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identity

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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.

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.

God the Father

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A few weeks back, it was Trinity Sunday, also known as the occasion for heretical analogies. It is extremely difficult to grasp, intellectually, how one God can be three persons, and all the analogies that I know are flawed in some respect. This hilarious video points some of them out. Before going any further into the topic of the Trinity, I should point out that, in matters such as this (the mysteries of faith), we shouldn’t ever expect to fully understand; however, this does not mean we should not keep contemplating it. Indeed, as we do, we get closer and closer to God, in our understanding and in our lives. But as we do, we should not try to explain the Trinity, as though it were something we can grasp fully; rather, we should try to describe it.

trinity

Painting in the public domain (full image on Wikimedia)

There are three persons (three “hypostases”): the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A lot of our worship focuses on the Son (with the help of the Holy Spirit), and it is Christ we’re following. And so we focus more on the Son, and end up neglecting the other persons of the Trinity. While we tend to be aware that we don’t know that well how to picture the Holy Spirit, the same does not necessarily hold for God the Father. Yet, who is He?

There are three things to know about God the Father:

1. He is indescribable. Saying it right off the bat actually relieves the pressure, as we know we can’t reach the perfect description. He is greater than all of creation, and even if we had measured the mountains and the seas, we could not describe Him.

2. He cares for us, even though we are nothing before Him. This, in turn, implies two things: as our actions are naught too before Him, that this caring love is not dependent on what we do. Secondly, that His promise is greater than anything we could achieve ourselves. He will make us soar on wings like eagles.

3. We are called to be His children and to behave as such. This call to action is not one of obligation, but a mere expression of our identity as loved children of God the Father.

You can listen to the sermon, which (like the above summarising points) is based on Isaiah 40 and Matthew 28, by using the player below, or you can download the audio or read the sermon notes.

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A commitment to discipleship

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Discipleship – being a follower – is central to Christian life. Though the shape that discipleship takes varies, there are some key elements we are all called to: becoming ever more Christ-like. When big decisions come our way, it is right to tackle them as a follower – through prayer and with discernment. This is especially true of discerning our life calling – whether within the ministry or not.

committed

Photo: Miguel Vaca, re-used under CC License

The way I described my response to calling, based on 1 Samuel 3, was this: firstly, hear the call; secondly, discern what the calling is (as Samuel went to Eli), and thirdly, take on the new identity brought on by this call (as Samuel took on the identity of God’s servant). These steps are sometimes muddled up, and the first two occasionally implicit. But a response to a call virtually always includes a commitment.

And here’s where a mistake can be made: to think that it is on that commitment that hinges our call. Or – possibly worse! – that this commitment takes precedence over the calling that it is a response to. This is true both of particular callings to specific action, and to the more universal calling to follow Christ; and it is true both of how we see our own calling and of how we see the calling of others.

When I make the mistake of considering my commitment to my calling first, here’s what happens too:

  • I consider my resolve as more important than the one from whom my calling came.
  • When my commitment wavers – as it is bound to, from time to time – I have to question my entire sense of calling, and go through the whole discernment process again.
  • I don’t know where to draw strength from: my commitment is my own, my responsibility and, in short, my business.
  • My actions become goal-oriented, rather than identity-oriented. In short, I am doing this and that in order to reach whatever goal I have committed myself to (e.g., ordination, or getting a specific job, or helping a specific group of people). I have stopped doing this and that because that’s what I should be doing. And that’s a dangerous thing to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong – commitment is necessary. But not at the expense of knowing that it is just a response: a response to the God who equips those whom he calls.

So consider your own calling as a Christian – or your story of how you became a Christian. Does it revolve around the moment you decided to follow, or does it revolve around the ways God called you, and your redeemed identity?

And if you agree that God’s call is far more important than a commitment, then why do we continue to describe evangelistic success primarily as “people giving their lives to Jesus”?

Transitions

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For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a student. High school, then undergraduate, and so on and so forth until the PhD. There hasn’t been much of a respite, either: rather than a clean cut-off between my Masters and my PhD; or between my PhD and the start of my teaching life, there was an overlap where I was juggling both at once.

And now it is over. I passed the final piece of examination last Thursday – and now, beyond the graduation ceremony and (probably) some paperwork, it is finished. And I find it oddly weird – to not consider myself as a student any longer.

transitions

I won’t say I miss it. The whole research process is not one I have found particularly enjoyable. By the fourth year of the PhD, I couldn’t wait for it all to be over. But at the same time, it was familiar: not necessarily comfortable, but at least safe and predictable. And so, the closer I got to the Viva (examination) date, the less I was looking forward to it – not out of fear of failing, I knew my stuff; but because I knew about being a PhD student.

Procrastination, not of the task, but of the reward that marks the end of the task. We all do that sometimes: finishing up an essay when you’ve done all the reading, getting a house when you’ve already worked to be able to afford it, etc.

Israel in exile reacted in much the same way – they delayed getting their inheritance. Never mind that they had traveled in the wilderness for many years, and toiled hard towards that inheritance. Never mind that this was a land of plenty, ripe for the taking. No, Israel was procrastinating not the task – that was done – but the reward itself.

I never fully got why. But here’s what I now think: wandering tribes in exile, that’s an identity. That gives us something to moan about (maybe the Hebrews were somewhat British) And it’s one we’re used to. This new freedom and land-ownership, that’s good, yes, but we’re not used to that. So, yeah, we want it, but we’ll only get around to it a bit later.

Silly, eh?

Shift forward to the New Covenant. We know our identities as sinners. We sometimes hide from it, we sure don’t like it. But we’re not always ready to go and claim our inheritance – that of repentance and redemption. We’re slow, not necessarily because we don’t realise that we can claim it, but because we’re not told enough to stop delaying it.

So stop delaying it. And claim what is yours: new life.