Saturday, June 30, 2012

Getting sick in June... what is this?

Whew...  What a week that was... It seems like my immune system is timed precisely so that I do not get sick all that much during the school-year.  In fact, I've never missed more than a day of teaching consecutively because of illness... and in 3 full years of teaching, the number of full days I've missed because of illness can be counted on two hands with room to spare.  Unfortunately, this precision comes with the drawback of inevitability: I know that I cannot hold off illness forever, and often I get sick on the very first day when I have nothing to do--typically, that is the first day of vacation.

The same was true this year--though I'd been back in Washington for almost a week before the cold I'd been fighting finally caught up with me, I'd managed to stay quite busy with class up until that point.  So, last Saturday, though I rejoiced at my first day off in a while, I knew as soon as I woke up with a sore throat that I wouldn't be able to fully enjoy the rest.

One week later, and I am on the tail-end of the cold.  I'm still not feeling 100%, but I am pretty sure I'm almost out of the woods (I had to knock on wood after I typed that).  It was a miserable week, though--due to the intense and fast-paced nature of my summer Japanese class, I decided that I could not afford to miss a single day of class, and so wound up working through the worst of my cold.  Not a good start to the summer, and it definitely played a part in my deciding to not register for Japanese 203, which runs through the month of July.  On top of all that, the weather this week was unseasonably cold, blustery and rainy.  While this eased my conscience for staying indoors more than I would have otherwise, it definitely added to the distinctly un-Summerlike feeling of the past week.

Now, with my cold finally easing up, July (and hopefully clear, sunny weather) about to begin, and only 3 days of class left, I can look forward to the vacation that I've needed.  Maybe the contrast will help me to enjoy the coming vacation even more.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The First Week of Summer

It's been a week since I last posted anything, and quite a lot has happened:  For starters, I packed up and moved out of my apartment, and put my stuff (packed into several suitcases) in storage so that I can move into a new apartment when I return to Japan.  I'll be living on my own starting in August, so that will be a big change.  Second, I flew back to the U.S. on Monday.  This actually didn't feel like all that big of a deal--it was my 16th flight across the ocean, and having only just done the round trip a month ago, my internal clock was more or less prepared for the change.  Jet-lag has not been bad at all this time!

Then again, part of the quick adjustment could have to do with the fact that I started Summer Quarter at Western Washington University the day after I got back.  In fact, before I even went home on Monday, I stopped by WWU to fill out and submit an application for summer registration.  Thus, for the 3rd summer in a row, I am a student again!  This summer, I am taking Japanese 202.  It is a 4-credit class, and it meets from 10:00-12:50 every week-day, for 3 weeks.  Today, Friday, we took our first unit test, which marked roughly 1/3 completion of the course.

I am incredibly grateful to be taking this class, but honestly, I have never struggled so much just to keep up and get by in a single class before.  The trouble is, I only took Japanese 101 and 102 two summers ago.  I did not take Japanese 103 and 201, which are both technically prerequisites for the class I am currently taking.  Furthermore, I forgot most of the kanji (Japanese writing characters) and grammar points while I was in Japan, due to my rather narrow application of my language skills (mostly going to Tully's).  However, I spoke to the professor before class on Tuesday morning and she agreed to let me sit in on the class and see if it seemed doable.  And, it did seem doable.  There are only two other students in the class, and both of them have had a gap since their last Japanese class (they took 201 last fall).  That said, they are both leagues ahead of where I am in their ability to recognize and read kanji.  They are also familiar with grammar points I never learned.

My vocab keeps me in the ball-game, though.  Turns out I have a pretty broad base for Japanese vocabulary!  Still, each day is a struggle.  I can now sympathize with my students who have learning disabilities that target language processing.  I feel very impaired and slow as I try to read passages from the textbook, halting as I try to recall which kanji I am looking at and how it should be read.  I also find myself taking long stretches of time in the middle of speaking simply to think about what I'm saying, how I need to conjugate the verb, and what phrase I must use to end the sentence.

My time outside of class is not much easier.  I've spent about 6 hours already just catching up on kanji that I missed--that's in addition to assigned homework!  All told, it has eaten up my free-time (but kept my brain working and kept me from the grips of debilitating jet-lag).

Despite the sheer uphill battle involved in merely attending and knowing what is going on in class, the experience has been of inestimable value to me.  In 4 short days, I feel like my understanding of the Japanese language has almost doubled (which I guess it has, if you count all of the vocab, grammar and kanji that I'd learned two summers ago, forgotten, and now remembered).  I now know the meaning and proper use of phrases like "toomoteimasu" (I intend to/I think), "nakuchaikemasen" (must do), "nikyoumigaaru" (to have an interest in)--all phrases that I'd heard before... but until this week, they had been a jumble of syllables that held no meaning to me, and in fact stood in the way of my recognizing other vocab and grammar that I did know.  Now, these syllables, which seemed so chaotic and random before, mean something to me and the Japanese language has come into focus for me just a little bit more.  It reminds me of trips to the eye doctor, as they switch the lenses in that giant viewfinder, and the view becomes sharper and sharper.

