Preparing for Exams

At SouthLake Christian Academy, students will soon be taking exams, that bi-annual rite of passage that creates fear and loathing in the minds of students and parents alike. But fear not! Exams do not have to be miserable experiences. There is a wealth of learning research to help students prepare better and dislike the experience less. Here are a few research-based pointers to assist and to keep things in perspective.

1. Eliminate distractions. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is a myth. Neuroscientists know that the brain cannot perform many high-level cognitive functions simultaneously. Rather, the neocortex switches between tasks as called upon to do so. Task switching wastes time and increases the likelihood of errors. The brain is less efficient at reorienting to a new task than it is at attending to the one at hand. So take 15 minutes to get organized, eliminate clutter, shut down screens, steer clear of noise, minimize social interaction, and then get down to business.

2. Study harder AND smarter. More time spent studying does not always translate directly to higher grades on exams. Proper preparation requires both memory consolidation (knowing the subject matter) and deep processing (the ability to make meaningful connections, solve problems, and think critically about the material). Exam prep often involves flash cards and study guides, tools useful for rote memorization. For deeper learning, however, try creating concept maps to make connections between concepts and help you understand why a particular fact is true and why it matters. Of course, both memorization and deep learning take time, so spread your study sessions out over a few days and give your brain the repetition it needs to absorb and process the material.

3. Sleep well. Studies show that REM sleep is necessary for information acquisition (receiving), consolidation (keeping), and recall (retrieving). Students deprived of REM sleep show deficits in short-term and long-term memory, and decreased problem solving abilities. Sleep deprivation also elevates stress and anxiety levels (as measured by perception and biochemical markers) and deteriorates overall performance. In other words, students who study over time with good sleep will outperform those who use all-night cram sessions for last minute preparation.

4. Take strategic study breaks. Although the brain makes up about 2% of a person’s body weight, it accounts for up to 20% of the body’s energy use. Intense studying is among our most exhausting tasks, so take breaks. Schedule study time to include periodic short intervals of rest. For younger students, study sessions may last 30 minutes followed by a 15 minute break.  For older students, a 50 minute study session followed by at 10 minute break may suffice. Students with learning differences may need additional rest. Strategic rest will help with cognitive endurance and allow you to study longer and better over the long haul.

5. Ask for help. Some students will struggle for hours on their own to avoid asking for help. Self-reliance is commendable to a point, but as exam time approaches, be quicker to ask for help. Compile questions that you need answered and email a teacher or speak to him/her during a free period of the day. Friends can help too. Group study sessions, used sparingly, can be helpful for content-intensive subjects if you keep needless socializing to a minimum. Practice teaching others the material. Verbal processing with others can help you know how well you know the material.

6. Avoid excessive caffeine and sugar. Studies show that while caffeine can improve alertness and the performance of some motor tasks in fatigued individuals, it does not improve memory or deep processing. In excess, caffeine can increase anxiety and thereby decrease one’s ability to absorb and recall information. As to sugar, the brain needs it to function, but not the simple processed sugars found in candy bars and energy drinks. The glucose that is found in fruits and complex carbohydrates does improve brain function. Save the junk food for a post exam celebration.

7. Keep it all in perspectives. When I taught at the university level, I always gave my students the following speech prior to the start of an exam: “This exam is important but it is not the most important thing in your life. Your identity as a person is not determined by the outcome of this exam. You are no better a human being if you make an A on this test, and no worse a human being if you fail it. Your identity is NOT determined by your performance. You are a person created in God’s image, loved by God, and redeemed by Christ. Nothing that happens in this life can change that, especially not an exam. So relax, do your best, and move on. I love you, I’m rooting for you, and you’re going to be OK.”

I do. I am. And you are.

Go Eagles!

 

Academics

My Experience with Learning Disabilities

My life’s work has been in Christian education. But I am also a parent, and that’s what I’m writing about here.  I have three children, all redheads. I often joke that I am the patriarch of a ginger dynasty.  All three of my kids are really smart, but we’ve often thought of Kate as the smartest.  When Kate was 3 years old, she learned how to play a matching game that involved placing cards face down in columns and rows and flipping over cards two per turn until you make a match.  The person with the most matched pairs wins.  To this day, nobody in our family has ever beaten Kate.  We thought for a while that she’d figured out some way to cheat, until we learned that she also has a near photographic memory for faces and the details of events and places we’ve visited.  I taught her to play chess when she was 5.  She played for a few weeks and then lost interest.  She picked up the game again nearly 6 years later, and to my surprise still remembered the rules.  When it came to children’s books, Kate memorized all her favorites.  She would know when I tried to alter the story or skip a page.  She could “read” the story to me if I let her, and she knew from the pictures when to turn the page long before she could actually read. I could tell stories about Kate at length.

