Archive for the ‘denkschrift’ Category

There is one in every class.

In my experience, this student is almost always a man, a slightly needy eagerness written across his face from the first minute. His name might be Carlos. Or Abdel. Or Phil.

He talks a lot. Too much, to be honest.

His hand is darting upwards in the middle of too many of my sentences as I try to craft the class, to shepherd a cohort of minds in the same conceptual direction, to establish an environment in which contributions from all parties are welcomed, even expected.

Nervous looks become meaningful glances as Carlos, or Abdel, or Phil speaks up for a third time and a fourth. Then we lose count.

There is a strong argument, advanced most firmly by this student’s fellow students, for shutting him down in the interest of the entire class. The learning experience of all, after all, outweighs the needs of the one to be heard, even to curry favor from the prof.

They have a point. I feel it deeply as Carlos, Abdel, or Phil unconsciously steers the class towards being his own session of self-esteem therapy.

Still, I choose gentle persuasion rather than pulling rank, no matter how just and community-minded the latter approach might sound.

Let me explain.

Carlos makes up his comment as he goes along, not sure at the beginning what he intends to say. Abdel is regularly hindered by a poor upbringing, sometimes involving an absent or belittling father. Phil is a tortured soul, needing someone—it’s even better if a captive audience is listening in—to tell him that he’s doing well, that he’s insightful, that he’s just asked a great question.

But here’s the thing: These guys and their future are not defined by who they are today, in my classroom. In our classroom. They are on their way to something else.

Sometimes it’s a remarkable good place. Even a fruitful place, from which we will be hard pressed to recall the immaturity that is awkwardly evident in my classroom—in our classroom—today.

I’m betting on that future, or at least on allowing it a space to take shape.

This means I’ll pay the political cost in our little class of directing Carlos gently towards an appropriate participation rather than shutting him down, even at the cost of optimal classroom dynamics.

It’s a moment, as I see it, for professorial humility. If that’s a thing.

I take some courage from the apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christian community at Ephesus, which—we might wager—had its own awkward members.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1–3 ESV)

I don’t mean to trump all push-back against my classroom logic by quoting Scripture. I just think the shoe fits.

Because, over the decades of teaching and learning—the walls of which are spattered with some spectacularly boring failures and a small, bread-crumbed trail of minor successes—I’ve watched a knot of former students to which Carlos, Abdel, and Phil belong grow into life-long friends, thoughtful writers, and respected leaders.

Who knew?

So I discipline myself, or try to do so, to deal gently with these needy men who could take my best-laid classroom plans with them into a roadside ditch. As best as this sometimes self-absorbed old professor can, I bear with them in love. I see them as they might become, rather than as they quite painfully are.

I risk the class. Indeed, I place their fellow students’ experience at some degree of calculated risk, on that hunch that it may just be worth it.

Someday, Abdel may be in my church’s pulpit, week on week shaping the heart and mind of a community whose weal and woe are my business. I may be devouring every incisive word that Carlos writes. Pastor Phil may stand at my hospital bedside, a steadying presence as my weakening pulse tells family and friends that goodbyes are imminent.

No one will remember, then, their unpromising start.

You never know.



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Some thoughts offered to the students of the Honors College at LeTorneau University, 23 February 2017

My wife Karen is studying Spanish, because we’re moving to Colombia in a little bit. She spreads out her grammar books on the table, asks me to explain to her one more time about the difference between a direct and an indirect object, fires up Duolingo on the computer, and declares truths to her laptop like ‘My little dog eats food’ and ‘I am a horse’ with incredible emphasis. I chisel away silently at my work in the next room.

Then she starts her two-hour classes via Skype with Magdalena, her wonderful Spanish teacher in Colombia. Karen turns up the volume on her laptop and—again—speaks at Magdalena on her computer screen with an overflowing passion. Things like …

¡Yo vivo en una casa! (I live in a house!)

¡Yo tengo un esposo! (I have a husband!)

¡Él se llama David! (His name is Dave!)

¡Él también vive en una casa! (He also lives in a house!)

She follows this up with a number of additional transcendent truths, which she speaks with world-changing fervor as though the survival of our human race depended upon these things.

