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One of the most poignant images from the recent Boston Marathon bombing was 8 year -old Martin Richard’s sign. The bombing was the largest of several stories of hurt in the month of April. People deeply hurt by gun violence were testifying in front of Congress. A video surfaced at Rutgers University showing a coach hurting players by his physical actions and harmful words directed at his players. It struck me that Martin, by his sign, was not only hoping for an absence of pain by his choice of his first four words, but also a pro-active state of peacefulness by his next. If we seek peace, we must not simply embrace it as an abstract concept, but consider how peace may be attained in our daily lives and at what cost.
Mulling over all these events, I found myself wrestling with the situation of the fired coach and what implications it might have for all those who seek to nurture faith in students. I found myself wondering about how we define the line he crossed. I am a sports fan and regularly see coaches display intensity, passion, and anger – how similar are they to the Rutgers coach and where is the line of unacceptability drawn? As I considered this I began to think of not just coaches, but teachers and other adults who work with kids. Where does “helping and discipline” turn into hurting? Does it just have to do with volume or is quiet sarcasm to control and manipulate kids just as deadly? Is sarcasm ever acceptable in working with kids or is it a lazy way for an adult to maintain control, to be cool with the cool kids, to keep the classroom pecking order intact so that equilibrium and order can be maintained – at whatever cost?
I also wondered how some adults who refrain from using any objectionable methods with youth get stellar results year after year. The ones we should be emulating are the best coaches and teachers who demonstrate by word and deed that they truly see the person in front of them as an image-bearer of the God of heaven and earth and therefore worthy of the same respect they would expect to receive! They do not need to shout at or put down a student in front of the peers of the student or later in front of their own peers. They seek to build up students, and in return, the students are secure in the love of the teacher. Students will take and even seek correction and advice from them. Why do some teachers and coaches get not only results but respect and lifelong admiration from those in their charge? And why do we put up with anything less if we are truly serious about emulating Jesus and living out our school missions?
My belief is that in Christian education we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard – we seek to serve the Prince of Peace who says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Our children’s faith is nurtured or discouraged by the words and actions of adults around them – it will take courage for us to confront each other if we see hurting happening by an adult – but it is what we are called to as children of God working with God’s children.
I am excited to share with you an exciting project that I learned about recently. Beaver County Christian High has, for nearly twenty years, been taking the time to help senior students connect the dots via a special three-day unit entitled What Difference Does It Make? Alumni of the school are asked to deliver a case study, a time from their life when their worldview made a difference in the way they lived. They share with students the circumstances of a particular situation and then ask students to ponder what they would do. After a time the adult presenters share what and why they did what they did.
The alumni represent a broad spectrum of fields – for example this year’s group featured the following professions: architecture, homemaking, culinary arts, anti-terror, social services, media, psychology, veterinary school, athletics, mission work, research, Border Patrol, professor, sports medicine, contractor, film sound editing, conference organizing, and nursing. Presenters shared the challenges of working in faith neutral/negative environments, sharing their faith, facing dilemmas in decisions, setting priorities, caring and praying for people, and doing all to the glory of God in every way.
Principal Doug Carson noted that he “was very pleased with the unit” and that it reminded everyone “of the fundamental reason we are in Christian education – we want to help students develop a way to look at all of life from a biblical perspective. We saw our graduates actually doing that! What an encouragement!” Director of Recruitment and Advancement Rose McChesney added: “Our school’s tag line is ‘Biblically Grounded for Life’ and I believe we faithfully strive for this. This unit specifically drew attention to our Christian worldview, and how that impacts everything – including our futures. Our natural tendency is to be very focused on ourselves, our needs, our day, our friends, our projects, our responsibilities, etc. I thought the content was so powerful. And for alumni, products of the same system our students are in, to be able to speak into their lives about the big world out there, and the many ways that Christians are needed, and how they can prepare themselves now, had such potential to impact their lives.”
This year’s special unit for students had I John 3:16-18 which concludes with these words: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Kudos to the staff at Beaver County for organizing these meaningful interactions for students to help them connect learning, faith, and life – showing what love in action, in real life looks like!
(Sixth in a series that delves deeper into the characteristics of a flourishing student – click here to read the original post on flourishing.)
It has been exciting to see how the concept of empathy has been getting more attention in recent years. I see it as a critical aspect of a flourishing student. After all, the world has seen many brilliant and powerful people, who seem to lack the capacity for basic empathy, make a mess out of our world. Empathy is a deeper emotional experience than sympathy: it is literally the ability “to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” (Source: diffen.com) We might agree that the best helpers to us in difficult situations are those who are “wounded healers” – people who have experienced similar pain and also healing so that they are able to help us. In Hebrews 4:15 we are told this: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (NIV) If we wish to teach our students to be Christlike and to truly love and be compassionate toward their neighbor, we must attend to the development of their ability to empathize with others.
Surely, to live as Christ asks us to live in harmony with our neighbor demands that we teach our students how to demonstrate empathy. But it turns out that empathy, even from a non-Christian aspect, is being recognized as a critical skill. A recent Forbes article from last week asks if empathy in business is an indulgence or invaluable. The evidence suggests it is invaluable and gives examples of Fortune 500 companies trying to increase this capacity in their employees. If we turn to the arena of education we are increasingly aware of the success of Finnish schools who are based on the premise of cooperation and equity, rather than the American model of competition: “Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.” (Atlantic, December 2012) It should not be lost on us that Finland leads the world in helping its citizens to live flourishing lives – it could be argued that Finland demonstrates a higher level of empathy toward its students, seeing that helping all of them to succeed and thrive is the ultimate goal. In his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman points out how developing the skill of attunement is critical for success in life and relationships. His research shows that interpersonally sensitive teachers and clinicians get the higher job performance ratings. Attunement of salespeople and consultants leads to highest sales and satisfaction levels. About 80% (and increasing) of our jobs are in the service economy, so it appears that good listening and empathy skills are more important than ever.
How can we work on helping our students develop the capacity for empathy? Our ability to empathize is a capacity that, according to scientists, is developed in childhood. They suggest three categories of attachment – secure, which comprises about 55% of the population, anxious – 20% of the population who are overcome by their own anxiety, and 25% who are avoidant – they lack empathy or are not prone to help others. While there is some reported success with training people to attend to facial micro-expressions (emotional signals that flit across the face in less than 1/3 of a second!) we would all likely agree that empathy should be more a matter of the heart than simply a cognitive skill. Goleman, like Jesus and many before him, recommends that we all become less self focused: He states: “The more sharply attentive we are, the more keenly we will sense another’s inner state…conversely the greater our distress, the less accurately we will be able to empathize. In short, self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands…we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.” (p. 54, Working with Emotional Intelligence)
Empathy in Christian education starts with the Biblical concept that all humans have been created in the image of God and therefore have inherent worth. Empathy is needed due to the fact of sin and brokenness being a part of our world. We hurt and wound each other and are called to help heal these wounds that we see others experience. We do this out of gratitude for having experienced the ultimate empathy of Jesus Christ and we seek to follow his example, walking in the shoes of others, and seeking to love them well. We are wired to experience joy in serving and helping others – there is evidence that that can be seen in children as young as one year old. (see the NY Times article linked here for more and also see the comments section for additional helpful information) We need to help our students practice doing good and being responsive to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to help them understand how brokenness has impacted our world, and that they are called as Christ followers to be part of the healing process.
(Thanks to my friend Paul Marcus, COO at Community Christian School, Drayton, ON and COO at Orangeville Christian School, ON, for sharing this blog post. Paul blogs at Paul Marcus Online.)
I had the opportunity to watch this beautiful film on the weekend. I’d never heard of it before doing some rummaging through the dearth of information on rottentomatoes. It’s amazing what you find when you dig below the surface of mainstream monotony.
I’m not going to give a review here, there are many sites that can do that justice better than I. However, I wanted to share a piece of a conversation that Monsieur Lazhar has with one of his colleagues at the school in which he just started teaching. In fact, as we find out eventually in the film, he hasn’t actually taught before. The internal struggle that he has is one that I think every educator has had at some point in their careers; I call it the ‘Just Sowing the Seed” struggle. This is a struggle that exists because, no matter what consultants and pedagogues tell us, there’s no way to measure the meaningful progress that we’re making with students. How many of us have had a child leave our classroom at the end of a year where we can’t discern a noticeable difference in their lives?
