Christian education: Digging deeper, building higher

skycraperI love skyscrapers. If visiting a new city, I’ll often head straight for the tallest building and – as long as the fee isn’t too much – take the elevator to the observation deck. There’s nothing like the view you can get of the city when perched up so high.

I’ve learned a few things about how engineers design skyscrapers. The more floors tall a building is, the deeper the foundation must be.

That’s a good picture of how the church should think about education. The church encourages education of all kinds for its people because she knows that God is not glorified by ignorance. Jesus never saw a contradiction between heart and head. He called us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37). Jesus invites us: “Build high!” Followers of Christ are free to pursue truth and discovery in all its forms, but to build higher, we must first dig deeper.

Digging deeper

The Psalmist affirms: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. All who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10a, ESV). God is the sure foundation upon which we can build in all areas of life, including educationally. Saint Augustine (d. 430 AD) called this “faith seeking understanding.”

The Jewish people knew how important it was to properly teach their children about God. In Deuteronomy 6:6-8 (NIV), God commands :

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Children are like wet cement. It is never a question of of whether they will be imprinted but only who will do the imprinting.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, and when it comes to learning about God, they turn to us. Once when our older son was only three years old, he was thinking about the song that he had learned in Sunday School, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” As we drove in the car, his question was earnest: “Mom and Dad, does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “Yes,” I replied, “God really does.” There was a long pause. Finally, he replied: “God must have really big hands!”

Theologians can debate the finer points of whether God as spirit can have hands (John 4:34). To do so is to miss the point. The imagery of “big hands” is a lesson about God’s immensity, that God is bigger than creation – and, by extension – bigger than any problem we face.

Not all lessons about God taught by parents are helpful. A mother warned her son: “Even if I can’t see what you’re doing, God sees.” While this may be true, is it helpful? She planted in the young mind of her son an image not of God as a loving Father who forgives  and can help us rise above our failures, but rather a as divine version of the CCTV monitoring cameras used by countries to track their own citizens. We must be careful what we teach and how we teach it, nurturing in our children a desire to draw near to God as one who is not only bigger than our problems but also loving, gracious, and worthy of our trust.

One program that helps build deep faith foundations is Bible quizzing. Memorization of Scripture is encouraged by the Bible itself (Psalm 119:11) and few programs have been as successful in grounding youth in God’s written Word. In moments of uncertainty, passages memorized serve as an internal moral compass, guiding us to make decisions that are pleasing to God.

Yet Christian education – at home or at church – should focus not just on Bible memorization but also discovering how each of us fits into what Michael Lodahl calls the “Story of God.” That story in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments reveals God as a tri-unity (Trinity), God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Knowing that some of the subjects they would discuss could be unsettling, a theology professor was wise. He would always begin his class by inviting students to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the foundational, ancient summary of that story of faith:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Educating our children in the things of God begins at the youngest age. It is the task of parents and other members of the household of faith to bring them up to love God. While learning about God is lifelong, many churches make a point to catechize children around the age of 12. Catechism is a system of questions and responses that a child memorizes. Some traditions call this “foundations of faith.” It is another opportunity to make sure that our children have experienced the transformational work of Christ in their lives, that for them Jesus is not just the Savior of the world but their Savior. Children who have not yet decided to follow Jesus can be encouraged to make that decision.

Easter Sunday is traditionally the day when new believers are baptized. Graduates from the catechism class who have a clear profession of Christian faith but who have not yet been baptized should be given the opportunity to be baptized by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Since Christian baptism is a sacrament of initiation and therefore is not repeatable (Ephesians 4:5),  those who at the request of their parents were already baptized as infants or young children can publicly participate in a ritual that reaffirms what their parents did for them — see the liturgy in the “Appendix.”

Building higher

Because God calls us to love the LORD with all our mind, the people of God are not threatened by education in all its forms. Rather, they embrace it as another expression of their worship. Though the emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) was wrong to not allow for the education of girls, he is to be commended for requiring cathedrals and monasteries to provide a course of study for intelligent boys who also had the desire to learn. Later, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85 AD) insisted that clergy be well educated, leading over time to the founding in the mid 12th century of the first university (the famed “Sorbonne”) attached to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Areas of study included theology, philosophy, law, mathematics, and medicine. Such an openness to both the book of revelation (Scripture) and nature’s book (science) was the seedbed that would later produce men like Gregory Mendel (1822-84), a monk who became a renowned geneticist.

