Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Central Asian Country Bans Santa

As many readers know, after seven years working in the home office of a U.S.-based mission organization, I took to the field. My goal was to experience what it would actually feel like to leave the Western life behind and take one's first steps in a new existence at the ends of the earth.

Of course from the perspective of Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 ("you will be my witnesses..."), my new home in Oregon is much more ends-of-the-earth than Muslim Central Asia could be. The town where I lived there is only about 2000 miles from Jerusalem (as the crow flies), while this one is about 7000. Culturally, too, a Central Asian person's mindset and way of life has more in common with a first century middle-easterner than you'd find in North America.

Yet the Soviet Russians left their mark. As these Christian-background atheists expanded their footprint in that region, they brought some aspects of European Christendom and introduced redesigned and secularized winter holidays to bring a little light into the darkness (without stirring up anyone's religious or ethnic sensibilities).

They popularized a character my friends called Kor Bobo, grandfather snow, the jolly man in in a fur-lined suit (sometimes red) who comes around each December. And Archa Bairam, the tree festival, where schools and communities gather pine branches and decorate them with tinsel and ornaments. The big holiday is Yangi Yil; people sing carols, make festive dishes, and exchange holiday greetings and presents in honor of the New Year.

Now the government of one country, Uzbekistan, is lashing out a bit against these too-Western traditions. See the article Uzbekistan Bans Santa to get the details.

St. Valentine's Day posed a similar threat -- it was an affront to national values. So like nationalists in India and some other Asian countries, Uzbekistan has tried to suppress it. They still allow International Women's Day, with its chocolates and flowers and a day off work. Perhaps that ought to be enough. The government encouraged local folks to replace Valentine's day with a celebration of the February birthday of local hero, ruthless Moghul warlord (and passable poet) Babur (1483-1530).

I'll leave you with a few lines of one of his early verses, recorded in his journal (aka "the Baburnama")

Other than my own soul I never found a faithful friend.
Other than my own heart I never found a confidant.

No, maybe Babur would not have been a fan of St. Valentine's Day.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Fifteen Days and Counting

A hundred Christmas cards, that's what I'm hoping to send. It may go without saying that they will not go out the day after Thanksgiving. I'm just aiming to get them in people's hands by Christmas Eve. If it seems strange to send that many, consider my occupation as a support-raising missionary-type person - a trade that makes space for and in fact to some extent requires maintaining a large network of loose ties, supporters and colleagues and praying friends. Most of my communication is electronic; I don't send mail like I used to. But having done wedding invites less than a year ago, we have an unusually up-to-date list of addresses.

It has been much harder than I expected to get together with friends and relatives this last year, or even to get on the phone with them. So I'm hoping this batch of cards will help send the message, "Hey, we're still thinking about you!"

Probably need to resist the urge to explicitly say, "And let's get together soon!" I long for such interaction. I'm not sure what it would take to make space in our lives for it now. Maybe this is just a season for doing without. We did join a small group at church... and just learned the leaders are disbanding it. So it's back to the drawing board.

But you know, I do enjoy the long-distance communication too. And Christmas cards are part of that plan. I have the supplies to make simple ones by hand using inexpensive materials, and will enclose photos that ran us nine cents a copy. So the chief investment is the time to assemble things - and that will go by during the space of a holiday movie or two.

Every year I get fewer and fewer Christmas cards. Some post their greetings on Facebook, or send them out by email. Others still do a mailing, but it's either a letter, or a card; seldom both. I wonder what it will be like this year?

When the cards are done, it's time to think about Christmas gifts. We've purchased two or three things but there's quite a ways to go. I have a budget, and last year's list. I think we need to sit down and make a plan together. But this will have to wait until Hubs is done with school. It's his last week.

Here's something I recently read about holiday gift giving. The specific question was: "Is it the thought that counts?"
"...The latest psychological research indicates that the amount of thought you put into a gift has very little impact on how much the recipient likes the gift, let alone how much they bond with you. Research indicates that if you put a lot of thought into a gift that tends to make you feel a lot better than it does the recipient. Furthermore the process of carefully choosing a gift bonds the purchaser more to the recipient than it does the recipient to the purchaser. Then what does make someone feel good about a gift? Getting the gift they wanted, that’s what!"

See Do Yourself a Favor and "Voucherize" this Christmas Thing (Forbes).

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Life Under Pressure

Things like journaling and blogging were pushed to the back burner last month - there were articles to write and edit, the twitter stream I've been feeding for work, quite a bit to read and write about for school, and plenty of demands connected to the house and family. Life is full, and not just my life but the life of every member of my little family. Too often I've found myself carrying at least a low level of guilt and shame attached to unfinished tasks and failures. Next week D. comes back to us, and it's time to set the alarm clock for 5:30 again to get him to morning swim practice, every day.

I'm hoping things will lighten up a bit this winter but am trying to be realistic; it may go on like this for some time. And it's helpful to realize that I actually prefer it over the the depressed state that comes on me when I have plenty of time and nebulous responsibilities and still can't manage to get things done - the boredom of a life that's too empty or unstructured. Knowing I'm in over my head brings its own odd kind of comfort. It helps me sleep at night. I'd rather live something more like the contemplative, spiritual, relationship-driven way of life I tasted on sabbatical, but since that's not in the cards at present, I can find a form of contentment in the way things are.

Hubs, though, is struggling with what we think is sleep apnea, and feels rotten much of the time. He can rally his energy when he must for work, school, and fire department, but has little left when he comes home. Even though we are able to block out 8-10 hours and sometimes more for sleep, at 3:30 or 4:00 pm each day he starts to feel like death warmed over. He saw a doctor recently and has an appointment with a specialist next week, and those are hopeful developments.

Sleep apnea is a big deal but quite treatable. I hope it doesn't take months to jump the hoops to get him the C-PAP machine that is the usual prescription. Meanwhile, he built himself an interesting breathing contraption of his own design, one using a fan, a funnel, some small plastic tubing and a whole lot of duct tape... This does not do much, really, but it helps somewhat - and what fun to come up with and execute the plan!

I find a choice before me. Will I rise to the challenge of focusing on and caring for my not-all-there husband - and, at least when he's with us, our son - and love them? Or will I cultivate worry, self-righteousness and resentment because this is not what we had hoped for?

The path of self-pity, though I can "justify" it, only increases my own pain and everyone else's. It's like adding a 15% tip or tax onto whatever trouble comes our way.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Seminary Update

One artist's rendition of the perennially popular
four horsemen of the apocalypse - or at least their horses.
I'm wrapping up my latest seminary class, the fourth in a series of Bible survey courses.

Still have to go back and take number three, a gallop through just four books, the Gospels. From the syllabus it looks like these are taught through a method that mashes them together in a chronology. I don't quite approve... Luke's purpose and narrative are not Mark's - shouldn't they be read as literature and theology more than as history? On the other hand, as each class has brought surprises and deepened my appreciation for the scriptures and how to understand them, so I have enough faith to sign up for Bible 5132 and look at the Gospels, too, through new eyes.

Meanwhile, I'm finishing "Acts to Revelation: God's People Proclaiming Redemption Globally."

Perhaps the most helpful discipline has been an assignment, for each book we cover, to read it through in one big gulp, then again more slowly looking for insights in every chapter. What's your takeaway? What leaps off the page, challenges you, what do you want to hold on to, to chew on and digest and make part of yourself? Reaching the end of the course I realize I've made a list of 171 such things - a rich collection of mini-sermons from the Holy Spirit to myself. Also included in the class assignments are my observations on each book's purpose, atmosphere, and contribution to a theology of global mission. (Here's the assignment.)

Sure ending with a bang. Revelation is a shocking book, full of contrasts and symbols. Prophetic-apocalyptic writing is like the genre of magical realism, like dreaming with your eyes open. It's hard to know where it crosses the line between description and metaphor, but some of the language could not be other than figurative. For example, when John describes locusts that look like horses but have human faces, womanly hair, and are wearing crowns, I realize we aren't supposed to keep our eyes open for horsy locusts - he's talking about something else. But what? 

After we study each book on our own, it's time for online lectures, chiefly narrated PowerPoint presentations. They are quite helpful. Lot of background. Less dogmatic than I expected. My professors and text-book authors seem glad to let each book sing in its own key without attempting to simplify them overly or and force them to support a certain doctrinal structure. They present a variety of views and let us know which one they find most convincing but often require us to pick teams. At some point I am sure I'll run into professors who do, but not yet.

I like some healthy ambiguity, though there's such a thing as too much. Recently heard someone tell the story of his attempts to be ordained in the denomination of his youth - one that has drifted a bit from its early moorings as a movement promoting holiness. They asked him, "What did Jesus mean when he said he was the way and the truth and the life?" My friend tried to couch his answer in terms that the examiners would accept ("to speak 'Liberal,'" he told me) but was unable to do so. "I like to think of God as 'Delicious,'" said one of them. "We may not be talking about the same God at all. But your idea of God is Delicious, and my recipe is as well."

