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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Tao of Jesus (Part 1)

I’ve been thinking recently about Taoism. Actually, I was first thinking about China, something I do often. Taoism is something like 2,500 years old and is, along with Buddhism, one of the most popular religions in China, though it is more uniquely Chinese than Buddhism in that, unlike Buddhism, it originated in China and is closely linked with Chinese folk religions.

From my experience, you can’t really say all Chinese are religious, just like you can’t say that today about Americans. Part of this is the result of the Cultural Revolution, where religious devotion was seen as a threat to the party’s interests and was discouraged and in many cases persecuted. However, there appears to be a revival of religion in recent years, not only of Christianity but also of such faiths as Buddhism and Taoism and, though it’s more philosophy than religion, Confucianism.

Taoism is diverse, maybe similar to the way Christian belief is varied, as seen in its numerous denominations (and church splits…wink). But in my limited, non-scholarly internet research, I’ve identified several essential emphases of Taoism. I thought it would be worthwhile to compare and contrast some of these points with my Christian views and values and see where they converge with or diverge from Christianity.

But first, a preface. If you’ve heard me express my feelings about Christian mission or missionaries, I often used the word dialogue. For me, this is much more than a word for two people talking to each other. It involves listening well, seeking understanding, and possessing a confidence in what you believe tempered with a good dose of humility.

One common characteristic of Christian missions historically has been a tendency to view missions as a one-way street: a transfer of Christianity—often maybe too identifiable with Western culture, values, imperialism, and economic interests—from the missionaries to other cultures and peoples.

The Christian Church has in many ways been a light to the world, doing a lot of good since its inception. But we haven’t always been great listeners and learners, often acting a bit threatened by challenges to our worldview, be it from the sciences or secularism or other religions. But I believe fostering a spirit of listening and learning is crucial for being the kind of missionaries God calls us to be. And I do equate being a Christian with being a missionary—there is no difference in my understanding.

Listening is a key ingredient in mission. I think it’s natural to be blind to our cultural captivity—the ways our culture influences our views and values. Dialogue with others increases our self-awareness as we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others. It also helps prevent us from simply transferring to others our culture rather than our experience of God. It enables us to better contextualize our “great news”—not completely rejecting a person’s culture or practices but finding new ways to express the lifestyle implications of the gospel in culturally-appropriate ways.

But failing to listen is also a symptom—in my opinion—of having a small view of who God is and where God can be found. I’m starting to discover curiosity as a spiritual discipline and am thinking more and more about what the results of a Church driven to understand everything about the world more deeply might mean for the witness of the Church.

I believe every living thing points to the glory of God, and thus should be approached as such. It is possible, in my opinion, to hold to my own convictions while opening myself up to the possibility not only of correction from others who don’t share my religion (or views on whatever, for that matter) but also for an expanded understanding of God that won’t just stimulate my mind but also enhance my own faith journey, my character and actions.

I want to live a more abundant life. I want to love better. I want to understand more deeply how the world works. I want to more fully and intimately experience the Divine, in all the ways God—the Holy Other—can be glimpsed in the creativity that is the diverse world in which we live. Because of these convictions, I believe in the value of religious dialogue. And it seems like there are two opposing assumptions that can be hindrances to dialogue that must be overcome.

One danger would be to suggest that all religions are really pretty similar and that one should never critique another faith. Honestly, I’ve heard few Christians actually say this; it mostly comes from outside the Church. This is well-intentioned, maybe coming from a desire to be respectful, tolerant, and repent of past imperialistic mistakes.

But I think it does an injustice to both religions being compared by denying them their uniqueness. And it discourages an inquisitive spirit that might actually lead to fuller understanding of and relationship with others.

Not only that, it closes us off to challenge. Tolerance may be a good value, but it also sounds to me like the desire of one who is unwilling to adjust their own views—a sort of stubbornness and even defensiveness where one fears he or she might have to make some changes. This does not seem to be the Jesus-spirit to me, and I suspect many (not all) who preach “tolerance” might simultaneously be suggesting “don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong!”

