Pragmatism, Utility and Beauty

“I was inspired by Mako Fujimura’s blog entry entitled A Fragile Emanation in which he talks about the space a contemplative, or an artist, occupies in a world of pragmatism and utility. Reflection, sabbath, creativity, these things can feel unproductive and ‘extra’.” – Sara Groves

Today’s class was on the Holy Spirit. How does one teach about the Holy Spirit? About the power, impact, and importance of the Holy Spirit?

I had a few ideas, and a great article by my colleague Lois Malcolm. But then I saw this video by Sara Groves, one of my favorite Christian songwriters and singer.

And suddenly my planning went in another direction. What if I gave us – busy leadership, students, parents, friends, family members, employees – space, even an hour of class to be creative? What if we spent time dwelling in a text (Acts 2:38-47) and let our imaginations go…perhaps sketching with colored pencils or painting on canvas or assembling a mobile or writing a parable.

And guess what…we did. Some students were creative outside in the afternoon sun, some of us created in the classroom near the art supplies, some students engaged with others while creating, some enjoyed the silence. And then we shared our impromptu art with one another. No names, no judgment, just expressions of a community open to and centered around the Holy Spirit. And it was good.

Thanks class for being open to crazy ideas, to multiple ways of expressing ideas, and to journeying together in learning about God, the church, and our call to love our neighbor.

Changing Education Paradigms

Many of us are living in the transition from summer mode to school mode. For me that means preparing lessons for new courses. For you it might be supporting people going through this transition or preparing yourself for this transition. No matter your place in this transition, this transition is in the air and we can sense it almost like shifts in the sky before a rain storm.

In my preparation, I’m thinking deeply about how the ways we learn are different today than the ways we learned thirty years ago. These changes impact young people, for sure, but they also are impacting me, both as a teacher and learner. Teaching and learning use to be delegated to a particular realm of my life – formal education environments. As a lifelong learner that meant I spent many hours (and dollars) engaged in learning in academic institutions. (SCHOOLS!) Now my teaching and learning is more integrated in all aspects of my life. Like when I get a new piece of technology, I go into learning mode and seek out teachers. Some teachers I pay (Geek Squad, for example) and some are people within my regular networks (my kids, colleagues at work, friends, neighbors, etc). Sometimes I’m clearly the student and someone is clearly the teacher. In other cases, I can be both teacher and learner. Like as a knitter, I sometimes ask others to teach me something, a new stitch, and as they do they may ask something that I know and I shift into teacher mode. When I step back and look at my life today, teaching and learning, learning and teaching is a regular, normal part of all areas of my life. Sometimes my teachers are people and sometimes my teachers are videos of teachers or posts of interesting articles. With all the digital tools we have today, I have access to so many more places and ways to learn then ever before.

As a lifelong learner, I’m wired to learn and I will seek out learning opportunities. Given the flattening of learning and access to learning tools, learning is so much more integrated into life. This reality means formal learning (the school-like learning environments) have to revisit the ways they engage people in learning. Sir Ken Robinson has been studying learning and education for some time and has some great insights into the shifts taking place in learning and what it means for education. Here’s a great video on his discoveries. Watch, learn, and perhaps let it ignite your rethinking of learning.

This RSA Animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA’s Benjamin Franklin award. (If you want some other videos on teaching and learning go to the video section of my website and see the teaching and learning tab.)