Then, when it’s all over, and Karen and Magdalena have exchanged all the small-talk that the minuscule command of the other’s language that each of these magnificent women manages will allow, my wife closes her laptop and pads into the room where I’m working.

As the kind of attentive husband about whom entire books are written, I ask …

So how did it go?

She always feels like she’s failing …

Because she is.

Let me explain.

But before I do … and some of you are saying to yourselves, How can he talk about his wife that way …?, let me tell you about my friend Matt.

Matt is my personal trainer at the YMCA. When I mentioned to Dr. Liebengood that I might bring this up in my talk, he said to me with that straight face of his and that boyish twinkle in his eye, ‘Oh, Dave … please don’t tell them you work out … you’ll lose all credibility right up front …’

Matt is a hulking, scowling, personal-training phenomenon. I drag myself into the YMCA at regular intervals and submit to Matt’s training regimen. More accurately, I go in there for my ritual butt-kicking. Matt’s favorite lines are …

Shall we put a little more weight on that … ? GOOD! … 5 pounds or 10?

In spite of the torment, Matt has become my friend, though I alternately love him and loathe him as he forces me to do more than I know I can do.

When I was getting used to Matt’s method, I was frustrated that I could never seem to finish the third of three sets on any given lift. I would actually say to Matt, just after he’d kept some brain-crushing amount of weight from falling on my skull or merely—in less extreme cases—taking out all my teeth …

Sorry …

‘Cuz I thought I was supposed to finish all three sets. I mean, What else was I supposed to think?

Then my youngest son came home from the Army for a break and we went to the Y to ‘lift’ together. Now Johnny is also a hulking, speeding, athletic phenomenon. It is my peculiar late-middle-aged torture to be surrounded by such people. Dr. Liebengood was actually Johnny’s youth group leader when he was a young teenager but—happily—my son was able to get on with his life without obvious signs of irremediable damage.

Somewhere along the line John explained to me that working the weights is all about failing. In fact, you ‘work to failure’. It actually has a name!

It’s the only way you can advance. The spotter is there to spot precisely because you’re expected to fail. I had thought the spotter was like a guardrail, just there for safety in the unlikely event that you ran off the road. But you’re actually supposed to need your spotter because you will fail. Your spotter is a normal part of the process, not a margin of safety against the abnormal. Failure is what you work towards, because it’s how you get stronger. It’s the whole point. If you don’t fail, you remain a wimp for life and your survivors write on your tombstone …

‘He was a nice guy, I guess, but what a wimp …’

Just a word about Karen and her Spanish learning: Evaluators of language learning push the student to the point of Linguistic Collapse.

I’m not kidding you. It’s really a thing, and that’s what they call it. It’s a freakin’ technical term. The only reliable way for them to assess how much you’ve achieved is to push you to your point of failure. Then they say, ‘Well done. You’re proficient to level A or B’, or whatever it happens to be.

Do you see my point? Nearly all worthy human pursuits require that we become accustomed to failing … even to failing regularly.

Dr. Liebengood might well remark that I’ve become particularly adept at failing, which may explain his strange invitation to come out to LeTorneau and talk with all of you about this topic.

You know what’s extraordinary about this?

Loads of people spend their whole lives working as hard as they can never to fail.

They never dare to dream big. They never imagine things that are not.

They do small things in small ways over and over and, as a result, they become little people.

They never say what they really think. Or they always say what they really think. But, either way, they never enter that dangerous space of actually engaging human beings and shaping the future.

In times when we are all desperate for someone to step up and lead, they never do.

You know why?

Because they might fail!

Well of course they’ll fail. And so will you. And, if you fail on the path to becoming stronger, then as our Australian friends would say, ‘Good onya!’

Because, especially if you ever want to lead anything or anybody, failure is an option. In fact, it’s a requirement. You’d all better get real good at it. It’s often the only evidence that you’ve wisely engaged challenges that are bigger than you are.

And that’s the only way to live.

I’ve done my share of failing, that’s for sure. And here are some things, humbly offered to you today, that I think I’ve learned from my penchant for failing.


