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Common Core, Education and Standardized Tests

Posted on Saturday, April 26, 2014 No comments

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Before you read on here, please take the time to read this Newsweek article from 2006.  I am going to say some things here about Asian culture in general, and the Asian education system in particular by way of contrast with ours.

Please also note, I write as the American half of an Asian-American family.  I am married to a wonderful Chinese lady from Malaysia.  My high school age boys proudly identify themselves as Malaysian as well as American.  But the comparison I'll make here is important because it is part of the overall context of the "Common Core Standards" debate.  I'll also point you to Dr.James Popham's "The Truth About Testing" as a primer in standardized tests.  This is a very important debate, and it is important that we take the time inform ourselves.  (Dr. Popham has a number of more recent books which are also excellent resources for understanding this debate.)

There is a lot of information available on Common Core.  I am going to try to avoid repeating what you can get elsewhere, but I'll have to lay a bit of a foundation.

Advocates of Common Core will frequently answer critics who accuse the government of trying to impose a national curriculum by noting that Common Core is not a "curriculum" but a set of educational "standards." While this is correct, and it is important to understand the difference, I'll show here why this distinction is disingenuous at best.  But on the conservative side we also have to address our insistence that teachers be evaluated in part on the basis of student test scores.  I'll attempt to show here - and this is where the comparison with the Asian education system will become important - why this is a grave mistake.

A Little About Me & Asia

In 1988 I had just graduated from a community college here in the San Diego area with an Associates Degree in General Studies.  I was not sure what I wanted to do going forward, but I was interested in being involved in church work.  The pastor of the church I attended had immigrated here from the Philippines, so I spoke with him about spending some time there to see what missionary work was like.  I spent four months there visiting his friends and family, and even spent a couple weeks in remote forest regions with an American missionary I had met when he had visited our church.

It was during this time that I discovered that college and above in the Philippines is conducted in English.  (The Philippines is the third largest English-speaking country in the world.)  I knew a little about what my friends had to pay for their church leadership degree programs here in the U.S., so I did the math on tuition, books and room & board in the Philippines.  With the currency exchange rate where it was, it came out to $0.10 on the dollar.

No, that is not a typo.  And the math holds true to this day.  (The economics of that is an entirely different discussion.)

So when I returned home to church I told my pastor I was going to save up some money and return to the Philippines to sit in the same classrooms (and even be taught by one of the same teachers!) he had sat in many years before.  The long and short, then, is that I graduated from Bethel Bible College in Manila in 1992 with a Bachelor's Degree in Biblical Studies.  I went from there to Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (APTS - in lighter moments we would call it the "Association of Pharisees Together with Sadducees") in Baguio City to get my M.A. in Theology in 1994.  But perhaps even more importantly, it was at APTS that I met my wife, who had come to study from Malaysia. (And who I can hear asking me "Perhaps???")

All in all, the six years I lived in the Philippines were terrific years.  I turned 21 there in 1988.  In many ways it was in the Philippines - being about as far away from home as possible for the first time - that I grew up.

But I learned something the hard way, and very quickly.  Here in our schools, we not only allow our kids to debate issues, we expect them to.  We not only allow them to challenge authority and argue with their teachers, we grade them on how competently they do so.  We expect them to be respectful to their teachers.  But we are even more interested in seeing them develop a love for learning.  And to gauge that love for learning we want to see them forming their own opinion on things, so when they disagree with their teacher we do not see disrespect - we see the formation of a love for learning.

This is not the case in the typical Asian classroom.

In the typical classroom in the Philippines - at least at the undergraduate level and below - the teacher is at the top of the classroom pyramid.  The teacher teaches and the students learn - which largely means memorize - and then show what they learned on the test.  If you have read the Newsweek article linked to at the start of this post, you understand that even Asian educational officials recognize the limits of this.  But this stems much more from culture than it does from policy.  In the Philippines I learned that a student who would challenge his professor would be seen by his peers as mayabang - or boastful and not mindful of his place.  To engage in debate in the classroom is to be seen as pilosopo, or roughly "philosophical" - and this is not an endorsement of your social graces.