As I understand the Bible, though, it teaches that God is a person and he reveals himself to us. Though we may see and understand different aspects of who he is, it is not up to us to write the recipe, to decide what we want him to be like.   

Monday, December 03, 2012

An Engineer's Guide to the Grocery Store

Here's the method of grocery shopping which I learned from my parents:

If there was something we were out of, something we needed or wanted, one of them would say (sometimes with a tinge of impatience) "Put it on the list!" There was always a grocery list, and it was usually posted, quite logically, on the refrigerator door.

We were also encouraged to make note of the item desired by adding it to more or less the right part of the list, which was composed in "grocery store order." You see, as long as the produce items were listed before dairy and meat, or frozen foods before bread, the shopper can proceed through the store in a smooth and orderly way.

And of course, one would never want to show up at Thriftway without the shopping list in hand. Certainly, you wouldn't just drop in because you were hungry!

Hubs laughed when I tried to explain this system to him. Can you imagine? "Sounds like something a couple of engineers would come up with!" he said.

OK, yes, I do come from a family of engineers and mathematicians. Maybe that's where I get my skills in research, copy-editing, fact checking, code-cracking and puzzle-solving. Not that I always use those skills, but I can pull them out when needed.

There's a strong streak of creativity in my family, too. Sometimes we do make things up as we go. And by nature I think I'm less systematic than some of my kin. That is to say, I like to develop systems and processes, but I constantly tweak them and sometimes mix things up just for fun.

You know, go into the grocery store and turn right instead of left. Do my shopping clockwise one week, and counter-clockwise the next!

Q: Do you shop more systematically or more impulsively?

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Did you know?

1. That we all need more drugs?

I don't get many comments here, but most of those that come through are in the form of spam. Actually, an avalanche of spam. Rather depressing. The spammers (at least) seem to be mostly concerned with what they consider our real problem, a lack of medication. And, ready to help, they suggest purchasing our medications from their own sketchy sources. Guess I can be glad that though my life has its darker moments, I don't require prescription drugs, eh? A shout-out to those who do, though. Sorry about that.

2. That resuscitation isn't what it used to be?

I'm also thankful that most of us do not require the professional services of the fire department. I do enjoy getting the inside scoop on their operations, courtesy of my EMT husband and the scanner I usually listen to when he's off on a call. Lately they've been practicing a new form of CPR. The old system gave you about a 6% chance of survival. (Kind of grim. Didn't tell you that in first aid class, did they?) This method, at least if conditions are right, can up your odds to 50%. Go for it, guys!

Did you also know that they practice chest compressions with the aid of a metronome - or, during drills, a sound track? Songs with a rate of 100 beats per minute preferred. "Stayin' Alive" is a popular choice, and more encouraging than the otherwise equally effective, "Another One Bites the Dust"!

3. That another superpower is having an election this week, too?

It isn't an election in the same sense of the word, I suppose. But the Communist Party of China is having its National Congress in Beijing, and there there will finalize selection of new leaders, particularly the 300 members of the party's Central Committee. The national congress only happens once every ten years, so it's kind of a big deal. China's current president Hu Jintao (who holds several titles), will be announcing his successor. Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to take over as president in March.  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Unwrapping the Gift of Restlessness

I'm working on a quick review of the book Kingdom Journeys: Rediscovering the Lost Spiritual Discipline. The gist of the book is that most of us, especially the young, are at some point given a Gift of Restlessness ("God's call to leave everything") in order to seek out experiences of initiation - to leave behind the known and comfortable, go somewhere new, and wrestle with issues about identity, purpose, and meaning.

The author advocates seeking out encouraging such physical-spiritual pilgrimages, and tells hundreds of stories of people who saw their lives turned upside down (for the better) because of them.

Maybe it's a sign of my middle-agedness or lack of an adventurous soul, but I'm questioning some of the basic ideas he presents. I think I can give it a positive review but with reservations. I agree that we grow more from experiences, especially those that take us into new situations, than from sitting somewhere in a classroom and being taught. I know from personal experience what great things can come from facing the challenges and ambiguity of navigating a different culture. I'd certainly say that many of life's greatest lessons require dying to self, experiencing pain, and walking with others through suffering and loss. But to what extent should we advocate actively seeking out such things, along with adventure and danger, versus responding with courage when God calls or brings them to us? I think Seth overstates his case with his claim that everyone needs to do this, that the best way to grow is to get up and leave all you know.

Hmmm... I need to ponder this more.

A good friend of mine just told me of a recent traumatic experience she had attending a training that  required participants to stay in a sleazy hotel infested with bedbugs and located in a neighborhood known for drugs and prostitution - apparently to simulate conditions in which typical participants may find themselves down the road (though I don't think that assumption is accurate).

If your goal is to have people internalize a message and learn a skill, I think you should do your best to make sure that the emotional impact of those things exceeds the emotional impact of the travel, living conditions, etc. - since those things are not the point. Yes, God may want to use that kind of hardship to get through to someone but I'm not sure we should be bringing such things on ourselves or engineering them for someone else.

Well. Here's what the author of Kingdom Journeys says to look for in a mission/travel pilgrimage, a "Kingdom Journey." How many of these items would be on your list? Should they be? Brace yourself, my non-Christian friends, 'cause this is going to make us look like a cult.

In looking at a program, the author says, be sure to ask questions like these:

Abandonment:
  • Will the program force me to abandon my comfort zones?
  • Will I be gone long enough for abandonment to sink in?
  • Will I have a coach who will push me to leave and separate from the people and activities that have defined me at home?
  • Will I have a community that will encourage me on my journey?
  • Will I be challenged by other cultures and different ways of living?
  • Will I receive feedback about what I need to leave?

Brokenness:
  • Does the program encourage brokenness?
  • Will I have a coach who will push me to embrace my pain and not give up?
  • Will the journey bring me to those with huge needs: the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the hungry?
  • Will I be able to use my brokenness to help others?
  • Will I have to surrender my rights and expectations?
  • Will it emphasize getting over my needs to serve other people's needs?

Dependence:
  • Will I be required to depend on God for food, shelter, or money?
  • What basic necessities will I have to struggle for?
  • In what ways have past participants seen their faith in God grow?
  • How will I be forced to grow in my trust of God?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Feeding a family - tensions in the kitchen

Food & Family, Then:

When we were little, my sister and I liked to play with food. Did you? Not just constructing things out of mashed potatoes, I mean, but elaborate games. We built pretend salads on the sidewalk out of dandelions ("chop suey!" we'd pronounce it) and hosted "restaurants" for each other, with menus made of construction paper and crayons; order anything that sounds good to you. The trial and error of it taught us a few things about what goes together and what doesn't.

We started learning how to cook and bake at an early age and took pleasure in whipping up our own hot cocoa or macaroni and cheese from scratch. We transformed hot dogs into alligators, with gaping "mouths" and cloves for eyes. We popped popcorn, we made nachos, cinnamon toast, pancakes, biscuits, grilled cheese. As the years went on, more complicated things.

We also grew up with lots of fruit and vegetables, often from our own garden. You could often find one of us grazing in the cherry tomatoes, snap peas, or berries. I know there were battles, in our house, over food - particularly the matter of cleaning one's plate. But I have a hard time understand why some people don't like vegetables; we always had them and they were great.

My parents did not want to have a lot of processed food in the house; homemade was best. And not a lot of sweets; Mom didn't like to be tempted (nor do I, now). But we had banana bread, and sometimes homemade ice cream, and Meg and I liked to make cookies, puddings, or cakes. We also learned how to make ordinary foods sweeter. Jam on eggs, jam on toast, jam on a grilled cheese sandwiches (a favorite - you should try it!). And who needs flavored yogurt when you can make your own? Jam again, or fruit, or lemon juice and honey. We sprinkled sugar on our egg "pancakes," and made cinnamon toast, and the little cinnamon-sugar roll-ups out of extra pie crust.

*     *     *

Food & Family, Now: 

I think a lot about food these days; I'm the primary person in our house who budgets, shops, cooks, serves, cleans up. What do we need? What do we want? It's all so different than when I was just answering those questions for myself, and a relatively small proportion of what's in the kitchen will be for my own consumption.

Ever since the text message we got on the honeymoon (that daughter H. was going on a radical diet and would require completely different meals starting our first day back) feeding the new family has been a challenge. I admit there are many advantages to coming into family life when everyone and everything is so well established. The kids are mostly grown, and our daughter is pretty much out of the house now. Parenting skirmishes are fairly few and far between and not mine to fight.

But every now and then I feel a little sad at the death of one or another of the little ways I thought I'd do things if I had my own family, and some of them have to do with food. Such an emotional thing.

