Friday, December 16, 2011

Apparently, the post about The Power and the Glory last time was quite successful: I heard through the Grapevine that a number of you enjoyed it, and I know I inspired at least two or three people to actually read the book. My devious mission (to get people to read - wait for it! - literature) is a success!

Problem is, a successful post is hard to top. I feel like I have to write an even better, more thought-provoking one right now - something that will wow your socks off, compared to the last 50 or so posts that I've ever written on this blog.

Even worse, this is the worst time of year to write thought-provoking stuff. I've spent an hour and a half each day for the last four days with my nose buried in student papers. If my nose isn't buried in papers, it's reflecting the glow from the computer screen as I pound away on my Introduction to Literature syllabus for next semester. At the end of the day, I summon the energy to snuggle down on my couch under the Christmas lights and watch an episode of Monk, which is fun but not that thought-provoking, or Stargate: Atlantis. 

So, no: Between student papers and next semester, I have no thought-provoking comments for this blog. Probably I will post a Christmas poem in another few days, and get all literary again, but until then, I thought I'd leave you with a few crazy stories from the craziness of college semesters. This is my semester, in four stories.

I occasionally bring chocolate to my class. I have unleashed a beast here at my new school. Early on in the semester, I told my students that a boy gave me a kiss when I was in college - the chocolate kind, since I was at a restrictive religious university. I took the kiss back to my dorm room and announced to my R.A.: "A boy gave me a kiss today!" Her mouth opened, and she stared at me . . . until I produced the melting silver-wrapped treat on the palm of my hand.

My students have started doing this now, to each other. Alternately (depending on who is in on the joke), they horrify each other and make each other laugh by offering kisses in the middle of movies and other activities.

Random kisses are not the only danger of chocolate. Chocolate is also dangerous as a projectile. I was never strong in sports, and so when I throw a piece of chocolate towards a student who has just correctly identified a pronoun, my aim is never very accurate. The chocolate periodically ends up on the floor. Fortunately, it is always wrapped.

One day, I tossed the chocolate towards the student, it sailed up, and . . . it never came down. The students and I stared blank-faced at each other for a moment, then looked up. The chocolate had been stuck in one of the light fixtures. The brown-and-gold Dove chocolate wrapper stared down at us from the milky fluorescent light fixture, ten feet up.

After the students had finished laughing at me, I headed off to the Front Desk and asked them to tell Maintenance to take the chocolate out of the light. Notably, I did not tell them how the chocolate got into the light.

I have been drilling my students on grammar all semester long: what a pronoun is, what a noun is, how to change a passive sentence into an active sentence, and more. Subjects and direct objects turned out to be the hardest, so I made up example sentence after example sentence after example sentence for my students to do.

Coming up with the examples is always the hardest part. I've taken to writing facetious advice for men and women going on dates (advice such as dying your hair zebra-print), just to avoid the inevitable brain block when I think, "What shall I write this example on?"

Before I started giving advice, I went through a stage when all the examples were literary-themed: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Ender's Game and even Dante. At Dante, my class ran into trouble.

I'd written the examples about Dante's trip through the underworld, and I'd included quite a few (maybe four out of ten?) about his conversations with the damned souls in Hell. I used 'damned' as a technical, short and artistic term, like this: "Dante gives the damned news of their children." In that sentence, "Dante" is the subject, and "damned" is the direct object (people in Hell).

At this question, one of my students - smart and, apparently, brave - pokes up her hand and asks, "Why is the news damned?"

I'm not sure how much the students learned about direct objects, but they did learn a new vocabulary word, and that the teacher was not cussing in class.

Periodically, I announce a random holiday to my students. I believe I posted about Talk Like a Pirate Day in mid-September. In October, I celebrated the Mad Hatter's Day with a huge, floppy felt hat. In early December, I made all my students sing Happy Birthday to Milton. They complained, until I fed them more chocolate in celebration of his birthday.

In early December, the students had a chance to celebrate something: December 5, Ninja Day. I told them if  they dressed like a Ninja and sent me a photo, they'd get extra credit (5 points, only as much as a quiz). About ten of them took me up on it, and for the next week, my inbox was flooded with ninja photos.

The best were two guys from my Composition class (I'll call them Steve and Josh) that worked together. In a fit of procrastination that Saturday night, they dressed up all in black and spent ninety minutes lurking around the school grounds and taking photos. First, they sneaked up to my office to see if I was in there. I was not, but our two music teachers were. They stepped out of their office into the hallway and watched in astonishment as Steve and Josh crouched by my office door, flexed their fingers into pistol shapes and posed for a totally geeky photo. Presumably, one of the music teachers took the photo, because both Steve and Josh are in it.

Later they sneaked out to the school grounds and surprised as many students as possible.

As an English teacher, I've noticed how often people talk about Englishy subjects around me, like they assume that I couldn't be interested in other things (they're wrong, but my ears do perk up when I hear someone talking about poetry or grammar). I was accosted at lunch one day and asked whether 'sneaked' or 'snuck' was the appropriate word (It's 'sneaked').

A few days back, I received a random phone call at work about grammar. A guy's voice on the other line identified himself, told me that he used to attend my school and that the English teacher there would look over his writing. Since she had left, he had a question for me:

He wanted to know whether all quotes began with a comma, between the introductory tag and the quote, or whether the comma could be omitted. I informed him that the comma is occasionally omitted, if the quote and the part before the quote make a sentence together, such as this: Bill said that "The sky is blue." It's all one sentence, so there's no need for a comma.

He then thanked me, and hung up. If the question hadn't been so random, I would think he was a stalker. Instead, I've decided to start a business: 1-800-GRA-MMAR.

That's all, folks!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I once heard someone describe broccoli as her new favourite vegetable: a food they'd once rejected but now enjoyed. My new favourite novel is The Power and the Glory. 

