I suppose that makes me a bad father but when I found her cleaning out the garden shed beside our garage a few years ago – her plan was a clubhouse – I immediately saw the potential for my own home office, a quiet repose from the upstairs echoes of our basement. Because it was a shed and is now an office I’ve taken to calling it the shoffice. I suppose a more exotic name may be in order but it is a quiet place to work and write and read. I had once dreamed of building a strawbale office, but this was less costly and more expedient.
It has been a step by step journey toward completion. Each successive year I’ve done a bit more to make it an efficient and comfortable space. At just over five feet wide and nine feet long, it is not an overly spacious office, but as someone who generally works from home four days a week it has been increasingly the right office.
I plug the shoffice into the house electricity with an extension cord. This adequately runs the lights, my computer and a space heater in winter. I installed a small window air conditioner this past summer making year round work a reality. I’m still working to finish out the ceiling, the trim work and a standing desk. Next summer I hope to refurbish the exterior as well and add a small portico over the front door to prevent rain from running down the front door, between the crack and onto the floor. I’d like to add a window or skylight in order to let in more natural light as well but we’ll see.
The shoffice is the place I go to work. My family is far too fun to work inside anymore. With two high schoolers studying at home, the distracting temptation to join in the conversations is just too much and so I escape out to my little shoffice beside the garage for much of the day. It’s my place to get things done.
This last year I read significantly more than years past. Too much perhaps, but reading has become a sort of hobby for me, an activity away from work that allows me to unwind and relax. I’ve heard that hobbies are important. A few years ago tried to take up fishing but never caught anything and so, whenever someone asked me what my hobby was I’d reply, “casting.” It seemed right to name it what it was.
While I”ve always been a reader, last year I read more books than any previous year. The final count came in at sixty six books. I read widely too: youth fiction, biography, Christian non-fiction, personal development, history and increasingly, those books who find their way into the category of classic literature. A good two thirds of the books I read were audiobooks and I regularly have two to three books going at any one time. I never read more than one book of fiction at a time but I’ll often have several works of non-fiction that I am working through.
C.S. Lewis said, “Those of us who have been true readers all our lives seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our own being which we owe to authors.” When I think about who I’ve become, my own journey of discipleship and how I think about the world this rings true. Books are perhaps the single most constant source of my own personal formation. They’ve shaped me both directly and indirectly. Besides good friends, books continue to fire my imagination, challenge my thinking and shape the narrative, the worldview of my thinking.
Dorothy Sayers said that, “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves.” There is little in life that allows me to continue to educate myself beyond books. Youtube can give me the information I need to fix a faucet but little more. Books however, and good books for sure, cause the mind to work at the task of cultivation, tilling the soil of the mind and the soul, planting seeds of old ideas made new, waiting in patient anticipation for new growth and, if all goes well, a harvest. Speaking of reading history, John Lewis Gaddis said, “Standing in the past is no sure guide to predicting the future. What it does do, though, is to prepare you for the future by expanding experience, so that you can increase your skills, your stamina, and, if all goes well, your wisdom.”
A good book is more than just paper and ink. It is a vehicle for formation and as Gaddis hopes, for the gaining of wisdom. And so I continue to read. Perhaps not at the same rate as last year but I’ll read on nonetheless.
How about you? What good books have you read lately?
Availability. It’s not often mentioned in the list of important qualities of disciples of Jesus but in our strung out western world, it may well be the most important gift followers of Jesus have to offer a broken and hurting world.
Availability. It is what Moses had when God called him to lead the people of Israel out of captivity. He was not a gifted speaker. He made bad decisions. He wasn’t very brave. But he was available and in his going back to Egypt he allowed God to work through him to rescue slaves unto freedom and to move God’s redemptive story forward.
Availability is what Gideon had when God called him to lead an army. Granted, Gideon was hiding in a winepress when God found him, and he wasn’t exactly excited to jump on God’s bandwagon. Once Gideon’s fleece was wet however, he obeyed even as God reduced his regiment to a hilariously small number that gave all the glory to God in victory.
And Rahab was available too. She was a woman of ill repute, a foreigner and a prostitute who at the time we can assume knew nothing of the God of the Israelites except what she has overheard; that He had been victorious in recent skirmishes and miraculously parted the Red Sea. She steps into God’s redemptive story when two of Israel’s spies step into her room and she risks her life to hide them.
