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Thinking prayer

July 1, 2020

Thinking prayer

I know so little about prayer but we can fairly say that, at its heart, it is simple, although its practice is wide and deep. It is attention to God, to be deliberately and consciously in the presence of God, whatever we do or say in that “place”. This post is about just one type of prayer that is of especial relevance to teachers – that of thinking prayer.

What do I mean by “thinking prayer”? I mean a state in which thinking carefully and well is done deliberately in the presence of God, sometimes mixed with words of prayer, as a disposition towards God, a consciousness of his presence, a desire to do this thinking for Him and a reliance on His wisdom. It is a natural state for the Christian in his or her study, office or classroom, with students or in front of a computer doing ministry work.

It is a useful disposition while planning the day’s or the week’s work, where the diary (OK I still use a Filofax) open in the private prayer time of the morning seems to make a mockery of the distinction between planning and praying. Few of us have not been in this disposition when writing a difficult letter or planning a difficult conversation to come via phone or in person. And it would be strange if we did not enter this disposition when struggling with decisions big or small about our calling or our personal life.

However, it is in the area of theological teaching that it becomes a central concept. Much has been written about how, in theological education, we can and must integrate our academics with our spirituality, our mind with our heart, and how we need to teach and model that integration for our students. The practice of thinking prayer in our calling is a useful help to working this out.

We need to be precise here. The practice of deliberate attention to God in our work must not be seen as simply being conscious of God’s presence while we do this or that. Of course, that is valuable, and we can wash the dishes while enjoying the presence of God. However, for the theological educator, thinking prayer is not just prayer while doing theology, it is prayer by doing theology.  In this case, the presence of God is a deliberate intention not just to enjoy his presence (and no doubt sprinkle the task with petition), but to do the task with God, for God and in a manner appropriate to his presence – as prayer.

It will involve the abandoning the pretence of objectivity and seeing theology as entering the realms of mission and ministry. And, because prayer is always a humble act of reliance on God, so our theology is infused with humility. It will demand the hard and careful use of the mind, as least as much as that of our secular counterparts in scholarship, because we are doing the thinking as a gift to God, but everything is transformed because it is also prayer.

As Paul said in Philippians 3, “Brethren [and sisters], I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of this…. but I press on toward the goal”.

The Helpless Gardener

June 1, 2020

The helpless gardener

It is a time for gardening in many parts of the world, although we are at different stages of the cycle. Some are preparing the ground, some working to keep out the weeds and some harvesting. For those still in lockdown, at least this activity is open to many of us and causes un-prepared strained backs and tired arms.

And the work of theological education?

We certainly have to pull up a few weeds in the preparation of the soil of our student’s brains and hearts. I think of some of the standard “evangelical myths”, of some of the crasser denominational prejudices, of silliness imbibed from some popular devotional books, of wrong attitudes to scripture.

In their place we set about planting key concepts and attitudes which we hope will grow and prosper, claiming the soil for usefulness. Good weather helps and the societal and educational “weather” has been a bit turbulent during the coronavirus.

And the harvest of our work, the summative assessments, do show that some seed fell on stony ground, some on the highways and byways where students trod underfoot elements of our careful teaching and some bore much fruit.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of gardening for theological educators is our relative helplessness. For all the work of the gardener, he or she does not make the plants grow. The soil helps, the weeding helps, the position and light helps. But the weather is not in our control and above all, the nature of the seed itself and the general principle of growth and life infused into this world by God, cause the growth.

It is vital we understand that, in theological education, we do not operate a factory where the raw materials come in at one end and the finished products go out at the other. We operate with the far more complicated and humbler paradigm of the garden.

We do our best with the weeding and the planting and the fertilising but we are not in the end responsible for growth. That is, whatever the “weather”, inside the students themselves and with God.

This leads to two fundamental truths which we need to impress upon ourselves and our students. First, they and only they are the ones who determine to grow and, in the end, determine the growth by their effort and their connection with God the source of life and growth. It will be their own success or their failure at the last if we have done all we can (blessed thought!). Secondly, prayer and reliance on God for the whole theological education enterprise is a fundamental building block for the understanding of our work and the fruitful life of a theological student.

