Aug 23, 2014

The Challenge

So today I did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in response to a challenge my good friend J Carlos who did it with his class of seventh graders after being challenged by a former student who in turn had been challenged by someone else.

The ice bucket challenge is a fad that is currently sweeping the nation.  It's a piece of genius awareness-building, fundraising tactic if you think about it.  It's cheap and easy to do, takes little time so anyone from the high and mighty to the low and unknown can participate.  It is visually entertaining to watch so it draws attention (half the fun is watching to see how various people respond to the shock of a bucket of icy water).  The challenge aspect multiplies it's spread through the various forms of social media.  All of this has come together in a viral movement that has done a phenomenal job raising awareness and money.  J informs me that 42 million dollars has been raised for ALS research this year in comparison to 1.8 million last year.  Those incredible results must have the boosters for various other charities wishing they'd thought of it first!

Which brings us to the inevitable backlash that comes with any successful undertaking today.  I remember seeing a video posted by a guy with ALS to all the ice bucket challenge haters and wondering how could anyone have an issue with something as innocent and helpful as this.  What would be the argument?  Well, it didn't take long for me to find out.  And as this fad reaches it's peak and then begins to fade I imagine the chorus of critics will only grow.

But, at least so far, I've not seen any criticism of this fad that holds water (pun intended).   I've seen one post that compares fat and happy Americans dousing themselves in ice water while a poor African child sips from a cup--the suggestion being that while Americans are wasting gallons of water on a silly ice bucket challenge millions go without clean water.  But the fact is you can do a lot more to conserve water by forgoing those long hot showers than you would by sanctimoniously declining the ice bucket challenge "on principle."  Save your dirty dish water to answer your bucket challenge if bothers you that much.  I heard about another critic, some celebrity I guess, making a video that suggested that our thoughts would be better directed towards the tragic events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown than on the ice bucket challenge.  Another video features an Australian newscaster highlighting the multiple needs and charities that need our support, and seems to suggest that it would be better to support those causes than to do the ice bucket challenge.  That makes no sense to me.  I would counter that most of us are able to hold more than one thought in our head at a time, and we can be concerned about racial injustice in this country, the situation with ISIS, the tragedy of human trafficking, the Ebola virus, spreading the Gospel, our own personal challenges and the challenges of those we love, and still have some concern and a few dollars to contribute towards a cause like ALS.

In the end, I don't think the haters really intend to say that the very real struggles sufferers of ALS have to face are unimportant, or are less important than the suffering of others, all though that is essentially what they are communicating.  I think, if they're being honest, most criticism comes from a place of smug annoyance at a trend that happens to be sweeping the nation.  It is not the cause, or the activity itself  but the fact that "everybody's doing it" that sticks in their craw and raises their ire.  And I get that.  But this isn't the Macarena or planking.  It's a fad that is actually helping people who need help.  And it is a fad.  In a month it'll be gone.  But the awareness it's created and the funds that it has raised will remain long after the ice has melted and we've all moved on the the next thing.

Jul 22, 2014

A Lesson in Grace

Grace is one of the words we like to throw around.  We feel like we understand what it means.  We say "but for the grace of God" and so on.  We say grace before meals.  We believe we are the beneficiaries of God's grace, and indeed we are.  Every day we experience grace extended to us, but more often than not we are insensible to it.

To actually feel what it is to be a recipient of grace is a truly humbling and beautiful experience.

To experience grace is to receive something that you did not earn.

To experience grace is to receive something that is a gift of great value but that is not your due.

To experience grace is to receive something that is so valuable  that you cannot possibly match it in kind with your own resources.  Any thank you that you can devise will be paltry in comparison to the magnitude of the gift you have received.

And so thankfully, to experience grace is to be given a gift with no strings attached, with no expectation of repayment.  All that is expected is that you will be grateful, that you will enjoy the gift, make good use of it, and when possible share the gift with others.

I, like all of us, have received grace from God.  But, it is in receiving grace from others, that I have come to better understand the grace God has shown me.

To the forty-three people that found they had the resources to extend a gift of grace to my family and me this past spring, I can only say a heartfelt thank you.

We had our "Columbus Support Team" over for lunch on Sabbath, May 10, 2014.  I think it was  late afternoon of Thursday, April  18 when we were relaxing at the Mandi  Asian Spa on the north end of Saipan that Babs and I started talking about this special group of hometown supporters:  Albert & Anastasia Bailey, Benin & Renee Lee, Marc & Lisa Lavalas, Ruth-Ann Thompson, and Pat Fountain (not pictured, unfortunately she couldn't make it to the meal).  As we looked out at the Philippine Sea from our perch in the Mandi's infinity pool we concluded that this group would really love visiting Saipan, and we decided if we ever, someday, somehow had the funds to do it, we'd surprise this entire group with a trip to Saipan  with us.  Of course we'd felt like in a sense we were taking all forty-three of our supporters with us to Saipan, through our regular Facebook status updates and photos.  But this group, unlike many of our donors, had never been to Saipan.  And as we thought about each of these special people we realized that they would especially love visiting our island.  While it's true that the grace they showed us cannot be repaid, in our dreams we imagined being able to truly share the Saipan experience with them.  That would be a thank you worthy of their generous support.  But in the meantime, we figured we'd bring a little Saipan back to them with a special island-themed lunch and sharing pictures and videos from our trip.  

