Wednesday, December 31

Thoughts on The Shack

So I finally read The Shack. I've had it for a while, but just never got around to reading it.

Many critics, writing teachers, and others of that ilk have written about the importance of the first line. I mention this because I was nearly as irritated with the first line of the Foreword of The Shack as I was with what's-his-name's purpose-driven stuff (I didn't get past the first chapter of the book that started a dynasty of sorts). The first line of the Foreword reads: "Who wouldn't be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?" Well, me. Maybe some of that old Navigator training really did rub off on me or maybe it's because I've been thinking about taking a spiritual retreat. My thinking was "Good for you! Good for you for making the time to spend an entire weekend being in the presence of God."

But I knew the line is meant to be a set-up for the rest of the story cleverly titled The Shack, which led me to think that the protagonist wouldn't be going to the shack with Thomas Merton-like intentions of a spiritual retreat.

So I read the book and, overall, I liked it. Parts of it dragged as Young (and perhaps his collaborators) worked very hard to hammer home a point. I came away from the book with some thoughts that were interesting to me, though they may be of no value to you.

1. The garden.
I loved the image of Sarayu and Mack working in the garden that was his soul. Given the portrait of his life, the number of weeds and roots and such were not surprising. It did give me pause to think about how messy and chaotic the garden of my soul might look.

2. Ten Commandments.
Some years ago Pastor Colin Smith at Arlington Heights Free Church, now named something else, spoke on the Ten Commandments. He said that the "Thou shalt not" of each commandment was not an injunction on behavior; it's not God shaking his finger at us and telling us what NOT to do. Instead, because of the work of Jesus Christ, "Thou shalt not" tells us that these are things will shall not do if we live freely and fully in Him.

3. I knew I was right about "ought" or I'm free to be one with God.
I was intrigued by the comments about independence and dependence. I've long experienced a great deal of resistance to the word "ought." I caution my students in their use of the word "ought" when they talk about what they believe "ought" to be the case for books, behavior, etc. It is a very judgmental word and quickly establishes there are only certain behaviors, words, etc. that are "appropriate," which means allowable. The language is not only judgmental, but restrictive. But I was also intrigued by the comments about expectations and responsibilities. The notion of expectations is also judgmental. One of the reasons so many of us are so miserable is because of expectations we think others have of us or because of expectations we foist on others, often without letting them know we have such expectations of them. Thus they are bound to disappoint us in some way.

I was in the office on Tue, 12/30. I talked to a few folks about their Christmas holiday and was rather surprised that nearly everyone expressed relief that Christmas was behind them, that they didn't have to spend any more time with family. Some weird, messed-up composite of expectations and responsibilities along with guilt and a few other ingredients, no doubt, is responsible for that. Their comments had nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with familial expectations and responsibilities, which are often inextricably linked.

At one point, Papa (God) reminds Mack there is no need for ritual. That's a man-made thing; we are comfortable with ritual for many reasons. But too often ritual becomes it's own means to an end and suddenly we have to complete a particular ritual for something to happen or so something won't happen.

4. Just say "no" to institutions and "yes" to relationships.
And that leads to the next point. We've created a lot of institutions; a lot of religious institutions that have become so focused on the being of the institution that the reason for the institution has been overlooked or forgotten. This isn't a recent phenomenon; I think this behavior has been going on since the Fall. We create institutions or organizations stained with restrictions the moment we form an exclusive club, the moment we try to exercise power over someone else.

We're not very good at pure relationships, though. Those ideas of "ought" along with expectations and responsibilities insist on creeping in. We find it hard to enjoy relationships for the moments we are able to share without cluttering them with institutional and prescriptive restrictions. Still if we practice just being "in the moment" as goofy as that might sound, we are likely to be a lot more content with our relationships. It was Jim Elliott who said, "Wherever you are, be all there." Focused on the moment, on the task, on the person. We're so much better living in the past or in the future than we are living in the present and yet, we all squander too many moments not being all there in any given moment.

5. I don't see what God sees.
Towards the end of The Shack, Sarayu enables Mack to see the world very differently. It is the authors' idea of what God sees: not just what is, but what can be and will be. So when I look at a person who irritates me for reasons I think are perfectly justifiable, I do not see any of what God sees or how God sees it. I cannot and will not because I am not God, but just thinking about seeing others the way God might see others could help change not only my vision, but my attitude, my perspective, and my own sense of "ought" and its companion "expectations."

As I read those passages in the book, I thought briefly about passages in Ezekiel and in Revelation, of the dimensions that God must be able to see, and wondered again about the selfishness of humanity that we have always been so cavalier about our treatment of the Earth, so presumptuous about our "rights" to whatever we might think we have the "right" to at any given time. No matter how clearly I will try to see anything, I will never on this Earth and in this life see what God sees.

