Education, Reform and Shalom: Something to Consider

kids in class circa 1900

One thing that I am very proud of is my family – and not only my immediate family. My extended family, like my immediate family, is filled with brilliant, creative and wonderful people. One person in-particular consistently points me toward great articles and challenges me to think outside the box. I’m certain I’ve never told her that – or thanked her. Nevertheless – she has done it again by pointing me toward an insightful article from The Atlantic.

FINL0001The article, by Anu Partanen, is entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. It is insightful as well as challenging. Partanen points out that Finland’s success is counter to most everything we do in the US.

For instance, Finland has no standardized tests. Instead Indian Schoolteachers are trained and given the responsibility to “assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” In fact, in Finland “all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.” If a teacher is not a good teacher the principal deals with that situation. Oh – and a person must have a master’s degree to teach.

One thing further, there are no private schools. The reason for this goes back to Finland’s understanding, years ago, that their system needed reformation. So, according to the article, “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

I am certain that a lot of counter arguments can be made about Finland’s system (of course their results seems to shout down most arguments). What stands out to me isn’t so much their results but the “main driver” within their systems. From my perspective, what is driving their system (equality) sounds a lot like Jesus’ call to love neighbor – or shalom.

I think a lot about the mission of shalom and or love of neighbor. Primarily because I believe it is the clearest way Christians are actually Christ-like. Years ago a pastor in New York helped me to understand the concept of Biblical Shalom (loving neighbor). He said, “It comes down to this. If I want my kids to be safe, well feed, well-educated, healthy, free from harm, I should also want it for my neighbor’s kids as well.” In fact, not only should I want it but I should also work toward that mission. That is part of what Jesus calls His people to do when he calls them to love their neighbor.

Finland’s education reform is a powerful example of loving neighbor (whether intended or not). Their reform is something that the US needs as well. Inequality is clearly seen in education (just visit a large city like Saint Louis). However, there are a lot of people trying to do something about it it is in the US – although not in an overt way.

As I read this article in The Atlantic I could not help but think of a number of efforts that are being made by Christian men and women in relationship to public schools. There are churches that provide tutoring and after-school help. There are churches that give meals for kids and their families on the weekends. Churches are trying to partner with public schools by doing painting, landscaping and providing school supplies. Churches offer ESL to help immigrants and refugees. There are also private Christian schools (including where my kids attend) that are making efforts to bridge the gaps as well. Some churches are even trying to establish charter schools in partnership with public school systems in depressed areas in an effort to break the grip of poverty and inequality.

Believe it or not these efforts aren’t so much about proselytizing as it is a concern for children getting a good education. In effect, it is the mission of shalom. Christian people have been about this sort of thing for a very long time – a very long time. 

It is a mark of Jesus’ people to step into places of brokenness and attempt to bring mlk_smilewholeness and hope. The clearest example of that is in Jesus himself. Just look at the way that Jesus treated people (but take note that he overturned tables and drove out people out to ensure justice at the Temple). But it has also been that way throughout the history of the church. Look at Mother Teresa, The people of LeChambon during WWII. And of course, the fact MLK was not only an African-American working for Civil Rights but also a Christian and a pastor.

There are a lot of examples of churches across the US that have realized the need to do something about inequality in education. There is much more that can be done. Partanen’s article presents a challenge – and not just to the public education system in the US. The challenge comes to the local church as well – in whatever setting. Churches and Christians should ask what role the Christian community can play in furthering equality in education. They should also be asking about ways Christ’s people can help bring reform and then do it.

I am certain that is something worth considering.

OtherResources

http://m.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

Advertisements

The End of a Chapter

This is my last evening in St. Louis. This is a really great town. I’ve sampled (okay engulfed) some of the best food. I’ve also enjoyed some great company. The people I have met over the last three years in the Doctor of Ministry Cohorts at Covenant Theological Seminary are some of the finest folks – and I’m not just saying that.

But alas – the end of a chapter is upon me.

I can honestly say that the three residencies at Covenant have were some of the most important investments in my life as a pastor. There is something pretty special about this school. I am deeply grateful for all the work and time and prayer that the staff of this seminary has poured into this program. I’m thankful beyond words for the Rev. Dr. Bob Burns.

