Saturday, November 16, 2013

One of my last posts as an unmarried man

"This train will stop at every station from Hibarigaoka."  That's what I heard.  Or at least, that's what I understood--the announcement was in Japanese: 「ひばりヶ丘から各駅に止まります。」  I cannot even begin to guess how many times I had heard the Japanese phrase without comprehending, waiting for the inevitable English translation, but tonight for the first time, I was thinking in Japanese and paying attention at just the right moment and I understood the phrase as it was being spoken--not even a moment's lag for my brain to translate or catch up.  I couldn't suppress my smile.

It has been a long time since I have posted anything, and even longer since I've posted regularly.  This is a statement of fact, yet not an apology--my life has gone and is going through a major metamorphosis this year.

Two years ago, on November 22, 2011, I wrote this post.  One year ago, on November 18, 2012, I went to a "singles party" after church.  The host had intended to introduce me to a young lady who was a friend of the family (and I mean "introduce" in the only way that it can possibly be interpreted in the context of an after-church singles party).  However, God had other plans and I ended up sitting on the other side of the room in the middle of a conversation that I could not follow, as it was all in Japanese.  Of course, instead of my lack of understanding making me invisible, it apparently made me a target for questions.  I tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to keep up.  The young woman sitting next to me must have recognized my confusion, and she began to translate for me.

I'd seen her at church before, and at a home party a month earlier.  I'd thought she was pretty and that she seemed nice, but I'd never properly met her or spoken to her.  She seemed a bit shy, and I could be a bit shy, too.  And, I had simply assumed she did not speak English.  But all of a sudden, here she was, swooping to my rescue and tossing me a lifeline.  I was grateful and very much relieved.  After I'd answered the questions that had been posed to me (through my rescuer's translation, of course), we met officially for the first time: her name was Tomomi.

As I said, that meeting happened on November 18, 2012.

In exactly six weeks, Tomomi and I will marry each other, and start our lives together.

The past year has been the story of our meeting, our friendship, and our courtship.  We began to spend time together in group settings in January.  We went on our first date to see Les Miserables at the beginning of February.  And, on March 16 (8 months ago), after going out almost every week since we saw Les Mis, we officially became a couple.  Less than two months later, we were engaged.

We both feel sometimes as though we're living someone else's lives, that this is all so unreal.  Perhaps this is because it has happened so naturally--there was no thunderbolt from heaven when we met.  Neither of us parted ways that evening thinking that the other was "the one".  We simply found ourselves in situations where we could spend time together and get to know each other.  It was in no way dramatic, and it was so unlike all of the adolescent crushes that had dotted my teen years and early 20s.  Those were intense and emotional, and I suffered from an inability to act naturally around whoever it was I happened to have a crush on at that moment.  I'd try too hard to be funny or cool, and would come across as nervous, awkward or so over-eager as to be off-putting.  My friendship with Tomomi was (and is) steady and comfortable despite all odds saying it shouldn't have been: language gaps, cultural differences, a 4 year, 11 month age difference, and the fact that neither of us really does small talk would seem daunting on paper.  Yet, we found ourselves at ease with each other from the start.  I can be myself when I'm with her, honest, vulnerable and real.  Perhaps because of this, I'm inspired to become the best version of myself that I can be, seeking to abandon my selfishness, striving to serve, and praying over our relationship constantly.  It's a journey that has made me much more keenly aware of my shortcomings, but I am blessed to be with someone who accepts me anyway, and who reminds me frequently of God's mercy, forgiveness and love.  It's a journey that has made me a better person.  Of course, the real journey, the journey of matrimony, has yet to begin and I can do no better than to rely on the grace of Him who has brought us this far.

This may be the last time I write before my wedding day, and I wanted merely to express what is on my mind and heart at this unique time between chapters in my life, and to express my joy and gratitude for the goodness of God and His plans.

When I wrote that letter to my future wife (linked above) two years ago, I was forcing myself to trust God's plans despite my own impatience and frustration.  We cannot predict God's timing, but we can trust in God's goodness and His faithfulness.  He has allowed me to experience frustration, anger, annoyance, heartbreak, pain and impatience over the course of my lifetime, but He has never abandoned me nor failed me.  I pray that I can recognize this, trust in this and rejoice in this every day as a husband; that we can take joy in this every day as a couple.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Summer learning', better teachin'

On Wednesday morning, I was jolted awake.  Not by the soothing, melodic tones of my alarm (the Sleep Cycle app on my iPhone), but rather by the realization that work was starting up again 35 minutes later with several days of staff meetings.  You see, this summer was an odd one for me... I was busy, having started my Master's classes online and fitting in three weeks of Japanese tutoring on top of that.  Perhaps more strange was the fact that I never really settled into summer mode.  After school finished in June, I had three busy weeks in Japan before I went back to America for three busy weeks with family before returning to Japan for three busy weeks (well technically two sick weeks and one busy week).  It was the summer of threes, and the pacing was less than leisurely.  It was a good summer, though!  The opportunity to learn, deepening both my understanding of my calling as a teacher and my ability to speak, read and listen to Japanese was valuable.  The time with my family (particularly introducing them to my fiancee) was precious.  Now, I am looking forward to the first day of classes, perhaps less rested than usual, but no less excited.

There are several reasons why I am, perhaps, more excited than usual for this coming year:

1. I was able to be a student again this summer.  I returned to concepts and texts that I'd read in college, when teaching was 100% theoretical in my mind and found new things as I read from the vantage point four years of experience.  I delved into new and exciting books that opened my eyes to so many possibilities for what a classroom can and should be.  I also learned a lot as I watched how my professors structured the class and gave feedback.  It's fun to watch how education professors teach--and I am sure that it must be more than a little stressful for the professors, who must be aware that their pedagogy itself is being scrutinized!  Fortunately, I was blessed with very good professors who provided me with many wonderful ideas simply by the way they set up the classes.

2. My schedule.  Check this out:

1st period: Prep
2nd-3rd period: Humanities A
4th-5th period: Humanities B
6th period: Matsu (yearbook)
7th period: Prep

It's never been a secret that 11th grade Humanities is my favorite subject to teach--I love the variety of learning opportunities that emerge when U.S. History and American Literature are combined into a blended block class!  However, this year I have the opportunity to teach two sections of Humanities, which is a blessing!  The past two years, I taught 9th grade World History in addition to Humanities and English 11 (just the American Lit--those students had another teacher for U.S. History) making for 3 preps and working with close to 100 students every day.  I learned that even thinking about (let alone teaching) 100 different students requires a lot of mental energy.

By contrast, this year, I have 2 preps, and between the two sections of Humanities, only 46 students.  I retooled my Humanities curriculum over July and August as an assignment for one of my summer classes, and I will be taking an online course this fall on assessment strategies.  In other words, I've developed the course to a higher level of quality than it was at last year, and I will continue to develop it as the semester goes on in tandem with my own online learning.  Humanities is my focus this year as a teacher, and my main responsibility.  The lion's share of my prep energy and grading energy can go into this single class.  I could not ask for a better assignment and I am excited!

I started working on my syllabus this afternoon at 4:30 and before I knew it, it was 7:30.  I'd become so engrossed in my work that I lost track of time.  I am really just ready for the students to come back so I can start teaching.  That's a good place to be the week before school starts, I think :)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Trains of Tokyo

Earlier this year, I read this article:

In case you didn't read the link or the URL title itself, the article presents a list of the 51 busiest train stations in the entire world, and yep--you guessed it!  Most of those train stations are in Japan.  In fact, you have to scroll about halfway down the list to find a train station that isn't in Japan.

