Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unlearning Thankfulness

Tonight, I am shirking my responsibilities. Tonight, I am writing a blog post instead of planning that 90-minute C.S. Lewis lesson plan that I have to teach at the end of the week. I'm not reading the church fathers.

Yep. I'll regret this later. But for now, I have something to ponder.

Tonight I stumbled on "Are We Calling This a Win-Win?", a post from Jamie the Very Worst Missionary on the dangers of "poverty tourism". Jamie spent a number of years as a missionary in Costa Rica. In this post, she suggests - sarcastically, with humour - that short-term missions designed to make white American kids thankful are a waste of time.

I get her point. I agree. Last year, I taught a unit on diversity in my English Composition class. With this unit, my goal is to convince students that social privilege is a thing and that, as Christians, whether we are rich or poor, our responsibility is to love and support those who struggle in life. Unfortunately, a few students always walk away from this unit believing that the main lesson is simply that we need to be thankful for what we have and give some extra money to those who slept in the day that God passed out dollar bills. While no student has ever articulated this, the assumption is that we are somehow more blessed than those who are in poverty. I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men. 

I don't want to condemn generosity, of course. Yet if the only lesson that we take from hearing about the trials and suffering of other people is that our life is pretty comfortable and so we should give to those who are uncomfortable, we've missed the boat. Thankfulness and generosity that celebrates our social and financial status over the status of those around us is not particularly Christlike.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't ever learn about those who are in worse straits than us. Obviously, I teach a unit on diversity, which includes poverty. There is value here for American Christians, just not where we usually find it.

A humour website called "White Whine" (Caution: Strong language and some really insensitive people) catalogs status updates of privileged people who think the world is coming to an end for the silliest reasons. They're upset because the barista got their soy latte wrong, because their parents are making them drive the Audi instead of the BMW, because the weather is too cold to go boating, because they wanted the black iPad instead of the white iPad that their parents bought them. (No joke. I've seen these examples or similar ones on White Whine.) These people desperately need a reality check. The world will not come to an end because you have a black iPod.

Yet we too think our world is coming to an end, often for much more legitimate reasons: a lost job, n unexpected illness, breakup, a paycheck that doesn't stretch as far as it used to. For us, as for the White Whiners, there is value in learning about the sufferings of other people. That value doesn't have much to do with thankfulness. Okay, the White Whiners need to be thankful. Yet that's not what most of us need to learn.

For those who are going through real heartache, thankfulness doesn't cut it, at least not in the middle of the trial. Yes, losing a job in America is better than being continually hungry and seeing your children hungry in Africa. That doesn't make losing your job any less scary and frustrating. Yes, going through a breakup in America is better than contracting AIDS in Africa. That doesn't make the breakup hurt any less.

The value of learning about other people with other heartaches is twofold.

First, it keeps us from becoming myopic. Whatever our heartache is, it consumes a lot of emotional energy; we spend so much time and thought trying not to fall apart in the middle of a workday that we forget that other people too are going through their own private Hells. Then we learn about someone who lost their husband, someone who was diagnosed with an incurable disease, someone who had to say goodbye to a life dream. Perhaps we know this person in real life. Perhaps we only hear about them on the Internet. Either way, we are more alert to the suffering that is going on around us, and we are better able to respond to it. That we ourselves are suffering, even if only in some small way, makes us better comforters and better ministers than if we did not suffer at all. It is intolerable to have those with very little trouble pat you on the shoulder and say, "There, there. It will be all right" - because, of course, it may not be all right. It isn't all right now. Yet we who go through trials are the best comforters, and learning about other people's difficulties gives us an opportunity to comfort.

Second, and more personally, the value of learning about other people's heartache is learning that we are survivors. People have suffered since the world's beginning and somehow - inexplicably, unbelievably - survived. When a loved one dies, part of them dies too. When they lose an eye or a hand or a leg, part of who they are dies. When they lose a life dream, part of who they are dies. But life itself continues. Sometimes, the one who experienced pain will go on to better things, sometimes not. Either way, for those of us who are faced with greater troubles than owning a white iPad instead of a black one, it is good to know that there is life after the actual tragic event. My point here isn't really that we should be content with our troublesome life, simply because other people are content. As one of the comments on Jamie's blog post points out, many people who are in poverty aren't content, any more than the White Whiners are. Contentment is not the issue; that's a virtue that we cannot learn by visiting Africa. It is a virtue for which we need to look to God. Yet regardless of whether we are content in life, we can be comforted that there is in fact some kind of life waiting for us, something that does not involve the current trials and tribulations.

In the end, we need to stop assigning a virtue to our trials and difficulties; we need to stop pretending that we become more virtuous simply by looking on when other people struggle. Whatever our struggles, it is good to remember to reach out to those who are also struggling; it is good to remember that, no matter how dark the present, joy comes - miraculously - in the morning.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Problem of Pain

Do you ever feel that God cannot be trusted?

April, T.S. Eliot writes, in the cruelest month, but all days are cruel. There are bombings in Boston and in Tel Aviv. My uncle, or my co-worker’s friend, has cancer. I am midway through an unexpected financial crisis that may not end at all well.

