Celebrating the Ordinary

Autumn foliage reflection on lake in rural Pennsylvania
Autumn foliage reflection on lake in rural Pennsylvania

I have a confession. I am the kind, like some of you, who lives from one adventure to the next. I look to these adventures as markers that add meaning to my life. Whether it is a World to the Wise cultural tour, celebrating a birth or birthday with my ever-growing family, or a weekend getaway, these mountaintop experiences keep me going.

But there is the flip side of this fact that deserves some serious attention: a friend of mine used to call it "farming the valleys". What happens on the ordinary days when there is nothing particularly special on the calendar, when it's just another day at the office? Is that cause for depression, lethargy, or negativity?

As I have mentioned before, I have found myself of late in the school of gratitude. As I commit myself to being thankful for the seemingly mundane aspects of my life, those reasons for gratitude seem to multiply exponentially. Take the fact that, since I work about half of my work week from home, on beautiful fall days I can take my laptop out to the back deck and savor the outdoors and the verdant neighborhood I live in. Or the fact that my wife and I live within less than 15 minutes from all three of our sons and our four grandchildren. (Who would have thought, given the fact that we have covered the planet between us!) The list of course goes on and on.

The Reformers talked a good deal about what they called "common grace," the fact that God's grace rests on all of us and enables us to acknowledge His goodness in all facets of life.

Yes, I still look forward to fall break in the North Carolina mountains. But in the meantime, I celebrate the ordinary as well. The word "mundane" comes from the Latin word for "world". And this world indeed has much to celebrate.

Looking Out for the Outsider


When I was five years old, my parents moved to Australia. As children started first grade at the age of five there, I was thrown right into the deep end. No kindergarten, no cultural orientation class...boom, I was in school. Of course, I had two things working in my favor: 1) I spoke English, albeit a very different accent from my peers, and 2) all of us children were new to this thing called school. It was basically a level playing field as each one sought his or her place, circle of friends, and understanding of the system. Of course, I had one thing working against me: I was a foreigner, even though I spoke the same language. Perhaps surprisingly, I have very few memories of being ostracized or feeling left out. The younger the child, the more adaptable he is. Then, after almost four years, we returned to the U.S. Once again I was the new kid, this time being more used to the Australian school system, accent and culture than my new American surroundings. But perhaps because this was my parents' home culture -- even home state (Texas) -- I somehow felt that this was home, even though it took some getting used to. But get used to it I did -- so much so that, when it came time to move back to Australia two and a half years later, I was distraught. I had grown quite comfortable in America, thank you, and had no desire to uproot once again and head back down under. This second time in Australia, in a new city, a new school, I most definitely felt like the outsider I was. I remember looking for my younger brother at lunch every day to commiserate. It was a daily pity party. It took several months for me to gradually acclimate myself, and frankly I'm not sure my brother ever did.

My wife and I spent Labor Day weekend in Boston this year, celebrating the marriage of my nephew and catching up with family we don't see nearly often enough. We also spent one serendipitous afternoon with two of my wife's girlfriends from middle school days. (My wife's family had moved to a town south of Boston from her native Jackson, Mississippi for three and a half years.) She had reconnected with these two friends on Facebook, but had not seen them in...wait for it...forty-six years! As I sat and watched and listened to the reunion of these three childhood friends, each now with a lifetime of experiences behind her, I found myself with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

As I imagined Becky, the eleven-year-old Mississippi belle with a lilting accent moving to crusty Massachusetts, where she most certainly was the outsider in the neighborhood and school, my own memories of the back-and-forths to and from Australia came flooding back. I could imagine all too well how she might have been ridiculed for her accent alone, much less her southern ways and mannerisms. And yet, before me were two women who had not only reached out to her as a newcomer, but formed a tri-fold bond that carried them through up to the high school years, when my wife returned with her family to Mississippi. It was so gratifying (and entertaining) to listen to them reminisce; one would remember something neither of the other two did, and there was more than a little laughter. After sitting together, walking through Boston's North End, then eating decadent cannoli together, Becky and I said a reluctant goodbye to two old/new friends who had left a permanent impression -- on both of us.

If an eleven-year-old boy or girl can feel like an outsider in a culture where his or her language is spoken, imagine what it is like for the thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees pouring into Europe as I write this. No, there are no simple solutions to this crisis.

You may never have the opportunity to reach out to a Syrian refugee (but then again, you may). But might there be some outsider waiting for someone such as you?

