Lessons from teaching: In the world

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I get on really well with my students. As I was describing my interactions with them to a friend and colleague a few weeks back, he told me I seemed to be “one of the lads”: jokes are exchanged gladly (so long, of course, as they are not distracting from learning for too long!); I try and share their interests, and they return the favour: some have even started to follow Stoke City!

Of course, even when trying to build a very close rapport with my students, I remain at all times their teacher. I am called on to both teach them mathematics and to bring order to the classroom. Depending on the class, balancing a relaxed atmosphere and effective teaching may be a difficult line to walk: if the students don’t have the maturity to understand that having a “nice” teacher does not excuse them from both behaving and doing the required work, things are going to go sour quickly. Either I would have to put my foot down (which is extremely difficult to do after a time of relative laxity), or the class would descend into mayhem, and I would no longer have any authority. Thankfully, this year, I had really great students who could get on both with me and my horrible puns, and with their work.

Building a good rapport is both enjoyable and a worthy end in itself; but it is also extremely important for other reasons. Firstly, it makes the lessons far more enjoyable – for teacher and students alike! Secondly, it supports learning and lets students feel they can come forward and ask questions without feeling out of place.


Photo: Wikimedia user Dmvward, under CC license

As Christians, we have heard on a variety of occasions that we should be “in the world, but not of the world”. Yet it seems like liberals insist on being in the world and are criticised for following its whims; while conservatives insist on being not of the world, on living lives without associating with improper behaviours, etc. Of course, these are wild exaggerations. Not everyone is either a frantic liberal or a stuck-up conservative; most fall somewhere in the middle.

But rather than being “in the world, but not of the world”, we tend to go from one to the other: intensely “in the world” on a Thursday evening and “not of the world” on a Sunday morning; or conversely. Alternatively, we are “in the world” when it comes to stewardship of the world, but “not of the world” when it comes to approaches to sexuality (or, again, conversely). But we rarely comprehend it, let alone live it out. And this is where the analogy from teaching comes in:

  • Not being of the world is, at its core, a matter of identity. Being the teacher in all circumstances, even through the jokes. Being Christian at our innermost, regardless of what we discuss or what we do. That identity appears in all our interactions.
  • That identity stems from authority – an authority we must be confident in. Teachers know that students will exploit the slightest hesitation – and once that happens, we have pretty much lost the classroom, and must hide behind an authority we do not hold.
  • That authority comes from without. Behind every teacher, the school institution and the parents are there to support and when necessary discipline the students. We have to remember that we are not going it alone, that we are in fact sent out to be salt for the world, and that we are equipped and supported in our endeavours.
  • Being in the world does not mean looking down on it from lofty mountain tops. It does not mean simply going to soup cafés (although that is worthy on other accounts!), it does not mean Bible-bashing the downcast. It means investing a true interest in the things they are interested in. It means true empathy with all.
  • Still, being in the world does not imply partaking in all its dubious activities. Engaging with people does not turn us into yes men! Rather, we ought to remain on our guard and make sure we are not using “being in the world” as an excuse for simply doing whatever we want.

“In the world, not of the world” does not mean detachment. It does not mean workplace evangelism – because our faith goes beyond evangelism! It means living out Christian lives, truly caring for those around us and getting to really know them, their lives and their dreams.


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A vocation is something extremely personal – and therefore extremely difficult to discuss. Of all the criteria for selection, it is perhaps the most daunting one, because it leads to the question: where do I start? How do I start even contemplating, let alone explaining, a task of the utmost importance? How could Isaiah volunteer himself so eagerly to be a prophet of the Lord? Such certainty, such fire, such passion!

Not all who feel called are so eager to get to the front of the line. Thankfully(?), we also have, at the other end of the spectrum, the example of Gideon, who carefully checked he was not mistaken. He showed due diligence in examining his own calling.

The issue, however, with putting out a fleece, is that it is difficult to do so honestly. All signs are interpreted. Confirmation bias is a thing. And so there is a fine line between seeking to verify/infirm a sense of calling and searching for excuses not to follow it.

