Tuesday, August 16, 2016


I recently re-read Madeleine L'Engle's book A Circle of Quiet. This volume has been a companion of mine for more than 30 years. Some books stick with you, don't they? Not everything has such staying power. L'Engle tells a story about Henry David Thoreau:

"In 1853 Thoreau was informed by his publishers that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers had sold 219 copies since its publication four years before, so they send him the remainder. He wrote, 'I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.'
In a small way I can relate. A few weeks ago I heard from InterVarsity Press that sales of Through Her Eyes, published a dozen years ago in 2004, had finally slowed enough to make some changes in their marketing and distribution of this book. Unlike Thoreau's publisher, IVP is sending a modest bill to cover the cost and shipping of my "remainders."

But because a few other things have changed since Thoreau's day, they're still going to keep the book in print. Paper copies may not be worth the warehouse space, but it costs the publisher nothing to keep selling it as an ebook. For those who do want paper copies, "Print on Demand" (POD) volumes will be produced; that's more reasonable than ever before. So even though it's been remaindered, the book will remain in print. Nice.

The publisher told me they still had 210 copies. I spoke for 160. I'm having a case of 40 sent to me and have asked colleagues at Pioneers to stash several cases more so I can pick them up as needed. I'll keep schlepping copies along when I speak or teach, as I've been doing for years. But now I can cut the price in half to $5/each with no qualms about giving them away for free when that seems appropriate.

A year or two ago I had the dwindling royalties redirected to Pioneers as well. The cost of having Turbo Tax submit the paperwork to pay the government its share had exceeded the royalty income.

Staying in print for twelve years is pretty good for a book of this sort. I'm happy that there's still some audience for it and that the publisher has found a way to keep it available.

Thoreau might find it some consolation that these and other dynamics have returned Concord and Merrimack to print, too. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

My Pioneers Project and the Parada Coca-Cola

It took me years to start saying I'm a "writer." At least that's what I sometimes say when people want to know what I do. It's one of several valid answers. And if people think that means I spin poetry or craft novels and dream of someday being published, well, that's not very accurate, but maybe they don't really want to know. If they do, I suppose they will ask.

More precise would be to say I'm a copywriter and copyeditor. That would tell people who understand the profession that I play with words (often other people's) to communicate messages (often not my own). It's easier to get a job that pays the bills doing that than being a poet or a novelist or an author of memoirs. I dare say it takes less talent and/or chutzpah. But I like it. I also like that almost everything that gets past my own internal filters does indeed get published.

These days my words don't get out on paper, not often anyway. I mostly curate and work on content for electronic newsletters, websites, and social media.

My latest project is a bit different. It's concrete and three dimensional. It's going to have to be interactive and visual, using images and experiences to communicate instead of words, whenever possible. This is stretching me; I've been alternately inclined to procrastinate about the project, afraid to fail, and excited to try something unlike anything I've done before. This week I'm driving down to Orlando to spend a couple days working with a team there to see how much of the planning we can knock out and nail down. I've been working up possible copy on and off for weeks with little confidence that it's the kind of stuff that in the end we will want to use. Now I'll find out.

The commission is to build a museum-style display to explain what our organization is all about. It's going to take up a good chunk of the lobby of Pioneers' new building in Orlando. The audience? The many who come through as missionary candidates and appointees, Pioneers supporters, partner church leaders, allies and colleagues, and those who may just be passing through the lobby because they're part of a group that asks to meet in our space (theoretically possible given the new facility). We can also expect the occasional group of mission-agency-beat tourists, because believe it or not, that's a thing.

We don't expect to compete with the Wycliffe Discovery Center. They're the main mission agency attraction in Orlando. And the JESUS Film guys offer a well-crafted visitors experience as well, or so I hear. We aren't going to staff this, or charge a fee. But we wouldn't mind being another stop on the tour. In a town that's home to so many "world class attractions," it may take some doing. 

The whole exhibit may also play a part in pulling staff and friends of the ministry together around the mission we've been given. That would be good. But the brainstorming process made it clear people have rather different ideas of what should be included, and we can't do it all. We also  have to get the tone right; if not, there could be a lot of criticism. It should inspire and encourage, without being self-glorifying or manipulative. A tall order.

