End of Semester: Teaching, Logistics

The end of the semester this year is feeling busy but not-quite-frantic. I had two main courses, one a required survey and one an elective. The elective was really fun—we did a visit to Danshui, saw Silence, and talked through Christianity in different parts of Asia. The students were especially interested in the Taiping, which surprised me.

I did several guest lectures for our lay academy. I still find public lectures on a new topic to be about the most stressful part of teaching in Taiwan. For the main lecture I talked a friend, Yin-an Chen, into translating my ppt notes into Chinese, but for the other lectures I did a mix of partial translation and my best effort. This was for a series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so I talked about Presbyterians around the world and modern mission for the smaller classes and then “Protestant, Reformed, Presbyterian,” for the large lecture. It’s still a work in process. Two Sundays ago I preached at Shuanglian and this Saturday I’m visiting a church about an hour south of Taipei. Emily is doing the graduation trip for the twins’ school on Saturday, so Sam will come with me.

I’m always amazed by how much logistical work there is. PCUSA requires about 5 hours of online training. I’m working on submitting materials for the Ministry of Education, since the Seminary’s accreditation requires this. We dropped off visa renewals last week and pick them up Monday. We did two sets of taxes in April-May. To return to the US I’m confirming flights and lodging. (Our return flight to Taiwan was bumped from a 7:45am flight to a 6am flight, which means our whole family will have to get up in the middle of the night then.) We also need to get drivers’ license addresses updated and get information out to congregations we visit. Then there’s grading.

I’m editing some English for our postgrad department and trying to finish up a dissertation review and some book reviews. I’m excited to go to the Yale Edinburgh Conference on World Christianity in New Haven this year, and am finalizing that paper. Next week will be the big flight back to the US. Trying to stick with “busy not frantic.” And of course we’re very much looking forward to seeing family and reconnecting to old friends.

Bright and Clear Festival, remembering the ancestors

This weekend is the weekend for Bright and Clear Festival 清明節, also called Tombsweeping Day. In Taiwan, it’s the time when the ancestors are remembered. Families typically return to their hometowns to care for the tombs of the deceased and to make offerings. Many Christian families substitute hymns and prayers.

In March, two former PCT missionaries died. First was Milo Thornberry, a Methodist missionary who had taught at my seminary and was exiled from Taiwan for his association with a Taiwanese dissident, Peng Ming-min. I met Thornberry several years ago. My seminary gave him an honorary doctorate. He’d published a memoir, Fireproof Moth, about his time in Taiwan.

Just last week, during a visit to Danshui, I received notice that a former Danshui missionary, John Geddes, had passed away. Carys Humphreys, who oversees much of the ecumenical relations work for PCT, sent us the notice. I had taken students to Danshui that day to visit two museums and then to meet with Louise Gamble, a retired Presbyterian Church of Canada missionary still working in Taiwan. On Saturday evening I watched the funeral online. I mentioned the death in class on Thursday and one of my Taiwan Seminary students said both her mother and she had been students of Geddes.

I am grateful for these predecessors, for their commitment and work across many years. There are not a lot of us still serving in PCT and every story I hear fills in a puzzle piece. I teach at Taiwan Seminary and Emily has been volunteering in Danshui, so these two feel especially familiar.

Oxford

We’re now in the middle of our next travel iteration, finishing out Oxford and soon to head to Edinburgh. I visited the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, where an old coworker/mentor, Tom Harvey, is dean. Tom and Judy hosted Sam and I and it was a really nice place to be along the way.

In Oxford we spent most of our time in museums, first the Ashmolean and then today the Natural Science and Rivers Museum. Sam found an interactive display on the tree of life that just fascinated him. The goal was to show how single lines separate into individual species. There was also a bird exhibit in the upper gallery and I was impressed by how many species he’s identified in our time here—a gray heron, assorted ducks, mute swans, a magpie, a pheasant, a common buzzard, and so on. He occupies himself pretty well. I also booked the last legs of our trip using museum wifi—another day in London and a bus to Heathrow. We also walked to Christ Church, which has the fame of being the dining hall for the Harry Potter movies. (And of course there are regularly portraits up of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Wesley, and others.)