Though the class is indeed muzukashi (difficult), I can already feel the benefits.  I don't think I've ever dedicated myself so fully to a single class, especially one that was a struggle for me.  I tended not to do quite as well in math and science when I was in high school, but I never felt like those subjects had much direct application to my life, or long-term importance to me, so I never put my full weight into pushing through them.  With this class, the importance is clear to me and I am willing to do whatever it takes to understand (regardless of grades--I couldn't care less about whether I end up passing or failing; that's not what's important to me).  I wonder how I can get my students to this point in Humanities and English class--the point where they feel the subject is so valuable that they would do whatever it took to fully understand (and not just get a good grade).

Anyway, it will be a good summer (though it already feels as though it might speed by)!  I might not be writing as regularly, but I do hope to write at least once or twice a week... stay tuned!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Questions about home

In three days, I will be in the air, flying over the Pacific.  Considering that I was in Washington just 3 weeks ago, this year has held more back and forth for me than usual.  It's always so bittersweet to take this trip, regardless of which way I'm going, and typically the trip causes me to wonder just where home is for me. 

What has been revealed to me so clearly this year is that home is where God leads me.  This year has been tough in ways that other years have not been: knowing all year that one of my only other guy friends here would be leaving Japan at the end of the year, trying to get back into dating and questioning whether I'll find "the one" here, dealing with various frustrations in and out of the classroom...  In the face of challenges, loneliness and disappointment, my gut instinct was to ask "Is this really supposed to be home for me?"

Here's what God has shown me: if my definition of home depends on friends, if it depends on always feeling comfortable and successful, or depends on the possibility of finding my future wife, then I am way off-base in my priorities.  If those factors become the ultimate goal in my life, or in my mind the ultimate source of fulfillment, then I am not truly living a life of humble service and worship. 

Rather, home is where God leads me.  Even in the frustrating and challenging moments, home is where God leads me.  A colleague of mine who has been at CAJ for many years as the choir director often tells me that because our citizenship is in Heaven, we are enabled to live in a variety of places.  What a reassuring truth.  I have slowly been detaching myself from a mentality that defines the usefulness of a place by the potential from friendship, relationships and always feeling comfortable and realizing that I simply need to follow God, for where He leads, I find my true home.  This is incredibly freeing... with this in mind, I do not need to wonder or worry if I am where I'm supposed to be, or if I'm supposed to be somewhere else.  I simply need to trust that because God has lead me to a place, I can treat that place like home; put down roots, settle, engage, and simply BE where I am.  Rather than feel torn between places, or doubtful as to what home means, I should rejoice in the gift of several homes, and trust to follow when God calls me to follow and stay when God calls me to stay. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Year's End

Being a teacher makes for a weird sense of time and routine.  Beholden as I am to the school calendar, I find myself referring to "the end of the year" a lot these days.  This has made for interesting moments in conversations with people outside of the CAJ community: when I say I'm busy because the year is almost over, they look at me as though I'm insane, or at least temporally discombobulated.

Yet, it is undeniable that the end of the school-year has more literal significance to me than does the end of the calendar year.  The transition between 2011 and 2012, as with most other years (needless Y2K panic aside), was mostly symbolic.  Not much changes between December 31 and Jan. 1.  However, a lot can change between June and August.  Students grow and so do teachers.  I find that the opportunity for reflection, forward planning and learning that summer provides is precisely the kind of foundation that gives goal-setting traction.  New Year's Resolutions often fail, and I think part of that is because the process of setting resolutions is hastily done and lacks the care and thought that goes into summer planning for teachers on vacation. 

Some argue that this is too long of a vacation, too disruptive to student learning.  Perhaps this is true and perhaps American schools should reevaluate the length and structure of the school-year.  I'm not about to upset the apple-cart, though--I am ready for a vacation.  I spent roughly 16 hours of my weekend grading and then maybe 5 more hours over the past two days finishing up my grade-books.  I submitted my final grades earlier this afternoon and then promptly crashed in bed with a massive tension headache.  The nap helped, but I know that my body, mind and spirit are craving a longer rest.

So now, I transition.  I'll start thinking of the 2011-2012 school-year as "last year" and begin to consider the school-year as a whole (very tough to do in the moment when there are still immediate challenges to be dealt with and tasks to be accomplished).  That reflection will lead me to think through what I want to change, what I want to improve about my classes, what I need to add or subtract or practice to become a better teacher for my students.  I often feel a sense of purposelessness during the summer, but as each passing year ends, I am left with a clearer picture of my growth and my areas of need.  As this year has drawn to a close, I now commit my time of rest, reflection and growth to God.  May He grant me the wisdom and patience that I need to become who He wants me to be, both within and outside of the classroom.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Looking Ahead

Though it is wise to live in a way that honors the past, it is useless to dwell on the past.  By now, I've said all that I possibly can to and regarding the Class of 2012, and I can let go, secure in the knowledge that my impact will live on with them in some form, and their impact on me will live on in how I teach.

