Just for Fun -- What Our Street Looks Like in the First Week of December
Thoughts on December 3rd, 2013
I teach successfully and unsuccessfully. The classes that crash and burn should be written about, but right now I think it will be much more fun to write about one that worked. It was this morning, in the midst of another in a series of stressful weeks.
The third year students are the students in our high school I would describe as closest to “normal.” Normal can mean “typical,” which almost fits here, although all of our groups tend to be more creative, more personal and more motivated than average. These are typical third years because they are easily bored, skeptical, worldly wise, but still capable of getting excited and showing their witty side if they are presented with a decent reason. Normal can also mean “healthy.” These students seem comfortable with themselves and each other, and generally work hard. They are healthy.
We are in the midst of a series that I wrote which travels from Ruth to David, hopefully spending quality time with Hannah, Samuel, Eli, Saul and Jonathan on the way. My goal is to ask and answer the question: “What can life look like if you do, or if you don’t, have faith?” Last week we studied God’s call of the boy, Samuel. The main point was that God might call anyone, including an inexperienced boy, and we should be ready to listen. It was all right, but not a class I felt inspired to write about.
In my childhood full of Sunday School and then in the first half of my Christian life, I heard a lot about Samuel’s call but not a lot about the actual message God gave him. It took me awhile to find out that God basically wanted to tell the boy that He was going to kill Eli’s sons.
When I was preparing this series of Bible studies, my first impulse was to avoid the details of Eli’s messy family and God’s severe justice. My thought was probably the same as that of Sunday School teachers who just told me the happy part of little Samuel’s story. Why bother the students with frightening things like the destruction of a family, or really hard doctrine like God’s harsh punishment?
But there is a rule of thumb that I’ve discovered at our school. If the Bible material is complicated and potentially volatile, it will make a great Bible class, better than the obvious and easy lessons. So I dived into the story of Eli, Hophni and Phineas.
Here is what happened today.
Before opening Bibles or notebooks, I told the students that I wanted them to listen to a story.
“I’m going to tell you a story and then I’m going to ask you your opinion so that you can practice writing a good paragraph in English.
“Once upon a time, there was a man who was the director of a school. He was older, and he had an adult son who grew up to become a teacher in the same school. So the father was his boss. Unfortunately, the son was a bit of a jerk and started to steal money from the school office. When the father found out, he sat the son down and told him how wrong this was. But the son kept on doing it.
“Then it turned out that the son was getting into something really disgusting-- he was having physical relationships with the girls in the school and taking advantage of them. Again the father called the son into his office and told him that he had to stop, that it was terrible for a teacher to abuse his students like that. But the teacher kept on with his bad behavior.
“Now, we can all agree that this teacher is a jerk. The question is, do you think his father, the director, is also guilty? If so, how much? A little? A lot? Write me a paragraph explaining your answer. It can be four or five sentences.”
I was pleased with this because I had everyone’s attention, and I had created a simple, understandable story that accurately paralleled Eli’s story. Also, in terms of pedagogy, it is great to employ listening skills and writing skills in one lesson.
The students wrote answers in their notebooks. I gave them about eight minutes. Then I split them into pairs and had them trade their answers. Each partner had to read the other student’s work aloud.
I was pleased with this because of course it’s not just a “Bible” class; I’m responsible to get third year students to write in English, and write a lot. There is no better way to evaluate your own work than to have a second person read your writing to you out loud. It can be uncomfortable but it forces you to think, and it certainly keeps you awake. So now we had added speaking skills to the listening and writing.
In the big group, I asked the students to tell me what they thought. Was the father a little guilty, a lot guilty or horribly guilty? A few students volunteered their opinions, but I picked four others, students from around the room who don’t typically volunteer. Most of them felt that the father was very guilty; one volunteer thought that the father was mildly guilty but that the son was the one who did the bad deeds and he was the most guilty. Several students said that the father was blameworthy because he didn’t fire the son.
This was decent. Students talked and listened to each other. There wasn’t a lot of energy because the case wasn’t that hard to judge. Then I got a sudden, on-the-spot inspiration.
I then told the students that I was going to ask a more difficult question. Imagine the same story about a father and son, but not at a school -- at a brewery. The father was the director and the son was a worker on the factory floor, making or bottling beer. But the son was still a thief and a pervert, and the father scolded him without firing him.
“So here is my question. I think we agree that both fathers are guilty. But which father is more guilty -- the brewery director or the school director? Maybe you think the director of the school is more guilty that the director of the brewery. Or maybe you think that they’re about even.”
