Friday, December 30, 2011

Two Thousand Eleven

I heard a few years ago, and I don't remember where, that within an average lifetime there are several years scattered throughout that have an impact far beyond any others. Obviously, events like marriage and children cause a year to be memorable for joyful reasons, but more often than not, years of tragedy and loss stand out most vividly.

Without a trace of melodrama or hyperbole, I can say that 2011 was such a year; one that as long as I live, I will never forget.

I will never forget what it was like to huddle under my desk while the room tossed and rattled on March 11.

I will never forget the worry, uncertainty and outright fear etched onto so many faces as the entire CAJ population gathered out onto the field and waited, not knowing exactly what had happened or if loved ones were safe, cut off from phone service and Internet access for an agonizing 20 minutes.

I will never forget the horror of watching live footage of the ocean sweeping away life and land.

I will never forget the disbelief and terror that pierced through the illusion of peace as the earth shook beneath the class of 2011 and us teachers in Thailand just two weeks later.

I will never forget the feeling of the wind being knocked from me as I was told that Taizor, one of those Seniors and my student, had died in a motorcycle crash on his way to school. Nor will I forget the weary feeling of grief that washed over me in the middle of an otherwise joyful summer as I read the email informing the CAJ staff of the death of Ethan, the 17-year old son of our Athletic Director.

Most of all, I will never forget what I learned about myself and my faith through these hard times.

I learned that I do not handle such fear and loss well--an observation about myself I simply never had occasion to make before. Cognitively, I understood and understand what a Godly response looks like and I think this awareness is reflected in the writing that I have done, but in practice I have time and again failed to respond faithfully. I have, so many times, chosen to avoid processing, to avoid dealing with my fear and my grief, instead fleeing and hiding. Even as I have expressed my understanding that I need to turn to God, I have consciously run and looked for distraction and escape in so many other places.

This was a painful realization that I came to while I was home in Washington during Christmas break. The night after Frodo (my dog) died, I stayed up late watching TV shows and playing a video game--well past two in the morning. I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed, but I knew that the instant I stopped distracting myself, I would be forced to think about the dog and in that moment I would need to deal with feelings of grief and sadness.

As my eyelids grew heavier, I knew I could not put the moment off forever. Wearily, I turned off my game, turned off the TV and opened my Bible. Before I even began reading (I am working my way through I Samuel again), I started sobbing. Yes, losing Frodo was the spark that brought me to this point, but many of the feelings that came up were ancient, long-ignored, from times during the year when I thought I needed to act brave or move on.

I shared this with my family after dinner the next day, Christmas eve--it was my turn to lead a short devotional after dinner, so I talked through what I had been feeling and what I was still feeling. As I spoke, it occurred to me that although it was discouraging to realize my lack of wisdom in coping mechanisms and my resistance to God through all of it, this represented the most thought and care I had invested in my faith. Ever.

I've been on spiritual auto-pilot for so long that spouting off rote answers and quoting verses and theology that I've memorized has come to feel natural. What I could not have reckoned was experiencing events where such mechanical responses are meaningless and ineffectual. This year, with all of its hardships, forced me to come face to face with my own spiritual laziness and my own weakness. Talking a good game means nothing in the crucible. My faith cannot be something that I keep on a shelf and only take down in certain situations, whether that be church, writing, or giving advice to students, because at that point it becomes centered around snippets and soundbites, and those have no substance, no real comfort or power. No... my faith needs to be something that I, weak and broken, cling to at all times.

I am very far from this being the case. However, I now see so clearly the distance that I cannot remain as I am. Spiritual auto-pilot is comfortable, easy; it's not real. My heart feels so clouded and numbed by a lifetime of going through motions and saying things that sound good that I do not feel the burning desire for God that I know I should have. Still, there's enough of me that at least desires a passion for God that it has become the basis for every prayer that I pray.

So, as 2011 draws to an end, I cannot simply say "good riddance", as I am tempted to... instead, I look back from the vantage point of December 31 with a profound gratitude for those blessings which were amplified by the hardships, and for the hardships that served to show me my weakness and need for God. God did not break me down--He broke down walls that I'd built up around my heart and in the process showed me that without Him, I've been broken down all along. I will make no pretense of power or ability--my prayer for the coming year is simple: that I will have the humility to let God work in me and rebuild me; that I will have the passion to seek Him first, and not only when troubles come, but always.

Most of this blog-post was written for myself because I think best in print. In fact, I even hesitated to post this one... however, readers, I feel I needed to share my heart so that I could close by asking for your prayers in this. Trusting is so difficult and it is not something a person can will themselves to do--it starts with surrender and total admission of weakness. It starts with prayer. So, I end the year on my knees, and I think this is precisely where I need to be as I move into 2012.


There are a lot of reasons why I love teaching, and different ones stand out more at different times. Right now, at this very moment, I love teaching because of the vacations. What other career would allow me to live and work in Japan and still enjoy a 12-day Christmas break with my family in the States?
What's more--I've still got four days to get over jet-lag, grade, plan and mentally transition back into school mode. Life is good!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Now boarding: JAL flight 17 direct service to Tokyo

Whoosh. That was the sound of Christmas break going by. I am just writing a quick paragraph before I board my plane--I can't believe break went by so fast! It was good, though--I hadn't planned on watching my dog be put to sleep, so that part sucked, but everything else was restorative. I did absolutely nothing school related. It means I've got a stack of grading to do over the next few days, but I think I needed to take a mental break. I am excited for the coming semester and renewed in my energy and passion for my calling.

Well I have to board the plane--to my Washington family and friends, thank you for a wonderful break. To my friends and colleagues in Japan, I am looking forward to seeing you soon!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sands of Time

No matter how big the hour glass, no matter how much sand rests in the top half when the glass is turned, the force of gravity is irresistible; the flight of a million grains of sand, inexorable. Time has been on my mind virtually all throughout the past 12 days as I've visited my Washington home and caught up with family and friends.

It started with a bunch of seemingly loose and disconnected threads: listening to my brother talk about his work in a Denver public school; my sister talking about her first semester of college; watching the Christmas eve program at church; visiting Lynden Christian for the first time in nearly four years; playing through a video game based around time travel; saying goodbye to my 9-year old dog...

These and so many other seemingly random occurrences finally fused together in my mind yesterday as my family settled down to watch two hours worth of old home videos. The images of days gone by paraded past on the screen; people so familiar, yet so vastly different from us who now sat and watched. Because the camcorder tapes had been unmarked when my mom had brought them in to be transferred, the DVD footage we now watched was random in sequence; jumping from 1994 to 1996 to 1993 to 2000, back to 1993. Perhaps it would have been less jarring to watch everything chronologically; something about the jumps, watching 10 year old Nate turn into 7 year old Nate or 7 year old Lea turn into baby Lea turn into 1 year old Lea... it made me feel like another dot on the time-line.

Though we were spectators of our past selves in that moment, that moment soon faded into memory. As I now pack my suitcase and prepare to head back to Japan, I look at the photos from the past two weeks (and the corny video of Ben and I singing "Wassail") not as the present but nostalgically, as fond memories. Like sand in an hour glass, each second is another speck fallen; lost, save for recorded images and memories.

I watched with some degree of envy as the younger version of myself put on a puppet show in the living room--my greatest concern being whether or not my head could be seen from my hiding place behind the coffee table. I smiled at the sound of the voices of grandparents who have since passed away, voices that I hadn't heard in 3, 10, even 16 years. I wondered to myself if my own future children would watch these or other videos someday and smile at the sound of my parents' voices even long after they are gone. The thought was at once comforting and sobering.

Strange as it was for me to watch these old videos, it was even stranger for my parents, to whom the past 25 years have seemed like the blink of an eye. Though I can identify now (college and each year since seems to have sped by), time seemed to drag when I was a child. I was shocked to find, in watching these old videos, that I'd only had to wear a cast on my broken wrist for two weeks when I was in 2nd grade. Somehow, in my memory, I had worn that cast for two months.

It was odd to hear my parents speaking to these younger versions of my siblings and myself as children and not intellectually capable adults. I'd grown so accustomed to our often deep and profound discussions around the dinner-table that I had forgotten it had ever been another way.

I lay awake in bed for quite a while that night, after watching those videos. I felt so many different emotions as I slowly drifted off to sleep: nostalgia and a desire to relive my childhood, shock at the passage of time, regret at the time that I had wasted, fear at the prospect that time would not slow down for anyone let alone me.

