Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wet and Wild

Some Oregonians get a little defensive about our climate. You know, all the liquid sunshine. But I was still surprised to see this Dolly Parton quote on a park sign near where we'll be living. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Personal Update

These last few weeks we have been able to check off most key items on household setup and wedding preparation. It has been quite stressful to have to do both at once. Especially since other aspects of life have not slowed down a beat. With each member of my new little family at least a little overextended, it's hard to coordinate schedules and projects with much margin for failure... or for fun.

I've run smack-dab into my own tacit assumptions about who is supposed to do what and which things take precedence over others. In spite of my love's consistently patient, gracious character, I'm seeing every sign that the transition from the life of a single professional to that of someone married with children is going to be a rocky one for me. I did not realize how threatening an intimate, interdependent relationship would be to my sense of self. As in most situations where I'm keenly aware of lacking confidence and competence, frustration turns to anger and I get crabby about it without notice. We've been able to work through things pretty well but it takes a great deal of emotional energy.

Maybe it's a good thing that I can take off for a few days and get out of town. I'll be in Colorado for a bridal shower and to help pack up my old roommate. She's also making a cross-country move after decades in the same place. Not sure what will rise to the surface during these days in Denver. Might be fun and relaxing, a chance to enjoy being with friends and receiving their encouragement. May also come with more saying goodbye and grieving for the life I've left behind (joys and disappointments alike). We will see.

Many of the best things in my life - especially those that have to do with personal growth - have been ushered in by seasons of challenge that feel a lot like this one. That's part of why I do things other people consider scary. Yes, they're scary for me, too, but tend to bear great fruit. There's nothing like being stretched beyond your capacity and discovering you can do things you never thought you could.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What the Irish guy said

It was right around St. Patrick’s day … the day when ministries working in Ireland leave their verdant paradise to come to America and raise funds from American Christians. Or so I learned. My source explained, wryly, that on that day of all days, Americans are thinking fond thoughts about their Irish ancestors who left the motherland during the potato famine and about the evangelical “saint” whom both Catholics and Protestants tend to claim as their own. So it's a good time to visit.

James has red hair and beard that suggest he hails for Northern climes, and on a trip to Ireland he had built a relationship with Jeremy, the principal of an organization called the Irish Bible Institute. Between taking this guy around to his speaking engagements and fundraising appointments, James set up a lunch for some of his friends who enjoy matters of theology and culture and who might be interested in and available to meet up for lunch; somehow my name made the list.

Jeremy considers himself a Protestant, but not, apparently, without a pang of regret; he was raised Catholic in a time and place where being right with the church and being right with God were on and the same. “Everyone” went to Mass. Even years later, when someone asked him what it was like to be a Protestant in Ireland he replied, without thinking, “I’m not Protestant; I’m Irish!”

When Jeremy was in his late teens he had some time on his hands and wandered into a coffee shop being managed by some North Americans who wanted to talk about Jesus. As Jeremy began to really follow Jesus he wanted to learn more about him and decided to go to Bible school.

You might thing an Irish Catholic who wanted to study the Bible and discovered the Catholics couldn’t help him (at that time) might look to the closest culture that could; he’d go to England. But sometimes the barriers of acceptance stand their tallest when they come between the closest neighbors, don’t they? For historical reasons, a Bible school in Canada was “closer” than any found in England. I wonder how often such dynamics hold true, globally? Certainly I've met people around the world who forged closer bonds with foreign "missionary" types from far-flung places than they could with Christians from churches that were more culturally close (but historically the enemy).

Jeremy told a story about another relative of his who left the Catholic church and whose staunchly Catholic uncle would never call him by his given name again, referring to him as John (the English name) instead of Sean (the Irish). So, to leave the Catholic Church was to become "English."