Chamarro-style red rice.  Babs and I decided to do something we'd never done in all our eleven years living in Saipan, despite being  adventurous cooks and dedicated foodies:  We decided to cook local food.  This was a risky proposition of course, but one we could get away with since there wouldn't be any actual Saipanese in attendance to "ai adai" our humble first-time efforts. 


Grilled eggplant with coconut milk 

Chicken kelaguen (vegetarian chicken. . .heresy, I know)

Babs made a good Mid-western Adventist favorite, special K loaf just in case the island food was too much for our guests' palates, but in the end they loved everything we made, including my famed peach cobbler for dessert (which has nothing to Saipan food other than I made it all the time there and it became a favorite among my students there).  While it was a far cry from when our Saipanese friends do it back on the island, we thought it turned out pretty well for our first try.

Jul 12, 2014

The Uncertainty Principle

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together means being at peace with uncertainty.

Rich Mullins once said  "I think if we were given the scriptures it was not so that we could prove that we were right about everything. If we were given the scriptures it was to humble us into realizing that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing. Which is what makes them so much fun to read, especially if you are not a fundamentalist."

I always loved that quote, but I don't think I ever fully understood it until the other day during my morning devotions.   I've always had the sense that every time I read the Bible, I should be able to: 1) understand what the passage means  and 2) understand how it speaks to me and my situation.  When that doesn't happen I've tended to feel discouraged, like a spiritual failure.  I've wondered if my connection to God is as strong as it should be, and sometimes I allow doubt to creep in, assuming that if I can't figure out what this scripture means then perhaps it has no meaning at all.

Which is pretty arrogant when you think about it.  It's like when a students says "math is stupid" mainly because he doesn't understand it.  In the learning process, our ability to understand something says nothing but it's intrinsic value.  The same is true of the Bible.

The fact is that we won't always understand everything we read  (yes, even if we ask for the Holy Spirit's guidance. Sometimes it's the Holy Spirit's guidance that keeps us humble enough to say--hmmm, well I don't really understand that rather than forcing an interpretation or creating a self-serving lesson).  We don't always need to have an Answer, and we especially don't need to have a little lesson to take away from each time we open God's Word.

I've long felt it a mistake to treat the Bible as a history or science textbook (which is not to say that there isn't any history or even a little science in it), but more recently I've also come to be wary of the Bible as prescriptive "guide for living."  The whole "Biblical approach" to managing finances or  marriage or child-rearing or health feels a little suspect.  I'm just not sure that we're using the Bible correctly when we approach it that way.  To me the Christian Bible is a narrative that reveals the story of God and His interaction with His wayward creation.  It begins with God shrouded in mystery. The picture is often cloudy, unclear and maybe even inaccurate, but the narrative climaxes with the clearest picture we have of the character, nature, intentions, and heart of God towards us in the person of Jesus.  The Old Testament is primarily the back-story to Jesus, but it is a rich back- story, filled with flawed and colorful characters clumsily seeking after God, various dead-ends and misunderstandings, but also myriad hints of Jesus and foreshadowings of the Savior to come.

The primary purpose for reading the Bible is to be in the presence of God and to look for Jesus.  Sometimes in our meditation on Scripture it all seems to come together to create a clear picture.  Other times the pieces of the puzzle just don't seem to fit--and here as with a jigsaw puzzle, it's important not to force a fit when one isn't there. Just be patient.  Accept and even rejoice in the humble realization that we just don't have an answer now.  Have faith that just because I don't see the solution, doesn't mean that there isn't one.

Jul 11, 2014

The More Things Change. . .

Change is the one constant in Saipan (except when it comes to the weather, which is record-setting in it's sameness).  People, buisnesses, fortunes, and even the contours of the land itself come and go, like the ever shifting sands of the shore washed by the sea.  Naturally, a lot has changed in the five years since we left Saipan permanently. Some of the changes are good, some are sad, but either way Saipan felt very much the same when we returned if only because so much had changed.

The new school and the growth of the Adventist church in Saipan.
The Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School

I thought we would miss the old school.  I mean I knew the new campus would be great and all, but we're talking about 11 years we spent in that little building down in San Antonio. Certainly, in the months and weeks leading up to our trip, I could only picture myself speaking in that tiny little lunchroom chapel space. Surely we'd feel a pining for the old building, a nagging nostalgia for the old stomping grounds.  But, I found that I adjusted very quickly to the new school location.  Of course, it was already familiar.  I'd spent countless sports association meetings in one of the second floor classrooms and innumberable volleyball and basketball games out on the athletic fields back when the campus had been the home of Calvary Christian Academy.  But I was amazed by how quickly I acclimatized to the places as the current Saipan SDA School and not the former CCA.  It is truly a wonderful campus and we instantly felt at home.  So little was our longing for the tiny old campus that we never got around to visiting it until the night before we left!
The very impressive sign at the entrance to the campus.  Most of the following photos were taken on Sabbath, April 19 after church.  We drove by the campus specifically to get some proper photos of the place.

From the school parking lot, looking back towards the road

This photo was taken during the school week.  It was nice to see that they moved the playground Barbara purchased from the old campus to the new one.