I’m not sure it’s my place to tell someone who doesn’t call themselves a Christian that they should abandon such a spirit. But for my Christian community and for myself—I think we must be open to the possibility that the God of Jesus might be found in the values and practices of others and that what we find might challenge some of the ways our own values and practices are missing the mark from the true spirit of Christ. Tolerance as being non-judgmental, compassionate and respectful, I can get behind. Tolerance as an excuse for not being open to change, I can’t as much.

The other danger would be to suggest that religions have nothing in common. I sense this is the more likely tendency of Christians between these two poles, and it seems to me to be an irresponsible way of looking at other faiths. I, like many others, have been quick to suggest how other faiths may look like they know God, but really are "way off.”

One can be quick to point out the differences…maybe in an effort to preserve the so-called purity of your own faith? Because we’re afraid of the Truth being something different than or beyond what we think it is? Because we’re more comfortable with black and white and being able to identify who’s in and who’s out? Because, like the “tolerant,” we don’t want to feel like we’re wrong?

It seems like there are probably different reasons for this. It may simply be a result of how the “scientific method” has influenced our thinking, which teaches us to doubt rather than accept as a means of understanding. When we assume difference rather than common ground, it seems to reflect this spirit of doubt or suspicion, rather than spirit of love or curiosity.

I prefer the latter as a method for engaging with others, as I think it is more likely to lead to unity and partnership rather than exclusion or division. And I think most would agree that the world is better off when people get along and unite for common, good purposes. The Christian Church would certainly be better off if this could be said of us.

All that said, I’ll soon post a comparison that explores how compatible or incompatible Christianity and Taoism really are. And no, I don’t think Jesus was a closet Taoist, just to get that out of the way. As far as I can tell (wink).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Oscar Picks, No, My Favorites

As of this weekend, Joann and I have now seen all ten best picture nominees. It’s an annual goal of mine to see all the nominees (harder now because there are ten) so that I can be well-informed on Oscar night (next Sunday). Because being well-informed on Oscar night matters so much!

The title of this post is qualified with “my favorites” because I’m not really claiming to present the opinion of a movie critic here. I’m sure that cinematography, editing, acting, sound, writing, score, etc, all play a role in why I rank these movies in the order I do.

But I’m not offering my opinions based on a critical analysis on these elements. This is not about who will win or should win. Simply put: my rankings are based on which movies I enjoyed the most.

I offer this list partly as a form of self-indulgence, and partly to suggest to anyone who enjoys quality movies that each of the nominees are worth watching. There are no bad nominations this year, in my opinion.

My list, from good to great:

10) Toy Story 3. Loved the “Barrel of Monkeys” attack in the opening sequence, the nostalgia, and the melancholy tone of the story.

9) Winter’s Bone. I like movies that enlighten me or introduce me to a community or culture or lifestyle of which I was previously fairly ignorant; that happens here, though I don’t think this was the intent of the filmmakers. A movie that really captures hopelessness, while having enough moments of light to avoid complete despair.

8) 127 Hours. Liked that a pretty spectacular but not necessarily obviously cinematic event was made cinematic. As for “the scene”...I watched; Joann looked away.

7) Black Swan. Intense and brilliantly acted. I like a film that can create and maintain a certain mood. This was dark, from start to finish, and a true tragedy.

6) The Kids Are All Right. Funny, but also thought-provoking, especially in regard to the complexity of the characters’ feelings (esp. Julianne Moore's character) and the presentation of a “modern” family household filled with obvious love (and seemingly healthy, normal children).

5) The Social Network. Enjoyed getting a background story, even though at first I didn’t think facebook really warranted a movie. I know it’ll probably win the Oscar, though I do feel it's overrated, even for as brilliant a movie as it is.

4) The Fighter. Loved how good Christian Bale was, loved the story, loved the drama of the personal (and family) conflict. Favorite fight scene was actually between the girlfriend and the sisters.

3) True Grit. Love Coen Brothers' films. This falls short of my personal favorite, “No Country For Old Men,” but it’s still a lot of fun. Can’t go wrong with The Dude and mustached Matt Damon.