It's a little late to introduce new things and have much influence over their tastes. It's not just food, but lots of other household things too, as well as light, noise, and temperature. I'm amazed how many things we're worked through to arrive at satisfactory conclusions. Hubs and I were just talking this morning about how frequently, since we got together, we have seen and continue to see the hand of God at work in our lives, working out things beyond our control, leading us. So much has worked out so well!

But there is some loss, and I feel it. I'm sad our kids have no interest in dyeing Easter eggs, carving pumpkins, or putting up the Christmas tree and stockings. Hubs doesn't either. I have to decide if I'm going to do those things on my own, or put them aside, like singing, and reading aloud, and other things that used to be part of my life but are not anymore. Who knows, maybe there will be grandkids someday will want to share some of those traditions I enjoyed with my family and with other housemates and friends in the years since then.

When it comes to mealtime, young D. is a deeply conservative sort, suspicious of what is off-brand or unfamiliar (though sometimes motivated to attempt an experiment of his own choosing). Still prefers not to mix foods on his plate but will dish up just one thing at a time. I respect him too much to force the issue. Respect, appreciation, and affection for both Hubs and our son exceed my desire to introduce them to new things, things they might like or might be better for them. I push a little; we don't have the time and money for everyone to get just what they want. But I learn to shop and cook with what they want in mind. Including the things about which they feel nostalgic. Some of which I've come to like as well.

Bit by bit I'm also learning to reassert some of my own preferences, to feed myself the way I like to be fed without resentment or coercion of the others. I can't eat like a growing, teenaged scholar/athlete, or a man of more than 15 stones. Our needs are different, as our tastes are too.

As I reflect on these dynamics of our blended family, I'm reminded that every family, even those "begun" by a couple of 20-somethings from similar backgrounds who (unlike us) have never been out on their own, requires some process of blending. Almost nobody who comes into a family - or even into a marriage or partnering relationship - with carte blanche to live out all their childhood dreams or plans for what their family is going to be like. And biological children, coming into the family as infants, surprise their own parents by defying assumptions, plans, or expectations. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Knack

Doctor: "It's worse than I feared."
Mother: "What is it?"
Doctor: "I'm afraid your son has ... the Knack."
Mother: "The knack?"
Doctor: "The Knack. It's a rare condition characterized by an extreme intuition about all things mechanical and electrical ... and utter social ineptitude."
Mother: "Can he lead a normal life?"
Doctor: "No. He'll be an engineer."
Mother: "Oh, no! [crying]"
Doctor: "There, there. Don't blame yourself."

Source: "Dilbert" animated TV show, season 1, episode 9
(Curious? find clips online or watch the whole thing on Netflix)
How is it that some people can go to a place once and know how to find it again, while others regularly miss turns to get to their own houses or workplaces? Is it a matter of "knack"? Why do some learn the rules of writing and expression, or science and logic - retaining and applying those standards with a high level of consistency - while others never seem to grasp or internalize them? Concentration and persistence can overcome many a weakness, but most of us will only persevere in the areas where we expect to find success - in the areas of our strengths.

The sad part is this: Why do we have such a hard time resisting the urge to defend our gifts while denigrating those of other people? Why are we so tempted to look down on those who have talents that differ from our own, or mock those who struggle with what we see as simple?

Hubs showed me "The Knack" episode when I expressed surprise that his technological abilities are based less on knowledge than... magic. He doesn't always know how our stuff works and he can't teach me, but his intuition tends to be spot-on when we are dealing with anything sporting a battery or power cord.

Since my knacks lie in different areas (and probably because I'm a sinner), I'm tempted both to envy and to slyly undermine his abilities. I try to remember it's in everyone's best interest that I appreciate them and offer praise and affirmation instead.

I bought a new printer-scanner-photocopier for work and left it in the box for several weeks. When I finally tried to set it up I faced two hours of frustration trying to get it to work. I read all the instructions and studied the diagrams but could not get the ink cartridges inserted properly. "They're upside down," said Hubs, solving the problem in two minutes. You'll be glad to know I didn't hit him.

So. I think appreciating other people may be more important than figuring out your own best fit. Though many of us fall pretty far short in the latter, as well. And that can hamper us from living a fruitful and satisfying life. One's own soul is worth exploring.
Make a careful exploration of who you are
and the work you have been given,
and then sink yourself into that.
Don’t be impressed with yourself.
Don’t compare yourself with others.
Each of you must take responsibility
for doing the creative best you can
with your own life.

Galatians 6:4-5 (as rendered in Eugene Peterson's The Message)
Recently I started doing some writing/editing for a website/ministry called AskaMissionary.com. My work is fairly invisible at present. Give it some time and I think you'll see the quality and consistency of the contents creeping up. (I have a knack...)

The basic idea is that people who think they want to be missionaries come to the website with their questions, and people who are (or have been), answer them. And the best thing is that when all goes as it is supposed to, they don't get just one perspective, but several.

Rather than populating the database with endless variations of a question we try to steer the reader towards similar queries, only adding new questions and answers when we think they enrich the whole thing (though everybody gets a personalized response, directly).

Think of it as a Dear Abby for the missions world.

In conversations with mission recruiters I had heard that more and more potential missionaries are starting their inquiries with questions about whether or not they can use their college degree or specific skill in missions, and if so, where and how. Others, maybe younger or earlier in the process, are asking what kind of education or career they should pursue if they want something that can be used on the field. That sounds a little better; it may suggest openness and willing to do what is most needed, or it may point to a lack of self-knowledge and "calling." Hard to say.

Many of the questions that come into askamissionary.com are right along those lines - people trying to figure out if there's a place for them. "I am interested in studying optometry," asks an 18-year-old from Texas. "Will this be useful in the mission field? In what ways, if so?"

Oftentimes I can think of someone I know or have heard about who is using that exact skill in their ministry. In this case, John, our big ally in the medical world, was ready with a pithy response. He said:
Optometry is wonderful on short-term missions trips. For examples see (link to The Fellowship of Christian Optometrists). But almost everyone I know who does full-time healthcare missions overseas is in another specialty. We have answers online on that. Please click on the below question links to read those answers:
...Do we publish their correspondence or not? I'm not sure. As I said, we don't think we should add every new question that comes in. We may already have enough content on medical missions.

Anyway, I want to push back. Here's why.

I think "knack" is at least as important as training or credentials. Many people minister more out of their life experiences, convictions, and personal interests than out of the kinds of things that make it onto a resume. And, as theologian Frederick Buechner said, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world's greatest need.”

I also have a hunch that calling and flexibility trump them all. Life on the field is full of twists and turns. Most people doing work wrapped up in the mission of God end up doing something different from what they told themselves or their parents or supporters, what they heard from the recruiter, or found on the job description.

Nothing new with that. Didn't Jesus invite prostitutes and tax collectors into service that had nothing to do with sensuality or extortion? When he mobilized fishermen, didn't he tell them to drop their nets and work as evangelists ("fishers of men") and give a doctor (Luke) a job as a storyteller? Wonder what Luke's parents, if they were still alive, thought about that one? ("After all we sacrificed, you're going to throw it all away to become a writer?!") Jesus himself was trained as a carpenter but considered himself a shepherd and teacher instead.

As the fishermen's story suggests, many re-purpose their skills rather than discarding them.

Work is good, even holy. But let's not take our careers (or ourselves) too seriously. Let's hold our college degrees and job descriptions lightly. I know it's hard. Titles and salaries and performance get so easily intertwined with our sense of identity. No matter what our job, no matter what our knack.

See also: On Mission in an Uncertain World (Missions Catalyst) and Gift-Based Ministry Mobilization (previously on Telling Secrets).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tudor House (with Mod Cons)

Just got back from two days of travel - a trip to Anchorage, Alaska, and back.

Arrangements had been made for me to stay at a bed and breakfast. It was a pretty fancy place. Almost offensively so. Lace doilies, little lamps, china knick-knacks on every possible surface. Warm rooms with thick soft rugs and king-sized beds. Somewhere, a hot tub. Wireless internet, a common room with overstuffed sofas and a well-stocked entertainment center; someone was watching the presidential debate there when I arrive. A generous breakfast was served in the morning on fancy gold-rimmed dishes with an abundance of sparkling utensils.

But the place was supposed to evoke a "Tudor inn." Even knowing as little as I do about 15th and 16th century England, I'd have to give it low points for authenticity.

Shouldn't there be rushes on the floor? Stools and benches instead of sofas and easy chairs? Waxy candles and not chandeliers? Chamber pots instead of modern plumbing? Bread and ale for breakfast, and probably several people to a bed?

On second thought, maybe I shouldn't complain.


Saturday, October 06, 2012

Looking for a good book?

Family life and housekeeping, working two jobs, and going to grad school have definitely cut into my personal reading time (ah, poor me!), though both work and school profit from and sometimes require a steady diet of book and articles.

