Monday, December 11, 2017

Food for thought: three angles on discipline

1. Self-care is not all salt baths and chocolate cake.

“Self-care is often a very unbeautiful thing. It is making a spreadsheet of your debt and enforcing a morning routine and cooking yourself healthy meals and no longer just running from your problems and calling the distraction a solution. … [It] often takes doing the thing you least want to do.”

Source: Brianna Wiest, Thought Catalog, H/T Katie Lewis

2. Discipline to go the distance

"There are two pains in life: the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret. You choose." — Wayne Cordeiro, H/T Justin Long

“It makes little difference how fast you can run the 100 meters when the race is 400 meters long. Life is not a sprint; it is a distance run, and it demands the kind of conditioning that enables people to go the distance.” — Gordon MacDonald, A Resilient Life: You Can Move Ahead No Matter What.

3. Missions means choosing the desert.

The Hebrews wandering in the wilderness were tested and humbled as they relied on God to lead and feed them. Few Americans know what it is to be hungry and in such need, but we can know the desert and see God meet us there. Amy, a missionary in Tanzania, reports that her struggles with insomnia bring her to the desert, the humbling acknowledgment that her life is not under her own control. Similarly, our vivid awareness of dependence on God and others is both one of the hardest and sweetest things about cross-cultural ministry.

Source: Amy Medina, A Life Overseas

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Christmas Performance

Christmas pressure seems to start sooner and sooner each time it rolls around, doesn't it?

Family members are nagging one another to tell them what they want for Christmas. Stores are trying to lure us into buying everything, now if not sooner. I keep telling myself that since adopting the practice of having purchases shipped directly to the recipient, I need not bother about shopping now. I have made lists but it's too soon to buy. Yet still I feel the guilty urge, wondering if too many of the deals and selection will be gone when I'm ready to place my orders (or spend some of the gift money I expect to receive).

I've also had several emails from our apartment complex about the rules pertaining to putting up Christmas decorations. I grew up in a household where decorating seldom commenced before school got out, around December 20, yet for some reason I feel a subtle disappointment that our place is not more than just "beginning to look a lot like Christmas."

I wish we hadn't missed the mayor's tree lighting downtown; I like that kind of thing. I wonder if I can lure Hubs to a holiday concert or to go look at Christmas lights, or if it's even worth it. Hard to enjoy things the other person doesn't like, and as per usual, I'm short on other friends of the sort I could take to look at the lights or go to the concert.

Seems like holidays tend to poke at all my sore points. I become more sensitively aware of the things I don't like about my life and choices. Maybe my "love for Christmas" is doing more to build frustration than spread joy. Perhaps it's more of a love-hate thing, eh?

One thing that has crept on me early this year may do me good, however. It may reduce rather than increase my holiday uneasiness (as the gift giving and festive expectations have done). I've already read through two Advent devotionals. They're starting to soften me and to give me words and images to combat the Christmas craziness in the world, and in my own heart.

I know Advent hasn't started. But if you want to recommend anything Advent-ish to others, now is the time to do it, so I plan to post a few reviews. (Dang. There's that pressure again.)

In Saint John of the Mall, Jon Swanson expresses similar struggles:
"Nancy and I were talking about why we don't care for Christmas. We realized that it's about the expectations. There are scheduling expectations, there are emotional expectations, there are gifting expectations. There are even expectations about not being caught up in the expectations."
After spending years on church staff, expectations had worn away warm feelings about the season:
"'I think most of the reason I don't care for Christmas is spending so many Christmas seasons getting ready for events at church. Christmas programs. Advent series. Christmas Eve services. It often feels like I can't stop to think about Christmas, about Christ, until after the last event on Christmas Even. And by then, it's too late.'

"Nancy nodded. 'Even when he's home, he's thinking ahead to the next event, the next performance. Sometimes I think that the only way he's really home for Christmas IS in his dreams.'

"John thought for a bit. 'I think that the word that's got you trapped is the word "performance." Somewhere, you got caught up in performing for Christmas, and it's taken the place of celebrating Christmas. The deep, honest, participation in joy and grief and people.'"
If you're interested, you can pick up the Kindle edition of Jon's book for US$2.99.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Christmas Presents


So, we're going back to Oregon to bring back all the stuff we left there when we thought our move to the South might be temporary. I think this is how we're going to feel when we unpack our moving truck on January 5. Chris gets his stereo back! I can have my books! Yes, we're grateful for all we have and don't need more, but we do look forward to having it all in one place. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Retail Holidays and a Story of Stuff, Revised and Expanded

Although it may have begun as an undercover Christian catechism (Snopes say no), the 12 Days of Christmas came to paint a picture of gift-giving excess that has entertained (or maddened) many generations.

Today, though 12 days of holiday shopping seems like nothing.

A few years ago I wrote about America's New Commercial Holidays, the proliferation of special shopping days that took off around 2012 and expanded as far as what one source dubbed the 16 days of holiday retail.

I like "Balance Your Checkbook Sunday," though it could use a new name, too, since few of us write checks to any degree anymore. Balance Your... Spreadsheet?

I haven't heard references to Grey Thursday or Sofa Sunday lately. Instead, retailers seem to be focusing on Black Friday and stretching the oh-so-limiting idea of a day having just 24 hours. (After all, as St. Peter tells us, with the Lord a day is like a thousand years?) I saw my first ad urging Black Friday shopping in late October. Better get started!

Lest you think America unique in excessively commercializing holidays, consider China. November 11 was dubbed "Singles Day" in 2009 (you know.. 11/11, single digits). It's became not only that nation's "premier national shopping festival," but the largest online shopping event in the history of the world. This year, in one day (an old fashioned 24 hours this time), sources say the people spent upwards of US$38 billion dollars (with some disturbing results for the environment).