The Novel:

Eight months ago, I hadn't even heard of The Power and the Glory. For me, the book first cropped up on the Prague school shelves, when I was poking through our collection for extra copies of The Lord of the Flies. It stayed on the shelves for another few weeks, until I discovered that Augustine's theological tomes made horrible bedtime reading and absconded with the novel. Every night I curled up in my bed at Bubenečská flat with Graham Greene's tale, set in 1930s Mexico, of a Catholic priest on the run from a hostile government. As the priest tries to keep up the semblance of his religious duties, he struggles to overcome his fear of death and his deep sense of sin and damnation - a story which proves, in the end, emotionally and spiritually moving.

So moving is this novel that I will be teaching it next semester (Spring 2012) in my Literature course. In evangelical (and fundamentalist) Christian circles there exists an tendency to shun anything related to Catholicism as doctrinally contaminated and therefore irrelevant. Ironically, I have found the opposite to be true, especially in this novel: the Catholic priest's spiritual journey has great relevance for problems that plague the church, for problems that plague me. 

The Theme:

Last night I discovered the following passage about halfway through The Power and the Glory. The priest arrived at a town of relative safety, stops to listen to the confessions of the devout. In the sins confessed, the priest discovers a difference between those which are not truly sins and those which are truly damning. An elderly woman confesses the first type (not-truly-sins) to the priest, and he responds:

      "Why don't you confess properly to me? I'm not interested in your fish supply or in how sleepy you are at night . . . remember your real sins."
      "But I'm a good woman, father," she squeaked at him with astonishment.
      "Then what are you doing here, keeping away the bad people?" He said: "Have you any love for anyone but yourself?"
      "I love God, father," she said haughtily. He took a quick look at her in the light of the candle burning on the floor--the hard old raisin eyes under the black shawl--another of the pious--like himself.
      "How do you know? Loving God isn't any different from loving a man--or a child. It's wanting to be with Him, to be near Him."

At the heart of this passage is the woman's shocked response to the priest: "I am a good woman, father." A good person, to her, is clearly someone who follows religiously the laws of Mother Church: fish on Fridays, clear-headed prayers before bed. It is this, and nothing more, that makes her "a good woman" and indeed makes her so astonished that anybody could question this. How could people not notice how carefully she followed every rule?

Her self-defense echoes (I believe deliberately on author Greene's part, since he was no idiot) a better-known self-defense from Luke's gospel. Recounting Jesus's parable, Luke tells of a Pharisee who "stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess." Like the woman, the Pharisee names as evidence of his goodness public examples of his rule-abiding: his justice indicates that he follows the Jewish legal code; his regular measured fasting and tithes (weighed out, we imagine, ounce by ounce so that he does not pay too much), that he follows the religious code. Surely this is a religious man.

And yet there is something missing. It is the Catholic priest that puts his finger on the problem: this woman has no "love for anyone" besides herself.

At last the Catholic priest has brought us back to the root of the matter. Just as the woman freaked out about her "sin" when she ran out of fish or fell asleep at her prayers, so we freak out, with very little reason, if we miss one Sunday at church, if we wear jeans to church, if we miss a month or two of tithing, or a morning or two of our devotions. Like the woman, I have confessed missing devotions as though this were my biggest sin.

All these petty concerns, the priest reminds us, ought to be swept away so we can focus on the sin which is truly damning: a lack of love. It is not just the priest that believes this; it is St Paul himself. In Galatians he tells us that the Law "avails us nothing"; what is valuable is "faith working through love" (5:6).

Are we loving other people? Are we loving God? Am I?

Or are we only, as the priest says, "another of the pious"?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Years ago, probably while I was still at the University-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, I heard a sermon on Psalm 73 that stuck with me.

I have no idea who it was that spoke on the Psalm, nor do I remember what he even said about the Psalm. Right, you say. Sounds like that sermon really stuck with you. Must have been doodling in church. What stuck with me, though, was this: this Psalm is crucial to living "as strangers and pilgrims on the earth" - in other words, to knowing what in this life is worthwhile and what is not.

What is Not Worthwhile

Psalm 73 opens with an extended descriptions of what comfortable lives unbelievers live:
They are not in trouble as other men.
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
They have more than heart could wish.
I want to leave behind the question of violence and pride (the connection between a good hand in life and religion is one for another blog post) and focus on what I think the most basic principle in this passage is.  According to this Psalm, there will always be unbelievers who live happy, comfortable lives, who have "more than heart could wish" - money, a satisfying job, a partner and children, a good home, the "American dream". It is this fulfillment that most of us, in some way, want.

Psalm 73 follows this up, several passages down, with a conclusion about these unbelievers. The Psalmist tells God,
Surely You set them [the wealthy unbelievers] in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
I always assumed this passage described a sudden, definitive event: the wealthy person wakes up one fine morning, wealthy as ever, then "in one hour such great riches came to nothing."

I think there's more to this passage than a sudden overturn, though. Just a few verses previously, the Psalmist has assured us that these unbelievers "are not in trouble as other men" - in other words, no outward sign warns against pending doom. Nothing is there to suggest that these people are about to be "brought to desolation," yet they have already been set "in slippery places". I suggest, therefore, that the very prosperity they currently enjoy is their destruction. Their downfall does not just end a period of prosperity. Their very prosperity is a catalyst for this downfall.

An Example

Consider, as an example, the rising rates of extended singleness in the Western world. A day or two ago, I read an article in Atlantic magazine called "All the Single Ladies." (Incidentally, my students introduced me to this one. I printed it out and saved it for future generations of students.) Though Kate Bolick supports singleness as a healthy, viable lifestyle, she also acknowledges that not marrying was not the plan for most singles. She writes, "That we [herself and her college friends] would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith." Turns out, that was one huge and unjustified step of faith.

Later, she describes the moment of disillusionment, using the metaphor of a cocktail party: We're "finally ready to start our lives," she says, "only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up--and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don't want to go out with." Her plan for a "prosperous lifestyle" - husband, kids, career - didn't happen.

Okay, so being single is not the end of the world (I'm single, so I should know); I applaud Bolick's attempt to legitimize the single life as a healthy, adjusted one. My point is this: Bolick's plans, and the plans of so many more women like her, fell through when they suddenly realized that they'd missed out on marriage. Life was not going to give them what they wanted from it. All those well-arranged plans for family and career were, albeit on a very small scale, "suddenly brought to destruction."