For years, I’ve actually had these three words on a StickyNote on the screen of my laptop so that I’ll see them all the time.

You know why? Because I love to look away.

I usually feel that I want to run from interpersonal conflict, financial shortfalls, underperforming colleagues, political differences, difficult conversations, etc. I am fully in touch with my Inner Coward. Looking Away is my most authentic impulse. It comes from deep within. It requires no encouragement to take control of a situation and quickly resolve it. I am never truer to myself than when I am looking away.

I can tell you that I have done damage to organizations I’ve led and to the human beings within them by Looking Away. It’s one of the ways I’ve failed, mostly because I have not summoned the strength to look the problem square in the eyes and hold it in my gaze until it’s dealt with and put behind us.

One of my all-time favorite movie moments happens in the film Apollo 13. Maybe you remember it.

The Apollo 13 crew never made it to the moon because of that explosion in their craft as they were headed in that direction. Long story short, they and the people down at Mission Control in Houston had to improvise a way to bring them home. Gene Kranz is the storied director of the White Team that worked one of the long shifts at Mission Control during the entire Apollo 13 mission. Kranz orders up a box of all the objects and implements that the astronauts on the stricken craft have available to them. Then he gathers his team leaders in a work room, dumps the box out on a table, and tells them ‘This is what we have to work with. Let’s find a solution.’

All hell breaks lose in that room. Up above, the spacecraft is breaking up. The three astronauts seem sure to die. The sky is falling. People are yelling, arguing, despairing, spinning their wheels.

Kranz (played by Ed Harris) says these phenomenal words:

Let’s work the problem, people.

Everyone calms down and begins to do just that. And somehow, almost unbelievably—except that it really happened—they get those three guys home.

That’s what leaders learn how to do: look unforgivingly at what is real and true, and work the problem in that environment and not in some other more pleasant environment that they can imagine.

Leaders don’t get there overnight. At least I haven’t.

But I’ve learned this from failing: When difficulty strikes, Don’t you dare look away.


I want to read to you a passage from Rowan Williams’ recently published book, Being Disciples, that I find quite powerful. Williams was the until just a few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, and therefore the head of the worldwide Anglican community. He’s now the Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, an institution to which Dr. Liebengood was not offered admission.

Williams writes that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is at its core a matter of awareness. It’s a matter of being able to pause prayerfully and attentively in the midst of the chaos and ask …

What is God doing right here, right now?

It’s a kind of contextual awareness that only comes with full engagement and usually with the accumulation of years and wisdom.

Rowan Williams combines this awareness with expectancy. This what he writes:

And for us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are still central. We are not precisely where those first disciples were. We are post-resurrection believers and we ought to understand a little more than Christ’s first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least. We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energize our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. Like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive.

But not only that; we look at one another as Christians with expectancy—an aspect of discipleship that is not aways easy to hold to. Yet it can’t be said too often, the first thing we ought to think of when we are in the presence of another Christian individual or Christian community is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? Given that we may not always see eye to eye with other Christians we mix with, that can be hard work (and no doubt it’s at least equally hard work for them looking at us). Nonetheless, Jesus has brought us together precisely so that we approach one another with that degree of expectancy. It doesn’t mean that you will agree with everything the other Christian says; simply that you begin by asking, ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ Never mind the politics, the hidden agenda, or anything else of that kind, just ask that question and it will move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship. Can we live in a Church characterized by expectancy towards one another of that kind? It would be a very deeply biblical  and gospel-shaped experience of the Church if we could.

I love that: awareness and expectancy.

I am learning through failing at leadership and—more generally—through the ongoing process of maturing in leadership, that these qualities of discipleship require the discipline of making eye contact. You really need to engage with your world and with other human beings and with other Christians in a way that subjugates the tyranny of the urgent as well as your passion for your own projects in order to receive from the world and from those around you all that Jesus Christ has to give to you through them.

May I get a little practical?

