Thursday, May 31, 2012

And the Greatest of These

For the Senior class, the seasons of "lasts" starts fairly early at CAJ, with the last Senior concession sale in late February/early March.  A steady stream of "lasts" continues from that point on: last concerts, last Thrift Shop, last chapel, last Far East, last APs, last homeroom, last Community Group, last essay, last test, and so on.

I guess because it started so early, and at a time when the year seemed far from over, it didn't really hit me how close we were getting to the end.  Now, we're getting into the last of the lasts.

I took 9 Seniors out to coffee during their 7th period study hall today.  I have 7th period free, and since it comes on the heel of 5 straight class periods, I typically use it to sit down and catch my breath.  I've been so blessed this year to catch my breath on a couch in the Senior Lounge, where several students spend their study hall.  This has been a tremendous blessing--it allows me to remain an active part of their lives, though I no longer have them in class, as they can ask me questions, I can provide advice for writing, college stuff and comps, and above all else, as we simply sit and talk.  It's not always an on-task study hall, but I feel it's been an important time for both myself and the Seniors who are there.

Today, as I sat with them at the picnic benches in the school plaza, everyone enjoying their coffee, it struck me that we've only got one more 7th period study hall left this year: half the Senior class is gone to a leadership retreat tomorrow, and Monday is the last regularly-scheduled day of school.  After that, I'll watch the Seniors do their Comps Presentations on Tuesday.  They aren't required to come to school on Wednesday or Thursday, and then Friday is graduation, and though I'm so blessed to be able to speak to them on that night, there will be no time to simply sit and enjoy a conversation.  In other words, Monday is basically it.

When this realization hit me, I got kind of a dull feeling in the pit of my stomach and actually started to tear up a little.  It's weird--when we think of people we love, we think of our families, our friends, our significant others... but beyond those big three, we may be hard pressed to think of people in our lives who we genuinely love.  I felt this exact same way at the end of the year last year, once when my Humanities class asked me to stop taking down the posters from the walls while they were around because it was breaking their hearts, and again on the last day of class... the same dull feeling in my stomach, a feeling of having a lump in my throat and having to blink away tears.  I realized: I love this group.  Not out of duty... not because I'm supposed to... but because I've come to know and invest in them so deeply that I would do anything to protect them, to ensure the best for them as they leave.  What happens to these students matters tremendously to me; I'm torn between wanting them to stay so we can keep reliving the last few years, and wanting them to leave because I know that's what they want, and also so I can see just what they do with their lives.  It's weird to experience a brand new emotion like this at this stage in my life... and I suspect the goodbyes of next Friday will be very tough. This will be my 4th CAJ graduation, and while I've certainly sent off individuals and small groups who I really cared for, this is the first graduating class that I taught full-time and the first graduating class who I can honestly say, I love as a class.

I'm sure it has... but I sincerely hope that my investment in and love for this class has made a difference in their lives.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Tomorrow is my last normal day of class for this school year.  On Friday, the Juniors will be out of class, helping out with the elementary school field day.  Though Monday is a regular class schedule, each of my classes will be starting their culminating events (presentations) on that day.  Tuesday is Senior Comps, Wednesday through Friday are culminating event days, Friday night is graduation.

It feels so weird to be at this point--somehow incomplete.  It feels like I was only just energetically telling my students that "history is now and we're living it!"  I'm amazed at how much energy and momentum I started off this school year with and ashamed of how little I'm finishing with.  I fell victim to my own expectations, and tried so hard to fit the Juniors I taught this year into the mold I'd cast with the class of 2012 last year.  There were good moments of learning, and I established positive relationships with a lot of individuals... but I think I never managed to earn the attention and respect of the class as a whole because I simply couldn't get past trying to shove them into the same spot that last year's Juniors had occupied.

My take-away from this is that I need to be willing to take the time to get to know a class before I lock in the specifics of what learning will look like for the duration of the year.  I did this at the beginning of the last school-year, but because last year went so smoothly, I tried to apply the exact same heuristic to my classes this year.  Rookie mistake, I suppose--each class has a different personality and just because a certain way of doing things is fun and meaningful for one group doesn't mean that it will be fun and meaningful for another group.  I was reminded of this today as some of my former students, Seniors, signed my yearbook--something that came up repeatedly was how much they enjoyed my class, how fun they thought it was, how much they learned, how they appreciated my teaching style.  By contrast, most of the direct feedback I've heard from my Juniors this year is how bored they are and how little they care about the content of my class.  While I know that there are many who do enjoy my class who have not been so vocal, it stings to hear the apathy which seemed so much rarer last year.  Especially since I know that it was really on me to figure out how to engage this new group, and I never did.  I abandoned the way I did things last year and tried to find the right frequency, but I don't feel like I ever really locked into it.  As I said, I'm not going to lose sleep over this--learning still happened, the kids still grew, they're still ready to be Seniors... I just feel like I missed an opportunity to really inspire them and capture their attention and imagination with what I was teaching and how I was teaching.  I guess I can't win 'em all.