I think the reason that Bolick gives for this mini-destruction is illuminating. Bolick, noting that her generation has much more power than her mother's to make their own decisions, reflects that she "could [not] have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation." What Bolick is saying is this: the independence from social norms that men and women gained in the second half of the twentieth century is (if you simplify history) the cause of extended singleness today. Give men the option of whether or not they want to marry, some of them will choose not to, and Voila! fewer married women. What is happening here is exactly what Psalm 73 predicts: some of the very things that make life more comfortable, such as greater independence, ultimately destroy us.

I don't think the Bible's solution is not to make life comfortable at all. Nowhere does the Bible ever outlaw wealth or require a vow of poverty, though I understand now why the monks took that vow. In fact, in some places (such as Ecclesiastes and some of the Parables), money comes out as a positive blessing. To use my example, much of the independence achieved in the last fifty years of Western society is not exactly bad and in fact is probably biblical (that would be another blog post). Comfort is not a bad thing. But the fact remains: That which is intended to bring us comfort in this world ultimately betrays us.

The Solution

Providentially, Psalm 73 answers this question of what to do with life comforts, given that these very comforts are a catalyst for destruction. The Psalmist concludes,
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Here, the Psalmist acknowledges the connection between the comforts of life and his own eventual downfall. That his "flesh and [his] heart fail" is only the most obvious example of this principle: The very fact that the heart is beating by time, that the flesh sloughs off dead skin cells and replenishes them day-by-day predict that the very things which keep us alive right now are going to be the things that kills us in 50 years or so (think of people who die of a heart attack: the organ that kept them alive for so long is the organ that gets them in the end). In just this way, the comforts normal to a physical life will eventually be exactly the thing that destroys our plans for life in a year, or two years, or ten.

Having acknowledged this problem, the Psalmist finally provides a solution: "God," he writes, "is the strength of [his] heart and [his] portion forever." Long after our "portion" of physical goods are gone, God will be there. Long after the heart stops beating, God will still be there.

Apply this to modern-day life: Long after our independence has wrecked our marriage potential, God will still be our companion. Long after our wealth has vanished in the recession, God will still be providing for us.

It is well and good to enjoy the physical things of this life: a friend, a marriage, a satisfying job, good food and money. It is equally important not to let these physical things define life, because then life will only be defined by the eventual, inevitable destruction.

I must learn to say with the Psalmist, "Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you."

Or with C.S. Lewis:
The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us. War and trouble and finally old age take from us one by one all those things that the natural Self hoped for at its setting out."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

As of today, there is only one month left until the end of the semester. Every day that passes marks another step my students take towards getting their final project done. My Introduction to English class is stuck somewhere in between the "More Research!" stage and the "State your Thesis" stage. Right now, they're trying to figure out what they believe and why about a particular topic. For a significant percentage of that group, the topic they are addressing is online dating: Is it okay for a believer to "do" online dating or not?

I assigned the topic in a fit of inspiration after my English teacher mother visited last week. Although I know that online dating has a host of problems, I see nothing inherently wrong with it, provided that the user exercises caution. I reckoned that a group of students who can't remember not having a family computer in the home would weigh in in support of online dating, or at least acknowledge its potential. I reckoned wrong.

A Story

As I've talked to my students about their topic, student after student has told me that they are completely against online dating. Generously they acknowledge that, sure, online dating sites help daters meet more people, but in the next breath, they mention a concern that has plagued Christian evangelicals since Josh Harris published his first book. Christians, my students murmur, should not try to tip God's hand by poking around on online dating sites. They should wait on God, hope He'll bring them a spouse in the normal way in the normal amount of time.

Problem is, these students are all about 18 years old - just now old enough to even consider marriage. Most of them won't even want to get married for another couple years. Admirable as their opinions are, they are necessarily uninformed, thanks to the students' age. I am more than 8 years older than most of my students. My younger sister, as I expected all my life, married long before I did. I once heard "extended singleness" described as being single "one day past when your younger sister gets married," so I guess that makes me not only a single woman but also someone who is an extended single woman.

As long as I don't have to exchange all my short-leg jeans for long-leg ones, I'll be okay with being an extended single woman.

Okay, bad joke over. I don't want to convey disapproval of my students' opinion against online dating. I approve wholeheartedly that my students have an opinion, and I'm thrilled to see the stress they put on pleasing God in their relationships. All I really want to convey is the shock of realizing how a few years and a little experience changes you.

See, eight years ago I was in my students' shoes. I was up to my eyebrows in both the Josh Harris books, and I'd never had a boyfriend or really even a crush. I probably would have weighed in against online dating, just like my students do now.

Then, a girl I knew (she worked with me at AWANA) married someone she found on an online dating website. Another girl I knew at Bob Jones asked her future husband out for the first couple dates. I got my first real crush. A couple years later, I went out for coffee with a guy. Another close friend met a guy on an online dating website. A lot of what I held to so fervently as a college freshmen went out the window.

Don't panic. I've not become a '60s hippie who advocates free love. I don't really want to discuss how, specifically, I've changed my views in these areas (maybe in a later post). For right now, I'm just fascinated: Hearing my students express their concern about online dating shows me how much I've changed in the last eight years, and how much I'll probably change in the next eight.

An Interpretation

In the Bible, young people are pointed to the older ones for wisdom for a reason. All that life experience accumulated over 50 or 60 years counts for something. However, if you stack that experience against the 110 years of Joshua, the 800 years of Adam, or the 900+ years of Methuselah, and suddenly "the wisdom of old men" becomes foolishness. Stack it against the eternity of God, and even the great wisdom of Methuselah is nothing.

Listening to my students talk about their papers has taught me how much I've changed. It's taught me to appreciate the wisdom as one of the "gifts reserved for age", hard-won over many years.

Most of all, though, my students have taught me this: Every single one of our human beliefs is just as limited as my students' considered opinion against online dating, limited by our narrow human experience and narrow philosophy.