Whether on the personal or the global scale, somehow, may a heart for the outsider win the day.

Stepping Outside, Pt. 3 - How International Experience Will Improve Your Job Prospects


It's undeniable. We are in a global age where business, education, technology, and entertainment happen on a global scale. Most employers agree on a certain number of advantages that spending time abroad will add to your resumé. According to, here are six reasons why international experience -- whether study abroad, internships, or extended stays -- will improve your chances in today's ever-evolving global job market:

  • During the job search process, you can stress how the skills you’ve gained will benefit the organization and add value to your role.
  • Thanks to globalization, many companies look for international experience as they expand overseas operations, enter new markets, or develop international partnerships.
  • With a strong understanding of cultural and business norms, you will be more effective in developing global solutions to universal problems.
  • If you develop and lead a project while overseas, you will demonstrate that you are able to bridge cultural differences to deliver desired results.
  • Studying abroad will strengthen your leadership, problem-solving, and communication skills, all of which are important in the workplace.
  • Students who study abroad are viewed as independent, self-reliant, adaptable, open-minded, patient and tolerant.

If your experience abroad has included learning or perfecting a foreign language, that will add a whole new dimension to your intercultural competence. It is difficult to overstate the value of learning to communicate in a language other than your mother tongue. (See my ebook on the subject here.)

Are you past college age but still desiring to spend some substantial time overseas? There are more opportunities than you might think! Stay tuned!

One Man's Legacy -- to a Son and a City

team gleason
team gleason

Some of the most poignant reporting I've heard on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina comes from ESPN writer Wright Thompson, who has done a feature story for ESPN the Magazine on Katrina ten years later called "Beyond the Breach". Thompson was interviewed by WBUR host Lynn Mullins on Here and Now, where he tells about a handful of people he encountered during the several weeks he spent working on the story. I came away moved by more than one thing, but what I can't shake is the story of Steve Gleason, former New Orleans Saints player who is best known to the uninitiated because of a single play. It was the Saints' first night back in the Superdome after Katrina, and Gleason famously "stretched out his arms and blocked a punt in the opening series of a Monday Night Football game". A nine-foot statue now stands in front of the Superdome, Gleason's former "office," as he calls it, to commemorate this play. Fast forward to the present, where Gleason is paralyzed in a wheelchair, suffering the crippling effects of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Knowing his days are numbered, Gleason has recorded hundreds of short videos for his almost four-year-old son, Rivers. The topics range from how to tie your shoes to how to change a flat tire -- it seems he has thought of just about everything Rivers will need to know on the road to manhood. How will this son ever be able to doubt that he had a father who loved him?

It seems Gleason feels similarly about his city. He was recently one of several individuals who were asked to write a love letter to the city of New Orleans on the tenth anniversary of the storm. After composing the letter, he cannot get through reading it without weeping. Although originally from Spokane, WA, he has owned the City of New Orleans as if he were born there.

Gleason will likely not live to see the rebirth of NOLA in its fullest, but he is not about to go out without hope. The T-shirts for his foundation, TEAM Gleason, say "No white flags."

"Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you...and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." - Jeremiah 29:7

Sacred Tears


I sat across from my friend and watched him wipe a tear from his eye. We had just sat down in the coffee shop where my youngest son works as a barista. My son had greeted me as soon as we walked in the door with the usual bear hug, which had apparently restarted the flow of tears in my friend. Just 48 hours earlier he had been moving his oldest daughter into her dorm room, where he had built a special headboard for her bed out of an old wooden gate, making the room feel just that much homier. The university where she was starting is not in another state, nor even another city -- it is just a few miles from where her family lives. But the close proximity didn't change the fact that this was the end of an era in this close family, and the dad was feeling it acutely.

My misty-eyed friend went on to tell me what an incredible influence his daughter had had on the family, how she brightened the home with her cheerful outlook, her encouraging words and pure joie de vivre. My mind immediately flashed back to the day I dropped our oldest son off at university in a city two hours away. And then, two years later, putting our second son on a plane for Switzerland as he began his gap year after high school. And then, three years later, putting our third son on a plane for Hong Kong and mainland China for five months.

It obviously hurts so deeply because the love we share is so great. That we have been given the gift of such a close bond is not something to be taken for granted. Even though all three of our sons are now adults and -- believe it or not -- all live within ten minutes of us now, my heart was immediately taken back to the emotions of those initial separations. The end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

There is no other ache like it, and neither I nor my friend would trade it for the world.