Besides Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition of Christianity (birthed in the early 16th century) has taught that “all truth is God’s truth.” Celebrated English physicist Isaac Newton (b. 1642) was also a man of abiding faith, writing extensively in the fields of science and theology.  This dual curiosity was shared by the Anglican priest and co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-91). Wesley was fascinated by medicine, and wrote a book outlining remedies for common ailments. He also developed a machine used to shock those suffering from depression, a crude precursor to 20th century electroshock therapy.

Today, this ability to see science and Christian faith as compatible – not contradictory – lives on in persons like John Polkinghorne, an accomplished theoretical physicist who later became an Anglican priest. His attitude reflects the maxim of the late longtime Dean of Eastern Nazarene College:

There is no conflict between the best of education and the best in the Christian religion.

Far from undermining Christian faith, encouraging our children to pursue knowledge in whatever academic discipline they choose will often establish their faith. It gives them the confident message that our faith is robust, not like a fragile teacup, ready to shatter under the slightest pressure. Psalm 19:1 (NIV) celebrates: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Because God is the Creator, the creation will point to its author, like a painting tells us something of the character of the painter.

Christian education is like a skyscraper. With Christian faith as a solid foundation, we invite our people to build the skyscraper of knowledge higher than ever before. Yet to build higher, we must first dig deeper. For the people of God, education is founded upon the fear of the Lord, then builds upward. The pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is not an affront to God but a noble expression of what it means to love God with all our mind. This is our duty, and this is our joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accordingly, no matter the academic discipline, we encourage followers of Jesus to reach as high as they can, to build the superstructure of knowledge and discovery as high as they can.

 

 

A skeptic once defined “faith” as believing with all your heart what you couldn’t possibly believe with all your head. Yet Jesus never saw a contradiction between faith that is passionate and faith that is reflective. He urged us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Matthew 22:37). Loving God does not mean checking our brain at the church door.

 

 

From independence to interdependence: The power of small groups

Goma_groups2We expected to run alone. That’s how our former cross-country coach did it. But on his first day, our new coach explained then demonstrated a different way of running together. He called it “Indian running.” Coach laced on his running shoes and ordered: “Follow me.”

Quickly we formed a line, like baby chicks following their mother hen. Setting a brisk pace, after a minute, coach barked out his command: “Next runner.” The boy at the back of the line then sprinted, passing his teammates, taking his position at the front of the line as the new leader. After another minute, he, too, would shout: “Next runner” and a new leader emerged. In this way, everyone had a chance to set the pace for a time. No longer were we nine runners depending only upon ourselves. Instead, we were interdependent, encouraging each other, running together.

Coach taught us all an important lesson:

Interdependence beats independence every time.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches the power of interdependence. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV) explains:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Galatians to carry each other’s burdens as a way of fulfilling Christ’s law of love (Galatians 6:2). In the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem, this was how believers built each other up in the faith, sharing their possessions, meeting in each other’s homes, eating together, celebrating meal Holy Communion, praying and encouraging one another (see Acts 2:42-28). It was an attractive, loving fellowship, and outsiders longed to be part of of it.

What worked in the earliest centuries still worked hundreds of years later. The young English evangelist, John Wesley (1703-91), was instrumental in birthing many people into Christian faith. However, he noticed that their faith often quickly grew cold. Like a newborn baby needs a blanket to keep warm, so new believers need warm fellowship to grown in their faith. Wesley soon despaired of visiting in the homes of everyone who was coming to Christ. He had to find a new system. Over time, he organized the early Methodists into mixed male/female groups of 15-20 (“classes”) and – for those who desired – into single gender “bands” of 5-7. These small groups met once per week in the evening for 60-90 minutes, allowing people to share their successes and challenges with each other, to pray and encourage each other in their faith. Like the early Christians, the Methodists discovered that – while independence leads to spiritual indifference – interdependence fosters spiritual growth.

Small groups are discipleship groups, helping members follow Jesus more closely, together. Paradoxically, greater dependence upon each other leads to greater dependence upon God.