Hmmm… Most often when I tell stories about the cultural canyons that keep people from following Jesus, the stories are about chasms I tend to consider bigger. Like when a Muslim girl thinks that being a disciple would mean she’d never get a husband or would have to do things she grew up considering forbidden, or a Buddhist boy balks at being the first son who doesn’t do his bit for the ancestors and might not be able to hold down a good job. Guess the same principles can come up anywhere. I remember an old friend who in desperation asked his nerdy Christian roommate, “If I become a Christian, do I have to be like you?”

Sounds as if in the decades since Jeremy was growing up the Catholic Church in Ireland has become less defensive and more interested in embracing and teaching the Bible. The scandals that rocked the church and the growing secularism of society as a whole may have produced a church marked by greater humility and sincerity and a renewed commitment to call people to Jesus and the scriptures; they are big backers of tools like the Alpha course.

It seems that some Protestants and Catholics are finding common ground in those evangelical values that are neither Protestant nor Catholic but transcend them both. And, as Jeremy said, the St. Patrick that Americans care so much about was as evangelical as they come.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

(An excerpt from the hymn known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spring in the Willamette Valley


planting seeds
changes my feelings
about rain

-- Luci Shaw

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"We Value Relationships"

Since the mid-1990's a number of churches have begun to re-evaluate their mission strategies. They've recognized that supporting a variety of ministries doing lots of different things around the world gives them a nicely diverse profile, but that their ministries can make a bigger difference both out there in the world and among those involved in their own church if they focus their efforts on fewer initiatives. Sometimes they will "adopt" a specific mission field, people group, or ministry focus. They support fewer missionaries.

When I hear people talk about this, they often say things like this: "We say no to most funding requests. We choose to invest in a smaller number of ministries/missionaries at a higher level. That's really what's best for them, too, so they don't have to travel from church to church raising money or visiting supporters." (Hmm, maybe they don't realize that the days of having 10-15 supporting churches are long gone. Now a typical missionary who makes it through the fundraising process will come out with 2-3.)

Those who hesitate to be that focused say things more like this: "We can't cut off the missionaries we already support! That feels too heartless. We want to stand with them too, no matter what their calling and current assignment may be." Also an admirable sentiment, I would say.

In both cases, these folks are expressing a high value for relationship; cultivating and honoring relationships with the missionaries they support is something they really care about.

I recently heard a presentation that took a closer look at the claim, "what we value is relationships." Is this an actual value that works out in a church's priorities and practices in relating to their missionaries? Or is it just a "aspirational value" a pattern to which we aspire but don't currently practice?

The presenter suggested that in most cases, even though people say they value relationship, their decisions don't line up with that value. At least not when it comes to their partners in global outreach, their missionaries.

"Two Women Having Tea," painting by Frank Desch.
Maybe it's time to admit many sending and supporting churches have relatively weak relationships with their missionaries, be they few or be they many. Or to look at it from the other side, many missionaries have relatively weak ties to their home/supporting churches. When the need for money does not drive them back toward the church, the field or agency's policies - or church requirements - sometimes can. But often these are only sporadically "enforced."

A woman I met a few years back wrote to me with a relatively simple and fun approach to cultivating and continuing relationships between churches and the missionaries they send and support. She'd read my post  Church Mobilization: Handles for Global Outreach and wanted to suggest a good "handle."

"One thing that our women's ministry does that really connects us with the missionaries we support is hosting teas. Hosts chose a female missionary from those our church supports. She invites a bunch of her female friends to her home for tea (or dinner or...) and can be as frilly or casual according to her personality. The host is responsible to connect with the missionary and learn about her beforehand to share or Skype with her at the tea. The women hear personal stories about the woman, what she does, her challenges, her environment, etc. Hearing the personal stories in an intimate context endears the missionaries to the women. The women spend time praying and writing cards to the missionary (birthday, Christmas, etc). The women's ministry collects the cards to mail throughout the year and uses any special donations to send a Christmas check to the missionaries." 