It was articles such as this one (and the resultant, perhaps somewhat exaggerated word-of-mouth) that helped to form one of my most basic images of Japan long ago, years before a life in Japan was even a glimmer on the horizon for me: packed trains.  Putting aside everything Nintendo, busy trains were the first thing that came to mind when I imagined Japan.  I'd heard about trains packed so tight that stations needed an employee just to push people in so that the doors could close.  I'd heard about the rampant problem of groping on crowded trains.  I'd heard about the razor-sharp promptness and precision of the Japanese train schedule.  My main mental image of Japan was a salaryman in a suit, sleeping standing up while gripping the hand-rail (but not in any real danger of falling over due to the cluster of people crammed in around him).

Even as an abstract or fanciful concept (that is, something I would never experience myself), the Tokyo train system intimidated me.

Then, I moved to Japan... and that changed nothing.  For four years, the trains in Tokyo still intimidated me.  I preferred to bike, or walk, or catch a ride to wherever I needed to go, and would just as soon avoid taking the train, thank you very much!  The problem is, the further I needed to travel, the less I could get by with my diet of biking, walking or ride-catching.

At about this time last year, it occurred to me that my students knew the train system of Tokyo better than I did.  Now, one year later, I would say the opposite is true: I genuinely believe that I have a better handle on the Tokyo trains than 95% of my students (the remaining 5% are train-buffs who memorize that kind of information more for fun than out of practical need).

The reason for this shift?  It may have something to do with the estimated 160 hours I have spent riding the train so far this year alone.  I go to Otemachi for church each Sunday; I go to Meguro twice a month (once for worship team rehearsal, once for Gospel choir rehearsal); I go to Yurakucho each Thursday for community group; I go out to meals or coffee with my fiancee in Tokyo, Yurakucho, Daimon-Hammumatsucho, Ginza or a variety of other places on a regular basis.

I pass through Ikebukuro Station (#3 on this list, though apparently it has since overtaken Shibuya for the #2 spot) several times each week.  Numbers 8, 18 and 20 are all part of my regular routine.  The words "regular" and "routine" just about sum it up: this has become normal to me.  The crowds and busy trains no longer phase me in the least.  The map of the Tokyo Metro system (which makes the human nervous system look simple and straightforward) makes sense to me now.  I am beginning to gain an awareness of how everything is connected.

I'll close with a list of basic things I have learned while riding the trains over this past year:

1. Not all lines are equal.  The Oedo Line is roughly 50 meters above hell and my guess is that Satan himself had a hand in setting the fares.

2. If you get on the Marunouchi Line in Ikebukuro and are willing to wait no more than 5 minutes, there's absolutely no good reason why you can't find a seat.

3. The Yamanote Line has the most pleasant platform boarding melodies... but trying to get from Ikebukuro to Tamachi is a lose-lose situation.

4. The Seibu-Ikebukuro Line is weird; it's privately owned, and to downtown Tokyo folk, it's viewed as a rural line, kind of an isolated spur.  Yet, from Higashi Kurume, I can travel to Shibuya, Yurakucho, or even Motomachi-Chukagai in Yokohama (to name a few) without having to transfer!

5. Long train rides are the perfect time to work: I've graded many a paper (and this summer, written many a paper and read many a chapter) while sitting on trains to and from downtown.

6. If there are no seats available, or better yet, no grading/homework to do, long train rides are the perfect time to practice Japanese.  I've clocked many hours of JLPT vocab practice on my iPhone while on the train.

7. Another form of Japanese practice/entertainment is to translate station names into English!  Some of my favorites:
Ochanomizu eki = Tea-water Station
Otemachi eki = Big Hand City Station
Meguro eki = Black Eye Station
Mejiro eki = White Eye Station
Tsukishima eki = Moon Island Station
Ikebukuro eki = Glove Pond Station

8. I (and undoubtedly millions of others) will never tire of saying or hearing the name "Takadanobaba"

9. If I catch the Kotesashi-bound train on the Yurakucho Line from Tsukishima (Moon Island) where my fiancee lives, it takes EXACTLY one hour to get back to Higashi Kurume.

10. Suddenly, one hour of traveling doesn't seem like that much, anymore...  :)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Nate Gibson and The Never-ending Quest for Balance

One thing that always struck me about the Harry Potter series is how much the tone changes from the first book to the last.  The series gets darker, for sure, but the things Harry says, does and thinks; the adventures he finds himself in; the interactions he has with others; all of these change as the series goes on to fit Harry's age, and also his internal changes as a character.  I remember abruptly recognizing this shift when I read the irrepressibly moody, angst-y and dreary "Order of the Phoenix" for the first time--it was like I was reading a completely different series than the one I'd started with "Sorcerer's Stone".

I'd say my time in Japan has gone through similar tonal shifts.  Not from light to dark, necessarily, but the elements that make up my life, my interactions, what my time, energy and thought go toward--certainly these have all changed drastically since I first arrived as a wide-eyed 22 year-old in 2009.

My first two years were centered almost exclusively around CAJ and the Higashi Kurume area.  I worked 5 days a week at CAJ, I coached cross country or attended sports games on Saturdays and attended the church on campus on Sunday mornings (followed by supervising the JAM Middle School youth group on Sunday afternoons).  I spent easily 85% of my waking time either on CAJ's campus, or with colleagues/students from CAJ.  I ate, drank, breathed, slept and ultimately lived CAJ.  I love the school, and I love my job, but during these years, I had virtually no life outside the walls of Christian Academy.  I would occasionally hang out with colleagues who were around the same age, and do dinner or karaoke, but I found that I had little to talk about aside from my classes and students--there simply was not a whole lot more to my life at that point.

The earthquake (certainly a dark, dramatic chapter) woke me up to the need for some semblance of balance.  My reaction to the earthquake, which I now realize was unusual, was to resolve to stay in Japan (I had been planning on leaving).  Suddenly, with an indefinite stay in Japan ahead of me, I realized that I needed to adjust my lifestyle and seek out balance.  I realized I needed to stop going to church on campus and find a church that was completely (or at least mostly) separate from the school.  (By the way, I certainly am not suggesting that attending this church as a CAJ teacher is a lack of balance--my life just happened to be unbalanced, and finding a new church happened to be the first step in finding some balance--it would not be the right choice for everyone).  Not long after this, CAJ's headmaster issued a staff survey to gather data on church involvement; with me planning to "retire" from JAM and seek a new church, I realized I needed a place where I'd feel at home and could get involved.

I first attended Grace City Church in Ginza in August of 2011; the worship, the preaching and the atmosphere felt immediately familiar--similar in so many ways to my beloved home-church in the States.  Still, I worried that 50 minutes of traveling one-way was too far and so I attended only periodically, and tried to remain aloof (after all, friendships with folks downtown would inevitably take up even more time!).  Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of a very kind and caring family (who, incidentally, were my one link to CAJ at Grace City), I began to make connections and build relationships despite myself.  I realized that God quite clearly intended this to be my new home-church, and that I needed to get involved.  I joined the worship team, an affiliated gospel choir, and a weekly community group.  More significantly, I met my future wife at an after-church party last fall.

Now, a typical week sees me traveling downtown at least 3 times a week, and sometimes 4 times.  I am preparing to become a community group leader, and from September, will participate on the worship team two Sundays a month.  I've also participated in vision meetings for a church plant that will be starting services this fall.  And of course, there's the adventure of wedding planning that is now beginning, and the recognition that my fiancee and I do need to take additional time for each other that isn't about church-hunting, logistics, invitations, or anything else to do with the wedding.