Sunday evening on the last day of the year 1882, in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, C.H. Spurgeon preached one of his best and worst sermons on the text John 20v15 “Supposing him to be the gardener”, the words about Mary when she mistook Jesus after the resurrection. His sermon was completely wrong as to exegesis (he supposed Jesus to be the gardener of our souls) but some found faith in Christ that night and others had their faith strengthened. Such is the grace of God for preachers and teachers alike.

Hopefully this little post, based on my poor analogy will find similar undeserved grace from its readers.

Theological education after Corona virus

April 22, 2020

Theological education after Corona virus

What will the theological education world look like when corona virus is finally conquered? The virus may well be around in some form for years, disrupting life in different ways. However, there will come a time when life returns to mostly normal but probably never quite the same. What will we see in our area of work after Covid 19? There are so many imponderables and future predictions are regularly wrong but we know a number of things will be different in society. We just don’t know how those differences in society will impact on theological education.

Firstly, the virus social distancing requirements have shown how effective it is to keep in touch and teach via the internet. Covid 19 came at just the right time to show this, when such powerful and effective programmes as Skype, Zoom and Team are available and most universities, colleges and seminaries already had up and running a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Already there is speculation that university students, having experienced home teaching will look more for cheaper and more convenient on line courses across subjects and disciplines. Theological education has been gearing up for more extensive on line working than much of the HE sector for some years, often because of financial and contextual pressures already in the system. Can we expect a radical change for colleges and seminaries towards this in order to survive?

Secondly, there will almost certainly be a world-wide recession and this will mean fewer jobs around and less money in the pockets of ordinary citizens. After going through a period of reasonable stability, colleges and seminaries were already suffering financially before corona virus and this will surely increase financial pressure on a number of colleges who are already hardly making ends meet. All rely on donations which will be harder for the ordinary Christian supporter to make, all rely on student numbers which may be difficult to keep up and some rely on endowments which will be worth less.

Thirdly, we can expect a growing divide between the developed world and the developing world. Many see this happening because, in much of the developing world, it is so hard to practice social distancing, very difficult for governments to pour money into their economies and inadequate health systems will find it especially hard to cope. All this when the western world is more pre-occupied with its own problems. This has the potential to increase the world divide in theological education as to where the power is, where the students come from, how it is funded, even as to ability of students in dis-advantaged areas to participate in internet-based schemes.

Fourthly, it is likely that we will face a mood change in society. Precisely what this will be is hard to predict. Will there be a desire for togetherness and caring for each other? A search for older values in face of the shock of our individual and collective vulnerability? A desire to value workers and people in general not by their riches but by their contribution to society and others? Or will there be a release in a greater hedonist, selfish lifestyle? And where will the churches be in this new mood? Will they be respected more or be seen as less relevant? Will they grow or decline? At the moment, most would say that the health workers rather than the Christians are the heroes.

So, what will all this mean for TE? Maybe this is not the most important question given the uncertainties. The best question is probably “What can we do to keep theological education on track and prospering in these new and difficult times?” Here are a few suggestions;

  1. We continue to embrace internet delivery but fight hard against it becoming the exclusive system or the norm in theological education. It is doubtless best in certain circumstances but, if the present isolation has taught us anything, it is that human beings need to literally and physically be together and, I would add, especially when they are learning.
  2. We brace ourselves for money problems in the middle future. Colleges and seminaries in difficulties now will face even more in the next year or two and the sector will probably go through one of its periodic lean times. The hardest thing of all (but the most necessary of all) in such times is to maintain our mission statement and full set of objectives, to serve church and world by developing students intellectually, spiritually/character-wise and in ability to serve God with their lives.
  3. We renew our vision of a theological education without borders, keeping and developing our inter-connectedness between nations and cultures. This may mean finding new ways to make those connections, new ways to serve, especially needy situations, new ways to even up an increasingly un-even world. For all its problems, the West will still be the rich that need to help the poor – especially in theological education.
  4. We see ourselves as serving the church, as always, but also, especially in these unusual times, we must see ourselves as working on the interface between the church and the world. Theological education colleges and seminaries should not view themselves as institutions separated from the world by the intermediary of the church they serve. Our students will have to be people who, in their task of mission by Word and deed, genuinely relate to the coming world mood, not shout old slogans from a distance.