In 3rd grade we began to sense that something was wrong.  Kate began to do poorly on AR quizzes.  She started to lag behind her classmates on standardized tests.  She was barely reading at grade level while many of her friends were reading 2 or 3 grades above it, as her two older siblings had done.  At parent-teacher conferences, we expressed concern, but Kate was our third child and by then we were chill parents.  Kate was and is the kind of kid teachers loved – obedient, quiet, kind, respectful, cooperative, liked by her peers.  Teachers told us not to worry, and we followed their advice.  In fourth grade, the trend continued – low standardized test scores, reading comprehension problems, alternatively great and then terrible grades, depending on the kind of assignment or the style of test she took.  Picture books increasingly gave way to chapter books, and Kate’s love for reading evaporated.  It was a chore to get her to complete book assignments, and she often seemed to daydream when she was supposed to be reading.  The school had a special program for students with reading difficulties.  She entered and then completed that program, but we noticed no improvements.  We hired a reading specialist who worked with Kate two afternoons a week for about 4 months, and who then told us that everything seemed normal and that Kate was just a “laid-back kid,” which I suspected was code for a student who is not motivated.  Her fourth-grade teacher was the first, but not the last, to suggest that Kate might suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder.  I’d never noticed any attention deficit in Kate before, except when she was supposed to be reading, and neither had anyone else, and so that suggestion seemed to me like grasping at straws.

One day around this time Kate was trying to read a schoolbook to my dad, who himself cannot read out loud with any fluency because of his own learning disabilities.  My dad noticed that Kate tended to use her finger to follow words as she read and that she often skipped articles and prepositions and could not sound out words she did not know.  These are all things that I knew about Kate, but my dad commented that he did the same things still.  I was familiar with my dad’s story.  He did terribly in school and was told by his high-school counselor that he “wasn’t college material.”  My dad graduated with a biology degree from the University of Georgia and went on to have a brilliant career in business, teaching safety and environmental responsibility to multi-national companies drilling for oil offshore around the world.  Incongruously, I have distinct memories of standing next to my dad in church as he tried to sing from the Baptist hymnal.  He mixed up the words and lines of the hymns so badly, that if God had judged his theology based on the lyrics he sang, he would surely have been guilty of damnable heresy!  It never occurred to me to ask why a highly intelligent and accomplished biologist, businessman, and environmental advocate did so badly in school, could not sing from a hymnal, and had read fewer than a dozen books in his life.  But when my dad saw himself in my daughter, I began to suspect that something more complex was going on with his and my daughter’s ability to process language.  We talked to our pediatrician and at his recommendation we visited a developmental psychologist who tested Kate for a variety of learning disabilities.  He determined that she had an IQ of 125 (not a surprise) and that in his opinion, she exhibited no language processing deficits (a big surprise) because in his words, “she didn’t invert letters or numbers with any consistency,” as if that were the only or primary indicator of a language processing disability.  His determination was that Kate was “possibly” suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder and he suggested medication.  Well, when a guy with a Ph.D. in child psychology says it, it must be true.

Kate spent much of the 5th grade trying different brands and dosages of ADD medication.  The stimulant effect kept her awake at night, suppressed her appetite, and made her moody and aggressive.  We would have been willing to tolerate those side effects, except for the fact that the medication had no impact whatsoever on her academic performance.  Parent-teacher conferences were again predictable.  “Kate is such a sweet child, she just needs to work harder on reading and try not to daydream so much,” again, code for “we think she’s ADD.”  Kate continued to struggle with any assignment in any subject that had to do with reading.  Strangely, she was great at math as long as there were no word problems. She hated word problems.  She was also great at spelling when the tests involved recalling a simple sequence of letters, a colossally easy task for a kid with her memory skills.  But when the spelling assignments involved more complex skills like using words in a sentence, or differentiating homonyms, words that sound the same but have different meanings, Kate was as lost as a ball in high weeds.  She fell further and further behind her peers on reading comprehension and fluency scores.  But she still made mostly As in school, to her disservice I might add, and she continued to beat almost anyone at any game that involved memory or problem solving skills.  And so, the 5th grade passed and we continued to listen to teachers who assured us that Kate was fine, and that as far as they could tell, she was just a normal kid who needed more reading practice.

