Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Musings On Grace

Tonight the Lord graciously reminded me that grace is incredibly messy. It requires me to "get my hands dirty" in the trenches. I find this is incredibly uncomfortable. In light of the numerous ways that I have been blessed, being confronted with need is just so awkward and troublesome. Afterall, I might actually have to do something about it! There might be a cost involved. So often I would rather remain in ignorance and keep my idol of comfort intact. I am far too content in my "pure impeity and impious purity" (to steal a line from Shakespeare's Much Ado). This holds true in life and in the classroom.

I would like to have a set of very well-mannered children who do what I ask, make good grades, understand the first time, and are kind to one another. It may sound blissful, but the truth is, it would be downright boring. We are so quick to fall prey to worshipping our comfort as teachers. It would be so much easier if the kids just obeyed implicitly...but when would I get to shepherd the heart? When would the Lord reveal my own sin to me, which He uses temper my repsonses? How would God remind me that I am indeed the worst sinner in my classroom? I don't doubt that He would, but without the discomfort of being forced to extend grace, I would miss so much of the sanctification process in my life. When you get down to the heart of it, every sin that my students battle is a sin that I myself am struggling with (sometimes unknowingly) in one way or another. I just hide it better than they do. Thank God He's gracious unto me.

Extending grace in the classroom is hard. It's messy, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful. It often causes one to be misunderstood. Grace means dealing with difficult situations and loving difficult people. It requires one to go the extra mile, to give your coat and your cloak as well. I don't have it down. But by God's grace, I grow in this a little every year. And every year becomes a little more messy and uncomfortable than the last. God is good that way. He won't let me remain in my complacency. Afterall, as I attempt (by His grace) to shepherd and train my students' hearts, the Lord is really shepherding mine.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Call to Higher Mercy

Doing Much Ado About Nothing as a faculty play and teaching it to my English classes has provoked a lot of great discussions lately.

Recently, my junior/senior AP students were discussing the crisis point in the play where Claudio chooses to defame Hero publicly at the altar for being unfaithful to him (so he thinks, thanks to Don John's deception).

I asked my students whether Claudio had the "right" to defame and reject Hero for her "infidelity."

Ironically, Claudio focuses his attack on Hero's immorality (not a betrayal of their relationship) .... yet he is truly immoral to attack Hero and her family in such a public forum as their wedding ceremony. Our school (tries) to live by Matthew 18 - begin all conflict resolution by first talking in private to the person who has wronged you. All my students recognized Claudio's error straight off.

But setting aside for the moment Claudio's mishandling of the situation -- would a "better" man have taken a different course than rejection?

Our discussion quickly moved into the uncomfortable realm of the personal: When facing betrayal, we all whip out the knife. Mercy goes out the window, and we claim the moral high ground. The betrayer deserves no mercy. Take no prisoners. Kill them all.

We all shifted awkwardly in our chairs when considering real-life applications:
--Can trust be "rebuilt," or are some sins "too big" to actually forgive?
--Is marriage more than love and sex?
--Can we honestly tell people on one hand "God will forgive any sin," yet set young people up for failure by making virginity such an idol? Once someone has lost it, they might as well just keep sleeping around.... the prize has been lost.That's a natural conclusion from our practical theology.
--Would you marry a girl/guy who had already lost their virginity -- and repented? Whew. That was a tough one....
Our talk finally made its way to the book of Hosea. The story is famous -- To illustrate Israel's horrible infidelity, God ordered His prophet Hosea to marry a woman prone to adultery (at best ...or perhaps a straight-up prostitute). Predictably, Gomer cheated on Hosea ... left him .... he took her back, somehow. God made His point -- He'd been taking Israel back countless times.

We all read Hosea, nod, and say, "Yes. That's right. I hate it when people betray my love. But, praise be to God, I am big enough to offer mercy."

How we have missed the point!

I am the prostitute in that story.
I am the whore.
God takes me back, again and again and again.
I sin, and He forgives. I do it again; He forgives. Repeat...

I asked my students if they have walked long enough yet with God to get a glimpse of that truth.
The pious answer is "yes," but one or two brave souls were willing to admit they weren't there yet.

My friends, we are all Claudios.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Toward a Grace-based Philosophy of Christian Education

Christian Schools should be places that teach, model, and apply the grace of the Gospel. They should not be places that reinforce legalism. But a grace-based education raises questions and concerns. For instance, how do we know when to discipline and when to have grace? What kind of discipline should we use? How does grace create an orderly environment? How does grace produce change in the lives of children? A grace-based classroom sounds great, but how do we keep everything from devolving into chaos?

The purpose of this entry is to begin the process of clearing up these confusions. I say “begin the process” because it is a complex subject that will take much time and consideration to develop, and because Christian education is behind the theological curve. Recent years have seen a resurgence of the Gospel of Grace within broader Christianity, but it has yet to make its way into Christian education. The modern Christian education movement has not valued the Gospel as it should throughout its short, 40 year history. Schools have been places that have valued primness and properness, respect and order, sharpness and diligence, rules and regulations. They have prided themselves on their differences from the public schools, have sold themselves as better environments, and have panicked upon seeing public-school problems seeping in (“This school is not like it used to be!”). Parents have brought their children to Christian schools to escape the problems of other schools, believing them to be environmentally different. After all, Christian Schools do not put up with that kind of behavior, do they? Christian Schools have all sorts of rules against all sorts of behaviors and enforce them with all the authority that their religion supposedly allows. They treasure order, obedience and good grades (“We either expel or do not enroll students who misbehave or cannot achieve good grades.”). They treasure matching uniforms, quiet hallways, diligent, attentive, respectful students, and good families. Disciplinary conversations are full of language about obeying God, parents and, in loco parentis, teachers too.

