At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, April 29, 2013

An Open Letter to the World of Christian Education

This post is one that has been brewing within me for sixteen years.

If that doesn't intrigue some and frighten others, I don't know what else will.

I am not writing this to pose an either-or situation and force people into a false choice. I am not here to utilize inflammatory rhetoric. I am not here as an expert in such matters. I am simply one voice among many with a burden on my heart. Maybe I'm a lone voice on the frozen tundra of the universe; maybe I'm the C.M. Punk of this discussion and I happen to be the voice of the voiceless. The second possibility is unlikely, but here we go nonetheless.

I have spent fourteen years in Christian education, ever since the day Mickey Bowdon said "Son, you're my man for this position." I realize that Christian education a very nebulous term. It might conjure up all sorts of images, from white-flight evangelical-ish academies in the Deep South to parochial Catholic schools to Lutheran schools (from which my younger brothers were privileged to have graduated) even to religiously-based boarding schools like Welton Academy in Dead Poets Society or St. Matthew's in School Ties. To define our terms--and because it's my blog and I control this "open letter"--I'm sheep-penning the definition as follows: Christian education is accomplished in a school environment where students are spurred to academic excellence under the sovereignty of God and are encouraged to connect, love, and apply the intersection of subject matter to the journey of faith.

An additional caveat: I don't like the practice of exclusion (as readers will discover further on) but due to the pedagogical waters in which I have been swimming--some would say dog paddling--over my career, I am limiting my "open letter" to a particular vein of Christian education. My remarks are largely addressed to secondary (grades 7-12) or unified (K-12) schools within the evangelical and broadly Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, so if my Catholic and Lutheran educator friends feel left out, I apologize.

So are we all clear on the addressees? Good. Read on if you desire.

In a world of curriculum, of advancing and improving our existing programs, of constructing new initiatives (not always advisable), and of carpet-bombing ineffective programs, one might think this open letter is about what we teach and how we teach. Well, that might come up later, but it's not my primary focus. I am not here to discuss scope and sequence, the nature of tests, quizzes, and projects (Oh for the love of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes...let's STOP calling them "assessments"). This is not about the "what" we teach, the "how" we teach, or the "where" we teach. It will touch on why we teach, but my issue is the community of learners.

We need to think about who we teach.

Specifically, the admissions policy question...which I think is the eight-hundred pound moose on anabolic steroids sitting in the middle of the room.

There are two primary schools of thought on admissions policy in the Christian school world. One is the covenantal model. In a nutshell, this philosophy means that admission is granted to a student whose parents/guardians (or perhaps at least one of them) make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ and regularly attend church. The students may primarily come from the specific faith tradition upheld by the school (e.g., majority of Baptists in a Baptist school) or the student body might be more diverse, but the main thing is that the parent/parents must be Christians, and this discovery is part of the admission process. The school where I presently serve holds to a covenantal model of admissions, and it works for them (meaning there is no shortage of parents making professions of faith that affects enrollment).

The second stream of thought is the open enrollment model. Here, the school in question may be located in evangelical soil or it may not be. Regardless, the policy here is that (a) students do not necessarily have to make a profession of Christian faith and (b) the parents/guardians do not have to make a credible profession of Christian faith, yet (c) clearly outlined in the admissions process is the reality that this institution is a Christian school, with a particular model and expectation for the instruction of the student. This is the "you need to understand what you're signing up for" moment, in which parents recognize and affirm worldview and behavioral parameters therein. The student body in this model tends to be a highly diverse melting pot of all faiths or none. Different strata will include (1) young, serious and growing believers, (2) immature members of the barely faithful, (3) skeptics yet genuine seekers of meaningful belief, (4) cynics and scoffers, and (5) outright agnostics and atheists. There may be others but those layers will suffice for now. And also, this does not mean Christian schools are obligated to take everyone who applies. As private schools, they have the right and the duty to be choosy and selective, basing their process on a variety of factors, not the least of which is academic potential and chance for future success and enrichment.

Now to answer your next question: The first three Christian schools where I worked? All open enrollment.

So what's my point?

First, I am not here to tell covenantal admission policy schools to change their minds or their approach to whom they select. This is especially the case for Christian elementary schools that are part of a local church's ministry. A covenantal policy could well be the most effective at this level. I would also say that a number of other schools find the covenantal model workable and best. Whether they are more comprehensive schools or ones based on the classical and blended (traditional-homeschool) model, this can be the most effective policy.

Secondly, both policies can yield highly diverse, academically precocious student bodies. All of my academic employers oversaw school populations that were ethnically wide-ranging. At least two of them had a wide swing in socio-economic levels represented. All of them have been centers where scholarship is valued, where struggling students are assisted in their quest to learn, and where achievement is celebrated. Two of these schools I consider to be outstanding models of faculty professionalism and diversity.

But my third point--and the one I've been driving at--is this: I would strongly make the case that an open enrollment policy does in fact result in a Christian educational environment which reflects the community God desires, that properly responds to the Great Commission of Christ, and that can create more effective teaching and witness.

The community God desires: It is my firm belief that God wants us to be engagers of the world around us and not engagers-in-waiting. Yes, Christian schools can exist for children of Christian parents and train the kids well, and upon graduation the students are prepared to take their scholarship, wisdom, and devotion to a waiting world. But what if that world didn't have to wait? What if among us there would be atheists, skeptics, and other not-yet-believers who were part of our community? How cool would that be? What if Christian schools became intuitively seeker-understanding (note: this is different from seeker-driven)? What if we sent the message to all who desired an excellent education with moral foundations that our credo was Even if you don't believe what we do yet, if ever, may you still come among us and be part of our community. Belonging can precede believing, and in this place, it will.

I get goosebumps at the idea of such a school family.

Responding to the Great Commission of Christ: In Matthew 28, Jesus says, "Go and make disciples of all nations." What if part of our 'going' was in fact welcoming people of all faiths or none as students and school community members? Atheists? Welcomed. Buddhists? Welcomed. Hindus? Welcomed. Jews? Welcomed. Postmodern fans of Jacques Derrida (look him up)? Welcomed. Christian students would in a sense have on-the-job training in how to respond to objections to faith because conversations would take place at lunch, in the locker room before soccer practice, in the hallways after chapel, and wherever else such talks might crop up.

I smile broadly at the idea of such a school family.

More effective teaching and witness: At Christian schools in Louisiana, Virginia, and Florida, there was one common thread in my teaching assignments. I taught eleventh-grade Bible, which had to do with apologetics, or the study of understanding the Christian faith and being able to make a credible case for it while responding to questions and objections of others with grace and respect (see I Peter 3:15). In all three schools, I had non-Christian students in my classrooms. In fact, in Virginia and Florida, I would say the majority of my students were not only non-Christian, they were unchurched. Now THAT makes for an interesting dynamic! Instead of teaching the Christian faith to those "on the inside", I had to think about teaching about faith to unbelievers. Instead of a lecture, it was more of a conversation where--to be honest and credible with my students--I welcomed questions and honest interrogation. What I found was this made me a better teacher. It made me a better communicator of spiritual truths because I had to package things in an understandable manner for people with no clue of religious jargon or "Christianese" language. I had to put the Gospel cookies on the bottom shelf. It opened up avenues with students for friendships and spiritual conversations that continue to this day. Many of my prized students were and continue to be atheists and skeptics. But we respect and value one another, and I continue to trust that God is at work behind the scenes in ways I can't imagine. But the point is this: Open enrollment made me a more understanding, conversationally-conscious, compassionate and spiritually sensitive teacher and communicator than I would have been otherwise. Yes, it was difficult and I didn't do it perfectly. It's a messy process. It's hard. But (to quote Tom Hanks' character in A League of Their Own) "it's supposed to be hard. The 'hard' is what makes it great." The view on the other side is incredible. If we as teachers are running from this opportunity rather than running to it, then my question is "Why?" The opportunities are downright endless and spiritually recharging!

I weep with joy at the idea of such a school family.

Again, I don't want this letter to be read as me being "anti-covenantal admissions". That would be like saying because I'm pro-American, therefore I'm anti-Canadian, or because I'm a Cubs fan I thus hate the Cardinals. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm not telling administrations to do this; I graciously submit to my present employer's admissions policy, which works well. I'm merely tossing a new ball into the conversation and saying this is a game that could be worth playing.

What I am saying is that Jesus gave us a grand opportunity that extends until his return to this planet for its renewal and cleansing. And opening the doors of Christian schools to members of all faiths or none could just be one of the exciting roller coaster rides he has granted us in fulfilling his vision and for bringing in his dream for this world.

Think about it. Pray about it. And dream about it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reading Reviews: A Tale of Two Governments

"Government" is getting to be a volatile word in many quarters. The recent conundrums in America, with showdowns on issues like gun control, immigration reform, terrorism, and economic policy have drawn fairly severe lines on the field, polarizing the discussion. Should government be more expansive? Should it be more limited? Strong? Weak? The queries go on.