Liah Wabol, one of my former students at Saipan SDA School, and now one of the pre-school teachers, with her students at recess.

The Adventist church seems to be finally beginning to flower after years of germination on what had seemed to be fairly unfriendly soil.  There are now three Adventist churches thriving on the island.  The old San Antonio school campus has been reborn as the home of the San Antonio Seventh-day Adventist Church.  And the Kagman church plant that began about seven years ago as the seed of an evangelistic campaign in the village has taken root.  Most of the members of the churches are still non-indigenous, but slowly but surely a local presence is growing in the membership.  It's no longer possible for all the church members to fit into the main sanctuary, the Central SDA Church--which says a lot.  The satellite churches are now a necessity and not a convenience.
The old school campus and the new church building in San Antonio village.  These pictures were taken on our quick visit to the property the night before we left Saipan.  Saturday, April 19, 2014.  The sign covers what in various years was the music room, the library, and classroom.  Below is the former principal's office.

A little bit editing and the school sign originally donated by the Saipan SDA School  8th grade class of 1993 became the sign for the church.

The sanctuary of the San Antonio Church.  This space formerly housed three classrooms.  When we first arrived in Saipan, two-thirds of this space was used for our weekly joint worship services. It is worship space once more (although this time the worshipers don't have to sit on the floor!)

The rise in tourism.
P.I.C. (Pacific Islands Club), Sunday, April 13, 2014.  We had a great time relaxing at one of our favorite resorts.  The place was packed.  At lunch, we actually had to wait for awhile before we could get a seat at Magellan's, P.I.C.'s main restaurant.

One thing that really did my heart good was to sense that there was finally a glimmer of good news for Saipan's economy which for so long has ranged between bad and horrible.  Tourism seems to be picking up.  We noticed it right away on our first night time drive through Garapan, the main tourist district.  The place was actually. . .bustling!  Shoppers were in the stores and spilling out on to the sidewalks.  Visitors were out and about taking in the nightlife.  It seemed a hopeful sign and made me glad.

The decline of San Antonio.
This was the former home of the Marianas Medical Center and the New World Market right across the street from the old SDA School campus in San Antonio.  Now everything is gone, except for the poker joint, which seems impervious to the surrounding decline.

While some parts of the island seem to be pulsing with new life with the uptick in tourism, others seem to have missed out on the good fortune.  Particularly sad, was the noticeable decline of our old neighborhood--San Antonio village on the southern end of the island. In the past I found most Saipan neighborhoods looked more or less the same, but this time there was an immediately noticeable difference from San Antonio and other parts of the island.  The boarded up shops, the abandoned factories, ghostly barracks that used to house the workers of the now-defunct garment industry.  Most places from the Marianas Medical Center to the Labor and Immigration offices to our favorite mom and pop shop, New World Market have packed up and moved away.   P.I.C. seems to be one of the few exceptions.  Though under new management, it still seems to be going strong.  I imagine the tourists rarely venture into the surrounding neighborhood though.
During our years on Saipan, this place was the beautiful Pacific Gardenia Hotel and Restaurant.  I had more than a few good breakfasts at this place in it's heyday.

The road to our old apartment in San Antonio.  The overgrown bushes and high grass on the right almost completely obscure the empty barracks and  defunct garment factory that once thrived here.

Our first apartment on Saipan (the door on the left).  And just a few steps away in the other building on the compound.  . .

.  . .our second apartment on Saipan (the screen door on the right).  The screen door and the awning are new additions since we moved away, as are the bars on the windows.  I guess break-ins became too commonplace and the bars were added as a deterrent.

Great new places to eat.
With former students Neischangapi Satur ('00) and Myla Capilitan ('02) at Saipan's hippest joint for a healthy crepe or shake, The Shack. Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Saipan has always had a disproportionately large number of great places to eat.  Since we left some new places have opened up.  The Shack is an ultra-bohemian place literally yards from the former Oleai Beach Bar & Grill.  They specialize in crepes and a variety of healthy, trendy offerings in a very laid back, friendly environment.  It is a must-visit on your Saipan culinary itinerary.  Shennanigans, located in the Garapan tourist district opened up mere months after we moved away.  They hired on the old Coffee Care chef and it shows in their delicious menu.  Babs and I splurged there on Thursday evening, May 17, our one date night of our trip after an afternoon at the Mandi Asian Spa.  It was perfect.

Other joints aren't new but  have moved and/or reinvented themselves.  Spicy Thai  Noodle House moved out of San Antonio to Garapan where the action is.  They've got spacious new digs in a tucked away corner across from American Memorial Park, but the food is every bit as good as it's always been.  You can't go wrong with lunch buffet and a Thai tea with milk.   The Naked Fish is now the new It place to eat on Saipan, with a new, larger location in Susupe near the World Resort.  We never made it there, unfortunately, but everyone talked like it was THE place to eat.

Though Ebisuya is closed, the Kimawari Japanese bakery in Garapan sells similar food: great bento lunches, the best Danish pastries, sushi.  It's not new, I don't think.  I know I went there at least once with Ken Pierson after a dive, but it was a regular stop for us on this trip, and so felt new to us.

Some great grub is gone.

