Dick Davenport

Founder and Director of Higher Ground

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: David, Religion

Dick Davenport, who for thirty years has been an educator on spirituality, is the founder and director of Higher Ground, an expanding network of educational resources and conferences that celebrate and encourage "growth in grace" through a love of the Bible, a cherishing of Christ Jesus' example, and the enriching of affections and relationships in homes and church communities. He also teaches courses in faith to high school students, which is part of his doctoral work at San Francisco Theological Seminary. During our interview, Dick shared how we can define "models of faith," how God works with all of us, and how students examine Christian individuals throughout history to help them make faith relevant to their lives.

What's your program for teens?
Frontiers of Faith is a curriculum for teenagers designed to encourage their understanding of and appreciation for the Bible and Christian spirituality.

Why did you develop "Frontiers of Faith"?
We are living in a culture that diminishes the Bible and Christianity. But at the same time, there is a popular search for spirituality. This search can often be compared to going down a buffet table and taking off what you want -- "an extra crown, no crosses please." It allows you to select and fashion your own sense of reality and God. Taken to the extreme, we have actress Shirley MacLaine starring in the movie that depicted her life story, yelling to the ocean, "I am God." In our times, this form of spirituality is revered for its therapeutic effect of leaving individuals feeling empowered -- even if it frequently leaves them self-absorbed. It also limits them, as they fail to find an authority greater than themselves that directs the development of moral character and arrests the free reign of ego and self-will. Understanding biblical faith, along with spirituality that puts Christ's example at the center, provides teens with a clear context and practical road map for establishing meaningful and sustaining relationships.

What do the students do in this program?
During this 11 week course, the 9th graders examine individuals from the Bible and Christian history to understand what makes a person of faith. I use Eugene Peterson's contemporary language Bible, The Message, as the primary textbook because the language is so accessible. In studying Abraham and David, the students read the biblical narratives concerning them and also have to find and read outside articles. Finally, they must explain why we look to Abraham and David as models of faith.

When they research David, primarily as King, they discover a lot of David's flaws and challenges and see that David was not a very good parent. David had an affair with Bathsheba, got her pregnant, and had her husband killed in battle. Nathan, David's advisor, prophesied that David's family would have problems and that another man would have his wives (II Sam. 11-12). David's sons saw their father's example as they came of age. One son, Amnon, raped his sister Tamar. Absalom, Tamar's brother, killed Amnon and fled Jerusalem. David apparently did nothing for either situation. When Absalom eventually came back to Jerusalem, David did not see him immediately. Absalom stirred up a rebellion. David fled for his life. Absalom's first act as ruler was to have sex with David's wives on the palace roof in a public display of his spite towards his father. In the ensuing battle for control of the kingdom, Joab, David's general, killed Absalom. Upon hearing that Absalom was dead, David wept (II Sam. 13-18).

David provides a negative parenting example through his lust, rage, unexpressed affection, hypocrisy, lack of forgiveness, anger, and guilt. Teens certainly are interested in parent-child challenges, and how right parenting reflects, in their eyes, models and characteristics of faith that they may wish to emulate.

So, when we look for a parenting antithesis to David in the Bible, we find it in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:10-32). The father in this story is a good father. Not long ago, this story was shared with a group of people whose culture has remained substantially unchanged from Jesus' time. Upon hearing the story for the first time, they were asked what stood out to them. They mentioned two things. In their culture, a man's wealth and position are indicated by his gait, which is the pace and carriage of his walk. Men of the obvious wealth of the prodigal's father do not run. So, the idea that the father in the parable ran to meet his son was truly remarkable. The other aspect that stood out to them was that when the son asked his father for his inheritance so he could take it and leave, he was not asking for anything that the father could give him while still alive. The son was really wishing his father to die, as that would be the only means of dividing the inheritance the way that he wanted. So it was odd for them that the father divided the inheritance. There is no less rage in this story than there is in the story of David. Yet, the father handled it very differently than David. His faith is expressed in his positive example of openly demonstrated and genuine affection, his refusal to use guilt to control, and a willingness to forgive and love unconditionally. The result was a restored life and position.

So students wrestle with the question: "Given his conduct, how can the Bible say of David that he is a man after God's own heart?" In answering this question, students tend to conclude that finding models of faith is not really about finding individuals who are perfect men and women. Rather, they see that God does amazing things with people of fairly mediocre talent and character. David is perhaps esteemed so highly because he is so ready to repent and grow when confronted with his failures. We also look at Peter and Paul. Comparing and contrasting these two figures is an excellent exercise in seeing both sides of many contemporary debates within churches and denominations as to what constitutes being faithful.

So how do they arrive at a definition for a person of faith?
In conjunction with studying individuals from the Bible, the students interview two people in their lives who are models of faith for them. Often they choose a parent. We build the criteria for being a model of faith and come up with five questions everyone will ask their interviewees. Each student also comes up with at least five of their own questions, such as: "Have you ever had any doubts about your faith? Who were mentors to you for the development of your faith and why? Have you ever felt like you've had to display courage in making a 'witness' (not argument) for your faith?" The students then share their interview experiences with the class.

What exactly do you mean by "witness" for faith?
There is a difference between making a "witness" and an "argument." Jesus won arguments, but the Bible never shows us that he converted people by beating them in a debate. Arguments have winners and losers and tend to make us talk about things we cannot practice. We start debating theoretical faith issues, rather than just sharing our faith based upon our own spiritual development. In Hebrews we, as Christians, are called to be ready at any time to answer any who ask why we have such hope. Answering authentically and lovingly is making a witness. This type of sharing draws us closer to each other; it should not divide people.

