Monday, September 28, 2009

Travel and Pain

I used to tell people I was the missionary who doesn’t like to travel, which is both true and not true. I don’t usually say that anymore; travel has become more of a commonplace. Neither the stress nor the opportunity cost are as high as once they were; I’m just carrying on life from a different zip code. Or a different country code.

But what I seldom admit, even to myself, is the dull ache that often comes when I’m on the road – that sense of distance from my own place in the world, especially the disturbing disorientation of not understanding maybe 30, 50, 70 percent of the action and conversation going on around me. At least, that’s how it is when I’m in another country.

Yeah, you can usually find an English speaker, but that's only when they are talking to you. Otherwise, they are thinking and speaking in a language you may not understand. It would take years before you could eliminate the guesswork factor in watching the news or reading the paper, or making out street signs, menus, or things for sale in the shops.

Why should it be otherwise? You’re the outsider there, you know. And rarely is there a full-time interpreter at your side. For me, almost never. I don’t suppose I need one. But I feel a twinge of jealousy for friends who go on some two-week trip in the expert hands of a guide, never forced to feel the effects of being a stranger in a strange land.

I have enough experience to have a pretty good idea what kinds of things can happen, and the range of ways in which to interpret my surroundings. I can ask questions, or just coast, or charm my way through. But the loss of independence and competence sometimes feels like waking up and not having two arms anymore.

Maybe the typical tourist does not feel it so much. You certainly don’t get pick up on this if you’re just an armchair traveler. Guys like Rick Steves make it look so easy, don’t they? They seem so comfortable with themselves and their host cultures. Maybe if they didn’t have a camera crew, hired drivers and “fixers” (not to mention editors and producers), they wouldn’t go from one wonderful cross-cultural serendipity to another.

But real cross-cultural travel is no more like a travel show than family life is like a sitcom, and it doesn’t wrap up in half an hour. It goes on and on, and while there may be wonderful moments, there's often a lot of pain and confusion in between, just like trying to learn anything new and complicated that you aren't naturally good at.

I was trying to remember that on Saturday, when I dropped by the European food and culture festival at the park near my house. Tears came to my eyes as I watched the Bulgarian dancers, chose between a piece of baklava or a couple of pirogies, and listened to some guy speaking Russian on his cell phone. I wanted to be overseas again. I missed this kind of stuff. I identified with these bi-cultural people.

But I have to admit it isn’t all fun and games, traditional foods and dances. Learning to be okay with yourself when you’re the person caught between cultures – or between subcultures – it’s a lot of work. It's exhausting.

It’s the kind of thing that will drive you to prayer and force you to listen to your emotions and pay attention to your fears and expectations.

It takes faith.

So, is that a down-side or an up-side?

Overall, I find it more positive than negative.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


“Oh, how interesting.” That’s what people usually say when I share with them one of the dozen or so ways I might explain what it is I do for a living. And sometimes they mean it. Other times they are just being polite.

But when I meet people who live the same kind of life as I do, they volunteer a connection that lets me know that we are fellow members of a far-flung tribe: travelers, that’s part of it. Internationals, in a way. People who have lived and worked in other countries, not just vacationed there. People with global connections. And not just consumers, but people who have what I sometimes hear called “a heart for the world.” I don’t know if I like that term, though I can’t suggest a better one.

You probably know that tribal feeling; most of us belong to more than one or more such defining community. I feel much the same at the airport when I line up for a flight to Seattle and look around at the other people getting on board. In some hard-to-place way I can tell they are my kind of people; not like the ones lining up at the next gate for a trip to Dallas. Yes, we’re from the Pacific Northwest, the Left Coast. We’re dressed for rain. We recycle.

Similarly, I bet the kids at last week’s anime festival in New York feel the same way about each other. Or a group of NASCAR fans, or stay-at-home-moms, or Eritrean immigrants. (Maybe there’s even a club for NASCAR-loving Eritrean immigrant stay-at-home moms.)

I suppose I’m unconventional. But I’ve never been one of those people – are they, in a way, a tribe too? – who take pride in being weird, different, special, not like everyone else. Part of the appeal of spending time with people I think are like me is that they won’t look at me as if I’m some strange exotic creature.

The last few days I’ve had a lot of interaction with people who are part of that “internationals” tribe, and not just my coworkers and the people who write the usual flow of emails and articles I read.

