Saturday, January 17, 2015

Second cup of coffee

Sacred Space

In the last few years, I've begun to think differently and, I think, more intentionally about the classroom--and what goes on there. The last two years, I've started inviting my students, especially but not only, in those classes that are part of the liberal arts core of WPC, to think of the classroom as sacred space--and to invite them to enter that space with that special sense of liminality. The classroom is a place in between; a place of encounter, hospitality, welcoming and encounters--with themselves, with others, and with God. (Parker Palmer has played a huge role in helping me think this through; I still think To Know As We Are Known is one of the most important books I've ever read.)

In fact, I have asked students to literally stand at the door--outside it, inside it, and within it--to make more concrete this idea.

In the syllabus for my course, REL 320, Spirituality, Character, and Service, I have included the following in the syllabus. I hope this will help us all think and practice and welcome liminality:

If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you’re causing terrible damage.
If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know and have never seen.

Places are sacred; they may be sacred because God shows up; they may be sacred because something happens that changes you forever; they may be sacred because you encountered beauty or love or truth—or all of the above. They may be sacred because someone you never thought you would meet is suddenly present and you are present and everything is altered. Everything is altered.

I think a classroom is sacred space; actually, specifically, I think this classroom is sacred space because of what has happened here and will happen here—because students and teachers showed up here in this room, 100s of one and 1000s of the other, and learning happened, and life happened, and truth was discovered. God was discovered. Oh, I could tell you stories. I was changed in this room; I was forever altered by what happened here and in this place and on this campus. So, here we are, in the hall, before we go in because I want you to really think about what is going to happen in there. What might happen in there. I don’t want this day or this class or this hour to be ordinary. I want it to be extraordinary—but I can’t make that happen; only we can make it happen. You see, at this point, although I know some of you, I don’t know all of you—and since we are all mysteries, there is so much more to learn. But I believe this: you are already amazing, brilliant, beautiful, intelligent, creative persons—which some of you know but perhaps not all (although I think you suspect it and might be just a little afraid about it and some of you may be ready to run away from yourself or have already done that). But I know you are not just good enough; I know you are extraordinary and that, together, you and I are capable of blowing our collective socks off this semester and make something truly beautiful—together!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Late at night: My Top Ten Book List for 2014:

The following list is in no particular order; it is a list of books I read during 2014. They impressed me or moved me or provoked me or assured me or taught me or reminded me. They are all worthy of your attention, I believe. For the most part, the comments are brief snippets from my sometimes longer comments and reviews that you will find on Goodreads.

Embrace the Unforeseen by Dennis Plies • Even if you don't know Dennis Plies, a professor of music and jazzist at Warner Pacific College, this is a remarkable book--thoughtful and hopeful, it invites the reader to go on a journey of enlightenment. Enlightenment is defined as living open to the universe, holding loosely and lovingly those ideas and practices we hold dear, with a significant expectancy that the life of faith will always bring newness into a pilgrim's life. If you do know Dennis Plies, then, you will want to read this.

Leading From Within, Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, and Teaching With Fire, Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, eds. • Both of these poetry collections (with commentary) are rich with beautiful selections—some old that I’ve treasured for years or longer and some very new to me (but now becoming familiar companions. Worthy reads for anyone interested in understanding leadership, teaching, or poetry.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich by Eric Metaxas • I’m aware that this book has played to mixed reviews (and sometimes I understand that), yet I found it an engrossing and challenging read. It helped me to understand and fill in some important gaps in my understanding of Bonhoeffer, the church in Germany before and during the war, the rise of the Confessing Church--and most importantly the process that brought Bonhoeffer to the participate in the various efforts to undermine and defeat Hitler and his abhorrent Reich.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman • Powerful...relentless...mesmerizing...want to avert your eyes but cannot...even though the end was known, could not keep from reading. an amazing wonderfully awe inspiring homage to the human spirit against insurmountable odds--the power of mother love and the refusal to be bound or defined by gender, culture, set dogma. Grateful that there are such book in the world.

The Great Bridge, The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough • Such a great large great book! More information than I would ever need (or want) to know about one of the most amazing construction projects in our history--perhaps world history. A celebration of the creative intelligence of thoughtful men and women. A tour de force reflection on a particular heroic epoch. I'm very glad I read it; I am very glad I have at last finished it.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog, On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn • One if those can't put down but want it to go on forever. Moving and challenging. My responses were all over the place: Laughter. Jealousy. Crying. Defensive. Guilt. Dan is a great character. Nerburn's honesty and vulnerability are very impressive.

