A Japanese elementary classroom

A Japanese elementary classroom

Jim Stigler was sitting in the back of a 4th grade math class in Japan in 1979. He was studying teaching methods as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. That one classroom experience profoundly shaped his perspective on teaching.

The lesson was on drawing a three-dimensional cube. The teacher perused the students’ efforts before singling out one boy to draw the cube on the board. Unlike an American school where the student with the most ability would be selected, the Japanese teacher sent the boy who struggled the most with the task.

The boy made his drawing and the teacher asked the class if got it right. “No” the class agreed. The teacher told him to try again. He struggled with another attempt and the teacher asked the class for their assessment. It was still not right. Stigler admits that he found himself beginning to perspire as he felt the embarrassment that his experiences in American classrooms had taught him.

The boy neither cowered nor burst into tears, but kept erasing his failure and attempting a new cube. By the end of the class his cube looked right. This time when the teacher asked the class for their opinion, they said, “He did it!” and broke out into applause. The boy returned to his seat with a smile and pride in his success.

Now a professor in psychology at UCLA studying teaching and learning internationally, Stigler identifies a distinction in the way the East and the West view intellectual struggle. “I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Eastern culture treats struggle as part of the learning process, not an omen of the lack of inherent ability. Struggle allows a child to learn tenacity and persistence in solving a problem and achieving a goal, according to Stigler. The West tends to stigmatize struggle as a negative experience, often conditioning children to avoid the hard tasks or to concede too early, “I can’t do it.”

Jin Li, a professor at Brown University who has also devoted many years to this subject, has recorded conversations of American mothers with their children and Taiwanese mothers with their children. Li believes these interactions reveal basic assumptions about human nature and academic success that shapes the way the children approach struggle.

Japan 2When an American child reads her first passage in a book, the mother will likely praise her daughter, “I am so proud of you. You are so smart.” A Taiwanese mother is more likely to respond, “You worked so hard to sound out your words. You didn’t give up even though it was difficult. I am very proud of you.” These contrasting approaches train the child to think about intelligence, struggle and success in very different ways.

Stigler conducted a study on first-graders, giving them a math problem impossible to solve.  On average, the American children worked on the problem less than 30 seconds before telling the adults, “We haven’t learned this yet.” The Japanese children wrestled with the problem the entire hour. The researchers had to stop them and explain that the problem was impossible to solve. The children looked at them with disbelief.

Clearly there are exceptions to these habits. One can think of the athlete who is extolled for his exceptional hard work that compensated for his lack of natural ability and gave him success. Most people remember Michael Jordan for his work ethic as much as for his seven NBA titles. Struggle on the field of competition, however, does not always translate to the classroom, where intelligence usually overshadows effort.

Alix Spiegel reported this story on NPR and it now appears on NPR’s blog site under health news. One of the comments offered a corrective to the article. Josh Wilson writes, “As a resident of Japan and lecturer at a Japanese university, I’d like to refute the Japanophile perspective in this article. The US education system is far from perfect, but decent (not great) public schools produce far better learners and thinkers than in Japan.

“First, all of the examples above are from elementary school. None of the positive influence survives through 6 years of secondary education focused entirely on cramming for ever-more ridiculous entrance exams in classes of 40 students. Classes are teacher-fronted, slow, boring, lack engagement and discussion, and students don’t learn to become autonomous learners. Students are so used to being to told what to do that they never learn to think for themselves.

“I teach university sophomores. My students are bright and motivated, and while they may ‘work at a problem’ for a long time (look up ‘gaman’ for more about the cultural trait), their problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, and communicative skills are uniformly bad -by far the worst of any group of students in Asia or beyond.

“I, like most of the foreign parents here, would not send my children through the Japanese school system.”

A trend in American education is toward collaborative learning - students sitting together and contributing together

A trend in American education is toward collaborative learning – students sitting together and contributing together

It would be important to note that Josh is very likely a Westerner and probably an American. His conclusions may be slanted in favor or his own culture. But even Li commented in the report that Asian educators share the same concern. “Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.”

People parent and teach according to their basic assumptions about human nature. These two cultures offer distinct views on humans. The East emphasizes the collective, the family or the community. The good of the group always take precedence over the good of the individual. The West elevates the individual to priority, frequently ignoring the good of the group for self-actualization or some other self- activity.