2) The King’s Speech. Loved the characters of and relationship between Firth and Rush. It felt like a more serious, historical version of “I Love You Man.” A sophisticated “bromance.”

1) Inception. Imaginative, profound, interesting characters, visually beautiful; demands re-viewings to more fully appreciate the plot and scope. I know it won’t win, but it will be the one that above all the others remains in my consciousness for years to come. Probably one of my all-time faves.

So there it is. Any that you’d place much higher or much lower?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are the Developmentally Disabled a Gift to Us?

I thought I might expand on a throwaway comment I made in my previous post. I suggested that those who are disabled should be considered a gift to me, to us. I didn’t simply include that in my list of gifts for the sake of making a longer list. It comes from past experience and still-developing convictions about how we should understand and sympathize with the situation of the disabled.

I feel like I can only really speak to the developmentally disabled, as opposed to those who have mental illnesses (like schizophrenia) or physical illnesses (like nonfunctioning legs). Actually, I’m going to offer a further disclaimer and say that what I share can't necessarily be generalized for all, but simply reflects my experience.

Between 2007 and 2009, I spent one day a week working with three developmentally disabled (DD) men. The three of them—Kevin, Robert, and Sam (not their real names)—all lived under one roof, with 24-hour staff accompaniment. Even while they were sleeping, there needed to be two staff on duty (three during the day) at all times.

My title was “direct care worker.” And it was truly direct care. A very small amount of my time was spent doing administrative work. The major portion of my time involved feeding, bathing, assisting in toilet use, cleaning up when needed, entertaining, and “talking with” them (quotes necessary).

Kevin is in thirties. He is blind, relatively thin and frail, unable to speak much beyond a few words, has a tendency to slap himself, and rarely leaves his chair. When he does, he must use a wheelchair, or walk with assistance from staff. He has family that occasionally visit him, but most of the time his “company” is staff that are willing to interact with him through talking or giving him various objects to touch.

Robert is in his forties, and also blind. He can walk, though obviously needs guidance due to his lack of eyesight. He has a large build, tall and slightly overweight. His family visits less often then Kevin’s. Whereas Kevin is rather irritable, Robert always seems happy. He can’t actually say anything, though he occasionally belts out loud moans of delight. He too mostly sits in his special chair, seemingly needing very little stimulation to remain content.

Occasionally Robert gets this look on his face that makes it seem like he knows something you don’t, that he’s on the inside of some grand joke which others, despite our much higher-functioning bodies, are not.

Sam is the most challenging of the three and is in some ways—if I’m honest—my favorite of the three. He’s in his early thirties (though he looks like a teenager) and has no family. When last I worked he could see fairly well, though his eyesight was declining and may be gone now, due to self-inflicted injuries on his face. When Sam wants attention he’ll often beat the crap out of himself; it seems he enjoys the care given to him by intervening staff who restrain him.

Sam and I used to go for walks, hand in hand, throughout the neighborhood, often going to Burger King for fries and coke. While he can’t speak, he likes to make noises; one of his favorite games was to make a noise and gesture with his hands, then have me repeat. He also likes it when I scratch or massage his back, and he likes to sit in his outdoor rocking chair in the backyard.

Sam’s quite the prankster, too. I remember one (of many) instances where we were sitting on the couch together, looking at a magazine. I felt like my left side was getting strangely warm. I looked at Sam, and he had a big goofy grin on his face, his few remaining teeth shining brightly. He had just peed on me, the urine soaking through his pants onto mine. He was quite proud of himself. I was not proud of him. Strangely, now, I look back on the moment with fondness.

These three men live very different lives than I. I am free to have a reasonable hope in such things as my career development, travel ambitions, self-actualization and character growth. These men—as far as I can tell—don’t, but instead live very simple lives. I cannot fully understand the depth and intricacy of their thought life, but it doesn’t look like much from the outside. And yet I’ve seen them very obviously happy and content, even having some experience of being loved.

My conviction is that these men—as they are—are a gift to us, to the human community. I wrestle with that statement, but lean toward embracing it as personal belief. I often felt like people who would see us on our occasional group outings would look at these guys with pity and sadness. I think many people think about DD people in this way. I do at times, and yet I question such pity.

