On Being A Professor

Carlan lecturing on the evaluation and treatment of trauma in Burundi

by Carlan

(This post was written just over a month ago but never made it to publication. It still very much describes my experience here.)

I love being a professor. Actually, that statement is too narrow. I love being a teacher.

There’s the selfish part. Feeling like you know one subject more thoroughly than another is nice. The pride that rises up when a student asks a question and you find exactly the right way to explain it. The respect you receive from others.

Though I would have to say, for each of those, my experience as a med school professor in Burundi gives counter-examples. Emergency medicine is intrinsically general. In residency one professor used to joke that we knew “the first 15 minutes of every specialty” but little beyond that. The majority of questions posed to this professor are not met with sparkling illustrations and inspired syntheses but with fumbling attempts to cobble together the French vocabulary I have to explain a concept that exists in my mind only in English. And when you say something off-handed that turns out to be a cultural faux pas and offend all of your students simultaneously without knowing it for a week…well, let’s just say that “respected professor glow” disappears.

In the last few weeks I’ve experienced all of the above while preparing and teaching a course on Traumatology. Every career and every job has its ups and downs. Everyone starts out incompetent in their job and builds that competence over years of making and learning from mistakes. Yet I find that the stresses and strains of researching and writing curriculum and diffusing those lessons in the clinical and classroom contexts resonates with something in me. Watching students who struggle to put disparate observations into a larger schema finally “get it” when you ask them the right question to unlock their own curiosity and logic is the unique privilege of teachers. Seeing your students acquire competency more quickly than you did carries no spite or jealousy but joy and a vicarious sense of accomplishment.

Yet what I cherish most is not building knowledge or skills into my students. That is not the best part.

These students come from various walks of life. Some are the children of rural villagers whose whole communities have sacrificed to send one child to university. Others have had the advantages of excellent primary and preparatory schools and educated parents. Some are local and some are from neighboring countries. They are atheist, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, and a host of other worldview backgrounds that I do not even always know. They have different natural aptitudes and varying degrees of discipline or drive. They are different characters.

And that is the best and hardest part of being a professor. Teachers carry a responsibility to shape the character of their students. Will my pupils have better character because of their time with me? How can I reach in and influence their hearts? How do I prepare a curriculum for that?

In Matthew 23:8-12, in the midst of a scorching rebuke of the pastors and professors of His time, Jesus tucks these gems into the discourse.

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

I’ve been reading the Bible as a Christian for over 20 years. I’ve read through the Gospel of Matthew unnumbered times in the course of those years. I remember the “rabbi” part. I remember the “father” part. But somehow that “instructor” clause escaped my notice until last week when I was in the midst of preparing and teaching the traumatology course.

It turns out that the best and hardest part of my job just got better and harder. I am supposed to have good character. I am to be humble. Patient love will need to characterize my preparations and interactions. I’m also going to need to drop my title.

BUT…look at the positive of what Jesus said. We have a teacher. We have a Father. Christ, the Promised One, is our instructor. !!!

Somehow the way to be an effective and productive professor just joined the pathway to being a good anything else : point self and others to Jesus.

Kibuye Music Studio

It’s been 2 1/2 months since we moved to our community called Kibuye located in the rural farmlands of Burundi, one of the poorest and hungriest countries on the planet. In October I started the one and only Kibuye Music Studio, complete with a Kawai upright, shipped new from the States. Most probably one of the only upright, acoustic pianos in the country.

Moving it from the container was a nerve wracking experience, but when all was said and done it only had a couple superficial scratches.

 

The piano’s great adventure ride from the container to our mud brick house.
The piano being carried into the house by hand.

Currently I have 10 piano students from among the team children. Most of the children have electric keyboards in their homes, and one other family shipped over an older upright.

Some teammates enjoying the piano.

Since arriving we have had the opportunity to host some local Burundian friends and musicians. Seeing and hearing the piano has turned into a local attraction. One young man, a musician at our local church, stopped by and played the piano. He told me it was his first experience to play on a “real acoustic” piano. He has only ever played on small keyboards.