Stepping Outside, Part 2 - How Spending Time Abroad Makes You a Better Problem Solver

Paris metro
Paris metro

In my last post, I said these two words alone can change your life: stepping outside. Whether it's across the street to a neighbor from a different culture or across the ocean, separating oneself from one's home subculture is a vital step in the maturing process. Whether studying abroad, volunteering with a charity or mission organization, or taking your work with you, living in a foreign culture will expand your horizons like very little else. It will also make you a better problem solver.

When Becky and I conduct the World to the Wise cultural tours, we don't hire a tour bus driver, but take public transportation whenever and wherever possible. We teach our participants how to navigate the different subway and occasionally bus systems, and by the end of our stay in a given city they are generally able to find their own way around the city. Just the process of figuring out how to use the transportation system in a foreign country is a significant step in problem solving. It's like each person has his or her own Amazing Race.

Let's be honest, though -- we are there for just a few days and are there as tourists. The real rubber meets the road when you are placed in a foreign culture for an extended period of time. A radical change of environment forces you to adapt. You quickly learn that each day is no longer business as usual, and as a result your senses are sharpened. In the words of my erudite oldest son, who spent a semester studying Arabic in Morocco and part of a summer in Uganda, you experience the "beauty and richness of discomfort". When you shop for groceries you learn a whole new system. When you are responsible for paying for goods and services, you learn how business is done. You sometimes have to work hard to communicate with your neighbors. Even in a country where your own language is spoken, you become aware of sometimes subtle, sometimes radical differences in outlook and lifestyle.

The result? Sure, a little culture shock in the short term. But in the long term? You become more capable of looking at situations from multiple angles, of viewing life from others' perspective -- and after all, isn't that the very definition of maturity?

How has spending time abroad made you a better problem solver?

If you would like to connect with David on this topic or invite him to speak on it, contact him here.

Two Words that Will Change Your Life

stepping outside
stepping outside

Every year, I take our graduating senior class to lunch to check in with them, take their pulse, and give them a few encouraging words in this very pivotal year in their lives. One thing you will always hear me tell them, year after year, is contained in two words: STEP OUTSIDE.

This won't always mean the same thing for each individual student, nor should it.

As these seniors are grappling with the many decisions that can be overwhelming, I like to pile on and add one more to the mix: where and when will you step outside? This can of course include going across the street or across town -- if it takes you to a culture different than your own. This is a great place to start. But more than anything, I am talking about studying or spending time abroad -- preferably in a country where English is not the primary language.

The benefits and reasons for this are too many for one blog post, so let's begin with the obvious:

It will expand your world view.

No matter where you live, chances are you've been raised in a particular subculture. Every culture has them; it is a fact of life, just as your nationality is a fact. We absorb values from this subculture, and most of the time it is an unconscious process. Much of culture is unspoken; it is rather acted out on a daily basis -- so much so that we begin very early to make assumptions about life and about the rest of the world. It takes stepping outside our home subculture to discover that some of those assumptions were inaccurate at best -- sometimes wildly so.

Almost all ancient civilizations had coming of age rituals for both boys and girls. These were mandatory rites of passage in order for the child to be considered an adult. While most of those traditions have long since faded from modern culture, we would do well to include a phase in the life of a young man or woman that involves separation from the subculture for a time. In ancient times it was most often a test of survival in the wilderness; today it makes sense for it to be a period of time spent in a foreign culture.

Nothing prepares you for life like being forced to adapt to new surroundings, new ways of doing things, not to mention a new language. We English speakers -- whether in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or other -- are incredibly spoiled by the fact that the world is busy learning our language. But relying on that fact deprives us of the opportunity to develop inner muscles that will never develop otherwise.

I asked my oldest son, who spent a semester studying Arabic in Morocco, what he had gained in the process. He replied with way more than I can include here, but here is one thing that struck me in particular:

 "It was so important for me [as a white American] to learn what it's like not to be in the majority culture. I was forced to feel the differences, and I'm richer and stronger for it."

In future posts we'll explore more reasons why stepping outside will change your life. How has stepping outside changed yours?

True (en)courage(ment)


I've just finished meeting with a friend I've started getting together with regularly because we share many of the same goals. We share what we've learned since the last time we met and where we are in meeting those goals. Some of us are wired to attempt great things on our own. I am not. I need at least one other person with whom I can openly share the process -- not only things learned, but frustrations, surprises, hopes and fears. After our meetings I come away feeling more optimistic and more empowered.

