Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Gibson Family Update

The month of June remains a blur in my mind. It started with me delivering the commencement address for the Class of 2022 at the Christian Academy in Japan, where I had worked since 2009, and ended with my family vacating our apartment next-door to the school in preparation to move to the US a few days later. Between those bookends, I taught my last classes at CAJ and said goodbye to students, colleagues, and friends, Tomomi received her VISA after a nearly-two year process, and we sorted through our earthly possessions, shipping some in boxes, packing more into eleven suitcases, and throwing away far more than we wanted to. After clearing out of our apartment, we spent just over a week at our friends the Howards’ house while they were out of the country as we went through one final round of sorting/packing/tossing. This happened to coincide with an historic heat-wave in Japan, which saw the high temperature hit above 90˚F for ten days in a row (with several days above 100˚F), and which never saw the low temperature drop below 80˚F. As luck would have it, our children came down with colds only days before our flight out. Sadly, this meant that our daughter missed her final day of preschool, as we holed up and awaited her negative PCR results. The flight to Seattle was as long and miserable as you’d expect with a sick 5-year old and a sick 2-year old who was flying for the very first time, but fortunately we were on the flight with an old friend from church, who helped us push our three full luggage carts to immigration once we arrived at SeaTac!

We arrived in the US on July 9, and have been staying on the farm with my parents. Eventually, we will move down the road a couple minutes into the house I grew up in--my parents had rented it out since we moved in 1994. It’s a nice 5-acre property in the scenic countryside of Whatcom County, but the house is 50 years old, and in need of basic refurbishing, including replacing the siding, the windows and a number of doors in the house. Due to supply chain issues delaying the arrival of the new windows, this process will start within the next few weeks--several weeks later than we had hoped. In addition to the necessary work on the house, my dad and I have been busy clearing out blackberry brambles, brush, and dead trees from the back of the property, and shock-treating the well to clear iron bacteria out of the pipes. It has been a lot of work, but it has been gratifying to see the progress that we have made since we started a month ago.

This is the house we'll be moving into!

Clearing brush and blackberry brambles

Because of limitations in what we could ship, and because what we did ship could take a few months to arrive, we have been familiarizing ourselves with the wonderful world of Craigslist. We have already bought a nice set of Noritake dishes and bowls for only $200! When we went to pick them up near Custer, about a 25-minute drive from my parents’ place, the lady who was selling the dishes noticed my Dordt University t-shirt, and asked if I was Dan and Emily’s son. It turns out, this lady was someone I knew from church when I was a kid, and she had trained my mom’s horses back in the mid-90s--small world!

Paperwork of various stripes has been an ongoing summer project, as well: applying for social security numbers for Tomomi, and our son, applying for State health and dental insurance for ourselves and the kids, getting Tomomi’s Japanese driver’s license transferred to an international license, and then a Washington license, getting Tomomi set up with a bank account, and submitting all manner of paperwork for school, some as a new employee, and some as a parent of an incoming Kindergartner. Between filling out paperwork and pulling out blackberries, I might actually choose to pull out blackberries!

I have been heading into Bellingham Christian to work on curriculum several times a week, simply because it’s far too distracting to find traction at my parents’ place with the kids around. I will be teaching 9th grade English, Geography, and Bible to the first high school class at BCHS, and helping out more generally with curriculum and program development. I have put in nearly 50 hours of curriculum work since June, and still have much to do, but as busy as I have been, I find the process of curriculum development fun and energizing. In many ways, this is the ultimate application of my Master’s training, as it has been my first opportunity to start from scratch on curriculum development since I completed my degree. Our daughter will be starting Kindergarten at BCS in September, and Tomomi will be working part-time as an instructional assistant in one of the preschool classrooms, so three of the four of us will be spending most of our time at school this year, albeit on different campuses. Weirdly enough, there will be another mom named Tomomi with a child starting Kindergarten this year!

The kids have taken to life in the countryside well, and have enjoyed an abundance of outdoor time. It has been a bit surreal for me to watch my daughter ask--and sometimes even plead--to help my mom clean the horse stalls each morning, considering that I would go to great lengths to avoid stall duty when I was growing up. My daughter made the switch from speaking predominantly in Japanese to predominantly in English several days after we arrived. There are still grammatical issues and gaps in her vocabulary, to be sure, but getting more than a sentence in English from her in Japan was a rarity, so this has been a pleasant surprise. Of course, the challenge now will be to ensure that not only will she not lose her Japanese ability, but that she will continue to learn and grow.

Working in the garden
Dinner outdoors around the picnic table

The move has been a bigger adjustment for Tomomi, for whom this is her first time to live somewhere other than Japan, and on top of that, her first time to live in the countryside rather than the city, and on top of that, her first time to drive since she received her license in Japan for ID purposes years ago. There are layers upon layers of culture shock and change, but I have been grateful for Tomomi’s patience, creativity, and sense of humor as she takes it all in stride--she has been the one actively keeping tabs on Craigslist, which is fine by me!