My take-away, or at least what I remembered when I woke up, was to let my family know that I cared for them; to love them and be loved while the opportunity was still in front of me. How must my mom have felt as she watched her parents, now both deceased, alive and well on tape? How must it have felt for my dad to see his dad sitting at the table for my 8th birthday party now 10 years since his passing?

My mom expressed it well when she later said that she'd like to leave more than static pictures--instead leaving behind a legacy through her writings. Her conviction renewed my conviction to write regularly.

Time is elusive and we'll never be able to seize it or ensnare it. However, time is also precious and so we should never stop trying to seize each moment and live it to the fullest, to live it for God's glory. I'm not entirely sure when I went from being an energetic child with a pudding bowl haircut and a love-hate relationship with the letter 'r' to who I am today, but regardless of the changes and inconsistencies, I need to remember the One who is a constant. God is unchangeable even as the world around us adapts and morphs. What's more, I am called to reflect the character of God and to love those around me. In watching the clips, I realized how fortunate I was to have another constant in the form of parents who loved me then and love me now.

Time fades away, scatters like sand, but love endures. God endures.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Waking up before sunrise, drinking a cup of coffee, unwrapping presents around the Christmas tree, wondering when I'm going to have the time to read all of the books that I got, enjoying the look on my parents' faces when they unwrapped their new rice cooker, eating breakfast casserole fresh from the oven, singing with a small church choir, listening to the wonderful truth of the Lord's coming proclaimed, finishing morning worship by singing the Hallelujah Chorus as a congregation, picking up Grandma from the retirement home for Sunday Dinner, singing with my brother, eating turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, bean casserole, brussel sprout casserole, pumpkin pie, taking a nap, singing Christmas carols at a small evening service, taking sibling (Gibling?) pictures, chipping into the leftovers, having a deep discussion around the dinner table, watching a movie with my brother and sister. Christmas 2011.

It was a wonderful day--I hope that all of you can say the same. Merry Christmas, dear readers!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's life? Wonderful!

One of the most beloved Christmas traditions in the Gibson family is watching It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas eve. True to form, we cannot simply sit still and watch the whole movie straight through--at any given point, one or more of us is out of the room doing something else: wrapping presents, putting finishing touches on the breakfast casserole for the next morning, in the room but checking emails, etc. However, despite such distractions, my mom managed to sell my brother, sister and I on this 130 minute, 1946 black and white film (I mention the length, year and color because, for children, each of those factors would have ordinarily been severe strikes against a movie).

I don't remember how old I was when I first watched the movie--it's been at least 10 years, and it used to be one of a bunch of movies we would try to watch every year: Home Alone 1&2, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and later, Elf. However, Wonderful Life is the only film that has stood the test of time (and increasingly busy schedules) in our family. The reasons are obvious:

It's a classic film--quite simply, "they" do not make movies like this anymore. Holiday films today are seldom more than formulaic comedies in which characters compete for the best gifts, family dysfunction at the holidays is played up for laughs, or characters somehow wind up with Santa's responsibilities. Worth a laugh? Perhaps. Nonetheless, even the funniest of these films lacks substance. It's a Wonderful Life starts with a substantial bang as we're introduced to the key conflict of the film right away: George Bailey is thinking about taking his own life and his worried friends and family are praying for him, prayers that we hear as the film opens in a low-tech shot of guardian angels (represented by twinkling stars against a black back-drop) discussing the situation in heaven.

The main character, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), is realistic and ultimately easy to relate to. He's ambitious and gifted, also flawed and frustrated. As we watch snippets from his childhood and early adulthood, we connect with this man and gain a firm grasp on who he is; it turns out that this is very important, because as George grows more despondent and desperate over the course of the film, he does and says things that upset the people around him. For the most part, the movie does a superb job of keeping us in George's shoes. George makes mistakes, loses his temper, speaks before he thinks--it's a place I've been, a place many of us have been. To take one of his outbursts out of context would be deeply disconcerting, but when viewed in light of George's background and experiences, we as the viewers empathize and even root for him to pull through.

With each passing year, I've gained an increasing appreciation for Donna Reed as George's wife Mary. It depresses me when I hear my students (even guys my age) talk about which actress they think is the hottest--beauty has become such a superficial quality, one that is literally no deeper than the skin and can, to outward appearances, be purchased at a tanning salon or through plastic surgery. When the 'hottest actress' question comes my way, I always answer "Donna Reed from It's a Wonderful Life." Not only is Reed's Mary Bailey attractive in a realistic and wholesome way, there is beauty in the way that she sees through George's occasionally glaring flaws and loves him anyway. She's a loving and supportive wife, and as George's mother sagely advises him, the girl "who can help you find the answers". She's not Violet Bick, the blonde bombshell who flirts with George throughout the film (and the type who probably would've been the subject of an adolescent "hottest actress" list in 1946), and as it turns out, this is entirely refreshing. My crush on Mary Bailey has helped to reinforce in my mind that I need to seek out a woman who has depth of character--that designations like "hot" are ultimately meaningless and certainly not a secure basis for a meaningful relationship.

Beyond George's relatability and Mary's wholesome and supportive beauty, the attraction of the movie lies in its simple message: life is a wonderful gift. Though the movie's religious sensibilities are very much 1940s Hollywood targeting Middle America, the notion of life as a gift is timeless. It's all too easy to become self-absorbed, particularly when life becomes busy, challenging or painful; too easy to focus on how bad I have it, and how I wish I could trade with someone else or that I'd never been born at all. In the movie, Clarence the angel forces George to look outward, at the lives of those around him after granting George's wish to see what the world would be like without him. What George finds in looking outward was just how much of an impact he had on the lives of others, simply by being himself and through thick and thin, standing up for what he believed in. I tell my students that life is about decisions, and those decisions yield results that might not predict, consequences we may never see. It's not to generate a sense that the world revolves around us, but rather a sense of how responsible we are, and how our lives fit like a puzzle piece with the lives of our families, friends and communities.

Life truly is wonderful, and at a time of year when we celebrate the Incarnation and our very reason for living, it's great to watch a classic old movie that shares this value. Well, the movie has now started--a young George Bailey is just rescuing his brother Harry from the hole in the ice. Merry Christmas eve, dear readers!

Friday, December 23, 2011


Getting a puppy when you are 16 years old is short-sighted, all around poor planning. Unless the breed has a two year life-span, you as the owner will end up being away for the vast majority of the dog's life.

We were reeling, though--perhaps not in a place to think rationally. You see, we had just lost our 5-year-old Belgian Tervuren, Makai, on the operating table--it wasn't even the surgery, but a rare allergic reaction to the anesthetics. We'd taken him and our Pembroke Corgi, Dylan, in to be fixed. Only one dog came home that night.

Maybe we should have put off discussion of replacing Makai until the shock and grief had passed, but amidst the tears at the dinner table that evening, we made a preliminary decision to keep our eyes open for another Tervuren.

Several months later, we bought a puppy from a local kennel. We'd taken the process as slowly as you can take an impulsive decision, and visited the kennel several times before making our purchase, then several more times before taking the puppy home with us.

The first Lord of the Rings film having only just come out the preceding December, we named the puppy Frodo. "Frodo" seemed to fit him: his ears were large and pointy, and his thick coat of fur seemed to cover him like a hobbit's tunic. We'd chosen Frodo because he was the most mellow out of a rambunctious litter, descended from spacey, rambunctious (and in-bred) parents. This should have been our first clue that Frodo would grow up to be a spacey, overly energetic dog, but as I said, our blinders were up.

We tried obedience school, and though Frodo quickly picked up on "the basics"--coming at the sound of his name and sitting--it stopped there. Anything that required even an ounce of patience or composure were beyond his grasp. So, Frodo's education ended with "sit", but to his dying day he never forgot this command. We realized that we couldn't just let Frodo roam free around the property, lacking an education as he was, so he spent most of his life in a large enclosure.

Though he was not free to run through our fields, he enjoyed the space that he had. He would spend hours watching the horses in the paddock, running back and forth along the perimeter of the enclosure, tongue lolling in excitement. He'd aimlessly trot around while looking up at the trees, as he desperately tried to track the squirrels who leaped from branch to branch. He would wrestle with his Corgi roommate Dylan and bark at cats.

