Serving as both a campus pastor and an adjunct instructor, I know that web-based teaching can feel disconnected from the students I'm called to serve. I'm also not satisfied with that reality. Thankfully, neither are my students or colleagues. Together, we're learning how to better design our web-based content to move from online teaching to digital formation. The distinction I’m making here is this: formation implies teaching that is received and incorporated into the development of a student’s knowledge, skill, vocation, or identity. All formation includes teaching, but not all teaching results in formation.
My desire to teach at the college level came from a yearning, even a mission, to connect with students in these critical years of identity development and vocational exploration, empowering them with the tools of reason, wisdom, and knowledge, that they might find not just lucrative careers, but rewarding lives. In other words, I desire to teach in a way that promotes formation. Online education doesn't change that intent, but it surely changes the form.
These last few weeks of web-based learning have both reaffirmed some lessons and brought new insights. I share just a few here to continue the conversation around how we can best serve our students as educators in an era COVID-related online education.
In all of this, it’s important to remember that alternative delivery methods aren’t lesser delivery methods. We may, however, have less skill at these methods, which requires more of us as educators to learn and employ new ways of forming our students. That, then, is the key to doing this all well. Simply taking all of our in-person content and deploying it in the easiest fashion (for us) on the web can be called online teaching, but it doesn’t necessarily promote digital formation. In periods of crisis - and indeed, in all eras of education - we ought to design courses in ways that promote true formation. The best online teaching utilizes web-based tools to create points of contact that foster digital formation. The above suggestions can enhance our practices in ways that it promotes digital formation through our delivery of online teaching.
Growing up going to church camps across the state of Ohio, I know a plethora of silly songs intended to teach core faith values and central themes of Christianity. Some include goofy sounds, bodily motions, or absurd storylines. Others, more straightforward, rely on catchy melodies and repetitive phrases. The pedagogy, the teaching intent, is to gamify faith formation, to make the exploration of our faith's stories, scriptures, and beliefs, accessible and fun.
On a Day Like This is one that's remained ingrained in my brain for nearly three decades. Full of onomatopoeia, hand signs, and memory games, the core lyrics repeat: On a day like this, on a day like this, on a day like this, Oh I need the Lord to help me. The central reminder, of course, is that no matter what the day has brought us, good or bad, celebration or sorrow, we need God's presence, support, and wisdom.
I'm struck with our need of God, particularly today, Holy Saturday. This is the day when Christ's death seemed most permanent. The morning after his interment, the disciples awoke to, well, nothing. To the absence of their teacher and friend. On a day like this, I need the Lord to help me.
Also called the Great Sabbath, Holy Saturday is the day when, once again, God rested, calling upon that first Saturday in Eden. But this rest, rather than a completion of good work, surely seemed a negation of God's work. After all, God's Son was slain and seemed impossibly defeated. On a day like this, I need the Lord to help me.
On this day, when nefarious politicians and corrupt religious leaders overwhelm not just the good of the people but seem to render God's will moot, it's natural to feel lost, abandoned, alone. It's natural to wonder what's next, to ask what God's plan really was, when the plan certainly seems defeated. It's natural to cry Oh I need the Lord to help me!
But what do we do with a God who is in the grave?
One of the reasons I cling to the name Holy Saturday is that, before the Easter Vigil, usually begun at or after sunset, Jesus was still, in fact, active. The above icon, from Dionysius (or his school of iconographers), reveals what God did on a day like this: the Harrowing of Hell. Even the Great Sabbath wasn't truly rest for God, for Christ's absence in our world meant Christ's presence in Hades, where he brought liberation to all those awaiting the freedom of God's presence.
On a day like this, when God seems entirely inactive, God is acting on our behalf, liberating all humanity from the hells that bind us.
When God seems dead, instead God is planting life in the house of death.
When God seems absent, God's presence goes even to the places where the holy seems impossible.
That's the shocking mystery of the Great Sabbath. All creation rests because, well, work now seems futile. Yet, even as the entire cosmos takes pause, God's at work, on a day like this, helping not just me, not just you, but all creation - even hell itself - find a way to abundant, eternal life.
Thank God for a day like this.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.