confirms that I don’t belong with TCC, even if I feel they would benefit from someone like me being in their midst. I possess a deep love of dialogue, to explore the paradoxes and diversities of faith and those matters which aren’t necessarily black and white. But, as a friend recently pointed out to me, the nature of those with more conservative theology tends to be that they do not share this love.

So that's it. You can see the logic of the "split" in what I’ve said here, but on an emotional level, Joann (who shares my views) and I feel like we've been excluded, and are hurting right now. To be fair, I think Dan also is frustrated and hurt too, feeling burned by me for not being more explicit with him sooner, and hurt because his vision of leadership is, so far, not working out. I think just as I am disappointed in Dan for the way he's responded to this and what it’s revealed about him, I think he is disappointed in me, and in himself. And then there’s just the pain of disillusionment, thinking this whole enterprise was one thing and finding that it wasn’t. There is a small sort of death that has happened here that Joann and I are mourning.

I've certainly learned a lesson and will be very clear about such theological matters in the future. But whatever things I should have done different, we're here, where we are, and I don't regret that. But I'm deeply saddened by the conclusion that Dan has made, and disappointed that something I was so excited about will not come to fruition. Such is life at times...disappointment, but often disappointment that paves the way for unexpected blessings. I want to always be readying myself to receive whatever discoveries about God, people, the human condition, relationships, and myself might be made, regardless of whether or not something seems a success or a failure. Plans get thwarted. C’est la vie.

I do hope the best for TCC. I care deeply about Dan. He is a gifted communicator, encourager, leader, thinker, and filled with passion. And he is a friend. God is and will be honored by his ministry. I'm not confident about the rightness and goodness of what has transpired. But despite my disagreements and disappointments and critiques, I'm hopeful for his journey in ministry and the light and love and hope that will be brought to many through his efforts.

As for us, I'm not sure what's next ministry-wise...it's a bit too soon to speculate on that. Are we disappointed we came here? No. Olympia has been a great place for us to start our first year of marriage. Joann has a great job. I have a great job teaching English in a diverse, international community (which I've wondered lately if that's the real "reason" I'm in Olympia, not TCC). I think Dan and I both made mistakes in this process, but I certainly don't regret the friendships we've developed here, with Dan and others. Joann and I will be in Olympia until at least next July, and may stay longer. I'm not one to know what's going to happen more than a few months out. :)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Life at Evergreen, Part 2: My Students

I set out in my last post to share a bit about my students at EF Evergreen (the International School I began teaching at about six weeks ago). I got sidetracked and didn't. :)

The communities I’ve been a part of in my life thus far have been so enriching. I'm now in a church commmunity in which it at least feels like I’m playing a part in the creation of that community. It might be more truthful to say that a community is emerging that is unique based on the personalities and gifts and passions of the people. So I’m not really “creating” anything, I guess. Maybe it's better to say I’m just kind of there, nurturing a life that is growing mostly by its own ability and will.

But I’m also now a part of a community at Evergreen in which I’m far from a nurturer, though I certainly play a part in its nature and development, as I think every person adds some element to a community that changes it when they join. A community can define itself by its beliefs/values/goals/objectives, but I’d say in some sense the community is defined by the actual “beings and doings” of the people in that community. I guess I’m suggesting it might be inadequate for a community to describe itself by what it aims to be as much as what it is.

I do believe that to some extent we can define ourselves by our movement, our trajectory. I consider myself a learner, a person pursuing several various goals with my life, and this pursuit is defining. My point is not that we stop defining ourselves by goals, but that our organizations and communities understand themselves for who they really are, which is the sum of the diverse persons within the community—not the values of the CEO’s, bosses, pastors, etc. When a new person joins a church, the church should change, because they will have brought something to the group that didn’t exist before.

So the international school at Evergreen probably has changed in some way since I joined. And to be fair and hopefully not overly immodest, I think I have a personality that has influence, and I already feel like I’m experiencing—in subtle ways—the way I’ve added something to this community of teachers and students. It’s a blessing to be a part of such a group.

So who else shapes this community? I teach two classes—“Basic Studies,” a class of 17 students from all over—Saudi Arabia, Japan, Poland, Spain, France, Libya, Mexico, Columbia, and Venezuela—and more of a tutoring class to three Spanish-speaking students in which I actually get to teach partially in Spanish (it’s all coming back!) Let me share about a few of my friends…

• I have one student from Saudi Arabia, who recently asked me whether or not one of my female co-workers was single. I laughed and told him, “no she’s not. She’s married. She has a kid too.” He responded with very visible frustration, to which I again replied with a bit of laugher, “why, did you want to date her?” He very seriously clarified, “No, I wanted to marry her!” Well alright. We then had a discussion about his views on marriage as a Muslim, and he told me that he plans to have four wives, just like his father. (To avoid generalizing, it should be known that several other of my married Muslim students are one-woman men and very content with this fact).