We're ending in a better place than we did two years ago, after my first year of teaching--a year filled with misunderstanding, conflict, lost trust and impatience with each other.  We're ending on friendly terms this time, but oh so different than the cupcakes, scrapbook, class photo and tearful goodbyes that I had with my Juniors at this time last year.  Perhaps that's why it feels incomplete.  Perhaps I'm still holding that great year as a standard by which I measure my success and failure as a teacher.  Maybe I need to reevaluate how I define success; not to lower my standards, but to broaden them, to look for different indications of success and of course to continually be on the look-out for new and engaging ways to pursue success as a teacher.

Somehow I'd envisioned that each year of teaching would get easier, each year planning would get easier, but I now see that the further in I travel, the more I become aware of complexities and nuances that I was blind to before.  I'm not entirely sure where my planning and prep-work this summer will start, but I do know that next year will be a completely different ball-game altogether!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Come What May

Letting go is tough.  Certainly this becomes obvious when we must say goodbye to loved ones--death after all is not part of the intended order.  However, this truth about the sheer challenge of letting go runs much wider than the brutal goodbyes.

We may find ourselves in situations in life where we are called to let go of our plans, let go of our dreams,  perhaps even let go of our security.  I know that this is a particular struggle for me: I have such a specific image in my head for what I want out of life, for what I want each new year, each new day to look like.  When reality turns out to be different, I become easily frustrated and even despondent.  I feel as though I have failed in some way.  I begin to doubt my calling and my purpose.

Increasingly, I realize that I need to let go of the intricate plans and expectations that I've built for myself, and simply live faithfully day to day, trusting that God's plans are better than mine.  I want so badly to have a specific kind of life, a specific kind of career and to be a specific kind of person that I end up putting all of my energy into trying to achieve these things.

I've put so much stock into my own plans and my own desires that they have become the ultimate goal of my life.  At this point, I must back up and recognize that faithful service should be the ultimate goal of my life.  This does not mean sitting idly by and letting life happen, but rather approaching each day with a spirit of joy and gratitude--living out the trust that God will provide.

I keep such a tight grip on my expectations and it is exhausting.  Maybe it is time instead to invest that effort and energy to doing my best with each moment.

Lord, grant me strength.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


My time with my family was short, but it felt longer than I expected it to--perhaps because of the emotionally draining and intense nature of the days I spent at home.  It seems like we had relatives at our house at almost all times, and then of course between the viewing and the services, there was even more time spent with relatives, some close and some distant.  I appreciated everyone who showed up to express their sympathies, but it definitely did wear on me after a while to hear so many people say "This must be so tough; I know how much time you spent with her."  Not that they were wrong, but each time I heard that served as an overwhelming reminder that yes, this is, indeed tough to go through.

Throw on top of that my efforts to make progress on at least something school-related in my spare moments (made good progress on my grad speech) and the gnarly sleep-schedule that jet-lag brings about, and I'm currently feeling an odd combination of peace and stress.  I feel peace in my decision to come home.  It was the right choice and I'm so thankful that I could spend this time with family.  At the same time, I feel exhaustion, and stress at what lies ahead.  You see, the amount of time left in the school-year is significantly less than I'd fully realized when I was hastily putting together plans for when I'd be out of the country.  Yes, there's grading I need to do, but more than that, I'm realizing that I'll have to truncate and even cut out a lot of stuff I'd hoped to do in my various classes during the last week of school.

Even the work currently in progress in my various classes will finish with barely any time to spare--I hope and pray that timing is on my side!

Perhaps what I need to do is just take a deep breath and resign myself to simply letting things unfold as they may.

I've never been good at this.

Thoughts between 5 and 6 am

The weather has been gorgeous the entire time that I've been back in Washington.  This morning, I was up before 5 because my sleep cycle still hasn't gotten over jet-lag (and at this rate, won't before I leave tomorrow).  On the bright side, this meant that I was already wide awake to go out and watch the sunrise.  Nothing underlines the green of the trees and fields, or blue of the sky, or freshness of the air more than having spent the past few months in the city.  I love Tokyo, and I feel so much more at ease with city-life than I ever thought I would, but there's no denying that the countryside is still my favorite place to be.  Thing is, if I was out in the country full-time, I probably wouldn't appreciate its beauty nearly as much.  I think the arrangement I've living out right now makes sense.