As Fareed Zakariah notes in his Newsweek article, education in Asia generally is seen as a chore rather than something to love.  Work hard and test well - because your future opportunities are almost entirely tied to how well you do on high stakes standardized tests.

As a conservative I will ask here: Is this where we want to go?

Common Core: Funding, Testing, Standards & Curriculum

I have noted above how the distinction between curriculum and standards, as made by advocates of Common Core, is disingenuous.  It is also disingenuous to insist that this is merely a state-led initiative.  To understand why, we have to start with Race to the Top.

This is a 2009 initiative which made $4.9B (yes, B as in Billion) of Department of Education funds available to the states.  These funds are doled out in grants, which are awarded on a competitive basis.  State applications are scored based on a number of different criteria, amounting to a total of 500 possible "points."  Among these criteria, 70 points are awarded based on the adoption of "Standards and Assessments."  40 of the 70 points are awarded for adoption of "common standards."  20 points are awarded for supporting the transition to "enhanced standards" and "high-quality assessments"  The final 10 points are awarded for "Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments."  Note: "assessments" is educator-speak for standardized tests.

It is not a mistake that "Common Core" was developed at the same time as "Race to the Top."  It is disingenuous to call this a "state-led" initiative, seeing as it is explicitly called out in the scoring rubric for federal grants.

In order to compete for federal funds, the states must adopt a common set of standards.  They also must show that the lowest achieving schools are improving (40 of the 500 points) and adopt data systems to support instruction.  The data, of course, has to come from somewhere.  Enter standardized tests.  In order for these tests to provide a meaningful comparison across states, they have to be written to a set of standards.  Enter Common Core.  In order to understand the next and last step - curriculum - we have to understand a little of the history of standardized tests.

I'll leave the details for the reader of my book, or of Dr. Popham's "The Truth About Testing".  The salient point is how a study of a standardized math test compared the test with the text books used by the students taking the test.  No less than 50%(!!!) of the items on the test represented concepts not even covered in the students' text book!

And so today we see curriculum development companies offering "Common Core-aligned" text books and related material.  The distinction between standards and curriculum is a real distinction, and an important one for us to understand.  It becomes meaningless, though, the minute you introduce federal funding into the mix.   In order to compete for funding, states must participate in the development and implementation of both common testing and common standards.  And in order for state schools' test scores to support competing for federal funding, the momentum toward a common curriculum is inexorable.  It is the prior dynamic - or shall I say distortion - of federal funding which makes the advocates' insistence on the distinction between standards and curriculum disingenuous at the very best.

Test Scores vs. "Thought Leadership"

But there is a more important question we need to be asking.  If we are engaging in a "Race to the Top" we should be asking "the top of what?"  As Zakariah's article points out, Asian education officials are asking why it is that while their students are at the top of the test score ladder, later on in life, when they look for "thought leaders" - those challenging the conventional wisdom and questioning authority - those former students are noticeably absent.

So, again, we're racing to the top of what?  The test score ladder?  Why?  Do we want our kids to be competitive in the disciplines of the 21st century - especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)?  If so, exactly what do these tests tell us about that?  If they tell us anything about the ability to be competitive, why are those who are doing the best on these tests noticeably absent among the "thought leaders" in these disciplines?

It is because these tests - and now a whole bureaucratic construct of funding, testing, standards and curriculum have been sold to us - and have not, do not, and never will live up to the sales hype.  Our best teachers are now abandoning the field because they cannot stand to watch the love for learning they have spent their lives nurturing robbed from their kids by the budgetary imperatives of the educational bureaucracy.  Make no mistake, this is what Common Core is producing.

It is for this reason, as one who has lived, studied and even taught in Asia, when I hear people complaining about how poorly our students are doing on standardized tests - in comparison with their Asian counterparts in particular - that I ask: "So what?"

"But we need to be competitive in the 21st century world economy!" I will usually hear in response.

"OK," I reply, "Why is it that you believe these tests tell us anything about that?"

"But they're beating us!"

"Yup, there they are, beating us with their #2 pencils filling out those little bubbles.  And here we are, graduating future thought leaders like we always have."

Will someone please tell me, what is the problem, again, that Race to the Top and Common Core are trying to solve?

