The Tuesday bell-ringer is pretty basic. Students answer a handful of fill in the blank and multiple choice review questions. Take a few hands. Get the right answers. Move on with class. Teaching 101 - Right? Needless to say, it goes a bit differently in my class. I have replaced a few of those classroom staples to make the most out of this mundane task. Even for my reluctant students, answering our Tuesday review questions is stimulating, simply by assigning some nontraditional responses to the task. We might impersonate animals, or stretch in complicated yoga poses, do the latest dance moves, or even chase each other around with chainsaws (disclaimer: not real chainsaws, and context is everything). Now, you may think me mad, but you will think no longer still when I describe the wise ways I assess students. By watching the room, I can quickly assess whether or not a student truly knows the answer. If they do the wrong movement, or if their eyes wander, or they are gassing up their chainsaws in full commitment, I know what my next step is. With the right culture and procedures, it seems to be a pretty foolproof system to get a quick temperature of the classroom.
January 8th, 2019 wasn't unlike any other Tuesday, but as fate and irony would have it, it was the day my “wise ways” got the best of me. On the heels of a discussion about resolutions and goal setting, I assigned exercises (the most popular resolution) to Tuesday’s multiple choice review section, admitting that I probably could use the exercise as I had put on a few pounds. I cannot say that I remember the movements for “A”, “B”, and “D”, but “C” I remember distinctly. “C” was a lunge. In the midst of all the excitement of answering with greatest flexibility, the added pressure to the already stressed pair of khakis caused a swift split. In front of 27 sixth graders and a second-day student teacher, I ripped my pants -- good. Oh, real good. In just a single stifled breath, I saw the many endings to this embarrassment and struggle, but none of them resolved with mended pants. So I confessed what had happened, we all laughed quite a bit (admittedly, me less than them), and eventually, we moved forward and continued class. Even if it rips my pants. Even if my pants are ripped. I will have fun.
The Word of God speaks directly to the other four rules of my classroom: being ready, responsible, respect, and giving your best effort; however, where in the Bible does it say anything about having fun? There are many who would agree (believers and nonbelievers) God has eliminated all forms of fun. “Haven’t you seen Footloose?” It is true, the Bible provides boundaries and contexts for celebrating, but it is important to note Jesus attended quite a few parties, and will be hosting one someday soon (Rev 19:6-9). Another notable fun-haver was David (ancestor to Jesus), who enjoyed playing loud music and dancing in the streets (2 Sam 6:14-22). Finally, it was his son, Solomon, who states that God gives us pleasures in this life (and within His law) to remove us from the daily toil (Ecc 3:12,13). But ultimately, laughter, dancing, and other forms of fun are seasonal affairs. (Ecc 3:4)
The hapless truth is no matter how much fun I bring into my classroom, students’ lives can be taxing and toilsome. Many go home to unfortunate circumstances, some to go home unspeakable things, and a few don’t truly have a “home” to go home to. I work hard to give every educational opportunity to help students eventually leave those things behind, but in the here and now, in the day-in-day-out struggle when life can simply stink, dance moves, shouting, lots of sugar, and laughter are the best medicine. However this is merely suppressing the symptoms. We all need something more substantial to reach the root, which will give us a long-term, life-altering prognosis. For that, you need joy.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” - James 1:2-4
Joy isn’t merely a distraction from my circumstance, but on the contrary, acknowledges that my circumstance will be met with a steadfast attitude to keep me moving forward. This means my metaphorical pants may be intact or torn, but either way, I can praise my Father, be fulfilled, and keep moving forward. When I am holding firm or uprooting my life. When I am building new habits or slowly removing the bad ones. When I am winning a battle with sin or fighting desperately to run away. When I am praising God for an answered prayer (or two) or beating my chest to have Him hear my plea. When I am rich, when I am poor, when I am single, when I am married, when I am healthy, when I am weak, when I am finding, and when I am seeking, when I am having fun, and when I am in misery, I can praise my Father, be fulfilled, and keep moving forward. Even matched with the greatest test we know, the sting of death, the joy of the Lord becomes more evident than ever and is our sustaining strength.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
So, I must amend my final rule to make it more precise. I will not have fun. I will have joy.
While smiles, encouragement, singing, playfulness, dancing, and laughter are some of the most fun things to include in classrooms, and simply life, ultimately, these can and should be used to also showcase our joy. Initially, these surface level behaviors may not be noticed for what they truly are until we are faced with persecution or our ongoing struggle becomes more apparent. So we must be steadfast in our joy, not merely rejoicing when we are the recipient of a great gift or when things go our way. Where, then, is the contrast? We must find our way to celebrate when we have much to mourn. We must sing out loud in the middle of persecution. We must find a way to be playful when our mortal body is giving in and giving up. We must find encouraging words when we are treated unfairly. And, yes, we must find a way to laugh when we rip our pants in front of roomful of people. These are the moments, more than any other, that make our testimony. Heads will begin to scratch and question will be induced. “How can you possibly be so different? How are you happy? Why do you have hope? (1 Peter 3:15).” Our answer: It’s simple. I will have joy...Now, let me tell you why.
