Education & Formation Reflective Essay
Five page reflective essay about key elements, components, people, events that have contributed most to your education and formation as a Christian.
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There was never any question if, whether, or which of the evening leftovers would go into the stew-pot. In my six-person family of origin, everything that wasn't eaten for dinner got absorbed into the big stew-pot in the freezer, waiting to be thawed, reheated, and reclaimed at the end of the week. The only real question was how this particular addition would affect the taste and character of the stew when the pot was full. Thinking of this family tradition provides an apt enough metaphor for my education as a Christian through the years -- mixed up and messy, formed in diversity and community, not terribly concerned with input or outcome as much as curiosity and experiment, and still somehow nourishing and practical at the end of the day (or week, rather).
Let me say at the outset that I have a hard time differentiating my "Christian education" from my "non-Christian education." Each has influenced and informed the other, and often my pedagogical context has influenced both. My Christian identity is wrapped up in my baptism as an infant, and the commitment of my parents and the church to raise me as such. Therefore, starting with my baptism, I consider all educational experiences to have been part of my education as a Christian. Taking this a step further, I tend to consider all experiences to be part of the educational process, whether intentionally so or not. Life is education, and I often suspect that the majority of our formative experiences actually occur outside of the classroom, unscripted, and quite often unintended by student or teacher alike. Everything goes into the stew, for better or worse.
However, some aromas emanating from the stew are easier to single out than others. At an early age I had a difficult time with formal, institutionalized schooling, until my parents placed me in the local Montessori school. To this day I'm not sure whether it was the unique Montessori approach that shaped my learning habits, or if it just happened to be the ideal complement to pre-existing ones. While the non-structured, self-directed, experimental environment of the Montessori school did not have an immediate connection with my faith development, it would later come to influence not only my approach to my personal spiritual formation, but also my thoughts on how spiritual formation in the church might be approached in new and experimental ways.
My family's limited income, among other considerations, meant that for my younger siblings to also enjoy a Montessori education, I needed to return to public school. Throughout late elementary school and middle school, I continued to struggle with curriculum that was not of my own interest or choosing, and spent more time with the set of encyclopedias in our living room than doing assigned homework. I consider it to have been a good trade. In my church Sunday school classes and youth program, I tended to gravitate toward teachers and programs that were more conversational and open-ended, but since I was still largely uninterested in matters of faith and religion, my education in that area was limited at best.
Somehow after my high school graduation, though not evangelical, pentecostal, nor charismatic, I found myself attending college at an institution which embraced and embodied all of those labels: O'ral Roberts University. Not unlike the pancakes that occasionally found themselves in our stewpot surrounded by dinner food, I was instantly out of place, both socially and theologically. With chapel services that featured healing, jumping, and "speaking in tongues," as well as mandatory classes with titles like "Biblical Principles of Abundant Life," I finally took a sudden, reactionary interest in theology. True to my Montessori roots, however, I chose to pursue these first steps in intentional formation on my own terms: At the small denominational church down the road, through regular one-on-one question and answer sessions with my pastor, mostly about things I was encountering in my required courses. At the same time, in an ultra-conservative school, I sought out the most liberal department (the English department) for my undergraduate major. Through Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Flannery O'Connor, I found a complement and balance to the fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures espoused in chapel services and student bible studies. From this balance emerged change: I still don't consider myself to be evangelical or charismatic, but traces of those once-pungent flavors are still present in my stew -- I no longer seek to react, cover, or compensate for them, though, as my experiences with these ideas and theologies are now inextricably wrapped up in relationships with dear friends, and are part of my Christian identity.
My love for literature (and my degree) eventually led me into a career as an English teacher at a high school in downtown Dallas, Texas. This love soon gave way to a genuine love for my mostly Hispanic students and the challenges they faced not only as adolescents, but as first and second generation immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture. My desire to help them led me to a love and passion for the educational process, in turn leading me (over the course of a decade) to educational treatises like Rousseau's Emile, Vygotsky's Thought and Language, A.S. Neill's Summerhill, and Freire's Pedagogy of the Opressed. As I began to relinquish my desire to control curriculum, behavior, and outcomes in my classroom, my students became more engaged and successful in pursuing their own educational aims and goals.
By this point, new ingredients were quickly taking over the stew, changing its texture and flavor -- but Christianity still lay frozen at the bottom, where it had been left ten years ago at the conclusion of my college years. In fact, I had a hard time now reconciling the free, progressive, and open-source approach I had enjoyed in the classroom with the rigid, traditionalist, hierarchical methods I encountered even in my own relatively young, denominational church. Somehow, I didn't think John Dewey would have been impressed with the typical Sunday morning, sermon-centric, one-way worship service as a vehicle for teaching much of anything.
So I accepted a job with my church as a youth director, pledging to help others develop in their faith while I was still relatively stagnant in my own. In the process of exploring just how this might be done, I came across Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster's The Godbearing Life, and its call to make formation less driven by programs, and more by relationships. I also began to participate in the emerging church conversation, through various books and correspondences. In these two streams of thought, I began to find expression and purpose for my own identity as a Christian again. During this time, I also welcomed a son and a daughter into the world, an event that daily brings new perspectives on everything from education and formation to mortality, beauty, and divinity. When my three-year-old son asked me one day, "Daddy, is Jesus God?" I resisted the temptation to kill his curiosity and exploration with a perfunctory "Yes," instead asking him, "What do you think, son?" I'm grateful for the opportunity, as a parent, to stand back and let my children chart their own course of spiritual formation, relegating myself to the role of resource, advocate, and example, rather than instructor, task-master, or enforcer.
My spiritual re-awakening culminated in my decision to attend seminary, which, of course, presents a familiar challenge: I have placed myself in the hands of an institution (a very old one, at that) with a structured approach to education and formation, an externally imposed curriculum, and pre-determined ideas about what outcomes are desirable in an M.Div student. My hope is that -- as with my time at O'ral Roberts University -- these things will come in equal measure with relationships, opportunities, and unexpected twists. For all of it together is the "stuff" of education and formation, both for Christians and for human beings. Some experiences nourish more than others, while some experiences form us in reaction to and against them. Often the formative experiences we pursue deliberately produce cellulite good and expected results, while sometimes those we didn't plan for produce sweet or spicy surprises that challenge us in unexpected ways. Everything goes into the stew-pot. Whether the contributions come from me, from my family, or from my seminary community, I'm not worried. There is plenty of room in this stew pot for more.