If we survey the prominent characters of the Biblical narrative, few are chosen because they are highly qualified leaders. A few were of course – King Saul, Judas, Saul of Tarsus, but most of these didn’t work out so well. It seems the highly qualified often lean a little to deeply into self reliance and self reliance usually leads to trusting in man rather than trusting in God.
Relying on his own gifts and abilities and education, Saul of Tarsus was hunting down followers of Jesus to have them arrested and thrown in prison. It was only when he left his highly qualified self behind that Saul became available to become Paul and the man whom God could use to build his church.
When we look through the hall of fame that is Hebrews eleven, the number one thing each of the faithful had to give to God was themselves.
They said yes. They were available.
And while Jesus is highly qualified in every way, he models the radical availability that allowed him to say, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”
And that is why Jesus’ ministry looks so vastly different than the successful ministries of today. His is the ministry of availability, of responding to the interruptions of the masses, of walking miles out of his way to heal a leader’s son, of inviting the children to come to him.
Jesus’ model is not that of the best leadership style but of availability.
First and foremost, He models an availability to abide. Despite an incredibly full ministry, Jesus routinely makes time to be with the Father. He is part of the triune forever relationship of God and Son and Holy Spirit and this carries on into His 33 years on earth.
He is a master of scripture, a mastery that most certainly came from years of immersion in those same scriptures. He is a master as well of prayer, of interceding on behalf of the sick and the demon possessed and the lost. There is authority in his prayers. And Jesus is the master at communing with God, of walking in a living relationship with the Father. He is the master at abiding and he invites us first and foremost to do the same. And so while the immediate needs of the masses continually pressed in around him during his ministry on earth, we see the clear model that, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
When Peter and John were before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, the characteristic recorded for all posterity is not that of highly qualified leadership skills or a refined speaking ability. It was that they had been with Jesus. The Sanhedrin note that while they were “ordinary unschooled men”, they had been with Jesus. Peter and John had become masters of abiding with God because it is the model that Jesus gave them.
And so at the forefront of the discipleship journey, we as followers of Jesus must learn to be available to abide with him. Despite the chaos of our frenzied western existence, we must learn to set aside time to be with Jesus. It is our first act of availability.
It was from this first lifestyle of abiding availability that Jesus’ ministry flowed. And in his three years of ministry as recorded in the Gospel, He models again and again the servant heart that makes him available to engage hurting, lost people – even when they interrupt him.
It seems an almost regular occurrence that Jesus responds to a pleading father, a frightened and sick woman or a shouting blind man. He is regularly going one way and then – in response to a need – heads another way. It seems at times haphazard and yet it’s not. His ministry is focused. He went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. There was purpose in his journeys. He trained up twelve men who would go on to launch His movement. He gave his followers what they needed – himself – to spread the good news of His kingdom.
Like Jesus we must live strategic lives of engagement with a clear goal in mind. But the way to do that – as modeled by Jesus – is first and foremost to be with God. To make knowing God our first priority. We must set aside regular time to go away and sit at the feet of the Father. We must practice listening prayer. Immersion in the scriptures needs to be a central part of our daily routines.
It was the mid 1980s when I first saw the American movie classic, Red Dawn. Set in a small Colorado foothills town, the movie is a classic good guys verses bad guys movie pitting the blood thirsty red army of the Soviet Union against an all American, self-relient cast of characters fighting a guerrilla war of a second independence.
I had grown up on a steady litany of stories of the propaganda machine that was the Soviet Union, of their brainwashed populace; of their inability to know the truth.
We had Hollywood. And I wonder if Hollywood didn’t do a better job of brainwashing our populace than the Russian KGB did theirs.
They certainly had me.
I spent many a day throughout my elementary years planning the defense of my town from the inevitable invasion of those ‘red devils’, those commies who had plans to blow us off the face of the earth. I had an active imagination but it had plenty of source material.
Ask anyone over 40 and they’ll tell you that there was deep distrust of the Soviet empire.
And no one knew a single Russian person.
We lived off of myth.
And then the myth fell down. It was the Berlin Wall actually, but it is hard to imagine now the fear that so gripped the west for so many years.
So afraid of the communist threat was our nation that we entered bloody wars, we propped up cruel and tyrannical dictators over those who were democratically elected, we pumped millions of dollars in support to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and we allowed our daily rhetoric to be that of vitriol, hostility, culture assassination, exaggeration and hysteria.