I was talking with Robert one day, just rambling on about something that was on my mind, as he listened, almost like a Catholic priest, giving me the space to say my own piece and find relief through my verbal dump. Before I got up, I told Robert that I am excited to one day speak with him at the end of all things, in God’s new world, when all his limitations will be gone and he will finally be able to express himself, thanks to the healing and restorative power of God.

Yet immediately after I left, I had second thoughts about that statement. I still am not yet sure what I believe about this. For someone who is mentally and emotionally “all there” but is permanently in a wheel chair, it seems reasonable to assume that if that person will experience the reality that many place their hope in—of God’s new creation (or “heaven" if you prefer), that their legs will be functional. Though who really knows exactly how all that works; at the end of the day, I think we have to be honest and admit that much of our understanding of the afterlife is speculation, as we now “see through a glass darkly.” Well, I have to admit that; you don’t have to.

To the point: Perhaps Kevin, Robert, and Sam in their current mental and developmental state, are beautiful and whole in God’s eyes, and in no need of “fixing.” I think without a strong communitarian view of the world and people, it’s hard to see the legitimacy in that assertion. But I believe part of what makes God’s Kingdom so spectacular—both the “now” and “not yet”—is that we love one another, look out for one another, take care of another, carry each other’s burdens. It seems fair to think that we may have needs in God’s new world, and may need one another to help fulfill those needs.

Maybe Sam’s scars will be gone from his self-flagellation; maybe Kevin’s bones will be stronger; maybe Robert will be able to see again. But (for example) Robert was born blind. Perhaps he has a stronger sense of taste or touch than I could ever understand or experience. And maybe the three of them, in heaven, will never be able to fully process like us, and thus, will always be in constant need of help. Maybe in heaven, Sam will still need others to help him shower, Kevin will still need others to put his socks on, and Robert will still listen to me while I blabber on.

And maybe that is our gift to one another. It’s probably obvious that these men have been a gift to me in the way I talk about them. And I believe my assistance to them, along with countless others, has been a gift to them. Might this exchange of gifts continue in heaven?

I don’t mean to sound despairing. I suppose one of the questions inherent in all this is: what does it mean for humankind to be healed and made whole? Does it involve the personal well-being of every individual, or is it more about restored relationships, an incredible ability to give and receive love to one another?

I don’t really know. A part of me hopes that I will one day be able to converse with these men. But part of me also wonders if, just as it seems a stretch to imagine a tree in this life suddenly gaining the ability to run a marathon in the afterlife, it might be similarly implausible to imagine Sam, Robert, or Kevin being that much more high-functioning in our eternal future, since that’s never been a part of their experience in this life.

But maybe I'm wrong. And I certainly don't mean any offense to others with DD family members who may have different hopes for their loved ones than I. Though maybe we're on the same page.

Either way, these three men are both now and forever loved by God. And I believe that I can trust God to be just, creative, and good to them in whatever way seems best. Maybe for these men, who have always needed the constant care of others, to be robbed that constant care would leave them feeling empty rather than fulfilled. We are made to love and be loved, I believe, and I’m not sure one need be “all there” to experience real, divine love.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Life is a Gift (Part 2)

(I suggest reading my post from yesterday for more context.)

Yesterday I wrote about the challenges of accepting gifts. I’m also interested in discovering how to more practically accept my entire life as a gift. My opinions on the matter are undoubtedly linked to theology.

You could argue that grace is perhaps the central message of the death and resurrection of Jesus (you could argue that other theological themes are central too, I recognize). In the cross, which Christians understand to be God’s redemption of humankind, or salvation, or atonement, or forgiveness of sin, or restoration of the Divine-Human or Human-Human relationship, God has done something that God had no obligation to do.

Even with fancy arguments made about the things God “must” do to avoid suggesting God could contradict God’s own nature, I don’t really believe it is necessitated that God must keep humans around and go out of God’s way to ensure everything turns out alright with us. I don’t think that’s a great way to think about God’s grace toward us. I think it’s much more truthful to acknowledge God’s action in Jesus as pure gift, pure grace.

