I’m Not a Businessman

It has been an emotional and challenging rookie year, but I made it to my first winter break as a high school Assistant Principal.

Among my many notable experiences so far:

  • a gaffe that landed us some unwanted local and national media attention, and elicited painful accusations of racism
  • a post-election community event that included about a dozen community organizations, a dozen immigration and civil rights lawyers, and a few city leaders
  • a handful of uncomfortable conversations with colleagues around performance
  • struggling to gain traction with our school’s intervention team
  • learning about our district’s $74 million projected budget shortfall and the tenuous employment status of the district’s many new employees, including my own

I am savoring this opportunity to reflect on the ups-and-downs of the still new school year, because there are so few opportunities to stop and think. Leaders in public education often preach the value of reflection and its invaluable role in improving practice system wide, but I have found it nearly impossible to put their advice to practice during the normal ebb and flow of the regular school day. Thankfully, winter break affords everyone the elusive chance to reflect.

Of particular interest to me right now is how I understand the nature of my job. There are some who believe the school leader should model their work after business executives, who maintain a results-oriented culture. Others find the school-leader-as-doctor model more compelling, particularly for the emphasis it places on promoting healing and wellness.

While both capture important and often overlooked functions of the role, I don’t think either capture what I aspire to in my work. My vocation is to shepherd, to lead and guide, and provide care. I fight for a more just world, and do everything I can to ensure that everyone within my fold – students and staff alike – have what they need to thrive. My job is to help people believe that a better future is possible, and to know how to wield the tools to make it so.

That’s why I find it most helpful to think of my work as pastoral.

freedom

in my very first seminary class, i learned that true freedom is not what i think. it is not about personal agency. not about a capacity to choose. it’s not about having a lot of options. nothing about my ability to do whatever i want, whenever i please. freedom actually doesn’t have much to do with me at all.

true freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. this is a far cry from the way most think about freedom, as an individual’s right to act in his or her own self-interest. this is not freedom though, because i am only ever free when i am free for another. freedom is about being bound to God and God’s creation.

this is interesting to me, because i entered seminary with a deeply wounded faith, operating under the assumption that it’s up to me to determine the meaning of my religious identity. still reeling from the trauma of watching my brother die, i needed to unlearn and then relearn what it is to be christian.

i imagined myself to be at a sort of crossroads. one path led to a life with God, the other a life apart. i acted as though my Christian identity required me to exercise my freedom and agency to choose the path toward God, which also meant going to church, praying, and engaging other sacramental practices.

but i quickly learned that there was nothing “free” about choosing a life apart from God. freedom could only ever mean my decision to live life with God.

and then i quickly learned that i was wrong here again.

as i reflect upon the last five 6 years, i can only conclude that my Christian identity  has nothing to do with my choice of anything, but God’s choice for me, God’s decision to be present with me. i could have elected to deny God, but to do so would have meant turning a blind eye toward all that God was doing in my life, all the ways God had been near. it would’ve been to ignore reality, which in the end, was not really a choice at all.

i know i am free for God, free for my family and friends, free for the students that i  continue to mentor. and i know that i am free precisely because of the restraint and those relationships impose upon me. i am free to be with God because God chose to be free for me, because God did not choose to be God without me. i’m coming to understand that true freedom is indeed a freedom for.

On Hospitality

Below is a transcript of my talk during week 2 of Faith & Race. I describe the logic and work of race in my own life, and look to hospitality as a way forward.

When I arrived at the UW campus for college, there were two things that I was certain of. First, I would be an active member of an on-campus ministry.  I grew up at Chinese Baptist Church on Beacon Hill, where I was formed and nurtured in our youth group to love serving in ministry. It was within the context of this ethnic-specific community that I first came to understand God’s love for all humanity.  Second, despite my appreciation for my Chinese church, the on-campus ministry that I would join would have to be multi-ethnic. I reasoned that the next step in my spiritual maturation would be to worship with people not like me.