Now here’s the thing. Both of these beliefs have Christian roots. God has created each person uniquely and a healthy sense of personhood requires individuality. But God also created humans for loving relationships, to sacrifice the self for the benefit of others. Love does not forfeit individuality in its acts of sacrifice. And the community never loses when the individual responds to God’s individualized direction for his life. Both of these values can act in harmony.

We should always examine cultural values, especially our own, to determine their validity. Rarely is it a case of a simply black and white, wrong or right. We need to test our assumptions to see how they align with the real world. For this reason, it is good when we are challenged by other cultures.

The Creator of the universe and Author of life in every nation has ordered life around himself, where harmony and peace exist in its fullest sense.

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On October 22, an Italian court convicted seven scientists of manslaughter, holding them responsible for the deaths of 309 people at L’Aquila in an earthquake April 6, 2009. The conviction sent massive waves throughout the scientific community and raised serious questions about the role of scientific analysis in the prediction of natural disasters.

In January of 2009, a series of tremors in the region of Apennine Mountains of central Italy elevated the concerns of local residents. A scientific technician, whose methods the seismology community had shunned, first predicted the earthquake on March 29. He measured the emission of radon gas at four locations around the city, and the rising levels of gas indicated the probability of an earthquake around a 4 on the Richter scale. Based on his prediction, groups circulated through the city using megaphones to warn of an impending earthquake.

L'Aquila, Italy after a 6.3 earthquake hit in 2010  (REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

L’Aquila, Italy after a 6.3 earthquake hit in 2010 (REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

Two days later, the Civil Protection Agency sought the opinion of the Major Risks Committee, a group of experts who assess the risks of natural disasters. The scientists concluded after a short meeting, “There is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock,” according to volcanologist, Franco Barberi. Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, advised, “A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out.” Professor of earth physics, Claudio Eva added, “because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone, it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake.”

Following the meeting, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, Bernardo de Bernardinis announced to the press, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” Six days later the 6.3 earthquake devastated the town of 73,000.

Bernardo de Bernardinis at the trial  AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Bernardo de Bernardinis at the trial AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A year later on June 3, all six members of the Committee and Bernardinis were indicted. Contrary to popular media headlines, they were not accused of failing to predict the earthquake, but were blamed for failing to properly assess the danger and communicate it adequately, leading residents to believe they were safe without a scientific basis. The scientists point the finger at Bernardinis for making the “no danger” statement, while the prosecutor argued that the scientists made no effort to publicly correct him.

In a more recent incident of scientific prediction, the National Hurricane Center calculated that hurricane Sandy would strike the northeast U.S. coast five days prior to the event. Using predictive models, computers crunched massive amounts of data from Sandy and 23 different simulations mapped a left turn into the New Jersey coast, contrary to historical patterns that veer away from land towards the ocean. The death toll has reached 113 and counting, but most officials believe it would have soared much higher without the early prognosis.

23 computer models predicted Sandy would turn left towards the East coast.

23 computer models predicted Sandy would turn left towards the East coast.

Scientists explain that predicting hurricane paths rely on more sophisticated and advanced tools than seismology technology has available. In the end, everyone would admit that predicting natural disasters will never achieve the same accuracy as determining the sunrise 100 years from today. Science has its limitations.

The success of the National Hurricane Center may blur those limitations. Science has already reached godlike status for many people. Expert scientific testimony sways the verdicts of juries and shapes the decisions of medical patients. And any superficial contradiction between science and religion usually weighs in favor of science, regardless of the distance between the theoretical and factual in the scientific process. Consequently, when scientists fail to perform with divine perfection, they might expect prosecution or litigation.

Humanity will always search for a savior, someone who can protect them from disasters, deliver them from enemies or cure them of illnesses. Like dressing dogs in human clothing, fragile beings have costumed science with divine garbs. Those who point out the fictional character of the emperor’s garments are denounced as obtuse or unenlightened.

A bridge in Mantoloking, NJ was destroyed by Sandy (Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger)

A bridge in Mantoloking, NJ was destroyed by Sandy (Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger)

A balanced perspective is needed. This balance will not depreciate the valuable contribution science makes to human life in a fallen world. It certainly has rescued us from many of the forces that seek to destroy life. In spite of its heroic role, science has yet to make the tiniest dent in human mortality. Although its advances continue to prolong life, it has yet to discover how to deliver from death.