A tea-party and card-writing session sounds a little old-school, but fun. And fun is an important motivational factor. I also like the idea that you could add your own touches to this and make it into a special event; this isn't something that's meant to be "as simple as possible" (and possibly the kind of thing everyone will forget immediately after). Online video-chatting makes for a new and more personal dynamic. You could have tea with a woman in China just as easily as one who lives down the street.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Observations on an Academic Culture

I started working on an M.A. degree in February 2011, and now I'm a fourth of the way done. I've taken three week-long intensives on campus and am in my third online classes. If I were an undergraduate that would make me a "sophomore" - so maybe I only know enough to be dangerous!

One thing I've noticed? How seriously my instructors tend to take their work and position.

The upside is that they really care about their work and put a lot of thought into it. They do their best to keep up with their fields (though a number of dynamics are working against them in that regard). They want to see their students master the material they are trying to impart. Those things matter to me, and I'm grateful.

There are, however, (did you guess?) a couple of downsides. At least they seem like downsides to me. Perhaps I will come to think differently about these things as time goes on. If not, well, I think I can live with these things. A few negative examples won't kill me either. I may come away from this experience not only with some fresh ideas on how to teach and work but also some ideas about how I don't want to do things.

1. Books: I'm surprised how often my instructors base course readings around their own or their cronies' publications and neglect of time-tested or original sources and more significant works. I think if I were a professor I'd stay away from interpretive textbooks all together and either teach my own stuff in the classroom, or assign it as reading, but not both; I'd want to make sure my students were reading other sources. That way the students get the benefit of a diversity of voices - especially those that have more authority or experience than I do. Surely these guys aren't just trying to sell their books and build their careers? That might sometimes be the case. I think it usually goes back to well-considered conviction, though, not ego.

2. Papers: I'm surprised how often my instructors give very narrow assignments; often they assign and encourage students to echo and defend the instructor's point of view rather than stating and supporting any other. Sources, structure, and conclusions may be dictated from on high. On one hand, detailed instructions help a student to know how to "succeed" in their classes; on the other, this seems to violate some of the key tenets of education - to stimulate critical thinking as well as recognize, respect, and draw out insight from within the student.

My interaction with graduate students in other schools led me to expect more tolerance for differences and more sparring. Though I know that can be silly and unpleasant too. Perhaps I would have found more room for diverse views in a school with fewer Fundamentalist influences. Chris finds some of this rigidity at his school as well; not in every class, but enough to be disturbing. It's not always from the conservatives, either; last term he had classes with a man I might call a more creative thinker but who required his students to jump through his own set of hoops.

To keep paying and making time for this kind of thing for years and years - and to be tolerant toward these men who do not seem to realize that they work for us, and not the other way around - it requires students to develop a healthy level of patience, persistence, and humility. Some of it may not prove to be useful to a particular student, just as I've never used what I learned in my high school math classes. Part of growing up is going to class and doing the work anyway. You know, I can do that. But I continue to wonder if there's a better way.

When it comes time to turn in assignments, instructional styles that are so much more teacher-directed than learner-directed sometimes require us to do what Chris calls, "writing for an audience of one."

Yikes. In the world where I live most of the rest of the time, that would be wrong. Bad stewardship. Requiring a mature, professional person to do something that is just to prove they can jump through the hoops, that isn't practical and authentic and can't be "applied" somehow, that's practically a sin. Given how often I've run into this in the academic world, I think they must see it differently. Perhaps they have goals for what they want us to "get," and their assignments are meant to draw us through a process of coming to the same conclusions - to demonstrate that we "get it."

That's an expression that should be used cautiously, though. When I hear those words on anyone's lips (including my own), I cringe a bit: "What conservatives/liberals don't 'get' is..." "My kids/parents just don't 'get it,'" "I wish more churches 'got it.'" Let's not be people who are quick to believe that someone who doesn't think like we do or care about what we care about must not understand. Maybe they understand your idea but just don't buy it.

