Monthly Archives: January 2009

Teaching kids to transform the world: possible?

080808-mpetersen-culturemakingCan culture be transformed? Or does more evidence point to our being transformed by the culture?

One of the legacies of the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, has been the concept that we are to claim all of life and culture for God – to be transformers of the culture.  This thinking has permeated churches in the Reformed (the theological approach, not just the denomination) tradition and those Christian day schools that have originated from the Christian Reformed Church in particular. We are proud of the fact that we do not simply advocate condemning and retreating from culture, but that we attempt to be counter-cultural, to be “in and not yet of” the culture we experience. If you were to survey Christian school mission statements you would find many phrases that reflect the belief that we are training children to be cultural transformers. Yet, how effective is this strategy? Is it working?

In his recent book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch calls into question our ability to transform culture by simply condemning, critiquing, copying or consuming culture (for greater description of these areas, read the book or this review. If we were to look at the area of media alone, we would have to admit that, despite our condemnation or critique of cultural slippage, we have not been very successful in changing the cultural landscape. There is simply too much media to critique and too little time for us to engage in advocating for long term, effective change. The premise of Crouch’s book is that, as Christians, we are called as image-bearers to create culture that reflects Christ.

This message would seem to resonate with the upcoming Millennial generation. They desire the real, the authentic, the hands-on, direct experiences of ministry, while the Boomers seem to have been more concerned about their own worship/church needs via an entertainment model and large church infrastructure. Despite the disconcerting aspects of large scale change and turmoil, my friend Rex Miller sees the focus of Millennial’s to be a very positive development as we move through these times of death and rebirth in our culture. See his recent article here.

While I agree with Crouch’s encouragement to individual Christians to make culture wherever they are planted, I also agree with John Seel’s concern with Crouch’s book that culture is not simply about individuals, it is also about the cultural gatekeepers within institutions who really control culture, a “super class” of perhaps 6,000 people within institutions who dramatically influence world culture. Seel emphasizes the need for student preparation and training in obedience – we don’t know if and when and how the students in our schools may be called into as an “influencer” or “cultural gatekeeper”, but need to practice with diligence in preparation for whatever work God calls them to do. Whether we focus on culture making from an individual or institutional standpoint, there is no substitute for Christian schools that help students develop discernment and Godly wisdom, all the while teaching them to work within and through community.

I really appreciated Crouch’s discussion of what he calls the two most compelling events of God’s intervention in culture in the Bible. He views these as instructive to our response to life in this present age. He points to the exodus of Israel and the resurrection of Christ as events that came to those who were powerless against, and crushed by, the dominant Egyptian and Roman cultures of the time. In that context, God reveals his power by working in the lives of the powerless. In an age where we have been seduced and then disenchanted by our “Christian” influence on the political process, where we feel increasingly powerless to make change, and in a time where we realize again the futility of depending on our own financial means, we are encouraged to call on God and to look carefully at what he is doing in our midst to see “where the impossible is becoming possible.”

We need to consider whether we, as evangelical Christians, have been seduced by cultural power and influence. Have we unconsciously encouraged our students to become celebrities through accomplishments more than we have encouraged them to become saints? (Crouch holds up Princess Diana and Mother Theresa as contrasting models.) He reminds us that the growth of the church came through Christians engaging in cultural creativity – loving neighbors through the worst of times, being open and accessible with their faith, living very different lives – believing, behaving, and demonstrating belonging to a different kingdom – and thus changing their culture and world. How can we encourage our kids to be culture makers and culture influencers so that they become, in Crouch’s words, artists and gardeners who through their God-given creativity help to bring forward Christ’s kingdom?

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Walk on

walking-to-the-sky-by-chasqui(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

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A principal’s joy

encouragementAs 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.

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Show your students what using a Biblical perspective looks like

(Thanks to Michael Essenburg, Christian Academy in Japan, for sharing this post.)

It’s the end of your English class, and you assign a 750-word essay in which your students are to evaluate a theme from Hamlet from a Biblical perspective.

Then the bell rings. One of your students, Ian, approaches you and says, “I don’t know what it looks like. I know what telling others about Jesus looks like—we read missionary biographies at school and I go on mission trips with my church. What does doing a good job on using a Biblical perspective look like in an essay?”

Question: How can you help Ian? (How can you help Ian understand what using a Biblical perspective in an essay looks like?)

Answer: Kim Essenburg, English 10 teacher at Christian Academy in Japan, responds:

I want my students to connect the Bible and what they study in English 10. As a starting point, I have to get my students to see that this is possible. I have to get my students to see that the Bible can be applied, for example, to the literature and grammar that they study.

Two strategies I use are:
1.    Having my students read and discuss an article that evaluates the subject from a Biblical perspective. When my students read Elie Wiesel’s Night, a Holocaust memoir, I have them also read “Justice in an Unjust World” by Gary Haugen.
2.    Showing my students sample essays in which students apply a Biblical perspective, for example:

There are many ways to define the word “peace”, but the Biblical concept of peace or shalom has a round meaning, relating all beings in the universe and outside the cosmos. Genesis 1 describes the perfect creation God had made in the beginning as He said, “It was very good” (New International Version). However, as man marred his image of God through sin, the relationship between God and man, God and creation, man and creation was broken. Fear and sorrow entered the universe, and every human being needed to go through such pain in the world. Henceforth, humans needed to pray for redemption and the restoration of the intimate association with God, so that this may someday lead to the restoration of creation. Romans 8:21 expresses the hope for this restoration when “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” This is a place where all living creatures and humans live in harmony without pain and suffering, which is referred to as the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelation 21. This concept of Biblical shalom in elucidated by Alan Paton’s book Cry, The Beloved Country as the “ideal justice.” Beginning with Stephen Kumalo, one finds the broken relationship between God and man and creation in the tribe, and through much adversity and sorrow, Kumalo attempts to build shalom by restoring the broken relationships.

Show your students what using a Biblical perspective looks like. Today.

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