This is the essence of true encouragement. In our culture, much of what we call encouragement is superficial. True encouragement is not simply something that temporarily gives you warm fuzzies; it is what happens when courage is the result. Courage to face whatever is ahead.

Yes, it might be something as simple as "You look nice today" -- unless you don't really think that person looks nice today. True encouragement is sincere, which means it won't always give you warm fuzzies. I love the word sincere. It literally means "without wax". In ancient times, when pottery was used as part of the daily routine, a potter would coat a finished pot with a layer of wax to waterproof it and give it a longer life. But it also served to cover -- at least partially -- any blemishes in the clay craftsmanship. "Sin-cere" encouragement is raw honesty, but with a goal of building up the other person, not tearing him down.

I have another friend with whom I've had breakfast every Friday for 13 years. We've seen each other through thick and thin, and are completely free to be ourselves with each other. We've watched each other's children grow up, walked together through career changes, mountains and valleys -- and tried to offer (en)courage(ment) at every step.

Do you have someone like that in your life? If so, you are truly blessed.

True encouragement is what happens when courage to face what's ahead is the result.

How to Foster Curiosity


I was talking to a friend the other day who is a coffee guru. The man knows his coffee. He also knows tea. And he also knows a lot about human nature. The conversation somehow came around to the subject of curiosity. As an educator, I am among the precious few whose students generally show up ready to learn. The majority of the students we teach at the Academy are a teacher's dream, like baby birds waiting for you to drop tasty morsels in their mouths.

But what do you do when the curiosity isn't there?

My friend put the question in the context of his trade: coffee. "I put the coffee in front of them and have them taste it," he said. "Then I ask them questions: What do you taste? What does it remind you of? What does the taste evoke?"

A teacher who knows his or her material will always have plenty to teach. Sometimes it's much harder to stop and ask questions. But if a lecture doesn't include opportunity for students to ask questions, they are not being required to process things for themselves.

Socrates was famous for his method of asking questions, sometimes even playing the devil's advocate and making his students defend their opinions. This not only feeds curiosity, but it also develops the all-important skill of critical thinking.

This of course doesn't begin in the classroom, but at home. The wise parent will make it a habit to show her child the world and its beauty, all the while asking questions to allow the child to respond to wonder.

What keys have you found that foster curiosity in those in your charge?

The Magic of Unscripted Moments

Trastevere buskers
Trastevere buskers

A lot of planning goes into every World to the Wise cultural tour. An awful lot. But sometimes the best memories are made from unscripted moments. Like when you happen onto a pair of super talented street performers in the Trastevere area of Rome. (There are virtuosos on the streets of almost every major European city.) Or when you run into a new friend in Venice whom you had just met in Tuscany only days earlier. Or when you get an impromptu performance from a professional opera singer on a perfect night under the stars in the Tuscan countryside, celebrating the birthday of one of our participants, sitting around the fire pit singing old standards, and eating millefoglie cake by a local artisan baker.  


These are moments that cannot be orchestrated, when spontaneity and serendipity meet, and you have the distinct impression that heaven is smiling on you.


Like being handed two free bottles of locally produced wine, as the group leader, by the owner of your favorite gelateria in San Gimignano. Or discovering much in common with your Italian guide whom you only just met. Or even getting caught in the strongest hail storm you've ever seen (fortunately not the longest) and getting in the van just in time to remain mostly dry. Like happening onto a beautiful pond in the park on a hot Roman day and soaking your feet. (Until the mounted policemen ride up and ask you to get your feet out of the water.)


Or walking into a glorious 700-year-old basilica in Barcelona, enjoying the classical guitarist playing at the front and discovering that you are an invited guest at a wedding. You catch a photo of the radiant bride just steps away from you as she makes her way down the long aisle to the altar.

Or having a three-hour delay on the overnight train from Venice to Paris and thus being awake at 6:00 in the morning to see your old neighborhood in Lausanne, Switzerland out the window as the train whizzes by -- something you wouldn't have seen at 3:00 am because you would have been asleep.

Famous Last Words: "We've never done it that way before."