Today, I look ahead.  The future of CAJ is a bright one, as there are many strong classes coming up through the high school.  I want to give particular mention to the students who I taught as freshmen this past year (now sophomores... I don't really know what title to use, so I might as well just say class of 2015).  Yesterday was the last day of school for the students.  As such, the class of 2015 wanted to have an end-of-the-year party.  They made all of the arrangements themselves: emailing the principal for permission, asking to use my classroom, planning out snacks and drinks, organizing indoor and outdoor activities and even cleaning up after themselves afterward.  I agreed to supervise, along with the other core freshmen teachers.

I didn't get a chance to count, but it seemed like most, if not all of the class was there.  They started by eating snacks and watching videos that they'd made for various school activities, including their SWOW (School Without Walls) projects, as well as films made in Video Productions class.  They enjoyed this time of reminiscing, commenting on how much younger everyone looked in October (when SWOW happened) and laughing at both intentionally and unintentionally funny moments.  Then, they went outside to play a class-wide game of capture the flag.  Though I took that opportunity to duck into the gym and practice my speech a few times, they came back into the classroom about 40 minutes later smiling and laughing, so I am assuming the games went well.

What happened next really made an impression on me.  First, they thanked their teachers for a good year and presented each of us with a gift (they gave me a duck-shaped sponge, as they know I like ducks).  Then, they asked each student who would be leaving CAJ to come up to the front of the room.  There were 5 who would not be returning (though several of those students are leaving for a one-year furlough and will likely return to CAJ for their Junior year), and their classmates presented each of them with a giant card containing a class picture and messages from the rest of the class.  Then, several classmates gathered around each departing student, and prayed for them.  They asked me to open and another teacher to close.  There were moments during the prayer where everyone laughed out loud; there were moments during the prayer where many were in tears.  Overall, it was a very earnest and heartfelt gesture, and as a teacher it was very moving and powerful to watch a class come together in prayer like this, of their own volition.

Then, they cleaned the room, wiping down desks and vacuuming the floors, as they'd promised, and went outside for a massive water-fight (I went home to nap, but apparently, they were having so much fun that they forgot the time and had to be booted off campus by maintenance, since grad would be starting not long after).

Each year, the Senior English teachers lead a unit on the topic of bringing Cosmos out of Chaos.  These terms come from a quote by Madeline L'Engle and refer to the idea of restoring Shalom to a broken world.  Yesterday, I saw a glimpse of Cosmos in that classroom as the students prayed for each other.  Around the world, there are freshmen classes where kids dropped out of school, where fights broke out, where bullying was rampant, where back-biting and gossip made for an environment where nobody felt safe speaking their minds.  There were freshmen classes where students had already fallen deeply into partying, drunkenness, drug use.  There were freshmen classes where girls dropped out because they were pregnant, where boys had to adjust to the reality of fatherhood far too early.  There were freshmen classes where lonely, confused and marginalized kids took their own lives.  Some kids in the world did not even get the privilege of a freshmen year due to poverty, racial or gender discrimination, or perhaps some other cultural limitation.  Yet, despite the brokenness that could be found in schools in so many parts of the world, I am so grateful for the moment of grace and peace that I witnessed in my classroom yesterday.  We may complain that those moments are too rare.  I understand the complaint, but I prefer to rejoice when they do happen because they are the first-fruits that we read about in Scripture: a foretaste of what the new, fully restored creation will be like, freely given to us to savor in the present.  In moments like that, I cannot doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to break through the selfishness and arrogance of broken humanity.

As a teacher, I do not want to inflate the self-esteem of these students to the point that they become arrogant about their selflessness, kindness and humility (as Screwtape instructs Wormwood to do to the Patient at one point in C.S. Lewis' classic book), but I do want them to know that God is clearly working in them, and to encourage them to continue to serve one another so that God's glory might be revealed more vibrantly in the halls of CAJ.  I'm looking forward to working with that group again during their Junior year, and am excited to have two completely new groups of students (Class of 2014 and Class of 2016) next year.  What a beautiful note on which to end this school-year!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Graduation Speech; June 8, 2012

Tonight was the night--the class of 2012 graduated, and I couldn't have felt more blessed to be a part of this big evening for them.  I've written about them a lot recently, and tonight was my opportunity to send them out, to have a final word with them.  To put it simply, they are the reason I'm still at CAJ, and perhaps even why I'm still teaching.  My first full year of teaching in 2009-2010 was rough, rarely enjoyable.  In 2010-2011, I was privileged to have the best 2nd year of teaching I could have asked for--it wouldn't have been so without these students, who always believed in me, who always saw potential in my ability to teach and who were willing to invest back in me as I invested in them.  Last year showed me what teaching can be, just how meaningful it can be, to be a teacher.  I'm ever-grateful for this gift, and grateful to God for allowing me to have had that wonderful 2nd year of teaching and building a bond with this group.  The challenges of this past year seemed petty in the face of the joy of last year, and the successes of this past year, I think, are due in no small part to the atmosphere that the class of 2012 helped me to create in my classroom, and the style they helped me to develop as a teacher.