Noah Went to the Movies - And Came Out OK

Posted on Friday, April 25, 2014 No comments

Friday, April 25, 2014

I almost didn't go.

The reviews from people with whom I usually agree were pretty bad.  Until I talked with my pastor.  He shared with me before Sunday service - and then mentioned it from the pulpit - that he saw the Noah movie and actually liked it.  I enjoyed how he put it in light of the other reviews:

"If I want to know what the Bible says, I read the Bible.  I don't go the movies."

He likes the "Lord of the Rings" kind of fantasy genre, though, so "Noah" appealed to him simply from the standpoint of cinema genre.  I have never been a fan of that kind of movie, but decided that since I blogged about this, I should go see it myself and refresh the conversation.  Here is what I came away with.

The Silence of God

The thing I was expecting, but honestly hoping not to see, was a cheesy narrative of a voice booming from the clouds, or whispering through the trees, with Noah spinning about left and right, wondering who is talking to him.  Now I do not discount the possibility that God can speak like this, and the "still small voice" speaking to Elijah is an example, but I want the characters in a movie to have experiences like the rest of us (for the most part).  I have never heard God whispering in any audible sense.  Again, I do not doubt or question those who say they have; I just haven't and I suspect that will be the case for the vast majority of the audience.

Instead, Noah has a dream.  In conversation with his wife about the dream he surmises that God will judge the earth with a flood, and that he is to build an ark to preserve creation.  Later in the movie, though, Noah despairs of even his family giving in to humanity's greed and believes God has instructed him to kill off his family so creation will be free of human violence and greed.  I will not ruin the movie for those who have not seen it by explaining how that is resolved.  But it is the matter of "mis-hearing" the voice of God which is very human and made Noah's character very compelling to those who struggle to "hear" God's voice in their own lives.

Other characters, like Tubal-Cain, show the frustration of not hearing from God.  Only he stands for the violence of humanity, which is characterized as originating in a bitterness toward God.  This was interesting because Cain is characterized as bitter in the creation story in the Bible.  There is also a part where Noah is frustrated by not "hearing" from God in a clear way, but again, I will not spoil the movie as these are important scenes.

But it is the contrast in how Noah and Tubal-Cain handle this frustration that I find interesting.  I really enjoyed and appreciated the fact that the "how" of God's leading Noah to build the Ark was not taken literally from the Bible's story as an afterthought.  To do so would have distanced Noah's character from us as the audience.  The struggle with God's seeming silence rounds Noah's character out quite nicely, and provides us something to talk about from our Christian perspective.

Care for the Environment

From the previews I read before the movie came out, this is something I was expecting.  I thought, though, that this was well done.  I was worried about a "Mother Earth" motif which would confuse the earth with God as an object of worship.  That did not turn out to be the case.  A very strong ethic of care and stewardship is present in the film, and is actually hinted at in the Bible's story.

I point out in my last post on this that the Ancient Near East (ANE) has a Flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the biblical writer was likely familiar with this literary tradition.  The sending out of a dove has compelling similarities.  From the Epic of Gilgamesh:
When a seventh day arrived
I sent forth a dove and released it.
The dove went off, but came back to me;
no perch was visible so it circled back to me.
I sent forth a swallow and released it.
The swallow went off, but came back to me;
no perch was visible so it circled back to me.
I sent forth a raven and released it.
The raven went off, and saw the waters slither back.
It eats, it scratches, it bobs, but does not circle back to me.
Then in Genesis 8:6-11
Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth.  Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land; but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself. So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf.
I have italicized the part from the Bible's story that is remarkable in how it shows a care for the dove on the part of Noah.  It is also notable that the "Epic" story is told from the "Noah" character's first person perspective.  In the Bible, however, Noah never speaks and his character (in the storytelling sense) is not developed.  This part, however, is pretty much as close as we get because it gives us a glimpse into the sense that Noah is caring for the animals.  In the movie this is a highly developed part of Noah's character, something I believe is at least consistent with what the Bible's story suggests.  As I noted in my last post, though, the "Noah" character is not developed in the Bible's story so that the character of God would have "center stage."