This is not to say that there was not actually a threat. I’m quite certain there was – competing ideologies by the world’s standards most always lead to confrontation. And when the two groups holding the ideologies also have a lot of nuclear bombs, then the threats escalate.
I was sitting in a book store under an Istanbul mosque several years ago talking with my friend Serdar about politics and faith and we began talking about the tension between the east and the west. I was trying to see a way forward, to see a way to better relations, to see some hope but Serdar stopped me.
“People always need an enemy. If one goes away, they find another. They need an enemy.”
He said it so matter a factly, as if it were true; gospel fact.
Is it true? Do we need an enemy? Do we look for a bad guy in order to make ourselves feel better?
I am not sure that we “need” an enemy but I am sure that we do have one.
Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” So yes, we do have an enemy.
But too often we mistake him for someone else. Depending on your persuasion it could be the communist or the catholic, the Muslim or the Jew or the evangelical Christian, the right wing conservative or the left wing liberal.
We end up creating gross over generalizations of entire groups based on their very worst examples. We vilify them as the enemy and neglect any real conversations that could lead to understanding and honoring relationships.
And we keep doing it over and over again. We keep repeating the past.
I have been reading Mustafa Aykol’s book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and it has been enlightening to hear the scope of Islamic history told from the point of view of a Turkish, Muslim scholar and journalist. Aykol’s perspective serves to reinforce the value and importance of reading widely and from a broad range of perspectives, of reading patiently while waiting for a more nuanced, deeper understanding to emerge before casting judgment.
By way of example, Aykol’s handling of what we in the west call the Armenian genocide – for indeed it was a genocide – is framed in the historic backdrop of the rising tide of nationalism which was sweeping through Europe at that time. What happened in Germany to the Jews because of this rabid nationalism had happened in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Crimea twenty years prior as countries there waged wars of independence from the Ottoman Empire and in a victorious wave of nationalism, drove out or slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims and Jews. These atrocities fueled the Ottoman people’s own nationalistic impulses which led to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the second decade of the 20th century. What happened in the Balkans in no way justifies their actions toward Armenians in Anatolia, but it does frame these terrible events in the complex context of the tension of those times.
Gaining a deeper understanding of the complexity of the historical and cultural context helps us to have more meaningful and respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. Remaining outside of this place of deeper understanding leads to intolerant and insular positions bound up in the darkness of falsehood, slander, hypocrisy and injustice.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout that, “You never really understand a person until you consider his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He might well have added historical events, people groups and even religions to his statement for unless we are willing to climb into the complexity of the historical and cultural context of those, we will never truly understand them.
Our two kids have enjoyed the opportunity to be home schooled these past two years. My wife does a fantastic job and while our homeschooling looks very little like a traditional classroom, the kids are having fun learning.
One of the great things about home schooling is the ability to identify our kids passions, dreams and strengths and then spend more time focusing on them. There are no bells telling them it is time to move on if they are in the middle of a project or are caught up in the heart of a chapter of a good book.
Malachi is all about story. He loves stories – both reading them and writing them. His love for writing has tumbled over into poetry as well.
Poetry is such a great outlet for beginning writers – it’s shorter, grammar matters less and it’s fun.
Today Malachi wrote a poem and I thought I’d share it. As the leaves begin to fall and the temperatures drop, he naturally chose to write about fall. Enjoy.
I continually get asked the question, “What do you do?” whenever I meet new people.
I suppose as well that many who’ve asked before continue to wonder.
It is a complicated answer and one that I myself fumble around to answer whenever I am asked. I usually begin with, “It’s complicated.”
It isn’t so much that it is complicated though as much as it is just not traditional, not something that people can find in their own personal memory bank of “jobs.”
I am a language coach.
(or rather, one of the things that I do is language coaching, among other things)
To explain I’ll begin by way of analogy.
Lebron James has a personal trainer. Why?
Lebron is one of the greatest basketball players ever. He is one of the most athletic, one of the strongest.
Why would he need a personal trainer?
Pastor and author Andy Stanley said,
You will never maximize your potential in any area without coaching. It is impossible. You may be good. You may even be better than everyone else. But without outside input you will never be as good as you could be. We all do better wend somebody is watching and evaluating.
Lebron knows that he can be better, that a personal trainer can help him get the most out of himself.