Here is the full script of the graduation speech that I delivered tonight:

My dear students, my dear class of 2012:
The very first thing I did when I found out you’d chosen me to speak to you tonight was to go back and read through all of your online discussion posts from last year.  It took a few hours to get through all of them, but in the end I was left with a powerful sense of direction in what I’d talk to you about tonight.  You see, reading through the discussion posts highlighted to me how you’ve grown, as well as what continues to weigh on your minds and hearts.
In one thread, you discussed your class identity.  Phrases like “chill”, “peaceful” and “low-drama” came up repeatedly.  Generally, this was held up as a positive quality and indeed, I always appreciated how easy-going you were.  However, some approached this quality with caution.  One classmate said that occasionally the easy-going nature of the class veered into the extreme of lacking emotion, lacking class spirit.  I think we all remember the assembly last year where each class had to cheer when their name was called... but we won’t talk about that.  This came up in several live discussions, as well--I remember several people saying on the first day of class that you felt as though your class was forgettable except, of course, for times when you’d gotten in trouble. 
In another online discussion in which you tried to define success, the prevailing sentiment was that success comes from achieving personal goals and making some kind of difference.
From my standpoint as your teacher, I think your class is characterized by an interesting mix of going with the flow while at the same time genuinely wanting to be vital, to make a difference, to leave a legacy.  In fact, your desire to make your  mark and turn the world upside down took a very literal form in your Senior Prank.  Of course, not everyone appreciates having their world turned upside down, as you and I, as your accomplice, well found out. 
Legacy.  That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight.  My original plan was to make some inside jokes and then tell you to build a legacy as you leave this place.  Now, the inside jokes were pretty good.  Pretty much constant BEAST-liness.  A Simple Gift of intricate proportions...  BUUUT they might have caused a brouhaha, and they didn’t add much to the speech, so my new plan doesn’t involve inside jokes.
(Sip from Tully’s cup)
Except that one.  Thanks for the gift card, by the way!
...Building a legacy... that sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  As though our mark on the world could be crafted by hand in the same way that a carpenter puts up a house...  You see, the idea of leaving a legacy is deeply appealing to our nature as human beings.  But, how is legacy formed?  Do we actually make legacy from scratch?
That’s certainly what I was going to suggest in my first draft of this speech.  I would have been wrong. 
As some of you know, I traveled back to the states two weeks ago for my Grandma’s funeral.  I’d already started writing this speech at that point, so questions about legacy were drifting through my brain almost the whole time that I was home.  I think this caused me to see and interpret the events of those days through a different lens than I would have otherwise.  Relatives kept talking about my Grandma’s life of faith, service, and kindness, and how they saw those qualities living on in her children and grandchildren.  As I celebrated her life, listened to people talk about her, and talked with my own family, the truth became increasingly clear to me: legacy is not something that we build from scratch, but rather something that we live within--something that we are handed--it’s how we respond, how we handle that legacy that is up to us.
Tonight, I would like to suggest to you a truth and a challenge.  The truth is this:
We all live within a legacy.  Remember when I talked to you in Thailand, how I said that we’re all ambassadors?  Well, there are just some things in life that we cannot avoid, and this is another one of those things... we all live within a legacy... actually, a variety of legacies, left to us by our families, our teachers, our coaches, our pastors, our employers... we’re part of their story and at that point, it becomes our story, as well.  Most importantly, at CAJ, we live in a legacy of faith.  This is a legacy that stretches back much farther than the history of CAJ.  The author of Hebrews, perhaps Paul, writes to Jewish Christians about the grand story of faith in chapter 11: 
    “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.”  Then in verse 4, he actually starts to list examples in chronological order:
    “By faith, Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.  By faith, he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings.  And by faith, he still speaks, even though he is dead.”
After talking about Enoch, Noah and Abraham, the author really gets on a roll:
    “By faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
    By faith, Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each one of Joseph’s sons and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
    By faith, Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and gave instructions about his bones.”
He goes on to talk about Moses’ parents, Moses, the people of Israel, the prostitute Rahab, and then in verse 32:
“And what more shall I say?  I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets.”
The Hebrew recipients of this letter were part of that story and...Guess what?  WE’RE a part of this same story, millenia later!  By now, you all know the CAJ mission statement.  Finish the phrase for me, will you?  Equipping students to...impact the world for Christ.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have used the phrase “impact the world for Christ” in an essay or presentation at some point?  Let’s see a show of hands.  I know, from having spent 17 years of my life as a student at a Christian school just how easily phrases like this become cliché, how easily they become catchphrases that can snag bonus points if you use them in assignments.  BUT--I’d like to suggest to you tonight that this is so much more than a catchphrase, so much more than a familiar line in a school document.  This is the story of your teachers... this is the legacy in which we live: each of us firmly hope that we are writing our chapter of the story of impacting the world for Christ every day we come to school, in every class we teach and every conversation we have.  Now, we don’t always do such a great job, but either way, this is the story that we live in, and because you are our students, it’s your story too!  With every assignment, every test, every speech, every lab, every game, every concert and yes, even every OScAR you wrote, you have contributed your own lines to this grand story of faith.  Now, as you depart to new settings that will contain new people, new opportunities, new obstacles, and new stories, the question arises: what will you do with this story that you’ve grown up in?  What will you do with the legacy that you’ve been handed?