When I'd come home from college, I'd take Frodo for the occasional walk, and spend time simply sitting with him. He loved the attention, but it was never the driving force in his life--he had so many other things that he enjoyed. He was an affectionate creature, and fiercely loyal to the several people he knew best. I, in turn, deeply valued his love and affection whenever I would visit home.

With a severe case of what we always referred to as "Canine ADD", Frodo never lost his wonderment with life and the world around him. The smallest movement outside the pen would catch Frodo's attention and result in joyous bounding back and forth along the fence. He had plenty of space to run and stayed fit and physically active as he chased cats, squirrels and horses from the confines of his pen. His was a simple life, but a happy one.

We took Frodo to the vet on Wednesday--a large tumor had formed on his back left leg. The blood-tests revealed that he had a form of spindle-cell cancer, and that to remove the cancer, it would be necessary to amputate his leg. We made the decision that, given the complexity of the operation and the limitations that would result from amputation (not to mention, the care he would need in recovery that my busy parents wouldn't be able to afford), it would be most humane to have Frodo put to sleep. We arranged for the vet to come out two days later (this afternoon).

I spent half an hour before the vet came just sitting with Frodo and stroking his fur. While he was still lively and happy, I understood the hard reality that the cancer would soon spread and his condition would deteriorate. I was there with Frodo to the end, patting his head and speaking soothing words as the vet sedated him. I watched, blinking away tears as he breathed his last. I helped to bury him in the backyard, on the ridge overlooking our barns. It's selfish for me to be sad--I wasn't exactly there for most of Frodo's life, and I wouldn't have been around for the 5 or 6 years Frodo may have had left, had he not gotten sick. Still, I grieve the loss of a creature who so loved life, and for one of the last lingering pieces of my childhood. Frodo watched me grow up, from high school, to college, and beyond. I always considered him to be "my" dog, even though I spent most of my time away from him. Now that he's gone, a very tangible connection to my past has gone with him.

Someday, I would like to have a dog of my own--I can only hope that my next dog has the same joy and zeal for living that Frodo had.

To Frodo--I will never forget you, and miss you already.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Today, I didn't do anything or go anywhere. I was able to turn my brain off for most of the day, and relax. While I didn't get to enjoy the wonderful feeling of productivity that I end up with after a day of hard work, I did feel a sense of restoration.

Christmas break is well-timed. I've been needing a few days like this for a while now. I know that if I have too many days like today, I'll start to get restless and frustrated--a sure sign that the standard, for me, needs to be a fairly busy schedule. Still, it's important to carve out time for relaxation every once in a while.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Turning Points

Crystallizing moments; they seem so rare, seem to melt away so fast, but while they last, it is as though God has shone a light on the right decision to make.

I had several such moments when I was a freshman in college. I'd started at Dordt with my future figured out: I was going to be a journalist, reporting for a newspaper. The where wasn't so clear, but I'd had my career picked out since early in high school. As a sophomore, I'd written a 9-page research paper on reporting and during my junior and senior years, I'd written, edited, taken pictures and drawn cartoons for the high school paper. Armed with a journalism scholarship, I was certain that I'd be graduating with a communications degree just a few short years later.

Sadly, college journalism was a let-down, retreading much of what I'd already learned in high school and proving much less exciting than I had envisioned. For the first time, I questioned what I thought had been a career choice set in stone. Each assignment served to blur, rather than sharpen my view of my calling. I lost my desire and motivation to become a reporter, and despaired at the prospect of four years spent battling disinterest to earn a degree I didn't even want anymore. In hindsight, I believe that there wasn't so much wrong with the journalism program as I'd had exceptionally strong journalism instruction in high school. Still, at the time, I was disappointed.

So, I chose to switch majors at the end of my first semester. Early on in my "Kingdom, Identity and Calling" class (at the time, Dordt's introduction to... well, Dordt, Calvinism, Kuyper, etc.), I had written an essay about how I wanted to be an agent of truth, to wake people up to injustice in the world. At the time I'd written the essay, I'd had journalism in mind, but in December, while writing a 'bookend' essay to that very first one, it occurred to me that teaching not only fit those goals, but it fit with who I was as a person, as well. This was a crystallizing moment, and one that led me to enroll in Ed. 101 for the second semester.

Of course, once I started my introductory education class (which I immediately and thoroughly enjoyed), I was left with another major decision: what to teach? There were two subjects in high school that I had particularly appreciated: English and History. Both would lend themselves to my goal of teaching against injustice, but I could only afford to choose one endorsement.

As luck would have it, I happened to be taking both an American Lit course and a Western Civ course at the time. I resolved to make my decision based on how those two classes went.

For most of the semester, it was a brutally tough choice: I loved both classes. However, toward the end of the semester, I had another crystallizing moment that would tip the scales to favor a history endorsement. This came in the form of a three-week intensive simulation of the French Revolution.

Up to that point, the class had been primarily lecture, reading and discussion. I loved every minute of it, because the professor was a good lecturer, storyteller and facilitator. So, when he presented us with the option of playing a game for several weeks of class, I couldn't help but wonder why he was shaking things up. I mean, if it ain't broke...

Still, I was intrigued (as were my classmates) by the mysterious simulation option, which the professor had informed us would be a lot more challenging than class normally was. So, we unanimously opted to play the game. Almost immediately, we were assigned a ton of reading, including Rousseau's "Social Contract" and a game packet that was over 100 pages long. True to form, I put the reading off until the last minute and scrambled to finish it. I barely passed the reading quiz that our professor gave us (which was also a wake-up call as I was usually able to get good grades despite last minute, hasty work).

We were then assigned roles that we would need to fill as we simulated the meetings of the National Assembly just prior to the French Revolution. I was assigned to be Georges Danton, the leader of the Parisian mob. Unlike the clergy, the Jacobins, the nobility and the Feulliants, the common people did not have representation in the National Assembly (which would take place in our small classroom). We could, however, watch the proceedings from the fringes of the room and comment on what was happening.

During our first meeting, we sat quietly and watched as the various factions stood at the podium, made proposals and then voted on those proposals. It was sort of interesting. Then, my fellow Parisian mobster, sitting next to me, handed me a note from the professor. I unfolded it and read:
"Nate--don't be afraid to be OBNOXIOUS!"

Obnoxious was underlined several times. I looked at the professor and he raised his eyebrows, and tilted his head to direct my attention to the speaker, who was making a proposal and quoting Rousseau.


I had no idea if this was really what Rousseau was saying, but I thought I'd take a stab all the same.

The effect of my outburst was stunning: I'd interrupted the speaker's train of thought and gotten the attention of everyone in the room. The speaker looked to the professor worriedly, and the professor gave a non-committal nod as if to say: "Roll with it."

From that point on, I dove into the role--made sure I was comfortable quoting (and if necessary, misusing) Rousseau to promote the plight of the poor in Paris. I stayed up all night editing my faction newspapers in Adobe InDesign, I drew crude cartoons during meetings of the National Assembly, called for the king's head to roll on more than one occasion, and started angry chants that would derail proceedings. At one point, I even staged a mob uprising in which I stood on the desks in the room, singing "C' Ira", a traditional French mob song (translated into English). When it became clear that we wouldn't finish all of our items of National Assembly business in the time provided, our entire class voted to meet a half hour early for several days--a decision made all the more radical by the fact that we met at 8:00 am. In fact, this turn of events even helped to inspire Professor Mark Carnes, the creator of that simulation (and others), to write an article for the "Chronicle of Higher Education" and also an entire book on the merits of historical simulations in education.

Though the mob ultimately lost the simulation (or at least, failed to win), those weeks provided another crystallizing moment for me. I realized that I could, with training, learn how to make history come alive for my students in a similar way, and make them see the relevance not only of decisions that were made in the past, but also decisions in their own lives.

Of course, as luck would have it, I now teach both history and English and thoroughly enjoy both. Still, I am grateful that I made the decision that I did--taking the history classes that I did helped to sharpen and focus my calling, and I am glad that the LORD provides such moments of clarity in our lives.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Back to My Old Stomping Grounds

So much has changed at Lynden Christian since the last time I visited, more since I graduated in 2004:

A new weight shed/training facility stands alongside the football field. The high school offices have been moved from the center of the building to the main entrance. I recognized only a few teachers. Fewer students (the Seniors would have been 4th graders in 2004).