My life has entered a new chapter and it feels like a completely different story from the one I was living almost 5 years ago.  Yet again, the pesky issue of balance remains.  I absolutely need to allow myself the time and mental energy to do my job the best that I can; after all, I view teaching at CAJ as my calling!  That said, unlike several years ago, I must balance this with the very real need for church involvement, friendship (one very special relationship in particular), and time with God.

This coming school-year will be something completely new, different from any I've had yet.  I ask for prayers for wisdom, for energy and for balance.  I'm excited; happier than I've ever been in my entire life, actually.  At the same time, I have an unprecedented amount of stuff going on simultaneously in several different sides of my life, and caring for all sides will be no small task.  Becoming a whole and healthy person is challenging, but I figure God's grace and strength are sufficient to build me into that person!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

5 Years Ago

In August 2008, I packed my bags and made the long drive to Iowa one final time.  I was 22 years old, and about to begin my student-teaching practicum.  To say that I was nervous would be an understatement.  This excerpt from a post I wrote at that time reveals some of my anxiety:

The wind blew gently, cool and refreshing.  I put down my sandwich and took a minute to appreciate my surroundings, my eyes following Skyline Divide to the horizon and then carefully studying the mountaintops ahead.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  On Wednesday, I would pack up my Ford Taurus and leave for Iowa.  It would be hard to leave behind this beauty again.  

In that instant, the fears and uncertainties of graduation day returned in full force.  Was I really supposed to go back?  What if I got in front of the classroom and realized that I wasn't supposed to be a teacher?  How would I survive the semester?  Just what was I supposed to do with my life?

As long as I could remember, I had believed that God had a plan for me, but somehow, in that moment I found trusting harder than ever. 

The others finished eating and we began to walk away from the hilltop, and into the woods; away from summer and into the unknown.

I worried that I'd find I wasn't meant to be a teacher, and that all of my education classes would have been a waste.  However, more than that, I worried about what lay beyond student teaching.  Even if my experience in the classroom went well, what would I do after that?  The name of a Facebook photo album I created that month was "The tip of the question mark".  Everything seemed so uncertain.
Teaching 11th Grade U.S. History in Sept. 2008

What I realize now is that the future is never completely certain.  Putting down roots and having financial security does make a difference, but ultimately, the future is unpredictable.  My 22-year-old self came to grips with his own doubts and difficulty in trusting God at such an uncertain time.  My 27-year-old self recognizes God's hand very clearly guiding me and caring for me over the course of those 5 intervening years.  I would do well not to forget this when I face trials and uncertainties in the future.  

My 22-year-old self had no idea that he would enjoy his student teaching experience (well, half of it, anyway).  My 22-year-old self had no idea that he would move to Japan less than 5 months later.  My 22-year-old self had no idea that in 5 years, he'd be starting his 5th full year of teaching at the same school, that he'd be engaged to a wonderful, Godly woman, or that he'd dedicate much of his free time to learning Japanese.  

The future is uncertain, but God is good; God is faithful.  What's more, God knows our future and His plans are better than ours.  I do not know what the next 5 years will bring, but I am resolved to place my trust and faith in God, who has never abandoned me, and never failed me!

I haven't had a beard like that since then...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Summer 2008, revisited

The summer of '08 was my summer of '64: my last "full" summer at home, nearly four months of time spent with friends and family, working a miserable summer job and enjoying the last vestiges of childhood while trying not to think about the uncertainty of the looming, post-college future.  I wrote extensively about that summer here.

Now, five years later, I look back.  There's a little nostalgia involved, to be sure, but the overwhelming feeling is that of the runner beyond the finish line, looking back at the course he's just run.  I know my race is still in progress, but I don't think I'd ever willingly return to the part of the course I was at in 2008.

I do, however, want to add another section to my epic Summer 2008 write-up.  With five years' distance, one aspect in particular has taken on a more significant meaning to me.  Here is my long-overdue chapter on working the night-shift at Haggen:


After being silence-treatment-ed out of my job at Youngstock's, I went back to the drawing board: asking for job applications from various work-places, filling out said applications, bringing them back to aforementioned work-places, and...

After about a week of keeping my cell-phone on my person at all times, the call came: Haggen was inviting me in for an interview.  Now, I want to make it clear up front that I love Haggen.  It is the nicest grocery store chain in the Pacific Northwest, and in my humble opinion, the entire U.S.  They are dedicated to their customers, dedicated to quality, and were kind enough to employ me for two summers while I was in college.  I am forever indebted to them, to that extent.

But the job I was interviewing for (by my own volition, mind you) was the night-shift.  The hours, 11 (or thereabouts) till 7.  The job, throwing, and blocking/facing shelves.

Now, for those of who have never had the privilege of working in a grocery store, a quick lesson on the jargon:

"Throwing shelves" is aisle-speak for taking the palettes full of boxes (of cereal, of spaghetti sauce, of toilet paper, you name it) that have been dropped off in the loading bay by the store's suppliers, carting the palettes into the aisles, opening the boxes and putting the contents onto the shelves in their proper spots.

"Blocking/Facing" refers to the process of making sure the products look good on the shelves.  There's a protocol to this--for the "Blocking" portion: All items, be they jars of baby-food, cans of tomato soup, boxes of kleenex, or what have you, must be stacked as high as they can be in the shelf-space provided, but they must also be stacked at least two deep (hence, "blocking").  This means, if a product is running low, to consolidate into fewer and perhaps shorter stacks, to keep them two-deep.  "Facing" gets its name from the process of adjusting cans and bottles so that the front of the label is facing out.  With pet food, I should note, it is possible to stack the cans with the front of the label facing out and still have done it the wrong way.  The trick with cans of pet food... you may want to get something to write with and write on, by the way, because this is GOLD... is to adjust the cans at precisely the right angle so that it looks like the cat or dog in the picture on the label is smiling at you as you approach the cans.  I am not sure why, but the angle matters and it WORKS!  Well, it makes the cat look like she's smiling, anyway... I'm not positive it actually moves more pet-food than if we'd stacked the cans backwards, but... you get the idea.

That's the end of the quick lesson on grocery store-specific terminology.  Now, back to my story: that was the job I was applying for.  I thought the night-shift sounded as though it could be fun--after all, in the mind of a college student, what could be more fun than staying up all night?

Well, I got the job, probably due to the following reasons: a) I was willingly and enthusiastically applying for it, and... no, that's it.  I'm sure.

At the beginning of June, I'd bought Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay's latest album.  It seemed to me to be the perfect soundtrack to my life at the time on both a large and small scale.  I listened to the album every night as I drove to work, and would nearly finish the album on the drive home in the morning.  There was something about climbing into my car in the dark of night, and turning out of the driveway onto an otherwise-empty country road while listening to the eerie "Cemeteries of London" that was perfect, in a moody and angst-y way.

Since the roads were always clear at this time of night, the only variables in getting to work were the 4 stoplights I would encounter along the way.  Because of this consistency, I would be singing along with the exact same song every night as I parked my car at the store.  That song was "Lovers in Japan".  The upbeat tempo and melody (not to mention, the call to "soldier on") helped to mentally prepare me for a night of throwing and facing shelves.  More than that, though, the song held a certain exotic appeal, calling out to a small part of me that was quietly longing for adventure.  My good friends, the Vander Haaks, lived in Tokyo and I loved listening to their stories about life in Japan.

"Tonight, maybe we're gonna run,
dreaming of the Osaka sun;
dreaming of when the morning comes."

At this point, I'd turn off the ignition and get out of my car... dreaming of the coming of the morning, for sure, but also dreaming of the allure of a faraway place, an adventure not-yet embarked upon... dreaming of the Osaka sun.

