Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Same type of school; different type of religion

Roger Shank over at Education Outrage posted a reflection on modern approaches to public education that basically mirror what he says are the tenets of historical religious education:

  1. there is a truth that cannot be questioned
  2. there is no real choice in what a student learns about
  3. you can be punished for failure to attend school
  4. you will learn by being told
  5. there are official sacred books that everyone must know

What are the sacred books of our schools? Shakespeare, Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby, are some of them.

What truths cannot be questioned? Algebra teaches you to think. You must know science to have a job in the 21st century. All of U.S. history as depicted in textbooks.

Educators call this an indoctrination approach to education, which is often phrased as “teaching students what to think” – an approach Shank clearly loathes. However, he is correct in describing some aspects of religious or confessional education in that way. But it is an overstatement to characterize all confessional education as indocrinational. In the Bible college milieu, we preferred a doctrinal formation approach to education – something more akin to the phrase, “teaching students how to think.” As a result, our curriculum included biblical studies, liberal arts, and social sciences – all deeply guided by principles and practices of critical thinking. Our teaching strategies also included dialogue, group work, constructivist approaches, and lecture.

So my point is that confessional education does demonstrate learning through questioning, choice, openness to other perspectives and learning how to think. Could secular educationIndoctrination ever find a way to express such openness to the perspectives of religion (i.e. the confessional worldview), especially when studying sciences and literature? Will secular education ever realize its own practices of indoctrination of students? Perhaps if they take Shank’s advice:

School ought to be a place where open minds can explore. This doesn't happen because schools are simply the places where modern day religious instruction can be found. (It is a very odd religion -- one in which Shakespeare, Archimedes, Fermat, Descartes, Millville, and George Washington are gods.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Three virtues for a good reputation

I’ve always been fascinated by reputations, especially those that stand firm over time and even grow stronger. In the context of organizations and their reputations, a concept most often considered is branding.

A brand is an identity that stimulates precise, meaningful perceptions in its audience about the values and qualities that organization stands for. Reputation is a big part of branding. In order for a brand to stick it must be consistently displayed, constantly adhered to and refined over several years. Few things are more valued than a respected brand. A biblical comparison is seen in this verse: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1 NIV).

Former Disney CEO, Michael Eisner in his book Work in Progress (1998) says a brand “is a living entity, and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures” (p. 171). In fact, undermining a good name can happen faster than it’s built. Consider how this brand name has changed in just the last several months:


The church in Thessalonica made quite an impression on the Apostle Paul. In his first letter to them he writes:

2We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…As a result, you have become an example to all the believers in Greece—throughout both Macedonia and Achaia…8 And now the word of the Lord is ringing out from you to people everywhere, even beyond Macedonia and Achaia, for wherever we go we find people telling us about your faith in God. (1 Thess. 1:2-8)

Three qualities stood out to Paul when he commended this church. Thomas (1978) comments on them: “These three Christian virtues—faith, love, and hope—occupied a large place in early analyses of Christian responsibility. The expectation was that in every life faith would work (Gal 5:6; James 2:18), love would labour (Rev 2:2, 4), and hope would endure (Rom 5:2–4; 8:24, 25). This threefold balance probably arose even before Paul’s doctrinal stance had matured and perhaps came from the teachings of Christ himself.”

I’m often concerned about how churches are holding up under trials, like what the Thessalonian church faced. Some key areas affected include morale and relationships, which are related to the work done by human resources management departments in many organizations. In Fast Company magazine, Tischler (2004) writes about Kenny Moore, a former monk who went on to work in HRM related roles in the corporate sector. Moore makes some relevant comments: “For years, I worked on employee surveys, and I noticed three trends: 1) nobody trusts, 2) nobody believes in top management, and 3) people are too stressed to care. In the monastery, we called that a crisis of faith, hope, and charity. So corporate America not only has financial problems, it has spiritual problems.”

Isn’t it interesting (and concerning) that a lack of trust, suspicion toward our leaders, and distancing ourselves because we’re too stressed to stay engaged could be called a crisis of faith, hope and love?