But as Barth and Buechner have at different times reminded me, our very existence is grace. Grace goes further back in our history than the earthly life of Jesus, all the way to our initial creation, and is also something happening in this present moment.

I’m aware of the presence of grace in my life, but can quickly forget its reality when I walk out of church on Sunday (I’m sort of “going to church” again for the first time in over three months, so I can say that). I suspect this might be because most sermons (and worship songs) I’ve heard on grace seem to have the goal of reminding me of what God did on the cross but fail to train my heart and mind to recognize the experiences of my day-to-day life as a gift.

I very quickly forget amidst the normalcy of my life that our planet is a gift to us. The initial act of creation is a gift to us. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we are a part of, our unique life situation with all the various factors that make us unique—our culture, family, genetics, personality, life experiences, friendships—all of this is a gift from God. If that sounds a bit anti-science, it's not meant to be; I think I have a healthy, synthesized view of the way my life has come about and has been sustained. I believe I owe my ability to breathe in this very moment to both the breath and sustenance of God as well as to things like hemoglobin and the free market.

Just as I wrestle with how to receive gifts from others well (as I mentioned yesterday), I feel compelled to consider how I can truly cherish my life as a gift. It’s one of those realities that I only occasionally get, such as a week or so ago when I had a sort of epiphany while jogging and seemed to more fully grasp and “see” for a moment what an extraordinary gift my life is.

What I don’t feel I can do, to the likely disagreement of some of my Christian brethren and “sisteren” (the English language may be widespread but it’s got its shortcomings), is simply continually say “thank you” to God until I’m out of breath. I feel like I have to do something in response to God’s gift of grace to me and the entire human community. But I can’t really equally repay such a gift. It’s both absurd and not really in my power to “create” God or “save” God, which seem to be the only equivalent paybacks. But simply acknowledging the gift, which seems to be the emphasis of a lot of Christian preaching, is lacking for me.

I don’t have a fully developed answer to my question yet, other than that it has something to do with “paying it forward” and finding ways to replicate in some small way the same kind of grace I’ve been given. I actually believe this to be some part of the mission and purpose of the Church—to freely extend the same kind of acceptance and grace and love that we believe God has showered on us.

This is part of the language of “covenant” used in both Old and New Testaments, I think, where we are in some sense in a partnership with God that involves perhaps not demands but at least expectations from God about how we ought to live in light of God’s actions on our behalf. I don’t think we have to earn favor from God, but I do think that part of truly receiving life as a gift involves much more activity than passivity.

The challenge I’ve felt in the past couple weeks is to enter more deeply into this question and discover what it means to more fully receive the gift and gifts that make up my day-to-day life. What might that mean?

Maybe it means more frequently thanking God for my friends and family and putting more effort into loving these people well; counting every minute of my job as a privilege and not a chore; increasingly becoming grateful for my health and doing what’s necessary to maintain it; laughing more and not taking myself and others so seriously when doing so is more life-sucking than life-giving; more slowly eating food to savor it; telling people more often of my appreciation for them, which likely would cause me to think about and treat them differently.

Maybe accepting life as a gift means cherishing my intellect and more frequently stimulating it; more readily dropping what I’m doing to give attention to people who might initially feel like burdens; being thankful for my financial situation while also considering how I might assist those in more dire circumstances than myself; more deeply cherishing those people whom society often sees as a burden as gifts to me and to all of us (the elderly, those on welfare, the physically and mentally disabled); noticing that flower, or those colors, or my capacity to appreciate music or recognize beauty or enjoy humor; relinquishing the need to control things I can’t; and more deeply embracing my own uniqueness by spending less time living with a covetous and jealous attitude toward people who possess what I don’t and, in so doing, abandoning any sense of entitlement that causes me to forget that I really “deserve” nothing.