What gets overlooked--especially on the Christian side of things--is the role of church government. Though it doesn't get the press like the machinations in Washington, D.C., the Christian church is an institution with outworkings of various functions. One part of the church's work is church discipline--indeed, the churches of the Protestant Reformation included this alongside the preaching of Scripture and the administration of the sacraments as the marks of the true church. So as not to obfuscate anything, the working definition for many of church discipline tends to be as follows: The leaders of a local church responding in Scriptural-based action to a grievous sin from which an individual (or group) refuses to repent and change attitude or behavior.

Got that? I know. It's not the kind of thing many churches have in their public relations brochures.

It is the issue of church government and church discipline that Robert J. Renaud and Lael D. Weinberger bring to the forefront in their book A Tale of Two Governments: Church Discipline, the Courts, and the Separation of Church and State (Dunrobin Publishing, 2012). The book tackles a number of matters: the history of the relationship between church and state, church autonomy and its limits, and the practical matters to protect the church to its free exercise.

The book has its genesis in a 2007 case of Westbrook v. Penley, in which a Texas pastor was used for violating his professional duties as a counselor. A female parishioner, who was having an affair, had no intention of reconciling her marriage. Pointing out that doing so was a sin against God and Scripture, the pastor Buddy Westbrook carefully went through the steps of discipline outlined in Matthew 18. The parishioner, upset over this turn of events, sued the church.

So the question for Renaud and Weinberger became: Can the state intervene in a matter of church discipline? What is the nature of the separation of church and state? How may churches practice discipline?

I will not attempt to summarize the book to answer those questions; I do want you to read it, after all. A brief overview of the book's strengths with other suggestions should suffice.

The authors, being students of history, do a commendable job of presenting the scope of this matter. After a chapter on the biblical theology of church-state relations, they give the grand sweep of attitudes of church and state from the days of St. Augustine, through the days of Luther and Calvin, on through the work of John Knox and the Scottish Reformation, to church-state relations in America. They shift to legal implications of church and state today, followed by practical understanding on church discipline itself and steps for the church to protect itself legally.

The authors do a fantastic job of leading the reader through history in a way that undoes a lot of myths about the Christian view of church-state relations. Especially strong are the sections laying out the beliefs and actions of Martin Luther and John Knox. The authors make a strong case for the notion of church and state being separate spheres of true authority (p. 14) over the lives of others.

Their proposal that each sphere provides a check on the other, so that neither becomes a power monster, is rather intriguing. Many can see how that is needed as a stiff-arm against the federal government, but the church (especially in the Middle Ages) has its own history of getting too big for its leadership britches.

One only has to take a glance at the bibliography to realize how well-researched A Tale of Two Governments is. The authors really did their homework and research. An additional aid for the reader comes in the form of review questions at the end of each chapter that reinforce the main ideas and encourage deeper reflection.

A Tale of Two Governments is extremely helpful for several strata of readers. Pastors, seminarians, and law students will reap great benefit from its pages. Although it is a scholarly work, it is written with a minimum of legal jargon, so even the garden-variety curious soul will find it an engaging and helpful read.

Renaud and Weinberger deserve much praise for resurrecting the issue of church discipline when this issue is at its nadir in the evangelical community. America--aside from becoming a more secular nation--is marked by a decline in the understanding of spiritual purity and personal holiness. Add to this the reality that people are highly consumeristic in their church selection ("Oh, I don't like the way this church does this...I'll just go across town to First Community Church."), then it's no wonder many people disdain the notion of the church and Scripture having authority over the way life is lived. Whether people take their words to heart or not, Renaud and Weinberger are at least offering a helpful dose of correction. The health of the church is at stake.

Two areas of suggestion for mild improvement: Although the historical overview of church-state understanding is extremely helpful, perhaps an even greater weight given to how it played out in American history would be more helpful. Also, one should not forget that it is easy to think of church discipline as a reactive exercise. It is true that is the case when dealing with abject, deep, unrepentant sin in the church. But understand this is not the entirety of church discipline. I would say ninety-nine percent of church discipline is proactive. My father once pastored a church in Maryland, and an elder at that church once remarked that whenever parishioners hear the preaching of Scripture, they are under discipline, because they are being encouraged to bring their lives under God's teaching, expectations, and grace.

Overall, A Tale of Two Governments is a volume worthy of one's time and effort. We should never stop learning from history. Christians should have a passion for having their lives shaped by God's will. A Tale of Two Governments empowers readers to walk both of those paths with vigor and clarity.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Grace in Transition

Vocationally, I have had a number of twists and turns. Within the last eight years, I have been told on separate occasions--in separate locations--that (a) my rear end was getting fired immediately, (b) my contract for the next school year unfortunately could not be renewed due to financial considerations, and (c) my position in my organization would be downgraded. Thus, I know what it's like to have a less-than-ideal moment thrown in your face. Some situations are completely unjustified; others you understand are out of everyone's control; still others make a decision in the shadows and give you and others the political answers. It happens every day around the planet.

Those of you who are getting antsy, relax. I received a contract at my school and signed it.

The ennui that drips from this page comes from the news I received yesterday: A good friend of mine has been told by his employer they will be letting him go. I do not know the reasons behind this decision, so I won't attempt to speak to the particulars. I will be chatting with my friend this weekend in order to reach out to him, and maybe I'll know more then. It is especially tough because he was a colleague of mine in this institution for four years. I love this institution as he does, too. It is hard to speak of anything I don't like about this workplace. He himself has served this organization for a decade and a half. Faithfully. And yet, he finds himself without gainful employment there next year.

It is difficult for me to write this because of my deep friendship for this man. He is twenty years my senior, which means at his age there may be some issues finding a steady paycheck. He is an absolutely brilliant man. He taught World History and AP European History for many years, has dabbled in college professorships in the past, and gained a Ph. D, from the University of Virginia--hence, he is no intellectual slouch. In addition--and this will be a staggering statement to those who know me--he has forgotten more sports trivia than I have ever known. I mean, specifics like the pitch count when Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" or the score of the last time Brown beat Princeton in Jadwin Gymnasium. He got our family and some friends from Atlanta into Ash Lawn-Highland for a gratis tour of James Monroe's home, where he served as a guide. He was forever sipping from a bottle of diet Coke, always engaging in conversation, and could graciously hold court on any topic. A true Renaissance man. A confirmed bachelor, transplanted New Jersey prep school product who spent his entire higher education life below the Mason-Dixon Line and seamlessly transitioned into a true Southern gentleman.

In truth, that's what comes to mind with my friend Roger: his graciousness. It draws you to him like a magnet. I remember stopping by his apartment the night before we moved out of the state to the next phase of our lives, simply because I wanted to tell him how much his friendship meant to me.

He would tell you that his colleagues and students mean the world to him. Whenever I've talked to or emailed him, he updates me on former students and teachers who intersected with us. It's clear that he misses us being around. In fact, in the spring of 2004, after a faculty devotional time, it was announced that I'd be leaving for another position at the end of the school year. In one of the greatest moments that still causes people to laugh, Roger forgot where he was and muttered, "Aw, s---!" loudly enough for the entire back row to hear. More dour folk would excoriate him for dropping a curse word; I counted it as a moving tribute from a dear friend.

It hits me that in this world where people can be pretty outspoken about what they believe, that my friend Roger has been the most private person in terms of talking about his faith. But when it comes to exhibiting godly virtues of patience, kindness, and generosity, he blows almost every other Christian out of the water. Many talk about faith; he lives his faith. I think it significant that--according to other friends in our circle--he has taken this new chapter in stride and bears no ill will. There's something within the heart of my friend that beats forth an abiding trust that God will provide no matter what the trial. That's a lesson that I am very slow to learn, and I am eternally grateful that he has re-taught me this bedrock truth even when it's a difficult time for him.

I believe that God will provide for Roger. And I am thankful for the godliness and grace that Roger has exhibited during this time. My friend, there is truly no one like you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unspeakable Past, Untouched Future

If you paid attention to my earlier post on Boston, you may have gotten the idea I'm taking a backseat on the nailbiter of a week past from the Marathon onward. Suffice it to say the Boston police did a great job in nabbing the remaining suspect, and we join in their relief, as well as continued sadness for the families of all victims.

But I am going to allow the pundits and others take the lead on talking about Boston, because I have been thinking about a different side of violence. It's not the devastation wrought by terrorism, but that doesn't make it any less damaging, for the body or for the soul.

If you want to get off the blog now and skip today's post, I'll understand, because I'm talking about child sexual abuse and you may not like the tone. But April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and a pointed chat on this topic is long overdue.

I'm not talking about this as a survivor. No one sexually abused me during my childhood. For reasons of God's mercy, I have two great, loving parents who understood their covenant responsibilities. None of my relatives did, either. No one in my neighborhood or among my coaches or teachers attacked me, molested me, or tried anything else. And I'm pretty sure I'm not repressing anything; I have a darn good memory that borders on the photographic.

