Wednesday, February 28, 2007

One Year Ago Today

One year ago today I published my first blog article - here is the first paragraph...

I have created this blog for two main purposes - as a means of communication for those whom I serve as an elder at the Skillman Church of Christ in Dallas, and as a means to discipline myself. I have never been one to share much of my personal thoughts and reflections, but am convicted to do so to be more accountable to the people at Skillman and to practice a discipline of journaling for my own personal growth.

I'm not sure how well the first purpose has been served - I never really know who, if anyone reads it, but the second purpose I have addressed fairly well. My intent was to post at least 2-3 times per week. As of today a I have published 183 posts - over the course of a year that's roughly once every other day; sometimes more frequently, sometimes less, but overall a higher pace than I anticipated - somewhat inflated because I frequently borrow from whatever I am currently reading. I find that others often are much more eloquent at expressing thoughts that are on my mind. Like this one from Max Lucado...

Grace for the Moment - February 26

The rich and the poor are alike in that the Lord made them all. ~ Proverbs 22:2

Have you noticed that God doesn't ask you to prove that you will put your salary to good use? Have you noticed that God doesn't turn off your oxygen supply when you misuse his gifts? Aren't you glad that God doesn't only give you that which you remember to thank him for?

God's goodness is spurred by his nature, not by our worthiness.

Someone asked an associate of mine, "What Biblical precedent do we have to help the poor who have no desire to become Christians?"

My friend responded with one word: "God."

God does it daily for millions of people.

~ Max Lucado, Grace for the Moment

Sunday, February 25, 2007

49 and Counting

Today marks the beginning of the final year of my 5th decade on this earth, and as I reflect on the past 49 years I recognize that I have truly lived a blessed life. I am blessed to have a beautiful, intelligent, loving wife; terrific kids; wonderful, faithful parents and in-laws; great sisters; and dozens upon dozens of church family members that I have shared with over the years. I have never lacked for food or shelter; I have enjoyed educational opportunities, job stability, and good health.

I have also been blessed over the past year by developing the discipline to write regularly on these pages. Sometimes I labor over my words and sometimes they just flow, but writing has helped me clarify my thoughts at times.

To celebrate my birthday and one year of blogging I would like to ask a favor - If you read this, leave a quick comment with your name or initials, and your location. May your life be blessed as has mine.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I Am.
Isaiah 58:5-9

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Teaching to the Test

One of the most common complaints about the TAKS test, by parents and by teachers, is that instruction is frequently reduced to 'teaching to the test'. Within the context of rote preparation for taking a test, this is a valid complaint. When the goal becomes passing rather than learning, this is a valid complaint. When students are discouraged or prevented from exploring anything other than what will be on the test, this is a valid complaint.

However, in the context of teaching and learning being aligned with a test that is aligned with desired outcomes, this is not necessarily a valid complaint.

When I began teaching more than 25 years ago, there was not a defined curriculum scope and sequence with defined outcomes - you simply tried to pace yourself so that by the end of the school year you covered the textbook. When I began consulting with school administrators and teachers more than 15 years ago, not much had changed. Curriculum varied from school to school and from classroom to classroom based on a combination of whatever textbook was adopted and the teacher's interests and areas of skill. "Achievement" testing was typically done using one of three standardized tests - the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Test, or the California Achievement Test. If there was any connection between what was taught and what was tested, it was generally coincidental.

One of the results of Texas' journey from TABS to TEAMS to TAAS to TAKS to the End of Course Exams that appear likely to come from the current legislative session was the development of the TEKS - Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which defines what students should learn at each grade in each subject. No longer is curriculum defined by textbook publishers. There is alignment between grade levels and across campuses, and alignment with the test. In this context, teaching to the test is not a bad thing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sample TAKS Test

By the way, if there is any question about the rigor of the TAKS test, you can judge for yourself by getting a copy of the 2006 released Exit-Level exam from the TEA web site.

