Richard Topping

What I have Learned, at a Distance

By Richard Topping

VST finished the spring semester well. The collegiality and cooperation of staff, faculty and students made possible a pivot to online learning. We have a wonderful, resourceful and nimble group of employees at VST. We have talented and dexterous students. We already had hybrid classrooms, where some of the students attend classes virtually, and that made the transition a little easier.

Accommodations around end of semester due dates and timings eased the pressure for all of us. We’ve adapted to circumstances we didn’t create. Adaptive leadership is not just a theory anymore, and that may just help all of us longer term. Classes, chapel, searches and all administrative meetings take place using Zoom. We relate virtually in almost all dimensions of the life of our school during these days of social distancing. We put summer school online and while we will have a fall semester, we have not determined the mode of the delivery yet. Convocation is postponed until the fall; we really should be together for that.

I’ve found advantages to our current set of circumstances – like better chapel attendance and greater involvement of the VST constituency because of clear and regular communications. We’ve had correspondence with donors about the life of our school via email in most delightful ways.

And I’ve found challenges to working and learning and meeting at a distance. Communication without much body language requires serious attention. When members of your Zoom gathering mute the mic and an avatar appears, it makes you wonder. The range of resources from levels of government, educational agencies and church leaders around mental health, coping with anxiety and disconnect, indicates that virtual is just that – virtual – and while a gift, we need the real presence of people in our lives.

Here are three things that have helped me during social distancing and online engagement.

Be thoughtful, but maintain a sense of humour.
It simply isn’t all up to us. Humour often arises out of the difference between the way the world is and the way it will be or ought to be. “It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a vineyard to home school one.” It made me laugh. There is the world we’ve got just now, and it is an awkward fit, awkward enough to make a person hope for better arrangements. Christians are hoping and praying, ‘thy kingdom come,’ not just that things would get back to normal, but that equity and peaceable relations would be the case everywhere for all. And the tension and disparity between the world that is and the one we hope for, it can make you cry, it can make you angry, and it can make you laugh – if faith waits on God to do completely what we gesture at in the meanwhile.

Engage in the care for other people.
In one of the Easter lessons, Jesus appears to disciples gathered together in a fellowship of fear. He comes to them behind locked doors. He pronounces peace twice and then sends them out. “As the Father sent me, I send you.” The impulse to mission doesn’t disappear because of fear and physical isolation. I marvel at the public service of doctors and nurses, public health officials and next-door neighbours. I find the malaise that arises from a lack of physical engagement lifts a little when we get caught up in the big work of reconciliation and care. In Richmond each day at 7 pm citizens line the street and bang pots and pans and beep horns to thank health care workers. At VST we are trying to help students whose employment plans for the summer have fallen through with bursary support. I know a young woman, 16 years old, who held a physical distancing street concert for the Greater Vancouver Foodbank and raised $52,000. These are all parables of grace.

Be generous in looking for where God and hope are present.
I say this because I recognize the modus operandi of the God of the gospel in the care taking place in much of the world. I’m not naïve, I know there is also lack of care and cruelty in the world. This cruelty has in many ways become more pronounced, in that it manifests long-growing disparities between haves and have-nots. And yet, I don’t think it gets the last word. God is and so God does. We are not alone. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We are accompanied, often incognito – like the disciples by Jesus on the road to Emmaus – even before we know we are accompanied. Whether we recognize it or not, God is here. Running up against limits, desperation is often a friend of faith. When the pretense to invulnerability is punctured, our dependencies on each other and God seem obvious in new ways. I smile at the indicative buried within the imperatives in Philippians 4. “Rejoice,” “be gentle,” “don’t worry” says St. Paul (Philippians 4:4-6) in these three impossible commands. But buried in the middle of those directives is the phrase that makes them possible. “The Lord is near.” Because of that, I think I agree with Queen Elizabeth II.

“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

In the meanwhile, I hope you will enjoy this issue of Perspectives. There are important notices about changes in faculty at the school and three substantive articles: on faith and science (David Wilkinson), the COVID-19 crisis and Christian hope for the future (Cynthia Rigby) and one on interpreting the Bible well (Pat Dutcher-Walls). I learned much from all of them. I hope you will also look at what the faculty are publishing, incredible, and news from our alumni and friends in challenging and meaningful ministry across the country.

Richard Topping is VST’s Principal and Professor of Studies in the Reformed Tradition.