A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey Toward An Undivided Life by Parker J. Palmer • As always, Palmer challenges me at some of the deepest levels of my life and vocation. A thoughtful, creative, illuminative philosophical, "how to" book that everyone engaged in working with people—teachers, pastors, social workers, managers—should read and contemplate. It is a distinctly compassionate book that invites us to think about the power of trust in relationship, the practicality of love as a way of life, how to live peacefully and holistically in a world that constantly seeks to divide and conquer--to keep us apart from our true selves so that we make little difference and the profoundly entrenched arrogance of powerful people is allowed free rein (reign). (A second read.)

To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield • A remarkable novel. A clear evocation of an era long gone by; sentimental in the best sense of that word—honest about what matters, valuing it, and figuring out how to live in it. The story takes place between two wars, the first and the second--the big ones, as they are often characterized--and follows the career of a veteran of the first who comes to this lonely outpost for healing. He finds himself here—a teacher‚ and grounds himself. It is a nostalgic book; at times, a very sad book--I read often with tears in my eyes, especially as I neared the end.

A couple of others that would belong in a best 12 books:

Wild, From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed • There are moments in this book of sheer agony—deep physical and spiritual pain. There are moment of such great beauty that I found myself holding my breath until I was aware I was in need of oxygen. There are moments of such truthfulness in this book that I was almost embarrassed to be looking over her shoulder—even though, clearly, I was welcome. I’m too old, I imagine, to hike this trail, although I’ve been on parts of it around Mt. Hood and further north on the Washington side of the Bridge. This book makes me want to pull on my big boots and head out—even as it warns me away.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry • How I ever missed this, I’ll never figure out, but I am so grateful to Sam Collins for loaning it to me. A wonderfully funny and terribly sad story. Characters are strong and real and vital. The view of the West and its impact on people is both moving and frustrating. It is rich with local color; the language is vernacular and, at times, cringe worthy, but reflective of the terrible ideas and attitudes about people, especially first peoples. I found myself moved to tears at times and, finally, experienced a deep loss as wonderfully human men and women struggled against the wideness of the world, marveling at the generosity of some, the cussedness of others, and the deep, damned meanness of a few. What a wonderful book!

For Whom the Bells Tolls by Ernest Hemingway • I thought this was going to be a re-read but, no; once I began to read, I realized that I'd never read this one. I’ve seen the movie so many times that I think I just assumed I’d read it. Glad I found it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

First Cup: Last entry: Thinking theologically

Second steps: Theologically informed—

For me, the truth is that we need to think carefully and theologically about all this. In fact, I think the task I am really talking about is a theological task. It is a task that assumes something about who we are as persons, who our students are as persons, the imago dei, the Trinity, relationships, sacred text, the role of the Spirit—all of which we often bundle in the phrases Christian and Christ-centered. Personally, I think it is the operative qualifier; it qualifies each of the following statements of the mission: Christ centered is a discrete and a pervasive description: Not only one but also all; not only liberal arts but also Christian or Christ centered liberal arts…. What in the heck does that any of that actually mean?

• In one of the most thoughtful, troubling, and hopeful books I’ve ever read (Brueggeman, Walter. (1986). Hopeful imagination. Prophetic voices in exile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press), Walter Brueggeman invites us to think about re-imagination. He’s talking about prophets, truth, and the people of God and asking how hope returns. I think what he writes relates to the time in which we live and work and move and have our being. As I said, I think our task, together, is finally a theological one.

Brueggeman invites us to remember that [biblically, newness always] “grows out of the memory of Israel…not [out of] personal invention. Rather these poets probe and mine the tradition in ways that cause the old tradition to articulate a newness…” (p 2). I think this defines our task.

“These poets [prophets] not only discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern, but they wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongue, their words. New poetic imagination evoked new realities in the community…” (p 2). I think this defines our task.

“…[creating] hope for a community so deeply in crisis that it might have abandoned the entire enterprise of faith” (p 3). I think this defines our task.

He believes that “The reception of a new world from God is also under way in our time.… It is apparent in the staggering, frightening emergence of new communities, which we experience as revolutionary, with dreams of justice and equity. Those dangerous emergences are paralleled by dreams of justice and mercy in our culture that dare to affirm that old structures may be transformed to be vehicles for the new gifts of God. Thus we are at the risky point of receiving from God what we thought God would not give, namely a new way to be human in the world” (p 6). I think this defines our task--and our hope.