So to confront or hinder such as crisis, the big questions are:

  • How will our faith work?
  • How will our love labour?
  • How will our hope endure?

These are timeless biblical virtues, so it would help to identify the timely relevant issues that require us to exercise faith, love, and hope. Perhaps exploring these questions will help:

  • Keep caring (faith working): Where do we need to develop an appreciation for engagement that exceeds a love for pleasure, leisure, or avoidance?
  • Believe in people (love labouring): What do we need to stop doing (like meddling, being disruptive, etc. – see 1 Thess. 5:12-15 ) and start embracing that we’ve been hesitant to do?
  • Keep trusting (hope enduring): What do we need to trust God with and wait patiently for? Something that we cannot do for ourselves?

From the believers in Thessalonica, we see that every church draws on three spiritual resources for building the praiseworthy Christian community – the life that sets a good example and wins a good name. Amazingly, we continue to find these three virtues – faith, love, and hope - are enough to make God proud.

faith hope love


Eisner, M. & Schwartz, T. (1998) Work in Progress. New York, NY: Random House.

Thomas, R. L. (1978). “1 Thessalonians.” In Ephesians—Philemon. Vol. 11 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by F. E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Tischler, L. (2004). Kenny Moore Held a Funeral and Everyone Came, FastCompany.com. Retrieved August 30, 2010 from  http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/79/firstperson.html

Monday, August 23, 2010

On rewards and faithfulness

Have you received any awards or medals? There’s something deeply affirming about those, isn’t there? On the other hand, I once heard someone comment how ironic it is that actors who receive Oscars at the Academy Awards are rewarded and admired for portraying a character they are not in real life.

Contrast that notion with these images from the 2010 Winter Olympics:


This is Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette receiving her bronze medal. Just two days before the beginning of competition, her mother, Thérèse Rochette, died suddenly of a heart attack at Vancouver General Hospital just hours after arriving to watch her compete. Despite tremendous grief, Rochette chose to continue the competition in her mother’s honour.

While her skating performance won her the bronze, her inspiring courage and determination in the face of such circumstances won her far more than a mere medal. Unlike an actor’s award, Rochette won respect and admiration for the character she displayed in real life. In that medal ceremony, it was as though she was wearing her mom’s pride around her neck - and the pride of a nation too.

The return of Christ and the notion of all appearing before his judgment seat is a critical New Testament teaching. It reminds believers that Jesus Christ has “rescued us from the terrors of the coming judgment” (1 Thess. 1:10 NLT) and to expect rewards from him for faithful service. This appears to be in Paul’s mind when he referred to the Thessalonian church as his hope and joy and crown of boasting (1 Thess. 2:19-20).

The expression “crown of boasting” probably stems the athletic contests in which the victor received a wreath. The closest equivalent image for us today would be like an Olympic medal ceremony. Paul frequently uses the metaphor of athletics to portray the Christian life in general and his ministry in particular. 

Gerig (1997) points out that “rewards will not be given necessarily for successful service as the world so often evaluates it. Paul notes that “it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2). Note that he does not say “successful” as one might consider success here on earth. What is rewarded is not primarily the visible accomplishments of the individual, but the faithful labour expended (1 Cor. 15:58).”

From 1Co 4:5 we know that Christ will illuminate what has been hidden by darkness and expose our secret aims and motives. You see, unlike the Oscars, these rewards are handed out for your actual character.


W. L. Gerig (1997). “Reward” in W. A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Grand Rapids: MI, Baker Book House.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Vantage points on forgiveness

Vantage Point is a 2008 American political-action thriller filmVantage Point BR with a unique plot development: the film replays a series of events taking place within a period of about 25 minutes. Each time the clock rewinds and the episode unfolds from a new vantage point, gradually revealing additional details until the complete story of what really occurred and who was really involved is unveiled at the film's climax.