The other important scene was one where Tubal-Cain is speaking to Ham (again, you'll have to go see the movie to understand when, how and why).  Tubal-Cain characterizes the creation of man as the pinnacle of creation and that man is to "subdue" and "rule" the earth.  This is, for him, justification for taking whatever he thinks is necessary to survive.  It is clear that an environmental ideology is at work here, one that characterizes what we would recognize to be "traditional" Christian teaching as justification for violence done to the environment.

Intellectually, it is easy for me to rebut this, but a scene in the movie of a landscape with nothing left but tree stumps struck me in a way it might not have struck others.  When I lived in the Philippines over 5,000 people were buried alive as a storm washed a mountainside down into the river channels in Ormoc City in 1991.  These 5,000+ souls died a very violent death - at the distant hands of illegal loggers who had denuded the mountainsides of the trees which otherwise would have held the soil in place.  Their memories - and the memories of others who have died similar deaths at the distant hands of greed, demand a more thoughtful response.

And the movie actually provides it.  The last scene which touches on this theme is one toward the end where Noah repeats the command we know came from God (from the Bible) to "be fruitful and multiply."  I'll leave it to the reader to watch this and see how it brings things full circle, but will note here that this blessing was not first pronounced on man.  It was first pronounced on the animals in Genesis 1:22.  The same blessing is pronounced, and expanded, in Genesis 1:28 (which is where we see the command to subdue and rule).  But we simply must account for the first blessing when interpreting the second.  God's intentions seem clear: that mankind and the animals thrive together.  This, then, should cause us to read "rule" and "subdue" in the sense of stewardship and care.  This is clearly where the movie seeks to take Noah's character in its story.

A "Second Adam"

Here is where the movie probably tracked most closely with Christian theology.  Seeing Noah as a "second Adam" will be familiar to those who have studied the TaNaK/Old Testament.  This is also how the movie portrays Noah.  There is a clear, repeated focus on tying Noah and his "redemptive" role back to Adam.  Noah represents a hope that humanity can start over.  This "redemptive" role is admittedly humanistic in the sense that it does not reflect any kind of eternal redemption, but the theme is present and offers a Christian audience a wonderful opportunity to explore the larger question of exactly what are we being redeemed to?

This sense of redemption is caught powerfully in a scene toward the end where one of Noah's son's wives is holding her twin daughters.  This scene is fraught with meaning for the movie, so I'll be careful not to spoil it here.  Suffice it to say here that there is a sense of "hearing" redemption in the cries of the babies as their mother sings a lullaby to them.

Miscellaneous Other Things

Other reviewers have commented on the "rock people."  I will not say much about it here because it really did not contribute much to the story.  It was odd in a prehistoric "Transformers" kind of way.  The oddity, though, was overcome by what was otherwise a strong plot.

I came into the movie also expecting some violence.  With what the Bible's story says about mankind's intentions being only evil continually, I figured it would be hard to tell the story without some.  I was concerned that this would just be an excuse for gratuitous, up-close and in-your-face violence.  I was glad to see the film exercise some restraint in that respect.

Lastly, and again I'll take care not to spoil it, the plot was very well done in the sense that there were so many opportunities for things to turn in a way that you expect, either because you already know the Bible's version or just because the good guy is supposed to "get the girl."  The movie avoids this and surprised me in a number of instances.

My recommendation?  As my pastor said, if you want to know what the Bible says, read the Bible.  But definitely go see "Noah."  There are lots of scenes which open up avenues of conversation about things like caring for God's creation (as opposed to worshiping it), the idea of redemption, the balance between mercy and judgment, and many others which a Christian might perceive in the story.

The Toilet Paper Outrage! - Lessons in Money, Inflation and Purchasing Power

Posted on Saturday, April 19, 2014 No comments

Saturday, April 19, 2014

It's an outrage!  An OUTRAGE, I say!

It was bad enough when we found that the two bags of chicken in the box from Costco didn't quite have as much chicken as they used to.  For heaven's sake, we used to feed the four of us with one bag.  Now we have to make both!  But we rolled with punches.

And then I hit Subway by the house, as I usually do each Monday morning, for my foot long Subway Melt.  Those slices of ham and turkey just seemed an awful lot thinner than before.  And the cheese slices seemed smaller.  But we rolled with the punches.

