Saturday, February 23, 2013

Broken Art - Seen through Parent-Teacher Night

This past week we had this semester's parent teacher night. For those not familiar with how public schools work, a.ka. homeschoolers,  parent-teacher conferences are meetings where parents have the opportunity of meeting individually with their student's teachers for about 10 minutes.

In these meetings I have the blessing of telling parents their students are great. I get to say he has an A in my class, contributes to the class and is a great person to be around. This happens quite a bit, which is great. 

On the other hand, I have to have conversations with parents who have students with poor grades. I often notice these parents are tired, overworked, stressed and saddened. Even parents with students who do well, I have noticed that there is a general sadness when I talk with them. Life is hard and people go through divorce, have to work nights, don't get enough sleep, have medical problems and/or have financial issues. This is only the parents I'm talking about. 

A couple of the conversations I had to have were regarding students misbehavior and/or poor grades. It was hard to add this on to these parent's lives. It was easy to feel like I was the next guy in line contributing to a parent's mounting list of problems. I also found that as a teacher I was in a position of power in those meetings. 

In these meetings, I made sure that I explained as clearly as possible the best way for these students to pull their grade up or improve their behavior. It would be easy for me to offer no solution or offer something that is simply not possible for a parent to accomplish with their student. That's an easy response to brokenness. It was really important to see through the brokenness and provide a roadmap for them to follow in order to bring the student's grade up.  I have the power to provide a way of success or leave them in the dark.  This is a heavy burden. 

I have over a hundred students. I'm scrambling just to get my lesson plans finished. (And write an occasional blog post.) Grading is better know as LPP (large pile of papers). Discipline issues randomly pop up, students miss class, emails need to be sent and on top of that I teach. I survive because my administration is really helpful. 

It feels like I have a heavy sword that can lie dormant or be used poorly. It's so heavy I might as well not lift it up. When I do, it's easy to do something hurtful with it. I'm amazed when I see teachers doing great things. It surprises me and gives me comfort there are teachers able to do the work of a teacher. They help guide students towards their high school diplomas and on to college. It's a great thing to see. 

Parent-teacher night is tough because it's a lot of talking and listening. It's full of hard conversations, but  I found it an opportunity to tell parents about how they can give their student success. It was great to tell a parent who went through a divorce, works nights and just found out her/his student is failing my class that there is a way to bring that grade up. Not all is lost.

A Great Teacher
On a similar note, Pastor James Faris posted a commemorative blog post for a mentor, friend and pastor of mine, Pastor Rich Johnston. Pastor Johnston is stepping down from his 30 years of ministry as a youth secretary in the Great Lakes Gulf Presbytery of the RPCNA. He's been really important in my life. I posted a comment on Gentle Reformation, but I thought I'd put it on my blog to express my thanks for all of Pastor Johnston's work. My thoughts above would not be possible if it wasn't for the work God has used Pastor Johnston in my life.  

"I was on the CYPU Leadership team in high school, did a couple internships at 2nd RP and now work with the high school students at 2nd RP under Pastor Johnston’s leadership. While in high school, I was held to a high standard by Pastor Johnston with the other leaders and all the students who attended the CYPU events.
I learned so much under Pastor Johnston’s leadership while in college because he gave sound and wise advice and direction. He also was incredibly patient and kind to a crazy college student who continually messed up under his care. Now as a public school teacher, I look back on these experiences and stories Pastor Johnston told as reference points for my teaching today.
God has used Pastor Johnston in a special way in my life which I am eternally grateful for. I’m saddened that he will be stepping down this spring, but thankful for these 30 years he sacrificed for the church and her children."
Why Hope is Possible
Lastly, I found this video to be thoughtful, power and encouraging. It's worth seven minutes of your day. It's called "To This Day." I watched it after parent-teacher night and found it was saying part of my thoughts. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Chapter 1

This is the first post in a series of posts on Corneilius Van Til's work "The Defense of the Faith." I am reviewing it chapter by chapter as a way of digesting the book. It is not thick, but he says a lot which influences reformed thinking today.

I'm also coming at it from the perspective of a philosopher who wants to be a help to today's reformed thinkers. So I won't be making comments on all parts of the book but rather limiting my comments to where I think I can help clarify ideas and definitions and correct problems.

Introduction of the Book
In his introduction, Van Til quickly distinguishes himself from Rome. He finds that Roman Catholic thinkers have compromised Christ by merely asking the "natural man" to "add wisdom and work of Christ to that which man has in and of himself." (Pg. 3) The consequence is twofold, man is not shown his internal inconsistencies and this view gets stuck in "contingency."

Christians ought to reject this view of apologetics by uncompromisingly put forward Christ. Specifically, "their method of apologetics should be in line with their theology. In both Christ should be taught and preached unto men who are lost in all their thinking and living without him." What Van Til means, man is really lost and without Christ he can't even think straight. Van Til also distinguishes himself from other views. He claims to be following Warfield's line of thought. (As a philosopher, the reformed v. Neo-orthodoxy v.Arminianism doesn't interest me right now since I have yet to see how I can as a philosopher be helpful.)