I have the bad habit of waking up in the morning dreading some of the encounters that are on my schedule for that day. I’ve discovered that many bad habits respond to early prayer, and this is one of them. I try to discipline my heart and mind to begin the day by thanking God for what this person and that person and my 3:30 appointment will bring to me … that is, what Jesus Christ will give to me through that person. Sometimes I know a confrontation is brewing. Sometimes I know the conversation is unlikely to be aesthetically pleasing. But I am learning that in almost every encounter of that kind, if I truly make eye contact and engage, there is a gift for me waiting to be received.

I am learning to live and to lead with awareness and expectancy. This has taken me a long time, and I can’t say I’m very far across the border on this one.

Leaders who make eye contact are too scarce in our world. Our culture prizes the powerful man or woman who is capable of imposing his or her will on others and, in those venerable words that are our culture’s own Scripture, getting things done.

Such leaders are seldom loved and their output often fails to endure.

It is, rather, leaders who make eye contact who shift our world in one direction or another in enduring ways that become part of the fabric of our shared life.

I dare to hope that among you there are some leaders like that.


You have come of age in a pragmatic culture that insists on measuring the Return on Investment (ROI) of everything you choose to do and then on predicting what will be worthwhile for you based on those measures.

While you swim in that tsunami of culture-based instruction, let me be for the moment a lonely voice with a different message. I happen to think it’s good news.

I’ll abbreviate it in this way:

Nothing gets wasted.

Now like all attempts to cram truth into an aphorism, this one can be exaggerated and even misdirected until it means the opposite of what I want to communicate. So let me unpack those three words—nothing gets wasted—just a little.

If you engage God’s world with zest and curiosity and delight and discipline, you will be amazed at how much of what you learn comes round to help you out in practical ways when you least expect it. I can’t explain why this should be, other than to say that I suspect the Lord of Creation honors our honoring of his world by making it pay off in ways we could not predict. That’s a theological hunch, but I stand by it.

Now why do I say that this claim comes from a lonely voice?

Because a whole generation of self-designated experts on what education is for will tell you that, especially as adult learners, you know exactly what you want to learn and that what you want to learn is what you should learn.

I beg to differ.

I don’t think we know what we should learn. I think that biblical wisdom and popular wisdom and grandparents and Great Books curricula and professors of Latin and math teachers and great magazines (The Atlantic, First Things, The Economist, the late, great Books & Culture …), and all sorts of other sources know that there are things we would never pursue if left to our own devices because the frontiers where our ignorance meets the world are simply unmarked.

A quick decision that ‘I don’t need to learn that!—sometimes articulated with dangerous arrogance as ‘What do I need to learn that for?!’—very easily cuts off our organic development as human beings who lead.

And, please, may I beg you to avoid one stupid statement that you will be tempted to make in your first five years out of LeTorneau University?:

They never taught me how to do this at LeTorneau!

The statement assumes that this university’s job is to teach you how to face every challenge that you will confront five, ten, and thirty years down the road. No competent educator at LeTorneau would ever buy that vision for this school.

Nor should you.

The principal reason for universities like this one is to shape you as a human being who will continue to learn through what may well be a turbulent lifetime with vigor, discipline, and delight.

Now if this all sounds very earnest and maybe a little harsh, let me turn myself around and engage this matter from a different direction, a positive direction:

For some bizarre reason, almost nothing gets wasted.

If you truly learn, if you expose your heart and mind to areas of human endeavor that may or may not hold intrinsic interest for you, I promise you—I’m way out on a limb here, but aware of my environs—that almost every bit of it will come back around to you as a gift or a tool.

Your math class will give you entree into a conversation with a businessman with whom you are seeking common cause. You probings at psychology will provide you a place to stand when a friend has entrusted to you that she has thoughts of taking her own life. Your Latin class will set you up for a life of delighting in the sheer, extraordinary gift of words. Your summers spent scraping out the bottom of industrial barrels will mean you’ll never underestimate the battle of a 61-year-old working man who has only ever done that.

Your encounters with your own ignorance, your own crossing of cultural boundaries will help you feel … help you actually feel … something of what it means to be an immigrant or a refugee in a land as strange as this land. Your memorization of Scripture—sure, you could just look it up on your smartphone—will provide you with a reservoir of reality that bubbles up from inside you by day and by night.

