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

Friday, July 29, 2011

Music with Matt: My Latest "Culture Series" Presentation

Just when I thought my disdain for “My Heart Will Go On” couldn’t be any stronger—it weakened. A chorus of 200+ voices has redeemed—at least temporarily—this song which I can attest from my travels is popular everywhere.

I recently gave my second “Culture Series” presentation. My first was a lecture on the history of religion in the U.S., which I delivered about three months ago. This recent presentation was of a much lighter nature, which I advertised as “Music with Matt: An Acoustic Adventure Through Five Decades.”

The format was fairly repetitive, the content varied. For 75 minutes or so, I walked students through recent world history, picking a year based on a song I wanted to perform, and first offering a quick snapshot of significant historical events that year.

I then offered a few questions for reflection and discussion, usually based on either the meaning of vocabulary used in the song, the meaning of particular lyrics, or on a theme or message the song or songwriter was conveying. After that I put up a picture on the screen and called for guesses as to the upcoming band and even song. After revealing the answer, I proceeded to play on my acoustic guitar the song itself.

The set list looked as follows, with year, focus of the discussion, and some highlights.

“Let it Be” (Beatles, 1970)

Discussion focus: Meaning of “hope”, “reconciliation”, “ “brokenhearted”, “hour of darkness.”

Highlight: I wasn’t sure if the whole presentation would be a solo performance or a sing-along, but was hoping for the latter; I was delighted with how many joined in singing this song, hands even waving in the air.

“Fire and Rain” (James Taylor, 1970)

Discussion focus: Shared personal stories with one another about losing people close to us, about romances ended, and about being depressed or sad for a long period of time.

Highlight: This was the saddest and most low-energy song of the presentation, and fortunately students were quietly attentive throughout the whole thing. For a large room of students in a weekly gathering where off-topic conversations are rampant and language barriers make it easy to lose focus, I was pleased with the students' attention level.

“Freebird” (Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1974)

Discussion focus: Students talked about break-ups and excuses they’ve given or received from their former significant others. I'm increasingly less surprised by some of the English words and phrases my students know, especially expletives. I think movies and music have a big influence.

Highlight: This is a song that can’t be done justice only on an acoustic guitar. So, I cued up the beginning of the five-minute guitar solo, then asked for volunteers to come join me on stage for an air-guitar session. Most didn’t know what that meant, and I wouldn’t tell them…I just told them to trust me.

But either shyness, coolness, or self-consciousness inhibited anyone from joining me, until I told a few students who were late who didn’t get their ticket (which ensures they are credited with attending the lecture and thus helps their grade) that if they air guitared with me I'd give them one.

The three students who came up pretty much just watched me rock out for a while, revealing some of my best moves, including throwing my air guitar into the air and catching it on beat. The students seemed quite entertained. My “street cred” went way up after that stunt.

“Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson, 1983)

Discussion focus: Nothing really, other than my "clever" joke connecting Neil Armstrong with Michael Jackson.

Highlight: Probably my moonwalk. Or the movements that I chose to call a moonwalk. I unfortunately could not get anyone to join me. They did cheer for me though. They're so kind and gracious to me.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Billie Joel, 1989)

Discussion focus: Despite being, in the opinion of some, one of the worst songs ever written, it makes for a fun U.S. historical survey through the last few decades. I threw up a few of the people mentioned in the song (e.g. Nixon, Kerouac, Stalin, Dimaggio) and quizzed students knowledge of these figures.

Highlight: Probably the groans after I shouted out “one more verse!” after previously singing four verses.

“Wonderwall” (Oasis, 1995)

Discussion focus: Talked about what it means “to wonder” at something or to call something “a wonder.”

Highlight: The ubiquitous singing! I didn’t expect so many people to know this one.

“Time of Your Life” (Green Day, 1997)

Discussion focus: Though the song is actually about a breakup, it’s used enough as kind of a farewell song (half of you under 33 probably had this played at your high school graduation). I had students discuss what they’ll miss most about our school upon leaving.

