A Prayer for the Teaching Task

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“Since it hath pleased Thee, O Lord, that I should be called to take my part in the teaching of this College, grant that I may not assume the same lightly, or without a due sense of the importance of my trust; but, considering it a stewardship, whereof I shall have to render an account hereafter, may faithfully fulfil the same to Thy honour and glory. Grant, O Lord, that neither by word nor deed I may do aught that may weaken the faith, or slacken the practice of those committed to my charge; but rather grant to me such measure of Thy Holy Spirit, that my duties may be discharged to Thy honour and glory, and to the welfare of both the teacher and the taught. Grant this, O Lord, through Thy son, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Amen.”

J.B. Lightfoot, 19th-century New Testament Professor, Bishop of Durham,

Professor Robert Creech taped this prayer on his desk. He shares this in an interview with The Baptist Standard.

Teaching is a trust, a responsibility to be stewarded. In a theological school, all teaching should be undergirded by prayer, so that God, by grace, might draw us together heavenward.

For the good things that are taught, to God be the glory, and for the mistakes that are made, Lord, have mercy.

Pastors and the Writing Task, Part 2

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In my last post I argued that pastors should write. Pastors and ministry leaders should learn to write a good theological sentence, and, after assembling one good theological sentence, should go on to write successive sentences to accompany the first. Ministry leaders should also master various conveyances of the written word (memos, sermons, letters, notes, etc.). Why? Because good writing reflects good thinking, and the church is in need of a sharpened mind.

There are a handful of books that have helped me to write a little more clearly, compellingly, and concisely. These books are:

The first four selections include technical aspects of writing and inspiration to write.

The last selection may strike some as an odd choice. “The Bible?” you say, “I thought you were listing books that helped you learn how to write. The Bible is not a book about writing.”

But the Bible is a book that is written and that has had lasting power. It contains language that has resonated across multiple cultures and in various translations, now in multiple eras and ages. It has shaped language, culture, and the human imagination. It is a piece of writing that, in the reading of it, offers a masterclass in communication both human and divine. It contains parables and pericopes, aphorisms and anthology, narrative and history, law codes and ethical treatises, letters and memos, prophetic utterances and sorrowful lamentations, prayers and petitions, agreements and dissents; it conveys the full range of human emotion and contains powerful arguments about human nature, a holy God, and the purpose of human life. If you can set aside your biases and prejudices against this book, if you have them, you cannot help but marvel at the Bible’s power as a work of writing.

Maya Angelou, the American author and poet, said this about the Bible: “The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.”

Pastors and other ministry leaders would be wise to read Zinsser or Lamott or King, and to learn a thing or two about craft. But they should be readers of the Bible, and not only for sermon or lesson preparation. The Bible’s cadences, rhythms, images, and turns of phrase, its variety and its diversity, are incredibly instructive for the writing task. And often, what comes out in writing is the result of what has been put in through reading, experience, and conversation. You cannot pass on that which you do not possess.

The words of the Bible should be hidden in hearts so that by God’s grace they might take on flesh and find fresh utterance through the witnesses and servants God appoints for a new telling of an old story in the present age.

Take up and read. Then, write.

Pastors and the Writing Task

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Writing is a skill that comes in handy in every discipline, every trade, every endeavor of life. Why? Because writing crystallizes thought. Most of us avoid writing, not because writing is hard (though it can be), but because writing requires us to order our thoughts. As William Zinsser observed, “The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.”

I wasn’t very good at writing when I began, which means I wasn’t very good at thinking. I had not yet begun to work out the ideas that were swirling in my mind. In middle school and high school my parents had to help me complete more than one research paper. I was overwhelmed by large assignments. I struggled to develop a thesis. I had a hard time establishing structure. My attention flagged. I was easily discouraged. I was plagued by self doubt.

Things changed when I discovered that writing was a way I could share ideas. I could write to connect with friends. Chat rooms and email and bulletin board forums were settings for exchange. I shared a thought and others responded. Some of those thoughts were dumb or rude or ill considered. Many were underdeveloped, immature. Maybe something I wrote was occasionally bright or touching or radiant. My early writings could be juvenile. Of course! I was a teenager. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but old habits die hard.