One particular blessing that I have enjoyed since we returned has been the opportunity to attend Wiser Lake Chapel, the church where I grew up, which has been praying for me and my family as long as I had been in Japan. The church has changed quite a bit in the four years since I’d last visited, but it has been good to make new friends and reacquaint with old friends while worshiping and fellowshipping, and listening to solid Biblical teaching in person. After more than two years of mostly attending church virtually--a difficult task in a small apartment with young kids--, this has been nourishment for a hungry and thirsty soul. It has also been a joy to watch my kids learn what it means to go to church and worship, as the concept of virtual church never quite sunk in for them. My daughter has already made fast friends with a little boy her age who has told her and everyone else who will listen that he intends to marry her. Somehow I thought I would have more time before dealing with things like this…

In addition to the Chapel, we also traveled 80 minutes or so down to Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island to attend a monthly worship service in Japanese this past Sunday. Finding opportunities for Tomomi to worship and fellowship with Japanese Christians is a priority, but not necessarily easy in a place where the Japanese population tends to be small to begin with, and the number of Japanese Christians, even smaller, so it was good to attend a bilingual service, worship in English and Japanese, and enjoy conversation with new friends over homemade Japanese treats after the service.

My brother and his family visited from Denver in late July for a week, and my sister and her husband came up to visit from Port Orchard on the Kitsap Peninsula for part of that time. We had a record-breaking heat wave in Washington that week, and one which seemed to follow my brother’s family from Denver, where it promptly cooled down dramatically after they flew here, only to heat up again the day they returned (while it cooled down here, of course). In the midst of the sweating and sweltering (no A/C at my parents’ place), it was fun to watch my kids meet and play with their cousins for the first time, and enjoy meals and conversations with the whole family together outside around the picnic table. One particular highlight of that week was the opportunity to lead outdoor Sunday evening worship with my brother and sister, with my brother-in-law playing guitar. Growing up, we took singing together for granted, and having lived so far apart for so long, it was something I missed tremendously.

Leading worship with the siblings

As for me, it has been wonderful to be back here, not merely for a visit, but to settle for this chapter of life. I have loved returning to the wide open spaces and the fresh air. My allergies have eased up significantly, and I can go for days at a time without sneezing, whereas in Tokyo, it was rare for me to not have a violent sneezing fit at least once a day. Though I have been resting my leg due to a nasty scrape on my shin (inflicted, I think, while clearing blackberries), I have enjoyed running along the country roads, and am already considering how to set up a 600-meter running course on the property we will be moving to. I am relearning how to drive after five years, and working to regain confidence behind the wheel as it has been more than a decade since I drove on the freeway or in the busy streets of downtown Bellingham. My driving abilities are, in many respects, frozen in time from 2008, when I was 22 years old, right before I moved to Japan; I have some catching up to do.
Heading out in an '88 Chevy Silverado to conquer the blackberries

Loving the fresh air!

Wide open spaces...

We have deeply appreciated the prayers of our friends and family throughout the immigration process, in the hectic days and weeks leading up to our move, and in the month since we arrived in the US. We appreciate continued prayers as school/work starts in two weeks, as Tomomi learns to drive/as I regain confidence and competency behind the wheel, as we wait for the contractor to start working on our house so that we can move in, as we search for furniture and appliances, as we seek out opportunities for regular Japanese language education for our daughter, as we seek out daycare opportunities for our son, and as Tomomi continues to adjust to US culture and countryside culture. God has carried us thus far and blessed us, and we trust that He will continue to do so. For those of you on the other side of the ocean, we love and miss you. For those on this side of the ocean, we look forward to spending more time together!
In Christ,
Nate and family

Friday, June 10, 2022

A Reflection on Goodbyes

As a child, your life follows the rhythms of school--a year that runs August to June, and years that run punctuated by milestones every four years, give or take: elementary graduation, middle school graduation, high school graduation, college graduation.
If you attend a single school K-12 as I did, you grow accustomed to staying. Perhaps classmates and teachers leave along the way, and you say hard goodbyes when those occasions arise, but the knowledge that you're staying, yourself, dulls some of the impact. When HS graduation comes along, and it's finally your turn to go, you do so as a group--it's not you leaving while everyone else stays, because all of your classmates are leaving, too.

University, too--you say the goodbyes of graduation as a group, like one of those intricate word problems about the maximum number of handshakes that can be given at a party, with each graduate bidding each other graduate farewell.