The children are preparing music for the upcoming Christmas recital. I am also eager to see how we can use this instrument to bless the local community, and hope to in the future, hold some concerts for our village. And one day I would *love* to open a music school for the Burundian children!

 

Apprendre à parler ou parler pour apprendre ?

My class (and our professor front row, 2nd from the left).

 

And it’s over. Has a year really gone by?! In the moment, time feels like an eternity but when it’s passed it feels like a train that’s rushed by in a hurry and one is left hearing the whistle trailing off in the distance. As I sit here on my couch this summer morning in Albertville, with my to-do packing list next to me, and my graduation ceremony behind me, I’ll do my best to recount some lessons I learned during this year of intense French language school.

Immersion language learning is…

1. …one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

This caught me off guard, maybe because I had taken Spanish in high school, and Greek and Latin in the years following.  Language learning had always been fun and challenging. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the physical, emotional, and mental challenges of language immersion. At the end of long conversations or a week of class where no English was allowed, I could literally feel my brain throbbing. Each day was a firehose of new words, new verb syntaxes, new ways of speaking and expressing, and desperately trying to understand what those around you were saying. Each day was also filled with many unsuccessful attempts at speaking, though this improved with practice.

2. …at times amusing.

If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. O how true this old adage is when it comes to learning a second (or third) language. I made many mistakes but some were more memorable like when I told the choir I was going to “bother them” instead of “lead them.” The French words for lead (diriger) and bother (déranger) are similar, yet very different. Or when I volunteered to lead Bible study thinking that I was volunteering to make a cake.

3.  …emotionally challenging.

We quickly learned that the French educational system is much different than the American system. Upon reflection I can see the benefits, yet it was a painful process. A passing score is 50%. That doesn’t sound too bad you might say, but in reality for us Americans, it feels like a beat-down. I’m used to being an A student, studying well and getting good grades. But that’s almost impossible here in France. The tests are made so incredibly difficult that it’s almost impossible to get a “good” grade. It feels like you are drowning, like you can barely keep your head above water and waves are forcing water into your mouth. In the midst of this storm you find out that you passed, but it doesn’t feel like “passing” in our American minds. Self-esteem doesn’t stand a chance when you miss almost half of the questions. This may be a benefit of the French model, yet for me this was emotionally challenging. I never realised how much value I put on performance and how much self worth I find in success. What a scary thing to build one’s confidence on this constantly moving foundation! It is my prayer that I will learn from this realisation and build my confidence on Christ’s work and perfect score…not my feeble attempts.

4.  …takes time.

A month into our time here in France I asked Carlan when he started to feel more confortable in French. I was expecting him to say something like “by month 3,” yet he said, “after a whole year of language school and 6 months into living in Burundi.” What??!! And Carlan is super duper smart.  But it’s true. Learning a language takes time. In our fast paced world it kind of goes against our grain to be patient. We want instant results.  If we look at children, they absorb their mother tongue for years before even uttering one word. I have been learning and relearning the lesson of patience this last year as I strive to learn French.

5. …confusing to your mother tongue.

Yes, I have had moments when I’ve forgotten a word in English, or accidentally used a French word without realising it. My spelling was never great, but now it’s atroce. I’m constantly asking myself things like “is plant spelled with an “e” like plante or without?” In French it’s: plante, in English: plant.

6. …very rewarding.

Almost no one speaks English in Savoie (where our language school is). When I arrived, I knew next to nothing in French. Every conversation sounded like a mass of sounds with a few “bonjours” interspersed. We went out to eat at a restaurant the day after getting here. Carlan told me what to say and asked me to order in French. I did the best I could but the lady just looked at me confused. Even shopping was scary. What if I couldn’t find something and needed to ask for help, what would I say? Or even more scary, what if someone asked *me* a question! Eek! Yet as the days and weeks of language school progressed, I started understanding more and more. I remember the thrill of my first Sunday when I understood most of the sermon, that was back in January. All of these crazy sounds started making sense!  I was surprised at how encouraging it was to have a  conversation with someone in *their* language and to understand them and to be understood!

