Wednesday, March 21, 2012

the rock to which we cling

Regarding my relationship with kids, I'm not exactly the ogre-ish Mama Fratelli from The Goonies, but I'm no Mary Poppins, either. The odd thing is that while I favor well-mannered children (and who doesn't?), it seems to be the mischievous rowdy ones that somehow fall within my shadow of influence. For instance, when I worked in Japan, my employer offered classes to children as young as three. Once I had established my reputation as the branch's most requested teacher, I used that to my advantage and negotiated out of most children's lessons. However, one of our regular instructors had some conflicts for a few consecutive weeks, and his classes defaulted to me because – as I later found out – I was the only one on staff who might be able to control a group of three-year old boys led by a wiry little guy who could somehow scale the 6-foot body of his British teacher in less than a minute. I remember looking at them through the observation windows as I made my way to the door. There was only one way to establish my presence, so I entered the room where they were darting and screaming, and I immediately stiffened my posture, hardened my face in seriousness and gave a sharp and effective commander's “Hey!” The chaos was stilled and every single little pair of almond eyes looked up at me in shock. I scanned each face like a sea captain who had just confronted the band of mutineers. From that point on, they were mine. Restricting their feral activity gave them freedom to use their indefatigable imaginations. I taught them “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” with exaggerated gestures, and they requested to perform it each week, their favorite part being when we would emphasize the line “and WASH! the spider out...” with a dramatic extension of our hands in every direction. Their exhausted mothers watched with pride and subtleties of wonder that the wild things of home were suddenly standing at attention when the foreign teacher entered the room. After a few weeks, their regular teacher returned, and I happily passed his former students back to him. It was a refreshing change of scenery for me, but I knew then, as I know now, that children are not my target group.

Which brings me to Tuesday night at our fellowship. We have a bi-lingual study there from 5:30-7:00, and it's been warm enough this week to walk the 45 minutes from my dorm. I arrived early and took a seat in the back while the music team rehearsed and did mic checks. On a bench to my left was a mother and her little girl of about three, whose delicate frame could've passed her for a two-year old had she not been so sturdy on her feet. She wore a lime green coat and pink pants. Her hair was straight, black and cut short so that her bangs fell just into the rise of her eyebrows. Her skin was pale and translucent, and she wore a tan-colored patch over her right eye. The patch hid slightly behind glasses that made her other eye appear disproportionately large, and the moment I saw her walking so carelessly in front of my seat, I silently crowned her the cutest sweetest face I had seen all week. She turned and noticed me smiling at her but didn't register any emotion. Her indifference was welcome; being a foreign face in China doesn't often afford moments of homogeneity. She made her way back toward her mother, and I gave her a subtle wave as she passed by. Again, she noticed but didn't seem impressed, and it's not in my nature to try to win over small kids. She went her way, and I returned to navigating through the alto range of the songs being practiced.

A few moments later, she circled around (again) in an aimless walk that only children can pull off without raising suspicion. As she passed by me, I looked at her and smiled at all the cuteness that she embodied; the little white boots, the puffy green jacket encumbering so small a stature, the miniature features on a porcelain face. She stopped and evaluated me for a minute and then turned and walked right up to me and draped her body over my crossed legs. She rested her chin on my knee and looked up at me, neither with sparkling curiosity nor with eagerness to play. She didn't move, and neither did I. We just stared at one another for several seconds, and then she turned her face so that her cheek rested above my knee. She was tired and had decided I was a good rock on which to rest. My left hand instinctively covered the back of her head, and I ran my fingers through her shiny black hair. My heart felt a special affection for this child who asked nothing of me other than to simply be who I was, where I was. She didn't expect entertainment, and she wasn't dumped on me by a parent who wanted bragging rights.

I looked up to see some friends of mine walking through the door, and when they noticed the tiny human starfish suctioned to my leg, they whispered, “Who is that?” I shrugged my shoulders and laughed, “Dunno, but she's been here for ten minutes.” Her mother had been watching and came to retrieve the listless child once the service started. I didn't protest but was a little disappointed that our tender moment came to an end. The next time I saw her, she was curled up next to her mother on one of the benches, dreaming little-girl dreams full of cotton candy, rolly-pollys, and pigtails.

