On Cuba and North Korea

The last bastions of communism are dominating the news. I’m reading another book about North Korea, Without You, There is No Us, by Suki Kim.

Rich and powerful voices dominate the airwaves, heads of state, Sony executives, and Hollywood stars. Ordinary Cubans and North Koreans, who have suffered endlessly at the hands of the Castros and Kims remain completely voiceless.

Their stories are the ones that need telling. I’m hopeful we’ll begin to hear ordinary Cuban voices in 2015, lifting the veil on life on the island. I have no such hope for North Korea. The plight of North Koreans is seemingly hopeless. And that should be our focus.

Improve Your Health—Go Outside

As the video below makes clear, research suggests spending time outside is good for one’s health. Physical health, mental health, or spiritual well-being? My hunch, all of the above. No one has to tell children or labradoodles how invigorating it is to be outside. Sometimes, as we age, we forget. Remember the Norwegian saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to walk to church.

p.s. A and J, James is what’s known as “SILM”, Son In-Law Material. Doc. Sense of humor. Wears suits. And he looks like he’s your age (even though he’s 31). Just sayin’, what’s not to like?

The Musician’s Soul

I’m participating in a faculty seminar with eight other professors, each from different disciplines. We get together every other week and take turns discussing books everyone has selected from their respective disciplines. This Wednesday a music prof is leading the discussion of The Musician’s Soul by James Jordan.

Like a student, I have been procrastinating. That means I just started reading it today, Sunday*. Three days and counting. Even though I’m in the early stages, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I’m digging it. Double J is wonderfully out of touch with the times. Instead of privileging standardization, data, and efficiency, he writes of self understanding, spirituality, and soulfulness. He’s more Buddhist than business school.

For a little flavor flav, here he is on self-expression:

“If one believes that music is self-expression, then it should follow that one must have a self to express. Before one is able to conduct and evoke artistry from singers, one must spend a considerable amount of time on oneself, on one’s inside stuff. One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times. Most musicians, however, involve themselves in a process of self-mutilation. They focus on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of music instead of the ‘who’. Frustration and anger with self occur, almost unknowingly. The conductor, music educator, or performer must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and of his or her own human spirit. That journey must be non-self-mutilating. At the risk of oversimplifying, one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with an ensemble or an audience through the music. Knowledge and trust of self is necessary for music making to take place. An ability to ‘just be’ is paramount.”

These insights are wonderfully applicable. Substitute any art, like writing, for the making of music. Or almost any vocation imaginable.

My subconscious is just starting to work on a new course I’m teaching next spring for teachers training to be school principals. While I’m reading Jordan I’m substituting school leaders for musicians. “The school leader must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and his or her own human spirit. . . . one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with a faculty, or families, or students through schooling.”

This portion of the larger excerpt deserves further reflection, “One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times.” Sounds more simple than it is. Most everyone has long-standing negative tapes looping in their heads thanks to mean-spirited teachers, parents, or coaches.

Do you know, accept, and trust yourself? How might your vocation and life change as a result of greater knowledge, acceptance, and trust?

* Had to finish The Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh first.

Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

My Teaching Best—What’s It Look Like?

Last Thursday around noon thirty, teaching the first year writing seminar on the second floor of the Admin Building, I was flat out teaching my arse off. Had you been visiting this is what you would have seen.

Sixteen* first year students and I sit around computer tables arranged in a large rectangle. Eight of them are presenting papers they’ve just written comparing and contrasting ancient Greek notions of love with those most often depicted in Western popular culture. More specifically, they have to explain whether they agree or disagree with Roman Krzarnic when he writes:

“The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.”

After the fourth presentation, I pause to ask if anyone has questions or comments for the first four authors. I wait. Eventually Lauren starts things rolling:

L: So Christie you think God has created one person, a special soulmate for you. So does that mean you wouldn’t commit to anyone that wasn’t a Christian?

C: Yes, I want to be with someone like me, someone with a sincere, foundational faith.

L: But what if you meet someone with similar values? That wouldn’t be sufficient? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

C: No. I think I’m going to end up being a missionary in a developing country so it will be important for my partner to be equally as excited about that. We’ll need that shared foundation.