It's been a blessing to be with my family, even for this short time.  As my brother, sister and I walked to the car after the funeral service on Thursday, we all agreed that it wouldn't have been right if one of us had not been there.  After all, we grew up together under our Grandma's care, and in some ways, it was as though we'd said goodbye to a second mother.  So while we were there for our Grandma, and there for our parents, uncles and aunts, we were also there for each other.

We enjoyed the chance to just spend time together--to joke around, to sing, to simply sit in the same room together; an opportunity that is becoming increasingly rare as life takes us in different directions.  As it is, I believe the three of us will only be together for 10 days or so this summer.  Sibling time is a fading luxury.

So--overall, I am glad I decided to come back.  It's very strange to think that even a week ago, I didn't know I'd be doing this.  It'll be maybe a little stressful trying to hit the ground running when I get back to Tokyo.  There's not much school to adjust back to--a regular week and then finals.  A week of meetings beyond that and I'll be back in Washington again.  Still, it'll be a packed couple of weeks, getting grades in and finishing/practicing/giving the grad speech for the Seniors.

God has brought me this far, and I trust that with His grace and strength, I'll finish the year well.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thank You, O My Father

This morning, my family laid Grandma to rest with a graveside service, and then a memorial service at 1st CRC.  It was a beautiful service, though it has really hit me since I got home just how hard it is to say goodbye.  Grandma was a steady and steadfast presence throughout my life, and I especially recall her strength and faith in the face of death, whenever she would lose someone close to her.  It was jarring that this time, she was the one being laid to rest, the one being mourned and celebrated.  It's the start of a new era, an era in which my dad, uncles and aunts are fast becoming the oldest generation in their family and in which my grandparents are all gone.

I was blessed to be a part of this memorial service, and was able to help provide special music, singing a  hymn with my brother and sister, as well as my cousins Luke and Sarah.  Grandma loved hymns--she was constantly singing or humming while she'd work, and she imparted this love of hymns to her children and grandchildren.  In fact, her last hour of life was spent surrounded by my dad and his siblings as they sang hymns to her.  The hymn we sang was "There is a Redeemer" by Keith and Melody Green, and the words provide a wonderful comfort and assurance even as today we grieve and shed tears for a woman we dearly love and miss.  I've shared the words here:

There is a Redeemer, 
Jesus, God's own Son,
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah, 
Holy One!

Thank you oh my Father, 
For giving us Your Son,
And leaving Your Spirit, 
'Til the work on Earth is done.

Jesus my Redeemer, 
Name above all names,
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah,
Hope for sinners slain.

Thank you oh my Father, 
For giving us Your Son,
And leaving Your Spirit, 
'Til the work on Earth is done.

When I stand in Glory, 
I will see His face,
There I'll serve my King forever,
In that Holy Place.

Thank you oh my Father, 
For giving us Your Son,
And leaving Your Spirit, 
'Til the work on Earth is done.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In Transit

As I write and post this, I literally am in transit--the airporter bus that I'm taking from SeaTac up to Bellingham has wi-fi.  I was not planning on taking this trip--even when I first heard from my parents at this time last week that Grandma's health had taken a turn for the worst, I didn't really consider what I'd do if she passed away.

All that said, I anticipate this being a meaningful time for my family as we celebrate and remember Grandma Emma.

I'm pretty wiped because it is currently 3:00 am Tokyo time, but only 11:00 am Washington time, and I've been awake since 8:00 am Tokyo time.  So, I won't try to write anymore just at this moment, as it may wind up being incoherent.  I will say, though, that I am ever-grateful to live in an age where it is possible to make last minute arrangements to fly across the ocean in a matter of hours for something like this.  I think that was my 14th trip over the Pacific, and it seems to get easier every time.

We're about to get onto the free-way now.  I think I'll post this, since I can do that, and then catch a quick nap.  The world is so plugged in, it's scary.

Monday, May 21, 2012

For Grandma Emma

When I was born, my parents faced an important question: how would they raise a child with both of them working?  Both worked busy jobs--jobs they realized, even at that point, would go a long way toward funding my education, as well as the education of any other eventual children...  Jobs that would allow them to give generously to their church and community... Jobs that would keep us clothed and fed.  Not that this was ever a worry for me or my siblings... but my father knew what it meant to grow up in dire financial need, so he and my mother resolved to keep working after they had kids.

I completely understand this decision, and I've since discovered that my parents both felt a certain measure of guilt in making this decision.  Here's the reality, though: I never felt abandoned or neglected.  I knew my parents loved me, and I know that they went to great pains to be there for myself, my brother and my sister in the evenings and on weekends.  The dinner-table was, for many years, an imperturbable sanctuary of family-time.  More than that, though, they left me, my brother and my sister in good hands.

