Diamonds don’t burst inside us and wildfires don’t search or sing.

In Rants on February 9, 2015 at 7:47 pm

Praise 1Barrak Obama said in his Inaugural Address, “As we consider the road that unfolds before us…” (2009).

This is an error called a mixed metaphor; they can be funny.

Cher reportedly once said, “I’ve been up and down so many times that I feel as if I’m in a revolving door.”

Here’s a healine: “Ahmadinejad wields axe to cement his position” (Independent, 14 December 2010).

OK, they aren’t hilarious, but they are amusing in appropriate places.  I don’t think we want them in our praise and worship songs.

“Like a rose, trampled on the ground you thought of me…”

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns . . . ”

There is such beauty and power in language, and to neglect them in one of the most important language acts in which a human being can participate is a problem.

There are wonderful songs that we sing in church where every line is worship and revelation: “Blessed Be Your Name” and “10,00 Reasons” are examples of such songs. But for one line, “Revelation Song” comes close.

Then there are those songs that trade in cliché, clunky diction, vague purpose, awkward syntax and mixed metaphor.

They are not usually all bad. I can usually sing them without too much discomfort, but is this something that should happen in communal worship? I often feel as if I am too critical, but I cannot reject what I know about the potential of language as a vehicle for worship.

What am I to do? Get off my high horse and realize that to heaven even Mozart sounds inferior to a toddler banging on his 8 note Fisher-Price piano? I do try. I try to focus on the one we are there to worship. I try to look past the lyrics to the intention of the writer. I try to absorb the sincerity of the singers that surround me. Sometimes I just block out the sounds and talk to God. Perhaps, I should be more than content with this, but I love to sing–and it’s a powerful and symbolic experience to participate in communal singing.

Is any of this the responsibility of those who write praise and worship songs?

My theory is that the priority of many (not all) song writers is to engage the heart of the people during worship sets.

I have a theory as to why: many song writers encounter God by music through the heart, so they write songs that would bring them into worship, but this one approach is too narrow.  Not everyone enters worship through the same door.

The best praise and worship songs are not reductive they engage the heart, mind, soul and body. The best songs have a specific focus and therefore unity, the sense is communicated through carefully selected words and often echoed in the music, syntax and diction aren’t forced and sometimes surprising, figurative language is effective: it has a deliberate effect.

The mixed metaphors are funny when someone says, “It’s like pulling hen’s teeth.” But they do get in the way of some people being able to praise and adore the most high God.

The song “Multiplied” has two in the first verse:

Your love is like radiant diamonds

Bursting inside us we cannot contain

Your love will surely come find us

Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

God or a Caricature?

In Devotional, Rants on February 7, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Atheists rightWhile this certainly isn’t true in all cases, I find that most of the young people that I know who are walking away from God are not walking away from the actual God, but from a Modern or Western, watered-down imaginary representation of him–often the god of caricatured “fundamentalists.

Good, but the thing I wish they’d realize is that there’s more distance between this false conception of God and God as he really is than there is between a cheese dish served by Alain Passard at in Paris at Arpège and an ad for Kraft dinner in an old magazine in my doctor’s waiting room.

If you are rejecting God, you need to know who you are rejecting.

I must start with the disclaimer that I don’t really know God as he is, nor does any human being, but we get some hints from his creation and between the lines of the prophets through whom he spoke and most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ.

When we look at the cosmos we see that God is as creative as he is powerful. And he must like human beings a lot because he gives us all sorts of good things: love, food, sex, sunsets, beaches, oranges and wine.

God is perfect justice. I will admit that this is a bit of a stumbling block in our culture of tolerance. We don’t like a God that draws a clear line between right and wrong and then judges the wrong. This is but one attribute of God, but he’s a lot easier to walk away from if we imagine it’s the only attribute. This is usually only a stumbling block to those who experience no true injustice. Consider all the crap that some people have to live with at the hands of others; then the God of justice moves from an embarrassment to a necessity to get up in the morning. It is definitely wrong to machine gun children, or to rape teen aged girls and string them up in a tree to taunt their grieving, and helpless father or to force women and children into sexual, or any other kind of, slavery. You know people do this, right? If one’s life is filled with this kind of injustice, justice isn’t so easy to dismiss and the God who is justice isn’t so easy to reject.

