Today, I experimented on my kids…

After some great opening lessons at the start of the semester, I was trying to figure out what lesson I should do with my high school youth group on Sunday morning. I was going to teach them about an experiment that has taught me a great deal about how to best live out my faith, but then I realized: they’d learn the lesson better if they did it themselves. So today, I ran the experiment on them.

Back in 1973, Darley and Batson performed a psychology experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary, in which they asked a group of students to prepare a sermon on either the Parable of the Good Samaritan or on Christian vocation. These students were then instructed to deliver the sermon in another building across campus. They were put into three conditions: high hurry (in which they were told they were running late), medium hurry (in which they were told to get there quickly), and low hurry (in which they had plenty of time). Along the path to the other building, there was a “victim” lying in an alleyway. The real experiment was designed to see how many people would, like the Good Samaritan, stop to help the victim.

good-samaritan

An illustration of the parable from the Chinese artist He Qi.

Interestingly, being primed by reading the Good Samaritan didn’t improve your odds. Nor did your level of religiosity. The most important factor was simply: were you in a rush? In low hurry situations, 63% helped, in medium hurry situations 45% helped, and in the high hurry situation only 10% helped. To me, it’s a lesson that no matter how much scripture we read (or ethical philosophy for that matter!), if we are always in a rush and consumed with our own tasks, we will fail to implement it. Since Irvine kids tend to be pretty consumed with their homework, extracurriculars, and test prep, I thought it would be an important lesson for them to grow as disciples of Jesus.

I gathered them all into the room, and told them we’d be doing a special activity today. Our church has a large Chinese ministry high school group, but I work with the English students. So I told them we were going to start a “penpal” group with the other ministry, in order to help teach them English. They were to write a letter on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then they would go one by one over to another room to deliver it to a student there, with whom they would chat. Interestingly, many of them were instantly reticent – what if my English isn’t good enough? What if I make a mistake? What if I make them worse. (This may suggest a whole different lesson on self-confidence, considering how genuinely talented and brilliant most of them are.) But I cajoled them into it, and left the room to place my “plants.” I borrowed a 2nd grader from the children’s ministry and put her along the path. She leaned against a wall, grabbed her stomach, coughed loudly, and generally looked sickly and in need of help.

After about ten minutes, I started taking students one by one. Each time, I told them either “We’re behind schedule! Please hurry over!” or “There’s no rush. Just meander on over.” The breakdown was better than the group in the original study: 100% of our non-rushed students stopped to offer help, and 40% of those in the rushed group stopped as well. But the 60% difference was striking to the students, as was the discussion afterward. (It was also interesting to watch the students from afar, as a number of them walked just a bit past her, and then double backed a few steps away to check on her when she kept coughing.)

The three students who didn’t stop all gave their reasons, which I think are actually illustrative of the reasons why we miss the needs of others when we’re always in a rush. One said that he didn’t even notice her as he passed by (let those who have eyes to see see!). Another said that he saw her, but that there was another woman in a wheel chair passing by, so he just didn’t pay much attention. The last one – the actual sister of the fake victim! – said that she saw her, but was distracted when our pastor walked by at the same time. (Whether it was pure distraction or that she thought he would help because he’s an authority figure who would help was unclear.) In all three cases, I emphasized that the lesson to take away is not that these three students are bad people, but rather that any of us can miss out on the needs of others when we’re too consumed by our own perceived needs.

Sometimes what we need is not simply to learn the scriptures better, but rather to not let our anxiety distract us from the world around us. Only then can we follow the model of the Samaritan and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.

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New Year, New Job

2014 was a very unusual year, and I neglected my blog as I adjusted to many big changes. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but one of my goals for this year is to start writing more reflections on this blog.

Life update: I had been working with the children’s group at a local church, but they caught on fairly quickly that my gifts might lie elsewhere. Last week, I started working with the Friday night college ministry, and with their afternoon Sunday school for their high school students.

One of the most challenging things for me is that I’m facing a group of students who, by and large, have grown up in the church. Given my background, I’m much better at talking to atheists. I get where they are coming from; I know how to talk to them about God. Most of the time, the God they don’t believe in is a God I don’t believe in either! They don’t believe in a God who delights in torture, who defies any logic, who allots salvation like Willy Wonka apportioned golden tickets – utterly at random – and neither do I. We have something in common.

Talking to Christian students is much more challenging, because instead of not believing in a bad God, they tend to believe the wrong things about the right God. And even if they believe the right things about God, those right things often get left at the church doors on the way out. I’m honestly a little intimidated by the prospective of figuring out how to help these students grow.