[But] “Our vocation is to relinquish and receive [that which] cut through every dimension of life, for such moves entail nothing less than dying in order to be raised to new life” (p 7). I think this defines our task.

[And, finally,] “My sense is that the ministry of the American church [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] is in many ways fatigued and close to despair. That is so because we are double-minded. On the one hand, we have some glimpses of the truth of God’s gospel of relinquishment and reception, and we see where it may lead us in terms of social reality. On the other hand, the church [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] is so fully enmeshed in the dominant values of our culture that freedom of action is difficult. In any case, it is evident that ministry [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] will be freed of fatigue, despair, and cynicism only as we [read the name of your own school] are able to see clearly what we are up to, and then perhaps able to act intentionally. Such intentionality is dangerous and problematic, but when and where the church [read, Christian higher education; read the name of your own school] acts with such freedom and courage, it finds the gift of new life is surprisingly given…” (7). I think that could define our outcome.

Can we do this? If you’ll pardon my intentional plagiarism, “Yes, we can.” I’ve seen it before; there is no reason to think that it cannot happen again. If we care enough, we can. If not—well, we won’t.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

First cup: First steps: questions

This conversation needs to start somewhere; I know there are more questions, but these are, I think, a pretty good start:

• Institutions need to revisit their missions and strategic plans, looking carefully at the words written there and the assumptions, aspirations, and goals contained in them. But we also need to evaluate those plans with these kinds of questions: Where are the hard connects? What difference does this make and where does the difference show up in my place of work, in my course, in my class, in my syllabus, with my students? Where? Specifically?

• What are the non-negotiables? What is? What must be defended, so to speak, with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” against all of the forces that seek to normalize and destroy difference?

• What do we mean when we say Christian (or Christ-centered)? Liberal arts? Diverse? Or any of the other words that populate our mission statements and are intended to be defining and box-creating either because we think they matter or someone else does? What does it look like? What does it sound like? Taste like? Smell? What metaphors may help it be clearer?

• I think, for us who live in that universe, the key word is Christian or Christ-centered. We need to struggle with that descriptor...modifier. What does Christian or Christ-centered mean—evangelism? discipling? conversion? following Jesus--and what in the heck does that mean? Its meaning, somehow, connects to "reign" language--what does that mean? What if it means “relational”--a flabby or profound word? What do those words mean about where I am in the classroom? Office hours? Who I eat with? How I develop my syllabi? How I steward my time and my own health? How I handle my complaints and how I treat my students? How administration treats/responds/cares for faculty and vice versa? Even, dare I ask, How I behave in faculty meetings?

Friday, December 5, 2014

First cup—continuing thoughts on Christian higher education


• I don’t think Christian higher education is invited to out of the box thinking because, well, you know, the risk is too great to say "anything goes." We have a box—usually defined in terms of mission, vision, values. That is our box. And unless and until that is gone or changed, Christian higher education doesn’t really have that choice—we have a box. We need to understand that box well. We need to live out of that box; we need to be the box.

• I don’t think Christian higher education needs to buy into the normal dualism of higher education stereotyped as choosing between head and heart; it’s not where we should start. Can we imagine a third way? Somewhere in between—a place where, to use Nouwen’s imagery, we allow the head to descend into the heart creating something more unitive and balancing?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Morning Joe—rather late in the afternoon: Re-imagination

The following is the first of three entries--three parts of a reflection on the state of Christian higher education as well as some ideas about next steps. This first entry is a kind of prologue to what follows.

Prologue: Thinking out loud about the state of Christian higher education:

I’ve been passionately involved in the “business” of Christian (and church-related) higher education as student, full time and adjunct professor, and administrator since 1962. The best years of my life and a considerable amount of my energy have been given to this good and worthy cause. I think about education in general and Christian higher education a great deal. I want to write about it now. I hope that persons reading this—who might share my passion—will allow an older (although questionably wiser) colleague to speak a little more into the ongoing discussion around the future of the family business. For those of you who know me, you know how much I love this calling and how powerful it has been in my formation as a human and a teacher who aspires to follow of Jesus. I don’t even want to think how different my life might have been without Christian higher education—and the people who radically changed my life, again and again. I care about it and I think we are at a place of hope and danger, a place of rich and wondrous paradox: a place that has may be perilously close to losing its potential.