I have tried, over a few older blog entries, to explain the discernment process. Broadly speaking, to me (and it may be different to others), the assurance in my sense of calling stemmed from a deep feeling of peace whenever I considered the ministry. It felt “right”, in a way other potential plans just felt “OK, I guess”.


Obviously, a life choice cannot be based on a fuzzy feeling alone. There is a fair amount of testing and discussing involved, and, as these progress, there is bound to be good times and worse times. I’ve been blessed enough to have had a rather smooth ride of it; the setbacks being merely circumstantial or of little consequence. The flip side of that, of course, is impostor syndrome.

And boy, does it kick hard when left to grow unchecked! Here are a few things about doubt. While they were written with calling in mind, I believe they also apply to other decisions.

1. Doubt is self-feeding. Doubt, like a festering wound, will only grow larger when not confronted. Now obviously, there is usually an initial trigger (an event, a change in circumstances, …) but that trigger does not rationally account for the extent of felt doubt. And so it is pointless to try to get rid of the doubt by simply looking at what is not its root but merely its trigger.

2. Doubt is hard to discuss. Part of the reason for that is that the friends I would discuss it with have (probably) been supporting me in following the calling I now doubt. And now considering moving away from it feels like a betrayal of that support. But the main reason is that I won’t control the narrative of that discussion. If doubt is genuine, then the conversation could go in any direction. And that is a scary thing to get into. But – here’s the thing: (a) it would be foolish to let one conversation seal the decision; and (b) if that’s still too scary, there are strategies to avoid relinquishing that control altogether.

3. Unbridled support may actually feed doubt. If I don’t feel my work is praiseworthy, then supporting me for it will just make me doubt your previous support. Sure, it will feel nice and reassuring on the spot, but definitely not in the longer run.

4. Doubt is not shameful, although that’s how it may feel. Gideon doubted, both of his calling and of his own ability to meet the daunting challenge ahead. And he did feel some inadequacy in his double-checking (see the start of verse 39), but it was not counted against him

5. Doubt is not beaten by reason alone. There is no amount of justification that will make doubt go away. Taking a rational approach such as listing pros and cons may give temporary solace, but it will leave some hesitation: am I simply rationalising this decision? Or is it truly the right decision? Of course, rational thought and careful consideration is necessary to tackle doubt. But it should not be expected to be sufficient: a decision that only sits in the mind yet not in the heart and soul is not a solid decision.

6. Doubt is blindsided. Doubt is generally about weighing up two options and getting bogged down in the consequences of both of them. Over time, these two options become so prominent that any other possibility will be discarded out of hand. Because, having invested so much pondering over these two choices, there must have been a pretty good reason why other options weren’t considered… And yet, that’s just pride talking. Other options may be available, and that’s one of the reasons why discussion with many trusted friends is important.

Ultimately, though, doubt is difficult to deal with. And it’s good to remember that, if you are doubting your life plans, or even smaller decisions, second-guessing yourself, you are not alone. And that talking about it with trusted friends will help.

Mince pies, Doctor Who and the Queen

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What is Christmas to you? A season to be jolly, for sure. A time of rest, generally with at least a couple of days off work. To me, it’s all that; it also means the glorious taste of mince pies, the lush smell of Spice Imperial tea, a generally cheesy Doctor Who special and, obviously, the Queen‘s message. It means feeling warm and comfy, homely. And, yes, it means the birth of Christ, but if I’m honest that’s not the first thing I associate with Christmas.


Photo: Flickr user quattrostagioni, reused under CC License

In Christian circles, around Christmas time, there’s often talk of “bringing Christ back into Christmas“. Of course, the flip side of this religious frenzy is that officials shirk from calling the mid-winter festivities Christmas, opting rather for Winterval or some such nonsense.

The truth is, Christmas, as a feast, is no Christian holiday. Historically, it coincides with the pagan rite of marking the winter solstice. There’s no credit whatsoever to the notion that Jesus was born in December. Picking the 25th December is as valid as picking the 23rd November.