That's a lot of spending.

In the spirit of an old fashioned Christmas, may I point out: You still can't take it with you.

*          *          *

In my 2014 post on this topic, I mentioned that Chris and I were making plans to divest ourselves of a lot of stuff, leave some in storage, and move across country (though maybe just for a year) with what we could fit in our two cars. Though Christmas was drawing nigh, we hoped friends and relations would be cautious about giving us more stuff in the months before we were to leave.

We're still on the East Coast. With the turns our careers have taken, we think we'll be here for some years. Now it's time to go back and get the 50 boxes (including all my books!) from the in-laws' attic along with the bit of furniture they've held onto for us. Summer would be better than winter, I know, but we have more freedom now and plan to spend the days between Christmas and New Year's (and a bit more) driving a small moving truck cross-country. (Shipping our stuff would have cost considerably more.) I'm trying to look at our long drive from Eugene to LA, then across I-40 as a potential adventure, but it's a little daunting.

It has been nice to have a relatively uncluttered apartment, although we have certainly acquired more stuff since our 2015 move. Interested to see how we manage with 50 boxes more.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Food for Thought: Problem Solving and Personal Management

1. The Power of Anti-Goals

“…So, instead of thinking through what we wanted our perfect day to look like, we thought about the worst day imaginable and how to avoid it. We inverted and came up with what we call Anti-Goals.”

Source:, H/T Tony Sheng

2. Top Three Work-from-Home Problems and Their Solutions

- Lack of discipline (“Learn good time management skills…”)
- Feeling out of the loop (“Be persistent... go after the information you need to do your job.”)
- Going stir crazy (“You’ll have to make extra effort to avoid becoming a creepy recluse.”)

Source: Grammarly

3. Busy Season

Personally, this is turning out to be a busy time for me. Four Perspectives classes, all involving overnight travel. Weekly editions of both Missions Catalyst and Pioneering Prayer to get out. Email, social media stuff, misc admin. Several plates spinning in the background, all projects I plan to wrap up or hand off by year's end. That will help but means extra pressure now. Meanwhile, it became clear I needed to fit in a trip to Orlando as well. So Monday I'll be flying to Florida for the rest of the week.

Glad Someone else is looking out for me when in comes to planning, though. When I reluctantly told a Perspectives coordinator I couldn't come teach for her class in February (my next really busy month), she wrote back:
“Here’s a neat God story… I went on the Perspectives website this past weekend and saw the amount of classes you were teaching and had some concern for you and almost sent an email telling you that. Just so happens, my husband goes to the JAARS day event this past weekend and strikes up a conversation with someone who wants to get more action teaching Lesson 6 but I already had the invite out to you. God is faithful to take care of you and to take care of providing an instructor out of the blue! How cool is that??? So, no worries! I think we’re going to be OK. I sure hope I get to hear you teach sometime. You come highly recommended.”

Thursday, October 19, 2017

How Not to Sabotage Your Efforts

From the archives... a favorite post from 2013, describing one of the most helpful things I picked up along the way through grad school.

One of the objectives of the class I'm taking this summer is to develop a personal awareness of the ways one is most likely to sabotage relationships. Well, specifically, cross-cultural relationships with people who happen to be Muslims. Seems a lot of us get a little touchy when others -- Muslims, or anyone -- look at the world very differently than we do, open their mouths and talk about what they think and feel, and reject or even criticize things about how we think and feel. We think we're being attacked. We may have the same reactions in marriage, or getting along with our coworkers, watching the evening news or reading things on Facebook.

One of our books includes a chapter called "How Not to Sabotage Your Efforts to Reach Muslims." As the author points out, Christian books about reaching Muslims tend to externalize the tension we feel, as if Muslims are the problem, and if they just wouldn't be so Muslim we wouldn't be so upset about things. But if Muslims are just being themselves, do we have to get ourselves upset about it?

It shouldn't surprise us that people sabotage their efforts to reach Muslims the same way they -- or should I say we -- sabotage all kinds of efforts and relationships. If we are upset, likely our communication and behavior is going to be affected. And underneath that agitation are unhelpful thought patterns like these:
1. Demandingness: Absolute shoulds, oughts, musts, “have to’s”, and needs (I need to be perfect, people have to listen to me, they shouldn't reject me if I tell the truth, etc.)

2. Awfulizing: Believing that something is terrible, horrible, or awful (maybe dwelling on and inflating something negative and being unable to accept or let go of it).

3. Low frustration tolerance: Believing that you can’t stand something, that it is too much, or intolerable. (thus increasing your own sense of psychic pain -- you think it's more than you can take and will make you explode or crumble or something).

4. Self-downing: Believing that you, yourself are no good, beyond hope or redemption.

5. Other-downing: Believing that someone else or a group of people are no good, beyond hope or redemption.

6. Overgeneralization: Believing about a situation, person, or group that it will always be a particular way or will never change.

Source: here.

I don't know about you, but I recognize those thoughts as pretty familiar ones. And they sabotage me in life, generally, and especially in relationships.

When our emotions are those of anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and fear -- rooted in such thought patterns -- we then engage in unhelpful behaviors like defensiveness, blame, aggression, avoidance, rudeness, and dwelling on the negative. Those kind of emotions and behaviors may be normal and seem justified, but they don't help build relationships, do they? So, if our goal is to build effective relationships or have a "ministry," we need to find a way to deal with those emotions and behaviors -- and the thoughts that lie beneath them.