Highlight: Looking out and seeing one of my Taiwanese students asleep in the front row, in the seat closest to me. Can’t please everybody.

“My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion, 1997)

Discussion focus: No discussion; I just confessed how much I disliked the song, and that I was making a sacrifice to play the “crowd-pleaser” for them, knowing how loved it is all around the world.

Highlight: Two highlights. First, two Venezuelans boys standing up and holding each other, doing the “king of the world” pose. But the real highlight was when I stopped singing at one point to listen to everyone singing back at me—it was seriously one of the more beautiful, sublime musical experiences in recent memory.

It sounded like a lullaby, with their soft and calming voices singing to me, singing like they were at an evangelical Christian worship service. I told them afterwards that they had totally redeemed the song for me. I wish it had been recorded so I could re-listen to it again and again. I also had several students write in their journals (which they hand in to me weekly) about how touching the experience of that song was for them.

“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” (Death Cab for Cutie, 2006)

Discussion focus: We talked about some of the meaning of various lines in the song, exploring in groups the meaning of such lines as the title line, as well as “fear is the heart of love” and “if heaven and hell decided that they both are satisfied.”

Highlight: Maybe a student from Spain who was so annoyed with himself for not guessing from the picture that the upcoming song was by Death Cab. They don’t really have a stand-out, flashy, memorable look, so I don’t know why he was so frustrated.

Probably that feeling of pride and hipness that comes from impressing others with your extensive musical knowledge, especially of who’s popular but maybe not too mainstream. I like to talk about my love of Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse, or Arcade Fire whenever I want people to like me more.

“Raise Your Glass” (Pink, 2010)

Discussion focus: Talked about the meaning of several idioms used in the song (e.g. “lose our minds”, “party crashers”) while also reflecting on experiences of being included or excluded and being an insider versus an outsider.

Highlight: Everybody standing and joining in. I’ve gathered that this song’s pretty big outside of the U.S and would be well-received. It was a nice finale, and nice to hear afterwards and in the following days how much fun students had. Students are quick to complain about Culture Series for different reasons; so...partial mission accomplished!

Experiences like this are some of the brighter moments in a job I feel very fortunate to have for this season of my life. I find there is much more opportunity here for both me and my students than simply the teaching and learning of a second language.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Being Stupid (and Sensitive): A Story in Four Acts

Act One: A Misstep

I had an unsettling exchange with a woman at Target a few days ago. It was one of those moments where I feel like the kind of character I’m trying to develop or let be developed in me is being tested. I’m not sure whether or not I passed the test.

I was standing in the checkout line, waiting to pay for my bottle of contact solution. The woman in front of me was almost finished, but had left her basket on the conveyer belt. No problem, really, although I noticed the woman behind me had a bit of stuff, and could probably benefit from increased space on the belt. So I lifted the basket off the belt and set it at my feet.

This action was met with something like, “well don’t put that there, someone will trip over it.” It was the woman behind me, whose face I recognized from a few minutes before. We had one of those "traffic jam" moments near the cart area by the entrance where you usually make eye contact or gesture or utter something like “go ahead" and let the other person pass. She had seemed annoyed by the inconvenience created by my “thwarting” of her trajectory.

When she said those words in line to me, I must have looked really confused, and don’t think I said anything for a couple seconds. She spoke again, “now I can’t get my cart around it” and repeated “someone will trip over it!

Act Two: Surprising Words

I calmly told her I thought it was probably okay there. I’m not sure if she thought it was my basket (which it wasn’t, remember), or if that even mattered to her.

She still looked very flustered. “Just give it to her (the checker), she’ll take it.” But the checker was busy with something. So I bent down, and without saying anything, moved the basked around to the other side of the stand, out of her way.

Not good enough. “Well someone can still trip over it there!” she said. Then the money quote, mutter under her breath but loud enough for all nearby to hear: “I don’t know how some people can be so stupid.”

I was shocked. By now I was scanning my debit card to pay, and was a bit silent at first, not sure what to say. Then something maybe reflecting my failure to bite my tongue came out. “I’m stupid. Wow.” She then mumbled something else that I didn’t hear.

