I'm putting together a video playlist of French worship courses. This is the most pleasant part of the course preparation that I've been diligently trying to accomplish since mid-December. Next Monday will be the first session in my course in Elementary French starting next week at MVNU. It's the first French course our university has offered in at least seven years. And, I'm probably the least prepared to teach it of anyone I know that speaks French. Mais, je vais en essayer. SIDE NOTE: It's also my 30th distinct course I've taught in the six years I've been at MVNU.
One of my favorite songs is Assemblée Louez L'Eternel. Nothing gets the heart pumping, feet moving, and hands waving like this song. It's hard to describe, because it's necessary to be in the midst of this song being sung to really experience it. And, quite frankly, it's difficult to sing this song outside of Africa #BecauseAfrica.
I've always said worship in Africa is a holistic, full-body experience, not just words spoken or heard but shouted in ways that move the entire being, words that can be felt like the thumping of a drum in the chest. In much of the Western world, the prelude to Christian worship is quiet and contemplative, strings slowly strumming with light piano melodies, to set your mind on things on reflective. Not so in Africa. Worship is the cultural expression of the human response to the Divine. It's always this way, in my opinion, though you are free to disagree.
In fact, you haven't really worshiped in Africa until you're covered in sweat, then you're just about ready. If you want God to hear you, say it loudly. Sing loudly. Live loudly.
The video below captures this song in its fullest expression that I've seen on-line. I had never taken a full video of this song while in Africa because I was too into the experience to care about recording it. What I also like about the video is that it shows the full range of francophone culture.
So, stand up, move the furniture out of the way, crank up the volume, and listen to the whole thing even as it winds down. The uluation you hear near the end is a common expression of worship in most African cultures as well as in some parts of the Arabic and Indian worlds. It's also used in the context of mourning (keening) and battle cries (bean sì "banshee") among the Scottish and Irish. All of these moods are appropriate to worship as well as their cultural representations.
The lyrics are easy, but the rhythm might be difficult at first for some of you. So watch it, sing along, and worship in a way familiar to the majority of Christians living in the Global South.
Assemblée, louez l'Eternal il est vivant*
Ay-ah-ayy, Ah-ahh, louez l'Eternal il est vivant.
*Translation: Altogether, Praise the Eternal One, He is living!
(hand roll to the left) Ay-ah-ayy (hand roll to the right) ah-ahh
(spin around) louez l'Eternal il est vivant (double high five)
At the two-minute mark it goes freestyle for a bit and then closes at the 3:30 mark.
When I was sophomore religion major, Dr. Cubie my advisor gave me a book for my birthday. It was not written by a significant theologian or a leather bound tome with gilded pages. Rather, it was an unassuming little paperback, first published in 1968 by J. Sidlow Baxter and reprinted in 1991, entitled Does God Still Guide? It looked like a book that would have been on the discount shelf in a used bookstore. And, now it is. You can find it on Amazon for one penny. I found out much later that it was a collection of sermons and talks given by Baxter, at one time a well-known speaker and lecturer from Australia. I still do not know that much about him.
As a senior graduating from four years of university study, I was tired of reading so I put the book on the shelf. It stayed there for nine years. I had carried it with me from Ohio to five different homes in Kansas City to the Ivory Coast to Ghana to South Africa to France. In early 2003, we were asked by our mission agency after an experience of being evacuated due to political strife in the Ivory Coast to consider going to Benin, another francophone country in West Africa. I was still struggling with this request, in the midst of intensive French language study, even though Sonya and I agreed to go forward with the move to Benin.
I sat in our salon-office-family room in the basement apartment situated within an alpine valley of Albertville, France, one of the most beautiful places on earth. But, even as I gazed at the surrounding natural beauty, I was inwardly worried, uncertain, très fatigué. I looked over at the hand-me-down shelf holding a few of my books that I had lugged between three continents during the previous 18 months. There, in the middle of several other well-used volumes, were the red letters asking "Does God Still Guide?" along the spine of Baxter's book that I'd received as a gift in December 1991.
