Imaging Theology (part 2)

When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.

For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives.  I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about.  When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:

 

I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.

This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean.  It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.

With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.

So, this image  has been with me for the last four years or so.  It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.

It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology.  I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.

Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015.  I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding.  I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.

Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration.  It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.

Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.

Which isn’t an easy realization for me.  Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths.  I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.

I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity.  I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.

Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed.  But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated.  My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty.  But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it.  Somehow.

I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme.  It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.

I hate that nagging.  The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity.  I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.

Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.

It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however.  So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.

I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year.  I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.

I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger.  It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth.  I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.

But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean.  I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day.  She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.

The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin.  I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.

“Bring on the fun!”

Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery.  Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons.  Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.

This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.

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Imaging Theology

What do you see when you think about pursuing God?

I remember the professor in my first theology at Wheaton asking a similar question.  He asked what image of God do we find most appealing: lord, king, savior, and so on, drawing from different expressions of God in the Bible. I answered, “King,” reflecting my sense of calling at the time to go questing in search of light, wisdom, pursuing obedience. I was reading a lot of Stephen Lawhead back then too and I found his King Arthur trilogy particularly inspiring.  So, I liked the royal attributes of God and the associated chivalry of the Christian life. At least as I understood it.

A lot was uncertain in life, then, and I wanted to make sense of it, and make sense of it in a way that brought meaning and hope in the midst of overwhelming and impossible struggles. Clinging to the stories of great adventures, purpose, meaning, helping me navigate the great swath of senselessness  and yearning that had characterized my life up to that point.  Life almost kept working out, doors just about opened, opportunities mostly resolved. I was drawn just far enough to keep on, always defeated enough to prevent satisfaction.   It had to mean something, because I knew there was something more drawing me onward.

It was chivalry of Quest not battle. I knew there was truth and falsehood, good and evil, heroes and villains. But I didn’t want to conquer others or really even debate them.

I saw Christ as King, and myself as a dogged, if imperfect, servant.  So now, when I think about what my image of theology was in my earlier years, this one probably fits, though I wouldn’t have understood the question the same way then.

It’s not very sophisticated. It is quite earnest. And it was an image that kept me going through uncertainty and a myriad of distractions. I identified with Galahad and his search for the grail, so maybe this one is even more particular.

It probably didn’t help I read books like The Interpretation of the New Testament with its mentions of champions, and entering the lists, and suchlikes. Made it feel like a struggle worth fighting for. Though not initially in theology.

That was an image that sparked my interest in law school–fight for justice–through my senior year and onwards. Only after continued reflection on that direction did I make left turn into seminary, as the Quest kept driving me. The image stayed, mostly, the same. AA service. A sacrifice. A goal. A noble path.

A Quest.

Theology was about doing, performing, accomplishing, advancing, discovering and transforming.

I saw the grail. But I couldn’t take hold of it during my seminary years.

Toward the end of that season, I was feeling burned out by church politics and dysfunctions.  I was enthralled by the depth and hope in my study of theology and Scripture.  What I was seeing as the possibilities in and with God was finding expression in ministry but kept running against a wall of something that I couldn’t address or even name.  Every time the grail would near it would dissipate. I was nearing exhaustion in the Quest and went to the Getty museum to find some restoration.

I wandered through the halls, letting my thoughts wander amidst the art and scenery. Not seeking anything, just wanting a break from the usual.

Then I saw this small painting by Caspar David Friedrich:

It was like a cool pool of water on a hot day.  I dove into it.  Stood there for a while taking it in before moving on to continue my museum wandering. The painting stuck with me, tugging at me well after I got home. This was it, I realized.  What? I asked myself.  I don’t know, I replied.

I have a lot of conversations like this with myself.  The thoughts morph into a prayer of sorts, asking for wisdom.

It came to me after a while. Be, don’t do.  God is asking me to be with him, not do for him.  To rest in him, to walk with him, to seek him, not perform or accomplish. Being, not doing. The image clarified a driving whisper in my soul to enter into prayer, restoration, amid nature. I found myself drawn away from the city and the busyness of social expectations. I visited the mountains and found the same melody played by wind and trees and raven calls.  A theologian is one who prays truly, Evagrios once wrote.  And that was the call that came through that painting.  It was my new image of theology that replaced the quest.