May I more fervently seek and knock and question that I might more fully discover what Buechner calls the “fathomless mystery” that is life. For life is a gift, filled with countless moments that can be embraced as gifts—be they my beating heart or a 10% off coupon to some obscure sandwich place given to me by a student who may or may not be messing with me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Life is a Gift (Part 1)

A gem from Buechner: "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." (from Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)

And from Barth: “(God’s free grace) is of such a nature that even when proclaimed in a stupid manner it has a way of producing…(people) who are in fact free, that is, nimble, humble, questioning, seeking, asking, knocking…" (from God Here and Now)

It seems like everybody has their own way of receiving gifts, often with a bit of discomfort or awkwardness. Some enthusiastically try to assure the gift giver that no greater gift could have possibly been given. Some express guilt, feeling like they haven’t given an equivalent gift and can’t enjoy the gift unless their feeling of indebtedness is gone. On rare occasions, some don’t hide their distaste very well, though mostly this is limited to children (one of my nephews once said with great disdain, in response to a gift, something like: “why would somebody give me this?”)

I think it’s a unique challenge to receive a gift well, with different dangers to avoid. At one extreme, I think I would be receiving a gift poorly if the result was annoyance with the giver, or feeling like I owed the gift giver a gift of equivalent worth, or refused the gift. But at the other extreme, it would feel like a mistake to accept the gift with something like indifference, forgetting the giver, or somehow not cherishing the gift in a way that was both honoring to the giver and the act of giving.

I’ve been thinking about this partially because of gifts I’ve been given, and partially because of recent theological reflection about grace, which I understand to be one of the ultimate gifts. The recipient of grace can claim no sense of entitlement to that grace. The giver of the gift—as I understand the nature of gift-giving—is not owed anything.

Gifts related to my teaching experiences are coming to mind at the moment. A student from Mexico recently brought me a key chain from his hometown—not a flashy gift, but touching because of the simple thoughtfulness of it. Yesterday another student gave me a 10% off coupon for a sandwich place I’ve never heard of and will probably never visit. I thanked him for it. I’m not sure where I put the coupon, and probably won’t look too hard for it. He may have just been messing with me, I’m not sure. He has a pretty good sense of humor.

Another student tried to buy me coffee yesterday. I insisted he not buy it for me, and he insisted that he do so. We had a lengthy back-and-forth “insistence battle” that I eventually won. Now I might normally have let a student buy me the coffee, as I don’t have serious qualms with taking gifts from students, despite the potential dangers in that.

But this case was different. My boss and I recently confronted this particular student about some out-of-the-classroom, social/cultural issues that left him feeling shamed. I could sense he feels the need to win back my favor, though I’ve insisted that I’m not holding anything against him. Letting him buy me the coffee felt like validating his need to win my approval. Another time, maybe; in this particular case, I discerned that refusing the gift was more appropriate.

I’m also thinking back to China. My students gave me several gifts before I came back to the States. One was a cross-stitched picture that appeared to have taken a long time to create. To honor this and other such gifts, Joann and I have made one of our bathrooms China-themed, displaying the artwork and various trinkets I was given, so that I will frequently remember my relationships with those in China. I think this—remembrance—may be one of the things these students want most from me.

I stayed a couple days with the family of a student near Shanghai during the Chinese New Year month-long break. And upon my departure, the student’s father gave me 1,000 Yuan (about $140-150, though that money often goes far, especially with food). He wanted me to have the best experience possible during the rest of my vacation around China, and I think also wanted to show his gratitude to me for visiting and teaching his daughter. And as an unabashed lover of money, I think he felt that he could give no better gift.

I tried to refuse, but he insisted. I actually didn’t know if I was supposed to keep refusing, in case culturally this was just the game you played (in my experience, Chinese people more aggressively fight for the bill than Americans—it’s a matter of honor). But I accepted. I used about 5-10% of the money to pay for a taxi for his daughter (who was traveling with me part of the way to visit friends in another city), but spent the rest on various services in other cities. It really did enable me to have a little bit more fun on my trip, eating at more upscale restaurants than I might have without the money.

I was tempted to save the money and continue traveling cheaply. But he had told me that its purpose was to give me a more pleasant travel experience in Guangzhou and Hong Kong (my next stops). It felt like honoring him and his gift meant honoring his wishes. Thus, I tried to be constantly mindful of his gift as I was spending the money on various things, be they buses or restaurants or museum passes. And I told my student to make sure her father knew that I had a great trip, in part because of his gracious assistance. I felt empowered to savor the trip a bit more deeply.

