Thursday, May 29, 2014

formal, informal, nonformal

Earlier this month I returned to my ol' stomping ground, Carey Baptist College. It was my first extended time in the community since I completed my time as Principal five years ago.

With the last question in a post-lunch interview with Charles Hewlett (Principal), I was asked about theological education. What is critical? How can it be transformative? I bumbled my way through talk about ensuring that there be the right combination of the formal, the informal and the non-formal aspects of learning. But I've been thinking a lot more about it and I thought I'd have a crack at a fuller response here, with examples from my early years at Carey.

[One of my guidelines in writing this blog is that I never do any prior research. It is kinda an overflow of my own mind and heart - and on this topic I am very conscious that finer minds than mine have engaged with this stuff. But here we go anyway...]

The Formal
When I see this word, it is the classroom that comes to mind. Lectures. Reading. Essays. Debate. Assessment. To be fair, it is much wider than this more cognitive stuff, but this is the default setting.

In the early years at Carey...
We had a BTheol with a limited curriculum which the University was wanting to control ever more tightly. This was never going to align long term with our purpose in the world. We had some bright minds on the teaching stuff and a whole new degree was developed - a BAppTheol, accredited with the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA). It sparked a rush of creativity. You learn a lot about the formal curriculum in the fine print where prerequisites are determined and credits are assigned to courses.

Among my specific interests in the formal, two issues stood out. When I started there had been two theologians, but only part-time OT and NT specialists - with one teaching History and the other looking after IT. Nah. Biblical Studies needed to become central to the curriculum. (Somewhere there is a document on ten? different ways in which this transition happened). Afterall, winding up a few readers on this point, theology is merely a derivative discipline. We worked hard to release the OT specialist to be full-time ... and the decision was made to find a NT specialist. Far and wide we went. For me this was going to be the critical appointment of my early years. I poured out my heart to God again and again. I knew what we needed. I took a seven day trip and interviewed people in Lisbon, London and Edinburgh. God was so gracious. To this day I consider the appointment and its outcome to be one of the most strategic processes in which I have ever been involved. The divine resource worked through the human resource processes beautifully.

The other area of specific interest was sourced in an inadequacy in my own MDiv training through TEDS (Chicago) in the early 1980s. It worried me that students graduated with departmentalised minds, with the rather optimistic hope that integration of training would just happen post-graduation. I don't think so. It was my conviction that integration needed to be brought back into the structure of the degree. So important was this issue that for a while I thought the degree should be called a Bachelor of Integrative Theology. And so without any blueprint to follow and noone up ahead of us, we had a crack at developing a Thematic Integrative Seminar for which I took responsibility. The formal curriculum looked kinda like an airplane. If the central fuselage was Biblical Studies/Theology/History, the wings Mission/Ministry (Applied) - then the Integrative Seminar became a bit like the cockpit. A summative course that brought it all together. It was a demanding course. It attracted critique. It needed to evolve. But I still believe in it. One day I'd like to write up it's story.

The Informal
Here my mind tends to go to the 'beyond-the-classroom' assessments that usually cluster around the skills and attitudes of students. Often a little more creativity and space is required to do this well.

In the early years at Carey...
I entered into an existing stream of good stuff in this area. A lot of the focus was on a new staff position called the Director of Ministry Training. We made a courageous and controversial appointment. Someone with no (church) pastoral experience and no theological background - but a lifetime of training in another discipline. Together we played with a model that would add credibility to the informal. The triangular 'knowing-doing-being' seemed to fit the bill - until I had a passing conversation with my father. 'Those three are not enough'. Really?! 'Peoples' behaviour is often sourced from another place'. Enter the square and the addition of 'feeling' to the familiar troika. Very difficult to assess, but so began an era where students were asked to reflect regularly on their own journey with things like empathy for others and passion for calling and church, gospel and mission. It was an important step towards having a fuller self-awareness, without (hopefully) that more damaging self-absorption.

Another biggie for me in this area was dropping the idea of compulsion from every aspect of the training other than prerequisites in course selection. I remain persuaded, even to this day, that imposing compulsion on adult learners is counter-productive. Treat students as adults and discuss this with them. Effective learning experiences within the informal do not tend to happen under duress. Motivation must be intrinsic, not extrinsic. With the very things you want to make compulsory, give your energy to making them so good that students will feel they've missed out, if they are not present. Chapel attendance being the obvious example.

The Nonformal
I am not sure how the experts describe this one, but for me it is about impacting the air people breath and the spirit they imbibe by being in the learning environment. It is about developing a virus that infects people when they come among you. This is the one that fascinates me the most.