Which leads me to my challenge for you tonight:
Honor the legacy you’ve been handed by faithfully responding to your calling.
I’ve said this to you so many times before, and will say it again without hesitation: you are an incredibly talented class.  Maybe you didn’t have as many athletes as other classes.  Maybe you didn’t have as many musicians.  However, every single person within your class has a place, has something that they excel at. 
I’ll never forget when I assigned a student to do a presentation on Civil War weaponry last year in Humanities, and he made a detailed replica of a musket.  I asked him where he got such a good replica, and when he told me that he made it himself, I was speechless.
I’ll never forget the Bible presentation when a student played her saxophone.  As she played, a crowd gathered outside the room to stop and listen.  I talked to other teachers later who said they’d stopped instruction to simply listen and appreciate the beautiful music.
I’ll never forget the way a student carried several of his teammates’ backpacks on wilderness camp, and the way he scrambled down and back up steep hillsides to grab sleeping bags and backpacks that had fallen.  (To be fair, he did think that the backpack was one of his teammates falling down the mountain).
I’ll never forget another student’s dedication and love for babysitting--at just about any major school event, and so many other times, she could be counted on by the parents of young children to watch over and care for their kids.
I could keep going--I have an entire list, and if I had an hour to talk, I’d actually go through and mention each of you by name.  But, I know that you do not want to sit in those seats all night.  If you want to know what I said about you, just ask me.
The point is, each of you is blessed with things that you are good at, things that you are passionate about.  Certainly, your teachers know it, and if we’ve done our job of affirming these things and encouraging you, you know it too.  Recognizing these gifts is the first step in finding your calling, which is the key to continuing the legacy that you’ve been handed.
To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, "Where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet, we hear our calling."  I love this quote, and have ever since I first heard it in my Intro to Education class years back.  Allow me to break this quote down: on the one hand, we have our deep gladness--those things that come naturally to us, that we’re good at, that bring us joy.  On the other hand, we have the world’s deep hunger--those things that are broken, those things that are messed up in the world today and cause us grief, bewilderment, or perhaps rage.  There is a point where our gladness works to end that hunger.  Each of us has a place like that--a point where doing what we love and healing a broken world will be one and the same. 
Each of you spent the last year researching an issue in the world and attempting to raise awareness through your presentations and carry out solutions through your projects.  Maybe some of you were sick of your topic by the end, and your presentations on Tuesday will have been the last time you did anything with that issue.  Maybe for some of you, it was the first step on what will become your career. 
In any case, you’ve started to look at the world as agents of healing.  You’re keenly aware of what the world’s deep hunger looks like--what’s wrong, what needs fixing.  I watched as you wrestled with this deep hunger and began to address it during your Junior year.  Of course, the obvious example would be how you got together to bake and sell cookies, brownies, cupcakes and other wonderful things to raise money and awareness for Invisible Children.  However, the most lasting impression in my mind comes from the way you sought to help, encourage and love one another in the days following the earthquake.  I remember just asking once in class how everyone was doing, and most everyone said that they were stressed out, tired, unmotivated... but the conversation didn’t end there... you told jokes, you enfolded each other, you told each other ‘let’s ganbarou.’  In my estimation, you’ve got a very good start on writing a part in this big story of faith.
Finding your calling is now just a matter of putting these elements--your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger--together.  For the many of you who I know are mathematically inclined, think of them as lines on a graph--where do your gifts and the world’s needs intersect?  There might be a variety of possibilities, so don’t feel like you need to solve for just one specific point.
This will be your task over the next few years, and it may involve some trial and error.  Certainly it will involve the application of so many things you learned while you were here. 
You’ve grown up in a beautiful and long-standing legacy of faith.  As you depart, this legacy is handed to you, to live out as you wish.  An old preacher once said, “Everything you do today, or I do, affects not only what is going to happen but what has already happened, years and centuries ago. Maybe you can’t change what has passed, but you can change all the meaning of what has passed. You can even take all the meaning away.”
You see, legacy is a vulnerable thing.  If you continue to live out the story of your teachers, coaches, principals and others in this community, the story becomes that much richer, not only for each of you, but for those of us who taught you.  However, if you abandon the story, forgetting and rejecting what you learned from your teachers and others, it tears a vital chapter from our story, and leaves loose ends that may never be tied. 
I call upon you to carry your part in the story forward by listening for your calling, and faithfully responding to it as you work to impact the world.  How will you handle the legacy you’ve been handed?  Will you shed it for something more fashionable?  Will you use it for appearances?  Or, will you strive to make it your own story and carry it forward so that you can pass it on to others?
After I’d written much of this talk, I went back and looked at the grad speech I’d given as a Senior in 2004, at my own graduation, and found that I’d touched on the idea of legacy then, too.  I’d like to share with you the same verse that I used then--this is the key to faithfully responding to calling, the cornerstone of carrying forward a legacy of faith, from Colossians 3:17:
“And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
It’s a simple, yet profound call, and for all of us who’ve taught you, coached you and worked with you all these years, it is the call that defines our life and our story.  I pray that you carry this with you as you leave to go turn your world upside-down.
Thank you.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The End of an Era