So there you have it, not a complete list, but some thoughts looking back in this last year. I couldn’t have done it without my Saviour and his unconditional love and forgiveness. And I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my husband. And I couldn’t have done it without my patient, hardworking professeur!

Graduation day with my amazing professor Anne Bourgoin.

The years ahead will continue to hold additional language learning as we head to Burundi and learn Kirundi and continue on in French, but I’m thankful for these lessons and hope to continue to learn from them in the future!

Here is a link to a video of our school made by a fellow student (Stephen Abbott). The drone footage is amazing!

My Mom = A Pine Tree

Over a century ago in the Occident, a movement was born to celebrate motherhood and mothers. In France, in 1906, a prominent citizen of a little known town organized a party honoring mothers on a Sunday in June. Two mothers received a prize and the town of Artas forever won the claim to being the birthplace of Mothers’ Day. (For reference, Wikipedia says that the US established Mothers’ Day in 1914 under Woodrow Wilson in part due to the consistent lobbying of Anna Jarvis of West Virginia.) It is celebrated the second Sunday in May for many nations but in France it is the last Sunday in May. Why? Not sure, but it affords me the opportunity to write about my favorite lady born in Europe.

It is not necessary to get overly philosophical on the subject of motherhood as its essential role in the continuation of the human race is evident and one needs no explanation of how a mother’s presence empowers one to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I would, however, like to take this moment on the European calendar to celebrate my own mother with one very bizarre simile.

My mom is like a pine tree.
Every plant has its way of responding to adversity. Pine trees, if they lose their central growing shoot will not sprout a new one from the stump but will let the next tallest branch take over the role of trunk. You can tell from the shape of a pine tree the trauma that it has experienced. My mom has survived being shot at, airlifted out of a conflict zone several times, being thrown into multiple different cultures and geographies, and a breast cancer diagnosis. Each time, she has continued to grow closer to God and if you ask me, she points straight to Heaven, directing the attention of those who know her upward.

Pine trees are also evergreens, which means that they do not lose their leaves in winter. They have several adaptations that enable them to survive in harsh conditions like the waxy cutin that covers their needles, stomata that can close to reduce moisture loss, and a kind of freeze-proofing process that means they can do photosynthesis even during winter. My mom is a bit like that. Though she certainly doesn’t like being cold, she has been productive in every season of life, true to her God-given design. She has at various times in her life been a political prisoner, refugee, nurse, teacher’s aide, volunteer coordinator, and missions administrative assistant. I love that she always finds a way not only to survive but to serve.

Conifers all produce sap. It is kind of like the blood of the tree. It carries nutrients up and down in the xylem and phloem (like the arteries and veins) from roots, trunk, branches, and needles. It is one of those features that allow the tree to avoid “hibernation” in winter. And if you’ve ever come in contact with my mom, you probably noticed that you left with a little residue of wisdom and affection still on you. She has spilled countless words of godly counsel on me (like helping me find my way into medicine, missions, and marriage to Michelle). And I know that as many wise words as she drops on me, she is sending dozens of heartfelt prayers up for me.

Yep, my mom is kind of like a pine tree.

Happy Mothers’ Day Mom!

my dad may have edited out the red of my post-international flight eyes

The Quarter Life Non-Crisis

in front of the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Christi and Michelle pose with four famous Swiss/French Reformers in Geneva

My sister-in-law, Christi, is an incredible woman. She has faithfully served in a small and ailing church in a rural community outside of Los Angeles. She has persisted in a job that had become increasingly stressful and domineering in the past year or so. She has done all of this while suffering recurrent bouts of physical discomfort brought on by a missions trip to SE Asia. As she prayed over her response, she concluded that she was to decrease certain commitments and increase others. So, with little fanfare, she committed to a Bible study at our church, Grace Community, quit her job, and took an extended break to visit Europe. All this with a minimum of drama.Often when someone faces down such changes in ministry, job, and life, it is accompanied by sleepless nights, long phone calls to friends and family, and lots of reading / counsel-searching.

in front of the United Nations European Headquarters
Christi and Michelle in front of the Geneva HQ of the UN

Why so little drama with Christi? Please indulge me with three observations.
First, changes in career and ministry profile don’t generate undue drama for Christi because she has a settled faith. The question of God’s sovereignty has already been answered for Christi. And she has seen His provision for years in her own family life. She trusts a good God who is in control of every circumstance.