While serving as a missionary in Benin (West Africa), I always looked forward to the Wednesday morning men’s breakfast. Five or six of the male missionaries in town met each week at 7 a.m. at the same café. We drank coffee, ate eggs and toast, caught-up on events from the last week, and encouraged each other. Before leaving, we spent 10 or 15 minutes in prayer. Those were years of great challenge in ministry, and our weekly meetings were fresh water for my thirsty spirit. Though we never ran together, those Wednesday breakfasts reminded me of Indian runs from high school. Once again, I moved from independence to interdependence, growing stronger in the process.

In small groups, we learn that our struggles are not ours alone. With time, trust develops between members. Brothers and sisters feel free to share about unhealthy habits that have ensnared them and receive help from others in the group. In the confession of sin and praying for each other, healing comes (James 5:16).

To be independent leads to isolation and despair. Interdependence, on the other hand, builds community and together draws us closer to God. What small group opportunities are there in your church? If there are none, speak with your pastor or other leaders in your church. Reflect how you can become a catalyst to begin this powerful initiative in your community of faith.

God’s Not Dead: A review

God's_not_deadFull disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Christian movies. Generally, I find them preachy, poorly acted, and – produced on a shoe-string – it usually shows.

So, I went to “God’s Not Dead” (2014) ready to hate it, and surprisingly, I didn’t.

The plot centers on atheist Professor Raddison (played by Kevin Sorbo), a philosophy professor who urges his freshmen students to write just three words on a piece of paper: “God is dead.” If everyone in the class will do this and turn it in to the prof, the unit on metaphysics can be skipped. There wouldn’t be a story to tell if all the students did so. One student – Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper) – is a Christian, and refuses to sign. As a result, the sincere but apparently outmatched Wheaton must give a presentation during three class periods, attempting to prove God’s existence.

The movie requires the viewer to suspend belief, at least to some degree. The veteran Radisson grows more agitated as the movie goes on, apparently troubled by the mounting evidence presented by the neophyte Wheaton. However, in real life, would any of these arguments have caught a philosophy professor worth his salt so flat-footed?

As the movie progresses — SPOILER ALERT! – Wheaton wins not by playing the philosopher, but by putting on his counselor’s hat. Radisson is not an atheist based upon reason as much as emotion, residual anger at God for taking away Radisson’s mother from cancer when he was only 12 years old. Seizing on the moment, in front of the class, the freshman chides: “How can you be angry at someone who doesn’t exist?”

“God’s not Dead” will convince no hardened atheists, but the plot twist – shifting the ground to the question of disappointment with God – may help explain its success. Produced for a mere $ 2 million U.S., it has made more than $ 60 million, a cool thirty-fold profit. Hardly a new film, it still generates lively discussion on  IMDB.com where some threads host conversations on the relationship between science and faith. Much to their credit, the writers of “God’s not Dead” avoided having their young hero take a narrow stance on the “how” of divine creation. Insisting only that God is Creator, they left room for either YEC (Young Earth Creationism)  or other viewpoints, such as OEC (Old Earth Creationism) or theistic evolution, i.e. that God created but has used and still uses evolution to do so.

Sometimes the movie gets it wrong. A young Muslim girl who is a student at Josh’s university is careful to put her head covering back on when around her father, but leaves her arms bare and sports hip-hugging blue jeans. Anyone concerned about covering her head would likely not transgress these other Islamic family norms.

On the positive side, if you’re a “Newsboys” fan, you’ll love the ending, though as time passes, they may have to change their name to the “Newsmen.” But most of those who were watching with us were teens, and they obviously enjoyed the upbeat music.

With the success of “God’s Not Dead,” expect to see more movies like it. If they generate good conversations about Christian faith among those who normally wouldn’t engage and manage to do it in a reasonably believable and quality way like this film did, then count me it.

MY RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Photo credit: IMDB.com

On the occasion of ANU’s 20th anniversary celebration

DSCN6669“Agents of Positive Change”

by Gregory Crofford, PhD

Coordinator for Education and Clergy Development

Africa Region Church of the Nazarene

Transformation is what Africa Nazarene University is all about. For the last four years, ANU has encouraged today’s graduates to resist unworthy habits and – as individuals of integrity – to make a difference in their chosen fields of work, their families, communities, Kenya, Africa, and beyond. Living as agents of positive change is at the heart of the teaching of Jesus Christ. He calls everyone who would follow him to be salt that preserves the earth, yeast that permeates society, and light that brightens dark places (Matthew 5:13-15, 13:33).

