Saturday, September 24, 2005

The 1994 I Never Knew

Reflections on Hotel Rwanda

I remember the summer of 1994 very clearly. I spent 12 weeks traveling the western United States with 6 friends, singing, acting, and just having an all around great time. We spent a day at Disneyland. We surfed at Pismo Beach. We crisscrossed the Rockies. We spent a night buried in sand on top of Soldier Mountain in the Mojave Desert. We visited the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. We got all we could of San Francisco: Alcatraz, Chinatown, Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera, even clam chowder out of a sourdough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf.

I made two of the best friendships of my life that summer: Josh, who loosened me up in more ways than I can count, who stood up in my wedding, who still calls every couple months just to see how I’m doing even though he’s a major player for an internationally known and massively influential youth ministry; and Aundrea, whom it was the greatest honor of my life (knowing God excepted) to marry.

Yeah, my summer of ’94 was absolutely incredible.

Not so on the other side of the world. In April-July of 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their own countrymen in less than 100 days.

I just watched Hotel Rwanda. “Watched” is hardly the right verb, but my numbed mind can’t command a more fitting one right now. I was able to restrain most of my emotion during the film, but when the final image froze and the credits began to roll, the dam broke and the hard sobbing began.

Just last night I spoke to some teens of my experiences in Kenya the summer before The Great ’94. In 1993 I fulfilled one of my life’s dreams: to visit Africa. For 6 weeks we worked among the Kenyan people and a bond was forged in my soul.

I love Africa. My first gift to Aundrea was a cherished “Kenya” sweatshirt that I purchased on the streets of Nairobi. The clock in my office is a brass map of the continent, complete with country outlines and a few animal figurines. My shelves and walls are covered with African carvings and musical instruments and keepsakes. Basically, I’d love to end up there for good someday cuz I… love… Africa.

Thankfully, Director Terry George spares viewers most of the gore and unimaginable horror of those months in Rwanda. But my imagination fills in the gaps with horrible effectiveness. And when I turn my thoughts back home, back to me and my own life, this movie helps me to see some things I really, really hate.

I hate my ignorance. I was living large and partying on while Rwandans were fleeing and falling from machetes. And I had no idea.

I hate my apathy. The little snippets I heard about Rwanda failed to produce any marked effect in my soul. That was over 10 years ago, but similar things are happening today on a much smaller scale in Myanmar, Sudan, Uganda, etc., etc., etc. Yet I tend to stress more over the price of gas than these atrocities.

And I hate my sin. When the rolling credits were reflecting off my tear-drenched cheeks, I heard myself crying out, “Oh, God… Oh, God, why?” And the only answer I know is "sin." Sin does this to us. Satan brought us this Pandora’s Box. The nearest rival in the universe to the height of God’s love for humanity is the depth of Satan’s hate. And every time I bite into the fruit he offers me, I’m feeding from the hand that soaked Africa in Rwandan blood.

I’m sure there’s more to say about Hotel Rwanda and even more to say about the horror of genocide. I suppose I should add “I hate my lack of skill to evoke compassion in readers” to the list above. But I don’t imagine that God brought me this movie tonight for your benefit, my good readers. He brought it to me for mine. And I thank Him for it. I’ll never look at the summer of 1994 the same way again.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Getting Glad in God

My New Blogging Venture

If you're interested, I've begun a second weblog. As you'll read from the description at the top of the page, it's basically my devotional journal.

My goal for my own devos is to get my heart happy in God, and so that's the intent of publishing these thoughts to the web—to stir up joy in God in your own heart.

I also have a couple secondary purposes: 1) to offer you something of a pattern, though an admittedly weak one, for your own reading and meditating on the Scriptures; 2) to offer me a little public accountability for writing something worth reading in my devo journal.