You see, some kids whose parents work full-time spend their days at a daycare.  I had the coolest, best daycare of all: Grandma Emma.  Emma Margaret Gibson was 58 when I was born, a tall and lanky woman with large glasses and wavy hair that had at one time been red, but had by then faded to a shade of white that still bore hints of strawberry blonde.  People who knew Emma in other contexts might have described her as stern, quiet, and as valuing solitude.  This was not the Emma Gibson I knew: she was ceaselessly joyful, loving and caring, with a dash of earthy Dutch humor.  One of the ditties she would sing to her grandchildren while bouncing them on her knee was a semi-nonsensical Dutch rhyme about a baby peeing its pants.  If there's a culture that has a monopoly on bathroom humor, it is the Dutch.  

Grandma Emma was also reasonably athletic, which stood in contrast to most of my friends' grandparents, who seemed slow and feeble by comparison.  Grandma Emma seemed to spend a good portion of her time in physical activity: whether that was mowing the lawn, gardening, or vacuuming the floors of Lynden's First Christian Reformed Church, she was constantly moving.  Her breaks usually involved more movement: throwing around a ball or playing tag with myself, my siblings, our cousins.  

I always wondered what kind of athlete she would have been if she'd had the opportunity to play school sports.  As it was, her formal education ended in 8th grade.  My Great-Grandpa Pete, good man though he was, was also a victim of the rather limited prevailing gender views of his time.
"It's no use having Emma keep going in school," he'd said, and that was that. 

This lack of education manifested itself mostly in her speech habits, and I recall several occasions on which my mom reprimanded me for using the word "ain't".  
"But Grandma said it," I'd protest.
I didn't understand that her grammar was less than exemplary.  Despite this, Grandma Emma always gave off the impression of being thoughtful and bright.  What's more, her lack of education never once stopped her from reading: Eugene Peterson, Max Lucado, "The Banner", and odds and ends from Focus on the Family were but a cross-slice of her reading list.  Of course, above all else, she read the Bible.  This was clearly her favorite book, and as a child, I often wondered how she could stand to read the same book over and over again.  

I've no doubt that the Bible gave focus to her naturally caring spirit: for much of the time that I knew Grandma Emma, she was taking care of those around her.  Of course, she took care of her grandchildren, but even before that, she'd worked as a caretaker in the nursing home, and it was here that she developed knowledge and skills that equipped her to care for her own father in his last years.  This experience also equipped her to care for my grandpa, who was 12 years her senior, when his health started to decline more than a decade ago.

This caregiving, as much as anything else, filled Grandma Emma's life with meaning.  Her God-appointed calling in this world was to serve and to lovingly care for those around her--something that no high school diploma or college degree could ever have equipped her to do better than she did.  In hindsight, it's fitting (and also sad in that peculiar way that life can be) that Grandma Emma began her own slow decline after my Grandpa passed away in 2002.  I got my driver's license not long after that, and more often than not would drive my siblings straight home after school rather than taking the bus to Grandma's house for several hours while waiting for our mom to pick us up as we had done for so many years.  Grandma was wise enough to know that these are the patterns of life, and that children do grow up and spread their wings, but it removed her last outlet for caregiving.  When we would stop by, she would have snacks at the ready: cookies baked, custard made--as if she were making up for the times when we weren't around.  Still, her health worsened, and she began to take medications that all but eliminated her senses of smell and taste.  Her movements slowed, and she stopped mowing the lawn herself.  Her hearing, damaged by a combination of bad genetics and failure to use ear protection while mowing and vacuuming, diminished.  With these challenges came uncertainty, confusion, timidity. 

For my part, I had a difficult time seeing Grandma like this because it scared me: she seemed so different from the woman who had helped my parents raise me.  While her hearing was still decent, I had been dutiful about stopping by and visiting her regularly whenever I would come home from college, but the worse her hearing became, the less I stopped by to visit.  I was uncertain about what I would say, fearful that we would not be able to communicate.  I wish I had not viewed the relationship so much as how she could help me, what advice she could give me, how she could care for me as she had done for so long, but how I could return the favor in caring for her by simply keeping her company, regardless of whether or not our conversation would be deep or substantial.  What she'd been so faithful about in her life, I failed to do in mine.

This lesson to care deeply for others, even in their feebleness and weakness, is her final legacy to me, and it comes too late for me to tell her that I understand and I'm grateful, but not too late altogether.  As a recipient of such care and such love, from the time that I was a helpless infant, and through all of the temper tantrums, ignorance and surliness of childhood, I know just how deep this love runs and how vast its meaning spans.  This is the love of God in us, love that heals, love that restores and rebuilds.  For 84 years, Emma lived according to such selfless and caring love, and during those 84 years, she made the world a better place, especially for her parents, her siblings, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  I can do no better than to strive to pay this love forward in my own life.