Then, if you become a teacher, those familiar school rhythms extend into adulthood. Each Senior class graduates, but you stay. Each of your classes advances to the next grade, but you stay and await a new group. And perhaps more noticeably at an international school, many of your colleagues leave, but you stay. That was my experience, anyway. I went from university straight to CAJ within the span of about three weeks. And for thirteen years, I stayed as others departed, dear friends and mentors whose lives intersected with mine for a short time, some of whom I haven't met in person since.

It occurred to me today that never in my life have I been the one leaving while nearly everyone else stays. Never in my life have I been the one receiving the goodbyes. We pick up on a lot of skills as life happens to us, but this was one skill I never picked up. So today, when classroom clean-up was finished, and I stood face-to-face with a bunch of my Juniors--now officially Seniors--one last time, I had no idea what to do or say. I'd never had to do this before; I have neither script nor screenplay. It was, indeed, one of the hardest moments of my life, and I now have some inkling of what to expect after the final staff meeting finishes next week, and I exchange goodbyes with friends and colleagues who are staying.

To say "a piece of my heart will always remain with CAJ" may sound trite, but I now have a fuller appreciation of what, exactly, that expression means. For, to leave part of your heart behind means that your heart needs to break first. Putting down roots and forming attachments to people and places is part of what it means to be human and those bonds are not easily broken. In fact, I don't think they can be broken, at least not completely. Still, the separation hurts on a heart level. This, I think, is the reality of a life lived internationally--a life in which the sun sets on one of the places you call 'home' as it rises on another, and in which weeks of your life will be spent over the ocean between in a never-ending cycle of transit: reunions and partings.

Perhaps I should count myself lucky that I didn't discover all of this until I was 36, but I think I'm the richer for the knowing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Commencement Address 2022

 Last week, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at the Christian Academy in Japan, at the Class of 2022's selection. It was the fourth commencement address that I've given in my lifetime: the first was at my own high school graduation in 2004, and the rest have all been at CAJ (2012, 2016, and 2022). With my family moving to the States next month after more than 13 years in Japan, I was grateful for the opportunity to send the graduates off, but also say "farewell" to them, and to this community that has been home to me for more than a third of my life so far.

Photo Credit to Linnea McGlothlin

Here is the video of my speech (starts from 37:40), and below is the text:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2022!

Before I launch into the heart of my speech, it occurred to me that we have some unfinished business to take care of.

You see, if you think back to last May, you were busy working on dares for your Junior Charity Event, then we had the CAJ Olympics, and then we had our final deb-scussions in Humanities, and do you know what we didn’t do in the hustle and bustle of the end of the year?  

One final SOAPStone!

So, I figure it’s only fair that we take care of that right here, right now.  Consider this your final assignment before you graduate.

It’s okay, though, I’ll help you out–you just need to follow along.

First up, we have the Speaker.

That’s me.  Pretty easy so far? 

Next, we have the Occasion.  Well, of course, the immediate occasion is CAJ graduation, but broadening it out a little bit, this is the first graduation ceremony with relatives other than parents in three years.  That’s noteworthy, I think.  And it also gets at the exigence, which is that I’m speaking to you in the context of you finishing a turbulent high school career, one in which it seems that all of history conspired to rhyme with itself, all at once.

The Audience?  That’s you guys.  The Class of 2022.  Known alias?  The Un-Shushables. Ranging alphabetically from Abe to Yamaguchi. Interesting fact: you were the very first class several of your teachers ever taught at CAJ–Ms. Johnson’s first 1st grade class, Mrs. Prevatt’s first 4th grade, and later 5th grade class, and Mrs. VanDruff’s first 6th grade class. Another fun fact–because your class had a reputation for blurting out whatever you were thinking, unfiltered, Mrs. VanDruff made you write what you were thinking in a classroom diary instead, so that you could express your ideas silently.  

Also, as a class, you volun-told Hikaru, who you chose to speak on your behalf just now, to have his head shaved as a dare last year–who can forget?  Hikaru took it all in stride, though I’m fairly certain he went through the five stages of grief in the span of about 40 seconds when he realized the rest of you weren’t kidding about the idea.  

And then I think he went through the five stages of grief again while getting his head shaved in front of everyone on the auditorium stage.  I mean, who’d have thought that a partially charged beard-trimmer wouldn’t get the job done?  Or classroom scissors, when that failed?  Who can forget the look of panic on Hikaru’s face when he realized the razor had broken?  Or the look of resignation when he thought he was going to have to finish the school day and go home with large chunks of his hair missing?  Or the look of longing as he wished that your class had just gone with “Dress-like-Kenshin day” as the dare instead?  Or the heroic image of Mr. Willson dashing into the auditorium with a proper working razor?  

I think it was Mark Twain who once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns a lesson he can learn in no other way.” But you live, and you learn.  And what I always loved about your class was how joyfully you lived and learned together, and how you would often look back on the living and learning you’d done, and then laugh together.  That was community.  That is redemption.