But this?  This is just too much to take!  My toilet paper is now smaller!!!

If you have been following my posts (you can review past posts by looking through the links toward the bottom of the home page) you know I write occasionally about what is happening to our money and how - and I know this sounds a little over the top - we are being lied to about it.

Writing about money and inflation can be a little bit like that lecture we used to get from our parents.  I am not so old that I don't remember them.  I also remember how my eyes used to glaze over.  Now, with two teenage boys, I actually get to see what that looks like.  If your eyes roll and then glaze over at my latest rant on inflation, I get it - really, I do.  I just hope the pictures above provide a little bit of a humorous view of the truth - as opposed to what we are told by government and media.

You see, the practical reality of inflation is this: It shows itself first in volume, and only later in price.

If you are like me, regardless of what we hear on the news, what we see when we open the package from the grocery store is right in front of us.  We are not getting as much for our dollar as we used to.  I am already used to noticing this, but I have to admit to being surprised to see it even on the toilet paper spindle.

I write about this more in my book (see below for details), but here I'll just point out by way of a political observation.  When you hear politicians - and this means from both major parties - supposedly standing up for the 'middle class' the very first thing you should be thinking of is whichever package you most recently noticed did not contain as much product as it used to.

Our entire political system - both parties - is built on a foundation of debt.  We are accepting promises which cannot possibly be kept without going further and further into debt.  It is so far along that the Federal Reserve has to manipulate the money supply (in a process you might have heard about called 'Quantitative Easing') in order to keep government borrowing costs down.  Our politicians defend this as supporting the middle class.  The truth, however, is the only thing it actually supports is their political ambition.

As more and more money is injected into the economy, and begins to chase the same amount of production, the first thing that happens is we get less for each dollar - the toilet paper shrinks.  This can only be kept up for so long, though, before prices have to follow.  This is why price indices don't tell the whole story.  The government likes to point to their 'Consumer Price Index' and say inflation remains low.  The problem is the rest of us end up wondering what happened to that bag of chicken - and have to wipe... well, you get the idea.

In my book I write about how I believe those like me who sympathize with the 'Tea Party' have something important in common with our neighbors who sympathize with 'Occupy Wall Street'.  Income inequality is about more than just income.  It is about how what money the middle class and poor do make buys them less and less.  If we are going to tackle this problem as neighbors we need to understand the underlying causes.  The declining purchasing power of our dollar - and hopefully that picture above captures that decline - is written in the red ink of public debt, as is the increase in income inequality.

This should not be hard to grasp.  The people to whom we owe money will always have more of it than us.

Lessons from Ruth: The Poor, Community & Belonging

Posted on Thursday, April 10, 2014 No comments

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Every morning as I take my boys to school I see them in the median at major intersections.  Their signs say something along the lines of "will work for food."  I have also seen the news stories showing instances where otherwise perfectly able-bodied people dress down and panhandle like this.  In some cases I have heard of people bringing in about $1,000 a month.  That's certainly not enough to raise a family on - especially here in San Diego - but it's "nothing to sneeze at" either.

For the purposes of this post, I'll set aside the valid concerns about whether the local pan handler is truly needy and ask the question: What is the story behind these people and their situation?  Where do they come from?  I'll assume they lived a "normal" life at some point in the past.  How did "normal" give way to becoming dependent on the charity of others?

In 'Vital Friends', a book published a few years ago, author Tom Rath, a Gallup researcher, wrote about a set of questions which were posed to two control groups.  One group was made up of 'formerly homeless' people.  These were people who at one point in their lives were on the streets, but who had been able to recover a sense of normalcy: holding down a job, paying the bills, etc.  The other group consisted of the chronically homeless.  These were the people who remained on the streets.

Rath discusses the kinds of questions both groups were asked, but focuses on one question in particular because of how stark the difference in answers was between the groups.  Those in the 'formerly homeless' group - to a man and woman - had an answer to the question.  Those in the chronically homeless group did not.  The question?

"Who expects you to be somebody?"