But, just for fun? Here are two pieces of literary nonfiction that I made time for and have nothing to do with my education or career. You might like them too. Both were national bestsellers and should be easy to get your hands on.

I got both through the Douglas County library (which, surprisingly, has not shunned me for moving 1300 miles from district lines). Got the first as an audio book to listen to on a long car trip, and the second in Kindle format to read in bits and pieces as I went about my day.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall

"Isolated by Mexico's deadly Copper Canyons, the blissful Tarahumara Indians have honed the ability to run hundreds of miles without rest or injury. In a riveting narrative, award-winning journalist and often-injured runner Christopher McDougall sets out to discover their secrets. In the process, he takes his readers from science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultra-runners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to a climactic race in the Copper Canyons that pits America’s best ultra-runners against the tribe. McDougall’s incredible story will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that you, indeed all of us, were born to run."

Note, you needn't be an athlete to appreciate this book, though it might inspire you to tie on a pair of running shoes. Probably not the latest Nikes - McDougall's diatribe against an industry that has only increased runners' punishing rate of injury is quite convincing.

This book was hard to put down.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

"While walking through his own home, a former Church of England rectory built in the 19th century, Bryson reconstructs the fascinating history of the household, room by room. With waggish humor and a knack for unearthing the extraordinary stories behind the seemingly commonplace, he examines how everyday items -- things like ice, cookbooks, glass windows, and salt and pepper -- transformed the way people lived, and how houses evolved around these new commodities. 'Houses are really quite odd things,' Bryson writes, and, luckily for us, he is a writer who thrives on oddities. He gracefully draws connections between an eclectic array of events that have affected home life, covering everything from the relationship between cholera outbreaks and modern landscaping, to toxic makeup, highly flammable hoopskirts, and other unexpected hazards of fashion. ...His keen eye for detail and delightfully wry wit emerge in the most unlikely places, making At Home an engrossing journey through history, without ever leaving the house."

I should probably warn you that this book is a long one. Really a series of meandering essays. It makes great bedtime reading (unless your companion objects to frequent exclamations that start with, "did you know?") But it lacks an overall plot and might not be a good choice for a long airplane trip unless interspersed with other books / activities.

This book was a pleasure to pick up.

One more thing. Both contained a bit of language and content you wouldn't want to share with young children.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Reading words aloud

Working at home has its up sides and its down sides. For example:

Negative: Nobody to talk to.

Positive: I can freely talk to myself.

I don't consider being able to talk to myself on the job a positive aspect of my work environment because I'm a scintillating conversationalist, or just love the sound of my own voice. I'm not, and I don't.

But I am a writer. And not really a very good one, either. I need all the help I can get.

Turns out that nothing brings out the best in a sentence or paragraph like reading the words aloud until they march along in an orderly way, or start to dance and flow.

It's like playing a musical instrument. You don't know you have it right until you practice, and it sounds right. Practicing the same eight bars a few different ways, maybe over and over, will only work if the people near you have a pretty high level of tolerance. Which isn't easy to come by. I don't know about you, but I've never worked in an office that offered me a sound-proof practice room. Heck, we didn't even have doors.

So, reading my sentences aloud didn't seem right when I was a cubicle-dweller. Doesn't seem apropos, now, in a library or coffee shop. But nobody hears what I say from my workspace at the kitchen table.

» Q: What things are great about your work environment? What would you change if you could?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can't Complain (try as I might)

After all the ways Highlands Ranch, CO designed itself around my convenience, I guess my mind was just not calibrated to appreciate the charms of North Eugene. Oh, I like the second-hand stores, the cheap places to shop, and the trails along the river. It's easy to get on the freeway from here, or up to the mountains, or over to the coast. There are a couple of farm stands nearby where Lane County turns rural...  North Eugene is a little bit country (and a little bit rock and roll?)

What I have trouble forgiving, though, is the lack of places on this side of town where you (read: I) can go with a laptop, get on the internet, and work for a few hours away from the house.

Stop me if I've mentioned this before. I have? Oh, I guess I have!

For some reason my narcissistic mind still finds this unforgivable. Libraries, coffee shops, bookstores, where are you? There were six of you within one mile of my house in Highlands Ranch!

Sheesh, guess I've become pretty high maintenance. What happened to the girl who went to Central Asia in the early 90's and shared a dusty house with seven others for several hot summer months with no running water? When did I become so impossible to please?

I was feeling all grumbly about the no-coffeeshop situation again on Monday while driving to one of the places I've sort of settled on when I don't just stay in the house and work at home. Unlike other options, "Vectors Espresso" has free parking, a fairly pleasant ambiance, and plenty of tables, chairs, and power outlets. They don't mind if you stay for a couple hours. They staff are friendly and serve beverages in real cups, not disposable ones. On the other hand, the place is often over air-conditioned, the hours are rather limited, prices are too high, and the shop is a full seven miles from my house (though closer than other comparable places).

On the way there I remembered the area's one-and-only Starbucks. Just as pricy and often crowded, but at five miles off, a little closer to home. It was almost like the Holy Spirit was trying to say something to me... especially when I had no trouble finding a place to sit and plug in, with no one pressuring me to leave, and even discovered funds on an old Starbucks card that reduced the cost of my $3.00 12-oz coffee to only $.57. Took the wind out of my sails - I had to stop my self-righteous internal rant and just send up a humble "thank you." Also got a lot of writing done that day. Which was really the point.

Doing whatever I can to stay motivated, organized, and productive is going to be pretty important this year. I'm still working full-time for the agency ( though I need to give as much of that as I can to support raising) - still managing the ezine (and now with less help than in the past) - and still taking grad school classes (one at a time). Now I've got a second job on top of that. There didn't seem any way around it.

But the new job is such a blessing! I'm doing web-content creation for another ministry that serves the missions community, and it's all right up my alley. Not only will the additional projects help pay our bills, but it forces me to work hard every day. The busy schedule is pushing all those petty complaints like the one about the high price of coffee off my radar screen! Crazy, huh? Knowing there's more expected of me helps me rise to the occasion... brings out the best in me and pushes away the worst. Thank you Lord, for meeting us and providing for us in this new season!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Don't Say Yes to the Dress, I Guess

What David's Bridal is selling these days
The fashions in clothing for females alternately amuse and exasperate me. Boys go about in "shorts" that nearly graze their ankles, while many girls' shorts end just under their hips. Boys' T-shirts cover the chest and have sleeves that flap around the elbows, while women's feature huge scoops and tiny sleeves (if any).

Why such fabric allowance inequalities?

Me, I get cold, so I search in vain for more substantial clothing, then add socks and scarves and sweaters. Until the fashions make a major swing away from skimpiness, I'll struggle to find clothes in which I feel comfortable and not exposed.

I was interested to read a set of guidelines for dress from a conservative Bible church. No, not what clothes their members should wear... or wear at church. No, these were rules governing what a bride and her attendants could wear if they wanted to get married in that particular church.

As you may have noticed, sometime in the 1990s, fussy or flowing gowns disappeared. Now they are nowhere to be found, new or used (though no doubt there are still some in spare-room closets and attic spaces). Any girl who expects to buy an off-the-rack wedding dress or bridesmaid gowns will discover what I did, that most or all today's formal wear is designed to show a lot of skin, or shape, or both.

But this church doesn't want wedding parties to wear what wouldn't be suitable "to wear to church."

Apparently a committee of mature women evaluate the gowns, saving the pastors potential shame and embarrassment of telling a girl she's just too dang sexy. Because that would be awkward, no? I hope the question would actually be resolved in advance, not after the clothing had been selected...

Got these for my bridesmaids,
from J.C. Penney's. Also some
shawls if they needed the warmth,
as it turned out they did.
Personally, I would prefer to wear (or see other people wearing) clothing that passes all these tests. But not sure it ought to be mandated. And, practically, it creates hardship for someone who doesn't want to do their own sewing or invest a huge amount of time and energy in wedding planning (which is quite stressful and expensive enough already).

What do you think of this list? Most all the formal-wear I found broke one rule or another.

1. No strapless gowns or dresses.
2. No spaghetti strap gowns or dresses.
3. No bared backs below the normal bra line.
4. No visible cleavage; the breasts must be covered at least two or three inches above the beginning of any cleavage.
5. Sleeveless dresses must have snug armholes.
6. No dresses cut above the bottom of the knee (that is, while sitting).
7. No slits that bare the thighs; slits must not come above the bottom of the knee.
8. No “mermaid” dresses that snugly follow all the contours of the body.

I think my wedding party would have =almost= passed. But not quite.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Principles of Acquisition

My husband and I recently had a small squabble about how to cook rice. He thought we (I) needed a rice cooker, whereas I resisted, more comfortable with my old-fashioned pots and pans. I had similarly tried to persuade our kids that an ice cream scoop was an unnecessary possession in a house with an ample collection of spoons.