One last interesting fact, and I guess this ties back to the Speaker category, too.  We both started our time at CAJ in 2009–at least those of you who are OGs–you as Kindergarteners in August, and I as a short-term volunteer in the LRC, fresh out of college, several months earlier.  And we now end our time at CAJ together in 2022, you as you graduate, and I, as my family prepares to move to the U.S this summer to start a new chapter in our family’s story.  So, in many respects, I’ve had a full K-12 CAJ education along with the Class of ‘22.

Which leads me to my Purpose.  How can I possibly say all that needs to be said?  To give you a send-off befitting the last couple of years?  Ten years ago, I stood on this stage and challenged the class of 2012 to think about their legacy.  Six years ago, I told the class of 2016 that they were all living teacher’s drafts, constantly being revised by the Author of all things.  I still believe these were important parting words to those classes, but this afternoon, I am going to keep things far more simple and far more personal.  I’m going to remind you one final time of what I hope you took away from my Humanities class; what I hope you’ll remember not only in 60 minutes or 60 days, but in 60 years.  

No, I’m not talking about how big John Adams’ forehead was… or should I say fivehead, am-i-right? And no, I’m not talking about the lyrics to Hamilton, or the Toulmin Model, or the checks and balances of the U.S. government, or the proper way to eat a piece of pizza, or which basketball player really was the GOAT.  

I’m talking about my mission–my deep and abiding desire for all of you as you leave this place–which I include in my syllabus and post in my classroom, and hope from the bottom of my heart: that each of you will grow to be compassionate agents of change who glorify God by discerning wisdom from foolishness, noticing the needs of others in a broken world, and then pursuing justice, both in word and deed, engaging and navigating complexities and tensions between various perspectives. 

You have lived history these past few years.  That’s not unusual.  We’re all living history, constantly.  What was unusual is that you likely had some awareness that you were living history.  You knew you were living history on a global scale as you watched the headlines unfold each day, and you may have known that you were also living history locally–the first Senior class to enjoy the new cafeteria and field, the last Senior class to graduate from CAJ with Mrs. Foxwell as Head of School.  

History is all about things staying the same until they don’t, and big changes are on the horizon for all of you, for me and my family, and for this school from which we will soon venture away.  

Change can be exciting when it’s planned, expected, and wanted, as the new field and cafeteria have been.  Perhaps that’s how you’re feeling about graduation, too.  But when it’s unexpected, unwanted, or unpredictable, change can feel about as scary as being on a ship tossing at sea, or standing outside in a typhoon.  Or, holding on for dear life as the earth shudders beneath us.

So, I ask you, as you prepare to depart this gym not as students, but as graduates: on what do you stand?  On what foundation do you feel the most sure-footed? 

The past several years have been the story of so many beloved things–things we might normally take for granted–suddenly disappearing out from under us.  As freshmen, how many of you were looking forward to getting to travel to Korea or Okinawa for FarEast? Or going to a VEX world championship in person, not online in the middle of the night?  Or regularly performing for the community in band, orchestra, or choir?  Or maybe just hanging out in the plaza with friends after school?

How did it feel when these things went away?  

These are all good things, but none of them is a load-bearing thing; none can support the sum total of our search for identity or meaning. 

Then of course, there are bigger things that vie to serve as our foundation–politics, money, fashion, fame.  And again, none of these are inherently bad, but how stable a foundation do any of these provide?

Perhaps you may not fully know on what you stand.  In his book You Are What You Love, philosopher James KA Smith writes, “you might not love what you think.”  To illustrate this possibility, he cites a film by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, The StalkerThe Stalker is the name of the film, not a description of Tarkovsky, just to clarify.  In the movie, three men are on a journey to a room, which they are told will grant their hearts’ deepest desires when they enter.  The promise of such a room spurs them on in their journey, and yet, when they arrive at the threshold to the room at long last, they hesitate.  The room, after all, will grant what their heart actually desires, not just what they think it desires.

Perhaps today, what you think you are standing on is not what you are actually standing on.  

Given this uncertainty, let me suggest to you an important truth before we depart: you are beloved. Let that be your foundation.

You are beloved by your family, your teachers, your friends, yes–but more importantly, you are beloved by the King of all creation.  

In Psalm 62, David writes, 

5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;

    my hope comes from him.

6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;

    he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;

    he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

And the familiar words of John 3:16 tell us something crucial about God–that He loved each and every one of us so much that He sent His son to step into our human story and die for us that we might believe in Him and live eternally. 

This love is unconditional.  It is not subject to pandemic restrictions.  It is unswayed by the chaos of current events.  It abides when we mess up.  It stands firm, steady, and secure even as the earth itself gives way beneath our feet.  