As a language coach, I do the same – plus a bit more.
You see, Lebron knows basketball. You could say he is an expert.
Most learning another language however are not experts. Most don’t know where to begin.
Ask yourself, “If I were to want to learn Russian, what would I do? Where would I begin?”
If you are like most learners, you are probably drawing a blank – or you’ve gone to the only idea you’ve ever known – I’d go to school.
As a language coach I would with clients in six main areas:
New Learning Ideas
New Resources for Learning
When I work with a client, I help them create a plan for learning which usually begins by helping them understand how they learn best – in a classroom or out in the community, alone (mostly) or in a group, with lots of technology or with less technology.
I help them think about creating a learning plan for the next six months, for the next month, for the next week and for each day. We break it down.
I give learning strategies and drills and activities that they can use to focus on mastering the different elements of any language.
In this sense, I am never teaching a specific language but empowering people to be able to learn any language.
I help people find new resources – readily abundant and mostly free – to learn their particular language.
Language coaching is also about holding learners accountable to the plan we’ve created and about helping them stay motivated.
In the end, language coaching is mostly about helping people successfully learn another language as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Around the World
Most of my clients are overseas. They are mostly working for non-profits and church organizations.
And so my coaching sessions are all online through Skype.
This morning I met with a client in Istanbul. He was sitting in Starbucks with his iPhone, I was at home in my basement with my laptop.
I could see him, he could see me and for just over an hour we talked about how the language learning journey was going, about where he could be more effective and where he was doing well.
I gave him ideas for activities he could do, for ways to make his daily interaction with the building security guard a better language learning experience. I’ve sent him three or four articles from my website, The Everyday Language Learner, for further reading to expand on topics we discussed.
It is always a rewarding experience to know that I have helped someone step into another day of mastering a language with more hope, with less fear and with new knowledge for getting the most out of the day.
I meet with clients about once a month for an hour and my goal continues to be to work up to 30 clients.
It also provides a bit of income.
Not enough to pay all the bills but enough to keep doing it.
Language coaching is really what I love to do. It allows me to continue to be a part of the work we did in Turkey and to play my part to help others even as we’ve returned to small town South Dakota.
A month or so ago I was paging through the beefy book, “A Tale of Three Cities“, a historic survey of Marion, Monroe and Dolton, three small towns in our area of South Dakota.
As residents of Marion, it has been engaging to learn a bit about the history of the area, to read of the stories of the earliest settlers, their triumphs and tragedies and the oddities of life that make reading history entertaining.
The book itself was produced for Marion’s centennial celebration back in 1979 and is filled with early history, newspaper excerpts and family histories.
It was in the section of early newspaper excerpts of Monroe that I came across this bit of news:
July 1902 – The German Church of Monroe purchased a new bell for their church. The bell is one of the largest in the country and weighs 1,500 pounds.
For one reason or another, 1,500 pounds seemed really big. I was imagining an enormous, six foot tall bell that the whole county must have been talking about.
And yet, there was nary a word more about this bell or what happened to it.
I had stumbled into a mystery.
A small secret from history that curiosity demanded I – or rather we – investigate.
What had happened to the 1,500 pound bell?
I asked around a bit and then, this last Saturday, the kids and I loaded into the van and drove the seven miles out to Monroe to pick around and see what we could find.
There are two churches in Monroe – both with bells but neither seemed to be a 1,500 pound bell.
We wound from one street to another discussing where a church might have been, taking in the quaintness of the town, discovering the lone business – a bar.
And then we decided to head back home.
Thankfully we pulled into the smaller of the two Reformed churches and noticed the sign on the outside of the building.
It read: German Reformed – 1898.
Perhaps we were on to something.
We got out of the church to take a closer look at the bell, conveniently hung on an eight foot tall stand alone bell tower in front of the church.
I had assumed all along that this bell would be grand, giant, larger than a normal church bell.
I assumed wrong.
As we shoved Malachi up onto the ledge he read the inscriptions on the bell.
On the back side: E.W. Vanduzen Co.
On the front side: Buckeye Bell Foundry – 1902.
We had found the bell.
We returned home to do some google searching only to find that it doesn’t take much bell to get to 1,500 pounds.
The Liberty Bell weighs 2,000.
Overall it was a fun little investigation for the kids and I. They were both excited to be sleuthing around, searching for clues, reporting the facts.