My co-workers were a colorful bunch.  I was the youngest among them by 10 years, easily, and was the only one for whom this would be a temporary summer-time gig.  I also found out that I had replaced another young guy named "Philip" (I've changed the names for the sake of privacy), who was, apparently, "a tool".  I heard many stories about Philip as the summer progressed, and each story was worse than the one before.  My personal belief is that Philip was probably not as bad as they said, but that the more they complained about Philip, the more everything he'd done bothered them in hindsight, and the more they exaggerated about him.

The leader of the pack was a man called "Spaniard".  It occurs to me now that I never learned his real name, so I couldn't spoil his privacy even if I wanted to.  He introduced himself as "Spaniard", The other guys all called him "Spaniard", so that's what I called him, too.  I do not think he was Spanish, so I can only assume that years before, there must have been some inside joke that lead to the nick-name, and that the passage of time, coupled with the warped reality of the night-shift, had made that nick-name into an un-ironic title.  By the time we met, it had, for all intents and purposes, become his name.

Spaniard loved softball.  I'm not sure if the league was broader than local grocery stores, but it's more fun for me to remember it that way.  Anyway, Spaniard had recruited most of his co-workers onto the Haggen team, and they played several times each week.  Apparently, one time, he'd invited Philip, too.

"Philip said he had, like, an amazing arm, so I said yeah, man, definitely... come play sometime.  When he got onto the field, his arm was DECENT.  Decent, not amazing."

"Typical.  That little punk", snorted Doug, the oldest of my co-workers.  Doug was pushing 50, had an unkempt mustache and the state of his Haggen polo gave me the impression that he'd never learned to work a washing machine.  Doug had two conversational modes: Complaining (about his ex-wife, his second ex-wife, his current wife, and his current step-daughter), and talking about his favorite websites (none of which I would feel comfortable listing here, or anywhere).

Jason was the youngest of my co-workers.  He was in his early 30s.  He was often late to work, and so in the 10-20 minutes between the beginning of our shift and the time he'd clock in, his co-workers (who also seemed to be his pre-eminent social circle), would cram an entire night's worth of bad-mouthing and back-stabbing in.  It made me shudder to think what they said about me while I was not present.  Then again, I rarely spoke aside from asking questions about the job--mostly I nodded, smiled, listened, and kept a low profile, so I'm fairly sure I didn't provide them with much ammo.  I learned that Jason was in a perpetual state of drunkenness--not only from what my co-workers said, but also from the 3 or 4 times that Jason steered the palette cart into the wine display, knocking over a tower of reds and adding a half-hour of clean-up to our shift each time.

One night, 2 hours had passed and Jason had still not arrived.  His friends called his cell phone and called his house, but to no avail.  So, during our lunch break (which we could take at any point between 1 and 3 in the morning), Spaniard drove to Jason's house and found him passed out under a pile of cans.  At least, that's how Spaniard described it when he came back to the store with a very pale, staggering Jason.

Softball, drinking, work, sleep; softball, drinking, work, sleep; this was the life that I heard about each night.  It was the reality I had a window into as I listened to my co-workers talk about the previous evening's big game during our break-time.  It was not a summer job for these guys--it was their bread and butter; their way of making ends meet.

I still wonder about those guys sometimes.

However, more colorful than my colleagues were the shoppers who would come into the store in the wee hours of the morning.  Some cases were sad, like the parents who brought their adult downs-syndrome son to the store at midnight and were constantly snapping at him for getting excited about what he saw on the shelf.

Some cases were bizarre, like the young couple who were pushing a wide-awake toddler in a stroller through the baby food aisle at 2 am.

Then, of course, there were the countless shoppers who wore dark sweatshirts with their hoods up, as though by having that cover, they might miraculously become invisible to the world around them.  The eyes that would stare unseeing from under those hoods still give me chills as I remember them.

Most strange, perhaps was the time a couple who were about my age approached me at 4 in the morning, asking what aisle our shot glasses were on.

"Shot glasses are seasonal, only sold just before New Year's", I explained.

My reply was followed by several beats of uncomfortable silence as the couple looked at each other, at me, and at the shelf where we were standing.  Then their eyes locked onto the Dixie Cups.

"F*** it, we'll take these", the girl said, grabbing two 20-packs of our largest Dixie Cups.

However, the customers were few and far-between, and what I remember most about my job were the long hours of solitary blocking and facing.  Throwing the shelves was a team endeavor, and it would take maybe two hours.  The rest of the shift was spent organizing the products on the shelves alone.  Under the principle of divide-and-conquer, each of us had a part of the store we were responsible for blocking and facing.  For me, it was baby foods, pet foods, household cleaners, soaps and detergents.  As I worked my way from shelf to shelf, aisle to aisle, I tried desperately not to think about how quickly the fruit of my hours of tedious labor would be crushed by the onslaught of morning shoppers who simply grabbed stuff off the shelves and tossed it into their carts without noticing the impeccable blocking and facing.  I might as well have tried to stop the tide from coming in.

The solitude and tedium gave me ample opportunity to reflect on my life--where I'd come from and where I was going.

Where was I going?  Of course, I didn't know where I'd go after I finished my student teaching in December, and the not knowing terrified me.  I did know one thing: I did not want this to be my life.  I did not want to live in the cycle of working all night and sleeping all day, squinting up at the sun like a newborn foal every time I would make the trek from the entrance of the store to my car at the end of my shift.  I knew I wanted something more.

"Dreaming of the Osaka sun;
dreaming of when the morning comes."

Each morning, usually by 6:00 (our shifts were dependent on finishing our duties for the night and not actually staying for a rigid 8 hours), I would walk across the parking lot to my car.  The sky was often pink with the dawn by this time, and the air carried that unmistakeable feeling of dew and dampness that a summer morning brings.  I'd turn on my car, and re-start the track I'd been listening to before.  As I'd drive away from Haggen, I'd sing "Lovers in Japan" from the start one more time.  I knew I'd pull into my own driveway just as the song "Viva La Vida" ended.  I knew I'd sleep till 3 in the afternoon.  I knew I'd repeat the process again the next night.  I knew it wouldn't last forever.  I didn't know what would come next, and I couldn't have imagined that I was on the brink of my greatest adventure yet.  I couldn't have dreamed that in half a year, I'd be nearer the Osaka sun than ever before.

All of this came to me in full force tonight, listening to Viva La Vida for the first time in a long time, as I walked along the river in Higashi Kurume, Tokyo.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Farewell, Class of 2013

Though I started at CAJ during the 2008-2009 school-year, I was more a fly on the wall than anything else for those first few months: working with some students one-on-one, but mostly just observing the community around me.

It wasn't until August of 2009 that I set foot into my very own classroom, which, if we're being completely honest, is absolutely nothing like student teaching (about 10 times more terrifying).

That first year, I taught Bible to every high-schooler, but Bible classes at CAJ meet every other day, and each section of students rotates between two Bible teachers, so I found developing rapport and relationship with those students to be challenging.

However, I also taught one section of 9th graders--16 students--for both World History and Freshmen English.  Education classes and common wisdom tell us that the first year of teaching is brutally difficult, but honestly, it's an experience every teacher must go through; a crucible in which a new teacher learns more about themselves, and more about how to teach than they learned in several years of theory classes.  (Note: this is not to say the theory classes are worthless.  On the contrary, they are quite helpful, but that helpfulness is not truly activated until after spending time in the classroom and developing through trial and lots of error some kind of reference point for all the theories and pedagogy picked up in college classes).

Over the course of an entire school-year, I got to know these 16 students very well, spending almost two hours with them each day, 5 days a week.