• We had a school Halloween party last week, and I was impressed with the student participation. While some of them thought many elements of the party were a bit childish, they still appeared to enjoy themselves. Like anywhere, there are people who are comfortable enough to act silly for the sake of having a good time, and some who aren’t. Anyhow, pirates, vampires, and cats were the most popular costumes this year. But the most memorable costume? If we’re talking memorable in a bad way, it was one of my French students. At first, I couldn’t tell what he was. I thought banana, but then noticed the green T-shirt, and two somewhat round “sacks” hanging from around his knees, and I thought, “um…bottom-heavy pea pod???” Man am I slow. He was a giant penis. I was the MC for most of the party, and very begrudgingly announced his name and costume when he won 2nd place for “funniest costume," determined by student vote. While I didn’t care much for the costume, I’ll hand it to him—the guy’s got some balls.

• Caution: I’m trusting anyone who reads this to not make broad generalizations about a people group or to be overly harsh in your judgment. That said, I had to share this. Apparently a Saudi young woman at our school recently had her phone stolen. In talking with our school director (my boss), the young woman requested that the thief, when found, be killed. Such a punishment would apparently be appropriate in her culture, according to her at least (I’d have to look into that). How’s that for justice? Yikes.

• One of my male students is just completely in his own world. It’s actually fascinating…he has a bit of a hard time paying attention, which is a challenge for a teacher. But often his comments and his test answers just make him seem on a whole other planet. He recently had his apartment broken into, getting about $600 stolen in addition to his computer. And the whole time—he just maintained this lighthearted, carefree attitude, seemingly unfazed by the whole thing. I gotta give him credit for that—his ability to not be too down about anything. He just seems blissfully unfazed by a lot. And blissfully unaware at times that he is in this other world. On a recent test where I had students write out a dialogue between a waiter and a customer, he was the only one that diverged from the appropriate response to the question, writing instead about a customer at Gamestop buying a video game, ending with the store manager kicking the customer out because the customer wouldn’t pay what he thought was a high price. It was a hilarious response that I unfortunately gave him a very low score for because he missed the point of the question. A beautiful mind, indeed.

• I lived in China, which I guess makes me feel like I have more right than others to talk about Asian stereotypes (judge me if you want). Anyway, from my time in China and from observations at Evergreen, I’d confirm a well-known stereotype of the “shy Asian girl.” I experienced that. However, there is also something I noticed—at least in China—called the “no social boundaries young Asian person,” as many of my students in Xiaogan were very touchy, “hangy,” close-talkers, etc. Well, my female Japanese student is certainly very touchy, and actually seems to be attracting a following of guys from non-Asian cultures. It’s actually kind of sweet. I know better than to lump Asian cultures together, especially knowing the general distaste Japanese and Chinese have historically had for one another (it’s still there in China, I can testify, even if it’s not talked about a lot). But this girl sure reminds me of some of my Chinese students—very innocent and sweet, for sure…just a little bit ignorant of boundaries. But then again—maybe we Americans think too highly of boundaries. My good friends can testify that I certainly cross them from time to time.

• One of my female students quietly walked into class today and set her bag down, maybe 3-4 minutes before class actually began. Then, very suddenly, she jumped up and shouted, “Oh sh**!” I asked her what was the matter. She told me, “I have to go to the bathroom! I don’t really think she got the humor in her words, specifically her choice of expletive. And actually, I think she had forgotten her notebook in the bathroom, which was the real concern.

• A Saudi girl asked to take a picture of me at last week’s Halloween party, to which I of course said yes. We posed for the first picture, no physical contact. Then I gently put my hand on her shoulder, as I tend to do when I pose with others. She abruptly pulled away, and very politely said, “please, teacher!” Meaning, don’t touch me, that makes me uncomfortable. Oops. Guess I learned something about social boundaries myself this week.

• My Basic Studies students are moving up to a new level this week, and I wasn’t sure if I would be their teacher next week or not. When I told my students, several of them were noticeably concerned. “Teacher (they call me ‘teacher’), we need you…we know you, we need you to teach us,” they said repeatedly. Well, I found out this week that I will in fact be moving up with them. Which is great; I’ve developed rapport with them, and I know them. As a teacher it’s great to be able to push and challenge students and accommodate to their various levels and abilities—something that comes with relationship. They were thrilled and relieved when I told them I wasn’t leaving them. Now, to be fair, these students can be a bit like ducks, wanting to follow and stay with the familiar and scared of the unfamiliar. In that sense, it may not just be me they love as much they love what they know. But, I won’t lie…it still feels good to have your students cheer when they know they aren’t losing you.

• Finally, a picture…this is of my Basic Studies class (all but one person present):