As such household debates have unfolded I've come to realize we operate on different principles. I want to have as few tools as possible, but all of them multi-purpose. (Same girl wants to have one purse or one pair of shoes that goes with everything). Hubs is by no means extravagant - he wants to justify every purchase on multiple grounds. But he does like his shiny tools, and he tends to think anything must be better if there's a cord to plug it in.

Our kitchen has lots of storage space and our wedding guests flooded us with department store gift cards, so the happy solution is that we make room for both approaches. We have the space for both pots and pans, and the small appliances... for universally useful utensils, and for specialized ones.

We got the rice cooker. It works fine and will probably stick or spill less than my rice cooked on the stove. Those ten-pound bag of frozen chicken and a 20-pound bag of rice from Costco should mean there's always something in the house to make for dinner. And since Hubs likes the gadgets, I'll have no qualms delegating the dinner-making back to him - at least in theory. It would help if we weren't both overextended these days. I may have to give in and buy the story about how getting a crock pot would make our lives easier too. So far I have resisted.   

Questions:
  1. What household tools and appliances have you found the most delightful? What do you use the most? 
  2. Which ones seem a waste of space and money for you? What stays in the drawer or cupboard?


Sunday, September 09, 2012

Saturday Service

If a football stadium is the closest many will get to a house of worship, this weekend I had the chance to serve as a doorkeeper in the house of a god.

Not my God, not the God (per Psalm 84:10), but certainly one that commands allegiance and adoration in my new home town. Sometimes known as Mighty O.

More than 50,000 worshipers - most clad in the florescent yellow and forest green of the Oregon Ducks - joined a staff of hundreds of contract workers who coalesced from all over the city and every walk of life.

I had an eight-hour game-day gig with an outfit called Crowd Management Services. I pulled on the bright blue polo shirt I was issued, tucked it into my regulation black trousers, and tried to look tough, non-partisan, and in the know.

My assignment was to stand outside the stadium for about five hours welcoming and directing people and doing my best to answer their questions about which line to stand in. My partner (known only as No. 133) and I were also tasked with chasing away the ticket scalpers lurking on our perimeter, as well as "educating" any member of the crowd who tried to light a cigarette on campus property. This was forbidden.

As the hours passed, I was able to tease out No. 133's life story. I also learned quite a bit from a patron named George, a lawyer from the small town of Hermiston, OR, also a second-generation Duck and father of Ducks. Others gave me various glimpses of their hopes, dreams, and concerns. Many were sporting fashions that in any other venue would look ridiculous - golden wigs, green body paint, etc. Quite a few chose our designated spot as a good meeting place; they called to tell the people they were meeting with (in all seriousness) to look for the woman in the yellow hat. I do not know when I have seen so many men and women in yellow hats. 

As kickoff approached, the crowds outside thinned. The scalpers made their last deals and left. We helped stragglers and lingered until after half-time, when it was time to tear down much of the crowd-management equipment and be redeployed to a stadium tunnel. Halfway through the fourth quarter we were sent to ring the field itself. We turned our flint-like faces to the wall, not the game. This time our job was to prevent the premature access of fans eager to swarm the field.

Per Pac-12 regulations, members of the general public were not allowed on the field until five minutes after the game and when the field was cleared of athletes, coaches, and journalists. We held a long rope and tried to look menacing and courteous at the same time. Only when the gates were open were we, the crowd management staff, allowed to drop our rope and turn to face the field - partly so we would not be hit in the head by the hundreds of footballs being thrown back and forth by children and child-like members of the crowd who had been waiting for their own chance to toss a pigskin.

For someone like me - born without depth perception - a hundred footballs flying at once was unnerving. The sun was setting and a chill quickly descending on the stadium. When the chance came to decide who would stay and who would go, I volunteered to check out. I signed off, handed over the polyester polo shirt, and once again returned to the world of ordinary citizens and Duck fans. I could be confident that my service had not only provided extra padding for our slender finances but had also helped keep the event decent and in order.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Gift-based Ministry Mobilization

Hubs is taking a class on "ministry mobilization." Nerdy girl that I am, I used my Labor Day holiday to go to school with him and check it out. After all, I've been calling myself a mission mobilizer for a long time now. I wanted to see what his seminary professor meant when he used the word mobilize. I wondered how much of what is being taught and written about mobilizing people for ministry, in general, might apply to mobilizing and strategically placing people in pioneering mission efforts.

This week's class explored theological foundations. The professor started by talking about the reality that God, as Creator and Redeemer, made each and every person the way they are on purpose and made them in his image. That's why gift-based ministry mobilization is the way to go. Because everyone is gifted by the Spirit of God for the sake of the common good - for his mission in the world. And when people turn toward God, his power is at work within them to redeem their experiences and to restore and renew them, working his purposes out in and through them.

Anyone who's been a recruiter or mobilizer very long tends to discover this. People ask you, "What kind of people are you looking for? What should I major in? What kind of person do I need to become if I want to serve overseas?" But you can't just talk to them about the job market. You have to ask them questions about who they are, what their story is, what they have a passion to do, what they care about ... and what they've learned about how God designed them to serve.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10-11)

Friday, August 31, 2012

What I didn't know

This summer I've been trying to make voice contact with all my supporters... rather than assuming sending out email newsletters is enough to consider these relationships to be true partnerships. One sign that I've been coasting too long is that some of them expressed surprise that I care about them and want to know what's going on in their lives.

These phone calls have really helped offset the sense of social isolation I feel, as a new girl in town who longs for friends but, with too many unpredictable responsibilities to juggle, hasn't figured out how to find and effectively protect the time and energy to actually make friends or see the ones I have.

When I actually reach some of these folks on the phone it's been wonderful. Encounters with old friends. I love hearing what's going on in people's lives, love hearing their stories. And even though talking on the phone is not my favorite way to do that, it's been good.

But I've also run into startling news from quite a few of them. One had been battling depression. Her husband has leukemia. Another is in a marriage was just starting to stabilize after a series of difficult and drawn out struggles that could have destroyed it.

Today I heard back from one I'd been trying to reach on email before making the phone call. "Dear [Him] and [Her]," I'd written, "I'm so grateful for you and your support of my ministry!"

"[Him] and I have been divorced for almost a year now," she finally wrote back.

Crap. I hate divorce. Hate that she went through this, that he did, and that I didn't know.

I've understood, especially when my ministry has taken me to some exotic locale, that those who support me take some vicarious pleasure and significance in being part of it, in making it possible for me to do what they cannot and hearing about it along the way. That they like hearing about my adventures in faith and in foreign places. I fear I have less to "offer" them now that my work has shifted more to what I can do with a keyboard and computer screen, those these tools have always been a bit part of my work, no matter the time zone.

This fall, I'm asking God to broaden my support base and bring me a dozen new ministry partners. That's right: 12. I think that's what I need. I'm especially hoping that some of my favorite people, people with whom I feel a sense of bond or kinship, will, when asked, join this team. My hope is that even if there are no pictures or stories from my latest trip overseas that God will use them to multiply my efforts to serve global purposes with diligence and effectiveness and encourage them through it.

Perhaps praying for them and with them not only about what's going on with me, but with what's going on with them, is one of the best things I can give them. I've been chicken about praying with people over the phone. What if they've never done that before and think it's weird? I think it's worth pushing through.

Man, what a mix of joy and pain life can be. And how vulnerable we all are. So much in common.

"I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Phil. 1:3-6

Friday, August 24, 2012

This and That

Another personal update... though I intend to write things more universal, again, soon.

Yesterday was a big news day for us. I'll spare you the details, but here's the gist.

1. A bad interpersonal situation was re-opened yesterday with a discovery that an incident and conflict from last spring is going to cost us quite a bit of money. Rats.

2. As I was thinking about leads on contract work, someone came to mind and I sent off an email that led to what may just materialize into a job offer by the end of next week. How encouraging! It's a 10 hour/week gig that's right up my alley. The pay would be modest but it would help. Flexible work, virtually no ramp up, and something I might be able to continue with, happily, indefinitely.  

3. Someone from the top of my list of people I'd love to have join my support team gave a positive response. We need to talk more, but it looks like they're quite willing and just need to decide when/how much they can give. Last week I sent tentative invitations to two other potential supporters of the same ilk, and have been chicken about following up. Got to do that! And keep praying/looking for who to contact next.

4. Got my first email newsletter out since life turned upside down - a hard one to write, and who knows if I struck the right note? But, whew, it's done.