  • There was the woman who called asking if we’d ever done ethnography on the lives of Somali refugee women, or knew someone who had. I gave her some good tips.

  • And the fundraiser – er, development officer – for a mission agency who dropped in for some research help. He’d been charged to write a paper about why raising Western funds for major building projects might not be the best way to build up churches overseas.

  • The same day I had coffee with a friend I’d worked with on a project in the Balkans and who recently adopted four kids from Liberia. We talked about African orphanages.

  • Another friend, who leads a church-planting team in Senegal, came through town and wanted to catch up; she needed a place to spend the night on Saturday.

  • At a concert Friday night I met a pediatrician, recently moved to Denver, whose fiancé is working as a surgeon at a Christian hospital in Pakistan. They expect to go back overseas together, probably in the DRC (Congo).

So, Friday afternoon, I was taken by surprise when this happened: Friends of mine who work for another mission agency get together regularly for multi-ethnic potlucks, and sometimes I go, too. This month the theme was Middle Eastern. Someone brought mint tea to round out our repast. “Have any of you ever had mint tea in Morocco?” I asked casually.

They all laughed.

It was the wrong question or came out the wrong way, I’m not sure which, but I immediately realized my words had set me apart. Sure, all of them had traveled, but not to the Middle East, and nobody had been to Morocco. They thought it was funny that I asked.

I was swamped by a wave of embarrassment.

Oh, I got over it. I still told them about the big sprigs of mint in the bottom of the glass, the tea poured over them from two or three feet in the air. But I wished I hadn’t brought it up.

How do you feel when you discover people who have done the unusual things that you have done, or had the same experiences? Do you like having “exotic” stories to tell or feel awkward about being different?

I have four speaking engagements next month. At least two of them will only work if I can do a good job telling culture-crossing stories from my own experience. So this is a good time to push aside any discomfort I have about being part of this tribe.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

For Fans of Sandy's

Alexander McCall Smith has a new book unfolding as a serialized novel hosted by the Telegraph. It's a sequel to the similarly published "Corduroy Mansions." This one's called "The Dog Who Came In From The Cold."

>> Read or listen to it read online.

I should warn you, though. The author, a master of popular fiction, likes to end each chapter with a twist or question to make you want to keep reading. But in this case you'll have to wait 24 hours to do so. If that kind of thing bugs you, check in on him once a week to reduce the effects of these cliff hangers. Or wait a couple months until the whole thing is posted.

The last one was a tidy 100 chapters long. Sadly, they have taken it down. The hardback edition came out in the UK in July, so that's probably why. I've yet to see it in my favorite bookstore.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Twirling Teacups, Anthropomorphic Mice, and More!

It was nice to suspend disbelief and cynicism for a week, but as I told a friend I think I'll be glad to have my brain back, too. Kind of feel as if I've been watching television for five days straight. But I thought I'd share some thoughts about our Disneyland adventure before returning to our regularly scheduled blog programming.


We met a lot of 'em, including a whole host of princesses (princessi?). Most costumed characters were not allowed to talk, and none of us were young enough to believe they were real, so it was hard to get into the whole take-a-picture, get-an-autograph thing. We some of did it anyway. I'd post some pictures for you, but honestly, next to Cinderella, my face looked waaaaay too blotchy and shiny! I would look a little better next to Sully from Monster's Inc, but didn't quite manage to match his stride well enough to catch up and have my picture taken.

The autograph book idea made me laugh: do you suppose, after doing that for days on end, the "cast members" accidentally sign their credit card slips "Snow White" and "Cruela deVille"?

I suspect parents are more into getting their kids to meet these characters than many kids are, although a book I read told about one young boy breaking away and running up to Mickey to fling his arms around him, exclaiming, "Mickey Mouse!" His first words ever. He was autistic.


They say that Disneyland is a place where dreams come true, and I'm inclined to believe it. R. got to go white water rafting (in a way) four times, and several of us took a small plane over the most beautiful parts of the state. We spent time in castles and storybooks, jungles and deserts and caves, the future and the past, and we experiencing life in some people's favorite movies, all in close succession.

On the other hand, many of the attractions are designed to tell a story, and I couldn't always figure out the plot even if I sort of knew it in advance. Things were rushed, disjointed, and confusing, just like real dreams. After all, how do you tell a complete story in just three minutes?