A lot has changed since I attended my first CAJ graduation three years ago.  One constant has always been the freshmen class from my first year; even as so many other faces and things about the school (and about myself) have changed, that class has been there.  They've risen steadily in the ranks, they've grown and learned, some have gone from looking up at me to looking down at me, but they've been there the whole time.  I guess if I were to try and pin down a definition of normal over the past three years, or try and come up with a list of common characteristics from year to year, that class would play a big role: while others left, I stayed, and they stayed.

Tomorrow night, the class of 2012 will graduate.  The student population at CAJ high school next year will be 100% different than it was when I started in 2009.  In fact, the students in high school next year will be (mostly) the same crowd as the ones who were in middle school when I started, just with the 8th graders as Seniors, 7th graders as Juniors, etc.  This is a strange thought--sure, I've been eased up to this moment year by year, but at this moment right now, standing on the brink of a new normal, it feels somehow more significant, as though this moment is one of the last lingering connections to my early 20s and my beginning of this adventure in Japan. 

The next school-year is only a few months away, and perhaps not much will seem to change between now and then, but graduation tomorrow night will inaugurate a new phase in my time here, at least in my mind.  I know I've written a lot about the class of 2012, particularly over the past week, but given my relationship to that class (and given that I am speaking to them tomorrow night), I hope I can be forgiven being preoccupied.  Tonight seems very quiet and peaceful.  I wish the Seniors, almost graduates a restful night's sleep, and hope that I can put my mind to rest tonight as well.  Tomorrow night marks a new beginning for them, and for myself as well.
The Class of 2012 and myself at graduation, 2011
(Man... that year felt like it was the fastest yet!)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

To Focus or Encompass?

In starting the process of writing my grad speech a couple weeks ago, I reread all of the Class of 2012's discussion posts from last year.  Doing this helped me to develop some clarity in what I'd speak to them about, but it also helped me to see just a little bit of why last year was so special.

The answer seemed simple as I read:  Aside from one section of Senior Bible (which didn't even meet every day), the rest of my schedule, time and attention were devoted to the class of 2012.  I taught them in Bible, Humanities, and English.  Everyone in the class had me for at least one class a day.  Humanities students had me for two class periods.  Humanities students, when they were in my section for Bible, had me for three class periods.  It actually worked out really well for those students as they would come in for 1st period Bible, and could stay in my room till almost noon. 

I was reminded of this as I read through the Moodle posts and I realized that I put so much time and energy into reading through and simply responding to the Moodle Posts.  I wrote nearly 200 Moodle posts last year, offering my opinions on threads that the students had started, giving advice, attempting to share wisdom with them, telling stories from my life.  Each week, I'd tally their Moodle posts.  Each day, I'd go through and input the scores of small vocab quizzes they'd taken in class.  The point is, I put a lot more time and energy into the Juniors because they were my only full class.  That group was looking for a teacher to invest deeply in them as a class, and circumstances allowed me to make that investment.  They returned this investment with a high level of appreciation for me, and a high level of buy-in for the material that I was teaching.