Many years after God rescued the Israelites from Egypt through a display of God’s powerful control over nature, their perspective grew imbalanced. They began to cry out for a king, someone who would rescue them from the enemies who surrounded them. The prophet Samuel confronted them with their myopia, “But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’” (1 Samuel 10:19) God granted theme their request, but history proved that no human could meet their demands.

God declares of himself, “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.” (Isaiah 45:20-21)

God alone can predict with perfect accuracy. And God alone can save man. The benefits of science notwithstanding, attempts to deify it turn it into a wooden idol. This may qualify as the biggest crime of all.

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On Sunday, I completed my ministry at Lakeside Church of Chicago. Today I wrote my final article for the Lamplighter, the church’s weekly newsletter. Although it does not conform to the mission statement of my blog site, I thought it would be fitting to publish it anyway. (I suppose you can always do what you want with your own blog site.) The article follows.

This article makes number 587 (as best as I can calculate) that I have written for the Lamplighter in the 13 years and 9 months that I have served as pastor at Lakeside. Wow, how they have accumulated!

When I was first told about the newsletter and the lead article, I realized it provided a wonderful opportunity to communicate with the congregation. Then I learned that it had a much broader audience than just those who attended Lakeside every week. This increased my sense of responsibility and I have written every article with a call to privileged obligation.

I had no experience with writing when I began. Well, not really. I had an exceptional teacher in a high school English class. For one assignment, we were to write a paper about civic responsibility – or some such topic. She selected several papers and submitted them to a competition. I won $50 in that competition, although I did not make it beyond the next level.

I did enjoy writing letters in high school and college, although I gave more attention to my penmanship than to my ability to use descriptive language. Nonetheless, self-expression does have a way of honing certain composition skills.

The greatest demand for writing came in seminary. I wrote numerous papers and a thesis for my Master degree. I do not think that I was graded all that seriously for writing skills, but communicating one’s ideas clearly is embedded in any writing assignment.

During my ministries in Pontiac, Illinois and Joplin, Missouri, I was occasionally emboldened to write a letter to the editor. It seemed a great way to expose the community to God’s truth. My collection of letters could be read in 30 minutes. I even attended a one-week workshop on writing at Moody Bible Institute.

Fast forward to 1999 and suddenly I am required to write a weekly article. “Required” is probably an overstatement, since I was told I could solicit other people to write on subjects germane to our ministry. With the exception of one or two people, that was like finding volunteers to preach a sermon.

I began to receive positive feedback about my articles. At first, I thought people were just being nice. But the affirmation continued from a wide group, some who were on the out-of-town mailing list. One particular friend told me each time I saw her, “You really should start publishing your writing.” Much easier said than done!

Her persistent provocation spurred me to begin my blog site two years ago. I put my articles from the Lamplighter into the public domain via the internet. Of course, who will visit a blog site of an unknown aspiring author? I started getting twenty or thirty visitors a day to my site until one day a few months ago when the hits to my site unexplainably spiked to 191. Most of the views on that day were of an article I posted August 5, 2011, “Winsome Persuasion,” the story of a former lesbian who was lovingly and graciously contacted by a pastor and eventually surrendered her life to Jesus.

A few weeks later, I received a voice message from that woman, Rosaria Butterfield. She was googling her name and ran across my blog post. She read it and said, “I thought it was a very sensitive and accurate and appropriate handling of that situation and I was just calling to thank you.”

Her comment encouraged me beyond words. This was the greatest affirmation of my writing yet. (Did I mention that Rosaria was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University before her conversion?) We exchanged emails and she strongly encouraged me to keep writing, saying, “I do like your blog site very much. I think it’s timely and important.”

The two words that shrink and confine our lives more than any other words are “I can’t.” I could have easily opted out of writing those weekly articles, since I had not really written much before then. I was not trained to write. I had dabbled in it, but it would have been presumptuous to assume that I had any writing ability. I could have said, “I can’t” and changed the format of the newsletter to eliminate the article.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that God gives specific gifts and abilities to each of us, and we are most productive when we operate within those skills. But what if the investiture of these gifts was not final? What if God continues to distribute gifts to us as we need them to serve him effectively? Or what if we discover our gifts when we serve? This would mean many people narrow the possibilities of their lives simply because they never try.