Monsieur Lazhar has this struggle as he works through his pedagogy. He walks into a neighbouring classroom to see that it doesn’t ‘look like a hospital’ as his does. Later as he’s having a drink with this colleague, the following dialogue ensues arising from his frustration and lack of confidence:
M. Lazhar: “And it’s my fault because I’ve forgotten to put some colour in their lives.”….”I feel guilty for having abandoned them”.
Colleague: “Even the ones we’re not able to reach we don’t abandon.”
We find out that Monsieur Lazhar’s comment may arise as an allusion to a life experience of his, but the response by his colleague is meaningful. Even the ones we’re not able to reach we don’t abandon. I’ve often been sitting with a group of teachers where we’ve felt equally discouraged and we’ve had to admit that we just have to ‘sow the seed.’ Teaching is one of those jobs that is thankless. Sure, we get the gift cards at Christmas for Chapters and Tim Horton’s (Starbucks if we’re lucky), but we rarely see the product of our labour. We have to submit that our work is a work of scaffolding: we do the work we can and we have faith that God will continue our work when our students have moved on.
Only if we stay in our craft for long enough do we have the opportunity to have a student who we’ve taught come and say “thank you,” and even then only if we’re the lucky few. For now, we’ll have to take solace in the faith that God goes before us and with our students.
Admittedly, I read a fair amount of books in a year. So, when one sticks in my mind and continues to provoke my thoughts, it moves to my mental list of “exceptional books” and I tend to talk to others about it. Recently I picked up Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book, Made for Goodness: and Why This Makes All the Difference, written with his daughter, Rev. Mpho Tutu. What a compelling and inspirational book!
I was curious how Tutu might hold this view of goodness in the face of all the evil that he has seen and heard. Yet Tutu argues that, being made by God in his image, we are both attracted to good and outraged by evil. God holds us in life, and we can face evil squarely because we know that evil will not have the last word. We are lovable and capable of good because God has loved us since before eternity. The Tutus encourage us to live into the goodness that God has hardwired into us, as opposed to “doing good” out of fear that we are not doing enough to please God. One of my favorite quotes in the book is the following: “The invitation to Godly perfection, God’s invitation to wholeness, is an invitation to beauty. It is God’s invitation to us to be life artists, to be those who create lives of beauty.” (p. 48) In teaching, we have so many opportunities to be life artists, instruments of God’s goodness, impacting the lives of our students around us.
The Tutus do not deny the power and pervasiveness of evil. They recount personal experiences and the horror stories of other’s suffering. As the leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to investigate apartheid era crimes, Archbishop Tutu heard stories reflecting the worst of human evil, yet is able to affirm that even in suffering, God sees and stands with us in all that we experience and endure in life.
I was struck by, and very appreciative of the Tutus’ description of forgiveness:
“We miseducate ourselves and our children with the trite phrase ‘Forgive and forget.’ Forgiveness is not a form of forgetting. It is, rather, a profound form of remembering. When we forgive, we remember who and whose we are. We remember that we are creative beings modeled on a creative God. When we forgive, we reclaim the power to create.” (p.150)
The authors remind us that we all long for goodness, for a return to Eden. They encourage us in closing to be much in prayer, to be listening for God’s voice: “God can help us choose, from among the plethora of paths that are spread out before us, the one that leads to flourishing.” To begin, we must see ourselves as God sees us, as the crown of his creation, created for his joy and beloved. This has implications for how we view others: “As we allow ourselves to accept God’s acceptance, we can begin to accept our own goodness and beauty. With each glimpse of our own beauty we can begin to see the goodness and beauty in others.” (p.198)
This book caused me to wonder if sometimes we focus too much on the shortcomings of ourselves, our students, our colleagues and allow ourselves to become negative, discouraged, cynical, and even bitter. The hard lessons learned in South Africa would point us in the direction of not ignoring the reality of evil, and certainly not letting it have the last word. We live in the hope of Eden and have daily opportunity to exude the goodness and beauty of our Creator, to image him and to celebrate it in other image-bearers before us.
Watching the thought processes of our one-year-old grandson has been fascinating! I try to guess at what he is thinking as evidenced by his facial expressions, his eyes, and his movements. I marvel at all that I cognitively know is happening – the formation of brain synapses, the sorting out of the huge volume of sounds and letters and facial expressions, and the barrage of environmental stimuli he processes moment by moment. I seem to have missed some of this wonder the first time around with our own children – so busy with work, responsibility, and activity that seemed important at the time. It seems my grandson and I are united at times in wonder – his the wonder of a child experiencing all things as new, and my wonder in re-seeing reality at different levels and understanding the limits of my understanding and God’s complexity.
Could I ask you to take a step back to wonder? I fear that our structures form us and our school structures are especially designed for efficiency, not wonder. It is simply not efficient to engage too long in wonder – yet wonder is a key element of a truly Christian education. Wonder arises from a deep and attentive observation of reality – not through a quick skimming – the survival habit we are currently developing in our fast-paced world. It is the difference between raising kids or teaching students versus really entering into their world and their reality. Quality wondering takes a commitment to time and a willingness to ponder deeply – it must become a habit of our heart and mind. Religious scholar and educator Sofia Cavaletti put it this way:
“When wonder becomes a fundamental attitude of our spirit it will confer a religious character to our whole life, because it makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality. If we are disposed to reflect on reality in its complexity, then it will reveal itself to be full of the unexpected, of aspects we will never succeed in grasping or circumscribing; then we will be unable to close our eyes to the presence of something or someone within it that surpasses us. Even calling it “the absurd” is also a way of recognizing its immeasurability. But the religious person will break out in a hymn of praise and admiration.” (Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.)
One major concern regarding children’s wonder raised by Caveletti is that we run the risk of extinguishing the emotional capacity of the child when we offer children too much stimuli too fast – the child loses the sense of surprise. In her experience, spending time on worthy objects of attention and wonder such as the Gospel – in particular, the parables of the Kingdom of God, serve “to offer the child’s wonder an object capable of taking the child always farther and deeper into the awareness of reality, an object whose frontiers are always expanding as the child slowly proceeds in the contemplation of it.” In his book Eyes Wide Open, Steve DeWitt suggests that “wonder is what image-bearers feel when they glimpse a reflection of God’s beauty,” and that wonder reminds us of how God designed us to live: in shalom and harmony with God, man, creation, and ourselves. (DeWitt, Steve. Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything. Grand Rapids, Mich: Credo House Pub, 2012)
Our greatest gifts to our students this year may be to help them wonder deeply at how the image of God is made evident in them, to sustain and teach the habit of wondering, and then to teach them where to direct their consequent worship – toward the Creator.
I have been amazed by the amount of progress that has been made during the last thirty plus years in our approaches with special needs students. I feel I can make that statement because, as a student seeking a special education degree those many years ago, I remember when laws such as Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act), also known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), had just been passed. We were in the beginning stages of learning how to best educate students in a “least restrictive environment.” I believe that in the Christian education community we are making significant progress with both educating students in inclusive settings and building understanding and appreciation for inclusive students with our entire student populations.
I am delighted to pass along a gift to you and your schools from a former colleague of mine, Dr. Kathleen VanTol, education professor at Dordt College in the areas of Special Education and Teaching English Language Learners. Her students have put together a 24 page Disability Awareness Unit suitable for use in K-8 schools. Each grade will study a different disability and there are devotionals and a 15 minutes a day lessons that include teaching ideas, video links, and interactive activities.
This unit is very timely – below is the introduction the students included with the unit:
Inclusive Schools Week is the first week of December. Inclusive Schools Week is an annual event that celebrates students who have disabilities while encouraging all students to acknowledge that students are more alike than different! Making our students more aware of disabilities is one way that they can see things from others’ perspectives. Working to make our schools more inclusive is a constant goal. Knowing more about different disabilities will help students become more prepared to be inclusive of children with disabilities within their own classrooms as well as through daily interactions outside of the classroom.