I eventually discovered blogging. I had a friend who worked for a media company that was starting a magazine. I asked to contribute. I learned that a denominational publisher accepted devotional pieces. I submitted, was accepted, and I was given a small check for my efforts. I wrote devotional guides for larger curriculum bundles. I like seeing my stuff in print.

I found other reasons to write. As a church leader, I wrote pastoral letters and developed curriculum. I wrote discussion questions. I put together leadership training guides and wrote job descriptions. I wrote proposals for committees. I wrote memos. I wrote sermons. I wrote more emails. I wrote hand written, short notes. I used writing to reach out, to communicate, to build a bridge between minds, to coordinate, to lead.

As time has gone on I have become more and more convinced that writing is a skill that is useful in every field, for every person. But I have also become more and more convinced that it is a vital skill for ministry leaders, for pastors.

Why? Because a well written sentence reflects a well ordered mind. Ideas, when they are clearly expressed, are more easily grasped. Christian people claim their convictions are true. If they are true, they are true regardless of how well they are articulated. But if they are articulated poorly or opaquely, they will not be accepted. If arguments are made poorly, they will fail. If reasons are not compelling, they will not persuade. If invitations are not clear, they will not be heeded. If warnings do not pierce, they will not be considered. If good news does not penetrate the heart, hearts will not yield.

The best way to learn how to write is to write. The best way to learn to construct arguments is to put pencil to paper. The best way to compose a sermon is sentence by sentence, line by line, bathed in prayer. By God’s grace, there will be clarity on the page, and clarity in the mind of the reader.

That, finally, may be the key to good Christian writing. The technical aspects by necessity should be mastered; one must use the language well. But there is a divine dimension, an illuminating presence, the in-breaking of the holy, the gift of grace, going between writer and reader, allowing for transmission, communication, and transformation, new ways of seeing, perceiving, and being.

We make our offerings. God does with them what he wills.

If You Get My Posts in Your Email Inbox via FeedBurner, Please Update Your Subscription

My website has had several iterations. My first blog was on Xanga, then I migrated to WordPress, then moved to Squarespace, and finally returned to WordPress. I may have tried to post some stuff on MySpace, too.

A few of my early readers signed up with FeedBurner to keep up with my writing. There are 51 people who are listed among my FeedBurner subscribers. When you signed up to receive my latest posts with FeedBurner, you were added to an RSS service. Every time I published a new blog entry, my content would deliver to your inbox.

Looking down that list, there are friends from the FirstLight era, my time at University Baptist Church, folks I met at Institute, and people I got to know while living in Kansas. There are a few Waco friends, too, and some family, and one or two friends from Tyler.

FeedBurner is undergoing some changes, and to better manage my subscriptions and to centralize my contacts in one place, I want to do two things:

  • First, I want everyone to know I’m closing down my FeedBurner account on September 15, 2021. If you are an RSS subscriber through FeedBurner, after that date you will no longer receive my content via email.
  • Second, I want to invite everyone to subscribe to my blog via email through WordPress. If you’ve been on FeedBurner and want to stay in the loop, please visit my website (pictured above) and enter your email in the box underneath “Updates to Your Inbox.” You’ll find the form in the right hand column.

To everyone who continues to read anything I write: thanks. My website is a place to think in public, to note things I want to remember, to argue for things I think are important, and maybe to share a laugh or two. I’m grateful for your readership.

If you need help or have questions about making the switch, contact me. I can scroll my list, find names, and offer directions on where to sign up. It might be a chance to reconnect, too. You can reach me through my Contact page.

I hope you’ll keep reading. Blessings.

A Prayer as a New Semester Begins

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O Lord,

Help me to do the things you want me to do,
Know the things you want me to know,
Seek the things that you want me to seek,
Feel the things that you want me to feel,
Think the things that you want me to think,
Speak the things you want me to speak.

Nothing more.
Nothing less.

For the glory of your coming kingdom,
And for the honor of your name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is Safetyism?

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Safetyism is the cult of safety–an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to see themselves as victims.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

There is a difference between throwing someone a life preserver when they are in danger of drowning and barring them from getting into the pool at all, or in only allowing the pool to be so shallow as to not enjoy the freedom and thrill that comes from entering the deep. Without sufficient depth, we never learn how to swim.