Even as the project is challenging and stretching me, I'm glad the leadership is not in my hands. I'm just an extra copywriter, on hand to put in the extra time the overextended Communications Team doesn't have to give. I don't have to deal with building contractors and the budget process.

Surely the budget is anywhere near the one Collin Brum has to work with on his latest project. Collin is my stepmom's nephew; a sort-of much-younger cousin. Colin works for Coca-Cola. He's a marketing "events" guy. I think he started with pop-up tents and free Cokes on the beach, but he  has a lot more on his shoulders now. Still, if you'd "like to give the world a Coke," you should have a job like Collin's... he has managed promotional efforts at the Olympics since the 2010 games in Vancouver. I wonder if there's anything I could learn from him for my project with Pioneers?

See below for a video in which Collin gives a tour of Coca-Cola Station in Rio

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Cultural Training for 21st Century Mission

I don't think I ever posted this here, but the the Intercultural Studies team at my school published my Master's thesis on their website. (Their title for it is better than mine, too.) Don't worry, I'm not going to let this honor go to my head. The school has a strong history of commitment to educating current and future international workers, but the actual ICS department is pretty small. The option of completing one's Master's by writing a thesis (rather than completing a practicum) is a new, not available to all, and not what most are choosing to do. Only three of us wrote a thesis this year.

Get the highlights in my previous post, Equipping New Cross-Cultural Workers.

The school was only asking for a 15,000-25,000-word doc (60-100 pages) and recommended, for “case study research,” focusing on no more than 5-10 agencies.

I was concerned that the sample size would be too small or that more of the agencies I approached would say no, so I started with a list of 20 and ended up profiling 12.

Only later did I realize that processing the data in the time I had to do it would keep me from the additional steps I’d hoped for (follow-up interviews going deeper on key statements, and surveys testing patterns)… and the whole thing was quickly getting too long.

So I think the case study descriptions themselves are more helpful than my chapters on correlations and conclusions. I learned a lot and want to share that with anyone interested, but in terms of original research, it all feels more tentative than I’d like. I’m not making any plans to publish my findings elsewhere at this point.

Enough disclaimers? I'd still be thrilled if you read it or shared it with someone you know!

»  Read about Cultural Training for 21st Century Mission.

Friday, June 17, 2016

"God must have needed another angel."

My Baby Angel, by Draskias Art
He was a garrulous man and we'd just met him at church, accepting an invitation to share a table at a meal before the Wednesday night service. In exchanging pleasantries he discovered that Hubs is a chaplain. People seem to connect with that much more easily than with my ministry. So even though I've been working in missions all my adult life, Hubs comes across the religious professional in our family. Occasionally this rankles.

Maybe I should be glad of it. It means people seldom try to engage me on matters in which I have some expertise and experience, such as relating to people from different religions and cultures or understanding the cultural dynamics underlying global events. Sometimes they still say dumb stuff about those things in front of me which I have a hard time letting pass, but it doesn't seem to occur to them that I might know more than they do about what they're talking about. I'm more likely to get blank stares, though, than people who want to talk world mission with me.

It is, though something that happens to Chris a lot. People want to talk to him about death, grief, and loss, or make statements taking for granted what his job must be like or what he's trying to accomplish (e.g., evangelism? nope!). Sometimes they just say the most ignorant things... things I hate to hear, but at least it's just me, not  someone who just suffered a heartbreaking loss.

This time the man brought up a tragedy that had just occurred down in Florida. A two-year-old boy was snatched and killed by an alligator while wading in a pond at a Disney resort.

"God must have needed another angel," the man said with conviction, as if expecting nods and affirmation from the chaplain and his wife.

We both stiffened. What kind of terrible God would... ? Take a child from his parents so cruelly, for his own sake? Need more angels, really, at all? And where does this idea come from that people who die zip right up to Heaven and turn into angels, anyway?  How could someone who grew up in the church and came to this specific church because he appreciates that they teach the Bible (and not just the human ideas and traditions) fail to recognize how many things were wrong with this kind of statement?