Emma Margaret Gibson, you were, as it said on a sweatshirt that one of your grandkids gave you ages ago, a "Special Grandma", and I'm infinitely richer having grown up under your guidance, your patience, your kindness and your watchful eye.  Today, you aren't just reading about God's presence--you're in it!

Your Grandson Nathanael

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Waiting for the call

Within the next 24 hours...
That's as much as I know, and each passing second brings me that much closer to opening the inevitable email, answering the Skype call, reading the gmail chat... I'm not really sure how my parents will tell me that Grandma Emma has passed away.  So I wait.  She's peaceful, my mom tells me, and she's surrounded by her children, some of her grandchildren and even some great-grandchildren.  The room is filled with love, my mom tells me, and that feeling is immediately noticeable upon entering.  

My dad, my uncles and aunts, are all tired, my mom tells me.  They've been so faithful, sitting with her in shifts through the day and through the night, staying with her, waiting with her.  She's not had food or drink in more than a day, my mom tells me.  Her breathing is becoming increasingly shallow and each breath could plausibly be the last.  

Isn't the same true of each of us?  Regardless of how old or young we are, how healthy or unhealthy, we do not know the exact hour at which we'll be called home.  Each breath we take could plausibly be our last.  What a blessing, then, that her last hours of this earthly life are spent surrounded by her children--could there be a better way to be prepared to be enfolded in the love of her Father?  

Still, for those of us who sit beside her, whether at her bedside or in spirit half a world away, the waiting is brutal, and what we're waiting for, tough to grasp.  May God grant those of us who love her the wisdom and depth of assurance and understanding to celebrate on her behalf at the moment that she receives her call to come home.

My Grandma, with my cousin Andrea and her son, Zealand.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fighting Through

Man, Monday was rough--I've been having my share of doubts about whether I belong here, and whether I have a future here for a while, but for some reason all of that was really intense on Monday.  Factoring in stress and exhaustion, it was a tough day.  Sometimes, it pays just to yell at something.  In my case, "yelling" meant ranting into a Pages doc and then deleting it without saving.  I don't do that often enough... it was therapeutic.  The doubts are still there, but I feel like having articulated them in writing, I am in a much better position to deal with these doubts, pray about them and move forward.  

I am usually content when I'm comfortable... and I've been pretty comfortable in my life here.  It's just... I really thought about where I'm at, who I am, how old I am, and what I realized is that I need to start thinking seriously about going back to school for graduate work and I also need to start thinking seriously about dating.  Both of these things could happen here, but I wonder if being proactive in these steps might mean leaving?  I guess two of my main hopes/goals at the moment are to develop my skills as a teacher and to start moving toward family life.  I trust that God will provide in both of these things, but as I've said before, it's lazy to assume that God will wait on me hand and foot as I stay in one place.  

The confusing thing is, I haven't felt called anywhere else, and I still do love the work that I do here, and find it has meaning for me.  So, I feel kind of stuck.  Even though I'm only 26, the feeling of being on my way out of my 20s is intimidating and makes everything feel so... urgent... like I won't have time to do any of the cool things I want to do after I hit 30... like so many things need to happen NOW if they're going to happen at all in my life.  I know that's not true, of course... but I still worry.

I'm grateful that this has been a busy week of grading--too much time to think this week would just be frustrating and depressing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Prayers, please

I may be laying low on the public writing for a few days.  I'm feeling exhausted, restless and just generally down.  There's no single reason--it's a combination of lots of different factors, uncertainties, fears and worries, plus that same nagging desire I wrote about yesterday that makes me just want to take to the road and be a vagabond or something.

Anyway, I just ask for your prayers.  It sucks feeling like this... I don't usually feel like this even on bad days, and I trust that God will see me through.  


Sunday, May 13, 2012


My Juniors have been talking about their hopes and dreams in connection with our unit on the American Dream.  This evening as I was walking along the river, I dared to let myself dream... the result was surprising to me:

My dream is to travel the world and write.  

Crazy thing is, the minute I realized this, I got an overwhelming desire to start planning, to get moving.
I don't get this very often...  I'm not really adventurous and I usually take the path of least resistance.

I'm not sure if I'll still feel this way tomorrow, or if I'll still have this same desire to travel when my school-year wraps up and I really can travel... but for the moment, it's powerful, compelling.


Saturday, May 12, 2012


The numerical values of my job this year:

3 class-preps
Spanning 5 periods
Including 99 students,
of whom 13 are taking an AP English option that is separate from/in addition to regular class.

I feel like I have not done an effective job of balancing and juggling these numbers this year.  This is not to say it's been a bad year by any means--on the contrary, it's been a good year.  I've enjoyed it, and I have tremendously appreciated my students.