Even though the Haunted Mansion was closed, many of the dreams were nightmares. There were skulls and skeletons galore, and certain death and cars and other vehicles going out of control. I was chased by a yeti and swallowed by a whale and much more. It was all a bit too much like MTV for my taste. I like the long version of things, and I like things to make sense.


This is what I like most about Disneyland. Music and props and shows and people who tell you to have a magical day and celebrate life. I mean, I don't want to live in a Disney-drenched world forever, but I enjoyed it. There was some great dancing, and parades, and fireworks, and I bought myself a CD of songs to take home - some of which I remember listening to on my first record player when I was about six years old. Only now I can put them on my MP3 player and nobody will know I'm smiling because I'm listening to Zippity-do-dah.

Yes, my feet hurt from all the walking, but it's actually a pretty compact place and there's lots of shade. None of us got sunburned or blistered or sick, nor did we get lost or separated inadvertently. It's a pretty well-designed playground, and the sixth member of our party, V., had a good sense of direction and after nine previous trips to the park, proved to be an excellent guide. We sometimes split up but mostly went places together.

People Stuff

I'll admit, we probably weren't the happiest people in the happiest place on earth...
  • A., at six and a half, was opposed to anything that involved heights or anything that resembled a roller coaster in any form. She also preferred the few things we found where she could actually "play" instead of being a spectator. So, as I mentioned, she was frequently heard saying that she didn't like the park and wanted to go back to the hotel. There, in her eyes, there were more things to do. But she stuck with the program and didn't scream or cry when she didn't get her way. She's a good kid.

  • R., aged nine, liked the scarier rides, especially those that involved getting wet, but between the long lines and the parents who weren't so jazzed about dampness he didn't get all that he wanted. (Also, there was a major tussle about the question of whether he could buy himself a light saber. The answer was yes, but that he'd have to leave it at Daddy's!) There was some complaining and disrespect, but not too bad.

  • E., the mom, was stressed out quite a bit, though we did have some genuine laughs from time to time. What I think of as the "real" E. laughs a LOT, and I saw that a bit when we left the kids with their dad and went on some rides they didn't want to do. Life has sent some hard things E.'s way, and this trip was one of them. But she handled being thrown into close contact with S. pretty well. These last five years she's been diligent and mature about keeping the lines of communication open, treating him like an ally.

  • S., the dad, was a bit grumpy at times and would have rather been someplace peaceful and quiet, but he managed to suck it up very well. He was great with the kids, showing both maturity and humor, was supportive of E. even in the midst of her outbursts. S. also took us to a "medieval times" dinner and tournament the last night, which cost a pretty penny, but it was great fun, too. Saw some very skillful riding and swordplay ; - ) I think S. felt a little guilty, after, for exposing his son to yet more glorified violence. But keeping little boys from such things may be a losing battle (as it were).

  • My hope and prayer was that the major outcome of the trip would be that A. and R. would know that their daddy loves them, even if he only sees them once a year and doesn't always call when he says he's going to - and that he would fall in love with his kids all the more and keep them a priority even after he remarries this winter (that's the plan anyway; kids don't know about it.) And it's nice for me to have had this time and experience with E. and the kids as well.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Have a Magical Day

We've made it through three days at Disneyland. I know, that's a lot. And there are still two more days. We've mostly stuck together, but finding stuff that both kids are willing to do is a challenge. "I don't like Disneyland," says the 6.5-year-old with alarming frequency. She wants to go back to the hotel, though I'm not sure that she'd find that very fun either if everybody didn't come. The two kiddos get along pretty well most of the time, though, which is a huge help.

I'm impressed by how well my friends E. and S. - who have now been divorced for five years - are managing the co-parenting task on this trip. E. has sole custody and S. sees the kids about once a year. Even so, he seems to "get" them pretty well and is kind, fun, and affectionate. Also patient with and supportive of E.

I notice my own assumptions about the best way to do things - in terms of rest, nutrition, finances, etc. are pretty different from theirs, but I'm trying to just go with the flow.

Disneyland is a pretty special place. Most of the rides I could take or leave, but I love the courtesy and attention to detail from the staff - er, cast. Fireworks, shows, etc. are fun. I think I could get a coffee, find a bench on Main Street, and just listen to the music and watch people forever.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tribute to Glad Press'n Seal

And now for the rare domestic tip. Not rare in the blogging world - mommy blogs are full of domestic tips - but rare from me.

The roommate and I have become fans of a new kitchen product: Glad Press'n Seal Wrap.

