Teaching as a Christian Educator

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Take assessment, for example. Students find exams stressful, so we are told to reduce the number of exams. Neither do students like to read, so we are told to assign easier and shorter readings. Students find it hard to concentrate, so we are told to break down lectures into small chunks and intersperse activities in between. Students enjoy media content and are happy to engage with YouTube and social media, so we are told to incorporate more videos and make course material and assessments more creative and interactive. Some students don’t like to speak in class, so we are told to make sure there are myriad ways students can participate without having to actually speak.

Such well-meaning educational initiatives — alongside grade inflation, flexible deadlines, warm language in feedback — deny students access to the type of educational experience that universities were designed for. They short-change students by appealing to their immediate wants and feelings rather than their potential for greatness, their capacity for reason, and their fundamental need to leave university better than when they arrived. The student-centered mindset has led to a dumbing-down of curricula and a constant pressure on educators to motivate students, rather than a pressure on students to take ownership of their own success and failure. This is because it appears mostly to have been adopted without a principled questioning of what a university education is for.

The result is that student-centered education leaves undergraduates in a state of constant busyness but also constant worry about the value of these low-stakes endeavors. Students complete more and more simple and straightforward tasks — worksheets, projects, quizzes and so on — without the opportunity to think about what they are doing or learning. It is no wonder they lack motivation: they are denied the life-affirming pride that derives from achieving something genuinely meaningful and built on hard work. And without critical feedback on the work they do undertake, students are not given the necessary guidance they need to improve. In this sense, meeting students where they are keeps them where they are.

A transformative educational experience is supposed to be the point of a university education. Students deserve opportunities for challenge so that they develop the necessary strength of mind and character to meet the myriad challenges they will inevitably face in the higher-stakes contexts of post-university life. Such strengths will also equip them potentially to rise above their personal and social circumstances and pursue the life they want.

Rebekah Wanic and Nina Powell, “The Problem with Student-Centered Education

I think Wanic and Powell are spot on.

I try to be as reasonable as possible, as clear as possible, as kind as possible, as helpful as possible, as understanding as possible, and as challenging as possible. I am a co-learner in kingdom living, but I’m also experienced and knowledgeable to the degree and in the domains I have been equipped as a disciple of Jesus. I do have authority, but it is rooted in Christ’s authority, to whom all authority belongs.

I also keep in mind that as an instructor in a seminary, I am accountable to Christ, I am not alone in the classroom, Jesus is my Teacher, the Spirit is my advocate and helper, students are my neighbors, brothers, sisters, co-laborers, and partners in the gospel, and that outcomes ultimately belong to God.

I’m still learning how to do my job with excellence. Teaching isn’t easy. Higher education is facing a number of challenges, and having a sound philosophy is but one. Wanic and Powell are right to assert that universities should provide transformational educational experiences. That is my goal as a Christian educator. And I think I can help to create an environment where such experiences can be had up to a point. Threaded throughout, however, there is divine mystery and divine action. Christian education, formation, and the results are ultimately in God’s hands. That’s why teaching, I believe, is an exercise in faith.

What is Christian Spiritual Formation Anyway?

Several months ago I had someone ask me how to define Christian spiritual formation. It isn’t easy, because there isn’t just one definition. Some hear the term and choose to shy away from it altogether. But I’ve found it helpful. While in my reading of the Bible I understand spiritual formation and discipleship to be roughly equivalent, discipleship in modern parlance is often associated with involvement in a Bible study or a small group, and I’ve found that using the term “spiritual formation” can often open doors to a broader understanding of what it means to be transformed by the love of Christ. Discipleship to Christ takes place in far more spaces and places than a Sunday school classroom; ideally, the setting for discipleship is understood to be the totality of one’s life lived in Christ, by the Spirit, and under the reign, or kingdom, of God.

I’m linking the following here partly for myself; this article by Wilson Teo from a 2017 issue of Regent University’s Emerging Leadership Journeys journal explores this subject, identifying different definitions of spiritual formation, its theological foundations, goals, elements, and challenges, but for friends who have wondered about this term, where it comes from, and why it matters, this is a helpful survey.