I set about quickly calling on volunteers, as before, and they gave interesting, alternating opinions. The first said the brewery director was less guilty because the son was probably having his fun with adult women, whereas the son at the school was taking advantage of teenagers. The second student said the two fathers were about even because both of them had done the same thing: failed to fire their employee because he was a family member. The third student said that the school director was more to blame because he had the lives of young people under his care, and not just bottles of beer. The fourth student used her English most impressively:
“Both fathers should see their sons’ bad behavior like a mirror and see their own bad behavior when their sons were young and they should have taught them.”
I said that I personally most agreed with the third student, and described my feelings as a parent as I entrust my children to the care of teachers. I also encouraged students to disagree with me, which they did.
We took a quick vote. Half the students said the school director was more guilty. Half the students said they were about the same.
My idea was to highlight the spiritual nature of a school, the fact that a teacher and a director have a responsibility that is more sensitive because of the vulnerability of the young people. I think that came out clearly, but there was a lot of interest and freedom as students expressed opinions that disagreed or diverged. Polite disagreement in a class always makes me happy. It means kids are using their English and they are probably using their brains or their hearts.
We opened the Bibles. Usually this is the first part of the class, but today it was well past the halfway point. Also, I usually read out loud, so the students can hear a native speaker, and then give the students time to read the same thing out loud to each other, so that they can practice. That’s not what I did at first. Instead, I read 1 Samuel 3: 10-14:
Now the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel answered, “Speak, for Your servant hears.” Then the Lord said to Samuel: “Behold, I will do something in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them. And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
Then I explained it. I said that it was frightening to see God hold the family to account for these sins, but that it was not the first time that God had warned Eli. We went backwards and I read selections from 1 Samuel 2:12-18. Then I focused on the first disciplinary moment between Eli and the boys: he told them that he had a heard a bad report. He scolded them but didn’t actually do anything. So God was just. He hated the sins, and He gave the sinners fair warning, and in the end He acted justly.
Students at BMA often complain about the gospel on one of two sides -- either the gospel lets bad people get away with their sin (and there’s no justice) or God is too mean, sending people to Hell (and there’s no grace.) I think we’re good at emphasizing the grace so whenever I can also remind the kids that God cares about justice, I think it’s healthy. However, on this occasion I skipped the last part of verse 25, which says that “the Lord desired to kill” the wicked sons. In previous years I have actually had really good Bible studies by not avoiding this concept. I have proposed that in cases like Hopni and Phineas or the Pharoah who dealt with Moses, God hardens hearts. This implies that God knows of a point of know return. Yes, we have free will, but a God who sees the future can identify the period during which a person’s will has been permanently set and then He chooses to use that stubborn person for His own purposes. However, such a challenging interpretation of free will requires a whole class period to work on. Czech students love “free will” and suggesting any threat to this sacred concept would have jeopardized all my other goals for the class.
So far, I had done the reading. But I asked the students now to read this critical passage out loud to a partner, which is reproduced here in an easy translation like the one we used; “If one man sins against another, God will help make peace for him. But if a man sins against the Lord, who can make peace for him?”
At this point, I had taken a position in the center of the room, sitting on a student’s desk. I needed a good view of a student at the center right, a girl who is very bright and has a record of some of the best spiritually-minded questions in the last three years, but who had spent most of the class so far messing with her cell phone. Before I launched into my final move, I scolded her with as much humor as I could spare.
Then I said that, in my opinion, (“And I am an expert!” I added) this is the most important question in the Bible. If God exists, and if there is right and wrong, and you do wrong against God, who can help you? Anyone?
Dramatically, I proposed the solution from Islam. No one can help you. No one can take responsibility: it’s just you against the Judge in heaven. In other religions, you work as hard as you can, maybe over many lives, to make up for your own messes. But the unique thing about Jesus is that He offers to be the one person who can help. Jesus is the only one who has said he will take our side and help us make peace with God the Father.
I had timed the class exactly right. I repeated the question -- “But if a man sins against the Lord, who can make peace for him?” -- and the bell rang.
I am increasingly fond of Bible classes that end with a question. If my main goal were to bring students information, then it might be better to close the class with a recap of the main points. But my goal is to leave questions ringing in the students’ ears, questions that are only truly answered by the unique person of Jesus Christ. Sometimes I time this well, as I did on this day. Sometimes, though, I get to the end of my lesson, deliver my dramatic, final challenge, check the clock and see that there are still four minutes of English class left. In such cases I sometimes say, “That’s all I’ve got. Who would like to have the last word about the things we read today?” Sometimes students come up with something good. Occasionally the last word by a student is brilliant and inspires many future classes. More often than not, they look at me, dazed, and I say, “well, let’s all leave early.” Then everyone is happy.