Category Archives: Education

The Significance of Sacred Space

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I said goodbye today to the office I occupied for more than twelve years.  Much-needed renovations mean the school is moving elsewhere for now.  Faculty offices will be reconfigured, and the old ones all demolished.

After all the boxes were packed and the desk emptied, I took some time to reflect on all that had happened and been done in this place.  I thought of conversations with students, faculty, and staff, the many books and articles read and digested, the countless class sessions created and prepared for, the mass of papers and assignments read through and graded, the meals eaten, the times of prayer, worship, and contemplation where I heard from, talked, pleaded, wrestled with, and even raged against God.  I cried, laughed, prayed, listened, and sang here—alone and with others.

In the midst of my musings and grief, it suddenly struck me: Through the years his humble little corner had become a holy haven, a sacred space.

Because of dangers and abuses, Evangelicals often avoid designating some spaces more sacred than others.  We don’t want them to become idolatrous places, distracting and distancing us from God’s genuine presence.

In our protective zeal, however, something important gets lost.  We can forget to pause and remember that God was actually in this place, doing things only He could do.  In this sense, certain places can provide meaningful memorials and reminders of His goodness and faithfulness.

One of the most obvious areas where such places can be found is the so-called, “Holy Land,” where Abraham sojourned, David reigned, and Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  When the Israelites entered into this land by miraculously crossing the Jordan River on dry ground, God directed stones from the riverbed to be erected as a memorial to what He had done there.  It was intended to be an important teaching tool for future generations to remember His powerful kindness.   Such commemorative spaces can help us recapture, reenact, and reimagine all that God has done, reminding us to give Him thanks and praise.

But we also must remember that Moses only stood on holy ground because God was there, not because of any holiness inherent to that place.  Spaces do not become or remain sacred in-and-of-themselves.  They become sacred when God sets them apart by His presence and power.  This was especially the case with respect to the Holy of Holies, the temple’s inner sanctum.  It was only holy because God was there.  And as a result, it was not to be entered without holy fear and humble reverence, lest that person be struck down by God’s righteous indignation.

Sadly, this sacred space would itself become an idol.  God’s people began taking Him for granted, repeatedly rejecting and rebelling against Him.  Eventually, when God had finally had enough, He left the Holy of Holies.  He allowed it to be desecrated by foreign invaders and permanently dismantled by the Romans in AD 70.  It was not sacred in-and-of-itself.  It was only sacred because God chose to dwell there in a very special way.

Similarly, there’s nothing inherently extraordinary about the 10’X10’ fourth-story slab suspended by concrete and rebar that constituted my office for over twelve years. Nevertheless, I thank God for visiting and using this blessed little cube in the sky for His greater glory.  Much more than this, I long for and look forward to living in that place Jesus promises to prepare for us, a space that will always be sacred and never taken away since we will dwell there for endless days in His magnificent and marvelous presence.

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For Such a Time as This

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Growing up, I often dreamed of living in another time and place.  Some long to live in the future, fascinated by imagined and fantastic things that might someday become possible and common-place.  I, on the other hand, always felt like I was born too late, ill-fitted for life in the present age.  The quixotic past I envisioned living in was safer, slower, less technological and complex.

It’s easy, after all, to romanticize the imagined past and the dreams of the future when you don’t actually live in them.  It’s far harder is to live well within the messy and difficult realities of the present.

Many things make me want to live in the past, but the recent rapid rise of digital information technologies has been especially instrumental in increasing this nostalgic yearning.  The explosions of tech innovation and the accompanying breakneck pace of cultural and academic alterations in teaching have disoriented, dumbfounded, and discouraged me.  The methods and means of education are changing so rapidly, I wonder if I’ll be able to finish my career as a professor if I cannot quickly adapt to these relentless and radical technological transformations.

I frequently catch myself thinking, “Perhaps if I was born about fifteen years earlier, I would not have to worry about all these changes.  I would be approaching retirement and could let younger generations figure it all out.” But if my health and mind hold out, there could many years of teaching opportunities ahead.  God has been reminding me that like it or not, I will have to face these challenges in the here and now.  And when you really think about it, what other time do we have to live within but the actual present?

I suspect that many have wrestled with the longing to escape the difficulties of today by wanting to live in the future or the past.  And while we can certainly learn from the past and look to the future, God still calls us to live well in the present—the exact time and place in which He has chosen us to live and move and have our being.  As such, none of us were born too late or too early.