(I think I need to say in way of disclaimer that most of those years have been spent in one place—Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon. I’m an alumnus and have served WPC as teacher, dean of students, and provost, among other roles. I am retired now but continuing to work as an adjunct professor in the humanities—in traditional as well as on ground and on line adult degree programs. But I have not served only there and have had occasion to teach or consult at other places, principally the other colleges, universities, and seminary of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana—the movement that has had a long and suspicious relationship with its churches. I have colleagues at each of them and others.)

What I want to speak into is potential. I have a deep and abiding faith in the ability of caring, thoughtful and committed persons to address, resolve, and rebuild. When we don’t, it is not because of inability; it is because of a lack of imagination and hope. Not too long ago in a faculty meeting, the word “re-imagine” popped out of my mouth. It suddenly seemed the right word, so I said it. Then, I asked myself, what in the heck does that mean? I’ve been ruminating on that since. Here are some Random Observations and Questions about re-imagining the future of Christian higher education.

• Before that question about re-imagining can be answered, I think we need to think about the context in which it can take place. I suppose if there’s any significant way my years of teaching and working in the life of the church have changed me, it is that I have become even more committed to the essential truth of relationships—that is, relationships in which we grow ever more into knowing each other. I don’t think we can really re-imagine anything, at least not well, if we don’t know each other and, I suspect, in Christian higher education, in general, we know each other not well, certainly less well than we might. Certainly, not well enough to trust each other with our deepest thoughts and fears and loves. Certainly, not well enough to abandon our passive aggressiveness. Without that trust, hope is hard and the possibility that our hopes, thoughts and dreams will be realized or our fears lessened is diminished.

• When I teach the humanities courses I am assigned from time to time, I ask my students, “What kind of a world do you want to live in—and what are you willing to do/be to make it happen?” I think we need to be willing to ask that kind of question about Christian higher education—I think that is the door-opening question to re-imagination: What kind of community of learning do we want to teach in and what are we willing to do/be to make it happen? Can we create not only a community of learning but also a community of trust?

• At the heart of the mission of most schools in Christian higher education is an unstated assumption about what we teach and why we teach it. I think we often get stuck at some pretty superficial discussions about these questions simply because we don’t engage the unstated assumptions. We fall easily into discussions about what constitutes the right number of hours or how to divide the core or how many seat hours equal how many credits or how we fulfill national normalizing outcomes. While we can’t avoid those tasks, they should not define us. Instead I think we need to ask, in light of our missions, what do we really teach? Well, subjects, I guess; but certainly subjects are not the heart of it, are they? And, yes, we teach students—and we mustn’t forget them.

• But I don’t think it is about the courses or the majors; it’s more fundamental than either of those—as important as they are. It seems to me that an assumption of our mission statements and the way we talk about them is that what we are about is teaching how to live in the world. Subjects are finally a means to an end, right? In the context of our mission statements, especially those of who define ourselves as Christian and liberal arts colleges, can they ever be ends? If we can’t agree on this, there is no point in even beginning to consider how to re-imagine….

• The world of higher education is worried about mandates. We ask, “Whose mandates are these?” We ask, “Who says they are mandates?” We ask, “What makes them mandates?” We ask, “Are we being told, again, that this is what defines what I do in my classroom?” Frankly, I think that’s the fear factor at work. The truth, from my perspective, is that the reality of the world is our mandate—and our students’ need to live well in a world that seems more often against them than for them. Increasingly, it seems to me, our students aren’t getting it. I think they are so gobsmacked by the challenges of their lives that they often look more like deers in headlights than students. Of course there are exceptions and we all work so hard to light the light—and nothing is ever more satisfying or exciting than when a student lights up—but on some strategic level, many (most?) of our students really don’t know, on a personally meaningful level, why they are here—and ever fewer seem to care.

The certainty of the world I graduated into is gone and they know it. They are here often because they don’t know what else to do, where else to go, or because someone told them this is The Plan. It doesn’t seem really important to many of them and more than half doubt it value; our effort to reach out to them is valued but not always trusted. Leonard Cohen sings, “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.” I think Yeats said it also when he said, “The center does not hold.” An old word—anomie—might be the right word.

You see, I think, the mandate is to re-imagine what we do, why we do it, and how—it is the mandate of the world and it is our mandate. The world demands it of us; the future is bleak without what we do. And I think that our students deserve it. We usually engage the challenge of our task with thoughtfulness, resolve, relationally, with love and imagination. The strategic planning documents that so dominate our lives and work often demonstrate our ability to rise to the occasion and the challenge. But I wonder how many of those plans are taken to heart and into our course and departmental planning—even into our classrooms and onto our syllabi?