5. Hubs was out last night - drill night at the fire department. I made a hearty dinner for the kids. They never showed up to eat it. (Ha! Shoe's on the other foot now, huh, Mom?) So I decided to go out for an early evening run, doing laps in the filbert orchard a couple blocks over. Uplifting music on my headphones and a beautiful time of day. Keeping my eyes on the lovely light reflecting off  tall grasses of the meadow next to the orchard, I came out on the other side and realized the meadow was also home to a healthy crop of wild blackberries. Guess who's going picking tomorrow?  Mmm, pie. I am not sure anyone can be anxious about their life with a mouth full of warm blackberry pie.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Job Thing

The journey continues. I've been working out scenarios with my supervisor, crunching numbers, updating resumes, and trying to figure out what it would look like to take on an outside job so we can pay the bills.

It's a little weird because I'm not actually unemployed; I have plenty of work with my ministry job. But I'm going to have to accept a whole lot less compensation for it, and since we need the money, a second job seems the way to go. At least for now.

What's out there, what could I get, and how do I find it? That's what I've been exploring this week.

It would really help if I wasn't so upset about the whole thing. It's been hard not to lash out at Hubs when he starts talking about new beginnings, letting go, and looking for God's hand in this. (When he dreams about me getting something for $60k that would allow him to quit his job and get his MDiv done, I just laugh.)

It's been good to realize that finding or taking on a new job isn't what I'm upset about, though. (Ask me again, later!) Actually, I welcome the challenge. This could be fun, a great addition to my life. So what's bringing me to tears? It's the idea that my career in ministry may be coming to an end. I really don't want that to happen! All the more reason, perhaps, to be chipper and diligent about doing all I can to get and keep another job, one that will take the pressure off this one having to pay the bills.

So, what am I doing? I reworked my resume and my profile on LinkedIn. I called the stepsister who just moved and is about to start a new job, and have heard from my other stepsister and my own sister about the things they've learned as they've been looking for work; neither has been successful yet. I'm tracking down references. I texted with a couple of old friends about it - feeling a little too tender to want to talk on the phone.

Very soon, though, I need to go more public with this. Need to let the rest of my coworkers and colleagues know I'm looking for work and why, as well as my supporters, put out something to the folks on my mailing list - all things I think should happen before I allude to the situation someplace like Facebook.

Which would you rather write, a newsletter or update along the lines of "my problem and how it was solved"? or "my crisis and how it's turning my life upside down right now"? I have to remind myself that asking for prayer about the whole thing actually draws other people in and results in more glory given back to God in the form of gratitude when the matter is resolved!

There are so many different directions I could go, lots of avenues to pursue to find work (also, to find support. Working on that too). Encouraging, if challenging, to have so many things I can try. Work from home, or from a cubicle or service counter? I could go either way on that. I'm eliminating, at least for now, ill-fitting options like a home business, childcare, or food service; retail may be a possibility but I've never done it before. (Willingness to learn will only get you so far. Better to play to strengths.) Here's what I'm looking at instead:

PROFESSIONAL CONTRACT WORK: I spent a few hours this week probing opportunities for contract work of the sort I have done the most - teaching (specifically, "Perspectives" classes). That may bear fruit for spring term but fall term is lighter and most folks will have nailed down their plans a few months ago. So unless someone needs an emergency substitute, not much is likely to come of it. I may also be able to find some contract work connected with writing/editing - including online training, public relations, or curriculum development. What do you think? Some of my colleagues have filled in the gaps those ways. But these hard economic times are causing most of the Christian organizations to tighten their belts, so that kind of work is becoming scarce and is unlikely to come together quickly.

TEMP JOBS: I called a temp service and have an interview with them on Monday morning. I think I'm overqualified for the kind of work they have, but I think they can bring a bit of work my way, maybe immediately. I'm hoping, at the end of the interview, to ask them a few more questions about what's out there and who else I should talk to. The phone book (oh, I know, quaint!) lists about 20 employment agencies in our little town, and most of them I know nothing about. Temp work can mean just about anything. It doesn't pay a whole lot, but it brings the opportunity to serve people without a big ramp-up or having to take the work home with you or commit to be there long term. A couple day a week or a week a month might meet the need, and I could stop at any point if my support or other kinds of work came up to take its place, right?

PART TIME ADMIN/CLERICAL: What about an admin job in a school, church, hospital, etc, where they just needed (or could only fund) someone to work part-time? I could get a reliable paycheck, consistent hours, and a way to get out of the house and into the real world all in one. Many of those jobs are 20 hours a week, which seems like more than I need and would require some major adjustments with family life and my ministry job. But if the support situation doesn't turn around, we'll have a long-term need and such a job could be God's gift to us.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Personal update - a rollercoaster week

I've put quite a bit of effort into communicating with folks about the changes that have come my way this last year - you know, new name and address and marital status, and all that go with them!

The one thing I've hoped could stay the same has been my occupation. But I was a little nervous about this. Would moving another time zone West and joining forces with a guy who does something quite different weaken my connection to my work team, most of whom live on the other side of the country? And what about the finances? Would supporters - or potential supporters - stick with me and continue to give, or would they start to think of me as someone who didn't really need their partnership any more - perhaps believing my expenses have gone down, not up?

It's been such a blessing to be able to continue in full-time ministry and doing pretty much the same kind of projects since 2007, some much longer than that. Folks who cheered me on, back in 1994, may have expected me to stick with this gig for a couple of years ...  it's been 18.

This week I wondered if the whole thing was going to crumble.

The loss of a major donor this spring and depletion of the cushion from another donor's generous one-time gift were quickly followed by the news - revealed just a few days ago - that my home church (which had been covering 10-20% of my support since the mid-90's) had hit a financial crisis, made drastic cuts to its mission budget, and eliminated all funds for my support several months earlier. Communication had gone astray; the news caught me by surprise.

Much relieved this morning to discover in conversation with my supervisor that our agency will be able to make some changes to my position and status, changes which will not require large shifts in responsibilities but will reduce the funds I need to raise about $900/month. That will make all the difference. I can keep my job. I will, though, need to request a rather large salary cut, look for some freelance or part-time work, and put major efforts into raising new support. That will mean putting other things on the back burner - including some good things that had been cooking along quite nicely!  

Emotionally, this week has been a rollercoaster. Largely because the deeper seated issues I have with fear, shame, and performance - questions of where I find my identity, safety, and peace which need to be explored further. That process can only help my work and my marriage, not to mention my relationship with God and other people. Good, but can be quite painful.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What does the fire service really do, anyway?

Continuing from Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters and Just a guy thing?

A couple months ago I married a guy who volunteers with our local fire department as a chaplain and EMT... something I realized from our very first date was way more than a little hobby on the side. For part 3 of my little series on dispatches on life in the fire district, let me just share a few of the "aha!" discoveries that have helped me get how this part of my husband's world really works.

So, what firemen are there for is to put out fires, right? 

Nope. That's what I thought, but it's not true. Fires are rare, and I understand it's bad form to cheer if you get to put one out (at least don't look happy in front of the homeowner!).

More than 80 percent of the 911 calls that go to the fire department are not fire-related but "medical." Somebody has been in an accident, or fainted, or thinks they're having a heart attack or stroke. They've fallen and can't get up. Or maybe they are fine but they saw someone else who seemed to be in trouble and called on their behalf. If it's a dangerous situation, the police may go in first, and they will have the fire department called in to assist if someone is hurt.

Since so much of the work is on the medical side, many of the fire district volunteers aren't authorized or expected to go into fires at all, but they have plenty of work to do responding to medical emergencies and dangers (even on a fire scene). These are the EMT's. Some of them also hold jobs as nurses, medical assistants, or paramedics. 

What about rescuing kitties from trees?

Oh, come on, when's the last time you walked by a tree and saw a cat skeleton? Those little buggers can take care of themselves pretty well.

Fishermen stranded on sandbars? That's another story!

When an ambulance or fire truck goes by, especially with sirens on, we should stop and pray because someone's in trouble, right? 

It's never a bad idea to pray... Most of the time when someone calls 911 and the fire department and/or police gets sent out, it's for something the caller considers an emergency. It's true that somebody could be dying. There may have been an accident or a house could be on fire.

But most of the time it's not like that. Sometimes the problem is resolved before the fire department gets there or doesn't turn out to be a problem after all. So when you see or hear them on the road, know that the fire trucks and the medics may be on their way to help someone who doesn't want or need help or to investigate something that turns out to be quite minor in the end. I guess that's a good thing, huh?

One more interesting note: When you see a fire truck out and about they may be just getting gas or running some other errand. I see full-time staff from the various fire departments all the time at our local grocery store. Hubs tells me they've just come to do their shopping. That's right, the station fridge must be kept well stocked, and since you're on the job and need to be ready to respond, you bring your stuff with you when you go to the store. Nobody packs their own sack lunch at home and eats at their "desk." They like to shop, cook, and eat together! I'm tempted to drop by and knock on the door at lunch time. See if these handy folks are also good cooks.

Have you seen commercials for the new TV show this fall, "Chicago Fire"? I'd like to check it out and see how accurate it is. Hubs, though, is skeptical and not really interested. Who wants to watch that kind of stuff when you deal with it all the time?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Just a guy thing?

