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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.

lft-intheworld

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.

Rest

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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.

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.

Sexuality: doing it wrong

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Issues of sexuality are notoriously controversial, and shirted around uncomfortably; especially where homosexuality is concerned. This goes beyond a “no sex, we’re British” attitude. Discussions turn into debates and degenerate into arguments far too easily, and cause rifts that have no reason to be there. Some practices, sadly, reinforce these rifts and lead us to a discourse that is far, far from Christian love. So here are a few ways in which we’ve been tackling homosexuality wrongly:

sexuality

1. Use arcane language that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. In Issues on human sexuality, for instance, the CofE used in lieu of “homosexual” or “gay”, the word “homophile”. I understand that they wanted to express that being homosexual involves more than just the hanky panky. But in doing so, they made of Issues in human sexuality a document which appeared to have been created without any personal knowledge of homosexuals, and without any willingness to acquire any. It is a shame, because it means that this otherwise well balanced document reached far fewer people than it might have.

So steer clear of your own neologisms, even when you think you’re simply modelling Paul. Avoid archaic words too – “inverted” is likely to make you look just as out of touch.

2. Create distinctions that you wouldn’t be ready to apply to your own life. Far too often, people state that “being gay is fine, but acting on it is a sin”. In doing so, we are simply refusing to think about the theological aspects of homosexuality, while still trying to appear loving, accepting and liberal – basically sheltering ourselves from the “homophobia” label. But this soundbitey approach (a) appears to fly in the face of Matthew’s Gospel; and (b) fails to consider homosexuals as people. To all who use that sentence as an easy get-away, I say: hypocrites. Would you be willing to hear that “being attracted to the other sex is fine” just to be told within the same breath that you can’t touch this ever?

Now this does not necessarily mean that the theological stance that gay people are called to celibacy is wrong. But if we want to hold on to that viewpoint, we cannot dismiss sexuality as an easy thing to ignore. No, we should at the very least focus positively on celibacy and acknowledge that it is a tough calling, as Paul himself stated.

3. Pretend that it’s easy. This goes hand in hand with the previous point, but is addressed this time to both sides of the debate. It isn’t easy to completely give up one’s sexuality. It isn’t easy to follow a calling to celibacy. It isn’t a matter of simply “turning it off“. Yet equally, liberals shouldn’t pretend it’s easy to re-assess a complete worldview in which same-sex attraction was considered a sin. Try to put yourself in the place of someone who suffers from same-sex attraction (and I’m not using that word lightly): believing it to be a sin, you’ve gone through countless sacrifices to be as holy as you could manage, failing every now and then and feeling guilty for it. And then someone comes along and tells you it’s all fine and that you should just embrace “who you are” and that all your previous efforts were not just pointless, they were also stupid. Now that would hurt. Adjusting to this new worldview would just put you face to face with that pointless suffering.

So don’t just uphold an argument or a position. Uphold relationships.

4. Imagine that only one side of the debate is entitled to pastoral care. Yes, the conservative side of the debate has played the part of the oppressor on the LGBT minority, with some extreme cases: in some countries, homosexuality carries the death penalty. It is very clear who the victims are here. So we may not feel that they are deserving of the pastoral care which the oppressed need. But since when do we, as Christians, give care and support on the basis of who deserves it the most? Since when are we withholding love and care from others?

Now we may not see that conservatives need pastoral care. But these are people who live in a world that is changing far too rapidly around them. They may have built a large chunk of their life, say, on the conception that marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman – only to have someone in authority tell them that, actually, it isn’t. I’m not talking about protesters (whose worldview on this topic is fundamentally unchangeable), but about those who see a large part of their life take on – for them too! – a new meaning. We should guide them and support them in their adjustment to societal change, just as much as we should guide and support gay people in their struggle with a world that doesn’t quite accept them fully. 