But sadly, others cannot count that blessing amongst their childhood laurels. The best statistics through adult retrospective studies bear out that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. Children fall victim to the predators that lurk amongst them. The overwhelming majority of these sex abusers are not faceless individuals; they are people the children know and trust and with whom they have (on the surface) good relationships. They are relatives, neighbors, teachers, coaches, mentors, and church leaders like priests and deacons.

I've read a good bit of material on sexual abuse and the survivors thereof. Dan Allender's The Wounded Heart is one of the best books on the topic. The Finnish cello metal band Apocalyptica brought clergy sexual abuse into the open with their song "I'm Not Jesus" (music video above). I know a number of people who have shared their stories of abuse with me. Some have developed issues of sexual identity confusion; others have sought sexual intimacy through other means that may be less than appropriate; a number of them developed suicidal thoughts; nearly all battled with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness; in all of the ones I know, there can be a simmering anger that roils below the skin, erupting in the question, "Why me?", followed closely by the other question, "Where was God?"

And buttressing both of those queries is the ongoing angst: "Whom can I ever trust?"

That, along with sexual confusion and dysfunction, is the legacy of childhood sexual abuse: the erosion of trust in human relationships. While I believe it is unhealthy to put up a wall against others for the rest of one's life, I completely understand the sentiment. Why put yourself through the horror again when it's happened before?

This matter came front and center for me a couple of months ago. A number of years ago, I served as a pastor/church revitalizer for a small Presbyterian church in central North Carolina. Per our denominational guidelines, my ministry was overseen by the regional "church planting committee" (CPC). For our entire two years there, the director of said committee made my life a living hell. Long story short, he directed a hostile takeover that left my time there in tatters. He lied on the floor of a presbytery (the regional group of our churches) meeting, claiming the CPC had no funds to underwrite my severance--never mind that our son Joshua desperately needed our medical benefits for his medications. Never mind the CPC actually had half a million dollars to spare, so my severance was assured. But what distressed me was the lying and deception and that it never seemed to budge his pulse or his conscience. I always remember my wife (an exceptional judge of character) being very disturbed by his persona.

Two months ago I swept through various Internet sites and landed on one in the Charlotte area, wondering whatever became of my former (God bless him nonetheless, I thought) nemesis. I was not prepared for what I saw. His face. Mug shot. With 14 counts of inappropriate touching and indecent liberties with fourth-grade students from his teaching days. A litany of horror that rose to 110 counts two weeks later, and then to over two hundred counts (including one forcible sex offense) by mid-March. (By the way, his trial begins any day now.)

I remember sitting in front of my computer thinking, "He saw fit to think he did God a favor by cutting my ministry legs out from underneath me, lying incessantly, when this past rot was under the surface the whole time?"

And then I stopped. I had to pray about my attitude. Because it ultimately is not about my vindication or even the evil that emanates from this monster. It's about the children, the nine-and-ten year olds who are now a few years younger than myself, who have had to live with that horror, with that violation of trust, with the warpedness of life that comes with being a victim of those actions. All this through no fault of their own, though often their perpetrators (and sadly, others) will give them the opposite message.

Thank God for organizations like SNAP (for victims of clergy abuse), Sparks of Hope, Darkness to Light, and countless other groups that minister to the broken and educate the rest of us on how to come alongside the hurting and violated.

There is something wrong with this world when we turn our backs on those enduring or who have survived childhood sexual abuse. And yes, I don't discount that some people can fabricate stories to score a financial windfall in court, but are we to believe that's the state of play here? I read garbage from the comments section on this case in North Carolina, and people say "Oh come one, you know there won't be any DNA evidence of the abuse so you can't prove it."

People like that need a fistful of cement to the jaw and a good course on logical thinking. Of course there's no DNA evidence now! That's because molesters operate on a different level. You won't find DNA, a carbon footprint, or twenty-year evidentiary support anywhere on a kid-turned-adult; the imprint has been left on the soul.

If the man of whom I speak is guilty, I pray for full justice. Not because of what he did to our family (we've made our peace with it and moved on from ecclesiastical shenanigans of the good-old-boy network), but for what he would have done to dozens of children in years past. And I pray for all victims of sexual abuse. Wholeness and deliverance is difficult enough for all of us, but their trek is even more dicey. It will never come in its fullness in this lifetime. All we can hope for is bringing as much of God's shalom into the lives of the hurting as humanly possible.

The past for those--including any of you reading this post now--who are such victims is unspeakable and it breaks my heart. All I can hope is that you believe in the core of your spirit that your future is untouched. May you find the true healing that you desire and need. And may a multitude of willing, true friends come alongside you and shepherd you through days of darkness into warmth and light.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Standardized Tests: What They Can't Show Us

I admire and trust a number of people, but Craig Dunham has to be one of the people hovering near the top of that list. Craig is the headmaster at Veritas Classical Academy--a blended model Christian school in Oklahoma City--and he served with me here in St. Louis until the end of the 2010-11 school year. We were colleagues in the Ethics department at Westminster and I always admired Craig's thoughtfulness and opinion about what works and what doesn't in education. Not only is Craig a quality thinker, he is also a published author on the subject of young self-identity and teaching. But one of the things I've always enjoyed about Craig is his humility. He warns on his classical education blog that it's important we not think of ourselves as the pinnacle of history, that we have figured a few things out in the scheme of education, but we continue to paddle the surface of an inexhaustible ocean. There's a lot that we do in schooling; there's also a lot we don't know.

A lot has been said about curricular materials and standards of education recently, and I discussed my preliminary take on the Common Core initiative in my post from April 3rd. One undercurrent in this sea that's been on my mind recently is the issue of standardized testing. Now, let me say first of all that there is a definite place for these tests, and they are not going away. At Westminster, we give what my daughter called "bubble tests" at almost every level. While I can't recall if seventh grade does much in that area, we do give the EXPLORE test in eighth grade; freshmen take the ERB test in the fall, as do sophomores with the PLAN test. Juniors (along with select sophomores) are hit with the PSAT/NMSQT in mid-October. And then juniors and seniors are peppered with (depending where you live) the SAT or ACT for college.

My friend Craig has just pulled himself out from under a week of standardized tests (hereafter known as ST), mainly the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the PLAN test. As he finishes his second year as headmaster at Veritas, he has some interesting ruminations (well worth a couple of deep readings) on this whole world of ST. Yes, it is necessary to probe the work of students in this manner, and it does help schools see if there are gaps or holes in their curriculum that need shoring up (this is why our school in Florida used the Stanford Achievement Test...the other SAT). In short, there are benefits to testing. And it never hurts your school's public relations if you can say your students scored in a high percentile of all students taking a particular test. We should be proud when our students demonstrate a high level of achievement.

However, the current push toward ST and a number of initiatives that incorporate such matters can muddy rather than purify the waters. Craig rightly points out that there can come a mentality of "teaching toward the test", but even more disconcerting than this is the worldview that comes with an ST-emphasized universe. And that zeitgeist is as follows: All success must be measurable, and if we can verify what a student can upchuck back on a bubble sheet, then we particularize his success level and can move on.

As Stewie Griffin would say on many a Family Guy episode: "What the deuce?"

In fact, there is a LOT that STs never test because such areas can't be measured by a test. Craig notes several aspects of a student's experience which are essential to lifelong learning: (1) leadership potential and growth, (2) enjoyment of spontaneous creation, (3) value of actively engaging in community, (4) risk-taking and innovation, (5) empathy and compassion, (6) ability to ask deep questions, (7) reception of constructive criticism, (8) integrity and humility, (9) desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, (10) collaboration with others, and (11) overall love of learning.

In other words, a stay-on-the-intellectual-surface, soulless, cynical, pompous cheat and liar who is disdainful of others and who just wants their education to be a door to a wealthy lifestyle can score highly on the SAT or ACT and get a full ride to the university of their choice. On the other hand, a passionate and insatiable learner who assists well in group projects, loves outdoor walks in the early days of spring or the color changes of autumn, prays with a friend who lost their father in a tragic accident, asks her history teacher a follow-up question on the origins of World War I, and participates as a school peer counselor for younger students could score a 23 on the ACT.

Guess which one I think is the better student? Guess who I would choose to have in class? Guess who I would hire if I ran a business?

You said student #2, right? Good for you.

Of course, we want improvement. Naturally, it's a good thing to check this sliver of a student's overall development. But it's just a critical, as Craig says, to help students (and their parents) "understand that the ultimate goal of assessment is not to pass the test and then fail life."

I don't counterpoint this assessment issue because I wasn't that great of a ST taker (even though I recognized early on what my glass ceiling was on the SAT). I think what Craig points out has significant merit and wisdom because I've spent fourteen years in the classroom--less than some, more than others--and I know that there is much more that STs leave untouched than they measure.

As a veteran of teaching religious studies, I see a parallel between education and one's spiritual faith. We like to think both areas are measurable, but in fact different people develop at varied paces. My father couldn't figure out what a verb was for a long time (probably well into fourth or fifth grade) until one day the light came on. Other students who are deemed "slow" are merely deliberate and enjoy chewing on the wisdom that comes their way, wanting to turn it over in their minds (Not everyone needs to be at the same pace). In the same way, one's faith journey is not always a rhythmic, measurable pace where one can verify if they are a "strong Christian" (I don't believe there is such an animal as a strong Christian) or not. Measuring faith and learning--while part and parcel of the educational experience--can have serious soul backdraft if not kept in proper perspective.