3. Control: I'll confess I don't "get" the attitudes toward ownership which I'm encountering in academia. Again, the world I live in most of the time is pretty big on giving things away freely, in hopes that someone will take them and run with them. Several of my professors and Chris's claim to be pouring into us so we can influence others, patting themselves on the back for their positions equipping the next generation of leaders. Yet they continue to hold tightly onto "their material," slapping copyrights all over everything and guarding their teaching material closely (lest we take it and give it away to someone else without proper attribution and explanation). Sometimes the result is we don't even get to keep the material for our own use. My attitude is more, "Why would I be taking your class if I didn't expect to use this?"

It seems particularly ironic when the instructors locking down course materials so tightly are teaching about things like how to catalyze a movement that will sweep the world. Hint, guys: you've got to give up some of your control. Didn't you just teach me that?


The choice to continue our education through conservative American Christian seminaries brings a certain kind of nonsense that is both like and unlike the nonsense available in a big pagan university, a more cutting-edge (and unaccredited) training program, or some other setting. I don't regret the choice. I'm getting a lot out of this. But I do see its limits, already.

I'll try not to throw around that word "nonsense" too lightly. There's still a lot I don't understand, and I don't want to leap to conclusions about someone else's reasons or motives. As one of my favorite anthropologists puts it, "If our impression of another culture is that it ‘makes no sense’ then we can be sure that we are not making sense to them either."

I have decided to buck the system a bit, though. So far without many ill effects. I've learned to ask what I want to get out of my classes and invest my energies accordingly - not as dictated. This has brought a little flack from frustrated professors: "I expected more from you here," "please, don't write so much there..." So far I've been able to keep enough balance on these things to get what I want to out of these classes and also get my A's. We'll see how long that lasts.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

From Addis Ababa to Madison Avenue

An Amsale wedding dress
Remember that wedding dress I got for such a good deal from the consignment shop? Turns out it's made - or, well, designed, anyway - by a fancy-shmancy New York designer. But not just any designer; one with a story.

Amsale (Ahm-sah'-leh) Aberra grew up in Ethiopia and came to the U.S. in 1973 as an international student. A revolution broke out in her country just a few months after she left. Her father, a diplomat, was thrown in prison. Going home did not seem a good option. Amsale stayed in the States to study commercial art and support herself by working odd jobs, starting with a gig as a waitress in a hamburger joint. She was interested in fashion but had no idea she could make a living at it. Nobody in Ethiopia did that! But she did have a Singer sewing machine...

"I would design and sew my own clothes because I couldn't afford to buy new things," she says. She was good at it. By the mid-1980s Amsale had attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and landed a job as assistant designer for a a sportswear company.

Amsale Aberra
When she decided to get married she started looking around for the perfect dress. It was nowhere to be found. Princess Diana had left her mark; all those 1980's dresses seemed just too poufy and overdone. Amsale wanted something simple and elegant. So she made her own, and wondered if there was a unfilled niche in the wedding gown business.

Turned out there was. The custom-wedding-dress company she operated from her Manhattan loft turned into a $20-million business favored by celebrities and high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstorm's.

"Dahlia" retails for $7400; a used one
can still set you back a few thousand.
One of her goals is to design clothes that are stylish and fashionable but will still look great in pictures 20 years from now. Yes, she's got a lot of those strapless ballgowns I was trying to avoid, but many of them have clean, classic lines. The tend to be simple and elegant. When the producers of Grey's Anatomy were looking for a wedding dress for a particularly no-nonsense character, they chose one from Amsale. The last one Julia Roberts wore in Runaway Bride - after she'd figured out who she really, authentically was, as a person - it's an Amsale gown.

The dress I bought? I think it must have been from one of her much earlier collections. I haven't been able to find any pictures of it online.

Don't you just love a good story about an immigrant whose dreams came true?

More Amsale gowns