5. Hide behind the “all sin’s the same” or “we are all sinners” soundbite. For starters, this is a dangerously misleading theological shortcut. Yet beyond that, it does not reflect the church’s treatment of sin. Sexual sin is somehow more frowned upon – probably because it is easier to think we are not guilty of it, and easier to focus on than it is to focus on our own handling of money. Finally, pretending that all sin’s the same is grossly misunderstanding the nature of sexuality. Sexuality is perceived as part of one’s identity, whether it is accepted or rejected. It’s not the same as, say, being envious of your neighbour’s car, or even wife. Rejecting the latter as sin is easy, because it isn’t tied to who you are – rejecting the former, on the other hand, is hard.

Now don’t get me wrong: just because it’d be hard to reject one’s sexuality, doesn’t mean that it should be left alone. If (and that’s a big if) you see homosexuality as a sin, then it is serious and it should be addressed. But don’t let’s belittle the struggles associated with sexuality and identity by associating them with petty thievery. That’s just plain disrespectful.

6. Stay on the fence, even if only pending deliberations. It is highly laudable for us as a church takes due consideration of issues of sexuality and to not rush to a conclusion. However, in the meantime, there are a lot of people in need of guidance who are left to constantly reconsider how they ought to live out their lives. We are all in a position of authority to someone, and we owe our honesty to them.

And so to me, staying on the fence includes hiding behind the soundbites listed at numbers 2 and 5. Because when you’re using those soundbites, you’re not giving the issue of sexuality any real consideration; and you’ll be caught short when someone tells you “what about me?”.

While sitting on the fence is, then, not an option, it doesn’t mean you should be entrenched into one side of the debate. I would advocate, for instance, to have a preliminary view on the issue but to be open to explore it further if and when the need arises. It doesn’t mean that view should be aired or shouted at the first occasion – you may have noticed that I haven’t shared my own (though I’d be ready to do so, in private). But I have good reason for that: I believe that this post has something to say to both sides of the debate, and I wouldn’t want to be dismissed because I’m a partisan for the opposite cause. Which brings me to the final point:

7. Dismiss all other stances as heretical and/or bigoted. This includes recourse to the phrase “The Bible says so”, which tends more to shut down a conversation than bring it life. It includes the phrase “ah, but you go to that conservative church, of course you’re going to say that.” It includes outraged “You can’t say that! That’s homophobic!”. If we stick to these arguments, we’re helping no one but ourselves, as we are ego-trippingly asserting our own brilliance.

Dialogue is where it’s at. Understanding the other side of the debate. In doing so, we aren’t discarding our own views – and I’m not advocating that we start doubting the truths to which we hold. But if we are to love our brothers in disagreement, we cannot look down on their views as idiotic – merely misguided ;-)

Ultimately, then, what we should do is both easy to summarise and incredibly hard to do. We should remember at every single point that, behind the theology, behind the debate, are people whose lives could be shaped by our views. We should love these people, and extend a hand of friendship, fellowship and swallow our own pride – whether it is in our theology or in our sexuality. But that is a tough call. And so it cannot be met without prayerful consideration. Pray pray pray pray pray. And then pray again. For wisdom and for love and for peace. Not for being right.

A graduation

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Last week, somewhere around 4,000 students graduated from Warwick University. At the same time, I know a few people who are moving on from their current place of work to a different place of work when the new academic year starts. It so happens that I belong to both groups of people. After 4 years in a PhD programme, and 8 years at Warwick university, this period of my life is finally over, marked in pomp and circumstance in a ceremony where I got to wear a silly hat. (James, if you’re reading this, it’s a bonnet, not a beret)

graduation

It could feel like the end of an era. 8 years are, after all, a long time. But that feeling – like a new chapter was about to begin – happened last year, when I plunged into the real world and became a teacher. That’s when I was worried and upset about closing a chapter of my life – because that felt like losing part of my identity. If you’re at this stage, I can only recommend reading these three previous blog posts (given in chronological order):

  • A New Chapter – to state clearly that this is not the end of an era, not the loss of your identity, and that the change in the seasons of life is simply natural.
  • A life lost for a life gained – to nuance the bold statements of the previous post and point out the continuity in the traits of your identity.
  • Transitions – to round it all off and look firmly towards the future, towards the new chapter.