In the early years at Carey...
I overheard a returning student, within weeks of starting as Principal, say to a new student that when it came to the evaluation of those more 'informal' areas - 'just tell staff what they want to hear, get your ticket and get outta here'. Basically 'a fake it until you make it' (to the end). WOW. We can't have that happening! But what do you do about it?! The issue was a lack of transparency. So we instigated an annual chapel series, which lasted for some years, in which staff responded to a probing topic that required them to model transparency. One year it was 'My Most Recent Conversion'. I'd like to think that under God's good hand this gradually helped create a culture where being honest could be seen as a good idea.

Another area was the need to flatten the community. It seemed unnecessarily hierarchial to me. This was not going to work well with Kiwi young adults. A principal's table at lunch. Names on staff car parks in order of importance. A designated toilet for male staff. I could go on... First impressions are huge here. Plus there could be more overlap between faculty and staff and we could start by using phrases like 'full staff', 'teaching staff' and 'administrative staff'. And we could treat students more as adults and draw them into the direction of the college more.

On these matters, one area which received a lot of attention was how we handled vision as a community. It was not to be the domain of leaders alone (which can be one of the biggest powerplays going around). I developed annual listening exercises with the full staff team (at the start of the year) and then with the student community (at the end of the year) and what emerged in those settings became the agenda - and people knew it. I'd like to write this story up as well! I struggle to think of a significant vision at Carey that originated with me. And yes, it did expose me to criticism of being an indecisive non-leader - but I was always happy to take that risk. The upsides were too good. I loved having a vision for facilitating listening exercises and then seeing leadership to be about discerning which of their visions to pursue. No commentary was offered on this - but I hope people imbibed things about power, dignity, teamwork, and community by being among us.

a postscript...
Carey has come such a long way in five years. Very impressive. It was terrific to see progress in three areas where I was so often frustrated behind the scenes. Sometimes I wish that God had let me hang around long enough to taste 'sweet success' on these ones...but it was not to be.
(a) Women teaching in core disciplines. This was always a bit of a holy grail for Carey - right from the beginning. Despite all the rhetoric at the time, we were making a standing start on this one - and it just took more time than we all had hoped.
(b) A vibrant Pacific-Maori presence. This was an area in which I felt a bit unsupported by those around me, but especially by those above me beyond the Board. A training partnership in which so much was invested was just dropped - without any consultation at all. That gutted me. I found it hard to bounce back in what I found to be a lonely world - and, in reality, I didn't bounce back.
(c) Colouring the curriculum with a missional hue. This was actually in place when I started but I felt it needed to be trumped for a season. We needed to win the confidence of the churches to which we belonged. Things had drifted dangerously apart, more than was realised. The college was trying to be a prophet within its churches before establishing its credentials as a servant. And so more fundamental issues needed to be addressed. The time for such colouring would come again - and it has.

nice chatting


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

cheap life

I've been waiting for the right opportunity to write this post for some months. Take a look at the front page of yesterday's newspaper. You may need to expand it a bit.

These are epochal days in the history of India. News of Modi's stunning landslide election victory deserves inches of headlines and multiple columns. If you want a clear, concise and short analysis, check out this story in The Economist (Remind me again - why do people even bother with TIME magazine anymore?!).

But does the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister and his cabinet warrant the level of attention which this newspaper gives it? I guess it does... Stories about the gathering of the rich and powerful, the stars of bollywood and cricket. The stuff of news in every society these days, it seems. Celebritous vacuity. Oh - and the anxiety about getting the seating arrangements just right, given 'the hierarchial nature of Indian society'.

But then cast your eye down to the lower left part of the page.

Earlier on the day of the swearing-in ceremony, there had been a train crash in some remote part of Uttar Pradesh in which 40 people lost their lives. Yes, you read me correctly. Four Zero. 4-0. Forty. That is a lot of people dying in a single accident. Imagine the press coverage that would get elsewhere in the world?! Four years ago we had a mining disaster in New Zealand in which a fewer number of people lost their lives and the story still hits the headlines from time to time. Tragic accidents involving multiple loss of life attract so little attention in the media. I know what callous people far away are thinking, "Oh well, there are so many people and so many accidents..."  Blah, Blah, Blah. Take care, my friends.

Particularly irksome, on this occasion, is the juxtaposition of the stories. Take a closer look:

The Ambanis - 'beaming billionaires', the caption says - almost seem to be mocking the tragedy in the neighbouring column. [NB: In the background is one of their wives who was hugging and cherishing match-winning Kiwi Corey Anderson at the IPL cricket game in Mumbai the night before!]. Then there is more mocking in the same column as the train tragedy is given the same front page space as two stories that probably shouldn't be in the newspaper at all.

This kind of attitude to human life is unacceptable.
Some lives are so cheap. Other lives are so cherished.

In times like this, my instinct is to travel to Athens and to Corinth.

'From one man, (God) made all peoples...' (Acts 17.26). My theologically-uneducated father screwed this truth tight and deep into my heart and mind. Oh yes, he did. And it ain't going nowhere. If God made 'all' from just the 'one', what does that say about the 'all'? Their common origin means they share a fundamental equality - an equality that then extends to being equally cherished as image-bearers of that same creator God.