He’s also perfect love. Yeah, I know. Perfect justice AND perfect love? How to you put those things together? Well, if there truly was a God, I think it’s reasonable to expect that there’d be some things that would be, intellectually, a little hard to grasp. He knew it was hard to grasp so he showed us what it looks like–his son on the cross–he judged Jesus as if he were us (justice), and then he treats us as if we were Jesus (love). Perfect justice and perfect love is right there at the cross.   It’s pretty clear that he will do anything and everything to bring you into a relationship with him. Everything, that is, except force you to be in a relationship with him.   That’s perfect love.

So if you are going to walk away from God, walk away from the one who heals the sick and blesses the poor, away from the one who eats with prostitutes and then lifts up those that are abused and seats them at the best seats at his table. The one who will bring justice to those who use people like objects and to those self-righteous folk who already have everything that they are going to get, away from the one can only woo you to him with the sacrifice of his love, and who loves you so much he won’t force you.

5 Practices for the Restoration of Confidence of Despairing University Professors

In Rants on January 24, 2015 at 6:04 am

ProfessorwithinI was saddened to hear that there are still professors that inform their student at the beginning of the semester that that they don’t give As. It’s sad because it seems as if little has changed since I sat in my undergraduate classes and heard exactly the same thing. How long will this go on? That these men and women, who have studied so long and so hard–who have given their lives to the education of young people, would be brought so low as to toss in the towel on the very first day of class. The degree of their despair is so great that they resignedly suffer the humiliation admitting to their students that they will not be able to teach even the brightest of them. I for one will no longer stand by and do nothing. I will modestly propose 5 practices which might bring some hope and dignity to these beleaguered scholars. Each is a component of effective pedagogy and engaged assessment and the cumulative effect will be more learning, which means higher marks–hopefully not a few As. If your students aren’t getting As, try:

  1. Clear expectations: these usually fall under the categories of knowledge, skills, intellectual habits (and, if you are in a liberal arts university which still understands its historic raison d’etre, character). These must not only be clear to your students, they must be clear to you, for everything you do hangs upon these learning objectives. You can’t point to those six objectives you put on your course syllabus; these are certainly expectations, but you have more, lots more, and students need to know what these are as well. Perhaps your students’ poor performance is simply because your expectations have not been clearly communicated.
  2. Appropriate expectations: Perhaps you are confusing appropriate standards with low standards. As are not a designation of perfection. Perfection can never be achieved, not even by a professor (the editors will back me up on this). An A represents excellence at a specific level.       When it comes to writing, I teach English 9 students pretty much the same thing as English 12 students–I teach both how to write using strong controlling sentences, correct MLA documentation, manipulation of language, sentence variety, transitions, the conventions of Standard English, and a lot more. The high standards by which I assess each is different because an appropriate standard for grade 12 is not the same as that of a 9th grade student.       Perhaps you are a better teacher than you think you are. Perhaps your students are earning much higher scores than you realize because your expectations are inappropriate for the level of the students with whom you are working.
  3. Modelling excellent work: You may understand exactly what you want for an essay, or a lab report or a chapter review, but they don’t.  This can be quickly remedied by showing them examples of excellent work. Show it to them and ask them to articulate what makes it exemplary. Perhaps the reason your students aren’t getting As is not your due to incompetence, but because they don’t really know what A work looks like.
  4. Helping students to understand their specific academic failings (and strengths). Very little learning can occur when students are locked into self-fulfilling generalizations like, “I suck at essays.” Real growth occurs when they understand that the reason they are getting Cs on papers is because they underutilize transition words within paragraphs, but they excel at academic voice.  How do they come to be aware of this valuable information? We go back to numbers 1-3 above, and possibly add some peer review to the mix.  By doing this, students know exactly where to direct their efforts for improvement, and improve they will.
  5. Assess your effectiveness: You can’t just ask the class, “Are you with me?” and assume that because the keen one in the front has nodded assent that you have taught anything. There are a plethora of methods to check for understanding, but for heaven’s sake don’t count them for marks. At this point, these are more an assessment of your teaching than their learning. By using some methods to daily assess how well you’ve been understood will save you the tremendous disappointment of discovering after the final exam that you’ve been completely ineffective as a teacher.

These are some of the practices that I have found that translate into more learning–higher marks. Importantly, these are only the first step, for they will only help you’re A students get As. That’s the easy part. You will you need even more skill to help the C students to get Cs, but let’s save that for another day. For all you university students. If one of your professors is discouraged and has told your class that there will be no As, feel free to forward them my 5 practices.