I found it helpful to hear my professor, who is a practicing psychologist, talk about "upsetting ourselves" instead of "being upset." That kind of language helps me take responsibility for my own emotions and emotional reactions -- I have to acknowledge that nobody is forcing me to be upset, to worry, to be stressed out. Those things are not mandatory.

One problem, he said, is that we don't have an effective theory of emotions. Most people believe that circumstances, the behavior or speech of other people, or the way we are raised are the causes of our emotions, despite the fact that research and other sources of authority (e.g., the Bible) do not support these theories. So our instructor offered us what he called the "ABC model of emotions." This is easy. I think I can remember it. And, in digging a little deeper, I see it comes from cognitive behavioral therapy.

A = Activating event, or trigger. The situation or experience (past, current, or anticipated).
B = Beliefs about that event. Thoughts we have when the situation or experience happens.
C = Consequences. Our responses, both emotions and behavior.

Most people believe A causes C. (e.g., that situation frustrates me; that person makes me mad, etc). But A triggers B, and B is what causes C. Our emotions and behaviors are largely caused by our thoughts and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be. Our expectations. And that is good news, because we can't change other people and often cannot change our situation. While changing our thinking is difficult, it can be done if we're honest with ourselves about what we think, willing to work at thinking differently, and ask for God's help in doing so.

So, how can we avoid sabotaging our relationships and other efforts? Stop and consider what things are getting us upset -- or, more precisely, what things we are upsetting ourselves about. What are our unhelpful responses when we are upset? What are we thinking? Is what we are thinking actually true? Is there another way to look at and think about the situation or something else we can focus on that might be more productive?

Friday, September 29, 2017

So, God loved the world...

[Reposted from 2013]

So, some people really don’t like to read or hear sentences that begin, unaccountably, with the word "so." To me it suggests a continuing conversation. To the purist, it's a conjunction, and should no more lead off your sentence than a "but," "and," or "though." Now you know!

An odd assignment in a biblical hermeneutics class I took as part of my seminary studies had me exploring uses of the little word in various contexts in the book of John. What does John mean when he says so?

There are some variations in meaning for this word. The Greek version of it shows up in John 3:8, 14; 4:6; 5:21, 26; 7:46; 8:59; 11:48; 12:50; 14:31; 15:4; 18:22; and 21:1,  and in most these passages it means (and may be translated into English as) "this is how" or "in this way." Not "to this degree." So, more "thus," less "very." John's using the word as a conjunction, not a modifier.

The reason for this assignment? Turns out that when "so" sneaks into the uber-famous King James Version of John 3:16, there's good reason to believe it means the same thing there, despite tradition and appearances. Not like this:

"I asked Jesus, 'How much do you love me?'
And Jesus said, 'This much.'
Then He stretched out His arms and died."

Sorry! Actually, I'm not sorry. Always found that Christian T-shirt/poster sentiment rather creepy.

Some scholars disagree, but how John uses the word elsewhere suggests that here, too, it refers to the manner and expression of love (this kind of love), not the degree of it (this much love).

Small difference? It's enough to use a different translation.

English a few centuries ago, in the day of ol' King James, used "so" primarily in the same sense as the book of John ("this happened, so that did"). Today's English, though, tends to use "so" primarily as an adverb indicating degree. ("I am so totally ready for the weekend, what about you?")

That renders the King James version of this verse -- and the many translations that do homage to it in this particular cases -- a bit misleading. For 21st century American readers, ol' John 3:16 might be better rendered "this is how God loved the world," not "this is how much God loved the world."

Does that change the meaning much? I think so. I think it moves the emphasis from God's warm fuzzy feelings to God's world-shaking actions, from the greatness of his heart to the greatness of his gift. As the saying goes, love is a verb.

For more on this translation issue see So, What? John 3:16 and the Lord's Prayer (God Didn't Say That: Bible Translations and Mistranslations).

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Great Conversation

“There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down.”  ― Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet 

I used to say that nothing makes me happier than a good, meaty conversation. 

As the years have gone by, though, I have felt less and less able to pull my own weight in conversation. 

I run out of things to say or ask the other person about. Maybe I'm just not interesting enough? Have I stopped reading, learning, and growing, so I have nothing to bring to the table?

Whatever it is, when I'm on the spot, I often can't think of a way to take the talk from "small talk" to at least "medium talk," if that's a thing.  

Part of the problem may be that the conversations that dash my hopes are often one on one. The ideal number of people for a discussion that is simultaneously relaxed and stimulating, I propose (or at least prefer), is four. In a group of three to five, no one need carry the conversational ball alone, yet there's space for everyone to have their say. My new team at work is a team of four, and that feels just right.

Do you have any strategies for stimulating great conversations? What works for you?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fandom Fancies

Yesterday was game day, a fact well-advertised (at their own expense) by a good many of the residents of Columbia, South Carolina. As we went about our Saturday errands I noticed how many sported crimson gear demonstrating their allegiance to the South Carolina Gamecocks, especially when it comes to football, the sport currently in season.

The Need to Know

We didn’t watch the game, but felt we had to be in the know. As the evening progressed Hubs inquired about the score each time he asked Siri how the University of Oregon football team was doing in a simultaneous match against Wyoming. Though Oregon won 49-13, a sell-out crowd here in Columbia watched the Gamecocks lose 23-13. Had they won, the crowing would have continued throughout the city for another day. Instead, I suspect a hush has fallen over the topic for most fans, for now. Still, as Hubs connects with local guys he works with over Facebook or around the proverbial water cooler on Monday, he wants to have a basic grasp of what happened.

What's the Appeal?