When we take a look at something from a variety of vantage points or perspectives, something remarkable happens - we begin to realize there’s important details and a legitimate story happening beyond our initial understanding. In fact, I believe seeking multiple perspectives is related to the maxim in Proverbs 15:22: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (TNIV).

In thinking about forgiveness, I see three important vantage points to consider:

  • Biblical: the principal worldview that shapes our thinking and values; rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ, specifically, Matt. 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (TNIV).
  • Social: relating to human welfare and the ways people in groups behave and interact.
  • Psychological: that which affects the mind and mental processes thus shaping the characteristic disposition/temperament of a person or group.

Together, these areas seem to function like interlocking perspectives of our lives:


In doing so, we could say that one area affects the other; i.e., when one moves the other is affected too. Conversely when one doesn’t move the others are impaired as well.

What is forgiveness?

Webster’s (1983) dictionary defines forgiving as “to give up resentment against or the desire to punish.” It seems the essence of forgiveness is a change in motives that promote social wellbeing. McCullough (2002) describes this as Prosocial motivations. In other words, the forgiver becomes less motivated to harm the reputation or future opportunities of another, instead becoming more motivated to promote whatever benefits the offender. If taken from the prosocial vantage point, could unforgiveness then be antisocial in nature? Hmm.

Who is the forgiving person?

McCullough points to research that suggests the ability to forgive is related to dimensions from the Big Five / Five Factor personality traits. Two of these areas are especially identified as influential to promoting forgiveness: agreeableness and emotional stability. But McCullough also mentions research that identifies spirituality as an important characteristic in a forgiving disposition. These studies suggest that people who identify themselves with a religious or spiritual tradition that highly values forgiveness tend to see themselves as more forgiving than those who do not identify themselves that way.

What specific things do people do that foster forgiveness?

McCullough describes three processes that have been studied and found to influence forgiveness:

  • Empathy: the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties.
  • Generosity: a willingness to appraise the offender as more likable and accept their explanations for the situation as honest and adequate.
  • Rumination: the extent to which the forgiver replays thoughts, feelings and images about the offence. The more people brood about a transgression, the more they are likely to seek revenge or distance themselves from the offender.


Yeah but…

A nagging question comes to mind here: What if I love God but struggle with agreeableness and emotional stability as part of my personality? Perhaps these areas are the weaknesses that hinder the person struggling to forgive rather than religious commitment. One way to find out is to take a Five Factor/Big Five personality inventory to measure those areas of temperament (see here). Another thing a person could consider is if they struggle with an emotional style that hinders forgiveness (see here).

In conclusion

No matter how often we have been forgiven by God, no matter how often we have forgiven or have been forgiven by other people, we are still learning to forgive and learning a little more about ourselves in the process. Forgiveness is not a skill that is mastered and then becomes second nature to us. The ability to forgive must be rediscovered in every painful situation.

Let the words of Paul especially motivate us: “Because of this, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:12-14 TNIV)


Article on “Understanding Your Emotional Style.” Click here.

Five Factor / Big Five Personality Inventory. Click here.

McCullough, M. E. (2001). Forgiveness: Who does it and how do they do it? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 194-197. PDF

Monday, August 9, 2010

Forgiving environments

The question of safety in church is crucial. I've been reading about a similar issue in some parallel contexts lately and I think the insights there have some great application for thisBosk
discussion. In 1979, Charles Bosk wrote about managing medical incident reports in a book titled Forgive and Remember. The title indicates the message that internships are occasions win which errors must be made. They would be forgiven because they could be reflected upon and become a source of learning.

Sutton (2003) reports on the research of Amy Edmondson’s study on how leadership and co-worker relationships influence drug treatment errors in nursing units. Edmondson, along with fellow researchers were quite surprised when questionnaires completed by these nurses showed that the units with superior leadership and relationships between coworkers reported making far more mistakes. The best units appeared to be making more than ten times more errors than the worst!