You do not have to study this picture for long to notice that one of these hats is not like the other ones. I couldn’t resist showing up for the tour of our school’s progressing construction in my very own hard hat. This burgundy feature, with “Winner” handwritten above the brim, many-a-scratch across its hemisphere, and dare I say even a faint odor, has hung above my board since my first day as a teacher to stir my memory. It reminds me that I once was a college dropout. It reminds me that I have skills beyond the classroom. It reminds me that I am fulfilled as a teacher. But most of all, it serves as a reminder that no matter the task, I must do my best.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. - Colossians 3:23, 24
Twenty years old. Freshly married. I simply needed a job. Lacking skills, I also lacked options, so I found work as grunt labor for a contractor inside of a Louisiana refinery. All the day long my role was to unload racks of metal and wood, sorting them by size and shape. While this task didn’t use much of the matter in between my ears, it was some of the hardest labor of my life. It would have been easy to slow down, lay out, or take it easy (as advised by my many coworkers), but my limited potential allowed me to clearly see the will of God in my work: His glory. My daily toil became my deliberate testimony. Others noticed the effort, and in turn God blessed me for seeking Him. I was promoted over and over again, in each place sharing my testimony with a different group of people. I did my best to serve Him (albeit imperfectly at times), although it was far from the place I dreamed I’d be doing this.
As I have sought God’s will through prayer and scripture, I have noticed He isn’t necessarily caught up as much as I am in the what, when, and where. Is being a teacher a calling on my life? Possibly. Is it important that I am at a certain school? Maybe. Does it matter what subject I teach? Probably not. Most importantly, would God still use me if my circumstances were drastically different and I was still seeking Him? He has, He is, and He will. Doing your best has little to do with meeting the benchmarks and more to do with making out the big picture. How and why are the questions God challenges our heart with first. His word separates bone from marrow as it judges the intentions of our heart to see what really lies beneath the surface of your choices (Heb 4:12).
This year marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made in my life. As a soon-to-be graduate, two schools had offered me a position, and I was torn. Both school choices presented equally compelling cases to why I should teach there, each offering their unique set of pros and cons. Ultimately, I wanted God’s will in my decision, so I prayed. And I prayed again. And again. Over and over I invited God in to help me make a choice, yet God was seemingly silent. Needless to say, I was confused. As I talked about my frustrations with my wife, family, and friends, the question they each countered with was, “Is there a wrong choice?” Hmm.
In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. - Proverbs 3:6
I came to the conclusion there was and is a right choice. The right choice will always be to submit to Him first, to walk in faith and deliberately live out our testimony. When we are attune to this, we can be confident in our decision to take the next step forward without a sign, a lot, or a fleece because submission to His will means He has led me to this fork, crossroad, or intersection, so He will continue make the path straight no matter where I turn.
One final factor to consider, as we often compare ourselves to others, is the uniqueness in which we are designed. According to the parable in Matthew 25, On a 1-10 scale of (literal) talents there were vast differences. Each servant is charged with the same task, no matter the number, and each one invests their money differently. The one with the least, a single talent, is reprimanded not because he has the least, but because he has done nothing with it. There are so many classroom implications about how I challenge my students, the measure of success, and what trying hard looks like, but ultimately, for each one of us, if we make the investments, God provides the increase. If we keep moving forward, He will make the path straight. If we do our best, choose and seek Him in all we do, He has the best things awaiting us.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” - 1 Timothy 4:7-8
If you are part of my classroom, you will say these words to me. Why? It could be the increasing amount of grey hairs in my beard (or the decreasing amount of total hairs on my head). It could be I have a couple of degrees hanging on the wall that show I studied something somewhere. It could be the simple fact I'm bigger and stronger than you (well, most sixth graders). Age, education, and strength each are cited as reasons to honor someone, but this isn't why a child says, "yes, sir" to me, or I return a "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am" back to them. The reason we do this in my classroom is dictated by the etiquette in American South, The Golden Rule, and simplicity of love; it is a sign of respect (1 Cor 13:5).
Sounding respectful can be pretty simple. Litter your language with the above mentioned "ma'am" and "sir", "please", "thank you", and "excuse me", and you are more likely to get what you want and thought of as well-mannered. However, where the waters become a bit more difficult to navigate, and where we might find ourselves drifting in the sea of disrespect is when we disagree with someone's opinion, belief, or actions. Surprisingly, I've had more than one student, parent, fellow teacher, or administrator disagree with me (cue shock). In these disagreements, sometimes I am correct party, but sometimes I could not be more wrong (cue more shock). I have noticed an important truth from both sides of this coin: there is a positive correlation between the amount of respect shown and how well criticism and correction are received, and ultimately, lead to permanent change. Being right is not enough; you can beat your gong and clang your cymbals all day long, but if your course is not charted by an unselfish love, you are useless, interfering noise (1 Cor 13:1-2).