 With the exception of Spicy Thai, all of my favorite restaurants in the whole world have closed. Or in the case of Coffee Care, is now a mere shell of its former self.  The place was virtually empty when we went with our friend and former SDA School parent Michelle Zayco (Bless her and her sweet daughter Danielle for being willing to eat there with us) and with good reason.  The menu was the same as it always was, but the food was barely palatable.  Barbara's favorite dish the sun-dried tomato pasta, was missing many of the purported ingredients: the ricotta cheese, the olives, and even the sun-dried tomatoes!  Our Saipan friends couldn't sympathize with us on Coffee Care's sad state; most of them hadn't been there in years.

The view is still delicious, but the same can no longer be said of the food.  The empty tables tell you that Coffe Care's days of glory are long past.

The people.
 There were many familiar faces: Virle and Joeie, the Piersons, Bev, the Lacortes, the Quinns, the Kosacks, Galvin former students like Nei, Myla, Michi, Kei, Kono, Joy, Liah and the Wabol clan and many others but not as many as before.  We imagine there will be even fewer when next we make it out to Saipan.  There were many new faces and we made some new friends:  Bill & Sarah Jane Shearer, Silvia and Tina, Sharon Nguyen among others.  But all of these new friends have either already left Saiipan or will be leaving the island shortly, and they add to the growing list of names, faces, and friendships that we associate with Saipan that are no longer there. Most have served there time and moved on.  We were disappointed to miss Manny and Kathleen Serrano who had moved to Guam just weeks before we arrived.  The Staffords had moved on about a year earlier. The majority of my former students have grown up and moved away.  And then there were those who we know we won't see again in Saipan or anywhere else this side of eternity.  Mr. Chinen and Ronnie Ringor both passed to their rest in the recent months before our visit.  It was nice to see Emer and the rest of the Chinen family, and to see Ronnie's sons, but the absence of these friends was keenly felt.
Lunch with the Kosacks at Capriciosas (another favorite restaurant that is still going strong). Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Joeie and "Lil' Mister" as we've taken to calling our youngest

The boy clowning around with Russ Quinn

Kanae and Russ Quinn with Elijah and Elephant Elephant.  The Quinn's treated us to delicious home cooked lunch at their beautiful home on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

Former student Yuko Takayama ('08) stopped by for a visit

Our kids chillin' witht Pierson kids.  Can you believe we neglected to take a single picture with the adult Piersons!  They had us over for dinner Wednesday evening, April 16.

Virle and the her not-so-Little Feller.  Both our boys just loved, loved, loved being with Joeie and Virle throughout the week.  Having our guest lodging right next door to their apartment was such a treat for them.  Both boys would walk right next door whenever they could just to hang out with their favorite aunties.

Babs and I with Joeie, Sylvia, and Virle.  Meeting Silvia and Tina was sort of like meeting celebrities. We'd "known" them via Facebook for years. What a treat to finally meet them and find out they were every bit as cool as they seemed on social media!

Before Mama Sandy, before Ms. Palmer, before Ms.  Rose. . .there was Venus.  This was Elijah's first babysitter, Venus Zietzke.

The boys with Antonee and Girlie Aguilar.  The Aguilars now live in our old apartment, where this photo was taken.  Sabbath, April 19, 2014.

The friends that came to see us in the wee hours of Sunday morning, April 20.  With each departure this group grows smaller as more and more of them take their own Long Walks and close the chapter on Saipan in their lives.  I wonder how many of those in this picture will still be in Saipan by the next time we visit?

Saipan is life writ large.  Enjoy it the way it is now, with the people currently sharing your journey, because one thing is certain.  In far too short a time, the places and people you now know will be gone.  Other people and new places may take their place but like a tropical sunset, the unique today you are currently experiencing will only happen once and never again.  Make the most it!

Jun 11, 2014

Where I Belong

Ah, the island life.  Sabbath morning, April 12, 2014, Saipan

From a computer journal entry during our mission to Saipan this past spring:

 Wednesday, April 16, 2014

We’re just past the midway point of our time in Saipan.  Three more days and then we begin the long journey back to Columbus.  Can’t really say back home because this. . .this feels like home.  We’ve fallen into a routine of sorts.  It’s not the routine I would have chosen but it is a routine nonetheless.  Mornings start early.  Elijah has not managed to conquer jet lag and is often up between 3 and 4 A.M. every day.  He gets drowsy at lunch, maybe takes a too-short afternoon nap and then falls asleep at supper.  He’s out for the night after that, never really waking up until early the next morning. Babs and I tend to get up early also, usually by 5 or so.  She’s been working on projects for the school and I am usually working on fleshing out the morning’s week of prayer message.  By seven I’m rushing off to the school.  I attend staff worship and then spend the last 30 minutes working over my presentation.  From 8 to 9 is week of prayer and then stories with the pre-school.  Elijah and I do our skits and the kids love it.  Then we seem to mill around the school for a bit.  The boys playing on the playground while Barbara works on school stuff and I try to grab some precious internet time.  Then it’s off to the Piersons for a playdate until lunch when invariably we’ve got some friends to meet.  Virle on Monday, the Kosacks yesterday, and the Quinns today.  Then it’s back home for a quick nap and some beach time (though this time we got back so late from the Quinns that we decided to forgo the beach time for a nap instead).  Then it’s out for dinner.  Michelle and Danielle on Monday at Coffee Care.  Last night with Nei and Myla at the Shack.  Tonight we’re at the Pierson’s house. 