But usually people do things for a reason, so I got to thinking about why people might think the "angel" bit is a helpful thing to say. I can think of several possibly comforting or encouraging implications of believing that kind of myth. It suggests that God has things under control, rather than letting the world's chaos run wild. It suggests that the child is in a better place and has in some sense been promoted, rather than suffering such a horrible experience without any positive results to perhaps mitigate things. It may be as if to say: Your baby is OK. So, even someone who didn't really believe that might consider it more palatable than alternatives! There are certainly other ways to arrive that these conclusions, though, ways that align better with the teachings of scripture, though they may not sound as slick. The "angel" idea might seem kinder, if indeed people are in a place to receive comfort of this sort (maybe so, maybe not).

Still, it is hard to sit and listen to someone malign God, really, and say things that are, when it comes down to it, biblically and theologically unsupportable (not to mention potentially very harmful or wounding if said to someone experiencing that kind of loss).

But what do you do? We'd just met this guy and his comment was only made in passing. No one was asking for feedback or instruction here. The right thing to do seemed to be just to let it pass. Hubs has also held his tongue in more sensitive settings, as when a family member or neighbor or nurse or deputy coroner says these words or others like them. To stop them and give a theology lesson isn't likely to keep such words from wounding the bereaved, just to shame and maybe anger or drive away the well intentioned but thoughtless speaker.

What do you do when people say thoughtless but terrible things like that? When would it be OK to confront them? Does it depend on the setting? Who else is present? How long they go on in that vein? Or maybe how well you know that person? Perhaps there are times when you know the person and can speak to them later about the problem, privately, as well as to offer the bereaved a chance to talk about it when the other person is not present.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Mulch, the local approach

At first glance I thought it was a hay truck, but the hay was more brunette than blond, and the bales were kind of small. Turns out it's not hay, but straw: "pine straw," which is to say, pine needles.

I would think they'd be awfully prickly, but apparently the trees and bushes don't mind. It's good for insulation, reduces evaporation, keeps the weeds down, and (at least according to the folks who promote the stuff) is a great way to beautify your landscape.

By the end of the day the bales had been slung out all around the apartment complex. Today contractors are out with rakes and spreading the contents of those bales thickly around all the bushes and trees. Each item looks like it's growing from its very own giant nest. Apparently this is the finished "look," though it will flatten in time to give the appearance I guess I had stopped noticing; last year's pine straw application.  

Have you ever gardened with pine straw? Just an East Coast thing?

Help. I can't get this to rotate. Sorry!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Summer Blues

Hey, it's my old friend, the summertime blues, my very own Seasonal Affective Disorder. This time it's a whole month early. (Usually I fight this battle in June). That may be due to the summer weather and the academic calendar; school was out almost two weeks ago. I graduated April 30.

I suppose it's possible my SAD response is rooted in some long-buried childhood trauma that happened this time of year. But I don't think so. As usual, I had a super-busy spring, and now face that "school's out, there's nothing to do, and nobody wants to play with me" dynamic. After a few weeks I'm usually OK again, and in the long run a quieter season is good for me.

A diagnosis of clinical, or major depression requires that you can check off the boxes on a number of symptoms and have experienced them most of the day, every day, for two weeks, and thankfully I'm far from that threshold even at my lowest lows. Bad days are mixed with good ones. That means drugs and doctors are not the answer...  though counseling, nutrition/exercise, and other behavioral treatments may help.

My favorite description of depression and a rather smart cure for it come from Brer Rabbit. See Depression: Its Causes and Cures (per Uncle Remus).

By the way, garden-variety depression has a much lower threshold than clinical depression, and at least once or twice a year you can put me down for that. The PHQ-2 Depression Screening Indicator asks these two questions:
  1. Over the past two weeks, have you ever felt down, depressed, or hopeless?
  2. Over the past two weeks, have you ever felt little interest or pleasure in doing things? 
Apparently, 82% of those who can give a positive response to one of those questions is depressed, and 92% of those who give positive response to both of them are (read more here).

Want do you think, is that assessment TOO sensitive? I mean, don't normal people feel down or hopeless at some point over the course of a fortnight (at least many a fortnight)? Isn't it normal to have some sad thoughts?