Continuing from Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters.

(It might be helpful to add a disclaimer that these are just my personal observations as I try to understand this big part of my husband's world - not the result of any formal or objective research.) 

Is the Fire Department a Man's World?

Those big red trucks down at the station seem fueled as much by testosterone as anything else. When talk of them comes up in mixed company, only the men's eyes light up at delight with the thought of tearing down the road in a firetruck, a high-powered toolbox on wheels.

You might expect the fire station subculture to be utterly masculine. In fact, that was one of the questions I had about the fire district: Is this just a guy thing? I don't think it is.

As a promising sign, when I spend time with my husband's firefighting friends I see a good number of women in their ranks. Some of them remind me of the tomboys I knew as a kid, while others are more girly. But they are women who can do most everything a man can. I haven't gone fishing for stories of discrimination against women, subtle or overt, but I haven't been stumbling over them, either.

Besides the women who volunteer, I see wives and daughters and girlfriends who seem quite comfortable being part of this world and who are included in it as a matter of course. Serving with the fire district is not the kind of thing you can do without affecting the people close to you; they have to be on board with it in some sense or you won't be able to keep it up. At this weekend's barbecue fundraiser I worked alongside one daughter who can't wait to get her driver's license so she can enter the training program and join the department; others schedule their lives around the volunteer association's schedule and hate to miss an event. I start to see why they call it a "family."

Although I don't have experience in athletics or the military, I think the gender dynamics of the fire department may resemble what you would find in one of those environments. Come to think of it, the whole fire department culture is part sports team, part para-military unit. They have rank and titles and procedures, a code of ethics, a well developed system for training and socializing new recruits, and of course the whole thing depends on being able to perform well, physically, under pressure. There are contests of various kinds, badges and certificates, an annual awards banquet, a department photographer, and of course, uniforms. There's some drinking and cussing and dirty joke telling, though little tolerance for such things when it's time to be professional - if you mess up, the honor and performance of the whole group is at stake.

I find the gender equality rather refreshing after running into masculine/feminine distinctions tucked into so many nooks and crannies of the Christian subculture I'm part of. "Let the men do that," Christian men will stay, stopping me from stacking chairs or putting up tables at church - as if such a task is utterly unbecoming for a woman. Then I'm asked to do artsy and/or "feminine" things that are really not up my alley. On the plus side, this sort of segregation can give both men and women an honored and protected place to build relationships and make contributions which they might not find so easily in the big bad world. Being part of it has also taught me skills and social graces I might not have picked up on my own - some of which have proven useful in my new life as a wife, stepmother, and de facto housekeeper. On the negative side, though, such segregation can feel quite confining. It may keep many from using the gifts and skills they actually have rather than the ones they are "supposed" to have.

The fire department doesn't do that. There's a place for any man or woman who wants to be there, AND who can make (and keep) the commitment and do the work. While assignments may reflect what you're good at, they don't seem to come with ready-made assumptions about what that might be. Everyone is expected to learn and grow, to strive for the capacity to do whatever it is that's needed. That's the only way the whole team stays safe. Anyone who can't pull their weight holds the team back and may put them in danger.

Such an environment has little room for gender discrimination. Or, for that matter, chivalry.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The School System and a Diversity of Subcultures

Not long after my sister and I had our seventh birthday our family had a garage sale, loaded what was left into what seemed a very big moving truck, and piled into the station wagon with the dog for a long trip from one coast to the other. We were moving.

My father had been raised on a farm in Indiana and told my mother he had little or no interest in farming, but after some years away from it had gotten involved in managing a community garden project and now wanted to reconnect with the land. Maybe raise some sheep.

He got a job on the West Coast, where my mother was from, and we moved to a small farm on an island in Puget Sound. That's where we lived for 5-6 years until for a variety of reasons my parents' marriage dissolved.

Growing up in a small town / rural setting had a lot to offer a kid. We had plenty of chores to do around the house and property - picking vegetables, gathering eggs, minding the sheep, stacking firewood. Mom and Dad both worked hard while we complained about doing our share but had little of the back-breaking, all-day work that might have characterized life on a larger farm. There was plenty of time to play in the barn and build forts in the woods and name all the chickens. Our place had been landscaped so that something was in bloom every day of the year, and I loved to fill vases throughout the house with camellias, forsythia, roses - almost as much as I loved going out to the garden to graze on green beans, strawberries, and tomatoes of every description.

The School System

There must have been some homeschoolers on the island, but I wasn't aware of them; otherwise all the kids on the island went to the same elementary schools and middle school, and most would go to the same high school unless they took a ferry to mainland.

Although island life attracted folks others might consider kind of weird, in other ways the diversity was limited. In the schools, there were rich kids and poor kids but few black kids or Asian kids, and there was really only one clique of "popular" ones. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't Lord of the Flies or anything, but there was a pretty strong sense of social organization. I grew up having crushes on the same boys and wanting to be liked by the same girls as everyone else in my class.

Only later did I realize that while this is a common experience it is not a universal one. Both the D.C. suburb where I'd begun my education and the urban Seattle schools I would experience next were characterized by much more diversity and tolerance. I was taken by surprise in my eighth grade year at an inner city junior high to find how provincial I really was - how much I assumed people would at least try to march to the beat of the same drummer. Why didn't more people make fun of the kid in my math class named Geronimo, or the boy from choir who minced down the hallway like a girl and liked to paint his fingernails?

While I continued to look down on those who tried to be as weird as possible for no reason in particular, I was intrigued by the culture where, in spite of some bullying and racial conflict (of which I was sometimes a victim), it seemed as if people really were largely free to be themselves. Rather than pressured to fit into a restrictive mold.

Another move brought me to a school system and culture once again fashioned to form and favor just a certain kind of kid. There was less friction, and more money, and everybody was a lot more the same. I did well academically, but it was pretty lonely. In such a context I believed the lie of the enemy that there must be something wrong with me if I wasn't just like everybody else. Once again, even though the school was much bigger than the schools on the island, everyone in my class had crushes on the same boys and wanted to be liked by the same girls and there was really only one clique of popular kids.

I wonder if that's part of why I chose a college where diversity, once again, was "cool." Though I'm not sure I realized, going into it, that college would be so different, socially/culturally, than high school had been. It was a pleasant surprise.

Multiculturalism v. Blending in

Where is this rambling memoir going? I'm just wondering, now that I'm in my 40s, about the relationship between the culture(s) of a community - and particularly of a school system - and its effect on kids. How they feel about themselves. What kind of conclusions they reach about their own identity. How they look at other people. I don't think I'll ever have the chance to do this, but having tasted both I think I'd rather raise my kids in an environment that values diversity over homogeneity and "success." Living in an urban or international setting, at least for a number of years, would provide that. Is it something we can "make happen" without moving into a big city or going overseas?

Of course there are all kinds of other factors that go into where we decide to live and what we think will be best for our kids, including how we try to educate them. The three schools I attended that had a "free to be you and me" culture only got it through a great deal of social engineering. In the first case, the whole town had been designed - as Wikipedia describes it - to eliminate racial, religious, and class segregation (more here). The student bodies of the schools I attended in eighth and ninth grades were the result of Seattle's policy of forcibly busing kids long distances to create more integrated schools (more on that here).  

The world has changed so much since I was in school. Doing the kind of work I do, I keep running into people from medium-sized and small towns now hosting large populations of first-generation immigrants, refugees, and international students. In some cases this has brought conflict and violence, but I can't help but think the net result of growing diversity is good for all of us, that it will help us learn lessons about respecting other people's values and ways of life that we might not learn any other way - simultaneously, perhaps learning to accept our own eccentricities without idolizing them, becoming comfortable in our own skin, whatever its color.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters (or at least one)

Several people, Hubs included, have asked if I was going to blog more about the fire department. My playful posts on this topic on Facebook have piqued some interest. So here goes. 

Driving Miss Daisy by Day, Hero Work by Night

Am continuing to learn about the unusual world my husband lives in as a leading member of our local volunteer fire department. It's a very significant part of his life, and by extension, mine. One day last week he got off early from his regular job (non-emergency medical transport) to say that for the rest of the day he'd be focused on his "real" job, as if what he does 40 hours a week is not that. The fire department pays him but a small stipend for the privilege of calling him into sometimes dire situations any time of night, but that is of no barrier: it means the world to him.

Why Does He Do It?

1. The Truck. In some contexts he'll claim his motivation is the adrenaline; where else can you drive a big red truck down the wrong side of the road at high speeds and people have to get of your way?

Indeed, I thought of this when we took the antique engine out for a parade function recently. Because I wonder if having access to such machines is the difference between having a boat and having a friend with a boat. (The latter having some obvious advantages.) The privileges of his position may be what preserves our budget. Driving those rigs keeps him content with the aging but fuel-efficient Honda Civic that gets him around on milder occasions.