Just a few weeks into the 6th grade, Kate was failing every subject except math.  Adding insult to injury, we received the results of her ACT Aspire test that showed her in the bottom 25% nationally in multiple areas of academic progress.  Something just did not add up and my wife and I got serious about finding answers. We got scientific about things.  We had a hypothesis: that our daughter had a problem with the way her brain processed language, and we tested that hypothesis by collecting all the data we could and then seeking help from any expert who could help us interpret the data.  This led us by way of a network of contacts, to a Hoover based speech and language pathologist named Hettie Johnson.  After hours of extensive and expensive testing last fall, we got some answer.  One the bright side, we got confirmation that Kate had some unusual gifts: working memory – 95th percentile; cognitive problem-solving skills – 98th percentile; IQ – 98th percentile.  The IQ test is non-verbal and uses geometric shapes and items in a series to examine problem-solving abilities. The tester showed me some of the problems and asked me to solve them.  I got a few of them correct, but it took me several minutes to solve what my daughter solved in just a few seconds.  When the tester asked Kate to explain to me how she came up with the correct answers, I realized that her brain was working on an entirely different level than mine, and far more efficiently than mine.  It was as if I were talking to a genius.  But at the same time, the tests showed the source of Kate’s struggle: language comprehension – 23rd percentile; phonetic decoding efficiency – 23rd percentile; reading accuracy – 5th percentile; reading fluency – 9th percentile; reading comprehension – 5th percentile.  This remarkable combination of unusual gifts and striking deficits is called dyslexia.  For 10 years our school system missed it.  Skilled teachers, reading experts, and tutors missed it.  Pediatricians and a developmental psychologist missed it.  Kate’s own Ph.D. dad and nurse mom missed it.  I felt horrible, terrible, guilty about all the times I’d simply written her problems off as insignificant, or the result of ADD, or laziness, the times I’d told her simply to work harder, or coerced her to read more and more, and told her to pay attention, as if a blind person could learn to see with better concentration.

Dyslexia is an inefficiency in the way the brain processes language that expresses itself in any combination of dozens of ways, including an age delay in speaking, difficulties with pronunciation, struggles connecting letters to the sounds they make, problems sounding out words, struggles expressing one’s thoughts in writing, spelling problems, speech that is not fluent, pausing or hesitating often when speaking, difficulty finding the correct word to express a thought, and all of these inefficiencies typically show up most clearly when one is reading.  Speaking comes naturally and is learned on an unconscious level. Babies learn to speak on instinct.  Biologists suggest that speaking is a very ancient skill, built into our evolutionary inheritance, perhaps millions of years ago.  Our brains handle speaking quite easily and efficiently.  Reading, however, is a much more complex task and must be learned consciously and methodically.  Anyone who has ever tried to teach a child to read knows that it takes time, patience, practice, and very specialized skills that take years to develop fully.  In most people, the neural pathways utilized for reading develop efficiencies over time that allow us to hear, recognize, and make sense of words on a page with increasing speed, like traveling from Birmingham to Atlanta on I20.  For the dyslexic, however, the pathways used for reading are far more complex, and therefore less efficient, like driving from Birmingham to Atlanta on backcountry roads, slowly taking the scenic route.  Sure, you take in the sights and sounds of the rural south one traffic light at a time, but it takes much longer to reach your destination.  When you get there, you may very well be better for it, unless of course you are being timed and graded on how fast you get there.