My family is very thoughtful and gracious in the way they give to me. Joann is also very thoughtful and enjoys gift-giving. I think I have a so-so track record of how well I receive her gifts (my opinion, not hers). There are some gifts I’ve made good use of, treasured, made it known repeatedly how grateful I was for the gifts. There are others that are collecting dust, which I probably have not given adequate attention to, in light of the time and/or thought that went into the creation or acquisition of the gift. Though, Joann also occasionally gets me quirky stuff and knows it.

These examples of experiences with gifts from others connect to my whole question here, which is both theological and practical—how do I receive a gift well? And related, how well am I doing at cherishing or enjoying the gifts I’ve been given? Why is such “cherishing” important? Do I really believe life itself to be a free gift...to be grace?

I think this is an important theological issue, as Christians over the centuries have seemed to get pretty worked up when it comes to their opinions on all matters related to grace. I’ll share more thoughts on that tomorrow.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Olympia Photo Shoot

Joann and I had a pre-Super Bowl party ("party" being the two of us) photo shoot today. I thought having some visuals of the place we've called home for the entirety of our married life might be worth sharing...

Batdorf and Bronson's—our preferred coffee shop.

The Spar—the lone McMenamins in Olympia, and a comforting taste of our beloved Portland.

The intersection of Boston Harbor and Zangle—approximately 7.75 miles from our apartment and the point to which I ran yesterday as part of my marathon training during my 15-mile run (new high!).

Down on Capitol Lake.

The marina. And, Joann’s crazy.

“You dare challenge me, a Kung Fu master? Come any closer and I’ll finish you off with my ball point pen chopsticks! Then I’ll likely grab a bite at Happy T’s! The Hot Chicken is gloriously spicy! Mwah ha ha!”

The Evergreen State College, former residence of Matt Groening and Carrie Brownstein, and now…Muneer Bashaweeh And Ewelina Lukaszewska (two of my students from Saudi Arabia and Poland, respectively...perhaps not all that famous yet.)

Lost in the woods near Olympia, but not so concerned about our situation that we don’t have time to pose for a photo.

“Okay…fine Joann! We’ll end this stupid photo shoot and go home to watch the super bowl and eat leftover pizza! That sounds SO much better than this, anyway! And, uh, go Vikings!”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Do you enjoy having sex?” and Other Inappropriate Comments (or, Fun in Culture Class)

I continue to be enriched by teaching English and being a part of an international community at EF Evergreen. After Christmas break I had a significant schedule change, picking up a number of new students. Before, I was teaching mostly the mid-level students; now I’m teaching both our most advanced English speakers as well as our beginning English speakers.

And being a part of each group brings different rewards. Improvement is obvious with beginners. And being able to identify progress and growth is always a great feeling for a teacher.

It can be difficult at times, for sure. I find people outside of the ESL world are often puzzled about how we’re able to teach beginners without knowledge of their language. My Spanish students are a bit easier because I can occasionally “cheat” and explain something with my own intermediate-level Spanish. But with my Arab students, for example, I’m lost.

So how do I do it? With a good deal of patience. And I hope and pray my students retain the same kind of patience. In general, they just kind of stumble through it and figure it out. There are many educators here with the philosophy that students actually learn a language better from total immersion, without the crutch of someone who can translate from their language to another. I was skeptical at first, though I’ve come to believe it. I do encourage use of electronic translators and dictionaries, but students often make progress without them.

But depth of discussion is obviously lacking with beginners. Which is why I'm so grateful for my new class “Culture, Music, and All,” a class without a curriculum in which I can essentially go in any direction I choose. And the students are fairly strong speakers, enabling more thoughtful discussion.

Selfishly, I would hate to give this class up. I get to discuss relevant-to-life topics with an international community, guiding thoughtful discussion and frequently playing mediator when it gets heated or it feels like people are simply talking past one another.

