Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring is like a perhaps hand

The crocuses and snowdrops are up and in bud, the scallion medusas are reaching for the sun, and e e cummings has taken up residence in my internal soundtrack.

Spring is like a perhaps hand
by E. E. Cummings


Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

shamelessly copied and pasted from

Take a Break

Take a Break
This was presented as a sermon at Jones United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 7, 2010. They asked me to speak a little bit about my time in Brazil in January of this year.

As you all know, I love to travel. Anywhere. To the woods, to the city, to Siberia, to Germany. Offer me a ticket, and I'll go. There is nothing like steeping myself in another culture to prompt reflection on the way I live my life at home and to ultimately live my life better. Let me give you a couple of examples:When I visited France in 1999, I learned about the pleasure of shopping for my daily bread and fruit from the baker and the farmer who produce them and also about the more intense experience food can provide when you enjoy a restaurant meal slowly, one small portion at a time. When I visited Russia in 1997, I learned how 5 people can comfortably live in an apartment with only four small rooms. The keys are having just what you need, assigning everything a place, and always putting it there. Where there isn't room for impulse buying and needles accumulation, you won't do it. I value these lessons, and I know that travel will always teach me something if I am willing to learn. So, when Andrews University, where I am an alumna and an adjunct professor asked me if I would go to their Brazilian sister institution UNASP to teach in an English Immersion program for a month, I said, “Where do I sign?”

Brazil is a beautiful country. The tropical birds, flowers, and trees are amazingly different than what we find here with vibrant colors, giant blooms, and cacophonous songs. Like the exuberance of the flora and the fauna, the Brazilian people are exuberant with their smiles, their music and their hospitality. They took such good care of me at UNASP that I sometimes felt like a queen. But that's not the lesson I brought home.

The lesson from my time in Brazil that I want to share with you this morning is about my learning to value the observance of Sabbath for the rest that it offers. Having grown up with Jewish friends and studied and worked with Adventists, the concept of Sabbath was not new to me. I have seen a variety of ways to observe Sabbath ranging from resignedness to joy. I got the resignedness. God commands it, so we do it. Period. End. But I didn't get the joy. I didn't understand how my fellow students who, I knew, were just as buried under work and as behind on papers as I was, were so grateful for a day that they couldn't get any work done. I wasn't comprehending the gift of Sabbath, just the duty.

Because I was living in the dormitory at UNASP, I lived in the rhythm of Brazilian Adventist life. My days in the intensive immersion program began at 6 AM and often didn't end until after 11. I planned, I taught, I graded. I shared meals with my students and participated in the program's planned recreation like swimming and choir. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. By our after lunch class on Friday of the first week, both the professors and the students were drained. Thankfully, classes ended early on Friday so everyone had some free time before the beginning of Sabbath at sundown. We American professors used the time for an outing, wanting to see as much of Brazil as we could, something, anything outside of the UNASP campus. The students, on the other hand, used the time for recreation and to prepare for Sabbath. When we gathered again at dinner, we professors were on the rumpled side, wearing the clothes we had put on that morning, happy to have had an adventure, but still tired. The students, on the other hand, had used the time to shower and change into Sabbath clothes. Some of the girls curled, braided, or straightened their hair. All in all, they came to supper looking more relaxed than they had when our class ended. The mood of relaxation was palpable in the air.

After supper came Friday vespers. Saturday morning brought worship and Sabbath school, and Saturday afternoon was a wide open block on our schedule. Any planning or grading or homework to be done for Monday could wait for Saturday evening or even Sunday. At lunch after worship on Saturday, we chatted about what we would do with our afternoons. The consensus was sleep.

By respecting the customs of my hosts and participating in this observance of the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, I experienced the gift that God gives us when we tithe one seventh of our time to Him. The day of Sabbath rest and relaxation was a sharp contrast to the energy and effort of the other six days. On Friday afternoon, I was exhausted and wondering how I would make it through the next week, but by Sunday morning, I was refreshed and ready to prepare and to grade and to teach again on Monday.

The new challenge has become bringing this lesson home with me and transform my Sunday into a Sabbath. I am not, after all, an Adventist, and I don't live in a world which supports this kind of Sabbath observance. My world consists of mainline protestants and Catholics for whom Sabbath is a couple of hours on Sunday morning and secularists for whom Sabbath is irrelevant. For several years now, I have been committed to not engaging in commerce on Sunday because if I go shopping or to a restaurant, that means a whole team of other people had to come to work on Sunday. Many of them would like to go to church and to spend time with their families, but often refusing to work on Sunday is asking to be fired. Everybody deserves a day of rest.

Now, I am trying to keep my Sabbath more Holy at home, too. I don't deal with school related e-mails or work on my freelance work. I also don't do any schoolwork with the kids. And when it comes to housework, if I can't do it with a joyful heart, I don't do it on a Sunday. I have realized that although stressful events may drive us to our knees and lead us to talk to God about our problems, it is only in our relaxed moments that we are available to listen to God, and to let His peace fill us up. Stress consumes all that space and drives the peace out. Sabbath rest with God can restore it.