Many Christian schools have taught the Gospel from the beginning. And yet a chasm often exists between what is taught and what is modeled and applied. They preach the grace of the Gospel but model the life of the Law. In their zeal to be different from the public schools, they have not yet learned how the Gospel should impact schools, classrooms, and student’s lives.

Admittedly, a grace-based system is likely to be messier than what many are comfortable with, but this does not mean that schools must entirely leave off order, expectations, and discipline. Everyone understands that education cannot happen in chaotic environments. Some measure of order must be in place. Grace does not mean that we do not hold students accountable to expectations. However, it does mean that we should never leave students holding the bag of our expectations all alone. Just as the message of the Law is never complete apart from the Gospel, the message of educational expectations is never complete apart from the sanctifying message of the Gospel. And while schools hold students accountable, educators must be willing to release their grasp upon what they treasure most (e.g., order and achievement) in order to instill in students what God values most.

So to begin our considerations, I would like to propose three ideas that will help us balance grace and discipline in a Christian school. They will not answer all our questions but will move us toward a theological and philosophical framework that allows us to merge together the ideas of an orderly and grace-based educational environment:

Expectations are necessary because they give grace meaning.

God’s means of sanctifying believers should never be truncated by leaving students with expectations alone.

As educators, we must be willing to let go of what we have treasured most in order to grab hold of what God values most.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Imago Dei: The Image of God in Man

Gen. 1:26-27; Gen. 5:1-2

The Imago Dei is a blurry concept in theology, with a lot of dogmatic stuff attached to it. What, at the least, can we conclude about the image of God in Man?

In my former life as a school administrator, I discussed the following points with the faculty as a starting place for discussion:

  • Whatever the image of God is, it is universal within the human race (Christians and Non-Christians alike).
  • Whatever it is, the image of God remains after the Fall, no doubt corrupted, shattered or marred in some way. To what degree we do not know for certain, but it remains nonetheless.
  • Whatever the image is, it differentiates us from the rest of Creation. Whatever it is, relational ethics is predicated upon it. It implies that the human is inherently valuable, whether lost or saved. It underscores the sacredness and dignity of human life.
  • Whatever it is, it stamps us as God’s possession. We belong to God.
  • The image involves reflecting God in some way.Certainly, from the context, humans reflect God through their governing activity.
  • Less certainly, from the context, humans reflect God through their creative activity.
  • By way of inference and application, there is goodness in work, learning, art, music, literature, and in passing these things on to others. To devote ourselves to these things is God-reflecting activity.

Grace is Not....

Grace is the broad term for all that God does to save us. Grace is not a commodity; the word means gift. Giving grace means giving gifts. It implies some cost on the giver’s part and is always good for the receiver. Each part of salvation is a grace, a gift. Love is a gift, forgiveness is a gift, Christ’s imparted righteousness is a gift, and so forth.

However, grace is such a broad and rich concept, it is easily overused. In defining grace, we should know what grace is not.

Grace is not lenience. Lenience is the withholding of a justly deserved punishment. Lenience implies going easy on offenders, like pardoning a thief or condoning cruelty in a child. Unlike mercy, lenience is wrong.

We might think that choosing not to correct an errant child, student, or church member is grace. It may be right or wrong to punish; neither is grace per se. Tolerance can be wrong; it can give the wrong idea of God and His love. God is always merciful, never lenient.

Grace is not kindness. Kindness is what makes one happy, even if it is not best. Pampering and spoiling a child may be kindness but not grace. Often what is best for us makes us unhappy. We might think that keeping someone happy shows them grace. While it is good to make people happy, as a rule, there are times we ought to be sad, angry, or grieved.

Sometimes grace must hurt. It hurts the giver as well as the receiver. For us, Jesus suffered deeply throughout His life into His death. We join in Christ’s sufferings in order to receive the sanctifying power of His earned righteousness in our souls. Suffering can be grace.

Grace is not license. As lenience is the bad side of mercy, so license is the bad side of freedom. In Christ we are free to enjoy every gift and follow the desires of our heart; we are not free to follow every whim and impulse of human nature. The Scripture is our guide to true freedom. and our guard against sin.

Grace is too wonderful to misunderstand. We need to bathe our minds in God's grace and let it pervade our words and actions. The result will not be softness, indulgence, or moral laxity. True grace produces people who work hard and sacrifice lovingly for each other, who define sin and goodness biblically, and who see every day as a chance to build the kingdom of God.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Grace-based education probably isn't a new concept. I think all good educators have recognized that Grace -- biblically-defined and applied -- must be a central part of the process.

On the other hand, we at NCS don't run into many schools like ours. Perhaps the "structure of education" -- schedules, policies, rules -- overwhelms theological understanding sometimes. Perhaps schools are pulled away from their vision and mission toward success and popularity.

We envision this blog as a location for exploration -- mulling over the implications of Grace unfolded in a classroom setting in the midst of busy lives and heavy schedules.

... so here goes....

PS. Did you catch the pun in our URL? (I teach Shakespeare, so puns are high on my list!)

"gracefuled" can be read as either "Graceful Ed" or "Grace Fuled."

Either way seems to accurately describe the absolute need for Grace in the task of education....