Thursday mornings

Eight a.m. classes are not my favorite. And 8:00 a.m. classes on Thursday morning are extra tough. Why? Because Wednesdays start with a 5:15 a.m. workout and end hours after I return from helping with middle school ministry at 9 p.m. Then, ready or not, the alarm goes off and Thursday morning arrives.
Randy always gets to class before I do. One by one students file into the Bockman 116. By 8:10 everyone is ready to go. Small talk and an opening prayer start class and we begin to wrestle with the topic of the day. Some days I lecture, some times learning happens in small groups, and some mornings guests grace us with their wisdom. One day I mentioned a song and the class started singing. Another day our conversation led us to learning about church practices in several denominations and countries. Today one of the students had us watching a YouTube video of a guy dancing. Class is never boring, rarely goes as planned, and I always leave more energized then when I arrived.
As I stand in the front of class each Thursday I’m aware of my limitations as a teacher. Yes, I have command of the literature and enjoy crafting learning experiences, but I also have enough awareness of my flaws to keep me humble – and when I forget I look into the student’s faces and remember how much they are shaping me.
Eight different countries are represent in Bockman 116 on Thursday mornings. Two-thirds of the students are international, born outside the U.S., and most have lived in more than one country. One morning a student shared her experience of fetching water everyday, carrying it on her head. Another shared how he is responsible for leading major initiatives of the national church office in his home country. Another talked of her concern for elderly Chinese adults whose one and only child have died and they have no one to care for them. What do I know about these issues? How am I qualified to teach them how to lead in their communities? None of this was taught to me in my studies!
Gone are the days of expert-driven classrooms, at least for me. If I had to be the expert I would have failed years ago. And it is clear to me being an expert would not do justice to enhancing the learning of this group. Expert of what? In order to impress whom? Yet having let go of this expectation, I’ve had to reimagine what role I do play in the classroom. And suddenly a series of question surface: What’s the goal of our time in the classroom? What’s my goal for this diverse group of students? What are we learning? How are we learning? What impact will this class have on their overall learning at this school? Oh no, I’ve opened a whole can of worms and find I’m having to look at teaching from many new perspectives.
This class, this semester, marks the first year of a new curriculum at our school. I’m excited about the curriculum and the class, yet know it is, and will, push me as a teacher. So Thursday mornings I come open and ready to learn, hoping to figure which of my gifts, skills and perspectives are an asset and which are obstacles.
Today, I am captivated by what it means to cultivating communities of learning. So far I have found cultivating communities of learning harder than teaching content, but it is much more fun. Anyone who has taught knows each class, be they gathered in a classroom or online, has it’s own personality. Listening and waiting for that personality to unfold takes patience (sometimes lots of patience). Teaching in this mode often means holding back my voice, and creating space for student voices to be heard. Content, be it reading or videos or lectures, is still important but how much and for what purpose? Teaching as a shaper of community comes with no guarantees. And I can’t predict when, or if, the class personality will emerge. But when it does it, and when the class becomes a community engaged in the subject matter, it is a great joy. This, my friend, is why I teach. And this challenge, as a educator and leader in the church, is what gets me up every morning.

Curiosity and Inquiry

We, at Luther Seminary, are preparing to roll out a new curriculum in the fall. It’s a shift spurred on by changes in theological education, in the need to reduce cost, and a recognition of the dynamic nature of Christian public leadership today. It also takes into account the changes in the way we learn. While a lot of things will be different, the biggest change is at the center – we are shifting from a content-driven series of classes to an inquiry-driven learning process.

For many, it’s exciting. Exciting because there is more flexibility in the curriculum and more choices for students. Exciting because it recognizes students already enter as leaders, with unique gifts, experiences, and questions. Exciting because it takes into account the whole person, not just their head.

For most, it is also scary. Scary because it’s moving into unknown territory. Scary because more is left “to chance” then to a list in the registrar’s office. Scary because we are on the front side of a new education paradigm. It’s exciting, and scary, for teachers and students alike…but it is the right move – for the church.

This morning, as I was working on some of the details, imagining how students will receive this and getting a bit concerned, I came across a chemistry teacher who calmed my nerves and encouraged me to keep moving ahead. I share it with you with hopes of encouraging any of you who also are imagining a new way and trying to push into a new future of teaching and learning.

a new paradigm for education … educators as cultivators of curiosity and inquiry

Identity and Way of Life


Yesterday I finished teaching one of my favorite courses – Discipleship and Vocation in Children, Youth and Family Ministry. Not a sexy title, and there are no gimmicks in the class. In fact, the class is pretty simple, it is about exploring Christian discipleship and vocation. In everyday language that translates into what does it means to be and live Christian? It’s about identity and way of life.

Now just because a course can be summarized in a sentence does not mean its subject matter is easy or simple. In fact, each week we gathered we discovered some things can be reduced to a simple statement, but putting such statements into conversation with our everyday experience is often complicated.  Life is messy. There is brokenness and pain. People are selfish, and self-centered. The world is noisy and vying for our attention. But there is hope, and promise. We all do have a purpose, gifts and agency. And while there are BIG things in life to figure out, there are also little ways we can make a difference everyday. Knowing the basics can be really helpful. And having conversation partners along the journey really matters.

But there is another thing we discovered.  Some of the ways we have been “doing” church (or at least practices those of us in the class grew up with) are not actually helping people get at what it means to BE Christian and LIVE Christian.

Perhaps that’s troubling news. It once was for me. But now my attention has shifted from being disappointed to being curious.

Why am I curious? Because I know, at least the way any gut knows things, many of our current ministry practices are not going away. In fact, many have a very long track record. Take worship, for example. It would be very surprising if worship suddenly became meaningless for Christians. Why? Because as I look back across time, I can’t think of one Christian community that didn’t exercise some worship practice. Does it look like the worship I am familiar with? No. But they drew on many of the same elements we do today.  The same can be said of prayer and serving others and telling the Christian story.  In addition, I think Christians are more open to asking questions these days. And I find that encouraging. Like the two-year old who wants to know why or the teenager trying to discover the deeper meaning of family practices, many Christians are hungry to know why congregations do what they do, and they are not content being passive participants. They want more, they not only what to know the meaning, they want participation to be meaningful.