I considered the silent route. I’m often challenged by Jesus’ example of silence in front of his tormentors; the great character it took to say nothing when (I assume) Jesus knew that his words would fall on deaf ears, that no superior logic or reason or persuasion would capture his mockers, who weren’t ready to hear, receive, be converted, or be humbled. Jesus level of discernment and humility is astounding to me.

Act Three: Pleading

But instead of silence, I tried to reason. I often try to reason with my four-year-old nephew Donny, which doesn’t always work. Sometimes despite my sound logic, he doesn’t always see it my way. He’s in a phase where he believes love is limited, that he can only love a certain number of people at one time.

A couple weeks back I tried to convince him that he could love Mama, Daddy, Uncle Matt, AND Auntie Jo. But he didn’t think he could love Auntie Jo, because he already loved the other three of us. I couldn’t convince him. Though he may very well not love me today…hard to tell.

Back to the story. I said to the woman: “You know, they have employees that come by and pick the baskets up. And also, I saw that your cart was full and that you could use the space on the belt for your stuff…that was the reason I moved it. I was trying to help you out. I didn’t mind it there.” I felt a little defensive, I know it. But I also was reminded by this episode of how important harmony is to me.

Disharmony is hard for me to handle. When I feel like my relationship with someone is in a bad place, an unreconciled state, it eats at me. I’m sure I’m not alone. But I know I’m really sensitive about this. I have some relationships at the moment that I feel need some kind of reconciliation or at least closure, and it nags at me that I can't just fix it, or at least haven't figured out how yet.

But it’s not just relationships; it’s isolated interactions too. When I have an exchange with a friend or stranger that is "off," I want to “right” things, to end well, to make sure I haven’t offended, to make sure we understand each other. I felt angst right away in this interaction at Target, the angst of desperately trying to appeal to reason and understanding so that we would leave the store at peace. But that didn’t happen.

Just go home,” she said to me. “You’ll feel better, and so will I.” It wasn’t really an apology, but it seemed she was embarrassed about the whole thing by now, becoming self-aware of her abrasiveness. By now the basket was gone; a Target employee had picked it up. I said something like, “actually, I don’t really feel all that bad, to be honest.” I saw the checker with a big smile, as I think she’d gotten the gist of the whole interaction but had just observed, amused at it all.

And my final words weren’t entirely true; I didn’t feel like I did something wrong, but I did feel anxious about this exchange that was not going to end well. I walked out feeling very unsettled, and feeling very bad for this woman. I think she’s probably just one of those people who has a very set idea of how people should act in situations, and I hadn’t acted consistent with her schema. And she is very comfortable voicing her distaste for such behavior in others.

Act Four: Trying to Make Sense of It All

But honestly, as I was getting in my car, I looked around, and did eventually see her. And part of me wanted to run up to her and give her a huge hug. Even if I didn’t believe it, I wanted to tell her I was totally in the wrong, just so we could embrace and be at peace with one another.

Who was right or wrong didn’t matter to me anymore; only harmony. I think I wanted to reassure her that I didn’t have a grudge and that she shouldn’t be embarrassed. And I think I also wanted something maybe a little more selfish from her: an awareness and appreciation of my good heart and intentions. And I don’t even know her.

It was a funny experience, looking back, but also very revealing of my own personality and expectations of myself and others. It’s one of those simple, isolated moments that I think has the feeling of a parable for me.

But I’m not sure about the main point of the parable. Maybe a parable about the value of silence versus words? The unfortunate and inevitable disharmony and misunderstanding that is present in our world? The innate human desire for harmonious relationships with all people? The futility of trying to reason with certain types of personalities, or people convinced they're right, people unable to hear and listen? Our need to defend ourselves and intentions and need to have those actions seen rightly?