If you use an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the brain of a normal person while reading, you’ll see just a few areas of the brain modestly at work.  If you examine a dyslexic reader’s brain in an MRI, you’ll see the brain lit up like New York City at Christmas time, with multiple areas of the brain working at cognitive load capacity.  This explains why dyslexics find reading so arduous, and why they take frequent breaks while reading – the brain is working overtime to get to the meaning.  Dyslexics, like my daughter, develop skills rather unconsciously to cope with the inefficiency.  They learn to memorize things very quickly, they learn to problem solve spatially, mathematically, and non-verbally.  And sometimes they learn to smile, cooperate, say, “yes ma’am” and pull the wool over teachers’ eyes for years to get good grades and get by.  And Kate played the game so well she fooled everyone, including me, until 6th grade.  Our speech pathologist calls Kate’s learning difference “Stealth Dyslexia” – a condition characterized by highly developed coping mechanisms that mask significant deficits and make diagnosis extremely difficult.  She tried to comfort us by listing all of the famous people, artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and movie starts with dyslexia.   None of this made me feel a bit better.  The truth is, I missed it.  Wanting to believe she was ok, I ignored obvious signs when I could have helped her sooner.

After diagnosis, my daughter began to get the help she needed. She got an education plan that granted her testing, homework, and note-taking accommodations at her school.  She was given extended time to take tests.  She saw a tutor twice a week (at considerable expense) who was a Certified Educational Therapist and who specialized in the Orton Gillingham approach to dyslexia therapy. Since coming to SouthLake Christian Academy a year ago, Kate has thrived. She was re-tested by Dr. Jill Gottlieb who confirmed her earlier diagnosis and gave us good guidance about accommodations. She sees a National Institute of Learning Disabilities certified teacher in SLCA’s Academic Development Center twice each week. She has educational plan of action (EPA) that provides the accommodations she needs to learn effectively.  She has a support system in place now that we would never have dreamed possible in the public schools she attended.  Kate is now on a better road to success, one that recognizes her gifts and gives her a chance to thrive in spite of her reading inefficiencies.  But the truth is that earlier diagnosis would have been much better.  A dyslexia diagnosis can be made as early as age 6, there are warning signs that appear earlier, and outcomes are better the earlier the intervention.  The truth is, I am well educated and I have resources to get Kate help.  But what about other children, in other schools, who lack the knowledge and networks and know-how and resources to get help?  By some estimates, nearly 20% of children worldwide suffer from dyslexia. In prison populations, that number more than doubles to 48%. What hope do under-resourced students have to get the help they need?

I am an educator at a Christian school, so I spend a fair amount of time talking about Jesus.  Like Jesus, teachers touch lives every day that they go to work in ways that they will never fully comprehend and society will never adequately value.  They have a tough job, and honestly, students with learning disabilities make their job even more challenging.  Compounding the difficulty, I believe that generations of teachers have received inadequate instruction in recognizing and understanding learning disabilities.  I think that is changing across the country as it has at SouthLake Christian Academy.  I believe that it must change, not so much for Kate as for children around the country who are far less likely to get the help they need.  When teachers help a student with a learning disability, they demonstrate the love of Jesus to the least of these. Teaching a child to read is not just educational work; it is Kingdom of God work.  If I might paraphrase from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserable, “To teach another person is to see the face of God.”

Academics Dyslexia Learning Disabilities Uncategorized

SouthLake Christian Academy – School Highlights 2018-2019

The Class of 2019:

  • 53 students graduated from SouthLake this past May
  • 7 graduates will play a sport at the collegiate level, including baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse, and volleyball.
  • 68% of graduates earned scholarship monies, collectively totaling more than $3.6
  • million in awards for academics, athletics, arts, leadership, and commitments to their communities.
  • SouthLake graduates were accepted to 86 different colleges and universities and will be attending 29 different schools in 10 states, as far north as Pennsylvania, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Texas.
  • For the first time in many years, more of our graduates will be attending school out-of state than in-state.
  • 16 graduates started SouthLake in kindergarten or earlier and maintained continuous enrollment through graduation. They affectionately refer to themselves as “lifers” and they have been on a journey together that will forever shape their lives.