Gone are the days of wax paper - we still have some in our kitchen, but it rarely gets used. We don't use much tinfoil (Deb informs me the term is outdated; it's 'aluminum' foil).

For a while we favored those plastic covers that look like shower caps.

And of course we still use various storage containers.

But this is better.

You can put Press'n Seal wrap over an open container OR directly onto the food itself, and it sticks. It has "body" like waxed paper, seals like plastic wrap, is reusable like tin foil. Fine in the microwave, fridge, or freezer. Just the thing for covering up a sliced melon; anything else would fall off and the melon would dry out.

(I understand there are a thousand other uses as well, but let's not get carried away!)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Social Networking: Publicity Op or Security Risk?

“Daughters then,” said the greeting card, with a picture of a distraught girl exclaiming:
“Mom! I can’t believe they read my diary!"
A second picture, captioned, “Daughters now,” had an equally distraught girl:
“I can’t believe only 200,000 people have read my blog!”

Yes, some of us do crave attention, it’s true. While others are uncomfortable being noticed. To some extent it’s always been that way. Yet new technologies seem to add wrinkles.

Missionaries and Social Networking

This is a big issue in the mission community. Many Christian workers are eagerly tapping into Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like for ministry purposes and in hopes of strengthening their communication and ties with colleagues and supporters. They happily share ministry-related news, prayer requests, and opportunities.

Others either shun or are very selective about their involvement in such environments. Many of them are Christian workers in sensitive areas; the risk is that someone will identify them in ways they do not wish to be seen. Even being linked to people who publicly use religious or spiritual language or post their Christian affiliations and job titles can seem threatening.

Several friends on Facebook have suggested I “friend” Joan in SE Asia, Diana in K’stan, and others whom I suspect would be as uncomfortable having my updates appear on their accounts as some of my other expatriate friends have been. If only they could be sure I only wrote about what I was making for dinner and posted cute pictures of my kids (oops, no kids!) it might be different. But that’s not what I tend to write about... So if they ask me directly, I’ll say yes, but I won’t follow the friend “suggestion” from someone else.

Maybe they wouldn’t care or have found ways to compensate for or minimize the risks.

Maybe if I wrote something they weren’t OK with they’d just “hide” my updates or “unfriend” me.

I just don’t know.

It’s touchy.

For me, the benefits of being open about my involvement in Christian missions, personally and professionally, outweigh the risks.

I’m a mobilizer: I’m not supposed to be keeping this stuff secret. My job is to spread the news.

But I also know I could come to regret today’s decisions, tomorrow.

Hiding in Plain Site

Blogging played a minor but interesting role in a novel I read recently. Anna - our heroine and sleuth - has a job tracing down missing people. When her own brother disappears, she puts her skills to work trying to find him, forgetting until almost too late a trick she herself had taught him: that you can preserve your safety and still communicate with loved ones by hiding your message in plain site on an anonymous blog.

I suppose the same would be true for running a crime ring, or something like that, wouldn’t? Maybe it will show up in the next Dan Brown novel!

Similarly: In a recent article about journaling, Grammar Girl mentioned that some people choose to keep a journal about their inmost feelings on an anonymous, unpublicized blog - for security’s sake. That's right. You can add to it anywhere, need not carry a book around, and don’t have to worry about your diary being lost or stolen.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Blog Topic Stew

It's been a good but full weekend. Small group met Friday night, book club Saturday morning, dinner and movie with the roommate Saturday night, and met back up with the small group after church Sunday morning to lead them in a prayerwalk at the school where one of our members teaches.

Now it's Sunday night, and I'm at the office dawdling a bit before diving into some pre-work-week prep. Yes, got to: I'll only be in the office two days. On Wednesday I leave for Disneyland.

Four adults, two kids, and a five-day pass: Yes, Disneyland. I told E. I'd go with her when the kids were old enough. She's a single mom. R and A are about six and eight years old. And guess who else is coming? Yes, the ex, and a guy friend of his. Could be a lot of fun. Or not. If you're the praying type, please lift us up.

Writing vs. reading: Recently I deposited a $108.54 check, the modest royalties from the sale (over a six-month period), of 286 copies of a book I wrote, Through Her Eyes. The same day, I found a $10 bill in a library book. In that case, my only labor was to choose, check out, and begin to read the book. Now, my work is not about making money. But the juxtaposition of these two events suggests: reading may be more profitable than writing!

