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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

An Outpouring of Thanks for My Last Post: Here's What I Think It Means

When I posted last Friday about dealing with my emotional/intellectual/spiritual/material struggles with professorial and professional work, I kept hearing in the back of my head some advice about preaching and teaching I received long ago.  I believe it is good advice, which is why I keep it close in mind.  I was warned not to let my sermons and teaching presentations get too focused around my own experiences.  First, it betrays a kind of egocentrism (even egotism) that seems to think of oneself as the prime example of whatever topic is at hand.  Second, it presumptuously asserts that one's own experiences are the same as those who are hearing what one says.  I do agree that these are dangers and temptations.

Yet there is another side of this question about whether to use one's own experiences in teaching and preaching.  That side is the one that recognizes preaching and teaching is in part about building a relationship of teaching-learning between the teacher and the people in the classroom or other setting.  That relationship itself becomes a powerful part of a teaching-learning process.

In the past few days, some of the most encouraging words of appreciation I received were from fellow academics, people who find themselves in a similar functional role as I do.  Although I did not get too heavily into details of my own struggle, I tried to reveal enough to make some sense of it to readers.  Apparently it did make some sense, and there have been a wide range of responses.

Through the past two years, one of the most common responses to my writing about Everly, cancer, struggle, death, loss, and faith, have been those from people who told how my writing honestly about the struggle helped them to think about and deal with struggles in their own lives.  Over and over people have encouraged me to keep on writing, as many of you did this past weekend.

One colleague who wrote some beautiful encouragement to me sparked me to think about how dealing with this struggle has affected my teaching.  So I'm going to post here a response I sent to him about what I think it means that students are finding blessing in my current teaching.  Again, for all who teach and preach, I hope this will give some insight into why a certain kind of telling one's own story and reflecting on one's own faith can make a great difference in teaching and learning.
Thanks.  It has emerged through these two years since Everly's diagnosis in April of 2012 that my lived theological reflection is among the most important parts of my teaching.  As you indicated during your presentation last week, a personal story is powerful for impact and memory.  Add to that my sometimes raw emotions, and the students find this part of my reflection to serve their learning in many ways. 

At perhaps the first level, my up-to-date reflections as I "go through" are an example of how theology operates in a lived context with real questions people are asking.  So I will keep writing and bringing my reflections to the classroom as I make this pilgrimage that will not end until I end.

At another level, my reflections become a mirror to them.  While they are not going through the same thing (although sometimes it is very close with a terminally ill spouse or other family member), they are finding analogies to my story in their story.  Sometimes this has led to powerful testimony or confession on the part of a student in class who becomes willing to let her or his struggle become part of our conversation.  I have to say that they get a bit less "respect" from their peers, in that classmates feel more permission to comment on one another didactically than they do to comment in that way on my stories.  But that gives me a chance to talk about how we listen and do not rush to offer easy answers. 

Maybe it's a third level at which they find themselves in a new relation with me, walking along as a fellow struggler.  There is no small amount of recurring reference to Claypool's sermons in my ongoing reflections, as you may have noted in my refrain about walking one step at a time.  I don't doubt that this third element is significant in my being asked to preach by one of our students for the first time in fourteen years of teaching at the seminary.  Over the years, there have always been a small cadre of students who saw in me a colleague or mentor, someone whose overall faith and walk they might hope to emulate.  But they have been few, and it has much to do with my personality and background.  That seems to have changed as I have changed during this crisis.  Many more see in me an example of faith from whom they would hope to learn, not just a guy who knows about so many things and so many words and so many people. 
So I will, as best I can, try to let this season reshape me as a teacher.  It's strange that some of my most effective classroom teaching may be going on when I am by habits and performance so far from what I ought to be as a professor.  Bringing some of those good habits back into my daily life can perhaps give me a decade or so of teaching that will be the best of my career.

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