Every single person deserves love and respect. God has stitched and hand-picked a purpose for everyone of us (Psalm 139:13-14; Col 1:16). We are all players in His salvation plan, knowingly, or even unwittingly (Acts 2:23). Therefore, if we are His creation, we are all sucking the same air, and searching for the same truth - although many have yet to find it - (Psalm 19:1-4) doesn't this dictate that we are on the same playing field (Gal 3:28)? That we should "love our neighbors as ourselves?" (Mark 12:31)? And that we are called to replace fear with perfect love (1 John 4:18)? Jesus Christ is our ultimate human example of being "right", consequently putting him in a position of having a bone to pick with a lot of people. Thankfully, the people that disagree with him, the people that walk away from him, or the people that actively persecute Him (see: Saul) are also the same people for which Jesus lived and died, actively pursuing a relationship with them: Pharisees, Gentiles, government officials, political activist, the disreputable, the notorious, and even you and me. So the question is how do we offer respect, love, and correction that looks more like Jesus and less like the growing dissension, discouragement, and disparagement that we see escalating in our social environments today?
1. Make sure you know what you are talking about. It's obnoxious and unproductive when someone offers an opinion without doing their homework, or even worse, offering ironic advice they themselves should take to heart. Jesus speaks to this and offers a starting point when we think we are ready to be the sharers of advice. Check your eyes. If you find there is a plank in your eye, work on that instead of playing doctor for someone else (Matt 7:1-5). The measure of grace we use to offer correction is truly the measure which we are judged, not only by God, but by those around us who know are deeds in full. Here are some specifics examples to get your mind stirring, and I pray are truth spoken in love. Don't roll your eyes at the greed of politicians if you cheat on your taxes (1 Cor 6:7,8). Don't complain about your lackof a raise when you don't fulfill all your work obligations (Matt 25:24,25) . Don't act justified when you gossip because others are talking behind your back (Ps 15:2,3). Don't post about the Bible's stance of sexuality if you aren't respecting the boundaries of biblical marriage (Matt 5:27,28). Don't complain about how much cursing, nudity, violence, etc. ends up in movies if you are still watching them (Jam 4:17). These examples only scratch the surface of how we are to biblically "check yo' self before you reck yo' self". If you don't take the time to honestly examine and criticize yourself beforehand, it is very likely you will still receive an honest criticism, but it will come from the brother or sister you are trying to correct with the addition of disrespect, contempt, and hurt.
2. Run towards the fire, not away from it. Hearing, "FIRE!" in a shared space, our natural instinct is to quickly identify where the alarming event is taking place and to run away from the flames. Conversely, if we knew someone we loved was in the direction of a blazing inferno, our instinct would take us sprinting in the direction of the flames to save him/her without hesitation. This instinctual reaction, "fight or flight", often plays out the same way when we see someone dealing with sin. It is much easier to deal with the dangers of sin by running away from a sinner. It is true we are to "flee from evil" (Amos 5:14-15), but in our pursuit of staying away from evil, we must also run towards what is good. We cannot simply run to safety only to watch those in danger engulfed in the flames. Jesus is our example of a salvation-welding firefighter, reminding me of an exchange from Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, "Is he safe? Of course, he isn't safe! But he's good." This reckless heart of Jesus is shown in the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus could have avoided him, acting like he never saw him in the tree, he could have rebuked Zacchaeus, "Repent, you sinner!" and kept moving forward, waited until Zacchaeus was out of earshot and talked trashed about him, but instead, Jesus stopped and invited himself into the house of this well-known sinner. Zachaeus was most likely a theif, he might have used "F" bombs, women, or drugs, he may not have been to church in a decade, or ever, yet Zacchaeus, and the many people who Christians avoid like him, are actively trying to pursue, although they may not be able to pinpoint, a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our goal is to love them and take the risk of fighting the flames alongside them. In truth, if we aren't willing to love in this way, a different fire may be waiting for us (Matt 25:31-46).
Peace without truth is an illusion. You can love and respect someone through time, encouragement, praise, and even gifts; however, a proposal with the largest diamond can still be received with a "no." For these investments to be valuable, they must be defined by truth which we are often so willing to broker away for the impersonation of peace. If we don't say anything, it will go away, right? Actually, it grows. When we don't speak the truth in love, especially concerning sin, our silence becomes acceptance, then definition, forever changing the norm. In John 4, Jesus stops to rest and to have a drink on his way from Judea to Galilee. He speak to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well crossing cultural boundaries, delivering the Gospel message, but also, mentioning modification she needs to make in her life. It would have been easier to get the water himself, or possibly, talk about the weather, sports, or tell a joke and be thought of as a "nice Jew"; however, stopping short of this not only would have fatalistically impacted this woman, but also her family and friends group who ask Jesus to stay and share his message because of this encounter (Luke 4:39-42). We too must speak truth as we build relationship, derailing our schedules and having the awkward conversations. What happens when our truth delivered in loved is rejected? We can have peace, although, it doesn't mean everything is settled or there isn't more we can do. Many times, we can continue to respect, love, have a relationship, minister, and pray as others wrestle with the truth and are convicted by its spirit placed upon them. Stopping short to save short-term stress, to have your rest and drink in silence, could result of long-term culture and life-altering consequences.