Tom’s work is interesting because he’s also doing Chinese Christianity but more theologically. He’s interested in several of the major twentieth century figures—Wang Mingdao, Nee, Song and a few others—who sought to recover a primitive Christianity. I had a good time talking with him—about Barth, mission Dei, the different academic networks, PCUSA and the Reformed churches here, and so on. OCMS’s major work is focused on academic training for African, Asian, and Latin American Christians. When I arrived yesterday there was a conversation in Korean and two vivas (vivae?) being conducted for students. It really does interdisciplinary work. I enjoyed the chance to hear about it. The Harveys have also raised third-culture kids, so that interests me too. Both the mechanics of this process (schools, moves, US time) and also their own approach to it were helpful. Tom told Sam not to give up on math, that music makes your brain bigger, and that it’s good to study Chinese. As parents, we often have our own model we hold up, but it’s always helpful to have convivial models shared with them.

The next stop is Edinburgh. This is our trickiest connection because there’s the real chance Sam will fall into a deep sleep on the way to London to switch. There’s also the equally troubling possibility he won’t sleep at all in which case tomorrow could be rocky. That said, he’s been very adaptable and takes almost no extra energy. For lunch we at granola bars earlier and split a tavern meal. I’m grateful for these small moments of joy along the way.

PCUSA Mission 2017

A year ago around this time PCUSA World Mission was in the middle of a financial crisis, apparently the biggest in forty years. In 2015 for the first time in decades we had recalled workers from abroad, and then in 2016 through about April things were still very much up in the air. Several office staff were eliminated. At one point there was talk of recalling a quarter of our workers, and we were up for renewal last year. For us as a family it was a time of a fair amount of anxiety. We’d struggled with how to transition if we needed to–stay in Taiwan or head back to the States?–and we also began reevaluating some of our work balance (in our first two terms we spent a lot of time on language and getting to know church culture, coworkers, and institutions here, and we realized we needed to tend to US connections more). We held off on moving apartments until we knew on reappointment, and I let my school know that things were unclear in case they needed to make alternate plans. We went back to Ohio for a semester, which let us be closer to our headquarters, visit more churches, and spend time with family, and then in the end everything worked out and we’re back in Taiwan now.

At the same time, the institutional culture continues to shift. Our last director finished in October. Currently our two associate directors are acting as interim directors for PCUSA World Mission. The institution has felt more relaxed to me. Overseas workers are now included on conference calls, which has helped give the pulse of the organization better (denominational politics can sometimes feel like Kremlinology). I learned on the last call that we are now at 128 mission workers overseas, which is about 60% of the number from when Emily and I started seven years ago. Our numbers have dropped mostly through attrition, which is how things more often worked in the past. We also have a number of positions that have been left open pending announcement of a new director (which we will hopefully know about in a few weeks).

I’ve often said that part of the challenge of our work is that we have fewer models to look to for how to do it. I have a gazillion classmates who are suburban pastors, or teach at colleges or seminaries, or work in non-profits. Sometimes I envy their office culture and their vocational clarity. I am grateful to live in the age of teleconferencing, social media, and email, but there are not a lot of people doing what I do. I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming years and hoping that things will be a little calmer.

Church Shopping

In Taiwan I’ve attended a mix of churches. When I first came in 2005 I visited Songshan Church with Shang-Jen, a co-worker. Then a student took me to Zhongshan, where I attend for a couple of months (Zhongshan was built in the Japanese era). Then Shuanglian invited me to help start an English ministry. We launched in March 2006 and I handed it to a classmate and friend, Peter Chen, in late June when I went to back to the US. When we came in 2009 we first went to Mingshan Church, which is a small Amis church down the mountain from the seminary. We really liked it, but there was a larger cultural gap, and when the twins were born we realized we would just be too big of a distraction, so we returned to Shuanglian where we’ve mostly been since then. We still visit Shuanglian regularly (here’s my sermon last month). Two summers ago we also signed Sam up for several church camps, including one at Dongmen and another at Anhe. These have all been efforts to know the Presbyterian church better and to try to contextualize our work.