But now – the “real” work of the DMin begins – the dissertation. But honestly, I’m excited about it. I’m excited about my topic (how pastors lead significant change). I’m thrilled to be able to pour some of my time into studying and writing something which I hope will benefit the church – the kingdom. That’s a pretty great thing to be allowed to do.

That topic may seem strange for folks. It generally does when folks ask me what my dissertation. That gives me an opportunity to talk about something I mentioned in an earlier blog – change.

Over dinner this evening someone asked the me question and I got the usual, “Oh.” I smiled and then I threw something out. I brought up the notion of shalom and God’s mission in the world. I talked about the notion of Christians doing good in the world – about being a blessing to their community and the push back that some folks get for wanting to do that. In a moment it generated some good conversation. I sat back and listened and enjoyed.

What brought me to this topic?

Well, a few years ago I was introduced to a book by Nicholas Wolterstorff called Until Justice and Peace Embrace. In that book, Dr. Wolterstorff brought up the subject of shalom. He defines Biblical shalom in relational terms. Basically, shalom is when we as human beings are in a right relationship with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors and with creation. When those relationships are right – that’s shalom. There is truly an absence of war and strife, there is justice, everyone has what they need.

Our relationship with God can only be made right because of Christ – and that extends then beyond ourselves into our relationships with our neighbors and into all of creation. It is in that relationship that we are fully human and we flourish. A friend of mine explained it in this way. He said, “If I want my kids to be safe, clean, get a good education, to be free from harm and disease – then as part of loving my neighbor – as part of shalom – I should want that for your kids too.”

Wolterstorff, in that same book, goes on to say that God’s mission in the world is the mission of restoring shalom. If that’s God’s mission then it ought to be the mission of God’s people as well (I’m not doing the book justice – you ought to read it). He suggests that we are not to sit around with our arms folded waiting on shalom to arrive but to take part in the work of the kingdom – the work and mission of shalom.

I think he’s right. What’s more I think a lot of Christians really want their faith to matter – to be relevant and significant – not just to them and their family but to their communities. I think a lot of Christians feel this way – and I think they are right. Don’t get me wrong. We need to know and study the Bible. We need to pray and worship. The Christian life isn’t less of those things – it is actually more. It isn’t less of what we’ve done in the past to make strong believers – it is more – building on our solid foundations.

All of that got me thinking about the church and pastors and change and the mission of shalom. I don’t fully understand all of what it means to live out the mission of shalom – but I understand some things – and Sherry and I are training our boys to think and live in those terms. But I know something. I know that in some places to begin talking about moving a church in that direction brings a certain degree of resistance.

But resistance isn’t bad. It is important – in that it helps to give shape and it helps to maintain the proper perspectives. But resistance, tension and conflict are often the very things that Christians want to avoid. But it is often the very thing that leads to significant change – and significant change is the kind of change some churches would have to make (a significant change (or adaptive) means a change in long-established behavior, beliefs, practice, tradition).

I wondered how have pastors in established churches led significant change – I wondered how they did it given the nature of conflict. One day the notion of strategic planning and conflict sort of feel in my lap. I had never thought about pastors and ministry leaders strategically using the resistance, tension and conflict to lead signficant change before. In fact, Bob Burns was the first to sort of open that world up to me. I wondered if there were any pastors – or seminaries that even taught that idea.

But it isn’t really that novel of an idea – not really. I mean most pastors that I talk to about this think I’m crazy. But counselors and therapists do this all the time. In fact this morning I heard a lecture on pastoral counseling and our lecturer told us how in her practice of over 30 years she often uses tension, or a clients resistance in the hopes of leading them to significant change.

I like that – really. Of course – I’m a pastor. Which means I’m a shepherd. It means that I have the best interest of the person and the church at heart. That’s true. But as a pastor – shepherd – I am charged with leading those whom God has called me to serve. That doesn’t mean I just tell them they are okay and everything is alright. It is not true. The scriptures tell us who we are as human beings – and our hearts tend to verify what the Bible says – often with tension, resistance and conflict.

So, over the course of the last three years I have been preparing for this moment – for all the class work to be finished – for all the projects and papers to have been written. Now, the real work of research and reading and putting things together begins in earnest. This chapter has ended – but it looks like I’ve just opened a new book and I’ve got five more chapters to go. All right then – let’s crank it out!