God – in the Details
Lighting a room with a candle is a remarkably beautiful illustration of Advent. A candle illuminates some small part of the room but mostly it casts shadows and seems to shine brightly only when you come close. In our preparation for Christmas, Advent allows us to experience a heighted time of expectation, hope, light and potential. Advent creates the opportunity for the ‘glorious impossible’. It prepares us to welcome the King of the world as a small baby in a manger. It is a time of our year when our days grow shorter and our reliance on light grows stronger. Advent also gives us pause to reflect and think about our own lives and the things that we do and the choices that we make.
What is unfortunate in our world today is that Advent has become a time when people rush around, filling their lives with to-do lists and their shopping carts with stuff. The rushing depletes our energy and keeps us from reflecting on what is most important. Even in our Christian schools or communities, we fall into habits of rushing….there is so much to do before the holidays. We have choir concerts, drama productions, sports tournaments, gifts to buy, food to prepare and parties to attend. We rarely get a chance to slow down enough to reflect on the paradoxical gift of a helpless baby and the potential power of his light and birth. God worked in the unseen places of the culture of that time. The world was waiting for a savior but not the kind of Savior that He gave us.
I wonder if God continues to work that same way in our lives too. We want to do important work, meaningful work and we want to be recognized as capable professionals. We rush around. We have so much ‘to-do’ and not enough time ‘to-reflect’. I sometimes wonder if the most important work that we do is in the small, seemingly insignificant things, the unseen things. Maybe God is most present in the small details of our life and our work. Could we imagine Him present when we tie the shoes of our students or help them with their coats, mitts and hats? Can we imagine Him present when we talk with the student who has been having difficulty handing in their work? Can we imagine Him in our empty classroom at the end of a busy day? Perhaps, He is most present when things don’t go according to plan or in the messy unseen exchanges of the day. Maybe our work as educators is create space for God….in our lives….in our student’s lives.
I pray that as you do the good work of teaching and learning and attending to your students that you slow down enough to experience God in the details of your busy lives. Savour the moments, the time, and the gift of each day. Cultivate an attitude of joy and gratitude in your work in these last hectic days of school. Light a candle in the dark and praise our God for leading us to His Kingdom through Bethlehem.
May you each experience God’s peace and shalom as you celebrate the gift of His Son.
Heaven is Not my Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation
Paul Marshall’s book by the same name and “Work, Play, Love” by Mark Shaw are the two books that have inspired this column.
One of the reasons that I am so excited about schools moving into the direction of projects, expeditions or connecting learning to ‘real work that serves a real need for a real audience’ is the match between that kind of learning and the hope that we have for this good earth. Some Christians seem to believe that our hope is actually beyond this earth….a place we call heaven, a place somewhere other than the world. This belief seems to suggest that we have been created for something other than the earth. In reading Scripture however, it talks about a new heaven AND a new earth when our Lord returns. Our work on this good earth is to be agents of God’s Kingdom just as the Lord’s Prayer states….”your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are called to cherish God, his good creation, our neighbours and ourselves.
If our focus is on an escape from this life….this earthy existence…then we really wouldn’t be overly concerned with justice or mercy or hoping to bring shalom. We would be concerned about our own purity/sanctification rather than on the collective work of being agents of God’s purpose through institutions/organizations and movements. However, if we have been called to act as God’s agents, we are all (children and adults) called to DO something. This doing must be something that is done with humility and with hope. This doing would not be done in a triumphal way or with ego. Our call as educators would be to live as creative agents of formational learning experiences or creative constructors of projects/expeditions/learning with our students; and these ways would challenge us to re-think and re-imagine the “what” and the “how” of education.
Our work in the classroom matters and so must our students’ work. Can we imagine work as play and play as work? Can we imagine loving this good earth and our neighbours (no matter where we find them) as the most important embodiment of our love of God and Jesus Christ? Can our learning in schools be faith-formational by connecting what we learn to how we serve? Can the hard work (the 10,000 hours of apprenticeship in whatever area of life) of our students be imagined in ways where students take leadership (of their own learning)? These are the questions that continue to intrigue and move me forward in my own thinking about Christian education. I invite you to revisit Paul Marshall’s book and pick up Mark Shaw’s and perhaps put them on your Christmas book wish list!
The Right Drivers
It is always interesting to me that people with opposing opinions tend to frame their conversations in black and white; that is, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” This posture always ends in a “win-lose” situation. This is sometimes referred to as a power struggle. We have all encountered them in our relationships, whether between spouses, parent and child, teacher and student, employer and employee, or any other host of relationships.
I wonder if we might take a step back. Rather than discussing whether something is right or wrong, could we ask ourselves, “What do we LEAD with?”
Lately, I have been thinking about learning, change and school reform, and I’ve re-read Michael Fullan’s article on that topic, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform,” written for Australia’s Centre for Strategic Education. He talks about a number of opposing drivers (aka policies, strategies or levers) that need to be attended to in order to lead flourishing and change in schools. The first drivers he compares are leading change through accountability versus capacity-building. He posits that leading with accountability focuses on management, test scores and structure, whereas capacity-building opens up possibilities for growth and learning. His conclusion is that change requires investing in people: building their capacity and giving them voice, choice and healthy relationships. This makes good sense whether we are talking about the home, the school, the workplace or other institutions.
Fullan suggests that accountability may have a place in school reform, but it can’t be entirely successful on its own. In other words, high expectations are necessary, but we don’t LEAD with them. Giving people the room to grow, learn, try new things, fail (and hopefully succeed) builds capacity (and resilience, grit and determination). Capacity-building focuses on people and their strengths and gifts, whereas accountability focuses on what they didn’t do. I would suggest, as Fullan does, that seeing people as cups that are half-full or not there yet (think Carol Dweck) is a positive, healthy way of encouraging people to grow. In contrast, leading with expectations of where people need to be, or showing people how deficient they are, generally invokes discouragement, shame and disillusionment (“I can NEVER reach these expectations”). The expectations in and of themselves are not wrong (in fact, they are necessary), but LEADING with them is upside down.
When I think about the Biblical narrative, I see Jesus leading with love, encouragement and—to use a 21st century word—capacity-building. The Law is still there, but through Jesus it is reframed, no longer a yoke or a heavy burden. Jesus invites us into the “party” and the celebration of life. He encourages us to risk, and through the Holy Spirit he “makes all things new.”