My brother and I went to school to visit Mr. Kredit, the long-time biology teacher. Mr. Kredit is now 72 years old, and currently in his 50th year of teaching (roughly 40 of those years spent at Lynden Christian, where he has taught not only the children of some of his earliest students, but also grandchildren). He has won numerous awards during his career, and has inspired countless students with his evident joy and awe with how the world works. Personally, I look to him as a model teacher, and one of several key inspirations for my own philosophy and style of teaching.

Mr. Kredit, who still leads Seniors on a hike up Church Mountain every fall (and also works as a ranger at Yellowstone during the summer), was as lively as ever.

"I went to my 50th Calvin reunion a while back, and some of my close friends asked what I was up to these days. I told them I was teaching and they said 'Man, get a life!' So, I asked what they were doing and they said, 'Oh, it's great, we play golf three times a week.'"

My brother and I laughed at the image of Mr. Kredit teeing off on the 9th hole.

Kredit continued, "I mean, you hit a ball as hard as you can, and then you go hunt for it. What is that?"

Kredit went on to mention his mother, who is almost 102 years old, and just decided to stop some of her medications ("what does a 102 year old need to worry about osteoperosis, anyway?"). Evidently, stopping the medications helped to restore some of the mental sharpness that had faded in recent years.

"I think, you know, if she's almost 102, and I'm 72, then what's to stop me from teaching for a while more?"

And there it was: This man, who has hit the 50-year milestone that so few teachers reach, has no plans of stopping. His energy and love for teaching have not diminished even over the course of half a century. He told us that it wasn't always easy, that some classes were tough to reach, but then he showed us student responses from a recent lab (a two-week experiment that both Ben and I had done as students, in which we had to determine what was causing molasses to ferment). The students wrote fairly profound responses about what they learned, saying that in life, the answers aren't always easy, and citing the need to think deeply and critically.

Again, I was inspired by Mr. Kredit.

I snapped a shot of my graduating class pic on my way out...
I miss these people--for any who might read this, plan
on there being a 10-year reunion in Summer 2014!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Full Day

Today was a full-day, what with church in the morning, lunch, catching up with friends, an evening Christmas program at church, and for the past three hours or so, a discussion with my brother and my dad about the function of the church, and the need for an evangelical heart (individually and collectively).

I am not going to write much, as I am heading to bed soon (the whole jet-lag thing), but I did feel compelled to at least jot down a short blurb so as to not fall out of the habit. Leaving one of my homes for another is always somewhat of a sensory overload--sure, I am on vacation, but there's so much to absorb: people to catch up with, conversations to be had... it's wonderful to have this opportunity to catch up with friends, with people from church and with family, but it is also exhausting!

So, as I pull out of jet-lag over the course of the next few days, I'll try to take more time to carefully and intentionally write out what it's like to be back with my family, to reflect on my past few months as a collective whole, and to celebrate the rapid approach of Christmas.

Stay tuned!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Now boarding: Delta flight 296 direct service to Seattle

Editing note: When I landed in Seattle, I went back and fixed up what I'd written so far (originally, I'd written this using the dictation function on my phone).

12/17/11, 2:30 p.m., Narita airport
In just 10 minutes, my flight to Seattle will board and I will embark on my 12th flight across the Pacific Ocean. Air travel is part of the routine for me--not as frequent as a businessman, no, but I fly more than anyone in my family. In college, I made the multi-flight trek from Iowa to Washington and back several times each school-year (each Christmas and occasionally Thanksgiving or Spring Break). Since moving to Japan, the amount of time I spend in the clouds has only increased. So much so that flying is something I largely take for granted. In fact, I didn't really take the time to think through whether I actually enjoy traveling until I started writing this post. The verdict: Overall, yes--I do enjoy traveling.

Of course, there are some aspects that I'm never going to enjoy or get used to... jet lag is probably my least favorite part of air travel, especially flying to the states from Japan. It can take as much as a week for me to recover, and those days of recovery are not pleasant. Ever since working the graveyard shift at a grocery store several summers ago, I've been very sensitive to anything that disrupts my sleep schedule and I tend to dislike such things on principle.

12/17/11; 9:20 am; SeaTac
The flight itself seems to get shorter every time. This time, it wasn't just a feeling bred by familiarity; we actually landed about 40 minutes earlier than expected: less than 8 hours from take-off to touchdown! Of course, the return flight to Japan is not quite so pleasant, as the air currents (I think?) add at least an additional hour of travel time. It's a long time to sit in one place, and I tend to get restless. However, I've managed to balance this somewhat by always booking an aisle seat. On the shorter flights during college, I preferred the window, but the freedom to stand and move around is far more valuable to me than the view (which on an international flight is altogether scarce).

Random observation: why is it that people scramble to get in line when it's time to board the flight? This is one of the few times in life where order doesn't matter even a little: you've got your seat reserved already--it's not like you can call 'shotgun' and ride in the cockpit... so... are the people who practically trample others to get to the front of the line under the impression that if they board first, they'll arrive at the final destination before everyone else? It's so confusing. I like to point out the absurdity by voluntarily giving up my place in line and retreating to the back several times... because it really does not matter one single bit, and frankly I'd rather be standing and moving for as long as I can rather than sitting and waiting for everyone else to board. Hmm.

Worth noting: We landed in Seattle at 6:50 am, just as the sun was starting to rise. It had been years since I'd landed in Seattle while it was dark out and I had forgotten just how spectacular the view is: Seattle's city lights are a sight to behold from several thousand feet up! Couple that with the mellow hue of the sun coming up on the horizon... absolutely the best way to start the day (especially since it's my 2nd time through this day)!

I wouldn't say I'm an expert on airports, but I've got a broad enough base of comparison to say clearly which ones I like and which I do not like. Here's my ranking:

1. Narita: Just has an organized, convenient, classy feel to it. I love watching the sun set over the tarmac from one of the many good cafes in Terminal 2. Plus, lots of options for shopping (or if you're me, just browsing... although the large selection of Japanese candy in a few of the shops has saved my skin on more than one occasion when I forgot to buy omiyage for my family beforehand).

2. Bangkok: Okay, so the layout of this airport would be murder for anyone adverse to exercise... the part of the airport I'm most familiar with is essentially a LOOOOONG hallway (800 meters/half a mile, to be precise) with departure gates on one floor, and a row of shops, restaurants and coffee shops up above. It is impossible to run out of things to do and places to see, and, more than any other airport, in Bangkok, browsing is a legitimate cardiovascular workout.

3. Vancouver: Similar to Narita, but smaller. Very classy, convenient feel. Plus, they have Tim Horton's.

4. Minneapolis/St. Paul: I don't remember much specific about this airport aside from the fact that it was very straightforward and convenient, for being such a large international hub. Also, once when my flight was snowed out, they put me up for the night in a nearby hotel free of charge. Good stuff.

5. Denver: Again, I don't remember much specific, but I do recall that I always preferred flying through Minneapolis (hence the placement).

6. O'Hare: Flew through O'Hare once--I needed to get from Salt Lake City to Sioux Falls, but for some reason, they weren't flying direct on that occasion, so I wound up taking a last minute flight to Chicago, and then flying on to Sioux Falls. It didn't seem like a bad airport, but I really didn't spend enough time there (quick layover) to get a good read.

7. SeaTac: My "home" airport. The satellite set-up is not convenient, but they do have free wi-fi. Oh, and Starbucks!

8. Salt Lake City: Confusing, ill-designed, inconvenient, cramped, crowded, smoky. Justifiably last place on my list of airports I visited frequently enough to make this call.

Honorable mention (too small to be seriously considered on the list):
Bellingham Airport
Sioux Falls Airport
Chiang Rai Airport
Haneda Airport
Nagasaki Airport

Airports I've been to, but didn't feel like I could make an accurate judgment based on how little time I spent in the airport:

Hong Kong
San Jose

Reflection on traveling: Flying internationally takes a lot of time (and not just in the obvious "crossing the ocean takes time" way--international travel involves a lot of hoops that aren't present when flying domestically, such as customs and immigration lines). It was very intimidating the first time I flew to Japan, but the more it has become habit, the more I enjoy the process. It takes me 30 seconds to fill out the embarkation/disembarkation card; I keep a pen handy so that I can fill out the customs declaration sheet right away when I get on the plane; my reentry permit cuts down time spent standing in line at immigration. I know what I need to do and where I need to go, so mostly I can just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's actually a very soothing and relieving feeling: I have nothing immediate that I need to accomplish--no deadlines or due-dates (at least not for the duration of the flight). Traveling is a major mental vacation for me.