And so on … and so forth … for a lifetime.

It’s the strangest thing:

Nothing gets wasted.

And, frankly, no one wants to be led by somebody who has only ever learned one thing, somebody who only knows one thing.

I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does.

The world is full of people who only know … one thing … people who never imagined that nothing gets wasted. People who are deeply, sadly un-curious.

I have had to lead some of them. You will have to lead some of your own.

But you don’t have to be one.

So don’t test out of that math test if you’re borderline on numbers. Sign up for Latin. Take that literature elective. Learn how to lay bricks or plant trees or fix a Harley.

Then when you fail at leadership, as you will, you’ll have all manner of resources to sustain your heart and your mind as you bounce back. You’ll be a happier person,  a less cynical person, too.


Speaking of bouncing back … I’d like to talk with you about being resilient.

You’re going to need to be resilient.

Failing profitably at leadership only happens when the leader himself or herself is resilient.

The important thing is not really how badly you feel on the day …

√ you bomb that exam.

√ your students hate you.

√ your business goes bankrupt.

√ your board of directors beats you up.

√ your employer lays you off.

√ your spouse walks out on you.

What really matters is who you are the next morning.

I think I’ve learned this over the years, and I hope you’ll hear me out on it.

I’m almost tempted to say, in the light of the provocative title I’ve forced upon you today, that resilience is everything. I won’t say it, because it would be an exaggeration. But not a very big exaggeration. It would almost be true. Resilience really is almost everything.

For those of us who attempt to engage life from the angle of faith in Jesus Christ, resilience is the power of God in us. The Scriptures teach us that God is strong and that he does not hoard his strength, but apportions it to us. More often than not, I have become convinced, we experience God’s strength as what we would call resilience.

We are often knocked down: Karen speaks all the Spanish she knows and cannot come out with another word. I flame out half-way through the third set of Matt’s training regimen. Or much harder blows than these are landed upon is. It almost crushes us, but somehow it does not crush us.

We bounce back. We face another day. We wake up stronger. We re-enter the arena.

I once gave a back-of-the-envelope talk to a group of South Asian pastors on this very topic. I called it ‘9 things I’ve learned about resilience’.

This is what I shared with them:

  1. Resilience does not require super-human strength.
  2. Resilience is a symptom of God’s own strength in us.
  3. We can train ourselves to expect resilience.
  4. Resilience comes in small doses.
  5. The night-time must precede the morning.
  6. We don’t always need to ‘show our work’.
  7. Worship postures us for resilience.
  8. People will mistake resilience for high spirituality, special strength, or immunity to pain.
  9. It’s not smart to tempt resilience.

As I look back on that somewhat impromptu talk from the angle of today’s topic, I think I learned those things by failing at leadership. By exhausting my own capacity over and over again, by suffering deep loss and then coming back the next day to start over.

I hope you have become resilient, too. Or, if you have not, that you will.


When you lead, you translate 24/7. The non-leader has the luxury of speaking in, listening in, and mastering a single dialect, a single way of speaking, a single way of thinking, a single vocabulary.

After failing at getting people to understand his or her native dialect, the leader renounces this luxury and takes up the task of being an always-on translator.

Let me see whether I can explain what I mean.

When in 2004 I moved back to the USA after sixteen years of working in and eventually leading a seminary in Costa Rica, I did so in order to take the position of President & CEO of Overseas Council (OC). OC is an organization that works very effectively at building capacity in about 300 theological seminaries in the Majority World.

A major part of my responsibility was to get to know businessmen and women who showed an interest in Overseas Council and to make the case that they should become or remain donors to this cause. Although I generally love meeting new people, I often came away from these meetings with a full stomach and a vague sense of irritation. ‘They just don’t get it’, I thought.

I felt as though I was failing to connect, and that this failure was caused in the main by the inability of my conversation partners to ‘get’ how riveting a thing training Christian leaders is in the parts of the world where the church is experiencing explosive growth.

I managed to discover enough resilience to keep it up, to keep engaging these conversations. Some of them were fun and productive, others were not.