The second reason these disruptions in externals do not translate to internal disruption is that Christi has already faced fear and survived transition. She moved several times as a kid, left for college, came back to finish college, studied abroad and served internationally. When she took a job, she was ready to learn its exigencies and protocols rather than assuming she already needed to know how to do it. The same applies to her new adventures.

Last in my list but not in real life, Christi has confidence in a safe landing pad. The Rose Family is tight-knit and extremely hospitable. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which Christi would not have adequate emotional and financial support to find new work and service.

Paris stretches out behind the Rose Sisters from the Eiffel Tour
Michelle and Christi in Paris as seen from the Eiffel Tour

I submit to you that the greatest human instrument through which this great theological training, navigation of life’s ups and downs, and haven of familial rest and support came was, in one person: Mom Rose.

Christi is the image of her mother and they share a great many traits and life experiences. It has been my privilege to see the strong and steady influence of Mom Rose on her two girls over these past few weeks as Christi has stayed with us. The character of the disciple is testimony to the faith of the discipler.

Be blessed Mom Rose! Happy Mother’s Day!

Shepherds Conference Snippet

Burton Michaelson poses with your missionary in front of Grace Community Church
Mr Michaelson handing out daily itineraries to conference guests
They call them “Burton’s Dogs” because he’s been so faithful at the grill
Mrs Michaelson is in center frame packing the hot dogs her husband grills

A little over a week ago the 2017 Shepherds Conference at Grace Community Church finished up having welcomed over 2500 men from around the US and world to Sun Valley, California for a week of teaching and refreshing fellowship. I cannot recount to you all the stories of providential meetings with various friends from bygone days or the inspiring messages from great scholars and students of the Word…but I would like to highlight one faithful family.

 Burton Michaelson is a founding members of Grace Community Church and his construction company built many of the church buildings including the main sanctuary where Michelle and I were married.

But at 87 years old, he and his bride, Dolores, are still building up the church in Los Angeles and beyond. He was already on campus at 6:30 AM just to hand out little flyers with the day’s schedule on it to attendees as they entered campus (see photo). And for lunch he helped grill hundreds (if not thousands) of hot dogs so that people could grab a quick bite in between sessions.

Last month I wrote about Grandpa C. and the legacy he left me of faithfulness to the end. In 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 Paul writes to a church that had lost their confidence in him, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” The Michaelsons certainly demonstrate how to be about their Lord’s work even in their golden years.

Grandparents’ Stories

What missionary prayer cards used to look like

Last weekend Michelle and I visited some family friends in a city called Bourg-en-Bresse. These are families that knew my mom’s parents while they were missionaries in France. I recorded one of their stories in a newsletter sent at the same time as this post. If you are not yet receiving those newsletters and would like to, please request an add here.

Grandma C : My mom’s mom died of leukaemia when I was quite young, so I do not have many of my own memories of her. It was, therefore, a joy and an adventure to hear these long-time friends recount stories of things she had done or impacts she had made. A lot of the stories her friends told me were of meals she hosted in their apartment including “tuna rolls” which were not, as our California readers might suppose, sushi, but rather a baked dish wherein canned tuna was spread over a strip of dough that was subsequently rolled up and baked with white sauce. I’m imagining a cinnamon rolls but with tuna instead of raisins, sugar & spices in the middle. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, rest assured, it went over well with the French woman who copied the recipe and served it to her own family.

My parents and grandparents in 1977

It seems that Grandma C also had a lot of space in her life for others. Another woman from the church told me that she deeply appreciated Grandma’s mid-week lunches. She would have one or more women from the church over to eat, talk, study and learn together. What struck this woman, now a grandmother herself, was how often Grandma was asking questions. “What do you think about this? How would the French respond to this situation? How could one explain this idea to someone with a different background?” This woman found such curiosity endearing and disarming.