Many thanks to Dr. VanTol and Dordt students for sharing this great resource!
(Second in a series that delves deeper into the characteristics of a flourishing student – click here to read the original post on flourishing.)
While all schools in North America do some type of service projects with their students, it is in the Christian school that a deeper foundation for service can be laid. At the heart of our beliefs is the truth that, as Jesus’ followers, and out of deep thanksgiving to him for our salvation, we are given a desire by the Holy Spirit to model after him and emulate his life of self-sacrifice (John 21:15-19, Matthew 20:28, Luke 22:27, Phil. 2:7). Simply, if we truly love Christ, we should desire to love others created by him in his image and help to meet their needs. Because we can tie service to our deepest beliefs, we might hope that it has more staying power than something that is done seasonally or as part of high school graduation requirements. Instead, it is our hope that our students seen service modeled and practiced in such a way that it becomes a way of living out one’s faith.
An essential part of helping students learn to serve others is to help them identify the gifts that God has given them. We experience joy when we get to use our “natural wiring.” In order to help students discover more about themselves, they will need to do some projects that flow from their passion areas as well as some that may not be immediately joyful. However, I think we could do a better job of identifying kid’s “wiring” at an earlier age and I commend the listing of the Throughlines concepts (see graphic) as helpful ways of assisting students to see how they are bearing God’s image and how to imagine using that in service to others.
Motivation to serve may be existent in some of our students and not in others. Some children are compassionate and have a high motivation to make a difference because of a personal experience of loss or grief. Others have had parents who built empathy into the life experience of their children or parents who have modeled compassion well. “Feeling-focused discipline” is an approach that turns the child’s attention to the pain caused by the child’s inappropriate behavior. Other specific strategies to build empathy (Johnson, quoted by Stonehouse) include: care for extended family, creation care, connecting hard circumstances of life experienced by people you know, comparing/contrasting different needs/wants of global people groups, and showing hospitality by welcoming others into your home. There are many opportunities for service today and for helping to build that desire into students as a habit.
We must make manifest the vision of Christ for our world in our schools. This vision and our consequent desire to serve is not for profit, for self-advancement, for personal satisfaction, not to win a service award. In the end, a desire to serve and make a difference is rooted in our desire to worship God. Frederick Buechner states it eloquently:
“To worship God means to serve him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done – run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do – sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what is on your mind and heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.” (Cited in May, Scottie. Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2005.)
We have the opportunity to help students flourish by equipping their heads, hearts, and hands to worship God through serving him and a world in need. What an amazing opportunity and challenge!
In the Christian school community we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Cardus, the Ontario think tank, and to those who have funded the Cardus Education Survey. The survey results for the U.S. and Canadian Christian schools have given solid and substantive evidence that Christian education is making a difference and is worth doing. Last year survey results were released for North American schools (introduced here and then discussed in a four part series – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) and this fall the results for Canadian schools were released.
Recently, Cardus has presented the results of the Canadian data across Canada and at the Christian Schools Canada conference held in October. You can hear a keynote presentation by Ray Pennings, one of the study authors, by clicking here.
The title of the Canadian Cardus Survey, A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Measuring Non-Government School Effects in Service of the Canadian Public Good, makes a strong argument for the value of non-government education that “produce graduates who embody commonly desired excellences and characteristics in generally even higher proportions than do government-run public schools.” This is no small accomplishment, given that Canadian schools have ranked among the top of the world on recent international tests, such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment.)
Below are some highlights from the study in three different categories.
Cultural, Economic, and Social Engagement:
- Graduates of non-government schools tend to be equally or more involved in politics and culture than are government school graduates
- Involvement in cultural activities seems to be shaped by the community context of the graduates. Thus Christian school graduates have a greater involvement in choirs, while independent non-religious school graduates attend concerts and the opera more frequently.
- Because of overseas “mission” or “development” trips, Christian school graduates have had much more cross-cultural experiences than graduates of other schools.
- Graduates of Christian schools are more likely than any other group to feel thankful for their current life circumstances, to feel capable of dealing with life, and to consider themselves goal-oriented. However, they are less likely to be risk-takers and more likely to conform.
- Christian school graduates attain similar or slightly fewer years of education as government school graduates.
- Christian school graduates are more likely to have a master’s degree than an undergraduate degree. If they are on a university track, they have a higher likelihood than government school graduates of continuing on for a higher degree.
- Christian school graduates on most measures highly evaluated their experience and the preparation it offered, but did not report the same joy and pride in their schooling brand (as independent non-religious school graduates.)
- In general, even with fifteen or so years of hindsight, graduates of non-government schools evaluate their school cultures positively, claiming them to be close-knit and expressing a positive regard for teachers, students, and administrators, and reflect that they offered good preparation for later life . . . it is likely that an unusual ethic of care characterizes the school culture in many non-government schools.
Spiritual Formation and Religious Engagement
- Christian schools seem very effective in contributing to the religious and spiritual formation of their graduates. By almost all measures and indicators, they were more effective than all other school sectors in doing so.
- Christian school graduates have ample opportunities through school and church to develop skills for eventual participation and contribution in the civic core of society.
- Graduates of Christian schools are grounded, contributing, faithful, diligent, conservative, and dependable. It seems likely that such citizens contribute to the peace, stability, and flourishing of a society.
I would like to congratulate our CSI schools in Canada – I believe that they are doing a great job of meeting their missions and seeking to move their schools forward!
One of the things that summer does for us in the education profession is to restore our sight. We can easily lose our perspective as we near the end of the year – it is a challenge just staying focused as the tasks mount up. Summer gives us time to reflect – to see into the future, to look back, to see through some past problems/people, to soul search about any “blind spots” and “logs” (see Matthew 7:5) and to “look into” things that help us gain our balance and give us new hopes and dreams.
At the beginning of a new year, I encourage you to think about seeing. Will you take the time to truly see your students, parents, and colleagues and enter into their worlds? Will you recognize Jesus when he shows up in your school? Are you seeing the good or the bad in others? It likely depends on where you are focusing. Are we seeing beauty all around? It is essential that we help students see it, as beauty engages us and entices us to learn more – beauty is critical to the learning process. Will you take the time to see the needs of the world around you and through your keen sight provoke the missional imaginations of your students – to help them truly see as Jesus saw? Do you have a vision for the future impact, the ways God can use, each of those whose hearts and lives you have the opportunity to deeply impact?
At the beginning of the year, I encourage you to think about being seen. Not in the showy, attention-getting way that we first think about when we use the words “being seen.” Let me give you an example of what I mean. In his wonderful book, Nudge, Leonard Sweet tells this story.
Many decades ago some men were panning for gold in the state of Montana. The prospectors organized themselves into an informal cooperative and agreed up front that if they should strike gold they would tell no one about their find.
After weeks of hard panning and digging, one of them found an unusual stone. Breaking it open, they were excited to see that it contained gold. Soon the prospectors discovered an abundance of the precious metal. They began shouting “We’ve found it! We’ve found gold! We’ve struck it rich!”
They then proceeded to go to a nearby town for additional supplies. Before leaving camp, they reminded each other of the pledge of absolute secrecy. While they were in town, none of them breathed a word about their good fortune. However, when they were getting ready to return to camp, they were horrified to discover several hundred of the local townsmen preparing to follow them. And when they asked who had revealed the secret of their discovery, the answer came: “No one had to. Your faces showed it.”
How do you wish to be seen this year? What will students, colleagues, and parents see in you?
The day had come! As I sat down at my desk I realized the nest was empty. The last robin had left the nest and was sitting down below the nest under the deck rafters. It looked unready for the next step, tufts of feather fluff hanging off all parts of its body. I noticed also that the mother had not abandoned it, but kept bringing food to it on a regular basis. I wondered how long the life of this baby might last given predators and its seeming inability to find its own food. It finally moved into the grass area and began to give a few tentative hops, emulating the movement of its mother. Its wings were not any more ready to fly than the two sets of five gosling babies further away in the yard, but they certainly appeared more robust and capable of defending themselves.
