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:

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?