To the last person interviewed, the answer among the formerly homeless was quick and decisive. "Oh, that would be my friend so-and-so."  Or maybe "My friend Mary from church is always pushing me to better myself."  Not infrequently it would be a teacher, maybe at the local community college.  But for the chronically homeless, there was no one they could think of who expected something better from them.

The stark contrast points us in a certain direction when considering the needs of the poor and homeless in our midst.  The book of Ruth in the TaNaK/Old Testament provides a foundation for a distinctly Judeo-Christian ethic concerning the poor.  And a developing cultural trend rounds out the picture for how we - both as members of 'civil society' (i.e. churches, synagogues and other local community groups) and as conservatives might respond to this challenge.

Belonging Before Believing

The cultural trend at work here is something younger Evangelical writers have noticed for some time.  In our churches there seems to be a movement away from affiliating with a church based on what you already believe.  Those who are my age (born in 1967) or older are probably familiar with a dynamic where, having already decided what you believed concerning Christian doctrine, you affiliated yourself with a local church accordingly.  The membership application had a bunch of check boxes on it - signifying that you agreed with the church's 'statement of faith'.  In short, you believed, and then you belonged.

To a large degree those days are fading, if they are not gone altogether.  Among young people especially there is a post-modern emphasis on community and experience. These young people are perfectly willing to consider Christianity's claims on truth.  But those claims are no longer established by argumentation and 'apologetics'.  Today they are established by the experience of genuine community.  Young people come to believe only after having come to belong.   This is all a bit jarring for the older generation who tend to assume the rightness of the progression from believing to belonging.  But as I'll try to show below, the post-modern desire to belong first actually may open our minds and hearts to possibilities for transformative, powerful ministry to the poor.

Belonging, Dignity and Loyalty

And this is where the story of Ruth comes into the picture.  If we read Rath's research on the homeless, and then consider the arc of the story of Ruth, an interesting parallel can be seen.  A man from Bethlehem named Elimelech sojourns with Naomi his wife and sons in the land of Moab during a famine in Judah.  The sons marry Moabite women, one of whom is Ruth.  The father dies, and then some years later so too do the sons, leaving Naomi "bereft of her two children and her husband." (1:5).

This is the backdrop of the neediness of Naomi and Ruth; it is a backdrop of loss.  Rath's research shows that among the homeless, in a very large percentage of instances the triggering event which cascades into a person going from a 'productive member of society' to being homeless is the loss of an important relationship.  This loss might be a death in the family, a divorce, or some other break in a 'vital' relationship.  Losing a job, especially for men, can also produce this sense of loss - a loss of the dignity which work, and the relationships surrounding it, provide.

Rath's research shows that homelessness is, at the very least, closely related to how loss produces isolation.  The story of Ruth, though, is a story of loyalty and belonging in the face of loss.  Oprah, Naomi's other daughter-in-law returns to her family at the urging of Naomi.  But Ruth refuses.  In what is some of the most poetic, terse yet forceful and dramatic dialog in the TaNaK/Old Testament, Ruth responds:
Then [Naomi] said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”
Ruth has found dignity in her belonging to Naomi, and holds fast to that dignity with an unswerving loyalty.  This interplay of belonging, dignity and loyalty is the foundation of the lesson the Scriptures have for us here.

Belonging, Dignity and Work

Chapter 1 of Ruth leaves us by noting that Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem in Judah at the beginning of the barley harvest.  The backdrop to what follows, though, is extremely important - both to the story and to our perspective as conservatives on the matter of what we might call the 'social safety net'.  The law of Moses, in Leviticus 23:22, says the following:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.
This was their 'safety net'; the poor were to be allowed onto the land owner's fields to 'glean' from the harvest.  This was simply a matter of picking up what had been dropped.  A land owner who was observant would not harvest the edges of his land and would be careful not to pick up ears (of barley in this case) that might be dropped along the way.  And we meet a certain land owner in the story who was more than observant; we see a picture of how grace exceeds the requirements of the Law.