This said, I'm more aware than ever of my weaknesses and limitations as a teacher, and feel frustrated by the disconnect between what I know to be best practice and where I'm at now.  My challenge for next year, and something I plan to examine over the summer, is strategizing methods of organization and prioritization.  This is a great teaching schedule, but the numbers and the diversity within those numbers require that I put a lot more planning into logistics than I have up to this point--I must be much more careful and precise in how I plan assignments, when I give assignments, what I do with paperwork, how I manage my time between prep/grading.  All of these things were important before, but take on a much greater significance with a busier schedule.

Fortunately, I think that next year, my schedule will remain exactly the same for the first time in my teaching career.  Here's hoping the continuity will allow me to take root in soil that is fertile for planning, organizing and teaching!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Definitely, May be awesome

I have reasons why I like different times of year, and different things that I look forward to at each point in the year.  Today, I was caught off-guard by another reason why I love the month of May, a reason I'd completely forgotten about: my former students come back from college!

During 7th period, I ran into a few guys who graduated last year and enjoyed hearing about how their year had been.  After school, I briefly caught up with a few of my students who graduated in 2010.  More alumni are arriving today and tomorrow.  Many more will return over the next few weeks.  These are students who were in my Bible class--because Bible is essentially a one-semester course, and I only taught these students for either a semester or two, it's not like I knew them super-well (exception being my JAM leaders and cross country runners), but all the same, it is good to catch up.

Next year will be even better: I know the current Seniors very well, as I taught them for several years, multiple subjects.  I've been thinking a lot lately about how much I'll miss them when they graduate, but the reunions of this afternoon reminded me that most of them will come back and that is a time to look forward to, to celebrate.

As I've said before, a school community is all about yearly routines and cycles... hello, goodbye and hello again.  I am grateful that there are reunions to take the sting out of the goodbyes!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Human moments

It can be somewhat lonely to be a foreigner in Japan--walking down the street, most people do not make eye contact or appear to acknowledge me as we pass.  For my part, I do try to make eye contact, smile and nod--I figure that this is my privilege as a gaijin: it might be in violation of Japanese social norms for me to do this, but it's a relatively minor norm, and it's my way of trying to be friendly and not appear arrogant or stand-offish (after all, I am representing a missionary school, if not Christians in general to the people who I pass by).  Sometimes, I get acknowledgment in return, sometimes I don't.

Sometimes, cool human moments just happen.  Like tonight: I was biking back from Seiyu, having bought some ingredients for dinner.  It was starting to rain pretty hard.  As luck would have it, I got to the train crossing just as the gates closed.  A guy pulled up on a scooter just a few feet away from me--he looked like he was my age or maybe a little older.  I did what I always do, tried to make eye contact and nod, but he was resolutely staring ahead.  Then, all of a sudden, a huge bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the tracks and the streets around us.  And two seconds later, the loud crash of thunder.  The guy on the scooter looked at me and we exchanged a nod that roughly translated to "Dude... that was CRAZY!"

Some things are just universal.  I love moments like that.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Goodbye, Grover's Corners

This evening, I read through Thorton Wilder's "Our Town" for the first time since high school.  You see, I was searching for an American play to have my 6th period English class read through and act out, as this particular class enjoys acting.  I decided on "Our Town."

It's with some trepidation that I choose this play: it doesn't have the cynicism or raw edginess that my students really enjoyed in Arthur Miller's work first semester.  It doesn't contain swearing, or sexual innuendo, or opportunities to be sarcastic.  It's wholesome.  When I used this adjective earlier today in describing the play to a student, she wrinkled her nose and made a noise that sounded like "uggh."  In other words, my 6th period group has their guard up.

So did I, when I was in high school.  "Our Town" definitely didn't appeal to my sarcastic and sometimes edgy sense of humor.  The first act of the play feels like a 50s family sitcom, but without conflict... it feels saccharine at times, as though this small town was some cliche vision of "the good old days".  However, as the play unfolds, it's hard not to be drawn in and invest in the characters.  I remember identifying with George Gibbs and wishing I had an Emily Webb to tell me when I was acting foolish.  I remember identifying with some of the quirks and foibles that Wilder attributes to small towns, and small communities in general.  I remember identifying with the pressures and questions about the future that children of small towns ask themselves.

The third act packs an emotional wallop as we are taken through the feelings and grief of death, but from the perspective of the departed, longing for their former life.  Emily, having relived the morning of her 12th birthday (an ability that the deceased possess in Wilder's world), cannot bear to spend a minute more in the past, knowing what she knows of the future.  So, she returns to her ultimate resting place: the hillside cemetery overlooking Grover's Corners.  As she departs, she casts one last, longing look back at her parents who are blissfully unaware of all that will befall them, both good and bad, important and trivial; at the home of her childhood; at the Grover's Corners of her lifetime, and says:

"Good-by, Good-by, world.  Good-by, Grover's Corners... Mama and Papa.  Good-by to clocks ticking... and Mama's sunflower's.  And food and coffee.  And new-ironed dresses and hot baths... and sleeping and waking up.  Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

She then looks to the stage manager, who functions as an omniscient narrator throughout the play and asks:
"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --every, every minute?"