So how do the teenagers make their witnesses?
Witnesses of faith should be made talking from their own personal experience. Often people cross the line into argument when they say that their experience, often cloaked by reference to the authority source that they believe defined their experience, should be true for everyone. It is a sign of maturity to allow others to have different opinions and feel okay about that. So the big thing about being a witness to faith is having your experience be authentic and real to you. You are the authority of what has happened in your faith journey.

What other aspects of faith do you examine?
We study the feminine, which is not exclusive to gender. In making a collage, many students use pictures of fathers with their baby children. They find statements from a variety of sources illumining the feminine aspect of faith and then write about the feminine side of Scripture.

How does this research of faith translate into their own lives?
It affects how they live in this present world. We ask the question: "In what areas can you feel yourself being an Abraham, a David, a Peter, a Paul…?" I find in my life that I identify with these characters. When my mouth is running faster than I can follow, I'm in a Peter dilemma. When I'd rather not face something, I'm having a Jonah moment. When I'm relying on my skills rather than on God, I'm having a Jacob experience. I want these young men and women to feel close to those people and know that God is in their lives. Also, I want them to see clearly that God doesn't wait for them to be finished products before calling upon them to serve His/Her ends.

Perhaps the most remarkable class session involved the opportunity, for the students who wished to, to wash one another's feet. It was a remarkable experience for them to wash and be washed, and then have their feet anointed with very expensive sandalwood oil. One student explained for fifteen minutes in his high school English class what the experience meant to him. Few ninth graders are accustomed to either being served and waited upon in such an honorific way as foot-washing engenders, or cherishing others by washing their feet. These, by the way, are totally normal boys and girls, who the day before were fighting with each other as to who would get to sit on the couch in the classroom.

To whom in Christian history does the group look for faith?
We examine Martin Luther, who split from the Catholic church and began the Protestant Reformation. We consider martyrs and reformers of the faith, including an individual such as Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake by John Calvin because he said the doctrine of the Trinity was not to be found in the Bible. He was a widely respected thinker in Europe and the first writer to reflect extensively about how the heart worked in the human body.

We also look at Sojourner Truth, who, as a former slave, held no position in society. Yet, she was someone who answered a call that flowed from her very intimate relationship with God. She became a dynamic speaker, a prophetic voice, and a social reformer for both the abolition of slavery and the recognition of women's rights. She is proof that leadership is not dependent upon position in society or any organization.

Martin Luther King was remarkable in many aspects. Like our other models, he had flaws. But MLK had a vision that others could not see, a vision that included his children growing up in a society that did not differentiate between people based upon race. As a public spokesperson and a pacifist, MLK was a target. At key points in his life, there wasn't a lot of evidence that his vision and his efforts were making a difference. Models of faith must validate their efforts in an inward way that is not necessarily validated outwardly. Hebrews says "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (11:1). If you can see it, it isn't faith!

Mother Teresa is another individual we examine, with the focus on the compassion in her witness -- affirming the dignity of all people and committing to a life that reflected those values. In a recent adult version of this course, the study of Mother Teresa received more comment for impacting the faith of the students than any other individual we studied.

We also look at Mary Baker Eddy, 19th century spiritual pioneer who founded the religion Christian Science, and her example of faith in overcoming physical and familial challenges to bring a radical new view of the Bible and Christianity to the world. This was reflected in the empowerment her work gave to women and to the feminine in theology and ecclesiology, and in its practical emphasis on the role of healing in Christian ministry that dynamically challenged the status quo of her day.

What is a common thread among people of faith?
People of faith exercise a prophetic role. They act upon a purpose and a vision they see that is often beyond things others can see. In addition, they work to be what God wants them to be. They are ready to be made humble and repentant, willing to grow, and are committed to living sacrificially to serve God. Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal, discusses this concept. Are we willing to look like fools for Christ? Expecting fairness from others, being humanly comfortable, and being thought cool are not big parts of life as a pioneer of faith.

So, what is most essential in defining biblical faith?
It's that capacity to see beyond the empirical, beyond the safe, respectable, rational and reasonable. I put a fair amount of symmetry between faith and grace. There was a meeting shortly after WWII of major Christian leaders in England. They were debating Christianity's unique contribution to the world of religions. They were not coming up with anything original to Christianity. Then C.S. Lewis walked into the room and gave them their answer -- grace. The concept of grace is so much more than forgiveness.

Quite distinct from the contemporary spirituality so popular today, "grace" does not develop the human ego, but directs our attention beyond our will to the Divine will, helping us discover what God would have us to do. Mainly it presses us to grow in our capacity to love with the proper motives and for the right ends. In biblical faith and following the model of Christ, we do all for the glory of God, not for a desired end for ourselves, whether that be comfort in this world or reward in the next. The great historian of the western world, Arnold Toynbee, said that every major religion agrees on one thing -- that the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth is self-love. Self-love would have us create God and spirituality in our own image -- not in God's image. This type of thinking limits our sense of love to those that are like us and invests us in pursuits that gratify ourselves. Even in doing the right thing, if we are doing it for how it makes us feel, raises questions as to whether we will continue doing the right thing when it no longer makes us feel good.

Can you expand upon the concept of love as distinct from self-love?
It's easy to love those who are like us. But love is really the ability to love the "other" -- that which is fundamentally different. Love is not love if it is simply a mirror of our ego or wants or an extension of our own desires; this is self-love. We have to forgive our spouses, friends, family, and church members for not being us. Often, we want to create our spouse in our own image, as we want to create God in our own image. But every human relationship is a laboratory for understanding and loving God better. John writes, "… he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (I John 4:20).

Thank you, Dick. I know you also conduct marriage renewal weekends around the country. Would you share your views on what makes a successful marriage and how you work with the concept of loving the "other" in close relationships for a future article?
I look forward to it.

To learn more about Dick Davenport and his work with Higher Ground, visit his website, highergroundforlife.com.