As I’ve gotten to know this church, I’ve learned a couple of things that worry me. First of all, it’s a church mostly of immigrants, which sometimes signals that members’ sense of belonging to the church may be less focused on faith in Christ and more on finding ways to preserve their culture. Secondly, I surveyed the middle schoolers and found that many (though not all) of the students do not feel God’s presence in the church. That is, for them, the primary experience they have at church is of a community revolving around a particular culture (Chinese) and obligation (my parents will be upset with me if I don’t come). Thirdly, the college students who had a connection to another Christian group (like Intervarsity) seemed on average more invested / spiritually mature than the ones who were only attached to the church. Of course, it was one of those Intervarsity guys who – when asked what book of the Bible he would like to discuss – chose Song of Songs. So maybe my judgments are entirely off-base.

One of the groups would sometimes do an activity called “highs” and “lows” in which they would share a high point and a low point of their week. I think all church groups should have moments like this – times in which we collectively share what’s going on in our lives so that we can stay in touch and offer support during more challenging periods. But after my first “high” and “low,” I realized that it’s a great exercise to build community generally, but not necessarily a great exercise to build a distinctly Christian community. (I think my high was that I started playing Clash of Clans with my family, which bought me street cred with the middle schoolers until they realized I was playing the old version. So I’ll be the first to admit that I failed at spiritualizing this exercise.)

I decided for both the college and high school groups, I’m going to replace “highs” and “lows” with something similar, but different. I’m asking each person to share something that God did in their lives in the previous week. I want to help them develop a sacramental vision to see that God lies beyond the doors of our church, that what they do in the daily rhythm of their lives matters to God, and that if they truly believe what they sing on Sunday mornings, it should offer them comfort and guidance throughout their week.

The first exercise with the high schoolers illuminated the variations in maturity. A couple of the older, more mature students were very insightful (God showed them the importance of helping their grandmother, inspired them with gratitude, or challenged them). One boy said frankly, “all I did last week was sleep, eat, and play video games.” About half the answers were a weekly recap without reference to God. But I hope as we practice this new exercise, they start to develop the vision that lets them see God’s fingerprints in the world around them.

As for me? Well, on the drive to church in the morning, I had settled that I would share about how a talk with two non-Christian friends reminded me that I need to (a) get over my obsession with being “right” about politics and listen better to move conversation to deeper things and (b) spend more time rethinking my political views in light of Christ. I had intended it to be a reminder that God works through everyone – even those who have different religious beliefs from us.

God had another plan. After the morning service, my church offered a morning class on marriage from an older couple I’d gotten to know on my first visit. They seem like a lovely family, and I seemed to get along with the wife as well as the husband (finally!). At the class, the wife shared some of the struggles they had gone through during their 39 years of marriage. She and I shared some uncanny similarities, and I talked to her afterward. It turns out that we processed in very similar ways, and she gave me some advice that will help me figure out how to resolve conflicts in my current relationship better. This came the morning after my boyfriend and I had gotten into an argument of sorts, and it was clear that something needed to change. It brought tears to my eyes to talk to this woman who shared my struggles but had persevered through them. She helped me to see the ways that I need to change, helped me to remain humble, and served as the sign I had prayed for the night before.

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Some would say, of course, that it was mere coincidence. I can’t prove that it wasn’t. But with sacramental vision, we can see God’s handiwork in even the most ordinary of things. I pray that God will help grow in my students the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Overcoming Introversion

The newcomer’s class at church has finally ended. This has had two repercussions:

1. I arrived at church half an hour late, since the classes started half an hour after the 9am service and I was used to the earlier time. (D’oh!)

2. I have begun attending the 9am service (at least, the second half of it…) instead of the 7:30am or the 11am, which means I didn’t know most of the people there.

If anyone knows the cartoonist of this, I will probably attribute it... the image was too small to read the name. :(

After services, there is always a gathering time outside on this wonderful pavilion beside the church. They serve coffee, tea, and bagels, and ask people to give if they can. I’m a huge fan of this approach, because I think communal gathering around food is a great way to build community and to make people feel welcome.

Even so, I tend to get a little bit nervous (cagey?) in large crowds. Most people wouldn’t suspect this; years of training in public speaking helped me to overcome my instinctive shyness. Lately this church has been drawing it out of me, though. The priests are very nice and welcoming as they shake your hand on the way out, but once you walk out, it’s an invariable no man’s land.