Home is where we belong, where we feel most comfortable, where we feel most free to be ourselves.  Of course home is where the heart is, so where friends and family are most often define home for us.  But there's another dimension to home as well, a more geographic sense of belonging.  For some of us there are particular places, particular climates, particular ways of living that just fit.  For some it's the small town or life on the farm.  For others it's big city living.  Some just need to live where it snows.  I met a woman on the flight back from Hawaii, who was born and raised in Hawaii but has lived in Montana for the past 37 years.  Why?  I'm sure there are many reasons but what she told me is that she just loves to drive for hours and hours, and the wide open spaces of Big Sky Country give her that.

As for me, while I politely nodded and smiled, I was thinking: "Are you out of your mind?  Why would you ever leave Hawaii for Montana."

One thing the two big trips I've taken in the last two months have made abundantly clear is that I know where I belong:  the islands.  It's hard to describe the deep sense of belonging, of being at home that I felt during the eleven years I lived in Saipan, and on the return visits since we moved away.  I felt it again last week in Hawaii.  Island life is the life for me.

A few"love-hates" that explain why island living is the perfect fit for me:
A typical island gathering.  How many different cultures can you pick out in this room?  Friday night TGIS at the Maycocks, Saipan, April 18, 2014.

I love the melange of cultures that seem to make up the islands I know.  From my ancestral home of Trinidad (which I've never visited--a situation that really needs be corrected) with it's vivid mix of people of African, Caucasian, Chinese, and Indian descent to Hawaii's multi-Asian diaspora to Saipan's unique location as a crossroads of the Pacific, with even the indigenous Chamorro marked by history ethnic and cultural intermingling, the islands seem to particularly favorable to mixing things up.  I loved that in Saipan our multi-racial family was not the curious exception but the unremarkable rule.  

This is the only white stuff I want to see.  I'll take  blue water and white sand over water frozen white and fingers blue from the cold any day.  Managaha Island, Saipan, Friday, April 18, 2014

I hate the cold. Let me clear, when I talk about the islands I'm not talking about the Aleutians. I could banish winter forever and never miss it.  If I ever found I had to have snow, a trip to a winter clime like our friends the Quinns do each year would suffice.

I love the easy-going pace of life. In Saipan, the highest speed limit is 40 (maybe 45) miles per hour on a stretch of four-lane road heading out towards San Roque.  The rule seems to be 5 under rather than 5 over and you'll get the middle finger (usually in speed bump heavy residential neighborhoods) for going too fast, not too slow.  Island time is what it's all about.  "It's fine. You're in Hawaii. We all can relax."  my former student Cui Xian Xian soothed in a text message replying to some mainland-style concern I had about scheduling during our class trip last week.  And something feels so right about the island uniform of zorries, shorts, and a t-shirt, where even bankers and politicians keep it casual with muted Aloha shirts and khakis.  Ties are for lawyers going to court and those ever faithful Mormon missionaries (though my LDS friends that actually live in the islands dress down as much as anyone else).

The truth is I hate driving. Road trips are great and all, but those can be done on summer trips to the Mainland.  Daily driving out of necessity, on the other hand, I can do without.  If I want to do some serious hiking here in Ohio, it's gonna be an hour or more out the Hocking Hills.  And heaven help me if I fee like going to the beach. I like that in the islands, there is so much to do and you can get to it all without having to drive for hours.  And when its time to leave the island, these days there's usually only one way out--by plane. And I love flying.

Make no mistake, I don't have any romantic notions about life in the islands. I understand that when you're not on vacation, it's pretty much like Ohio or Wisconsion or California or New York.  It's work, family obligations, tight budgets, church, the usual stuff of life in the Western world early in the 21st century.  My week in Saipan wasn't all nonstop spiritual mountaintop mission moments and beach bumming.  I spent time going to the bank, the grocery store, the post office and  filing taxes.  But to live that sometimes hum-drum day-to-day on island, with the backdrop of magnifcient sunsets across the water on the late commute home, to have a free fun day for the budget-conscious family at a white sand beach, to worship in a place like this:

One of my students meditating in the sanctuary of my favorite church on the planet, the Kailua Seventh-day Adventist Church. Sabbath, May 31, 2014

How could anyone not want a life like that?  And yet I'm finding that many people don't.  

A lot of people talk a big game about running away to the islands. My cousin William used to swear every time I saw him during our Saipan years that he was ready to drop out of the rat race and join me in paradise. But the thing is, if you really want to do it, you can.  Last week,a couple of my 8th graders talked about wanting to move to Hawaii when they were older and I told them--it's totally possible.  Yet many people believe--maybe need to believe--it's a dream, a fantasy.  For many the islands are where you go on vacation, but you'd never want to live there.  The heat, the claustrophobia, the lack of "big-city" culture, the distance from loved ones back on the Mainland?  Grocery stores missing basic items like ricotta cheese?Humbler homes than what you might live in the states?   No, thank you.  During our time in Saipan we saw so many people come and go.  Some hated it, barely survived whatever commitment they'd made to being there (if they could make it that long) and hustled back to the so-called real world as quickly as they could.  Others liked it well enough,  and were sad to leave at the end of their year or two or five, but there was never any question about their leaving.  Home was somewhere else.  Indeed I find there aren't many people who really are cut out for island life (besides those for whom the island is their literal cultural and geographic home).   But we are.  And that's why I believe that someday we will return.  That was the big question  when we were in Saipan.  Are you coming back?  And there more I think about it the more I think the answer is yes. . .someday.  Now is not the time, but I believe the time will come.  We have not only the desire but the responsibility to go back because we can both do it and love it, and there's not many that can.