I'm not a mystical person but neither am I an overly rationalistic one. I do not see God's visage in a toasted slice of breakfast bread, but I also do not seek a systematic logical argument for every decision I make. I'm also not stupid. I took the hint as I pulled the book off the shelf. I began reading it with a week to go before our move to Benin.
I didn't think Benin was the best place for us to be. I had heard some horror stories. I shared the possibility of the move with my two accountability partners, Assemblies of God missionaries also headed to Africa. I had just asked for them to pray about a potential change in our location. Before I could say where, Aaron said, "If they want you to go to Benin or Togo, don't do it! It's a nightmare, according to some friends living there." I just smiled letting them know we had already said, "Yes." Now, I just needed prayer to assure myself that it was the right answer. Especially now.
And, so our family moved to Benin, and I finished reading Baxter's book during our first week. As I still resisted making this move, I found myself reassured by the timely and necessary encouragement in Baxter's writings. Here is a portion that has lodged in my mind, and that I now share with my own students at MVNU in Foundations of Mission class:
"Remember that the divine plan reaches into an eternal future, and God is the Master Adapter who can overrule, improvise, re-fashion, and eventually bring about the pre-intended ultimate by an alternative route. Give yourself you Him with utter unreserve. By so doing, you will get back into His over-all purpose, and He will begin at once to shape your remaining years on earth in accord with His larger intentions for you in that endless destiny beyond . . . There is a compassionate adaptability about God's will for us . . .” (Baxter, 24-25)
And, Benin changed my life all for the better. Oh, we had our moments. It was not the most beautiful place I'd ever seen, known more for malarial dreams than dramatic vistas. It was a place and people, however, that I grew to love. It became home once I sought the wisdom of the Master Adapter.
I thought about not writing a review of this short read (A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, 2008) that will haunt the reader long after turning the last page. It's difficult to read because of the way the pain condenses on the page like the humid night air of rainy reason. The memoir is of a young man recounting his life growing up in a rural village in Sierra Leone in western Africa. The story enfolds in the mid-1990s as rebel soldiers attack his home village while he is away with friends at a hip-hop festival in a neighboring area. The violence follows him, cutting him loose from his family, familiar places, and everything necessary for survival.
There is only a short part of the book dedicated to his actual experience as a soldier. In a way, I'm thankful. I appreciate battlefield memoirs, such as The Things They Carried and Matterhorn. It is just too hard to read knowing it is just a child in the center of this nightmare. The last seventy pages recount Beah's repatriation and rehabilitation into society. It reads like Ender's Game meets the Maze Runner, but for reals. (MINOR SPOILER: Eventually, he is brought in by an uncle). The story seems to end abruptly, not with a full stop, but with an ellipsis.
The book does not offer a chronological account of events but instead emerges as a patchwork of memories. There are gaps which will frustrate some readers, as noted on the Goodreads reviews. I advise the read to Just take it as it is. Along with the parts of the story that almost hurt to read, it is possible to discover glimpses of life in west Africa: the preparation of food (gari, cassava, leaves, chicken as a specialty), the tight-knit and large families including the important role of the uncle, the predominance of Islam (in which adherents are victimized by the violence and war as much as anyone else in this book), the seemingly incessant nearness of loss and imminent death, and how children experience life and death in ways that are beyond the comprehension of most Westerners. I kept thinking of my friends and colleagues that lived through this war that touched not only Sierra Leone but Liberia also. I prayed for them and their neighbors, again.
I'm grateful for the attempt made by Beah, a 2004 Oberlin grad, to tell his story to the rest of the world. I hope it continues his road toward healing, and maybe finding his way home again.
I just realized I've been posting about professional things without giving you a glimpse into all the crazy stuff that happens to me.