If we apply principles like these - know what you’re talking about, run towards the fire, and speak truth in love - we will not only be well-mannered, but increase the opportunity for our message to be well-received. Please respect others they way you want to be respected. Thank you for loving others the way you want to be loved. Excuse me for offering correction, but it is in the way I want to be corrected, to ultimately allow us to say, "Yes, Sir" to the Father and to the place He needs us to be to grow our relationship through Christ Jesus.
I have come to the conclusion that whoever “they” are, “they” have to be one of the most powerful people that ever walked the face of this planet. As I have a conversation about behavior in the hallway, have a “how did this food get here?” interrogation at a cafeteria table, or conference with a student at my desk, the all-powerful “they”, the great puppet master controlling all behavior, is often mentioned as the inciter of actions which causes a chain of inevitable and uncontrollable events or responses. Student implore me to understand that “they” made me do it. “They” keep, and “they” don’t, and “they” always, and “they” won’t. I’m here to honestly tell you as someone who hands out discipline, “they” probably should be in trouble, too. But if “they” are in control of you, then you have become “they.”
As I present this second rule to my students on the second and eighty-second days of school, I tell them that I can successfully predict their future success and happiness by a single factor: picking up trash. Someone who is truly responsible will not only pick up their own trash, but willingly picks up trash when they see it because it needs to be done. Now, you might think this is only enabling the bad behavior of others. I see the argument. But what about those who don’t pick it up, are they doing the right thing? No. Or those who protest? Does this get the trash off the ground? Hmm. Not necessarily. Yes, someone was careless or even deliberate in leaving the trash, but does this excuse me from doing what I know is right? At the end of the day, there are those who allows themselves to be suffocated in trash, and those who simply pick it up.
Now, I do have a small disclaimer before continuing to rail on the gravity of responsibility - People can do terrible, despicable things to one another that are far weightier than leaving behind a candy wrapper. Bullying, abuse, neglect, harassment are all realities which can cause immense injury to the human psyche and should not be diminished in this discussion. “They” change our impulses, or “they” make us feel a waning worth. I promise that I seek justice and love mercy for students and those I know who are on the receiving end of abominable actions, but if we simply write-off retaliation to actions of another, then we allow for all to be justified. He spread a rumor about me, so I fought him. My dad was abusive, so I refuse to discipline my children. Someone took advantage of me, so there is no reason to save myself for my husband or wife. I am here to suggest, no matter the circumstance, you, through God, are still in charge. Be responsible.
“But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” - Galatians 6:4-5
The term psychologist use to describe an individual’s viewpoint on where the source of consequence and responsibility lie is called the locus (Latin: location;place). Generally, people fall into two categories or mindsets regarding the location of responsibility: the external and the internal. People with an external locus tend to believe that they have very little influence and therefore, consequence on the things surrounding them. Conversely, those with an internal locus believe they have the greatest control of their environment and outcomes.
At first it would seem that being of an external mindset is the correct view for a Christian who has placed his/her hope, life, and faith God’s hands. It is true, God needs to take priority in our lives. However, there can be a fatal flaw in this thinking because there are other forces on the outside that can also greatly impact and shape our surroundings (for example, temptation, persecution, the sin of others, etc.). If I hold true to the viewpoint that I can do little to prevent it, control it, or change its effects, then whenever something happens to me that is not from God, by circumstance or consequence, my faith is shaken. We say things similar to enemies of God in Micah 7 or those who persecuted Jesus during his crucifixion, “Where is he now?” or “Why didn’t God…”, or “How could He…” We place the responsibility on God for the situation, the sin or the shortcoming, simply blaming Him for our problems and waiting for Him to repair it with our arms folded.
By taking personal responsibility out of the equation, we are not increasing our trust and faith, but in fact, decreasing it. The proof is in “The Parable of the Talents” found in Matthew 25. If you empathize with the servant who was given a single talent and buried it in the sand out of fear, your locus might be externally calibrated. The Master, God, doesn’t simply desire for us to simply believe He is in control. You believe in God? Awesome! Even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19). We are held accountable and responsible by Him; we must own our faith and act on it.
This means that we are to navigate using what is placed within us (Luke 17:21; Romans 8:9); to become people whose viewpoint is fixated on the internal locus, or power within. Now, I’m not speaking of Ch’i or some other kind of innate, embedded spiritual force, but the incredible empowerment that comes through the Holy Spirit, the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. These things we cling to on the inside will greatly influence the people, the environment, and the future around us. We are not simply filled, but should be overflowing with the fruit of His spiritual presence in our lives - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As God shapes us, we too have the power, and responsibility, to shape the lives of others by the empowerment of God. He has given us time, talents, or money, and we are not to merely hide these things and self-preserve, but have the responsibility to grow His kingdom by acting on uncontainable faith (Matt 25:26-30).
