Thoughts on being and feeling foreign

I’m in my home state of Kentucky for the first time in several years, and back in the United States for the first time in a year and a half. It’s the longest I’ve been away from both and coming back feels both strange and wonderful. I can feel all the friction in life of being a foreigner dissipate, and that’s quite an experience, to notice a lack of friction. I guess this is one of  the things the experience of living abroad buys you, you can feel “home” more deeply.

It’s all still pretty fresh still and will only last a few weeks, but my mind is already drifting into thoughts about just how foreign I am in Korea and how much I feel it. Korea is easy to learn to survive in but hard to feel at home in. I love it, no doubt, I truly do. I love being and feeling foreign, and when someone local takes the time to make you feel and be less so, it’s a real gift and friendships can grow quick and deep in that way. Likewise, when someone local takes no time to do that, or takes time to make you feel more foreign it can feel horrible and disheartening. Experiencing both of these things while out and about is one thing, but where one works and lives is harder. For me, my place of employment is the hottest furnace of cultural friction. It’s accredited both by an international Christian school organization and by the Korean government. It often feels like two schools in different dimensions existing side by side and overlapping each other in some quantum realm where the rules of physics are broken and bent. Often I love it because it creates situations that I find comedic. A task that should be simple is complicated to no end because cultural norms for decision making, leadership and communication smash in to each other or miss each other completely. Over time it does start to wear people out, and then it’s time for popcorn as different cultural norms for engaging conflict take center stage.

I’ve managed to befriend and learn the most from third culture people. These are folks who are Korean-plus. Korean Americans, Korean Canadians, Korean Argentinians, Korean Uzbeks, and the list goes on. The ones I work with are all bilingual and even though they play down their knowledge of Korean language and culture, to a mono-cultural American they are gateways into the other dimension, and with every small explanation, be it about words or issues or cultural norms, a once blackened part of the map of our experience has light shed on it. Being foreign is just what someone from the outside is, regardless of how they feel. But feeling foreign is related to how much information one has to survive and thrive in the context, and ignorance is bliss until your life is defined by it. Upon reflecting on my flights home, I realized the best friends I’ve made in Korea are the ones who help diminish my ignorance quotient, which always has the affect of making you feel more at home, or at least more at ease. The worst feeling is being ignorant, simply not having information, but being treated like you’re stupid, like you have the information but are too dumb to use it properly. Maybe the only thing worse than that feeling is when someone knows you’re ignorant, and won’t help because they feel like you’d be too stupid to understand. In a work environment, where you’ve been hired because of your value to the organization, being made to feel foreign, or being ignored or overlooked because overcoming your foreignness will take too much time, starts to make you question your value. At one point I actually asked all my students and their parents who visited me, if they felt like I was a valuable addition to their education and life. Thankfully I got a positive response, and it has helped me focus on what likely matters most to my time in Korea, my students. Working in a foreign context means that you are dependent on others to give you access to parts of the organization in order to provide any value there. A lot of times access can very simply be denied. That leaves you in a position to hammer down on what you do have access to and make the most of it. Like I said earlier, I actually love Korea and I love my work teaching Bible in a secondary school, but there’s no denying the challenges.

Another big part of the challenge is how to deal with challenges. After years of having my conflict management and leadership skills honed in the furnace of tech startup culture on the west coast, where issues are surfaced quickly and open and frequent communication are valued at a premium, I’m now in a context where that’s the worst thing you can do. All my instincts work against me. I’ve highlighted what I see are severe issues to the organizational and spiritual health of our Christian school, and it’s as if I’ve walked out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to my butt. Everyone gets quiet and tries to pretend it’s not happening to protect what’s left of my diminishing honor. I hate it. I hate being treated like the problem for simply taking a flashlight and showing where the problem is, especially when that was the very currency of leadership where I had come from. But there it is, ignorance met by a black hole of communication and the oh so present reminder, you are not from here. That leads to another question of belonging.

Thankfully I believe a sense of belonging should be cultivated separate from a sense of foreignness. Even though I’m visiting my home now, I don’t feel the same belonging I once did years ago. I’m a different person, and I feel called to different things in different places. I feel called to belong in a foreign place dealing with all the friction that ignorance provides. Ultimately, as a Christian I believe I’m an alien on Earth no matter where I am, and I hope that in Christian contexts this is something we can all agree on. We are citizens of God’s kingdom and that transcends every tribe tongue and nation.