Ah, well. Something to consider anyway. Maybe the whole point here is patience. Students who have a passion to know and grow in wisdom, who are determined to be lifelong learners, and who exhibit a love of truth, integrity, and leadership...eventually they will blossom with or without an ST. For me, the thrill of the ride--not the destination--has always been the thing.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Boston, Bombs, and the Depth of Our Need

Bob Russell, former pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, has blogged about the recent tragic and nailbiting days in Boston. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, he's worth a read.

Russell begins by saying:

      Why would two brothers who have lived in the United States for the past decade become terrorists?  What motivates young men that were described as, “modest and athletic, the kind of kids that made neighbors feel comfortable,” to viciously kill and maim innocent people?  What possibly goes on in their minds?  We’re all asking those questions in hopes of finding a way to prevent terrorist activity in the future.
       I firmly believe the answers can be found in the Bible.  Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun.  And C.S. Lewis once wrote that we really don’t need to be taught new ideas as much as we need to be reminded of old truths.  Here are seven basic Biblical principles that help explain the escalation of evil and the most practical path to restraining terrorism.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading Reflections: M.C. Beaton

Name an author in the field of detective fiction and the name of their protagonist is never far behind. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work registers the face and idiosyncrasies of Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie gave us Hercule Poirot. P.D. James' body of work brings us into the world of Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard.

Although not as well known as the aforementioned authors, M.C. Beaton [actual name Marion Chesney] puts out a couple of mystery novels per year in the Agatha Raisin and the Hamish Macbeth series. Although the number of volumes in each grouping runs neck and neck, the Hamish Macbeth books are likely more well-known; this may be in part to the BBC's Hamish Macbeth series of episodes starring Robert Carlyle in the titular role (a sharp contrast to his work in The Full Monty). And while I did manage to read the Agatha Raisin mystery As the Pig Turns, I've read eight to ten of the Macbeth novels. Beaton's Macbeth is a tall Scottish bobby (i.e., police constable) with flaming red hair, living in the fictional and idyllic Highland village of Lochdubh (pronounced loch-DOO). Macbeth loves his stomping grounds so much that he has no ambition for promotion, eschewing any chance to be elevated because it would force him to work the beat in neighboring Strathbane. Macbeth is known for his unorthodox ways, his intuitive knack for squeezing what is needed from a question or two, and his tragicomic bad luck with women--particularly his lost love, Priscilla Halliburton-Smythe.

The Macbeth stories follow the enjoyable pattern of the British cozy mystery: The victim is introduced early on in the narrative (in fact, sometimes right in the title...e.g., Death of a Dentist, Death of a Witch, etc.), with Hamish himself intersecting with said victim within striking distance of the opening pages. Hamish has enough antagonists to contend with, including Inspector Blair from nearby Strathbane, an irascible alcoholic and incompetent detective. But for the most part, the surrounding neighbors are a durable, hearty lot, with recurring stock characters reappearing throughout the series. Chesney centers the overwhelming majority of the action in the Highlands, but on occasion Hamish will have to head to Glasgow, Inverness, or Edinburgh; once, he has to go with a fellow detective to the Netherlands (Death of an Addict).

Beaton draws Macbeth in a compassionate light. Readers will root unreservedly for the constable and tend to overlook his mistakes of omission and commission. Beaton also does a phenomenal piece of work in her portrait of Lochdubh, and her descriptions of Highland weather enable the reader to feel the  biting cold, surprising rainstorms, or welcome sunshine.

There is a tinge of realism throughout the Hamish Macbeth series. Not every case turns out well. Occasionally, Hamish leads the charge to arrest the perpetrator, who ends up dying rather than facing justice. Some moments may lend themselves to disappointment, but they reflect the ebb and flow of the way life is.

If one would ask me if I have any caveats, two come to mind. First, stick mainly to Beaton's earlier Macbeth novels. I haven't read her two most recent releases (Death of a Kingfisher and Death of Yesterday) but I came away somewhat rankled by the two before those (Death of a Valentine and Death of a Chimney Sweep). In Chimney Sweep, the plot line shifted and took some bizarre turns and characters leapt into prominence without much build at all (I say this with humility, as a new writer who fully realizes that I will have to endure any criticism when Litany of Secrets comes out in the fall). Death of a Valentine contained some contradictory moments; the scene of the same wedding is described at the beginning and end of the book, but two different men walk the bride down the aisle in each scene. This speaks more to the editing job, perhaps, but it was rather glaring.

One other caveat comes from the tone of the novels. They are given more to the brooding and insouciance of postmodernism than the foundationalism of the classics. Doyle, Sayers, Christie, and James drove the reality of justice delivered through what is right and true, even if through some very flawed detectives. Yet there seemed to be no hesitancy among them to call good good and evil evil. Readers expecting a world view that makes room for that righteous indignation will do well to realize Beaton does not go there; the primary emphasis is on Macbeth's ability to piece together a puzzle. Given these parameters--and if one enjoys a good cozy mystery--one should be able to pass many an evening by the fire with a Hamish Macbeth story at hand. A dram of whiskey is optional, but it helps!

Friday, April 19, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Inspire

The week is almost over, and so is my running tribute to the greatest classroom teachers in my life (I could include my parents in the "Greatest Teachers" circle, but that goes without saying and besides, I'm talking about the literal classroom). Now you've likely noticed that--despite the variety in names and places--there has been a common thread amongst the teachers I've lauded thus far: (1) They tend to swim in the history/theology pool and (2) they are all males.

And so on this final day of this series, it stands to reason we shatter that trend with literature and writing from the soul of a lady.

In the summer of 1984--months before Bryan Adams would reacquaint us with the summer of '69--we moved from the Deep South, from Jackson, Mississippi, a territory that was the breeding ground for The Help. Leaving seminary teaching behind, my father was called as a pastor to a small Presbyterian church in Westminster, Maryland. After several years of private school, I was heading into public education for the first time since third grade. Westminster High School awaited me and my Southern accent, a speech warble which went with my persona like integrity went with Agnew and Nixon and an idiosyncrasy I would ditch quickly. I was playing football again and was locked and loaded for my ninth grade year.

The school day was a whirlwind through the hallways of a student body twenty three hundred strong. Latin blurred into woodshop which turned to PE, and then it was Algebra I, lunch in a zoo of a cafeteria. The afternoon took me to Physical Science and a government class before I arrived in last period, a class which ended up cranking my tractor like no other.

English I. Mrs. Deborah Harbaugh. Hereafter known as "the Queen of Awesomeness."

Since my high school days, she has moved across town to the (relatively) new Winters Mill High School, is now known as Deb Clarke, and has banked nearly forty years in the Carroll County Public Schools. Although much has changed, she is still teaching, is still admired, and still runs at a ferocious level--a dozen full marathons overall and still doing two to three half-marathons per year.

But I digress. And whatever surname she might have, she'll be known as Deb.

Deb knew how to inspire and excite us, whether discussing Great Expectations (which I had always felt was the greatest example of titular false advertising in the world, but she made it palatable), having us act out Romeo and Juliet, or playing "Jeopardy" for a review game before our tests. No day was ever drab; there was a perpetual pulse of energy running through her classroom.

To be honest, I zipped through the initial weeks of English I with a fairly confident attitude--in truth, one that bordered on "internally cocky". We took a diagnostic test the first week of school which I was oddly ready for; it was on matters like parts of speech, verb tenses, and the like. Since my previous five years of private school had force-fed me a steady diet of grammar and diagramming of sentences, I nailed it. As we went over the test, she was pleasantly surprised I knew what a gerund was (Steve Coco, who sat in front of me, turned around and looked as if I had whipped up a plutonium bomb with dry wall and toothpaste).

While September was a good beginning, I soon found October through February to be an almighty trial. One problem was that I was twitchy and couldn't sit still--an issue that seemed to plague me in almost every English class in high school. Deb was undeniably patient with me when I should have been diagnosed ADD. But the supreme act of consistent force came whenever we had to write an essay. Now, I had written book reports and two-page "research papers" before, but for whatever reason, my prior years had been fairly lean on honing any writer's craft, and Deb's approach hit my freshman brain with the power of a Stokes mortar bomb in World War I.

For much of the year, I experienced a slalom of anxiety and thrill. I discovered that I enjoyed the process of writing. To me, it felt (and still feels) like painting a picture and shaping a jigsaw puzzle at the same time--creating a work of art while at the same moment discerning how you can make it fit together even better. Given my lack of time in that area, I was playing catch-up, and hence the anxiety. But I loved using vivid imagery, descriptive words, metaphors and similes. I found writing could say what I found difficult to tell people face to face. Twenty-eight years later, little has changed about me.