Athletics:

  • 80% of Middle School and High School students play a team sport at SouthLake Christian
  • SouthLake competes in the Metrolina Athletic Conference (MAC)
  • Varsity volleyball won the MAC regular season and tournament conference championships
  • Varsity football sought to defend their state championship, reaching the state semifinals
  • Varsity girls’ tennis won the MAC championship
  • Combined girls/boys swim team scored first place in MAC swim championships
  • Varsity boys’ lacrosse repeated as state champions in Division II
  • Five student athletes received All State recognition
  • Two student athletes qualified for the state golf championships
  • Varsity baseball powered to a 14-win season
  • SouthLake Christian won the 2018-19 MAC Sportsmanship Award

Fine Arts Presentations:

  • Christmas at SouthLake – concerts and art display (December 2018)
  • Choir Candlelight Christmas Evenings at the Biltmore (December 2018)
  • Shrek, the Musical – theatre performance, over 1700 tickets sold (February 2019)
  • Lower and Middle School Art Show (April 2019)
  • Lower School Spring Art Extravaganza (April 2019)
  • A Celebration of the Arts – Middle and Upper School music and art show (May 2019)
  • ACSI Festival: High School choir – Superior, Middle School Choir, Concert Band, and Orchestra – Excellent (Spring 2019)
  • Additions to Fine Arts Curriculum & Course Offerings:
    • Chapel Band/Worship Studies was added as course offering.
    • Middle school and High School students may participate in Chapel Band.
    • Theatre is now taught year-round by a new theatre teacher.

Financial Position:

  • $7.5 million in net revenue ($8.7 gross)
  • $6.7 million in net tuition revenue ($7.9 gross)
  • $6.8 million in debt (financed at 5.25%, 5-year term, 25-year amortization)
  • SLCA awards 1.2 million annually in employee discounts and financial aid
  • Expenses:
    • $5m (68%) to salary, benefits, payroll taxes
    • $830k (11%) to facilities
    • $378 (5%) to administrative costs
    • $1.2m (16%) instructional costs
  • 2018-2019 enrollment was 575
  • Donations:
    • $150k cash donations to school ($260 per student on average)
    • $37k donations in kind for athletics (dirt, flagpole, water, lacrosse wall)
    • $23k donations from teachers to classrooms ($360 per teacher on average)
Uncategorized

A Short Guide to Starting School

School starts back at SouthLake Christian Academy this week. Today was open house and I saw a lot of excited families, and maybe a few nervous ones. Here are a few words of encouragement for those starting school for the first time, or returning to school for another year.

  1. Get organized. Calendars, planners, to-do lists, family meetings, and good communication with everyone involved will help you get off to a good start.
  2. Establish good habits. Pay attention in class. Use school hours to start homework and get extra help as needed. Do homework as early in the afternoon or evening as possible in a distraction free environment. Go to sleep each night at a time that allows you consistently sufficient sleep. Keep to a schedule.
  3. Build relationships. Students – get to know someone in each of your classes. Parents – get to know parents in your child’s class. Stay in communication with the teacher. Treat everyone around you with respect, even when you have a disagreement. You will forget most of what you experience at school, but you remember the relationships you make.
  4. Keep things in perspective. Students are not defined by their academic performance (or their athletic or musical performance). Your identity is not determined by whether or not you out-perform your peers. The question to ask is this: “Am I doing all that God created me to do, to the best of my ability?” If the answer to that question is yes, be at peace.
  5. Learn things other than what we teach in school. Read books you love that we haven’t assigned. Visit museums, art galleries, and other cultural attractions that stimulate your interests. One of the most important things you can learn during your school years is HOW TO LEARN, and how fun it is to learn!
  6. Unplug. Spend some time outside every evening. Put down your electronic devices, go for a walk, play in the yard, walk the dog. Nurture hobbies
  7. Don’t worry. Nothing that happens in the first several days of school is likely to make or break your school year. There may be a few emotional, academic, or logistical bumps in the road early on, but you are going to be OK. Be calm, problem solve, and ask for help if you need it. One keen piece of advice Jesus gave his own followers was this: “Do not worry about your life … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6.25-34)

I hope your school year gets off to a great start.

Education

Why Christian Education

Why Christian Education

[The following is a written summary of an address to the faculty of Westminster Catawba Christian School on August 5, 2019.]

At SouthLake Christian, we began a strategic planning process earlier this year to identify our main priorities as a school for the next chapter in our history. We spent a few months gathering data from our various constituents – teachers, students, parents, alumni, and members of the community – to clarify who we are and what next steps we should take, to select among all the good options the very best ones. Early and often, people identified two traits that characterize our school and must be preserved at all costs: our commitment to academic rigor and our identity as a Christian school. These conjoined twins represent the two main reasons our school was established and continues to exist, the reason parents hire us and pay us to do a job, the reason volunteers and donors give their time and money, and the reason that independent, public, and charter schools haven’t crowded us out. And yet, there are reasons for Christian education superior to those pragmatic considerations, important as they are. I propose that Christian education casts out fear[1], nourishes freedom, and tells a better story.