It is certainly good if pastors and leaders are encouraging those in their orbit to become like Christ. In most circumstances this will not be up for debate. But the difficulty comes in answering, with precision and clarity, what the result would be and how it is done.

It has been done. It is being done. It can be done. And it must be done. By faith, and with God’s help.

An Unsexy Idea about Discipleship

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Discipleship is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God. Walking on water is easy to someone with impulsive boldness, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is something altogether different. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he “followed Him at a distance” on dry land (Mark 14:54). We do not need the grace of God to withstand crises— human nature and pride are sufficient for us to face the stress and strain magnificently. But it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint, going through drudgery, and living an ordinary, unnoticed, and ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God— but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people— and this is not learned in five minutes.

Oswald Chambers, “Impulsiveness or Discipleship?

This thought would never headline a conference or excite publishers.

But it is exactly right.

And this is not learned in five minutes.

Helpful Comparisons

Via Liva Jan on Twitter

I had a seminary professor, Howard Hendricks, who warned his students against the dangers of comparison. At Dallas Theological Seminary, everyone received feedback on their work through a campus mail system. Students gathered near the campus mailboxes, pulled their papers, and the game began.

“What’d you get?”

“How’d you do?”

Hendricks said that if we did it in schoolwork, we’d do it in ministry. We would look at people who were leading churches that are growing numerically or launching new ventures or preaching to large crowds and make one of two mistakes.

If we were leading a growing ministry, we’d be susceptible to pride and self-conceit, thinking that our success could be traced to ourselves. Rather than giving God the glory, remembering the fruit we bear is a sign of God’s presence and grace or that our gifts and abilities trace themselves to God’s favor, and crediting countless co-laborers for their contributions to shared work, we act as though we are the ones who made everything go, that we did it all for God and that God and others should worship and thank us for all of the wonderful things that have taken place.

Conversely, if we work among rocky soil and see little signs of progress, labor among a sleepy congregation that is in need of renewal, or if we’re placed in a small community hidden from the attention of the world, we think we’re failing. We mistakenly believe that God has forgotten us or that the work that we are doing is insignificant in God’s sight. We compare our work to the wrong standard. We do not consider if we’re being faithful with the “talent” God has entrusted to us. Our service is not done unto the Lord. The comparison game leads us to look to others for our sense of well-being in ministry and in faith. As a result, we miss what God is doing in and through us right where we are.

I’ll confess this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. Like most everyone, I have ambitions and the desire to be successful in what I do. I’ve wanted to “do great things for God” or to be admired. Rather than thinking about my calling, my need for growth, and my next step in faith before God, I’ve compared myself to others and how they are doing rather than considering carefully how I am doing.

The Christian difference here is that I am not only measuring my growth against myself. I am measuring my growth against Christ, in whom I am called to maturity. Ephesians 4:14-16 puts it this way:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Note that Paul calls each member to grow up into Christ. But as we grow, we do so as part of the fellowship of faith. In fact, membership within the body helps us to become all we’ve been created and redeemed to be in Christ, nourished within a kingdom ecosystem that allows each to flourish and to bear fruit that has been appointed in service to the whole.

One last thought that enables us to free ourselves from comparison to others: as part of a redeemed community, we remember that all other members, like us, were sinners in need of God’s grace. Therefore, there is no superiority. But we also remember that those who are part of the Christian community have been claimed by God’s love. Jesus died to demonstrate for us the depths of the love of God for us. Therefore, there is no inferiority. Christ died once, for all.

Trust Makes it Go

Via Sketchplanations

When it comes to trust, I think people put a lot of weight on credibility and intimacy, and we certainly factor reliability over time. A credible person not only has the credentials, they display competence. A safe person keeps a proper confidence, listens well, and allows for vulnerability. And the reliable person consistently comes through on time, under budget, and with high quality.

But self-orientation is the one we keep in the background, both in how we evaluate ourselves and in how we evaluate those we work alongside. I might rephrase the description above and instead couch self-orientation in terms of shared or common interests, rather than mine or theirs.