Predictions of the future are usually wrong, but determinations to do what we can in a difficult situation are always right.

Dear blog reader, apologies for the un-usual timing and length of this month’s post – Graham C.

The crowded study

April 1, 2020

The crowded study

These days of difficulty, we may well be spending more time alone in the study, at least when Skype, Zoom, Hangouts or Team are not working and the children are not needing our attention. For all of us, studying and preparing alone in the study is a blessing whenever we can get it and some of us are blessed with more than usual nowadays because of social distancing.

So, we go in, close the door and are alone? Not really, our study is a crowded place;

The first thing we probably do is bow our head and seek God’s presence, so that is one more person deliberately in the room, and the most important. He is there in person and in his Word on the desk. If we say we teach about God in the presence of God then we also prepare to teach and write about God in His presence; an encouraging and challenging presence.

Then we cast our eyes over the full bookshelves and acknowledge the presence of our academic friends, the scholars we have lived with and worked with for many years, some of whom died hundreds of years ago but we like to take down their works and enjoy a conversation with them now and then. As is normal, friends are also a distraction and sometimes we pick up a book and start a conversation that takes us away from the task in hand!

Our students are also there, or they should be. Preparing teaching is preparing to teach them so we are very conscious of their presence, hopefully, how we can meet their needs, how we can bless them and lead them on academically, spiritually and in their ministries by what we prepare and teach. I have heard of some who even stick a picture of an actual typical person for whom they are writing on the top of their computer screen to keep focus on the receivers not only the content.

And, of course, the elephant in the room is our self – or our many selves. There is the studious self, the self who gets bored easily and needs a coffee and chocolate biscuit regularly, the self who loves the big picture and the self who needs to get the detail right. The fun self is there, which reminds me of C.H. Spurgeon who, when he was criticised for putting too much humour in his sermons, said “my dear you would not criticise me if you knew how much I keep out.” And those selfs (and others) can, indeed should, not be entirely “kept out” in the preparation, writing and teaching.

That’s a lot of people in a small study. And even when we go out for a walk to get away, they tend to come running after us and asking if they can come too.

Study-life for many of us consists of three main skills; dealing with administration efficiently; fashioning good and useful material while listening to the many voices; and tuning the ear to hear the still small voice.

It is not done alone.

Journaling for theological educators

March 1, 2020

Journaling for theological educators

I have kept a journal, on and off but mostly on, for many years. Why? Here are a few good reasons;

It becomes a reflection on our calling as a theological educator and how it is being fulfilled. There is nothing more important for us than to see our work as a calling to a particular ministry, a developing understanding of this and a noting its fulfilment in our life.

It can be an affirmation of important parts of our life that are nothing to do with theological education. Hopefully our journal will be full of those pleasures (and sometimes struggles) in our life which have nothing to do with our calling, a rejoicing in family, a recording of beauty and awe, a thoughtful walk.

It will facilitate the creation of happy memories to turn back to such as reading back over the last year and enjoying the happy times again. A short while ago, I even re-read what I wrote 49 years ago, the evening a young lady who was to be my wife indicated her beginning love for me. The ink was still luminous with joy.

It can become a way of talking things over with God, especially for those who sometimes find it easier to write than speak. We all pray in our own way and some often do it in written words. A journal is especially useful for a time of reflection, such as at the end of a year, looking back and forward in the presence of God.

It creates a record of the ways of God in your life. When I was recently writing a short memoir, I had thirty-six journals to guide me dating back to when I was a young man. It was enlightening about myself, but even more about how God had worked in my life, usually through other people, their decisions and encouragements.

And are they to be kept private? Yes, because if you write for others to see you do not write entirely honestly. At the end of his life, lying in bed, the puritan John Howe told his wife to bring all his journals and burn them in front of him before he died. We can all work out any exceptions to this rule, such as a loving spouse who probably knows more about us than we do ourselves.