A mentor of mine in my young adult years used to tell the story of a little girl who was watching her mother prepare a ham for roasting. She watched as her mother cut off both ends of the ham before placing it in the roasting pan. "Mommie, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before you put it in the oven?" asked the curious little girl. "Well, I'm not sure," answered the mother. "That's the way my mother always did it." The next time the girl was visiting her grandmother, she hopped at the chance to ask her, "Grandma, why do you always cut the ends off a ham before you put it in the oven?" Grandma, somewhat taken off guard by the question, replied, "Well, come to think of it, I'm not sure. That's just the way my mother always did it." Fortunately for the little girl, Great Grannie was still alive and kicking. At the next family reunion, the little girl had not forgotten her burning question. "Great Grannie, why did you always cut both ends off the ham before putting it in the oven?" "It's simple," answered the matriarch without skipping a beat. "My pan was too small!"

Are there areas in your life where you've never taken the time to take a step back and re-evaluate the way you do things? Who knows what innovations, what improvements might be waiting to happen if we dare to question. Of course, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But it might be "broke" and you just didn't realize it because of force of habit or familiarity.

"Question everything. Hold on to the good." - Paul the Apostle

Save the Babies: The Problem with Binary Thinking, Pt. 2


In Part I we discussed the fact that, more often than not, reality is found somewhere between two extremes. The answers to many either/or questions are often both/and. Extremism results from a number of different things, not just the indoctrination of obvious places like a madrasa or a holy roller camp. Two factors I’ve identified in my experience are disappointment or hurt  -- and fear.

A profoundly disappointing or hurtful experience can send us careening in the opposite direction — the proverbial swing of the pendulum. A child raised by overly strict parents finds himself exploring all possible ways to celebrate his freedom once he is an independent adult. Or vice versa: someone disenchanted by a life with no boundaries finds herself imposing too many restrictions on herself or others. You get burned in a relationship and vow never to love again. Or this one is becoming more and more prevalent: people disillusioned with church eventually find themselves no longer even relating to or communicating with God.

Fear is one of the biggest motivators in life. It is uncanny how many decisions are fear-driven. We fear failure, so we play it too safe and never step out. We fear outside influences or what we have being taken away, so we circle the wagons in an over-protective and insulated posture.

To put it differently, we often live in reactionary mode.

Amidst all the pendulum swings, there is no telling the number of babies we have thrown out with the bath water.

     True life exists in tension, and the tension is not going away.

We must learn to balance seemingly opposing elements in our lives. (Notice the use of the word “and” and not “or”)

Some examples:

Living from the head and from the heart

Thinking globally and acting locally

Dreaming and accepting reality

Being others-oriented and having a healthy sense of self

Acceptance of others while being true to your convictions

Humanities and STEM

…and we could go on!

Here’s to living life in intentional mode, not reactionary mode – and here’s also to saving the babies.

The Power of Practice and Perseverance

Climber rappelling.
Climber rappelling.

I was talking to a colleague today who had been on a trip to Mexico with a group that included a Spanish student of mine. I had taught this young lady, now a high school senior, for three consecutive years and seen her progress from a complete beginner to an avid student of the Spanish language. My colleague was remarking at what a pleasure it was to watch my student, Emily, use her acquired Spanish to communicate with the people of Oahaca state in southern Mexico. The first day, Emily was not exactly encouraged by her communication skills. But knowing she was going to be there another ten days or so, she figured she had no choice but to persevere with the hopes that it would come more easily with each passing day.

That is exactly what happened. By the end of this life-shaping trip, Emily was conversing with the locals, not only opening but walking through the doors her limited knowledge of Spanish opened into the lives of the people she had come to serve -- and to learn from.

This was not going to happen by simply taking a weekly class from yours truly, no matter how good a teacher I may be. Emily had to seek and find an opportunity -- a real-life situation -- in which to put into practice what she had learned in the classroom.

If we're talking about opportunities to practice Spanish, they abound in this country without your ever leaving it. If you live in a city of any size at all, there is likely a Hispanic population. It takes the initial decision to establish contact -- whether that means frequenting Mexican restaurants, buying from Hispanic businesses, visiting a Spanish-speaking church. Granted, it takes more effort to find opportunities to practice languages other than Spanish, but it's probably easier than you think. In my medium-sized city of Nashville, over 100 major languages are spoken, with one person in six being foreign-born.

This principle of practice, needless to say, carries over into every area that involves developing a skill. In his book Outliers: The Story of SuccessMalcolm Gladwellasserts that most practitioners are not considered experts until they have 10,000 hours of practice under their belts. This obviously varies with the particular field, and 10,000 hours of practice is no guarantee of greatness, but the point is well taken: practice maybe doesn't make perfect, but it makes much, much better.

