The Theology of Teaching When You Cannot Teach Theology

Hebrews 4:15

He [Jesus] was tempted in all points as we are, yet never sinned.

I have this theory, simple and not too profound, that Jesus got angry with His students—and He didn’t sin. Jesus was the ultimate teacher. Kind, profound, miraculous: these are things He’s known for. But He also got angry—and it made an impact.

Teachers get angry all the time. It’s actually a tool of the trade. I remember a gym teacher, Mr. Lane, who would drop a folding chair on the gym floor from his height of six feet and yell at us. It was terrifying and it made the point.  I remember another teacher, Mrs. Black, who threw books at us. I’ve worked with directors who called their cast and crew stupid when they were trying to make a point. These things are their legacies in my memory. They were effective strategies if the goal is to just get the class quiet.

But then there are the teachers who are quiet and firm. Mrs. Sawyer’s eyes flashed fire the day she caught one of my classmates cheating on a test. Her voice raised only ever so slightly, but we all shrank in our seats. That gentle teacher had been disappointed and Heaven forbid that anger be directed at us; I would have died had she been disappointed in me. It was all the more poignant because we never saw it happen. I remember her today as someone who had an eye for the future. She didn’t just demand a quiet class; she wanted to teach us to be great human beings. She was preparing us for our future, not just her immediate present of a controlled class.

Jesus taught like that. There was a time when He was so angry that He kicked His students out of class, if you will. He visited the temple, saw abhorrent behavior, and overturned tables holding coinage. It was probably a mess. He told all the people there that greedy men had made God’s house a den of thieves; I doubt He did so quietly and gently. And yet, He did it without sin. It would take a special occasion and much grace for me to do both, but He did. He made His point, loud and clear.

Sometimes, teaching demands the kind of honesty that strips away layers of skin before it applies the healing salve. For instance, Jesus once told Peter, “Get out of my sight, Satan. You treasure the things of earth more than those of God.”  That wasn’t just name-calling out frustration. Jesus clearly saw Peter displaying the mind of the devil in his behavior and called him on it. Students seldom enjoy being called out and as a teacher, neither do I enjoy doing it. I’ve had to learn how to speak with that kind of bald honesty over the years. It doesn’t come easily to me. But I think you can say the same words with different purposes. I can either scream at a student, satisfy my desire to “give them what they deserve”, and take care of the present problem, or I can say the same words firmly, calmly, and even loudly with love and an eye for the future. Jesus also praised those who got it right. In front of a whole crowd of faith-taught Jewish listeners, Jesus told a hated Roman centurion that his behavior had proved that he had more faith than anyone in Israel. There is great value in praising those who get it right.

Sometimes the difference between those two is obvious; sometimes, it’s only in the confines of my heart where God alone can see it. Jesus was—and is—the ultimate teacher. He knew best how to communicate and knew His students (or disciples) better than anyone else. He knew them better than they themselves. A teacher frequently CAN see things no one else can see; not in the way Jesus could, certainly. But it is an ability that comes from much observation. But Jesus had to listen to his students arguing about who was going to be greatest in Heaven. Even after LIVING with the perfect teacher, eating with Him, seeing miracles and essentially having private lessons, His students still didn’t understand. They needed time, just like the rest of us. The Bible tells us that Jesus wept over Israel; I suspect He wept over His students, too. They must have known it. Their relationship was too close not to.

Most of my students will never know how much I love them; I may not like them so much some days, but I do love them. I have to be tough; I demand a lot from them. How much joy would there be if we could all agree that I could teach, and they would apply themselves? I suspect that Jesus often reflected on this lost opportunity for joy…yet He did even that without sin. It grieved Him deeply, but never to sinful despair. Of all people, the Son of Man never forgot the end of the story.

This is what I have to remember when the simplest instruction is met with peculiar volatility. Saying “hello” to some of the people I serve is often met with anger, an eye roll, or a snarl. Most days, that doesn’t bother me. But I won’t kid you; sometimes it seems futile. Sometimes…well, sometimes, Titus seems impossible.

To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers,

but gentle, showing all meekness unto all men.

And let us also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses,

that they be not unfruitful.