For now, I like to think of ourselves like rich folk.  You know how the super-wealthy have multiple homes?  Well, I feel like we have two homes too--one in the islands and one here in Ohio. One second thought, make that three.  I haven't been to the third Home yet, but I can't help feeling that it's going to be at least a little bit like living in the islands.

Jun 6, 2014

Trip of a Lifetime

The five eighth grade students who took the life-changing trip of a lifetime to Hawaii.  (This photo was taken on Sunday, June 1, 2014 at what I believe is the Halona Blow Hole on the southern end of Oahu, Hawaii)

Yesterday I returned from the second impossible trip of this year.  The Saipan trip still hasn't been fully recapped on these pages (though I promise, the rest of the posts on that epic trip are coming. . .and soon), and I now have a series of entries lined up on another trip that seemed a like a fantasy at first--but became a life-changing reality nonetheless:  The CAA 8th grade class trip to Hawaii.

This was truly the trip of a lifetime.  It took me awhile to really get that.  I've been to Hawaii so many times that while it's never lost it's allure, it feels very familiar to me. But as my students and I hustled to raise the funds for the trip, as we answered the standard "So where are you going on the class trip" and witnessed the surprise, awe, and on occasion barely concealed, almost hostile jealousy it began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary 8th grade class trip.  We were planning to take a trip that many people dream of their entire lives, a trip that they may never have the chance to take.  For many Americans the 50th state is almost a fantasy, a place you may visit once in your life (for a honeymoon or an anniversary) and maybe never again.

In a sense, this trip brought me back to what had always been the vision I'd had for class trips back in Saipan; to take kids to a place most of them had never been and might not have the chance to see again.  I wanted the students to have an experience of a lifetime, not just a few days of fun or a few days of museum visits, but an exposure to a new and different world, an experience that would be both fun and deeply educational, one that would help them see the world in a whole new way.  I believe we accomplished that with this journey to Hawaii.  And we accomplished something else I hadn't quite anticipated.  This trip may have been life-changing as well. The students realized that this was not merely a neat place they visited, but a place they could one day live, if they wanted to.  It was so inspiring to see the students realize that the world was a whole lot bigger than they thought, and that their options for a life well-lived were far greater than they had imagined.

I've never been inclined to "standardize" my class trips, so that each year we go to the same place and do the same things.  I realize that for larger schools this is a practical necessity.  But I've been blessed to teach in small schools with lean, nimble classes that could plan a different, unique trip every year. But if there were ever a destination I'd consider standardizing, Hawaii would have to be it.  I want every 8th grade class I teach to have this life-changing, eye-opening, mind-expanding, unforgettable, beautiful trip of a lifetime:

Well,that's it 8th grade trip is finished I had so much fun in Honolulu/Hawaii I can't believe I saw fish swimming around me I was so amazed of what I saw, I'm going 2 miss all my 8th graders that went on the trip and those who didn't, I had do much fun with every single one of them, and I'm happy that I got 2go 2 Honolulu and I'm just so happy, and now as we move on to,high school I will never forget this trip of a life time and I will never forget the fun I had and also I will never forget my friends, god bless you all amen
                           --Facebook status update by one of my students, as he reflects back on his class trip.

In the coming weeks keep an eye out for the a series of blogs that will capture this amazing adventure we shared in Hawaii.

May 17, 2014

Gideon Moments: The Mission and Ministry in Saipan

I took this photo while working on my Sabbath morning sermon--on Sabbath morning!  In place of my missing journal I wrote down my sermon notes in some empty pages of my planner.  God really blessed because the message of that sermon--about trusting God when you don't see away forward has become so fitting to my life, particularly in the weeks since we've returned from Saipan.

From what would have been my paper and pen journal--only if I'd had my paper and pen journal I would not have written much of what you see here.  This was typed on my laptop during the Chicago to Narita leg of our 27.5 hour journey to Saipan.

Friday, April 11, 2014, in the air en route to Narita, Japan. (12:42 A.M. EST)
I've begun this epic journey, the return to the touchstone of our adult lives, this mission to Saipan as off balance and emotionally disoriented as it’s possible to feel. 