The Problem with Binary Thinking, Part I


Like most of you, I was raised in a Christian family with a very strong sense of right and wrong. The Biblical understanding of good vs. evil  -- and by extension, right and wrong -- is, in fact, a universally acknowledged human belief, however you choose to frame it.  Good or bad, light or dark, black or white, hot or cold, up or down.  I believe this lies at the heart of what is termed binary thinking. In other words, many carry this notion of two opposing forces into all areas of life. Aristotle, Descartes and other philosophers had binary tendencies. There is a right way and a wrong way to do something. You are either right or wrong in your opinion on a given subject. You are either on the right team or the wrong team. A story consists of the good guy and the bad guy. Yes, this is more predominant in Western culture than Eastern, although the current wave of Islamic extremism indicates we are all subject to its pitfalls. It is not hard to see how this kind of thinking so easily leads to an "us versus them" mentality. Please understand me here: if you know me, you know I believe in good and evil, that I do not believe all morality is relative. But I also believe, strongly, that reality is most often found between two extremes.

Years ago I discovered an intriguing few verses in the mysterious book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament:

"Do not be over wicked, and do not be a fool -- why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes." (italics mine)

Reality is most often found between two extremes.

While the musings of Solomon are often enigmatic, I find an important principle here. The fact is we are more complex, the world is more complex, than a simplistic assigning of right or wrong to a situation, person or opinion. Our culture is awash in false choices, perhaps the most profound being Is man basically good or evil?

My answer? Yes.

As a matter of fact, that is my answer to many either/or questions. Yes.

The fact of the matter is that the good guy, like you and me, has his faults. And yes, the so-called bad guy has his positive sides.

We'll come back to this later, but in the meantime, I leave you with one of my favorite G. K. Chesterton quotes. In response to a survey question put out by the London Times asking what is wrong with the world:

"Dear Times,

I am."

What examples of binary thinking do you see around you?

How Bilingualism Enhances Your Creative Flow

A good friend recently sent me a clip of video philosopher Jason Silva commenting on an article in Fast Company. Silva, who is bilingual and multicultural, resonates with the assertion that those who are bilingual and multicultural have multiplied channels of creativity. This is certainly true of those who are raised in bilingual families. But the benefits are multitudinous for anyone who learns another language, no matter when they undertake it. This is due to the fact that when you learn to express yourself in another language, you are not simply replacing English words with other words; you are accessing parts of your brain that have had to develop, through exercise, that had not previously been developed. Creativity is not relegated to the arts; it can and should pervade every sphere of human activity. More on that later!

Are you bilingual? How has this enhanced your creative processes?

Bill Gates: "I feel pretty stupid that I don't know any foreign language"


Almost all of us have lived long enough to have regrets. Some of those regrets -- like a missed opportunity way back when, or a botched relationship -- we can't always do anything about; but others can be remedied. It's actually surprising what deficiencies in our lives are within our power to correct. Learning a language is one of those. It is never too late. A person like Bill Gates obviously has the challenge of making time for an endeavor such as studying a foreign language. But in reality, all of us face exactly the same challenge: how will we prioritize our time? In this interview Gates salutes Mark Zuckerberg for having learned Mandarin Chinese well enough to hold a Q&A session in China. Remarkable indeed. But even a more cursory knowledge of another language can gain you entry into people's trust -- a commodity not always readily available.

For some practical encouragement on how to go about learning a foreign language, check out my short e-book here.

Chewing the Meat and Spitting out the Bones: How to Learn from Just About Anyone

It would be interesting to know just when this tendency started in our culture, but it goes something like this: if I am going to learn from someone, I must believe everything they believe. So often I hear remarks such as, "Yes, I agree with that, but..." and what follows is a distancing from the person who spoke the morsel of truth. For example, a politician may have a particularly insightful opinion on a specific subject, and many are afraid to admit they agree for fear of being mistaken for a supporter of said politician. Why can't we just learn what there is to learn, no matter its source?

I would be hard pressed to name a single politician, preacher, or pundit whose opinions I agree with 100%. That does not keep me from gleaning where I can. This is much of what critical thinking is: learning to chew the meat and spit out the bones. I would go as far as to say that it is possible to learn from those whom we generally consider our adversaries. Corrie ten Boom said our critics are the "unpaid guardians of our souls".