So, I moved to the mountains beginning an extended season of theological refocusing, a neo-monastic approach to life and theology that was alternately breaking and exhilarating, renewing and frustrating, all of it exposing my self to my self, no longer offering distractions to avoid dealing with the inner chaos. The wave crashed over me, carried away a great deal of clutter, leaving me emptier and free.  A walk in an extended dusk, sun always on the horizon, never setting, risking being for the sake of being.

The light switch turned on in 2007.  I felt drawn back to the world, back into a form of busyness without chaos. Doors perpetually closed began to swing open, paths revealed themselves, opportunities awakened.  Yet the theological task was not fully illuminated.  I was being called to go, but to where?  To what? The old assumptions of the Quest tried to marshal their forces, but that wasn’t the image I had anymore.  It was more of a Way, a journey, a walk into the mists.  The images were also now more my own. As I thought about how I conceived this new season a picture from a hike came to mind:

I walked along this dirt road fairly regularly during my time in the mountains, with it also often one of my jogging trails.  Forests have moods and on this foggy day it was a somber place, wet and still.  I couldn’t see too far, but kept walking, knowing there was beauty at every step.

I went off trail, to places I hadn’t gone before, trusting in what I did know to orient my journey.  I didn’t have a goal besides the journey itself, entering into the mystery with expectation.  This is the image of theology I had through my PhD studies, and one that in part continues to call to me.

More recent imaging of theology in the next post.

 

 

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Will I notice?

A little more than two thousand years ago a baby was born. We throw parties in his honor. We give gifts. We feast. We sing. We make merry, yearning for that spirit of his birthday to infuse our souls; if only for a season, if only for a day.

We celebrate this particular birth because of what this birth means to this world. We honor this baby for the miracle of being born, for the life he lived, for the death he suffered and for being reborn from the dead to embrace life eternally. This rebirth from the dead gives us the chance to be reborn as well, moving from death to life and from darkness to hope.

On December 25 we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The birth of this man is the glory we celebrate on Christmas. Pageants, musicals, songs, decorations, gatherings of family from across the nation, all because this man was born.

What if he had not been born? Where would we be today?

How would we live? How would we worship?

We would be without a way to encounter God directly. We would be without an ever present hope and without the peace of trusting God who works. Instead of being free, we would all be slaves. Where would we look for our salvation? To gods of stone and wood? To patterns of philosophy? To rules and laws? To ourselves and our own abilities to conquer this world?

Without the birth of Jesus we would be caught in a web of insecurity, never knowing how the vagaries of the gods might move in our lives. We would be looking for something, for anything, to bring us some security and hope and light.

Where would we look?

What if the Holy Spirit waited and didn’t bring forth Jesus until this year?

If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice. He wouldn’t be born anywhere I was looking.

The details of his birth likely wouldn’t be too much different. He would be born to Jewish parents, as the delay of two thousand years wouldn’t change the Old Testament prophecies. He’d likely even be born in the Middle East, where the strife and terror and chaos of our current era is shockingly similar to the strife and terror and chaos then. Instead of traveling because of a census, Joseph and Mary might make an untimely trip because of a UN mandate or an agreement with Lebanon to close a northern Kibbutz and move the families back within the settled boundaries of Israel.

I would be looking at powerful leaders and charismatic prophets. I would keep my eyes on New York or London or Beijing. I would be following the lives of great people and care about the children they have. In my library would be books by men and women detailing how to interpret the symbols of the age.

My eyes would be on the things that clearly mattered. An obscure baby, born to an obscure Jewish family, during a this time of great chaos and uncertainty, wouldn’t appear on my radar. Who would think of looking there? Except for the wise men, of course.

I would be obsessed with the looking I imagine, desperate to see the hand of God in the midst of the world’s misery. In the book of Exodus he brought plagues and freedom. In the books that followed he brought great victories to his chosen people and established a great earthly kingdom for them. Wars and rumors of wars, along with miraculous intervention in these wars would be a sign. The Holy Spirit is filled with power so I would look for that power to be manifested in great events that would obviously change my life and bring real order to this present world.

If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t celebrate. I wouldn’t give presents. I wouldn’t sing songs or take time off from work. I would stay obsessed with the chaos and keep my eye on those people I knew mattered to this world

No doubt about it, if Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice.

Thank God the Holy Spirit brought forth Jesus in Mary two thousand years ago. Now, after many centuries I build my trust on the faith of millions of others who came before me. I build my trust on those who wrote about the obscure birth in an out of the way Israeli town. I celebrate not because of how Jesus was born but because I know the end of the story. The Holy Spirit worked long ago, so now I know where to look on this Christmas day.

