I used to think that following Christ meant exchanging one set of rules for another set of rules.
I understood that some other Christ followers thought that they’d found the right set of rules. I thought that the rules that they believed weren’t right though. I debated, argued, and disagreed with them.
I knew that the goal was that the world would know us by the love we have. I realized that the reality was that we were more identifiable though our petty squabbling.
Should we see R-rated movies? Which ones? What if they’d been edited for TV? If R-rated movies were off the list, what about cable movies? Should we drink? How much? Should we swear? Should we date people who are not Christian? Which expressions of my sexuality are acceptable and which expressions are ones I need to refrain from?
In some ways this is what all of the answers to these questions come down to: This is what you are allowed to do, this is what you are not allowed to do. I had a list of rules that I thought Jesus wanted me to live by.
Recently, though, I had this realization. Being a teacher is an amazing thing. My class is a microcosm for so many other things.
It’s been my privilige, honor, and burden to teach some really tough kids in some really tough situations. Kids who have been involved with drive-by shootings. Kids who are bombarded, twenty-four hours a day, by voices that can only be described as demonic. Kids who have sexual abused other kids. Kids who’ve been prostituted for parents’ drugs…
As I’ve served these kids, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around a truth. Then truth is that it’s easy for me to run a mediocre classroom with this type of kid. After having done this for about a decade, I’ve got close to a 100% success rate in creating a classroom that is at least fair.
I’m not bragging. It’s not hard. And it’s nothing to be proud of.
A mediocre classroom is one that is physically and emotionally safe. It’s one where the kids are usually where they are supposed to be. It’s one where most of them don’t do much that interfere’s with other’s education.
Physical and emotional safety are good things. Getting kids to sit in their desks is important. Encouraging kids to stay out of others’ way is important.
But it’s not teaching. It’s hardly more than glorified baby sitting. It’s an environment that’s reached by putting into place a system of clear and consistent rewards and consequences for positive and negative behaviors. It’s a placed where the sun rises and sets on rules: rules, rules, rules, and more rules.
The problem is that it’s fairly easy to create a place where people refrain from things we don’t like. I can say “If you swear then I will issue you a detention.” I can say “If you assault another student then you will be suspended.” I can say “If you put your hands on others in a sexual way then I will have to move you to that empty corner of the room where you will be alone.”
Taking the next step is so much more difficult because it’s so much easier to get people to stop what you don’t want them to do, than it is to get them to start doing what you do want them to do. For example, I want a student to stop swearing. It’s fairly easy to make her stop. But I want more for her than this. I want her to know how to use her words for acts of kindness.
Or I want a student to stop disrupting my class. It doesn’t take too much to make most disruptive behaviors stop. But I want to go to the next level with this student: I want him to learn. I want him to care about history. I want him to take responsibility for understanding the material. I want him to think it’s partially his problem if he doesn’t know it when it’s time to take the test.
It’s so easy to get them to stop doing what I don’t want them to do. It’s so much more difficult to get them to begin doing the things I want them to do.
Most of the actions I want them to do have to come from within them. I can’t really consquence a student who fails to complement a peer. I can’t punish somebody for not working more intently on a test. I need to create an environment that’s beyond the rules…
When God is in the middle of what I am doing, when his Spirit is present, I am sometimes blessed enough to witness a classroom where some of my students get engaged. Where they take that next step. Where they go beyond stopping the negative behaviors. They actively do the things I want them to do.
I was reading 1 John recently. I’ve always loved this verse from it, but this time it just jumped off the page:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
When things are going really well in my class, I’d be disapointed if my students asked if this word or that word is acceptable or it counts as a swear. I don’t want to quibble with them over which words go on the naughty list and which words go on the nice list.
I believe that God is much the same. If we love him, if we truly love him, then we grow past the need for a list of things we will and won’t do. Perhaps the things we do will change. And perhaps they won’t. But Jesus said, over and over, that the things we do are less important than the reasons we have for doing or not doing them. Our challenge is bigger than finding the “right” rules. It’s to grow beyond the rules.
Can we do it? Will we?