But it was still a struggle. And it came to a head one day in February 1985. We had turned in our final drafts of a compare-contrast essay, and Deb had finished grading them. To this day, I have no idea what the topic was. I don't know if I didn't take the time to do it right or just had a bad attitude. All I know is my final product was lower quality than whale slobber that sits at the bottom of the ocean. Deb would always read two essays before she handed everything back to us; one essay would be for commendation, and one would be for critique. She never mentioned whose essays she was reading; she was respectful of our privacy. But guess whose essay she read as an example of something that really needed serious literary surgery? Yep. And then the killer: She said to everyone, "Now that is one student whom I know can do much better."

And those were the exact words on my paper when she handed it back. I remember reading, "Luke, you can do much better than this. Your rough draft was better than your final effort..." before tearing my eyes away from the page, steam coming from my nostrils like a Brahma bull, silently cursing under my breath. But the interesting thing about what was coursing through me was--and this must have been astounding for a fourteen-year old--I realized I needed to be angry at myself, because Deb had rightly called me out on not working up to my full potential. Not that shoddy effort was a habit of mine, but she was determined it never become a habit. In that moment--crystallized forever in my soul--I swore to myself that no matter what shortcomings I had, there was no way in heaven or on earth that written communication would be one of them. Whatever field of endeavor I entered, I would be a great writer, and that horrific essay looking up at me from my desk would be the last lousy piece of garbage that ever came from my pen.

It is a fire that still burns inside me today. And to this day I am still grateful for how Deb inspired me. At first, I didn't understand why she seemed to be so hard on me, but during a conversation I had with her (whether it was in freshman English I or junior-level Survey of American Lit, I can't recall) she mentioned something about how she believed she was hardest on the ones who had the most potential. I got the message. You ride hard on the horses you know can carry the load, and I felt honored she had that much belief in me.

Interestingly enough, that moment erupted last school year, when a student asked me, "Why are you always pushing me so hard?" And before I could think, I responded, "Because I am hardest on the ones that have the most potential." The young man gave a smile of thanks. Internally, I told myself, "Oh my gosh, I've become Mrs. Harbaugh!"

Which is a good thing. The world needs more teachers like Deb was for me and others.

Now I teach students. I have my first novel coming out in the fall. And in truth, it all goes back to that day when she inspired me by throwing down that gauntlet, telling me "You can do better." Whatever I write, whatever difficulty I plow through to the best of my ability, and every student I might happen to inspire has Deb's fingerprints all over it.

Many thanks, Deb. The day you stop teaching will be a day of mourning.

And thus, the pantheon is complete.

Tom Foley. Jack Collins. Lou Voskuil. Ralph Shewell. Deb Harbaugh/Clarke.

Debt of gratitude? That's putting it mildly.

But that doesn't stop me from saying thank you, one more time.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Delight

And further back into the halls of Davis history we go, hurtling in reverse fashion to Westminster Senior High School in the rolling hills of Westminster, Maryland. There can be a significant amount of anxiety about the state of American secondary education; much of it centers on the performances of public education. Yet I was blessed to attend and graduate (Class of 1988) from a solid public high school, and the home of the Owls happened to be the stomping grounds of many teachers who spurred students on to excellence.

This wouldn't be possible today--given the way course selection has been aligned with Advanced Placement choices--but I had the chance to take US History twice during high school. Whereas today students take either US History or Advanced Placement US History during their junior year of high school, in my days US History was a tenth grade course and you had the option to take the AP class (abbreviated as APUSH) during your junior or senior year if you felt up to it.

And I felt up to it. Two whole years of American history at a critical juncture in my life, when I was pondering a life beyond high school, wistfully asking What will I study in college?

That question was answered through the influence of the fourth member of my "Great Teachers" pantheon, Mr. Ralph Shewell. One year of tenth grade US History wasn't enough to satisfy me; I signed on and got him again for APUSH during my senior year. Getting between me and the chance to sit in "Uncle Ralph's" classes was like getting between a starving bloodhound and a steak, between Goliath and David's stone, between Michael Phelps and Olympic immortality. You just didn't go there.

Through all my history classes before Mr. Shewell, the teachers kept me engaged but the pace was a fairly perfunctory level. Much was made of the typical trinity of textbook reading, worksheet activity, and group projects. And then I walked into room 222 for the first day of my sophomore year and experienced the highly oxygenated atmosphere that Pat Conroy has Will McLean describe so well in The Lords of Discipline. Mr. Shewell had textbooks, of course (you couldn't have APUSH without one), but the lifeblood of our classes was his ability to turn history into a story. I would literally feel like I was on the set of a major cinematic production; that's how lively he made history seem. He was the history version of Robin Williams' character from Dead Poets Society (although we ripped no pages from our books).

It was then that I realized this was what I wanted to study. I wanted to go to the river of history and keep drinking the stream of the past into myself, for I knew it would never run dry. And I had this desire simply because Mr. Shewell was authentically excited to teach history. This wasn't something he felt like he had to do; it was something he got to do.

Every time I watch Chariots of Fire, I'm enthralled by the scene when Eric Liddell tells his sister Jenny, "...God also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." Every day in class, I always thought Mr. Shewell felt the fire of a divine smile within him. He was teaching history, and why would he want to do anything else?

"Uncle Ralph" also delighted in quirky asides and cultural references. We had more than our share of jokes, of John Wayne references, of competitions. When he found I could gulp down a chocolate milkshake from the cafeteria at a serious clip, he bought one and tried to match that record in front of our entire APUSH class.

If you were a member of the Shewell student fraternity, you knew his mantra was that the little things and missed opportunities in days past can make the biggest difference. I remember well when he told us one anecdote of George Washington's gamble of crossing the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian garrison during the American Revolution. The story goes that a young lookout saw Washington's forces gliding across the water and reported thusly to his superior, who wrote the information on a piece of paper and passed it to a messenger. This middleman went to the officers' tent, where a colonel (I believe) was playing cards with the other officers, and passed the urgent note to him. Inexplicably, the colonel was more focused on the game and literally pocketed the note, leaving the Hessians flat-footed when the Americans landed on the shore.

Stories like that were the norm in the world of Ralph Shewell. The air in that classroom was absolutely intoxicating, simply because he was a teacher who loved what he did and who his students were. If this was the way history was, I told myself, then by heaven and earth I was going to make it my area of focus.

And to top it all, I remember "Uncle Ralph" for remaining interested in my life and those of other students beyond the classroom. When I came back to visit him during my freshman year of college, his first question was, "So how are things going with the girls?" Never mind the only way I could get a date back then was to eat the fruit of the same name. When my friend and fellow student John Graham was tragically killed after our sophomore year, Mr. Shewell and his wife Tanya were right there at the funeral.

It's a gift when someone pours themselves into their students on a consistent basis like that. It's a gift when joy and delight radiate from a teacher like warmth from the sun.

It's an indescribable privilege--one that originates from the throne of God Himself--when you find a teacher who does both, and when he views that as his true calling. To know my life intersected with his brings tears to my eyes.

When he wrote in my senior yearbook, he signed off, "Your teacher and a friend, Ralph Shewell."

Then, now, and always, "Uncle Ralph"--you will always be that. Count me eternally grateful.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Connect

Going further back into my educational life, we find ourselves walking around the beautiful mountaintop grounds of Covenant College. When I wasn't reporting to false alarms on behalf of the Lookout Mountain Fire Department, when Phil Covington and I weren't making our legendary "cake shakes" (often the only edible things in the Great Hall dining room), and when I wasn't playing the intramural sport of any given season...I was a history major. As I'll share tomorrow, this desire had been ingrained in me well before setting foot on Covenant's campus. Still, I knew that many collegians end up changing their major, but once I met the individual who would be my academic advisor and treasured professor, I knew without a doubt I would never budge from the craft of Herodotus.

If I attempted to inscribe the depth of what Dr. Louis J. Voskuil did for me, the world would run out of ink. To be completely honest, it's hard to know where to begin.

To me, Dr. Voskuil is to the professorial world what Michael Jordan is to basketball. Whenever you saw Jordan play live (and I was privileged to do so once), you knew you were going to see stunning excellence. When Lou Voskuil walked into a classroom--whether it was for Medieval Civilization, Modern Russia, The 1960s in America, Historiography, or anything else--you instinctively knew all present would drink deeply from the well of knowledge and wisdom.

On the surface, one wouldn't imagine there'd be much thunder and lightning. Dr. Voskuil's Dutch blood means there is a surface of dignity and reserve, but that is a thin, veneer-like cover for a giftedness and knack for communicating the flow of history in all its personality and pulsations. Every day in class, I felt I was walking amongst medieval guild members, lurking in the court of Peter the Great, or sitting in on LBJ's strategic decisions to bomb Hanoi. He was never the type to raise his voice; I do remember Voskuil's decibel range was a fairly moderate one. And he was old-school. In these days of Wordles and PowerPoints, Dr. Voskuil's straightforward lectures and provoking questions would fly in the face of slick gadgets. But he showed you didn't need to fast-track to the 21st century to be profoundly effective.