What then – has Christmas no place in the Christian calendar? Of course it does ! It is part of the rich tradition of the Christian church through the ages. It was celebrated in ages where being Christian was the standard. And so Christmas is not about celebrating Christianity in general, nor is it about celebrating Christ. Rather, Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation. It is the celebration of Immanuel, God with us. It is the celebration of a God who made himself human for our sake; it is the celebration of a God who is still human when he intercedes for us.

Of course, the Incarnation would eventually lead to the Cross. It would ultimately lead to the redemption of our sins; and it would be a mistake to consider the Incarnation without taking in what it would lead to. But it is just as grave a mistake to make everything about Easter. Doing that would be tantamount to dismissing all of Christ’s ministry up until the Cross. And so, whilst the death and resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity – it is not central to Christmas itself.

That’s why standard evangelistic talks of redemption are not fitting for Christmas. Standard re-hashings of the basic Christian message are not what Christmas is about. Because, let’s face it, if we are to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, it suggests that one needs a special occasion (such as Christmas or Easter, maybe) to remind ourselves of what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite, actually. Festivals play a part that is akin to the lectionary’s: they take us through the whole wealth of themes and lessons, rather than keeping us stuck on the same old song. Advent is a double-bill of looking at how Christ’s coming was foretold and prepared, whilst simultaneously looking to his second coming. Christmas is rejoicing over an Incarnate, relational God. Lent. Easter. Pentecost. All these have their own focus, and rightly so. Because a Christianity that is solely about the Cross is as stale and dead as a Christianity that does not look at the Cross.

So let’s stop trying to bring Christ back into Christmas. Rather, let’s recognise that the secular aspects of Christmas – mince pies, Doctor Who, the Queen’s message, etc. – are also what makes Christmas what it is. Let’s enjoy these aspects, rather than shunning them as purely secular. And, yes, let’s also remember Christ, but that should happen everyday. No shoehorning is fitting at Christmas, for it alienates more than it welcomes. What’s special about Christmas is the focus on Immanuel. The Incarnation. The human nature of God; rather than what he did or how he preached. And that’s what we should mirror: love, and kindness – in all seasons, but all the more so at Christmas/


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So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:3 (NRSV)

Very early on in the Bible, we are told that God rests from his work. Realising that his creation was good and complete, he took a day off. This is no trivial day off. It later got enshrined into patterns of living, through the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.

This commandment is twofold: firstly, to make the seventh day of the week separate from the other days of the week. The Sabbath is special and dedicated to the Lord; and as such should be different from the rest of the week. This means a cessation of work-related activities. And this is the second part of this commandment to observe the Sabbath: it is a day of rest.


Photo: Oliver Kendal, reused under CC license

In this context, rest is not about recharging your batteries for the week ahead. It is not a question of having some time off with the aim to regain energy. We do that every night when we sleep. Rest, here, is God-oriented rest. In keeping with Genesis 2, it flows from the satisfaction from the work carried out through the week before and from the work carried out by God.

I think that, generally, the importance of dedicating one day of the week (whether it is the Saturday, the Sunday, or any other day) is something that we get. But what we don’t get is what resting is about. We tend to fill our Sundays with dedication to God; with worship and involvement in a variety of church activities. It can feel like the perfect time to get on with our Bible reading, or with our prayers, etc.

Yet I see two issues with that attitude: firstly, it can compartmentalise our God-time to that one day of rest in the week. If we do that, then we are not taking on a Christian identity; or at least not one that pervades through our whole being. Secondly, it is not rest: it is not a cessation of busyness. For some people who are very involved in the church, Sundays are actually their busiest day (and I’m not talking about clergy who take another Sabbath day). If that’s our case, we are not resting: we are simply replacing one flurry of activity with another.

If we do that, how can we expect to be able listen to the still small voice? We make sure our lives are as busy as they can be – possibly to stop ourselves from hearing it. Possibly to stop ourselves from hearing and taking in those words we don’t feel ready to hear, or worthy to receive: You are loved.