I began to think about the love/care that God built into these bird creatures, and thought about the fact that this is how God has made them – they, not being capable of rational thought, simply act in what we would call blind faith. Certainly deciding to conceive and raise children is an act of faith. We cannot see what the future holds for any of us in the next few minutes or hours of our lives, yet we must, like the robin parent, just move ahead with life, as we cannot wrap our minds around what might happen next. We also know that if we cage our young, they will never develop the wing strength to soar.
We have opportunities to work with “short-winged” and “fluffy-feathered” ones every day. We are teaching them how to not only survive but thrive in a world where they will be a distinct minority in terms of their worldview. As evidence, I submit Kenda Dean’s recent estimate in her book Almost Christian that only 8% of youth have “a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold on to.” Barna’s estimates from his research suggest that only 3% of those ages 18-41 hold a biblical worldview. When we see these numbers it may make us desire to protect and shelter our students even more – but like the parent robin, our best contribution may be modeling a vibrant faith and faithful way of living, so that the remnant of youth that we have opportunity to work with may be seeing the world clearly, being challenged to apply the Gospel, and to be the prophetic and faithful Daniels/Danielles of this coming generation.
As a educator who began my career in special education, I was trained in the diagnostic-prescriptive approach: identify the problem, find an effective strategy, and try to remediate the deficit. A focus on deficits can become a problem – we are trained as educators to always be on the lookout for deficits, for problems, and not for the larger picture of abundance and possibility. My question then is: is it right for us as Christian teachers to always be focusing on what is wrong, finding flaws, identifying misunderstandings, and critiquing performances? Will we ever be happy anyway? Are we monitoring ourselves so that we keep this in balance with seeing gifts, possibilities, and focusing on the good, the lovely, and the true?
Many of the professions are trained to deal with problems: dentists with cavities in teeth, physicians with disease and malfunction, social workers with emotional scars, and attorneys with sins of omission and commission. Teaching is unique in the amount of time that can be spent in focusing on encouragement and possibilities. As Christian teachers, we need to intentionally point out to students the abundance of God’s great creation, as well as the abundance of his grace and love to us. We will also want them to know the possibility and promise we see in them as image-bearers, and in the lives and opportunities they have been given.
(Thanks to my friend, Bruce Hekman from Calvin College, for sharing this post.)
In the face of often daunting circumstances teachers and school leaders need to find a way to be strong persons, to be able to be the calm, non-anxious presence in our classrooms and school communities.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, in the first chapter of his book Leadership From Inside Out, writes, “Leaders (and I would add “teachers”) who can be trusted will be those who lead well-examined lives, who have recovered spiritual practices that liberate them from the power of compulsions and free their energy for outward service.”
Parker J. Palmer in Leading from Within, cautions, “A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow, his or her light….A leader is a person who must take responsibility for what’s going on inside him or her self, his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”
Leaders and teachers, in other words, need to be self-aware, reflective, grounded in their faith, confident in the promises of God. We don’t this well on our own. As a rabbinic saying goes, “Do not live without a rabbi, or die without a disciple.” The journey inward requires the presence of another who can help us cut through the masks, the pretences, the rationalizations that interfere with our understanding of our selves, and our relationship with God.
“Spiritual practices” are spiritual disciplines, faith-forming exercises that keep us closely connected to Jesus, the source of the living water. As I Timothy 4:8 reminds us, “Train yourselves to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things…” If we want to be spiritually stronger, we need to engage in spiritual training.
Dallas Willard, Richard Foster and others have captured the wisdom of the centuries about the practice of spiritual disciplines. There are two other resources I recommend. One is a new website, monvee.com, still in Beta testing, that provides an on-line assessment of your spiritual-growth patterns, and then connects you to resources to help you on the journey. There is a companion book by John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be. The other resource is a book by Adele Calhoun Ahlberg (2005, IVP, Downers Grove), Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, a wonderful compendium of faith forming and faith enhancing practices.
Here are two suggestions from the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook from the chapter on mentoring: “Take a mentor review. Think back over your life, writing down the names of those who believed in you and mentored you. What happened to you because of their presence in your life?” “Pay it forward. Think about your job and the colleagues with whom you work. Who needs someone to believe in them and mentor them? Ask the Lord is he intends for you to mentor this person. Offer to be a mentor for the next year.”
In the last week of July, the Christian Schools International leadership convention was held at Trinity Christian College in Chicago, IL. In light of it being the 90th anniversary of CSI, the theme was Celebrating the Past, Shaping the Future.
Jim Schaap of Dordt College led us off with an inspiring keynote that highlighted how Christian day school has been a journey of faith. Look for a shorter version of this speech in an upcoming Christian School Teacher magazine this year.
Next, futurist Rex Miller challenged us to with his excellent presentation called From Gutenberg to Google: The Future of Education. You can view it via this link.
Mary Hulst, chaplain of Calvin College, closed by encouraging us to encourage our students’ relationship with Jesus Christ. She pointed out that even though we may give a solid worldview education in our schools, we need to focus also on helping kids enter into relationship with Jesus Christ.
We enjoyed some outstanding worship times led by Chip Dykema from Chicago Southwest Christian High School, excellent devotion times, stimulating workshops, and reuniting with long time friends.
We look forward to next year’s convention July 18 – 22 around the theme Serving our Creator/Caring for Creation in Baltimore, Maryland. For more information on how you can contribute, please click here: Call_for_Leadership.
The best time of the year for resolutions is January 1. True? Not really in education! Many of you are wrapping up the school year and some of you are already “childless” and roaming around in a mostly empty building. While you wrap up the year, many of you are already in planning mode for next year. Given our agricultural/cultural schedule of summer months without students, let me encourage you to take some time to reflect and resolve.
What went well and not so well this year that I hope to change in the fall?
What did I want to work on but could not take the time for or get to in the crush of the year?
What could I do proactively so that I will feel calmer when I get into the busyness of the fall schedule?
How will I strengthen the weakest aspects of my work? For teachers it may be finding better learning activities for a less than stellar unit, for principals it may be putting together a classroom visitation schedule that is more realistic and committing to it.
How will I pursue professional passions that allow me to bring unique benefits to my school or system?
How will I recharge my spiritual tank? Will I take more time to refresh my interior life?
Maybe summer is a good time for you to take a minute and reassess what you are doing in terms of your chosen work. Do you still feel called? Are you still passionate about what you are doing? Are you still eager to learn more about your discipline and life?
Is it a perfect time to catch up on reading the Nurturing Faith blogs you have missed this year? (Actually principals tell me they read the blog more in the summer than the school year!)
Have a great summer! I will see some of you at the CSI convention and others at your school for staff development. Nurturing Faith will take a summer hiatus now and begin again in the fall.
One of the joys of writing a blog is to read the responses that people take the time to write. I was really hoping for some response to my post of last time entitled – “Ending well” and was hoping it encouraged some lively discussions in faculty rooms. One concern I have is that while there are some really thoughtful comments written, I wonder if readers of the blog take the time to go back and consider them as well. Well I hope to correct that in this post on this topic!
I really appreciated Fran VanderMeulen’s comments and her suggestion: “A celebration of talent which we do with year end concerts, art fairs, science fairs and other sharings of the the learning are really much more conducive to the types of cooperation we are trying to encourage in our Christian schools.” If God created us to praise him through learning, how good that we would take the time to celebrate the wonderful gift of learning – of together making meaning from the creation around us and using the minds he has given us!
I also thought Jon Postma’s response to my post on awards ceremonies bore repeating and so I quote it in its entirety:
“Every year I have the privilege of standing in front of the school to present an academic award for my subject area. This is an award given after spending three, roller-coaster years with students during their 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years. I also have had the difficult task of collaboratively deciding on three graduation awards given to 8th grade students–Christian Leadership, Christian Service, and Fruit of the Spirit awards.
When I think about these awards, it is never done in the context of a purely academic perspective. I look for a student who enjoys and engages with the subject area. I look for the foot-washer, one who follows the servant leadership of Jesus and has served their fellow students. I take input from students themselves through yearly spiritual self-assessments and surveys. Lastly I keep my eyes and ears open to the Lord’s leading.