And yet…

The Holy Spirit still works. In much the same way. Jesus is born on this day. No, he is not making another appearance as a defenseless baby destined to be baptized by the Baptist and die on the cross. Still, he is born on this day. This is the ever active work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who visited Mary fills men and women all over the world. When the Holy Spirit descends, Christ makes an appearance in all manner of circumstances.

I would not have noticed when Jesus was born two thousand years ago, and I certainly would not notice if he was today born to a virgin. However, because of Christmas I have been given an opportunity to believe and look with new eyes. I have been called to notice the present work of Christ’s presence in this world.

I’m going to put aside my magazines, shut off the news, ignore the popular and the great. I’m going to look at the obscure and the troubled and those who are persecuted. I’m going to look around the room at folks who seem entirely average and unimpressive. The Spirit works through such people to bring Christ in this world. In recognizing, honoring, and supporting this work maybe I too can become a wise man.

So, on this Christmas I celebrate the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. I also celebrate the birth of Christ today, a constant birth that changes the world through outlandish people every day until his return. For in all those the Spirit fills, Christ is indeed born.

Will I notice?

(Something I wrote in 2006)

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Past speaking into the present

Something I wrote exactly 12 years ago:

Very early Thanksgiving morning yesterday, around four am, I woke up feeling very thankful. For what? That’s always the question, and something I can easily beat myself down with. This wasn’t the point in that moment. There wasn’t a ‘for what’ there was simply a thankfulness, a full, cleansing thankfulness that had no object only a direction, and so I prayed and prayed for others.

I spent the morning cooking, something I don’t do very often, so I try to have a bit of adventure when I try it. My contribution to the family feast was salmon cakes with a walnut and pomegranate sauce. It indeed turned out well, better than I thought. The whole morning was filled with delight, and the day went by with that glow of thankfulness.

Then evening came, brother and sister-in-law came over, and I slowly descended. Until today when a fog rolled in over my soul, clouding my insights and delights. It was the kind of day that wanted to be wasted, which wanted to waste me. But, somehow I pressed on, turned direction, and spent the day building a renewed spiritual habit. I didn’t feel the pull of the Spirit, nor did my soul look outwards and upwards, but I did work to facilitate the habits which would keep my eyes focused even during the days of storm and fog.

I looked to the Daily Hours for inspiration and renewed the habit of posting the daily Bible. So, the fog rolled in, and I rolled onward, seeking God and Christ and the Holy Spirit no matter the emotion or frame of mind.

Tonight there is a full moon reflecting on the snow which still fairly covers the land. It is an eerie glow, a mystical light that the soul embraces without knowing why, or caring. A breeze picks up every once in a while, catching me by surprise as it stirs the branches and rattles the needles in the trees. I love the sound of the wind rushing through the trees at night, I love to look at the wan light of the moon reflecting palely off the snow. I need to dwell on this more, and dwell less on those things which God has called me towards but has not revealed. I need to dwell in the present, and embrace the work of the Spirit in the now.

This is the goal of time formatted to reflect a Spiritual yearning, and one which has encouraged countless seekers after Christ to find their rest in him. So, given that I was going to end the day with no thoughts and little encouragement, and after reading my through the evening prayers by candelight I sit and write this with a kernel of delight renewing in my soul, I figure it is precisely the course I was supposed to take.

God calls, and it does us well to listen.

Old Toll Road

When I wrote that I was 30 years old, living with my parents, unemployed, all my hopes and dreams had stalled. I had become so frustrated with the frustrations I stopped fighting to keep up appearances. Moved to the mountains where there was beauty and time to be found.  I wrote this after a year there, when God’s work was still much more about breaking me down than finding light and progress.  I was reformed in the forest, in the midst of having to come to terms with my own self, finding who God wanted me to be more than focused on what I wanted to do. I had to let go my calling in order to find my becoming. It wasn’t a quick journey, full of promise and discouragement, glimpses of progress and awareness of deep deficiency.

It was hard to find hope in the midst of nothingness.  I am glad I listened to words of faith and of the whispering promise of redemption and renewal.

It was indeed precisely the course I was supposed to take, though circuitous and uncertain.

A good reminder as I continue to journey into the fog-filled path ahead.  Even as my current path has much less of the loneliness and much more of the two-year old clamoring in the background, “I don’t want to.” I know the feeling, Oliver.  But we do it anyhow.