I think that one of the chief advantages we get for living abroad is seeing how another group of people respond to the universal difficulties and challenges of life. Ironically, it is in requesting those insights that we get the chance to confer some of the that benefit on our friends from other cultures. But that humility seems a prerequisite and truly stood out to this dear friend even thirty years after Grandma died.

Mom and Grandpa singing together at his retirement service

Grandpa C : One of my favorite anecdotes about Grandpa C from our time with these families in Bourg-en-Bresse has to do with bananas. There was a time after my grandma died that my grandpa stayed in the home of another family from their church. One afternoon one of this family’s children offered Grandpa an overripe banana, perhaps in an overly aggressive way (as children sometimes do). Grandpa’s exact response escaped the hearing of the boy’s mother, but the child quickly left to entertain himself outside or elsewhere. Afterwards she asked my grandpa about the bananas and he replied, “I’m terribly sorry, but even the smell of overripe bananas doesn’t agree with me.” I’m not sure I got the quote right, but it really touched her how gentle he was even in expressing a negative opinion. (We speculated that it might have had to do with the time he spent as a hostage in Congo or his service as a submariner in WWII.)

“He helped us repair our house.”

“He’s the one who put up this wallpaper. Look, it has lasted 30 years without peeling.”

“He knew how to get anything working again.”

“He taught me a lot about gardening. I still have the tools he gave me when he left.”
“When they left on furlough, they let a struggling young woman stay in their house.”

“I never, ever saw him get angry or lose his composure.”

Grandpa C with the gentleman from “the snow rescue story” (in newsletter)

These are just some of the testimonies given about Grandpa and the impression he left on people. In some ways, it strikes me just how ordinary most of those memories seem. Home improvement and maintenance. Sharing hobbies. In many ways I grew up thinking of the grand adventures Grandpa C must have had – the travails of growing up on a farm during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the trials of Navy life in the Pacific theatre in the 1940s, the turmoils of bringing your wife and young daughter to Zaire/Congo and evacuating them multiple times during the struggle for Independence and then civil war. But his most indelible impact seems to have been in all those daily moments, compounded over a lifetime, of loving his neighbors. It is a special heritage to me that his legacy should be at once so attainable and so aspirational.

What’s Good For You

Why would a language school require all students to give their testimony in French in front of the entire student body?
Because it’s good for us.
How many times did you hear that phrase or a similar phrase growing up? Eat your vegetables. Play outside. Do your chores. There is something about doing what you would rather not in order to get to a result that you would like. Perhaps nowhere is that more tangibly, palpably demonstrated than public speaking in a foreign language.
Michelle just completed her first address to the student body in French. It was fantastic! She presented herself, her spouse (me), and the work in Burundi. She then told the story of how she bought her mahogany Kawai baby grand piano after graduating CSUN. Like so many stories of God’s grace, it falls into three parts, the prayer, the pause and the piano. OK, maybe not all stories of God’s grace end with a piano, but so this one does. Here’s an abridged transcript of what Michelle said in French.
“After graduating from CSUN, my dad gave me a gift of $5000 to buy a new piano. I searched through ads and in musical instruments stores. The shop owners would just laugh when I told them I was looking for a baby grand (my old piano had jagged keys that sometimes cut my fingers when I played it) and quickly ushered me to the back of the store where the upright pianos were. The best I could figure, I needed at least $7000 to buy a baby grand.
Then, one day, I came across what seemed like a good possibility. One shop had a black baby grand piano for sale within my price range. The salesman said that I needed to buy it on the spot, as there was another woman interested in the piano. Feeling rushed, I called my dad who advised me to pray about it before buying it. I told the clerk I needed the night to pray about it and when I called the next morning, the other customer had already purchased it. Months went by without anything better.
Had I passed up God’s provision? Sure it didn’t have the best sound, the action was heavy and it was boring black. I prefer natural wood colors. But it was the only baby grand I had seen in my price range. Until one fateful day when I saw an ad in the paper. “Baby grand piano. Good condition. $6000.” It was extremely brief but something in me told me to call on this piano. The seller invited me to come check it out. When I arrived, we went inside his deceased mother’s house and pulled a heap of blankets off a beautiful mahogany baby grand. Opening the cover I found the felt still on the keys. The tone was remarkable. The action was crisp and light. I was delighted. This was an excellent piano.
He showed me the paperwork that accompanied the piano. His mother had been the original owner. What’s more, it had been constructed in the year of my birth. And even more, he said that during the Northridge earthquake a speaker had fallen off a shelf and scratched the back of the lid. He wanted to reduce the price so that we could fix it. (Later I visited a piano store just to check on what this piano would sell for in their store. The vendor’s estimate: $25,000!)
This is how God works. He is good and He is in control. He knew all the pianos in the area and He directed me to that one in His time. He doesn’t always say ‘yes’ but He is always the same.