Jump from Acts and Athens, across Rome and Romans, to Corinth and Corinthians. Look at the way God looks at his people, how he 'arranges' things: 'those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable and the parts we think are less honourable we treat with special honour' (1 Corinthians 12.22-23). Find the weaker and lavish indispensability upon them. Find the less honourable and fill them with special honour. That is how it is meant to work. That unleashes the Spirit among us.

Cheap life is an odious oxymoron.

And this is not just an issue for India. Every nation plays its own melancholic variations on this 'cheap life' theme. Goodness me, one thing which Barby and I see more clearly now, as adults living in India, is that one of the reasons why the gospel carried by those early British Christians had so little influence on the caste system is that it came packaged in a class system.

nice chatting


Saturday, May 17, 2014

two books on preaching

One for novices. One for veterans.

For veterans: Cornelius Plantinga, Reading for Preaching (Eerdmans, 2013). Preaching goes better when you do it in conversation with others - namely 'storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists' (the subtitle). 'The reading preacher will discover that great writers know the road to the human heart and, once at their destination, know how to move our hearts (6).'

Sometimes it feels like we are rummaging around the author's illustration file and because it is his file (not mine), I did lose interest every now and then. But Plantinga is a great writer himself and persistence is rewarded: for example, 'name-dropping is the self-important person's low-budget advertising business (14).'

Readers will appreciate the fresh call to do illustration well; a chapter on clarity/diction, using Barbara Brown Taylor and John Steinbeck (his favourite author, I suspect) as case studies (44-64); a useful 'Selected Reading List' (127-130) ... and his final chapter, 'Wisdom on Sin and Grace' (107-126), is one to which I will return - maybe even some required reading for long-suffering students.

The book concludes with a peculiar appendix: 'Note to Readers who are Preachers or Love Preachers'. In it there is a paragraph that captures the focus and flavour of what Plantinga is doing:
The comfort in having a database full of juicy stuff is that when the day comes to preach on, say, compassion ('Clothe yourselves with compassion...') you already have insights, stories, observations, so that not only you but also your sermons can get clothed with compassion. The idea here is this: you do an honest job of exegesis, and you run your exegeted text through your hermeneutical filters, and you sketch a sermon design. Now, bearing in mind that the Estee Lauder perfume company suggests that wearers spray a mist into the air and then 'walk through it', what you want to do is to spray your juicy stuff on compassion into the air and then walk your exegeted text through it. Maybe something fragrant will cling. (132-133)
For novices. Jason Meyer's Preaching: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2013). For Meyer, 'the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God's word in such a way that people encounter God through his word (21).' These are the three categories with which he plays, with the 'stewardship' one being particularly compelling for me.

After using one of my own cherished images ('unpacking suitcases', at which point my unsanctified heart sank!), Meyer gives his attention to the entire biblical story. Half the book is devoted to a survey of ten 'paradigm shifts in the ministry of the word' through Scripture (73-234) - keeping his finger on the text and looking for calling, 'stewarding, heralding and encountering' along the way. So many who have gone before have fast-forwarded through places like the Psalms, the Wisdom books and the prophets. But not this guy. I think I'll develop a double-sided A4 handout with a summary of these pages on it. Ironically, the weakest 'paradigm' is the one where he tries to draw Jesus into this schema. To me, it didn't really work as he becomes distracted by irony in Mark's narrative. But maybe I am a bit thick...

The final handful of brief, simple chapters are also useful. Meyer looks at the What, How and Why of expository preaching. With echoes of DA Carson's 'preaching as re-revelation', he describes preaching as being about three Rs: '(1) to re-present the word of God in such a way that the preacher (2) represents the God of the word (3) so that people respond to God (240).' There is a chapter engaging with an increasingly common critique of expository preaching - namely that it is not biblical (see 270-279). He provides an entry point into the relative merits of topical preaching (292-297).

The book concludes with 'A Crash Course on Preaching Books Available Today' (319-333) and a comprehensive bibliography. Helpful though this book is, it is no textbook on preaching. The territory it does cover, it covers well - but there is far more territory to consider if we are talking 'textbook'. Darrell Johnson's work is still without parallel for this purpose in my opinion.

nice chatting


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

micah on the run

When Barby and I left NZ last September to go and live in India, our grandson had just begun walking. Now Micah is running. On this visit home, I have loved watching Micah run. High knees. Expansive smile. Flowing hair. Elusive step. Blinding speed. He's got it all.

At the Monte Cecilia Park in Auckland (on my first day back home):

'I do not run like someone running aimlessly' (1 Cor 9.26)

May it be so, Lord Jesus.