This morning, I thought of her and how much she had affected me. My desire to suddenly protect her and love her were no doubt stirred by her quietness and vulnerability. In the same way, how much more does the Rock on which we fling ourselves release His lavish love on us when we approach Him with weary silence, simply trusting that He will be Who He is: a comforter, a protector, an immovable rock, a Father who reaches down and gently anoints us with His hand. Yet how often do we, instead, come with a sense of entitlement or the expectation of being entertained or amused. Our interaction superficial, we return to our lives boasting of His favor when, in fact, we have not known the fulfillment of simply anchoring ourselves to His satisfying presence.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hollywood's storytellers

Great article written by John R. Erickson for Worldmag. For full context, click here.

In 1985 CBS Television made a 30-minute animated cartoon out of my first Hank the Cowdog book. I was thrilled to get the exposure offered by a Saturday morning cartoon, aired on national television. At least half the population of my Perryton, Texas, hometown watched it. Everyone was proud that a local book had made it to the Big Time.

CBS did a first-class, professional job with the animation, the character voices, and the music—but made subtle changes to my story.

In my books, Hank's ranch is a family cattle operation, involving a husband (Loper), a wife (Sally May), and a hired hand (Slim). Loper and Sally May have two children, two dogs, and a cat. Their ranch is typical of cattle operations in Texas and the Southwest.

The CBS version turned the cattle ranch into a chicken farm, and Sally May had become the boss. Loper and Slim were her hired hands, and there was no suggestion of marriage or a biblical family unit. The children had disappeared from the story, and one assumed that Sally May and the men lived together in the ranch house—one big, happy, postmodern family. CBS used my teacher-trusted, family-tested story as a carrier for its feminist, beef-hating agenda.

On a typical Sunday morning, my pastor preaches a Christian message to 150 people. The CBS cartoon probably entered 10 million to 15 million living rooms, where unsuspecting children absorbed it along with their chips and soda pop.

This is the challenge Christians face in today's media-drenched world. We preach. We present well-reasoned arguments and back them up with Scripture. We organize boycotts and sign petitions. And in the arena of popular culture, we're getting creamed, because we have allowed someone else to tell our stories.

In her powerful study of art and media, Nancy Pearcey notes, "Ideas penetrate our minds most deeply when communicated through the imaginative language of image, story, and symbol" (Saving Leonardo, p. 11). Pearcey urges Christians to stop complaining about rotten art and entertainment, and to start offering an alternative that is better.

Christians often regard entertainment as a second-rate profession, inferior to preaching or missionary work, but storytelling satisfies a deep human need, and we should feel comfortable in the story business. The Old Testament is a collection of stories, and Jesus used parables to reach people of all ages and levels of sophistication.

In the history of our church, storytelling came first. Theology, doctrine, and scholarship came later. Ours is an age of electronic parables. Every movie and TV show presents a worldview, a set of beliefs that tell us who we are, where we came from, and how we're supposed to behave in this life.

If Christians don't present our own version of reality—with a high level of professionalism, and in the media of the times—who will do it?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The best part of wakin' up...

is knowing that you can have a steaming mass of skewered ground meat to go with your frothy cup of delicious coffee.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

the conundrum of cereal

8:00 a.m.

I am up, coffee in hand and sifting through the accumulation of emails that came in overnight. Among them, one is from a teammate thanking me for my contribution of strawberry banana bread to her long day. Another is from our tech department advising us on new virusware.

And then there's this one from a young man I taught last year and who now frequents our Sunday morning location. It's my favorite:

date: Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 11:23 PM
subject: Methods of eating corn flakes.

In order to taste something new, I bought a box of corn flakes the other day. However, the problem is that I don't know how to eat it. And I wanna ask you for help. How would people usually eat corn flakes? Do I need some other ingredients?

China, you had me at corn flakes.

Friday, March 9, 2012

four days in a Chinese village: a photo journey

So, a Chinese guy invites an American and a Canadian to the small village where he was born and raised, a village where the presence of blonde hair and western features causes a mild disruption in traffic and conversations among locals.

The story continues with photos.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Duck Tales

My teaching schedule resumed last week after a month and a half of official holiday time. In each of my classes, I dedicated the first several minutes to hearing stories from students. Most echoed one another: I slept a lot, I ate a lot, I played on the computer, I saw my old friends.