Perhaps this is why T.S. Eliot begs,

           Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless (East Coker).

It's not worth it to not have an opinion. Most of us will always have opinions, no matter how stupid they are.

Even as we voice and support these opinions, though, we should have humility enough to remember that we belong to God, that it is His wisdom that matters, and not ours.

My students taught me all that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I think I'll call this post "I Can Do Pronouns." Or maybe "Teaching Moments." You'll see why in a few paragraphs.

As a student, I found that the closer I got to the end of the semester, the more everything reminded me of the papers I was writing. If I were writing a paper on Underworld, say, every movie I watched, every conversation I had, every sermon I listened to reminded me of that paper. I could even tell you exactly how the subject of our conversation tied back to my paper. In my thesis, the main reason I quoted Aquinas was because when my Literary Theory class read Summa Theologica in the middle of my thesis-writing, Aquinas reminded me of the thesis.

A few days ago, this characteristic of mine popped right back up, this time from a teacher's perspective.

Intro to English class has been all about pronouns. Turns out, pronouns are one of the most confusing parts of speech to learn. Poor students. Asked to define these words, they suggest that a pronoun is 'a proper noun' or that an antecedent is, in fact, a word like 'he', 'she', or 'it.'

No, I said. An antecedent is a noun. A pronoun replaces that noun - a word like 'he', 'she', or 'it. Keep this straight. They mixed up the words anyway.

So, because this is my teaching philosophy, I took responsibility for my students' learning. They've never had English before, I told myself. Grammar is hard for the best of us to keep track of. So I reduced the terms to a simple form (sort of like finding the least common denominator, but for English) and in some cases I matched these definitions to songs. For pronouns, the song was called "I Can Do Pronouns" (yes, I know, creative name) and set to the tune of "Do Lord." That song gets stuck in my head. And after hours of helping students find pronouns and antecedents and correct pronoun errors, pronouns got stuck in my head too.

Pronouns, antecedents and "I Can Do Pronouns" were still stuck in my head when I went to Bible study; I hummed the song when I hopped in my car and drove off. I stopped humming (fortunately) when I picked up a couple students, whom I'll call Joy and Anne. Anne was enrolled in my Intro to English class and learning about pronouns and antecedents right along with me.

I didn't give pronouns or antecedents much thought during Bible study, or even on the way back from Bible study. I was deep in conversation with Joy, deep enough to pay little attention to whether my language met the guidelines laid out in The Little Seagull Handbook. And then I gaffed: I said "this people" - as in, many people (not a people group) but a singular pronoun (this). For you non-grammar folks, that error is like saying "this mountains" or "this books" or "this jokes". It's an error in pronoun number agreement, and it's wrong. Unless you're still learning English, you can hear it's wrong.

Immediately I thought of Anne, who was still learning about agreement in number among pronouns. Like the other students, she was also still confused. So I pointed out my error to her, named it as an error with agreement in number, and corrected it for her. I treated the three of us to a mini-lecture in pronouns, in the space between stoplights at 9:00 PM on a Wednesday night.

Oh, dear. I am becoming a teacher (Joy actually told me this, by the way, minutes after I'd lectured her about agreement in number for pronouns). Before you know it, I'll be telling everyone why Milton is relevant to 21st century Christianity.

Wait. I do that already.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lately, I have been thinking how apt a metaphor photography is for the Christian life.

Weird topic? Yes, it's mostly inspired by the fact that I feel like I need to update a blog and I have pictures I want to post. But, despite this unusual origin, there really is a connection between good photography and the Christian life.


Photography teaches us believers to notice Christ, to search out His light and allow this light to illuminate our day-to-day lives.

The key to good photographs is light. Fundamentally, the right amount of light (exposure) must be let in for the right amount of time (shutter speed). But exposure and shutter speed are just the science of photography. The art goes far beyond measurements of light. The artist is careful not only to choose how much light to use but also to choose the right kind of light. Very few photos taken at high noon, when the light is at its most glaring, come out well (unless the photographer is aiming for a glaring effect), but many, many photos taken in the late afternoon, when the light is a warm glow, come out well.

(By the way, I'm not the only one noticing this. Even Pioneer Woman has posts about photography and light. In fact, her articles are sort of an inspiration for this one.)

Even once the photographer has found the correct kind of light, she must actually use the light well. It does not do to simply point a camera at a well-lit leaf or person facing into the sun. The popular technique of facing people towards the sun, so the camera is pointing away from the sun, is backwards: The full sun on people's faces is a harsh, too-bright effect. Much better to wait until the light has dimmed in the last few hours of daylight. Or to use what is called backlighting, where the light is positioned behind the subject and so creates a sort of halo around the head:

My professional secret as a photographer is yours now. Lucky thing that it's not much of a secret. But unless you're planning on heading to Target and purchasing a DSLR camera, this information is not much use to you. What is most important of all, then, is the connection between photography and the life of the believer.


Just as only good light illuminates a photo well, so only good light illuminates life well. Many, many "lights" of truth exist in our world, ranging from hard science to complicated philosophy. Although the lesser light of philosophy need not be dismissed entirely, it is imperative that we look in life as in photography for the best source of light: in life, the Light of Life Himself, Jesus Christ. He says, "I am the Light of the world," true illumination for us beyond every other lesser light we use. In Him alone will the world make sense.

A man in a dark room may know that there is a light and still refuse to flip the switch. Likewise, we may know that Christ is Light and still refuse to let Him illumine our own lives. Or we may misuse His illumination, twisting what we know about Christ or manipulating his Body the Church for our own ends. We must not do this. We must instead know Christ as He is, the perfect Word of God, the clear sharp Light of Life. Just as the key to a photograph is light used correctly, so the key to life is Christ the Light used correctly. I am not saying that life will work out perfectly if we look to Christ for illumination. I am only saying this: Whatever hardships (spiritual or physical) we encounter, Christ the Light illuminating our lives will make the day-to-day beautiful.