Today, I get along well with many of these students.  At the time, however, things were not quite so comfortable.  As a first-year teacher, I was quick to be defensive and offended, easy to anger, quick to respond impatiently.  Here is a blog-post that I wrote on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010, describing a typical day in Freshmen Humanities:

12:15-12:18--Tardy bell for 5th period rings. No students tardy! I set up the computer and projector that I checked out from the library for today's presentations.

12:18-12:25--I introduce the presentations for the day with a brief overview of French, British and Dutch colonization.

12:18-12:35--Technological difficulties. The computer is working fine, but the projector is only displaying the background of the desktop; nothing else. Since it seems to be a problem with the projector and not the computer, I end up packing up the projector, taking it back to the library, and checking out a different one.

12:35-12:40--Same exact problem. 

12:40: Eureka! I discover that the projector is actually showing an adjacent computer screen, and I can actually drag the Keynote presentation from the computer screen to the projector screen.

12:41--Turns out the projector screen only shows the presenter notes when we hit "play show".

12:44--I discover that the "mirror screen" option is off in system preferences, and turn that back on, which enables the presentation to play on both the computer screen AND the projector screen. Huzzah!

12:46-12:51--Student presentation on the Jamestown colony. Very good!

12:51-12:55--I follow up on the presentation and re-emphasize the main challenges that the Jamestown settlement faced. 

12:55-12:59--I introduce the next presentation on piracy by talking about the settling of the Caribbean and competing interests between the French, English and Dutch.

1:00-1:04--First half of student presentation on The REAL Pirates of the Caribbean.

1:04--Lunch bell rings. 

1:04-1:10--I pack up computer, projector and speakers, and move them one room over (we change rooms between 5th and 6th). I then unpack and re-set up the works.

1:49--tardy bell rings for 6th period. A string of 8 students file in right after the bell (unfortunately my Internet is down, so I can't mark them tardy).

1:50-1:53--Projector computer is being finnicky. Takes a few minutes for student to get back into his account and open the presentation he'd started before lunch.

1:53-1:57--Student finishes presentation on piracy. Great job!

1:57-2:01--Questions from classmates about piracy.

2:01-2:08--I introduce the next presentation on the 7 years' war

2:09-2:20--Student repeatedly tries to log onto his account. After about 10 tries, it starts to load. SLOWLY. Eventually it brings him to his desktop, but gives him the spinning beach-ball for 5 minutes. In the meantime, I (a bit on edge and frustrated) criticize the noise levels during presentations and threaten to give tardies to anyone who talks while their classmate is presenting, and for those who already have tardies, an unexcused absence. An overreaction? Definitely, but I'm in a foul mood by this point. This leads to a heated "argument" between myself and the class over whether those 8 students were actually tardy. Everyone is on edge and unhappy. This sucks. The beach-ball is still spinning. I think the only thing we'd agree on right now is how much we hate technology.

2:20--I realize that my laptop is still unable to get onto the Internet, and that the technological difficulties must be related to the network. Stupid school network.

2:21--I shift gears quickly, pushing the scheduled presentations back a day and asking the final Romeo and Juliet group to perform their scene (they were supposed to go on Tuesday, but were missing group members). 

2:25--Since it is a warm, sunny day, we all move outside in front of the auditorium.

2:28-2:37--The group gives a very good performance. The rest of the class watches intently and cheers during Tybalt and Romeo's epic sword fight.

2:38--The bell rings and everyone departs for their 7th period class, significantly happier.

Every day is an adventure with the freshmen. Not always easy. Not always fun. Sometimes it's really frustrating both for me and for them. But we're learning together. The good times more than make up for the bad. I'll miss this group next year, despite all the struggles we've had. I hope they'll miss me too!

Today, I watched several of these students, now Seniors, present their Senior Comprehensives--the culmination of a year-long intensive research project, examining a world issue of their choice, analyzing causes and effects, and formulating a Biblically-based solution.  It was remarkable to see how far they have come; how much they have grown as students; as people; as citizens of the world, ready to embark from this place.  I am proud of them.  I can't help but wonder--over those same four years, how have I grown... as a teacher; as a person; as a citizen of the world?

I wish this class all the best.  Ours has been a complicated and sometimes tense relationship, but we helped each other learn and helped each other become who we are today.  I am incredibly grateful, and will miss the class of '13 tremendously.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

To be a pilgrim

In his allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan embodies the sins, cares and worries of the world in a single object: a burden; a giant weight fastened to the back of those encumbered, and whose straps can only be broken at "the place of deliverance" (symbolically standing in for the Cross and the Tomb).

The oversized illustrated edition of The Pilgrim's Progress that I read as a child depicted the burdens as looking like large hiking backpacks--only, the packs were lumpy, even pointy, and it seemed as though each bump or point on the surface must've surely dug into the shoulders and back of the bearer with every step.

Having on three occasions ventured out into the woods and hills west of Tokyo for a several-day hiking trip, the image of the giant pack means more to me now than it did when I was young.

Easy trails become sweaty work with a heavy pack on.  Difficult trails become nearly impossible--a test that often runs to the last fiber of perseverance and will.  Achey shoulders, a sore back and spots worn raw from the straps continue to cry out even during breaks.

The reality of sin; our worries; our fears; all of these things, we carry on our shoulders.  The burden might be invisible to the casual observer, but this doesn't make it any less real, or any lighter.  I'm keenly aware of this tonight: I have experienced a lot of significant changes in my life over the past six months.  Some of these changes have been the cause for much rejoicing.  They have also been the cause for much more worry, fear and anxiety than I had ever previously known.

Tonight, as I lie in bed and try to take deep breaths and calm my anxious spirit after a long day of busy grading, and no shortage of worry about other things, it feels as though I have a large burden resting on my shoulders, digging in and causing me to feel achey, queazy and breathless.

Perhaps due to preoccupation with the weight, I forget too easily that to be free from my burden, I do not need to so much as step out of my front door as Christian did in Bunyan's story.  I turn instead to Matthew 11 and listen to Jesus' invitation:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

"The place of deliverance" is at the feet of the King and it is a destination we are called to in prayer.  Now, I know that I'll feel better after I lay my burden--all these cares and worries, all my sins and missteps, all my anxieties and insecurities before Jesus.  I also know that I'll probably forget to do so tomorrow and take up my burden once again.  How easily we forget; how distractible and short-attentioned we creatures are.  May God transform my heart to be in a constant state of searching; to be in a constant state of bringing my burdens to Him and walking away filled with His grace and the Peace which passes all understanding.


Saturday, April 27, 2013


When I was first presented with the opportunity to live and work in Japan almost 4 and a half years ago, one of my chief concerns was that I would not be able to adjust to city life.

The countryside was my natural habitat, and to my eyes, Bellingham, Washington, with its population of 80,000 was the big city.  I couldn't even fathom living in Tokyo, whose total metropolitan population is roughly 446 times the size of Bellingham.

Yet four years have proven me wrong.  Sure, I am still a country-boy at heart, but I have also grown to appreciate city-life.  At the very least, it has not been painful, stressful or difficult as I once imagined it to be.  I often tell people that I do not miss the countryside while I'm in the city--it's only when I leave and see wide open spaces and the color green that I remember how much I love the countryside.  Basically, I am finding that I can be content wherever I'm at.

This being said, I must say that living in the city has multiplied my appreciation of spaces with trees, fields, lakes and streams.  As it turns out, Tokyo is full of such locations!

My girlfriend is an aficionado of Tokyo parks and gardens, and she has introduced me to such wonderful places as Shinjuku Gyouen, Rikugien, Kyu-Furukawa Teien, and Korakuen.

Visiting these sites, I have realized that Tokyo has done a splendid job of maintaining its parks.  In the midst of this vast city, there are many spacious, lush and peaceful parks, each an oasis...