Gary Vaynerchuck as postmodern Rabbi in an age of failing Christian leaders – part 2

My hesitation with writing in general is to want to say something perfectly. That was the glorious thing about being a student, that wonderful deadline. My temptation when writing about something I care a lot about is wanting to say something perfectly that doesn’t offend anyone, and wins everyone over to my side. I say all that to say, I don’t assume I’ll achieve this, and that’s the hurdle I’m crossing to say anything at all, for good or ill, but I’m really hoping for all good.

If you feel my title for this series of posts is strong, I agree. I don’t see that as hoping to say something strongly, but speak plainly about hard realities. Part of the strong punch of this title is the assumptions that can be made about “an age of failing Christian leaders.” Allow me to soften that just a bit. My dad is a senior pastor of a Christian church, and has been my entire life. He is not a failure. I have attended, and am attending now, churches with Christian leaders who have not failed, not in the way I will be speaking of now. I’m a chaplain and Bible teacher at a Christian school in Korea. I want to be clear, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Simply put, my title isn’t meant to state any sort of despair over some insurmountable dearth of true, solid, or quality Christian leadership, for I don’t see that as the total reality.

However, you may rightly assume from my title that I see trends  in Christian leadership that deeply concern me, that I very much view as failures on several levels. Trying to talk specifically about something as broad as this topic is no small task, so let me now narrow the scope a bit. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, but I’m referring most specifically to mainstream American Christianity, primarily Evangelicalism. I am also thinking of what I have experienced in other parts of the West as well, and of my growing experience in Korea, which I will refer to later. But the bulk of what I’m talking about could most easily be classified as the leadership culture of mainstream American Evangelical Christianity, though there will be clear connections beyond that scope, some that I will highlight, many that I will not.

I’m going to start with a personal tone. Growing up the “church” as I experienced it was largely a haven of goodness in an otherwise evil world. This stayed true even as “grown up issues” swirled all around my family all the time. I don’t know how my parents shielded my three sisters and me as well as they did. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I woke up to the full reality that all life was just a massive war, with evil from within and without, and that religious communities were no different. Not only were they no different in regards to the war, they often stir up and expose the realities of these battles of life in extreme and dirty ways. By the time I graduated high school, I had been a student under 5 youth pastors, and every single one of them had been affected deeply by some kind of sexual misconduct that they either did or that was done to them. Four would go on to eventually be permanently or temporarily relived of working as ministers because of something they did. The most this affected me was while I was in Bible college. One of these situations had reached fever pitch at my home church and then one of my ministry professors was arrested for raping girls in his youth group. I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. I went a little crazy, and began to consider living as a monk, possibly making it official by becoming one. Some encounter such traumas by rejecting everything. I responded by wanting to dive further in, to find the real amidst all the deception. Both responses have their trials. Then as now, I fully accept the Bible as God’s word, I believe Christ is alive, that he is Lord, God, King, Savior and yet still Friend, Servant, and Healer. That never changed. But as I considered the church as I knew it, I didn’t trust it anymore. Soon after I realized I did trust what I read about the “church” in scripture, it’s a beautiful thing actually. What I didn’t trust was what was passing for “church” in the religious communities I was apart of, and the leadership cultures that propped them up and sustained them. I’m skipping a lot of details in my personal narrative and theological development, but it was at this point I was on the hunt for alternative approaches. I believe God was with me as I experienced very sweet times with people of all faiths and the faithless, but especially other Christians seeking to follow Jesus Christ and see his love permeate all their lives and the whole world. Yet, there was more darkness ahead.

While I spent years on the fringes of mainstream American Christianity after college, I slowly found myself near the very forefront of it. I found a church I trusted a lot. I found my wife there. I went to their in-house school. I was mentored by some of their most senior staff, and helped them grow in any way I could for years. They were huge, with plans for more. The leader was larger than life, with plans that were truly galactic. He had a way of talking about the difference between his work on the church, and his work in the church, and a way of talking about his work for our local church and his larger ministry to the universal church beyond us, that was all really compelling and easy to believe. While attending his in-house school he talked about how he was a “content machine,” and even quantified how much he was worth in the business world in actual dollar amounts on more than one occasion. It was all mixed in with a very well thought-out approach to church and leadership, and I listened in awe and wonder. Here was a church with real spiritual results, that dealt with issues handily yet with a lot of care, and with a leader who would never put up with the kind of abuse I watched my dad endure at small country churches time and again. I was at this church when I discovered Gary Vaynerchuk, and I couldn’t help but notice that my pastor was a little like Gary…plus Jesus.