Carefully, Voskuil would move through the chronological flow of time, showing the cause-and-effect relationships that is a must in good historical understanding. Eschewing the idea of treating history in a purely topical, semi-fractured format as is done so often today, Voskuil helped me see history as an overarching, meaningful narrative. In truth, this is the way history should be taught.

More than that, Voskuil opened my eyes in a number of other ways. He and I weren't necessarily on the same area of the political spectrum, but he prodded me to ask why I believed what I did. I admired how someone could respectably and kindly make a case for how his faith and politics intersected, even if we had some minor differences in where we landed. But more than that, Voskuil lived out his faith with vigor. He was a member of the Association for Public Justice, looking for ways to influence public policy, welfare reform, and transformative justice in the life of the nation. More recently, he and his wife Audrey have been involved in reaching out to the poor and homeless in the greater Chattanooga area.

And Dr. Voskuil has not only connected the dots in class; he exemplified how to connect with others. I remember many a meal with other students at his home: the Roman meal in which our Ancient Greece and Rome class dressed up in togas; the amazing stroganoff his wife made for our Modern Russia class; and the graduation dinner for all the senior history majors. But I warmly remember the way Dr. Voskuil intentionally reached out to me. I had a fairly difficult senior year, fraught with headaches and post-concussion issues from a summer head injury during a stupid backyard wrestling event (I'll spare you the details...suffice it to say I should be in a wheelchair). Through all the symptoms I experienced, through every blackout, after every wince of pain, Dr. Voskuil's concern was evident. He never failed to check in on how I was doing and was kind enough to give me an extension on a boatload of work. It was the tender side of the man I will never forget. It is the spirit of kindness and wisdom that he continues to carry into the sunset years of life.

More than anything, Dr. Voskuil instilled in me the fire, the passion, that history mattered, that learning mattered. All has meaning, because the God who breathed life into history acts in history. And our life has meaning, in both the glory and warts of humankind, because God has shaped us in His likeness. All we can do has a measure of significance.

Even the actions of an Ethics teacher in St. Louis, here in large part because of the imprint of Louis J. Voskuil, who connected history to life and connected his life to mine.

No pantheon of my greatest teachers would be complete without you, Dr. Voskuil. You have truly earned your place on Olympus. Not to mention in the hearts of those you have taught and befriended.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Push

I fully realize the bizarre nature of going from more recent to more chronologically distant in my pantheon of great teachers, but keep in mind--my blog, my rules!

Whereas Tom Foley, former Covenant School chaplain, was and is a fantastic mentor, another individual has been instrumental in my life by modeling how to think well. Three times I was blessed to  grab the scholarly and pastoral C. John (Jack) Collins for various courses during my years at Covenant Theological Seminary in the mid-90s. Since I have a father who taught Old Testament at the seminary level himself, I like to think I can recognize which OT profs are the gold in the bank. Jack Collins is right up there with the purest, most dazzling bullion.

To describe Dr. Collins is to dance in the fields of happy wonder and Socratic discipline. First of all, the man is comfortable in either the theological or the scientific world. Collins snagged both his B.S. and M.S. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (yes, readers can scoop your jaw off the floor) before eventually following a call to the ministry. He worked through another master's degree at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Tacoma and eventually served as a church planter in Spokane, Washington. He also managed to score a Ph. D. from Liverpool before landing on Covenant Seminary's campus at the same time I did in early 1993. He is a voluminous reader and a phenomenal writer (author of books on Adam & Eve, miracles, and the relationship between science and faith).

It wasn't until I was halfway through my seminary studies that I finally climbed aboard the Collins Express and held on for a wild ride. Although three classes (Old Testament Historical Books; an intensive Hebrew reading class; and Old Testament Prophets) were all I had with the man, he left an indelible imprint.

First of all, the man made you work. Like a pack animal carrying the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Some would think this worthy of complaint, but I appreciated it. If we were heading into ministry of some kind, we were setting ourselves up for all sorts of hardship and difficulty. The sooner our sensibilities were used to bashing through a wall and doing some hard academic work, we definitely weren't going to survive meetings with difficult church elders, work through difficult Scripture passages in sermon preparation, or be able to faithfully counsel parishioners through tragedy.

An example of this was how you prepared for a Collins test. He called them "unit quizzes" in Prophets class and to date, this is the only time I felt he lied to us. They were the equivalent of exams. Getting ready for them would leave me feeling like John Belushi after a crazy night at Delta House (Could this be the rarest of oddities: A connection between seminary study and Animal House?). I normally could be quite efficient in test prep, but Jack Collins strapped a quarry load of TNT to that modus operandi and blew it straight to kingdom come. For my Prophets "unit quizzes", I'd have to study at least ten hours. At least! To top it off, Dr. Collins would have us memorize Old Testament passages and write them out on the test.

No problem, you say? Memory work is to be expected. True. But did I neglect to tell you we had to memorize and write out those verses in Hebrew? Mastering that would take at least four of the ten hours of study. But that re-taught me an important credo: If success and excellence are worth it, then they are worth your unencumbered and passionate pursuit. As long as it takes.

It was Dr. Collins who told us that the study and discussion of the Biblical text would bring about an exchange of ideas, but the truth was there. I remember when he said, "Disagree with my conclusions on something? Good! Build your case and be prepared for counter-arguments." From Dr. Collins, the pursuit of truth and understanding was a contact sport--an encouraging, eminently coachable contact sport--but yes, it could be an intellectual hockey game. And I grew to love it quickly, simply because I was pushed, prodded, and shoved to be greater than I was, even if he didn't realize he was doing it all along.

Not that he couldn't take some kindly inflicted damage. Once, when L.B. Graham and I were taking his intensive Hebrew reading class, Dr. Collins let it slip that he was suffering from a pulled rib muscle. Being the kind, compassionate souls we were, L.B. and I decided to have some fun with this, making enough jokes and causing the good Doctor to laugh so hard he probably kept re-damaging the pulled muscle. Dr. Collins was certainly patient enough with me when I would bring soup in a bread bowl to class along with some Irish cream-scented coffee that caused him to bemoan the gruel they had in the faculty coffee pots.

But he could dish things right back. At the end of our last year at seminary, about eight of us gathered one evening to watch Spinal Tap (you know, typical seminarian cinematic fare) and then L.B. and I convinced everyone to come along late at night to the Collins homestead. While the family slept, we descended on their suburban home with bar soap and plastic tableware. Dr. Collins and his wife Dianne (yes, John Cougar Mellencamp fans...their names are Jack and Dianne) awoke the next morning to soap-inscribed Hebrew lettering all over their driveway and a lawn filled with knives, forks, and spoons driven into the turf.

I at least thought he'd not discovered the cutlery until he mowed the grass, but I felt we were in the clear. Until I got my Prophets exam back in the seminary mail room the next week. Taped to it was a red plastic fork, and next to that were the words "You should be aware that someone has been forging your Hebrew handwriting."

Guilty as charged.

It was you, Dr. Collins, who taught me how to tackle Hebrew well. But you taught me so much more. You showed me how to tackle difficulties with force and skill. You pushed me beyond what I thought were my capabilities. And that has bled over into my teaching career, my thinking, and being a husband and a father.

And because of your place in all that, I am eternally grateful. Because you pushed me.

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Mentor

It was February of 2000 and my plane was landing at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C. This journey was taking me to the Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I would guest teach and interview the next day for a teaching position in the Bible department. It was somewhat scary and difficult to think about a potential move, but we were thinking about relocating to a high-level medical community for Joshua's significant needs.

I strolled off the plane toward the waiting area at the gate where a small crowd was gathered in these pre-9/11 days of being able to meet your party immediately off the plane. Seeing a well-built, respectable-looking character holding a card with my name on it, I walked right over to the man known as Tom Foley.

"Luke," he said, his smile beaming like the moon that hung in that night sky. "Welcome."

It wasn't the first time I had encountered this man who would be a fine example, a driven yet compassionate leader, and a dear friend. But until that point, every contact with Tom about the teaching gig and any questions I had about Covenant or that he had about me had taken place over the phone. And so began a four-year term in which I desired to learn from this man.

Don't ask me why that thought was so instinctive. Perhaps it had something to do with the first three years of my teaching career. In Louisiana, we had enjoyed our time at Westminster Christian Academy in Opelousas tremendously. I had grown professionally. I had been asked to detonate, then rewrite, revise, and renew the curriculum for my Ethics, Christian Doctrine, and Worldviews classes. I had been named department chairman. Opportunity seemed boundless. But I knew that I was also in a position where I was learning so fast on the go, and having to put out so much of myself, that I was in danger of drying up by not taking anything in from a teacher positioned above me in the same area.

I needed a river from which I could drink and refresh myself. I needed to get outside my comfort zone and be challenged. I needed to place myself under someone, to clip my wings go they could grow back stronger.

I needed a mentor. And Tom Foley was--is--the gift I needed.