“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” - James 2:20-24
Now, for the hard part -- Just because we are driven from within, there are still things fighting for control of the internal stars that are steering our ship towards salvation. This world is still filled with sin and unfortunately, sometimes sin wins in my life and the lives of the people who surround me. I may not be “of this world”, but I am very much in it, and sometimes, I must bear of the reverberating consequences that come from the absence of God. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. It is in these times when I am faced with the most difficult, the most frustrating, the most pressing, and most unfair experiences that I can see where my locus lies. Will I continue to be responsible, acting in faith, or will I blame “them” or “Him” for my circumstance?
A great example from the scriptures is the story of Joseph (beginning in Genesis 37). He was born with an incredible gift: the ability to interpret dreams. He was loved by his father, but rejected by his brothers. They sold him into slavery out of their jealousy, yet Joseph continued to live out his faith. He was wrongfully accused of sexual assault, placed in prison, yet continued to use his gift and share his testimony. At the moment his account seems to be bankrupt, he is called upon by Pharaoh to practice what he preaches, and is consequently given the return on his investment, "Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.” Gen 41:39,40. How much more will our heavenly Father recognize and reward us when we take on the responsibility of daily investing our talents and carrying the cross of Christ? Yes, stuff happens. Sometimes, terrible, unspeakable garbage. But when our locus and responsibility is fixated on a truth held so deeply within - our joy, our love, our fruits of living a life in His Spirit - these cannot be snatched away. The very junk that was to be our ruin or the intended evil against us becomes what “God intended for good, in order to accomplish a day like this— to preserve the lives of many people." (Gen 50:20)
“They” are not in control. Your attitude, your actions, and your reactions are your responsibility, undeniably traced back to you. Hopefully, you are dramatically influenced by the Spirit of God residing in you, the locus that changes the world from the inside out. It your choice. You can be a victim, spending a great deal of day talking trash, but don’t be surprised when you are surrounded by garbage. The far better choice in my eyes is to be responsible. Pick up the garbage, whether it is your own or someone else’s, chunk it in the bin. Invest, edify, influence, and become responsible for the people and world around you, and it won't be long before it starts looking more like the beautiful things that are held deep inside of you.
Each year it is the same. Four months invested into impressing habits - "don't talk in the hallway", "walk on the red line", "close the door, please", "get the trash off the floor", "bring a pencil to class" - are washed away in two short weeks at Christmas break. Now, those who know me best, or really at all, know that I am the last person to preach the gospel of routine, but I see and understand the importance of structure, discipline, and most importantly, rules.
Whether you're starting a new job, learning a new game, or attending a new semester of college, the first and most necessary thing you need to understand are the rules. It is the agreed upon way the collective will operate. Without rules, there is chaos, anarchy, and purposelessness (totally a word - I looked it up!). We may not always agree with the rules, but whether we admit it or not, we all are looking for rules to govern our experiences because the right rules, procedures, and routine, provide purpose, direction, safety, and value to each and every experience we have.
This is why the day we come back from Christmas break, I revisit my classroom rules. Before my students walk in I say the exact same thing I say the first day of school. "Welcome, sit anywhere you'd like; don't move the pillows." Secretly, this is the first pre-rule (this one is definitely not a word) I give to find out who my "rule breakers" might be. The next thing I do is remind students of my callback. It teacher terms, a callback is a call-and-response to hit the pause button on class. I countdown from five (5,9,12,4,3,7,1) to one, clap my hands, and smile, expecting my students to do the same; if there is one thing that is done every single day in my class, it is this.
With the help of Shia LeBeouf, I again tell my students to "just do it", just follow the rules and this class will be amazing. They have to trust me; they have to follow; but, I promise I know what is best. Then I passionately convey five simple rules that I feel have a purpose, place, and context far beyond my classroom. The first of these rules: I will be ready.
So much classroom time is wasted on the search for pencils. It would be easy to reprimand a student for this, but like Paul, I am the chief sinner. Some 20 years ago during my time as a sixth grader, the phrase most consistently uttered from my mouth was "Hey, can I borrow a pencil?" In middle school vernacular this roughly translates to "Hey, can I lose your pencil, too?" If this didn't work, I would have to waste time searching the floor's boneyard, go back to my previous class, or as a desperate last resort, embarrassingly entreat my teacher. Class didn't stop for me, and many times it left me furiously catching up on note-taking (back before you could just press a share button) or simply lost.