I think human beings do make decisions and take action based on self-interest. I think growing and mature persons are aware of the ways their own self-interest is in play. I think respectable and wise leaders are understanding of the interests of others they work with and alongside, and they are cognizant of the ways personal and organizational interests align when moving toward a goal. Furthermore, they have reached a point of maturity where the interests of the other, and others, are considered more important than one’s own self-interest. They are willing and able to put self aside to serve. That’s easier said than done.

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul writes:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Paul then goes on to cite the example of Jesus in the rest of the chapter, not only as one to follow, but as the theological justification for the dynamics that are in play in healthy Christian communities.

In Christian communities, trust is not only built through displays of credibility, reliability, and intimacy, but also by an orientation toward Christ and the kingdom of God and the seeking of God’s glory. If that’s a shared focus, good things happen, and we not only learn to trust one another, but to trust God’s leadership, guidance, and work within and among the community. As a result, we elevate the trustworthiness of people and we learn through experience the trustworthiness of God.

Bad Timing

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A good stylist is hard to find.

Yesterday I stopped off at my local haircut chain. I’ve identified a couple of people on the staff at this location who do a great job. I’ve identified one person who doesn’t. As luck would have it, when I walked in, the fates aligned, I had a decision to make. Do I roll the dice one more time, advocate for my next best cut, pray to God I’ll be spared bad lines and uneven layers, risk numerous missed strands of hair I’ll later have to cut myself, and then likely visit a different stylist for a major fix a few days hence?

I didn’t have the energy. I walked back out the door.

Getting your haircut shouldn’t feel like playing Russian roulette. But for me, sadly, some days, it does.

Sign Up for My Newsletter. Reading is Recommended but Not Required. I’d Coerce You to Sign Up but I’m Pro-Freedom, a Reason the Newsletter is Free.

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The game we’re playing is one that gives power to writers and creators. It’s a game that ensures writers can maintain their independence without most of the drudgery that comes with running their own media operation, and without having to cede control to a gatekeeper. We build tools that give writers and creators the full powers of the internet so their work can have maximum impact, reach, and revenue. We are helping to unlock the potential of existing writers to get greater value for and from their work, and so that new types of writers can enter the media economy and thrive. That’s the movement Substack is helping to drive. We don’t believe it’s going to slow down any time soon. On the contrary, we expect it to accelerate and expand.

Hamish McKenize, “Please Stop Calling it the ‘Newsletter Economy'”

The headline tells you I suffer the occasional spell of long-windedness. If you read my newsletter, you can too! Hopefully, your suffering will be minimal compared to mine.

I write an occasional newsletter that you can preview and then subscribe to (please!) on Substack. It won’t hurt you to sign on for the free edition. Who knows? It could even help you. Maybe you’ll learn a joke, crack a smile, gain an insight, discover a book, or nauseously endure one of my bad movie takes. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I’ve been writing on Substack since spring 2020, having made the switch from another newsletter service early in the pandemic. I had the time. I didn’t move in order to launch a paid tier, as other writers were doing to connect directly with their readership and make a little money on the side.

I moved over mainly for the simple interface, something easy to use for a caveman like me, and the desire to send friends, family, and acquaintances an attractive looking email. I also felt Substack had a broader range of viewpoint tolerance and diversity. I support open inquiry. As someone representing a religious tradition that has historically valued freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of association, I’d like to be on platform that supports the open exchange of ideas. I know that means “bad” ideas will run wild, too. May the good ideas prevail! From what I could tell, Substack is the kind of place where arguments can be made by writers, at least for now.

If you aren’t already on board, go sign on for my newsletter. It’s Friday night. Make it a wild and memorable one.

Boredom Can Be Okay

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If you are looking for a riveting interview, read Daniel Silliman’s conversation with Kevin Gary in Christianity Today. The subject? Boredom.

Boredom isn’t all bad. As a parent of two kids, I worry that they aren’t bored enough. Too many easy distractions are at hand, too much entertainment is far too available, and technology, wondrous thing that it is, can constrain just as much as it can free us to explore creative possibility.

And I’m probably not bored often enough. I’m just as prone to reach for my phone, an iPad, or a project in order to occupy my thoughts and my time.