It's really difficult to describe Tom in a way that does him justice and incorporates all the meats of his personality stew. I do recall that he struck me as a very humble person. When I mentioned I was in desperate need of mentoring, his first words were, "Well, I don't know how effective I'll be, but if you want to throw in your lot with me, go for it."

During my time in Charlottesville, I had a mother lode of moments when I couldn't make heads or tails of the man. There were times that Tom could make you feel edgy. I didn't know when he'd be dropping by my classroom or ambling past at the moment I was typing up a quiz and he'd say, "I think you should really change that third question." One day he kept me behind after a department meeting and lit into me: "Your classroom management is going to hell." I was slightly encouraged by the fact he used the present participle rather than the past tense, and thus there was time to change. But he was right. I was going through a spell when I needed to clamp down and take charge, and I did.

There were others times when Tom displayed the compassion and kindness for which he is well known. There was never a time we met when he didn't pray for me. After each round of constructive criticism (which thankfully got less frequent as time went by), he would always ask, "Are we okay?", always wanting to confirm that no matter what, we were brothers fighting on the same side. I remember  seeing him weep openly when he was convicted there were things--important priorities--in his life that he had deeply neglected. When you prayed with Tom, you sense you were in the throne room of the Almighty Himself.

For the first couple years I was vexed over what I viewed as Tom's vacillation between hard-line and godly love. As I matured and figured things out, I came to realize those were two sides of the same coin that all great mentors possess. Tom was merely making the call and giving me the direction that I needed at the moment I needed it. And that meant Tom had to be different at times, but boy did he make the right call over and over.

It was Tom who was speaking in chapel on the morning of 9/11 when our headmaster, Dr. Ron Sykes, approached him beforehand and whispered into his ear the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I saw Tom's eyes widen and his body harden, and then I knew instinctively that he was praying himself through this difficult time. He managed it with supreme grace.

It was Tom who--during a conversation at Bodo's Bagels in late July of 2000, just before new teacher meetings got underway--spoke the line that would be formative in my teaching soul for years to come: "We are teachers of truth, and God will give us relationships." Translation: Do what you're called to do, and the opportunities for deep, meaningful, ongoing interaction will come naturally. Given the location where he spoke that wisdom, I call it the Bodo's Mandate.

More than anything, I remember that through all my scatter-brainedness and need for growth, Tom never stopped believing in me. He exemplified what great teacher/mentors display: a long trust in a consistent direction (to tweak Eugene Peterson). During my second year at Covenant, he asked me to build a unit on the Old Testament minor prophets into eleventh-grade Bible. Excited but curious, I asked him why. He quickly replied, "Because it's Bible, because it's important, and because I know you'll do it creatively and do it well."

Tom also emphasized (I believe rightly) that when teaching Bible in a Christian school--especially in an increasingly secular society as ours--it does no service to be sectarian. Rather that teaching from a "room"--a denominational bunker of belief, be it Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.--Tom said in C.S. Lewis-esque fashion, "Stay in the hallway, the great stream of Christian consensus. What have Christian believed at all times in all places? That's from where you work." Even now when a student asks me a question in class, the first reminder that goes through my head is, "Stay in the hallway. Stay in the hallway."

After several years of figuring out the ropes and pushing up the mountain of professionalism, I got to the point where Tom had full confidence. Once after a department meeting in early 2004--at this point we were getting set to move to North Carolina and pastor a church--when I had gone back through my notes and found some information he needed, Tom emailed me and said, "Thank you for doing this. You have become a 'right hand' that I will miss greatly."

Now Tom is no longer at Covenant, but he is still a great mentor. To me. And to others. He heads up Christian Educators Outreach, an organization dedicated to placing and developing Christian teachers and leaders in Eastern Europe (with special emphasis in Hungary and the Ukraine). And if these folks get from Tom what he gave me, then that part of the world had better get set for some amazing transformation.

It's been some time since I had some face-to-face time with Tom, but his influence is always there. For now, God may have taken me away from Tom Foley, but it's impossible to take Tom Foley out of me.

Thank you, brother.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Reading Reflections, April 13

A young man, in a family steeped in the wretched actions of an alcoholic and abusive father, rises above the dire slough of despond and finds a way out through hard work, sheer determination, and an internal drive that screams "forward".

The memoirs of a business tycoon who revitalized an industry? A film star who wins an unexpected Oscar? A politician known for cooperation, even-handedness, and results? An athlete who stunned the world with his success? Horatio Alger? Oliver Twist?

None of the above. The enrapturing story of Ginger: A Boy's Journey from Scotland to the White House (Dunrobin Publishing, 2012) takes us on the sweeping grand adventure of Chef David Macfarlane, who went from humble beginnings in Scotland to a chef who served President Clinton and his staff. A personal story that evokes both heartache and joy, Ginger traces the human experience in toxic relationships, working class conditions, dream-chasing, and the healing power of vocational fulfillment.

Some might find it difficult to imagine a book written by a chef which is not a cookbook. As the forward ably tells the reader, this is not a cookbook. It is a cook's book. And true, this is not a more high-profile chef like Gordon Ramsay or Rachel Ray. But that is precisely what holds the reader's interest--the everyman quality, the earthiness, the sense that David Macfarlane is cut from the same human cloth as us. This solidarity draws the reader fully into the text.

Macfarlane briskly moves through the details of his life. The pace is most engaging in his early years, with much emphasis on his love for Scotland, his passion for cooking and baking, and his dysfunctional family dynamics with his father at the center of the storm. During the middle portion of the book, Macfarlane slows down the pace as he sketches the far-ranging details of his Navy career. The speed of the book, in fact, needs to slow down--and it never truly lags--during this section as there are many levels of authority, individuals, and promotions and retirements that one should take time and not hurry this area. The story culminates in Macfarlane's interviews in Washington, D.C. which blazed a trail to working in the White House food service.

Macfarlane blends both the poignant shards of human existence and a wry sense of humor on these pages. Readers might find the recollections of physical abuse especially distressing and difficult to swallow and might need a handkerchief nearby. There are references to bullying he received, for no one reason than being a redhead. Macfarlane also relates some of the political side of things in the Navy, with some people making life difficult and others being a pleasure to work for. He also has a knack for showing how the little things of life--and even the off-the-cuff responses--can make lasting impact. You'll understand how his fib "No, I don't iron" turned out to be the biggest break of his career.

One note of importance: Macfarlane is a chef telling a story. His goal is to share his heart with the reader. Keep this in mind when working through the style of the writing. It is quite informal and conversational, much like how some people will say "I write like I talk". The earthy nature of his Scottish background and passion strengthens the book itself. The reader will sense they have lived a great sequence of days that redeem initial misery and leading to a great triumph of the spirit. For this reason among others, Ginger is very much worth one's time.

Friday, April 12, 2013

My Little Thrasher of Joy

On this day, twelve years ago, I woke, showered, dressed, gobbled down my breakfast, and began the drive to the Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a glorious Maundy Thursday morning and I was looking forward to that afternoon when our baseball team would take on (and beat) Fishburne Military School over in Waynesboro. But more than anything, I felt a moment of sheer anxiety. It had nothing to do with class preparation that day, nothing to do with baseball that afternoon. It had everything to do with what would go down the next morning, when my wife Christy would have our second child at University of Virginia Medical Center.

We had both seen the sonograms in January. The baby was to be a "she".

We were having a girl. More to the point, I was having a girl.

But my anxiety was due to the reality that this girl would be having me.

I am the oldest of three boys. My father was the youngest of five boys. My mother was the youngest child on her family, behind two half-brothers followed by my Uncle Bob. Dating and marriage were one thing for me regarding the opposite sex. But being a father to a little girl? It was hard for me to fathom. I barely felt competent to deal with three-year old Joshua at that time.

I was scared out of my wits. And then Lindsay Jael Herron Davis arrived the next morning at 10:13 ET and promptly got about the upside-down toboggan ride of life. Bump. Roll. Crash. It's been a lot like that. And we wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Tomorrow, Lindsay will turn twelve years old. It's been an adventure filled with every emotion and event imaginable. She has been the most wild of our three children--to be fair, the boys didn't have the muscular strength to go recklessly nuts in their younger years. She was known for swan-diving out of her highchair after lunch. She fell down the stairs of our townhouse in Charlottesville, and she smacked her head on the ceramic tile of our Florida kitchen after tripping over her two feet at Thanksgiving 2006.

She wants to join a lacrosse team--never mind she's never played the game. When playing T-Ball for the Cubs in Salisbury, NC, she got in some good hits and made even better artwork in the infield dirt.

Lindsay can draw. Oh my word, can she draw like her life depended on it. No one in the family even approaches her creative level. And she is a gifted writer, analytical and opinionated in nature. She wants to get a notebook for her birthday so she can journal about current events and write political articles. Yes, we have a future journalist on our hands.

And what makes my heart both heavy and happy at the same time is how much growing up has been forced upon Lindsay in just these twelve years. Growing up jammed in the middle between two special-needs brothers caught in the web of myotubular myopathy--one brother who survives, one who died at nineteen months--causes one to take a view of life that's ahead of the childhood curve.