Jesus gives a parable for the unprepared in Matthew 25. Instead of children looking for pencils, he tells the tale of ten virgins who headed to an evening wedding feast. Five come prepared, bringing enough oil to last the night's long journey, (or undoubtedly wait on the bridal party to take pictures), but the remaining five didn't bring enough oil from their lamps. They implored the prepared portion of the party, but to no avail; they only had enough for themselves. The ill-equipped five are left to backtrack to the previous town to make a purchase. By the time they have made themselves ready to revel in the celebration of the friends and family, it is too late. Every one, including the five prepared traveling companions, is celebrating without them. They are not recognized by the one standing at the door, and ultimately and disappointingly turned away.
Pencil and oil are such trivial things, yet they foreshadow a much larger story. When you become unfaithful to caring for these items, you are signaling you haven't made any preparations for the important happenings in the near future. In a similar way we neglect the "little things" that collectively make up our spiritual lives and disciplines. Have you laid your day before you, praising God, praying for provision, asking to be led away from temptation, and for him to guide and direct your path (Matt 6:9-13)? If not, you are not ready. Have you spent time with a devotion or reading that you can use to edify, encourage, or to give an answer for the hope you have (1 Pet 3:15)? If not, you are not ready. Are you investing the talents that God has given you - your effort, your time, or your money - into glorifying His kingdom (Matt 25:14-30)? If not, you are not ready. Are you living with urgency in your actions and your words because his Kingdom is coming soon (Rev 22:12)? If not, you are not ready.
Did the five virgins not want to dance, feast, and celebrate? Doubt it. Do my students want to be behind in class? (maybe, but) Doubt it. Do we want to miss out on the Kingdom of God? Doubt it (seriously). Yet to be ready we must make daily preparations in our actions, not simply profess our faith. Desire is not enough. Daily renewal (Rom 12:2), preparation (Prov 16:1-3), and sacrifice (Luke 9:24) make us ready for the moment whenever it comes. Don't be caught unprepared, wasting key moments searching for things you should already have. Bring your pencil. Bring your oil. Bring His word wherever you go. Be ready.
Any student that has been in my classroom will tell you I have a dark sense of humor. They might tell you that there are bodies in my closet or they attended a funeral for "said", "nice", and "bad" (as pictured above), but the best (or worst) example is in our homeroom's birthday celebration. We do not sing "Happy Birthday" like the other classrooms, or really, the rest of the world. We sing a version that closely resembles a funeral march that I borrowed from a friend in youth ministry - "happy birthday, happy birthday, misery is in the air, people dying everywhere, happy birthday." After our depressing dirge concludes, I announce to the classroom, "Congratulations, _________ , is one - year - closer - to - death!" Candy is thrown at the student, and there is uproarious cheering and applauds. Although this may appear dreadful and in bad taste from the outside, time and time again, I have students lean in to confidentially tell me, "just so you know, I will be one year closer to death tomorrow," so we don't miss out on the celebration. Like many of the decisions I make, the students enjoy it, so we continue to do it, even if it is a bit out of the ordinary.
In stark contrast to this ironically gloomy ritual are the facts. Do I really want to die? No. Do I really want my students to die? Absolutely NOT! However, I know the nature of death. It is the ever-looming presence in the shadow of all the lives of all men (and women, boys and girls). It is the wage of sin (Rom 6:23) that can demand payment at any point. But our lives don't acknowledge it, we don't talk about it, and we spend our days as if eternity has already been achieved. Here lies the the problem with death. It is the one unavoidable aspect of our lives (if you don't include taxes, Benjamin Franklin), yet it is the topic we would most like to avoid. Well, now is the time to begin coming to terms with this ever-present issue.
" Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him."
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
It was a few weeks ago when we happened upon a serious discussion about death in my classroom. We were dissecting a quote by George H. W. Bush, who most recently passed away. He roughly stated that the solution to every problem starts with education. A student, who disagreed with the quote, rather bluntly, as the nature of being 11 or 12 years old, shared his opinion, "How does education fix the problem with death?" I shook my head, and pursed my lips. It was a good question and a valid point.
Giving it a momentary thought, I replied, "Is it possible to educate yourself on death?" Around the room, heads were scratched, eyes moved from side-to-side, and shoulders were shrugged. "I mean, you know you are going to die, right?" - the statement greeted with hesitant head nods, students still not knowing how to take the turn in the conversation. "Is that not education?" More head nodding. "What if I told you, every morning, when I wake up, one of the first questions I ask myself is 'What if I die today?'" This statement was greeted with the appropriate level of shock, even by students who are used to my twisted sense of humor. "That is DARK - Why would you say that?", was pretty much the collective response. Despite their shock, I continued my thoughts in words resembling these:
What do I know about death? Two things for sure. 1. I know it will happen one day, and 2. it could happen at any moment. As I speak, I could have free radicals floating inside of me that could be forming the cancer that will take my life. With my family's history of heart health (and my consumption levels of bacon), I could have a heart attack in my early 30's that will cause me to flatline. I could collide with another vehicle at the end of the school's block and not get to the hospital in time. Even if I stayed home to protect myself, there are dangers lurking in the kitchen, bathroom, and there is risk of a home invasion. Knowing this, pretty much every morning I ask the question, "What if I die today?" I think about that question when I get into a car without my wife and tell her, "I love you," and give her a kiss goodbye. I think about it whenever I greet and leave my family and friends with handshakes and hugs. I think about it when I am singing in the morning at my classroom door, or giving correction with "you are better than this behavior," or telling you right now, "I love you." I think about it as I try to remain positive in difficult conversations, or when I am speaking kind words to people I don't necessarily get along with. Most importantly, I think about it with my faith and how it will be remembered. It drives all the other actions, and it helps me to educate myself on death even more. So do I think about death? All the time. Will I die? Yes. Do I want to die? No. Do I worry about it? Not really. I take action on what I know, so today will be an okay day to die, if I must, and I will be at peace knowing I fell asleep in death giving it my all.
"Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?...But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
- Matthew 6:27, 33
At the conclusion of these words, there were a few tears in the room, most filling the cracks between my eyeballs, lids, ducts, and sockets. I didn't want to talk about my death, and thankfully, my students didn't want to talk about my death either (well, at least that day).
So how does the problem with death change our lives?
The challenge my students considered is yours as well (and mine, because being honest, some days would be better days to die than others). What if you knew 2019 was your last year? What would you do different? Who would you spend your time with? Where would you go? What would your conversations be like? How much does your life resemble the things you would or wouldn't do if you knew you had a few fleeting-vapor, dust and shadow moments left? Whether death comes today, or in the next century, we can educate ourselves and take action in faith, not against death itself, but in the life lived for the assurances that lay beyond it: a coming day with no more pain, fear, or sting. Congratulations! Today, you are ONE-DAY-CLOSER-TO-DEATH. <Applause> Now, what will you do to celebrate the hope you have?
“'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." - 1 Corinthians 15:55-57
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 6:23
Over the course of the last month or so, my classes read aloud Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty. To say that students as a whole enjoyed this book would be an understatement. Students audibly gasped as the plot twisted, they frantically turned pages in the middle of intense action, I heard chuckling, saw misty eyes, and there was even a riot formed when we stopped at a cliffhanger (I legitimately feared for my life around Chapter 17). I was taken aback with how much this book resounded with each student. I thought 12 year-old boys wearing camouflage wouldn't be interested. They were. I thought my students who struggled with reading would get lost in the myriad of vocabulary. They weren't. Why? There are so many truths and resounding messages hidden in a story of a girl who secretly lives in the subbasement of The Biltmore House.
Like almost every coming-of-age tale, Serafina must decide her place and her purpose in her surrounding world. This internal conflict moves alongside the major aspect of the plot, battling The Man in the Black Cloak, and culminates into a series a questions about the nature of good and evil. Serafina is a "creature of the night", but does that mean she is intrinsically evil?
Aware of the eye rolls and sighs I was about to receive from the students who "just want to read the book", I stopped our reading to play the devil's advocate (ironically), asking this loaded question, "Can you give me an example of someone who was born evil?" In six or seven small groups, discussion commenced. After a few moments, hands went up into the air, readied to make a compelling case. Examples came pouring in: a baby being addicted to a drug his/her mother took while they were pregnant; lifestyles that play out generation after generation; and two subjects being exposed to the same stimuli, yet one makes the right decision and the other, the wrong one. Another flurry of hands went into the air. Either there was a contagious epidemic of full bladder sweeping the room, or a rebuttal was coming. Fortunately for our class and our poor outdated bathrooms, it was the second. One after another, students made arguments that decision was the most important element in each one of these cases, not the nature of birth. Ultimately, with some concession from both sides, we came to the conclusion there may be "mentalities" and "inclinations", but choice is key.
Since the existence of man, there has been choice. Originally, the choice between good and evil was simple; eat from the garden as God commanded or eat the forbidden fruit. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve make the wrong choice. Because of this, not only does sin enter, but also death (Rom 5:12). Does Adam's flaw or "original sin" get passed from generation to generation at the amino acid level of your DNA? Or is it a culmination of your learned responses from watching sin being practiced? While there are certainly arguments to both side (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 1:5), I believe the answer is simple to the question "Are we born evil?": It doesn't matter.
"Was she good or evil? She had been born in and lived in a world of darkness, but which side was she on? Darkness or light? She looked up at the stars. She didn't know what she was or how she got that way, but she knew what she wanted to be. She wanted to be good." - Chapter 19, Serafina & The Black Cloak
If you were born craving a drug or became an addict as an adult, if you were a victim of abuse or you are the abuser, if you lie, cheat, or steal to amass riches or merely survive, if your mom or dad left you or if they passed away before their time, or if you're full of unused potential or pushing hard with your widow's mite - you still have choice. While we say Adam's choice was easy, our's is pretty much identical - listen to God or don't. Ultimately, the confession and the corresponding conduct to follow the way of Jesus (Rom 10:9-10) or the selfish selection of temptation and sin (Jam 1:13-15) has more to do with your heart than your heritage.