• We need to answer these questions—“Who are our students?” “Why are they here?” We need to know them—not as numbers or scores or grades but as persons who actually, on some level, look to us with some glimmer of hope that we can help them make sense when there seems so little sense. How can we ever hope to light the fire if we have no sense of the kindling with which we work? (I think we also need to ask those same questions of ourselves.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Second cup of coffee--this time iced

Textbooks: Fall 2014

I noticed that Kimberly Majeski posted the texts she is using this fall for her classes. What a great idea. I’m a book nerd, as most of you know, so I love choosing texts. In the selection of texts, I keep a few criteria in mind: Relevance to the course, which is obvious. It would be pretty silly to choose a science text on quantum physics for a class on the American novel—I think. Accessibility for students—it will engage them and stretch them and approachable for a generation of non-reader students. Price—textbooks are spendy—way more than when I was a student. (That’s why you see the ISBN numbers; students can buy their texts anywhere.) I guess I also choose texts that are appealing to me--texts that challenge me and unsettle me and help me to grow as a person who follows Jesus.

I’m teaching three courses in the traditional program this fall: CM 140, Exploring God’s Calling and REL 320, Spirituality, Character and Service. I’m co-teaching a Freshman Year Learning Community (FYLC) combined course with Prof. Stephanie Mathis: REL 160x, Faith, Justice, and Portland: Advocating for Social Change, and EN 101 College Composition. I’ll list the texts for the REL 160 course as well. These are all really great courses—even if I do say so myself! I’m including the catalog descriptions to give you a taste of what’s going on, but you only get a taste. The texts are ALL wonderful. I heartily recommend them all.

CM 140 Exploring God’s Calling. Course description: "The first of a series of five courses designed to prepare students for entry into Christian ministry. The course will focus on the person, character, spirituality, and role of the minister. Key topics include the nature of the call to ministry, spiritual gifts, ordination, and scripture in the life of the minister. We will consider a variety of expressions of Christian ministry."

Feiler, Bruce. (2002). Abraham, A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. New York:
William Morrow/Harper/Collins. ISBN: 0380977761.

Markle, David, ed. (2001). First Steps to Ministry, A Primer on a Life in Christian
Anderson, IN: Warner Press. ISBN: 0871628990.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. (1994). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN:

Norris, Kathleen. (1996). The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN:

REL 160X Faith, Justice, and Portland: Advocating for Social Change. Course description: "How can your personal story be used to promote social change? What do the ancient Scriptures say about the injustice we see in our community today? What does it mean and look like to be a Christ-centered, responsible, engaged citizen? Paying careful attention to the Biblical narrative, this class develops a rich Biblical definition of “justice” that is rigorously tied into examples from the city of Portland. In addition, by drawing from self-reflective writing, experiential exploration of social issues in Portland and Oregon, community organizing training, sharing life stories, navigating the political process, and reflective discourse, students will be expected to educate and engage the campus around current injustices and its legislation. This course will analyze the holistic implications of systemic social concerns, develop an understanding of Scriptural, systemic response to those issues, and develop critical and creative thinking to produce ethical, realistic, and respectful stewardship through advocacy. This is not just a class but also an opportunity to “seek the peace for the city” (Jeremiah 29:7) and offer opportunities for young advocates for real-life, hands-on social change."

Gutenson, Charles and Jim Wallis. (2011). Christians and the Common Good: How Faith
Intersects with Public Life
. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. ISBN#978-1-58743-

Marshall, Chris. (2005). The Little Book of Biblical Justice. Intercourse: Good Books.

REL 320 Spirituality, Character and Service. Course description: "This is a course that invites and facilitates personal discernment about vocation (understood as finding purpose, meaning, and direction in life) within a framework of spirituality, character, care for one’s neighbor—and the interconnectedness of each. It offers students opportunities and experiences that invite critical self-reflection in the context of writings, beliefs, and practices of diverse views and contexts and participation in service-learning in the city."

Bass, Dorothy C. and Susan R. Briehl. (2010). On Our Way, Christian Practices
for Living a Whole Life.
Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books. (ISBN:

Davis, Adam, editor. (2009). Hearing the Call Across Traditions: Readings on
Faith and Service.
Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing. (ISBN:

Nerburn, Kent. (1994). Neither Wolf Nor Dog, On Forgotten Roads with an
Indian Elder.
San Rafael, CA: New World Library. (ISBN: 1880032376)

Nouwen, Henri J. M. (1992). The Return of the Prodigal, A Story of
NY: Doubleday Image Books. (ISBN: 0385473079)