Bob Woodward’s 2018 book entitled Fear describes the inner workings of the White House with this phrase: “Real power is fear.” Machiavelli’s The Prince articulates a similar refrain: “It is better to be feared than loved.” Many leaders rise to power and maintain that power because they manage effectively to understand and articulate the underlying fears of their constituents. Some leaders maintain power by stoking that fear while promising to ameliorate it. These strategies work because fear plagues us all. It drives us to work and overwork, robs our sleep, wrecks our bodies, taints our relationships, and blinds us to life’s beauty. Fear. Cable news fuels it, social media feeds it, marketing firms monetize it. And the thing we have most to fear is fear itself. Yet we have a solution. Christians have always taught that the antidote to fear is love. The apostle John, for whom 4 books of the New Testament are named, writes that “God is love” and “perfect love casts out fear” and “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (1 John 4.8, 1 John 4.17, and John 15.13 – NIV). The love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us lives in us. As we love each other and our students and their families, we cast out fear. As we teach that love, and acknowledge explicitly its source and power, we smother the fires scorching our society. Christian education literally makes the world a better place, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

As we cast out fear, we nourish freedom. Years ago, I attended a conference of the American Academy of Religion, one session of which concerned academic freedom. The panel discussion was led by professors at various types of universities – state, private secular, and Christian. As they each described their context, something became blatantly obvious. Only Christian schools have any chance at true academic freedom! Public and secular private school teachers avoid religious conversations like the plague, by necessity. They can lose their jobs if they appear to advocate for any particular religious conviction. In the name of tolerance or open-mindedness or diversity, our society has pushed theological belief to the margins, treating nearly every other form of belief more amicably. A rather strange state of affairs now exists whereby religious belief, so important to so many, can barely be discussed by anyone in a secular classroom. And so, I ask, who is really free? The answer is YOU. You teach at a school that sees theological conviction not merely as a subject worthy of open discussion, but one foundational to all discussion because every belief of any kind begins with an unproven assumption. All learning requires faith. Your students attend a school where they can ask ANY question and get a straight answer. We can actually promote tolerance and open-mindedness and diversity not because these things are fashionable, but because they are beautiful, and good, and right, and true, and biblical. We have rich theological language by which to say that we should treat each other with respect and kindness because we are all created in God’s image, that we value people different from us because such is the Kingdom of God, that we seek community with people who do not look like us because heaven will be filled with people of “every tribe and tongue and nation” (Revelation 7.9 – ESV). We do not fear others because we love them. We love them because God first loved us. God’s love sets us free.

Christian education casts out fear, nourishes freedom, and tells a better story. This summer I spent part of a day with Scott Dillon, Head of School at Westminster Catawba, and we talked at length about the why of Christian education. What sets us apart from other academically rigorous schools? Why do parents pay us to educate their kids? What do we offer that is distinctive? To approach an answer to those questions, play a game with me. Imagine your school is not a Christian school. A student asks, why do I need to learn this math? You could answer, because you will need it for next year’s math class. Why do I need next year’s math class? Because you will need it to graduate. And why do I care about graduation? Because you need a high school degree to go to college or vocational school. Why do I need college or vocational school? Because you need more education to find a job in a competitive global economy? Why do I need to a job? So that you can live, pay your bills, raise a family, enjoy the world. Why do I need to do these things? Because they contribute to the greater good. And why should I care about the greater good? And on, and on, and on. Eventually, every answer becomes depressingly utilitarian. We do these things because they have pragmatic value. BORING! As Christian educators, we have a better story to tell. We teach and we learn because all truth is God’s truth. Because every equation displays God’s handiwork, and every element on the periodic table gives evidence of God’s ingenuity, and every musical note sounds God’s beauty, and every star in the solar system declares the God’s glory, and every language expresses God’s love, and every event in history ultimately tells His story. And we are story tellers. And what an amazing story we get to tell.