But even before this, we see initiative.  Ruth asks Naomi's permission to go out and seek favor from land owners to glean from their harvest.  It is important to see how Ruth's initiative is what carries the narrative to where we meet Boaz.  What we see in the dialog between Ruth and Boaz is crucial to our understanding of the story - we see an invitation to belong.  Boaz invites Ruth to stay only on his land, and invites her to remain among the maids, to drink what is drawn for the servants, and to eat together with him and his servants.  And in his instructions to his servants we see Boaz insist that Ruth be treated with dignity - twice enjoining them not to insult or rebuke her:
When she rose to glean, Boaz commanded his servants, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not insult her. Also you shall purposely pull out for her some grain from the bundles and leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her."
If you are like me, it is easy to become jaded at the sight of pan handlers on the median.  The sign might say 'will work for food' but the reality is usually very different.  I will admit here that I do not give money to pan handlers, nor do I intend to start.  But where I have to draw the line in light of the Scriptures is the attitude - even while not to their face - which insults them for their sloth.  There is too much I do not know.  I don't know what they lost that they would have gone from being a productive member of society to being dependent on others.  I also do not know what is done with the money they do receive.  The only thing I know is that by giving I might feel good about myself.  But that is clearly not enough.

Belonging, Dignity and Friendship

This, then, brings us back to Rath's research.  At church recently we encountered a homeless couple.  They joined our Sunday service, but began hitting our people up for money.  This, of course, became an issue that was brought up to us in leadership.  The people were not unsympathetic, but were concerned that their response be consistent and guided by the leadership.

It is our practice on Sunday to prepare a range of finger foods and to repair to the fellowship hall after service for a light lunch.  And we almost always have more food than we consume.  So we decided that the church's response would be to sit down with this couple and make it clear to them that while they were welcome in the service and especially after for a meal, they were not welcome to be asking our people for money.  We told them we would be happy to ensure they at least had one opportunity each week to eat as much as they could.  But we told them something else: I raised it with them being familiar with Rath's research.

"We don't have money, but we do have something more valuable - we have friendship," I said.  "But you have to understand that if we are your friends, we will expect something from you.  We will expect you to make something positive of the opportunities you might have.  You will always be welcome here and you will not be insulted, nor will we allow others to do so in our presence."

We talked with them about their lives before falling on hard times.  I was not surprised to hear that a divorce was what started the man down the road to dependency.  In the months that have passed I have seen some discouraging things, and I have seen some positive developments as they have dropped in from time to time, a few Sundays ago being the most recent.

It is important to note here that we did not make 'church membership' a requirement for whatever help we might provide.  But we did make 'belonging' the central expectation.  This is a hard distinction to make and explain sometimes, but our cultural trend toward belonging before believing actually is making it easier.  We are certainly concerned for their salvation, but for their salvation to be 'whole' in the sense of becoming a disciple of Christ there must first be a sense of belonging simply for its own sake.  I am convinced that the dignity which comes from belonging - something any group of believers, big or small, can offer - is the true need of the homeless and offers the best chance of seeing the ultimate aim fulfilled - redemption.

Belonging, Dignity and Redemption

And the story of Ruth is a story of redemption on so many different levels.  While another relative was before Boaz to redeem that which belonged to Elimelech, Boaz presents the matter in such a way as the righteousness of intentions is clear.  If it is just land, the intervening relative is interested.  But once it becomes clear Ruth is included that Elimelech's name might continue, his intentions change.  Boaz, next in line, attends to the complete redemption of Elimelech's name that Naomi's household be taken care of fully.

But more importantly, the end of the book of Ruth shows us the larger purpose of the story.  For Israel, the end of the story ties the kingdom of David back through Judah by way of his son Perez.  The reader familiar with Genesis will not miss the allusion in how the story reports the "generations of Perez" just as Genesis does many times over, tracing all the way back Adam.

And for us as Christians, the genealogy of the Redeemer runs through the the excellence of Boaz toward the poor and needy.  His was an excellence beyond the requirements of the Law.  His was an excellence which calls us to belong to the poor and to invite them to belong to us, to attend to their dignity in belonging.  It is not a call to put money in a box along the median.  And it is not a call to offer something with no expectations in return.  The dignity of belonging can really only be realized when we expect each other to be something.

Opportunities to belong may not always be taken by the poor among us, but Scripture calls us to ensure they are offered.
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