Last summer I was sitting in the Kroger Starbucks in Mt Vernon, Ohio. [Surprise!] I was working on something, maybe catching up on reading, can't remember exactly. I find the ruckus and hubbub at a place like this invigorating enough to get some things done, also it's a good place to go to be around people. Along with getting stuff done, I can meet people in an informal and very public setting. In fact, it's an ideal "third space," using a term made familiar in sociology by Ray Oldenburg. Oh yeah, and someone else brews the coffee. It was a Saturday late morning, and I wasn't meeting anyone so I was scruffing it with a stumbly face over a wrinkly brown t-shirt and an old pair of jeans. There were several occupied tables around me, and the self-checkout lines were beeping and rattling with activity not uncommon on a weekend.
Barely noticeable in this atmosphere, a balding older gentleman in a tennis shirt and shorts walked by once and then twice. I kept reading, after throwing a brief glance his direction. A few minutes later, I sensed someone walking over to my table. I looked up, and it was the same guy.
Meekly, his head almost bowed down, he approached me like a monk chanting morning prayers, saying, "Excuse me, I hope I'm not bothering you. You must be used to people coming up to you, I hope you don't mind, but if you do just say so." I just looked at him and smirked a bit, not sure who he was or what he wanted. I'm used to people I know chatting me up here, but I had never seen the guy before this moment.
He continued, "Again, I'm sorry, but I'd like to ask a favor." I said sure, but still not sure what was happening. "You see, it's my wife's birthday in a few weeks," he said with more than a tinge of nervousness. "And, Mr. Clapton, I'd like for you to sign this CD cover for her. Her name's Sally." I just stared at him with my jaw visibly dropping into my lap, and then my own nervousness kicked in which expressed itself in a smile of the creeped-out spreading across my face.
"Um, well, you see, I'm not Eric Clapton," I replied, spotting the CD cover (below) in his shaking hands.
(Deep sigh.) I was almost consoled by the fact that even taking off the age of the imported album cover, taken in the early 2000s, the image captured him still in his late 50s. Ugh. So much for my brush as being a famous celebrity. Apparently, Clapton's wife is from Columbus and they own a house in Apple Valley about 10 miles east of Mt. Vernon. I hear he's picked up groceries at this Kroger a few times, and I still drink coffee there. No one's asked for my autograph since then.
I started to write a novella in November, part of NaNoWriMo.org. I didn't make much progress, though. The premise is a frustrated young man enters a time ripple and finds himself in the same spot a century ago.
The setting is Mount Vernon, Ohio during two these different time periods, now and 100 years ago. Some of the characters in century-old time frame are based loosely on my great-grandparents and their three small children that lived here prior to moving to West Virginia where my grandfather was eventually born. It combines my interest in family genealogy and dipping into obscure historical periods. There is not much written on the 1910s.
There will also be a few composite characters and places gleaned from research at the Knox County Historical Society and stories in the Democratic Banner, a twice-weekly newspaper published in Mount Vernon during the early 1900s. Browse these issues at Chronicling America. Here's an excerpt from the story:
“What the--,” said Jack, straining to see through the wet, heavy mist swirling above his car.
A brief second revealed the imposing four foot wingspan reaching across the hood of his beat-up import. Jack blinked hard, unbelieving.
“Is that an owl?,” said Jack to no one in particular, not able to keep his disbelief to himself.
The great horned owl soared past his windshield and somewhere into the great billowy sheets of rain and lightning. One of the jagged strikes lit up the sky just as the owl turned its huge yellow eyes toward Jack. It was looking right at him—through him—as it seemed Thor himself was poundeding the bridge with an explosive crash of light and asphalt and Japanese steel. The world disappeared into a blinding ripple. Jack opened his mouth to cuss, scream, anything but nothing came out.
The car swerved into the concrete slab of the bridge’s abutment, sending the car spinning into the surging waters of the river below. The car scrapped under the bridge, at the mercy of the raging current. It would have been possible to see the horrified look on Jack’s face one last time before the vehicle succumbed to the rushing torrent, but he was no longer in the car.