This year in the classroom, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But this conversation has been in the forefront of my mind. For ten years I’ve been thinking on it. I’ve had conversations with fellow Christian teachers who fall on different sides of the problem. Some wonder, like me, if it wouldn’t be better to hang it all up and start screaming. Start being brutally honest without a filter. What are calm and firm achieving anyway? I’ve received advice from veteran teachers, whom I deeply respect, to be sarcastic; be a witch. Goodness, I need barely try. It comes too easily. Perhaps my best reason to go the longer, slower route is because the first just comes too easily. It’s my first nature. But if I rely on the Spirit to guide me, He closes my mouth. He inserts gentleness; sometimes I’ve been amazed. Sometimes, I lie in bed at night and just…read Titus. I have to answer to God for my teaching, someday. Indeed, I have to answer to Him for every word that I say. He said so. So…I seek to raise my voice with gentleness. I seek to mete out discipline with firm love. At least, that’s the goal. It’s pretty high up there.

Teaching comes down to a job between Jesus and me. It always was and it always will be. It’s about demanding high-level behavior and academia from my students. It’s about my conscience before God. It doesn’t actually matter if I like the job or not. It doesn’t matter if my students like it. I can’t teach them about my Jesus; I teach the subject at hand. But I can do so, with God’s help, in a manner which exemplifies the Greatest Teacher the world has ever seen.

Titus 2:8

In all things showing a pattern of good works…sound speech,

that cannot be condemned;

that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed,

having no evil thing to say of you.

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GWA: the Badlands

Badlands Us

Some little girls dream of growing up and becoming ballerinas or cowgirls. We did, too, on occasion, but mainly we were true to our one dream: we wanted to be Zorro. I don’t know about Ems, but I still do. But that’s another story. This one is about how we planned way back fifth and sixth grade that we would go to college together so that we could see each other more than once a year. Christmas just wasn’t enough. And wanting to be Zorro led to other things…and we started planning a Great Western Adventure.

College came; and we went to the same one (of course); I would have died if she hadn’t joined me there. We ate breakfast together, were society officers together, suffered through dating outings together, cried together and prayed together…it was pretty much the best. But every summer, one of us was working, or on a ministry team or SOMETHING. We kept talking about the GWA, but it might have just been one of those things you talk about and never do. Until this summer. For the first time in ten years, one of us wasn’t in college or in a foreign country. If we didn’t do it this summer, we might never.

Friends gave us destination suggestions, and family gave us lists and wisdom. We rented a car, bought plane tickets, packed peanut butter and bananas (and a few other things) and left for the west.

Who: Cousins

What: Great Western Adventure

When: Summer 2017

Where: IN, IL, IA, SD

Why: For rare and lovely fellowship, and to see more of this world God has made.

We learned a lot. Like to always pack Purell when camping, and how all South Dakota state parks have the same sign in the bathrooms written with a comma splice. We discovered that there is a limit on the number of bananas a person should eat, and that avocados eaten on the top of a huge rock in the middle of a lake somehow taste better.

Black Hills Sylvan Lk

We learned how to wield an atlatl (it’s really fun), that buffalo take a dust bath before they charge, and that prairie dogs are a chirping nuisance.

Buffalo

It took us six days, but we successfully made coffee over a campfire and made a muffin in a bean can. We got really good at putting up the tent and making grill cheese sandwiches over open flame.

Camping

She fell in love with the Black Hills.

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I fell for the Badlands.

Badlands Rock

Two nights we camped on the Badlands; we climbed up and through the mountains of the Black Hills. We slept to coyotes singing in SD, bullfrogs in IA, and had trouble discerning a certain type of chirruping cricket from a rattlesnake. She is brave about snakes; I am not. She took care of me, though. She always does. And I do my best to take care of her.

HB4116

The GWA was everything we thought it would be. But how could it be anything else? We were going for the fellowship; it just happened that we had an astonishing background for it. I’ve come home grateful and in some way comforted at God’s care of us all along the way. He did care for us so very tenderly. He even answered little prayers like giving us a campsite beside a lake.

Black Hils

Now we’re home. Five people I know left this life forever while we were gone. There are people struggling with keeping jobs, with health, with despair and discontent, all right where I left them. But I don’t have a sense of coming back to “real life”. Our western wanderings have somehow made right now a bit more beautiful; a bit clearer. Now, in the back of my mind, I have a glowing image of the Badlands…and I think that if God could care for us there, if God could make something so beautiful out of something so desolate, then surely we little sparrows can rest in Him. And so I share my little images, hoping that perhaps, you can also find rest for your wings.

 

Psalm 103; an anthem

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A grassy hilltop, scattered with sheep. A shepherd, watching quietly and thinking. He has a small instrument in his hands, and in the quietness of the afternoon, he begins to compose.