I suppose the debate could go around and around, but I do wonder whether it's better for a teacher to teach more students for less classes (to encompass, as I'm doing this year), or less students for more classes (to focus, as I did last year).  On the one hand, I've gotten the opportunity to develop so many new relationships this year, and I feel much more connected to the high school as a whole.  On the other hand, none of the relationships I've built with my classes/students in my classes this year have been quite as deep as last year.   Does this affect the learning that happens in the classroom?  Even that is unclear--the freshmen class bought into my philosophy of teaching and my subject matter big-time, and I always felt like they received less of my attention than they deserved (not that I'd ever ignore them... just that the Juniors automatically got more of my attention by having me for larger and more writing-intensive classes).  Yet, the Juniors were much more hesitant to buy-in than their predecessors were and certainly much more hesitant than the freshmen.  It's easy to attribute that to my having less time to devote to them specifically, but there might be a whole slew of other factors that I'm not even considering.  In any case, I do wonder about that basic question: Is it better to focus (teach a smaller group for more time) or encompass (teach a larger group for less time)?  I don't have an easy answer.  I might be closer to guessing after I see how next year goes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In Defense of Hymns

One thing that I've learned since I came to Japan is not only a tolerance, but a deep appreciation for fellow believers who come from a different denominational background than I do.  Perhaps this comes from the feeling of being united for the common larger purpose of missions, as a distinct minority in a country that is largely non-Christian.  In such a situation, classifications like "Pentecostal", "Baptist", "Lutheran", "Calvinist", and so many others, tend to become trivial.

Through weekly chapels, I've even learned to appreciate more contemporary praise songs.  However, I do wonder why we never sing any hymns.  I know that many who strongly prefer contemporary praise and worship songs over hymns tend to view hymns as stuffy, pretentious and not all that conducive to a passionate spirit of worship.  Certainly, there are hymns that are like this, but there's also a spirit of earnestness and passion in other hymns that, in my opinion, goes unrivaled by most contemporary music.

Critics of praise and worship may complain that it's too commercial, that contemporary Christian artists are essentially re-shuffling the same words, and repeating them over a simplistic tune more for the sake of producing another song than for legitimately worshiping.  The truth is, many hymns were written under strikingly similar circumstances.  For several centuries, "hymn-writer" was a legitimate profession, and though the diction was more complicated back then, there were some hymn-writers who would just re-shuffle words for the sake of having written a new song.

Yet, there are also deeply moving stories: instances in which people's lives changed in dramatic ways, bringing them to their knees before the Lord.  Their words in these times, written as poems, have become some of the most beloved hymns of all time, and when considered in the context of the writer's circumstances, hold a raw passion and real-ness that few songs today can capture.

Take "Abide With Me", for example.  Henry F. Lyte was a hymn-writer.  Though he is credited with writing over 80 hymns (actually a rather modest amount when compared to more prolific hymn-writers--Charles Wesley published over 6000 hymns), you have likely only heard of his most famous, "Abide With Me."  What sets this hymn apart is the situation in which it was written, and it is this situation that equip the words with an emotional punch: Lyte wrote this hymn as he was dying, tuberculosis having ravaged his lungs.  Some accounts place the specific date of writing a mere few weeks before his death while others maintain that it was written months before he died.  I don't think it matters--I think the key is the fact that Lyte was unhealthy, and that he knew he was nearing the end of his life.  With this in mind, read through these words:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Yes, the English is antiquated; yes, the text is long (most hymnals shorten the text to just four verses).  Still, this hymn is not just another stuffy installment in a dusty library of pretentious and dull works... it comes across as genuine; as a confession of weakness, as an acknowledgment of God's goodness and as a plea for His presence.

Or, consider the story behind "It is Well".  Horation Spafford, like Lyte, was a hymnist by trade.  The first major tragedy of his life struck when he lost his only son at the age of four, and unfortunately, this was only the beginning.  Several years after this loss, Spafford planned a trip to Europe with his wife and four daughters.  He sent them ahead on a ship across the Atlantic, with the intent to join them a while later.  In a horrifying accident, the ship his wife and daughters were on collided with a clipper and sunk.  His wife survived, but his daughters--all four of them--perished.  Spafford embarked to join his grieving wife, and wrote the words to this hymn as his ship passed the point of the collision:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Because of writers like Lyte and Spafford, we have fitting words of worship for times of unspeakable tragedy, uncertainty or fear.  Though there may be comfort in the simplicity of many modern praise songs, they cannot replace the sheer experience and feeling of pieces like these two.  I often advocate for middle-ground, and here, too, I believe that worship ought to contain a variety of forms, incorporating both the old and the new.  Currently, worship at CAJ seems to hold rigidly to one extreme and I sincerely hope that as time goes on, the worship teams will make more of an effort to include a wide range of music.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Love, Mercy and the Gospel in Japan

Due to the chaos and traveling of the past few weeks, it had been a couple Sundays since I'd made it to Grace City in Ginza, and evidently while I was gone, Pastor Makoto started a new series on characteristics of the Holy Spirit.  Today's sermon, drawn from Micah 6:8 and Acts 4:32-37, discussed the quality of mercy as it is revealed through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Makoto explained that the Holy Spirit pushes us to unite what we say and what we do, and heals us in the process.  Because of this unity between our knowledge of what is right, and our will, we are more inclined to live in service, charity and love.  Because of this unity, we will be more likely to live out hesed (the Hebrew word for the unique kind of compassion that God shows in keeping His promises, even when we fail on our end).  This is the truest kind of mercy.  One thing that Pastor Makoto said that struck me was that this kind of mercy is not the opposite of justice; rather these elements go hand-in-hand.  Furthermore, he suggested, it is this love and mercy that will be so vital to renewing Tokyo and all of Japan.