Eliot writes in "Little Gidding" of a flash of sunlight that suddenly illuminated the winter of his life, a "brief" flash that gave way to "midwinter" a moment later but nonetheless left behind it a "pentecostal fire" - the fire of Christ. Eliot was not, as far as I know, a photographer, but this is a true photographer's approach to the spiritual life: the desire for the Light of God to illumine our own life and make it beautiful.

Monday, October 10, 2011

It's a bright, warm day today (try 80 F, a true Indian summer day), and I've taken advantage of the Columbus Day holiday and no classes to camp out at the local coffee shop. On my right is a tall mug of coffee, which should get me through this post - the long-anticipated post about Introverts in the Church.

Probably many of you have never heard of Introverts in the Church. Neither had I, until I found it on a friend's bookshelf in Spain.

Introverts in the Church, written by Adam McHugh, challenges extroverted American Christianity, recommending that introverts cultivate their unique gifts and use these gifts to contribute effectively to their church. McHugh speaks out against the overemphasis on action (as opposed to contemplation) in the church, pointing out that "[t]he implicit thought is that the mark of true, progressing discipleship is participation in an increasing number of activities." (91). Not everybody is comfortable with such intense activity, so introverts (defined as people who gain energy from solitude) are excluded from a church that stresses activity so greatly.

The first correction McHugh recommends is restoration for the introvert, which comes as introverts recognize their "gravity and contemplativeness" (147) as a gift and cultivate that gift by scheduling times of contemplation into their schedule. The second correction he recommends is for introverts to become involved in their church as introverts, sharing their greater "longing for depth" (69) with fellow believers in Christ. Although McHugh spells out specific contributions introverts can make, it is not my goal to share these specifics with you. What I want to do is share with you what I, as an introvert myself, gained from the reading and so what these ideas look like in the so-called "real world".

The realization that it's okay for introverts "do ministry" differently than extroverts brings a sense of relief and peace. Extroverts tend to "do ministry" through limitless energy, a boundless sense of humour (something picked up unconsciously from Hollywood), and a huge group of acquaintances, but not introverts, who prefer having a few super-close relationships. McHugh acknowledges, "One of the things I've accepted is that I will impact fewer people than extroverted pastors" (155), but he implies that we introverts also have the opportunity to impact these few people more deeply.

Here at school, I have watched as some teachers eat lunch with a new group of students every day, while others (whom I know to be introverted) pair up with students one-on-one over the plastic lunch trays. Sure, this second group of teachers does not get to know as many students as the first group, but surely the private discussions, even over food brimming with cooking grease, produces deep and lasting fruit. Many students speak highly of this second class, pointing out that these teachers, despite an apparently aloof exterior, are genuinely interested in their students. What McHugh's book does is legitimize this kind of ministry: No longer is there any need to force ourselves to get to know a huge group of people; it's okay to develop deep, meaningful relationships with just a few.

Even for the introvert who is no longer trying to "do ministry" like an extrovert, discovering what her contributions should look like can be a challenge. If we cannot contribute to confrontational evangelism on an airplane at 30,000 feet, for instance, what can we do?

McHugh suggests several possibilities, the most important of which is to impart our own tendency for internal processing and contemplation to a world that tends to avoid contemplation. "We [Americans] have become alarmingly dependent on . . . advertising, mass appeal [and] technology . . . as the basis for our choices and actions," he writes. "People in our culture need models of self-reflection, leaders who will teach them how to look inward and evaluate their motivations and choices" (151). I am still in the middle of figuring out how "teach[ing people] to look inward" looks in the middle of a class on comma usage, but I find the idea itself inspiring.

My freshmen year of college, my RA was (I believe) an introvert; her room devotions were not so much prepared speeches rattled off without pause but shared reflections, spoken contemplations with frequent pauses as she searched for just the right word. Her thoughtful study taught me to think deeply and interpret God's Word accurately, a model that I hope to pass on to my own students now.

If McHugh recommends healthy patterns of life and ministry for introverts, he also refuses to allow them to "play 'the introvert card'" (136).

As someone who prefers to turn on Stargate instead of taking the effort to spend time with people, this final point was particularly important for me. Although (as McHugh points out), the effort in people-time is truly effort for introverts, this does not make such time any less important. McHugh writes that "[w]e who follow a crucified Messiah know that love will sometimes compel us to willingly choose things that make us uncomfortable, to surrender our rights for the blessing of others" (63). The point of embracing introverted tendencies is not solely to bless ourselves, to take care of ourselves (though taking of ourselves is important too); the point is to use these introverted gifts to bless others, to encourage them towards deeper, more contemplative thought and ultimately a closer walk with Christ.

That's all I'm gonna say. Read the book. If you're an extrovert, McHugh will help you understand people who are different than you in your family or in your church. If you (like me) are an introvert, the book helps you (in a way that the contemporary extroverted church does not) to navigate ministry and life in general, to stay healthy yourself and to contribute to the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

So, last time I posted I said I might have a review of Introverts in the Church for you. Not gonna happen. Not today, at least. Maybe next week, I will steal the book back from my cousin, buckle down and write the review.

Recently, though, I haven't buckled down to much else besides school stuff, so guess what? Another post about school today! How exciting!! (And here I've been teaching my students not to use excessive exclamation points).

Confession: I envy the teachers who have limitless resources at their beck and call. I envy them because I have been stuck in a bright orange walk-in closet as my classroom (this was at my State U); this horror boasted an ancient projector and five pieces of broken chalk. In a classroom like that, is an interesting class even possible, or is everybody breathing too much chalk dust to make it even tolerable?

Not much I can do about the painful colour scheme, of course (short of lugging paint cans and rollers into the classroom in the dead of night). Nor can I simply make money for resources appear in the budget. But there are a few free resources, many of which I've used (or seen used) in the last couple of weeks here:

Jokes . . . and more Jokes

I learned something from my students today: Apparently, I rely on jokes a lot. All my Composition students had presentations due today, debating whether entertainment and TV had any role in education. The last group stood up and announced that in true Ms. VB style, they were going to begin with a joke - some poorly-punctuated excuses that parents wrote for their kids. In fact, these excuses:

Sally won't be in school a week from friday. We have to attend her funeral.
Please exkuce lisa for being absent she was sick and i had her shot.
My son is under a doctor's care and should not take PE today. Please execute him.