6. God is very fond of me. . . and everyone else. Really.
I liked that this phrase, this concept, was repeated over and over again. We get confused about that word "love" and theologians have to explain again about the differences between eros, koinonia, and agape. But we can understand "fondness." Even if we can't articulate a meaning for the word, it likely brings to mind warmth of feeling, perhaps compassion, perhaps even whatever we might understand "love" to be from someone who has our best interests at heart.

In light of the current events in Gaza and the impact the Israeli airstrikes seem to be having to continue to radicalize and mobilize the Arab community, it seems odd but incredibly necessary to talk about the love of God. I know that a Jew and a Muslim would not see God as I might. I do not know enough about their traditions and their beliefs to make any kind of observation that could be of any value. But there was another observation in The Shack made about Christianity that I found interesting: Jesus does not want to make anyone a Christian. He wants to join them into their transformation into sons and daughters of God, into God's Beloved. More importantly, God is willing to pursue us to transform us.

So then I wondered what might happen if we took nothing else but that idea from The Shack. If we labeled ourselves "believers" if we had to be labeled. If we realized that it really is all about the relationship with God and the relationship as He defines it, not as we try to prescribe it with expectations and "ought". I'm not sure, but I bet it would be startling and beautiful.

I don't make resolutions at the beginning of a New Year. It's pointless because I make resolutions throughout the year and often the same one more than once which is why the whole thing is completely pointless. And even though I'm not throwing myself on The Shack bandwagon because then it becomes it's on idol, it's own ritual and that just gets ugly, it has given me much to think about. So, if nothing else, perhaps in 2009, at the very least, I can remember that God is very fond of me.

Monday, December 29

Reflection and Resolution

I started to write about reflection and resolution and found myself drifting off onto a variety of tangents. So I saved the draft, went downstairs to make another cup of tea and read the paper. The headlines today are about the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and the difficulties this creates for the Obama transition team and what Obama had hoped to do in the Middle East (pray more for leadership). In the first section of the paper there are articles about women and heart disease (be more mindful of my health, get my a$$ and the rest of me to the fitness center for real). There is also a report that eco-Leo DiCaprio traded in his Toyota Prius for a $147,000 Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric car (I got nuthin').

And then I read the comics. I have to say that the so-called funnies rarely make me laugh. I might grin or occasionally chuckle, but the out loud laugh is rare. Today I laughed out loud. I read Mutts, which is a strip I don't usually follow. But the second panel caught my eye: "You don't smoke!!" says the dog character. I had to back up and there in the first panel is the cat with its list of resolutions and #1 is "Shtop Shmoking" (the slurry thing is one of the reasons I don't care for this strip; it's irrational, I know, but there it is). We know the second panel so I skipped it to the third panel which reads: "I figured I'd shtart with some easy ones." Yep. That made me laugh. Out loud.

Then I read Frazz, which I do follow and which may be one of my all-time favorites strips. It's in the same vein, of course, of fulfilling a resolution that's easy simply because it can't be done or needn't be done anyway. Mrs. Olsen had vowed to give up lardo. In the third panel she says "I don't know what it is. I just know you can't get it here." And while I laughed out loud, her comment in the fourth panel made me stop to think for a moment: "Man, I could use some lardo!". And there it is. The reason for so many failed resolutions. The moment we try to give up something we have an irrational yearning for it. Cheap psychology, I know. Probably not correct, but you know what I mean.

A lot of people are reflecting this time of the year. In newspapers, online, and in magazines, people are recalling "the best of" a variety of things in 2008 and reflecting on the moments that past unacknowledged, the people who are no longer with us, the significant events that seemed to compel or impel some sort of change or difference. I know there is something hopeful about putting up a new calendar. Turning that first page of a brand new year. Though January 1, 2009 will look no different in many ways than December 31, 2008, it is the FACT that is is January 1 with a new number at the end of the year that makes such a difference. Clean slate and all that. Depending on how we spent December 31, we wake up to January 1 with hope and determination that this year things will be different; I will be different. And perhaps we have made our lists, starting with the easy ones. Small successes can make their own kind of difference.

Why do we make resolutions for a new year? There are many reasons and I think the source for resolutions is a sort of discontent with who and what we are, a sense that we can be better people. But I also think that we may believe that if we keep our resolutions, then somehow our lives will be happier and "better," though that seems to be an elusive concept as "better" may not be quantifiable. It is more or different from the life we have now. More comfortable? More stable? Somehow, just "better."

We each tend to focus on the personal because there are limits to what we think we can control. I should have sufficient discipline to control my own behavior and somehow the ball dropping in Times Square, the clean new page of a new calendar of a new year will help mitigate that improve my self-discipline. But then we all joke about how long we'll be able to keep our resolutions because we know that none of those symbols is sufficient to change of lifetime of bad behavior. And then we hear the life coaches telling us not to try to take on too much, not to try to overhaul our lives but to make small changes to have small successes to motivate us to further change and better discipline and better lives and more happiness because, after all, that's what we're chasing, right? Happiness?