If you do not yet do so, then let me encourage you to consider keeping a regular journal – or revive the habit that may have fallen by the wayside. It slows you down and makes you more reflective in a busy life, adds richness to that life and helps you live it well.

Babylonian Captivity revisited

February 7, 2020

Babylonian captivity revisited

Thirty years ago, Lesslie Newbigin described the relationship between theological education and higher education as the Babylonian captivity of the first by the second.

Since then, higher education has continued to change and has probably become the most globalised of all man’s activities. This has moved the goalposts and made an assessment of his interpretation urgent. Structures, attitudes, degrees, quality assurance, and how value is apportioned, are now all defined similarly in every country in the world. Theological Education at its higher levels just about everywhere fits within this global HE patterning for better or worse.

There is a contextualisation argument for this to be accepted as wise and useful. Even Jesus contextualised his educational methodology into that of the Rabbi for his time and place, since this was the dominant educational pattern for the society in which he taught. If the HE package is now the dominant educational pattern globally, maybe this is where we should be.

Yet, nowadays, just because of globalisation, there is surely no simple contextualisation left in the world. In theological education we now deal with a dual contextualisation, trying to be relevant and useful for the local situation and to be part of the connected global situation at the same time. It is not so much that we have ignored contextualisation but are dramatically prioritising global contextualisation over local contextualisation when they are in conflict.

What is more, contextualisation, locally or globally, is not a blank cheque, it contains a judgment on the context and even a denial of acceptance of parts of a context in the light of the Word of God and the intentions of the contextualisation.  Jesus was not content to simply contextualise either, but modified the Rabbi pattern to suit his agenda and objectives, in a number of important ways.

What are the consequences of our present Babylonian priority?

Firstly, we have not sufficiently remembered that theological education is to be done by the church for the church and is thus a faith and commitment-based enterprise.  The requirements of the secular university driven academy and the requirements of the Church of God are difficult to reconcile today, as a number of studies have shown, and this tension is rarely sufficiently acknowledged.

Secondly, we have often made the goal of theological education not so much the formation of the student as the conferring on them of status by degrees, so they will have influence in their society and ecclesiastical situation.

Thirdly, we have, in developing countries, generally imposed attitudes and ways of studying truth on our students because that is the way excellence, individual attainment, critical judgment, academic style, research quality and many other issues are defined globally. This, even though these are often alien to the culture and by no means simply the best way to use the mind in any culture.

Fourthly, we have devalued those students who cannot perform well within the patterns of global academia but have a fruitful ministry for God. Rarely are the academic high fliers in our systems the most used by God, rather the most humble and dedicated. This does not contradict the important need of the church for academic high fliers also.

What is the answer? If there is one, it is complicated! It does not mean a denial of either global or local contextualisation but a renewal of our fundamentals. It resides partly in the need for theological education to grow integrated students, alive to the need to be academic, spiritual and ministerial in equal importance as God has gifted them. It will be developed by emphasising, at the highest academic level, those degrees which are heavy on reflective practice for most, and confine the studying for Doctorates and Masters courses of a more purely theoretical nature to those students, immensely valuable but relatively few, who will teach and interact with society in a more dominantly academic way. It will mean listening to wise people in the church who are less concerned with status as with godliness and mission.

The Babylonian captivity did eventually end for Israel. Maybe theological education will one day return to its own land again and be at peace.

 

Living well in 2020

December 31, 2019

Living well in 2020

In the late autumn of 1871, Sir Marvin Sanders opened a burial site in Alexandria. This proved to be that of a minor lecturer in the Catechetical School of Alexandria, probably the earliest theological education enterprise in the history of the Church. Within the site were found a number of quite well-preserved papyri. These seem to have been written soon after the death of Pantaenus and during the subsequent principalship of Clement of Alexandria, so we can therefore date the documents not long after 190 AD.

One was especially interesting. It seems that this early teacher was concerned about the growing desire for success and influence in the church and tried to counter this trend with an emphasis on the supreme importance of living a good life for God.