One young man, however, had a unique experience. He volunteered to share his story with the class:

I returned to Harbin a few days ago. I decided to ride my bike to the Songhua River. I asked my roommate to go with me, but he didn't want to, so I went by myself. When I got to the Songhua River, I saw that it was still frozen and there were people walking around on it. So, I decided to walk across to the other side. I got off my bike and pushed it across the ice. When I got to the middle of the river, I heard the ice crack and suddenly a big hole opened up, and I fell in.

We all wore the same shocked expressions.

I surveyed the class. "Does anyone have questions? I know I do!" Heads nodded in unison and hands shot up.

Q: How did you escape?
A: Well, my legs fell into the water, but my hands were on the ice, so I pulled myself out.

Q: Was anyone around to help you?
A: No, no one was at that part of the river.

Q: What happened to your bike?
A: I was able to pull it out.

Q: But how? Wasn't the water moving quickly?
A: No, it was very slow. That's why I was able to pull myself and my bike out.

Q: What did you do once you got to the side of the river? Did you tell someone what happened? Did you take a taxi back?
A: No, I rode my back back to the dorm (a good 20-30 minute ride).

Q: But it was near freezing that day! You rode back with wet clothes?
A: Yes. My pants were frozen and covered with ice. That's why I have a cold now.

My shock exhausted any commentary. I told him how glad I was that he survived. Many in China don't know how to swim, and if variables had been slightly different...

But he WAS delivered from danger, and my afternoon was dotted with simple upward expressions of thanksgiving.

A few days later, I was shopping with a friend at a local market whose range of products is dizzying. Within steps of walking through the entrance, my eyes claimed an item that would be destined for the same young man mentioned above: a bright yellow duck float. There was just no way to refuse such a perfect mascot.

Prior to class on Monday, a friend and I found a box large enough to hold my purchase, and we taped it up and applied a mailing label to masquerade it as a legitimate delivery. The friend agreed to keep it in his possession until the start of class, at which point he would knock on the door and hand it over. Let the fun begin.

Monday morning at 10:05, my unexpected delivery arrived right on time. I played dumb and accepted the box with a passable level of confusion. The label, written in Chinese, was addressed to my student from the Songhua Safety Bureau.

"Oh, that's not mine," he said, waving his hand. Surely a mistake.

The students began to gather around the box.

"But your name is on here," I pointed out.

"No no no," he confidently insisted.

A young girl standing next to him examined the label and said, "Is that your phone number that's listed?"

He didn't even look. "Of course nah---Hey! That IS my phone number!" he corrected. His eyes widened in alarm.

I calmly encouraged him. "You should at least open it to see what's inside." No sooner had the suggestion come out of my mouth than a pair of scissors appeared out of nowhere. Collective curiosity was at its apex. Packing tape was sliced and the brown flaps opened to reveal a burst of yellow plastic. As soon as the students peered inside, heads reared back and howls bounced from wall to wall. Our Songhua survivor was no exception. His boyish face was plastered with a grin of absolute delight, and it only took a glance in my general direction to discern who the culprit was.

After class, he came up to me and said, "At the beginning of class, you asked us how we were, and I was actually very sad because the bicycle that I rescued from the river was stolen. I was quite upset about it. But this...I...I am so touched. I'm not sad anymore."

This afternoon, I received an email from him along with some photos:
Thanks for your surprising gift. I'm really happy to receive it. Now it lies on my desk. I show it off in front of my roommates. It is cool! it is a wonderful memory in my life.

Monday, March 5, 2012

keywords: my new BFF

As the account holder of this blog, I can go into my "statistics" menu to see how many people have visited. I do that a few times a week, mostly because I'm no stranger to disappointment. My traffic sources are then dissected by country, by referring sites and by keyword search.

Somehow, somewhere...someone found this blog by keyword search, "give a rip."

There's a modicum of pride there, folks.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

four days in a Chinese village: the preface

Imagine that a friend invites you to his village during the long Chinese New year holiday. Imagine you say yes.

Then, imagine you are just days away from departure and you get this photo emailed to you from your host. As you open the attachment, observe the facilities available at his house and then read the caption obviously processed through an online translator, your idea of a sweeping John Steinbeck adventure falls into the same hole over which you will soon be straddling.