At this point, it’s important to point out that I was already worshipping with people not like me. Even in “homogenous” Asian communities like CBC, there is messiness and diversity, with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and opinions. We’re not all alike. I was only marginally connected to the Chinese immigrant congregants at my church, and by leaving my home church in favor of a multi-ethnic community, I lost my family’s immigrant story. I moved away from the story of their courageous journey to America, a story to which I am inextricably bound, regardless of how embarrassing it might feel to be connected to broken English and funny accents. That’s my story; they are my parents. It is ironic that by moving away from a multi-ethnic fellowship, I actually moved from a bilingual faith community to an English-only faith community, away from a community of people that were really different from me, to a place already quite familiar. Continue reading

the formation of the student

this year, for better or worse, my school has turned its collective attention toward managing student behavior. we created a vision for how students are to behave in structured and unstructured environments, with detailed descriptions of what “good” and “bad” behavior looks like in both contexts.

our motivation for doing this is largely pragmatic: it’s just easier to teach when students aren’t going crazy. everyone is happier when the classroom is running in an orderly fashion — including the students who tend to be disorderly.

but there may be unintended consequences to this approach that may be worth reflecting upon.

the other day, one of my students was walking to his car in the parking lot when a security guard confronted him, grabbed his arm, and jerked him backward. i don’t know the particulars of the incident, but i do know the student was found to have done nothing wrong. this isn’t an unusual occurrence — my students are regularly harassed for no discernible reason. as i observed this situation unfolding outside my classroom, i found myself increasingly disturbed by my student’s lack of power to resist what was happening to him precisely because he reacted to this situation exactly the way we taught him to.

in some sense, our school is attempting to train our students to react to these (frequent) unfair situations precisely as john taylor gatto describes in his incriminating essay, “against school.” in this piece (which i had my students read and discuss), gatto claims that schools are “virtual factories of childishness” — that is, schools, by design, socialize students to never grow up. students are trained to do as they’re told, to submit to authority, and to uncritically obey the consumer ethos of american culture. we “reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” in every way, the public school is in service of the interests of the state while functioning under the misleading guise of student empowerment.

to further compound the issue, i’m wondering about how the church figures into this situation. for better or worse, the public school plays an enormous role in the formation of students, and unfortunately, as gatto might suggest, this kind of formation seems better suited to serve the interests of rome rather than the kingdom of god. as a christian teacher, i’m forced to consider what kind of student do i hope to produce, and i wonder if hauerwas’s idea of the resident alien could inform the way i think about shaping students as people who can live within a system, while looking forward to (and bringing forth) another way of being. as i explained to a few of my students, i hope that my students learn how to operate within the world, not so they can become servants of the world’s logic, but so that they can ultimately turn it upside down.

i done did it

well, it’s official now. by day, i’ll still be teaching full time. but by night, i’ll be a seminary student, working toward a masters in theology.

folks who know me well have basically all had the same response. of course you’re going to seminary, what took you so long? chris (somewhat jokingly) told me that he’d give me one more year of full time teaching before i just quit my day job and ran off to seminary full time.

but a lot of other folks have asked me what it is exactly that i hope to accomplish by going to seminary. why bother?

i’ve had a much more difficult time trying to answer this question. on one hand, i would not be disappointed at all if i finished my program, and that was it for my work in theology. if i never end up doing doctoral work, if i don’t wind up working at a church, or if i never end up “using” my theology degree in any other formal way, well that would be quite all right. it is enough for me to know i won’t wake up someday wondering what might’ve been. and if it just so happens that theology for me is meant to be a thing i read about on the side and occasionally try and live out, well then so be it. to a large extent, i’m less concerned with what i can do with theology than i am with what formal study of theology can do with me.

but on the other hand, i must admit that i’ll be a bit sad if it turns out doctoral work isn’t in the cards for me. a small part of my heart deep down hopes this is what’ll happen, and yet i can’t let that part of me speak out too loudly. what if it doesn’t work out the way i hope it will? academic work has always felt hyper-competitive, and because i’ve been surrounded by people who are much more brilliant than me since high school, i wonder about how realistic it is for me to aspire to professorial work. nevertheless, here i am with those aspirations in hand.

so what exactly do i hope for by going to seminary?

first, it’s to have a deepened faith. i have always found myself most in awe of god when reading a beautiful analysis of scripture, or some brilliantly composed theological treatise. while a rich worship experience at church is good for my soul, the written word is what drives me to my knees. quite honestly, i think i just need to go to seminary for my own spiritual vitality.