It still catches me by surprise that so many people find their identity in the sports teams they cheer for, yet I have to admit enough interest to give a fair amount of my time to following my favorite teams. I’m not a “true fan” of any sport, I suppose; I use it primarily to establish or maintain common-ground with others, such as friends and family members back in the West, and to some extent, to those who aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s it. Showing allegiance to teams from the hometown or alma mater makes a statement of place both to those who share it and those who don’t. It’s part of my “I am from…” statement. Not as much as Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, blackberries and bookshelves, but a part.

Appealing to Allegiances

On a recent trip to the Northwest I went to an arts festival which featured Northwest icons in a prominent way. Not the sports things: as a juried art show, it did not have Huskies, Seahawks, or Mariners gear, at least not that I noticed. But it did feature more natural Northwest icons. I brought home a piece that managed to include Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, a Washington State ferry, and someone riding a bike down a hill during a sunset, all together in the form of a paper-cutting by a Japanese artist. All those points of appeal to my allegiances in one piece were hard to resist, and this one seemed made to fit in my suitcase and my frugal price range, too. So now it’s on my wall.

I suppose that makes the same kind of statement as the football jersey or baseball cap.

Now Consider the Funatics...

Attending the art festival meant skipping another Everett, WA event, the opening of a new headquarters for Funko, a Northwest company that got its start making bobble-head dolls and grew into what may be the world’s largest manufacturers of licensed toys and pop-culture collectibles. Who knew? They’ve made their new HQ into quite the interactive consumer experience, like a seamless blend of Disneyland and the Disney store. It features sections catering to fans of Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more. They were expecting thousands of "Funatics" to attend the grand opening.

Sports and pop culture, all in one.

Taxonomy of Fandom: Justified or Unfair?

I find my own prejudices affect how I view the world of fandom. Picking up watercolors of Mt. Rainier and ferryboat knickknacks seems like healthy home-town-ism to me, while my-country-first rhetoric seems like dangerous patriotism. Why? What's the difference? Is it that Puget Sound is real and worth celebrating, not costing anyone else, whereas American Dream is a political philosophy or fiction with a high pricetag for other people and the planet?

Sports fans seem, to me, sometimes excessive, but ultimately more acceptable than pop-culture collectible collectors. Why? What’s the difference? In both cases we’re talking about commercializing on someone else’s achievement, licensing the work of a team of athletes or artists and selling overpriced “gear” so others can identify with it. Is it that a quarterback is a real person while a comic-book character is not?

In the end I think my taxonomy is little more than a ranking of prejudices... concluding that while I'm entitled to my opinions, so other people are entitled to theirs. Cheer for who you will and collect what you want; we all have our preferences and our own ideas about how far we'll go to proclaim or protect them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Considering Cohousing

Until a few years ago, many of the grad students at the Christian college campus where we live made their homes in a community called The Village. This cluster of mobile homes out in the woods had been there a few decades. Many of them were pretty run down and plagued by mold and dry rot, but the married students and families who lived there loved the sense of community they shared.

When a complex of new, modern apartments was complete, The Village was closed down and the rotted-out trailers sold, given or hauled away.

The apartments, no longer limited to the same population, include not only graduate and seminary student families, but also older single students, faculty and staff, and alumni like me. They are clean, well designed, and a big step up in luxury.

But no longer do all the residents know one another. Sometimes nearest neighbors still share meals and families with young kids still get their kids together to play, but it isn’t the kind of place you can easily meet people or shoo your little ones out the door and know they will be looked after. In fact, we have policies against that which help protect the children. I was glad those policies were in place when a young daredevil crashed a scooter and broke her arm coming down the hill outside our building not long ago. No, we don’t want the kids running wild. But in The Village, I think they pretty much could. It was a tight community.

What keeps the apartments from creating that same sense of community? In part it’s the architecture. American housing is set up to protect values like luxury, convenience, and privacy. It’s not like The Village, where everyone would see each other coming and going and know who lives where. I imagine some would put up a cute wooden sign with their name in front of their trailer. I suppose I could still put a sign on my door, but with few shared stairwells, who would see it? So, physically, we can't create that atmosphere. We don't have balconies or patios; most can't see each other come and go. While there is a good amount of shared space, many avoid it.

We do have a nice community center which hosts events, formally and informally. There's coffee, and a printer, and some places to study, play games, or hang out. Staff and residents do what they can to foster relationships. The laws and ethics placed on apartment managers require them to protect the safety and privacy of their residents, though. They feel that their hands are tied. No nametags at community events, for example, and they are rather cautious about introductions, though they love to see us meet one another. We also have a Facebook group now. That may help. Our shared faith and values certainly help.

But most who become friends know each other more from taking classes together or working together in a campus office, not from being neighbors. Counseling students, bonded by the forced intimacy of their small classes, stick together. MDiv students meet to study Greek. People form alliances according to their sense of direction or stage of life, along, of course, with their level of interest in forming connections with others.

There are people who never show up at events; they want to go their own way. So that points to another reason we don't have as much community as we might: a lot of people don't want it. That's not necessarily what they are looking for, here.

On the other hand, some of the moms and single students seem to have hoped for more community and find themselves lonely or isolated. We have a lot of international student families. I think it's pretty tough on them, maybe especially if they come from more communal settings. Last year I heard one of the Chinese students say his wife cried every day. She was at home with little children and didn't speak much English. Ouch. I need to try harder to connect with my other Chinese neighbors!

Then there's the size of the place. There are too many of us, too spread out. I'm glad they stretch the net wide enough to include people like me. But the size of the group? You can't be friends with that many people. It’s a lot to overcome.

No, I don't want to move into a trailer park. "The Village" is gone and even if it weren't, I'd find my clean, new apartment a better choice. Yet I wish we could have the sense of community that from all accounts they seem to have enjoyed.