An oasis from the sound of cars.

An oasis from large crowds.

An oasis from the color grey and a return to greens and other colors of life.

An oasis in which to enjoy a moment of tranquility; to collect one's thoughts; to reflect on the beauty of God's creation.

It's been many years since I first learned that word--oasis--and only now do I truly understand it.  While I love the city, it is so incredibly refreshing to be able to step into a world whose perimeter is guarded by trees; whose ponds and lakes are the home to so many koi and ducks; whose benches are shaded by branches that rustle gently in the wind and stifle the city-noises; whose flowers and blossoms generate not only extra fresh air, but a pleasant aroma.  In such a place, I find myself recharged and revitalized for the task I'm called to in the city.  In such a place, I can rest and think.

Yet a physical oasis is little more than an analogy.  The true oasis is a spiritual circumstance: resting in God.  When I visit these parks, I am reminded of where true revitalization comes from.  I am reminded of where my hope truly lies.  God is our oasis in a busy world.  May we seek out shelter in His shade and enjoy the peace and quiet of His protecting arms!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Deepening the Calling

It has been quite a while since I last wrote something.  Over the past few months, each time I thought about sitting down and writing, I decided I was too busy, but I would write "soon".  To be fair, this feels like "soon" from February, January and even further back than that!

The past few months have been quite eventful.  On Easter, I officially became a member of Grace City Church Tokyo.  Summer and Christmas vacation aside, I've been attending regularly for one year now (though I'd visited the church several times in the months before that).  This has been a tremendous answer to prayer--since I came to Japan in 2009, I had been praying and longing for a church community where I could feel at home... tough competition, since I truly believe I was spoiled to have grown up in as high-caliber a church community as Wiser Lake Chapel.  Yet, God answers prayers, and God affirms callings.  By leading me to Grace City, God has called me to faithfulness and obedience in my job at CAJ all over again.  I love my job and I love CAJ, but no job is so wonderful that it can replace or make up for the fellowship and community that church brings.  In other words, if I had not found a church community where I felt I belonged, and where I felt enriched and energized in my faith and walk with God, I might have bid CAJ and Japan sayonara.

Yet, just as God called me to Japan through what seemed to be unbelievable coincidences, He also led me to Grace City through similar means.  When I think back to how I found the church, God's hand is clear to me: What are the odds that the first hit on a google search for churches in Tokyo would yield a video about a church-plant by one of my favorite pastors and writers, Dr. Tim Keller?  What are the chances that the worship songs on that first Sunday I attended were all standard, familiar Wiser Lake Chapel songs (songs I'd only ever heard before at the Chapel)?  What was the likelihood that one of the pastors had attended Covenant Seminary with someone who I'd actually known at the Chapel?

So, as Jeremiah 29 suggests, I am settling down.  I'd always thought of my time in Japan as being temporary to one degree or another, but now I am putting my suitcases into storage.  With a church-home, I can BE at home regardless of where I'm at.  True to my late-blooming TCK tendencies, my definition of home, I'm increasingly discovering, is a community of faith and fellow believers.  I've joined the worship team, am participating in an affiliated monthly Gospel choir, am attending a weekly community group.  I have even recently started dating a wonderful, Godly woman, a friend who I met through church and got to know better through Gospel choir.

It has been just over four years since I decided to stay in Japan beyond the six months I'd originally planned.  I applied for a full-time job at CAJ because I liked it there, and wanted to spend a little bit more time at the school.  I didn't ever consider that I'd still be in Japan four years later, and that I'd be making myself at home.

Tonight, amidst a number of things I could worry about ranging from global conflict to the grading that I'm scrambling to catch up on, I feel peaceful and blessed above all else.  God called me to Japan and I can still hear His voice assuring me that I am right where I need to be.  May my heart never cease to be grateful, may my lips never cease to praise His grace and providence, and may my feet never cease to follow His call.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lenten Meditation--Sakura

This past Monday, as I was walking through the plaza at Christian Academy in Japan on my way to work, I spied a single white blossom in a nearby branch.  This sighting pulled me from my walking-but-not-quite-waking 8:00 am stupor, filling me with joy and excitement.

Most of the trees in CAJ's plaza are Somei Yoshino Cherry Trees, one variety of a larger family known in Japan simply as Sakura.

Forget groundhogs; forget robins--the pink and white Sakura blossoms herald the beginning of Spring in Japan.  When the trees are in full bloom, each tree, each limb resembles a vibrant cloudburst.  Each limb is filled with life and beauty.  The weather warms and people begin to venture outside for long walks and picnics under the blossoms.

This is why I was so energized and excited when I saw that blossom that morning: it was a promise; a preview; just a taste of the new season to come.  Almost every other branch of every tree in the plaza was still bare, as though dead.  The weather that day was just a little too chilly to feel Spring-like and wind-storm that night made it seem as though the weather was not improving but getting worse.  Yet, that blossom signaled something inexorable; something true and reliable: Spring would arrive in full and nothing could stop it!

We live in a rather extended version of this cool March Monday morning: the world is broken and so many things around us seem bare, bereft of truth, beauty and life.  Sometimes, it seems as though the world is simply getting worse.  Yet if we look carefully, we can spy the blossoms around us; those special moments of reconciliation, healing and restoration that hint at something yet to come.  

This combination of celebration and patient expectation is embodied in these days and weeks leading up to Easter.  Through His death and resurrection, Christ dealt a mortal blow to sin and death and the outcome of this ancient battle is now certain.  Christ will return to end the battle once and for all so that we can enjoy the fullness of victory in a newly restored Earth, and we wait for that day with earnest and deep longing.  It is perhaps all too easy to become impatient and to lose hope in the waiting, but it is essential to look for the first-fruits; those signs and signals that sin will pass away.  In time, the bare branches of this world will burst to life, beautiful, full and new.  In time, Spring will come.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mar. 11, 2011

This is a repost of a Facebook note that I wrote on Mar. 12, 2011, the day after the Sendai Earthquake:

When things are going well in my life, I have a tendency to attribute the peace and success to my own abilities; I think of it as something that I've somehow merited, something that I deserve.  I occasionally give lip-service to God, but fail to acknowledge him in my heart. 

The strange thing is, I don't only do this with my career and my talents; I even do it with things like the weather, or other features of my environment.  If it's sunny, well--it must be sunny because I really wanted it to be that way.  This was certainly how I felt about the lack of major earthquakes during my time in Japan.  It looks completely irrational when it is written down, but at least a part of me genuinely believed that there hadn't been a devastating earthquake because I really didn't want there to be one.  This was reinforced every time I would feel a small earthquake.  I'd enjoy the break in my routine for a few seconds and then think "okay earth, you can stop shaking now.  That's enough."  And, the earthquake would always subside, reinforcing my twisted logic.  I don't think I ever would have admitted to thinking in this way, but this faulty reasoning was exposed to me in a big way yesterday afternoon.

It was just after 2:40 P.M.  My 6th period Junior American Lit. class had dismissed minutes before and the peaceful stillness of my 7th period prep-time had begun.  I was all alone in my room, sitting at my desk, when I noticed the blinds on the window swaying.  Since we'd had a small earthquake only a few days earlier, I recognized this symptom immediately and went through my familiar process of thinking "Ah, yes, the earthquake!  One of Japan's little quirks.  I shall enjoy this novelty for approximately 10 seconds and then it will stop."