Sean: Yeah, I feel similarly to Lauren. I want a partner who is not just physically beautiful, but spiritually too. Spiritual beauty means she’ll have an intense love of God as reflected in her words and actions. For me, God should be at the center of our relationship because through God, our marriage will flourish in the purest way possible. While I don’t expect to have everything in common with her, I suspect that there is a girl in the world who is destined to be with me.

Others jumped in. The more secular students respectfully and smartly challenged the committed Christians. I didn’t say anything. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if they would’ve let me. I was in the teaching zone because they had forgotten I was there.

Decker Walker nailed it when he wrote, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” Teachers are almost always doing things to students. Especially interrupting their thinking by filling every quiet moment with more words. Always more words.

If you were visiting last Thursday you probably wouldn’t have realized I was in the zone because of conventional wisdom about teaching excellence. In fact, you probably would’ve wondered when was I going to assert myself and start earning my salary.

But leading discussions is like flying kites. Sometimes you have to let out the string. I let out the string last Thursday at noon thirty and then a few students grabbed the spool. It was a great discussion because it was theirs. They didn’t need an intermediary. They can read, think, write, and then talk about their ideas all by themselves. That was the day’s most important lesson.

* “Sixteen students,” my public school teaching friends just said to themselves, “shit, anyone could kill it with sixteen students!”

Making Sense of the Mars Hill Saga

Ruth Graham tells the story of “How a Megachurch Melts Down” in The Atlantic. Graham begins by outlining the rise and fall of the evangelical church:

“Two years ago, Mars Hill Church was the third-fastest growing large church in the country. Its original location in Seattle had spawned 14 other branches in five states, and 13,000 people attended weekly services at which founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons were projected on large screens. Thousands more connected with the church online, and Driscoll and his wife Grace wrote a guidebook titled Real Marriage that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 2012.”

“In hindsight, that year was the pinnacle for Mars Hill. Now it’s all over. Driscoll resigned a few weeks ago after a leave of absence that begin in August. And last Friday afternoon, Mars Hill Church announced online that it will dissolve by January 1.”

Then Graham explains that Driscoll’s and the church’s troubles began in late 2013 when a Christian radio host accused Driscoll of plagiarizing a theologian in a recent book. Graham adds:

“A few months later, the conservative Christian magazine World broke the story that Real Marriage had only landed on the best-seller list because Mars Hill paid a consulting firm $210,000 to boost it there. In July, bloggers dug up a series of crude and relentlessly misogynist comments Driscoll made under a pseudonym on a church discussion board. Writing as William Wallace II, he lambasted America as a “pussified nation,” and posted a bizarre glossary that mocked “male lesbians” (men who think like women), “femans” (women who think like men), “momma’s boys,” “Larry Limps,” and “rock-free” men who attend churches headed by female pastors. His defenders pointed out the comments were 14 years old, but they occurred years into his tenure as a professional pastor.”

Graham poses the obvious question. What went wrong?

“. . . Driscoll was a vocal proponent of the idea that the contemporary American church lacks manliness; as he put it in 2006, “real men” spurn the church because it celebrates a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ.” His message appealed to many people for many years. But recently, Driscoll’s own peers and followers began to turn against him, too. Their disfavor ultimately made it impossible for Driscoll to survive. What went wrong—or, from the perspective of Marsh Hill’s numerous noisy critics, what went right?”

The less obvious, more interesting question is why did a “relentlessly misogynist” leader’s message appeal to many people for many years?

Because people, whether inside or outside the church, resist change and prefer simple answers to pressing questions of the day, especially when they are offered up by charismatic demagogues. For example, instead of trying to understand, let alone welcome into the church people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are different than their own, they find comfort in Driscoll-like name calling and his proposed return to unquestioned patriarchy.

If I were a pastor, and I often engage in that flight of fancy, I’d repeatedly tell my congregation that we have to cultivate and then demonstrate empathy for everyone who has felt marginalized by Driscoll-like church leaders. And the only way to do that is to embrace all the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguities inherent in people’s different gender identities and sexual orientations.

But I don’t think I’m very charismatic, so I don’t know how many people would attend my church.