Thanks and No Thanks

Albert Camus once wrote that the purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. He has a point. In a day and age where cynicism and insults fly out of the mouths and keyboards of cultural leaders like reactionary cries of a toddler in a toy store, we enter a holiday season full of thanks and no thanks.

There are a lot of reasons to be thankful, particularly in the U.S. Despite being only 4% of the world’s population, we consume resources and material goods in mind boggling numbers. We can connect online across countries, across borders, and across time and space in mind-numbing speed. And the list goes on and on. Many people reading this truly take things, people, and food for granted.

But, there’s a ‘no thanks’ part that is also increasing in our culture.

The word ‘evangelical’ is becoming something people want to say ‘no thanks’ to because it has become virtually meaningless and more associated with fundamentalist voters rather than good news or salt and light. Cultural leadership, formerly occupied by celebrities or Presidents (world leaders) or athletes, is now a wide open and unoccupied space. Our own President has made fun of or called other people names several times in the past few days alone. Violence against women is now a common report in the news with prominent members of Hollywood or the sports world found guilty or as suspects. Even college sports is under investigation by the FBI for corruption.

I want to say a resounding ‘no thanks’ to so much of the cynicism and rhetorical vitriol that runs amuck on social media and in the news cycle. But, for the foreseeable future, all of the ugliness seems here to stay.

 So, in order to truly say ‘thanks’ to what is good, we now have to be even more intentional saying ‘no thanks’ to that which is unloving and unkind. Abraham Lincoln, about a month before he gave the Gettysburg Address, sent a note outlining why Thanksgiving means something. The memo is pasted here:

 

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Tags | global | holiday | love | thanks

International Education is More than Programs

When attending a musical in Austin, Texas, recently, the usher handed me a program. And some programs on television last less than an hour when you count the commercial interruptions. Many colleges and Universities advertise programs. All of these have at least two things in common: 1) they don’t last, 2) they are not meant to last.

This is why I don’t want to have students or faculty or parents see study abroad through the lens of programs only. I want to suggest that it’s the wrong ‘p’ word. Instead, there are at least three other ways to see study abroad and the view through them is much more interesting.

 

Pathway

An international experience is a decidedly colorful, meaningful, and robust marker on one’s journey, so it’s part of a pathway.

Progress and Decline at the Same Time

A name calling President who regularly insults others in public doesn’t seem like progress. Yet, we continue to advance medical technology to the point of AIDS being more treatable than before. We can detect certain cancers earlier and life expectancy is higher. This is promising.

The leading cause of death for adults 25-45 years old last year was drug overdose. In fact, the leading causes of death in all adults under the age of 50 is, for the most part, self-inflicted. Drug overdose, suicide, and heart failure all compete for number one. This doesn’t seem like progress. Earlier I took a train from London to Paris which travels underneath the water. I ate breakfast at a preserve in Australia with Koala bears and Kangaroos and had a soft drink and wrote in my journal while sitting in Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. Some of this seems like progress.

Nakedness is not the same as Nudity

"Naked without Shame"
This phrase is in the first few pages of the Bible. It's the kind of phrase that makes junior high boys snicker and it's the kind of phrase that makes newly married couples hopeful. And this phrase has very little to do with nudity.
The problem, though, is that in this world we have mirrors and social media and trends and styles--all which are platforms or vehicles by which we compare or pose. It's not like the festivals in Venice where one comes with a mask, it's a phrase that means no mask is needed--ever. We can simply be with one another--in relationship--without shame.
Particularly in a twitter heavy, facebook dominated culture, nakedness is now not only rare, it's hidden away under lock and key.
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Meeting at the Square


Last month, I found myself standing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The place dripped with historical significance. The place also seemed haunted in a "this isn't the safest place to express your badass self," kind of way. Yet, people gathered and took photos. People gathered and took time to reflect. And I think part of the mystique is that this is a place where men and women from all over the world gather to listen to their heart and learn from the past.
I have also stood in Red Square in Moscow and I have stood/sat/and lingered in Trafalgar Square in London. I have walked through and participated in the life of Times Square in NYC and I have had a coffee in the Plaza Mayor (Main Square) in Madrid, Spain. Around the world, places were kept for people to come together and simply enjoy the art of relating to one another.
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The Myth of Equality: a review


If you’ve been following the writing career of Ken Wytsma, you’ll note that he’s been tackling such lightweight subjects as the pursuit of Justice and the practical nature of paradox. All kidding aside, Wytsma brings a warmth and intelligence to his material that is both accessible and respectable at the same time. Falling down on either side is not good, so this is important. A book that errs on being too accessible often dumbs down research and salient points. A book that errs on respectability can become laborious and too narrow. And this is especially important in his newest book entitled The Myth of Equality.