My speech is drawing to a close, and so too, is your final SOAPstone.  I’ve used anecdotes, anaphora, triads, rhetorical questions, invocation, allusions, and probably other strategies, too.  It’s okay if you didn’t notice them.  In fact, no speaker wants the seams to show so much that they call attention to themselves in the moment.  At the end of the day, those strategies are more of a “60-minute thing” anyway.  

As you prepare to leave this familiar place that has been a constant over the past few years, as change looms large, and as the vain things that compete to be your foundation show themselves to be rickety things indeed, I hope this knowledge that you are beloved by God Himself will only grow more clear with each passing day, filling you with peace and joy.  That, I hope you will hold onto for 60 years and beyond. 

As all of you–and I, too–conclude our time at CAJ and go our separate ways, I’d like to leave you with a traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you,

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.


Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Running Total

 Three years ago, I was in the middle of a stressful school-year, realizing that what I'd assumed were seasonal allergies were in fact year-round allergies.  To keep a step ahead of the stress and to feel healthier in the face of a constantly scratchy throat and stuffy nose, I started running regularly.

This wasn't the first time I'd tried to make a habit of running: I had run Cross Country and Track back in school.  

I ran track half-heartedly from 7th grade to 12th grade, with a year off in 11th grade.  I enjoyed (and still enjoy) watching track meets, but I had never much cared for competing as a long-distance trackster.  The 1600m (4 laps around the track) and the 3200m (8 laps around the track) were repetitive and not terribly exciting.

I'd enjoyed Cross Country more due to the changes in scenery within each course, and from week to week as we tried different courses.  Not that I'd been a particularly disciplined runner--as an 8th grader and freshman on a relatively big Cross Country team, I'd been able to fade into the background somewhat, and a few friends and I would routinely run to the nearby convenience store when we were supposed to be doing a long, slow distance run and buy junk-food, which I suspect was pretty much the polar opposite of what our coach wanted us to be doing.  

Then, my sophomore year, a growth spurt had made me naturally fast enough for the coach to take notice.  Suddenly, I was under more scrutiny during practice, and it turned out that when I actually did the workout that I was supposed to do, I improved quickly.  Another friend and I, both unable to fly under the coach's radar any longer, spent each meet vying for the coveted 5th place spot on the team--the last runner who could qualify for varsity.  My 5k time dropped from 23 minutes down to 20 minutes flat, and I suspect I could've hit the low 19s, if I'd been on the right course.  My season ended with two back-to-back meets on the same course, a week apart.  The first week was my best performance yet, and qualified me to join the varsity team for the finals on that same course the following week.  But the minute the pistol went off a week later, I knew something was different.  

I felt sluggish, like I was running through molasses.  I couldn't catch my breath, and I came through the first mile checkpoint a minute behind the previous week.  The cheers of my coach, my dad, and the spectators from my school who'd come to watch felt like daggers: "Come on, Nate, you can pick up the pace!  Try to catch the Mt. Baker runner just ahead of you!"  Except I couldn't--I physically couldn't.  My final time was nearly two minutes slower than the week before.  It was the most physically and psychologically punishing run I'd ever been on.  The next day, I found out that I had strep throat.  I then resolved to quit Cross Country, and quit I did.  I regret my choice now, but I still have some recollection of how defeated I felt.  

When I moved to Japan, I must have tried to start running regularly again six or seven times over the years, making some headway while coaching cross country, but never sustaining the habit for more than two or three months. 

So when I started running regularly again in February of 2019, my expectations for myself were fairly low.  I just knew that I needed a way to de-stress and try and feel above-the-weather.  These motivations, as well the help of a few key technologies, turned out to make all the difference in the world.  

The first bit of technology was a Garmin watch, a birthday gift from my wife several weeks after I started running.  I suppose part of me felt compelled to keep running, given that I'd received a watch specifically for the purpose of tracking my runs.  Regardless, I don't believe I've ever received a gift that I've gotten so much active use out of.  

The second bit of technology was my discovery of podcasts.  I don't consider myself a good multitasker, but I discovered that I can run and listen to a podcast at the same time, and since I often have more podcasts than time each week, I look forward to my runs as an opportunity to keep up--or more often, catch up--with my favorite podcasts. (As a side-note, this is the same reason why I look forward to washing the dishes every evening after dinner).

I started with daily two-mile runs, and it didn't take long for me to pick up the pace.  However, I was frustrated that I couldn't seem to crack under a 17-minute two-mile, and the harder I tried, the more I experienced pulled muscles or dry-heaves.  

I'd been thinking of two miles as a long-distance run--it feels long while running it on the track.  But on a hunch, I upped my regular runs to three miles in May.  Then four miles in July.  Then five miles in August.  I tried a six, then a seven-mile run in September, but those often took more time than I had.  So, my sweet-spot became four or five-mile runs.  I was still running five or six days a week without significant breaks, and I started to pay for it with pulled muscles that necessitated week-long breaks from running.