Meanwhile, my dad and stepmom, as they get older they are looking at joining or starting a co-housing community. It’s a trend that has spread to the US from Denmark, in part, where a large percentage of people live in some kind of intentional community. Some buy up houses, tear down the fences, and put up shared kitchens, dining halls, laundry facilities, and gathering spaces. Others take over small apartment buildings and remodel them to overcome that American push for privacy. They plan social events and work parties, plant gardens and hold community meetings. Apparently, in the US, it’s illegal to require residents to commit to volunteer a certain number of hours in serving others, but that kind of thing is encouraged or understood.

A key distinctive of co-housing, it seems, is intentionality. It's there in the architecture, in the number of units, in the way the place is managed, and in the expectations people have in choosing to live there. These things don't tend to come together accidentally through a few people trying to create them, not when others are pushing for privacy. It works best if everyone knows this is what they are opting into from the beginning.

On the other side of my family tree, my mom and stepdad have moved into a retirement community that offers many of the same benefits as co-housing, plus services needed more by the elderly, including multiple levels of nursing care and help with transportation and shopping. On visiting, I thought the amount of interaction one could have was great. Everybody has dinner together every night. You don't have to come every night, but you're paying a lot of money for them to make you dinner every night, so most people are there most of the time. Other services and activities are purely optional, but diverse and appealing enough that people can easily form friendships through them.

Every person or couple has their name on their door, and there are shared hallways. It's easy to run into someone in the elevator or on the way to the dining room, bistro, meeting room, or post office. It's easy to make friends. A newsletter uses people's names and apartment numbers freely, and many wear their name tags to dinner and activities. I like that.

I also saw how it could feel a little pushy. It's not as counter-cultural as full-on co-housing, but it's still a little weird. Mom and I went to visit a nearby church and I wondered if she would want to go back given how many of her neighbors noticed us there and remarked on it when we ran into them later. It's one thing to have dinner with the same people every night (as Mom has begun to do) and be missed if you aren't there or if you eat at a different time; no big deal. It might be annoying, though, if you just wanted to sleep in and people bugged you about missing church or a fitness class, as if you need to do this because it's good for you and why weren't you there?

What's accountability and inclusion, and what's just annoying? Intrusive neighbors could really restrict one's sense of independence. When it comes down to it, being independent is a much stronger value in America than being interconnected.

Would you want to live in co-housing? How far would you be willing to go to share life with others to whom you weren’t related? What things do you think you'd enjoy most about it, and what things would be hard for you? Intergenerational families living together assure me that each woman needs her own kitchen! What else?

To learn more, see The Cohousing Association of the United States.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Advertisers as Guides

“The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides,” says Eugene Peterson.

I recently felt the pressure myself as we were driving the ad-saturated route to the tourist town of Myrtle Beach. We decided to count the billboards advertising a single “attraction,” a dinner-and-show experience called Pirates Voyage (“The Most Fun Place to Eat! TM).”

We counted 57 billboards. Our hotel lobby also had brochures, and “Pirates” had provided the little sleeves for the hotel key cards.

Is it any wonder I picked up the message, “a trip to Myrtle Beach would not be complete without going to ‘Pirates’!”?

Nevertheless, we did not go there.

We also failed to visit almost all of the hundreds of beach supply stores, despite their loud fluorescent signage, as well as the many all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and pancake houses. We did not play a single round of miniature golf. We never made it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (Believe it or not.)

I don’t say this with an air of superiority, as if I am above such things, but one of acknowledgement. Though I am not a person interested in fun (per se) I still felt the strong tug to check them out.

Advertising. It's powerful stuff.

Image source

Monday, April 24, 2017

Songs, stories and poems

I once heard writer, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson point out that in our baby babbling, we sing before we talk and before we walk. Our parents sing to us, sometimes wordless hums like the way an animal will croon to its young. Soon moms and dads are reading or telling us stories, often sing-songy ones that give way to verse and full-fledged poems. I remember a lot of Dr. Seuss to start with, soon Shel Silverstein and A Child’s Garden of Verses and a much-thumbed volume we had called The Family Book of Best Loved Poems.

Maybe some outgrow all this at a fairly young age, but the bookworm I was, I gobbled up stories of young heroines like Anne of Green Gables who always seemed to be quoting poetry (when they weren't writing it) and performing recitations. I guess this must have been part of our culture back in the day their authors grew up or set their tales (and characters who love to read and write seem over-represented in fiction, for reasons that may be obvious).

Elementary school and later language arts teachers encouraged any bent I had in that direction. A sixth-grade math teacher would give us a break from equations by reading from his favorite poet, Robert W. Service; though this was usually the sort of behavior more expected from English teachers. Me, I learned Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Madeleine L’Engle poems by heart, memorized Shakespeare speeches, and even composed a few poems and stories of my own (though I am afraid they were pretty awful).

After a seventh grade assignment to choose a favorite topic and put together our own book of collected poems, I was hooked on curating. I started assembling scrapbooks of poems, songs, and quotations, starting with those I already loved and poems about the sea (my chosen topic for that seventh-grade project).

The older I've become, the sillier and more babyish this all looked. I tucked my scrapbooks away and added to them less and less often. I still copy scriptures and moving passages from books into my journals at times. Now and again I'll share something around the campfire, in the letter, or in an impromptu talent show. And on a long drive, I’ll sing songs and recite poetry from the treasure trove I’ve committed to memory over the years.

These days it’s very rare and only with trusted friends whom I hope understand and accept my quirks that I will share a short poem or part of a poem I know by heart... maybe Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, or Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, and hope people don't look at me weird.