It's TAKS Test Day

The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) is being administered across Texas today, and for students, teachers, administrators, and school districts a great deal weighs upon the results. Third grade students must pass the Reading test to be promoted to the 4th grade; 11th graders must pass all four subject areas of the Exit-Level exam to be eligible to graduate; teachers and administrators may be eligible for bonuses; campus and district state accountability ratings depend largely upon not only the overall performance of their students, but also upon the performance of multiple subgroups of students - Ethnic groups, Low socioeconomic groups, special education students, limited English speakers all affect both state accountability ratings and Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind act.

Accountability is a good thing; I have been in numerous conversations with superintendents, teachers, and other administrators and have yet to find one who does not believe that they should be held accountable for the learning of the students for whom they are responsible. Over the past dozen years or so, Texas has been at the forefront of identifying what it's students should know and/or be able to do (TEKS - Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and aligning its assessment system to test what it expects its students to know (TAKS - Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). During that time, the academic performance of all students in Texas has improved steadily.

What educators (and more and more the general public) recognize that the legislature and other powers that be seem not to recognize is that a single multiple choice test, no matter how rigorous and how well aligned to teaching, should not be the sole criterion for accountability. It is not possible to measure such traits as creativity, innovative thinking, complex problem solving - those things that Singapore's Minister of Education said that American education does so well - with a single assessment. That's why teachers' and parents' complaints about teaching to the test have some validity. If the assessment measures what students should know, teachers should teach to the test; the problem is that the assessment cannot measure some of the most important skills, and those are the ones that are sometimes ignored because entirely too much hangs in the balance based on test taking performance.

The crux of what I'm trying to say is that educators believe in accountability; they want it to be measured adequately, accurately, and fairly.

Monday, February 19, 2007

It's About Seeing Us

This week's Fax of Life from Rubel Shelley follows up on the video I posted last week and continues the theme of "seeing" the unfortunate among us...

Title: "It's About Seeing Us"
Date: For the Week of February 19, 2007

Josh has shared a few stories with me about his friend Jack. He has come to call him "Professor" Jack. I can understand that venerable title, given some of the really important things Jack taught him.

Professor Jack is a homeless man in Detroit. In better days, he played in a band, owned a restaurant, and had a family. Addiction to drugs took all those things away from Jack. When Josh first met him, Jack was taking a meal from some church members whose hearts had been convicted about their need to help the poor. And he certainly qualified.

Jack began to be a tutor and coach to my young friend as the two just sat and talked. Josh can, in fact, tick off a catalog of things he learned from Jack. One of the most important lessons came early in the course.

As with first-rate teachers from Moses to Socrates to Jesus, Jack was open to questions. So Josh dared to ask him what good-intentioned people with charitable hearts could do that would really make a difference for the poor and homeless. "Make us feel real," he said. "We want to feel like we are real people. See us. Talk to us. Be with us. Help us feel. It isn't just about feeding us or giving us clothes. It's about seeing us."

Now there's a lesson that do-gooders like me need to learn! We know what Jesus taught about visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. And we know that faith without works is dead. So we send get-well cards or visit hospitals. We donate money and build soup kitchens. We drop off used clothing. All those are good things.

But what about personal awareness? What about communicating a person's worth? What about making her feel valued rather than pitied, And how do I let someone know he is a human being to me, not a project?

Professor Jack says it is as simple, direct, and difficult as making eye contact. Spending a little time in conversation. Asking an occasional question -- and really taking what is said to heart.

Okay, so you're not the next Mother Teresa or someone who is going to give up your warm bed to live among street people in the dead of winter. Me either! But we can try to keep our giving and caring from becoming impersonal. We can actually be on-site occasionally. Give time as well as money. Have a conversation. Show some respect.

It would be a fitting tribute to Professor Jack. He died of an overdose in December. I'm glad he knew he had been seen before he died.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Let's Magnify Our Agreements

We had an open forum this afternoon to talk about progress to date and next steps in the Partnership for Missional Church. It was a positive and encouraging meeting. There were, however, two things that were identified as areas to improve in. One was to be more persistent and perhaps more intentional in Dwelling in the Word.