I am not unaware of the fact that the ease, peace and convenience of such travel days will end when I have a family of my own. As much as I'll appreciate traveling with my wife and kids someday, there's no doubt that the extra bodies will complicate what is for me a relaxing and easy process. I'm increasingly trying to be understanding and empathetic with parents who are desperately trying to calm screaming infants on international flights--that may well be me someday.

Okay, well I am going to stop the note here because I am rambling (a combination of jet-lag, plus coffee plus trying to eat up time while I wait for Ben's flight from Denver to come in). All of this to say, I really do enjoy traveling!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Work in Progress

After our debate
on the inevitability
of the fall of Rome,
I gave my freshmen
a Christmas present.

I showed a video
that I had found
while cleaning my room
in Washington
this past summer--
a newscast project
I had made for
during my sophomore year
which was exactly
ten years ago, fall 2001
(scary thought)

I was 5'9", 140 pounds
of wiry, gawking
peering owl-like from
behind large
trying so hard to
be funny
but coming across as
nice (sure),
but desperate.

I couldn't help but laugh
as the 15-year-old version
of me
tried to puff out his
chest and
look impressive
(a look totally
undermined by my size M
shirt hanging like an over-sized flannel
on a scarecrow).

A work in progress,
that's what I was.

Then I thought,
how much has changed?
I might not have
the owl-like spectacles,
and I might have gained
a few inches
and more than a few
but at the core
I am still
very much
the gawking, awkward kid
who wants to be
who tries too hard.

A work in progress,
that's what I am.

If you can't laugh at yourself...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Kids say the darndest things

Today, I dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. I had the top-hat, the suit, the beard (which I tried to shave into a Lincoln-esque style). What I don't have, apparently: the height or dark enough hair. Ah well, let the critics complain!

This was my 2nd year of donning the top-hat; I suppose that makes it a tradition? The occasion last year (and this year) was student presentations on the Civil War. This year, the presentations fell on an exam day, so it was rather quiet around school and due to the intense presentation schedule during our exam block, I could not do anything fun or creative as Lincoln for my Humanities students. I did, however, get invited to read "The Night Before Christmas" to the Kindergarten class. That was fun, although, most did not recognize me as Lincoln and instead kept asking me to perform magic tricks (the top hat clearly misled them).

I did attempt to do several tricks, which resulted in hilarity and some great quotes from the kids. However, nothing will top what happened last year. I am fairly certain most who read this will have heard this story already as I told just about everybody who would listen. I don't think I've ever written it out before, though, so now's my chance to do that.

After school on the day that I'd dressed as Lincoln, I was sitting out in the plaza skyping with my mom to show off my Lincoln get-up. A short while later, an elementary school boy (I'd say 2nd or 3rd grade), approached the bench I was sitting at.

After several long moments during which I was keenly aware of him gaping at me in disbelief, he spoke up:

"Are you Mr. Lincoln?"

"I am, son, I am." I said, speaking in an affected, deep voice that likely bore no resemblance to Lincoln's actual voice (which is said to have been high-pitched and squeaky).

More gaping. Slowly he turned, and began to walk away.

Then, he stopped and turned around purposefully, and perhaps just a bit accusingly:

"Is it true that you crucified Jesus?"

I was speechless. I glanced at my mom on Skype and she was laughing, and I assumed a face of the utmost gravity, biting my tongue to keep from laughing as my mind raced for some reasonable response to his question.

Several seconds later.

"No. That wasn't me. It was a lie spread by my enemies to make me seem like a bad president."

After a second of thought, it appeared the boy decided that my answer was good enough:

"Oh. Okay!"
He smiled and kept walking.

Once he was out of earshot, I started laughing and didn't stop for quite some time.

I feel like I am fairly good at keeping a straight-face when I have to, but I don't know that I've ever had to fight so hard.

Elementary teachers, my hat is off to you...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Writing as routine

Blogging every day is something like running every day: it takes time and it definitely takes discipline, but once you make it a habit; part of your routine; it feels weird to go a day without writing. Going into this evening, it looked like I might have to do just that. The task before me was data entry--hands down the most mindless part of my job. I spent several hours entering numbers into online rubrics, both to record departmental assessment and to calculate scores automatically. I also spent some time putting those numbers into my grade book.

I finished earlier than I had expected and realized that, much like the runner's addiction I developed toward the end of the summer, I couldn't help but write something. So I'm writing about writing something. I enjoy having this be a daily (or nearly-daily) thing. However, I know just how easily the runner's routine can be broken--all it took was a flight back to hot and humid Japan (and only a few days of running in said humidity) to stop the healthy routine I had so carefully cultivated over the course of a month during the summer. It may be tempting for me to give up writing when I return to WA for vacation in a few days--yes, I'll have lots of free-time, but I think that may be a problem: I think my busy routine encourages me to write regularly.

I've fallen out of shape physically since I stopped running... I don't want to fall out of shape rhetorically by stopping my routine of daily writing. Maybe I can be really intentional about writing each day and couple that with a reentry into daily running...

Easy to say...

Monday, December 12, 2011

To a Different World...

It's Monday evening. Right now, it seems like I have a hundred separate responsibilities that I'm juggling: Essays to edit, tests to grade, debates and presentations to tally, grades to update, recommendation letters to write, a DBQ to put together, a lesson to prepare just in case presentations don't go the full-time tomorrow, meetings to attend, a cold to recover from, Seniors to advise for comps, charity concert practice to supervise, and probably other things I can't remember right now. Strangely enough, I thrive on being busy. The point I'm at right now is approaching the exchange zone where busy-ness ends and stress begins, but I knew there would be the occasional week of stress going into this line of work. It's exhausting (and obviously physically taxing, as my current cold suggests), but it doesn't faze me... much, anyway.

On Saturday evening, I'll settle down for the night in a bed long unused several thousand miles away. Though I'll have worked feverishly all week, the stress and myriad responsibilities I mentioned above will seem distant; otherworldly. I'll feel as though I stepped into an alternate reality; one where I am primarily a son and a brother, and not a teacher. When friends and family ask, I'll talk about the events of the last four months as if they were ancient history or somehow detached, as if it were someone else who lived them. Nobody will call me Mr. Gibson. I'll order my coffee in English. I will not be greeted with "いらっしゃいませ!" when I enter a store to do my Christmas shopping. There will be very tall, very blond, very white people everywhere. I won't have meetings. I won't have recommendation letters to write. I won't have the constant feeling that there's something I need to do. I'll feel out of my element.

This isn't to say I won't relax--I am very much looking forward to catching up on rest. I'll cherish the chance to reflect on how the semester went with some objective distance. I'll appreciate the opportunity to regroup, and begin to plan for the semester ahead. I'll treasure the moments spent with family and friends. Yet, I am not sure if I'll feel completely at ease. This--what I'm feeling right now, even with the telltale signs of stress and pressure... this is life. Things are hectic, but not overwhelming. The routine, the responsibilities, the list of things to do... it all feels natural, normal. Ordering コーヒー feels normal. "いらっしゃいませ!"--normal. Being the only アメリカ人 most places I go--normal.

Earlier today, I read a reflection written by one of my former JAM leaders, who is finishing up his first semester of college in the states. He described the feeling of straddling two very different, seemingly disconnected worlds. I can relate, but with one key exception: the world I'll inhabit in the states is not so much an alternate world; when I return to Lynden, I feel as though I am stepping into my past; a place that once fit, but now feels strangely ill-fitting (though still a part of who I am and a place I care about).

So--my challenge to myself as I prepare for several weeks of vacation on the other side of the ocean: to honor my past and live in the present wherever I am; to savor every moment of relaxation; to make the most of my time with family and friends; to not leave my head, heart and identity on this side of the ocean.

I make the leap across the pond on Saturday. Till then, I've got lots to do!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

God is Faithful

Mary’s Song
46 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55

In my personal devotions, I just finished rereading the later part of Genesis, looking at the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob's sons. It's so interesting to read the original promises which God made and then continually deepened and renewed with these men, and to see their responses. No, they weren't perfect, and yes, there were occasions where their trust faltered; yet, these men and their families took seriously the covenant with God. I'll admit that my first instinct when I read these familiar stories is to wonder "why"?

I mean, God makes some pretty radical promises--Abraham's descendants becoming a great nation? Like Sarah, my gut reaction is disbelief and laughter.