but secondly, i’m going to seminary because i think i might want to teach theology some day, and i wanna know if there is some word brewing in me that i must be obedient enough to speak to the church. i don’t know if this will ever actually happen, if this is what god wants for my life, or if i’m even smart enough to do the work well, but i guess i won’t know till i try.

seminary

i was at a retreat, taking part in a workshop on career planning. i must’ve been 14 or 15, maybe. when the workshop leader asked me in front of the group what i wanted to be when i grew up, i said i wanted to be a theologian.

of course, i didn’t really know what a theologian was. in my mind, i thought it was someone who sat around thinking deep thoughts. i had no concept of the financial burden that had to be taken on or the enormous risk that came with committing years toward an education that may or may not result in a job in a place i actually would enjoy living in. i just knew i had a peculiar interest in reading about what people had to say about faith and god, and i knew flipping that interest into a career seemed appealing.

carrie and i have been thinking about the prospect of me going to seminary over the past year. right now, i’m in a really good place. i teach at a well-run school that i believe in. many (most?) teachers can’t say that. i enjoy my colleagues and more importantly, i enjoy working with my students (usually). when i’m on my game in the classroom, i think my students have fun learning, and they learn a lot. but i go to bed every night reading some sort of theological text. i have wondered for a long time whether this is a hobby, just something i should keep up with on the side, or if this could be something more.

i guess we’re going to find out.

orphanage

“mr. lam, did you know i live in an orphanage?”

“uh, no you don’t. you live in an apartment with your family.”

“well, it’s like an orphanage, because we’re always adopting new kids, like this guy right here. he just moved in.”

“how many people live at your place now?

“mmm, 23.”

“seriously?”

“yeah, i’m dead serious. and we’ve got one bathroom.”

two bedrooms, one bathroom, twenty-three people. in my two years of teaching, i’ve had the pleasure of working with four of the residents in that tiny little apartment. before i even had the chance to meet any of them, i heard tons of stories all about their antics, and honestly, i was a bit terrified at the prospect of having them in my classes. sounded like they had the potential to just destroy a classroom. but while they’re not quite model students yet, the stories about them were just lies.

getting to know them continues to be a growing experience. shortly after this school year started, i found them to be truly gifted readers and writers (even more so than many of my purportedly “smart” students). then, as i got to know them on a more personal level, i was stunned to hear that they lived in a tiny apartment with thirteen other people back in october. it was no wonder that they’ve always struggled to get homework in; there’s literally no quiet space to get anything done. i remember having a conversation with them just about the logistics of getting everyone adequate bathroom time in the mornings before school starts at 7:25 am. their thoughts? “it’s actually not that bad.”

knowing how loyal and hospitable they are to pretty much anyone in need around them, it’s not terribly shocking that the number of people living in that little apartment has ballooned to 23. as i reflected on our conversation from earlier this week, i thought a lot about how these students have been a witness of jesus’s love to me. their absurd decision to leave their doors wide open to seemingly anyone, and regardless of the cost (including bathroom space and time), struck me as radically christian. this family has given well beyond their means, beyond what is reasonable. they’ve given extravagantly what they could not afford, they continue to give everything. it’s been a blessing and a learning experience for me to see all this from my students and their family, word become flesh.

other

on one hand, i love the mystics. on the other, i really enjoy the serious academics. and then in my spare time, i can’t get enough critical theory. this book — the most well researched, theological text not-intended for an academic audience i’ve ever read — brings these things all together. it is brilliant and really well written, and it’s caused me to stay up way past my-bed time. on top of all that, the guy’s a high school teacher. my kinda armchair theologian. below is an excerpt about the otherness of god. enjoy.

The stranger is a character who stands at the boundary of our knowledge. They are known to us because we have dominated them — even by giving them the name ‘stranger’ we have seen them and admitted their existence. But they are also unknown to us, or they would be called friend, or at least given a proper name. Our relationship to this God who is both separate and bound, transcendent and immanent can be seen as a relationship with a stranger.