What I once heard described by a medical professional as the Single Item Depression Indicator is probably just as effective. Want to know if someone is depressed? Just ask them: Are you depressed? There you go, there's your answer.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Worldview Survey

Note: I came to grad school in hopes of improving my own teaching and writing and often pay as much attention to how things are taught as what is taught. This is one of those posts that analyzes my grad school experience more for approach than content.

Playing cards from "Magic: The Gathering." The artwork enlivened the
PowerPoint I made for a presentation about Magic for my Cultures and
Worldviews class. "Best in show!" said the professor.

My final class for grad school was a course they call "Understanding Cultures and Worldviews." It's a grand mash-up of cultural anthropology, philosophy, apologetics, biblical contextualization, and personal evangelism—all applied to a project in which students are asked to design and conduct an ethnographic survey in a non-Christian (or at least largely non-Christian) context.

Often students in this class have conducted studies among ethnic communities, e.g., African exchange students, Burmese refugees, or transplanted Sikhs. But the prof encouraged us to consider creative alternatives that would not fit anyone's traditional idea of a "culture" and gave us access to sample papers on groups like surfers, restaurant workers, African-American middle school girls, and Target employees. With research proposals due by the second class meeting, there wasn't much time to make a plan... my group took advantage of the latitude to propose a project focused on members of the community, some 20 million strong, who play a collectible card game called "Magic: The Gathering."

I'd never heard of it, but from what one of my teammates, who had the idea, told me, it sounded pretty interesting. Initial research suggested the Magic community showed signs of being a fairly vibrant subculture. I'd had some interaction with comic book geeks and video gamers, but that interaction was both positive and negative... I wasn't sure which aspects would be best reflected by the Magic players. By the end of the project I realized I'd already rubbed shoulders with Magic player not only at one of the coffee shops I frequented back in Colorado ("Enchanted Grounds Coffee Shop and Gameporium") but also on campus, as a group of students meets in the student center weekly to play the game.

The problem with choosing "Magic players" as a group to study became apparent as we explored the parameters of the assignment. While it included some room for studying the scope and social culture of the group and speculation about what it would look like to identify with the members or reach out to them in a contextualized way--the kind of thing I've done in ethnography projects in the past--what the prof really wanted  was quite different. He expected us to focus on worldview. We would need to put most of our energy into finding out what the people we interviewed believed about the origins and meaning of life, the source of power, man's ultimate destiny, the root of the world's problems and source of any solution, and basis for determining truth and ethics. The seven questions, he called them, though it was more like seven topics.

Yes, these were tricky topics to ease into with a stranger on your first meeting, but at least we could point out it was a school assignment as we wildly scribbling notes or ducked behind a laptop typing (we were working solo, not in pairs, unfortunately). At least they were fluent English speakers. Some of these things would have been tough to explore if they weren't. The whole approach contrasted considerably with the team-and-partner based, discovery-oriented approach I'd used for ethnography overseas in the past, which also usually also focused on questions more sociological than philosophical. So I was a bit grumpy about all this. I love doing ethnography and wanted to do it the way I like to do it! All the more reason, this being a learning experience, to try something different.

Magic: The Gathering is a card game, sometimes played at home
but often at gatherings held in game and comic shops
or conventions like this.

It's true that Magic players don't have a common worldview. If I'd realized how much that would be the focus, I would have tried to find a group actually formed around a common worldview or values... like my dad's Sierra Club. That would have been fun, and the results would have had more validity.

As we worked on our paper and watched presentations from other classmates, I saw what I think is the biggest downfall of this assignment, given the way it's designed: students are encouraged to do interviews with groups that lack sufficient commonality and then interpret and present data about what the group is like, focusing on prescribed topics rather than actual patterns they might discover. On the other hand, it gives students the chance to learn how to research these specific topics (and the professor evidence that they have done so).