Work stuff: I put in another 30 hours of work on tweaking and promoting Encounter Culture, an online class in cultural research principles and methods. We have - woohoo, three students! (And two of them are even paying us tuition). That's less than $100 we've spent on it, and $500 income. We can probably handle about 10 students at a time. Class doesn't "start" until Tuesday. I'm still hoping we'll get some more signups. I sent a proposal to a guy putting together a short-term team, suggesting that he run the group through this class instead of / in addition to some face-to-face orientation. If he agrees, that will be another 6-8 students, but I'm not sure when they will be able to start. We believe this class will take most participants 30-40 hours of work, so it's possible to do it in a month, comfortable to do it in two.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pretty, Popular, Good

(The Gospel of Not Good Enough, Part 3)

The heartbreaking adolescent desires to be pretty and popular and good seem long behind me. It’s been more than two decades since I graduated from high school. Now, work is the thing. But in some ways the struggles are the same.

I long to do work that is pretty, popular, and good!

Amazingly, I’ve been in the same job for almost 15 years. I’m a quick learner anyway, but with all the experiences and responsibilities that have come my way I have more knowledge, ability, and opportunity than I know what to do with.

Perhaps that’s part of why I so often agree to (or am slotted into) projects or priorities that are (by themselves) well within my scope, yet all together, not possible. Between internal willingness and external pressures I generally end up with too much to do.

This makes failure inevitable.

Yet when I think about the unfinished (and unbegun) projects, I get mired in guilt, shame, and self-condemnation.

At the office we’re working on annual plans. How can we do more? The assignment: come up with ideas for our next "big, hairy, audacious goals" (BHAGs).

Is this a reasonable question for a task-oriented group to ask? I don't think anyone is blind to the fact that if we add things to our to-do lists we'll need to take things off them as well. But I am torn. Part of me begs: Please, don’t push me to do more! At the same time, as each idea is discussed, I start to think: yeah…. We could do that. We should do that! 

I’m bewildered by my own emotions about all this.

The Gospel of Not Good Enough

Smart planning, good boundaries, and accountability can be very helpful. But for me I think these tensions can only be resolved by an internal reformation. The answers are wrapped up in how I see myself and my “contribution.”

Just as when I was an uptight teenager, I get caught in the trap of taking myself way too seriously. Looking back at those days at camp when I acknowledged to the God who made me how lost and desperate I felt, I remember how in repentance and surrender, I found freedom. I threw myself on God and gave up on trying to perform for him.

There is something so liberating about confessing, “I’m not good enough.” Especially when the response is, “I know. And that’s OK, it’s not the tragedy it seems. I love you. You are who I want you to be; you are where I want you to be.”

Isn’t that what the gospel is about, recognizing that good deeds and sacrifices are not going to cut it, that a radical change in perspective is required? This year I’d like to take some steps in letting go of finding my identity in my performance.

I want to embrace the gospel of not being good enough. 

Series: The Gospel of Not Good Enough

The prequel: Asking for Direction(s)
Part 1: Waving the White Flag of Surrender
Part 2: Best Week of Your Life
Part 3: Pretty, Popular, Good

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Best Week of Your Life

(The Gospel of Not Good Enough, Part 2)

One of the most significant times I experienced the joy and freedom of surrender was when I was about 15 years old.

I was part of a youth ministry called Young Life. Each summer Young Life sent hundreds of high-school kids to a camp way up North in British Columbia. You couldn’t drive there because there were no roads. You had to take a bus, a ferry, and then a smaller boat up to the Princess Louisa Inlet. It took about eight hours to get there.

The actual details of camp activities were a closely guarded secret. Sound cultish? Yeah, maybe, but they were aiming for more of a surprise party.

Me, I was expecting something rustic. Camp, right? Perhaps, though, since it was called “The Malibu Club in Canada,” I could have gotten the hint that this would be nothing like my Girl Scout experiences.

“The best week of your life – guaranteed!” read the advertisements. In a strange way, it was.

Turned out the camp was not really rustic at all. It was basically a cushy resort. Instead of canoes and campfires, there was a heated pool and an ice cream shop.

Girls brought their bikinis and cute clothes, hair driers and curling irons and makeup. Malibu offered a ropes course and zip line, swimming and water-skiing and ping pong and volleyball. One night there was a dance; another night, a dress-up banquet. And everywhere primping, playing, and lots and lots of flirting.