But it didn't stop.  In fact, it got worse.  And when the room started to shake and sway, it occurred to me that this quake might be out of my hands; that I could not will this earthquake to stop any more than I could will the sun to rise in the evening or set in the morning.  As I sat huddled beneath my desk, the quake seemed to get progressively worse--more violent.  It lasted for several minutes.  Every second that I was under the desk, I couldn't help but feel the terror of the realization that this event really was beyond my control.  Japan was having a big earthquake, and who knew what the damage would be, and I could do nothing to make it stop.  I felt instantly small and powerless.

God speaks to the small and powerless.  Those caught up with their own pursuit of power, those who believe they control all things, those who think they know best manage to tune out God's voice, but the small and powerless chase that voice, call after it, cling to it for all they are worth.  So that's precisely what I did.  I clung to God.  My weekend was long, exhausting, uncomfortable, and chock-full of responsibility that I frankly didn't want to take, decisions that I didn't want to make. I woke up terrified several times during the night because of tremors, and while I was asleep, had nightmares about trying to drive away from crashing waves and exploding nuclear reactors.  Even tonight as I write this, my stomach is a nervous bundle of knots.  Yet aside from the physical discomfort and surface-level feelings of fear, I feel a peace that runs much deeper. 

God is in control.  I was in Japan during one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history and I emerged with only minor, stress-related physical discomfort.  So many lost their homes, their lives, their livelihood... it easily could have been me, as a small missionary retreat near Sendai is one of my favorite vacation spots and I've spent hours walking along beaches that are now ravaged and flooded.  God is in control.  He kept me safe.  He kept my friends and colleagues safe.  He kept my students safe. 

God is in control.  He is watching over Japan and calling out to a nation that doesn't know him.  This is a time when Japan, weakened by crisis and being offered support by so many other countries, feels small and powerless.  I pray that the people of this country can listen, hear the voice of God calling, chase the voice, call after it and then cling onto it for all they are worth.  May all who live here be able to proclaim that God is in control.

Please remember Japan in your prayers.

Monday, March 4, 2013


This is a repost of a piece that I wrote in May of 2010 about an event that happened in May of 2008:

It was a clear, sunny Spring day in Northwest Iowa. The last of the snow had melted the week before, and graduation was one week away. We Dordt students had finally entered into one of those rare windows where the weather was not only tolerable, but beautiful. 

Since I only had 11:00 Linguistics on Fridays, I was using my afternoon to visit my future cooperating teachers for my student teaching placements the coming fall. I had to find out just what I would be teaching, collect the necessary textbooks, and make sure I'd worked out just when I would be starting each placement. The 20-mile drive to Le Mars was enjoyable, and made me appreciate the midwest's flat landscape for a fleeting while: I could see fields of green and blue skies in every direction. I rolled down my window, opened my sunroof, and cruised down Hwy. 75 with my elbow resting gently on the door. 

The meeting was fine, and I found out I'd be teaching freshman World History for two different cooperating teachers. Leaving the school, I turned my visitor's badge in to the receptionist, who said: "You came down from Sioux Center, didn't you hun?"

When I nodded my affirmation, she said "You'd better get a move on; there's a storm coming." 
I smiled politely and thanked her for her advice, but silently questioned her sanity. A storm? There weren't any clouds in the sky, nor so much as a gentle breeze. These old Iowans sometimes started to lose their grip on reality a little early, I thought to myself. It was sad, really.

Just as I was concocting my own senile version of the receptionist in my head, I stepped outside to find that it was significantly darker than when I'd entered the school 40 minutes before. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon, but charcoal clouds had materialized out of the blue and were blocking the sun enough to create a distinct dusk-like feeling. And yet, the sun was still high enough in the sky that it it bathed the cloud cover in an eerie greenish tint. On top of all this, the wind was blowing. Not hard, but threateningly. Everything looked surreal in this light: the cars, the trees, the traffic signs near the school. It was as though someone had taken a photo and adjusted the color saturation just a little, decreasing the reds and yellows, but increasing the blues and greens... This was how the sky looked before tornados and that was enough to send a chill up my spine. 

I wasted no time in getting back onto the highway. The leisurely joy-ride over, I rolled up my windows and shut my sun-roof. Just in time, it turned out: several tiny raindrops speckled my windshield. I waited a few seconds, and as no more raindrops hit, I began to relax my grip on the steering wheel. Then, as though a dam had burst in heaven itself, endless sheets of water began to pound my windshield. I braked just in time not to rear-end the car in front of me, which had also slowed to a crawl. I turned the wipers on to full-speed, but that made absolutely no difference. My view out the front of my car was a shimmery and blurry guess at taillights, road signs, dividing lines and gray. Ominous, dark, unforgiving gray. It felt like I'd forgotten to wear glasses, or lost my contacts. I followed the taillights in front of me at 10mph as the rain beat mercilessly down on the car. I trailed the car ahead for ten minutes, although with my senses of sight and sound distorted, it felt like hours. I was leaning forward, nose over the dash and knuckles turning white on the wheel. And then, the car ahead of me, my only clue to where the road was, my lifeline, turned into a short driveway. They were home. I still had 10 miles to go. 

I continued to drive blindly. Occasionally, I would see oncoming headlights through the barrier of liquid on my windshield. These headlights were usually far enough to my left that I knew I was in the correct lane. Once, they were directly in front of me and I had to adjust quickly to return to my side of the road. I was inwardly grateful I'd had the common sense to drive 5mph, because a car going the speed limit would have hydroplaned into a ditch or worse, making a fast adjustment like that. 

At that point, I knew the only way I would be perfectly safe was to get off the road, to wait the storm out. I turned onto a gravel side road, pulled off to the shoulder and parked. I turned off my car, and sat still, listening to the rain. It was impossible to discern the sound of individual raindrops; instead it sounded like the rushing and roaring of a waterfall. It seemed to be hitting my car from all angles, too, driven by the wind which was now pushing with all its might. 

My car shook and rocked as the storm raged on. I marveled at how strong and persistent this storm was, and how it seemed to have started in a matter of minutes with no warning. I was comforted by the thought that this storm would pass: there had been blue, sunny skies before, and there would be blue, sunny skies again. Storms came and went. They could be frustrating, scary and even dangerous to weather, but they never lasted. 

Eventually I felt the rain lighten up a little bit. My car was still shaking, but it was shaking less, as though the strong gusts of wind were coming less frequently than they had been. Recognizing my window of opportunity, I started my car and returned to the highway. The rest of the drive back to campus was still harrowing, although I could now catch clear glimpses of the road each time the wipers pushed layer after layer of rainwater aside. Parking my car, I made a mad dash to my apartment. In the course of running maybe 20 meters to the lobby door, the rain soaked me from head to toe--not a single square inch of me was dry... "How very typically Dordt", I thought to myself.

I changed into dry, warm clothes and sat by my 3rd story apartment window with a cup of tea and hot plate of Mac and Cheese in front of me. I watched the storm pick up again, this time with thunder and lighting, and silently thanked God I'd made it back safely.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

To Keep Me Humble

As far back as I can remember, I have always loved words.  One of my favorite subjects from all of my years of school was a Middle School textbook series known as "Wordly Wise", in which vocabulary words were presented, complete with information on the word's etymology and roots.  Many of my peers hated "Wordly Wise", but I devoured each lesson.  I looked forward to each new set of words--more arrows for the quiver!  I was quick to try out my newly-gained vocabulary, both in writing and in conversation, and relished the compliments that I would receive.

This love for words and for writing grew throughout high school and college.  I learned that I could skillfully inform, persuade, or entertain, all depending on just how I phrased an idea.  I must admit that as time went on, it became ever the more difficult to be grateful to God for my gift.  I began to think of my word-smithery as something intrinsic to me, and me alone.  Why share the credit?