However, we’ve also visited some churches in the area. We tried Anhe again, but like many small Presbyterian churches it has a kind of erratic schedule (the time we were there they were prepping to have kids sing at a different church the next week), and there’s a strong effort to teach Taiwanese (which we’re not opposed to, but practically our kids probably won’t sit through forty minutes of Taiwanese class + singing in Taiwanese). Our kids never really settled down and after two attempts we gave up. Ironically, one of my students is doing field ed there, but in some ways that made it worse, since I could tell she wanted to please us but also that our kids weren’t really going to blend in. For us church shopping has been a curious calculus of distance + theology + kid-friendly + language. The expat churches in Taipei (International Church, Grace Baptist, Calvary) mostly lean conservative and often forbid women in ordained leadership, which is a deal-breaker for us (although I have had friends at all these places). We’re likely in for a trek no matter what.

Our solution is that we’ll probably continue to attend Shuanglian semi-regularly, but we may also attend the Episcopal church in Shihlin, Good Shepherd 牧愛堂. I took the boys there several weeks ago and Eli pronounced it “his favorite church.” It’s more expat-y than bilingual, is smaller in attendance for the English service (the Christian ed director said it’s an “introverts’ church”), but there are a lot of interesting people there. I met one of the founders of Forumosa, who I’d known previously just as Maoman. It also turned out that the former academic dean from my seminary from thirty years ago attends there occasionally (Graham Ogden). I’d visited the church many years ago and liked it at the time; back then they offered a bilingual service. Most of the other foreigners at my seminary have attended at one time or another. Our kids can still kind of be disasters in public places, so it helps that the exit abuts a courtyard, and that they like the Sunday School, which is targeted pretty much exactly at their age. In some ways I feel guilty going there, but it also feels very homey and friendly (they even have coffee hour). The church is also part an ECUSA diocese, so it’s a friend-of-a-friend ecclesiastically (ELCA is in full communion with ELCA which is in full communion with PCUSA). The style is a little different, but I don’t mind a shorter homily or real wine, and it all feels a bit more relaxed.

Living in Interesting Times: Church and Politics in Taiwan

This is a turbulent period in Taiwanese political life. A few weeks ago I attended a prayer breakfast where Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen spoke. In the interim there have been large protests over multi-party proposals to allow for marriage equality in Taiwan. And then Trump took Tsai’s phone call. Suddenly many voices are trying to puzzle out the implications of this first open discussion between Taiwan’s president and the US president elect since the late 1970s.

On gay marriage, initially I was not clued into the debate, but I started seeing posts by students and alumni on facebook. I began reading about recent legislative discussions about marriage equality, which seems to have the votes to pass. A couple of weeks ago we had a teachers meeting where everyone looked depressed and there was a lot nervous chatter. My seminary is host to some of the loudest pro- and anti-GLBTQ voices in Taiwanese church life. This time around, our former dean Cheng Yang-en and a retired Tainan Seminary professor, Chen Nan-chou, have both signed on to pro-marriage equality work. A teacher of ours, Tseng Tsong-sheng, was rejected by a church in the south as a guest preacher because of pro-GLBTQ views. One of the most widely shared pro-GLBTQ posts was by a graduate of our seminary, Chen Si-hao. Joseph Chang, one of just two openly gay pastors I know of, is also a graduate of our seminary and pastors a GLBTQ-friendly charismatic church downtown. On the other hand, our principal is one of the main voices against the acceptance of GLBTQ rights in the church and large numbers of students were part of protests against the marriage equality legislation.I’m also on a committee with a Presbyterian elder who works in human rights law but in this case is against marriage equality, and has taken a lock of flack from other civil rights activists. PCT formally issued a letter against marriage equality in the recent past, but it’s still a debated topic and some in the leadership favor marriage equality and GLBTQ ordination. In general debate is civil, but one of the things that fascinates me (and this was true of the Sunflower Movement language) is how much language gets borrowed from abroad. This time I’ve seen posts about an Australian young adult with two moms who feels she should have known her father, and this is a story that’s been shared in Chinese, and there are also discussions comparing GLBTQ laws to pedophilia or attributing Taiwan’s AIDS population to GLBTQ issues. A lot of this reminds me of US discussions from the late 1990s.