Sutton writes that when Edmondson investigated further she realized that the better units reported more errors because people felt “psychologically safe” to do so. In the units that reported the most mistakes, nurses said “mistakes were natural and normal to document” and that “mistakes are serious because of the toxicity of the drugs, so you are never afraid to tell the nurse manager.”

On the other hand, in the the units where errors were hardly ever reported the story was completely different. Nurses said things like, “The environment is unforgiving, heads will roll,” “you get put on trial,” and that the nurse manager “treats you as guilty if you make a mistake” and “treats you like a two-year-old.”

Interestingly, after seeing this research physicians no longer viewed error data as objective evidence but as something driven in part by whether people are trying to learn from mistakes (so they confess and report it) or trying to avoid getting blamed for them (so they stay quiet and don’t report it).

One of the most crucial lessons from these studies is that groups that focus on how and why the system, community or culture contributes to mistakes (rather than which people and groups are to blame) not only encourage people to talk more openly about mistakes, they result in changes that actually reduce errors.


Imagine if a similar research project revealed that churches with
superior relationships actually reported more sin! And it revealed this simply because people felt safe to talk about it. Put another way, what if churches that focus on how and why the community contributes to mistakes or sin (rather than which people to blame) not only encourage people to talk more openly about sin, they result in changes that actually reduce sinful behaviour or attitudes.

I suppose this is shaped by our assumptions about what’s most important. So what’s the bottom line in the church? Is discipleship mostly about controlling sin? Imagine tracking the “number of sin free days” at church!


Bob George (1989) addresses this unfortunate focus in his book Classic Christianity: “The Christian world is obsessed with sin...Most of our preaching and teaching is directed toward getting people to quit sinning. Are you ready for a really shocking statement: The goal of the Christian life is not to stop sinning – it is to know Jesus Christ” (p. 109).

Let’s look at this through 1 John 1:5 – 2:2 with some helpful annotations:

5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (no sin, no secrets). 6If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth (dysfunction). 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another (safety, openness), and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (forgiveness).

8If we claim to be without sin (hiding it), we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins (talk openly), he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned (hiding it, blame others), we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin (normal for now), we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.


George, Bob. (1989). Classic Christianity. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.

Bosk, Charles L. (1979). Forgive and Remember: Managing Medical Failure. Chicago, ILL: University of Chicago.

Sutton, Robert I. (2003). “Organizational Behavior: Forgive and Remember”, Cioinsight.com, (Retrieved August 9, 2010 from http://www.cioinsight.com/c/a/Past-News/Organizational-Behavior-Forgive-and-Remember/)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Learning to discern the body


Have you ever felt that you didn’t fit in? Perhaps at work, at school, in your family, or at church? Or maybe the feeling of being unfairly excluded?

Communion has a great deal to do with reinforcing belonging together in the church (i.e., sharing in the body of Christ) and preventing attitudes of exclusion and discrimination.

The key verse often used during communion in evangelical churches is 1 Cor. 11:27-30: “So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without discerning the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died” (TNIV).

Paul is writing to a Christian community torn apart by various divisions with some considering themselves superior to others (i.e. discrimination): e.g., more wise, more spiritually gifted, more anointed, more socially acceptable, more economically successful, etc. Rather than practicing authentic communion, some of the rich Corinthians’ used the Lord’s Supper as a basis to exercise their privileges and segregate the poor in the process: “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s
Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat
and drink in?” (11:20-22 TNIV)

Listen to his sarcasm and indignation: “But, of course, there must be divisions among you so that you who have God’s approval will be recognized…do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor?...I have no praise for this!” – (11:19-22 NLT).

Paul’s instruction to correct to this situation involved the Corinthians examining themselves before participating in communion. But what were they to examine? How were they to “discern the body?” What is a worthy manner to eat this bread and drink this cup?

Paul goes to great lengths to remind the Corinthians that the basis of their unity is not their social status (a worldly perspective), but rather, their belonging together in the body of Christ. Their divisions betray this fact. This was their failure to discern the body.