The congregation of Grace City Church is primarily Japanese professionals--as I listened to Pastor Makoto, I could not help but be excited at the possibilities because I agree with him 100%.  Though my mission in Japan is pretty well removed from ministering directly to the Japanese people, I have watched the state of missions here as carefully as I possibly could for the 3 and a half years that I've been here.  I've noticed several trends, somewhat concerning:

First, it seems that the population of missionaries here tends to be aging--the generation that started CAJ has passed on for the most part, and now their children, the original MKs of the 50s-60s, are beginning to retire.  As a result, the number of younger missionaries from the U.S. and Canada seems to be small, especially in comparison to what it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.  Much larger are the numbers of younger missionaries from Australia and Korea; this is a positive, obviously, but given the U.S.'s close relationship with Japan, I would love to see renewed energy and passion in the form of a new generation of American missionaries coming over.

Second, there seem to be a lot of missed opportunities.  I want to be as circumspect and careful as I can be in how I say this, so that what I say doesn't come across as accusatory or critical of people I know, and for any who read this, please realize that this is simply the impression I've gotten based on 3 years of observation: I may be wrong, may be misreading things.  This said, it seems to me that there is a tendency to become so zoned in on the business of planting a church, or maintaining house-churches and Bible studies that some missionaries may miss the opportunity to witness on a more informal, day-to-day basis.  I'm not talking evangelizing on street corners, but simply making conversation with people at the store, or in restaurants... acknowledging the Japanese people, seeking out opportunities to show kindness and love no matter what the circumstance.  My frequent attendance at Reno's Bistro, a setting where there is typically a combination of Japanese and foreign customers, has shown me both extremes.  Sometimes, I see and overhear wonderful moments--connections being made to new groups of Japanese people through shared love of a meal, of music, of sports.  These conversations (at least to the extent that I can gather) are not always heavily spiritual in tone; in fact, rarely so.  Typically, it's just the act of acknowledging and engaging in conversation.  I've also witnessed some pretty calculated ignoring on the part of the missionaries; avoiding eye contact with the Japanese customers, no engagement in conversation... sometimes, even more deliberate acts of exclusion (or else, very, very ignorant and unobservant). 

Here's the thing, though: if you're a missionary here, it's a full-time job and you can't just say "Well, I needed a break from my job to spend time with my family, so I'm going to go out of my way to be cold to the people I'm supposed to be loving and ministering to."  That's not a luxury that a missionary has; not in public locations, anyway.  The best moments that I've witnessed, personally, have been ones that started with basic elements of love and mercy, as Pastor Makoto said.  Again, and I cannot stress this enough, the behaviors I mentioned near the end of the preceding paragraph do not describe all missionaries or even most.  I've simply observed it enough to feel confident in calling it a trend.

If the church is to grow here, that spirit of love and mercy needs to be pervasive.  The longer I live here, the more I grow to love this country and become invested in the missionary movement.  I'm striving to learn Japanese (slowly but surely) so that increasingly, I can engage in even just basic conversations with the people I meet on a day-to-day basis. 

We've been shown love and mercy through Christ; His life, His death, His resurrection.  We read about this in the Bible, and most of us have heard about it all our lives.  We're familiar with what this love looks like, how this mercy and compassion feel, and the Holy Spirit nurtures the growth of those qualities within us.  For the majority of the people here in Japan, this kind of selfless love and mercy is as foreign as the gaijin who walk the streets of Higashi Kurume.  Ours is not to primarily tell about love and mercy... ours is to actively live out and show that love and mercy.

To my readers living in America and Canada: if you've ever considered missions, Japan needs your passion, energy and love.  Pray for Japan, and pray about the call to missions: it could be that God is calling you here, now.

Friday, June 1, 2012


I just spent a Friday evening at Reno's playing "Bejeweled"...
I crave friendship... I'd do anything to have a group of friends who share both my sense of humor, and my faith as well; that is, people who I can laugh and have a good time with, but also pray and worship with.  I've thought a lot about friendship lately and realized that I bond with others through laughter.  For some reason, I can connect deeply with people who appreciate and share my humor.  I need to be able to laugh with someone, to find the same things funny, and to possess the ability to make them laugh in order to forge a deeper friendship.  I'm not sure why that is--it's not like my friendships that have started from that place are based on humor or are superficial; on the contrary, those friendships always seem strong, solid and healthy, capable of interacting outside of the context of jokes and comedy just as naturally as within it.  I want this again.
I hate being lonely.  I hate not really having a clear idea of what to do about it.