The stage manager replies:
"No."  He thinks, and then continues, "The saints and poets, maybe--they do, some."

This play challenged me even as a sarcastic high school Junior to realize life as I live it, to take nothing for granted and to strive to approach life as the saints and poets do.  It is my hope that the play will have the same impact on a classroom full of my own students.  Of course, I wouldn't have admitted how impacted I was to my teachers, and so I guess I can't really expect my students to do so either...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hello Context, my old friend

Lately, I've been using my spare time to pick up my study of the Japanese language again.  Using an iPhone app, I've been learning the vocab that would show up on the JLPT Level 5 (the most basic difficulty level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test).

I started studying the vocab several months ago, taking 10-20 new words at a time, and finally worked my way up to the entire set a couple of weeks ago.  All in all, there are 714 vocab words at this level.  I've taken the full quiz on my iPhone three times now: The first time, I scored 708/714; the second time, 709/714; the third time, 710/714.  The words I've gotten wrong have been dumb mistakes--I try to finish the test quickly and so either push the wrong button or fail to read the options carefully enough when I rush.

Still, I'm improving: I've gotten a higher score each time, and the test has gone from taking me over an hour to taking just under 40 minutes (I was really flying through the questions this last time).  The challenge now is to take all of this vocab and commit it to working memory.  I need to start using the vocab that I know, and perhaps just as importantly, listen for the words I know when someone is speaking to me in Japanese.

I had an opportunity to listen at church today.  Everything at my church--announcements, songs, readings, preaching--is in Japanese, with English translation provided via headset.  This is great, except for when the headset doesn't work, like today.  Instead of listening to a very faint English translation under a distracting amount of static, I opted instead to test out my Japanese listening skills.  Though I certainly did recognize vocab words that I had learned, I had difficulty understanding how they fit into what the pastor was saying, and what the point of the sermon was.  This was very discouraging and I was just about to put on the head-set and suffer through the static when the pastor mentioned "Hachiko".  For those who do not know, there's a very famous (and true) story from Japan in the 1920s about a dog, Hachiko, who would meet his owner, a professor, at Shibuya station at the same time every day.  Even after the professor died suddenly, the dog continued to faithfully venture to the station to wait at his post every day.  The touching story has even reached American pop culture, as it was adapted into a movie (set in the U.S. rather than Japan, and butchered in the way that only Richard Gere can ruin something good).

Anyway, I digress.  I recognized the mention of Hachiko, and decided that based on this basic familiarity with the story, I'd try my luck in listening without translation.  It was a night-and-day difference.  The pastor wasn't speaking any slower, wasn't simplifying his language, wasn't speaking any differently... I just happened to know the story he was telling, so I had a rough idea of what I was listening for.  I understood maybe 80% of what the pastor said as he re-told the story as all the random vocab I knew suddenly slid into place and took on purpose contributing toward a greater meaning.  Had I not known the story of Hachiko, I would have been just as lost as I was the rest of the time.  I should note that the sermon was on Psalm 92, so I didn't have the contextual benefit of a familiar Bible story to follow along with.

Though I missed out on a lot of the content of the sermon by listening in Japanese, I feel like I have made progress in my ability to listen and in the scope of what I understand.  Being able to pick out words I know actually helps me to pick out words I do not know as well.  So, in the margins of my sermon notes (which were very brief and written in hiragana today), I jotted down the words I didn't know that came up the most.  I'll look them up before next week and then hopefully be able to understand even more the next time I happen to not use the English translation.

In the meantime, though, context is everything.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Come Thou Fount

A classic song of praise, and my prayer for today:

1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing, 
 tune my heart to sing thy grace; 
 streams of mercy, never ceasing, 
 call for songs of loudest praise. 
 Teach me some melodious sonnet, 
 sung by flaming tongues above. 
 Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, 
 mount of thy redeeming love. 

2. Here I raise mine Ebenezer; 
 hither by thy help I'm come; 
 and I hope, by thy good pleasure, 
 safely to arrive at home. 
 Jesus sought me when a stranger, 
 wandering from the fold of God; 
 he, to rescue me from danger, 
 interposed his precious blood. 

3. O to grace how great a debtor 
 daily I'm constrained to be! 
 Let thy goodness, like a fetter, 
 bind my wandering heart to thee. 
 Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, 
 prone to leave the God I love; 
 here's my heart, O take and seal it, 
 seal it for thy courts above. 
by Robert Robinson

Alleluia moments

There are moments that occur in our lives that are so powerful and so exhilarating that the only response which makes any sense is to praise God.  Of course, often such moments are suppressed or denied, or the praise is misdirected... but the feeling is unmistakable and telling when put in the context of who we are and what we were created for.