The sociologist Georg Simmel has reflected a great deal on what these un/known strangers might mean to us, and concluded that they play an important role in the development of societies. When they enter our world it is strangers who have to go through the painful process of adapting to our ways of life. In this way the stranger ‘holds up a mirror to the society in which he or she enters, since [they] cannot take for granted ways of life that seem to natives just natural.’ The incarnation is God coming as stranger and holding up a mirror to our society. But, more than this, reading Zizek and SImmel together, Jesus’ growth as a man who is finally forsaken — called ‘stranger’ — by God shows us Jesus holding up a mirror to Godself too. To God, Jesus became a strange man, but it was through this stranger that God learned about God.

The fact of Jesus’ status as fully human and fully divine has traditionally been interpreted as a bridge between divinity and humanity: Jesus’ divine side holds onto God, and human side holds on to us. But the idea of Jesus as the divine stranger suggests that the empathetic relationship may be equally powerful the other way round. The important thig for God was that Jesus was fully human — and thus gave God a strange mirror in which God could be revealed to Godself; the important thing for us was that Jesus was fully divine – for in this stranger, trying to adapt to the ways of our world, we see a truer picture of what we have become.

The stranger — the person who stands on the boundary of our community — is un/known. Because of the paradox of their nearness and otherness, the stranger is thus the one who teaches, the one from whom we learn best. Jesus was this perfect stranger. His temptations in the desert drew him towards performing stunts that would emphasise his otherness and miracles of abundant provision that would emphasise his binding. But, walking out of the desert to live among ust, this stranger refused to collapse the paradox of separation and binding — to and from both us and God. In his death he experienced the agony of total separation; in his resurrection, the joy of full communion. In his temptations and pain he felt total empathetic binding with our humanity; in prayer and transfiguration, total separation; in his resurrection, the joy of full communion. In his temptations and pain he felt total empathetic binding with our humanity; in prayer and transfiguration, total separation from us. Now we, as CHristians, need to seek to live by this same divine pattern: we are those who are both bound to and separated from God, and bound to and separated from humanity. Christianity then is not a religion of exclusivity, of a predestined group who are chosen for salvation. Instead it is the set of those who know/embrace this paradox of being strangers. We are the boundary, not the centre; we are the other, not the included, and it is out of this realisation that our empathy for the oppressed and marginalised springs.

nothing ever happens

i know a lot of people who love to pray. they just eat it up. it’s the first thing they think of when they wake up, the first thing they want to do when something great happens, and the first thing they turn to when the poo hits the fan. i admire those people. i wish i was that way.

when the topic of prayer comes up, i’m always reminded of a line from a sufjan stevens song:

tuesday night, at the bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens

and that pretty much sums up for me how i’ve been feeling about prayer. i want it to work. i want to embrace it as a cornerstone of my life. i kinda want to pray for the best parking space and have it magically appear for me in a major mall parking lot the week before christmas. i would be furious at a god that actually did that kinda thing, but at least i’d know the connection wasn’t faulty. that is the experience of so many people. i want to love prayer, but i just can’t. i wish i wasn’t this way.

because there is this strange thing that happens in my heart when i pray with people now. and this has been happening a bit more often now that i’m in a couple of small groups. we all bow our heads and pray, and then suddenly i feel like i’m reentering an awful space, and it feel surreal, like i’m back inside of a war zone. i look around and i’m back in my parents’ living room, with forty people praying as hard as they can. why did i turn to this forsakenness again?

when i ask someone to pray for me, i’m not really hoping for someone to get god to help me out, in part because i find it difficult to expect anything like that to actually happen. i don’t doubt that it does happen, but kinda like hoping for nice weather on an october day in seattle, i’m not sure i can count on it. what i feel like i can expect, however, is for that person to think of me, to hope the best for me, to desire good things for me, and maybe even act out on the things floating in their head, on my behalf. there’s actual comfort in that.

jesus today

check out more of this, here.

first question that popped into my head when i saw this was: should i be offended by this? then i thought about the image for a little bit more and realized what i was actually looking at.

that my first thought  was regarding the offensive nature of this image is particularly telling, and i realize that much of what i think of jesus has been a bit too domesticated. indeed, jesus would probably make a habit of making me cringe.