I tend not to make resolutions for the new year because, if I'm honest with myself, I'm always making resolutions. I think that's probably true of most of us. We make resolutions about the things we want to change in ourselves or about ourselves and we set target dates for starting: "Okay, next Wednesday is a full moon so that's the day I'm going to start. . . ". That gives us a few days between now and then to binge on whatever behavior we want to change or whatever thing we plan to give up. It's the last hurrah. The opportunity to get it out of our systems. The problem is, of course, the target date comes and something doesn't quite work out so we set another target date. It becomes an endless cycle of getting ready to do something.

As I reflect on my own 2008, I know there are a lot of things I could have done and should have done differently. I hope I can learn from my mistakes though there are plenty I find myself making over and over again. But as I look back at 2008, I see there are many things that went well. So I will celebrate the good and try to learn from the bad, and then move on.

I always resolve to get more exercise (see paragraph 1) and lose weight. Those are not easy ones, though both are important. I have a list of things crashing about in my head of things I'd like to do and things I'd like to improve, all accomplishable and not requiring a lot of ramp-up time or target dates or that much effort on my part. Not really. An easy one? Hmmm. Pray more. I think the hardest one may to be to procrastinate less. I'm just not real sure when I'll be able to get around to that one.

Monday, December 22

Why should we be surprised?

There is news coverage this morning that the banks won't tell its lenders how it's using the bailout money. Of course, unlike banks, the Treasury Department and Congress, as representatives of the lenders--that would be us, the taxpayers--handed out money pretty much willy nilly. Now you know when you go to borrow money from a bank for any reason whatsoever you have to fill out and sign about a zillion forms, have everything notarized, document who you are and your every predilection and intention. And yet, we handed over billions to banks with virtually no oversight.

In the earlier AIG fiasco, people were told the money for the corporate blowout event at a resort was not using bailout money. Of course, under pressure, they canceled that event. Of course, then they went on a secret event.

Now we're being told the banks aren't tracking how they are spending our money, so we'll never know if they are spending our money wisely, if they are spending our money to help our economy, or if they've not learned a single thing and are simply doing what they really do best: make profits for themselves.

I am not outraged by the banks' behaviors. I am beyond outraged. I have to remember, though, that a lot of folks who are also in difficult straits work at some of those banks. I am, however, disgusted by our politicians--all of them--and further disgusted by the arrogance of those who have been entrusted with the economic well-being of our country. Quite honestly, because of the way the banks are behaving with the money I have loaned them and given that it was loaned them with the expectation that they would serve the country, I think their behavior borders on treason. They have most certainly betrayed our trust. And because we don't know what they are doing with the money--if and how they are investing it, if and how they are spending it, and if and why they are saving it--we have no way of knowing if they are still trying to make a quick, speculative buck in ways that are advantageous only to a privileged few and even more detrimental to the health and well-being of this country.

Hank Paulson now has much pull with the banks as I do. I certainly hope the Obama Secretary of the Treasury Geithner will come in kickin' ass and takin' names.

Wednesday, December 3

What I believe about all students

I read Vicki Davis' blog who wrote about Martha Thornburgh of Opening Doors to Digital Learning who was asked the question “Do you believe all students can meet standards?” Please read about her response on her blog. The “All Students Meme” came about as a result.

1. Share three things that you believe about all students.
2. Reflect on your thoughts in your blog. (If you do not have a blog, you can share your ideas in a comment from this post.)
3. Be sure to link to this post and to where you were first tagged.
4. Tag your response with AllStudentsMeme
5. Invite others to join the conversation by tagging them to be a part of the meme.

All Students Meme

When I think about students, I think about both college students--undergraduate and graduate--as well as K-12 students. I teach undergraduates, I develop content for graduate students who then work with K-12 students.

1. I believe that all students can achieve more than we imagine when we give them the opportunity, skills, and resources to reach as far as they are able and want. Even if we can't give them access to the latest and greatest resources, we can give the strategies and tools. We can instill confidence in their abilities to pursue their interests and coach them to find their way through those areas of education that might not excite or interest them as much.
2. I believe that all students are willing and able to work provide we give them reason or at least rationale, that we not irritate them with busywork, that we give them constructive criticism that enables them to improve and see the purpose of their learning experience.
3. I think all students tap into our passion as well as our discontent. They know we're bored by teaching something; they know when we are excited and interested in our subject and feel confident about our lessons. While I don't think we should try to mask our own disinterest by trying to create "fun" activities and while I don't think education should be entertainment, I do believe there is lots of room for kids and teachers to enjoy their learning and teaching and for kids to have legitimate fun while they are learning. But I also believe that students should be enabled and allowed to find their own joy in their learning experiences. If a student makes a discovery that moves them, energizes them, causes them more wonder, I should encourage that and help them find additional avenues for exploration and learning. Even if what has charged them moves me not at all. Because I believe it is not at all about me, but about the students and their learning.