The second had to do with one of the observations of the consultants in their report summarizing the findings of the interview process that took place. They noted that we have a highly developed ability at avoiding conflict. Part of the conversation this afternoon centered around our need to address differences in a loving manner, rather than avoiding them as we more often tend to do. I ran across the following quote this evening and thought it was timely...
It is right for each of us to present his honest convictions concerning any difference of teaching he may hold. Having done this, let us leave it with that, and not try to force our teaching upon each other. An effort to force always produces opposition, strife, bitterness, and finally division. What we need is to love one another and magnify our agreements. - J. N. Armstrong, founding president of Harding College.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

U.S. Students - Are They All That Bad?

A few weeks ago Paul Fahri of the Washington Post wrote a column about how U.S. students compare with students from around the world. In this column he described as mythical 5 commonly articulated statements about the performance of American students, and offered supporting documentation for his suggestion that these statements are mythical. I won't reproduce his entire column here, but I will list the five statements that he says are not exactly true...
  1. U.S. students rate poorly compared with those in the rest of the world. In six major international tests in reading, math, science, and civics conducted from 1991-2001 American students' performances were above average when compared with 22 other industrialized nations.
  2. American students continue to fall even futher behind. No other nation educates as many poor students or as ethnically diverse a population as does the United States; as the percentage of historically low-achieving students tested has increased, so have American test scores.
  3. U.S. students won't be well prepared for the modern workforce. In the 50's and 60's the same thing was said in comparison to the Soviet Union; in the 70's and 80's it was Japan. Today it is China and India.
  4. Bad schooling has undermined America's competitiveness. A dynamic economy is part of a culture that rewards innovation and risk-taking and values unconventional problem-solving. When asked why Singapore's education system produced so many top-ranked test takers but so few top-ranked scientists, inventors, and business executives, the Education Minister said, "We both have meritocracies. America's is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy."
  5. How we rate in international tests matters, if only for national pride. If being No. 1 in education is our goal, shouldn't we also want to be No. 1 in the factors most closely linked to academic achievement - children's health care and reduction of childhood poverty?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Before the Throne of God Above

I have a lot of 'favorite' songs, both old and new, but near the top of the list is Before the Throne of God Above. The second stanza is a powerful juxtaposition of God's innate need for justice and his merciful love, and may be my favorite stanza of any song...

When Satan tempts me to despair,
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
my sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
to look on him and pardon me;
to look on him and pardon me.

Underlying some of the discussions we have had about the Partnership for Missional Church project has been the thought that if implemented successfully one result will be numerical growth. There is an interesting discussion over on Wade Hodge's blog around the question of whether an attractional church can be missional...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Doctrine vs Theology?

Lanny has been teaching the Covenant Class this month. It is a study of Acts, and he has been sending out daily emails with thoughts about the next week's lesson. I thought these comments from a couple of days ago were insightful...

One of the problems with religion over the last two thousand years is that religious men scour scripture looking for doctrine (what man must do), when they ought to be looking for theology (what God is doing).

Historically, we have pointed to this passage (Acts 6) as the beginning of the deaconate - or the office of deacon. It may well be. But God's purpose was not to establish offices or a hierarchy of leadership - but to solve and serve the needs of His people.

Now I understand why a group who determines doctrine from "restoration principles" (direct command, apostolic example, necessary inference) would use this text as a foundation for doctrine.

What we should be doing is looking for theology, not doctrine. There are several examples of "divine desire" presented in this story:

(1) No one should be overlooked. God's church is about love, compassion, mercy, grace, caring, bearing burdens, lifting up, encouragement, meeting needs, responsibility to others, etc. God has a heart for the alienated and marginalized. So should we.

(2) God always solved practical problems with practical solutions. He wants the church to do the same. It's not a matter of doctrine, but one of caring. When we care for one another, we glorify His name.

Remember people are watching. Unbelievers are taking notice, not of how we organize our church polity (our form and rules), but how we take care of the needs of others in the name of Christ.

Throughout the New Testament, the church employs various strategies to solve problems and set up organizational structures.

