Wednesday, May 28, 2014

being a better teacher

Is the PPP teaching method old fashioned?
Image from

I spend a lot of time learning. As a result, I also spend quite a bit of time teaching what I am learning. It is a natural cycle, I believe. As one who teaches in many different settings (casual, formal, sacred and secular), I am frequently thinking about what is called a teaching philosophy. This is a statement which sets forth one's basic values, priorities, and methods for helping people to encounter, embrace, and hopefully embody something new. Most of my teaching philosophy operates at an unconscious level as I make choices based on my goals in a teaching/learning situation, but I regularly pause to consider questions such as which method will be most effective and what material do I present and what do I leave out. 

This week I came across a quote from biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman and it made me stop and think back on my experience to see if it was true. Good writing makes one do that. It also made me take another look at my teaching philosophy to see if I reflect the value of encounter. In principle, I believe I do, but this was a great reminder about where to put my emphasis as a teacher. Though Brueggeman is speaking mostly about a church context, I believe what he says applies to other settings as well. Go ahead, Walter:

If you ask almost any adult about the impact of church school on his or her growth, he or she will not tell you about books or curriculum or Bible stories or anything like that. The central memory is of the teacher, learning is meeting. That poses problems for the characteristically American way of thinking about education for competence even in the church. Meeting never made anybody competent. Surely we need competence, unless we mean to dismantle much of our made world. But our business is not competence. It is meeting. We are learning slowly and late that education for competence without education as meeting promises us deadly values and scary options. And anyway, one can't become "competent" in morality or in Bible stories. But one can have life-changing meetings that open one to new kinds of existence. 

Pretty good stuff, right? I love the idea of learning is meeting. In a course I taught this past winter at the university, I designed it so that students would "meet" at least 13 different figures in the history of Christian Spirituality (and I used that exact terminology). My hope was that at least one of these historical figures would be someone the students found interesting or someone they could identify with in some way. I knew that once they met someone and became curious about their life, the student would be drawn into that world and begin to learn about the subject beyond a surface level.

But wait, Mr. Brueggeman has more to say:

Our penchant for control and predictability, our commitment to quantity, our pursuit of stability and security - all this gives us a sense of priority and an agenda that is concerned to reduce the element of surprise and newness in our lives. And when newness and surprise fail, there is not likely to be graciousness, healing, or joy. Enough critics have made the point that when experiences of surprise and newness are silenced in our lives, there is no amazement, and where this is no amazement, there cannot be the full coming to health, wholeness, and maturity.

Thanks, Walter. I love the connection he makes between amazement and wholeness. We are not built for comfort, but for wonder. We are not built primarily for competence but for maturity. We are not meant to control but to experience newness and wonder every day of our lives. We are learners who learn by meeting. What do people learn when they meet you? I hope and pray that people learn about wonder, joy, graciousness, transformation, love, and grace when they meet me. And when they don't, I take a deep breath, embrace confession and forgiveness on both ends, and hope and pray that I never stop learning how to be a better teacher.

Quote from Walter Brueggeman, Living Toward a Vision (New York: United Church Press, 1987), 167-71.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

dance lesson

Images from Life magazine

Dean and I have been taking swing dance lessons for a few years now. I must admit that I have a love/hate relationship with dancing. I like the physical activity, I like learning the moves, I like hanging out with Dean and meeting interesting people, and I love watching skilled people dance. Here are the parts I am not so fond of. First, taking dance lessons means dancing with a different person every 5 minutes or so; this is a bit socially awkward for an introvert, but I can deal with it. The second and biggest downside for me is that much of the time I feel like I just don't know what I am doing. Very often the leader I am dancing with will start a move or give me a signal and I will miss it. I won't know what to do next and I end up at odds with him, out of sync or facing the wrong direction. Honestly, much of the time I feel like a bad follower. This particular session our teachers focused on showing us how to be better followers. An exercise we did one evening was to try to follow the other person's moves without any physical contact. It was amazing how much I could pick up just from watching the other person once I knew where to put my focus.

This was a breakthrough for me! I was not a bad follower, I just hadn't known where to look! Because of this I was always waiting for a nudge, a push, a pull, a prod, something to get me moving in the right direction or give me a clue about what was coming next. But that's not what dancing is about; it is not one person pushing or dragging the other one around. Many of the places I had been looking were unhelpful: the floor, my feet, my partner's feet, their arms, their forehead, our surroundings, etc. When I watched my partner's shoulders, it became quite obvious where they were going, no prodding needed. I could see a change coming, could notice a shift in momentum or direction, could tell where they were putting their weight. It was a freeing experience to know that I did have the ability to follow, to know what was coming, and to respond appropriately.

Sometimes I feel the same way in my relationship to God. I seem to be floundering, all over the place, trying to get in sync with what God is doing. If there are signals, I seem to miss them or even misinterpret them. So I pray for more obvious nudges, clearer signs, and await a touch from God to set me in a certain direction. But the movements of God are all there for me to see if I just know where to look. It is not that God doesn't want to touch us; it is that he does not want to force us. The beauty of the dance is ruined by a forceful and demanding lead who leaves no room for the follower to express herself and shine in her own unique way.