So check it out at your leisure. I hope you’re delighted by what you see of God there.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Math vs. The Creative Writer

The Christian Priority Of Language

Math is so round
As I lay on the ground
Trees call me

Baffled? I was, too, the first time I heard those lines. We were in pre-calc, sitting in the back row, struggling with some new math thing, when my friend leaned his head back on the chalkboard and spontaneously expressed his bewilderment with that three-line poem. Go figure…

Crazy as it is, this little bit of poetry sets me right up for what I want to say in this post. By bursting forth into verse, my buddy showed me something about himself at that moment—that math wasn’t his natural territory; language was. He was a pretty decent logical-mathematical thinker, but his “primary intelligence” was linguistic.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a little educational psychology. About 20 years ago Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard, recognized that different people seem to show intelligence in different areas. Some people are really good with words, others are good with numbers, others are musical, others are relational, others are visual, etc. His theory of multiple intelligences laid out eight different types of intelligence, eight different ways people receive and process information.

The result? Well-trained teachers don’t restrict themselves to the “I-talk-and-you-listen” method of instruction anymore. Thanks to Gardner, now we’ve got hands-on projects, music, group cooperation, art activities, role play, multimedia, inner reflection, and all kinds of other teaching techniques being used in the classroom for just about every subject. If you’re a visual learner who likes pictures more than words, that’s OK: we’ll teach you your way. If you’re more musical than logical, no worries. We won’t press you into our mold.

So far so good. In my last post I mentioned that I’m teaching math to my boys this year. In our first lesson, we played with blocks. We drew pictures. I talked; they listened. I demonstrated; they followed. I queried; they answered. I applied all the diverse methods I could. Why? Cuz I took ed psych in college, and I believe Gardner was right: different intelligences warrant different teaching methods.

Gardner’s influence doesn’t stop with schools these days. He’s also begun to shape how we do church, too, most noticeably in how we preach. A song inserted into the sermon helps drive home the point for musical learners. A video clip or a drama sets things up nicely for those who are visually oriented. Giving each worshipper a little item to represent the topic of the sermon offers those bodily-kinesthetic learners something to touch and manipulate.

But here is where I get a little more cautious. Here’s where I want to inject a little bit of sober reflection into our unrestrained enthusiasm for multiple intelligence theory. It’s not a matter of propriety or tradition or association. None of these reasons makes me balk at the new approaches to public sermon delivery. What makes me uncomfortable is the apparent assumption that all intelligences are equally valuable, equally helpful, equally desirable, and equally Christian.

I disagree. Christianity, it seems to me, places a clear preference upon linguistic learning. Why do I say that? Two main reasons:

1. God revealed Himself in a book, more precisely, a book of words and not pictures. Presumably, He could have waited until DVD technology was available; after all, He waited at least until paper was around. But His choice to reveal Himself in a book says something important about what sort of learning best suits Christian instruction. Historically, Christians have always recognized this, demonstrated by the phenomenon that where Christianity increased, literacy also increased.

2. God can be known most accurately and completely through words. No visual representation of Him could ever convey His glory completely. Subjectivity and ambiguity render images unsuitable for teaching us the most important things we need to know about God. This is the whole point about general vs. special revelation. We need words from God, not just images. In fact, the Second Commandment actually prohibits us from trying to depict Him visually, a clear argument for the priority of language in communicating about God.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me point out that Christian worship appropriately incorporates every one of Gardner’s intelligences in some way or another: cultivating relationships, observing the ordinances (baptism and the communion), singing, self-examination, etc. All of these are integral to Christianity. But there’s a clear priority on verbal, propositional instruction.

So what’s the point?

The minor point is that Christianity doesn't view all the intelligences as equal. We must hear words from God, and I think pastors would do well to uphold that understanding by prioritizing the spoken word over all other forms of communication when they bring the word of God to their people.

The major point is this: cultivate your aptitude for verbal thought. Read. Write. Listen. Work very hard to make your mind more receptive to logical, propositional thought. To my little math students I say, "Devin and Justin, learn your math well; but know that in the end, numbers serve words. We do math in order to do language better. And we do language in order to know God."