I seldom go for long drives now, at least not alone. My husband would probably not appreciate me practicing poetry in the car for no particular reason. But now that I’m older I am more likely to wake in the night. Lying awake in the wee hours, well, it seems the perfect time to tell myself a Best Loved Poem.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Recently Written

Here's some of what I've been doing this week.

Pioneering Prayer - Trolling missionary newsletters to create an issue or two of this weekly email publication from Pioneers. (Scheming ways to tell longer versions of some of these stories)

Missions Catalyst News Briefs - Working with Pat, our news sleuth, to serve up stories from across the globe - including a report that Christianity is exploding in Bangladesh and how a prison guard in the Middle East had visions of Christ and was discipled by imprisoned pastors. Newsletter - Struggled to find something fresh to say about preparing for a mission trip, until I realized I could tap into a childhood experience for a useful metaphor.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Based on a True Story: Memoir, Truth, and Ethics

A beloved third-grade teacher introduced me to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, with her outrageous cures for children’s bad habits, and Nancy and Plum, orphaned sisters who fight to survive under the cruel Mrs. Monday. These stories (and others) nurtured a love of fiction for me and many other students in Mrs. E’s classes over the years. They helped make me the reader and writer I am today.

Part of the appeal of was that the author, Betty MacDonald, had written these stories from our very own Vashon Island. Later I’d learn that she had also produced four adult memoirs. The Egg and I, the first and most famous of them, recounts her experiences on a chicken farm across the water on the Olympic Peninsula. In Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty writes about her family, particularly her sister Mary (who also authored both children’s books and memoirs); it focuses on the lengths to which they went to get and keep work during the Great Depression. I  read and enjoyed Onions in the Stew, which was about life on our island. My favorite Betty MacDonald memoir may be The Plague and I. This humorous look at a grim topic describes Betty’s year in a sanatorium near Seattle after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.

The books vary somewhat in tone and characterization. I didn’t realize how much until reading Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I, by Paula Becker and published last year by the University of Washington Press. Becker is not only a fan but also a careful researcher. In this book she explores the differences between the real Betty MacDonald and the fictionalized version of herself put forth in her books.

The Egg and I sold more than a million copies in its first year. It was made into a film starring some of Hollywood’s most popular stars and made Betty into a Hollywood celebrity herself. It’s based on Betty’s actual experiences, but they were originally reframed to entertain her friends and salvage her sense of self-worth as she recovered from the very painful period, then further adapted to attract and please a literary agent, publishers, and the public. If nothing else, Betty knew how to tell a story.
The Egg and I revealed Betty’s fundamental irreverence, a Bard family quality. Exaggeration was encouraged and expected. Telling a good story outranked following the Golden Rule” (Becker, p. 74).
In “Egg,” Betty glossed over the fact that her husband Bob was viciously abusive and that their life on the farm ended when she left him. She presents a version of herself that is more self-assured and less of a victim. And, although she changed names and identifying details of her location and other characters, when both the book and movie became hits, residents of the community where Betty had lived (decades before, at this point) were happy to direct people to the farm and other sites mentioned in the book, sometimes profiting from the connection. One neighbor family who recognized themselves in outrageous characters Betty hoped would be considered composites eventually took her to court for libel, and although the case was settled in her favor, it seems clear that their clan and the family ridiculed in Egg were one and the same.
“Caught in the truth in court, Betty had lied. More than one relative of Betty’s laughed at questions that tried to parse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. ‘Nobody in this family ever let the truth get in the way of a good story!’ they explained” (Becker, p. 125).
Readers loved the book anyway. The timing of the 1945 publication had been perfect.
The Egg and I hit the war-numbed public as a comforting tale of survival: one woman’s successful effort to just keep getting up each morning in spite of challenges and discomfort.” (Becker, p. 73). 
Later cultural shifts also played a part in how Betty’s books presented their content and how they were received. Though Onions in the Stew describes events that took place between 1942 and 1945, it’s published in the conservative 1950s. As one of Betty’s editors wrote to her agent,
“Public taste has changed pretty radically in the nine years since The Egg and I was published. A sort of Puritanism has made great progress, and some things that would go without question in the late 1940s will now tend to alienate a large segment of the reading public” (quoted in Becker, p. 146).
Betty responded by toning down the language, cleaning the manuscript of bitterness and snarkiness, and presenting a more traditional patriarchal household than she actually had (and rather different from what we saw in the other books). Some modern readers consider this book the “bland” one.

The editor responsible for Onions also wanted to avoid more libel suits. He made a list of every character in the book who was not a member of Betty’s family and asked for assurance that their names and identities had been changed. Betty responded that many of the characters were entirely made up and most of the others were composites. “How true to life Betty’s nonfiction book really was seems to have mattered little,” remarks Becker (p. 146).

All this raises some questions about the whole genre of memoir, then and now. What does it mean to write one’s story in an ethical manner?

1. Is it more ethical to change your story than to tell it in such a way that others might be hurt? Readers may love tell-all stories, but publishers and their lawyers don't. At what point do stories about events involving other people become libel?

2. In fiction, if you use material from real life, you have to change it. But when you’re writing non-fiction, is there some kind of responsibility to your reader to uphold certain standards of accuracy? Is there a difference between what we can expect in a biography (like Becker's) and a memoir (like Betty's)?

Occasionally, these days, there is a big scandal about a blockbuster autobiography that succeeds on the basis of claims that turn out to be untrue. To what extent is fictionalizing one's life a normal and expected part of this genre? Or does an author defraud the public by making things up and calling it a memoir?

