Frodo as Pastor

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex  blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.

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Preaching and teaching, and the distinctive opportunities for Bible teaching in secondary Christian education

Preaching is proclaiming and teaching is explaining. There is more that can be said of course, but this summary is true. Too often there is a harsh dichotomy of emphasis placed between these two. There is also too often a false confluence, that if one has preached they have also taught, or if they have taught they have also preached. These errors may seem small until you witness the results, which are usually some kind of confusion on a spectrum of severity. I’m thinking about it now because I see the results in my students all the time. They have been proclaimed to their whole lives with very little explaining, and have even been told that asking questions is bad. Has this kind of discipleship achieved the desired results? No, it hasn’t, not here in Korea nor in the USA. We don’t want an unquestioning faith, nor a questionable faith. The Bible presents it in balance and Christians are always to strike the balance. The issue is how well we do.

My contention is that there are few to no opportunities for doing the explaining ministry of biblical teaching as well as can be done in Christian secondary schools. Between 7th and 12th grade, six years of education, longer than any Bible college or seminary program and in a much more holistic environment, students under solid instruction and guidance with appropriate curriculum, have the best opportunity to experience the fruit of teaching ministry. I must add, this is not all that is needed for true discipleship and spiritual formation. The word must be proclaimed from pulpits and lived out in homes, and teaching happens in those contexts too, just not like it can and often does in school.

There are many questions that need to be sorted out to do this well, issues protestants, especially of the non-denominational variety tend to avoid, such as what’s the distinction between the role of parents, churches and Christian schools in the character formation and biblical literacy of their children? Answering these questions will also help solving the category errors I wrote about before, such as the distinction between pastors, parents, lay church teachers, and Christian school chaplains and Bible teachers. What I see happening now in my context, and why I’m thinking and writing about it, is that my students are confused and therefore have shut off much of their attention from what they rightfully perceive as a chaos of authority. Their church proclaims a neutered gospel and a fundamentalist ethical system. Their parents proclaim society’s expectations for academic and financial success. And at school they get everything in between. When I try to both proclaim in chapel, and explain in class, the reality and centrality of the Gospel of Christ, I’m looked at with no small amount of confusion. They are too busy avoiding the sins their pastor told them about to consider the majesty of Christ, and they are too busy trying to get in to the best university they can to understand and own their identity in Christ as a gift that changes them, and not something they earn with their good works as defined by neo-Confucian social ethics and modern materialistic standards of living, all baptized into a syncretistic theological soup.

I’m hopeful, because God is the one who unwinds all our confusion for us, but he also ordains his people to be part of that process, and uses the friendships, fellowships, churches, families and schools those relationships build and maintain to do his work. He gives the gifts of teaching and preaching, and it’s his work. He’s done it from the beginning and he’ll continue. But the process of doing it is part of the his refining for those doing the work, and it should be taken seriously and worked at with discipline and thoughtfulness. We live in thoughtless times, the body of Christ should be known for more, and what I’m talking about here is a big part of that.

Active awareness of the anatomy of the Gospel as key to spiritual formation in Christian education. Part 3 of 3: Glorification

glorification

The time has finally come to conclude this blog series, as I also conclude this school year and the year overall as well. My writing fell off a cliff the last couple of months as other priorities anchored me to other tasks. It feels good, right and appropriate to have waited until now to reflect on the wonderful doctrine of glorification and it’s implications on my life and particularly in Christian education.

In part one I laid out the need for a robust understanding and active awareness of justification as critical to a distinctive learning and working environment for Christian education.

In part two I laid out the need for a robust understanding and active awareness of sanctification as critical to the same ends.

Now I turn to glorification, and I’m glad to on many levels. In justification we are saved from the eternal penalty of sin by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. In sanctification we are being saved from the power of sin day by day, which is made possible by Christ’s justifying work, and enabled by the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in us helping us fight sin day by day until we die or Christ returns. But what happens then, why does it matter, and why is it crucial to spiritual formation in Christian education?

Justification achieves it’s goal, it saves us completely from the penalty of sin. But sanctification has a goal yet to be realized, and that goal is to make us perfect, just like God is perfect.

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48)

Glorification is the truth that one day we will be saved from the very presence of sin and evil. Justification saves us from sins penalty, sanctification is saving us from sins power, and there is an end to that, and that end is when we are glorified, made perfect, and our salvation is complete when we die or he returns.

There are many worldviews one can have. There are many ways, both subtle and not so subtle, that competing worldviews will take root and corrupt the Christian worldview by attaching itself to it. Most worldviews have a goal of some form of their own version of glorification. The perfect humans, the perfect cities, the perfect world, that is built by that worldview’s version of a superior class or race or religion. Christians don’t believe in a man made utopia, but that God through Christ by the Spirit’s power is preparing us to be perfect in a redeemed world that he is preparing to dwell with us in once Christ returns.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Php 1:3–6)

Without a deep understanding of this and an ongoing and active awareness, two potential pitfalls present themselves. One is pride. We will allow humanistic worldviews to seep in and corrupt the truth that only God has the power and the effective plan for making things perfect, and saving us from the evil that is within and without. We will believe in the power of men to save and put our hope in them and ourselves otherwise. The second is despair. We, as Christian educators, could allow a nihilistic worldview to corrupt the truth that God has a definite plan and purpose for the evil and sin in the world, and that he is and will save us completely in the end. We will believe in the absolute power of the evil we see and experience and lose all hope and devalue life including our own if we fail at this.

Glorification is the truth that is the antidote to pride and despair, and it completes a full picture of our spiritual formation from beginning to end, and it must actively penetrate every facet of the Christian education initiative wherever it is found such that all involved are actively aware. We must remember, and remind often, we must consider it at every turn with every decision.

Personally, if it weren’t for these truths, which are so masterfully and beautifully captured in the pages of the Bible, and so incredibly teased out through the history of salvation from the beginning of time, through church history and to the present day, I would not teach at a Christian school. I definitely would not teach the Bible. And I certainly would not do it in an international context where I am misunderstood, constantly put in positions where I can only fail, and treated like an outsider most of the time. In spite of all that, fighting to make Christ known fully, to make the details of his grace actively known and not passively assumed, is worth it. It’s the only thing that’s worth it to me. I don’t always live or act like that, because I am weak and easily distracted, but I have been saved from sin’s eternal penalties, I am being saved from it’s destructive power day by day, and one day maybe I’ll forget what sin ever felt like, because I’ll be in a glorified state with Christ for thousands of years, perfect and purified. If I don’t have that, I have nothing. If I do have it, I have everything.

This concludes a rough and tumble display of my firm convictions and beliefs about the anatomy of the Gospel and it’s critical role in the spiritual formation of staff and students at Christian education institutions. I hope it has been helpful, or at least a decently presented grouping of ideas to disagree with or improve upon.