No matter what kind of learner you are, cultivate your ability to receive and process words. Why? Because Christianity would survive without pictures or music or numbers. But not without words.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Adding Up To A Promising Tomorrow

What’s At Stake In Your Everyday Math Class

Everything changed today. As I drove away from home, I had that feeling that we were on the brink of something really big and there's no going back. See, about two weeks ago my wife and I made the very, very tough decision to educate our boys at home this year, and so now Dad, the math major, has a math date with the little dudes at 7:45 at the dining room table every morning.

Today was the first day of school. Just like that I’m back in the educational scene again, but this time I’m on the teacher’s side of the desk for the first time since I left teaching to become a youth pastor back in 1997.

We don't know how long we're going to keep this educational arrangement. We’re taking it one step at a time. Might be just this year; might be quite a while. Our expectation is that we’ll keep it this way until all five of our children complete 8th grade. That’s a long time. Devin is 8 years away from high school, but Julia Grace won’t be there for 13-14 years. And like I said, that is a looong time.

And so as I drove away from home, I had the distinct feeling that we were talking about an arrangement that could last for quite a while. My mind immediately zoomed out into panoramic, big picture mode. My thoughts raced ahead several years to some future day when we’ll have spent literally thousands of hours on math alone. Five days a week, nine months a year, for eight long years, we’ll meet, and we’ll work over some mathematical concept. What do I want my little dudes to take away from all this?

A gazillion ideas came to answer the question I posed to myself. Two of them—two reasons for all this expenditure of time, money, and mental energy—caught my attention and dominated my thoughts for the rest of my drive to the office. I’ll treat one in this post and the other in the next (which is when I’ll finally get to the importance of language, which I promised I’d write about in my last post ages and ages ago…)

Math is worth the effort, not so much because of what it puts in our mind, but because of what it does to our mind. In my opinion, math is less about content and more about effect.

Here’s what I mean. When we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, we are given an indispensable element of a successful future in math. It’s also a relatively helpful bit of knowledge for everyday life.

But when we nail down this little 1st grade mathematical concept, there are much bigger things at work in our brain. We’re actually learning far more than the mere sum of 1 and 1. For example, learning that 1 plus 1 equals 2 also teaches us:

  • to assume the existence of universals and absolutes. No one proposes that 1 + 1 can be whatever you’d like it to be. It’s always 2 for every person everywhere.
  • to rely on logic rather than observation or intuition as the standard of truth. A child’s intuition might lead him/her to believe that 1 + 1 = 1, following the pattern of ones in the left half of the equation; but logic demonstrates that things are not always as they appear.
  • to follow deliberate, objective steps in moving toward a conclusion. Math forces us to follow rules of thought, sometimes self-consciously, thus sharpening our ability to think clearly and properly.
  • to think creatively in solving problems we don’t remember seeing before. The problem-solving skills we develop in math class have far broader effects than just getting 4 credits toward a high school diploma.
  • to work with symbols, thus enhancing our ability to handle abstraction. The black marks on the page that appear to us as 1 + 1 = 2 are actually universal symbols that we use to represent a specific proposition: any 1 thing coupled with any other 1 thing nets you 2 things.
I suppose a real mathematician could go on and on with the list. My point is this: math does something to our mind. All those multiplication tables in 4th grade and word problems in 7th grade and geometric proofs in 10th grade actually shape our brain to work in certain ways. They are like the forms that construction workers put in place when they pour concrete, getting our mind ready to handle abstract, propositional thought with accuracy and fluency. Years and years of math ready us for a future of careful, productive cognition in every other discipline: theology, ethics, history, the languages, the arts, all of them.

So here we are, with thousands of hours of math before us. And what do I see? As a math teacher, I see myself shaping little brains, training ready minds, raising young thinkers… and wearing out a whole lot of pencil lead and erasers along the way!

Got a math class this semester? Great! Need some motivation? How about this: working hard at math gets you a thousand intellectual benefits later in life.

All this time you’ve been complaining about that confusing, irritating y = mx + b stuff… all the fears that it might keep you from a high SAT, a top-notch college, and that great career… Actually, the exact opposite is true! The way I see it, today’s Slope-Intercept Form is tomorrow’s irrefutable argument or well-reasoned decision or creative solution!

So there you have it. Math: today’s ticket to a promising tomorrow!