Eventually, I came to understand I was not failing as a friend or as a persuader. I was failing as a translator, and my foremost task was essentially that: the duty of a translator. I learned, over time, to speak the language of the business professional, the vocabulary of the entrepreneur, the jargon of the theological educator, and the patois of the pastor.

Now here’s where the key learning was for me: in learning to speak the same truth in these different dialects, I was not becoming a traitor to myself or to my cause. I was simply coming to understand the inevitable reality that the leader must learn to speak his or her truth to many kinds of people, including to his bosses and to those who answer to him.

It’s hard work. It takes extraordinary patience and constantly growing prowess.

About the time I was beginning to understand this, I sought some mentoring from a retired U.S. seminary president. He shared with me that experience of giving up or at least putting on hold his academic work in order to serve an institution as its chief executive. I lamented to him the fact that I was ‘no longer teaching’.

He didn’t let me get away with it for a second. He said, ‘Oh, but you haven’t given up your life as an educator. You are an educator in every moment. When you’re with your staff, you’re educating them. When you’re in the boardroom, you’re educating your trustees. When you’re having lunch with a donor, you’re educating your donor. You are always and everywhere still an educator.’

He could have been saying ‘translator’ instead of ‘educator’ and he’d have been just as right as he was.

I learned this truth by failing. I could never have learned it otherwise.

  *   *   *

I hate to think of you as people destined for failure. But you are. Hallelujah, you will fail!

And in the failing, you will grow strong, wise, resilient, and fruitful.

You will learn so many things from failing at leadership that these little home truths I’ve stumbled upon will soon be in your rear view mirror.

It doesn’t matter, my friends, how you feel at the end of a brutal day, or a brutal semester, or a brutal year, or a brutal decade.

It matters who you are in the morning.

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Back on October 29, dear friends Maureen and Timmy Laniak sent me a link to a talk that the New York Times columnist David Brooks did at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival. Today, December 31st, I’ve finally made the space to watch and listen.david-brooks

Titled The Inverse Logic of Life, Brooks’ relaxed reflection on humility and character leave me breathless.

In fact, this talk has me unexpectedly leaning into 2017 with hope, expectation, and resolve.

You know how sometimes the cry of your heart is echoed by someone’s articulation of reality in a way you could never have done? That’s what Brooks’ talk does for me.

If you only have have fifty-five minutes and fifty seconds for one thing in 2017, start here.



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A conversation with the Wheaton College Chinese Students Fellowship

16 September 2016

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3 ESV)

  • You must believe that knowledge is a good thing
  • You must understand that ‘knowledge’ that denigrates another person is not true ‘knowledge’. It is folly masquerading as knowledge.
  • You must acknowledge that the opportunity to dedicate a portion of your life to acquiring knowledge at Wheaton College is a precious and unusual gift.
  • You will carry around the ‘burden’ of knowing more in your area of expertise than most of the people with whom you’ll interact … as well as the ‘burden’ of an inquisitive spirit.
  • You should internalize the fact that knowledge is ‘merely on the way’ to deeper knowledge.
  • You will learn to translate your knowledge for the benefit of those who lack the vocabulary and the abstract concepts that have become natural to you.
  • You must embrace the fact that there are many kinds of intelligence: emotional, intuitive, abstract, concrete, etc. You must not exalt your own strength of knowing over others.
  • You will become more and more contextually aware.
  • You must recall that knowledge proceeds from love and thrives best when encased in love.


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Near the end of twelve impeccably written lectures delivered to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1964 and published in 1968 as The Inescapable Calling, R. Kenneth Strachan summarizes his work by asking this question: What good is the Christian in the world today?

Strachan’s life ended prematurely in 1965, so this book is in some way the valedictory of a respected mission statesman who had found credibility among both his Latin American and North American constituencies at a time when such an outcome was by no means guaranteed. Indeed, it was doubtful, so tense were the times. The Latin America Mission was taking its first innovative steps towards ‘turning everything over to the nationals’, a step that raised eyebrows among conventional thinkers, put at risk deep institutional legacy, and—in retrospect—defined the genius of the ‘LAM’. (more…)

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Parker Palmer’s graceful little book Let Your Life Speak is the best work I’ve ever read on discernment and vocation.