The landscape:

1. The circle formed around one of the priests or deacons. They have to be polite to you, but they also seem to try to talk to more people, so you’re only guaranteed a short conversation before you’ll be cast into the sea again.

2. The circle with the one person you know. Of course, the one person you know is always in charge of something or another (kids, greetings), so they’re most likely talking to someone about something more important than you have to say.

3. The dozen circles with no one that you know. They’re at church, so they probably be nice to you. But they also probably already know each other. So if you go up, you’ll have to introduce yourself to all of them. Then you’ll ask them to tell you a little bit about themselves, and as you do, one by one they’ll dwindle off, since they know each other’s stories. Then you may get stuck again.

4. The line for coffee / tea. This can be a good one, since you can generally pick off people one-by-one. Of course, you risk them immediately bee-lining for a circle after they’ve picked up their beverage. But maybe by telling them that you’re new, you generally can make them feel sorry enough for you to stay for a bit.

5. The other few stragglers. One is at a table, on her phone. Is she doing something important? Playing Clash of Clans? Trying to look busy so she doesn’t feel awkward about being the only person not talking to anyone else? It’s probably not worth interrupting. Another is lurking just a pace from the group, gazing at it with some mixture of confusion and disdain. Is he an introvert, too? Simply misanthropic? An unrepentant serial murderer?

The last time I faced this, I just left. I couldn’t handle the pressure of re-introducing myself again, and I was going to a movie event for the ladies’ group, so I figured I’d break even for my church social time.

This Sunday, I decided to strike up a conversation with the other lurker standing by the coffee table. He was an older gentleman, and seemed more introverted, so I thought it wouldn’t be too bad. He ended up being one of the older science-y types. The conversation was saved when his wife came over – she was also a scientist! – and we had a long chat about science and faith and philosophy. I always end up with a bit of terror at the start of these things, but once the talking begins, I find myself glad for having overcome it. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

It is, however, a lesson that even when the church isn’t really clique-y, it can still be very alienating to introverts. I’m sure if you introduced yourself to the people in any of the circles, they would be friendly and welcoming. But even so, it takes a great deal of courage and dedication for an introvert to begin the process of joining the community in this type of setting.

Joining the little old church ladies…

Yesterday was my first time going to a Bible study group at my new church. (I wasn’t slacking – they were cancelled for the summer.) Since I’m doing tutoring on most weeknights, the only one that works for me is on Thursday mornings. Of course, most people my age are working Thursday mornings, so my group ended up being predominantly women over the age of 60 – i.e. the church grandmothers.

Now I’ve just come from a very secular, college-heavy area. The average age in my last church small group was probably 25, the oldest person was 32. So I was understandably filled with glee to finally be hanging with a whole hoard of older Christian women dedicated to their faith. The hens were clucking about the relaunch of the church’s “Women’s Guild” – apparently this is just their term for a group for all the women in the church, to practice fellowship and service. (The middle-aged priest informed me that the term “guild” was more popular in the 1950s. One woman kindly told me it was just like an auxiliary. I chuckled. Note to self: this is how they must feel when their grandchildren talk about “selfies.”)

One trend that’s affecting churches and broader American society is fairly severe age segregation. You go to school with people your age, you go to college with people your age, you work with people your age, you raise families and interact with the parents of your childrens’ friends, you die slowly in a retirement home. The Boston Globe had an interesting article on the problem a few weeks ago: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/08/30/what-age-segregation-does-america/o568E8xoAQ7VG6F4grjLxH/story.html  They focused on age segregation as a function of geographic location. As someone who lived in New England (albeit in a college setting) for 6 years, I can attest to the fact that just because you live right next to someone of a different age doesn’t mean you’ll actually engage with them, especially because the groups often have such different interests and priorities.

Ending age segregation requires intentionality, not mere proximity. I love the picture this article paints though: “seniors in retirement homes benefit when they spend time reading to children and playing with them, while young people are given the chance to absorb wisdom and life experience.” All of this age segregation is actually denying us the power that communities unlock. “It takes a village…” they say.

[My parents always cast some doubt on this phrase. I think it’s because they only had me. My village were my books, and if my parents had needed to write books to keep up with my pace of reading, they would probably be more inclined to agree with the proverb.]

roman-paintings-womenwomen-in-the-bible--june-2010-2f0k69soSo I’m pretty excited to become a part of this community and to get to know the old church ladies. The most exciting thing is that we’re going to vote in a bit for what to study after we finish 2 Samuel. Judith petitioned for the apocrypha, and I seconded the motion. After all, I said, I want to learn the story of Judith!

Spoiler alert: it involves a future old church lady and a sword.