Really think about the situation, though... we're disconnected somewhat as readers thousands of years later, but if you put yourself in Abraham's shoes, you realize that it's GOD making these promises. The creator of the world making a personal promise. It's a pretty big deal, and obviously Abraham knew enough to listen up. Though that response of faith faded during Israel's tumultuous history, in this passage from Luke, we see a very similar response in Mary's song.

Mary understands that her pregnancy is part of a much larger plan, and makes a connection to promises that must have seemed so distant and ancient. God is faithful to His promises. Abraham understood. Though she lived 2000 years later, Mary understood, too. We, who live 2000 years later still may feel that the passage of time nullifies promises, yet we forget that God exists outside of time and that His plans are so much bigger than our chronologically-bound minds could ever begin to fathom.
I pray that we, too, may share in the understanding, faith and joy in the assurance of God's promises.


Saturday, December 10, 2011


It's so bothersome how reality never seems to match up with ideals.

"That went more smoothly in my head" seems to be my life's motto. Perhaps my problem is that I am too much of an idealist; a day-dreamer. Not that being a romantic is a bad thing--this trait just needs to be balanced with a healthy understanding of reality; the way things really are.

Unfortunately, practicality is not my strong suit. In school, I'd read the prompt for a long-term project and my mind would run wild with creative ideas. Then, I would put off actually starting on the assignment until the night before, at which point I would be forced to do a hasty job that resulted in a product nowhere nearly matching my original vision. I'll confess that a big part of this is laziness--historically, my work-ethic has lacked fire. However, this is merely a bad choice, a poor response to a more basic issue: I simply do not know where to start, or what steps to take to achieve what I envision.

As time has gone on, I've improved at taking the time to think through concrete steps for reaching my goals well in advance. It takes a lot of effort, and certainly it does not come naturally to me, but it has enabled me to truly do my best (and not simply "my best, given the last-minute circumstances"). The trouble is, I've really only figured out how to apply this to my job, and even then I'm still very much a work-in-progress.

There are many other areas of my life where the gap between ideal and reality is just as wide as ever. Making new friends, investing more in other people, learning how to take care of myself, not being awkward around girls my age... these are gaps that I've yet to bridge.

As a teacher, I occasionally point out "transfer of learning" to my kids, when they take a skill they learned in one setting and use it in another. It seems like I need to work on my own transfer of learning...

As I've increasingly learned to do, I now turn outward, recognizing my limitations, and I look to God for the strength and wisdom to put this idea into practice.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Out of all meteorological phenomena, my relationship with snow is perhaps the most complicated. As a child, I loved snow--living in the Pacific Northwest, winters were marked by several months of clouds, often accompanied by a near-incessant drizzle. Wholly unpleasant. When it happened to dip into the low 30s, or perhaps even the 20s, the ugly, sputtery rain would transform into serene, intricate flakes which would drift gently to the earth rather than splattering spitefully.

Snow was a welcome change of pace, and it never got too cold to enjoy being outside in the snow. Sledding, snowball fights, building snowmen and snow-forts; these were but a few of the adventures that my brother, sister and I would have on our 20-acre farm when the snow began to fall. Bonus points if it got us out of school.

Then, I went away to Iowa for college. In Iowa, the snow starts to fall in November... and stays around till as late as April. Often it is too cold to enjoy time in the snow, and though it was a beautiful sight to watch from the comfort of my dorm window, that enjoyment was always marred by the dread of having to march 10 minutes across campus in sub-zero, windy temperatures, across an icy wasteland, in order to go to class.

I came to hate snow while I was in Iowa.

However, time heals all wounds. I biked to breakfast this morning in the rain and each drop stung--it was frigid. Rain in the winter is not unusual in Tokyo--just cold enough to hurt, but seldom cold enough to snow. When I settled down for breakfast at a restaurant overlooking the eki, I couldn't help but smile when I looked outside and noticed that the rain had turned to snow. I watched, mesmerized, no less intrigued by the fall of snow now than I was as a child. Later, I simply stood outside and let the snow fall down on me. Then I remembered that I had a cold, and maybe that wasn't the best idea in the world, and I went back inside.

All this to say--I was glad to see the snow today.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Life is all about decisions

This is a repost of something that I wrote in December of 2010

Life is all about decisions, and tonight I am reflecting on the two-year anniversary of the biggest decision that I have made in my life so far. I've told the story of the circumstances leading to my decision to come to Japan before and will not repeat it here. That's not what I'm thinking about, anyway. Instead, I'm thinking about the decision itself and how close I came to choosing not to come to Japan.

I have always considered myself a small-town guy. I grew up a few miles outside of a town of 10,000, where I went to school and spent many afternoons playing in my grandma's backyard. I went to college in a town of 6,000. I hadn't spent more than a couple days consecutively in a "big city"--in fact, my definition of a big city was an urban center of more than 50,000 people. Bellingham, WA; Sioux Falls, SD; these were the biggest cities that I felt comfortable in, and even then, just in small doses.

By the time I'd finished my student teaching just over two years ago, I felt as though I had achieved a remarkable degree of self-awareness on this matter: I was telling anyone who asked that I was determined to spend my life in a small rural town setting. In fact, I was even ready to settle down in Iowa, if a teaching job were to present itself--that's how enamored I was with the idea of the small-town life.

As there were no teaching jobs available in Iowa, I was busy searching for jobs closer to home. I wanted to teach, even if that meant substitute teaching as needed and working full-time at a grocery store or somewhere else. I applied for a tutoring position in Everson, WA and the next day, actually received a request for an interview. I thought that I was looking at my future, at that moment--that I would move back home, and start my teaching career as a freelance tutor in the small town of Everson. I'd live at home, earn money, and bide my time until something more substantial came up. Little did I know that the next morning a new option would be introduced that would completely change the trajectory of my life.

"Are you still breathing?" was the last line of the message that Brian VanderHaak had forwarded to me via my mom and indeed I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me a little bit. In my heart and mind, I'd mapped out what I thought my future would be, what I thought it should be and this new opportunity, the coincidences surrounding the CAJ opportunity were God's way of saying "Remember, I make the plans around here--you just have to trust me."

I read Brian's email just as I was packing the last piece of luggage into my '98 Ford Taurus to leave my college career in Iowa behind. I spent the entire 4-hour drive up to Mankato, MN listening to half-volume Simon & Garfunkel and mentally rereading Brian's email over and over. At first, it seemed ridiculous--of course I would say no! I was not cut out for life in the city, ESPECIALLY not one of the BIGGEST cities in the world, ESPECIALLY not in JAPAN where I wouldn't understand the language at coffee shops and restaurants and where I'd be a cultural fish-out-of-water with my pale-skin and bushy red caveman beard. I'd daydreamed of idyllic hours that I would spend in small-town diners, prepping lessons over a cup of black Iowa coffee and flirting with the waitresses and parting with that daydream was viciously difficult.

I thought my Dad would laugh, too, when I picked him up in Mankato and told him about the opportunity but he didn't laugh. That was when I realized that this was a decision and not a joke. Not something to chuckle at and say "thanks, but no thanks." The next 48 hours were spent in deep conversation and prayer as we crawled across South Dakota, Montana, Idaho and finally Washington, over treacherous, icy roads.

I was getting sick by the time we reached a hotel in Cheney, WA late at night, and was feeling weak and exhausted in so many ways. That night, I prayed a simple prayer--a prayer admitting my total weakness and ignorance, and asking God to use me as He would. I finished with the Teacher's Prayer:

"Lord, speak to me

that I may speak

in living echoes of your tone.

As you have sought,

so let me seek

your erring children lost and lone.

Oh, use me Lord,

use even me--

just as you will and when and where

Until your precious face I see

your rest, your joy, your glory share."

The next morning, as we climbed into the car for one last long day on the snowy I-90, I told my Dad that I had decided I'd go to Japan.

That decision has defined so much of who I am and who I have become as a young adult so far. I sometimes pine for the days of Iowa diners and bad coffee, but I know that this was not what God had in mind for me. As I made small-talk with the barista at Tully's today ("Konnichiwa."--We're talking REALLY small talk, here) and smiled as I thought about how the student presentations in my Humanities class had gone the period before, I felt a sense of contentment more real and more powerful than any of those daydreams from two years ago. Letting go of our plans and allowing God's will to be done is scary and tough... and I will not regret it, not for an instant.