In six chapters and just under 120 elegantly written pages, Palmer presses home the point that vocation emerges from within us and that we must listen carefully to our own lives if we are to discover it. Taking on someone else’s concept of calling or subjecting ourselves to an external and alien set of values and objectives will do violence to ourselves and to our usefulness—Palmer would probably avoid the word—to our community and our world. Throughout, the author’s rooting in Quaker patterns and rhythms is evident, but this book is anything but sectarian and will be welcomed—indeed, has been welcomed, for it was published in the year 2000—by readers of many faiths and perhaps of none. (more…)

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Convocation, Clark Theological College, Nagaland

17 April 2016

Honorable chairperson of the Board of Governors and members of this Board, Respected Principal Dr Takatemjen, incoming Principal Dr Mar Congener, faculty of Clark Theological College, distinguished guests, parents of the graduating students, graduating students, continuing students, staff, and the larger CTS family …

May I speak in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?

  *   *   *

One of my favourite things is to look into the faces of graduands, like these 2016  graduands of Clark Theological College … and to imagine ….

Will you allow me to look without embarrassment into your faces?

I see feats that you hace already accomplished and sacrifices that you have already made …

Some of these achievements have been widely celebrated in your community as miracles of God and as heroic efforts by one or another of you.

Others have been quiet … even silent … invisible to all but one of you. These private acts of heroism may be known only to your closest family and friends. Or perhaps only to you. It’s no matter. God knows them.

  • Some have chosen a path of Christian ministry against other more lucrative careers that your family had in store for you.
  • Some have perhaps left a girlfriend or a boyfriend to pursue a calling that that person could not encourage or support.
  • You have worked late into the night to master Greek or theology or anthropology or the history of Jesus’ church.
  • You have encouraged each other.
  • Perhaps some have summoned up the strength against depression or sadness … the strength simply to get out of bed and to go to class. This, too, can be the deed of a hero.
  • You have discovered spiritual gifts that you didn’t know God had given you, and academic aptitudes that you didn’t know were yours to steward.
  • Your curiosity has been awakened and you have become alive to the joy that is learning to learn …
  • You have learned to stop talking in order to listen intently.
  • You have served your home churches or other ministries in which you have become experienced with new learning. You have learned to deploy that learning with humility and tact among sisters and brothers who have not had the opportunity of study.
  • You have discovered the heart of Jesus for the broken and the outcast.


The truth is, the churches and people of Nagaland and of India and beyond are fortunate to have you … blessed to know the kinds of servant leadership that you will provide over the next thirty years … or forty … or fifty … or sixty.

Rooted in scripture … eager to serve … with minds alert … and with hearts that sing … in more than one sense of the word, ready to go.

It would be awkward for an invited guest to speak anything but congratulations on an occasion such as this. It would be almost a social sin to speak of anything but commendation and well-deserved praise and encouragement to keep on into the future as you have walked in the past.

And I see the future, or at least I imagine that I do … and it inspires me … it makes it a wonderful thing to look into your faces this day and to think of things that will be.

Without invitation, my mind already wants to add you to the famous list of the book of Hebrews, chapter 11:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:4–8 ESV)


It would be an easy thing, during a ceremony such as this, to add your names to this list and to sum up the deeds you will accomplish, by faith.

*    *   *

But the truth is, I don’t know your future. I can only imagine. Perhaps I can only speculate.

However, two thing I do know:

You will face hardship. And you will be resilient.

 May I give to you as my gift on your graduation day a passage from the ancient book of Isaiah that has become so very important to me?:

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Now back to those two things about your future, of which I am certain.


You will face hardship.

In fact, you will experience exile.

Do you know what an exile is?

Exile is simply the loss of everything that seems important.

Old Testament Israel suffered what is for Jews and for Christians an iconic exile.

This people of God, this chosen race, lost everything.

  • Temple
  • Priests
  • Sacrifice
  • Land
  • Promise
  • Identity
  • Future

Israel lost everything. That’s what exile does. It strips you of everything you knew …. Everything you thought you were … everything that sustained you … everything you believed …

What does an exile sound like? Israel’s voice out of exile sounds like this:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”   How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalms 137:1–6 ESV)

It gets worse. Israel’s emotions in her exile become more savage and violent than I can bring myself to read out on a happy occasion such as this.