Image: Dust jacket from 1946 edition

Sunday, February 05, 2017

More about Lilias Trotter: newsletters, show and tell, and single women on short-term teams

As I mentioned briefly in The Legacy of Lilias Trotter, Lilias served in and around Algiers, on the coast of North Africa, with easy access to Europe. In contrast with some other pioneering missionaries (say, David Livingstone, who famously dropped off the radar and refused to go back to England when he was finally found) Lilias made time for public speaking tours, refreshing vacations in the Alps, mission conferences, and Keswick conventions. Keeping up with her contacts in Europe does not seem to have dampened her commitment to Africa or her appreciation of Arab ways and mindsets. And the ministry seems to have benefited a great deal through her connections.

The growth and support of the ministry may have owed something to her faithfulness in sending what we now call prayer letters:
“At the beginning of 1907 Lilias started the habit of sending out a bi-monthly prayer circular to a large group of friends in England and France. They were beautifully written and illustrated and, no doubt, greatly increased the volume of believing prayer that ascended to God at that time; and all this tied in with what she had been learning the past few months, for God was about to send new workers and open new doors of opportunity in a remarkable way” (Patricia St. John, Until the Day Breaks, p. 118).
Around that time, Lily got a letter from a friend letting her know that a two ships carrying some 600 American delegates to Rome for an international Sunday School convention would be stopping in Algiers for a few hours. The leader was hoping they could stop in and meet with missionaries in Algiers and learn about the work. Sounds like Lilias was felt pressured to sum up her work in such a short visit, and embarrassed that they didn’t have schools, hospitals, and what she calls "the ordinary outworks of a Mission Station to show,” but she told them they could have the chance to see a work just at its beginnings and carefully prepared an engaging, hands-on exhibition that introduced the visitors to some of those they were serving among and showed their work at its best advantage.

When an offering was later taken, that short shore excursion would bring in full funding for five women who arrived to begin work in that year (Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible, p. 199; St. John, p. 119).

A few years later, in 1911, Lily used a summer visit to England to recruit short-term missionaries, “educated girls who could ‘come on a self-supporting basis for a time of service in all the countless ways in which such can be rendered with a small knowledge of the language, if hands and hearts are ready.’”

The short-term mission movement would not take off for another 50 years or more and I’m not sure what other early models may have existed. But a steady stream of young ladies-of-leisure came to Algiers for periods of different lengths until World War I interfered. Lilias, who would have been in her late fifties at this point, seems to have enjoyed having the young people around (Rockness, p. 200).

The tributes that came in after Lily’s 1928 death claim “she never lost her enthusiasm or her capacity for wonder,” that she was “always interested in new points of view, or new methods, even though she might not agree with them,” and never failed to offer mercy and encouragement to her younger coworkers (Rockness, p. 274-5).

Sending out engaging reports, inviting fans and supporters to see the ministry up close, hosting short-term teams, and committing oneself to benefiting from the fresh wind of new people and ideas also characterize many of the healthier ministries I know today... just as they did in Lily’s day.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Legacy of Lilias Trotter (1853-1928)

Isabelle Lilias Trotter:
Missionary, artist, writer,
and mission leader
Life in England

Lilias Trotter grew up in the golden age of Victorian England, educated at home by governesses but encouraged to develop her potential and use her gifts. These included an unusual appreciation of beauty and facility for drawing and painting. Her early life was punctuated by family trips to Europe where she reveled in the natural beauty she found at every turn and was seldom without a sketchbook. Lily kept illustrated journals through every phase of her life and left behind a wealth of published materials as well as letters and diaries capturing her thoughts and experiences.

But the real focus of her life wasn't art, it was God. Her faith was kindled through the Holiness movement which swept through England in the 1870's, led in part by Quaker and Methodist revivalists from America, including the popular Dwight L. Moody. Throughout her life Lilias would attend "Keswick Convention" events which grew out of their revival meetings whenever she could. And through these meetings, Lilias and her friends surrendered their lives to Christ and his service. Her writings make clear that relationship with God was of primary importance.

Lilias gave more and more of her time to serving the needy in the slums of London through the YWCA, then in its infancy. When she was 35, she felt a call to ministry in North Africa.

Life in Algeria

Lilias and two friends, all well-educated single women, traveled to Algeria to make a home for themselves there. They moved into the Arab section of the casbah, amid narrow winding streets, hoping to be used by God. Rejected by mission agencies, they were not discouraged, apparently, from going out on their own. As Lilias later wrote:
"None of us would have been passed by a doctor for any missionary society. We did not know a soul in the place, or a sentence of Arabic, nor had we a clue as to how to begin work on such untouched ground. We only knew we had to come. If God needed weakness, he had it! We were on a fool’s errand, so it seemed, and we are on it still, and glory in it.”
Algiers may seem far away and exotic to us, but for Lilias, it was not really that far from home; Britons who wished to visit North Africa need only take a train across France and board a ship for a relatively short journey from Marseilles to Algiers. She seems to have initially expected to live there six months of the year, keeping a commitment to come home and nurse an invalid sister the other six. The sister died unexpectedly. In the years to come, though, Lilias (whose own health was shaky) took frequent and sometimes extended breaks to rest in England, Switzerland, or other parts of Europe.

For 40 years Lilias lived and served in North Africa, sacrificing the comfortable life and promising art career she might have had in England with what she called “the liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep.” She and her coworkers learned Arabic, taught the Bible, set up classes of all kinds of men, women, and children, traveled extensively, and pioneered all kinds of strategies for connecting with the lives and hearts of their Arab friends in culturally appropriate ways.

No mention is made, in anything I've read, about giving up marriage and family; perhaps she had no desire to pursue that path. I'm not sure. Maybe nobody thought that was a sacrifice. At her death she left behind only relationships, a wealth of devotional material that spoke to the hearts of the people, and a band of 30 missionaries, mostly women, who looked to her as their leader and continued reaching out to the people of North Africa years before breakthrough came to the region.