I had one such moment on the final evening in Thailand.  I had another such moment tonight.  I was biking along the river just after 8:00, I could see the stars in the sky and a full moon beaming intensely.  There was a gentle, warm breeze, which carried with it the smells of the farm: hay, cows... some might revolt at the smell of cow manure, but to anyone who has lived in the countryside, it is the smell of life--the fertilizer that brings fields of wheat, rows of corn, and every other fresh vegetable we so enjoy bursting from the soil.  The cicada chorus from several nights ago was resting, and in their place, a chorus of crickets chirping... again, familiar to anyone who has grown up in the countryside.  All in all, the stars in the sky, the breeze, the farm smells and the peaceful chirping of the crickets were an unexpected combination in a corner of one of the largest cities in the world, and the setting reminded me with forceful clarity just how vast and beautiful God's handiwork really is. 

What could I do then, except throw my arms up in the air as I biked along and sing alleluia?  I'm grateful for tonight, and I'm also grateful that I've developed the balance sufficient to throw my arms up in the air for several minutes and continue to bike without swerving.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Choice of Choice

One important ingredient of what it means to be human is our freedom and basic capacity to make decisions.  The range of options before us is vast, spanning from the trivial to the momentous, and this has been true since God created Adam and Eve, and placed them in the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve were called upon to make decisions from the start, as their first job was to name the wide assortment of creatures God had made.  This was no small responsibility, sorting and organizing for their creator, but it certainly wasn't the most important choice they had to work out.

Of course, we know about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the choice that the first humans eventually made, when tempted, to rebel against God.  We, every human who came before us, and every human who will come after us, are born into this rebellion.  In fact, we are predisposed to make that rebellious choice--it's rebellion not just on a genetic level, but on a heart level.  What this means is that in some ways, the freedom of choice we like to claim is illusory: though we might desire to follow God, we'll inevitably make mistakes, whether from a careless choice or calculated disobedience--such is the disastrous result of being born into Adam and Eve's rebellion.

My understanding has always been that God allowing Adam and Eve choice was essential to giving legitimacy to obedience and worship: ultimately, those acts would be hollow without the possibility of humans not worshipping.  Regardless of the exact theology behind this, here's where I'm at: I want to choose not having a choice.  I want God to transform my heart so deeply that rebellion ceases to be an option and that my only thought, waking and sleeping, working and relaxing, is to glorify His name.

Is this, perhaps, the eternity that we wait for?  Is this the new reality that Christ will build for us when He returns?  I've responded to Christ's call to follow Him and I know I am not the faithful follower that I should be... but I want to be.  I'm thankful for the ability to make decisions, but I want to use this decision-making power to fill my life with worship.  This passage from Titus is of tremendous comfort:

"At one time, we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.  We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life." Titus 3:3-7

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Qualities of Quality Writing

This afternoon, I enjoyed a good discussion with my fellow English teachers about the characteristics of good writing.  I want to open the question up for contributions--what do you think makes good writing GOOD?  Whether an essay, research paper, article, story or something else, what sets good writing apart?  Please list characteristics and/or examples in the comments section!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Audit #3

Today, today, is the first of May.

Four months since I wrote my New Year's Resolutions and one month since my last audit.

April was a good month--stressful, for sure and the week I'd been looking forward to most (Easter/Sakura blossoms), I developed allergies to the pollen and got a cold.  Still, it was a month of re-focusing; getting back on track.

I've talked in recent posts about the lessons I've learned in trust and prayer, and that's all been a product of the past month.  The cool thing is, when I do give up on my selfish ambitions and my narrow ideas of success, and strive to make God the center of my life, everything else really does just fall into place.  Though it certainly was not a regular thing, I cooked several times over the past month.  I also worked out several times.  Most significantly, I wrote almost every day.  Those were the three items on my list of New Year's Resolutions--things that seemed pretty far out of reach and beyond hope a month ago.

I guess the lesson (a reminder, since it's something I've learned before) is that God needs to be at the center of any and all planning that I do.  As May begins and I can now see so clearly the end of the school-year (and along with it, another distinct chapter in my life), I am humbled and I pray for the strength and mercy that only God can grant.   I hope to make a habit of some aspects of a healthier lifestyle, cooking and exercising more, and I hope to continue to write regularly.  Above all, I desire to keep praying, to keep my focus where it belongs.

I return to my favorite Psalm, which reminds me of who I am and where my hope is found: "My soul finds rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken." (Psalm 62: 1, 2)