Of course, many times “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” How sad to observe so many people content to watch God’s powerful work from the sidelines. This attitude deserves another article on another day.

We all need to pay more attention to the Holy Spirit and how he might direct us towards opportunities to serve in God’s kingdom, opportunities that might allow us to participate in the exciting power of God as he enables us to serve. Who knows? We might discover a new gift he has given us along the way.

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When a celebrity’s reputation tanks, what happens to his charity? “Nine times out of 10, the charity suffers when something bad happens to the famous person it’s associated with,” according to Ken Berger, head of Charity Navigator. “But Livestrong has been the exception to the rule.”

You may have seen someone wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet. Livestrong originated as the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997. Armstrong, the cyclist who won the Tour de France seven times, began the charity after he was diagnosed with cancer. To date, it has served more than 2.5 million people and raised over $470 million for cancer research and cancer patient support services.

In 2004, David Walsh and Pierre Ballester stated in a book that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs. A year later, a French newspaper claimed that tests done on six of Armstrong’s urine samples, frozen in 1999, tested positive. Armstrong denied the allegations. A board found that the re-testing of those samples fell below scientific standards and acquitted him of the charges in 2006.

Accusations continued to surface. Both 60 Minutes and Sports Illustrated did stories with former cycling teammates who said Armstrong was “an instigator” in the use of EPO, a banned substance, among teammates. Others said they had witnessed Armstrong using banned drugs or had supplied him with these drugs.

Finally, in June of this year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal charges against the cycling champion for using and promoting banned substances since 1998. Armstrong filed a suit against the USADA, but a judge threw it out. On August 24, Armstrong announced that he would not enter the arbitration process and the USADA immediately disqualified him and his team from every race since August 1, 1998, stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles.

Armstrong continues to deny the charges, claiming he has never tested positive. A 1,000-page USADA report includes 26 witnesses, 11 of whom are Armstrong’s former teammates. It claims to have “scientific data” that shows Armstrong manipulated his blood samples with techniques such as blood transfusions to avoid detection. Without a legal challenge to the allegations, the evidence appears compelling, and most people are concluding that Armstrong’s withdrawal from the battle indicates guilt.

Lance Armstrong announcing that he is stepping down as chairman of Livestrong

Last week, Nike, Trek Bicycle and Anheuser-Busch cancelled their contracts with the fallen athlete. But Nike indicated it would continue to support the foundation. In fact, the charity has seen a 2 percent increase in donations this year. Armstrong did resign as chairman of the foundation in an effort to preserve its image.

Identification has powerful implications, as Ken Berger indicates. When people think about the charity, they think about the celebrity. If the celebrity has acquired a negative reputation, those negative thoughts are transferred to the charity. The charity may have an impeccable reputation, but transferred feelings often have no rational basis.

Freud coined the term transference to describe “an unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another.” This happens especially when some connection exists between the two persons, such as a similar relational role or some physical similarities.

George Clooney selling watches

Marketing uses transference frequently when contracting celebrities to advertise products. The consumer often transfers strong favorable feelings for a celebrity to the product. A professional athlete or pop singer does not need to have any expertise in a product line to persuade people to buy the product. He or she just needs to create positive feelings that will be associated with the product.

Transference differs from another form of identification: representation. A representative should exemplify the characteristics of someone or something else. A representative for a company speaks on behalf of the company, expressing its values and goals. What is true about the representative should be true about the company.

Jesus assigned representation to his followers. Praying the night before he went to the cross, he asked the Father, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21) The relationship his followers have with one another represents him, and the world is justified in making judgments based on observing these relationships.

We may not like the pressure of this responsibility. We may prefer to rely on our apologetics, on our ability to convince someone of truth, or simply on the words of the gospel. But Jesus said that the world will often determine the validity of our claim that the Son of God has visited earth, not on our arguments, but on the way we treat one another.

Forgive the person who hurt you and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Go to the person to resolve a conflict and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Sacrifice your time or money to help someone reeling from adversity and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Reach out to the person who keeps pushing people away and you show that God has sent his Son into the world.

Judging a charity by the character of a celebrity may be unreasonable, but judging the claims of the gospel by the relational conduct of its adherents is acceptable and expected.