Learning about Lilias: Three Books

The "Algiers Mission Band" eventually became part of the North Africa Mission (renamed Arab World Ministries) which merged with Pioneers in 2010... not long after I came into Pioneers, also through a merger, so I guess that gives me a tie to Lilias Trotter.

I wonder what she would think if she peered into the new Pioneers building in Orlando and saw signs directing visitors to the Trotter Conference Center, named in her honor? It was in writing some material to describe her legacy (and perhaps explain why we were using her name) that I decided I needed to learn more about her.

Decided to start at the school library. CIU was founded by Robertson McQuilkin, a holiness movement leader in America and an avid supporter of world missions. Both streams are still a strong part of the CIU culture. Some students major in "Muslim Studies" and take classes from the "Zwemer Center," named after another pioneering missionary who was a friend and colleague of our friend Lilias. With that many connections, I should not have been surprised to find a collection of Lilias Trotter biographies in the school library. I checked out three and read them through, one after the other.

I started with Patricia St. John's 1990 biography. It follows the conventions of missionary biography, providing an easy to read, inspirational narrative strong on devotion but sometimes weak on details, explanation, or analysis. I was surprised to realize it was a 1990 book, as it felt as if it were written for an earlier time.

I then picked up a more modern work by Miriam Rockness (2003) which has some of the same flavor as St. John's book but is written for a contemporary audience. It is stronger academically. Rockness cites her sources more carefully and fills in some of the gaps with background or analysis. It's harder to read, though; I can see where someone who wasn't determined to finish it might not make it through. Long, unedited quotes are formatted somewhat awkwardly (double-spaced italics with original spelling and punctuation). In reviews, some readers were quite critical of Rockness, calling her a poor writer compared to Trotter. I don't think I'd agree. But the tone slips back and forth between devotional and scholarly, and one looking for one or the other might struggle with that.

Finally, I skimmed a 1929 book primarily made up of Trotter's letters and journal entries, edited and published shortly after her death by her friend and coworker Blanche Pigott. I suspect Lilias, who often reworked her journal entries for publication, would appreciate Blanche's efforts to clean up her work. But it does mean we're not getting quite the real deal; I can see why Rockness went back to the archives. This one reads as more a collection of pieces than a narrative. If you didn't know who Lilias Trotter was or why she's considered significant, you'd be at a disadvantage in navigating this book and might be turned off by the language and some of the emphases.

Looking for Legacy

All three works covered many different stages and aspects of Trotter's life. I was most interested in her ministry strategy and experience in North Africa, her leadership of the Algiers Mission Band, her connections with other mission leaders of the time like Samuel Zwemer and Amy Carmichael, and her legacy as a missiologist focused on reaching Arabs. She was an accomplished leader of people, both a visionary and a detail-oriented administrator. Missiologist Christy Wilson said Lily's evangelism approaches were "one hundred years ahead of her time." The book she wrote for Sufi mystics introducing them to Christ through the "I Am" statements in the Gospel of John sounds like a masterpiece, one rooted in a great deal of study and sympathy for the Sufi "talebs" she met during her travels in the south of the country.

Judging from the biographical sketches I've found, however, what most people know and emphasize about Lilias Trotter (if they know anything) is that she was an artist who put aside a potentially great career in the arts, for ministry, but who left behind a number of devotional booklets illustrated by her own drawing and paintings.

I don't think art is her real legacy.

Rockness explains that her interest in Lilias came through friends who gave her their collection of those booklets, one by one, and enlisted her in their quest to save them from disappearing. That may be why she puts the "artist" narrative front and center, though her chapter on legacy is much more balanced.

The documentary Many Beautiful Things focuses in on the art v. God narrative, though. I haven't seen it, but here's the IMDB description:
From Executive Producer Hisao Kurosawa, (Dreams, Ran), comes the untold story of one of the world's greatest women artists and why her name was nearly lost to history. Many Beautiful Things plunges viewers into the complex age of Victorian England to meet Lilias Trotter, a daring young woman who defied all norms by winning the favor of England's top art critic, John Ruskin. In an era when women were thought incapable of producing high art, Ruskin promised that her work could be "immortal." But with her legacy on the line, Lilias made a stunning decision that bids us to question the limits of sacrifice. As Lilias journeys to French Algeria in the late 1800's to pioneer work with women and children, viewers are left to wonder, "Could you abandon a dream to pursue your true calling?" Featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones).
So, like Chariots of Fire, it seems to paints a picture of a Christian "sacrificing" remarkable skills by putting their faith first (appealing to evangelicals, though perhaps bewildering to others).

After soaking up enough Lilias Trotter, I'm having a hard time seeing where someone would question whether she "wasted" her gifts as an artist by becoming a missionary. Likely Ruskin was right that if she wanted to be a great artist, she would have to put art first. She turned away from that, saying she didn't think she could devote herself to art and still "seek first Christ and his kingdom." Some Christians find ways to pursue both simultaneously. They serve God through their gifts as artists, athletes, musicians, writers, or whatever. But to live a life surrendered to God, even if that means not following gifts that might demand more of you than you can give... well, that is better, isn't it?

Lilias would say her duty is not to her gifts, but to her God. Lilias Trotter had a wonderful life, and if she wasn't one of the world's greatest artists because she thought seeking to save souls was more important, it didn't stop her from seeing the world's beauty and from the joy of painting and drawing most every day, alongside writing, teaching, and investing in her coworkers and the Arab communities in which they served.

(Continued in More About Lilias Trotter.)