Je suis Charlie? #CharlieHebdo & the Struggle (Jihad?) Between Free Expression & Cultural Sensitivity
If you haven't heard by now, the office of a popular and irreverent political satire magazine entitled Charlie Hebdo was attacked at their new headquarters in 20th arrondissement of Paris near the famed Pere Lachaise cemetery. (Only four kilometers from where my wife and I stayed the first time we visited Paris in 2000.) Yesterday, on January 7, 2015, the lead editor and cartoonist, three other political cartoonists, an economist, and seven other persons including a wounded, unarmed police officer were killed in an attack at 11:30 a.m. in broad daylight. Two gunmen entered a building walked through the offices, entered a meeting room and shot the cartoonists after calling out their names. By all accounts, it was a professionally executed attack rolled out with military precision. I'm sure more information will come to light in the next few days.
Here is a video report of the attack followed by a reflection upon what is at stake.
To say Charlie Hebdo is irreverent is an understatement. It's very provocative in its satire. Most of the jokes are sexual in nature. Google "Charlie Hedbo" and click images if interested more detailed analysis, so to speak. Covers from the last few years will come up. They nail religion, Islam, Catholicism, and even the Trinity. They skewer the sexual exploits of Francois Hollande, president of France, as well as take vicious jabs other politicians and world leaders. Everything was a target, and the nothing was off-limits. There should be nothing offensive about knocking down the powerful a few notches. At least, this is how I've been raised.
Since 2011, the Stephene Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo and one of the cartoonists killed yesterday, has been the center of the controversy, especially since their paper's offices offices were firebombed after a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a satirical manner. In 2012, Charb, as he was known, responded to threats on his life by telling journalists, "I prefer to die standing rather than living on my knees."
Soon after yesterday's attack, a former employee, Caroline Fourest, now living in Australia told a reporter:
"Even if they kill 10 of us, that the paper will not be out next week . . . To have an automatic weapon and kill people is really easy. You don't need any talent to do that. You need talent to be a cartoonist. You need talent to be a journalist. . . .Those people without any talent killed many talented people today just to create this emotion, this shock, this reaction of panic and hatred."
As the events of the day unfolded, newspapers and magazines around the world reacted as noted by these caustic and defiant front page headlines led by a big fat middle finger from The Independent. American newspapers and journalists, however, were criticized for blurring the image of the Prophet Mohammed in photographs showing Charb holding up one of the disputed magazine covers from the 2011 controversy.
This event is not isolated nor is it only about about religion or cartoons or free speech or terrorism. Living in France for a while, I saw firsthand the derogatory manner received by immigrants, primarily from Turkey. I have followed the struggle in France with Muslim women wearing hajib (veiled head covering) in public. I have seen the segregation of immigrant cultures marginalized into the suburban ghettos surrounding the major cities of France. In this context, ethnocentric behaviors, whether from resident Gaulois or from newly arrived immigrants, have become the norm. A cultural barrier has been erected over the past two decades in the heart of Europe.
Two positions have arisen within this divided context--freedom of expression and cultural/religious sensitivity. Supporters have been adamant: that freedom of speech and expression is paramount. This is an established Western value. Critics of the Charb and Charlie Hebdo (and there are many) agree that some things are out-of-bounds and cultural sensitivity should be valued, which is typical of collective cultures of the Global South. Jacques Chirac, president of France when Charlie Hebdo's cartoon controversy first erupted nearly ten years ago, said at the time, "Freedom of expression should be exercised in a spirit of responsibility." What about this is true? Should it ever be true? Is silence golden or a sign of cowardice in the face of a challenge? Honestly, I rarely agree with Chirac, but he was a masterful politician at finding a compromise chiseled through the middle of a tough, controversial issue. A debate on French television puts the issue to Charb (in a black leather jacket) and Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar from Oxford, under the unfortunately prescient banner of "La Liberte Assassinee!" (see video below in French).
- At what point does free expression turn ugly? Is it always and only intended to make people laugh, think, or sometimes used to attack persons and ideas with which someone disagress without honest debate? When an argument is by-passed without rational reflection and rhetorical engagement, does it lose its right to be expressed by scoffing at its responsibility to honor others? When does it become just arrows shaped as pencils? See some of the recent hand-drawn responses on both sides of the debate posted on Twitter at #CharlieHebdo or #JeSuisCharlie.