Immediately, the word ‘equality’ needs to be set in context and in a world super charged with angry tweets and social media rants, a book that tackles subjects like white privilege, equality, racial tension, and power structures must be both accessible and respectable. After all, this is what we all want in adult conversations about serious subjects and let me say from the start that this is the best way to read this book. I don’t think books on justice or equality accomplish much in an era overloaded with blog posts and web based information. My initial comment on Wytsma’s new book is that this should be read with another person or in a small group. In fact, I think it’s hard to grow in this subject area without allowing someone else to ask questions of you in real time and over a period of time

And I am giving away the most impactful undercurrent in Wytsma’s book. He frames it this way in chapter eleven: “Listening isn’t just about content but also about whose voice carries it.” Listening, then, is more than information and involves context and involves language, tone, non-verbal communication, and culture. Later on, Wytsma talks about the “texture to truth that comes from experiencing something directly,” and there is about a three hour coffee shop conversation that could stem from those two ideas alone.

The beginning of the book is an effort to set “white privilege” in a historical context and it’s an overview that references Downton Abbey, aristocracy, and European influence quite a bit. While this is important and to be commended, I felt like this overview in the first few chapters fought against the experiential aspects described in later chapters. For this reason, I feel Wytsma, like his book Pursuing Justice is writing an introduction to a subject that deserves further treatment.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday last year, I read Bryan Stephenson’s powerful book Just Mercy and I was glad to see Wytsma also highly recommend it. Stephenson’s book also gets the point across, but in the experiential, direct, and textured way that seems more focused and fervent.

Let me be clear. I think The Myth of Equality is clear-headed, accessible, respectable, and an important contribution to a discussion that is textured and layered with historical context rich in individual and collective nuances. At twelve chapters, Wytsma’s book is approachable and readable. What happens, though, if Wytsma’s subject gets the narrative voice of Stephenson’s Just Mercy?

In the end, this is an introduction to not only a subject that carries weight and baggage, but also a posture that carries the burden of listening and learning. Shame is the enemy of authentic relationship, so Wytsma is right to tread carefully through this topic. If you’re willing to have an adult discussion, Ken Wytsma could be a helpful guide and the world could use a few more adult conversations about things that matter.

 

 

(Royalties from sales of this book will go to helping leaders of color get published through The VOICES Project. )

Where Power Resides

Washington is broken.

Wait….What?

When that phrase is uttered, what is meant is that the people elected to office have done a poor job leading. The people “elected to office,” have not performed their duties like most people expect. Gridlock. Negative rhetoric. The same men and women in office for years making little progress on issues or policies or problems. That’s what is meant when someone says Washington is broken. Personally, visiting the city is fun and always a bit energizing. Lots going on, good food, and enough to see to stimulate most imaginative people.

The power of Washington, though, at least from how our current government is framed, resides with people from all over the country.

Built for a Time Like this


 

We are being asked to live with unknown cultural elements and we are uncertain as to how some things will play out. We find some things we have seen this week to be unbelievable. Some of us are homesick, others of us feel exhausted, curious, disillusioned, and engaged all at once. It’s hard sometimes for me to articulate the deep longings that come out as emotional overload and my guess is that I am not alone.

Those of us in international education or those of us who have studied abroad or those of us who have international partners as part of our day to day work are built for a time like this. How do I know?

Cultural Disorientation

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Unlike Other People

In recent years much has been marked by many debates in Congress, increasing campaigns by Presidential hopefuls, and a vast array of movies characterized by special effects. We have also seen the passing of influencers and among them is John Stott, whose influence has been profound and whose example is inviting and intimidating at the same time.

Let me give a personal note. In the early 1990’s I heard John Stott preach at All Souls in London. I was a college student and the impact was enormous. I was new to the Christian faith and seeking like mad for knowledge and understanding. After the message, I promptly visited the bookstall, purchased ‘Basic Christianity’ by Stott and read it until the binding failed. Over ten years later, I helped lead a group of high school students to London and I brought them to All Souls for worship on the Sunday morning we were in the city.

Dear President Obama and Anyone Else Wanting to be President

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Obama (and any candidate who will listen):

Mr. President, I don’t mean to be impersonal in penmanship or in greeting. First, my handwriting isn’t going to win any awards and secondly, when I voted for you, you were still Mr. and Mrs. Obama, a couple who understands that family life takes work and that the American life also takes work.

I am writing to encourage you and for two additional reasons. First, you don’t need another critic. In fact, criticism is not what I learned from my community as a value in civic duty. Secondly, I want your help.  Let me set the context a bit. I too am from Illinois and I have a graduate degree in education from the University of Illinois. I have worked in faith based relief organizations for most of the past decade and took quite a bit of slack from fellow evangelicals for supporting you in 2008.  To me, the evangelical camp has become far too politicized in its efforts at social change and has sent its share of mixed messages recently in its political activity. In fairness, both parties have their sincere flaws. I don't think that that is news to anyone. My commitment is to follow God, conscience, and country in that order and I feel blessed to do so because our own Bill of Rights supports such convictions. I resonate with what you and Michelle highlighted in your recent speeches at the DNC, though I am white and yes, my real name is Bo. And yes, if you google my name pictures of your dog come up first. Thanks for that! But, let me explain why I am writing and why I am asking for your help.

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Tags | Global | economy | faith | global
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About
As a University director of study abroad in Central Texas, ideas and stories matter. These reflections are for pilgrims making progress.


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