It’s an interesting time in which to live. As the resident American I keep a pretty low profile and don’t presume I’ll convince anyone of my views. At the same time, I do think there’s a strong cultural component, and it always amazes me how Christians get so tracked on this one issue but mostly ignore other major changes in the family (delayed marriage, higher rates of nonmarriage, use of birth control, gender imbalance in births, low birth rate, rising divorce rate, etc.). When I first came to Taiwan in 2005 I knew an elder in his late 70s whose father had had multiple wives in Taiwan and China and he had dozens of half-siblings. If I had lived through eighty years in Taiwan I would probably have some form of social whiplash. Still, Christians here are really tracked on GLBTQ issues (even abortion is not really an issue here, although it’s likely much more common than in the US).

More recently, President Tsai called Trump and he took the call. It’s still unclear if this is about his business interests, because of activism by Heritage foundation, represents a serious policy change, or just shows lack of awareness. For Taiwanese, it’s probably good, unless it leads to major conflict down the road or a big fight with China (which can still exert a lot of control over Taiwanese business and travel).

I’m not an expert on any of this, but as I round out 2016 it’s been just a fascinating year to be in Taiwan.

Green Island

25763894A friend on facebook recommended this novel, posting the New York Times review. I checked it out online from my library and really enjoyed the read. It’s an epic family saga that stretches across Taiwan’s history from 1947 into the present. It’s probably the best novel I’ve read in terms of treating modern Taiwan’s experience: the period of economic growth, the strange education culture (where students memorized Chinese provinces that no longer existed), the ways Taiwan’s relationship was shaped by US policy, the mix of language, the losses families experienced (of property, of culture, of life).

The main protagonists are a mother and father (Mama, Baba), their four children (the protagonist, an older sister and two older brothers), and assorted spouses, friends, and coworkers. The story is told via the youngest daughter of the four, who is born during the 228 incident (in 1947). Her father, a doctor, gives a political speech after trying to save the life of a wounded protester. He’s subsequently arrested and imprisoned on Green Island for 11 years. The siblings go in different directions–one marries a young soldier, a brother rises in the military in large part by informing on others, and another brother is something of a drifter. The father is released and lives out the next 40+ years with his family, but he’s never the same. The youngest sister eventually marries a Berkeley physics PhD and moves to California, where her husband is involved in a resistance cell. The siblings’ paths all reflect different trajectories Taiwanese families faced (intermarriage, exile abroad, collaboration, escapism).

The family has a mix of ups and downs. Her father never truly recovers from his imprisonment and is implicated in providing info that leads to the jailings of others. The protagonist’s husband’s work leads to a mix of family oppression, failed efforts, and so on. State violence taints everyone in the story in questionable ethical behavior, with the exception of one idealistic activist who stays pure in his resistance without sacrificing those around him. More over, there’s no happy conclusion at the end. Taiwan never has its truth and reconciliation commission. The book ends with the idea that the stories that were oppressed might still be told. True enough, in Taiwan, more of these stories are told, but there’s still a lot of silence. The generation that committed these crimes and experienced them is now passing away…

There’s not a lot of English language lit available on Taiwan. Tao Lin’s 2013 Taipei, was a more experimental, creative effort (that related a drug-loving, internet-addicted antihero). Green Island is a bit more of what I know. In churches here I often meet people who came of age in the late 40s and 50s. They sometimes had parents disappeared. A Methodist missionary at my seminary, Milo Thornberry, wrote a book Fireproof Moth (2011), that related his experience in Taiwan and his subsequent exile from Taiwan. Thornberry directs his book towards the ethics of resistance, including the question of violent resistance (he apparently was unknowingly involve in a bomb plot). He struggled with church culture, which was sometimes quietistic or conservative about Chiang’s authoritarianism.