This year my award is going to a student who has a learning disability in my subject area. Even so, the student has engaged, persisted, served, and blessed those around him or her. Earlier this year the student said to a younger student who was struggling in this subject area as he or she studied for a test, “Would you like me to help you study. There are so many things I have learned that could help you.” Will there be some students who are troubled by this decision, thinking they deserved the award for their better grades? Yes, I can imagine some might feel that way, but all the students will recognize the deserving qualities that this student has displayed for all to see.
Last year my award went to “the entire 8th grade class.” There were a lot of talented students in that class. But their greatest accomplishment was being open to God’s leading as He changed them from “my little piranhas” as 6th grade students, constantly picking each other apart, to a class that cared for each other and worked collaboratively with each other in my class. I struggled with the decision to give it to the entire class. There were parts of me that felt it wasn’t right. Were there those that may not have deserved it? Probably. Were there those that thought they alone deserved the award? Probably. I got a few raised eyebrows from my colleagues. But that is the direction that I felt God leading.
Each year as I present the award, I have found myself with tears in my eyes and a voice that trembles and shakes. Not because of what the students have accomplished, not because of the long hours working with and for these students, but because of the awesome privilege of highlighting to the community what it is that God has done in the lives of these students and waiting in eager expectation for what God will do in the years ahead.
Maybe these thoughts will help others as they consider how awards are presented and recipients chosen for awards ceremonies. I still see value in these ceremonies if what is being celebrated comes from these types of attitudes and perspectives.”
Well said, Jon! (and thanks to Fran and Jon for taking the time to write!)
It’s nearing the end of the school year and time for the annual award distributions. We hand out certificates, trophies, and compile lists of achievements in almost any and every category. Whether in the early grades or at graduation, we seek to point out accomplishments of students. I am guessing that if we could sit down and talk for a few minutes, dear reader, that we would share some mixed feelings about this end of year ritual.
This is an area of our school life that poses potentially large risks to our mission. It is an area that goes largely unexamined and one where we quickly adopt the practices of other schools. It is what we get excited about that speaks the loudest message to our students. I am concerned that sometimes what we do in awards assemblies may actually contradict the kinds of thoughtful work that we have done throughout many previous months and years.
I don’t have the answer to this, but am providing some questions below that might be useful in generating conversations within faculties. I’d be delighted to post your responses.
- If we are presenting awards to encourage students, are there a larger number who are actually discouraged by this process?
- What are we recognizing, and what related values are being held up to our students? Is what we are highlighting in alignment with the mission of our school?
- If we truly believe that all students are gifted and loved by God, how do we determine which gifts to highlight? Could we, or even should we, recognize students for growth in discipleship and becoming more Christlike?
- If we take a “broad recognition” approach and recognize every student for something, is it worth doing?
- Are we distinctively different in our award ceremonies than any other school?
- Do our awards truly celebrate the joy and creativity of learning or a narrowly defined competition that sorts out winners and losers by subjective standards?
- Are students motivated or punished by rewards and recognition? Do we essentially crucify Christ again when we put kids into camps of “winners” and “losers”? Is this a matter of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer?
- What was Jesus’ response to his three closest disciples when they were concerned about recognition and who was going to be first, second, and third? What was Paul’s response about who should get the credit for helping bring others into the kingdom?
Yes – we know the typical answers. But reading Parker Palmer’s book The Promise of Paradox made me think about how purposeful we need to be in our profession as teachers and leaders of learning. This quote of Thomas Merton (as quoted by Palmer) struck me:
“He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”
I guess what struck me is that as educators we have the opportunity before us again in the action/reflection cycle to cease the intense action and “work on ourselves” for a while. What can we do that will restore our energy and at the same time deepen our capacity to love more deeply, to resist cynicism, to care for others more than we have this year, to increase our patience, to humble ourselves before the Lord? I encourage you to feed your soul this summer!
How to best partner with churches has been a true conundrum for CSI Christian schools in recent years.
Cultural changes and shifts in church membership, coupled with students coming from a broadening number and variety of churches, have left schools confused about how to keep the home – school – church triangle intact, or even functioning at all. At the 2007 CSI membership convention we attempted to highlight the issue and make some progress on the issue of our common connection – the faith development of the students we share. If you are interested you can go back to earlier blog posts: here is the original post about the work, the report on the work we did at the convention, how it could be used with churches, and a subsequent post about how some schools attempted to follow up. One of the common difficulties in our larger (and even mid-size!) schools is that there are often over 100 churches represented in the student body. How can a school effectively connect with all of them, let alone do any planning together?
In the light of this persistent challenge, it was my pleasure last week to chat with Len Stob, superintendent, and Ben Dykhouse, Director of Christian Leadership, at Ontario (CA) Christian and to hear about their mentoring/discipleship program.
I will let Ben explain:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, writes that “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” In Growing True Disciples, George Barna gauges the responses of students involved in mentoring relationships. 30% of the students reported the experience as “life changing,” 60% said it was “really helpful,” 10% thought it was of “some value,” while less than 1% decided that it was “not helpful” (pg. 51). At Ontario Christian, we believe discipleship is a primary goal of the church, home and school. Thus, Ontario Christian is offering a Discipleship Program for students that will partner church, home and school to foster these characteristics of a disciple. Ontario Christian’s aim for this program is to give students another opportunity to grow in discipleship. So, what is Christian discipleship? Christian discipleship is acknowledging Christ’s Lordship and following him in all areas of life. Specifically, a true disciple will experience transformation in his/her relationships with friends, coworkers, family, and fellow church members. A true disciple will also embody a distinctively Christ‐ like lifestyle. Another characteristic of a Christian disciple is involvement with Christ’s church. Finally, a disciple has the desire to bring reconciliation, justice, and righteousness to his/her immediate community and to the world at large. One part of this program will be a mentoring relationship. Each student in the program will be paired with a mature Christian who attends the same church and is of the same gender. This mentor must be approved by the student’s parents, and she/he must meet certain requirements (see info via wiki link below.) This relationship will give the student the opportunity to experience spiritual growth in Christian community, dialogue with a mature Christian, and establish roots in her/his church that will last beyond high school. We strongly believe that whole‐life Christian discipleship does not happen without fellowship among other Christians. In other words, it does not happen primarily in personal devotions. This mentoring relationship is outlined in great detail see sections II‐IX on the wiki (see the link below.)
A second component to this Discipleship Program is partnering with the student’s home. With the goal of discipleship in mind, families of students in this program commit to eat a meal together at least three times per week. The family will also commit to have family devotions at least three times per week. Again, this is to emphasize God’s call to families to disciple their children and to put the arena of discipleship in the context of community. Materials for family devotions will be provided as a resource. However, families will not be bound to using these for their devotional time. Parents will also attend two meetings while their student is involved in the Discipleship Program.
Beyond discipleship growth and the forming of cross-generational bonds, Ontario Christian sees a “return” on the kind of positive campus culture that these sophomore and junior student leaders are able to assist in building. They are processing this work with their own staff at the end of each semester and are also hosting a symposium for youth pastors. They report that, due to the mentoring, students get more rooted in their own churches as well. It seems like a very exciting program that has strong promise to not only develop student leaders, but to strengthen church, school, and family ties.
If you are interested in knowing more details about this program you can contact Ben Dykhouse, Bible Teacher and Director of Christian Leadership at Ontario Christian High School. His phone number is 909.984.1756 ext. 39 and his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more details about the program including mentor qualities, tips for effective mentoring, qualities of an effective student disciple, contracts for mentors, students, and families, and discussion starter questions, please visit the DC (Distinctively Christian) Tools for Schools wiki.
I believe that teachers in Christian schools have one of the best and most powerful jobs in the world. I share three stories of gratitude with you, dear reader.
- Being a connector can be satisfying work! This past week I got into a conversation with a friend, a retired educator who has been in several positions of responsibility for leading Christian institutions. He wondered if I knew a former teacher of his, and I replied, “Know him! He attends my church.” My friend talked about how this teacher had impacted him in his high school days for good and sent along greetings to him. Now I don’t go to a large church, and so it just happened that I saw this former teacher in church. When I passed along the greetings I saw his mind churning through the grade books of former classes and he was not only able to identify my friend, but reminisced about others in the class and how much he grew as a professional and teacher in that school community. He left with a big smile on his face, having had his memories pleasantly stirred and realizing that his work had not been in vain, but instead had a significant impact on a life.