[What followed was a lengthy reflection on some recent events  in my professional life, including some key events that had taken place just the three days prior to our departure.  A lot was weighing on my mind.  After unpacking all that I continued as follows] 

To add to this unsettled feeling is that fact that I’m typing this journal entry.  Typing because I have nothing to write in because I lost my journal on the flight from Columbus to Chicago today.  The journal contained all my notes for my week of prayer talks next week (not to mention the irreplaceable documentation of my life for the last six months or so).  Suddenly I have nothing ready for my main responsibility in Saipan this coming week.  Apparently God has seen fit for me to completely rely on Him for what He’s called me to do.  And right now I don’t even know what that means.  Should I be spending these precious hours now that boys are finally asleep frantically (or more spiritually, solemnly) reading the Bible and praying so that God can give me a new message.  Or do I just go forward and believe that when the time comes I’ll be given the words.  One feels like manipulation, the other like presumption.  Not only do I no longer have the materials I prepared but I don’t even know how to trust God to get me through.
The trip I had planned is not the one that I’m having, at least so far.  And right now I’m not quite sure what that means.  If what I had planned can be so easily taken from me, it makes me wonder if I dare plan anything at all.  And to go into this week with little or no plan is depressing to me.  I take literal joy in planning.  It’s the planning itself, that is so rewarding to me, even more so than whether the plan pans out.  So I plan.  It’s what I do.  But I commit to keeping it loose, being open to the Spirit.
The story of Gideon is on my mind a lot right now.  I think it will be the focus of my talk for the church youth group tomorrow evening at their post-hike vespers.  In Gideon we have the story of a man who struggled to really trust and believe God, a man who thought he knew how God was going to work through Him and found that what he had in mind and what God had in mind were totally different things.

What’s the plan?  When do you do when you think you now what God is doing and find out—repeatedly-that His plan is more audacious and more risky than anything you could have imagined?

By the time we landed on Saipan I had re-sketched out on my laptop as best I could recall the outline of the topics I would speak about. The theme for the week was "Jesus Cares" and each day had a topic (chosen with the help of one of my more challenging students at CAA, who several weeks earlier, while sitting with me in a teacher-enforced timeout, shared with me the four things that really mattered to him--basketball, school, family, and his future.  They became my topics for each day of the Week of Prayer.  I figured that what really mattered to this young man might matter to a lot of other kids as well.)  The message was that Jesus cares about us, and thus, about each of the those things that matter to us.  Each day's talk had a story, a message, and a scripture.  Storytelling is one of my strengths so that was the centerpiece of each day, with the idea that the story would drive home the message.  There were substantial holes still though--I had no story for Wednesday or Thursday, no scripture for Monday, a hazy message for Tuesday.  I also had a message theme for the sermon on Sabbath, "Trusting in God when the Lights Go Out" but no sermon notes yet.  What I did have was a pretty clear idea of what I would say--thanks to my missing journal--for the Sabbath evening vespers just 14 hours or so from our arrival on Saipan.  
Sunday morning,  April 13 Babs and I met up Sharon Nguyen, the principal of the Saipan SDA School and she took us on a lovely tour of the school property and campus, ending here in the auditorium where I would be speaking throughout the coming week.  I only just now noticed perfectly appropriate banner posted above me.

Here's a selection from my typed-out journal from Monday morning, April 14:

Here am I.  Monday morning, the first day of the reason I’m here.  To be the vessel through which God reaches down and touches the hearts of these kids and brings them into a real and meaningful relationship with Him.  The thought that has kept running through my head during this time of preparation is “What do I need to do to ensure that I receive the message from God.”  Prayer is obvious. . .but did I pray enough?  Should I have my own personal devotions first….after all how can God use me if I haven’t even bothered to spend time with Him for my own personal growth and connection but instead am just using the time to get what I need for my talk today.  But then, if I’m having personal devotions just so that I can be in the right place to receive what He has for me, then it isn't really the same as not having devotions—except worse because I am being disingenuous about it?  There is the temptation to try to make God work for me and I realize that right now He is calling me simply to trust.  He brought me out here,  He chose not to bring back my journal, He will work it out.  There is no need to put Him to the test, or go through the  motions to “get Him” to do what I need Him to do.

And after the service was over:

So it went well.  My only downside was that I completely forgot the theme scripture which is such a crucial part of the meeting.  How can you have a Week of Prayer and not even mention God’s Word?  But then again, I asked the Holy Spirit to be there.  I trust that He was and that He did what was needed.  The story was well received. And the skit Elijah and I did went quite well.  So I’m grateful.

And that was how things would go for the remainder of our week in Saipan--God would give me the details just before each day's talk, and His grace was always more than sufficient.

The outline for the Saipan SDA School Week of Prayer (and other speaking engagements). It would have been great to say I had this outline done in advance, and I guess I sort of did before my journal was lost, but the truth is I built this whole outline today, as part of preparing this blog entry.

Sabbath, April 12, 2014:
Sundown Vespers
Gideon Moments.  The Story: Losing my Journal/Gideon's Battle against the Midianites.  
The Message: Trusting in God when the plan keeps changing and the new plan seems impossible. 
The Scripture: Judges 7
Talking to the AY group for vespers after our hike to the Second Grotto

Monday, April 14, 2014: 
Week of Prayer Talk: 
Basketball.  The Story: The Sarah Season (the big reveal at the end of this inspiring story of a five-man basketball team that went all the way to the league championships motivated by the one of their schoolmates who'd died suddenly during the school year was that the team was from my audience's own school, Saipan SDA School and that the championship game had been played right on their own campus--though at the time, the campus belonged to another school!).  Read the full story, with pictures here in a blog entry I wrote just after we moved away from Saipan.
The Message:  Does Jesus care who wins a basketball game?  Maybe not but he cares about the people who play--on both teams, and he cares about everything that matters to us from something small like a basketball game to something huge like the loss of a loved one.  
Scripture (which I forgot to use on the first day!): Psalm 139, the theme scripture for the week.