The song begins softly, with advice to the singer’s self. He is speaking to his own emotions and intellect, as if he is struggling to realign his mind. Rather than raging over his wrestling, he defaults to stillness—and in his meditation, he starts with the highest point of reference he knows: his God. You can see him, perhaps, contemplating his place on terra firma as he watches the eagles soaring above. A whisper:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Then, perhaps, the scene changes. We are centuries later. Someone else is reading the song, adding his heart’s voice to it. He is sitting at an organ in a quiet church. He has come here to clear the noise from his head, and to practice. Discouraged by the lack of love and faith in the people of God, he goes back to the beginning. Back to his understanding of God. He finds courage in the ancient words of an old songwriter. No one is there but himself. He begins to play…the pipe organ adds its harmonies, building in intensity and voice.

The Lord works righteousness

and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
 his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
                        slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
                        nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
                        nor repay us according to our iniquities.

Now it’s later; the choir has practiced. And now what they have rehearsed in quiet can be loosed in open; together they are singing their own experiences of grace:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
  so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

A man, non-descript, hard-working, is sitting in the congregation with his family. He has stress at work, a loved one is very sick, and what is going to fall apart next? But he remembers that he, too, is a child. A child with a Father…and he finds rest in the words as his heart sings along. He takes the words out of the church door with him. He takes them to work. He takes them to the doctor. He takes them to bed and with them running through his head, he can rest.

As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust.

As for man, his days are like grass;
    he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all.

The shepherd/singer/songwriter is on the hill, singing his song out loud. It’s an old song to him now, and one of his favorites. He likes to sing it to his sheep as he watches them; they seem to enjoy it. Perhaps they are comforted, too?

 Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
    you mighty ones who do his word,
    obeying the voice of his word!

 Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
    his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
    in all places of his dominion.

Perhaps this last line is sung with a single note drifting away on the warm breeze, almost a whisper:

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

And the shepherd, just like his sheep, is at rest. 

 

Words in Glass Jars

glass-jars

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1962, John Steinbeck said that, “Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.” Steinbeck’s approach to literature had always been to expose the unknown truth—the labor camps of the migrant workers during the dust bowl in The Grapes of Wrath, the gritty reality and simple joys of the workers in Cannery Row. He was in a prime position to tell his audience that “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

Perhaps that is why I feel such responsibility for all the stories told in the English language. I feel deeply responsible. It’s not as if I have a name or a place in history; I have been given the gift of anonymity. I am a nobody. I can quietly write, uninhibited and unafraid. I don’t have people hurling opposite opinions at me, telling me stop generating words. But I feel urgently the need to speak to the topics of my faith and of stories and how they converge. And so I feel responsible for the stories other people generate, for the songs other people sing, and for the movies other people make and watch. I feel as though I must “do something”.

I don’t spend much time on social media anymore. Due to the sort of yo-yo style of communication, it is full of half-truths from ALL fronts. It’s unhealthy and unattractive, like second-hand smoke. I sat in an outdoor Starbucks patio with a friend recently; a man at a nearby table decided to smoke his e-cig very unpolitely. It was a windy day and he shared all of his vanilla smoke with us. Social media feels a lot like that; like nobody is thinking. I don’t feel like I’m “doing something” there; I feel as though I am shouting on an empty prairie, no matter how many comments my remarks may generate.

A story factory—or a corporation that makes stories and entertainment for a living—is going to feed on popular conscience. They always have. Steinbeck was speaking of popular conscience; of keeping it alive and of correcting it. We need middle ground between the prairie full of thoughtless conversations and story-factories–which is why we need smaller voices who have no large corporation to lose. We need people telling stories who aren’t going to speak to everyone else’s conscience OR merely rant. Is that also, dangerous? Well, yes. People think that what I believe is dangerous and subversive, backward and strange. I admit it; it is. Which is exactly why I need to speak.

Stories are powerful. They are how we communicate our deepest beliefs and longings. Stories say what we can’t say outright and penetrate more deeply than the essay or the speech. They can reveal deep-seated truths. Stories scare me; yet, here I am. I’m writing them. It is the scariest thing I can do with my day. That is why, even without completely understanding it, we shield children from some kinds of stories. They don’t need some ideas bonking around their heads at young ages. They shouldn’t have to grapple with the cares that adults have foisted on the world. But I don’t let some ideas have too much platform in MY head, either. I know what I can and cannot handle well. At some point, I can start tempting God with what I put inside my mind.