As Mordecai reminded Esther, we were born for such a time as this, created at just the right time for God’s sovereign plans to be revealed and fulfilled in and through us.  I doubt Esther wanted to risk her life to save her people from extermination, but it was the time and place in which God had positioned her.  That moment gave her the opportunity and responsibility to live well in the present. She accepted it with courage and used it wisely.

If we are willing to embrace with faith and joy the place and time in which God has positioned us, and if we are willing to live—really live—in that actual present, I suspect God will grant us many opportunities—big and small—that we alone are meant to accept and fulfill.  They may or may not be, like Esther, life-risking, nation-saving endeavors, but in the here and now of God’s purposes and plans they still matter immensely nonetheless.  May we therefore attend to and live well within the present prospects God grants us so long as it is still called today.

The Changing Face of Education

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Growing up, I went to a school building and sat in a physical classroom next to my classmates and teacher.  I liked some and—I confess—thoroughly disliked others, but never thought that hard about what education was all about.  I just knew I was supposed to be in school all day, every day, along with everyone else.

In sixth grade our class was selected to pilot an exciting new program called the “Calculator Project.” We got to use electronic calculators in math class rather than having to figure everything out in our heads or on paper. It felt a little bit like cheating, but we all thought it was cool that these handheld devices could do hard math so quickly and accurately.

Needless to say, the world of education and its use of technology has fundamentally changed in the past four decades.

I recently read an article stating that after twenty-five years, Moody Bible Institute (my son’s alma mater) is closing its Spokane, WA extension campus and significantly cutting faculty at its main Chicago campus.  In addition, Fuller Seminary (my alma mater) is closing three of its eight extension sites within the next two years and downsizing by selling its main Pasadena campus.  In a recent survey, 1 in 8 university presidents expressed concern that their school would close in the next five years—all due to severely declining enrollment.

The reason for all this reduction is clear: online distance learning is quickly gaining market share and drastically reducing student numbers at traditional campus-based institutions.

Education is not dead, of course, but it is changing—rapidly and radically.

Contemporary studies also indicate that online education produces as good, or in some cases, better educational outcomes than traditional residential campus models of education.  To be honest, I’m still not sure I believe it.  I don’t want to believe it.

Because of my age, I am hopeful that it might still be possible to finish my teaching career spending a significant portion of it physically present and face-to-face with students who are actually there.  But realism tells me this kind of educational experience will become increasingly rare. It appears that much of future education will be progressively localized and virtual.

Every educational model has problems and limitations.  I am not lamenting the loss of the traditional model because I am a traditionalist.  Old models of education have many problems and weaknesses.  There are some things I will not miss about it, like, for instance, the tendency to lack collaborative learning.  In addition, we cannot assume that taking a large block of time away from the contexts of “real life” will somehow result in students being able to remember and apply the mass of material presented at the residential school when they return to the “real world.”

And yet, I wonder what important things will be left behind in these “new” and “emerging” virtual models. I suspect the main thing will be the overt embodiment of truth and goodness in those students and teachers with whom and from whom we are learning.  In short, we will not be physically “rubbing shoulders” with the ones we are learning with and from.

This is a tragic and significant loss, especially in Christian education.  Disembodying virtue and veracity is dangerous when making disciples.  God did not send disembodied messages and sets of commands when He wanted to make Himself known and help us grow in godliness and wisdom.  Rather, He sent real-life leaders and prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and Elijah to share and flesh them out.  Ultimately, He sent Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, who is the epitome of what it means to embody virtuous grace and truth.

Is campus and residential-based education dead?  Not yet, but in many ways, it faces the danger of extinction.  Purely online education is an information delivery system, but little more.  It can too easily uncouple knowledge from the concrete realities of embodied life. True wisdom requires knowledge, but knowledge that is observable and well-applied in the everyday lives of those who want and claim to possess it.

My greatest teachers were great not just because they were well-informed, but because they were wise and personally available to me in ways that were concretely formative and meaningful. I ate with them, laughed with them, mourned with them, and struggled with them.  I directly observed them living well as they loved and interacted with God, their wives, their children, their students, and even their pets.

The Apostle Paul knew we needed real-life models and examples if we were to succeed in following Jesus.  That is why he told the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and urged the Philippians to “join in imitating me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”  We need embodied examples of what truth and goodness actually look like in the frequently confusing contexts of our lives.

An education—residential or virtual—that fails to provide living models in close proximity with other learners is impoverished and incomplete.  The separation of instruction from instructor and those instructed is inherent to distance education.  This problem of separation is not insurmountable, but it must be adequately and creatively addressed so that future education does not become a contemporary form of ancient Gnosticism where the message is all that matters and becomes wholly detached and disconnected from the embodied character of those who share and live it out.