Hope is not a privilege, it is a calling.  It is the daily step, the “forgetting what is behind and pressing toward what is ahead” because that is the way of life.

Ignore anyone who preaches despair to the broken and hopelessness to the outcast. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

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Life by the Spirit

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians

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election advice

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and I advised them: 1) To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2) To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3) To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.”

~John Wesley, October 6, 1774.

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Right Passions

I begin each week of my online courses with a reflection on the theme of the week. It is a devotional beginning, a way of getting the students to think about the topic in light of Scripture, often more pastoral and personal than specifically theological. Of course, the theological is part and parcel with those elements, even as the conventional approaches to theology these days are more academic in tone.

In my class on the Holy Spirit this week, we’re looking more closely at the topic of orthopathy, which means “right passions” in theological parlance.  Along with orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions), it is one of the ways the Spirit works to orient our self, in our community, with God.

In case you’re interested in what I’m up to in my teaching, here’s my reflection that begins this week’s discussion:

Consideration of Week 4

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Acts 16:11-34; Ephesians 5:15-20

When I was in college, I experienced a roller coaster in my relationship with God.  I went to a Christian school in the Chicago area because I felt God leading me there. And God had plans for me while there but they didn’t seem to fit into the expected college experience. It was a place of training and training often involves breaking.  Which came. Harshly. Before that there was an awakening.  Moments and days in which I felt my heart and mind and whole being opening up in a new vision of God’s work, a deep awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God’s being.

There were moments of theophany, of discovering a deep truth behind the apparent truths, a perception of complete coherence. I didn’t have words for these experiences even as I knew they were real. I felt my very being stretch and expand, feeling at times both loosely connected to this world and utterly embedded, a part of God’s creation.  Then a turn.

Everything crumbled, the light went from on to off, the presence of God departed.  At least that’s how it felt. A turn to loneliness deepened by even the absence of God’s encouragement and hope. I felt destitute. Empty.  Prayers extending into shadows and emptiness.  Feeling lost in my faith, my being, my hope.

Carried on by that earlier divine presence. There’s something there. I knew it. But could not see it or feel it.  All was dark.

I refused to let go, even in the pain and frustration.  I read more, sought answers, asked for counsel.  Reading helped but only to show that my experience was not unique. It was a common experience through Scripture, throughout the stories of women and men in history. They were close to God and then they encountered a wide ditch of God’s absence. No way forward. No way back.

I knew the facts about God, the story about God’s work in Scripture and history, the doctrines of faith.  But where was the life?  I missed it but knew there was something there.  I pressed on, not giving up, not running away.

A path was there but it was surrounded by dangers and thorns and troubles.  Encouragement came in fleeting glimpses, the fifth door on the left slightly ajar. Just enough sense of joy to become bread crumbs of discovery, a persistent discouragement at every other turn to prevent me from walking down distracting roads.

God kept me on the path, but did so by a dynamic interaction that led me through ups and downs, through college, into seminary, at churches, in the mountains, back for more study and then teaching.  The ups and downs were not required by God, but were my experiences of being buffeted in too many directions, competing narratives and goals pulling me left and right, out and in, up and down, rather than steady in my faith and patient in the journey.

My heart variously strangely warm and strangely cold, a roller coaster turning into a refined palate, increasingly able to attune myself in God’s grace, centering in Christ, navigating in the whispers and moves of the Spirit.

Such dynamic experiences tend to resist intellectual analysis, resulting in those groans and utterances of tongues or music, trying to express that which is indeterminate at first, then indescribable.  Trying to find the words leads deeper down the path. I discovered and was given words not so that I can manage God but so that I can come alongside, able to be a voice of comfort, hope, counsel, a heart transformed by the Spirit better able to participate with the Spirit in my context.

The presence of God is indeed more than a validation for us. The Spirit calls us and is shaping the whole of our being to be renewed in light of God’s life and mission.  Becoming attuned to this mission reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves, places we are most vulnerable and broken, places we may also be the most strong and full of meaning. Our spirit in the presence of God’s Spirit.

What are your desires on this day? What is your mood? What are your passions and hopes and fears?  Lay these out, call them by name, seek wisdom about what is oriented in God and what needs redirection towards God. Let the Spirit comfort, let the Spirit transform.  It is not easy, ohttp://dualravens.com/ravens/wp-admin/post-new.phpften difficult, though sometimes it is wonderful.