In Green Island, the protagonist’s older sister and mother become Christian. The author struggles to make sense of the conversion, even as this was a period in church life when Christianity grew rapidly. I think the picture was limited, but also fairly honest. I often meet families here where there is a Christian “wing,” and often a mother will follow a daughter into faith. It was a small detail, but I appreciated it.

Second Chances

It’s fun to be back in Taipei. It’s surprised me how much I’ve enjoyed little things–wonton soup, the park with kids, seeing surprised students and coworkers. Part of the fun is that when we left in February we weren’t sure if we’d return. I told everyone “maybe/probably,” but in Chinese I think many people took this to mean we wouldn’t be back. The church we’ve been involved in included me (without me knowing beforehand) in a group farewell that honored the departing senior pastor and the music director. It was funny then to be back half a year later. At the same time, it’s let me to say to people “we’re very happy to be back,” and “we’re glad everything has worked out.” I’m treating it as a second chance, and really enjoying being in a new apartment with a new pace and a new outlook. Emily has new academic responsibilities. The kids are on a new (better) schedule and are enjoying schools. It’s a lot to manage, and yet is also feeling more manageable. I’m treating it like a second chance.

This is taking several forms. We’re trying to branch out a little on visiting congregations. I’ve reengaged with writing projects. I’m enjoying showing Taipei to others. This week Kevin Ward from Knox College in Dunedin, New Zealand came through. Knox is the Presbyterian seminary for New Zealand and they have a very interesting formation. They offer ministerial training that typically comes after a first degree at Otago. The faculty is basically four teachers who are all focused on preparation for ministry. It’s an interesting model and offers that rare academic/practitioner blend that most seminaries want but struggle to get. (In my seminary, there are some students who come in with basically no academic reading/writing, while in the US there are a number of seminarians who drift through their studies with limited church attachment.) I really enjoyed Kevin because we have a lot of friends in common and seem to be working on some similar issues. He’d been in Korea and had seen a classmate and we both know Yakhwee Tan, who is a kind of godmother to our children. The Liang Fa biography I’d edited was written by a New Zealand Presbyterian. A friend we’ve enjoyed getting to know the last few years is Stuart Vogel who shows up in Taipei annually and does similar academic work. It’s a web of relationships for which I’m grateful. This semester I was also surprised to discover that there’s a music prof from Northwestern College in Iowa who is on sabbatical and is guest teaching at my seminary. It’s always fun to see a place through others’ eyes.

This week is the first week of course. I’ve met with two thesis students–one is a Malaysian student interested in Islam. He wants to look at the early Muslim-Christian encounters to get some perspective on the modern relationship. I also have one PhD student who is pastoring in Vancouver and is now looking at two dissertation topics and trying to figure out which to pursue. I really enjoy work like this. I introduced the MDiv student to bibliography software, worldcat, and some other resources, and I helped the PhD student get a sense of the methods question for his work.

Resettling (back in Taipei)

From this blog it isn’t always clear where we are or what we’re doing. We’ve just come off of six months of “home assignment” or “interpretation assignment” in Cincinnati (February-August 2016). It was a fairly intense period. Initially we were waiting to find out if we’d be renewed by PCUSA; in May I journeyed back to Taipei to swap apartments and pay taxes and check in with schools; we stayed with family, including a longer period all together in the same house than we’d anticipated. It all came off well and we’re back now on a three year contract, but it’s also a bit more than I expected. The challenge of the cross-cultural life, at least for me, is this:

(1) A large amount of planning and contingency planning is necessary to exist between worlds, (2) but it also helps to be very flexible and able to go with the flow.

Planning. Flexibility. These two don’t always go together. Living our life requires a mix of Type A and Type B behavior. We went home not sure which of three school districts Sam would be in, what the twins would do for child care, or how many churches we’d be able to visit. In the end it all worked out. February was slower as we adjusted, so I visited several presbyteries in Ohio. June and July were kind of a rush. Sam did fine in US schools, which was reassuring to us.

Often we will have one area squared away (say Taiwan work), and then find another area that needs more time (US work). Sometimes it’s my seminary that needs more attention; other times we might have several weeks of training/retreating/coaching for PCUSA.