December 2008

--This is an excerpt from a bigger blog entry that I wrote in January 2010--

On Dec. 5, 2008, I returned to Unity Christian High school, where I had done my first session of student teaching, to say goodbye to my former students and coworkers. The 7 weeks that I'd spent at Unity were a tremendous blessing, especially when compared to the waking nightmare that was to follow in my 2nd placement at LeMars. At Unity, I learned how to prepare lessons. Not only did I learn how to lecture, I delivered some stirring orations on a level of quality comparable to Cicero...'s dog (who I hear was a pretty decent speaker, actually).

Most of all, I loved the students. This isn't to say that there were no behavior issues or tense moments. Every class brought its own unique challenges, but I honestly don't think that I could've had a better introduction into the teaching career than the one I had at Unity.

I digress... I'm supposed to be talking about the day my life changed. So, on Dec. 5, I said my goodbyes, including far too many cliché "have a good life"s and "oh, the places you'll go"s (I couldn't resist...). As I said my final farewell to one of my favorite juniors (encouraging him to consider teaching as a profession; again with the clichés), an older man who I didn't recognize shook my hand to wish me luck. I surmised that he was a long-term sub, filling in for the math teacher who'd been about 9 months and one week pregnant as I was finishing my Unity placement.
"Any particular job waiting for you this spring?" He asked.
I shook my head. "Maybe I'll do some subbing and work part-time at the grocery store."
He leaned in a little and said, "Y'know, a good thing for a young teacher to do, is to look for jobs overseas."
"Yeah, maybe," I replied (and what I really meant was "No, never", but I was sacrificing honesty for politeness here).
He must have seen through my mechanical and artificial reply, because he raised his eyebrows and offered a testimonial: "I started out my career at a small international school in Japan."
Funny, I thought to myself. I KNOW people who teach at a small international school in Japan. The Vander Haaks were close family friends, and had been in Tokyo for over four years.
"It's not the Christian Academy in Japan by any chance, is it?" I asked.
"So you've heard of it!"
I mentioned Brian Vander Haak's name, which he recognized.
"He's the headmaster, right?"
That was news to me. Last I'd heard, Brian was the high school principal, but I figured that this fellow with ties to the school would know better than I.
"Well, think about it. Even if you are only volunteering, an overseas teaching experience is something that you will take with you for the rest of your life."

And I did think about it, for about 10 minutes or so, at which point I got hungry and started thinking about Pizza Ranch instead.

Six days later, I'd submitted my final education portfolio, graduated (no ceremony this time) and was busy packing my car for the 1800 mile trip home. Sitting in the driver's seat, I turned on the defrost. My phone vibrated. It was my mom.
"Did you check your email?" She asked, unable to conceal her excitement.
"No, I've been packing."
"Brian Vander Haak sent me an email, and I forwarded it to you... there's a temporary volunteer opening in the resource room at CAJ; they had someone go on maternity leave and their replacement fell through."
I think that some part of me knew in that moment that I would take the job, that there could be no other option, really. Nonetheless, I spent the next few days on the road trying to find reasons NOT to take the job, stressing about the decision and praying about it.

What's in a name?

Nathanael Thomas Gibson: My full name.

Nathanael: Hebrew; means "God has given"; named for the disciple of Christ.
Thomas: Aramaic; means "Twin"; named for my paternal grandfather.
Gibson: Scottish; means "Son of Gilbert"

Nathanael Thomas: What I heard when I was in trouble as a child, often spoken briskly in dynamics ranging from forte to fortissimo by my parents.

Nathan: What people who have only just met me, or who do not know me very well occasionally call me.

Nate: Default setting; Friends & family alike typically use this shortening of Nathanael to address me.

Nator: About half of my friends in high school gave me this nickname, short for Nator-Gator (which they would sometimes use). Most of these friends still call me Nator to this day, and even some of their parents use this nickname when they see me.

Gibby: What the other half of my friends in high school called me. Interestingly, it seems to be totally random as to which friends called me "Nator" and which called me "Gibby"--must have been a strange matter of preference. One of my friends attended the same college as I did, and carried the nickname with him and so to my college roommates, I was known as "Gibby". I found out on the last day of class this past school year that my Humanities class affectionately referred to me as "Gibby" when talking to each other throughout the school year, after hearing me talk about nicknames once in class.

Gibbs: A shortened version of "Gibby" used by only a few of my friends during high school. I much preferred the aesthetic sound of this nickname.

Pancho: My self-selected moniker for 2 years of high school Spanish. No relationship to my name, but whenever I would speak in Spanish with my friends, they would refer to me as Pancho (irregardless of whether they usually addressed me as "Gibby" or "Nator")

Nibson: Portmanteau of my first and last names, created by the JAM leaders three years ago when they weren't sure whether to call me "Nate" or "Mr. Gibson" (I wasn't actually teaching at the time). Still used by my former JAM leaders to address me, and even some of my freshmen who attended JAM when I was leading.

Mr. Gibson: What I hear the most these days. I'm amazed that I've gotten used to it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


With each passing day, there seem to be less leaves on the trees,
more plastered to the asphalt in the plaza at school.

Though the temperature is nowhere near as cold as that of an Iowa winter,
the wind has enough of a bite to it,
that I am opting to spend 1st period indoors
and not at my cherished picnic table.
Moments of blue skies and sunshine
are few and far between.
Instead, the sky is a shroud of gray
that some might call dismal.

In two weeks, campus will be mostly deserted.
There's a distinct feeling of things slowing down,
(Though in the moment, for students and teachers alike,
life is busy, even hectic),
and all will be still;
the campus devoid of life.

There's a sad beauty in the stillness.

Sadness, because death is heartbreaking...

...Beauty, because even death is not permanent.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


"Send forth your light and your truth,
let them guide me;
let them bring me to your holy
to the place where you dwell.
Then will I go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.

Why are you so downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God."

Psalm 43: 3-5

Discontentment. A million things can be going right, but all it takes is one thing to go wrong, one thing to not turn out as I had wanted for me to feel deeply discouraged. This happens to me more frequently than I care to admit.

Sometimes, things don't even have to go wrong--they just have to feel "off". If my perception so strongly influences whether or not I feel content, then what does that say about where I am putting my hope?

When my hope is truly in God, there is a sense of all-pervading joy; a desire to worship even when life is stressful and things have not gone my way. Unfortunately, my heart is too fickle and easily enticed to place hope elsewhere.

This passage reminds me that God's larger purposes and plans are to bring His lost sheep into His presence. There may be times where we feel lost and alone, and as though nothing is going the way it should, but we must never lose heart! God will draw us near--He has sent Jesus, the absolute embodiment of light and truth, to be our guide. With such wondrous love bestowed upon us, how can discontentment be anything but fleeting and skin-deep?

I need to remember this--particularly as I head into the last two busy school-weeks before Christmas.

The Search for a Home-Church

When I moved to Japan, and even for quite a while afterward, one of my biggest concerns was finding a home-church. Growing up, I was blessed with a really good home-church with solid preaching and a wonderful church community. I struggled to find a home-church during college, and there were several very long stretches during those 4 years where I simply didn't go to church. College was a very tough time for me (and possibly the only time in my life that I'm tempted to regret... of course, my college years have much to do with where I am today, so I could never seriously regret them).

So, when I moved to Japan, I was determined not to let that happen to me again. It's taken a few years of attending several different churches, but I think that I have finally found a place that feels like it could be a good home-church.

I started attending Grace City Church in August when I returned to Japan from the states. I found it while running a Google search for churches in Tokyo, and what had immediately caught my eye was a YouTube video on the website with a short description of the church by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I was familiar with Keller, as my pastor in Lynden occasionally quotes Keller, my dad has used Keller's study materials in teaching Sunday School classes, and I have read several books by Keller. I have always appreciated Keller's perspective and enjoyed his writings; as I watched the YouTube clip, I learned that Redeemer had sponsored a church plant in downtown Tokyo.

As I read more materials on the website, I learned that several of the pastoral team were CAJ parents (one even a board member). Several days later, I traveled downtown to attend their Sunday afternoon service in Ginza. What I found was a small congregation meeting in a rather cozy venue on the 11th floor of the Caspa building. Though everything was in Japanese (with English translation provided via headset), I appreciated the mixture of contemporary songs and hymns (all of which were familiar from my own home-church), and the solid, expository sermon.