The Church of the Nazarene, Africa Nazarene University’s sponsoring denomination, is a holiness church that traces part of its heritage to 18th century English evangelist and theologian, John Wesley. Wesley believed that the people called Methodists were to be different, known for love of God and neighbor. He insisted that the hallmark of a true follower of Christ was their beneficial impact on others. Wesley and his associates inspired people to avoid the compromises that yield quick gains but ultimately damage self and others. Hymn-writer Charles Wesley agreed with his brother, John, that education was crucial for enabling the pursuit of nobler things, pleading: “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.”

Africa Nazarene University stands on the shoulders of spiritual giants like the Wesley brothers, bringing to the 21st century their warmhearted approach to the things of God, including education. Yet for the Wesleys and for ANU, faith is never to be quarantined to Sundays. The transformation that the Holy Spirit works in our heart and character is contagious, touching those around us every day of the week.

ANU graduates have become known for their academic proficiency, solid work ethic, and integrity. It is a reputation that is hard-won but easily damaged. May the 2014 graduates of African Nazarene University join the ranks of ANU alumni to be change agents – salt, yeast, and light – to positively impact our world.

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This article appeared in Issue 002/October 2014 of Aspire, a magazine published by Africa Nazarene University.

Righteousness, wisdom, and service

PDL
I had the honor of helping induct 20 Africa Nazarene University honor students into the Eta chapter of Phi Delta Lambda. (L to R: Dr Jerry Lambert, Chancellor; Dr Greg Crofford, Regional Education Coordinator; Elysée Bayishime, and ANU Lecturer Rev Gift Mtukwa)

Address to Phi Delta Lambda

Africa Nazarene University chapter

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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INTRODUCTION

We are all teachers. It’s a bold statement, is it not? We are all teachers.

I have not had the opportunity to speak with all twenty of our inductees. My suspicion is that some have formally studied education and are planning a career in teaching. Others have studied different fields – counseling, media, religion, law, and more. They may never stand before a classroom as a teacher. Still, the statement stands: We are all teachers.

I freely admit that I am biased. No task has brought me more joy or made me feel like I am using my best skills than when I have been teaching. Most of my teaching has been preparing men and women for ordained Christian ministry. One year saw me unlocking for high school students the mysteries of French grammar. Lest teachers have too high an opinion of themselves, God has a way of cutting us down-to-size. Terry Pratchett in his book, Mort, recalls a conversation. Someone observed:

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever… Have you thought of going into teaching?”

William Shakespeare once remarked: “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” With apologies to Mr Shakespeare, let me reframe his thought: “All the world is a school, and you and I are the teachers.” I ask you: What are we teaching our students?

Yes, like it or not, you are a teacher and – like all teachers – you have students, pupils that you may not even realize have secretly enrolled in your class. Your students are the ones who watch you. It may be a co-worker on your job, a child in your class at the Vacation Bible School, a camper, a player on the football team you coach, or perhaps one day your own son or daughter. These are not formal classrooms, yet life is a school and school is always in session. Others hear your words, but what do they learn from your actions, from who you are?

Each of us could recall pivotal moments when one of our “teachers” in life taught us something unforgettable. Allow me to share a few of the lessons I learned from them, lessons that mirror the three words from the Phi Delta Lambda motto:

Righteousness, wisdom, and service

  1. Righteousness is 24/7.

It caught my attention, the little Blue Nissan, or as they called it back then, a Datsun 610. It was a Japanese import, much like the Japanese imports that fill the roads of Nairobi. I was 17 and had just secured my first driver’s license in the State of New York. Now I was beginning a gap year between high school and university, a year when I worked 4o hours per week at the grocery store, saving money to attend Eastern Nazarene College.