The modern young intellectual feels much like I do, I think: responsible and desirous to DO something. But “doing something” may often not feel like you’re doing anything at all. My version of “doing something” is going to be different from yours. Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Writing plays that I have to really, really work to get produced.
  2. Talking to believers and unbelievers about Jesus, as little or much as I can.
  3. Going to work every day and doing my best—even if that means I’m not talking about Jesus OR stories OR even doing what I like. 

These things feel woefully unrelated to anything like “doing something”. But I’m not really big enough or smart enough to know what I can really do; but my God is. In His infinite wisdom, He put me where I am, and He gives me these chances to write and speak. I think speaking to people who want to have thoughtful conversations is “doing something”; I also think that refraining from speaking can be “doing something.”

Before we speak, we should collect our thoughts in clean little glass jars so we can look at them awhile, and then share them only where they will be most helpful, meantime asking for wisdom to do so.

John Steinbeck had a lot of good things to say that day, but at the end of his speech, I have to part ways with him. He said, “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” He held to the belief that man, if his efforts were noble enough and his will strong enough, could perfect himself. He went on to say, in his closing line of the same speech that “St. John the apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man—and the Word is with Men.” Steinbeck believed that with the atom bomb, man had wrested the power of God away from God. He believed that the written word could save the world.

Me, too. But not my words. I think God’s words are going to do it.

I believe that only God can go about the business of perfecting man, and no amount of word-smithing on our part can do it. But I do not deny that we need the words; that we need the truth, and that we need to keep striving forward toward that same perfection, a shining goal toward which we long, even if we cannot attain it just yet. “Passion” being a word I object to, I nevertheless do agree that we must “passionately believe in the perfectibility of man.” If we don’t, we won’t try. If we don’t, we don’t believe that God will, someday, fix this mess of ours and that we need to be prepared for it.

Until then, I am doing a number of what seem like very small things. But if they are in obedience to my God, then they are very big things indeed.

Hair in My Coffee

coffee-2

“Hang on, Miss Stewart—you’ve got a hair, here…” And the bouncy Labrador-retriever of a seventh-grade boy who simply cannot tell a verb from a noun reaches up and removes a hair from my sleeve. “Eww! It’s so LONG!” I can’t say for sure at what point in time oddities like that ceased to either surprise or bother me. I think I’d be bonkers by now if they did.

“That’s, right. I shed all over the place. Now, about this verb. To Run. I run today. Yesterday, I —?” He gets it right. He always gets it right when I’m right there. You see, I’m not a teacher. I’m property. I’m their teacher, whether they like me or not—and they announce that preference loudly and often.

I have to occasionally remind them that I need some personal space. My desk chair and my desk and my person need to be mine; otherwise there would be chaos. And still, there are the kids who I shoo out of my chair and off of my desk, pick hair off my sweater, and who inform and comment on my person like no one else in my life.

“Your belt is twisted.”

“You wear glasses? Did you lose your contacts or something?”

“You bought new shoes, didn’t you?”

“You’ve never worn that dress before.”

I don’t mind it; it’s kind of fun, really. And all those things join the list of things that are just not English.

It is impossible to measure or define what goes on in that English classroom. Some days, they quite delight me with their creativity. Some days, they quite amaze me with their remarkably poor choices. Some days, I have to discipline them. And some days, they break my heart.

They write essays about coming home from a friend’s house and finding a note from a dad who says he’s found a new family and he’s not coming back. They tell me what it was like to go to a parent’s funeral. They throw into a class conversation how annoying it is that their parents are always on Facebook with no time for them—and then they ask if anyone else has that problem and half the class raises their hands. They have read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year. I kept with tradition and we’re reading it. And when we get to the part where the ghost of Marley enters and clanks his chains, a girl raises her hand and asks: “So if you die and God can’t decide what to do with you, do you just walk around as a ghost instead of going to Heaven or, you know, the other place?”

This is why I pray for grace all the way to school every morning. (If you think of me and have a moment–?) There’s the kid who happily tells me every day, “You’re a monster.” I don’t actually mind. If he can’t tell that someone making him do his work and tie his shoes and get to class on time is really just loving him—he might someday. It’s tough to be in seventh grade. It’s tough to be in junior high. It’s tough to be human.