I learned about jokes a few years back, when I was first learning to teach. A teaching book I read reminded me that unfortunately, most students are not geeky like me and therefore not automatically passionate about thesis statements and conclusions. Everybody likes a joke. Tell one at the beginning of class, it gets people's attention; at the end of a discussion, it lightens the mood (and sometimes the tension).

It's just icing on the cake when a student turns around and tells me a joke.

Pop Culture

I discovered that most of my guy students - yes, the guys - are actually Mulan fans. My Intro to English class is in the middle of writing a Personal Narrative story, and to help them understand the idea of conflict and climax, I played a song from Mulan for them. They cheered - then groaned as I turned it off every thirty seconds to analyze the story in it.

Never have I had a pop culture reference work quite so well, though I have played MASH clips for students before (they didn't get the point of that one) and played a selection from the film Amazing Grace for my students (again, too esoteric). I think here of the famous formula for teaching languages: i +1. Little by little and not all at once should the students' knowledge be built up; if I have to use a prop of Mulan for just a little bit, then so be it. Next semester this class will all be reading Bonhoeffer.

Celebrating Weird Holidays

A week or so back, I celebrated 'Talk Like a Pirate' day with my class. I walked into class wearing full pirate gear (or at least as close as I could approximate using the contents of my closet, and a shirt that I stole from my cousin). There is no intellectual point to Talking Like a Pirate, or celebrating any other random holiday. It's just fun. I've learned that October 6 is 'Mad Hatter Day', so perhaps if I can dredge up a weird but cheap hat, I will celebrate that holiday as well.

Be Your Own Guest Speaker

This one is a recent favourite. Unfortunately, English does not lend itself to field trips or guest speakers the way that history or science does. We cannot visit the Museum of the Comma, nor invite a veteran from Fragments to come speak with class. What we can do, however, is take on some of these roles ourselves.

Last week I asked my students to read "Appointment with Love", by S.I. Kishor. Like the Mulan song, this story was intended to help them understand the parts of a story better. Instead of having students inspect the story (this takes forever and can result in sketchy answers), I invited Kishor herself in to tell us about the story. I left the classroom for thirty seconds and came back with my hand clapped to my back, my voice as gravely as I could make it, and the endearing term "young man" or "woman" for all my students. My "guest speaker" turned out to be a wonderful variation on a lecture: I got to talk to them about what they should learn from the story, but we as a class had far more fun than had I simply droned on as in the ordinary lecture.


By no means am I a great teacher. I worry periodically that I am spending too much time entertaining my students, not enough educating them. Then when I don't make class interesting, I worry that I'm not being entertaining enough. And trust me, I am far too lazy to invent these resources for every class; some classes all we do is work through the examples. But I do believe that some entertainment plays a vital role in the classroom.

None of these resources are intellectual at all. There is nothing particularly challenging about dressing up like a pirate, nor about playing a clip from a Disney cartoon movie that rewrites history and Chinese culture without compunction. But what these resources lack in intellectual benefit, they make up for in emotional benefit: Fun activities in class reassure our students that we teachers are real people too, that we do not live in a closet at the top of the Ivory Tower, and ultimately that we can be trusted to instruct them well and to carefully and respectfully answer their questions. Fun activities, in other words, build trust - an attitude very much needed in a successful classroom.

Next time, I promise (fingers crossed): Introverts in the Church

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It has been said that 'All writing is rewriting'. 

I'd like to apply that to teaching: 'All teaching is reteaching' - and sometimes, reteaching and reteaching again. 

My writing students, right now, are confused. I watched them leave the classroom on Tuesday, nodding as if they understood the answers but with a glazed, fixed expression that always indicates uncertainty. Adding to the general air of confusion were their questions: halting, random questions that had little to do with the topic asked, questions that I'd hoped they would know the answers to by the end of class. Clearly, they didn't know the answers. 

All this confusion is my fault. It is my responsibility as a teacher to clearly communicate the skills I want my students to learn, and if they do not clearly grasp these skills, I have made an error. I wager that this error is not limited to me, that I am not the only teacher ever to have confused my students. Which is what brings me to the conclusion that 'All teaching is reteaching.'

We teachers confuse our students. It's part of being a human teacher. (Even Christ's students were confused, but I suspect that was more their spiritual ignorance than the Master Teacher's incompetence, so we'll leave that out of the picture). In our teaching mind we bear an image of the truth or concept or skill we want students to grasp, we create activities and lectures to communicate that skill, and then in the hubbub of words that accompanies those lectures the gist of the skill or the concept is lost, and students are confused. T.S. Eliot complained that as a poet 'It [was] impossible to say just what I mean' and we teachers read him and say Amen, brother

If you are a teacher, you know what I'm talking about, you know how often you have to reteach, and you know (like I do) that 'All teaching is reteaching'.  Instead of belaboring the point, let me move on to its logical conclusion: the attitude that accompanies the belief that all teaching is indeed reteaching. 

Reteaching is about humility. 

My very first semester teaching, I confused students continually. Papers turned in were wildly different than what I'd expected, and I did not give out a single 'A' that semester. I complained to friends about a perceived lack of ability in the students and for weeks reassured myself that each lesson had been quite clear about my expectations on the paper. My lesson weren't clear at all, but at that point I hadn't the humility to admit that I was failing as a teacher. 

It takes humility to admit we made an error, that we are not the Best Teacher Ever since Jesus and Socrates. (humility, of course, that I don't have in abundance). But once admitted, we teachers can get back to helping our students improve as writers or mathematicians or geologists or whatever - as long as they are improving, and not falling deeper into a pit of confusion that we ourselves are digging.

Reteaching is about communication. 

I sat at the table this afternoon carefully wording and rewording the assignment guidelines for my students' next papers. Eventually, I ran the guidelines past my cousin, who is still in college. She listened carefully, then said this:  'That sentence would be really clear for you, but your students are not going to understand it at all'. I had to reword it. 