- At what point does cultural sensitivity turn deadly? Do offensive insults demand to be answered by violent retribution? Will this not lead to an endless cycle of action and reaction? Is there a time to remain silent in the face of offensive, insulting behavior? Does a gun ever need to be the response to a pencil? Should insensitivity to somone who is different--the cultural other--be allowed? Or does it only become an issue when blood is spilled?
As a Christian, I have cringed at some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, especially those satirizing Christianity. The only one that really bothered me depicted the Persons of the Trinity in a sexually explicit and vulgar posture, in a way that is not just offensive but ignorant of the Trinity in a theological manner. I understand the need for some to provoke or diminish others' beliefs. I've had it happen to me, and I've been a perpetrator at times. I also understand forgiveness even if it is not asked for or desired. I abhor violence as a response for any offense no matter how great. As a Westerner, I view the cartoons as a valid form of speech and opinion that must be protected, even defended, whether or not I agree with the content. I get the joke, though I may not personally laugh at it. The joker still has a right to be stupid. As a former resident of the Global South, I understand that words and images hurt deeply, more so than in the Western world, and will break a community apart, and that memories are long and pain rarely diminishes with time. As a cross-cultural observer, I wonder if Charles Kraft's notion of receptor-oriented communication applies at this point. I teach that whatever a cross-cultural guest says or does, it must be viewed and evaluated through the filter of the receptor, the audience, the host culture. When does one just keep one's mouth shut, and when does one shout in defiance? I think defiance is a valid response only when a universal value is neglected or damaged. But, violence is not an option. What is more important human life or social reputation? Do words have consequences? Who is responsible for bringing different worlds together?
Welcome to our world, the one we inhabit together. How will we respond? How will we break down these barriers?
The search for God's will is like searching for your car keys only to find out they are buried deep in your pocket. In fact, to go a step further, it's like searching for your car keys only to find out they are already in the car's ignition. God is not far away, and He's been waiting for you. There's no need for a frantic search to find Him and arrive in His presence. This might sound strange because this is not how humanity views its connection to the Divine. Almost every human culture has an awareness of the other-worldly, along with deceptively simple to fantastically extravagant means for finding ways to slide between this-world and the other-world, to attempt to grasp God's presence, and maybe also His will.
According to Olson, the Holy Spirit is the art instructor, someone like Bob Ross (maybe even more than some would be willing to admit) and Jesus is the model. Well, more than than just a model, really, since Jesus is the actual image that disciples are to reflect and be transformed into.
This is not a new way to approach God's leading (what I like to talk about more than God's will). Sometime when you have an extra half day, read the Book of Numbers, or if you have only an hour maybe start around Numbers 10:11 and go through chapter 13. The people of Israel could have ended their travels by the end of chapter 13. They were there at the cusp of the Promised Land. They had arrived! But then . . . they balked. They chickened out. They didn't see the land as God's promise to be fulfilled but as a pitfall of their own demise. The people were on the right path, going in the direction God revealed to them. They simply did not trust God, for it is written "the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD" (chapter 11 verse 1). And so, the Book of Numbers becomes a story about wandering around looking for what is right in front of each of human face--all that God has given. Just step into His presence right into the future waiting to be lived out. Sounds crazy, it probably is. It never makes sense, probably never will. But how could someone live any other way and expect to be fully . . . at home?
SIDE NOTE: As I was writing this blog post, four (make that five) students in a row came through the office door looking for--you guessed it!--guidance. Three of them left with possibilities they had not thought were even possible. One of them left, saying, "Stop it! You're scaring me." (She was smiling as she said it, sort of.)
And, the path goes on, if we're willing to join God for the journey . . .
Even if you don't like Bono or US that much, you should still read or, at least, skim his thoughtful reflection on the past year, called a "Little Book for a Big Year." Below are some of the more interesting bits, in my opinion.
Capitalism is not immoral, but it is amoral. It gets its instructions from us. It's an indiscriminate engine, and our obligation is to see that it provides forward movement to everyone, not just to those whose hands are on the levers of the machine.