- A month ago I was with another friend and he told me a remarkable story. He was a bit of a rebellious youth (his own words!), and he wondered at the time if he mattered to anyone in his community. He was having a hard time finding his place or knowing how to get on with his life, and was wasting time in the meantime. His pastor asked him to ride along with him to a distant city and on the ride talked with him about his life and his aspirations. When they arrived at the city and the destination that the pastor needed, he turned over the keys to his car and encouraged my friend to drive on to another city and meet with admissions people at a college. Now I am not sure many of us would turn over our car keys to one of our rebellious youth and tell them to drive to another city to look at a college! Yet this pastor saw something in my friend, or was listening to the leading of the Spirit that inclined him to take a risk on him and trust him. Of course, as they say, the rest is history – my friend began an educational journey that continues to this day – because someone believed in him.
- A freshman at a small high school failed to pass the tryout for choir. This was a crushing blow as music was very important in his family. The next year the student fearfully tried out for choir again and not only made the choir, but the director seemed to see something in him. He suggested voice lessons and then after a few months, suggested that he would be singing the traditional senior Christmas solo. The director continued to build the confidence of the student, helping him with other opportunities for performance and encouraging him to try for, and obtain a scholarship to summer music camp, which was a life-changing experience for this student from a small, rural farming community. The performances that the student did helped him to get used to being up in front of people and were most helpful for a later speaking career. After college and many years went by, the student re-connected with his mentor and expressed his gratitude. I am that student and am grateful to God that I was given that opportunity to properly express to him (before he died an early death) what his belief and support of me meant and how it changed my life.
Who is in front of you that needs you to believe in them? Have you thanked the teachers and pastors in your life for what they poured into you?
I have enjoyed reading Thomas Merton over the years and found this poem to be inspirational as I thought about working in Christian education. Often we do not get to see the fruits of our labors – maybe that is why house painting is such popular summer job for educators! Our daily work is an act of faith in a sovereign and loving God. . .
This excerpt is from a letter that Thomas Merton wrote to a social activist (from: The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters by Thomas Merton):
“Do not depend on hope of results.
When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on,
essentially an apostolic work,
you may have to face the fact
that your work will be apparently worthless
and even achieve no results at all,
if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect…
The big results are not in your hands or mine,
but they suddenly happen,
and we can share in them;
but there is no point in building our lives
on this personal satisfaction,
which may be denied us and
which after all is not that important…
All the good that you do will not come from you
but from the fact that you have allowed yourself,
in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love…
If you can get free from the domination of causes
and just serve Christ’s truth,
you will be able to do more
and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments.
The real hope then is not in something we think we can do,
but in God who is making something good out of it
In some way we cannot see.”
Leadership is not about speed, ideas, efficiency, or power . . .
It is about knowing your own limitations and celebrating the gifts of others,
It is growing in wisdom, understanding the number of our days, and seeking to understand rather than be understood.
It is caring for people, always hoping for, and expecting the best.
It is being brave enough to be vulnerable in front of others.
It is seeing the big picture of where things are, and building a road to the future with limited casualties.
It is helping each person to sing their song from the heart, and leading the band in praise to their Maker.
by Dan Beerens
While most of us are somewhat keeping up with tech changes on a personal level, I sense a level of skepticism by some about the value of using more tech in our instructional delivery at the school level. This is brought home in the dichotomy of hearing a principal pooh-poohing the idea that his school needs to move ahead with integrating technology, and moments later he gets a message on his Blackberry! It is true- we tend to get the value of tech for our personal use, but why don’t we allow students the same level of use as they try to do their work? The fact is we find it difficult to break out of our “teaching box” and teach differently than we were taught. We want to make sure that we are not leaving out essential skills and that is a good thing. However, given how much things are changing, I believe we are remiss if we don’t make time for both the conversation about what is truly essential (and what we can leave behind – we are not teaching penmanship as much anymore are we?) and how we will deliver instruction in relevant and engaging ways. We are moving from a culture of teacher delivery to a culture of guided exploration/collaboration and we must engage students in the learning process.
Are we getting better at engaging students? Yes and no. A recent study released in March 2009 from the Speak Up National Research Project indicated that “students are generally asked to ‘power down’ at school and abandon the electronic resources they rely on for learning outside of class.” (Education Week, 4/1/09) Furthermore they don’t believe they are being adequately prepared for the tech demands of the marketplace. We can pooh-pooh the importance of engagement, but must acknowledge that how learners learn continues to tip in the direction of visual-spatial intelligence, and to not deliver instruction in those ways is simply sticking our heads in the sand. Richard Selznick, author of The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Disadvantaged Child, believes that 4 out of 10 elementary school students may give up on learning before graduation time and become “school casualties.” In his counseling work he has noticed that almost all of his clients are strong in “hands-on” and weak in language skills. The problem of course is that most classroom instruction is highly verbal and subsequently “deadening” to them. Their disinterest, distraction, and failure to follow through on work is sometimes viewed as laziness and low motivation. These students are sometimes diagnosed with ADHD or dyslexia and prescribed medications. We can and should do better for kids who are square pegs and don’t fit our standard round holes, rather than knocking off all their God-given edges. We all know stories of people who barely survived school and once freed from formal education went on to make significant and meaningful contributions to life.
Recent research around the concept of “flow” in teenagers again points to the need for engagement and motivation. (“Flow” is the state in which we are so engrossed in doing something that we forget everything else. For more info, see the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi done in the 1990’s and reported in his books.) When do teenagers experience “flow” and when don’t they? Not surprisingly, classroom time rated among the worst experiences in terms of “flow”, while extracurricular activities were among the highest. For suggestions on how to change this phenomenon, click here: http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/nurtureshock/archive/2009/10/07/flow-the-teenager-edition.aspx
So what does this have to do with nurturing faith? I suggest that a deadening education is an education that tends to discourage faith. When we don’t acknowledge that students are uniquely created and learn in different ways, then we disrespect them as persons and cause them to feel somehow “less than.” Without opportunities to learn using their individual strengths, we are disregarding how they have been created. Given that many of our students are visual-spatial, by not allowing them to tap into these strengths as learners, we are providing a deadening education. If as a learner I feel no sense of acceptance or place, it will impact my faith in a just and loving God. If I can’t feel a sense of being valued from my teacher for how God has made me, it will affect my desire to embrace the teacher’s worldview. If I am discouraged in my learning, how can I possibly desire to learn more? I pray that we are not fulfilling Neil Postman’s analysis that many children begin formal education as question marks and leave as periods, with the feeling, “if this is learning, I want nothing more to do with it.” How can this be honoring to a God who has provided us with a fantastic creation that is full of learning possibilities? God has made us to be learners, and when we shut that down in students, we bear an awful responsibility for the impact on their learning and faith development.
Technology is a gift that we have been given to nurture faith and make learning more accessible, engaging, and collaborative. What is holding us back? Some of you may not have the technology you need, but others of you have more technology than you are even using. As one administrator commented, “It’s like we have a Learjet that we only drive to church and back.” I encourage you to have this dialogue around technology, engagement, instructional delivery, and faith – for the sake of the kids – and determine how to best move forward. Perhaps this brief survey below can help get the discussion started. (For the information on the graphic to be readable the rest of the rating scale needed to be cut off – it continues with neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree.)
(Thanks to my friend Mark Eckel, Director of the Mahseh Center for allowing me to re-post this blog post which originally appeared as “Genesis: ‘The Real World’ (Part 7)” on his Warp and Woof blogspot.)
Bright, shiny copper pots: I have never seen anyone so excited about cooking utensils! Jon was explaining his historical finds that coincide with his love of preparing gourmet foods. One of the cooking pots had actually been “resurrected” from an underwater shipwreck. Jon’s love of cooking is displayed as decoration in his home.
One expedition for book boxes prior to a move found me in a bar. While there, the manager showed me his latest technique for dispensing drinks: a gravity system that worked from the room above. Exact specifications created the beverage ordered by patrons below. I’ll never forget the excitement of the owner. He was so pleased to offer exceptional service. Loving his vocation meant enjoyment of his life within the world.