To use another analogy, I learned many years ago the principle of drinking from a diversity of "wells". If I drink from the same well continuously, I am more likely to have a skewed world view and an unbalanced perspective. Whether we're talking about news, business advice, teaching methods, or spiritual principals, it is important to absorb information from a variety of sources in order to have a well rounded perspective. Then we form our own opinions based on the information we've gathered.

Couldn't our culture benefit from a good dose of critical thinking, with a dash of humility?

The Reason for My Madness, Part 3

Changing guard
Changing guard

Believe it or not, my memories of the 5-day whirlwind trip through Europe are really sketchy. My guess is that, because it was so much more expensive than the other places we had visited, my parents chose not to hang out too long in each place. Thanks to their network of missionary contacts, we had a free place to stay, one night per city: Florence, Lausanne, Paris -- then across the English Channel to London. My sole memory of London is running into a lady we had met on the ship at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Europe struck this 9-year-old as very old. Not surprising, given that I had only lived in the US and a modern Australian city. More importantly, I was fascinated with the fact that we could travel for just 3-4 hours by train and be in a completely different culture with a different language.

We ended our odyssey with a five-day voyage across the North Atlantic, from Southampton to New York, aboard the fabled RMSQueen Elizabeth. She was almost twice as big as the Canberra; in fact, she was the largest passenger liner ever built (until 56 years later). She was sophisticated, if showing her age, and was retired just a few years later. (I just discovered that she was initially used to transport British troops, along with the Royal Mail, during World War II before becoming a passenger liner.)

By the time we flew to Dallas from New York City five weeks after we had set out from Perth, I was a changed person. I of course wasn't conscious of just how changed I was. But the years that ensued found me craving opportunities to study foreign languages. My parents enrolled me in an experimental summer Spanish program that same year, where I excelled. My next opportunity didn't come until 8th grade (after we had spent an additional year in Sydney, Australia). By that time I had decided I liked French much more than Spanish, and dove into that fair tongue with no encouragement needed.

I went on to major in French, picking up some more Spanish and German along the way. In college, I had a number of friends who had grown up in Brazil as MK's (missionary kids) and were kind enough to teach me some Portuguese. By the time I went to Brazil the summer after graduating, I was conversant. I then spent two years in Lausanne, Switzerland, where I completed a graduate degree in French, but also became conversant in Italian through self-study and conversation. Several years later, I found myself learning Dutch in the Netherlands, greatly helped by the bit of elective German I had taken in college with the best professor I ever had. Once I became proficient in Dutch, I was then able to bring my German up a few notches.

With each new language, I gained a new way of looking at the world, not to mention a passport, so to speak, to entire continents where these languages are spoken. It's not just a matter of learning to speak differently; it's about gaining different perspectives -- a word that has taken huge importance in my vocabulary.

More about this paramount word in future posts.

The Reason for My Madness, Part 2

EPSON scanner image
EPSON scanner image

(For Part 1 to this story, go here.)

We are in the year 1965 and have been aboard the SS Canberra for about two weeks, having sailed from Perth, Western Australia.

Leaving the squalor of Colombo, Sri Lanka behind, we boarded the ship and headed for the tip of the Arabian peninsula, a voyage of several days. Upon docking in the city of Aden, a port city in Yemen, I remember remarking at the sameness of the landscape and cityscape -- all a desert sand color. We children were not allowed to go ashore, so we stayed behind and kept ourselves busy while our parents disembarked for, I suppose, a day of shopping in the suqs. (I don't particularly remember questioning why we had to stay on board the ship; I suspect I didn't question nearly as much then as I do now.)


What followed was a voyage up the Red Sea, from south to north. I remember someone pointing out Mt. Sinai in the distance to the east, and that is the closest I have come to Israel (so far). Our ship then made its way through the Suez Canal to the port city of Alexandria. (I wish I had known then what I do now about that city and the prominent place it once held in civilization.) We somehow ended up in Cairo, where I remember feeling nauseated as we made our way by bus through the hot, narrow streets. I remember only that about the city itself, but as sketchy as my memory is, no 9-year-old can ever forget a camel ride in the desert or climbing the stifling inner staircases of the Giza pyramids.

Our last leg on the SS Canberra took us from Alexandria across the Mediterranean to the Italian port of Naples. I'm sure it was with some regret that we said farewell to the vessel that had been our home for the last three weeks. Whatever stomach bug I had picked up in Egypt followed me to Italy, and I unfortunately had to stay in the hotel with my mother while the rest of the family visited Mt. Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii. (I still haven't made it back there.)