Now, I’m not suggesting we stop volunteering in church altogether. But we must be careful that our Sundays (or whichever other day we choose) is a day of rest, rather than a day filled with a different kind of activity (and this should mean that, on a day of rest, we don’t even look at, or think of, any to-do list). This, in turn, implies two things:

a) that we must be selective in how we fill up our time. Let’s not sign up to too many rotas, so that most Sundays are, at least, restful.

b) use daily patterns of worship and study, so that we don’t have to do it all on our day of “rest”.

Then will we know a life that is healthy – not just on the Sabbath, but also for the rest of the week.

Moving up in the ranks

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Let me start this post by repeating a story I was told. There was this guy who wanted to get involved in ministry. He envisioned going to the pulpit and told his pastor he wanted a more active role in church. The pastor handed him a broom and asked him to sweep the floor of the church. There are two teachings from this story:

  • never approach your pastor, or you’ll get landed with a job ;-)
  • no task is too menial. Every one is just as needed and just as worthy an occasion to serve.

But every time I think back on this story and on practices in other churches I’ve been to, something jars: that sweeping the floor is only seen as a stepping stone towards a bigger ministry. That there is a career ladder in church involvement, with the golden prize being, depending on your denomination, Archbishop of Canterbury, pope, or something else. Or, staying at the local level, preaching.


Photo: Flickr user Mykl Roventine, reused under CC license

And then, you get into a rotas hierarchy that goes something like this:

1. Taking care of the tea and coffee at the back

2. Welcoming/Carrying the elements

3. Doing the Epistle reading

4. Being a server

5. Doing the Gospel reading

6. Leading the intercessions

7. Preaching, the Holy Grail of Church Involvement.

7a. Preaching on Low Sunday

7b. Preaching on any other Sunday

7c. Preaching at a special event (e.g., baptism; carol service)

7d. Preaching at Easter.

8. Presiding/Celebrating the Eucharist (at the same events)


Of course, along the way, there are a variety of other ways to get involved, e.g. Sunday school/small group leadership/being a warden/being on PCC/keeping the church clean/etc.

Thankfully, this hierarchy is usually about as far removed from the truth as coffee is from goodness. Church leaders are notorious chair-stackers, even when the building uses pews. The odd jobs that need doing are done. Until there’s a rota, that is.

As soon as a rota springs into existence (that is, for visible jobs), the little jobs turn into opportunities for leadership that the experienced leader shouldn’t hog. After all, doing the readings requires little experience (well, erm, more on that in another post…); so it’s something others can happily do. So that’s how we come to the list given above. Yes, there are practical reasons behind it too, but let’s pause and consider what it looks like from the outside.

It looks like there’s an ever smaller team of people getting involved in the higher jobs, and that the more they get involved in those, the less they have to be in the lower jobs. That’s why when I went from step 3 to step 6, and then to step 7, I was told “oooh, you’re going up in the ranks”. That’s also why I found it daunting and quite flattering to go from preaching on Low Sunday to preaching on Trinity Sunday.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. I’ve said it before: any position is a leadership position. I consider the readings as far more important to the service than the preaching. I consider the tea at the end to be very important too, mind! And here lies the danger: that by considering some jobs to be more important/higher up than others, not only might people become prideful, but also, the actual parts of the service might be ranked by the congregation.

Readings – the Bible – might end up as less of a centrepiece than the sermon. Being a server might end up being a chore and an unnecessary embellishment, rather than a leadership role. And so on.

So we need to do everything we can to avoid this situation, and to visibly counter it. The way this goes depends hugely on the church’s organisation, but here are two suggestions:

  • remove visible elements that would lead to this perception of a hierarchy. For instance, let the preacher sit with the congregation rather than on a special chair; or get all the liturgical participants onto special chairs. (This will get tricky when you want to set apart specific parts of the service, with good reason – e.g. Gospel procession…)
  • make sure the people involved are so at all feasible levels. That means that the incumbent should deal with the tea and coffee every once in a while, do the reading, etc. etc.

Then will we have a less hierarchical vision of the bride of Christ, and leave space for its rightful head (no, not the Queen).