The promise of this journey is peace and stillness, even in troubles, hope in times of mystery, rest in times of comfort.  When our desires and emotions match the mission of God in the moment we begin to dance, no longer tossed and torn by the storms. We become effective in the moment, in the place, in the purpose.  At the end of all things, still standing (Eph. 6:13).

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A good reminder

“He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins, which are truly heavier than a great lump of lead; nor does he know why a man becomes heavy-hearted when he loves vanity and chases after falsehood (cf. Ps. 4:1). That is why, like a fool who walks in darkness, he no longer attends to his own sins but lets his imagination dwell on the sins of others, whether these sins are real or merely the products of his own suspicious mind.”

~Maximos the Confessor

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“We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.”

~Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

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Education and Juvenile Hall

A number of years ago, the government famously passed a set of laws and standards called No Child Left Behind.  The goal was to make sure that education didn’t leave anyone off to the side or without access.  Noble goals, controversial application.  What is clear is that a lot of students had been left out and left behind, for various reasons not getting the same kind of education that so many others take for granted.

In her recent article in Boom, Anna Challet looks at where a lot of these “left behind” students end up, in juvenile detention centers of one kind or another.  Whether their lack of education led to committing crimes or their crimes led to their break from traditional schools, these young men and women are thrown into a new reality.  Their education must continue, the government says. The reality is, as it often is, much more complex, alternately discouraging and inspirational.  Challet  highlights both elements, noting the problems and the ways the system fails while pointing out some transformative possibilities even in these seemingly worst of circumstances.

This story hits close to home. Not because I spent time in juvie, but because my dad did for quite a long time. He was a teacher in court schools and juvenile halls, starting at a boys home in the late 1980s, where my family lived on campus for about a year, before moving across the street.  During my gap years between seminary degrees I spent a lot of time working on material he could use, and so while I never directly taught in these classrooms, I was radically shaped by learning dynamic pedogogy and their stories.

Because of my dad’s long active teaching and dynamic development of adaptive pedagogy for these contexts, I sent him Challet’s article and asked him what he thought.  He gave me permission to post his reply:

Ever since the enactment of Public Law 107-11 in 2002 (NCLB), and especially The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), there have been a plethora of similar findings and reports published through recent years. These are usually created by law firms that specialize in defending the rights of children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Youth Law Center is one of these and is cited by Anna Challet in this article. Youth advocacy organizations are extremely valuable and much needed to assure that NCLB and IDEA are followed.


Anna Challet’s assertion that “kids in court schools have high aspirations for what they want to do with their lives … They’re hungry to learn, and the system meets them with low expectations” reveals a wonderful idealism on her part, but mostly it highlights her scant experience and knowledge of the juvenile incarcerated population and the highly skilled teachers who interact with them daily.

She presents findings, anecdotes, and a couple of apparently effective at-risk youth intervention models that seems fair and somewhat balanced, though skewed to reflect her bias and activism: One young lady complains that the curriculum was below her academic level and none of the credits that she earned “appear on her transcripts.” The young lady earned HS credits, but typically may not have mentioned that she had spent time in a juvenile court facility when she returned to her regular high school.

Challet then tells of a young man who seemed to benefit from his court school experience and earned “the most credits he’d ever gotten in any school”. The latter, I believe, was the most common re-occurring reflection that I heard in the 25+ years that I taught at-risk and incarcerated youth.


By law and WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) the academic delivery model in court schools must correspond to that which is found in all California pubic secondary schools. The difficulty is that current data indicates that at least 70% of minors in the juvenile justice system have educational, social, and emotional disabilities along with 2nd to 4th grade English literacy skills.

Due to years of neglect and absence of timely and appropriate intervention these 12-18 year olds have little chance of above minimal success in our present economic setting. According to a current report 6,027 juveniles are arrested each day in the United States. If this number of young people were infected with a fatal disease each day, an entire network of governmental health agencies would unquestionably mount an aggressive response to combat this widespread pandemic.

It seems apparent that incarcerated court school students are part of a “mass casualty incident” and potentially two-thirds of them may spend the remainder of their lives in dismal disparagement based on current rates of recidivism. There needs to be an academic emergency response protocol which would address this situation in an effective and efficient manner.

It is my opinion that the time adolescents spend in a juvenile court school should be viewed as a catastrophic event and, as such, the response a metaphor to that of medical emergency triage with its established protocol and rehabilitation program. The identification procedure, the pedagogical model, and the program of long-term intervention implemented should take the form of triage; in this case, academic triage.

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