Lukianoff and Haidt identify three bad ideas that prevail on too many university campuses: the untruth of fragility (what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker), the untruth of emotional reasoning (always trust your feelings), and the untruth of us versus them: (life is a battle between good people and evil people).

As a solution, they argue for the elevation of wisdom.

Unpleasant experiences and exposure to discomfort can result in growth and maturity. While our emotions are part of our humanity, alone, they are insufficient for sound judgment. And while there are good ideas and bad ideas, righteousness and wickedness, and there are arguments worth having, it isn’t always easy to make such neat divisions. The Christian doctrinal commitment to human sinfulness and God’s position as rightful judge simultaneously humbles us when we do make arguments and chastens us in the knowledge that our judgments may be in error.

Lukianoff and Haidt wrote their book to address a deficit in our intellectual discourse as it unfolds on university campuses, and then, by extension, in the culture. It’s a great book. It not only contains insight for the classroom, but also for how we think about public debate. All of us would benefit from sharpening our ability to reason, to listen, to learn how to make compelling and persuasive arguments, and to make those arguments in a way that acknowledges reality as it is: a real mess.

This book has another benefit: it exposes flaws in the way we have come to measure reality, and challenges us to instead seek to become people of wisdom. The first step to move beyond a problem is to admit that you have one and to accurately define it. The second is to chart a path forward. The third is to walk the path.

A Few Agreed Upon Principles

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The conservative critique of American higher education is well known to Journal readers: The universities are run by intolerant progressives. The left counters with an insult: The lack of intellectually respectable conservative arguments is responsible for campus political uniformity. Perhaps a better starting point in this debate is the students, most of whom actually want freer discourse on campus. They want to be challenged by views they don’t hold.

[. . .]

True engagement, though, requires honesty. In an anonymous survey of my 110 students this spring, 68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends. That includes self-described conservative students, but also half of the liberals. “As a Duke student, it is difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist,” one wrote. Another remarked, “Although I support most BLM ideas, I do not feel that I can have any conversation that even slightly criticizes the movement.”

To get students to stop self-censoring, a few agreed-on classroom principles are necessary. On the first day, I tell students that no one will be canceled, meaning no social or professional penalties for students resulting from things they say inside the class. If you believe in policing your fellow students, I say, you’re in the wrong room. I insist that goodwill should always be assumed, and that all opinions can be voiced, provided they are offered in the spirit of humility and charity. I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting. What students discover is that they are not alone in their misgivings.

John Rose, associate director of the Arete Initiative at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, writing in The Wall Street Journal, “How I Liberated My College Classroom

Rose set ground rules and then helped his students stick to their agreements. After observing over three hundred students engage civilly and honestly on a range of complex and emotionally loaded topics, his conclusion is that they have flourished. Rose writes:

On the last day of class this term, several of my students thanked their counterparts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom. Not only is it possible, it’s what students pine for.

Rose’s class enters the fray on political topics. These same dispositions and postures, however, prohibit the free flow and exchange of ideas in the theology classroom. Institutionally, we are a confessional body. We have doctrinal commitments and agreed upon ideals that define our community life. But as a Baptist institution, we believe in religious freedom and respecting the conscience and conviction of the individual. Some of our students are still working out what they believe. There are differences of opinion. Some perspectives are shaded by the debates of the moment, current events, or popular ideas in the culture. But being honest about those differences can be tough.

You’d think a Christian community would be uniquely equipped to navigate these differences. A commitment to truth, humility, seeking unity together in Christ, confidence in the Spirit, love of neighbor…I could go on. Virtues must be practiced. When we assume everyone is of the same heart and mind, it can take courage to bring other opinions into the open. When we believe we represent a divergent viewpoint–whether that viewpoint is liberal or conservative–we fear being marginalized and rejected, labeled a false teacher, or rejected outright.

I’m going to keep this Rose essay in mind this year.

There are insights I may apply. As I engage with students, I try to demonstrate the ways in which I do my own homework, even going so far as to try and explain the position that differs from my own, even while disclosing that I do not agree with that position. I also try to call attention to the moral and ethical commitments the Christian community shares, and to point to the Scriptures and the wisdom they contain for disagreeing with one another, both in how we can engage with one another constructively, and when it may be necessary for our disagreements to be sharp.