Concert de Noël

In the midst of language school here in Albertville France, we had the opportunity to participate in a Christmas concert put on by the local church and in partnership with the local town Mayor and held Albertville’s concert hall.

Maison de Maistre
View of the 17th C. concert hall complete with scaling ceiling fresco.

It was a first for the church so we weren’t sure how many people would even come.  After months of planning, rehearsing and practicing the concert day came. The concert hall was almost filled (300-400) with an eager crowd, many of whom had heard about the concert by the many flyers put up around town:

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Michelle played an original piano arrangement of Carol of the Bells and also accompanied the other singers.  Michelle and our teammate Greg Sund accompanied a beautiful arrangement of Angels From The Realms Of Glory written by Dan Forest for 4 hand piano, cello and vocals.

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It was a 2 hour concert of both classical and contemporary Evangelical Christmas music. The concert had a warm reception and we were called back for two encores!

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billet
The program…note the opening act after intermission (entracte)

Here is the group of musicians: 4 pianists, a cellist, percussionist, 3 vocalists,  a bass player, and a guitarist.

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The musicians before the performance

But the unsung heroes of the concert were the behind the scenes people, one of which was Carlan. He was assigned the job of doing all the lighting. This involved him climbing scaffolding and making his own filters for all the lights. Here he is working hard during one of the rehearsals.

hard at work
Carlan taking notes on lighting settings for songs

On the day of the concert, during the last rehearsal God answered prayer by providing a dress for Michelle to wear, lent by a kind member of the church, perfectly her size!

happy couple
Michelle in her purple dress & Carlan in his purple tie.

Thank you all for your prayers! It is so fun being a part of what God is doing here in this corner of the world! (Enjoy a 14 sec clip from backstage. We will link to more when it becomes available.)

Life in France (Vie en France)

Nous sommes arrivés en août et ont été occupés immediatement. Ok…now back to English:-)   We arrived in late August and hit the ground running. Our goals for this year are for Carlan to continue his French language acquisition and for me (Michelle) to learn as much French as possible for life in Burundi. The day after arriving we took our placement tests and then started classes the following day, and it hasn’t slowed down since. Carlan is in the most advanced class and I am in the debutante class.

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Our weekly routine usually looks like this:

Monday: class all day / homework in the evening

Tuesday: class all day. In the evenings I attend a local art class where I can practice my French and learn painting. Once a month Carlan attends a continuing medical class

Wednesday: day off / study day / get out and enjoy the mountains / music practice for Sunday

Thursday: class all day / every two weeks we attend a French Bible study

Friday: class all day / date night

Saturday: study day, take weekend exam

Sunday: day of rest / once a month I play the piano at our local French church and Carlan works the sound board.

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I have also had the opportunity to arrange some Christmas music and lead our student body in choir practices leading up to our graduation performance on December 16th. Also, on December 17th I will have the opportunity to be a part of a Christmas concert held at a local concert hall.

Prayer:

We would appreciate and covet your prayers!

  1. That our minds would retain the onslaught of information we are learning each day
  2. That the Christmas concert would be a blessing to many people
  3. That we would have the strength needed for living abroad and learning a new language

Praise:

  1. We are adjusting well thus far
  2. God has given us opportunities to serve our local church and community