Wherever we went, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe, I remember being enthralled as a nine-year-old with the chatter I heard coming out of people's mouths. This was my first exposure to foreign language, and my mother told me later that I would walk along the streets babbling as if I were speaking the language of the locals. This fascination has not only continued, but shaped my life more than that of any of my siblings.

After Rome, a whirlwind tour through Europe by train.

To be continued....

Adventures in New Zealand, Part 2


The Bay of Plenty, where we were based on the east coast of the North Island, is in a land of plenty. We found a prosperous and thriving economy, with the New Zealand dollar strong and almost at parity with the Australian dollar. The prices were downright expensive for us Americans. Although wages could sometimes be better, according to our friends, and the real estate market has perhaps not fully recovered from the worldwide crisis beginning in 2008, the nation is by and large enjoying a season of abundance. Neil and Jill took us on a number of day trips, all of which were punctuated by the religious observance of morning coffee or tea (as in mid-morning, not to be confused with the cup of tea first thing in the morning) and afternoon coffee. And let me tell you, the Kiwis know how to do coffee and tea. Starbucks are few and far between, and instead there are numerous coffee shops and cafes with not only a “proper cuppa” balwut a large selection of delectable baked goods. As you might expect, these are also pricey for American travelers, but are more than worth being built into the budget. (For coffee lovers: our friends would ays order a "flat white," what seemed to this non-coffee drinker to be espresso with a thin layer of foamed milk on top. We had just been back in the States a few days when we noticed Starbucks had begun to offer the flat white, which has been part of Aussie and Kiwi coffee shop fare for some time.)


These day trips included “The Mount,” the nickname given to an extinct volcano just outside Tauranga whose official name is Mount Maunganui. Becky and I climbed to the top, where there is a dizzying view of the beaches and the gorgeous Pacific waters below. We discovered that if you make it to the top, you then have to get back down to the bottom, but it is more than worth the shin splints or sore knees from the descent.


If we were there to see a most remarkable corner of God’s creation, we were also there to reconnect with our dearest friends from our days in Amsterdam, where two of our sons and one of their daughters were born. So it was important to see Neil and Jill’s home towns and meet their relatives and closest friends. These afforded us not only wonderful visits, meals and cups of tea, but also a visit to the largest goat farm in the country and one of the largest dairy farms. Yes, New Zealand has been known for years as a leading wool producer, with the sheep population far outnumbering the humans; but for several years now the dairy industry has surpassed the sheep and wool industry, and New Zealand pumps out milk to a large number of trading partners, including China.

These visits to friends and family also provided visits to some great areas such as Whakatane, called the sunshine capital of the north island (east coast) and the black sand beaches of Raglan on the west coast. We once made the road trip from west coast to east, at basically the same latitude, in almost exactly two hours.


Being avid JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson fans, we considered it necessary to visit Hobbiton, the movie set where all the fabled Shire scenes from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films were shot. The little village is situated about 10 minutes outside the town of Matamata, in the heart of North Island farm country. While we found no drive in New Zealand boring, the area around Matamata was not particularly noteworthy until we had almost arrived at Hobbiton, where the rolling hills became deeper and the greens somehow became greener, if that were possible. Location manager Doug Comer, who recently passed away, scouted the length and breadth of the North Island by helicopter, and instructed the pilot to touch down on this pristine sheep farm where he knocked on the door and was answered by a Mr. Alexander, who was not particularly pleased to be taken away from the All Blacks (New Zealand's legendary rugby team) on TV. He must have eventually gotten over the inconvenience and has now retired a wealthy man in Matamata, having turned the farm over to his son.

It is impossible not to appreciate the creative and insistent attention to detail at Hobbiton. I don't have the space here to describe the countless ways this is manifest, but the most memorable example is the artificial tree that overlooks Bilbo Baggins' Hobbit hole. With a skeleton of steel, its 250,000 leaves were manually attached. The tree was then painted, only for the crew to learn that it wasn't quite the right color green. They then repainted the tree, making it the most expensive tree in the country, in terms of man hours, with a value of half a million NZ dollars (about USD 415,000).

Whether the visit to the Shire is actually worth the hefty $75 entrance fee (~USD 62.50) is subject to debate, when you realize that just a little more than that gets you a whole day at, say, Disneyworld. For us, it was one of those things we felt we had to experience once, which will do us just fine.
 In any case, New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson's company which owns Hobbiton, probably knows they just get most of their visitors only once.