Below is my rough translation of the document[1]. It seems to be a list of ten key aspirations and is entitled “Living Well”:

  1. Seek the presence of God always and in everything – in small matters of daily living, in study and teaching, in people, in beauty, in big issues of ministry.
  2. Constantly live in the grace and forgiveness of Christ and in conscious commitment to Him and His cause – to that end take communion/eucharist regularly to renew this in your heart.
  3. Live a full and happy life as a human being in God’s world – and thus fulfil God’s intention of renewing our humanity, while being wary of sin.
  4. In every circumstance, whenever possible, do the most loving thing for others – in leadership or ministry, in relationship, in family, in daily encounter with others.
  5. Fulfil your specific gifting and calling as best you can – in all stages of your life, from starting out in ministry to retirement, even if it means working harder than you wish.
  6. Write a journal daily – so you are able to reflect on the goodness of God, your own efforts to live well, and wrestle with ideas as they come into your life.
  7. Read quality – despite often tired or busy, read not just for relaxation but also books and articles that engage the mind and prompt careful thought.
  8. Take a walk or other exercise alone each day – for the body’s fitness, the mind’s time to think things through and for the spirit to give space to pray.
  9. Be humble enough not to pretend to be, or try to be, what you are not – apart from in exceptional circumstances, God’s strength is not given to allow you to be different from how he made you.
  10. Seek constantly to be at peace – a fruit of the Spirit and a product of constant vigilance, inside yourself and with others.

A useful set of aspirations for us all as we enter a new year. Why not make them your own?

 

[1] Schnickelgruber Alte Texte, Die Es Nie Gab, vol.14: 541, Berlin, 1896.

Forbid them not

December 2, 2019

Forbid them not

Children are a gift from God and they contribute so much to our lives. So why are our colleges and seminaries such child-free zones?

In keeping children away from the business end of theological education, we create an un-natural feeling in our colleges, make a true family atmosphere un-attainable and manufacture one more divorce from real life for our students. What are the main reasons for this?

The first is historical. Theological education today comes out of a long history of training “the men” for the ministry – and sometimes putting on occasional classes for “their wives” when they are not busy with the children. The Bible college movement broke this mould, following the Faith Missions of the 19th century which they served, and trained men and women equally, but they did not greatly consider the children, who often were sent away to school to give space for service.

The second is attitudinal. I can only quote the great theologian Abelard on sending his new-born child via Heloise, away to his sister “Who intent upon sacred and philosophical reflection could endure the squalling … and constant dirt of little children?” It is one or the other and he knows which he will choose.

The third is hermeneutical. We have so emphasised the “come apart for a while” sayings of Jesus that we have forgotten that, while he was teaching his disciples, he set a little child in their midst, and another time, when the disciples thought along the lines of Abelard, he rebuked them and invited the children to come to him.

No-one can deny that the thoughtless presence of children can harm the concentration required for theological education, but are there areas in which their presence gives more than it takes?

Worship times would be such occasions when the presence of children would be a lovely thing. Meal times would be much more fun, so also the coffee breaks. The residential areas of the campus would benefit from children and so we should build married flats – and run a creche. I have even experimented with prams in the lecture room, with some success, so we can give opportunity to their mothers to be in on the teaching. OK, they take their little one out if he starts to “squall” to use Abelard’s term, and rightly so. That happens also in sermons in church now and then. Children should never of course, enter the library with all the frowning notices requiring “silence”. But why not a children’s section as they have in municipal libraries? It’s just that we haven’t thought through much of this concept until now.

If we are teaching students to be missional, we should remember why Jesus told the disciples to “forbid them not”. It was “for such is the kingdom of heaven”. And if we are into teaching and learning we might just learn something from them.

Working with yourself

October 31, 2019

Working with yourself

When we first married, we had a very old Ford Anglia car. It would get us from A to B (eventually) but you had to understand it and work with it not against it, understanding its strengths and weaknesses. We loved her but she was particularly hard to start in the mornings, needed constant topping up with oil and had a tendency for the windscreen wipers to fail in the middle of a storm.