Delivering the message. The first day of Week of Prayer, Monday, April 14.

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah)
Story: Noah's Ark (Elijah played the Voice of God, Noah's son Shem, and various animals entering the ark; I played Noah)
Message: Jesus is with us when we are scared
At the end of the story the kids got to take turns acting out different animals and we would guess what they were.  The lion was a very popular choice.
Elijah and I acting out Noah's Ark: Here Noah directs one of the animals on to the ark

The elephant!

The lion! Very scary!  The kids loved it and when it was their turn they all wanted to be lions!

Scared on the ark.  We did each story twice each day, once for the toddler class pictured above and again for the preschool class.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Week of Prayer Talk
School.  The Story: Alpo (I warned the audience at the start that this story did not have a happy ending. It's a hard-hitting true story of one of the more shameful chapters in my life--my class's harsh treatment of a new student who came to our school when I was in the eighth grade.  He was admittedly difficult--he wanted to be friends, he just didn't know how.  And we--well, especially me-- used that as excuse enough to gang up on him. He lasted just a few months before transferring to another school and I never saw him again.  I ended up with this school-themed retelling of the sheep and the goats (inspired by the great Keith Green's own retelling).  
The Message: Jesus cares about our experiences in school and He especially cares about those who are struggling in their school experience--and we should too.
The Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah)
Story: Joshua and the Battle of Jericho (I played the voice of God and the wall, Elijah played Joshua. Kids from the audience joined as members of the army marching around the wall)
Message: Jesus helps us to be patient and wait

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Week of Prayer Talk
Family.  The Story:  Lucky/Team Hoyt (I talked about my mom and the childish gripes I had when I was a kid/teenager and how in hindsight the very things I griped about were blessings.  I then segued into the story of Dick and Rick Hoyt, culimanting in the powerful I Can video about this amazing father-son racing team).
The Message: Jesus cares about what we are going through in our families whether we feel lucky or not. And no matter what our family situation is, we all have a Father who cares and who will carry us through.
Scripture: Isaiah 40:28-31

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah)
Story: Jonah and the Fish (I played the Voice of God and the great fish, Elijah played Jonah, and audience volunteers were the sailors that threw Jonah overboard
Message:  Jesus is always willing to give us a a second chance when we do wrong

Jonah and the sailors on the ship to Tarshish

Here comes the storm!

Jonah gets thrown overboard

The fish chases Jonah.  When I caught him, placed the black cardboard over Elijah to represent him being inside the fish.

Thursday, April 17, 2014
Week of Prayer Talk
The Future.  The Story: Lost ( I told the story of my friend Grant and I getting lost in the wilds of the Saipan boonies, augmented a PowerPoint slide show of photos from the actual adventure.  In hindsight, I would maybe not have used the PowerPoint as I felt like it interrupted the flow of the storytelling. It would have been better to show the pictures after the story was over.  But it still went fine. I just really don't believe in PowerPoint as a sermon tool, like, ever.) You can read my original telling of this adventure on this blog back in 2006 here.
Message: Jesus cares about our futures and if we follow Him we'll never get lost.
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11

Thursday,  April 17, my last Week of Prayer talk.  I spent the rest of the school day subbing in the classroom for a teacher that was out that day.

Pre-school Storytime (Skit with Elijah, Babs, and Ezra)
Story: The Birth of Jesus (Elijah played the angel, I played Joseph, Babs played Mary and Ezra played Baby Jesus).
Message: Just as Jesus came as a small baby, Jesus can help us live for Him even if we are very small

Friday, April 18, 2014
TGIS Vespers Worship Thought:  
Is It Well With You?
Message:  Gatherings like this are what life is all about.  If we would have more gatherings like this we need to keep Jesus number one in our lives.  
Scripture: 1 Timothy 6: 6-18

TGIS worship at the apartment where we were staying.  Hoping to meet with this group again if not on the temporal paradise of Saipan, then in the Eternal Paradise to come.

Sabbath, April 19, 2014
Sermon at Saipan Central Seventh-day Adventist Church
Message Title:  Trusting in God when the lights go out.  The message was you don't know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.  I wish I'd seen that great quote posted on Facebook before my sermon.  It said so eloquently what I tried to say in my sermon.
Scripture: Isaiah 43:2

Sabbath morning sermon.  April 19, 2014

Evening Vespers at Mt. Tapochau
Barbara took the speaking duties this time and shared from the heart about her journey with God in moving the school to a new campus and the miracles he worked to bring her dream to reality after we left Saipan.  It was a truly moving testimony!  Read the miraculous account here.

Babs and I on Mt. Tapochau just before her beautiful testimony of God's leading for sundown worship on our last day in Saipan, Sabbath, April 19, 2014.

The mountaintop.  Mt. Tapochau, Sabbath evening, April 19 at the end of a week of what was by God's grace fruitful ministry. It didn't happen the way I planned, but I trust that it happened the way He planned.