One thing was true of exiles in the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon: nobody ever survived them. Exile was designed to liquidate peoples … to abolish all sense of separate identity … to destroy a people’s name and hope and future … to let captivity and assimilation accomplish their fatal work.

Exiles are final. They are terminal. They lead nowhere. Every exile claims to have the final word.

Yet the Lord turned Israel’s exile into one of his greatest miracles. He transformed an experience that could only possibly destroy his people into a rebirth that refined and resurrected them instead.

The Lord spoke  deeply into the lives of his captive people. He assured them that he was capable of being with them in this foreign place, as capable as he was of being present to them from the Holiest of Holies back in the promised land.

By YHWH’s grace, Israel experienced a national resurrection. Israel survived. Israel returned. Israel gave birth to Israel’s Messiah. You and I are here at Clark Theological College, brothers and sisters, together—sons and daughters of the Lord Most High—because of it.

*   *   *   *

I wish it were not true. It seems on such a happy occasion as this a shame to say it, especially as I exercise my privilege to look from this platform into your beautiful faces.

But you will experience your exiles.

For some, they will be momentary and fleeting. For others, the rest of your lives may prove to be an unremitting difficulty … for most of you, you will be somewhere in between.

Yet all of you—you, with your feats and victories and accomplishments, with your brilliant futures ahead of you, with your love and your families still awaiting you—all of you will know something of exile.

But here’s that second thing, that second prediction that I can make with confidence about your future.

You will be resilient!

 Resilient means that you will rise up from what should have crushed you. You will find your way past the moans of pain and into the songs of rejoicing.  You will discover strength when you thought you could only continue to collapse.

Out of your mourning, you will find that you have been given …

… a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that you are once again called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 ESV)

And then, miracle of miracles, you will be even stronger and more beautiful than you are today.

It seems impossible, but this is what awaits you, dear graduands.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Thirty years ago, I was a young missionary in Latin America, learning to teach and to mentor young men and women with whom I had a powerful intuitive connection. Things were going well, and the Lord was causing a spiritual gift of teaching to flourish. I had been a very insecure person and found it difficult to imagine that all this good ministry was happening around me and even through me. I could not have been happier. I was 28 years old.

One day, after I’d finished teaching my heart out, an elder colleague whom I still refer to as the man who shaped me in ministry, approached me and said something I have never forgotten: ‘I want to hear you when you’re forty’.

Forty seemed a long way off then. Now it seems a very long way in my past. But that man knew that the best things come through exile and resilience … and that these take a long time to have their effect.

I want to hear you … I want to see you when you’re forty.

 35 years ago I read an essay on the back page of a famous magazine in my country called TIME. It told the story of two older gentlemen who loved classical music and frequented the performance hall of one of the world’s most prestigious symphonic ensembles, the New York Philharmonic.

One day a very young Korean girl—a prodigy really, for no one should be able to make music like the music she made at such a tender age—appeared on the program to play the famous Brahms Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. It was the first piece on the program, to be followed by an intermission, and then by music of a different composer.

The performance was technically perfect. This little girl never missed a note. It was astounding. The audience was baffled by the ability of such a youth to play the music of a master as she had done.

There was only one problem: the performance had no soul to it … no pathos.

The one elderly music lover came upon his friend in the lobby of the concert hall during intermission. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked ‘So, what did you think?’

The other man looked thoughtfully down at his shoes for a while before answering. Then he looked his friend in the eyes and offered this comment: ‘She needs to suffer before she plays that piece again.’

*   *   *   *

You look this morning as though you are at the height of your powers. Vigorous … beautiful … strong … youthful.

But, in truth, you are not yet at the height of your powers. You are merely on your way.

The height of your powers will come to you when you have suffered your exiles and, in them, found resilience through the strength of the living God … The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … the Giver of his empowering Spirit.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28–31 ESV)

May it be so.

And congratulations for a most admirable beginning!

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