If I could change one thing, it would be to do a class session or two--or at least an article or two to read--about interpreting findings. That was on the syllabus but didn't end up getting covered. You know, maybe I could contribute an article the prof might consider assigning, or write a chapter to add to his unpublished manuscript used as a text for the class? May take a look at that over the summer. One of the challenges is that this is a required class, and not just for those coming from or heading into cross-cultural work; the audience are current and future pastors, counselors, teachers, and more, and he's trying to give them skills he hopes they will use in a wide variety of roles and contexts.  

Anyway, Magic players seemed happy to talk to us, often at length, so things went pretty well one on one. As fans both of fantasy and intellectual inquiry, they often had good answers (or at least interesting ones). I may try using questions like these again.

The prof had us work out the questions in advance and asked everyone the same ones, though when there was time and interest, we could ask follow-up questions of course. It took more prep up-front but also took some of the scare out of the work and of course gave us more consistent answers. This was particularly helpful since we were doing interviews separately, pooling notes at the end, rather than interviewing together and reading each other's interviews along the way.

Trying to interest missionaries in doing ethnography has often been kind of a tough sell. Most don't see enough value in it or feel comfortable enough doing it to put in the time and effort necessary to make it really work for them. But this was a really carefully defined approach, put together by someone who not only has a lot of field experience in places like where we're sending missionaries these days, but also has a real slant toward evangelism. So something more like his approach might be a lot more palatable for some of our field workers, than the more ambiguous, sociological and developmental approaches that are all I really knew to give them.

So I have some new tools for my toolbox!

Below is the survey we used. The questions are classified under the academic-ese categories we used in class but written somewhat playfully in ways we hoped would connect with this specific audience. What would you think if a grad student said they wanted to buy you coffee and hear your philosophy of life? While some said no, we were pleased that so many took us off on our offer. We did some of the interviews over email or the phone, but face-to-face seemed to work best with this group.


1. Personal History: How did you get into Magic: The Gathering? Can you tell us your story?

2. Investment: In an ordinary month how much time and money to do you invest in Magic?

3. Networks and Relationships: How well do you know the other people who come? How many of them would you consider good friends? If you needed a favor, like someone to help you move, who would ask? How many of the people you play Magic with would help you?

4. Entertainment and Recreation: What other interests or activities would people who like Magic be “into”? What about you? What are some of the other things you like or ways you spend your time?

5. Influence: What are some ways you think being part of Magic: The Gathering and the Magic community has influenced you or affected your life?


6. Origin: Different people and cultures have lots of different ideas about how everything began. For instance, there’s the “Big Bang” theory, there’s the argument for intelligent design. It’s even been suggested that life began here when aliens came with a crystal containing all the essential components to generate life on earth. What do you believe is the most likely explanation regarding creation or how life began on earth?

7. Power: Is anybody in charge? Do you believe there is any ultimate force in control of the universe? How would you describe it? If there’s no ultimate force, what would consider the source or sources of power?

8. Destiny: Most of the world’s epic stories include some emphasis on destiny—the idea that our existence may have a purpose beyond what we can see. Other people just say you’re here today and gone tomorrow, and when you’re life is over, that’s all there is to it. Which perspective would best represent how you think? Or maybe you have another perspective all together that you’d be willing to share.

9. Problem/Solution: Every great story seems to have characters, tension, and conflict—some kind of problem that needs to be solved. Do you think there’s an ultimate problem in life that needs to be solved? What is it? What do you think is at the root of that problem or the cause of it? What does or would it look like to solve that problem? Is there any solution?


10. Truth: Many of the world’s most intellectually gifted, professionally accomplished, and artistically creative people have openly shared their perspectives about what they believe is true; not surprisingly, many of these perspectives conflict with one another entirely. How do you decide what you choose to believe? What factors are important in proving something? If someone told you something and presented it as a fact or a proven principle, what would you need before you could accept it as true?


11. Values: Do you think there’s only one standard for right and wrong, or is it just a matter or what’s right and wrong for me and what’s right and wrong for you? Or something in between? Imagine you’re at your favorite place to eat when suddenly, some guy you’ve never met before comes up and punches you in the face. Would you suggest that what just happened to you was wrong? Why or why not?


12. Is there anything else you’d like to share which we haven’t asked about?


a. Name, b. Age, c. Gender, d. City you live in