What is Theology? 
Enough of the introduction, Van Til says right off the bat in the first chapter that theology is simply taking what the Bible says and teaching it. So, the first chapter Van Til summarizes this "system of truth" acquired from the Bible.

History, what about it? 
He notes that Christianity is a historical religion and Christ being a historical figure, Christianity is not void of a history. He notes that a pragmatist will attack this historical argument for Christianity by saying that all facts are unrelated and so to make a connection between the fact of Jesus' resurrection and us 2,000 years later, is superfluous. Hence, we must be involved in a philosophical discussion since we have to respond to the pragmatist. (I actually like this point. He says we should do philosophy as a way of defending the truth of Christianity. Glad I have a place in Van Til's system.)

Reason/Experience vs. The Bible - a Problem 
Van Til goes on to stop us from throwing away the Bible by saying "we do not first defend theism philosophically by an appeal to reason and experience in order, after that, to turn to scripture for our knowledge and defense of Christianity." Okay, stop. We need to talk about this.

Why does Van Til think that one must place the introduction of Christianity in an order? Why do you either introduce God's existence through reason and/or experience and then the Bible or vice versa. You're in trouble if you take this approach. You're bound to start with experience.  All knowledge stems from experience. (Cheers to Locke and Edwards for this point.)
note: Yes you can believe that all men are born with innate ideas/dispositions and say this. Edwards did. 

The Problem Explained 
If you want to say we ought to start with the Bible you are not actually saying that. Rather you are actually saying we ought to start with our senses picking up the Bible and then telling us about them.  No person on earth has sensory experiences or thought processes that are devoid of experience. Philosophically I'm saying something controversial, but let's follow a simple thought experiment. Think of anything, God, friends, your thoughts or your thought of your thoughts of your thoughts. Is that thought process devoid of experience? Well, what's a good criteria for something being an experience? For simplicity sake, let's say time is necessary. A necessary part of experience is the passing of time.
Okay this definition does get me into issues of "how do I know what is time outside of experiencing time?" If I can I can't then this goes in a circle. If you don't see the circle, here is is, what is experience? time. What is time? something we experience. Well, what is experience? So, let's get out of this circle by deal with what is time better, but that would take a book. I'm not writing a book. 

Did you pass time while you were thinking? Think about it. Notice, to think about whether time occurs when you think requires a bit of time. So, we're left with experience being foundation. I don't know if that's Biblical. It could be, but I don't know. As Van Til said, we want to stay Biblical, perhaps we don't want to get into this situation.

The Problem Resolved (hopefully...) 
Well let's resolve this sticky situation by saying we don't have to start with one or the other. Let's ask this question, do we have to start with either experience or the Bible? I argue there is no good reason for us to say one has to go with the other. God created us to function through experiences. They are vital to our identity. The Bible is vital to our knowledge of God. If one places them in two separate spheres saying one is prior to the other then we get into an unnecessary mess. So let's just say one doesn't have to start with one or the other. The implication for this is that we do have to do philosophy. Van Til said that. Oh good we can move on.

What Van Til Said 
Now, I know Van Til didn't create such a mess. He's not a second rate thinker. He doesn't say "One must start with the Bible and nothing else," but rather he says "It is therefore the system of truth as contained in the scriptures which we must present to the world." This is different then saying "ultimately we must start with the Bible." He is saying the Bible is the determining principle for what we say about what is.

If you don't think carefully, you may think that ultimately the Bible is foundational to EVERYTHING. No, no no. Let's not get into that false dichotomy  Let's say the Bible contains the truth and we need to follow it.

Van Til goes on to exposit basic concepts in systematic theology: Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Man, Doctrine of Christ, Doctrine of Salvation, Doctrine of the Church, and Last Things.

I won't bother discussing these parts since I've already said a lot. Next time we have chapter II and a really fun problem in philosophy which I don't think Van Til solves. - watch me eat my words.

Feel free to ask questions, critique or comment on this post. This is the first work I've read of Van Til so getting feedback from more educated individuals will be helpful. 

Should Protestants Celebrate Lent?

In the spring of 2008, I visited Ireland for a semester. I worshiped church that was a part of the Church of Ireland since there were no RP churches in the town we were staying. For those who are unaware, the Church of Ireland is essentially the Anglican Church in Ireland. The service I attended was a high liturgy service. Everything was scripted except for the sermon the priest gave. This was different for me because I grew up in a church where the worship service was very simple. We sang psalms a cappella,  had an offering, listened to a sermon and prayed a lot. I found the worship services I attended in Ireland to be unique and special. There is a place in the church for having high liturgy, but that's not the point of this post.