These six months were good. The kids really grew up a lot (literally: Sam grew two inches). We visited ~20 churches plus several presbyteries. We had some vacation, usually paired with either unpacking or packing. Emily did a conference paper and I started some small writing projects. I finished a small biographical project, and started a chapter for a volume on Liang Fa and some biographical entries for an encyclopedia of the global south. We did some training in Louisville, visited harder to reach congregations in the midwest and south, and in general kept things going.

Now that we’re back we’re finding a new schedule. The twins are back at their school. Eli has the most saintly teacher impossible, a woman who is emotionally attuned to him and patient. Because of the Sunday afternoon classes in Cincinnati and the Mandarin videos we showed them they all have at least comprehension in Mandarin and seem to be starting to speak more and more. My guess is they’ll be fluent again by the end of the year. We bought cable for the first time, so as I write this Sam and Eva are up watching National Geographic in Chinese. Sam’s been doing some ping-pong this week. The local park has a rink where the kids are trying roller blades and a scooter. Emily bought a washer, microwave, and coffee maker yesterday. All the pieces are coming back together. Planning. Flexibility. It is all coming along.

70 days in Cincinnati…

Getting out of Taiwan was a whirlwind, especially after the Asia retreat and with finals to grade. We’ve been back in the States for about 70 days (2+ months). We’re here at least through the summer, visiting congregations, reconnecting to family, and doing a mix of training and our catch-up on almost-forgotten projects. I did a quick trip already to Birmingham, and have future trips planned to Chicago, DC, and probably New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Kids have done well. A trait of third culture kids is “high mobility,” which seems true of ours. The upside of high mobility is that they’re fairly adaptive. Sam transitioned seamlessly into second grade, “caught up” on math in a couple of days, joined a cub scout pack (and won first place in his den for pinewood derby), and has been fairly happy to tagging along to different churches, kids’ clubs, family events, and so on. He’s doing soccer now, did his first scout campout last weekend, and finished his final violin skype lesson yesterday. With music, we’re not sure what to do. He’s most of the way through Suzuki book 1 but is wanting to stop violin. We may see if we can talk him into trying a class here or switching to singing or piano. His life is pretty busy between church, scouts, soccer, music, and language. He loves riding the school bus, checking out his own books from the library at school, and recess with his friends.

The twins are basically home with us for now, which is fairly intense. It was too late to enroll them in preschool. Eva’s started some piano with grandma, they’re both able to listen to chapter books during rest time (a nice development), and we do a lot of library, church, and YMCA time. Emily took Eva to a Lollipops conference and there are several nice parks nearby. The Y here has a drop-off you can do with kids up to two hours a day, which is a potential game changer. I’m trying to exercise more after a fairly sedentary stretch this winter. It’s nice to have the use of a back lawn–yesterday they spent several hours digging at the back edge of the lawn.

We have all three kids in a Taiwanese-run Chinese school in Cincinnati. It’s a great match for the twins and they chatter, play, and learn for a couple of hours every Sunday. Sam’s group is mostly speaking in English, but at least he gets some reinforcement. We have about a hundred DVDs that are dubbed into Chinese, and I use chromecast to play Taiwanese PBS shows from youtube on the tv. It’s still not a lot and they’re losing some, but hopefully they’ll at least keep the tones and some of the vocab. When we were first back, Eli impressed us by answering vocab queries for words like “skunk” and “skiing” (which our language courses certainly never covered).

cincinnati chinese school

Cincinnati Chinese School

I’m getting to know congregations better. I visited three presbyteries (Cincinnati, Miami Valley, Scioto Valley) and talked to the exec at a fourth (Sheppards and Lapsley). We’ve visited about a half-dozen congregations so far. This last week I offered to be the on call pastor (in case of emergencies) for the presbyterian church down the street, which has been pretty interesting. Our big travel dilemma is that I have to return to Taipei in May to deal with our apartment.

That’s the news from here. I’ve grateful for small moments of bliss along the way–starry midwestern skies, grandparent babysitting, smoother car trips, and interactions with old and new friends. This return to the US was kind of rushed, so I wasn’t sure how it would come together, but so far it is about exactly what I was hoping for.