And, telling about my personality. I’m just so darn sensitive, and these kinds of moments stay with me and play repeatedly in my mind. Stated positively, maybe it’s because of a very noble need to live in harmony, to make others feel good about themselves, to appreciated and be appreciated. Stated negatively, maybe it’s a people-pleasing tendency that is often met with angst when I feel I’ve displeased someone.

Though the people-pleasing move might have involved me saying something like "you're right, I AM stupid. Please think better of me." It might be more about some kind of need to "pastor" people. Or maybe it reflects a need to help people see "the truth" as I see it.

I experience a similar thing when I frustrate someone driving. I don’t get road rage as much as something more like “road insecurity.” I remember one time I treated a red flashing light like a four-way stop when it was a two-way stop. I started to pull out, forcing another driver to slam on his breaks. He yelled out: “you f***ing re***d!!!” Man that was harsh! I was working with developmentally disabled men, so I already hated (and still hate) the use of that word in that manner.

But I also said something out the window similar to what I say every time in those situations: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, my bad, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry!” Or something like that. And I know he was just startled, and I that I’d clearly made a mistake. But man, people can be so cruel with their words! It can be hard to let something like that go. I wished I could have caught up to him, got out of the car, shook his hand and made peace.

He wouldn’t have wanted that, probably, and would have thought I was crazy. And my motivations wouldn’t have been totally about making things right, either; I think I probably wanted to, by humbling myself in front of him, expose the extremity of his yelling and make him feeling foolish and repentant. Not sure that would have been my place, nor that it would have been effective in the least.

And just two weeks ago, I honked at a woman in front of me, not out of frustration but as a way of alerting her that she could turn right at the red light, which she hadn’t done despite a lack of traffic. The light then turned green, and she stuck her hand out the sunroof and flipped me off. When we passed her eventually, she and her mother glared at us. What can you do?

I don’t know what the moral of the story is. Maybe it’s that some people will just seem unreasonable to us and no compelling argument will win them over.

Or, maybe it’s that it’s unfair to judge people’s actions because we may have no idea what’s really happening in their lives and hearts, especially people we don’t even know.

Or, maybe it’s that silence—often the harder path at times—is the better path.

Or, maybe it’s that we just have to let such misunderstandings go, living in a more care-free or gracious manner to people who may seem out of line in their words or actions.

Or, don’t take things so damn personal.

Or, maybe it’s that one shouldn’t put the grocery basket on the ground. Ever.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rental Home Shopping, Humility, Scams, and More Humility

For several weeks now I’ve been obsessively perusing Craigslist and other rental websites, looking at potential homes for Joann and I for the coming year. We’ve enjoyed our place on the west side of Olympia, but have thought there might be some cheaper options out there that might even be upgrades.

However, after multiple visits to various houses, apartments, and condos, we have decided to stay at our current apartment for another year. It wasn’t an easy decision, but all things considered—cost, size, location, moving expenses/inconvenience, etc.—it seemed to be the right one.

Decision-making does not always come easy for me. I think my personality is such that I’m excited by possibility, by options, or by the perceived freedom that not being tied down to one thing or path provides. But, as my wife has often told me, once I make a decision I’m in, I'm on board, and I don’t really look back.

I don’t really have any strong regrets, maybe because I tend to get a bit fatalistic and assume that my life couldn’t have happened any other way than it did. And when I give up the desire to change my circumstances, I can more easily embrace and cherish the moment, embracing my life as the unique gift it is rather than wishing for an alternative gift.

It’s interesting to me to look at what pulls me in each direction when I’m trying to make up my mind about something. In this case, there were a variety of factors, many so compelling that I’d wake up in the morning sure of one location as our new home, then by lunchtime have been won over to the other side.

I’m currently re-reading Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, a book all about Benedictine spirituality, which is sort of about how to be a monk without moving to a monastery. It’s brilliant and empowering, and I really am coming to believe in the power of some sort of wide-spread monastic movement being a potentially transformational thing for the Christian Church today. I know manifestations of such a movement are popping up these days.