I began to see more churches around the United States fight for relevance in the digital age in similar ways. I was at a trendsetting church in this regard. It has become harder and harder to distinguish differences between talk of hustle in entrepreneurship and faithfulness in church planting, the leadership cultures of corporations and mega churches, the structure of franchising a business and a church creating multi-site congregations, self branding to make sales and content based ministries to make donors, organic marketing to build brand loyalty and orchestrating social media virality into baptism Sundays. My church ended in scandal. I wish I could say it was just my experience, even just the experience of the other 15,000 people who once called that church home, but many other churches are still following the example. I wish I could say it was just a Western reality, but I’m in Korea now where the largest church in the world had it’s leader imprisoned for embezzlement, and a similar situation recently occurred in Singapore as well. My senior students just did their final projects on the doctrine of the church, and I heard horror stories of how business oriented many of their churches are. In this hierarchical Confucian society pastors get away with telling their people they will go to Hell if they don’t give enough money, or at least insinuating it very strongly. Many of my students maintain a Christian worldview, but most plan to abandon their churches as soon as possible. For years American church leaders have highlighted similar phenomena, and denominations and seminaries alike are highlighting declining year after declining year.

Everywhere I look there are calls to return to the basics. The essentials of community, ethics, being good, normal humans beings, doing life together on the same mission because life is too short to mess around. All in all, it really sounds a lot like what Gary Vee says…plus Jesus.

It’s all leading me to consider the way spiritual needs are being expressed and met in the our digital day, and what the real differences are between a highly ethical, aggressive and generous entrepreneur and much of what passes for Christian leadership. I can’t help but notice my generation, the world over, getting very excited about the spirituality of business, and very suspicious of the business of spirituality.

To be continued…

The blogs I always never write…

As time passes since I started a blog, I have accumulated massive lists of ideas that I’ve never touched. I’m a content hoarder of sorts. I queue up endless articles and books and videos, among other content I plan to consume and digest over time. I gather and process for understanding, or using in my classes in some way, faster than I am able to write anything substantial or constructive. I’ve never written content I wanted to write freely about as much as I’d like to. My “writing” since the last time I was a student in 2011 has been focused on personal correspondence or work. For instance, letters to friends are my favorite things to write, getting and giving counsel, processing life and just sharing stories. However I have probably written the most for work, especially now as a teacher, responding to students, writing lessons and other avenues for speaking and teaching as they come up. But even in business I sometimes wrote for days at a time. There were client emails, proposals, project specifications, marketing copy and so on. My content production, as it were, is almost entirely relegated to private, personal messages, be it either close friends or for work. Along the way I’ve amassed a huge list I just call “ideas.” Usually these are ideas for any number of kinds of projects, possible businesses, books, dissertation topics, video projects, and lastly for potential blogs. I developed the habit of writing that kind of thing down, but have been primarily focused on my life experiences and working them out privately. Two years ago I was accepted to a dissertation only PhD program, but then I switched careers and moved to a new state. Last year I came close to launching a website focused on Indian food products and cooking videos, but right as I was about to do that I changed careers and moved to Korea. These are a couple of examples.

I’ve treated blogging almost like the dump heap of my ideas. The place my idea goes, not to die, but after it dies. Therefore, not willing to accept the death of my ideas, I rarely blog. This has not been conscious for the most part, just something that happened. I write about it now because I’ve decided I want to change it. I want blogging to be a part of the earlier steps in the life cycle of my thoughts, not the postmortem of a death cycle. I have actually written many blogs, but they are all drafts or deleted. I process what I want to process, and then don’t feel like taking the risk of sharing.

I don’t know what shape this will take yet, other than using an upcoming break from work to slow my content consumption and generate some instead. For some context, at any given time I have over 200 articles saved on Facebook, hundreds of links bookmarked on Chrome, and a book reading/listening queue well over a hundred as well. This doesn’t factor in the content I consume or generate from work, even though there is a fair amount of overlap. I don’t see this as something to brag about for a few reasons. One is that I know bigger content hoarders than myself and I find my efforts unimpressive. I also think it’s a bit excessive or obsessive, and my wife would likely agree. I’m not sure why I treat information the way I do. I think it comes from being raised in a bit of a cultural cul de sac in rural Kentucky and then slowly letting my curiosity take over to the point of some kind of dominant impulse. For some reason I feel driven to write more than I have for a long time. Probably because the semester is wrapping up and I’m looking at a few weeks of some long awaited rest. I’m most likely entering a season of withdrawal from work and wanting to use the creative engines for more personal or experimental matters. Also, while I’m certainly not alone, living abroad does have an isolating affect. Perhaps a measure of isolation is what I needed to get more of my thoughts out in the open.

In my opinion, as a reluctant yet ferocious extrovert, ideas need a lab for experimentation and testing. Usually I keep that lab under lock and key with the people around me at work or close to me relationally, but now I’m going to have at least a portion of that lab a little more open.