Our conversations are peppered with deep, probing questions about hardship and God's place in it all. Because she's suffered a good deal, Lindsay tends to be more acutely aware of other people's difficulties. Yes, she overanalyzes things and feelings more than the average bear, but when it comes to the emotions of others, I'd rather engage a bucking bronco than a dead horse.

Her bedroom can be like her life--crazy, chaotic, and everything spilled everywhere. She is calm about some things and anxiety-ridden about others and some days I pray she discovers the balanced middle of it all. But we can't imagine life without her.

The Georgia state bird is the thrasher, an aviary tornado that settles into trees and literally thrashes around, scattering leaves and what not. In a good way, Lindsay is our little thrasher of joy. Whatever she scatters in our lives, we are never the same. And we are better for it.

Happy birthday, little thrasher.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Gun Control? Knife Control? Nope. We Need Self-Control

To any overseas bloggers, what follows is my take on a hot-button American issue. Be assured, however, you are welcome to linger, read, and comment.

I was in my second year of teaching when the Columbine High School massacre occurred. On April 16, 2007, I was frantically emailing and calling former colleagues in Virginia, trying to ensure that none of my former students at the Covenant School had fallen victim to the assailant's bullets in the Virginia Tech shootings. Just last December, a nation was shell-shocked as children and adults alike were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Now another horrific tableau, the multiple stabbings at Lone Star College in Texas is forcing us to think  what we can/must do about violence in America.

The tragedy and sorrow borne out of these and other frightening experiences prods us to ask questions, and that's completely reasonable. These moments shove us toward seeking solutions, and you can blame people for wanting that.

But it is precisely the type of questions we ask that are critical to the solutions we seek.

Many political leaders ask, "How can we keep our kids safe?" Some ask, "How can we preserve the inherent constitutional rights of citizens to own and operate firearms?" Another question has peppered forth: "What can we be doing for people who commit these crimes that have some sort of psychological  or personality disorders?"

All of these questions have merit. But none of them is the question that cuts through the bull.

And that question is "What's wrong with us?"

But more on that later.

I do have some musings on this whole matter of gun control, of assault weapons, of weapon usage, of Constitutional rights, of citizen responsibilities. As follows:

1. You are free to ask me if I own a gun. I am also just as free to decide if that's anybody's business, or to answer in the negative or affirmative.

2. With rights come responsibilities. If you own a firearm, use it well. Aim true. Shoot well. Defend yourself when needed. Enjoy it. Don't be stupid.

3. The overwhelming number of gun owners in America follow the principles in point #2 above to the letter. Don't paint them as some sort of slobbering, uncontrollable militia, because it's way off base.

4. People who advocate for some level of gun control are not automatically the fringe-group, bleeding-heart pansies that some die-hard gun-rights people make them out to be. I know many on that side of the fence who mean very well and want real solutions. Their positions are driven by conscious, deliberate thought and an attempt to reach workable conclusions. Sift through the wordage on background checks, etc., and be civil.

5. Statistics: Stricter gun laws and a higher level of control  measures have a tendency to lead not to greater safety, but to more attacks. And while I'm on the subject, yes, some people are calling for the confiscation of privately-owned firearms. Guess what? Whenever a government has done this in history, it has never turned out well for the civic health of the nation. (cough, Hitler!)

6. If you want decent intervention on the weapons issue, how about allowing the states to consistently enforce the laws that are already on the books? The last I noticed, the Tenth Amendment was still in the American Constitution.

7. To make jokes about weapons and asking "what about assault spoons?" or jumping on news stories like the Lone Star cluster of stabbings to score political points is uncivil and insensitive to the victims.

8. On the other hand, for a political leader to use grieving parents and families as props to pontificate about gun control initiatives neither does justice to the solution needed nor does it sanctify their tears.

To me--and you are welcome to take issue with this--any approach that tries to restrict "assault weapons" (a term which goes largely undefined on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News and runs through our national discourse like a greased pig at a Kansas county fair) is going to ultimately make minimal progress, if any. In all likelihood, the safety of citizens would go into reverse, but again that's a debate for other times. The hard truth that we are learning right now--if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to receive--is that whether it's a gun, or a knife, or a spear, or a steel chair, or one's bare fists, or a sword, a woodchipper (forgive the Fargo reference), a bomb, or anything else...we are left with a truth hitting us between the eyes with magnum force.

There is something deeply, horrifically wrong with us.

In some people it operates at a more devastating, destructive level, but my point is there is something within all of us that is not right. Something that rears its ugly head time and again, where we reach out not to affirm or edify or protect someone, but rather tear them down either in body or spirit.

It was R. Lee Emery, in his memorable role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket, who barked at his Marines, "Your rifle is only a tool. It's a hard heart that kills."

Different situation today than the Vietnam War, to be sure. But my point is this: At their core, our hearts are hard, sinful masses within. And they desperately need changing.

There is neither any government law nor any line in the Bill of Rights that can mollify or snuff out that evil, that power that drives people to horrific ends. To be sure, there is only one solution. And it has to do with regeneration of the spirit, not layers of more controlling laws or liberation to greater stockpiles of bullets. Unless a crucified and risen Jewish carpenter graciously collars one's heart and initiates a joyful invasion of the soul, nothing will do any good.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

North of Hadrian's Wall

This past weekend, our family spent a few hours at Missouri Tartan Day at Frontier Park in St. Charles. While we also enjoy Oktoberfest (also celebrated there in September), I had been anticipating this Scottish festival quite eagerly, and not just because my publisher is Scottish. The outstanding memories included the clan tents, several stone-and-weight throwing demonstrations, tossing the caber, the music and dancing tent, and the St. Louis Caledonian Pipe Band. The band especially knocked the socks off the crowd with renditions such as "Scotland the Brave" and "Amazing Grace."

Immersing ourselves into Scottish culture was quite enjoyable, even if we were doing so on this side of the Atlantic Ocean and not in the land north of Hadrian's Wall (Yes, a trip to Scotland is on my bucket list). And it didn't end there. I have been reflecting on Scottish heritage lately--part of my own ancestry is Scottish, though the majority share of my bloodstream is owned by Welsh platelets.

In America, we tend to think we have shaped a good deal of the world around us. And yes, we are movers and shakers, but if you want to look at a culture that has set in motion a great deal of what we enjoy and in which we partake, consider the Scots. To wit:

- Consider the Scots when it comes to our American system of representative government. The Protestant Reformer John Knox studied under John Calvin at Geneva and brought reformation to the Scottish Kirk (church). Part of the reform consisted in a new approach to church leadership. Knox taught that God had ordained power into the governed, not the government, and the parishioners elect their represented spiritual leaders. This, when combined with Scottish Common Sense Realism within the Scottish Enlightenment, later influenced thinkers such as John Locke, whose writings formed the philosophical basis for much of our American constitutional republic.

- Consider that Scotland was the first nation to make education compulsory (in 1490). This could be done in local schools or at home or by other means, but the result was a highly educated, extremely literate population that produced economic authors like Adam Smith, historical novelists like Sir Walter Scott, and poets like Robert Burns.

- Consider that Scotland and Scottish sport has been imported into the modern Olympic games. The stone-throwing and weight-throwing competitions in the Highlands are the forerunners of the shot put and hammer throw we watch every four years.

- Consider that Scotland gave us James Watt, the man behind the steam engine, which transformed the world in the Industrial Age and opened roads, literally and figuratively.

- Consider this: Do you like math? Scotsman and mathematician John Napier discovered logarithms as a method of simplifying more complex calculations. Also, he encouraged the common use of the decimal point.

- Consider this: Do you like coffee? Do you like to keep hot chocolate hot, or your soup warm? You might want to thank the Scottish chemist and physicist Sir James Dewar, who invented the vacuum flask, also known as the Thermos.

- Consider this: Do you have a television? All hail Scottish inventor John Logie Baird, whose scanning disk enabled the first true modern version of the TV.

- Consider this: Do you use an alarm clock or a plug-in clock of any type? Have you ever had to send a fax? Give it up for Scottish inventor Alexander Bain, who came up with the electric clock and the first facsimile machine.

- Consider this: Have you had helium-filled balloons at a party? Truly aye, Sir William Ramsay, the Scottish chemist, was the first to isolate helium.

- Consider this: Have you ever needed to get a shot or have blood drawn? The Scotsman, Dr. Alexander Wood, invented the hypodermic syringe in 1853. And if you've been sick and been prescribed penicillin (provided you aren't allergic to it)? Thank Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist and pharmacologist, who nailed down that antibiotic in 1928.

- Consider this: Do you love watching Sherlock on the BBC or previous episodes on Netflix? Have you been enraptured by reading any of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? You guessed it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland!

- Consider this: Have you played golf? Scottish invention. Do you love watching curling in the Winter Olympics? That started in Scotland, too.

Little wonder that Winston Churchill himself once pontificated, "Of all the small nations on earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind."

Selfishly, I'd edge the Scots ahead. Let's face it: They beat the British at Bannockburn. They didn't go down at Thermopylae.