But in a recent chapter, I found yet another decision-making aid: the virtue of humility. Unfortunately (fortunately?), I found that different dimensions of being humble were pulling me in different directions. On one hand, a valuing of humility seemed to be telling me to live more simply, to move to a smaller, cheaper place, to avoid excess and pursue a life of simple means by living with less.

On the other hand, humility seemed to have a dimension of being content with what is, not pursuing “greener grass,” resisting the temptation to purse novelty simply for the sake of novelty but gaining a greater awareness of what makes my current circumstances beautiful and good, rather than complicating my life with other options. So even the “virtuous” choice wasn’t obvious.

Anyway, we’re not moving, and we’re both happy about it. We love our place, and I think are both feeling the rush of peace and sense of relief of knowing some aspect of the future and having the whole thing settled and done.

And on the final day (this past Monday) when we had to make our decision due to reasons of lease renewal and 20-days notice, I noticed a rental post on Craigslist that seemed too good to be true: a very large, nice-looking house for a great price, but with very little information. Surprised but curious, I emailed the poster, figuring I had nothing to lose. I thought there might be a catch, but it was worth a shot, right? Here’s the reply I received:

Thanks for your response and interest in my house. The house is very much available and it is charming 3 bedroom home for rent in Olympia WA USA. Which was formally occupied by me and my family before we left for Nigeria for a doctoral duty under a missionary, we left for a volunteer mission together with other missionaries for a development program with the aim of developing the people of west Africa physically and spiritually as God as directed us. We wanted to sell the house initially but we later changed our mind after we discovered that we wouldn't be spending more then 5 years here in Africa. So as you know well that the house is located at 3139 Horse Haven Street Southeast, Olympia WA 98501. Which my family and I have spent so much time and money to maintain it up till its standard. We have been trying our best to make the house as clean as possible, because am a clean person and we don't like dirt around our surroundings and also the Bible says cleanliness is next to Godliness. We are looking for a well-behaved, clean and honest tenant to rent out our house too. We will like you to give us your words and promise us that you will take good care of our house so that we will be happy when we come to visit you in the future.. We accept short or long-term rent and month to month also... All the utilities are included in the rent. Pets are allowed. So kindly get back to us with this information below.


Full Name__________________________________________________
Home Phone ( )________________________
Date of Birth_________________________________
Other Phone ( )___________________
Current Address_______________________ ________
Reasons for Leaving____________________________
Rent $__________
Phone ( )____________________________
Are you married____________________________
How many people will be living in the house____________________________
Do you have a pet____________________________
Do you have a car____________________________
Move In Date____________________________
When do you intended sending me the deposit___________________________
When do you intended receiving the keys and document of the house___________________________
When do you intend to drive by the Property___________________________
Any Good Credit___________________________
Credit Score___________________________
Any Police Problem___________________________

Looking forward to hear from you with all this details so that i can have it in my file in case of issuing the receipt for you and contacting you.Await your urgent reply so that we can discuss on how to get the document and the key to you,please we are giving you all this base on trust and again i will want you to stick to your words, you know that we do not see our self's yet and only putting everything into Gods hand, so please do not let us down in this our property and God bless you more as you do this. Looking forward to hear from you. you can give us a call on our cell

Best Regards

(They did give numbers here, which I've deleted) .(call anytime)
Note: the Rent is $700 and security deposit is $700
Total Move In Cost:$1400

So obviously after I got this email I could see that what seemed too good to be true actually was. I’ve re-read this email several times, and usually laugh a little more each time. However, the first time I read this, I was actually a little angry. Not because I felt duped, necessarily, since there were so few indicators in the original post, other than a below-market price; but because I know how common these emails and offers are and that there are people out there who do get tricked.

Has anyone else ever gotten an email from a wealthy Nigerian prince who wants to give all his wealth to me because he believes in me and my life and that I will use the money for good? All I have to do is make a large deposit in his account to get the transfer process started!

Actually, my roommate in China, Will, who is from Cameroon, had a friend who almost got screwed out of a lot of money because someone hacked into Will's account and, posing as him, emailed a bunch of his friends back home and claimed to be very ill and in need of financial support. One of Will’s friends fell for it and made a transfer to the hacker. Fortunately, they figured it out just and time so that Will’s friend was able to cancel the transaction. But…yikes!