A good friend of mine, Ethan Harrison, also went with me to Ireland. We decided to celebrate Lent since it was being emphasized by the church we were attending. I knew absolutely nothing about Lent. I think I thought it was a practice that Roman Catholics thought you had to do otherwise you'd go to hell or something though I don't think I'm sure about what I thought.

I did it because I thought it would be helpful, still do.

Since that spring, I have participated in Lent by giving up something in my life. Other students at Taylor University also followed the practice so it we were sacrificing things together. We weren't disciplining our lives alone, it was in the context of the body.

A Tension 
Since graduating from Taylor, I am still celebrating Lent. More so now then when I was at Taylor, I've noticed there is a bit of tension between my denomination and the practice of Lent. Those who went before me (The Scottish Covenanters), disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church's stance on things like Lent. They saw it as unnecessary and unhelpful. (And the Anglican Church...) They went as far as dying so they didn't have to follow traditions like Lent.

So now here is me, about 300ish years later practicing Lent in a denomination that has a history of not being a fan of Lent. (And other such practices.) I know why, but I want to think that I can celebrate Lent in good conscience.

There is a Difference
A major difference between me today and the Covenanters back then was that I'm not persecuted for my beliefs. No organization is telling me I have to celebrate Lent and is going to get an army, walk over to my apartment and make me. More importantly, I don't connect Lent with salvation, as have many. No work makes me a better person, much less makes me acceptable to God.

The Covenanters saw Lent as being connected with "works salvation." Hence, we ought not celebrate it. I agree that there is the danger of believing Lent is a work that is meritorious when the truth is that nothing makes us good except the work of Jesus Christ. It was a good thing to get rid of all the pomp and circumstance surrounding worship.

So if one sees Lent as a practice that will bring about this belief in their lives then by all means don't celebrate Lent. This is true for any practice one participates in to bring about spiritual growth. All disciplines in the Christian life must be understood as not meritorious. If a practice does bring about that belief, the individual who is in danger ought to stop.

Disciplines of the Christian Life can all be seen as Meritorious 
On the other hand, just because a practice has been seen as meritorious to some, doesn't mean it is seen as meritorious by all. In 300ish years people may become extremely critical of the discipline of Bible memorization because people began to think that the quantity of scriptures you memorized equaled to the amount of righteousness in your soul. Just because this came about, it doesn't make Bible memorization a forbidden practice. Paul says that all things are lawful for me but not all things are beneficial. (1 Corinthians 6:12) The question for all disciplines is whether they will beneficial, Lent included.

I have the freedom to celebrate Lent, and I have the freedom not to celebrate Lent. I celebrate Lent because it helps my spiritual life. Once it doesn't, I'm going to stop. Likewise, no one should celebrate Lent if it is not helpful to them.

So, should protestants celebrate Lent? That depends on whether it will help protestants or not. For some it will and others it won't. Recognize that salvation does not come from not following Lent and not from following Lent. Salvation is found only in Christ, Lent has nothing to do with it. This is true for all discipling the Christian takes part in. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

How Many Things can Change in a Year?

I have gone through a lot of changes in the past year. Part of the transition from a college student to a young professional is that changes don't come cycles. They occur randomly, quickly and sometimes you don't even notice them.

With working so much now, I haven't had time to reflect on how my life has changed. Here is a summary of the changes:

1. Thomas Aquinas "solves" the mind-body problem.
-Okay, not really but what I'm reading right now is doing a lot of good for me in thinking through this problem.
2. It's hard being a philosopher around people who don't know much about philosophy.
-Sometimes you say things that are taken as "you're using reason vs. the Bible so you're a bad person." Though is probably a poor generalization.
3. Education has no good philosophical foundation outside of pragmatism.
-Western education was based on Christianity supplement by Plato and Aristotle. Since that foundation was removed in the early 20th century, pragmatism is the foundation. I really don't like pragmatism because it doesn't answer some very important questions confronting educators today.

1. It's really hard to be a teacher.
-I mean really hard, and I'm at a good school that supports my work.
2. I don't know history like I thought I did.
-I stink at pronouncing names of dead people.
3. Educators who use data and measurable outcomes are awesome.
-Because they change the lives of students for the better.

1. President Obama was elected again.
2. The Republican Party is now crippled like the Democrats were after the Civil War. (though, I think I'm wrong on this point.)
3. I continue to dislike the Tea Party. (not much of a change...)

1. I qualified for the 2013 Olympic Distance Triathlon National Championship in August.
-Pretty exited.
2. I got a friend to do a triathlon.
3. I am having knee problems. My knee won't stop hurting!

1. I moved out of my parents place and into my own place.
2. I am living without the internet. (Hence, I'm at a coffee shop right now.)
3. I am starting to like Shakespeare.
4. Last semester I lead two Bible studies, was the assistant XC coach at school, was in a book club and was discipling a young man.
-So I got really tired.
5. I got really tired.

1. Reading Thomas Aquinas is awesome.
2. Reading 10 chapters of the Bible every day is very awesome.
3. I really look forward to Sundays. (Not just because I don't have school.)