Be like…Elvis?

This past summer, my husband elvisand I spent a few days in Memphis. Unbeknownst to us, it was Elvis Presley week. The city was filled with fans and impersonators wearing Elvis t-shirts, purses, and jewelry.  Men and boys slicked their hair back like Elvis, dressed in a 50’s style to mimic Elvis, and posed like Elvis, mimicking his voice when they said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”  To be honest, it was a little unnerving to walk through the hotel lobby and see not just one or two, but three Elvis impersonators having a drink together.

Watching these invested fans made me uncomfortable at first.  I grew up in the white pantsuit, drugged-out phase of Elvis’ career, so I have never really been a fan.  As I watched the crowds, I wondered why anyone would admire a dead rock and roll star so much that they would dress like him, dye their hair to look like him, and mimic both his walk and talk? But this really isn’t a strange phenomenon in our society.  Think about it – we buy t-shirts or jerseys, Nike shoes, and even underwear so we could “be like” Michael Jordan or some other favorite athlete.  Some of us buy certain clothing or make-up and perfume so we can be as stylish as the latest movie or reality show star or even a royal princess.

Why do we desire to imitate someone?  Theorists propose that we imitate famous people because there is something about them we admire, and the imitation of them fulfills some deep desire within us.  By imitating them, we are saying, “Hey, look! I am just like them.”  For young children, imitation is a social learning process that aids the acquisition of new knowledge. Children learn behaviors by careful observation and mirroring it.  In the New Testament, Paul exhorts us to follow God’s example (Ephesians 5:1).  He challenges us to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16) and follow him as he follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).  Theologians such as Luther and Calvin speak of conforming to Christ or being incorporated into Christ as a form of union with him.* We imitate others in order to learn new behaviors, to gain skills and to acquire new knowledge.

Imitation shapes and forms our identity.  

So, in my journey to become more Christlike, who am I imitating?  If I am a child of God, who am I carefully observing and thus, mirroring their behavior?  As someone who is passionate about a child’s faith formation, I want to ask – who are we encouraging our children to imitate?  Is it a dead rock star…a royal princess…a talented athlete?  What would it look like if I was as passionate about imitating Christ as the Memphis fans were about imitating Elvis?  I don’t mean this in a t-shirt wearing way.  I wonder if my imitation could be lived out in such a way so that when you looked at me, you couldn’t help but wonder if you were encountering Christ in me.

*Agan, Jimmy. “Departing from – and Recovering – Tradition: John Calvin and the Imitation of Christ.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56, no. 4 (2013): 801-14. Accessed September 20, 2016.
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The Art (and Science) of Teaching

Recently, I have been reflecting on what makes a good learning experience. Is it strong content and a teacher’s command of a subject’s knowledge? Or is it a deep
understanding of the different ways individuals process information and learn? Is there something about a teacher and their unique personality that fosters a positive environment for learning? And as a Christian educator, we are concerned about an individual’s formation. What about the movement of the Holy Spirit and its role in learning?

I must admit that I often yearn to make teaching a science. I desire to have all the right ingredients – strong content, a deep understanding of the learner, good leadership skills – and mix them all together where the result is an outstanding learning experience for all. While there is some truth in this analogy, teaching can also be described as an art where a teacher understands the unique climate of the context, asks thoughtful questions and creates exceptional conditions for deep learning. So which one is it? Is teaching an art or a science?

cathedralSeveral years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a stunningly beautiful cathedral. From the light seeping through the stained glass to the smells of incense, from the stone arches that created lofty, high ceilings, to the unique examples of sacred art, it was amazing. The feelings that overtook me from standing small in such a magnificent example of architecture is one I can still feel inside of me. As my family explored the church, I sat and met God there. It was profound. It was holy. It was a sacred experience that impacted my soul.

Unbeknownst to me, there was also a lot of science going on in that building. There was a massive foundation (which I never saw) beneath my feet so that the ceiling could soar to the heights it did. There was planning and science in the structure, in the layout, and even in the art. But when I was there, I didn’t think about the science of a building. Even though it significantly informed my experience, it was not what I reflected upon.