Perhaps this is part of the reason why God has called me to a setting where, outside of my job, my skill in the English language is meaningless.  When I say meaningless, I don't mean to belittle the gift; simply, I mean that I can go to City Hall and speak in my most eloquent English, and not only will it fail to impress the city employees, it will have little to no meaning to them.  My rhetorical abilities in English, which I'd taken for granted as a natural advantage for me for so long, suddenly seem less impressive... less worth becoming arrogant over.  Instead, I am brought back to the basics of learning elementary grammar and vocabulary in a language that poses a genuine challenge to me.  I must be content with making mistakes, with saying things the wrong way, with mixing up my vocab words, with sounding slow and inarticulate.

It is not through some internal, innate awesomeness that I make gradual progress in learning the Japanese language, but through God's grace.  Really, learning my native tongue was no different, though I was too young at the time to remember: I made many mistakes in the process of learning English, too, and it was by God's grace that I grew and gained fluency.  All of my skill with words belongs to God and not to me, and I must give it all back to Him.  Likewise, I can do no better than to lay my current language training at His feet.  Learning humility is not easy, but I suspect that it is necessary in order to grow and thrive.  May God's grace overwhelm my tongue and my mind as I struggle to learn Japanese and to accept my own lack of grace and elegance.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Longing for the stage

Yesterday and today, I had the opportunity to watch CAJ's Valentine's Day musical revue twice.  While not a traditional production, it was a delightful pastiche of Bernstein (or Bernstein-esque) songs which showcased the considerable vocal talent of the students (and instrumental talent of the jazz band, who accompanied in the pit).  Clocking in at just under an hour, it was a fun show to watch and listen to.

Watching the show made me realize just how much I miss the stage.  Participating in plays and musicals was a big part of my life during my high school years and though I had the opportunity to continue to pursue some of my other interests all the way through college (journalism and singing, for example), my official acting career ended when high school did.

Not that I actually had much of a career--I was quite self-conscious when I was in high school, and although I got more comfortable in my own skin as I got older, I never matured to the point where I felt at ease on the stage.  Among friends, I was a decent actor, constantly doing impressions, impersonations, accents and in general speaking in an exaggerated theatrical way to try and entertain.  However, on stage, I could never be fully in the moment or in character as part of my brain was always stuck in "Nate mode", worrying about how I looked, or worrying about what one certain girl or another might think of me.  Comedian Patton Oswalt once wisely said that true wit cannot have an agenda, and indeed with my concern about how others (and particularly, girls) might perceive me up on the stage, all my wit, charm and ease of performance evaporated, leaving a gangly youth with an at-best mechanical sense of stage blocking.
I can't believe it's been 10 years...

My biggest acting role came in Spring of my Junior year as a member of the barbershop quartet in "The Music Man".  For being four high school guys, we didn't do half bad, and in the process, we learned a ton about singing in a small ensemble.  Particularly, the experience taught me the value of using my ear as much as my voice while I sing, a skill that I continued to develop through my college years and am tremendously grateful for today.

However, that aside, I tended to be cast in bit parts or chorus roles.  I was awkward in auditions, and also awkward in the minor roles I was given.

It's 2013 now; 10 years since my role in "The Music Man" and 9 years since my last role as a Bow Street Runner in "Oliver!".  In that intervening decade, I've grown up.  I know who I am, and I'm now comfortable in my skin.  I've survived those first key years of being a classroom teacher in which self-consciousness is fried out of a person much in the way that grease is fried out of ground beef.  I've acted in nearly 30 student video projects in the time that I've been at CAJ.  I even teach a little bit of acting in my Junior classes, particularly as we go through Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and I've heard students remark several times that I must have been a great actor in high school.  Maybe it's for the best that I was a late-bloomer, and maybe this will help me to recognize potential in my own students who are, as I was, a bit awkward and self-conscious and help me to better encourage them.

At any rate, watching the show yesterday and today made me wish I could have another crack at acting.  Sadly, there's not much opportunity, aside from singing the occasional solo from Les Miserables to my students (I'm not kidding... I have actually done this).  The tragedy of being a late-bloomer, I suppose.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Time flies like an arrow, folds like a... something...

We all have analogies for time: the Western world tends to view time as a river, a winding road, a captivating story, a marching army... something linear, at any rate.  The eastern world might propose time as a ring, a band, a loop, something cyclical.  Frankly, I don't find either model all that satisfying.  Time seems to me to be too complicated to be reduced to something familiar or material.

Sometimes, the best we can do is to take a few analogies together.  Here's my humble contribution to the laundry list of metaphors and graphic organizers: I believe that time folds...  like a piece of paper... like a winter quilt as it is being packed into the closet... like an umbrella being set aside after a rainstorm.  Time may march or flow, rush or crawl, but occasionally we experience moments where time simply folds.

These are moments that align specific instants from past, present and a yet-unknown future like slides from a projectionist's reel, or like squares of a well-worn handkerchief.  In these moments, the "now" huddles between what has been and what will be in a strangely intimate way and in these moments, we are afforded a clear view of havens long departed and destinations not yet reached.  These moments, which link past, present and future, are known as traditions.

The CAJ community has a wide array of rich and much-loved traditions: Thrift Shop, the Senior trip to Thailand, the Middle school pasta-bridge and egg-drop competitions, plays, musicals, concerts and games, graduation.  The event that inspired me to think this through and to write this post was last Friday's Senior talent show.  Each year, typically at the end of January or in early February, the Senior class puts on an evening of music, dancing and other types of performance to raise money for their building project in Thailand.

Perhaps this event stands out so vividly to me because it was the first major CAJ tradition that I experienced when I arrived here in 2009.  I had only been here two weeks, I didn't know many of the students, and I had no idea if I'd still be in Japan the following year.  In fact, I assumed that I wouldn't be.  Nonetheless, as I walked down the stairs of the auditorium after the show, I turned to some Juniors walking next to me and told them to start thinking of ideas for their own talent show, as one year would have passed by before they knew it.  I repeated this advice to small groups of sophomores and freshmen as well, that two, three years would pass by with stunning swiftness, that in no time at all, their turn to perform would have come and gone.

Each year did just that; came and went.  The juniors had their turn, then those sophomores, then those freshmen.  Each class was unique, and the shows that they put on reflected the flavor of each class.  Yet, each evening was strikingly similar: many of the same teachers, students, parents and siblings filled the same auditorium on a chilly evening to watch Seniors perform to raise money for the same cause as the year before.  Each year, I would dutifully repeat my advice to juniors, sophomores and freshmen, to start planning because the time flies.

This year, I left the auditorium and as I began this routine, having spotted a group of my junior students, I realized that the class that had just performed were not among the original recipients of my advice.  They'd been in 8th grade that year, and though they'd heard my advice each following year, I'd decided they were too young, and their turn too far off for me to bother them with an encouragement to start planning ahead.  How wrong I was!  Their turn on the stage came fast, and was watched by not only teachers, family and future Seniors, but also alumni who had performed in years before.  I looked out at the small, huddled groups of CAJ students, the juniors, the sophomores and freshmen, even the middle schoolers and I realized that very instant was enfolded snugly between past and future.  When I'd talked to the underclassmen four years ago, I couldn't have imagined them as college students preparing for careers.  Soon, and perhaps too soon, these kids will be up on the CAJ stage performing.  Soon, and perhaps too soon, they will work their way through college and be set loose upon the "real world".  Will they be ready?  Will I have done all I could, as one of their teachers, to prepare them?

The moment caused my head to spin, and I gripped the hand-rail extra tight to support myself.  Then, the moment passed, and I walked up to the group of Juniors, asked them how they liked the show and told them to start planning ahead...