[1] The idea that Christian education casts out fear I owe to Dr. Dennis Sansom, Professor of Philosophy at Samford University. He presented this idea in a Convocation address to the university sometime during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Biblical Interpretation Education Leadership Theology

In the Beginning – Reflections on Genesis 1

[Note: The following is a sermon I preached at Samford University in 2012. Because it is a sermon, it is longer than my typical blog posts. I’m blogging it here as I begin a series on Genesis for young adults at Shades Mountain Baptist.]

For the past few years I’ve been teaching through the Bible each semester; that’s all the way through the Bible in about 4 months (approximately 36 hour-long class periods). The disadvantage of this approach is lack of depth but the advantage is the big picture. There’s no time to miss the forest for the trees. So often we look at the trees – those individual stories that fill the Bible – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, etc. and the moral lessons they teach. We miss the forest – the One Story of creation, fall, rescue and redemption. Take Jonah for example. We often read and remember the story like this: God told Jonah to go to some city and preach. Jonah refused so God had him swallowed by a big fish. The moral of the story is “you’d better obey or something bad might happen to you.” We fail to see how Jonah is connected to the larger narrative of scripture, that Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, sworn enemies of Jonah and the nation of Israel that was his home. This is why he fled, not simply out of disobedience but fear for his life. If he goes, the Assyrians will likely kill him and if they repent, his countrymen will likely kill him for helping save a dangerous enemy. We tend to ignore Jonah chapter 4 that tells us Jonah went, preached, and the Ninevites repented and God spared them in spite of his threats to destroy them, and Jonah got angry. And the lesson God teaches Jonah is that God cares about all people, even those we hate, and fear, and write off as too far gone for God. The Bible is filled with stories of God reaching out to people beyond reach and calling us to do the same.

Genesis introduces us to the ONE story of the creation, fall, rescue, and redemption of all humanity. When I was a kid my favorite toy was Legos. I had dozens of sets, thousands of little pieces that I could assemble any way my imagination saw fit. And every Lego engineer knows that when it’s time to get serious, the first step is to find a large open spot on the floor and dump out all the Legos. Only then can you see what pieces you’ve got, begin creatively to think of the design possibilities, and then start putting things together. Genesis 1 dumps out the Legos. We see from the beginning the major characters and theological themes that permeate scripture. Now I’m going to look at the first 5 verses of Genesis 1 to examine the Who, What and How of creation, and therefore the Who, What and How of the One story of the Bible.

  1. First, who created? “In the beginning, God created.” This is how it begins. The most read, copied, translated, distributed, and sold book in human history begins with “In the beginning, God.” Before the beginning of time and space, before anything we can know, or see, or comprehend, before any-thing, there was God – pre-existent, eternal, the uncreated creator creates. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” hovering a Hebrew word connoting the way a mother bird hovers over her babies – concern, care, nurture. “And God said” – there was the spoken word. The apostle John, inspired by these words, wrote the following:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

God, Spirit, Word – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – all three together, in the beginning – one, inseparable yet distinct, one person with three natures, equality, unity, trinity. From the earliest words of scripture we see a profound and mysterious truth about God. God is relational, God is love, even before there were people to love. Innate within God’s being, central to God’s character, the essence of God’s nature is love. Why did God create? Not out of need or necessity or loneliness or isolation. Not so that God could become love, but because God is love. He created because he loves. Why does loneliness and isolation hurt? Why does conflict with others feel so stressful? Why does alienation from community, or family, or friends make you sad? Because creation itself originates with a God who is innately relational so that loneliness, isolation, conflict, and alienation are contrary to the very essence of creation and the heart of God.

  1. Second, what was created? “And God said, ‘Let there be ….’” What did God create? The physical universe. Before the beginning, God was all there was, and then God created out of nothing, something that was different, new, separate, other than God. God used his ultimate, unsurpassed power to bring something out of nothing, to give power, individuality and freedom. Not pawns or puppets, not lines of code in a computer program that is running its course. We, and the world that we occupy are free. Free beings. Free to relate to God. Or not. Free to enjoy God’s creation. Or not. God in His sovereignty made us free, and that is good.