Whether or not I feel the touch of God is sort of irrelevant. I can know the joy of being a great follower if I keep my eyes in the right place: not on my feet, not on my circumstances, not on the floor or the sky, not on what others are doing around me, but on the core, on the heart of the one I am trying to follow. Everything else flows from that.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

agree to disagree

Montreal Canadiens fans celebrate their team's NHL playoff win over the Boston Bruins in Montreal Wednesday May 14, 2014. Montreal's Bell Centre was a sea of red, white and blue on Wednesday night as Canadiens fans packed the arena to watch their beloved Habs play 500 kilometres away.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Photo by Ryan Remiorz, Canadian Press. May 14, 2014
I live in a pretty charged city. Opinions on hockey, politics, religion, and food are strong in Montreal. Last night the Canadiens (our city's hockey team) won a spot in the NHL semi-finals and Dean and I went downtown to witness the ensuing celebration; if you live here, you just know the fans are going to take to the streets and make a scene. Sure enough, the sidewalks were filled with fans wearing their bleu blanc rouge jerseys. People were driving around, hanging out of their windows, waving flags and cheering. People ran down the streets high-fiving every person they met (yep, I gave a few high fives myself). The noise was pretty deafening in certain parts of Ste-Catherine street where cars were honking and people were yelling in celebration of their team's hard-won victory.

The police and riot squads were out in full force, making sure that the traffic kept moving and nothing got out of hand. One Hummer, festooned in Canadiens flags, also sported a Boston Bruins dummy tied to the hood and a fan was standing in the open sun roof holding a Bruins effigy swinging from a noose. That crossed the line of good taste and sportsmanship, if you ask me. Loud cheering followed the Hummer as it slowly made its way down Crescent street, past people eating and drinking on restaurant balconies and terraces. 

As we meandered through the crowd, I saw one guy walking down the street wearing a Boston Bruins t-shirt; he really stood out among the sea of red. My first thought was for his safety. My second thought was that my first thought was a bit sad. Were we really so ungracious in this city? So intolerant? So bull-headed? So prone to get carried away without a thought for the effect it might have on others? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I love this city, but I have to admit that the combination of Quebecers' passion and stubbornness is sometimes disastrous.

No different from we who are Christians, really. We can get so focused on our favourite cause, belief, person, interest group, or doctrine that we become rude, brash, unkind, hostile, and even violent. Just read a bit of church history (or the headlines of the past year) and you will see plenty of examples. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have learned the lesson from our mistakes. We still separate ourselves from others who love Jesus just because we have some point of contention. We seem to lack the skills to live, work, and peacefully co-habit with those we are in disagreement with. For hockey fans, I believe the celebration should be first and foremost of the game of hockey instead of desiring to crush another team. Can we genuinely appreciate good skills even though they are not wearing our colours? I hope so.

James Bryan Smith believes that divisiveness stems primarily from fear and at the core of this fear is the desire to control. Exclusion makes us feel safe in some way, because we are with those who make us feel comfortable. Stanley Hauerwas writes: "Only when my self - my character - has been formed by God's love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other." If we are honest, a lack of love and a presence of fear are usually at the core of our exclusivity or division. And this is not what Jesus taught and lived, in fact, he came to call us to love others like we love ourselves and to let go of fear. Augustine is credited with saying: "In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." How we treat (and speak of) those we disagree with is telling. Within the church, there is no excuse to exclude. We may disagree with others, we may have heated discussions about certain issues, but in the end, we are called to love and forgive, not to separate and divide. 

I once heard a close friend say to a someone whom they differed with: "I am on the opposite side of almost every issue that we talk about, but I like you!" That's what it looks like to live in the generous spirit of unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. We may not agree with someone, but that's not the deciding factor. Miroslav Volf wisely said, "I don't think we need to agree with anyone in order to love the person." 

Thursday, May 08, 2014


The clock on my wall
I am at the stage in my doctoral studies where I am waiting to hear back from my supervisors before I embark on the next big writing phase. It's a sort of limbo; one thing is completed and I am waiting for the next thing to start. Hard to know what to do in limbo sometimes. In this period of waiting to hear from my supervisors, there is a lot of work I could be doing such as reading books and articles which pertain to my research, preparing an article or two for publication, setting up a research trip, and creating a syllabus for the course I am teaching next year (to name just a few projects). And yet, I find it hard to get motivated to do any of these important tasks. I would rather sit outside with the cat, read some fiction, research real estate, or even do laundry and wash dishes. Why is that? Am I just a procrastinator? Perhaps. But I also know that what I do during in-between times like this reveals something about my overall mental and spiritual state.

We actually spend quite a bit of our lives in some type of in-between stage, if you think about it. Waiting in a grocery check-out line, sitting in a theatre before the movie starts, hanging out in the doctor's waiting room, waiting for people to meet us at a restaurant; even driving to work or riding the bus downtown is a sort of limbo.

What do we do with this in-between place? A lot of us kill time, an awfully violent way to phrase it, but the description is perhaps more accurate than we care to admit. If I am bored, restless, impatient, worrying, or aimless during these waiting times, it reveals that underneath my usual busyness, I am not totally at peace. They say that under pressure, who we are really comes out. I would suggest that in times of limbo, the same is true. Those times when an outside force is not exerting pressure on me to perform certain tasks or be a certain place, this is when my natural inclinations take over. And what are my default settings? I want them to be hope, peace, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and goodness.  I don't want them to be boredom, restlessness, aimlessness, impatience, fear, or emptiness.

Last night when I had 30 minutes before an event, I walked around the city and took pictures, appreciating the beautiful city in which I live. I usually bring a book with me so that I can read during the in-between times in life. These in-between activities (reading and taking pictures) fill me with joy and wonder. When I spend time fiddling on my phone with no purpose in mind, I get no such feelings. When I look at others on the bus with critical eyes, I get no such feelings. When I worry about getting there on time, I get no such feelings.

Let me remember that these times of limbo are blessed gifts: times to be rejuvenated, times to enjoy the present, times to think things through, times to pray, times to speak words of encouragement, times to notice the little things, times to give thanks, times to prepare for what is ahead, times to do spontaneous projects, times to sink roots a bit deeper, times to smile at a stranger, times to be amazed at the beauty around us, times to feel sorrow for the brokenness around us, times to receive mercy, times to be still and know that God is God.