2. The Uniform. Other times he'll take the "joke" a different direction, asking, what other job allows you to break into people's houses, rummage through their stuff, violate their bodies, suspend their civil rights, and get a thank-you on the way out? I think the bit about violating bodies crosses the line and ought to be rephrased, but he's made this statement so many times he's got it down pat. Tucked in there is a motivation close to his heart: the thank you. Firemen are usually seen as good guys; people don't treat them the same as the policemen who also answer those 911 calls.

While my husband gets to see some darker sides of life and sometimes has to throw his weight around to take control of a chaotic situation, he's honored for it. And he doesn't have to look at the world through the jaded eyes of a cop. So, the identity matters. He wears his uniform and carries a badge with confidence, glad to be recognized as someone who's there to help.

3. The Chance to Serve. Deeper motivation? My husband feels shaped and called by God to come alongside people at their times of greatest need, to save lives. That sounds a bit lofty to throw around in a casual conversation, but that's how it is. I'm not sure how much that would describe other firefighters. But there's something that gets hold of them, gets under their skin and into their blood. Those who stick with it give more of their life to it and take more of their identity from it than I might expect.

I think many of them may find it hard to resist, knowing that when the pager goes off, someone needs them, urgently, needs them more than they need sleep. If they don't go, who will? The district is only a few miles long and a few miles wide, so the people they serve and save are our neighbors.

Hubs may not be a doctor or a counselor but he's a trained medical professional and crisis chaplain, and he's good at it. He knows he can make a difference for the people of our town. So the pager goes off and he's out the door. 

4. It's a Family. I wondered, at first, if my husband's taste for this kind of work grew out of several frustrating relationships in which he felt powerless and unappreciated. It fills an emotional gap for him. I also wondered if our marriage might be positive enough to lessen this effect. It might.

But his commitment to the people of the fire department has gone deep. They may not know each other all that well, in the conventional sense, or have all that much in common. But what they do have in common is pretty unusual. They've each made a commitment to each other and to serving their community, wherever and however needed, and they have to trust each other completely. "These guys have got my back," he explains. And by guys he means women too.

So there's a significant bond there. If he doesn't show up he'll be letting them down; if he's there, his presence helps others be more effective.

As his partner I want to understand and be supportive of the things that are most important to him. The fire department and the fire department people, they are high on that list.

My Place in His World

For me, fitting into this world comes with some different challenges, and I feel awkward about it. The fire department folks tend to be wired in ways I'm not, gifted in my areas of weakness. My husband trusts them with his life (and certainly with his wife). But, overly aware of our differences, I'm stiff and self-conscious and I clam up. I find myself dreading the social events. What can I say when it's so clear that they are handy where I am clumsy and unskilled, practical where I am theoretical, physical where I am cerebral? I don't feel comfortable enough in my own skin to join the conversation and expose the ways that I fear that am less.

So... I probably come across as stuck up, like life on the playground all over again. You may remember that my least favorite parts of school were lunch and recess; youth group was problematic, too. Only in college and ministry did I come into my own. Even in our marriage, I sometimes feel sulky and embarrassed about my weaknesses and areas of inexperience, the ways he and I are not the same - as if I must be the one who is flawed and broken. (Though of course we both are.)

With the fire department? Every now and again, when I'm struggling with my place among them, I remember the morals of all those books and movies I soaked up as a kid, the ones that say "just be yourself." (The Bible has a few things to say about walking in the ways of grace that may be relevant here, too, as well...)

My secret weapons? Well, one, I'm already "in" simply for being their chaplain's wife. I haven't yet learned to think of myself in the spouse category and cash in on that, but I could.

Also, I notice things and ask questions. I know all about how to inquire and learn about their world, their lives, their stories, even if it's not my world, my life, my story. There my work and education serve me well. It's a coping strategy, sure, but it's also how I approach and enjoy life. Knowing how to talk to strangers makes the world so much more fun and helps us find the points of connection that tell us we are not alone.

So little by little I'm able to relax and am making friends among the fire folk. The next big test/opportunity comes up in a few weeks. It's the fire department's annual chicken barbecue, a tradition of more than 50 years. But maybe I'll save my observations about that interesting institution for a later post.

See also:
Part 2: Just A Guy Thing?
Part 3: What Do Firemen Do, Anyway?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Churches for People Who Don't Go to Church

From "Stuff Christians Like."
Read the whole text here.

All are welcome!

"I wish every church said what this church says in their bulletin," says Jon Acuff, referring to the "awesome welcome message" at a church a friend of his had visited. What do you think? How many churches really want to put out the welcome mat for everyone? Should they?

Here's something I think may be related.

Churches for those who don't go to church

I continue to think about a class I took at the beginning of this year, a course on church-planting issues. My teacher, a church planter and trainer in Germany, advocated planting churches deliberately and openly designed for their non-members, and yes, for people who don't yet know Jesus (but are interested).

Although it may not often occur to most evangelicals, missionaries and missiologists would suggest that the people who most "need" new churches are those who don't have any. It's pretty obvious if you think about it. So, if you're going to try to plant a church, you should consider starting a church for people who don't go to church.

So, what are the implications of that?

1. Watch out for those who DO go to church (at least some of them)

Planting a church to reach those outside the church can mean disappointing a lot of people, including the people who have rejected and/or been rejected by other churches and are pinning their hopes on your fresh, new, and as yet invisible thing. If it doesn't materialize they way they hoped, these are the kind of folks who could become hypercritical and really hurt you and the church.

So I guess there's a group you want to hold at arm's length. At least when all you have is a fragile, new church plant that could so easily be destroyed. People hurt by other churches and overly excited about your new, different church could be the death of it. So try not to court them.

2. What will the church be like? Whose "style" will prevail?

If you are trying to start a new church for people who don't go to church, stuff like the location, logo, name, music style, and the like should not be chosen based on looking within your own heart and asking yourself what you prefer. Nor even by looking around at your team of church-planting allies and asking them what they think would be good. Nope.

OK, disclaimers first: Study up on what the Bible has to say about what the church is and does and is all about, and make sure you know what your mission is, what your calling and best contribution and values and convictions are. For such things, yes, look within and study scripture, history, how other people do things. And be very clear on all that before you start. Communicate what you're about and what you're trying to do, repeatedly and consistently. Stay focused.

But... the Bible doesn't tell you what you should call your church or present it or where you "put it," do they? And how to draw people into prayer and worship, how to teach them in ways that reach them where they are, well, you have to know the people, don't you?

In all those areas, you should ask the kind of people you want to reach. Focus groups, man-on-the-street interviews, talking to community leaders, and a nearly endless series of "let me take you out to lunch and pick your brains," meetings with people you encounter, those will illuminate your path.

3. Finding a name

So, with all that said, you don't choose the name; you let your city choose the name.

My instructor gave the example of a process by which he got the folks he'd gathered for a church plant in inner-city Toronto to submit possible names, and told them, "we'll take these recommendations and see what the city says." He made a list of all the names they turned in and had the people vote, promising to take the top four names to the streets to see what people would say.

He had to swallow his pride when the name that he liked, the one that would link them to the church of his pastor-hero in New York, that was the name that nobody liked. Everyone liked the name with the word "grace" in it. They offered all kinds of reasons. Somebody said it's a very "Canadian" word. Also, there are "Grace" hospitals all across Canada and they have a very good reputation. Grace Toronto Church was born.

It's not about trying to be cool or something, but about trying to accomplish your mission. If the mission is about connecting with and influencing people, you need some cultural savvy to do it.

4. Flexibility

Grace Toronto Church and other churches my instructor helped plant used similar processes to come with a byline, logo, promotional materials, meeting times and locations, and more.

They got local people to help them understand things like the direction of traffic, the atmosphere of certain neighborhoods, the tacit assumptions and lifestyle patterns people might bring with them that could influence  how the church might connect and take shape.

In their early, experimental worship services - and even these delayed until the "listening" and networking process had gone on as long as they could afford - they tried out all kinds of things to see what would work, what would stick. They changed things up.

They didn't commit themselves in advance and try to present some kind of done deal. I like that.

What do you think? 

Some of what we studied doesn't jive so well with the simple church, cell-based, contextualized church-planting movement theories that form the bedrock of assumptions about church planting that I get from my work in the world missions community. Stuff like where to put your signs and fliers and how to design your church lobby or website seem a little silly when you're talking about house churches in a restricted-access country.

On the other hand, these conversations helped me see things a little more through the eyes of the US church-planters who use the same words as we do and yet don't seem to mean the same things by them. I think I see how American church planters and church-planting missionaries can be such separate camps.

I'm not sure how to harmonize all this or if that's even possible, but I'll keep chewing on these things and would be glad to talk to anyone who can help me with that.

See also: Aubrey Malphurs' book, Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century.