At the Wai-o-tapu thermal area outside Rotorua:

'Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God' (2 Jn 1.9) 

May it not be so, Lord Jesus.

In the backyard of a bach at Lake Tarawera:

'Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us' (Heb 12.1)

May it be so, Lord Jesus.

But after awhile, running becomes very tiring for those little legs.
It is important to be caught, to sit down, to rest ... and to soak up the love.

'Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free;
... Imprison me within your arms, and strong shall be my hand (and feet).'

May it be so, Lord Jesus.

nice chatting


PS: My Luvly Lys (Micah's Mum) sent me another photo of the little running man to keep me company in faraway India:

'I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free' (Psalm 119.32)

May it be so, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

two basketball speeches

One is shorter; the other is longer.
One is carefully scripted; the other is more spontaneous.
One is nervous (and wooden); the other is nervous (and teary).
One is without distracting mannerism; the other has a distracting sniffle.
One hints of a riches to rags plotline (not likely!); the other has a rags to riches plotline.
One has an old man and a young girlfriend as core characters; the other has a boy and his mom.
One is carried along by controlled emotion; the other by combustible emotion.
One refers to a person leading with arrogance; the other person leads with humility.
One reveals someone with a lack of gratitude for others; the other someone full of gratitude for others.
One expresses solidarity through confession; the other expresses it through team.
One begins and ends with a person full of himself; the other begins and ends with God.

But both speeches have their own power. 
Words work. Yes, they do.

The first is a speech by the NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. An owner of a team (Donald Sterling) has been caught on tape (to his girlfriend) making shameful comments about how she must not have her photo taken with African-Americans (one taken with Magic Johnson sparked the furore) OR bring African-Americans to games. The irony is that Sterling has made his money off the backs of great African-American basketball players - and so they are allowed on the court doing the working, but not in the stands doing the watching. Go figure!

Silver's speech is bold and decisive.
It is hard not to be impressed (even in this world of obscenely wealthy owners and administrators).

The second is a speech by this year's NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), Kevin Durant. If you are limited in time, watch the opening 4 minutes and the closing 6 minutes. I know full well that expressions of 'faith in God' can be hollow in these circumstances - but this one feels authentic, as he thanks God for 'changing his life ... saving his life'. Half of the speech is focused on thanking his teammates, one-by-one. [NB: Kiwi Steven Adams gets almost a full minute, at around the 11.00min mark]. I also like his words to his coach at about 18.00min - and then those final words to his mother cannot be missed.

Durant's speech is humble and caring.
It is hard not to be impressed (even in this world of obscenely overpaid athletes).

nice chatting


PS - If you want to explore Kevin Durant's faith a bit further, do a search on 'Durant' and 'tatoo' and check-out what he has got written all over his back and much of his front :).

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

arrowtown conversation

The Wakatipu Basin is where God did some of his finest work. To be in that setting last weekend for a wedding doubled the beauty to smorgasbord proportions.

But alongside the beauty on display, there was the conversation...

A winemaker from Waiheke
I choose not to drink alcohol and so my knowledge of wine is limited. This enables me to ask dumb questions. Did you know it can be up to five years before the fruit of the vine starts to flow fully? That is a long time. In some parts of the country winemakers are happy if one year in five is fantastic. It made me think again about preaching - and whether we match the winemaker for patience and perseverance. It is slow work.

Not just slow - but also seasonal. Being in Arrowtown is synonymous with autumn colours. Here is the view outside the lounge window in the home where we were staying. Late autumn. A river running through it. Seasons regulate God's creation - and his new creation too.

An engineer from Nelson
The engineer is an elder in his church. It is summertime in the church. Vibrant ministries. Packed numbers. Failing facilities. Limited resources. 'Why', I asked. His first response?! 'The preaching is transforming people.' WOW. I didn't expect that one. I don't remember all his exact words, but we talked about the faithful, applied, simple, urgent preaching of the Bible to listeners whose hearts are open and whose lives are ready to change. In (his) time the seasons do change when all are faithful to their call.

An intern from Cromwell
It is so easy not to go to church on weekends like this one. But up we got and off we went to the little Presbyterian church. Small (with an optimism inhabiting the many empty chairs). Elderly (with my presence bringing the average age down considerably). But then the Basin has never been overflowing with thriving churches. It is hard work. People are so mobile, so satisfied...

Sunday worship on this day was the responsibility of an intern. Newer to her call. Earlier in her training. I love these people. Her daughter was the sole musician. Her husband took the intercessory prayers. My heart glowed as I listened and engaged. She was so warm. She took the Scriptures so seriously. It was unspectacular stuff, but then I've always been a sucker for what unspectacular stuff can achieve in these settings if people hold their nerve.

If she stays on her current trajectory, she is going to be OK. I sought her out for a word of encouragement afterwards. But the people she really needs to speak with are the winemaker and the engineer.

nice chatting