I think the same can be said about formation and teaching. In the classroom, we experience people, emotions, conversations, information, and the Holy Spirit’s interaction with us and through us. But underneath all of this is an understanding of the development of human beings, a philosophy of how we learn, and research in teaching techniques. All of these things should inform my interaction and relationship with my students. I just don’t focus on it all the time. But it is there – just like the foundation of a building.

I believe teaching is both art and science (and a whole lot more, but that’s for another post!). The art and science of teaching are important. They need each other. They inform each other. It is not one or the other. It is a “both-and.”

What do you think teaching is? Are there other ways to look at the art and science of teaching?

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Leaving Fingerprints

This semester, I have started a new teaching position that has caused me to be somewhat self-reflective.  As I walk the halls of my alma mater and enter classrooms, memories flood back of my experience as a student.  Probably because I am in an academic building and not wandering the dorms, these memories seem to focus on classes, significant learning moments, and interactions with professors. Ironically, I am teaching in the classroom where I had one of those big “aha” moments that profoundly changed my approach to ministry.  My office happens to be down the hall from where I would sit with my academic advisor, and he would boldly challenge both my academic work and my life.

As I reflect on my teaching, I am well aware of the impact these and other teachers have on fingerprintmy life – the fingerprints they have left on me, both academically and personally.  As academics, these teachers held themselves and their students to a high intellectual standard.  They challenged students to think and make connections between theory and practice and creatively planned holistic teaching experiences that engaged the whole student and not just their mind.  These faithful men and women were open to the Holy Spirit’s leading in the classroom, speaking truth into students’ lives and displaying grace, reminding us of our Savior’s love.

The fingerprints of these past mentors and teachers are all over me, and I am grateful for these men and women who gave freely of themselves to teach both academically and spiritually.  Their imprint on my life has been profound, and my prayer is that I am able to follow their example and not only strengthen my students’ minds, but nurture their hearts and faith as well.  As Hebrews 13:7 (NASB) states: Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.

May I live into the example of those who have gone before me, leaving fingerprints of a faithful life that points others to Jesus.

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The Importance of Belonging

After a long month, my husband and I were able to get away recently to visit dear friends and celebrate the wedding of one couple’s daughter. It was a wonderful weekend where we were able to reconnect with old friends, share our lives, and celebrate with one another. As you can imagine, there was much laughter, storytelling, and encouragement, all nestled in acceptance, love, and just pure joy in being together. Our friends, all who have the gracious gift of hospitality, made us feel that our presence mattered in their lives and that life was a little better because we were together. At the end of the weekend, as we were basking in all that we had experienced, my husband looked at me and expressed something that caught my attention. This weekend was about being home, someplace where we belong.

BelongThat’s really a profound concept since we were someplace we had never been before. What was it that made such an impact on us? How did a good time visiting friends become a soul-touching, life-giving experience? As we flew home, exhausted but joy-filled, I started reflecting on this concept of “belonging.” This phrase pops up a lot in our culture. One of my favorite coffee shops, Blackberry Market, has “belong” as their motto. A favorite television show has theme music that talks about coming home. There is research discussing a student’s need for belonging in educational settings and that a sense of belonging contributes to an individual’s health and well-being.

In the church, we often focus on the concept of belonging and hospitality in terms of visitors and newcomers. We want them to experience community, intimacy, acceptance, and love. We want them to find a place in the church family – a place where they belong. And in a healthy church community, there is room for those who are new. We welcome them in and are shaped by their presence as we interact and shape them.

John Westerhoff, in his book Will Our Children Have Faith?, says that faith expands in four particular styles, one being what he calls Affiliative or Belonging Faith. As he describes, “all of us need to feel that we belong to a self-conscious community and that through our active participation can make a contribution to its life” (94). According to Westerhoff’s faith paradigm, Belonging or Affiliative Faith usually occurs in childhood and early adolescence. It is through these early experiences of belonging where we internalize the gospel story as our own, ultimately providing a foundation for faith. Just like my husband and I experienced this weekend, children in the church need to sense they are wanted, needed, accepted, and important to the community. They need to feel that their presence and contribution makes a difference in the lives of others. This sense of belonging is essential in a child’s faith formation.