After three posts on the topic, you may wonder why I bother writing yet another one, or what more can be said about changes, but bear with me.

There is a stark difference between this graduation and what I felt – the fear of the unknown, of losing my identity etc. – when I actually moved. Beyond the hindsight that everything turned out for the best, I also realise something I hadn’t at that stage.

I have momentum.

That is to say, I am not stopping everything and starting something wholly different. I have practices, ways of living and ways of dealing with situations that I am inheriting from my degree.  More importantly, I have a direction. I have a fundamental feeling for where I’m going; that was nurtured in my years at Warwick and beyond.

This momentum is not decreasing, on the contrary. Even though I am changing schools come September, I am keeping the same direction. Yes, there may be obstacles that will slow down the implementation of this (getting to know the new staff, etc.) but they are not changing the direction in which I wish to go, nor my determination towards it.

In addition to momentum, I have rooting.

I am keeping in touch with people at Warwick. In doing so, I realise that some of the things that came naturally at Warwick were actually deliberate, if subconscious acts, that I can keep on doing wherever I go. This rooting fuels my momentum.

Sadly, I can’t keep in touch with everyone I have met, and I am missing a fair amount of people, including most of my students. But the memories I have of these people also remind me of both successes and failures, and keep me looking forward (cue song from Oz)

With both momentum and rooting, this graduation ceremony is neither the closing of a book, nor the opening of a new one. It is simply a gateway I went through: with speed that is essential to keep on going afterwards, with footprints left behind and with dust on my feet.

And so to all of you who graduate or are changing jobs or situations: it is also simply a gateway.

The Double Decker of Awesomeness

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Cadbury’s make an amazing range of chocolatey goodness. Among their products, the Double Decker is a particular favourite of mine. Whenever they’re available in a meal deal, I go for them. The only thing is –  they’re not easily available in France (like most of Cadbury’s range).

doubledecker

Photo: Evan-Amos (Wikimedia), reused under CC license

So when I last went to England, I took a couple of Double Deckers back with me. And now I have a lone Double Decker left. And no matter how many times I’ve felt like eating it, I’ve always refrained. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I know that if I eat it now, I won’t have a chance to get another one for quite a long time – maybe not ever. I want to save it for when I really need it.
  2. I don’t deserve it. I haven’t achieved something that means I can have such a good treat. (That’s probably what stops me from eating too many Double Deckers when I’m in England)

These reasons are related, yet different: the former implies that the moment of eating should be special (as in, rare), whereas the latter simply implies that the Double Decker is special (as in, awesomely yummy).

On a small timescale, this behaviour kind of makes sense: rationing what’s in limited supply; avoiding to gorge on something special to the point that it would lose its specialness – but I think you’ll agree that dragging it on for months (as I have done) is perhaps a tad ridiculous.

And that it would be even more ridiculous if I were in England, with a near endless supply of Double Deckers if I just could nip down the shop to buy some.

Yet this is how we tend to treat Jesus’s forgiveness. We try to make amends for our own small failures, thinking we can get back into God’s good books through our own actions. When we do confess our sins, it has to be big enough to be worth it, you see. Otherwise, it’ll all be wasted. When we think like that, we are utterly wrong: we realise our sin, but:

So we try to sort out our problems on our own. Maybe it’s because we think that if we go and ask forgiveness too often, it’ll lose its awesomeness; or it’s because we think we don’t deserve it. The thing is: we don’t. Forgiveness is special, and completely undeserved. But that doesn’t mean the occasions where forgiveness is expressed should be special or rare.

So let’s fall into neither of these traps. Let’s not consider God’s forgiveness in the way I consider Double Deckers – as something that should be saved for when we have extra need of it; but let’s not consider it as a worthless thing that doesn’t merit our attention either.