Here I was, serious, shy, and awkward, the girl whose least-favorite parts of school were PE, lunch, and recess. I didn’t know anybody there. You can imagine how out of place I felt. At that age, especially, I found few things more painful than “fun.”I haven't changed all that much! But in those days, I believed if I wasn’t having a good time when others were, it probably meant there was something seriously wrong with me.

I was disgusted with myself for not being able to overcome my deep discomfort to reach out to other people and be “friendly.” It was, after all, a Christian camp, and here I was, a Christian. Each evening included singing, and Bible teaching, and small-group discussions with cabin-mates about having a relationship with God. Moreover, I was the only "believer" in my cabin. (Young Life specializes in winning over the non-churchy kids.) Surely I should be able to suck it up and reach out to these girls. But I couldn't get my eyes off myself.

Scores of kids gave their hearts to God that week. But for me, the story was different. Somehow I survived the week and even managed to have a little fun along the way, but it was pretty rough.

And you know, that's just what I needed.

On the long trip back home I prayed and told the Lord: “I can’t do this anymore. I'm so sorry! I’ve been a Christian for a couple years now but I am not any better than I was pushing back my shyness to minister to others, at putting other people first. I'm of no use to you. I’m not good enough. Apparently I can’t ‘do’ this Christian-life.”

Then God responded. Really. He said, in that clear, gentle, re-orienting way that he has, “But I can.”

I don't think I understood, before, that that might be an option!

He cracked me open enough to pour in his peace and joy. I found that my desperation was not the end, but the beginning. The Christian life wasn't about trying to be a better person, a good Christian. Grace and acceptance were on offer, and that's what I needed.

Surrender has a way of turning everything upside down. It didn't change my attitude toward stereotypical youth group "fun," but for months, I could not stop singing.
"The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." Zephaniah 3:17
See also:

The prequel: Asking for Direction(s)
Part 1: Waving the White Flag of Surrender
Part 2: Best Week of Your Life
Part 3: Pretty, Popular, Good

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Waving the White Flag of Surrender

(The Gospel of Not Good Enough, Part 1)

A frequent failure to get things right can leave me feeling burdened and beat up. But I don't like to admit it.

This week at church we were served communion. While Catholics and some others observe the rite quite often, many evangelicals make room for this powerful transaction only once a month or once a quarter. So sometimes it catches me by surprise. 

Communion Sunday can seem like a pop quiz: Uh oh, he's here! (yeah, Jesus...) Oh, I know he's always there. But there's something a bit solemn about examining one's heart before taking the elements: Am I really right with God and man?

Yet if it is a test of anything, at least it is a test of willingness, not progress; openness, not achievement. Are we ready to welcome God when we see him? Can we confess to the one who designed us, “OK, I'm here too. I come as I am.”

After all, it's a pretty amazing invitation. Jesus says,
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
So, maybe it's better to push aside those thoughts that this is a test. And to receive it as a gift, instead.

* * *

The relatively small, vulnerable communities of Christians in Central Asia tend to refer to the act of turning to Jesus not as “believing” but as “repenting.” “When did you repent? Has she repented yet?”'

The language offends human dignity, but it works for me. Others speak of “following” Christ or “trusting” Christ. Each of these terms reveals that (as the saying goes) it’s not what you know, but who you know.

For me, the gospel is about getting to the end of the battle and discovering what happens when we surrender. The good news is you're not good enough.

Series: The Gospel of Not Good Enough

The prequel: Asking for Direction(s)
Part 1: Waving the White Flag of Surrender
Part 2: Best Week of Your Life
Part 3: Pretty, Popular, Good

Monday, September 07, 2009

Stopping to Ask for Direction(s)

(The Gospel of Not Good Enough, prequel)
"If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking." (James 1:5, NLT)
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” say the people who think it doesn’t hurt to ask.

But sometimes it hurts, doesn’t it?

Are you one of those people who hate to stop and ask for directions? I don’t exactly hate it, but don't tend to do it.

As followers of Jesus what a remarkable privilege it is that we can stop and ask for direction, quite often receiving it. Sometimes this comes through the rare, clear, conviction, “This is the way; walk ye in it.” Other times when we ask for guidance we may see it only in hindsight: having asked, we have been led.