The question I am wondering about is, are we encouraging this type of belonging and acceptance with children in the church? Of course, we say children belong and that they are part of the church family, but do children truly have those profound life-giving experiences where they sense joy in being loved and valued as an essential part of our faith community? Do children know down deep in their souls that their presence enhances the life of the faith community? Do they understand that without them, our faith community is less and not as strong as it is with them there? This isn’t just about affirming a child’s self-esteem. This is valuing their personhood as an essential part of a community’s identity and faith, and in turn, nurturing this faith as part of their identity.

Why is this so easy to do with friends? Why is this a priority for a healthy church to do with visitors? And why do we so often forget to do this with our children?

Notes: Westerhoff, J.W. (2012). Will our children have faith? (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Morehouse Publishing.
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And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

One Sunday, the children of our congregation opened the worship service with a few songs.  As they gathered on stage, a few of the boys were in their glory – poking and bumping each other, giggling, picking noses, pointing out to the congregation.  One little boy, in particular, had this mischievous twinkle in his eye.  I leaned over to my husband, pointing him out, and whispered, “now there goes some trouble.”

The singing commenced and for the most part the children sang their praises with gusto with some fidgeting.  And as expected, the mischievous imp did a little prodding and poking of his fellow choir members, trying to get them to laugh or join him in his mischievousness.  At the end of the singing, as the children were leaving, the pastor reminded the congregation that the children were leading us – leading us in worship and praise, and more importantly, leading us to the throne of God.

This thought could have been just a simple reminder that the pastor says to provide support and encouragement to the children’s ministry team each year.  Knowing my pastor, I think he believes this to be true and was graciously reminding us of this biblical truth – “…and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6, NIV).  As a congregational member, I could have easily accepted this illustration as a sweet reminder, smiling at how adorable the children are, and moved on.  Except for that mischievous twinkle…

For whatever reason, I have always been drawn to those kids in my ministry who were a little mischievous.  This probably stems from self-identification.  According to family stories, I, too, was a little bit of an imp growing up.  And on that Sunday morning, I could not get that image out of my mind.  Here were these children who were leaning, bumping, giggling, and poking each other.  And they were, according to the pastor, leading us to the throne of the Almighty God.

The sermon for that Sunday was not for the faint of heart.  Our pastor preached the gospel in such a way that both truth and grace were bestowed.  Personally, the Holy Spirit moved in such a way that I got a view of my own brokenness, its impact on me, and on others.  And it wasn’t a pretty view.  Thankful for the significant words of grace, I was reminded once again of that mischievous little imp from the children’s choir.

And a little child shall lead them.  

If I was planning a processional into a throne room, I think I would recruit those who can lead strongly and march in formation.  I would want responsible people whose voices were commanding and strong.  Beauty would be important with people dressed in robes that glitter with gold thread.  Only the best and brightest among us would do.  But instead, that morning I was led into the throne room by a mischievous little imp who really could care less about singing and was more focused on getting his other friends in trouble.

How grateful I am for that experience.  This was a reminder of what God values.  In contrast to my need for strength, I was reminded that we can approach the throne in our brokenness.  Instead of the importance of marching in formation, I was reminded that we can still come to the throne when we can’t stay within the lines and have broken all the rules.  Instead of commanding voices, I am able to approach God Almighty in tears or anger or in a state that has no words.  And most importantly, instead of coming all dressed up in what I think is a beautiful robe, my tattered clothing is covered by Jesus and his righteousness.

And what meets me there is love – a love so profound and real.  The unexplainable love I have for the little mischievous children in my life is nothing compared to the deep love God has for me.  He sees me poking and bumping into others, not focusing but instead looking around and ignoring the task before me.  He sees me approaching the throne probably with no shoes because I have kicked them off somewhere along the way and with blue jeans that probably have grass stains.  Yet, his loves pours out, calling and enticing me to run into his arms as a child would their loving earthly Father.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!  (1 John 3:1a, NIV)

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