John 1 tells us that 'the Word was God', a name that suggests He was the clear, flawless communication of God to humanity. And this communication of God 'became flesh and dwelt among us', became a 'thing in the real world' - simple enough for flesh-and-blood humans to understand. It is tempting for us teachers, having spent years of training in our field, to soar upwards towards the esoteric and intangible, but this is not biblical communication. What we reteachers must work on (even the first time) is making our subject - however esoteric - a thing in the real world that every student can grasp. 

More can be said, I'm sure, in favour of reteaching. For me, however, these two attitudes are crucial: the attitude of humility and desire to change, the willingness to refine and hone my communication until it is no longer abstract but real to students. 

Now, I'm off to live in the real world myself - and then to do some reteaching next week. Here are a few photos, as always, to finish off with:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Travel is broadening, they say: An American traveler coming home has a brand-new laundry list of things that she misses about the country she visited, things that she could find in Europe that are unheard of Stateside. For me this list includes things like fresh bread and good chocolate, reliable public transportation, and street musicians. But the opposite can also be true: Returning to America, I've discovered a few new delights here, unavailable to me during six months in the Czech Republic. 

Here is my list.

I love having windows with screens on them. My flat in Prague had beautiful old windows, made with panes of bubbled glass and wood painted white. But there were no screens. Come summer, the flat got hot, we opened the windows (there's also no A/C in the Czech Republic), and we let the flies in--huge, monster flies that the locals called 'Meateaters'. I took to hunting them down with a red folder, perched on my bed and lashing out at the flies as they zoomed past me through the air. Every morning, I faced the same dilemma: cool down the apartment and deal with the flies, or fry in a fly-free apartment. Now, I fling open my windows to air out my apartment in a cool breeze and I still have no flies. So terrified.

I love having seedless grapes. Grapes count as one of my favourite fruits. Ever. I learned in the Czech Republic that they were particularly delicious frozen. But the default grape in Prague had seeds in it - big, huge seeds that gave the grape a bitter taste if you accidentally bit into them; it was almost impossible not to bite into the humongous seed on accident. I took to cutting the seeds out of the grape with a little knife and adding them to salads. Here the default grape is seedless. I buy them in huge packages from Hy-Vee, wash them (or sometimes not), and eat them with delight. 

I love being in the same timezone (or at least almost the same timezone) as my family and friends. In Czech, I had to schedule calls. Can we talk this week? No? Well, I can't talk in the middle of the week. Maybe in ten days from now? That doesn't work either?!? Hmph. My family were perhaps the only people I talked to regularly; my friends sort of fell by the wayside until I returned half a year later to catch up with people.  Nor was scheduling the only difficulty; because international calling is so expensive, I relied entirely on the Internet, which led to further difficulties. Personal conversations happened on Facebook in the middle of board games, and Interviews took place on Gmail chat when Skype went down. It is so nice to pick up my phone, dial a preprogrammed number, and talk to someone. It's even nicer to control where and when these conversations happen, without hooking myself up to the computer. 

I love having English-language books and movies readily available. In the Czech Republic, I read Howl's Moving Castle three or four times and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series once (and some of them twice) simply because they were the only English-language books around. Halfway through my time in Europe, I realized it was possible to pick the foreigners out of a crowd because they were the ones carrying Kindles: I met up with an American missionary on one of my trips, and although I'd never seen her before, I knew it must be here because she was standing among a bunch of Europeans reading off a Kindle. Now, I can be as anti-Kindle as I wish. In the two months since I've returned, I've finished Wives and Daughters and Godric (both excellent fiction books), as well as Introverts in the Church (an excellent non-fiction books) and a few more books I'd read before. It's like my own literary land of milk and honey. 

My next blog will be more thought-provoking, probably a review of Introverts in the Church (or the review will come in the post after next). But having shared with you so many of the things I love about European life, I wanted to pass along a few things that I love about American life. 

I'm also including a few photos from my sister's wedding here. If I practiced on you, thanks so much! The wedding was both super-stressful and super-fun to do, and although the photos aren't professional quality, I'm happy enough considering this is my first shot. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

More than two months have passed since I returned Stateside, two bittersweet months filled on the one hand with family time (including a wedding, but not mine!) and an exciting new job but culture shock on the other as I adjust back into American society.

As I restart my blog from this side of the pond, I want to pretend that I am a foreigner in the States - a stranger in a strange land, if you will, and comment on the cultural idiosyncrasies of our people as if I were not one of them. I intend to explore also the day-to-day faith that transcends geographical boundaries as I talk through my own everyday life.

And so, to begin:

Shortly before I came back Stateside, someone (I cannot remember who) remarked how isolated Americans could be. I thought it was a strange remark at the time: Isolated? Really? Americans are famous - perhaps infamous - for being the most egregious people on the planet. Even on my plane ride home, I met a host of strangers: three separate men helped me with my bags as I navigated the airports with 100 pounds of luggage, I held a short conversation with the Detroit help desk lady, and the people behind me for check-in joked with me. How in the world such friendly people be considered isolated?

And then I started settling in.

It is still strange to me to walk through the neighborhood and see huge swatches of green yard in front of people's houses, to see whole buildings empty except for two or three of four people in a family. It is strange to me to take my personal car everywhere, to see no one on the ride to work but myself. In the Czech Republic, I lived in a flat with twenty other families; I had a permanent roommate or two. More than that, I saw a hundred people on my way to work in a crowded Metro every morning. I saw another hundred on the way back. 

However isolated are homes and commutes are, we Americans still have a reputation for friendliness - one that we've earned. However little we mingle with strangers, we are particularly good at hand-picking the communities we do mingle with. We pick our church, go to work, join a sports team, and then we overlook the people who are not part of these communities, simply because in American society there is no need to see them; they're not up against our shoulder in a packed tram.  

This can have unfortunate consequences.