I received a text from a former student the other day while he was in a tree stand hunting deer. Back and forth electrons flew as I expressed amazement that he could hunt and text at the same time! Guy told me that when you spend 200 days a year in the wild you learn to do many things at the same time. Visiting his website I saw the pure joy in Guy’s eyes as he taught people lessons about life through hunting.
When God created “the heavens and the earth” He had such human enthusiasms in mind. God’s assessment of His work speaks for itself: “And He saw that it was good.” The word means “beautiful” setting the standard for human excitement in creativity and aesthetics. The material world is good. We are not Gnostics, legalistically binding ourselves to human-centered regulations. To enjoy God’s good gifts of life is a sign of gratitude; thankfulness to One outside of ourselves. The Psalmist is blessed by astronomy, agriculture, biology, law codes, wildlife and human life.
Delight in this God-given life is one of the reasons why I disdain certain gospel songs. Growing up, one of the little ditties we sang in church was “This World Is Not My Home, I’m Just A Passin’ Through.” I have been teaching a seminar for some time with the title “This World IS My Home! I’m NOT Just Passin’ Through!” I love the smell of crisp fall air. I love the smell of the air just before it rains. I love the smell of wood fires in the night air. I love the smell of a bakery, sautéed onion-pepper mixture on the stove, and Kentucky Fried Chicken®! And that’s just a few smells! The list is endless of what I enjoy in this life!
So it is with great admiration that I mention a hymn which perfectly explains my joy:
For the beauty of the earth, For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth, Over and around us lies.
Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the beauty of each hour, Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower, Sun and moon, and stars of light.
Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony, Linking sense to sound and sight.
Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.
Satisfaction, Appreciation, and Thankfulness is the most important SAT test we will ever take. To be ungrateful for the gifts given to us is to reject The One Who has given those gifts to us. We ought to give thanks for the reality of this life since He has given everything for us to enjoy.
E. M. Forster would cringe when people would tell him to “face reality.” Turning round in a circle he would ask, “Which way should I face since reality is all around me?” In a similar vein, Cornelius Plantinga rightly takes to task those who think paying bills, going to a 9-5 job, and balancing work with leisure is “the real world.” He says, “Someone who lives in the ‘real world’ lives with an awareness of the whole world, because the whole world is part of the kingdom of God.”
“The whole” compels me to contend “the real world” includes the seen and the unseen. The five senses do not make sense apart from the sixth sense. There is another world to which I must give an account. The supernatural creates the natural. The invisible God made the visible creation. To neglect our responsibility to live under Heaven’s authority creates a disjointed view of life. We succumb to naturalism, materialism, and pragmatism. We begin to think that success is based on production. “The bottom line” becomes our “finish line.”
God draws “a line in the sand.” Unless we are careful, Deuteronomy 4:15-19 declares we are prone to worship, honor, and subscribe to the standards of this world. I would encourage us all to ask ourselves this question: Is our Christian distinctiveness informed by “the real world’s” accountability to Another World? As much as I enjoy this God-given life, I am constantly reminded that the creation has a Creator. I will continue to revel in sights, smells, tastes, and human ingenuity as I remember that earth depends on Heaven.
Maybe it is the constant barrage of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) letters in the mail, or the fact that my upcoming birthday pushes me closer to the name of a local bank (there really is a bank called 5/3 Bank!), but I can’t help but wonder if the concept of amortality is happening to me. Note that I said amortality, not amorality! If you are not familiar with the concept of amortality, you should know that it is #5 on Time magazine’s list of 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now, and is described by its inventor, writer Catherine Mayer as: “. . . the intersection of that trend (resisting the onset of age) with a massive increase in life expectancy and a deep decline in the influence of organized religion.” Yes, the Boomer generation seems to be both re-inventing age and walking away (or running or “spinning” away) from the concept of organized religion (see Barna’s book Revolutionaries and my 12.18.06 post.)
As I write this, my body is recovering from a spring break filled with painting, yard work, sod moving, and closet cleaning. I want to function at the same pace as I did in earlier years, and am disappointed if I can’t. As Mayer states: “The defining characteristic of amortality is to live in the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from late teens right up until death.” We somehow expect to live forever on this earth and expect/hope that medical science will have the answer by the time we need it, to allow us to live indefinitely. These attitudes fly in the face of “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12. We are in essence saying we are not interested in learning another pace, to develop character and understanding toward wisdom, but instead are saying “just give us our Botox and Viagra and let us go on our paths of consumption.”
My sister’s recent struggles with long-term cancer have again inspired me to number my days and do things that really matter, as I have seen her do. Her grace and ministry to all around bear witness to a heart that holds no illusions about the power of amortality. I only hope that I can live however many days that are numbered for me with half the grace and focus that she has demonstrated. Perhaps our personal mantra should be something like, “Modeling what matters so that the wisdom of Christ is seen through me.”
Here is an interesting movie for you to watch over your upcoming spring break! Our family watched it and enjoyed it – it has the potential to lead to some very good discussion around faith, hope, miracles, and belief. Below is the trailer:
(Review contributed by Mark Eckel, educational consultant and director of the Mahseh Center. Thanks, Mark for sharing!)
Hope does not always come in forms we expect or can explain. Sometimes the face of Jesus must appear in a stain on a stucco house. Other times, the house literally has to fall on a person to wake them up. It is no mistake that words for hope, trust, and faith are so closely aligned with each other in religious frameworks: each is dependent on a world beyond our own. It is this outside world that we cannot see, that we cannot explain, that invades inside our world.
Hope can come in many forms, but always from outside ourselves. Luke Wilson stars in a movie to ponder just such an idea: Henry Poole Is Here. The inexplicable occurs to give hope to the hopeless. Full of Christian imagery and truly caring believers, Henry is altered when he is forced to confront that which he cannot explain. Coke-bottle glasses worn by the grocery store check out girl are unnecessary after touching the stained house wall. Mute no more, a child next door speaks; a result of the same. Church-goers line up around the house because they believe what they cannot describe may transform what they cannot change. Henry himself has been diagnosed with an undivulged illness. Believing his own death to be imminent, “It doesn’t matter” and “I won’t be here very long” are phrases Henry uses to deflect attention away from commitments, away from people, away from life.
Characters enliven the tale. The won’t-take-no-for-an-answer next door neighbor (Adriana Barraza), the Catholic priest (George Lopez), Millie whose eyes mesmerize (Morgan Lilly), Dawn (Rahda Mitchell) the romantic seeing inside Henry’s shell, and the cashier (Rachel Seiferth) all add flavor to a sweet story.
Albert Torres wrote the original screenplay for Henry Poole. After failed attempts at penning scripts in Hollywood, Torres quit trying. He changed course. Two years later he realized his “undefined sadness” was because he was not writing. “Rather than write a movie I thought I could sell or one I thought others would like, I wrote a movie I wanted to see. I emerged from a desperate time, looking for a little hope and Henry Poole was born” (source). After suffering the devastating death of his wife, Mark Pellington created a film to reflect upon the realities of life lived after loss (source). Henry Poole Lives Here is an example of reflection leading to hope.
Both Pellington and Torres maintain that the movie is not “pushy” about faith. References to Jesus’ face, miracles, and Catholicism are simply to move the story along. Henry Poole indeed succeeds without preaching. But there is no mistaking a movie which depends on its most prominent character, who is invisible, other-worldly, unexplained but always there.
Rated PG for a few uses of profane language and adult situations.
(Post contributed by Mark Eckel, educational consultant and director of the Mahseh Center. Thanks, Mark for sharing this encouraging article!)
Putting one foot in front of the other is difficult some days. Robert Robinson was the 18th century Cambridge pastor who penned the famous hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The positive nature of the song seemed not to reflect his hard, later life. The story is told of his encounter one day with a woman who was studying a hymnal. She asked how he liked the hymn she was humming. In tears, Robinson replied, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who penned that tune many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”
When I hear that story I think of the phrase in Robinson’s song “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it / prone to leave the God I love.” Another hymn writer, William Cowper, seems to have been cut from the same cloth. Depression dogged Cowper all his days. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is one of Cowper’s songs. The phrase “Behind a frowning providence / he hides a smiling face” reflects, perhaps, the two-sided perspective of a man battling his own inner turmoil yet trusting the “fountain filled with blood, flowing from Emmanuel’s veins”-the hymn for which Cowper is best known. (See John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God.)