In the intervening months, I have not made it downtown for church as regularly as I had hoped--from the time I step out my door, it takes roughly an hour to arrive at church. Some weeks, my laziness gets the best of me. Yet, every time I've attended, I have felt nourished; fed. I particularly appreciate the preaching--Pastor Makoto has been preaching on Isaac, Jacob and now Joseph. He takes a passage (typically an entire story) each week and unpacks it, explaining the context and story, while making broader connections to the person of God and fulfillment in Christ. It's a very similar approach to the one used by my pastor in the states, and beyond the familiarity, I find it to be a style of preaching that not only informs and illuminates, but challenges as well (and all without the superficiality, gimmickiness and emotional manipulation that plague so many pulpits today).

I am beginning to feel at home at Grace City. My challenge to myself in the coming weeks and months will be to fully invest in this church community. Up till now, I've tried my best to be a spectator; a fly-on-the-wall--simply there to worship and listen to the sermon and nothing more. Increasingly, I'm realizing that there's more to church than that--church is about community: fellowship in Christ. Yes, it is more difficult to make a commitment to a community that requires just under an hour of commute, but I think that the investment will be more than worth it. I need to dive in--get involved; get to know people; become a member and not just an observer.

I think I could be in Japan for the long-haul. I am not sure what long-haul even means, but I am fairly certain I am not leaving before I'm 30. In college, I would rationalize my lackluster church attendance by saying, "well soon I'll graduate and then I'll go home to Lynden and catch up on all the church I missed at Wiser Lake Chapel." Aside from being a rather lame rationalization, it's simply not feasible as there's no permanent return to the states in my foreseeable future. Japan is my home now, and I need to care for my spiritual health. This means finding a new home-church, and I believe that God has answered nearly 3 years worth of prayers by leading me to Grace City Church. The next step, to commit or to drift, is up to me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

More Cool Moments in Teaching

I am taking a break from reading essays to... write!!! Ah, the life of an English teacher :)

So, God has been answering prayers left and right this week--a while back I vented some of my frustrations with a class that was not using time well, as well as some of my frustrations with myself for not knowing how best to teach them.

All it took was one student to totally make my week (actually there were a lot of students who made my week, but all it would've taken was this one). He had been sort of unmotivated going into our unit on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and had asked early on why we were bothering reading an entire book about 19th century chattel slavery in the south. I'd had a decent discussion with him at the time, reminding him that though slavery was abolished in America, it continues to thrive in other parts of the world even to this day, and that though the book was certainly old, the truths about human value presented in the book were timeless. He still had seemed skeptical after our conversation, but dutifully read through the rest of the book.

Fast-forward to this week. We were preparing for our in-class essay on Incidents and our final unit essay on one of 3 essential questions:

1) How does a value for diversity create true equality?
2) How does "loving your neighbor" balance the tension between order and freedom?
3) What does it take to preserve and protect freedom?

In leading a workshop on how to write a solid introduction, I had shown the students several samples from the year before--introductory paragraphs that, despite my conspicuous lack of instruction on how to write them, had been beautifully and clearly crafted (thanks to the God-given talents of their gifted writers). I pointed out the hooks--the opening lines which sought to invite the reader in: engaging questions; thought-provoking quotes; short, yet poignant anecdotes. I spent even more time emphasizing the need for a strong thesis, and demonstrated how the best theses were clear and made it possible for the reader to make a basic outline of the rest of the paper without even reading ahead.

This student, who had been wary of the importance of reading Incidents, approached me a while later. By his own admission, he's never been a big fan of school, and especially not English or History classes, perhaps due to his years of taking ESL and struggling with writing effectively in English.

"Mr. Gibson," he said, "I want to be able to write like that." He indicated the sample paragraphs, still displayed on the projector screen.

"Will you work with me, and help me to improve?" He asked solemnly.

I was momentarily speechless--I am used to having students do what they need to do, but for a student to so specifically express a desire to improve caught me off-guard. Yet, I used the moment of silence to fix eye contact with him and smile.

"Absolutely. Come talk to me if you want me to read over what you've got at any step in the process, and I'll let you know what's going well, what you can work on, and how you can improve."

He nodded and returned to his seat.

I stood there wondering what I'd done right.

Thank you, God, for moments like these!

Everlasting Light

"The sun will no more be your light by
nor will the brightness of the moon
shine on you,
for the LORD will be your everlasting
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun will never set again,
and your moon will wane no more;
the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your days of sorrow will end.
BoldThen will all your people be
and they will possess the land
They are the shoot I have planted,
the work of my hands,
for the display of my splendor.
The least of you will become a
the smallest a mighty nation.
I am the LORD;
in its time I will do this swiftly."

Isaiah 60: 19-22

The seasons are again turning, and there has been an unmistakably wintry feel in the air for the last week: low temperatures, but more than that, a biting, chilly wind and the perpetual shroud of gray that looks like it should yield snow. Also, it has been getting dark very early; in fact, the sun is already beginning to set by the time school gets out at 3:30.

Darkness. It's just part of the fabric of these winter months in Tokyo. It makes me so grateful for the ability to flip a switch and bring light into a room. I suppose that regardless of what winter in Israel was like, the people had a very different understanding of darkness. While electricity enables us to keep working and living after the sun sets, the Israelites' options were somewhat more limited.

Everlasting light. That's quite a promise. It's a promise that we may be somewhat numb to today--though lightbulbs are anything but everlasting, we can easily buy into the illusion that we have the option of everlasting light. The Israelites knew better: lamps run out of oil. Torches burn out. The sun sets. The moon wanes. In their experience, there was no such thing as everlasting light.

And yet, this is the imagery that God paints in describing the coming of Christ. I bet it would have packed a punch for the Israelites, for whom the darkness was something unconquerable, ominous and frightening.

...Have we, today, really conquered the darkness? Maybe we've achieved limited victories against physical darkness, but against spiritual darkness we have made little headway. We are every bit in the dark as the Israelites were, and are in need of that same, spectacular everlasting light.

If you've tried to wander around in a dark room, you know full well that the absence of light can mess with your sense of space. You forget where the coffee table is, and bang your shin against the corner; you knock something off a shelf; you bump into the wall... it's confusing, it's chaotic, and you make mistakes that you wouldn't make if the room were illuminated.

Sin--spiritual darkness--does the same thing to our sense of justice, our sense of right and wrong. We trample over things; we make bad decisions; we damage ourselves and others in ways that we wouldn't if we were close to God instead of rebelling.

So the promise of everlasting light is a promise for salvation from sin and all of the sorrow that sin invariably causes. The words that conclude this passage promise that the LORD would bring this light swiftly--for the Israelites, it would be hundreds of years before Christ was born. Today, we wait--swiftly will mean what it will. May your return be swift, oh Everlasting Light!

A Righteous Branch

"'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.

'In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch
sprout from David's line;
he will do what is just and right in
the land.

In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be
The LORD Our Righteousness.'"
Jeremiah 33:14-16

In my 9th grade World History class, we've been looking at the historical context surrounding Christianity. As we prepared to look closely at the effect that the Roman Empire had on Christianity (from Pax Romana, to persecution, to eventual acceptance and legalization), we took a step back and took a broad view of Israel's history.

God intended for Israel to be standing stones at the crossroads of the known world. Literally--Tel Gezer, for example, stood directly at the crossroads that connected the Via Maris and the King's Highway (the major trade arteries which ran between Mesopotamia and Egypt). From their humble promised land, the Israelites had access to key points of influence--trading hubs that conveyed not only goods but ideas to the corners of the earth.

The Israelites were called to bless the world by living for God, and we know that they failed on countless occasions to do so. It's easy to criticize them, but we often fall short in similar ways: we know what it means to live for God and yet we do the opposite. Despite the weakness of the Israelites, and in the midst of punishment, these words that Jeremiah shared with them must have been so tremendously powerful.

Oh, but this wasn't just a promise to the Israelites at the expense or exclusion of everyone else... Through the Branch of David's line, we, too have been grafted into the vineyard. We share the calling to bless those around us, to live as standing stones--testimonies--to God's greatness. Judah's safety and Jerusalem's salvation are extended to even those of us who have never set foot on Israel's soil. Though our lives may seem chaotic on occasion, and filled with troubles, we must never forget the promises that God has made, even from of old. After all, the One who was foretold in this passage did what was right and just in the land, as God said. He even gave His life for us. Now, we wait for His return and we take heart, even in the midst of trouble.