People tell me I’m a special person because I chose to teach junior high. Well, that’s bologna. Bo-log-na. I didn’t choose anything. I have the power to choose my socks in the morning (warm and fuzzy, mind you) and that’s about it. I don’t even make the coffee I drink.  I’m doing the job I was given. I’ve had kids’ hair in my coffee, I’ve been sworn at, spat on, lied to, lied about, and have even served as a temporary Kleenex. I’ve joined the ranks of millions of teachers who wish to goodness that the cafeteria wouldn’t serve beans. I’ve accepted homework that attracted flies. You have no idea how sorry I am to enter another zero in the grade book when a kid carelessly hands a paper to me with an “I forgot.” (How do you forget every day?) I didn’t go looking to be a junior high English teacher. But here I am.

And because our God is great, good, and unfathomably perfect, here I’ll stay until He says otherwise.

And I am grateful.

The Only News I Know

blooming-onion

The only news I know
Is bulletins all day
From Immortality.

The only shows I see,
Tomorrow and Today,
Perchance Eternity.

The only One I meet
Is God, -the only street,
Existance; this traversed

If other news there be,
Or admirabler show – 
I’ll tell it you.

~Emily Dickinson

Freak Out Thou Not

img_7382Some months ago, I sat in a room with an assorted group of pastors, their wives, missionaries and church members. It was informal, for the moment, and the conversation, as it so often does, turned to current events. And one after another, everyone in the room took turns expressing their frustration and as far as I could tell, their fear. They shook their heads hopelessly and used words like, “scary,” and “I’m afraid that…” And I won’t kid you—looking around at the pedigree in the room, I felt like they must have been right. I wanted to say something like, “But what about verses like, “Be not afraid”?” I went to Awana and VBS; I learned my verses pretty well. But no one else was saying it—and so I felt like I shouldn’t and the absence felt palpably hopeless and empty. And I’m quite sure that a gathering of Believers in Jesus shouldn’t feel that way. After fifteen minutes of this, one of the pastors gently spoke. He offered God’s promises of security in Him and of His control over the world and its events. And my heart breathed in the promises and settled its feathers.

In the last year, I have several times found myself in conversations with friends who don’t share my faith. And the conversations, as they so often do, would turn to current events. And one after another, everyone would take turns expressing their frustrations and as far as I could tell, their fear. They would shake their heads hopelessly and use words like “scary,” and “I’m afraid.” And I would want so much to say that my God had promised peace to those who believe, but they didn’t want my Jesus and found no comfort in Him.

In both cases, it seemed like speaking fears aloud somehow brought comfort. If we were all politicians and law-makers, maybe our conversations would be practical. If decisions of any kind need to be made, I suppose the expression of concerns would be wise and useful. But otherwise, we’re just sort of spreading the fear around like mud on the clean floor. And it is time to stop making messes.

May I suggest that when we talk about current affairs—be it public restrooms, equality of any kind, or closer to home, your job and your family—that we season our words with grace? If you call the God of the Bible your Father, then you can claim not only peace, but joy. So why don’t we? I’ve been part of too many conversations that left out that seasoning.

I haven’t blogged as much in recent months because I haven’t had much internet. But I haven’t missed it; especially Facebook. If Facebook was a room where all my friends of all beliefs gathered, it would an awfully sorry party. The videos and the articles may be good, but they’re not great. They don’t substitute for those who know joy and peace truly expressing it, and expressing it in person and in voice and in belief. As a former professor of mine put it not that long ago while commenting on world events: “Freak out thou not.”

So as fellow Believers, when we get together to pray, our conversations about the state of the nation should be as faith-filled as the prayers that follow. When we talk about what we hear on the news, perhaps we should talk about our Father’s power instead of encouraging each other to worry. Speaking the truth of our Father gives us the ability to be compassionate with those who are different from us; and believe me, you’ll need it. When we worry aloud about our families and friends, our children growing up in this world, and the complications of daily life, we only prove that our God is not particularly powerful. We are frankly declaring that He is impotent. When we listen to our own voices and our own words instead of speaking His, we prove that we prefer our own. And I don’t know about you, but there is nothing particularly potent about mine.

Someday, we will not have to work so hard to infuse Heaven into our lives. We will have the Word Himself visibly present; we won’t just be quoting He who is present but whom we cannot see. Here, we have to learn and relearn; there, we will wonder why we didn’t “get it”. Heaven is not (God forbid) that place where I get to please myself forever–but the place where I get to AND CAN please him forever. I don’t “get” that. I’m actually a little afraid of it. Afraid—selfishly—that I won’t like it. (Good grief!) But I trust Him that He completes me now and I will better understand that There.

Regardless of the broken place we call our temporary home, we are taken care of. Our Father hasn’t forgotten us.

Freak out thou not.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

~Psalm 103