And it makes me want to do something. I debated about what to write back to this “landlord” if anything. I thought about playing along, giving him a bunch of fake information, telling him I was married to a Pterodactyl and was born in 1492. But I didn’t. More than that, I wanted to rebuke him. But I didn’t, because…what would be the point?

Choosing to say nothing, to remain silent, was and is hard. When someone is doing something that I believe is harmful to themselves or others, it’s hard to not say something, to not call them on it. And in some cases, that’s probably useful. But to others, such a rebuke will fall on deaf ears.

As many wiser than me have shown me along the way, most people have to be ready to change before they will in fact change. The soul is a delicate thing, and it seems that when some feel threatened or attacked, they put up a wall, or shut down, or live in denial, unwilling to receive correction, unable to display the kind of humility needed to know that change is needed.

So emailing someone across the world to tell them that I’m praying for their soul and for the lives of those that they and people like them have harmed and deceived...it seems kind of useless. Maybe I’m wrong and it would actually make a difference, maybe plant a seed of doubt in their minds about engaging in that kind of deception and trickery. But I don’t know them, don’t understand them, don’t understand their motives. And maybe more importantly, they haven’t invited me to correct them.

It’s not just that “they’re Nigerian” and so I shouldn’t bother, which seems to have hints of racism; they are my human brothers and deserve the same level of accountability as my American brothers, I’d think. But they haven’t asked me for correction, and so I think it’s better I don’t offer it, even if my mixed motives here are genuinely more pure and others-centered rather than vindictive (which I'm not 100% sure is the case).

Anyway, I hurt for people that harm others with their self-centered actions, and believe there is a better way to live life. Though I’m looking in the mirror, and know that I too have my own harmful tendencies—both in word and in deed—that stem from a desire for self-preservation, to prove myself, to cope with my insecurities.

So I guess I’ll just rebuke myself for now, rather than someone who may or may not be from Nigeria. And I’ll keep in mind in the future that 2,300 sq foot homes in Olympia advertised as $700 a month are probably not legitimate.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Alone For a Night (A Poem for My Beloved)

While Joann and I were dating, we had a six month stretch during my 10 ½ month stint in China where we had no face-to-face contact. However, since we got married last August, we haven’t been apart for more than a few hours.

But because Joann left for Vancouver this morning to assist her sister in childcare and housecleaning in light of her sister's new baby, tonight marks the very first night in my married life that I will go to bed without Joann by my side.

Feeling a bit of inspiration as I wait for my brown rice to finish cooking, I offer a humble attempt at Seuss-esqe poetry to share my sentiments. I do this partly because I love my wife, and partly as a strategic attempt to gain “points.” I’ve been told I’m unnecessarily honest.


"Alone For a Night"

I ask you "what sounds good for dessert tonight?"

I hope you’ll say "how ‘bout raspberry delight!"

Yet my query is met with no voice and no tone

Then I sadly remember: tonight I’m alone.

Please don’t get me wrong, I sure do like my space

But not nearly as much as your beautiful face

We made vows in front of our family and friends

The streak that began that day finally now ends

I could smoke five cigars and drink five pints of beer

I could finally watch Joaquin in “I’m Still (Not) Here”

I could vulgarly fart, sing out gibberish songs

But those last two I do whether you’re here or gone

I’ll soon go on a bike ride and think much of you

Of treasured moments sweet, tender, silly and blue

I know I’ve bastardized that one worship song

But I am “lost” and “desperate”— for you dear I long

So the rice is now done, I must go start the pork

My words here show me to be a love-stricken dork

Dinner won’t be the same without two separate versions

I know you "stay home" on my spicy excursions

But with help from anapestic tetrameter

I wanted to tell you, I wish you could be here.

But don’t lament, sweetheart, I’m grieved by your sorrow

We are people of hope; I’ll see you tomorrow.