My first church visit in my new city was overwhelming. I walked into a sea of strangers, all grouped about in threes or fours and chatting with excitement. It was several awkward minutes before someone (someone I'd met previously) noticed me and welcomed me to the service. Immediately after the service, the groups reformed, and I, left outside, made a beeline for the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, I left.

I am not telling this story to make you feel sorry for me. Part of the problem was me: I hate visiting new churches and do not do well meeting new people. But I think my experience does indicate that Americans, however super-social with people they know and have selected to communicate with, do not do so well with those who are strangers or who unexpectedly show up in their day-to-day life. We are out of practice. 

I cannot change American culture, just as I could not change things I disliked about European culture (What did I dislike? Let me think about that for a while.) But I can change me. I know me: Personally, I prefer spending time alone, dislike meeting new people, and limit my social interactions. This is important on the one hand, because that's how I relax after a busy week. But it can be dangerous if indulged too much. 

If I learned nothing else in Prague, I learned this: We cannot change people by being brilliant. We change people by loving them, by spending time with them. C.S. Lewis wrote of such love as part of our imitation of God, an imitation valuable precisely because it is so difficult:

Our imitation of God in this life - that is, our willed imitation as distinct from any of the likenesses which He has impressed upon our natures and states - must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions (the Four Loves).

This is my goal.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Generally, I steer clear of purely theoretical subjects in my post. Perhaps because I am leaving Europe in the next four days, though, the theoretical has suddenly become practical: How do I make sense of the six months spent here, in terms of God's larger plan for my life? For that matter, how does anyone make sense of God's will for their lives, looking at short-term assignments - assignments such as temporary jobs, trips and studies abroad, or missions?

I want to clarify what the question is, deal with a commonly wrong way to answer this question, and in exchange, suggest a possible answer. Please feel free to chip in with your own answer: More than anything, I am exploring the question in this post, not offering a definitive and exclusive response to it.

The Question
Here's what I mean by 'making sense' of short-term assignments. Although it's common knowledge that people need some kind of meaning for their lives, this need seems both more intense and harder to satisfy for short-term experiences.

Harder to satisfy, because a few brief months does not allow time for visible evidence of meaning to build up. Although career missionaries point to years of service on the field, short-term missionaries have it more difficult. Much as I enjoyed my time, I remember a few students befriended, some 'deeper' spiritual conversations that perhaps involved Dante or some future post-high school plans; twenty weeks of Bible study. That's all. As with any short experience, there is no large buildup of concrete, visible evidence to signify meaning.

More intense, because we who travel or do missions or other short-term assignments are moving on to something else: It's important to know that a few months teaching at a small school was a good choice, that spending a year at an unexciting job achieves more than just keeping the electricity on, that a summer in Spain does more than give us an appreciation for gelato. Lacking clear long-term evidence of meaning, we also lack a sense of purpose in short-term assignments.

A Bad Answer

Ok, so not all bad. But the most common answer is also an incomplete one. Primarily, we American Christians tend to anticipate that the meaning of short-term assignments will be visibly revealed in the weeks and months and years to come after the experience itself ends.

Here are a few possible examples, the way the question is raised and the common but incomplete answer:

Question: Why did I spend six months teaching in Europe?
Answer: Perhaps in the future, I will take students of my own over here and push them to teach in Europe.

Question: Why did you get that humanities major in college, when you're in the military now?
Answer: Probably because you will teach that subject in the future.

Question: Why did you spend a summer studying abroad?
Answer: Maybe you will meet someone from that country, and use the language and culture to share Christ with them.

Whatever the scenario, we believers are continually trying to pinpoint a specific event or situation in which our previous short-term experience bears visible fruit and thus proves itself meaningful.

Perhaps an analogy is a better way to think of this exercise: In many ways, the imagined Christian life is like climbing a mountain. Perhaps we cross a stream. Perhaps we turn left, then in five minutes, right again. All of this turning is quite confusing at the moment. But then we reach the top of the mountain, look down: Lo and behold, the left turn protected us from a rock slide; the right turn advanced us five yards further up the hill. And suddenly it all makes sense.

Like climbing a mountain, we believers expect to 'look down' at the previous weeks and months and years of our lives and have them make sense; we want to articulate how each turning of life actually helps us. Thing is, we never reach the top of the mountain in this life. Ever. And because we are still 'climbing' metaphorically, some of those metaphoric turnings never do make sense to us.

The Answer

Perhaps the best answer to this problem is to throw out the 'mountain' mentality, to stop hunting for scenarios in which short-term experiences take on new meaning, stop trying to clearly articulate the purpose of certain brief moments in life.

Imagine a quiet stroll through the mountains. At times, the peak is visible; other times it disappears again. Maybe you walk up a hill towards the treetops; five minutes later, you're headed down again towards a stream and a patch of orange flowers. No one stop on the way leads into the other or has any visible purpose, so to speak: In other words, the orange flowers do not make a glimpse of the mountain possible. Had we turned back down the path without seeing the mountain, the flowers would still be just as beautiful.

Like this mountain path, the experiences of life are meaningful as we are in them, experiencing them now. Just as the orange flowers can be enjoyed without seeing the mountain top, so we can enjoy short experiences without knowing what they lead to, what comes next, whether they make any subsequent experience possible.

My own six months here have been immensely enjoyable, profitable for me and (I hope and pray) for those around me. My friends have taken on jobs, done graduate study, done summer trips that never clearly led into anything else, but each of these experiences - job or study or trip - was itself meaningful while they were in it.

It is not in some future happenstance or concrete, visible event that God works. He works in the immediate present in us, and it is that immediate present, detached and invisible from both past and future, that He invests life with meaning.

Eventually, every brief experience and also the great entirely of life itself, will take on a clear and articulate meaning. Paul assures us that "we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (II Cor. 3.18). Those words 'being transformed' suggest a continual, never-ending work: In other words, every momentary experience, every day, even every breath we draw takes us believers a step nearer the place where we see and
are seen in Christ's own image.

Until that time, though, it is our responsibility to live in the present and to draw meaning from the present workings of God.

Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

~ T.S. Eliot, 'The Four Quartets'