Yet how often we choose the route of stubbornness, unwilling to stop and admit we're lost, to let someone else tell us the way to go. “I’m pretty sure I can figure this out on my own; I’ll just go a little further down this road and maybe I’ll start to recognize where I am,” we quietly think, all the while getting more and more off course.
"So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it." (Hebrews 2:1, NLT)
Series: The Gospel of Not Good Enough

The prequel: Asking for Direction(s)
Part 1: Waving the White Flag of Surrender
Part 2: Best Week of Your Life

Part 3: Pretty, Popular, Good

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Too Busy to Listen?

“Americans too busy to listen to the other side,” read the headline. Susan, writing a letter to the editor of the Denver Post (printed 9-3-09), explained:

“It seems to me that many Americans are so busy with instant communications – from instant messaging to texting – that they no longer listen to the other side of the ‘conversation.’ They are too busy thinking about their response.” *

I imagine we’ve always had this tendency. Not just as Americans but as humans. We are more interested in airing our own opinions than hearing those of others. When we do listen, it may be just to figure out what so-and-so says so we can borrow their authority and parrot their words to someone else. A form of listening, but a weak one.

Such habits may cut us off from thinking and deprive us of the joy and insight that can come from dialogue and conversation.

The Problem of Reductionism

Is instant communication part of the problem?

Even that is a yes-or-no question, isn’t it?

Our short, immediate communications are like that, too.

I don’t know about you, but I cringe to see sophisticated ideas reduced to T-shirt slogans and bumper stickers, tweets and texts and tiny little comments. Such media seem to provide little room to explore beauty or pain, to acknowledge complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance.

Oh, sometimes less is really more. But I wonder if in years to come there will be a “slow mail” movement along the lines of the “slow food” movement.

If a five-hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice still finds a cult following among members of my MTV generation, if video-game-addicted children (and adults) can still get lost in a Harry Potter tome, maybe some of us can still read (and write) thoughtful essays and hold conversations that stretch languidly across the years...

In Defense of Instant Communication

On the other hand, I do not think I agree with Susan that instant communication leads to less listening. Maybe instant communications can be a tool for listening instead of a weapon to defend us from having to do it.

  1. In spite of the name, instant communication often moves more slowly than face-to-face communication. You have more time to decide if and how to respond. Maybe in a true IM environment there's more pressure for an immediate reply. But tweets, texts and the like often go back and forth with more time and deliberation than a live conversation or phone call allows.

  2. Instant communication invites expression from those who may otherwise lack skills or opportunities to write, publish, preach or teach. Ordinary people can get into the game. At least, they can if they have a keyboard and internet access.

  3. Instant communication may lower the bar psychologically as well. Many who would find it too much trouble to do what Susan did – write a letter to the newspaper editor – or do what I'm doing, to blog about it - will respond to, “What’s on your mind?” in a line or two, or answer the question, “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. It seems so much easier.

  4. Instant communication usually encourages and includes a means for instant feedback. These things are interactive. They can create community. Many probably find a greater sense of connection through these means than through older, slower means of [at least written] communication.

To the frequent accusation that texts, tweets, social networking, and the like are taking the place of “real” friendship, I would respond that many harness these media to support and maintain their face-to-face relationships.

* The rest of Susan’s letter: This was a fine introduction, but I was waiting for Susan to transition into something about health care reform and how the big problem was that the people who are wrong won’t listen to the people who – thinking as she does – are right. But she held back, instead continuing her letter with a fairly even hand:

“I believe this has spilled over to many of the town hall meetings being held on health care reform, where yelling seems to be a great part of the exercise. Recently deceased Sen. Ted Kennedy was a listener, albeit a strong supporter of his causes. He listened to members of his party in Congress and to members of the Republican Party. As a result, during his long career he was able to help craft many bills to the benefit of those in society who are unable to speak for themselves - on issues such as health care, civil rights, immigration, a fair minimum wage and educational reform.”

And that's all she said. (No, "and so, MY point is....")

See other posts on "Listening"

Friday, September 04, 2009

Hungry Hungry Hippos

Maybe you heard about the wildlife menagerie assembled by Pablo Escobar, a Columbian drug lord gunned down by police some years ago. He had invested some of his wealth in an extravagant collection of exotic animals. Most were taken by local zoos after the cocaine king’s death.

But the collection included nine hippos (now multiplied to 19; some reports say two dozen). No one could take the hippos. They remain in the area but without secure fences or a reliable food source.