In another way, this trip to Brazil was a sort of Sabbatical for me. Yes, I was there to work, and I worked hard! But this work was different from my usual work, and there is rest in that difference. At UNASP, teaching was my only work. I did not have to be involved in administrative decisions and politics as I so often am in the ESL department at Andrews. I also didn't have to do any housework beyond keeping my things tidy so that the staff could clean my room. Having the freedom and the necessary support to be wholly a teacher was really nice. And as I return home and take up my life here in Michigan again, I am trying to be more mindful about the commitments that I make. Do I really want to add that to my list? I ask myself.

Our Lenten journey together as a church family has given me some additional insight on these ideas, too. The 15 quiet minutes with God that our text challenges us to take are like a mini-Sabbath each day. In these 15 minutes, we give ourselves permission to just be with God, and to let everything else go. Just like grading and planning can wait until after Sabbath, washing the dishes and taking out the garbage can wait fifteen minutes. This time alone with God makes room for peace, and renews the feeling of Sabbath throughout the week.

Dedicating time daily time to God with our families can also work a powerful change on the way we live our lives. With my students in Brazil our instructional day began at 7:45 with 10 minutes of worship and 5 minutes for announcements. Most other departments at UNASP began at 7:30, so as I made the 10 minute walk each morning from the dorm to the classroom, the songs of the tropical birds mingled with the songs of each department joining their voices in praise to God. It was beautiful to hear and beautiful to know that everyone on campus though divided by occupation was united in praise.

Praise services like these are democratic moments. Teachers, students, and the praise leader are all doing the exact same thing, and the academic classes begin on a different note when we all pause from our rush to arrive to spend some time together with God. We come to the tasks of the day more united and with a greater sense of calm centeredness. So, this is what I'm trying to do now both alone and with my children. In Brazil, this time was built into my day, but here at home, I have to carve it out for myself. There, we had a dedicated space that we used only for worship, but here, I have to find that same relaxed stillness among all the tasks and objects that fill and sometimes clutter my day, and I challenge you to do the same. Go ahead, give yourself permission to take a break, and dedicate that break to God. I promise that if you do, the reward will be great. Sabbath rest, daily and weekly, is as much God's gift to us as our obligation to Him.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Interesting Conversation with Sofia

In the bread aisle at Meijer, an unusual place to find the Koppy girls since we usually bake our own or buy at the artisan bakery:

Sofia: Can we buy some French toast?

Me: What?

Sofia (making a tiny circle with her fingers): You know, those round ones.

We stand there looking at each other for a bit. I'm thinking: Is my 6 year old asking for baguette?

Anna: Waffles!

Sofia: No. We cut them open and in the toaster and spread butter on them.

Anna and I are still stymied. I'm running through my mental rolodex of bread products. Hard rolls?

Sofia: We had some at church.

Me: Do you mean English muffins?

Sofia: Yes! (sheepishly grinning)

We bought some.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Recently, I updated my facebook status to say that I was watching Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with the girls, and a couple of friends said, "Ooh. Tell me what you think." When I started writing, it soon got way to long for a comment on a status update, so here it is.

I slid this movie into the DVD player expecting to see an animated version of the children's picture book. The title is exactly the same, so the story, with some additions, deletions, and mutations (as happen when changing media) should be more or less recognizable. I had even read the book with the girls and asked them to make predictions about what the film might add to go from a 10 minute read-aloud to an animated feature.

In reality, the story is totally different. In the picture book, Chewandswallow is presented as a tall tale, within the frame story of Grandpa flipping the pancake onto Henry's head. And, as in tall tale tradition, extraordinary events are not explained. They simply are. And we suspend disbelief, enjoying the story. This attitude allows the events in Chewandswallow to be extraordinary and accepts that what seems supernatural to us may be perfectly natural somewhere else. After all, there are "an ocean, lots of humpy bumpy mountains, three deserts, and one smaller ocean" between us and Chewandswallow, so anything can happen there.

The film, though, is more science-fiction than tall tale. It explains why Chewandswallow has food for weather (young inventor's transmuter machine accidentally gets booted into the clouds) and why that food weather gets out of control (gluttony and pride). Science provides means, while psychology provides motivation. Having expected the tall tale, I was initially disappointed by the science fiction.

There is, however, a lot to like about this film in and of itself. Both the hero and the heroine grow, and their success is interdependent. As a parent, I really appreciate the way that the characters take responsibility for their mistakes and work to fix the resulting problems. As a grown-up, I enjoyed the satirical jabs at American culture. As a long-time fan of the picture book, I reveled in the appearance of the Jell-o sunset, the pancake on the school, the salt and pepper wind, and the bread boats. As a Star Wars fan, I laughed out loud at the meatball Death Star.

All in all, I would give this film a thumbs-up. I do wish that they had changed the title, so that it would suggest Chewandswallow without leading one to expect the picture book on film.

There you go, ladies, that's what I think. What do you think?