On the first day of class I gave a brief lecture on epistemology. The purpose was mostly to reveal my biases to the class and encourage them to open themselves up to learning from one another. I described myself as a sort of pluralist—in the sense that I believe our ability to know Truth and more fully get our heads around “how things really are” is limited when we isolate ourselves from other people groups and enhanced by our interaction with such diverse communities.

Granted, I personally believe that the Christian narrative tells the story of a unique revelation of Truth by God in the very unique life, actions, and person of Jesus. That’s partly why I identify as a Christian and not something else. But I also believe there is one God, not many, and that something like the old Indian tale of blind men grasping at an elephant and reporting their varied interpretations of the experience is somewhat appropriate here. I may follow Jesus, but there are a multitude of people and places in this world where I’ve yet to encounter the God I believe to be present everywhere.

In less “religious” terms, I try to lead a class interested in getting a better sense of reality with the aid of others. I try to foster a self-reflective spirit among my students, encouraging them to more deeply seek understanding, as well as appreciation of and reconciliation with others. I can only do so much, I realize; some of them may even be further along than me in this area. But I have to think I can at least make a dent. And at least I’m benefiting and being changed by the class, if they aren’t.

On MLK day, we had an engaging discussion about prejudice and racial issues. We talked about the presence of racism in students’ home countries, the values of a homogeneous vs. diverse society, causes of prejudice, and American immigration issues (and to what extent these are racial issues).

I had a slightly awkward blunder during this discussion. I accidently referred to my ethnicity as “normal.” I had 3-4 students vocally displeased. I tried to turn it into a teachable moment, asking them why my comment bothered them so much. As I hope became obvious to them all, in light of earlier comments I made about ethnocentrism and racism, my point was that I’m in the ethnic majority in America. “In the majority” probably would have been better than “normal,” as some interpreted that as “best” or “most right” or “superior.” Oops. My students don’t let me get away with stuff like that.

It was a good discussion. One student expressed that in her (Asian) country, she doesn’t really experience racial prejudice because everyone looks the same. Another (European) student expressed similar prejudices in his country toward immigrants as in the US. Another (South American) student talked about how he and his fellow non-Black friends call each other the “n-word” (only he comfortably used the actual word in class).

His willingness to say the word contrasted with my discomfort with it is in itself revealing about the value a culture ascribes to language. I warned him (and others) how serious the word was, and that it would be wise to not use the word here. Especially at Evergreen, where tolerance and issues of social justice matter. And since most tolerant people tend to be pretty intolerant of intolerant people, he’d probably get himself in trouble.

I’ve incorporated music into a couple lessons, bringing my guitar and playing popular songs as a means to improve listening ability as well as discuss the poetry of the music. It seems to be an effective teaching tool. It’s fun to try to discern together the possible meanings of the lyrics, talking about various references and idioms along the way. So far we’ve discussed “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab For Cutie and “A Long December” by Counting Crows.

Fun conversations (and a bit of confusion) have followed, especially centered on such topics as hotel “No Vacancy” signs, popular sentiments about the harshness of Catholic School, the afterlife, breakups, regrets and second chances, hopes and resolutions, and Californian geography. And the meaning of “na.” (No meaning, we concluded.)

We’ve had several comparative discussions about the differences between the US and the respective countries of my students in regard to facial and hand gestures (like giving someone the finger), spatial issues (like not sitting in the seat next to someone on a near-empty bus), and acceptable topics of conversation with someone you've just met.

I did some role play with a student, pretending to have just met him and then trying to make as many socially unacceptable remarks as I could in a short conversation. I was pretty obvious in my inappropriateness and so I think most students got the joke (and point). The line alluded to in the title of this blog post was one such inappropriate remark. I also asked him “So you must make a lot of money, right?” and “So what do you think of Black people?”

I also had an awkward moment talking about gesture-related idioms (e.g., “Could you give me a hand?” or “giving her the cold shoulder”). Most of the expressions in the worksheet I used were legitimate, commonly-used expressions, except one. “To finger something or someone” was defined as “to steal or tell on someone.” The material I was using may be a bit outdated or something. I quickly urged them to avoid use of the expression. I dropped a few hints without being too blunt; I think most of them got my drift.

Through moments of both depth and levity, this class is truly a gift.