U2 is a band that started out as fans, and with this new album we wanted to remind ourselves and others that we hadn't forgotten that. We stepped out of the audience of The Clash and The Ramones... In earlier times we had fans sleeping on the floors of our hotel rooms. Later that got weird. But we've always understood who was paying our wages.
Friendship like music is a sacrament to me. I can't remember who said it; it might even be Nietzsche, who said one other thing – and if I wore tattoos, I would ink this all across my right arm – that to do something really great, there requires "a long obedience in the same direction".
Our album [Songs of Innocence] was to be like a bottle of milk dropped at the door of anyone interested in music and iTunes. As I understand it, the journey from the front door to the fridge and into what to some people felt was their bowl of cereal has something to do with a switch called "automatic download" - if you turn it on, you sign up for being pushed stuff.
I broke my hand, my shoulder, my elbow and my face but the real injury this year was to my Irish pride as it was discovered that under my tracksuit I was wearing yellow and black Lycra cycling shorts. Yes, LYCRA. This is not very rock 'n' roll.
At this time of year some people are reminded of the poetic as well as the historic truth that is the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story has a crazy good plot with an even crazier premise - the idea goes, if there is a force of love and logic behind the universe, then how amazing would it be if that incomprehensible power chose to express itself as a child born in shit and straw poverty.
Bono goes from there into the rest of the piece. I encourage you to read on, especially about SDGs, the unholy trinity, vision over visibility, and what he calls Generation Z. Okay, I'll quote him on the last bit. I have said basically the same thing myself. I love working with millennials (24 to 35 year olds) and especially younger millennials (16 to 24 year olds), who I think Bono is referring to as Generation Z. I love working with them, because they will surpass me and my generation (GenX) and do more than what we could ever hope to acccomplish. In his words:
As they age, I don't know if they'll be playing our music, but if we are still around, I hope to be deafened by the joyful noise of a world unrecognizably better because of the innovations in science, medicine, and equality they bring about. The biggest breakthroughs are always in the way we see the world. We could do with some fresh eyes.
hour of sleep the night before rather than sleeping through class or doing something crazy like jumping over a car hood on a longboard or punching a reinforced window with a bare hand. I could go on and on. Say what you will about adolescent motivation but they will always find ingenious ways to hurt themselves. In spite of this short-term blindness, a kind of practical nearsightedness, young folks still have questions about what comes next: where will they live, what direction will careers will take, who to spend life with. Much of their quiet mental state is flummoxed with thoughts about the long-term future.
They want to find THE pathway, and hope that someone else will point it out to them. I will not just pick on millennials, because I see this tendency in most people's lives and in my own life, for that matter. Instead of discerning God's purposes for in life, there's a tendency rely on external "signs" to point the way. Seeking God's will has become a Christian ruse for paganistic divination. There are problems with this approach to the future at two levels: the finding the path and the path itself.
Finding the Path
Knowing one's future is the process of discernment, from the Latin meaning to "distinguish" or "sort out." The myth of discerning the future is illustrated well by the Sorting Hat of the Harry Potter universe. When Harry or Hermione arrive at Hogwarts, they along with all first year students take turns putting on the Sorting Hat which will whisper which of the four "houses" they will join. More recently, the Divergent series of young adult novels uses a similar process of determining what part of society an adolescent will join aided by a chemically induced dream state. I cannot help but wonder if personality inventories, strengths finders, and spiritual gift inventories are not the same kind of thing.
To hear a voice is at the root of the word "obedience" in the Hebrew language. To be able distinguish God's singular voice evolved from the human capacity to pay attention. Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind (2014) identifies the attentional filter as the cognitive process that helps human beings extract important information from a constantly changing environment whether it's bumps in a road to the hair color of a parent's child lost in a crowd to a divine calling whispered in the darkness of night. Levitin writes, "The human brain evolved to hide from us those things we are not paying attention to." (p. 11) Another way of describing this is Frederick Buechner's advice, "For God's sake, pay attention." If the focus is on the Divine, entering into practices that place us in proximity to God will make His voice recognizable, and take us a step closer in God's direction.
More on the Path Itself in Part 2.