Again, I don't think the important aspect is a doctrinal one, but a theological one. What is God doing in the community of believers? And what must we do to accomplish His divine desire?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Spiritual Metaphors

During the PMC cluster meeting this past weekend, we spent part of the time with David Wray guiding us in spiritual formation activities. One of those was a reflection on a series of metaphors for spiritual life - spiritual life is like a journey, is like a struggle, is like a river, etc. As we were discussing in our small group one of the guys said that the whole exercise really didn't connect with him. I think that's an important concept to remember as we continue engaging in conversation - that some processes, some activities, some delivery media will make a connection with some people, and not with others, and that's ok.

I think it's also important to realize that some things connect on an intellectual level, others on an emotional level, and that it is good to have balance. Beyond these levels I think there is a largely untapped (at least in my experience) spiritual level. It is at this level that we get the smallest glimpse into the nature and heart of God.

The metaphor that did connect with me is reflected in the subtitle of my blog site - spiritual life is a journey. The journey is sometimes difficult, sometimes dangerous, sometimes lonely; it is sometimes stimulating, sometimes rewarding, sometimes shared and made easier by companions along the way.

It's like traveling through the plains towards a mountain. At times the mountain is so clearly visible it seems that you could just reach out and touch it; at times it is shrouded in clouds and you can barely sense its shape. Between you and the mountain are unseen crevices and smaller hills, and occasionally you can lose site of the mountain. Sometimes there are detours and distractions, and sometimes you can get off course. But no matter how deep the ditch or how wide the plains, you constantly reorient yourself and continue the journey towards the destination.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Og Mandino on Poverty

Who can live in poverty with peace of mind? How can one by happy with an empty stomach? How can one demonstrate love for one's family if he is unable to feed and house and clothe them? Poverty may be a privilege and even a way of life for a monk in the desert, for he has only himself to sustain and his god to please, but I consider poverty to be the mark of a lack of ability or a lack of ambition. I am not deficient in either of these qualities!
- Hafid speaking to Pathros in Og Mandino's The Greatest Salesman in the World

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

9 Things...

Christianity Today interviewed Bob Roberts of the Northwood Church in Ft. Worth. Below are a couple of excerpts that caught my attention...

"We aren't about weekends," Bob says. "We aren't just trying to get people into church. It's 'kingdom in, kingdom out.'"

In kingdom work, we make a mistake when we start with ecclesiology. We should start with Christology. Our first approach should be "How can we live out the love of Jesus in this society?" It's not "How can we start a church?"

People living like Jesus: that's what changes a society. Too often, we start with a preacher who tries to gather a church first, thinking that, in time they'll get around to engaging the world. That's backwards.

If my church is primarily about the Sunday event, then doing kingdom work is secondary and actually unnecessary. If the Sunday event and church programming is primary, then I'll spend all my time, money, and energy on what happens inside the church.

For so many pastors, church is about what happens on Sunday. Well, I really disagree with that. Church is not supposed to be a Sunday event. It's supposed to be salt and light in the family, in the community, and around the world.

9 Things I'm Learning and Unlearning

I'm learning … that mission begins with Christology not ecclesiology. Following Jesus leads us to mission, which leads to churches gathering.

I'm unlearning … my assumption that starting churches naturally leads to mission. It doesn't. Churches default to self-focus unless a commitment to be like Jesus in the world comes first.

I'm learning … that being glocal means decentralizing power, decision making, information, all of it. The kingdom of God means ministry opportunities are available to almost everyone.

I'm unlearning … the American church's traditional focus on a super-star speaker, worship leader, educator, and shepherd, which serves mainly to attract spectators rather than igniting the power of everyone else.

I'm learning … that we serve not to convert but because we have been converted. We serve because Christ has changed us and made us servants to people who are hurting and lost.

I'm unlearning … the assumption that "Christian" is defined primarily as acknowledging a moment of conversion. Becoming a follower of Jesus depends on what happens after that.

I'm learning … to love people, which means to see them healed, educated, and given the same opportunities that we have.

I'm unlearning … that the Christian faith is all about heaven. I believe the church has denied the future by just waiting for the Second Coming. We need a story that includes the future.

I'm learning … the kingdom will be established not by human power or entertainment, but by realizing God's concern for humanity and the whole of society.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Tough Choices

Central Dallas Ministries has produced this short video clip that helps articulate why they exist and who they serve...