There have been several suggested applications of examining one’s self before taking communion including unconfessed sin, spiritual apathy, moral purity, whether or not you are saved, and even if you are in any conflict with another believer. These are all fine to question but they are not at the center of what Paul teaches here, which is attitudes and actions of discrimination. The former suggestions are good to examine, biblically speaking, but they are off-centered to the teaching of this passage.

Another interpretation I’ve heard to discerning the body teaches that communion is a means to receiving physical healing (see here), therefore failing to discern this is why “many of you are weak and sick and some have even died.” This is more than an off-centered teaching; it is erroneous.

Here’s a figure that depicts the various suggestions for examining one’s self:


The examination Paul teaches here is about discriminating any other members of the body of Christ (in this case, the poor). John Kirkley captures the central idea of examining yourself before taking communion: “The only requirement for reception of this Holy Sacrament is a willingness to be united with the body of Christ, a willingness to refuse participation in the dynamic of exclusion that makes our salvation dependent upon someone else’s condemnation.”


John Kirkley, “Discerning the Body: A Maundy Thursday Homily” Retrieved from http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/dojustice/j337.html

On Being Under Authority


I'll never forget those astonishing words: “Your employment with this church will end as of…” Although I knew that my leaders were making restructuring plans, I came into that meeting expecting to review the budget for my department. Yet with that stunning announcement, my whole world came to a stand-still. Suddenly, I was facing the prospect of being unemployed for the first time in years. I remember thinking, “How are you working for my good in this one Lord” (cf. Rom. 8:28).

Often, we face transitions that are not personally chosen. In reality, they are chosen for us by someone else and we’re left to handle it. The purpose of this article is to share my story of processing this unexpected shift and the special transformation it brought into my life. My hope is that the reader will be encouraged to manage an imposed transition well and in doing so, bring glory to God.

A solemn word of foresight was given to Peter near the end of the gospel of John. Jesus said to him: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:18-19 NIV)

In light of this, let me propose two hard questions that I dealt with in processing my situation. First, what are your true feelings about imposed change and/or loss? In these moments it’s difficult to submit to losing power and control, especially when it happens through no fault of your own (cf. 1 Pet. 2:18-21).

John Piper urges Christian leaders to prepare people for times of distress by enlarging their ideas of contentment: “If God is most glorified in our people when they are most satisfied in him… [then] we must build into our people’s minds and hearts a vision of God and his ways that helps them see suffering not merely as a threat to their satisfaction in God (which it is), but also as a means to their satisfaction in God (which it is).”

My second question is how do you truly feel about being under another person’s authority? I’ll admit that more than once I’ve meditated on the prospect of never again allowing myself to be vulnerable to the decisions of others. Yet this is almost impossible to avoid because working relationships constantly involve some deference, but also mutuality. The writer of Hebrews addresses this by saying, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 13:17 TNIV). Consequently, I had to weigh how much trust I would have toward those in leadership over me.

Duane Elmer defines trust as, “the ability to build confidence in a relationship so that both parties believe the other will not intentionally hurt them but will act in their best interest.” In the leader-follower relationship, both parties contribute to the level of trust that exists between them. Consequently, if a person inherently lacks trust in his or her leaders without just cause, that relationship will be quickly deteriorate and eventually everyone loses.

When I sat in that meeting with my supervisors, after some initial shock subsided, I asked them, “What should I do now?” They immediately recommended that I go to seminary and further invest in my gifts and knowledge for greater future ministry. They believed in me. 

Sometimes in an unexpected and imposed change, we can emerge better off than if the transition had never happened. But this usually comes by surrendering the power to control and finding greater satisfaction in trusting God to work on your behalf. In doing so, you may find that you’ve developed more faith in him, and maybe even in others, than you had ever conceived before. I’m sure Paul knew this when he wrote, “My life, an offering on God’s altar. This is the only race worth running” (2 Tim. 4:7, The Message).


Duane Elmer, Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christ-like Humility (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 77.

John Piper, “Preparing People to Suffer,” eds. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 627.