There are plenty of books about how to work sensibly with others but one of our central tasks as theological educators is to work sensibly with ourselves. Just as our car did the job so long as you treated it carefully, aware of what it could and could not do, so with us. Plenty of us are hard to start in the mornings, need constant topping up with coffee and can’t see very clearly in a storm of stress. We need to know ourselves, work with, not against, us as we are and then the job will get done as best we can. What does this mean?

  1. Understanding our weaknesses and strengths, a fair assessment of our ability or otherwise, with academics, people, planning, management, public speaking.
  2. Recognising our need for a team around us, because we know we will not have all the skills necessary to do the job alone. Building a team with those not like ourselves.
  3. Knowing our stress signals, which could be growing anger, pains in the head or elsewhere, you name it, you have them, they are the body saying slow down or trouble is coming.
  4. The ability to apologise and gain forgiveness – from others and ourselves since we will mess up. A loving relationship with others should ensure forgiveness from them and we need to show as much grace to ourselves as God does to us.
  5. Knowing our time cycles of ability and using them. Early morning or late at night are classic times when we work best or worst, but it is often more complicated than that, we just have to know, and adjust our schedules to work with the cycles.
  6. Understanding when and how best to build in “time out” in relaxation is essential, on our own and with those we love, remembering that we have other relationships than our relationship with theological education!
  7. Realising all these things shift upwards as we mature and downwards as we age. We do not paint the picture of our self-knowledge just once, but need to regularly re-paint it in certain areas as we change.

You have probably noticed that God has hardly been mentioned in this post yet. However, all this is spiritual work. Only true humility will put us in a position to be able to assess ourselves correctly. We need divine wisdom (and wise fellow Christians) to guide our minds as we try for an honest assessment of ourselves. And a true assessment of ourselves will surely lead us to the view that we cannot do the job unless we have the help of God. The end result of working with ourselves then, is a life of prayer.

And what an encouragement when the job is done through us and despite us because God chooses the weak to confound the strong. Now and then, in our little old rattily car, we would pass some nice flashy BMW or Jaguar beside the road broken down and going nowhere. And we would laugh.

A useful reference

October 1, 2019

Dear sir/madam,

Thank you for inviting me to provide a reference for this candidate for a lecturing post in your seminary.  To my mind, there are six fundamental requirements of such a person, which are the very things we hope and pray for in our students;

  1. Competent academics. Excellent in one subject and with a broad knowledge of the whole field of bible and theology.
  2. Real spirituality, committed, in a lively relationship with God leading to a solid moral, loving life.
  3. Ministerial skills. In the case of a theological educator this means good enthusiastic teaching ability.
  4. Integration of life. Their spirituality and academics inform each other, their ministry is shaped by both and, in turn shapes them.
  5. Conviction of call. To prepare men and women for a life of loving and serving God and others.
  6. Relational, community emphasis. People skills, ability to work in a team with a joint sense of calling.

This man certainly has the first five and probably, now with more experience, the sixth also.

You should also know that he possesses excellent biblical language skills. He has plenty of missionary experience and was a pastor for a short while. He writes well, deeply but with practical intent although occasionally it is hard to make out exactly what he is saying and I am not alone in this. Character wise, he is an un-usual mixture of extreme humility and strong assertion of what he thinks is right.

But here is the problem; he is not at all the usual sort of person we employ in theological education today. You ought to know that he is very passionate, over the top at times. He is often in controversy and his language is pretty strong. He did have a disagreement with a fellow worker which split the team a while back, and all signs are it was his fault (which he later realised). He is also a charismatic, and I know that your seminary does not have this as an emphasis. He speaks in tongues, encourages prophesy, practices divine healing and sees visions. A while back, he refused to cut his hair for a while, and then formally cut it – for a religious reason, he said. I was not on his team at the time but it would have been interesting to be led by a long-haired charismatic if only for a few weeks! One other thing, he is not a well man. I will leave him to tell you more about that but it has bothered him greatly in the past.

All this means that if you appoint him you will be taking a real risk. He is very special and any seminary or college which employs him would be greatly blessed but its principal would have a real roller-coaster ride! It’s up to you but personally, I would go for him.

Don’t you think theological education is increasingly bland these days?

Best wishes, Luke

(PS I was his doctor for many years)


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