But I needed transportation to drive across town to work, and that little Datsun grabbed my heart. The “For Sale” sign on the window had a phone number, so I called and set-up an appointment with the owner. I kicked the tires and looked under the hood. It seemed to be in good condition. Eventually, I asked the question: “How much?” The owner told me the price, several hundred dollars, and I reminded him that I would also have to pay sales tax on the vehicle. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’ll just write on the paper that you paid $ 100.00 for it, that way your taxes will be less.” I told him that I would need to talk with my father, and he understood. When I explained to my dad the owner’s offer to underreport the sales price, he replied: “Absolutely not, Greg. We’re Christians, and we will pay the rightful tax.” Later I brought the cash to the owner, and he handed me the car keys. “What should I write on the form for the tax assessor?” he asked. I told him what my dad had said, and he looked at me in disbelief. When I insisted that we must report the correct price, he shook his head and relented, but had this response:

“Your father is either very Christian or very stupid.”

Actually, I prefer to say: My dad that day was an excellent teacher, and what he taught me was simple: Honesty matters, and righteousness is 24/7.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament has much to say on the topic. Psalm 33:5 reminds us that the Lord loves righteousness and justice. Likewise, in picturesque language, Psalm 85:10 tells us that righteousness and peace kiss each other, a reminder that when righteousness is absent, discord is never far away. Proverbs 16:8 is a values check, concluding: “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.”

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Introducing Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts

Jacob_Roberts
Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts

From time-to-time, I enjoy high-lighting budding theologians to readers here at “Theology in Overalls.” Today, I  introduce you to Mr Jacob (“Jake”) Roberts.

Mr Roberts graduated this year from Olivet Nazarene University. He will shortly begin work as a Youth Pastor at a church in the Chicago area. Simultaneously, he’ll be completing his studies to become an R.N.

His blog, “On a Journey: Diving into the Mysteries of the God we claim to love,” can be found here.  Of special interest to Roberts is the nexus between science and Christian faith and how the two need not conflict.

Check out his writings, and feel free to dialogue on the comment threads of his blog. He enjoys theological conversation and discusses topics in a gentle and even-handed manner.

Good start, sir. Keep it up.

On Law and Grace: Thoughts on Javert and Jean-Valjean

Les-MiserablesVictor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a perennial source of reflection on the human heart. Long-time pastor and professor Doug Samples in 2012 put together a blog site entitled: “The Les Mis Project: Finding the Gospel in the Music of Les Miserables.” The site is a tag-team effort and well worth your time.

Doug wrote about inspector Javert’s suicide in this entry. He speaks about the “Law Keepers” in holiness churches, the people who like to play “gotcha!” They are a graceless bunch. I’ve known a few like that across the years, but looking at where we are as a church today, we are arguably careening toward the other ditch, that of antinomianism, or lawlessness. The Wesleyan Way is the via media, finding the balance between extremes. That’s what I had in mind when I posted this commentary in response to Doug’s blog:

Hello Doug –

I’m a bit late joining in the conversation! Thanks to your weblog, though, it’s all here a couple months later, and I’m grateful. Please keep it here for others.

My wife and I saw the latest movie with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and others. I can’t remember a time when I’ve sat through a movie with such rapt attention. By nature, I’m one who fidgets, but not that night.

Looking at Javert is like looking in the mirror of my younger self. I won’t go into needless details, but by the grace of God, I’m trending toward Jean Valjean these days. Still, the “Are you John Valjean or Javert?” is too simple a question. Strangely enough, I’m something of a mixture. I find, however, than when I have a “Javert moment,” it can freeze relationships.

On the other hand, it may be too simple to say that pre-Road to Damascus Paul was Javert and afterwards he was Jean Valjean. He never lost the Pharisee streak in his thinking, and quite frankly, I’m glad he didn’t. For all the attempts to say they contradict each other, Paul and James have more in common than the first glance would suggest. James speaks of the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). May I suggest that there are many in our churches coming out of the “anything goes” life of sin that really need some Javerts? They need the boundaries, the discipline – and that is a big word in spiritual formation, is it not? – that is an important thread in the Christian faith. Wise is the pastor who can channel such individuals in the direction of a Javert, someone who can provide the other “wing” on the airplane without which grace easily becomes license.

Lots to think about here! “Law” and “grace” are both necessary. Let us not condone a lawless grace, nor a graceless law. There is a via media that puts the two together.

Thanks again, Doug, Nate, and John for this excellent blog. I read most of the sermons yesterday, and came away inspired. Good job!

– Greg

It’s easy to talk about balance but much more difficult to find it. How do you keep flexibility and discipline together in your life?