So, I eased back to three runs a week, with a day or two of rest between each, and learned to dedicate more time to stretching before and after running, and giving myself at least ten minutes of walking to cool down after my run.

Although 2020 brought a nasty six-month bout with plantar fasciitis from spending so much time at home, barefoot, due to COVID isolation, I managed to run at least once or twice a month and resume regular running in September 2020 after returning to in-person school--that had never happened before.  In the past, when I'd had to take more than two or three weeks off from running, I had fallen out of the routine.

This week marks three years of regular running.  In that time, I have run 1400 miles (2253km) .  I haven't kept track of how much I have walked during that time, but I can conservatively estimate that I'm walking 8 miles a week (not counting day-to-day walking around school, to the store, to the coffee-shop, etc).  That's more than 2600 miles (4184km)!

My best run by the metrics of both distance and speed was an April 2021 5 mile run which I completed in 39:56, averaging under 8 minutes per mile.  I'm not sure I could've done that even at the peak of my conditioning as a high school sophomore!  And frankly, I'm not sure I can do it again.

My longest run was 10 miles in 97 minutes in December '21.  I paid for this run with about five days of stiff, sore knee joints.  I need to figure out how to better prepare myself for really long runs.  

It's amazing how quickly running went from being a chore to being a habit, and more than that, a routine that I truly depend upon.  My allergies haven't eased up--if anything, they've gotten worse--but regular running keeps me feeling healthy and keeps me a step ahead of the stress.  I am grateful that I've been able to keep this up for three years, and grateful for freedom from injuries over the past six months.  I hope I can keep up this routine for many more years to come!

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Finding Our Balance

 The first elements of Teaching for Transformation that we learned in our training were "Deep Hope" and "Storyline".  

The "Deep Hope" is effectively a mission statement for our classroom--the "why" or "so-what" of the subject at hand; what we hope students will have taken away from our class when all is said and done.  

We used the idea of 60-60-60 several times during Teaching for Transformation training: what do students need to know for 60 minutes (long enough to complete a given lesson or activity in class)? 

What do students need to know for 60 days (long enough to complete a unit of study, or a major assessment in a particular course)? 

And, what do students need to know for 60 years--what do we hope will stick with them long after they've left our classroom?  

The deep hope challenges teachers to think on that 60-year level and articulate that hope to the students.  Here is my deep hope for Humanities 11, my blended U.S. History and English class:

It is my hope that each of you will grow to be compassionate agents of change who glorify God by discerning wisdom from foolishness, noticing the needs of others in a broken world, and then pursuing justice, both in word and deed, engaging and navigating complexities and tensions between various perspectives.

The "Storyline", by contrast, is a pithy tagline inviting students to live and engage in the major narrative framing your class.  TfT training focuses a lot on the idea of competing narratives and stories, and what makes a Christian narrative distinctive in the midst of so many other stories.  The storyline needs to be applicable in the day-to-day, the here-and-now; after all, it's a distillation of what we as teachers, and our students are actually doing in our class.  For the past two school-years, I tried out the storyline "Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly with God", drawing on Micah 6:8.  While I still absolutely believe that these are important goals, and while I am committed to giving my students opportunities to practice these things in my class, they are more the destination than the journey.  On a day-to-day basis, I simply was not referring back to this storyline, and if I had, it would not have been organic, save as a constant reminder of "here's why we're doing this."

So what is the storyline in my Humanities class?  What have I actually been inviting my students to do on a regular basis?  I realized in February of this year that what I kept coming back to in every unit and nearly every lesson was the idea of "navigating complexities and tensions" from my deep hope.  This is intimately tied to the goal of pursuing justice, but has much more bearing on what actually happens in the walls of my classroom.  My storyline is--has always been (though I didn't realize it)--Finding Our Balance.

As students quickly realize, justice is not easily defined, and there are indeed competing narratives about what justice is or isn't in our world today.  Is justice primarily about promoting individual liberties?  Fairness?  The "greater good"?  The toppling of oppressive power structures?  

If mishpat--the Hebrew word for "rectifying justice" that shows up frequently in Scripture--is defined as "giving people their due as image-bearers", what does that mean in practice?  How do the major competing narratives about justice gel or clash with this definition?

Or consider another tension that comes up in my Humanities class, individualism and paternalism.  What does it mean to love our neighbors?  Is leaving them entirely to their own devices loving?  Is taking the reins from them and telling them what to do and how to do it loving?

Or the tension between government and civil society: at what point should government get involved in addressing an issue in society, and at what level of government?  How much autonomy should the institutions of civil society have in addressing issues?

Or what about the tension between socialization and agency?  To what extent are we the products of culture, society, upbringing?  Are these forces more powerful than our will and ability to chart our own course?