So what does this mean for ministry? As I play with, and imagine, ministry in the years ahead, it seems more critical now to ground ministry in the basics of what it means to BE Christian and then help people discover how such an identity IMPACTS and SHAPES life. For preschoolers that might include reading stories about God’s people in the past, telling stories about Christians today and helping them wonder about what it will mean in their life. For adolescents it might be reminding them, day in and day out, that they are a child of God…loved as they are…gifted and capable, with the ability to make a difference in the world and impact the lives of those around them. For young adults it might include helping them form really good questions about life, and love, and relationships, and work, and the world. And it’s questions shaped out of an honesty about our limitations and selfish desires, yet full of possibility and with an eye to the future. It could include learning about prayer, as one prays, or engaging Scripture with an eye to the world and an eye to God, or serving others, not to fulfill our needs, but because someone else needs us to. And the list could go on.

Ministry today, for people raised in the church or new to the Christian faith, is both more basic…starting and ending at who we are as Christians…and more organic….in that it takes seriously the lived experiences and questions of each person and their communities.

This summer I turn 50. And, like many, am going to need to be reminded of who I am and what it means to live out of that identity in this time and place (and at this age). I hope the communities I am apart of will remind me of the basics, as they also join me on the journey. And I hope to do the same for them, curious and open to whatever the future brings.




Would love to hear your thoughts on this TedTalk on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. It begs lots of questions … and provides openings for rethinking creativity – not only for those in which it is in the center of their work, but also for those of us who dance in and our of it periodically.

So watch…and share!

Access to Information


It was a Sunday afternoon and my daughter and I were running errands. We were halfway between home and a store I wanted to stop by. In a “senior” moment, I asked my daughter if we could stop by home to check on how late the store was open. Before I even realized what I had said, (I wanted to go home and call the store or look up their information on their website) she had taken out her phone, searched for the store and told me we had an hour before they closed.

I grew up in an era with phone books – yellow pages for businesses and white pages for home residents. My mom loved phone books, and she taught her kids well. As the saying goes,”She let your fingers do the walking” and made use of this valuable tool located right in our kitchen cupboard. In the 1980s, phone books were a source of information.

My kids don’t know the difference between white pages and yellow pages, and laugh at the idea that a book, updated once year, could we valuable for getting people’s numbers, findings specialty stores or even discovering a shop’s hours. This information, as witnessed with my daughter, is all at their finger tips. All the time, everyday.

So what, you might ask. What does it matter how one finds phone numbers or store hours?

It matters because the world has shifted. My daughter doesn’t only have access to the yellow pages in her phone, she’s got “the world” in her hands. Think I’m over exaggerating? Think again.

This fall, while said daughter was in a class on Martin Luther, mom became a great resource. For about five Tuesdays or Wednesdays in a row, I’d get a text, email or even a call, asking for help. My daughter was struggling with the assigned reading in her religion class, usually a reading I had in print in my office. She’d written a 2 page reflection, but wanted me to “look it over” and offer critical feedback. (A theologian’s dream – quite possibly!) To offer good feedback, I needed to “refresh” my own reading of these texts. And guess what I did? I Googled it.  And, lo and behold, I found the texts I needed. All of them. Imagine that.

Today, all kinds of information is available at our fingertips – in our Smartphones, in our iPads and in our laptops. Getting essays by Martin Luther, for example, is not a problem. The issue at hand is, like it was for my daughter, finding a good conversation partner. What does this mean for faith formation? What does this mean for Christian education?

This experience with my daughter has helped me rethink what it means to be a teacher of the church. Yes, I’m teaching church leaders, but I don’t think it matters if it is a “soon-to-be” pastor or a 13-year old or an educated lay person. Studies show, we can get access to information. But who will be a guide? Who will help people make their way through the maze of information? Who will ask good questions? Who will be there for conversation?

The world has shifted. As one “teaching” about the Bible, theology and what our church believes, I have to remember, I am not the dispenser of information – my role has changed. These days, what’s needed is a guide. one to accompany learners in their journey of faith. I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but I’m trying. And I’m making mistakes along the way.

Two easy things to do to get started:

As you ponder what this means for you, think about an area you don’t know anything about, but want to. (I recently needed help with some aspect of knitting, for example.) Maybe  you have a particular “situation” or problem you want to address. Maybe it’s a really big issue, and you want to know how to get started. What did you do? Where did you turn? What would you need? What kinds of questions would you have? Maybe the exploration is a place to begin.

Next, listen. In the “normal” places and in the “abnormal” places. Listen to what people talk about in the coffee hour between services or before or after confirmation. What insights do these comments have for you as you think about being a guide. But also listen at coffee shops, at the basketball game or when you are out to eat. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a clue as not only the questions, but what tools these folks need to access the information they are looking for.