7x God pronounced the world good. God used his ultimate and unsurpassed power for good. The physical space we occupy, the natural world, the environment, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our bodies, appetites, senses, emotions, thoughts, all intended for good. Fallen and broken and twisted and perverted, yes, as we will see in Genesis 3, but as designed, they are good. Here we see one of the great truths – that evil exists only as the absence or perversion of good. Genesis 1 mentions darkness to show us the world without light. Without the Word, the world would remain in darkness. But God spoke, and light vanquished the darkness because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. Dark is no-thing. Light is something and it is good. By analogy, all that is bad in our world and in your life is bad because something that is good is missing or messed up. Light is good. It grows plants, produces food, and nourishes our bodies with vitamin D. Too much light, without SPF 30 or higher, turns a day at the beach into a nightmare for a fair-skinned, formerly red-headed campus minister. The same sun that nourishes the earth can scorch the soil and skin. Without the light, there’d be no soil and skin to scorch. Food is good. There are few joys greater than a good home-cooked meal. But too much food and you’ll get sick. Not enough food and you’ll get sick. Poisoned or spoiled or tainted food can make you sick. All that is wrong is wrong because God made something that was right, and it went wrong. We are free. That is good. But God made the world so that it could go wrong. And he knew it would go wrong and he created it anyway. Why? Because a fallen and redeemed world is greater than a world that never fell in the first place.

  1. Third, how did God create? Here’s the formula repeated in chapter 1: “God said … God separated … God called.” God spoke things into being, put everything in its place, and gave everything a name, designated it for a purpose. In other words, God orders and gives purpose to all things. Here’s how the text drives home this truth: In Genesis 1, we see 7 days. The name of God is mentioned 35 times (a multiple of 7). The word heaven is mentioned 21 times. The word earth is also mentioned 21 times (multiples of 7). The word good is mentioned 7 times. The number 7, the perfect number, the number of completion, illustrates order and purpose. All that God created is free and for a purpose. What purpose? Now that’s the question isn’t it? The answer to that question is the meaning of life, the ultimate truth, the reason you’re alive and breathing and here in this room. You have a purpose more profound than you can imagine, greater than yourself, of immeasurable value and meaning. And here it is, right here in Genesis 1. The God of creation created you because he loves you and has a purpose for you. This seems elementary, grade school, old hat. Yet it’s the meaning of life and we forget it every day. In the chaos of our busy lives, we forget our purpose. Genesis calls us to remember.

Now let me pause, here near the end of this sermon, and say that we’ve been talking about Genesis for [18] minutes now and not once have I mentioned evolution, the issue that has dominated conversations about the Genesis for the past 90 years. Often, the questions we ask aren’t the ones Genesis answers because Genesis has a greater purpose. Let me illustrate.

In the summer of 2011 I taught a course in London and spent a weekend in Paris with my wife and three kids. While there we visited the Louvre. The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums and is the most visited museum in the world with over 15,000 visitors daily. The Louvre employs 2000 people, contains 380,000 objects, is comprised of 652,300 square feet of exhibit space that cover 100 acres. It’s a 5-6 mile walk just to traverse every corridor. Without question, the Louvre single greatest collection of art and antiquities in human history. Perhaps the most famous piece of art at the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. The day we were there, crowds swelled around the painting so that it took us almost 20 to get close to it. I put my then 6 year-old Kate on my shoulders so she could see. And when we got close, she uttered these words that I’ll always remember: “I want some Nutella.” For those of you not familiar, Nutella is a creamy chocolate hazelnut spread that the Parisians are crazy about. They serve it in crapes all over Paris, and in the snack bar at the Louvre, and my daughter has some just as we entered the museum. [By the way, it turns out that eating Nutella within close proximity of priceless art is “frowned upon.”] But after 4 miles of walking through the museum Kate was hungry again. And so as we stood inches in front of the most famous and recognizable work of art in history, all that my daughter could think about was a tasty snack.

Often times we go to Genesis, or for that matter to the Bible, or for that matter to God himself, with OUR questions, our agenda, our curiosities, our desires for a spiritual snack. The corridors of the Bible filled with beauty and value beyond imagination and miss the splendor of the stories in front of us because we crave intellectual junk food. The questions we ask are not the ones God is answering and the questions God is addressing are often not the ones we are asking.

So why are we here? Because a God who loves you created you for a purpose, to love him and to reflect him to the world. This is what it means to “glorify God.” And there is nothing more important in the entire universe than that. The question is, is that the most important thing in your universe? College is busy. Your world after college is even busier. How do you keep it all in order? God turned chaos into the cosmos! Will you allow that God to bring order to the chaos of life? That is the question that matters.

Biblical Interpretation Theology