The list could go on.  The reality is, my Humanities course is heavy with these tensions, and actively wrestling with these tensions is crucial to being a good justice-seeker.  

Sometimes, wrestling with a tension will mean seeking the middle path between two extremes, but not always.

Sometimes, wrestling with a tension will mean synthesizing differing perspectives, but not always.

Sometimes, wrestling with a tension will mean picking one side to the absolute exclusion of the other, but not always.

Always, wrestling with a tension will mean figuring out what values and principles will provide us with a firm foundation to stand on as we question, wonder, and engage in a world that seems to shift and shake beneath our feet. 

These tensions are nothing new; they've always been present in my Humanities curriculum.  What will be different this year is that I will be repeatedly, insistently inviting my students to find their balance by facing these tensions head-on, not shying away from them or pretending they are not there. 

As I look ahead to summer curriculum work, I'm excited and energized by the possibilities that embracing this storyline will open up!

Monday, April 19, 2021

Learning to Serve and Service Learning

 Our school's vision statement reads "Equipping students to serve Japan and the world for Christ."

Much of what we teach can be assessed and measured with relative ease: we have accurate, helpful rubrics that tell us how students are writing or delivering speeches relative to our standards.  We have well-designed assessments that tell us whether students can solve for 'x', whether they can identify the relationship between populations in an ecosystem, whether they can engage with the tension between dual federalism and cooperative federalism in U.S. civics, and so on.  

Service, though--well, service is a little different.

In my role on our school's Research & Development Team (the RAD team for short), I'm currently serving on a committee that has been taking a close look at how we teach service.  One thing we realized early on is that unlike knowledge, understandings, or skills, genuine service cannot be assessed and graded in any meaningful sense because the way in which we talk about service is inextricably bound to attitude and even more deeply, a heart-level motivation fully visible only to God.  

So, then, where do we start?  How do we hold ourselves accountable for the lofty, but oh, so important vision of "equipping students to serve"?

Our committee, interested as we are in figuring out what we can teach and assess, is focusing on the concept of service learning

Vanderbilt University defines service learning as "a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves."

This definition caught our eyes because it is so strikingly similar to the FLEx (Formational Learning Experience) portion of Teaching for Transformation, the Biblical worldview integration training that our staff is currently undergoing. Here's how Teaching for Transformation explains the purpose of FLEx:

Formational Learning Experiences (FLEx) are opportunities for the learner to engage in “real work that meets a real need for real people”—opportunities to practice living the kingdom story.

If we can provide students with opportunities to participate in real work that meets a real need for real people, helping the students to build skills of reflection and self-assessment as they do so, we will go a long way towards teaching them to serve.  

Of course, neither Vanderbilt nor TFT's FLEx claim to teach or assess attitudes about service; rather, they are both about providing authentic opportunities to apply and build skills, understandings, and habits of mind by doing something that meets a need in the community. 

These opportunities are crucial, however, and hoping that students will seek or create such opportunities for themselves leaves a lot up to chance.  Yes--it's wonderful when our students search out avenues for service without our prompting, and even better, when their passion is so contagious that their classmates buy in and get involved because they care.  Weaving service learning into our classrooms--making service projects an expectation--won't take away from that.  In fact, I firmly believe that by regularly asking students to go through the process; by teaching them the skills and habits that service often requires on-the-job; by encouraging them to reflect on their learning during and after the process, we will empower more students to independently seek and take advantage of opportunities to serve.  After all, how often do we give up on an idea because we don't know where to start, who to talk to, or how to turn an exciting idea into a feasible plan?

Allow me to share my own observations: for more than ten years, there has been an unwritten tradition at our school that the 11th grade class is responsible for organizing some kind of large-scale service project or charity event.  The first class to do a project had been inspired by a guest speaker who presented to the class about the issue of human trafficking, and a core group of kids felt so strongly about doing something that they organized a a festival on campus to raise awareness and funds for a rescue organization.  This happened the year before I started at our school, but I first heard about it shortly after I arrived, such was the impression it had left on my colleagues and underclassmen.

And so a tradition was born, with the 11th grade class voluntarily putting together a service project each year.  The trouble with tradition, though, is that soon enough it can become an expectation and not truly voluntary.  When something is an unofficial or unwritten expectation, there can be a lot of tension and grief over whether or not to meet the expectation in the first place, followed by no shortage of bitter feelings, regardless of what the class decides.  Moreover, the process can get awfully muddy as each new class comes in tempted to start their planning with an event in mind before they have even settled on the cause for which they are serving. Talk about putting the cart before the horse!