Yes, I know my Bible. I know that the Bible assures me that even in the darkest times God can be trusted.  He is, the Psalmist writes, “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” No matter what happens to us on this earth, no matter how bad it gets, God will still be there.

Unfortunately, this rings surprisingly hollow in the middle of tragedy.

Did you have your legs blown off in an explosion? Sorry, but it’s a good thing that God is your portion and not your legs.

Are you falsely accused of a crime? That’s really too bad. Good thing that it’s God and not your reputation which is the strength of your heart.

Are you poor? Struggling? Desperately lonely? No matter. You don’t have anything on this earth besides God anyway.

Shrug it off, advice says. Deal with it. God is waiting for you in Heaven.

The thing is, the teaching that God is our heavenly portion only goes so far. I know my Bible, and I know that he also promises that “no disaster will come near” you. He is the Good Shepherd, and he tells us that he will lead us among green pastures and quiet streams – places of rest, not of flurry.

This doesn’t happen. At all.

No matter how much we tell ourselves that God is our portion, that we will enjoy being with Him in Heaven, sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes it feels like God hurts us deeply.

Would an earthly father let his children be crushed if he could stop it? Yes, earthly fathers let their children deal with relatively minor problems all the time, but I’m not talking about a little peer pressure in high school here.  People die in violence every day. People’s whole lives are ruined every day. A good father would stop that if at all possible.

Yet God doesn’t. God lets us live through it.

Why do we trust Him? Is He even trustworthy? How can we trust a God that sent His own chosen people through the Holocaust?

I have no answer. Is there any answer?

Yet In her novel The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell, a convert to Judaism, writes this:

There's an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists."

So God just leaves?

No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering."

Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it."

But the sparrow still falls.

Yes, the sparrow still falls. We still fall. Tragedy happens, and it is inescapable.

Perhaps there never will be an answer. Yes, the sparrow falls. God did not push him, but God did not stop him falling either. God will never stop tragedy from entering our lives. He won’t. He never has.

The only thing that we can do in such circumstances is what God does: We can weep.

Enough with the preaching that God will protect us. Enough with the preaching that God will  comfort us in the middle of tragedy.  I am in the middle of tragedy, and there is little comfort.

All we can do is what we know – we know, whether from Judaic tradition or our own Scripture – that God does: weep.

Sometimes there is nothing to do but cry.

God cries.

Let us weep with those who weep, and let us ask no questions for there are no answers. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Teaching Boys (and Girls): Don't Be Distracting

Here's what I learned last week: Your classroom management is supposed to help students pay attention. If you distract the students even more, you're not doing it right. I figured this out myself.

Several weeks ago, I turned around to find that one of my students had plastered a silver gum wrapper on his teeth. This is apparently a fad akin to planking among the teen generation. I have no problem with my students looking as dorky as they please in class. I do have a problem when they distract each other, so I halted the lecture and said, "Jake, take the gum wrapper off your teeth."

Later, I shared my frustrations over the incident with my dad. "I just don't know what I'm going to do with this class," I said. "I swear, some days I feel like I'm teaching middle school."

Dad taught high school science for a number of years. He has a fair share of experience dealing with unruly classes. "Don't yell at them," he suggested. "Don't say, 'Stop chewing gum.' Get their attention back some way." His suggestion? "Hang a spoon on the end of their nose. When you have their attention back, you can go on with the lesson."


At home, I tried hanging a spoon from the end of my nose. Apparently I don't have a big enough nose. Cyrano de Bergerac I am not.

In fact, I find my attention-getting tricks to be pretty limited. I can't do magic tricks. I can't make funny faces. I can't tell jokes (Actually, that's not entirely true. I can tell jokes, just not ones that my students find funny. I never feel so old as when I tell a joke.)

There is one thing that I can do: I can do accents. I can drop my voice down till it's low and gravely like a man's. I can do a passable Southern accent. I can also do a German accent, and I could probably pull of a stereotypical Asian one.

So the next week, I pulled out the accent trick. My class succumbed to an inexplicable giggle fit, and I dropped my voice low like a man's. They all snapped to attention in surprise, giggled nervously, and we continued the lesson.

Yes! I thought. This really works. 


On Thursday, one of my students got bubble gum on her face. Instantly, my students were like the dog in Up: Squirrel! Bubble gum! I'd lost their attention. Again.

So I put on blue felt cowboy hat from one of my students, pulled out the Southern accent, and started talking. I got their attention.

I got a lot, lot more. They stopped giggling, and they started laughing out loud, as in can't-breathe, leaning-over-the-desk, crying laughter.

They asked for another accent - this time, a Russian one.

They told me I was the only teacher to make the students laugh so hard.

Oops. Pretty sure I did not want that distinction.

In five minutes or so, we resumed the lesson on outlining. At the end, we reviewed what we'd learned, and they patiently repeated back to me the three things that go into an outline and the four characteristics of a good quotation. They repeated to me that the writing process is more about a circle than a straight line. So I suppose that despite my accents, they did learn something.

All's well that end's well.

Next time, I'm just going to learn how to hang a spoon from my nose.