The hippos were in the news in July when they got out, attacked some humans, and killed a few cattle (not usual behavior for happy hippos; a sign of food insecurity). Fearing for public safety the government arranged for one to be shot. Animal rights groups intervened before its mate could be killed as well. But these creatures are non-native and could wreak some serious havoc with the ecosystem if they took they went native and took to the jungles.

It must be hard to fence in a hippo, much less a whole herd of them. And what about the 80-100 pounds a day of grass or hay it takes to feed even one? I bet these are some hungry hippos.

“If there is anyone out there who needs 19 hippos and who has a few Colombian pesos to spare, please get in touch,” writes Wildlife Extra.

Want a hippo? This little guy is awfully appealing, in a Moomintroll kind of way. But I understand they get bigger.

(Photo by Carlos Andres).

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Training in Relationship-based Research

Whew! It’s been a long and sometimes boulder-strewn path but I’m pleased to announce we’ve reached the end (or the beginning?) We’re ready to launch our online course in ethnographic research (aka, “drinking tea with people and listening to their stories!”)

My co-workers and I created Encounter Culture: Developing Research-informed Ministry so that people anywhere in the world can receive training in cultural learning – the kind that the research teams I work with have been doing for decades.

Maybe you know somebody (or are somebody!) who can use these skills. Encounter Culture is for Christian workers, church planters, strategists, short-term teams, and anyone pioneering a new, cross-cultural ministry or seeking deeper insights into the culture in which they find themselves (close to home or far away).

Can you help us spread the word? The first class will be September 15th to December 15.

Online Training in Relationship-based Research

Pioneering new ministry or seeking deeper insights into the culture where you live? Learn relationship-based research techniques used by short-term teams, church planters, strategists, and students around the world since 1988. Encounter Culture is a 10-week experiential training course developed by Caleb Resources using the book, “Exploring the Land.” A class begins September 15, 2009, and the next one is scheduled for January 15, 2010.

For more information or to register, see

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

August Reading Roundup - Part 2, Nonfiction

A Resilient Life, by Gordon MacDonald - Pastor and writer looks at the habits, decisions, and disciplines that shape the lives of people who are resilient, and the things get in the way. Seems to be directed toward those who are in or beginning their "second half" of life, wanting to live wisely, keep growing, and make a difference. I found this volume helpful and gracefully written.

I blogged about several sections of it here: Life's Great (and Changing) Questions and Pesky Emotions.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama - The first black president of the Harvard Law Review (that was his big claim to fame, at 33) writes about his first few decades. This book explores Obama's family, upbringing, and search for his place in the world, including growing up in Hawaii, a couple years in Indonesia, school and university, and his early career as a community organizer in Chicago (working closely with the black churches, though he does not seem to have been a believer, at least not to start with).

Really interesting. A good chunk of the book describes an extended visit to Kenya where he tried to understand what it meant to be the son of a father he scarcely knew. Talk about a resilient life... I'm impressed.

The Invisible Wall: A Love Story that Broke Barriers, by Harry Bernstein - Boy grows up in a struggling Jewish family in a Yorkshire mill town between the wars. Though the Jews live on one side of the street and the Christians on the other, an invisible wall divides the two. Few are willing to cross it and face the consequences. Read this rather poignant memoir of those days for my book club, at the recommendation of Bob and Kathryn who live in that part of the UK.

There were things in this book that would have been changed had it been fiction. Reality does not unfold as gracefully, does it? Look for a new book from Donald Miller ("Blue Like Jazz") about trying to edit and find the narrative in his life. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life comes out at the end of September (I tried to get a review copy through this link but they were all snapped up pretty fast!)

Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner - Journalist explores the connections between place, culture, and happiness, visiting ten countries who pursue (and to some extend find) that elusive quality of bliss in various ways. Really enjoyed this one, learned a lot, and came away with much to reflect on. I blogged about this book here: The Geography of Bliss, and Switzerland, Iceland, Moldova, and the Geography of Bliss.

Crazy Love, by Francis Chan - Maybe I will blog about this as well. Here's a taste:

"I wrote this book because much of our talk doesn't match our lives. We say things like 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,' and 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart.' Then we live and plan like we don't believe God even exists." (p. 168)

"For so much of my life I didn't understand the desirability of God or trust in his love enough to submit my hopes and dreams. ...I knew God wanted all of me, yet I feared what complete surrender to him would mean. Trying harder doesn't work for me. Slowly I've learned to pray for God's help, and he has become my greatest love and desire." (p. 170)

>> See also August Reading Roundup - Part 1, Fiction