So, this year, I adopted the 11th grade service project into my curriculum as my FLEx activity: no more tense debates or waffling about whether or not to even keep the tradition going in the first place and no more event-first planning.  Following our third unit, which was about toxic charity, and our fourth unit, which was about the role of civil society in addressing issues in the world, I asked students to develop and present proposals for a civil society response to an issue in the world today in groups.  If students wanted their classmates to consider their group's proposal, they had to present it publicly.  Four groups threw their hats into the ring, and their classmates voted to adopt two of the causes: raising funds for TELL Japan, an organization “dedicated to providing effective support and counseling services to Japan's international community and its increasing mental health needs", and creating an artistic display for our town's city office, thanking and encouraging medical professionals.  

With some initial trial and error, the students formed an event committee and several sub-committees, filling such vital roles as president, secretary, treasurer, public relations coordinator, art and design coordinator, and fundraising coordinator.  Though these projects are not "voluntary" in the same way that past classes' have been, I have already seen far more buy in, and it has been a joy to coach the students through conflict resolution, committee structure, delegation and division of labor, and logistics.  It has also been a joy to watch as the students apply understandings about solidarity, good charity, and the relationship between government and civil society as they plan, not to mention applying skills of debate and persuasion. These projects may be a requirement for Humanities class, but I hope that students will emerge from them with a greater capacity--and desire--to serve those around them.

Now, if we as teachers were to be more intentional about structuring service learning opportunities in our curricula throughout the years--even on a small-scale--or simply carving out more time for students to reflect on the many service opportunities that we already have, I wonder how much more quickly students would feel comfortable seeking out chances to serve on their own?  I wonder how much more smoothly the planning process would go each year, with each new service opportunity?

We may never be able to truly assess whether or not our students are serving Japan and the world for Christ, but I think we can increase the odds that they will!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Serving a Suffering Savior

Every year while I was growing up, my church held a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. As we read and reflected on Jesus’ words on the cross, and sang such plaintive hymns as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”, and “Were You There (When they crucified my LORD?)”, the lights in the church would gradually dim until after “It is finished”, the sanctuary would be dark and everyone would exit and wordlessly make their way to their cars. No post-service fellowship, no refreshments, no conversations with friends--just a silent twilight departure.

From a young age, this struck me as odd. Conditioned as we are as consumers and tellers of stories to wait for the happily-ever-after--to look for the glimmer of hope--a service that so conspicuously ended on a down-beat stood out.

Unlike Advent, the season of joyful expectation leading up to Christmas, Lent and especially Holy Week can feel more somber as we take time to think and sing specifically of Jesus’ suffering and death. Why do we do this? Isn’t the whole point to just get to Easter and the empty tomb? Wouldn’t it be best to press fast-forward and skip to the good part?

To answer these questions, we must first ask another question: what do we gain from dwelling on Jesus hanging on the cross? Or put another way, what kind of Savior is Jesus, if His death is indeed a necessary chapter of the story?

In reading Jesus’ words on the cross, in singing mournful minor-key hymns, in remembering His death, we are reminded that we serve a Savior who knows what it is to suffer.

And why is this important?

We need look no further than this past year. Even if you were fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one to COVID, to avoid serious illness, or to have kept your job, chances are you know somebody who was not so fortunate. And chances are, you experienced disruptions that distressed you: social isolation, struggling to work or study remotely, restrictions on gathering to worship, and many more. Perhaps you were already struggling with anxiety or depression, and the challenges of this past year felt at times like just one damn thing too many to bear. Perhaps you still struggle to see past the daily case and death counts, or disruptions to your daily life to the day when this, too, shall pass. Perhaps you are enduring what poets have called the “dark night of the soul”.

You see, we who live shackled by sin in a hurting, broken world--“groaning, as in the pains of childbirth”--know what it is to suffer. And what could Jesus’ resurrection possibly mean if He knew nothing of our suffering? Would it be the equivalent of a spiritual Hallmark card? Well-intentioned, but impersonal and cheap?

Instead: Jesus endured betrayal not only by the adoring throngs who had welcomed Him with palm branches mere days earlier, but by His closest friends. Jesus endured the humiliation of a sham public trial followed by the agony of a slow public execution. Then, Jesus endured what our sins warrant, but which we have never experienced ourselves: true separation from God.

When the earth shook and the curtain to the temple tore in two, the situation appeared to be hopeless. His disciples scattered and hid--it must have seemed like their world had crumbled around them.

Could they see past the grief of that day to the joy that was soon to come?

Can we see past our present suffering?

We know, of course, that two days later, the disciples' mourning would turn to rejoicing. In that sense, it is impossible to detach Good Friday from Easter.

Yet when we do remember Good Friday and reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, we bring with us our own suffering, which may seem permanent, insurmountable. And as we read, sing, and meditate, we remember that Jesus in that moment took our sin and suffering onto Himself. Whatever you are enduring at the moment, joy will come in the morning. But for now, let us take comfort in the knowledge that we serve a Savior who knows--and bears--our suffering.