Silliman and Gray talk about boredom: what it is, the problems it presents, and how we deal with it in our moment. At one point, their conversation turns to boredom, and Gray is asked about boredom in church and whether we should, occasionally, be bored during a service of worship. Gray responds:

Church services can be part of a boredom-avoidance scheme: “Let’s try to really entertaining with our music!” I do think that does us a disservice, because we’re guiding people to steer clear of boredom rather than engage with it.

It’s an uncomfortable mood state. But learning how to push through that to get to something enjoyable and meaningful is a discipline and, I would say, a virtuous practice.

With a liturgy, there’s nothing going on and then there are epiphanies where all of the sudden, significance breaks through. There’s a lot of tedium between the beginning and the end, but then there are moments of, Oh my gosh, this is joy. But you have to be patient with the bored state.

Gray is also asked what to do if we find ourselves bored during a church service. He advises:

More often than not, I just sit there in my head and mull around a bit. But I think that’s okay. I think that can be a good practice, to be in your head, thinking about your thoughts. I’ll ponder the Scripture and maybe compose my own sermon, how I would talk about them. That’s a way of attending to the text. But even if I’m not doing that, I think it’s a good thing to practice just sitting.

Apart from church, we no longer have many spaces where we sit with ourselves. I think there’s value in learning how to sit.

Boredom can be a gateway to creativity, insight, and innovation. It can also serve as a great occasion and reminder to just “be.”

A Way of Love, Joy, and Peace

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There is an emotional and even spiritual weight to life; we all feel it, especially as we age. An easy life is a myth, if not a red herring–the by-product of an advertising-drenched and social media-duped culture. Life is hard. Full stop. No comma, no but, no endnote. All the wise men and women of history have said as much; no new technology of substance or pill will ever erase humanity’s fall. Best-case scenario, we mitigate its effects as we advance Jesus’ return. But there’s no escaping the pain.

Why do you think there’s so much addiction in our world? No just substance abuse but more run-of-the-mill addictions to porn or sex or eating or dieting or exercise or work or travel or shopping or social media or even church?

And yet, even church can be an addiction, a dopamine hit you run toward to escape a father wound or emotional pain or an unhappy marriage…but that’s another book.

People all over the world–outside the church and in–are looking for an escape, a way out from under the crushing weight to life this side of Eden. But there is no escaping it. The best the world can offer is a temporary distraction to delay the inevitable or deny the inescapable.

That’s why Jesus doesn’t offer us an escape. He offers us something far better: “equipment.” He offers his apprentices a whole new way to bear the weight of our humanity: with ease. At this side. Like two oxen in a field, tied should to should. With Jesus doing all the heavy lifting. At this pace. Slow, unhurried, present to the moment, full of love and joy and peace.

An easy life isn’t an option; an easy yoke it.

John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry [affiliate link], p. 87-88

Jesus not only offers us “equipment.” He offers us himself. And he not only offers us himself in his incarnation and on the cross, or from his place at the right hand of the Father, or from heaven. He lives “in” his disciples. Our life is hidden with Christ in God, even as we are called to “put on” or “clothe” ourselves in Christ.

Comer is playing here with Matthew 11:29-30, driving home the notion that we must join our life to Jesus’ life, we must walk in step with him as his students, apprentices, and disciples, and learn his way. I’m leading a retreat this weekend, and this book will serve as grounds for discussion. We will explore the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Notice, in all of these disciplines, all of life must be ordered in such a way that creates space for their keeping and observance. They require ordering and differentiation. They necessitate clear choices and make more plain the pace, narratives, and commitments of the everyday culture and habits of life that subvert, compete with, and challenge the pace, story, and way of life in the kingdom of God.

In Disciples Indeed, Oswald Chambers wrote, “I have no right to say I believe in God unless I order my life as under His all-seeing Eye.” The gospel we often preach focuses on life in the world to come. But the good news of Christ is not only concerned with what’s next. It has implications for life as it is lived today. Following Jesus will not make life easier in the immediate. In some ways, it may make it harder, at least in the short term. But in the long run, faith in Jesus is wisdom, not only for the resources that will be near at hand for this life as a citizen in his kingdom, but for the ways in which it will prepare us to serve in God’s great universe in the coming world without end. Our souls are made for eternity. Apprenticeship to Jesus prepares us for all that eternity will hold, not only for lasting fellowship with God, but for service.