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suc ceed – 1. to happen or terminate according to desire; have the desired result; 2. to accomplish what is attempted or intended

fail – 1. to fall short of success or achievement in something expected, attempted, desired, or approved; 2 to be or become deficient or lacking; be insufficient or absent; fall short

Robert Lupton returned from Viet Nam in 1971 with a strong sense of calling to minister to the urban population of Atlanta. He had much to learn – very much to learn. For one thing, he was not the “great white hope.” Jesus had already penetrated deep into the city with his grace and gospel. Lupton had to learn to recognize Jesus there and humble himself to serve those in whom the Spirit was renewing, transforming and empowering as his witnesses.

What Lupton could do was invest his abilities and energy into reversing the effects of poverty on the urban community. He founded the Family Consultation Service, a coalition of community services in Atlanta.

One venture promised great success for job creation. Pallet manufacturing. Saw up some wood, staple the pieces together, ship them out. Seemed like a simple formula for a successful business. Investors provided start-up capital. A warehouse was leased. Customers placed orders. Two managers and a consultant signed on. And eight men were hired from the community.

Saws buzzed. Staple guns snapped. The first pallets were stacked on the flatbed truck and delivered to a customer. The operation showed every sign of success.

Eight weeks later, a different picture was forming on the canvas. When sawdust began piling up in the warehouse, the managers purchased an industrial vacuum system to blow it into an outside dumpster. Instead, the sawdust collected in a mushroom cloud that hovered over the neighborhood. Time did not permit a contingency plan, rendering the system inoperative.

Accidents plagued production. Nails in the wood caused a steady flow of expensive saw blades. Fingers became the victim of staple guns and saws. One worker collapsed and had to be resuscitated before being rushed him to the hospital. A compressor failed, leaving eight workers idle. A forklift crashed through the side of the warehouse and the garage door collapsed.

Stress took its toll. Managers lost sleep, lost weight and mental and physical strength. Workers fought among themselves, but there was no time for counseling. Absenteeism strained output quotas. Turnover rate approached 100%. On a good day, the company was losing five cents for every pallet produced.

Solutions to the mounting problems would require the purchase of sophisticated machinery, which would replace flesh-and-blood workers. Determining the losses irretrievable, the managers had to shut down the operation. Failure had to be acknowledged.

As Lupton mused over the aborted venture, he gained valuable insights. In his book, Theirs Is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban American, he writes, “Behind my questioning is the subtle heresy that God will prosper any endeavor that is done according to his will. The corollary is that whatever fails was done somehow contrary to his intentions. The error is in the assumption that perfect communion with God assures flawless performance of his will. But neither perfect communion nor flawless performance is possible for human beings.”

“Success is not an automatic consequence of obedience. ‘A righteous man falls seven times and rises again’ (Prov. 24:16). Saint and sinner alike must take their lumps and go on to the next risk. But for the believer there is one guarantee. We have a dependable God who made a trustworthy commitment that no matter what happens – success or failure – he will use it for our ultimate good.”

How would Jesus measure up to the criteria for success? From one perspective, he seemed to fail miserably. Early in his ministry he was attracting large crowds, mostly due to his miracles. At one point, a large Galilean company wanted to coronate Jesus, but Jesus eluded them.

Instead of courting the crowds, Jesus confused them with his perplexing messages. Preaching to a multitude, he began talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in order to gain true spiritual life. He managed to alienate most of his listeners, who “turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66) By the time of his death, his cadre\ of disciples had shrunk to a hundred or more.

But should Jesus be evaluated by the unquestioned American standard of success – numbers? Was that the desired result? When word got around that Jesus was healing every kind of disease in Peter’s hometown, people began flocking to him. He quietly left town and they followed him to persuade him to return. He explained, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)

God’s desire for his incarnate Son was to spread the good news of the kingdom throughout Israel. It was not to build a megachurch. Finally, God’s purpose for his Son was to die as a substitute for sin, to secure forgiveness for those who trusted in him, to restore them to their God.

Success, ultimately and finally, must be measured by the desired purpose of God and his purposes do not always match ours. But as Lupton reminds us, we can count on one thing. God is on our side. He will not fail us. His purposes for us are nothing less than good. And he will succeed in accomplishing what he intends.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6

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