This is why it is possible the Kingdom of God will be filled with people like Zacchaeus, a cheating tax collector, John Newton, a slave trader, and an unnamed thief who was crucified alongside Christ. They all were creatures of the night, like Serafina (and really, us too), but just as Serafina, ultimately chose good. Conversely, the "good" they chose in not simply a feeling, but an action, a repented life lived for their Savior, Jesus Christ. Each of them was covered in grace, and it changed their lives and eternal outlook. Just like them, no matter our heritage, we can choose the Light over darkness. Does it matter if we are born evil? Thank God, no. It only matters that we are reborn with a new heritage; the one that leads us to be called the sons and daughters of God.
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, to proclaim the virtues of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." - 2 Peter 2:9
Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” - 2 Cor 6:17-18
A sixth grade classroom would seem an unlikely place to have a discussion about the source of wisdom. Even more unlikely in my classroom, where I teach compound commas with the "but crack" test, where we answer multiple choice question like chainsaw murderers, or where I have taken 15 seconds of class time to ensure the proper spelling of "turd". Now I promise each of those things have a teaching context, but they all were pretty silly nonetheless. In stark contrast, I am equally deliberate about the not-so-silly features of my classroom, as I really want my students to walk away with moral-shaping, life-altering truth.
One of the ways we consider the serious things is a weekly quote that is placed on the board for us to discuss as a warm-up; it is called "Wednesday Wise Words" (alliteration anyone?). We consider the words of authors, presidents, social activists, religious leaders, athletes, and more, and simply state what they mean, explain if we agree or not, and then talk about what it means in our life. Many times these discussions hit deep understandings that are worthy of discussion in the Agora, seminaries, and synagogues. This was never more truth than this past week when we considered a quote by Socrates, "True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us."
As we discussed, we danced around the emotional implications of not knowing what others are going through, the role of a student and the nature of learning, but at some point in our discussion we entered (albeit ironically and undeliberately) the Socratic method relating to astronomy - "How much do we know about the Earth? The moon relative to Earth? The solar system relative to the moon? Our galaxy relative to the solar system? Other galaxies and the universe as a whole compared to our own galaxy?" In a strange resemblance to Horton Hears a Who and Psalms 103:14-16, the students concluded that we are floating on a speck in the infinitely greater world around us, therefore our wisdom is simply "garbage" (their word).
To expound on collective thinking of my students (and Socrates), the smartest people realize that simply cannot understand it all, so all conjecture or "garbage" understandings, scientific or religious, must be steeped in an element of faith. Additionally, what seemingly is chaos, may very well be a construction by such an elaborate order than our minds cannot even begin to fathom it (see: chaos theory). As I sat in my chair at the end of the day, rubbing my temples and staring off into space, (like many of my students at the end of the discussion, as some screamed, "STOP! Our brains hurts!") I couldn't help but think my God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
Just when we think we have built a mighty tower, acquired a powerful technology, or unlocked a great understanding or discovery, we only need to wait for the sun to set. On constant display from our "speck" is His majesty; the night sky holds our humility. It is a landscape so vast that we cannot see it with the naked eye nor do we really know how far it extends. Almost every bit of it is untouched by anyone except God, our creator (Psalm 19:1-4). He has set order and motion in the infinite heavens with a logarithm that passes beyond our comprehension, so we might know Him. Yet even this elaborate scheme is subordinate to an even higher order: the salvation plan of Jesus Christ.
Colossians 1:17-18 states everything is made through Jesus Christ, he is before all things, and hold all things together. This is not simply speaking of the heavens and earth (if we can do such things), but of time, relationship, and the interaction of all of these things simultaneously. When we look at the advent of Jesus Christ we can see a glimpse into the deep, ordained will of God that is guiding, directing, and even physically shaping the universe. The alignment of heaven - a star in the sky (Num 24:17; Matt 2:7), time - to fulfill prophecies in their fullness (Galatians 4:4), and relationship - genealogies, shepherds, magi, John the Baptist, Simeon, and even us. Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and was raised back to life as our example, actively mediating, interceding, and realigning us back to the driving will of God (Rom 8:34, 1 Tim 2:5). The heavens, so vast and incomprehensible that we really have no context to understand them, share not the single message there is a great and awesome God (Rom 1:20), but the he has planned for us (Gen 15:5) and loved in the same vast and incomprehensible way (Psalm 35:5).
So what is true wisdom? Realizing that most of the time we will never see, comprehend, or know the cataclysmic effects of the choices we make, but knowing they are indeed tied to the orchestration of God's ultimate will for us all - that none should perish, but all have everlasting life (2 Peter 3:9). He has given us a way to be a part of this plan, principles to live by in order to be aligned to the plan, and a hope that spawned the entirety of the plan to exist. Do we have to know everything? No. We have to believe. The assurance comes from the Creator, through His heavens, His word, prayer, and sometimes in the most direct forms. The irony of it all - when we let go of the "garbage" understandings we have about life and believe in something that we cannot fully comprehend, we will never make a wiser choice.