Response to suffering and agony take many forms. We feel what we feel intensely. We cry out with the Psalmist as he did four times in a row “How long, O Lord?!”( Psalm 13:1-2.) The writer does not question God’s intervention but His delay–why are you taking so long?! We suspect the loss of God’s nearness. God has not left but we do not sense the shine of His face on us any longer.( Numbers 6:24-26.)
“I have suffered much.”(Psalm 119:107.) Let that statement hang in the air for a moment. There are those of us who feel that suffering every day: fingernails scraping across the blackboard of life. Screeching matches our latch on to the Psalms in our cries toward heaven. “I have suffered much” comes from Psalm 119:105-113 capturing some of Robinson and Cowper’s sentiment. While the source of suffering comes from without, this verse indicates an inner unrest: an affliction eating at us which was caused by others.
Note the context. The previous verses suggest there are “evil” and “wrong paths.” (Psalm 119:101, 104.) Indeed, the wicked set snares on them. Fighting internal turmoil because of external havoc, the writer says he takes his life in his own hands. Earlier he declared “I am laid low in the dust” after “they almost wiped me from the earth.” (Psalm 119:25, 87.) We face opposition, hatred, suppression, or oppression from others. Walking this life is hard.
So how do we make it down the road? The “lamp” which is our light from the famed Psalm 119:105 is not a general comment about Scripture’s illumination. In my study, I have a set of lamp reproductions based on finds from various archaeological digs. All these lamps would fit in the palm of a normal human hand. The single wick gave off scant light; perhaps enough to see the next step or two on a moonless night. Sitting on a lamp stand, the candle-like quality could function as a nightlight for us, at best. In contrast, our 21st century mindset thinks “lamp” equals a halogen headlight, casting a beam hundreds of feet into the murky darkness. The Psalmist celebrates no such thing. All we have is a lamp which gives enough light for us to know the next step we take.
Our life’s walk is based on Scriptural trust in things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1-16.) If we are serious about walking down the path set by God, we must have no illusions about understanding why our present circumstances may be so hard. This section of the Psalm (119) concludes with the writer saying he will follow God’s Word “to the end.” Until our mission on earth is complete, we continue walking with the light of Scripture that tells us only what we need to know. In theological terms “the perseverance of the saints” teaches in part that we bear the responsibility of obedience without expectation of certain outcomes.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese activist who protested her government’s treatment of its people. While marching with some of her supporters one day, soldiers blocked their path, leveling automatic weapons at the group. Suu Kyi kept walking, despite orders to stop. John Boorman made the woman’s suffrage a focal point of his 1995 film Beyond Rangoon. The famed Irish rock band U2 created a title commemorating Suu Kyi’s simple action: “Walk On.” No phrase better represents Robinson’s, Cowper’s, Suu Kyi’s or my passage on earth in the midst of suffering than that we walk on.
Image: Photo by Chasqui
As a Christian school principal what is the most valuable thing for me to do in my day? I believe that principals have one of the toughest jobs going, balancing many needs, wearing many hats, and if really effective, doing the tough things of leadership as opposed to avoiding conflict and just reacting to daily fires. Given the fact that there are limited hours in the day, what is the most effective way for principals to allocate their time? This was a question I pondered each day of my eleven years as a building principal and over my 28 years in education.
I will admit that I have changed my mind on the answer to this question over the course of my career. One certainly could argue that the answer might be dealing with students, keeping parents or boards happy, raising money, or doing teacher observations. Yet, I believe that if I had to sum it up I would say it this way: The best use of time and the greatest joy of a Christian school principal is . . .
Encouraging the encouragers to nurture faith in students.
In a Christian school it is all about nurturing faith – it is why a Christian school exists. If the education delivered in a Christian school is not challenging students to see God in all things then it may as well close its doors and give up on its mission.
How is faith nurtured in students? A principal must encourage his/her teachers to pay close attention to, and assist them in, three areas:
Curriculum – how am I helping my students see God through the study of this subject? How do we see brokenness and redemption in this discipline? What is God’s intention for this aspect of his created order? How might we be a part of his plan to restore it?
Classroom – how am I modeling faith and how do my pedagogical practices encourage faith in students?
Community – is my classroom modeling Christ’s law of loving God and loving neighbors? How am I contributing to the professional community in my school? How is our school impacting our community?
The job of the principal is to be the chief carrier of the mission and vision of the school, and if he/she focuses on the three areas listed above they will be on the path to greater distinctiveness in meeting the mission and vision of their Christian school.
Now to unpack the first part of that statement “encouraging the encouragers.” The primary task of the principal is to encourage the teachers who are encouraging the students in faith encouraging learning. Teaching is a complex endeavor, one that leads to much second-guessing on the part of conscientious and sensitive teachers – likely those on your staff who are doing the best jobs already with kids. The more complex the work, the more room there is for discouragement by the teacher and the more need there is for encouragement by the principal. The effects of encouragement have been well documented in business literature by authors such as DePree and Welch. Goleman in his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, reminds us through his citation of multiple studies that the leaders who are most effective are those who are warm, encouraging, and genuinely care for their followers. Management consultant Kevin Cashman suggests a ratio of 5 “praises” to 1 “criticism ” in our interactions with those we supervise. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his words of grace allowed others to be liberated to try again and created the ultimate environments of grace in which people could flourish. It is the Christian school principal’s special joy to be an agent of encouragement to those who encourage and nurture faith in students.
I sincerely hope that one of the good things that we can learn from our recent economic distress is a recommitment to stewardship and charity. There are an increasing number of articles that deal with doing more with less (and gasp!), even self-denial. Self-denial sounds heretical in the Wall Street Journal of all places, doesn’t it? I remain convinced that one of the very best “essential questions” we can plant in our students’ minds for their lifetime is: What is the difference between needs and wants?
One of the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas is the opportunity for reflection and thoughtful gift giving. I recently was struck by the contrasts presented in two different articles on giving. In a preview blurb about Christian Smith’s new book, Passing the Plate, I read these words: “Far from the 10 percent of one’s income that tithing requires, American Christians’ financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all.”
On the other hand I heard myself saying “Oh, cool” when I opened the newspaper (Grand Rapids Press, 12.3.08) to an article about Manny Pacquaio, a boxer and leading light heavyweight contender from the Phillipines, who gives away his prize winnings by distributing food and cash all hours of the day and night outside of his home. After growing up in poverty, Pacquaio, a devout Catholic, states: “The best thing in life is what you can do for other people in this world” and goes on to say: “What I want to teach them is how to pray, to believe in God, to be with God.”
What a privilege to be in jobs where we can teach children the true difference between needs and wants, and train their hearts and minds to respond to a world in need!
As Jesus pointed out in Luke 6:41, our natural human tendency is to point out the brokenness in others, yet ignore our own brokenness. We repeatedly fall prey to the temptations of pride as we set ourselves apart from others in ways that make us appear we have it “more together.”
There is probably nowhere a greater need for the balance between standing for truth and practicing grace than in dealing lovingly with issues of sexual orientation in our schools. At a recent CSI Critical Issues Forum held at Trinity Christian College, Christian educators grappled with the issues around student sexual orientation. A key question in our discussion became: how can we care well for both individuals and our community in these situations which can be so uncomfortable for those involved and so divisive within our communities?
Attendees at the workshop acknowledged that all of us experience brokenness in our sexuality, originally intended as a good gift from God. It is difficult to even discuss these issues at times. We recognized that for some students sexual orientation is not a choice, but that we play key roles in helping students deal with their own questions, confusion, anger, grief around this topic, as well as helping them deal with family and church relationships. Most of all, we play a key nurturing role as we encourage kids by helping them make choices related to their sexuality as they live out their faith in obedience to Christ, and in the context of Christian community. How can we “be Jesus” to them?
(If you are a member school and are interested in learning more about this topic, please visit our Member Community Center to view student guidelines and information submitted by other schools.)